Posted tagged ‘Education’

Looking back at fifth grade

June 6, 2017

It was a bittersweet day when my son finished fifth grade at a Honolulu public elementary school. He really enjoyed his fourth and fifth grade years, and he didn’t want to say goodbye to his wonderful teachers and friends. I encouraged him to keep in touch with them, and also look forward to all of the new teachers and friends he will meet in sixth grade.

Students today have greater opportunities for academics and community service, and higher expectations overall. This year, there was a stronger emphasis on computer work, with online activities and Google Drive, and public speaking. There was a focus on collaborative projects, teamwork, and presentations.

I’d like to share our fifth grade school year experience.

One day of articulation classes. For the second year, all of the articulation classes (Art, Computer, Hawaiian, Library, Mandarin, Music, and PE) were scheduled on the same day. It is a winning change. Parents knew what to expect on articulation day, and teachers had more time to collaborate with other teachers.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Exhibition. The highlight of the year was the fifth grade Exhibition project. For the “Sharing the Planet” unit, each team of 2-4 students chose a project, conducted background research, contacted an expert, prepared a presentation, and constructed a community action plan. Everything culminated in Exhibition Night, when the students presented their project in two sessions. Projects ranged from endangered species, overfishing, and the environment, to crime, rail, and human welfare. Community outreach included a food drive, clothes collection, recycling, and sign-waving. At the end of the unit, students wrote Reflections on what they learned and how they could improve. It was my son’s favorite project of the year, and an impressive accomplishment.

Personally, one of my favorite IB units was “How We Express Ourselves,” in which students wrote narrative fiction using figurative language. Many assignments during the year were expository and fact-based, so this was a chance for students to showcase their inventive and ingenious imagination (alliteration) in a thousand different ways (hyperbole).

Online and on-task. In past years, students practiced math online using iXL, and reading and writing online using Achieve3000. Both websites track students’ assignments and achievements. This year, fifth graders also used Google Drive to complete assignments, communicate with teachers, and collaborate with team members. Students still had a good amount of workbooks and worksheets, but the online drive made it easier to edit papers and slides – and let parents peek at their homework when they weren’t around (was I not supposed to admit that?).

Speech festival. At my son’s school, Speech Tech Club is open to third, fourth, and fifth graders. Students audition for the club and commit to weekly meetings and a lot of practice, either solo or in a group. Students performed in front of other classes and at the third quarter assembly, and finally performed at the Honolulu District Speech Festival in front of five judges. At this stage, it’s not competitive, but the judges write feedback about each speaker. There’s a nice ceremony at the end, where the participants receive a medal. The confidence that students gain from public speaking will definitely help them as they get older.

The Friends. We were fortunate to have energetic and organized Friends (the school’s parent group) to coordinate fundraisers, community events, and Teacher Appreciation Week. They were welcoming and helped to make the school feel like a community. My son says that the last movie night was the best day of his life (I hope it’s an exaggeration, but I’m glad he enjoyed it).

“It was very hard for me to say goodbye to all my friends and classmates,” my son wrote in his journal at the end of the year. It is hard for me to say goodbye to this amazing elementary school too.

Do you have school-age children? How does your elementary school experience compare with theirs?


Looking back at fourth grade

June 7, 2016

Looking back at 4th grade

My son just finished fourth grade at a Honolulu public school. He loved his enthusiastic, creative first-year teacher and opportunities to do more project-based work. That said, he still brought home a big stack of workbooks, worksheets, and loose papers. Over the year, he showed definite opinions about the projects and activities he wanted to do.

I’d like to share our fourth grade school year experience. How does it compare with your fourth grade memories?

One day of articulation classes. Starting this year, all of the articulation classes (Art, Computer, Hawaiian, Library, Mandarin, Music, and PE) were scheduled on the same day. It was a good change. Students focused on classwork, without having to interrupt their studies to get ready for an enrichment class. Teachers had more time to plan lessons and collaborate with other teachers.

Classroom economy. Students designed and voted on classroom money. They wrote job applications for classroom jobs (one month, my son was “hired” as a wiper). They earned money for doing their jobs and earning ClassDojo points. They paid “rent” for their desks or had the option to “buy” their desks for $300. At the end of the month, they could use extra money to buy an extra recess, homework pass, or other trinket. My son bought his desk early in the year and had a small wad of “cash” at the end of the year.

Edmodo. My son’s class signed up for this kid-friendly, teacher-moderated online social network (Facebook lite). Parents could view their child’s student activity, classroom announcements, and discussions. The first question posed by the teacher: “If your first week of school was a story, what would be the main idea? Be creative!” My son’s response: “My first week of school was a ‘mystery’ and ‘adventure’ story. The main idea was that we met our new classmates and teacher.” Unfortunately, after the second quarter, the class stopped using Edmodo – but it was interesting while it lasted.

ClassDojo. My son’s class also signed up for this real-time online point system that tracks student behavior – and it lasted intermittently throughout the school year. Teachers gave points to students for being on task, thinkers, knowledgeable, open-minded, helping others, and more. Each week, parents could see a summary of their child’s performance and even communicate with the teacher about their child’s progress. “I think [my teacher] gives out less points if you already bought your desk and have a lot of money,” my son confided.

International Baccalaureate (IB) units. The six transdisciplinary IB units were thoughtful, well-designed, and challenging. The units are more project-based than textbook-based. For example, in the “Where We are in Place and Time” unit, students learned about Native Hawaiian navigation, met with Austin Kino from the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and had a video-conference with crew members aboard the Hokulea. In the “Sharing the Planet” unit, students researched how we can save Hawaii’s marine ecosystems and completed a final project.

No Big Island trip. Grade 4 is the exciting Big Island trip. But with my son’s agreement, we decided to cancel the trip. At the time, Dengue Fever cases were still being reported, and our son is susceptible to mosquito bites (if there’s a mosquito around, it will find him). Though Dengue Fever cases did drop dramatically by the date of the trip, we decided not to second-guess ourselves – we made the best decision we could at the time.

Unit tests, standardized tests, and more tests. In addition to “regular” unit tests (reading comprehension, spelling, science, math) STAR Reading tests, STAR Math tests, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests in Language Arts and Math, grade 4 offered an additional test: three rounds of the Hawaii State Assessment (HSA) in Science. My son complained that they had to spend two hours learning to use the online tools for the SBAC test. He thought it was a waste of time, and was glad that he missed one of 40-minute classes to go to an interview about his science fair project.

Science fair. At my son’s school, the science fair was open to fourth and fifth graders. The school organized two planning workshops, regular check-ins with the science fair advisor, a field trip to see the Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair, and a fun rocket-building wrap-up workshop. My son chose a project about mobile device batteries, and learned to manage his time, perform Internet research, use presentation software, and design a poster board.

“I am definitely confident that I am ready for 5th grade. I learned a lot this year,” my son wrote in his writing journal at the end of the year.

Do you have school-age children? How are expectations about student learning different from when you were in elementary school? What has been your experience with common core and standardized tests?

3 things to know about Hawaii’s schools

September 3, 2013

It’s been one month since my son started second grade at a public school. We are slowly getting used to the morning routine, the new classroom, the new achievement standards, and another year of fundraising.

Our school has given us a lot of useful information, like the school calendar, lunch menu, after-school programs, events, fundraisers, and contact information. They hosted an Open House and are already scheduling parent-teacher conferences.

But there are three critical things I think all parents should know about Hawaii’s schools:

1. Tell us about teachers. Which grade levels, subjects, and schools have they have taught? How have their students performed on standardized tests compared to other teachers? I understand that there might be a concern about teachers’ privacy, but parents usually check references before hiring a baby-sitter or nanny.

2. Tell us about school programs. Who are the teachers and aides responsible for extracurricular programs, additional classes, and elective classes? What are their qualifications? If it’s a third-party vendor, how were they selected and what are their hiring policies? How do current and former students rate their programs?

3. Tell us about school leadership. What are the backgrounds of the principal and vice principal? Who is the complex leader and what is their background? How would teachers rate their leadership and management?

In addition, there’s one critical area that I think needs improvement:

* Show us survey results with better questions. Satisfaction surveys are too vague. Instead of asking students if they are “satisfied” with their education, ask whether they feel interested and challenged by their schoolwork. Instead of asking teachers if they are “satisfied” with school leadership, ask whether school leadership is accessible and supportive. Instead of asking parents if they are “satisfied” with the quality of the school, ask if their children are eager to go to school, engaged in schoolwork, and have a good relationship with their teachers.

What information do you wish you had about schools? How much information about teachers and teacher evaluations is it reasonable to share with parents? Does your school anticipate what you want to know?

“The End of Molasses Classes” by Ron Clark

February 4, 2012

Each year, almost 3,000 educators visit the Ron Clark Academy (RCA) in Atlanta, GA to spend time in their classrooms, attend workshops, be “slide-certified” on their two-story electric-blue tube slide, and take a morning jump on their two-story bungee trampoline.

Right away, we can see that RCA co-founder Ron Clark is a different kind of educator – and he’s created a different kind of school.

In “The End of Molasses Classes: Getting our Kids Unstuck: 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers” (2011), Clark shares “101 of the most effective strategies we have used to help children succeed.” The book is divided into four sections, discussing RCA’s core principles and values, and solutions for parents, teachers, and the community.

Punctuated with letters from RCA parents, photos, and “Do This” suggestions, “The End of Molasses Classes” is personal, passionate, energetic, inspirational, and exhausting. The segments are easy to read and full of personal stories and anecdotes. The foundation for Clark’s success is a mix of a willingness to ask for help, creativity, dedication, and enthusiasm.

Some of my favorite stories are a surprise apartment make-over the RCA staff did for a student’s home during Christmas; and the drive to put photos of students on a 50-foot Times Square billboard to make them feel special during a New York trip. Some of the most innovative ideas are an “Amazing Shake” in which kids practice meeting and greeting people (a greeting, a handshake, eye-contact, and a smile); student letters to the next class of students and to themselves as college graduates; a Golden Ticket and a red-carpet welcome for new students (complete with paparazzi, a band, and a cookout); an “Amazing Race;” and a field day with parents and staff playing musical chairs and water balloon wars.

One major concern is the line between rewarding outstanding effort while giving a failing score for something that does not meet high expectations, and crushing a student’s self-confidence. Clark suggests that to avoid resentful students and angry parents, teachers should show students examples of an outstanding grade, a passing grade, and a failing grade; and explain the behaviors that will earn a reward and the behaviors that will not.

Here are some of the highlights:

Core principles and values:
#1. Teach children to believe in themselves and don’t destroy the dream. When we walk into a classroom, we should “see” a class full of lawyers, business leaders, artists, and presidents.
#2. Not every child deserves a cookie. “We must hold every child accountable for high standards and do all we can to push the child to that level,” (page 8).
#3. Define your expectations and then raise the bar; the more you expect, the better the results will be.

Solutions for parents:
#26. Don’t be a helicopter parent. You can’t come to their rescue forever! “Parents: sometimes you just have to let your child take the punishment” (page 124).
#34. See the potential in every child. “When we raise our children, we need to remind ourselves that they will become what we see in them” (page 155).

Solutions for teachers:
#54. Give children a chance to respond and don’t give up too quickly. “If I have called on a student, it becomes that student’s opportunity and that student’s moment” (page 201).  Teach them to encourage struggling students and clap.
#57. Get on the desk! Or make a stage to stand on. Aside from being able to see the students and their notes, it’s fun!
#64. Don’t give children second chances on tests and projects. “If a child fails a test, he learns that he had better study harder for the next test because he is going to have only one chance” (page 225).
#65. Encourage children to cheer for each other.

Solutions for the community:
#83. Accept the fact that if kids like you all the time, then you’re doing something wrong. “Children want us to be strict, they want us to set boundaries, and they want us to be consistent” (page 268).
#91. Allow teachers the freedom to make their rooms reflect their personalities – allow them to use color! “After all, are we building these schools for adults or children?” (page 290).

I really enjoyed the high energy and dedicated enthusiasm that runs through the personal stories. As my son grows up, two of my biggest challenges are to restrain the “helicopter parent” in me and let him fail – and try harder! For more information about “The End of Molasses Classes” and the Ron Clark Academy, visit,, and

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” edited by Karl Weber

July 2, 2011

When disaster strikes in America, heroes rush in. These heroes are our policemen, our firemen, our emergency responders, our family, our friends, our neighbors.

News flash: We are Superman. We are the heroes we are waiting for.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’: How We Can SaveAmerica’s Failing Public Schools” (2010) edited by Karl Weber, id a companion book to the documentary film, “Waiting for ‘Superman’ directed by Davis Guggenheim and produced by Lesley Chilcott.

The book offers background information about the making of the documentary and the five children introduced in the film. But there hasn’t been enough time between the film and the book to find out whether Francisco, Emily, Anthony, Bianca, and Daisy have made it past their public education hurdles.

There are essays by filmmakers, chancellors, teachers, principals, and philanthropists (but no essays written by students or recent graduates). Their writings are generally positive, passionate, and realistic about our public schools. The book also offers a list of resources and tips to get involved.

Three ideas about education stand out…

1. “If we could simply eliminate the bottom five to ten percent of teachers (two or three teachers in a school with thirty) and replace them with average teachers, we could dramatically change student outcomes” (page 98), boldly declares Eric Hanushek, author and Senior Fellow at Stanford University. That is an amazing assertion, one that can only come about when teachers can be evaluated on their merits, not their seniority. Hanushek defines a good teacher as “one who consistently evokes large gains in student learning” (page 84). He also argues that teacher certification policies end up discouraging high-quality teachers and that lowering class sizes can lead to recruiting more low-quality teachers (simply to fill positions). His writing is academic, but informative and even radical.

2. “To turn around our schools and to restore the promise of education… we need to move millions of citizens off the sidelines and into the game as tutors, mentors, citizen teachers, PTO/PTA members, education activists, and even micro-philanthropists” (page 107), asserts Eric Schwarz, cofounder of Citizen Schools. We’re already tapping citizens as volunteer coaches and sports organizers; we need to encourage people to become part-time educators. Schwarz is enthusiastic and compelling, and suggests that citizen teachers commit to 10-week “apprenticeships” to mentor students in their areas of expertise.

3. “Good schooling must come before parental support” (page 173), claims Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews. Most of us think that parents need to get involved first to make a school better, but Mathews says it’s the other way around. He cites Jaime Escalante’s successful math program at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, California and Susan Schaeffler’s successful KIPP school clusters in Washington, DC that succeed on common principles: high expectations, more time for learning, standardized tests as benchmarks, and team spirit. These schools gained strong parental support only after the schools demonstrated improvement.

For more resources and to learn how you can get involved, visit

Three education switches

April 5, 2011

Last week, I reviewed the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” (2010) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It all comes down to the idea that “Big changes can start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball” (page 255).

I want to highlight three of the education “switches” mentioned in the book. In these examples, teachers and students achieved big improvements from small attitude changes.

* Two grades ahead: First grade teacher Crystal Jones was dismayed by the skills gap among her students at an Atlanta, Georgia elementary school. Some students had never been to school, and they were all on different levels. But she boldly challenged her students: by the end of the school year, you’re going to be third graders! She gave them an ambitious goal that appealed to their emotions. She created a culture of learning in her classroom, called her students “scholars,” and encouraged them to share what they learned with their families. By the end of the school year, over 90% of the kids were reading at or above a third grade level.

* The brain is like a muscle: In 2007, three college psychology professors, Carol Dweck, Kali Trzesniewsi, and Lisa Blackwell taught a group of seventh grade math students a new way of thinking. For just two hours over eight weeks, students were taught a growth mindset: that the brain is like a muscle, it can be developed with exercise, and working hard can make you smarter. While the grades of students who were taught generic study skills declined slightly, the grades of “brain is like a muscle” students actually improved over the school year.

* A new grading system: At Jefferson County High School in Louisville, Georgia, 80% of the students lived in poverty and only 15% went on to college. New principal Molly Howard wanted to make a change, starting with a new school identity: all students were college-bound. She increased assessments and tutorial programs, and created a new grading system: A, B, C, and NY (Not Yet). Students and teachers were motivated, test scores went up, and the graduation rate increased.

Would any of these small changes work in Hawaii’s public schools? Do you know teachers who have helped their students make great achievements?

Keeping Hawaii graduates in Hawaii

October 19, 2010

Hawaii is a beautiful, unique place to live, but let’s face it: it’s expensive to live here. It’s remote and there aren’t a lot of high-paying jobs. That’s why we’re so concerned about the “brain drain” when some of our most talented and motivated graduates leave Hawaii.

There are a lot of abstract solutions – like diversifying our economy, creating more jobs, lowering corporate taxes, and encouraging small business growth. Those are all important goals, and we shouldn’t lose sight of them.

But let’s think about some specific tactics we can use to keep our talented and motivated graduates in Hawaii. Here are three ideas:

* Guarantee affordable housing units for up to three years after graduation. In partnership with the University of Hawaii, Hawaii businesses, and hotel operators, we could build residential buildings or designate affordable housing units for recent graduates. Who would qualify? 1) Hawaii high school graduates who attain a degree from an accredited university anywhere in the US; and 2) University of Hawaii graduates. Graduates would need to be in the top 10% of professional fields like education, emergency response, engineering, law enforcement, medicine, and science. This would encourage high school graduates to return to Hawaii to work, even if they attend an out-of-state college.

* Create a car sharing service. Hawaii could implement a car sharing service (ideally available to everyone) which would let you sign up for a driving plan (including insurance), reserve a car for a certain amount of time (in hours or days), use it, and then return the car. This would help young graduates who may occasionally need a car, but who can’t afford one. The service should pay for itself, once the initial program and cars are in place. Companies like and cities like San Francisco (, Philadelphia (, and Boulder ( are already doing it. Why not Hawaii?

* Offer a tax credit or low tax rate for recent graduates. We could create either a Hawaii tax credit or a low tax rate (perhaps even 0%) for Hawaii graduates for the first three years of employment in Hawaii. Who would qualify? 1) Hawaii high school graduates who attain a degree from an accredited university anywhere in the US; and 2) University of Hawaii graduates. Of course, Hawaii would have to be their principal residence, and they would have to file Hawaii tax returns. This would encourage graduates to find a job in Hawaii, help them in the early years while their salary is low, and make it easier for them to stay.

Hopefully, after three years, the graduates will have settled into life in Hawaii, earned a raise or two, and saved up enough money to afford to live here.

These are just a few ideas for stopping Hawaii’s “brain drain.” What else can we do to help our young residents stay in Hawaii?