First of all, I should say up front that I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and Derby Day is a big deal there.  The schools were closed today in preparation for it.  There’s a two-week festival preceding it.

That being said, I have never actually attended a Derby.  Actually, I’ve never actually attended any horse race.  Pretty philistine of me, I know, but then again, I can count on one hand the number of sporting events of any kind I’ve attended.  And I get a better view of the Derby on my television.  And watching from home, I can socialize until the moment the race starts, watch it, then get back to the party.  No crowds, no rain, no parking problems.

Although I have not always worn my Kentucky heritage with pride (and hey, George Clooney doesn’t either), I have enjoyed spreading Kentucky Derby fever among my friends.  I’ve lived far from Louisville for more of my life now than I lived there, and so most of the Derby parties I threw were for people who’d never even watched it on television.

Three years ago I began using a new math curriculum, and discovered that our final unit covered in the year, probability, starts just before the Kentucky Derby.  I decided this was a great real-life example of probability.

In order to teach it to students, I ended up learning a lot myself in preparation.  For instance, the starting odds are made by experts in the field, but on race day the odds are determined by the betting itself.  If everyone starts betting on a long shot, the odds change to reflect that it’s no longer a long shot.  That’s really interesting and also shows the lengths betting parlors will go to to ensure they get your money.

I’ve discovered it works best as a two-day lesson.  On the first day, I talk about the concept of odds and what that means for betting.  Then I provide students information about the horses and we talk through a few examples so they see what kinds of information people like to know beforehand — the owner, trainer, and jockey, the previous starts, the track conditions.  That’s day one.

Day two (which is the day before Derby day, and now we have post positions added to our data), and each student is given 25 hypothetical dollars to bet.  It’s a simple bet — just to win — but it does have to be the minimum $2.  I tell them there are lots of other ways to bet — win, place, or show, trifecta — but that for our purposes we’re going to stay simple.  On the notecards they hand in I need their bets and some reason why they bet the way they did.

The students left my class today buzzing about their choices and mulling over what their winnings might be.  Before we started, I had several students tell me they didn’t like the idea of betting or horse races, but everyone left today debating the merits of this or that horse.  (We also found out this morning that one of their favorites from the other day, Uncle Mo, was scratched this morning, and we talked about what that meant.  There was a side conversation about thoroughbreds;  one girl rides and wants a horse someday, but said thoroughbreds are inbred and weak.)

Each year I refine my way of doing this.  Each year I learn more about the race and the betting system, but I also learn more about my students and how they learn best.  I think so far, this year’s lessons have been the best of the three years.

And this year I am doing this carefully enough to collect (and then analyze) the results with the students.  Graphing is another skill they’re working on, and we can talk about how to show our class results.

I’m curious to see what happens tomorrow.  I had one student who bet the whole amount on the horse with the longest odds (50-1), because he said it would pay the best if he won.  I had a number of students who made $2 or $3 bets on a lot of horses, hedging their bets (as they say).  I told them (as verified by an article online) that the favorite rarely wins.  In the last 10 years, the favorite has won three times.  And yet most of the students made at least one bet on the favorite.

The student who put all his money on the horse with the longest odds got some flack from the other students for it, but my guess is that when we come back on Monday, watch the race online together, and calculate winnings and losses, most of my students will have lost all of their money, just as he did.  And if he wins, he’ll win more.  Of course, there are many theories about human decision-making (some of which are too recent for me to have read about in college, and some of which I read about in my college psych courses but have since forgotten because I graduated from college 20 years ago), but I’m interested to see it playing out in my own classroom.  The students will learn that gambling rarely pays (which we’ve already discussed in terms of the lottery or dice games).

So though I’m far from the land of my birth, I’m carrying on its traditions all these years later.  Have a mint julep, watch the race, and know that there’s a class of kids hanging on the results.


Learning to Fly

April 9, 2011

This week was our first week of the spring season, the slow slide into the frantic end of the school year.  It also marked the return to our outdoor education site, a place every unit in school visits weekly in the fall and spring.  The “country classroom,” as we refer to it, is a key part of our curriculum.  The school has a contract with the environmental center to go there Tuesdays through Fridays, fall and spring.

This is our first year at this particular environmental center.  We used to go to a different site.  That location served our needs well, but the owners wanted a more money and were continuing to ignore any environmental work that needed to be done there.  (The site was increasingly overgrown with nonnative vines.  There was a lot of garbage there from events held there.  The one building we were allowed to use was an old barn that first developed holes in the roof, then the tarp that was put on the roof disintegrated and left blue plastic strings on nearby trees, and then finally they knocked down the barn entirely and left a concrete pad in its place.)  Our new site is an environmental center that is used to having visiting groups of students, as well as birders and hikers.  It seemed a better fit.

To our students, however, the new center was a betrayal.  They had spent all their years since preschool knowing and growing at the old site.  The new site is unfamiliar.  The new site, as part of its environmental mission, restricts certain activities in some places.  There is no shelter on a rainy day.  Other than a few port-a-potties, there are no bathrooms.  The older the students, the more they stubbornly insisted they hated the new site.

So in the fall, our efforts focused on getting to know our way around.  (That also allowed for a good study of map and compass use.)  We copied maps of the new site (the trails colorfully marked).  At first the students chose a route and the teachers led the group.  Then the students chose the route and led the group (with teachers at the back).  Finally, we started letting the students do some hiking on their own.  We started small — two teachers at one end of a fairly straightforward trail, two teachers sending small groups off to find their way.  We expanded the distance and the possibilities for taking other paths (with some teachers hidden in the underbrush at key junctures to help if needed).  The students liked the independence.

Then one week a group got lost.  Lost is a relative term, of course — all the trails loop, so that eventually they all lead back to where you started, and you can’t actually hike off the property on a trail.  And if you reach the property boundaries, you reach a road.  So no one was going to end up stranded in the wilderness.  Nevertheless, there was a sense of worry when we realized that all the groups were accounted for except for one.  While three teachers kept an eye on lunch with the other students, one teacher at a time would try different paths to see where they might have gone.  Eventually we found them, only about twenty minutes (at most) from the time we noted their absence.

They had taken two wrong turns that had put them on the longest, farthest trail.  A few of the younger students were anxious, and the older students reassured them.  Several students took turns looking at the map and trying to figure out their location.  One student stood on top of an embankment, figuring that it might be easier to see from a higher location.  They eventually looped their way back to the main gravel road by the entrance and followed that to where we found them, only a few hundred feet from where we always meet for lunch.  In other words, although they made some wrong turns, they did all the right things to find their way back.

Of course, from a PR perspective, there was a flurry of phone calls and e-mails to be made once we arrived back at school.  Parents needed to know that at no point were their children in danger, and that the group behaved wisely in finding their way back.

Luckily, the parents of the students who were “lost” recognized that this was an interesting (if unexpected) learning situation and that their students had not been emotionally scarred by the experience.  We even took the entire group on the far trail in the weeks that followed to show them where the farthest boundary was and how it wasn’t really that far from where we started.  It reassured the group that as far as they could wander, they would not be truly lost.

And here we are, back at the center for spring.  What do the students most want to do?  Get lost.  Literally, they want to walk in groups alone until they don’t know exactly where they are and then find their way back.  The students who were part of the “lost” group feel a sense of pride that they did it, and now the other students all want the same experience.  The students seemed disappointed that our spring focus is on birds and not on maps and trails.

This reminds me of how hard it is to raise children.  As teachers (and parents), our job is to teach and nurture our children, but also to let them become independent in circles that extend farther and farther from us.  It’s like we’re the center point of a compass (the kind with which you draw circles, not a navigational compass).  When our children are very small, we give them a little room — a small circle around us.  We don’t stray far because there are too many things they don’t understand and too many ways they could get hurt.  Every encounter with an object or a person or an animal is another learning opportunity, but they need adults close by.  As the child gets older, the compass makes a bigger circle.  I can let my 9-year-old go play outside without watching him.  The circle gets bigger — teenagers venture further alone, learn to drive, and eventually head off to college.  The circle never disappears — I’m still in touch with my parents — but it’s a pretty big circle.

So how do you decide how big to make the circle?  At a certain point in their lives, children seem to want a bigger circle than the adults do.  (In toddlerhood, sometimes adults are encouraging a bigger circle than the children seem comfortable with.)  Our students want to be unsupervised more often at our new outdoor site.  The accidental long solo trip of our group made us all aware of how much some students want a safe space in which to make mistakes and wander.  How much do we let them?

Colleges are known to be “in loco parentis,” but these days many parents hover more than they used to.  I read stories about students in college talking to their parents DAILY and my jaw drops.  The article suggest that both students and parents enjoy this arrangement, but how are teens/young adults supposed to learn how to live on their own?  College is a great first step away from home because it’s independent living with a safety net — you’re not going to starve or lose utilities because you didn’t pay the bill, but you also have to manage your own time, do your own laundry, do a lot of problem solving on your own.  Your parents are a phone call away, it’s true, but you’re really on your own.  It’s a perfect first step in adulthood.

What happens when parents (or teachers) keep the circle too small?  What effect does that have on us as a society?  Should we as teachers give our students more freedoms even as parents in society seem to be tightening their grip?

Our students were irritated at us that their familiar environment (the old environmental education site) was changed.  They said they didn’t like the change.  But once they were forced to make a change, they let us know that they now wanted to use that change as an opportunity to find their own way, to “get lost” within the relative safety of a small nature area.  We pushed them out of the nest and were then shocked that they wanted to try flying more often.  It’s amazing sometimes how much we learn from our students.

Parent Conferences

March 26, 2011

There have been many articles and books written about parent conferences.  Some are for parents, some are for teachers, but no matter the target audience, the message is clear:  Conferences are fraught with anxiety.  I’ve been on both sides of the conference table, and it’s fascinating to me how difficult they often are no matter what.

As a teacher, conferences are a time when I have 20 minutes (okay, mine usually last 30) to discuss with the parents everything about their child.  Sometimes we are problem-solving together, sometimes I’m passing along information, sometimes I’m quiet and just listening.  I am trying to do many things at the same time:  to let parents know how their child is doing academically, to indicate to the parents that I do know and understand some things about their child, to explain what it is that happens at school all day, every day.  Their child is spending a majority of his or her waking hours at school, and it’s a black box — the parents don’t know what happens at school, and this conference time twice a year is the most personal snapshot they get of their child’s life in my classroom.  One would think they’d want to hear it all.

As a parent, conferences are when I get to find out what happens during my child’s day.  Some children report every nuance of life at school (I was one of those children myself), but in my case my child’s reports are thin on details.  I get occasional anecdotes brought up in other conversations, never through direct questioning.  And if I show up at school myself, the dynamic of my child in his classroom changes, so that I’m not really seeing what my child is usually like at school.  So at my conferences, I could happily sit and listen to a string of anecdotes and evidence that all add up to my child’s experience of school.  But maybe I’m not a typical parent.  And I’m also sure that my being a teacher shapes how I am a parent in conferences.

Some parents want stories and evidence, a snapshot of school.  What a lot of parents want is to know that: 1) I know their child, and 2) I have a detailed plan for how best to teach their child.  Sometimes that’s easy.  Sometimes that’s incredibly hard.  There are children who are small mysteries, whose patterns of behavior and learning change rapidly.  We look for predictability and consistency to come up with a plan for how best to teach them;  some children are difficult cyphers.  Parents often know this about their own children, but they expect teachers to know more and to have answers.  It is deeply frustrating on both sides when we don’t.

Then there are the dynamics of classrooms.  No matter how well I might know one individual child, I have a classroom of individuals who react and respond to each other.  In a vacuum, I can address each child’s needs easily.  In a classroom, it’s much trickier.  What happens when one child’s difficulties affect others?  What happens when one child’s social insecurity butts up against another child’s desire to expand his or her social network?  I’m not meeting with all of these parents at the same time, and I can’t tell the parents of one child that another child is a problem for their child.  At those moments, I can listen and nod as parents describe interactions I know well, but I can’t tell those parents what conversations I have with the other child’s parents.

As a parent who has been in the teacher’s shoes, I do my best to let my child’s teacher know that I’m not seeking a clear solution to my child’s problems.  I know my child’s strengths and weaknesses;  we can talk together about how we might address them, but there’s no magic cure.  I don’t expect every teacher to like my child or to enjoy teaching him, but I do expect the teacher to be doing his or her best to teach him.  I expect from my child’s teachers what I expect of myself as a teacher.

Conferences are strangely intimate scenes.  Your child is the biggest delight and worry of your life.  You want his or her life to be a good one.  You want to spare him or her pain and suffering.  And the teacher is the person who spends more time every day with your child than you do.  There are expectations on both sides and a desire on both sides to do what’s best for the child.  And you sit across the table from each other and muddle through it.  There are no “perfect” parent conferences, but I learn a lot from most of them, whether I’m the parent or the teacher.  In this season of parent conferences, I hope we learn together and leave the conference feeling hopeful and heard.

When I was nine and in fourth grade, I lied to my teacher.

For some students, this would not have been a memorable occurrence.  Students lie for a variety of reasons, and to some extent I think it’s part of development.  They want to see where the boundaries are.  Luckily, most students are poor liars, so we teachers can react with skepticism and perhaps some mild scolding, and we all move on.

I am actually a terrible liar and always have been, and because of this (and a moral sense that prevented me from wanting to) I didn’t lie often.  My fourth-grade lie looms large in my memory because it was a rather big one and because I got away with it.

We were assigned Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn.  Each of us had a spiral notebook, and for each chapter there were vocabulary words and questions to be answered.  I loved to read, and as many of my students who are avid readers do, I read ahead.  I finished the book pretty quickly, actually, and discovered something:  I didn’t like the book.  At the time, I felt that Caddie was abnormally cheerful and energetic and enthusiastic (unlike my cherished Laura Ingalls, who could be a grump sometimes).  Without thinking carefully about my actions and the consequences, I stopped doing the assigned work.

It’s hard to remember why I did this.  My vague recollection is that because I didn’t like the book, I shouldn’t have to do the work.  That’s a terrible argument and one I encounter occasionally in my students.  (My stock response to a student’s complaint that they don’t like something I expect them to do is, “I didn’t ask you if you liked it.  I asked you to do it.”)  This was not an early form of conscientious objecting, or of offering a different plan for how I could show the teacher I’d read and understood the book.  It was just a decision not to do the work because the book was dumb.

Of course, eventually we were expected to hand in the notebooks.  Our teacher said on a Friday afternoon, “Please leave your notebooks on my desk.”  And I didn’t, of course.  On Monday, the teacher took me aside and said, “I don’t have your notebook,” to which I replied with fake astonishment, “But I put it on your desk!”  I then offered to redo it (perhaps feeling guilty about not having done it in the first place), but she smiled and said no, and that perhaps it had fallen off her desk and into the garbage can.

And that was the end of it.  I never made up the work and I never told her that I lied.

I was aware that this was a rare occasion and that I would not make a habit of it.  To be honest, I didn’t enjoy reading the next book, either (a version of Robin Hood, which our teacher presented with no historical context and which struck me as dull), but I knew I couldn’t skip the work again.  (Instead, every written piece I wrote extolled the virtues of the Sheriff of Nottingham over Robin Hood.)  I also knew that the main reason I had gotten away with it with Caddie Woodlawn was because I was, up until that point, an excellent student.

While this lie has not affected my life as a whole, I have often mused about my own stupid and unethical act.  Oddly enough, what this has boiled down to most recently was a constant nagging wonder if the book was REALLY as bad as I had thought back then.  I had to find out.

This afternoon I read Caddie Woodlawn for the first time since fourth grade.  And to be honest, it wasn’t a bad book.  As a teacher, I can see having, say, third graders at our school read it.  The Indians talk in the stereotypical Indian way, which is irritating, but with some class discussion about that you can use that as a learning experience.  Caddie’s father makes friends with the Indians, as does Caddie.  She’s a kind and thoughtful girl.  Caddie is a tomboy for most of the book, an experiment of her father’s, and she recoils at the thought of being “ladylike.”  Close to the end, however, she decides that she needs to grow up and learn some things about being a woman.  The book has a forward in which the author indicates that Caddie is her grandmother;  I liked finding out how the real Caddie enjoyed her life.  I don’t remember if that forward was in the version I read or not, but I have no recollection of real-life information about Caddie at all.

I didn’t think Caddie was a particularly complex character.  Aside from her decision in the last two chapters of the book to accept becoming a woman, the book was a series of anecdotes about frontier life in Wisconsin.  As a fourth grader who had already bonded with Laura Ingalls and was moving into Madeleine L’Engle and Ray Bradbury, it would have seemed like a dull read.  I enjoyed twisty tales, where you didn’t know what was going to happen until it happened.  This book ambles along and not much really happens.  It’s pleasant enough, then it’s over and you move on to something you enjoy more actively.

No one enjoys doing work focused on something they don’t like.  In my teaching career, I’ve occasionally had to teach about subjects I didn’t care for.  It was much harder than throwing myself into a topic I loved.  But the “real world” requires such things sometimes.  I can see that part of my job as a teacher is to teach students that messy truth;  that in the course of human events, we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to.  Caddie didn’t want to learn tasks she’d need to know as a woman in that time period, but realized she had to learn them anyway and it might not even be as bad as she’d thought.  See, I learned something from Caddie Woodlawn after all, 32 years later.

Teachers talk a lot about executive function, the term used to describe the brain’s ability to monitor and regulate its processes when it comes to complex tasks.  Executive function allows us to sequence events, to break a large task down into smaller pieces, to budget our time, to keep track of things.  There are lots of bright students who have increasing difficulties at school as they get older because while they have lots of skills and smarts, they have increasing trouble keeping it all organized in ways that make sense.  They might procrastinate too long, not realizing the project is too big to do in one chunk.  They might remember some parts of an assignment but forget others.  They might lose the assignment.  They might do the assignment but leave it sitting on their desk at home.  So even though these students can handle the actual work, the details of doing the task — of their brain’s ability to carry it out successfully — prevent work from being done carefully or from being handed in on time.

So why am I mentioning this?  One thing that teachers look for is how tidy or messy students are.  We like our students to be organized, and we associate organization with a tidy way of doing things.  Messy binders lead to lost work;  organized binders look neat and students know where things are.  But it is possible to be messy and still be organized.  Consider my desk…

My desk at school always has piles on it.  These piles do not appear to have any particular organizational quality — no folders labeled with “To Hand Back” or “To Grade,” or with names of classes or students on them.  What’s on my desk is a combination of work I’ve looked at and work I haven’t, plus some of my own notes and plans, and on any given day a few stacks of blank question sheets that will be handed out in a class.  There’s no rhyme or reason except a general chronological order;  things from longer ago tend to be near the bottom.  And yet I generally find things just fine.

My messy habits are well-known both at school and at home.  My co-teacher laughs about the appearance of my desk, and the students sometimes comment, “Your desk is a mess.”  (In addition to many papers, I also have several desk calendars for students’ enjoyment, a fairly anatomically correct plastic brain, and some plush microbes.)  According to what we teachers look for, I should be a walking disaster in terms of executive function, unable to plan or carry through complex tasks.  But we plan all the time, and in fact my tidier co-teacher sometimes asks me for copies of things he has misplaced.

Because of my messy habits, I feel sheepish making the students clean their cubbies.  Granted, my desk is not gross — no food, no half-drunk milk cartons (both of which you can find in some student cubbies) — but it certainly could use a cleaning most of the time.  So I tell the students they need to unearth important things in their cubbies periodically (in addition to removing mouse-attracting stuff), and I let them know that I, too, reach a point at which I need to clean.

What does tidiness correlate with?  It is certainly true that some jobs require a level of attention to detail and precision that probably also require tidiness, both physically and in terms of thinking.  Some people say a cluttered space is a sign of a cluttered brain — that precision of thinking shows in being neat and organized.  But aren’t there lots of jobs and tasks that require “un-linear” thinking?  As a society, we are increasingly seeking creativity.  My own alma mater is close to finishing a building that will house professors from all disciplines to work together in creative and collaborative ways.  That’s not tidy — it’s not the suite of biology offices on the second floor of the science building and the art studios in the art building — but it does spark connections in new ways.

My students who have the most trouble keeping their cubbies tidy and their binders neat are also quite creative — one is a writer, one draws constantly.  Yes, it’s important for me to teach them a system for not losing their homework.  And yes, every now and then the cubby needs a total cleaning.  But is it THAT important that they be tidy people?

(And as a postscript, I would like to say that I didn’t just spin all of this to build my case for my own messy desk.  I know myself, I know what works for me, and I don’t feel the need to defend my messy ways.  I just wonder how important it is for us as teachers to require our messy students to be tidy ones.)

I have a good memory.  I remember lots of things about being a child and a teenager and a young adult.  This sometimes comes in handy as a teacher and a mom, because I have a lot of empathy given that I remember similar feelings.  But one thing I tend to forget is what it feels like to be a student.

I have taken classes as an adult, of course.  Not only do I remember college and graduate school, but I’ve also taken classes along the way to support my teaching.  In general, I’m a good student.  I look at the work that has to get done, I pace myself, and I work hard  (without usually having to work really, really hard).  I like to do a good job and I like it when teachers are pleased with something I’ve done or said.  Really, I’m the same student I was as a child.

And so therefore it is sometimes frustrating to me when I see a student struggling, or a student who clearly doesn’t like school, or a student who doesn’t seem to be seeking my praise and delight.  These are foreign concepts to me.  Sure, I struggled in a few classes over the years, but I attributed that to a tricky subject matter or an unclear teacher, not to something about me.  Some students are ciphers in the way they feel about being a student.  It’s not a role they enjoy.

But I’m beginning to understand.  To support our study of ancient China this year, I signed up for a class for teachers at our art museum.  It’s on “Religious Arts in Southeast Asia.”  I’ve taken a few classes there before, and they’re always interesting.  There are four sessions, and I’ve now had three of them.

The schedule and format each session are the same.  We arrive at the media room for a two-hour lecture by a professor about a particular region.  We have an hour-long break for lunch, then meet quickly before heading up to the actual galleries for another two-hour lecture by that professor with actual objects.  We then meet again to summarize and talk about what we’d like to see more of as teachers.

The professors have been amazing.  They’re knowledgeable and engaging and interesting.  I take copious notes.  The galleries are full of things I knew nothing about, and now I know some things about their origin and meaning.  The other teachers are, for the most part, intelligent and thoughtful, and I’ve enjoyed chatting with them and eating lunch with them.

I have, however, discovered that my brain feels full before the day is over.  After about an hour in the galleries, I start to tune out.  I have trouble focusing on what the professor is saying, and my eyes roam the room.  My brain starts thinking about songs that have the word Buddha in them, or about Simpsons episodes on Zen Buddhism.  I take fewer notes and start doodling.  I am sure that there have been meaningful things said in the second hour of the gallery talks, but I don’t really remember them.  I look at my watch, I notice that my shoes are starting to hurt, I look out the window and wonder if it’s warmer or colder than forecasted.

Granted, it’s a more intense class experience than my students or I have been in.  Our classes at school are about an hour at most (appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders).  My college courses involved 70 minute lecture courses or labs that were a couple of hours, but generally not an entire day on one topic like this class.  Six hours of class with an hour break for lunch is, indeed, a very intense day, and we don’t expect our students to do anything like this.

Still, I know that what I’m feeling at hour three of “Buddhism in Korea” is what some of my students feel after 20 minutes of math class.  And I know that it’s a hard feeling to overcome.  Do I want to be more focused and attentive?  Yes.  Does that matter to my brain?  No.

One of the things I have tried, in an attempt to keep myself focused, is to ask more questions.  But I’ve also now had the experience twice in the last three sessions of asking what I think is a totally reasonable question about Buddhism (which, to be honest, I’m still just not really understanding as a system of beliefs), only to be responded to by the professor with some irritation, as if I’ve asked the stupidest question ever and clearly haven’t been listening.  This is also a new experience for me, and it makes me shut down.  If I’m going to be treated like that, why raise my hand at all?  I’ll just go back to doodling and wondering how much longer we’re going to be in this dark room of artifacts.

I find I have a new understanding of some of my students thanks to this class.  I know what it’s like to start to lose focus despite my best intentions.  I know what it’s like to ask what feels like a completely rational question, only to be met with frustration by a teacher who thinks it’s not a very good question.  I know what it feels like to know that I’m learning a lot, but to look forward to the end of the class.  Now I can use this experience to help me reach those who are struggling, which is perhaps a more important lesson to have learned than the many pages of notes I took on the rise of Buddhism.

I am lucky that I am a decent speller.  I don’t have to wonder how to spell most words, and I can recognize it immediately when I’ve misspelled something.  Growing up, I attributed this to being a voracious reader.  My parents also spelled well and were eager readers.  My brother preferred nonfiction and didn’t read much for fun as a boy, but his spelling was still pretty good.  So I decided that reading must have some connection to spelling.

As a middle school teacher for ten years (and now a 4th/5th grade teacher for the last three years), I observed many things about spelling, and I’m more confused than ever about what good spelling correlates with.  There were, generally speaking, four categories of students in terms of spelling and other academic work.

Category One — students who excelled in all areas, including spelling.  These are the students who get all their words correct every week, no matter what the spelling rule or the challenges given.  They like to read, they like to write, they spell well.  This was the category I would have been in as a child, and it fits my initial thoughts on spelling.  These kids spell well, I would have guessed, because they read.

Category Two — students who struggle in all areas, including spelling.  I don’t have as many of these students as one might expect, but I do have them.  Everything academic is hard, whether it be spelling or math or writing or reading.

Category Three — students who struggle in most areas but excel at spelling.  I encountered this group in middle school and was told by an expert language arts teacher that one reason we had spelling tests was that for some students, it was the only thing we could say in the report was “excellent.”  I guessed at the time that maybe these students memorized easily but had trouble processing complex things.  I’m not sure about that now.  As a middle school teacher, I saw a fair number of students like these, but I see fewer of them now, either because of the age difference or because students have changed in some way.

Category Four — students who are voracious readers and eager writers, but are lousy spellers.  This was a group that, according to my childhood concept, should not exist.  If heavy reading made you a good speller, you should not have readers and writers who spell terribly.  But I do.  Lots of them, actually.  I would say that over the last thirteen years, my category three group has diminished while my category four group has grown.  I don’t understand how you can be an avid reader and NOT notice misspelled words everywhere, but some of my students seem to completely overlook misspelled words.

So what accounts for good spelling?  It’s clearly not just a function of reading or writing.  And it’s clearly not a key correlate of general academic prowess, either.  In fact, the other observation I’ve made over the years is that spelling doesn’t even correlate with spelling;  that is, I’ve seen students ace weekly spelling tests and yet misspell the same words repeatedly in their own writing.  How can you spend all week staring at a word, learning how to spell it, and yet not be able to spell it again days later when you’re writing?

The point of this musing is not to wonder about the future of spelling.  Many people predicted the downfall of spelling with the advent of computers with spell check programs.  The problem with those programs is they don’t actually know what you’re trying to say.  Knowing when to use “it’s” vs. “its” is not something the computer recognizes as an issue.  If it’s a word, it’s spelled correctly.  So I don’t think, at least not yet, that spelling is a dead issue.

But I do wonder what being a good speller or a poor speller means, as spelling doesn’t seem to correlate with much.  I am pleased that my son is a naturally good speller only because I think things are easier that way, but I’m not sure I’d be wringing my hands if he struggled with spelling while continuing to do well in other areas.  Just as some people do math easily in their heads, some people automatically spell well, and in both cases it’s helpful but not required for a meaningful life.