Saturday, March 24, 2012

LEGOs: educational innovation?

I recently learned that LEGO has given some rather large grants to schools in 14 regions nationwide. Basically, students will play with LEGOs starting in Kindergarten all the way through their Senior year of high school, & it will magically turn them into 21st century leaders. The news article I read touted playtime as being remarkably beneficial to children, as if this was some sort of new discovery they had made. 

Here's the thing: our school systems have removed playtime. PE has been cut out almost completely. Remember gym class everyday, sports outside, running the track, dodgeball....yeah none of that happens anymore. PE happens less than once a week now. And recess? Yep, that's been cut down too. So has art & music - all things shown to be highly beneficial to children.

So they've removed the opportunities for our children to have optimal learning conditions, & then requested grants from name brand companies to reintroduce the same opportunities with *their* products. Did I get that right? Now, I'm all for charitable donations. If LEGO wants to give their products to students then by all means, that's wonderful. What gets me is this - the school system in return gives $80K into this LEGO program as well. So it's not really a gift, but a matching promotion. And it's not to be spread out equally across the entire school districts, oh no, it's only certain schools within the regions chosen that receive this "opportunity". Certainly then it must be the lowest performing, lowest income, most at-risk student population schools then? Oh wait... no, it's not.

Before you think "gee Gypsy's just jealous because her kid can't play with LEGOs in school"...think again. My kid is in one of the schools in one of the 14 regions nationwide. And I'm effing pissed. Let me explain why: 

I get that these nifty little stacking bricks provide hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity, foster engineering skills, spatial awareness, & other neurosynaptic wonders. What I *don't* understand is why we don't reinstate PE, music, art, & actually introduce foreign languages as a mandatory topic in elementary school. I also fail to understand why this grant goes all the way through high school. I can buy into the idea of LEGOs being beneficial as a K-3 learning tool, but beyond that.... not really. 

$160K per school district is being spent to ensure that children play with a common, albeit increasingly expensive, household toy. Broken down, that's $40K from LEGO, $40K from the Education Blueprints Association, & $80K matched from the school district. It's that last $80K that I'm particularly pissed about.

That $80K, if spread out amongst all the schools in the district or - *heaven forbid* be given to the most at-risk schools - could go a hell of a lot further than some bags of LEGOs. As someone who works with the developmentally disabled, my first thought went to that particular segment of the population. They are underserved, under staffed, ignored, misunderstood, and marginalized. Children with special needs receive limited services through 5th grade at which point they are mainstreamed with less or no services or placed in a separate track - one that basically says "you aren't worth trying to educate anymore". That $80K could go towards employing more special needs teachers who are actually trained to deal with the challenges these children face and who know how to appreciate the abilities they have instead of having overworked teachers who leave their classroom to teacher aides who sit on their cell phones all day. These children have real capabilities and real learning potential, and they're ignored. Their needs are nowhere near met, and it infuriates me. Does nobody realize that people with special needs have so much potential, and most can be fully productive citizens if only given the support they need? 

What about the at-risk kids - low income, foster care, gang related, those kinds of students? They're often in neighbourhoods that are poorer, which translates to schools that are inadequate. I currently volunteer in one of those actually, where the teachers are given a limited supply of printer paper & once it's gone for the year it's gone. The differences between schools in a low income neighbourhood & a high income one is astonishing, but nobody seems to care to equalize it. Does nobody realize that these children are our next generation, whether or not they are rich or poor? Why aren't they all given the same opportunities? Does nobody realize that those who are economically disadvantaged are more likely to have an array of difficulties and discrimination in life that *starts* with an inadequate education?

I could carry on about the segments of students that are inadequately served, and how they are at even more of a disadvantage by virtue of our current educational setup, but I won't. Those reading who understand my frustration will already be aware of the issues, and those who don't will have enough to contemplate with just those examples. 

So this is my closing thought - why aren't these fantastic STEM (science/math/engineering/technology) improving LEGO grants being given to the autism programs, the low income schools, the deaf/blind community, or other kids who could benefit from it so much more than your average middle class student? Better yet, *why* are these administrators not aware of the impact their $80K match could have if spread out amongst those who need it most? 

Our school system is failing, & I'm ashamed to say that my kid is the one sitting in class playing with $160K LEGOs while your kid may be sharing pencils & paper with their classmate, waiting to take a turn to write out an inadequate exercise because the school simply can't afford anything better.

This is not equality. This is not serving the needs of all. This is not right. This is our educational system failing our children, as a nation, as a whole, by ensuring that the gap between the haves & have nots grows even more in the next generation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Define "NEED"

Do you ever stop to wonder just how many things in your life you take for granted? While you're complaining about your day & how unfair it is that your barista forgot to add chocolate shavings to your fancy $5 coffee, did you remember to be grateful for the fact that you could read the menu? I'll bet you a $5 cup of coffee that you didn't even think twice about that! Maybe after this post you'll start looking at the world a little differently, & stop complaining about your luxuries so much.

I picked up a gentleman at the airport tonight, welcoming him to his first day in the United States. He, like so many other refugees, speaks only a handful of English words. All I can say is, it's amazing how much you can communicate with hand gestures. On the drive to his new home, I wondered if he was scared. I know I would be if i just came to a brand new country & didn't know a single thing. I wondered what made him leave (although, knowing his country of origin I have a fairly good idea of what he fled from) & if he was leaving anyone behind. He of his few English words is "parents". I had a lot of trouble with the fact that he would be spending his first night in a strange country completely alone in an empty room. Turns out, he has a roommate, & although my next concern was that they couldn't communicate they soon found that they each speak just enough of another language to be able to have some conversation. For some reason this made me feel better. 

Being a refugee in a new land must be one of the scariest experiences ever. Imagine not only having endured something horrific but being in a completely new place, unable to understand or read the language, with no friends, no family, and a suitcase full of stuff. And nothing else. 

The resiliency of all of the people I have met never ceases to amaze me. Some of them speak 3 languages but can't read at all because they had to focus on safety instead of education. Some of them have Master's degrees but can't find work here. Some of them work jobs that your average American wouldn't dare consider, & they do it with pride because they are working. All of them - regardless of where they came from - have left a situation so horrible that virtually nobody in this country will ever have anything to compare it to. It's the same story over & over again: war, genocide, death, rape, famine, fear. Over & over again, every single day.  And they persevere. I am constantly humbled by this work that I'm fortunate enough to do. 

Anyway, back to tonight. As this gentleman was being shown his new home, everything from how to use the restroom to how to use a blanket to lessons about keeping the doors locked for safety, I suddenly realized that ... there really was nothing. A mattress, some toiletries, a small couch, a kitchen table....just the bare basics. No tv, no books, no artwork, nothing. And my heart sank. Here was this man who has all of his worldly possessions in one small bag and now he gets to reside in an empty home in a strange land. In an instant I thought about what some of these people could do all day....& basically they'd stare at the walls. Some clients practice writing or reading or speaking their English all day long in hopes of learning enough to get a job soon, but how do you do that without any books or tv or connection to anyone? 

Very quickly & very shamefully I realized that I have a small tv that sits unused in my house, waiting to hopefully be sold for $20 or so on craigslist or at a garage sale. But it could go to so much more use being given away to someone who could use it as a means to start learning English. So guess what's going over there tomorrow, along with a whole bunch of other stuff I don't need. 

There's this thing about the word "need". People throw it around like crazy. Define "need". The closets full of new clothes or racks of shoes? Not an actual need. The piles of toys? Not a need. Shelves of dvds or cds? Nope. Highlighted hair & tipped nails? Not a need either. Food, shelter, education, safety - those are needs. Everything else is a bonus. We live in such an obliviously gluttonous society, & if you take just a moment to look at the reality of others it would make you rethink everything. Maybe even what this constant overspending is teaching our children - that self indulgent materialism is better than compassion & social justice.

Here's an exercise, if you've read this far, please do it. Or at least think about it: 

Gather up everything you love. Then put everything you would "absolutely need" to have & pack it in a suitcase. Just one suitcase, standard checked baggage size. Now look around at EVERYTHING ELSE YOU HAVE. Do you need all of that? See if you can find it in your heart to fill up just 2 trash bags full of some of that extra "stuff" & give it to someone who literally has nothing. If there's a refugee relocation service in your area, give it to them. If not, give it to a homeless shelter. But really truly think about how much stuff you have that you don't "need"....honestly, you probably won't miss those 2 trash bags full at all. Not one bit. But it could mean so much to someone who literally has nothing. 

The next time you order that $5 half caff 3 splenda sugar free carmel coffee.....stop for just a second to be grateful for the fact that instead of scrambling away from gunfire or hiding from murderers and rapists, you were in school as a child. Realize that just by virtue of the fact that you're standing in that coffee shop reading the menu with money to spend on a $5 cup of coffee, that you are blessed more than many people in this world are. If your biggest complaint is that the hairdresser got your shade of blonde wrong or the driver in front of you is too slow, then be thankful. Such a tiny shift in perception can have such a large impact.

Let me know when you get rid of those 2 bags full of unnecessary stuff....