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Last night I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Lilian Katz lecture at Mills College on awakening and focusing curiosity through the use of projects for kids. She defined projects as extended, in-depth investigations into topics that are worth learning about.
I was really inspired by the stories of how students as young as three and four designed their own research, and were the agents of their learning rather than passive recipients of knowledge. The role of teachers is to facilitate learning, provide resources and coach the students.
One project Dr. Katz described asked students to study "ball-ness," or what are the characteristics of balls. So each student was asked to bring a ball from home. What showed up was a large collection of round objects - bowling balls, marbles, globes, baseballs, rubber balls. The teacher asked them if the globe was a ball, and they said yes, because it was round. So she held up a paper plate and pointed out that it too was round.
Then the students broke into groups and designed their own research into what makes a ball. Some studied the weight of balls, some studied circumference, some studied the travel velocity of various round objects on an incline. The students asked teachers for instruction on how to measure circumference, record their measurements, etc, and for help getting the needed materials. Each group presented on their findings to the other groups, with the teachers helping them to think about what they wanted to tell the other groups.
This type of work is exciting to me because I believe that awakening intellectual curiosity is the real puzzle in education, and is a key factor in motivating students. Dr. Katz thinks project work is a critical strategy because:
- Recall and retention is better with 'slow learning' like project work, and there is genuine understanding as opposed to just knowledge.
- Project work gives kids agency, rather than placing them in passive learner roles.
- Project work emphasizes frequent sequences of contingent interaction, a key strategy in brain development for young children.
- Project work helps kids to develop social competence and can disrupt negative recursive cycles that hinder the social development of some children.
Recursive cycles are processes in which children who are already socially competent become more competent through positive interactions with other kids. So children who are articulate are more accepted and have more friends and social interactions, which leads to them becoming even more articulate, and the cycle continues.
It also works the other way too, though, with children who are inarticulate being avoided by other children, leading to them becoming less articulate over time and gradually becoming more isolated. The research shows that kids who fail to develop social competence by about the age of six are more likely to drop out of school.
I was excited about the potential for project work to disrupt negative recursive cycles because Oakland has an issue when it comes to drop-outs.
The lecture was part of the Arlene Shmaeff Memorial Education Lecture Series. I will be going to more of these going forward, because I was impressed.
Dorothy Jean Collins is the Administrative Assistant at Burckhalter Elementary
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the School Site Council meeting at Burckhalter School. There was really good parent turnout, and like most of the schools in D6, they were focused on how to allocate their discretionary funds for next year's budget.
There were two discussions among the parents that especially interested me, one about traffic in the area and the need for a crossing guard. It has been a struggle to get this approved because it involves doing studies of the traffic in the area. Their first request was rejected, but now it is looking like their second request will be approved, which will keep the students at the school safer. This is a project of the newly organized PTO group at the school.
The other large discussion was about some parents' concerns about the options for middle school in the area. One family indicated that they would likely be leaving Oakland when their daughter ages out of Burckhalter because of their dissatisfaction with the middle school options. I know that this is a huge issue in Oakland, the large number of families that leave the district schools after elementary school, so it was good for me to hear their concerns.
Burckhalter has a beautiful library that is staffed by volunteers from the AAUW two days a week. They do tutoring, maintain the library, help the kids check out books and do story time. This is a real service the AAUW is providing to kids in District 6.
I also learned that Burckhalter students are also accomplished orators. They won the Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Contest last year, in multiple categories.
Finally, I had the chance to meet Dorothy Jean Collins, the school's Administrative Assistant. She shared that candidates often focus on the issues facing teachers and administrators, and don't think about the role of other school staff. Dorothy pointed out that Burckhalter has grown in recent years, but the size of the administrative staff has not. It was a good reminder about the ecosystem of the schools, and all the many people who make schools nurturing places for kids. Thanks Dorothy!
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This week, I had the tremendous pleasure of visiting the PTSA meeting at Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA), located in Maxwell Park. I was inspired by what I saw. MLA is a dual immersion (Spanish/English) school, led by Moyra Contreras.
During my visit, I was struck deeply by the commitment of the parents to the vision of the school. The meeting was conducted in Spanish, with translation into English for the parents who don't speak Spanish. The meeting was largely focused on an issue that many schools in Oakland struggle with, how to engage parents on a more sustained basis in the PTSA and other activities that help the school achieve its mission.
Moyra also shared with the group that the teachers at MLA will soon be presenting on their research on teaching for the year. All the teachers at MLA participate in the Mills College Teacher Scholar program, a program that affords teachers the opportunity to improve their teaching practices through research into their craft that they design and carry out themselves.
Teachers select an aspect of their students’ learning they see as important in improving student learning outcomes, and meet monthly to discuss their questions with their colleagues and to examine the data that they collect to answer their questions, including classroom video data, student work, student interview data, and observational data.
The Mills Teacher Scholars staff provides facilitation and coaching to help move teachers forward in their thinking and to support them as they document the changes they make in their teaching and how these changes impact student learning. At the end of the year, the teacher scholars present their findings to their colleagues.
In fact, one of the MLA teachers is using the program to improve her Common Core math instruction.
I was very excited to learn about the participation of the MLA teachers because I know that teacher retention is a critical strategy for improving Oakland's schools, and I believe these kinds of programs are essential in recognizing the professionalism and expertise of our teacher workforce.
These opportunities for recognition demonstrate to teachers that they are our most valuable asset in the Oakland schools, and keep teachers thinking critically about their teaching and sharing what they learn in order to help colleagues do the same.
I will keep looking for and sharing these exciting opportunities to improve teacher retention as I continue my campaign.
I was also delighted by the way that the school's values are reflected in the visuals of the school. As you enter the school, to the left is a gratitude tree. Students are encouraged to reflect on their feelings of gratitude toward others in the school community and to jot them down for addition to the tree. Then once a month a couple of the notes are drawn and the students get a small token of appreciation. The tree itself is the Oakland tree, but as a rainbow to recognize the school's commitment to inclusion and diversity.
I think an emphasis on gratitude and appreciation is good to cultivate in any setting, and it is also a way of recognizing the efforts of the students to build the school community.
I also took some photos of my favorite murals at the school - there are lots of them - to share.
There are more under way. If you haven't been to see them, you should. The art teacher Pancho helps students to paint them.
This is my favorite one, along with the puma, below. All the animals pictured are native to California.
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For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on Oakland's Library Advisory Commission (LAC). The commission is charged with advocating for strong and vibrant library services, overseeing Measure Q, the revenue source for the majority of the library's funding, and also plays a liaison role between library patrons and the library's administration.
What we seem to spend most of our time on, however, is working to keep library services strong in the midst of the financial downturn that has affected all city services. The library's branches are now only open five days/week, with much shorter hours. There is no longer a bookmobile, which affects seniors and others with mobility issues. And the library's workforce has changed dramatically, with more temporary and part-time staff, many of who have worked for the library for many years. These staff aren't able to form the same quality of relationships with community members and patrons because they don't usually serve in the same branch for long.
I view the role of the library in Oakland's civic life in much the same way I view schools - they are places for Oaklanders to build their human capital, the foundation that will support the fulfillment of their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.
The building of human capital is something that parents also contribute to, but each family has a different capacity to play this role. That is why schools and libraries and other public services are so critical. One's opportunities in life should not depend solely on the family one had the luck or misfortune to be born into.
In Oakland, many low-income families do not have reading materials or internet access at home, and cannot afford enrichment activities such as music lessons, homework help and after-school programs. Libraries can provide some of these services, which is why we on the commission believe these are services worth fighting to preserve. It has been an honor to serve Oaklanders on the LAC, and to fight for strong public services.
If elected to the School Board, I will be equally persistent in working to make all Oakland schools into schools we can be proud of and confident in. Schools to build dreams on.