Saturday, March 27, 2004

Regional Science Expo

I spent sixteen hours* over the last three days at the Regional Science Expo, a celebration of student science projects from around our region. It was eye-opening in a number of ways, enjoyable much of the time, way too long, and not without incident. Friday night, after the Science Expo, I worked from 4-8 pm at the Region's Middle School Fair, recruiting fifth graders to apply to our school. Needless to say, I'm ready for a day with no regional events to attend!

The first thing I noticed is that the demographics of students in the other half of our region (last year, our region was created, combining two former districts) are very different from our half. While our district was nearly 100% minority students from low-income families, the other district has a much broader range of students as far as family income and ethnicity are concerned. Why does this matter? Because you could see, at a glance, that the level of work produced varied consistently with the demographics of the students. I have seen this phenomenon first hand in so many settings. In my old school, students in the "top classes" were much more likely to have computers, live in two-parent homes, have better-educated, professional parents, etc. etc. In my current school, the children who are really struggling tend to come from the families that are dealing with the most - poverty, drugs, you name it. I'm not saying this is true of every child or family, but in every setting - school, class, region - it has been generally true. As my goal is to provide a world class education for my students, it is extremely frustrating to find that we still fall into the old pattern - we're doing some of the best work if you compare us to schools that serve similar children, but we are still way behind the schools that serve wealthier populations. I'm glad that our districts were combined, because the presence of these higher-performing schools gives me a goal to shoot for, and keeps me from becoming complacent.

Second reflection: Children must learn to read and do math. No one will dispute that. Yet it is a terrible tragedy what we are sacrificing to make sure the basics are covered. For example, you probably know the technique for using a ruler to make little marks and draw light pencil lines in order to cut in a straight line when making a poster. Okay. Now think back to the age when you first knew how to do that. If you're like most people I've talked to, you probably developed this skill in 4th or 5th grade. By that point, you had some basic design skills when making a poster, and you were an old pro at cutting smoothly with scissors. Why? Because you had art classes in school, and/or your teachers did arts & crafts programs from time-to-time in the elementary school curriculum, and/or your parents bought you art supplies so that you could do projects at home. My children - sixth and seventh graders - cannot be assumed to know any of these things. Many struggle with scissors. Very, very few know how to mark off a square in order to cut in straight lines. And their general sense of design is poor. A lot of the teachers at the Science Expo had made the boards for their children, especially in the lower grades. I don't do that for my students; they make their display boards themselves, to start to learn those skills. My kids knew their science, but some visitors had an initial negative reaction to their display boards because they were messy compared to the rest of the projects at the Expo. First impressions do matter! Mastering basic arts & presentation skills is not as important as learning to read or add, no, but it matters!

A story: Most people at the Science Expo were very supportive. They asked good questions of the students, and encouraged and praised them, while challenging them to go farther in their thinking. One man, however, nearly ruined our day on Friday. He was an employee of the other district who lost his job when they consolidated the districts into the Region. He actually cut off one of my students in the middle of the second sentence of her presentation, and began attacking her about flaws in her project! She gamely tried to answer his questions, but he kept hitting her with more and more. Not one positive comment. He then turned to me and told me I have to drive them harder, and said some other stuff which I don't care to remember in detail, the implication being that I am not smart enough to see the things my kids still need to work on, the problems with their projects. Then he spoke to my second pair of students, and attacked them as well! After he left, they were all really shaky and overwhelmed, and one girl started crying and got a nosebleed. Her partner said it was like he stuck a pin in their project! Sure, his concerns were valid (although some were not realistic for middle school), but I know that my kids can handle criticism when it is appropriately stated, and this was just plain wrong. I calmed down the students and then spoke to a couple of Regional Science people whom I trust. They came over, reassured my kids, listened to their presentations, asked some questions, made some suggestions, and the kids felt a little better. They told me that everyone who knows this individual is aware that he is an angry person who doesn't know how to talk to people (let alone to children!). They said I shouldn't take it personally. One of them told him off for me, and apparently he tried to defend himself by saying my kids' projects didn't even belong at the event! She told him that was not true and defended my students' work to him, and after that, he left. Grrrr! My mama-bear instincts totally kicked in during this event; you do NOT get to make my children cry! How can someone working in education not know how to talk to children???

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