Thursday, August 31, 2017

Back to school night questions...

Yesterday we went to back-to-school night, which is apparently different from the back-to-school afternoon we attended previously. The former was an orientation night and the latter was simply a meet-your-teacher event.

We all met in the gym/cafeteria/auditorium for a brief session with the PTA/principal and then had two twenty-minute break-out sessions in our children's classrooms. Andrew's in San Fransisco right now so I was left to figure out how to get to three information sessions in only two allotted time periods. The principal noted this might be a problem for some and just kind of shrugged his shoulders.

Since Miriam's teacher was out for a funeral (and Miriam had skipped back-to-school night to go on a bike ride with Grandpa), we skipped her orientation meeting and went to Benjamin and Rachel's before swinging by her classroom to pick up her handout and leave a note on her desk.

It was storming by the time we got out so the kids and I made a break for it, only to stumble upon a blue van with an Obama sticker on the back. "Huh," I thought to myself. "I wonder who else in Utah has a blue van with an Obama sticker on the back." And then it hit me: probably no one—that was my van!

Grandpa and Miriam had come to rescue us (and a good thing, too, because we'd just barely crossed the street in front of the school and were well on our way to being drenched).

As the thunder boomed (and rumbled and rolled and roared and crashed...and shook our whole house) and the children were falling asleep (kinda sorta, not really (except for Zoë who fell asleep before the thunder began)) I researched a few things that were spouted off during orientation that didn't sit quite right with me.

The first were some "statistics" about the vocabulary of incoming kindergarten students through time:

In 1950, students had a vocabulary 25,000 words upon entering kindergarten.
In 1999, students knew 10,000 words upon entering kindergarten.
By 2006, the number of known words had shrunk to a mere 6000!

As a linguist, those "statistics" really didn't sit well with me and after looking it up online and seeing it quoted in various forms ("the average 14-year-old," or "the average teenager," or 1945 instead of 1950, or 2000 instead of 1999, and so forth) I have to conclude that these "statistics" are a mere urban legend. In fact, 25,000 words would be a pretty good vocabulary for any given adult and I doubt 5-year-olds in 1950 were wandering around spouting off 25,000 words, otherwise that generation should sound erudite and well-spoken to the uncouth youth of today whose brains have all been fried by television. But, frankly, I feel like they're fairly on par with each other.

And what is with the 1950s being the golden years? As if in the 1950s parents spent all their time conversing with children to expand their vocabularies... As if nowadays parents don't know they need to turn the television off during dinnertime and that we should be reading twenty minutes a day to our children (in order to expand their vocabularies).

I know of no solid research comparing the vocabularies of kindergarten students (or otherwise) through so many years. I am, however, familiar with a considerable amount of research regarding the discrepancies of working vocabulary due to class—children in wealthier, more educated families tend to outpace children in poverty-stricken households since they really are exposed to more language (around the dinner table in a house full of books). The gap is pretty astounding as well, which is why there's a huge push to educate parents on the importance of reading to their children and having family meals together.

The second little tidbit of information that aroused my suspicion was that quality of handwriting was the number one indicator of future academic success. On the surface, this seems to be true—handwriting is a predictor of academic success. However, this may be due more to teacher bias than actual academic ability:
Students who write with poor quality are very likely to receive lower grades than a student with neat handwriting, despite compositional quality. (Sheffield, 1996) (Alston & Taylor,1987) (Briggs 1970).” “…although we may think we can objectively separate content from presentation, Briggs (1970, 1980) has shown unequivocally that this is not so. When content is equated, children who write badly get lower marks.” [Rubin & Henderson, 1982]
Benjamin is way behind in the handwriting arena (he just started drawing recognizable things and will often still just scribble when he draws). I don't want to blame everything on his prematurity, but...there are studies showing that it might just take him a little while longer to wire his brain around a fine motor skill such as writing.

I believe that learning how to write is important. However, I don't think it is necessarily the most important thing. Nor do I believe there could really be any sound correlation between handwriting quality and academic achievement.

Why, for example, do we have the stereotype of doctors having messy handwriting?

And where did Andrew come from? Because I think he's fairly intelligent and yet...his handwriting is atrocious!

Besides, "almost fifty years of research has shown precious little evidence that graphology is a good index of personality or intelligence."

The problem we really need to solve, then, is that of educators showing bias against children with poor handwriting and somehow teach graders to focus on the content of the work rather than how polished the handwriting is. That, also, is easier said than done. Presentation matters, I suppose, but content is what really shows a child's academic capability.

For people like Andrew, there are computers (thank goodness, otherwise we might never read anything he writes (it would be impossible))!

Now, in Rachel's class, her teacher said that she was rather light on homework—because to her, family is the most important thing. When children are at school they are learning, they are doing everything they need to do to prepare for sixth grade, and then they get to go home and be a kid. And I think that is great.

But I also hope her teacher is aware of all the research about how fruitless homework is in the elementary years...

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