Friday, February 25, 2011

A Picasso Girl in a Van Gogh World

Lovely Picasso Girl sits under a "Starry Night" extending
down the hallways at Reading-Fleming Intermediate School
My trip to Reading-Fleming Intermediate School on Wednesday to tape the "Mural Club" story for Classroom Close-up, NJ marked a first for me. It was the first time since I started working on the show that I'd been back to a school I had visited for a previous episode. I was at Reading-Fleming last season to the tape the "Guitar Program" for show 9. (Wait, can a second be a first?)

Anyway, one of the first things you learn about making television is that sometimes it's better to show than to tell. So rather than go on and on about how art teachers like Cate Sewall have built a stellar interdisciplinary approach to art instruction that also teaches team building and group project skills (I'll save that for the actual episode premiering on May 2), here are some of the awesome murals the fifth and sixth graders at the school are creating.

A gnome sits among the flowers in the mural near the doors to the Garden Club
Our solar system, a work in progress near the science classrooms.
Jupiter and Saturn are just around the corner.
A pirate ship will be part of the newest mural about the oceans.
Students do research and sketches prior to "getting on the wall" to
ensure their undersea dwellers are scientifically accurate.

Cool stuff. Let's hope they don't run out of walls anytime soon.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Helping Students with Special Needs Achieve Independent Life Skills

What do I know about public education?

S.A.I.L. alumnus, Alysha, works with pre-school
students while being taped for an upcoming episode
of Classroom Close-up, NJ
I know that I received one. I know that the political, social, and financial issues involving public education are intense, complicated, and oft-debated. And I know that even though I'm more than half-way through my fifth season with Classroom Close-up, NJ, a show about public education, that hanging out with teachers and students a few days a month hasn't made me any sort of expert on the topic. Still, the story we taped in Piscataway last week got me thinking about the things that a lot of people probably don't realize the public education systems provides.

S.A.I.L (Students Achieving Independent Life Skills) is a program that helps students with cognitive disabilities ages 18-21 transition from the traditional school environment to the world of work. A key component of the program is a vocations course that helps students learn how to achieve gainful employment through a combination of class work and actual work site experiences. On the day of taping we spent some time in the classroom as well as on the job with the students and faculty from the program.

Now, I do believe that anyone even remotely touched by the public education system is aware that it provides programs for students with special needs. In fact, special education is probably the single greatest differentiator between private and public education. But I also think that unless you're an educator, individual, or family directly touched by this piece of the system, you probably don't know much about what really goes on or what it takes to make it happen. You might not even know that programs like S.A.I.L. existed. Based on what I learned while taping the story, it's a complicated mix of government mandates, financial issues, and teaching resources. I also learned that Piscataway is a best-practice example of how a district is providing better services though the public education system, than are often available through the private sector (and at lower cost to taxpayers).

Yesterday, my seven-year-old daughter, Emily, was in my office asking me questions about what I was working on. I told her about the S.A.I.L story and in particular about Alysha, a young woman I met who was an alumnus of the program, now employed as an aide at a pre-school. As I tried to explain the story to her in a way she could grasp, I mentioned how it was great because schools didn't always have programs like this, how it helped these students be a part of the community, etc.

I could tell Emily got it, but then she said, "What did they used to do?"

I didn't know how to answer this. I knew that special education was a relatively modern concept. I knew that in the past, we marginalized people with disabilities. I'm sure a Google search would have turned up a thorough history of atrocities and injustices to share. Instead, I gave her a simple answer about how people with special needs used to be ignored or sent away to different schools or to live in special homes and hospitals.

Maybe I could have given a better answer, but I figured it was more important tell her how we're doing the right things now. She should know that. We all should. I hope the S.A.I.L. story will help show it to more people.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Unlocking the Keys to Reading with Your Child

Taping "Literature Links" at Allen E.S. in Medford, NJ
My wife Lauren and I make an effort to read with our children each night before bed. Most of the parents I know do the same because it's no secret that reading proficiency is fundamental to success in life. However, it wasn't until I started working on a segment for Classroom Close-up, NJ entitled "Literature Links" that I realized I could be helping my children get a lot more out of our reading time.

The story is about a parent book club at Milton H. Allen Elementary School run by teacher, Amy King. In the club, parents learned how to encourage comprehension strategies with their children using techniques from the book 7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!by Susan Zimmermann.

The foundation of the book is that it's comprehension, not the simple ability to decode words, that defines reading proficiency. This may seem like an obvious statement, but in reviewing the book prior to taping the story, I realized I was often guilty of not ensuring that my kids were fully comprehending what they were reading or what was being read to them. I'm now making an extra effort to try and use the 7 Keys to make sure my children are getting the most out of our reading time.

The easiest technique I picked up was simply to start asking more questions during our reading to help them comprehend.

  • Do you know what that word means?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • Does that remind you of anything that's happened to you?
  • What do you think that looks like?

Like I said, it seems obvious, but I realized that sometimes it's too easy to just plow through a story with my child like a chore, rather than taking a little extra time to teach. Another insight I picked up while covering this story was that when a child demonstrates early reading proficiency, parents sometimes tend to back off of using comprehension strategies. Because children can decode words with little effort, we let them start reading on their own more and more, without making sure they understand what they're reading. I see this happen with my own daughter. She can read a paragraph to me, pronouncing every word correctly, even if she's not sure what it really means. Or she can read a story, but not have the background knowledge to really synthesize what she's reading. For example, she's reading The Boxcar Children, but has little or no knowledge of the Great Depression.

The tag-line for Classroom Close-up, NJ is, "Great Things are Happening in New Jersey's Public Schools" and while the show does indeed showcase the great things happening in our schools, it also hopes to inspire and teach by showing examples of programs that make a difference. I think "Literature Links" is going to be one of those stories. It definitely taught me a thing or two.

The Classroom Close-up, NJ episode with the Literature Links story will air Monday at 7 pm and on Saturday at 9 am on April 25, 30 and May 23, 28 on NJN.

Update here is the finished story: