81-Year-Old Man Working Towards Earning His High School Diploma

A photo of a high school diploma with a graduation cap laying on top of it.

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Abdel-Qader Abu Ajameyah is 81-years-old, a Palestinian retiree with fourteen children and thirty-six grandchildren. At an age when most men begin to rest on their laurels, he is hard at work—at a school desk.

For five hours a day, Abu Ajameyah works towards earning his high school diploma, wearing a suit and tie to his studies every day.

In 1948, he was a student in a village near Ramla, which was at that time in Palestine. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out with the creation of Israel in that year, his family fled to become refugees in the West Bank, and  Abu Ajameyah soon went to work to help his family. For the next fifty years, he sold food and made a good life for his kin.

Today, with grandchildren reaching adulthood and great-grandchildren on the way, he says his goal is to be “on par” with those descendants.

“I want to set an example to generations—never stop learning,” says Abu Ajameyah.

A room has been set aside for him in a local schoolhouse, and an aid helps him by taking dictation, since a recent stroke has made writing difficult for the octogenarian. He took Israel’s national test for the first time last year, but failed to pass. He’s determined this year. There’s a family party on the line. The next exam will be in July.

He has hearty family support. His sons and wife are all working to make sure he can devote himself to his studies.

“We all encourage him and we are all very proud of him,” said Zakaria, one of Abu Ajameyah’s sons.

Abu Ajameyah also has community support—it’s a matter of pride. The illiteracy rate among Palestinian adults is less than 4%, one of the lowest rates in any Arab nation. Stats for Palestinians living in Israeli territory are less clear-cut.

House Representative Wants to Make K-12 Education Optional

An empty classroom.

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Paul Mosley is a newcomer to the Arizona House of Representatives. He’s a Republican from Lake Havasu City, and he’s ready to leave his mark on the state.

A dark and ugly mark.

While Mosley claims to support all walks of school from public to elite, he also thinks that school should be entirely optional. Optional.

“Education used to be a privilege,” he said in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times. “People used to believe getting an education was something you had to be privileged to get, that you had to work hard to get. Now we basically force it down everybody’s throats.

“The number one thing I would like to repeal is the law on compulsory education… I believe education is still a privilege, and the kids who don’t want to be there are a larger distraction to the kids who do want to be there.”

While he criticizes schools for taking over the “personal responsibility” of parents, he does so in the same breath as he acknowledges that schools feed poor children and give them protection for half their waking hours. But he believes that all that is overstepping the responsibilities of the state.

Compulsory education in the United States is nearly four hundred years old. It began with a 1642 law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony requiring parents to raise their children with basic literacy. Two hundred years later, that had evolved to a law requiring every town to have a common school and all children to attend. In 1918, Mississippi was the last state to adopt compulsory education.

Education has never been more important. There are fewer and fewer blue collar jobs every year. The current projection is that by 2020, when this year’s freshmen graduate, 65 percent of all American jobs will require training or school beyond high school.

While Mosley has not yet introduced legislation to make school purely optional, he plans to do so. Arizona is already among the worst educational environments in America. His preferences would send it straight to the dark ages.

5-Year-Old Girl Could Win the Scripps National Spelling Bee

An advertisement for a spelling bee, geared towards children.

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Panglossian. Picaresque. Zephyr. Perestroika. Baedeker. Sarsaparilla. Pernicious. A list of words most adults would have trouble defining, let alone spelling.

But Edith Fuller, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, got all of them right. And she’s only five years old.

Fuller is, as of the weekend of March 4th, the youngest ever qualifier for the famous Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her winning word in the Green Country Regional? “Jnana.” A loan-word from Sanskrit meaning “knowledge” (specifically, philosophy or religious knowledge).

The home-schooled first-grader beat more than 50 other students in the regional spelling bee, some as old as fourteen. She credits her morning routine with her parents, which includes daily word games and study.

“Mommy asked me the words,” Fuller said in an interview with the local news. “And every time I missed one, I would look at it.” But she’s not a spell-bot. She also spoke about loving to play outside and learning about animals. Her parents also spoke about being grateful that they had the time and freedom to pursue this with her.

The final level of the spelling competition will be held near Washington D.C. later this year, between May 30th and June 1st, for a grand prize of a $40,000 cash prize. Winners also take home a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, and a library-worth of university-quality research books.

If Fuller wins, she will unseat the previous record for youngest winner by over a year. Statistically, most competitors are 13.

The Scripps Spelling Bee has been run nearly continuously (they missed three years in WWII) on an annual basis since 1995. Originally called the Courier-Journal Spelling Bee, Scripps Howard Broadcasting Company took over sponsorship of the competition in the early 40s. Unlike many educational competitions, the victors in the competition have remained nearly equal between girls and boys since the Bee’s inception.

Proper Grammar is ‘Racist,’ Says University of Washington

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According to a statement released by the writing center at the University of Washington, Tacoma, there is no “standard” version of the English language. Therefore, the institution argues that proper grammar leads to social hierarchies that perpetuate racism.

“Linguistic and writing research has shown clearly for many decades that there is no inherent ‘standard’ of English. Language is constantly changing. These two facts make it very difficult to justify placing people in hierarchies or restricting opportunities and privileges because of the way people communicate in particular versions of English,” the statement reads.

In a sense, the statement is correct. There are in fact several different spellings, punctuation styles, and grammar rules depending on the region that a person is from. In the U.K., for example, “accessorize” is spelled “accessorise.” Additionally, these rules change over time (e.g. “anchor” used to be spelled “anker” in Middle English).

Dr. Asao Inoue, Director of the Writing Center at the University of Washington, Tacoma, spearheaded the idea. He is the author of Race and Writing Assessment and Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies, both of which won Outstanding Book Awards.

“The anti-racism statement is a document that took over a year to collaboratively create with writing center professional staff and student writing consultants. It was officially put up and incorporated in our work in the fall of 2016, so we are just beginning.”

So far, the University of Washington has stood by the statement. Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Affairs Dr. Jill Purdy remarked that the statement is a “great example of how we are striving to act against racism. Language is the bridge between ideas and action, so how we use words has a lot of influence on what we think and do.”

As can be imagined, the University of Washington’s stance on proper grammar usage has sparked quite a bit of controversy in the department of higher education. Some people love the idea of a more inclusive language, and others hate the idea of improper grammar becoming the norm.

Syrian Refugee Children #ImagineASchool

A picture of refugee children from Syria.

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The Syrian crisis has caused untold damage to not only Syria, but to many of the surrounding countries. Many of the refugees fleeing the war zone into the neighboring country of Lebanon are children. And while their lives may be in less immediate danger outside of Syria, their futures remain uncertain.

That’s due in large part to the fact that 187,000 of those children—almost half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon—are not going to school. Instead, they’re being pushed into manual labor or marriage to help financially support their struggling families.

“Poverty, social exclusion, insecurity, and language barriers are preventing Syrian children from getting an education, leaving an entire generation disadvantaged, impoverished, and at risk of being pushed into early marriage and child labor,” said UNICEF Lebanon Representative Tanya Chapuisat in an interview with Reuters.

In response, UNICEF has come up with an original idea to spread the word about the importance of education for these Syrian refugee children.

UNICEF’s #ImagineASchool project is an interactive online documentary website that allows visitors to watch and listen to interviews with Syrian children about their desire to attend school. Filmed during the summer of 2016, the #ImagineASchool project involved gathering more than 80 children together for traditional class photos. Each class was photographed twice: once with all the children, and once with just the children in that group who were actively attending school.

The results were shocking. Whereas each individual class might contain 8-12 students, the number actually going to school was about half that for each class.

“You risk losing an entire generation,” lamented Chapuisat in the documentary footage. “A generation that will not achieve their potential, a generation that won’t be able to contribute to society. A generation that won’t be able to educate their children in the same way going forward.”

The photographers and filmographers noticed a distinct difference between the children they interviewed who had been to school and those who hadn’t. Children without systematic education had trouble telling a cohesive narrative and answering questions. Those who attended school did not.

UNICEF is working hard to create more opportunities for these students. The organization is present in 1,300 schools and 2,000 informal tent settlements in Lebanon. In 2015-2016, UNICEF and Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education supported about 150,000 Syrian refugee children and about 197,000 Lebanese children in enrolling and staying in school. UNICEF covers all associated educational fees as well as providing learning materials, enrollment support, school transport, school uniforms, bags, and school supplies.

Their work isn’t just about providing education, though. It’s also about keeping these refugee children away from dangerous physical labor and early marriage, both of which can detract from a child’s ability to flourish in adulthood. With refugees already at a disadvantage due to the language barrier (many Syrian children grew up learning Arabic, while schools in Lebanon generally teach in French and English), it’s vital that these children be given every opportunity to learn and adapt to their new homes.

Nearly half a million Syrian children between the ages of 3 and 17 now live in Lebanon. According to UNICEF, all 1,283 Lebanese schools have opened their doors to refugees, who only need to show an ID to be enrolled. But they will also need the support of organizations like UNICEF to overcome the stigma of being poor refugees and to be able to build a better life for themselves and their families.

CommonLit Paves the Way in New Age Literacy

A photo of a mother and her young daughter reading on an iPad.

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The Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program is a little-known program being run by the U.S. Department of Education, with a 26 million dollar budget, which is small change at the federal level. Its goals are to encourage the invention of programs for improving literacy levels in high-risk schools. Focus is divided between encouraging early reading skills in the young and motivating reading interest in older students, and it encourages this with competitive grants for innovators.

A recent recipient, CommonLit, bears a good look. CommonLit is a three-year-old educational technology (edtech) nonprofit with aims to use software and apps to encourage students to read more and read more efficiently. Students with accounts can track their reading and receive assignments that are tailor-made to their current reading level. Teachers and parents can track their progress and get tips about what needs reinforcing.

CommonLit includes its own library, which is full of donated and open-source content for all reading levels. Everything from fiction to current news. Users or educators can sort content by grade, genre, theme, or lexicon, which is a particularly useful metric. Perhaps unique among edtech softwares, they also allow users to print any material they need, which makes it more accessible to the millions of students without Internet at home.

What CommonLit hopes to do with the nearly $4 million grant they received from the DOE through the IALP is to make their content and service available completely free to any school, family, or student who needs it.

“We don’t want to put the best parts of our product behind a paywall,” said founder Michelle Brown, gently denouncing ‘freemium’ access platforms, which provide only a percentage of their features for free to end users.

As of this September, CommonLit reports more than 22,000 teachers signed up in more than 12,000 schools. The nonprofit is ready to expand, and the DOE grant means that they can bring more content to more who need it.

Translating “Bored”

Bored young woman in classroom

“I’m bored” is a lot more complicated than it might seem.
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The bored student is an archetype. Slouched in their chair, doodling on their desk, dog ate their homework…. Boredom is a symbol of the biggest barrier to learning there is: non-engagement. And it’s common to blame the kid. If they just tried harder to take an interest, they wouldn’t be bored, and they would be learning more. But there are so many reasons for non-engagement, and so many translations for “bored.”

“The homework was boring.” Possible translations: We’re going over concepts I mastered so long ago that this feels insulting. The teacher is wasting my time. Or: I don’t see how this assignment is teaching me anything. It feels like busy work. Or: I don’t see any real world application to this skill in the way it’s being taught.

“Writing is boring.” Possible translations: The way I’ve been taught writing doesn’t work for me. Or: The topics I’ve been ordered to write about feel irrelevant to me, usually because they’ve been stripped of context.

“Math class is boring.” Possible translations: I need to be taught math in a different way than the class standard. Or: I’m struggling and don’t want to admit that I am, so I will attack the instruction instead.

“My teacher is boring.” Possible translations: Sometimes, teachers just are very, very boring. Or: Their teaching style works at odds with my learning needs. Or: The teacher is not invested in the subject, and that is obvious to us students.

And sometimes “I’m bored,” really does mean just “I am choosing not to engage.” Sometimes it’s because the student doesn’t know how to engage, and that’s something that can be addressed, altered, and improved. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to keep the translations in mind and do everything they can before assuming that the problem is on the student’s end.

The Third-Person Singular “They” is Here to Stay

Word "focus" in a dictionary

Since English isn’t a gendered language, use of the word “they” has caught on.
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For some traditional English teachers, the use of the word “they” as a singular third-person pronoun might be upsetting, but according to the American Dialect Society, that usage is here to stay. In fact it’s so valuable, they made it their Word of the Year for 2015.

Many Americans have been using it in speech for years, effectively as a gender-neutral pronoun, something that English lacks. This may be because English, unlike most other languages, is not gendered, and although there are some nouns with specific gender connotations (largely professions, like actor and actress), those nouns do not a gendered language make.

Traditionally, English speakers were supposed to use “his or her” to indicate nonspecific gender for a subject or object in a sentence. This is, as everyone who has ever tried to use it knows, incredibly awkward and can utterly ruin the feel of a sentence.

But using “they” as the third-person singular has become ubiquitous, to the chagrin of some grammatically-inclined people. But those people need to remember something that far too many people forget: Languages evolve, especially living languages like English.

And it’s not just a silly fad, either. Not only does it make English ever so slightly easier, it also serves an inclusive role. Many people, especially trans, gender fluid, or agender people, don’t like to use he or she to refer to themselves. Since, again, there wasn’t a gender neutral pronoun in English, they didn’t have anywhere to turn, short of adopting more appropriate pronouns from other languages or making them up–habits which generally don’t stick. Language is essential to expressing identity, and it can also be essential to oppressing that identity, which is something that everyone, but especially teachers, should be avoiding.

Children’s Book with “Happy” Slaves Dropped

Cover of A Birthday Cake for George Washington

“A Birthday Cake for George Washingon” is being removed from circulation for its inaccurate portrayal of slavery.
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A children’s book from the Scholastic Corporation that portrayed George Washington’s slaves as happy is being pulled from shelves following consumer outrage. A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of Hercules, a chef slave, and his daughter as they prepare such a cake for the president’s birthday. The book received harsh criticism for its portrayal of Washington’s relationship with his slaves and their attitude about the work they did.

The story follows the two characters as they work with other slaves to find an alternative to sugar. Though the story is intended to be a loving relationship between father and daughter, the story ends with Washington congratulating Hercules on the cake, to which Hercules replies, “An honor and a privilege, sir.” People criticized the book for its depiction of the characters and their relationship to the president.

After an outpouring of criticism and anger, Scholastic has decided to pull the book. “Without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the company said in a press release. “We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.”

Andrea Davis Pinkney, Scholastic’s vice president and executive director, wrote a blog earlier this month in defense of A Birthday Cake for George Washington’s intentions. She wrote that Hercules was well-known, respected, and admired in Philadelphia, and that the book discusses a holiday that often comes up in classroom settings.

Davis Pinkney also addresses the art, done by illustrator Vanessa Newton: “Vanessa also took great care in her research, which revealed that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. This why Vanessa chose to portray them as happy people. They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”

However, despite Newton’s artistic intent, the book is a troubling retelling of history that is too simplified, even for the young reader who would not yet understand the gravity of what she is reading.

Hercules eventually escaped from Washington’s plantation, but his daughter Delia remained a slave for the rest of her life.

Dual Language Programs Could Mean Higher Graduation Rates

Office supplies and flashcards with words in multiple languages

Studies show that being bilingual gives students a variety of advantages.
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Most schools around the nation teach almost exclusively in English, with the option for some students to pay for after-school language-learning programs or to take a language as an elective. As a result, students who enter schools without knowing English as their first language are less likely to do well in school or even graduate. But some schools, like those in the Woodburn School District, Oregon, are implementing dual-language programs—and seeing academic performance rise.

Woodburn has found that its dual-language programs not only help students learning English do better: they also foster children’s understanding of and appreciation for other cultures and other languages. Additionally, dual-language programs can help to close segregation gaps between students, segregation that places native English speakers in one room and all students learning English in another where they may never get the support they actually need.

“By becoming a dual-language district, we’ve made a statement about how much we value diversity and different viewponts,” said Chuck Ransom, Woodburn’s superintendent. “We’ve been a big player in helping to bring prosperity and solidarity.” Students in the programs are more likely to embrace diversity, too, through cross-cultural and cross-lingual friendships.

Learning new languages is proven to bolster children’s cognitive abilities, too. Some research suggests that young children who are bilingual developed the concept of “object permanence” more quickly than children who spoke only one language. Increased skills in critical thinking, creativity, and ability to adapt have also been observed.

But while dual-language programs are increasing in number around the United States, they still represent only a pocket of the nation’s education. The quest to find teachers who are qualified to teach science in math in languages that aren’t English isn’t easy, and Ransom is hoping to work with universities to find qualified teachers or get students on the path to becoming teachers who can instruct higher-level classes in other languages.