No More Parent Teacher Conferences?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 29th, 2009

A Maryland school district is considering scaling back or eliminating parent teacher conferences, believing they ”eat up instructional time and create a scheduling nightmare for families.”  At present parents in Frederick County have to prepare for five half-days of parent-teacher conferences, which means shortened school days, complicated child care arrangements and interrupted schedules.  Closing school for a day for conferences would mean having to make up for an extra instructional day, which costs more than $1 million, school officials say. 

“Eliminating conferences may resolve that problem and reduce the amount of instructional time that students lose,” Maryland’s Gazette.net reports.  ”The impact of the change may not be significant because parents can check grades online and use e-mail to communicate with teachers every day, said board member Michael Schaden.  ‘We all know in these times there are many ways for parents to communicate with teachers,’ he said. ‘If we can scale back on conferences, we may be able to make it easier for families.’”

Is this a first?  Perhaps this practice has been adopted in other districts, but a quick Google search fails to find any other examples of districts completely eliminating parent-teacher conferences.

Update: While this district looks at scrapping parent-teacher conferences, a proposed law in Colorado would give workers up to 40 hours of unpaid leave each school year to attend parent-teacher conferences or other school activities.

If Caroline Kennedy Is Looking For Work…

by Robert Pondiscio
January 29th, 2009

She won’t have the chance to be New York’s senator, but Diane Ravitch has another job in mind for Caroline Kennedy. “She can save New York City’s Catholic schools, which are in the throes of a fiscal meltdown,” Diane writes in a smart op-ed in the NY Daily News.

The research on Catholic education is overwhelmingly positive. Children who attend Catholic schools get a superior academic education. They also get a strong foundation in social and moral values. The four-year graduation rate at Catholic high schools is 99.5%; 98% of the high school graduates enroll in college. Most of the Catholic schools serve students who are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. (And, we must remember, many of them enroll students who are not Catholic.)

Few people are better suited to ride to the rescue than Kennedy, Ravitch observes, noting Kennedy helped raise almost $240 million for the city’s public schools.  “If the same amount had been raised for the city’s Catholic schools,” she notes, “not a single one of them would have to close.”

Handwriting Is Still Alive!

by Guest Blogger
January 29th, 2009

by Kitty Burns Florey

I wrote a book about handwriting because I was concerned about the fact that handwriting is not being adequately taught in many schools. And as I researched the topic, and spoke to a lot of educators, what struck me was the amount of pressure teachers are under in the 21st century.

It’s tempting to be nostalgic about the days when students were drilled in the Palmer Method and most of them graduated from high school writing a legible script. But today’s classroom is immensely more complicated; teachers have to cope not only with endless testing but with a much wider range of material to cover. And along with everything else, they have to teach computer skills! The more research I did, the less wedded I became to the idea (always a dubious one, anyway) that because things were done a certain way back in the good old days, they should be done that way now.

Students need to learn typing – they even probably need to call it “keyboarding.” Hardly a one of them will escape a future in which they earn their livings by sitting at a computer. I write my own books directly on the keyboard, use computer programs for editing, keep on top of a substantial email correspondence, pay bills online – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I think it’s too soon to declare legible penmanship a lost art. Maybe the problem lies in calling it an art rather than a simple necessity like knowing how to add and subtract. Hardly a day goes by when the average person doesn’t have to write something on paper. We take notes at meetings, we make lists, we address an envelope, we send a thank-you letter, we keep diaries. A radio talk show host who interviewed me this morning had jotted down some things he wanted to discuss but confessed he couldn’t read it back so had to wing it. In more extreme (but not entirely far-fetched) scenarios, the computer crashes, the power goes out, we start to get shooting pains in our wrists….

We need to use our handwriting, just as most of us need to cook dinner every night. Why not try to do it well? The “slow food” movement is gaining momentum. Why not “slow writing”? Is it so hard to write legibly?

I believe that devising a readable, even beautiful script for ourselves isn’t really very difficult, nor must it resemble the dear old Palmer Method, with its curlicues and flourishes. In the course of writing Script and Scribble, I became smitten with a variation of the 16th-century script known as Italic – a partly printed, partly cursive style that’s famous for its elegance, legibility, and speed. (And if it’s taught in schools, kids don’t have to learn printing in first grade and make the transition to cursive a year or two later: it’s all one script.) Like most people’s, my handwriting had deteriorated through lack of use, but in a week or so of casual practice, I reformed it completely.

I’ve managed to retain what I learned by using my new Italic as often as I can. Even making a grocery list presents an opportunity, not because it matters that “onions, bread, coffee” be beautifully written, but because it keeps me in practice for times when good handwriting is important – like the note of sympathy I had to write a few days ago. It takes a little longer, but – once you’ve mastered it – not much. We’re a nation of printers, a nation of apologizers for our penmanship, but we don’t have to be. It’s just not that big a deal to write well!

But kids are another story. I understand the time pressures teachers face, and I know that follow-up and reinforcement are not easy to build into the school day. Compared to other items in the curriculum, handwriting can seem pretty trivial – and there’s no standardized test to evaluate it. Still, I can imagine an ideal classroom, one in which the students write a fluent Italic script from first grade onward, they’re encouraged to use it daily for short periods, and what they write is pleasing to them, a source of pride, a skill that will serve them well for as long as they need it.

Who knows what the years ahead have in store for any of us? Home computers drain more energy than almost any other usage, and it’s increasing. Repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome aren’t going away. Most college students still take notes with pen and notebook. The pleasure of curling up with a diary seems to be an enduring one. Love letters will never stop being written, by hand, on paper, and sealed with a kiss.

Penmanship isn’t dead. It’s not feeling great, it’s struggling to breathe, it’s limping along. But we can keep it alive. And we should.

KITTY BURNS FLOREY is the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. A veteran copy editor, she has also written nine novels and many short stories and essays. She lives in Connecticut.  Her web address is www.kittyburnsflorey.com/

Snow Days Are For Wimps

by Robert Pondiscio
January 29th, 2009

“My children’s school was canceled today. Because of what? Some ice?” President Obama asked incredulously yesterday.  “As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled.” USA Today reports Sidwell Friends, the private school Obama’s daughters attend, was among area schools that closed or started late Wednesday after a 2-inch snowfall and freezing rain overnight. Washington’s public schools opened two hours late.

“Folks in Washington don’t seem to be able to handle things,” Obama joked, adding folks in his new town could use some “flinty Chicago toughness.”  The paper notes Chicago schools haven’t had a snow day in ten years.