Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ownership of Books Eases Poverty?

        Having books in the home is said to offset the affects of poverty.  I have seen several 'studies' that say just having books can make the difference. Salon said that having five hundred books in your home can be a greater indicator of success for a child than if that child's father had a professional level job.  I suspect there may be some missing data here.

        I have also read that poor families do not have books because books cost money.  I was thinking about the library in my home and in my friends' homes.  All of us buy books.  We don't buy them because we like stacks of thinly sliced dead tree lying around our homes.     Gee, that sound kind of gruesome. No, I do not buy books due to a pathological hatred of trees.

      Books are not laying around on the floor of my space as a totem to ward away the evil specters of my children not getting an education.  I don't even buy books because I enjoy the physical act of reading.  I read because I enjoy learning about whatever new thing I am interested in at that time. When I have excess funds, I am likely to buy something new to read.  I can't imagine how much poorer my life would be if I couldn't afford a new book every month of two.

      Going back to the studies they seem to indicate that just having books in the house could make the difference.  If that were the case I suppose these people would be raising the next Tesla.
*Not my actual den.

      Of course, we know this is likely not the case.  I remember several years ago stumbling on a studies that if children see their mother reading they will grow up to be literate.  I can provide anecdotal evidence to corroborate the study but I also worked with my children to help them gain literacy skills. SO what is the secret connection to books and literacy? These studies lead to the question.

       Is it just a matter of having books in the home or do the books need to be used?

       If possession were the issue, would a nice picture of a bookcase be a workable substitute?  I, of course, do not believe it is as simple as owning books.  I believe there are behaviors that accompany book ownership which skew the findings.

       It seems evident that people who love and collect books over time collect them to be read and enjoyed. They spend money on books because they value the education they receive from reading. People collect books on subjects they love and want to learn more about.  This type of literature is what professional teachers call high interest reading. Children learn to love books and get to read books they want to read.  Children need access to high interest books and Dolly Parton stepped up to help.

       Dolly Parton has become a personal hero for many because of her Imagination Library.  She provides beautiful free books that come in the mail for children from birth to age 5.  These books are available to anyone who has a child in this age range in Tennessee.  With the help of partnering organization she is helping community champions set up this program for the local youngsters in other areas. If you would like to register for books or champion an Imagination Library in your area here is a link to her site:  I would love to see her program replicated all over the globe.

       Her books make a difference to the children who receive them.  Every month a book comes in the mail addressed to the child.  The books are new and have that wonderful new book smell.  The kids are so excited I imagine the majority of them find an adult to read it to them in short order.  Then they have the book to keep.  They learn the basics of handling a book. Which way is right side up, which direction the pages turn. They might learn the words contain the meaning or they might even come to recognize some words.  Exposure to this learning activity can make a profound difference for these children.  It puts them ahead of the children who have never seen or held a book. It also teaches them that receiving a new book is an event to be celebrated! The change in attitude toward books from neutral to gift is a great by-product of her work.

       A study, which will be published later this year in the Journal of Reading Psychology, indicates providing poor children with as few as 12 books at the beginning of Summer break can prevent Summer slide.  The caveat is the books must be chosen by the children not assigned by the authority, which brings us back around to high interest literature. The emotional connection, the wanting to read because you choose to, seem to be the unifying theme.

      So what if you want to expose your children to high interest literature but cannot read well.  There are free recorded books available on  These books have aged into the public domain and are recorded by volunteers.  It's a free service but the youngest book dates back to the 1930s.  What if you need something more current. is offering 2 free audio books at their website.  Here is a link: The Pubic Library also has audio books to loan and they can get you any book you want to read.

       I love recorded books because I can listen while I drive.  Last Summer we listened to an old radio recording of the Adventures of Superman and A Wrinkle in Time.  My kids enjoyed both and we would talk about the stories when we took breaks.  It's a very nice way to pass time on the road.

       Because of these studies people may recommend that you give old books to soup kitchens and poverty schools.  I think that is a nice first step. If you are a book hoarder you should definately thin your supply this way.  It would be even better if we helped impoverished young people get access to books that would interest them.  It would also be helpful to raise the wage so less people were in poverty in America and they could then buy more books.

      If you know of other free resources to help people get access to free literature please sent us a note and don't forget to follow our blog so you can be sure to stay up to date with our weekly posts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Quality Education Defined by Jill Speering- Former Reading Recovery Teacher Leader and Current Board Member

At last week's meeting, an MNPS Board member suggested that there are 3500 seats in Metro Schools that lack "quality" so I've been thinking about this language and what this term means. What do we mean by student "success"? What do we mean by "quality" seats?
Is "quality" defined by a number on an achievement test?
Is "quality" defined by students in charter schools who chant answers to questions for a big part of the day?
Is "quality" the extension of a school day for TCAP preparation yet little -if any- opportunity remains for art, music & recess?
Are "quality" seats those that hold an authoritarian style of teaching which values obedience, a belief in the need to restrict a child's autonomy? Is "quality" defined as a culture where no verbal give and take is allowed?
Is "quality" defined as high-control, low-nurturance seats?
Or rather than a simplistic definition, is "quality" much broader, much deeper, much more meaningful and much more difficult to measure than the previously stated questions?
I believe student success is measured by a joy in learning that results from a culture of respect and expression . When children's passion for learning is ignited, they begin to lead their own learning. Good teachers and parents know how to stimulate students' innate strengths. Good teachers know how to encourage self-expression through reading, writing, speaking, thinking, art and music! Pedagogy is more about how to reach each and every child through learning intimate details about the child's background, knowledge and interests so that learning becomes personalized--rather than following a script or meaningless assessments that only serve to burden students and squelch curiosity.
Rather than authoritarian leadership, isn't "quality" communicated more significantly through authoritative leadership where a healthy combination of love and limits are communicated? Where the culture is encouraging and nurturing? When constant pressure is expected for mature, obedient behavior while providing verbal reasoning and rationales for requests and expectations?
"Quality" results when students learn the relevance and inter-relationships of each and every subject. "Quality" results when students work together cooperatively rather than competitively. Working together in teams more closely resembles real world experiences and helps prepare our children for the expectations of an unknown future.

Quality Education

Sunday, February 15, 2015

How I fell in love with my trade association and dumped my union

        I have been a member of a teacher union for 20 years.  This year I had a friend who needed the assistance of the union.  I told her they would advocate for her and stand in the gap.  That did not happen.  I watched as our union representatives failed my friend after I had told her in good faith our union would back her.
       Being a member of the union has been part of the normal cost of teaching as long as I can remember.  My aunt, mother and cousins were all members. Union membership is traditional and expected.  In return, we expect our leaders to represent us as a group and personally if we run into difficulty.
      This fall I ran into a little trouble and I needed help.  When I contacted my union I was told the people managing the union were too busy to help me.  Fortunately, through attending the  un-conference on tech in our district this summer, I had the chance to have lunch with Samantha Bates and others from Professional Educators of Tennessee. I had a great time discussing educational tech with them.  I remembered them when my union failed me.  They stood in the gap and helped with a very difficult time.
      In honor of Valentine's Day I want to talk about why I love being a member of my trade association. With the trade association in Tennessee our dues are state only.  We do not have to pay extra to support a national organization.  This lack of overhead keeps our costs low.  The dues are only $16 per month.  Before my experience I might have said something like,"You get what you pay for"  but I would have been wrong.  Professional Educators of Tennessee provides exceptional value and service.  They are rapidly becoming a favorite among Tennessee Educators.
      I love being a member of my trade association because they are non-partisan.  The funds I pay into Profession Educators of TN do not go into political campaign coffers or to support social causes that are not related to education.  The focus of this group is all education all of the time which to me allows them to work smarter. The funds to support this trade association come from members and not from political action committees or slush funds.  This funding model helps the organization stay grounded and focused on their soul purpose.
      I love working with the people in my association.  I have found them to be responsive, open, and compassionate.  They operate similar to a grass roots organization.  The members of the organization own the organization and govern it.  The Board of Directors is made up of members of the organization. We have input through our board, our annual convention, and by contacting the organization.
        If you complete any research on the history of unions they sometimes fail because they forget their purpose.  Sometimes they last longer than they should because they silence dissent.  You may have noticed that although I named my trade association multiple times in this article I did not mention any union by name.  There are two reasons for this.  First I do not want to give them any press or ad copy. The second reason I cannot mention in this blog but if you would like further reading on that topic I recommend Blackboard Blackmail  by Suzanne Clark.  This teacher bravely told her story to the world.  Please put it on your summer reading list. I am including a link for your convenience.
     If you would like to have more direction and responsiveness from your professional organization I recommend you join Professional Educators of Tennessee. Membership is also open to support personnel, former teachers, parents, and anyone who wants to support great education in our state.  If you would like to contact them their phone number is 615-778-0803  and the website is  Or you could just send an email to

*I want you to know: I do not work for my association nor am I being paid to say any of this.  I am sharing this information because they have been great to work with. I wanted you to know about them. I love Professional Educators of Tennessee. They have a great model, great people, great mission and laser focus on completing that mission.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

PyTennessee 2015: Teacher meets Python

        Today's blog post is going to be short and sweet because it's Sunday afternoon and I still have two fantastic hours of Python learning left in PyTennessee.  Python is a programming language which is making inroads into science, big data, animation, language processing, and education.  It has strong community support and it's open source. Whenever you see open source relating to software it means FREE. Open Source is a labor of love by the people who built it.  In the spirit of this fabulous community I will share with you many of the resources which I have learned about during my involvement with this community.

Young Coders Conference
        The Young Coders Conferences were my introduction to the Python community.  There were five young coders conferences last year in Middle Tennessee.  The generosity of the Python Foundation and others made is possible for students to attend these conferences for free. All students received a free computer loaded with Python, Scratch and others to take home. Most of the conferences last year occurred in schools that had a Python champion teacher.  This teacher was willing to jump through all of the administrative hoops to make it happen. I was allowed to 'ghost' the conference last February and learn along with other students.  After the conference I became a champion for the students at my school.  I held a Young Coders Conference at my own school during the school day. I also lead the Young Coders Conference for the Sunday session in PyOhio.
         I wish I new the other teacher champions.  I do know the school that also held a YC conference. Those schools are: Manchester Central High School in Coffee County, Seigal High School in Murfreesboro and Winchester High School in Franklin county.  Props to all of these teachers who made this happen for their students.  If you would like for your child to attend young coders follow PyTennessee so you can grab tickets to one of these free slots.  Seats are limited and disappear fast. If you want to host a Young coders conference at your school contact us and we'll connect you to the right people.

I don't live in Nashville. Whom should I contact?
       There are many ways to connect to the Python community.  First try Meetup.  In our area there are over 50 different Meetup groups related to technology. These groups cover everything from Arduino to Linux to Python and everything in between. If you are really lucky you will find a Pyladies chapter in your area.  These women are very supportive of newbies trying to learn the python programming language. We do not have an active PyLadies chapter in Nashville.  We do however have an active women's group called Nashville Women Programmers which is headed up by Lisa French.

I've checked Meetup and Googled Pyladies but nothing is going on in our area.
        Before this conference I would have said you were out of luck but I would have been wrong.  There are many excellent resources to help you learn Python at home and they are OPEN SOURCE.
There are videos from previous conferences you can check out through  When you go there search for 'Hands on python for beginning programmers'.  You can split this course into bite size sections to work on at home.  There are several other talks available for free. This site has an easy to use search bar.
       Another fantastic resource to check out are the ipython notebooks. You can find these at  The python community has amassed multiple notebooks to teach you about python, scientific python, python for apps, python and website and many other topics.  This free education is available to you through these open source notebooks. An ipython notebook is available for the hands on class I referenced in the prior paragraph.
        If you prefer to learn through twitter follow @geekgurldiaries.  She has many resources and videos related to Python and the Raspberrypi which you can link to via her twitter account.  If you don't know what a RaspberryPi is you can check out this link @Geekgurldiaries even has a link to the school age curriculum for using Rapberry Pis to teach Python while exploring sound. If you aren't on Twitter you can find this curriculum by Googling SonicPy.  Again this curriculum is open source which means it's completely free and very valuable which makes it a gift.  Thank you Cambridge and the engineers who built this curriculum.

I would just rather have a quiet space with a book and a Python shell to figure this out
        Okay, I can point you towards a good resource.  This isn't free but I understand the comfort of holding a book in your hand as you follow the curriculum at your own pace.  O'Reilly publishes books on Python and other languages.  I have several of their works on my shelf at home.  If you are a modern reader with a nook or whatever O'Reilly also has their books available in print.  When you are programming for the first time I would suggest starting with a children's text to learn coding.  O'Reilly has two or three of those book titles available.

I want to say a quick thank you to the sponsors of PyTennessee and the organizers.  If you had not organized this I wouldn't have met Carol Williams who introduced me to many of the resources listed in the above article.  I also want to thank Brian and Lyndsy from the Center for Open Science.  You all inspire me to reach for things I might not try otherwise. will link you to the Center for Open Science if you want to check out the great work they are doing or just say, "Hi."

Sunday, February 1, 2015

We're Number One

       It's not very often that I get to say that about my state.  I could say it last year because we were the top state in the nation for corruption.  That title will likely be taken from us this year.  The people of Tennessee would like to congratulate New York, a strong contender and likely to win the crown this year.  In earlier years we were close to spending the least on our students but Mississippi drew the spotlight on that one.  That being said there is one area in which Tennessee out does all of her sister states.

       Tennessee has the highest percentage of people earning minimum wage in the United states.  In our state that's $7.25 per hour which makes for an annual salary of $15,080.  So if you are a single parent with two kids that breaks down to around $5000 per person, per year.  You can qualify for food stamps but there are many things food stamps do not cover.  Food stamps only provide for the cost of food.  This program does not cover soap, toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies or so many other things.  The extreme lack of resources leads to stress for everyone in the family.

       The students do not leave the stress at home.  They carry it to school with them.  They also may bring other issues such as effects from poor nutrition and insomnia.  Even though the families are provided with food stamps, urban areas often have food deserts.  In these areas it's difficult to find fresh food and eat a nutritionally sound diet. Families trying to survive on minimum wage cannot afford heaters or air conditioning.  Sometimes they live in sections of town where it is not safe to sleep outside or open a window during the summer.  During August the temperature in the homes can reach up into the 90s.  High temperatures outside or cold can make it challenging to get solid sleep.   These stressed out, sleep deprived, under nourished students attend our public schools.

       In an ideal world struggling students would come into a classroom environment which is low key, peaceful and can help buffer some of the extreme want. Before the "reform" movement schools attended to the whole child. In today's school climate, test scores are stressed and so is every human in poverty schools. Schools which were once a vital underpinning of the community are threatened based on test scores.  Career oriented teachers have been forced to flee poverty schools or have been fired.  The new teachers, who are filling these slots, are dealing with stresses of their own. The average student loan payment for a student graduating and entering the teaching force is $420 per month.

        Some of our starting teachers are also in poverty.  The people who have enough compassion to enter this profession and want to help students do not have the resources due to low salary and crippling student loan debt. The teachers who would have the financial strength to help have been forced to flee these environments.

 For the students in these schools this translates into:

  •  no winter coats
  • no snacks if you are hungry
  • weaker ties to community dentists to help you if you have a cavity 
  • weaker ties to health workers if you were bit by a rat last night
  •  no baby wipes or deodorant to clean up with
  • and added pressure to perform well on tests
These students notice the change and still desperately need the help that was there.

        Public schools were available in the past to buffer against the effects of extreme poverty.  It was a manageable system because our country and state were not grappling with epidemic levels poverty and a minimum wage which bought so little.  There are many more students in poverty and/or homeless than there were 15 years ago. The wage has not kept up with the economy or inflation.

        If we want to improve our public schools, we will first improve outcome for our families by raising the wage.  Secondly, we will forgive the student loans for anyone willing to teach/administer in poverty environments for any 10 year span. Yes, it should be retroactive.

        We should honor the teachers who have served our communities in these unique capacities.  We should pay teachers like professionals and believe them.  Instead the current philosophy blames the teachers for the affects of poor nutrition, poor sleep, and extreme stress with which the students are grappling.  This way of thinking is only benefiting the people profiting by destroying public education. As reformers weaken and kill schools they are robbing these children of a life line they need. We must change our approach!