Friday, May 30, 2014

Teachers are (or should be) role models

I'm my own worst critic. OK, I don't know that that's true, but I know I'm constantly critiquing myself. I'm often genuinely surprised when people find what I do valuable or inspiring or helpful.

There are many reasons for my potentially overly self-critical disposition. Perhaps one of the strongest reasons is the sense of responsibility I have in the knowledge that, life it or not, I am a role model. Teachers are role models.

Teaching reveals this. Having children of one's own makes it even more clear. My actions and my words, planned or spontaneous, kind or cruel, set the tone for classes, weeks, even terms. The way I live is part of my teaching, whether my students or my children. It's more true than people realize that actions speak louder than words.

I'm aware that what I eat sends messages. I know that how and where I spend my "free time" sends messages. I realize that what I post on online is not innocuous.  I'm aware that how I interact with others, in reality and in virtual reality, sends messages. I know that how I spend my money matters. I realize that what I indulge and do not indulge is not simply a "personal decision" without social effect.

I also know how severely I fail to meet my own expectations. I'm am probably more aware of my folly and failures than I am of my successes. With my children even more than my students. Sometimes it seems that every loss of temper and every poor example is indelibly engraved in my memory. That's obvious hyperbole, but it's more true than than saying I recall my successes.

I don't always cope with this pressure well. I'm too hard on myself, I always have been, which arguably leads to more errors in judgement. Nevertheless, I press on knowing that I set out to change lives, and change lives I will. I step forward in faith that students will somehow acquire what is important and will graciously ignore or forget my mistakes. We live not for ourselves.

Are many of you like this? Are you aware of the importance of the examples you set? How do you maintain perspective?

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Math skills vs. Reading skills [infographic]

Is reading more difficult than math? Could it be?

I've too often heard people complain that math is hard or that they hate math. I've always found it sad. Over the years, I've gotten the impression that I'm a rare breed: someone who loves both math and language, and I'm endorsed to teach both.

I hear people say that they don't like reading. Usually they mean books. But I rarely hear people say it in the way that people complain about math. Does that mean reading is easier? Does that mean people have a better grasp of reading than mathematics? Not necessarily.

Edudemic recently posted "Which is easier: math or reading?" It looks at the numbers and gives a convincing argument that students in the US are having much more difficulty learning to read than learning math. If accurate, this would be a huge problem, as the vast majority of the world's academic, technical, and otherwise useful information is in written form. Poor reading skills creates an almost impenetrable barrier to further learning.

Read the article, and peruse the infographic below.

Math is Hard, But Reading is Harder
Image source:

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Reading aloud is an ageless activity

Story time at the Ketchikan Public Library, Ketchikan, Alaska (From 
When was the last time you read aloud to someone?

When was the last time someone read aloud to you?

As I read "Why reading aloud to older children is valuable", I thought of my step-mother. Like me, my step-mother loves to read, and she loves to borrow books form the library. Unlike me, however, she checks out a lot of audiobooks.

You see, my step-mother must commute 30+ minutes to and from work every day. I'm sure that one some of those trips the radio is tuned to a favorite radio station. On many days, however, a book on tape is the entertainment of choice. I can recall many time: her sitting in her car in the driveway several minutes after arriving, finishing up a chapter in her audiobook.

I also thought of myself. I don't borrow audiobooks, though perhaps I should. I do, however, listen almost exclusively to NPR. Don't laugh; in an average US city or town (i.e. not metroplex), it will have more diverse and interesting programming than almost any other radio station. There's music. There are interviews. There are even stories. I love listening to stories.

People have always enjoyed listening to stories. It's common across the cultural spectrum. When with friends, people tell stories to one another constantly: stories about friends, stories about ancestors, stories about their weekends, stories about their children, etc. We are a story-loving species.

I agree with all the ideas mentioned in the article. Reading to students' listening levels, modeling, "broadening the menu", the power of shared words, etc. are all important to learning, important to academic and emotional growth. But there is another reason: It's simply enjoyable.

Do you read to your students? What do you read?

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Monday, May 19, 2014

The demise of pleasure reading

There have been many reports recently with headlines such as "Why don't teen read for pleasure like they used to?" or "Why aren't teens reading like they used to?" or "U.S. children read, but not well or often: report". Most of the articles seem to reference this article from Common Sense Media.

The statistics, quoted from Common Sense Media, are not encouraging:
  • 53% of 9-year-olds vs. 17% of 17-year-olds are daily reader
  • The proportion who "never" or "hardly ever" read has tripled since 1984. A third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they've read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that.
Two of the articles linked above also delve into reading proficiency. Did you know that only about 1/3 of fourth grade students read proficiently? Or that another 1/3 read at a below basic level?

As a citizen of the US, this concerns me. As an educator, a language educator no less, this concerns me. As a father of young boys, the oldest of which (2 years 8 months) loves being read to, this concerns me. As an individual who tries to set aside at least a little time for reading every day, this concerns me.

Most of the articles are fairly quick to single out rising rates of media usage as the primary culprit. Rates of television viewing have remained basically stable, but computer and handheld device screen time has risen precipitously. Most articles also mention, however mostly in passing, that screen time could be spent in reading activities.

I would also point to digital (visual) media as a primary culprit. Between watching a video and reading a story, watching videos has a lower cognitive load than reading, and people tend toward lower cognitive loads when they can. Watching videos is more immediately gratifying than the slower process or reading. Together, this is a near death sentence for pleasure reading.

People are quick to bring up the examples of the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games, forgetting that these phenomena were not primarily a victory of reading. These were primarily social movements, drawing people in because all their friends were reading them, not due to an intrinsic interest in reading. It's that intrinsic interest that defines pleasure reading.

While many young people are reading via social media and the like, I would be loathe to call this pleasure reading. That type of reading only builds language skills for that arena: social media. The language used among peers does not readily transfer to the skills needed to comprehend or appreciate texts of fiction, non-fiction, biography, science, technology, etc.

It is popular today to hear people talk about "digital literacy" and to make trendy assertions that today's students are simply different and have different "learning styles" than students of the past. Reading, however, still does and will form the foundation of an educated society. Reading needs to to be a primary concern of parents, educators, and society as a whole.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, May 16, 2014

If I were a high school guidance counselor

This kid thinks nothing of getting his hands dirty, so why should you?

This week I read an article rehashing a Facebook interaction between Mike Rowe and a fan. What Rowe said reminded me of something I've been telling people for the past few months. IN the interaction he wrote:
Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. 
Returning to the US without a job was difficult. Returning to the US knowing that jobs I could look forward to in the US (using my background, skills, and interests) would make breadwinning much more difficult than in China made it even more difficult.

I've since found a job teaching. I'll some be back to teaching ELLs and doing what I love to do, but my wife and I have to watch our spending very closely, much more closely than when doing the same job in China.

When I arrived in the States, I considered a career change. Some options were on the more administrative side of education. The most intriguing, however, were more "blue collar". I love working with my body, and careers like CSA farmer, welder, electrician, HVAC tech and others really began to stand out.

So why didn't I opt for those? Were they "beneath me"? Not at all! Did I think they'd be boring? I never thought about that (and no). Simply put, I didn't pursue one of those careers because I have a family to take care of and didn't/don't have the money or time to re-skill.

This experience led me to rethink how I've led my life. In turn, this experience got me thinking a lot about how I would counsel young adults, high school students specifically, considering their futures.

"Follow your dreams!" "Follow your passions!" "Do something you like." That's what we tell people. That's what young students hear. I think we do our young people a disservice when we talk like that. If someone can follow dreams and passions, of course that is wonderful, but people that really do have dreams and deep passions will follow them whether we tell them to or not. It's the voice of reason and rationality that students need.

If I were a counselor today, how would I counsel young people? First, I would ask, "Do you have a calling? Do you have something you think you were born to do?" If the answer is yes, I'd keep asking questions to make sure they really do, not just think they do. If no, I would tell them to find something they can do (i.e. ability), something they can bear (i.e. not suicide inducing), and something that makes money. Then I'd tell them to save their money well.

Am I a materialist? Am I just out for money? By no means. Here's how I see things as a 35-year-old man: In the absence of a profound calling to a vocation, in the absence of a deep driving passion, go for the money. If you can do it in a white collar job, do that. If you can do in in a blue collar job, do that. Save that money. Why? So that when and if you discover what you really want to do, when and if a passion arises, you will have the financial resources to support yourself (and a possible family) while you re-skilling or doing whatever needs to be done to get that new career off the ground.

I'm glad I'm a teacher. It's in my blood. I'm not sure I would actually enjoy doing anything more than I enjoy teaching. I'm glad teaching found me. It pays the bills. But if I would want to leave it, there are few avenues open. Give yourself options.

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Life's hidden curriculum

Fayetteville, Arkansas. That's where I live now. That's where I will soon begin working. Teaching. Doing what I love to do.

At the zoo: playing, laughing, learning.
I haven't posted regularly over these past few weeks. Road trips to look for an apartment in Fayetteville, preparing to move from Texas, actually moving to Fayetteville, setting up a new home: it's been more than time consuming. I've honestly (ashamedly?) thought little about education over the past few weeks.

But perhaps that's not entirely true.

I do in fact think about education all the time. My sons', specifically. Not about where they will or won't go to school; not about whether we will or won't homeschool (though homeschooling is my present hope, if for no other reason than to ensure my sons learn Chinese from their mother). No, it's not their future, specifically, I'm thinking about, but rather their present. I think about what they're learning right now from me and from my wife.

What do I say to my children? How do I say it? What attitudes am I projecting, and what attitudes are they perceiving? What messages do my reactions send? What are they learning in my interactions with them? What are they learning as they observe me interacting with others? What are they acquiring, as if by osmosis, about good and evil, right and wrong, invaluable and valuable and worthless?

And what about our students? These same questions apply. We must not forget that while we desire students to learn the material of a given subject, be it mathematics, English, Chinese, or sciences, students inevitably learn about life through their teachers. What messages do our reactions send? What do our interactions demonstrate about our concern for them (or lack thereof), about their value, about what is good?

What messages do we want them to understand? Does our practice transmit those messages?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman.