Home News Local news Inspirational Educator Woos Territory's Teachers

Inspirational Educator Woos Territory's Teachers

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Jan. 15, 2008 — What good is knowledge if you don't have the wisdom to apply it? That was a central theme Tuesday as teachers from St. Thomas and St. John gathered at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School during their professional development day to listen to internationally acclaimed educator, author, consultant and presenter Willard Daggett, who spent Monday with teachers on St. Croix.
Daggett provided a humorous journey through examples, statistics and anecdotes in support of his thesis that change is essential in schools these days, many of which are so behind the times they're "museums."
His call to teach children how to use what they know was underscored by a 30-second video he presented, in which two business people find themselves on an escalator that suddenly stops. They panic, get out their cell phones, shout, scream, commiserate and complain. But never does it occur to them to simply walk up the frozen escalator stairs.
"How many of you work with someone like this?" Daggett prodded the laughing audience. "You can't apply knowledge you don't have, but if knowledge is all you have, you soon forget it."
Teachers, he said, must engage students by showing them how to apply their learning to both predictable and unpredictable real-life situations. "If you don't use it, you lose it," he said.
Daggett's nearly five-hour presentation brought teachers to their feet as he closed the lecture with a final anecdote from his experiences as a father of five children, each born a year after the other, and with a range of abilities from "off the charts" to severely mentally retarded. His personal experience combined with years as a teacher, administrator and the founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education, based on Rexford, N.Y., has rendered him an authority for the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the USA Today Education Advisory Panel.
Daggett's presentation was sponsored by the St. Croix Foundation's Model Schools Initiative, which began in the fall of 2005 and is focused heavily on promoting literacy-based enrichment in schools and preparing students for the 21st century global economy.
"Our territory is desperately grappling with an urgent and worrisome crisis in our educational system," said Deanna James, chief operations office of the foundation, as she introduced Daggett.
The foundation is taking part in a national survey, seeking responses from local business people and educators about what they view as necessary skills for students entering the workplace. Participation in the online National Essential Skills Study is being extended to St. Thomas and St. John, and when the survey is complete, James said she expects the territory will record similar results to those being tallied nationwide — 40 percent of the standards teachers rely upon will be deemed irrelevant by community stakeholders.
"Relevance makes rigor possible," Daggett told the crowd repeatedly. "We've taken relevance out of the education experience for an awful lot of kids. We're confusing motivation with obedience."
The territory, like many districts around the country, needs to "take something off the plate," Daggett said. Teachers in high-performing schools don't work harder than teachers in the territory — instead, they've focused on what truly needs to be taught, he said.
"The problem is not the failure of our schools," Daggett said. "The problem is we haven't figured out how to keep up with the rate of change. The world outside of school that our kids are going to have to function in has changed four to five times faster than the rate of change in schools."
Solutions, he said, rest in every teacher learning to teach students how to read for content in their respective subject areas. The most demanding reading, according to his studies, comes in the class traditionally reserved for poor learners, career and technical education classes. Reading comprehension, Daggett said, is not a skill that can be confined to the English and language-arts classes.
The way to reach a child struggling in a core subject is to infuse that subject into a class the child likes, such as art, Daggett advises. But too often, he says, art gets canceled and replaced by an additional period of the problematic subject, building resentment and frustration instead of learning. That resonated for Liston Sewer, a BCB music teacher.
"The thing about the arts is, when a child has problems and he enjoys the arts, they pull him out of my class," said Sewer after hearing Daggett's suggestion. "It's a shame, because all my kids enjoy my class. Music is a discipline."
In addition, Daggett urged teachers to collaborate, so skills learned in one subject can be applied to another.
"In nearly every high-performing school we've looked at, schools that are improving have eliminated department-chair people," he said. "They've created interdisciplinary departments … and given them common planning periods every day to create lessons across multiple disciplines."
Engage students, he emphasized. Instead of giving seniors a slate of electives, give it to freshmen instead.
"Ladies and gentlemen, every high-performing school in the country has moved the electives out of twelfth grade and into ninth grade — to hook the kids," he said.
However, Daggett said no change is possible until "there's more pressure for change than there is resistance to change." And the pressure is on, at least in terms of the global economy.
"We have nine cities in America with one million people or more," Daggett explained. "Eastern and Western Europe combined have 36. China alone has over 100 cities with one million people or more. We got nine."
And India's population exceeds China's. If all of India's pre-schoolers were a nation, Daggett said, they'd be the fourth-largest nation on earth.
"And India is frightened to death by China," he said. "Do you know why? Because China now requires one year of biochemistry and one year of applied physics to enter ninth grade. China has more math and science to enter ninth grade than this territory or any state in America has to graduate from high school.
"They're gonna hand the territory its lunch, and nobody wants to talk about it. Why, in the States today, do we have 1.4 million students enrolled in French? And nationwide 28,000 in Mandarin Chinese? Our schools have become museums."
He cautioned teachers that within three to four years, the keyboard as we know it will be phased out and replaced with "projection" keyboards. Students will come to school wearing jewelry with cell-phone technology, and buttons with the same technology are next. So how will teachers regulate their usage? How will they prevent students from cheating on tests with technology so ubiquitous?
"I propose a new policy for schools — all students shall take all tests naked!" Daggett joked. "At least we will solve one of your problems in high schools — the boys will now show up! It scares me down to my toenails. But what scares me more is how naive our educators are."
Change doesn't happen from the top down, Daggett told teachers.
"We cannot wait for our governor — forgive me — or our commissioner, our superintendent to change our schools," he said. "You have to have leadership at every level. In high-performing schools in this country, it wouldn't matter … who the commissioner was, who the superintendent was — they change them and it doesn't cause people to say, 'Let's wait for the next professional to decide where we're going to go.'
"The building knows where it's going to go. Get six to eight key educators, para-professionals
and send them to (other schools) to see what schools are doing, and then they take control of the agenda and you have top-down support for bottom-up reform."
At least one teacher, who declined to offer his name, expressed skepticism about Daggett's strategies for the territory: "He's very fun to listen to, but I don't think it will make any difference, because nothing changes — nothing changes."
Special-education teacher Nydia Lewis was more hopeful: "When he packs up and goes back to New York, how much of what he's saying are they going to do? I desperately want to see a change, and I have to believe they're going to make a change, or I can't go on."
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