Monday, August 20, 2007

Get back to basics already

I suppose this is another post that might get me in trouble, but oh well, I'm honest and I'm calling it like it is, and I don't give a damn who it upsets. I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that this school system as it exists now is an abysmal failure. I'm not exempting myself from this criticism. Yes we're worlds better than other mini Pacific Islands in the region, if we look at them as the competition and I don't, but we're still not even in the vicinity of up to par in a globally competitive way. I dealt with the finished product, seniors, for four years, so I know exactly what students look like leaving the system, and it isn't pretty. I tried to fill in all the gaping holes as best I could while I was there with seniors. Now I'm with freshmen and trying to establish good habits, which is harder and much more exhausting, as there is so much more immaturity.

What is clear to me is that teachers system wide simply do not emphasize the basics enough. I would say a full half of the seniors could not write two sentences clearly differentiating plurals and possessives. I mean given instructions, and examples, and days of instruction, a student could not write two sentences such as "There are ten cats outside my house" followed by "The cat's tail is long and white" consistently if asked to do so. Forget about the wrinkle of plural possessive, that blows the situation up even worse. I suspect they were doing it the wrong way for so long it became ingrained. I wonder if the teachers in the past were correcting these things or providing any focus on basic grammar.

The English departments are decidedly from the mainland, and I believe many think they are still teaching there, as these teachers focus on traditional English areas like Shakespeare and various other pieces of classical literature. This to me is absurd given what I just described. I know for a fact many seniors can't grasp the local newspapers properly, let alone Hamlet. I talked to a long term veteran English teacher in New Jersey, one of my own teachers back in the day, and he related that grammar is hardly emphasized in the high schools there, even though instruction is needed. I've seen academic studies that diminish the importance of grammar, even though in the real world nothing screams I'm uneducated more than a lousy show of grammar. Many readers can probably recall that one board of education tried to make slang, aka Ebonics, its own language and therefore acceptable. I've got a higher degree in education, and if there is any discipline full of more absurd liberal bullshit than education, I haven't heard of it. This will be an entire post in the not so distant future. That's where things like Ebonics is a language come from.

If I had a nickel for every "his my friend" I've seen in a paper, I'd be buying Google tonight. Tense, subject/verb agreement and other mildly confusing subtle word differences like your/you're, its/it's are a train wreck. I've been working on these issues since school started this year, and a considerable number of students still can't do it consistently. Perhaps I suck as a teacher, I don't know anymore, but I'm growing weary and demoralized by this state of affairs -- already. The parents need to get involved. I've never really seen any involved, at least among the students that most need help. They seem to think that parental involvement is strictly an elementary school function. It isn't.

I told this plural/possessive story to an elementary school teacher, and she was incredulous -- probably because her fourth graders could do these tasks. I tested it on my own fourth grader and he sailed through it without any preparation. Somewhere along the line, students here lose the skill. My guess is middle school, which is wildly overcrowded and has had high turnover in teachers and administrators, not to mention an incredibly dilapidated facility full of students in the throes of puberty.

With seniors, I routinely received sentences without punctuation or capital letters -- far too many times I simply received giant uni-paragraph essays. I emphasize the correct fashion pointing out the most common problems almost daily, but it doesn't seem to matter much. I look over 120 of these displays a day, and it wears me down saying the same thing 50 times a day. Of all the classes, language arts needs a class size reduction, but it is the largest class across the board -- exactly the worst thing possible. PSS' solution a few years back was to dramatically increase instruction time in language arts, a full year 80 minutes as opposed to the required 50 or so, but that situation just taxes these understaffed departments more. A better solution would be a smaller class size going half a year and getting more individualized attention.

Grammar is hardly the only problem. World awareness is even worse. I've had students tell me that Toronto was a city in the country of "Europe," and that "Baby Ruth" was the first African-American in Major League Baseball. Students think the governor is in charge of every last detail of a civilization including the price of gas, and many can't give a ballpark time period for World War II. Others said Saipan was 60 miles long for closer to home cluelessness.

Teachers have a near impossible task here, I know this all too well, but I can say for sure they aren't ensuring mastery of the basics. It has to stop. A student at the very least upon graduation should be able to read and understand literature as simple as the Saipan Tribune and write in at least a reasonably grammatical fashion. They aren't right now, and it has to stop. Teachers need to focus on the basics first and parents need to help us.


dominic said...

What are they reading in class besides encyclopaedic textbooks? I am not an English grammar pro but I always thought some Philosophy course should be required in high school. With regards to logic and rhetorical discourse, it requires a more rigorous command of language.

SteeleOnSaipan said...

Interesting read Jeff. I've been here since '94 and the common cry of teachers then was the same as now, that too many parents don't care and make little effort, and therefore their kids don't either.

Jeff said...

That sounds about right.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

I think you are right, Jeff, parental involvement is absolutely key. A library in the house instead of a boom box, parents who will read to, nurture and help analyze current events and literature with their children.

Question: What do you do when the parents learned from the same system and have no skills of their own? This is not universally the case, but there is a LOT of it. Answer: wait and work for another generation or two until the gap is filled. I can think of no other way to accomplish it.

Think about it. If Dad says "You gonna get them apples, boy?" to his son, what do you think sonny will ask his progeny later?

That is YOUR job dude. Show 'em where the 'those' goes. (:-))

Maybe you will get to be a fireman in your next incarnation.

bradinthesand said...

I took Philosophy in fifth grade and look where that got me...

Seriously though, it's gotta be tough being a teacher. You are asked to do the best you can with the worst resources.

I admire that you at least complain about it rather than sweeping it under the carpet and sucking up the paycheck.

I know that's what some do...

Anyway, you care, and I like that about you. I wonder though what I would think if my teachers wrote blogs back in the day when I was a student.

I think I'd get a kick out of hearing what their bitches were. That and using it against them at one time or another during the school year.

I'd definitely be all over you about the ballerina thing and the unsightly image of me talking to you at Porky's.

Don't let the man keep you down. I'd like to see you stick around on Saipan and eventually get a position with PSS that'll let you clean the whole mess up.

I don't think I'll see either of them happen, but you'd be the guy if ever there was one.

Jeff said...

I've got 30 kids for 80 minutes a day, Bruce. I obviously tell them how to do it right, but they are hearing it wrong for the rest of the day. That is what I'm talking about with the ingrained thing. I think their teachers are working on aspects of knowledge far away from basic skills left unmastered. I don't, however, exempt myself from this system wide failure.

Jeff said...

Brad, if the student cares enough about what I have to say to read my blog, they probably also listen enough in class to be successful.

Brad said...

Jeff, this posting makes me want to teach in Saipan even more...I really like seeing improvement and change and I like to help that change come about.

You know something that really blew me away? I was eating dinner with a bunch of Canadian teachers here in Korea and one..(a University of Incheon teacher) asked if the plural and possessive for 'company' were the same. After I realized he was serious, I tried to teach this university graduate (who's now teaching university level English classes) the difference between "the companies..." and "the company's..."

He wasn't even embarrassed. The only reason he asked was because he said after he wrote "company's" on the board (as a plural) the students kept looking at it strangely.

Finally, I was just thankful his students knew he was Canadian and not American.

Jeff said...

Canada has affordable health care, Geddy Lee and the rest of Rush, and doesn't have George Bush, so Canada is cool with me.

KelliOnSaipan said...

Jeff - great blog. My heart goes out to you. As a parent, I home-schooled my kids through Jr. High, put them in private schools for most of high school, then put Sarah in PSS for her last two years. She graduated with some kids who could only read at a 5th grade level (I might be kind in saying that).
But I'll say this - private school was NO better than PSS. Sarah had to correct her filipino teacher's english grammar often. And math skills were never taught well. You are right! Push the basics.
Try to hang on - we need you.

Pilgrim said...

From the perspective of an employer, I see the results of the public school system in the skills of our job applicants. I give a simple 8th grade math and English test- 30 questions. It's very rare when anyone can pass it.

I ask for a 50 word paragraph on why you want to work for my company. Most responses are exactly what you would expect from people whose English is a second or third language-- and never truly learned how to speak or write. I had one High School graduate actually number each word and cross off words to make it an even 50.

Math is even worse. Accountants and cashiers applying for a job are asked.. what is 20% of $400. Everyone knows it's $8000, right? And more impressive... asking cook applicants how much is half of 1/4 cup of sugar. Of course it's 1/2 cup. Doubling a recipe that calls for 1/4 teaspoon of salt? Yes, you got it.. 1/8 teaspoon. Asking anyone to divide is out of the question. 99% blank answers. 10.0 divided by 1. 100 right?

Any way you look at it, it's a disgrace. I walk into homes of people from time to time and the first thing I look for is books, magazines or newspapers. Next paper and pencils. Next crayons. Uaually nothing at all.

I have always believed that the greatest gift you can give to your child is the love of books. My children had books to play with and gnaw on from age 3 months, onward. Now they are terrific readers, and successful in school. Maybe we need mandatory classes for the parents... but unfortunately, it's an endless cycle. Later. Gotta get my foods stamp.

marianas life said...

do a survey and see how many are from team E, F and D. Then sort them by success on your pre test or whatever assessment your are doing and send me the results. Or sort by 8th grade LA teacher. I'd like to see if there is a difference. In science, they had to write a paper every quarter. First quarter was painful and very difficult to grade.

dominic said...

How many residents on Saipan have a library card from Kiyu? Just curious.

Rick Jones said...


Good observations, I don't envy you your task. We also have an aptitude test here at Java Joe's, it's supposed to be the equivalent of 8th grade english and math. I don't think anyone has ever got above 70% on either subject, pretty said when you think that a lot of the applicants were enrolled at NMC.

On the subject of Ebonics, you need to understand that the whole idea was a cynical attempt by the Oakland, California school district to get federal money for foreign language classes, of which they would have started Ebonics as one of them.

marianas life said...

by the way, i spoke with one of the la teachers on my team and we will all be using 6 traits of writing in our classes on our team starting thursday (tomorrow those teachers are going to show the others on the team what 6 traits is). so at least 1/3 of your students will be improving and we can have something consistant to compare against:) Any other specific resources, lingo, cues etc. that you want us to use, please send our way.

Brad said...

Jeff, I didn't mean to imply I have anything against Canada. Just to be clear, in case the Saipan Writer is reading this: I love Canada, Canadians, flannel shirts, and maple syrup. I was just glad he couldn't be used as ammo against us Americans teaching English in Korea. You know the beating we take in the media here.

Anyway, it sounds like a teachers in Saipan really have their work cut-out for them. You're sure to make a difference if you stick with it. I still remember some of those things from speeches my teachers gave me. Sometimes your words get through even when it's not immediately apparent.


Jeff said...

Just breaking your chops Brad.

Brad said...

"a teachers in Saipan really have their work cut out for them.."
should say: "Teachers in Saipan really have their work cut out for them."

Wheh...terrible making grammar mistakes in a discussion about poor grammar skills. I have to be careful when I go back and try to rewrite a sentence but don't read it completely.

Saipan Writer said...

Hey Brad, I am reading this. I agree with Jeff on this one. And the only thing I find offensive is the continuing failure of our kids at the basics, like reading, writing and arithmetic.

I have experience with the school system both as a parent and through my profession. And that experience includes both public and private schools.

Once, I received a letter from a public school principal that was rife with errors. Not complicated, tricky errors. Not the kind of errors one makes when writing in a hurry or from failing to proofread. Real errors. Grammar.

I also received written material from a private school teacher that contained grammar, spelling and word-usage errors. And this teacher was assigned to language arts.

These two instances come to mind quickly, but I imagine there are others that I've forgotten.

It's distressing as a parent to find educators who don't know the basics. So one question I have is this: is No Child Left Behind helping? Does the Praxis requirement help? What do we, as parents, do to ensure that our teachers are up to par? (Do you, Jeff, teach the teachers? Because it isn't only a Canadian teacher in Korea who is confused about the basics of language usage, grammar, etc.)

I agree that parent-involvement would be a big help. And so would having reading material at home.

But how do we make that happen?

SVES used to brag about their parent involvement. They counted the number of parents who came to PTA meetings and thought that was enough. The PTA meetings were all about the SVES administration's concerns. Parents rarely if ever got to add to the agenda. And although SVES used to send around a sign-up list for parents to identify what they were willing to do to help, NO ONE ever called the parents to accept the offer or otherwise arranged to have the parents help as offered.

MCS has a "parent-involvement" requirement, but they count everything, like attending PTA meetings and coming to the school's open house, and donating to the school's fundraisers. And they, too, do the parent sign-up. But the teachers and administrators are too taxed to follow through and coordinate bringing the talents of the parents to help the students who need it.

So how do we get parents involved?

And how do we get parents reading at home? I, too, have been in many homes here where there is a dearth of reading material. There are some parents who can't help because they don't know how to do these things themselves.

There are some efforts being made: Betty Miller at SVES had a program to help parents get their GEDs, so they could be better prepared to help their children in school.

Public Health had a program (don't know if it's still there), where they gave out books to families.

I started writing a monthly book review column about children's books for the newspaper as a way to encourage discussion about books. And once a year, I have a book raffle through the column to get some of these children's and young adult books into the community.

The library has summer reading programs and a Saturday reading session. Again, I don't know if these programs are still on-going. They depend on volunteer readers and a coordinator.

On the math front, Efrain Camacho and others organized the "Math Count" and "Math Court" competitions to promote competency.

But it seems that none of these little efforts is making much of a dent. The "Mother-Read, Father Read" program has folded, I think. And there is room for a lot more people to get their library cards. We need to do more.

Ideas? I've got none that are brilliant or global.

But there is one idea I can toss into the ring. I offered this last year to both HJHS and MCS, but neither school accepted the offer. November is National Novel Writing Month. There's a student program as part of the event. The hope is that getting kids to write fluidly will help them gain confidence and ability in expressing themselves. The word goal is flexible but must be fairly demanding. I'm willing to work with kids on this, either as a classroom project or after school.

Last year, my 7th grader set a low goal of 3,000 words and met it easily. It was enough, though, to help her figure out that there's a difference in story ideas that work for short stories and those that can sustain a longer story like a novel.

It's not about basics like grammar or word usage, but it is about expressing ideas in writing and getting used to putting words on paper. Something our kids need to get better at doing.


Jeff said...

There was a grant a few years back in which I went school to school to give a writing seminar to assist with passing the writing portion of Praxis. Other than that, I don't teach the teachers, but I would help any teacher who asked for it.

Mother read/father read does still exist.

My kid is at SVES. I was at the first PTA meeting last week, and they went out of their way to solicit opinions from the parents. Only one other parent and myself had anything to say, and she had far more than me to say actually.

I'm very happy with SVES.

I've seen some kids, freshmen, two weeks into their high school career, basically stop attending regularly already, and this is because they are significantly behind, and "ashamed," which is a common word here. It is a vicious circle.

Last year there was a tutoring grant, and I worked with all my students who didn't pass the regular term. The total size was about 8. In a group that small, they did amazing things -- things I wasn't sure they could do. In a typical PSS class of 30 plus, they just can't focus.

They pack them in like sardines here, don't give teachers a prep, and for some students, that is ok. For a lot it just isn't. Like everything, it comes down to money and priorities -- both lacking in the CNMI.

bradinthesand said...

"Only one other parent and myself had anything to say, and she had far more than me to say actually."

To quote a line from The Princess Bride, "Inconceivable!"

Just a cheap shot, oh wise one.

As for the subject of reading:

While my parents routinely read to me as a child, I remember my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Bell, reading to us at least once a week. I loved it and still remember hearing “Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo” to this day (see:

Maybe this generation will become the first who consistently reads to its kids and values a quality education. It’s a stretch, but it could happen.

Just trying to stay optimistic.


Saipan Writer said...

I liked SVES on the whole, too. And I especially appreciated the quality of the teachers, which is the most important thing, I think.

We need to do more to keep our good teachers happy. And smaller classes should be a great big, number one priority. Well, after the number one priority of getting the money that makes having priorities meaningful.

Jeff said...

As for Praxis, I'm one of the very few teachers to publicly support it. It doesn't make me Mr. Popularity, but I have kids in the system and believe there should be that accountability. It isn't that hard a test. I think it did get a few people out who shouldn't have been in the classroom, but probably not enough.

Brad said...

Did anyone see the latest news that 1 in 4 Americans read no books last year? Depressing...

And Saipan Writer, I completely agree with you: it's not just Canadian teachers in Korea that have problems...I didn't mean it like that. I was just shocked anyone who was able to graduate from a university could ask a question like that...the only reason I was glad he wasn't American was because Americans seem to get all the bad publicity here. A much worse teacher I met here was American. He had a great command of the language, he just couldn't stop drinking. I was ready to kick his ass all the way back to the States myself.

dominic said...

Hey Jeff,

Why don't you teach them how to blog?

Jeff said...

Blogging is on the agenda once we get the new computers in. The bandwith here stinks.

dominic said...

I would be more than happy to engage in some blogger-sations? with your students.

Bandwidth sucks huh? Maybe when all the copper on the island is stolen everyone will get fiber. Ok thats not funny but here in the Seattle area all the phone companies are installing fiber in every house as fast as they can. In the process they take out all the copper wiring. The downside is that with fiber when the power goes out your telephone doesn't work. Assuming its not cordless.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

Jeff mentioned his blog is verbotten on the PSS internet system (brad's too) because of such key words as: period and mastery. (:-)) Maybe they are taking censorship a little too far, ehhh Canadians?

Speaking of Canadians, yes they do have affordable health care, Jeff; if you don't mind waiting 14 months for an appointment with who's left after the best doctors left the country.

Jeff said...

Bruce, the 14 month wait is a nice myth the Right Wing spreads. The U.S. has a great system if you're a millionaire. If you're a Saipan teacher who needs a gastro and have Take Care, as I did last year, it's 500 for an initial consultation, if you aren't in the right HMI cartel. The whole system sucks.

Prime Minister Tripp, a Canadian, doesn't see it exactly your way, either.