Friday, September 19, 2014

Something Completely Different

We were on our way to the grocery store when my son, who was very young at the time, yelled, “To! To!” Initial panic calmed when my brain registered that we don’t yell “To! To!” in an emergency, so it must be something else. It turns out he was elated to recognize the word to on the sign Photos to Go, a local business. It was the day he became a reader, so we’ve always felt a special affection for the business.

We popped in from time to time to drop off film, visiting with Chung Kim, the owner. For 15 years, Mr. Kim carefully processed and preserved innumerable faces, places, and memories for his customers.

With the birth of digital photography and its increasing popularity, his business dwindled to nearly nothing. Though we no longer dropped off rolls of film, we’d wave as we walked by. Then one day, the monstrous processing equipment was gone and the doors were closed.

A couple of months later, a shiny new Baskin-Robbins ice cream store took its place. And behind the counter was Mr. Kim! Instead of preserving memories, he has spent the past seven years serving up sweet treats, rain or shine.

I can’t help but admire Mr. Kim and think about what we can learn from his example. As educators, we often reflect on our lessons and practice, refining the good to make it great. Standards and stakes are so high though, that we need to be brutally honest as we evaluate what we do and realize that if something is no longer working, we may need to start from scratch and try something completely different. The result may be just as sweet.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Too Good to Be True

Once in a while as I was growing up, my father told me that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Although I believed him completely, I have succumbed to powerful sales pitches only to be disappointed that the pounds did not, in fact, fall off, and though I followed the directions in detail, my hair did not radiate with glossy shine. Years ago, when I saw a commercial for an automatic shower cleaner, my father’s still, small voice whispered in my mind, but I swiftly pushed it aside, trusting that I would never again have to clean soap scum because of the glory of scrubbing bubbles.

I’m not sure if that press-a-button-once-a-day product is available anymore, but what I do know is that the only scrubbing bubble that really works is myself (and since the magic diet pill didn’t work, bubble isn't too far from the right term here). A textured sponge and effort is required if our shower is to meet the standard of cleanliness we want to live with.

Likewise, there isn’t one program we can spray at our students and expect them to all meet standard. There just isn’t. So we shouldn’t get our hopes up. And any program that is being lauded as such right now won’t even be available in a few years because the early adopters will quickly realize, yet again, that the only things that really work are the right tools and effort.

The right tools include
  • books—lots and lots of them, for a wide variety of interests and abilities, and
  • assessments—not just any assessments, but great diagnostic assessments that truly inform our instruction.
The right effort includes
  • instruction—providing focused, intentional instruction that is directly related to the needs of the children in front of us, and
  • time—for students to read and for us to confer.
It sounds simple, and in a sense, it is. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t magic, and it isn’t too good to be true. It’s just true.