My Best Moment of the Week: Picking Line Leader (5/365)

people standing in line on a paved lotMy best moment from this week happened this morning. I was in one of our district’s kindergarten classrooms as the school day began. As the students entered the room, they were greeted by their teacher, but something was different from every other classroom entrance routine I’ve seen this year. The students entered, put up their things in the cubbies and then made choices as to what they were going to do to start the learning for the day. They were all over the classroom, all practicing their reading, all talking. It was beautiful. And, as much as that was lovely, it wasn’t the best moment.

The best moment was when the teacher picked the popsicle stick from her cup to announce the day’s line leader. For the uninitiated (or those who have forgotten), line leader is a pretty big deal in elementary school. If you’ve got a lifelong thirst for power, it probably started with your first term as line leader.

Whereas every other teacher I’ve ever seen select the day’s line leader has simply picked a name, said the name, and moved on, this teacher did so much more.

“The name I’ve picked has one syllable,” she announced. The students, at this point assembled on the carpet, hushed for a moment as they thought. Then, without prompting, one student popped to his feet. Then a girl joined him. Finally, another boy stood. I realized, these were the three students in the room with single-syllable names.

Okay. That would be enough. She wasn’t done.

The teacher asked the class if the students were correct. As a class, they practiced saying each student’s name, checking to see if it was, in fact, a single syllable. Each was.

The teacher then asked the students to look at the alphabet on the back wall with each student’s name listed below its first initial. She went through each of the three students, asking the class, what letter their names were under. The class answered.

“Okay,” the teacher said, “this name has three letters.”

After a second or two, several students started voicing their guesses. They were correct.

She wasn’t done. One of the standing student’s names had 5 letters. “How many letters does her name have,” the teacher asked the class.


“Correct. Is that more or less than three?”

A longer pause, “MORE!”

She did the same thing with the third student, asking if his name of four letters was more or less than a name of three. The students all knew and each answer was a celebration.

The entire thing was a celebration, and it only took three minutes. In those three minutes, this teacher was able to ask her students to practice at least five different skills of varying difficulties, but all essential to kindergarten learning. She didn’t say, “Let’s practice syllabication,” or “Now we’re going to think about numbers.” She just gave them small, contextualized opportunities to put into practice the skills they’d learned together earlier in the year.

This otherwise perfunctory task was seen as an opportunity for learning. It was a master stroke by a professional focused on squeezing the fun and the learning out of each moment.

Things I Know 148 of 365: I have an idea to save Philadelphia’s kindergarteners

Give a year. Change the world.

– City Year

How about we don’t cut full-day kindergarten?

Instead, what if we saved money, innovated the system and began a trend of civic responsibility for young adults in Philadelphia that could serve as the national model.

I’m as big a fan of scare tactics as the next person, but what if the School District of Philadelphia worked to look more like a leader in the time of fiscal crisis, rather than a college freshman signing up for every credit card offer to arrive in the mail?

Cutting half-day kindergarten is a bad idea. It sounds inherently bad when you say it aloud to those with no obvious ties to education.

Then add to that to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s report that we know full-day kindergarten is better:

Research has shown that children in full-day kindergarten demonstrated 40 percent greater proficiency in language skills than half-day kids, said Walter Gilliam, an expert on early-childhood education at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Combining clinical evidence with that feeling deep in your gut should be all you need to realize cutting full-day kindergarten is a bad idea.

This still leaves the shortfall of $51 million as a result of Gov. Corbett’s elimination of a $254 million blacken grant.

Here’s where the innovation comes in.

We cut Grade 12.

To those seniors who have earned enough credits to graduate and/or passed the state standardized test, we allow for the opting out of G12.

Though I couldn’t locate exact numbers by grade, the School District of Philadelphia reports 44,773 students in its high schools.

According to School Matters, SDP has a total per pupil expenditure of $12,738.

Now, if 5,000 of the roughly 45,000 high school students in Philadelphia opted out of their senior year, it would save the district $63,690,000 – almost $12.7 million more than the block grant cuts.

I get that the math is hypothetical, but bear with me.

Not every student is ready for college at the end of their senior year. Even fewer will be ready at the end of their junior years.

Enter the gap year.

Shown to provide students will helpful life experiences as well as a sense of direction once they enter college, a gap year between high school and college would benefit Philadelphia students.

Rather than setting students free to wander aimlessly for that year, the SDP could partner with AmeriCorps, City Year and other organizations to help place Philadelphia graduates around the city in jobs that will invest their time in improving Philadelphia.

The standard City Year stipend would apply, though I’m certain City Year hasn’t the budget for a sudden influx of volunteers.

The SDP would need to show a commitment to sustainable change and invest the money saved by the opt-out program into helping to pay for volunteer stipends.

Ideally, those same graduates would be placed in kindergarten classrooms around the city, helping to reduce student:teacher ratios, providing successful role models and perhaps inspiring more students to move into the teaching profession.

Once students completed their one-year commitment, they would be eligible for the AmeriCorp Education Award to help pay for college tuition.

The idea is admittedly imperfect.

It is not, however, impossible.

It could save full-day kindergarten, reduce costs to the school district, move graduates to invest their time in their city and help lessen the cost of college for Philadelphia graduates.

As an added benefit, such a move could turn the negative press the district’s received for proposing bad policies for children into positive press for creating positive, community-enriching change.

Things I Know 1 of 365: I know nothing

Scio me nihil scire.

– Socrates

Saw that coming, did you? Fair enough.

Here’s where that logic gets away from me.

If I know nothing, then everything is empty and I wander around hoping to find something I can know. And, while I do a fair bit of wandering and learning, my life is admittedly built around what I think I know. So, I know nothing, but think I know something.

A few weeks ago, I was walking with a student and listening to him talk about his writing. The struggle was around trying to argue a point. He could tell me where his brain was on whatever he was writing about in the moment he was writing.

The struggle came when he started to remember that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He might learn something down the road or unlearn something he’s already picked up that would change his perspective on the issue. Worse yet, he could walk down the path that led him to realizing his point was wrong. Then, there would be this archive, this indelible record of not just his thinking, but his wrongness.

Knowing he did not know kept him from knowing where he was right then.

All of this is to say I know I know nothing with absolute certainty. This year, these 365, are more mile markers along the road of understanding.

They are to serve as reminders of where my thinking used to live and hopefully push that thinking deeper.

Aside from Socrates, another philosopher to whom I turn on a regular basis is Robert Fulghum. If the name rings a bell, it’s because you remember Fulghum’s book that inspired a decorative poster found in many classrooms in the early 90s – All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. My grandmother gave me Kindergarten after she’d received it for a gift. It blew the mind of 9-year-old me. It still does. I’ve read everything Fulghum’s ever published – more than once. I’ve given his books as gift to more people than I care to admit.

And, when I was 14, I sat down to write Fulghum a letter.

Though my handwriting was atrocious, I decided against using the family’s computer in order to show him what I said was true.

I wrote several drafts.

My offer was simple. I would come to him, wherever he was, and spend my summer cleaning out his garage, painting his house, whatever needed to be done, if he would teach me. I wanted to know how he wrote things that were so clearly true. I wanted to know how he saw the world with such understanding. I wanted to know.

I never heard back from Fulghum.

In some secret part of my brain, I keep hoping he will happen upon my letter some day when he’s reaching for a pen that’s fallen behind his desk.

Until then, here are the things I know for now…in this moment…but not really.