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What We Do Matters – Thoughts on Retention

Report card from my elementary school years. Six-week grading periods.

Report card from my elementary school years. Six-week grading periods.

What we do as educators matters and may change the trajectory of a child’s life long-term.  I know I’m stating the obvious but, as this story illustrates, our actions have significant consequences on children.

A student moved into Alma last summer.  The parents were unsure where their child should attend since she was being retained.  They produced a letter from the elementary principal in another town and school district (which will remain nameless).  The letter said the child was being retained in the 2nd grade because she had “not mastered the skills necessary to move on to the next grade level.”  The letter went on to say, “Once a child is moved on to the next grade level, he or she never again has the chance to ‘go back’ and learn the skills of the previous grade.”  This statement made me angry.  Since when did grade-level skills become so specific, clearly defined, and easy to measure?   Since when did children become consistently formed cogs that fit so tightly into specific grade levels in our schools?  I’m continually “going back” and relearning things.   Sometimes I learn things I missed or that became relevant to me later in life.  The same thing happens with children and with much more fluidity.

I resisted the urge to scream “educational malpractice” after reading the principal’s letter and looked for evidence of the need for retention.  I should give full disclosure here and say that I don’t believe repeating a grade is good practice in education.  One reason I don’t care for this practice is that I have found no creditable research that supports retention.  But, we looked at the evidence on this child.

  • Attendance in second grade…pretty good.
  • Grades in second grade….All As and Bs with one C.
  • Light’s Retention Scale results….none had been done.
  • Student attitude about retention….Neither the child nor the parents had been asked about this.
  • Test scores from spring of second grade…. From 62nd to 81st percentile in various sub-tests in Math.  Lower in reading with scores below the 40th percentile with higher scores being in reading comprehension.  This would register concern about fluency skills and developmental delays which might be recovered with intervention and good teaching.

After having the parents complete a Light’s Retention Scale and consulting together about the results, we decided she should not be retained.

Since August we’ve seen this child engage in learning and enjoy strong relationships with teachers and her peers in our third grade.  She is progressing at a good rate based on all assessment criteria.

How different might her life have been if she’d gone through another year of second grade?  I think we avoided what would have been a long and negative trajectory because we made thoughtful decisions about this child and placed her with wonderful, engaging teachers.  What we do matters.

Mentor Me: An Influential Professor – Thoughts about John Allen Adams

John Alan Adams

It may have been my music theory professor, Dr. Underwood, who said something about Adams Book Store while I was a student at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I was pleased to find this store located in a house at the east end of Main Street and visited it several times.

I had a few short conversations with Mr. Adams while browsing. I remember being immediately impressed with him.  I had never seen a bookstore like this. It was filled with an eclectic and rich collection of books, and he seemed to know where every single one was located.

On one of my visits, he wheeled up and asked if I would help him get something from his living quarters. He may have asked me to move something or retrieve a book from his personal bookshelves but while we were back there, he asked if I might be interested in working a few hours a week. I had no idea at the time but would later realize I was beginning a learning association as significant as any that would occur during my college years. He would become a professor, friend, and mentor. My only regret is that I didn’t ask more questions, listen much closer to what he said, and take notes.

I learned later that he’d broken his neck during an Arkadelphia High School football game in the late 30s. It was to be his last football game because his Aunt Bessie wanted him to devote more time to his piano practice. He was in the eleventh grade. This left him a quadriplegic. He was able to move his arms some and could type by pecking his manual typewriter using a pencil secured to his palm with a rubber band.  His breathing was labored, and he would pause for a breath of air before speaking.

I was thinking about him recently and decided to Google his name, fully aware that he’d died in the mid-1980s. I discovered that a biography had been written, entitled Fortune Teller’s Blessing, by Dr. Charles Hughes. I immediately downloaded the e-version and began a fascinating read, learning much of my college mentor’s fascinating backstory.

This reading has caused several memories to emerge from my time working in his store. John loved books, poetry, and writing, but he loved people more. I remember him reading a letter from a lady who was thanking him for helping her discover the author, Loren Easley. After reading that she thought her relationships with authors were more significant than her day-to-day relationships with people, he leaned back in his chair and said, “I don’t think I agree with that.”

Occasionally, John would ask if I’d ever read a certain author probably knowing that I hadn’t. He would then give me a book by the author or a collection of poetry containing poems by the author he’d mentioned.


When I got close to doing my internship, he gave me a hardback copy of The World Bible, a collection of excerpts from many sacred texts. It was signed “To Jim from John Allen and Joy, May 1978.” Joy was his wonderful wife. She took great pleasure in telling me step by step cooking instructions. It was a struggle to listen politely, but she was a sweet lady. I gradually learned that Joy and John were at polar opposites in some areas of philosophy and religion, but their relationship worked.

John was gentle and kind in word and deed, but he was a deep thinker and able to discern thin thinking on my part though he would never confront me directly or belittle. He would simply ask a thoughtful and well-placed question or two and allow me to discover my wayward thinking on my own.

I remember being surprised to learn that during the late 60s and early 70s, John’s name was placed on an FBI watch list containing vocal, and possibly radical, objectors to the Vietnam War. He thought it was odd that they would be concerned about a man confined to a wheelchair in a small town in Arkansas, but his writing had gained their attention. He took some pride in being on that list.

In the afternoons, John would carefully turn on his stereo next to his desk. He would invite me to listen with him as he played a classical selection, occasionally commenting on its beauty or sharing a little tidbit about the composer. Although I was a music major, I think this may have been the first time I actually sat still and listened carefully to music for pure enjoyment.

John would take a deep breath, close his eyes, and sign slightly as the music began. I wonder if he thought of younger days when he explored the bluffs of the Ouachita River close by. I wish I could listen to music with John. I’m thankful to have known him but still miss him very much.

The Ouachita River from De Soto Bluff, north of Arkadelphia

The Ouachita River from De Soto Bluff, north of Arkadelphia

Here’s some info about Dr. Hughes’ wonderful book:

Dr. Charles Hughes’ most recent book is A Fortune Teller’s Blessing—The Story of John Allen Adams. During the depths of the Great Depression a handsome and gifted seventeen-year-old high school athlete saw his future shattered when his neck was broken in a football game. Few at the time thought the honor student, Eagle Scout, editor of his school paper, and president of his class every year since the seventh grade would survive. But John Allen Adams, son of a carnival fortune teller, did survive and was able to adapt to his severe handicap and go on to lead a remarkably successful life. Though left a quadriplegic, he proved to be a man of extraordinary inner resources, one who found freedom while bound to a wheelchair and independence while almost totally dependent on those around him.

You can learn more about Hughes and his books at http://www.dochughesbooks.com

June, 2015 Update: A collection of John Allen Adam’s poetry was recently published. This will be a treasure! Thank you Dr. Hughes!

John Allen Adams poetry

Poor News Reporting Abounds

I never do this but tonight’s newscast sent me through the roof.  I fired off the following message and sent it to the station management.  I don’t have a dog in the fight where this news story is concerned but I do have concerns with the looseness we accept in news reporting related to scandals, especially involving school teachers.  So here’s my response:

Interesting newscast this evening…

A dad in a neighboring town says a high school teacher sent inappropriate text messages to his daughter.  This may or may not be true.   We don’t know because we’ve not seen any evidence.  We only know that there is an investigation underway, which there should be.  The school won’t comment because to comment publicly on a personnel matter is against the law at this point.

I know you’d probably think there’s more to this story but that’s it…. No facts (other than there is an investigation), just a parent’s statement reported as news during primetime.

A real news report might have stated that there have been allegations but it hasn’t been determined if they are founded since there is an investigation underway.  No one would be named since it’s just one dad’s statement with no other evidence offered.

A real news report might list the proper steps expected of the school district facing these types of allegations and then assure the public that they would give a future report updating what actions were taken by the district.

If these allegations are true, an ethics violation would be submitted to the Arkansas Department of Education Ethics Board.  The teacher would appear before the board for a hearing.  If evidence is determined to be creditable, the resulting punishments could extend to fines and revoking the teacher’s license.   Law enforcement would determine if criminal charges should be filed.

Now that’s a news story and it only takes a minute or two to share real information that holds educators accountable while protecting against character assassination in the event that the teacher is innocent or is the victim of a terrible hoax.

My problem with this television station is that we skipped a lot of steps that you would expect a professional news gathering organization to take.   We jumped right to the dad’s side of the story and left it there.  The station comes off looking like tabloid news.

I certainly hope the teacher is guilty of sending these text messages because, if he is not, then we’ve witnessed a terrible injustice on this man.  If I were a lawyer, I would be contacting this teacher in hopes that he’s innocent so I could file a slander lawsuit.  If he is guilty of this then proper due process should be taken to correct the situation and a creditable news organization would be expected to follow up and see that proper steps are taken.

I like this TV station (especially the weather reporting) and want to keep watching but I don’t appreciate thin news reporting, especially when we play fast and loose with the reputations of local citizens.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t know anyone involved in this situation.  I just want accurate news.

Daily Prompt: Undo – Education Without Textbooks


Daily Prompt: If you could un-invent something, what would it be?

I would like to un-invent school textbooks. When I imagine what my own education might have been like without textbooks, not much of significance is missing. Textbooks served to replace the likelihood that we would seek knowledge from authentic sources.  The hidden message?  What was important to know was contained in textbooks.

How might our lives been different without following an “accidental curriculum” based on a few large textbook publishers marketing to a few large states?  As an adult, I learned that much of what was contained in textbooks was biased and sometimes just plain wrong.  This was a shocking revelation.  That this occurred in adulthood shows just how irrelevant and disconnected from reality much of my education really was.

Some would say that textbooks served an important purpose in the education of generations of children but I argue the same could have been done with authentic resources right along side chalkboards or pens and paper.

Just a few years ago, we educators could count on springtime “Textbook Caravans.”  These were announced through state department memos with many locations so no one would be left out.  Representatives of textbook companies would present one of the textbooks being considered for “adoption,” highlighting the “extras” included like black-line masters (worksheets), teaching trinkets, or even rolling carts to move the heavy materials from one location to another.   Snacks were usually provided by the well-meaning retired educators-turned-textbook-reps.

Textbooks are desperately hanging on.  Money is at stake here.  Textbook companies have consolidated in efforts to remain afloat.  They’ve made attempts to deliver the same big-state-driven content with technology.  This might improve efficiency, but not relevance.

Students must find it amusing that adults resist dropping the use of textbooks. The broad range of technology and print resources available for free or reasonable subscription charges make textbook adoptions on eight-year rotations look absurd.

Imagine a world without textbooks where teachers and students move through inexhaustible resources that are relevant and customized to the learners!   Sounds like one step toward a relevant education.

Year-Long Internships Showing Evidence of Success


Year-long intern working with 3rd graders at AIS

“The year-long internship made me much more confident as a first year teacher,” said Meredith Maestri, a novice teacher at Alma Intermediate School.   Jim Warnock, principal added, “Parents were sure Miss Maestri had teaching experience.  They were surprised to learn that she was a first year teacher.”

Alma Intermediate School is one of several schools partnering with the University of Arkansas Fort Smith in an effort to increase the confidence and effectiveness of novice teachers by adding a year-long internship option for selected students in the elementary education program.   Early indicators are that this program is improving teaching skills of the interns, as well as confidence levels.  Principal Jim Warnock interviewed interns, mentor teachers, and students, to gage the benefits and challenges of the program halfway through the second year.  During the pilot year (2011-12) the first two year-long interns were placed on campus with two more being placed this year.

Early signs are that year-long internships are beneficial for the teacher candidates and the students in the school.  Interns and mentor teachers stated that the year-long internship allows teaching candidates to build strong relationships with staff, students, and families.  Dawn Stewart, mentor teacher said, “It helps interns to build a stronger relationship with students because they see them throughout the school year.  They see that growth along a continuum throughout the year.”

Interns also benefit from collaborative times built into the school day such as grade-level meetings and subject area sessions.  When teachers are involved in professional development, their interns are involved as well and contribute as any other staff member would.   Mentor teacher, Emily Baldwin said, “The interns have a better understanding of the curriculum because they’ve worked with it from August to May.”  Another mentor teacher, Shea Klomp added, “They also know what it takes to establish classroom procedures and culture because they are here in August and see how this impacts learning throughout the year. “

The teacher candidates gain confidence through the year-long association with the same school.  Samantha Lopez said, “There’s a sense of great confidence that you receive as a year-long intern because you know your classroom, you know your mentor teacher, and how your school is run and the procedures of your mentor teacher.”

To pilot the year-long internship, the university provided dual programs with most continuing in semester internships while allowing interns to apply for the year-long path.   During the spring prior to their internship teacher candidates are interviewed by participating school principals.  The principals view this with seriousness due to the year-long commitment.   Jim Warnock said, “Being on campus all year, an intern will have a great impact on our students and teachers so we want to be sure that the impact is positive.  The interview is a time for the intern to see our values and philosophy as well as for us to determine whether or not we want that intern to be a part of our staff.”

Interns develop a high level of commitment to the academic growth of their students due to the longer time commitment.  University staff have seen evidence of instructional growth among interns due to the greater depth of collaborative learning with grade-level and subject area teachers in the host school.  They have seen year-long interns using deeper language about teaching and learning due to this close work with host educators.  Mentor teachers and interns are trained in co-teaching strategies to take advantage of having an extra instructor in the classroom.

Moving to a year-long internship has required that the university make adjustments in the Block II courses which were traditionally taught during the semester prior to a traditional single semester internship.  These courses are scheduled during blocked times on Monday and Wednesday so that interns may work with their supervising teachers on Tuesday and Thursday.  During the second semester interns are at the host school every day.

Some alignment issues revealed themselves as interns applied new teaching skills at an accelerated rate from previous years.  Some theory and content had to be taught earlier in the first semester to accommodate year-long interns who were actively practicing strategies much earlier than in the past.   UAFS is adjusting other aspects of the internship based on input from participants and partner schools.

A fourth grade student who has experienced both semester and year-long interns said, “I like having an intern all year because she is able to help us, especially when the teacher is busy with someone else.  She knows us better, too.  Our intern worked with us during math and literacy stations and in writing workshop.” Without exception, students who’ve experienced both options said that they preferred having an intern all year long.

Based on preliminary evidence, year-long internships are something that Alma Intermediate School wants to continue.  The partnership between the University of Arkansas Fort Smith and Alma Intermediate School will continue to grow and develop as input is gathered from interns, mentor teachers, students and university staff.  One educator said, “Based on what I’m seeing, I would not want to go back to single semester internships.  Our year-long interns are prepared to hit the ground running their first year and have deeper professional relationships that will help them grow as a teacher.”

This was written from interviews as well as content pulled from the presentation of several participants during this year’s Professional Development Schools Conference.

Alma Intermediate School: Emily Baldwin, Paige Brazil, Jo Ann Jordan, Shea Klomp, Meredith Maestri, Dawn Stewart, Jim Warnock

Interns: Samantha Lopez, Dorothy Boyd

University of Arkansas Fort Smith School of Education: Barbara Hunt, Deebe Milford, Laura Witherington

When in Doubt…

Mother and Daddy in 1956

Mother and Daddy in 1956

My mother has a saying that she repeated often when I was growing up.  “When in doubt, take a step.”  I’m reminded of this when I hesitate to try something new or challenging.  On many occasions she might have stopped, frozen in fear, but she stepped forward through many challenges and built a family and teaching career that had a great impact on her community.

A few months ago I wanted to share the new Lake Alma Trail with our community but didn’t know where to begin.  I’ve enjoyed reading the Urban Magazine based in Fort Smith because it carried some stories about local outdoor attractions.  I hesitated to contact them, thinking they would not be interested in running a story by someone who was pretty much unpublished.

My mother’s words came to mind, so I took a step and sent an email to the managing editor.  A couple of days later I received an email requesting examples of my writing.  I laughed and wondered what to send.  Finally, I sent a copy of a school newsletter and short book review I did for a principals’ journal.  The next day I got an email asking if I would  write a 500-word article.

Now, four months later, I’ve published my third  article with the Urban Magazine.  This has been challenging, fun, and a great learning experience.  I have a new appreciation for publications as I read, knowing something of the work involved in their production.  I also have a better understanding of the work our young writers are doing and am envious of the good instruction they’re receiving from our teachers.  All of this would have been missed if I had not stepped through my doubt and acted.

My hope is that we build confidence into our students so that as they encounter barriers, they will “take a step” and move forward.   One positive step leads to another along this exciting and sometimes challenging path of learning!

Read my articles on the web at the Urban Magazine  aturbanmagazine.com or my blog   ozarkmountainhiker.wordpress.com

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