Friday, August 31, 2012

We've reached a new frontier: middle school

From today's Briefing:

My children are split between two campuses for the first time.
Katie has started the second grade at our neighborhood elementary school while Cooper has ventured into middle school territory.
I know exactly what to do on the first day of elementary school. We take photos on the front porch, walk a third of a mile to campus, say hello to friends along the way, walk through the front doors of school together, hug a few friends in the halls, take a photo at the classroom door, find a seat, take a photo at the desk.
All around me are parents repeating the same kinds of cheerful phrases, variations on “Have a good day!” and “You’ll be great!” and “See you this afternoon!”
The first day of middle school routine is new territory, though.
One non-negotiable: photos on the front porch. Cooper complied, taking his place in front of the bushes, on the front step, in front of the door. Some with his sister, some without.
His new school is too far for walking; most days he’ll take the bus. But on this first day I wanted to see him actually walk into the building (from afar, of course — moms don’t walk sixth-grade boys into middle school). So we drove — me, Cooper and his Uncle Jim, who never misses the first day of school.
On the way, I asked Cooper how nervous he was on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most worried. He placed himself at a 6.
So I asked him to list his concerns, and one by one we talked through possible solutions. My goal was to coax him to a 5, maybe 4. We were getting close.
Then traffic came to a stop. Lots of other parents had the same first-day-of-school drop-off plan; cars were piled up. Excellent! I was in no rush to push my 5-foot-4 baby out of the minivan.
I casually mentioned to Uncle Jim that backpacks aren’t allowed in the hallways and classes; they have to be stored in lockers.
Cooper asked why.
“Oh, you know, because of drugs and weapons,” I said with levity usually reserved for “cake and ice cream” or “rainbows and unicorns.”
Cooper wanted to know more. Would there really be drugs and weapons at his new school? That giant building we were inching toward?
This is the moment that my usual, trusty mom filter would have come into play. Not today, though. Nope, my thinking-mom filter was gone, perhaps pushed aside by a little bit of anxiety about the next three years and, more specifically, the next seven hours of middle school.
“Well, I don’t know, Cooper, but let me tell you about a young woman I just met.”
I proceeded to tell him about a ninth-grader who is a recovering drug user, who spent part of middle school smoking pot.
“What’s pot?”
Then I explain that it’s a nickname for marijuana; then I have to explain what that is, too. In my head, I was thinking, “You are about to deliver your firstborn child to middle school and your parting words are going to be about pot. You must turn this conversation around!”
Cooper was too far into the topic to be deterred.
“What if someone offers me drugs today?”
I regained some confidence: “No one is going to offer you drugs on the first day of sixth grade. But if they do, say ‘No’ and walk away.”
End of conversation? Hardly.
“But, shouldn’t I tell the police or the principal or someone?”
I was getting desperate. We were nearing the front doors.
“No. If — and this is extremely unlikely — you are offered drugs today, say ‘No’ and walk away. We can talk about more strategies later.”
I took a breath. There was a bit of silence. Then I launched into my more typical first-day-of-school litany.
“You’re going to have a great day, Cooper! I’m so proud of you! Do you know your bus number? I can’t wait to see you when you get home!”
Then I stopped the car directly in front of the main entrance and pushed a button to open the side door.
My freckle-faced son smiled, said goodbye and unfolded his lanky limbs from the backseat and out onto the sidewalk. He walked by a crowd of even taller kids and through the front doors. He never looked back.
There are no photos of him walking in, but it’s an image I’ll never forget.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, August 27, 2012

Second grade, sixth grade

For the first time since Cooper started kindergarten, he is not wearing a collared shirt on the first day of school. I gave him a choice, and he chose a T-shirt, and I didn't argue. See what a fun mom I am?!
Katie declared at breakfast this morning: "I have a feeling this is going to be the most exciting year yet."
Katie begins her third year at Bledsoe. Cooper begins his first year at Pioneer Heritage Middle School. They won't share a campus again, unless Cooper agrees to Katie's big plan: He must attend graduate school at the same university she chooses for her undergraduate degree. 
My children have learned to humor my photo traditions, including endless poses in the front yard.
Uncle Jim flew in from Washington, D.C., for back-to-school weekend. He arrived at our house (in a vintage Bledsoe shirt) from Dallas at 6:30 a.m., with breakfast treats from Grandma and Papa. 
Katie, me and Cooper just before Uncle Jim and I walked Katie to Bledsoe (start time 7:50 a.m.)
Cooper stayed behind, waiting for me to drive him to Pioneer (start time 8:25 a.m.).
There is no better principal than Beverly Woodson. 
Mrs. Barnes, Katie and Noe pose before getting down to serious second-grade business. (In the background is my good friend Kristin, whose son, Will, is in Katie's class for the third year in a row. He's the kindest second-grade boy around.) 
Katie was eager to get started on her work. (There are no photos of Cooper at Pioneer. I dropped him off at the front door but didn't get out of the minivan. That would have been "the kiss of death," according to Liz Smith.)

Stay tuned for this week's Briefing column, 
in which I describe my terrible parenting decision en route to Pioneer!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Second grade

For the first time since 2006, Cooper did not go to Meet-the-Teacher Night at Bledsoe -- not only because he's no longer a student there but also because he was on his way to Athens, Texas, for a weekend of Boy Scout camping.

(I think it's obvious that moms have no say in scheduling camping weekends.)

We said goodbye to Cooper for the weekend at the Eggert house. Brian was kind enough to drive Cooper to First UMC Frisco, where the camp caravan begins.
Because I needed to work the membership table during the hour of Meet-the-Teacher, Katie and I were able to go to her classroom 30 minutes early.

Katie unpacked school supplies and then had plenty of time for reading while I was volunteering.
Katie's teacher is Wendy Barnes, a wonderful teacher and mom who I've known for years. Her daughter, Maddie, has even been our baby-sitter a few times.
Mrs. Barnes and Katie

The whole second grade is disproportionately filled with boys -- just as kindergarten and first grade were. For the third year in a row, Katie is in a class with very few girls -- only 6, with 14 boys. And the class has 9 gifted-and-talented kids. Wendy is going to have her hands full.

Katie is thrilled to have so many good friends in her class, including friend-since-birth Noe and her favorite friend who is a boy, Will C.

For now Mrs. Barnes has placed all the girl at one table.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Turning education on its head

From today's Briefing:

I didn’t sleep much during most of high school.

After spending all day at school, I’d often stay a little longer for one club or another. Then I’d go home or to the public library to read, research, write essays, complete assignments and study, with a fair amount of teenage messing around mixed in.

Some of the homework would keep me up late into the night. If a geometry proof or chemistry equation stumped me, I would review notes, reread books and maybe call a friend for help. (These were pre-cellphone days, and not everyone had call waiting or an answering machine. Getting a friend on the phone at the exact time of need was unpredictable.)

After toiling into the night, I’d sleep a little and start all over again in the morning.

I would have benefited from flipped classrooms, a movement gaining popularity 25 years too late for me but in time for a generation desperate for more effective education.

The basic idea of a flipped classroom: For homework, students watch a taped lecture provided by the classroom teacher. During class time, the teacher answers questions about the lecture then offers individualized assistance on assignments or facilitates in-depth discussions and activities.

One of the early adopters and gurus of the movement is Jonathan Bergmann, a 26-year educator, longtime chemistry teacher and co-author of the book Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. We visited last week while he was on the road after a teacher workshop.

“The question I ask teachers is this: What’s the best use of your face-to-face class time?” Bergmann said. “I would argue that that is no longer a teacher standing in front of 30 kids to disseminate a concept.”

Instead, those 30 kids should be able to watch the lecture on their own time, at their own speed (pause and rewind as often as necessary). Then there’s time for application in the classroom.

“The flipped classroom is about the active, engaged stuff you can do in the classroom,” he said. “It’s the interaction between the student and teacher. There’s more time for discussion.”

And more time for hands-on activities. For example, a nutrition teacher can prepare a video on how to make a fruit smoothie. That video is watched at home or in a library — on the computer, on an iPod, on a DVD player — freeing classroom time for actual hands-on cooking. Or a P.E. teacher can cover the rules of a game in a video lecture, freeing the period for actual playing.

In Bergmann’s case, he and his co-teacher, Aaron Sams, were able to free valuable class time for chemistry problems and laboratory experiments. Not only that, he was able to reach individual needs.

“Do you teach to the top kids? Then you lose the bottom kids,” he said. “Teach to the bottom kids? You lose the top kids. For the first 17 years, I taught to the middle.”

After flipping, Bergmann said, his students moved through content at individualized paces. A student has to prove mastery of a unit before moving to the next one. That happens at different speeds for different kids.

Critics of the flipped classroom model often cite socioeconomic barriers, but Bergmann says economics don’t have to be a factor.

“People think kids who are poor can’t do this because of lack of access,” he said. “We can solve that.”

If a child has a computer but no Internet access, offer a flash drive. If they don’t have a computer but have an iPhone or iPod, download lectures to those devices. If they don’t have any kind of handheld technology, burn DVDs and let them watch on televisions. Or keep computer labs open after hours.

“It is a big issue, but it can be solved. The teacher, the school has to be creative in solving access issues,” Bergmann said.

He readily acknowledges that flipped classrooms aren’t the only answer to improving education. But it is an answer.

Teachers who have flipped report fewer discipline issues because kids are more actively engaged. Flip Your Classroom is filled with testimony from teachers who say they have more time to reach struggling students, to help advanced students learn more, to mentor and to coach.

One teacher writes, “I don’t have to go to school and perform five times a day. Instead, I spend my days interacting with and helping my students.”

Bergmann and Sams are in high demand these days, traveling across the country to share their experiences. Bergmann has been in the Dallas area four times this year to conduct training for area districts.

Together they founded the nonprofit Flipped Learning Network ( in an effort to teach teachers how to flip. “Things have to change in education,” Bergmann said. “Schools are going to have to adapt.”

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Three years ago ...

Four-year-old Alyssa, Katie and Noe in September 2009 (Photo by Layne Smith)
Now all three girls are about to begin second grade together.