Posted tagged ‘Public School’

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?

Looking back at third grade

June 9, 2015

Looking back at 3rd Grade

My son just finished third grade at a Honolulu public school. He had two wonderful teachers and opportunities to do more creative projects. This past year, he’s become more argumentative and opinionated – we joke that he would make a great lawyer. He also showed more initiative, signing up for school activities without asking for our advice.

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

Reading. Hawaii public elementary schools are all using the “Reading Wonders” workbook. I didn’t have a chance to browse the workbook, but I have seen the spelling lists and related vocabulary. The spelling words were chosen phonetically and were easy; the vocabulary words were chosen by unit theme (for example, natural resources) and were more challenging.

Several times a week, my son did reading comprehension activities on (sometimes called KidBiz). The site is easy to use, with interesting nonfiction articles and opportunities to think about the articles in different ways – through questions, polls, open-ended “thought” questions, and math. It even keeps track of students’ points and completed activities, and questions get harder as students improve.

Math. Hawaii public elementary schools are all using the “Stepping Stones” math workbook and practice book. I’ve only seen the practice workbook, which is easy, colorful, makes math fun with puzzles and riddles (it reminds me of a Kumon workbook), and wastes paper by printing on only one side of the page.

During the school year, my son alternated between math workbooks, worksheets, and online practice at The site is well-designed, tracking the number of problems solved, the time spent on each practice test, and the number of practice tests completed. It even gives students “prizes” on a prize board. And there are many reports for teachers and parents to check student progress.

International Baccalaureate (IB). My son’s school is an IB candidate school for the Primary Years Programme. Only a few public schools in Hawaii have signed up for this voluntary accreditation program. It incorporates six transdisciplinary themes into the curriculum and encourages teachers to coordinate lesson plans across multiple subjects. Each of the six units culminates in a final project. For example, in the “Where we are in place and time” unit, students created a 3D model of our community using boxes, paper, and cardboard. There are also 10 IB “learner profiles” that emphasize character and attitude. The most challenging part of the program was asking students to reflect on what they have learned.

Enrichment classes and activities. There were 7 “enrichment” classes: Art, Computer Lab, Hawaiiana, Library, Mandarin, Music, and Physical Education. For some reason, third grade is the year everyone learns to play the recorder. I have one suggestion: turn one of the Computer Labs into a typing class. Students also participated in a winter assembly and a May Day program, and could join band, a garden club, the Junior Police Officer (JPO) program, a speech club, a library club, and the Student Council. A question for parents and educators: what is the best balance between academic rigor and well-rounded children?

Standardized tests. This school year was the first time that Hawaii public schools used the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) standardized test, aligned to the Common Core standards. I realize that it is a new test with harder questions, and students need to be familiar with it, but I was concerned by the amount of time they spent preparing for it. I wondered how much instruction time might have been lost because of the additional test preparation. I was dissatisfied with the practice test because students don’t get immediate feedback; they don’t know which questions they missed and why. Maybe an alternate solution would be “Test Prep Saturdays” or “SBAC After School,” so that test preparation wouldn’t interfere with classroom time and could be more relaxed.

My son felt overwhelmed by the training and practice tests. At the start of spring break, he expressed a lot of anxiety. “What if I get a DP [developing proficiency] or a WB [well below proficiency]? Will you be mad?” he asked me with a worried frown. I told him, “As long as you try your best, we won’t be mad.” A week before the test, he admitted, “I’m scared to take the SBAC.”

School fundraising. For the parents of children in public and private schools, fundraising has become a big part of life. At my son’s school, parents raised funds through a bake sale, keiki carnival and silent auction, fitness run, and two dine-and-donate events. The fundraising events were fun and helped us meet other parents. But there seems to be a growing cycle – the more parents give, the less schools receive in funding, and the more parents are asked to give.

Do you have school-age children? How did you decide between public and private school? Were they the same factors that influenced your parents? What has been your experience with common core and standardized tests?

Six reasonable public school reforms

May 18, 2010

For the 2008-2009 school year, the Department of Education (DOE) managed a $2.246 billion budget (2009 Superintendent’s Annual Report) to educate 177,871 enrolled students.

Yet Hawaii’s public schools are underperforming. For No Child Left Behind, only 65% of public school students met proficiency objectives in reading, and only 45% met proficiency objectives in math (State of Hawaii NCLB School Report, School Year 2008-2009). Education Week grades Hawaii public schools a C, with D in K-12 Achievement (“Education Week’s Quality Counts 2010”).

Here are six reasonable ideas to reform our public schools:

1. Get rid of excess union bargaining units. Hawaii should only negotiate with two unions: one representing teachers and principals, and the other representing administrators and support staff. With only two benefits packages, for 12-month employees and 10-month employees, Hawaii could save money on payroll and administration costs. Why do we need so many bargaining units, each with their own sets of benefits? How can school administrators keep up with all of the payroll codes and plans?

2. Reassign teachers and principals at underperforming schools. If a school can’t meet performance benchmarks, we need to replace the teachers and the principal. Some teachers could be reassigned to new schools; others may ask for a mentor to help them improve their teaching skills.

3. Offer bonuses to high-performing teachers who are willing to relocate to an underperforming school and mentor a teacher there. This will raise the performance of teachers at all schools.

4. Convert more public schools to charter schools. Let students and their parents decide which school is best for them. Let school administrators have more control over teachers, budgets, and facilities.

5. Give principals more control over hiring teachers. Letting principals choose the teachers they want to teach at their school – and letting them choose who will not teach at their school – could improve school performance. The best teachers would be rewarded, while unmotivated or ineffective teachers would have an incentive to improve their teaching skills. As a CEO, how effective could you be if you couldn’t hire and fire your employees?

6. Design more accurate performance reports. For example, graduation drop-out rates include students who transfer between Hawaii schools (but who actually graduate); and test scores include the 19,504 “English Language Learners” (ELLs), who make up 11% of the student body (2009 Superintendent’s Annual Report). Yes, we need to evaluate the performance of all students; but we should not penalize an entire school for enrolling a large number of non-English speakers.

These are just a few ideas for motivating teachers, principals, and schools. How else can we give Hawaii children a competitive education?