One of my favorite things to do with my largely unstructured pandemic days and nights is read, then talk with people about books. Online. I’m always looking for new titles, recommendations of someone’s old favorite—and also thumbs-down reviews, especially when they’re about books everyone seems to be reading or praising (lookin’ at you, Bridgertons).
I’ve never been good about choosing my 10 favorite anything as the year turns over. But I did do a lot of intentional reading in 2020 (meaning I had to order library books online and wait three months for them to become available for curbside pickup—or purchase them). While some of these are new titles, some are recommendations from friends that I finally got around to.
Non-fiction fell into three categories—that big bucket of reading about bias and prejudice, “school stuff” and (unfortunately) books about Donald Trump. The only book I read this year about our Crime Boss President that might have lasting utility was Hiding in Plain Sight: The invention of Donald Trump and the erosion of America (Sarah Kendzior). Kendzior has been absolutely prescient about all of Trump’s behavior. I’m almost scared to re-read it, because she got so much of this right, back when there was still hope that cherished institutions would save the day. On January 6th, she was proved right, yet again.
I read Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s great migration, which made me understand my own hometown and why people lived where they lived, in that town—plus so much more. And I just finished Oluo’s Mediocre: The Dangerous legacy of white male power. While her earlier book is a straightforward invitation to keep talking about race, dense with good ideas but written from a personal vantage point, Mediocre covers more scholarly turf. It’s a broad-ranging collection of evidence that white men don’t like it when you challenge their authority and power. If you’re either a woman or a BIPOC, you’ll find plenty to relate to. Oluo keeps the focus on making her case—but if you read this book, as I did, during the lead-up to the insurrection at the Capitol, she makes a terrible and prescient argument for what just happened. Highly recommended.
Now for the fun part—fiction. I am completely unsnobbish about fiction (as you will note). If it’s a good story, I’m in. Here are nine books and two authors I have enjoyed immensely during the Great Lockdown.
It’s a particular kind of irony that I read A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) during the pandemic year, as the aforementioned gentleman spent a long time (50 years?) in a single hotel, by government decree. I can relate. All the people who recommended the book were right—it’s a classic.
Chances Are (Richard Russo) is a minor novel by a major author, but I loved this one best of all his books. It involves a mystery and a weekend meeting, 50 years later, of three men who were in college together, in the late 1960s. In other words, three characters the same age as me—which is, of course, why I loved this book so much. By the book’s ending, we’ve been dragged through American history, and asked if any of us, given a chance to do it over again, would have made different choices.
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) If all fantasy books were like this, I would read nothing else. Imaginative, spooky, colorful, mysterious—with the lingering scent of caramel corn.
The Overstory (Richard Powers) I admit that I had to read this in chunks, with periods for digestion. But every time I went back, there were amazing new things to consider, mostly about my role in the ecology of my home, my world and my life. Truly a transformative book; worth the effort.
The Searcher (Tana French) This one is getting lukewarm reviews, but I am a huge Tana French fan, and if this book stretches beyond her usual Dublin Murder Squad m.o. it’s fun to see what she can do with a more introspective, character-driven mystery. Besides, there’s a wonderful kid in this book—Tana French has nailed a 13-year old better than anyone I’ve read in years.
Olive, Again(Elizabeth Strout) With the possible exception of Stewart O’Nan, nobody writes stories about old ladies better than Elizabeth Strout. If you liked Olive the first time, you’ll like this one, too.
Normal People(Sally Rooney) I am actually surprised I liked this book so much. Rooney’s earlier stuff was kind of tedious, mostly millennial relationship angst, in beautiful prose. But this book—although still about relationship building among young people–had an aching poignancy around the two central characters that anyone who was ever 18 and itching to be loved will recognize.
Sourdough(Robin Sloan) This was just a delightful read, a story with a moral as well as great characters, twisty plotting and a magic sourdough starter. The idea that a colony of micro-organisms could change your life was utterly believable in 2020.
One series I will always pick up is John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport books, which are reliably 4-star reads, with the occasional 5-star designation. Masked Prey, the latest, makes that cut. The plot centers around keeping a senator’s teenage daughter safe from a right-wing looney whom she has attracted by becoming an ‘influencer.’ The parallels—intended and unintended—between the storyline and the actual news were eerie.
Liz Moore, who wrote Long Bright Riverand The Unseen World, deserves to be added to anyone’s list of authors to try. The two books are both delicious, even though they’re completely different. River is a cop story unlike other cop stories, and World is hard to describe—a mix of science fiction and a tender story about unusual people and families. Both are excellent.
And, finally, Donna Leon. Early on—last March—I was having trouble reading. It was difficult to muster up an attention span. Complaining about this on-line yielded a whole bunch of ‘what to read that will take your mind off the prospect of being locked up for months’ suggestions.
A guy I went to high school with suggested Donna Leon’s Commissioner Brunetti series (thanks, Doug), noting that it was set in Venice. Bingo. I read eight this year—again, reliably good, with a couple of them outstanding. The first book in the series is pretty good, but jumping ahead reveals that Leon has really honed her character and made her work richer. Feel free not to read in order.
God, I hate that phrase—stick to your guns! —because it represents everything that triggered the Capitol breach on Wednesday: Intransigence. The false glory of never yielding, even when your case is weak or based on falsehoods. Violence as means of accruing power.
In the past two days, as conversations sprang up and grew heated on social media, our new town square, a friend (a moderate Republican I’ve known for 15 years, through education channels) posted this:
Heartbreaking to see violent crowds breaking into US capitol. Reminds me of Vietnam protests and Kent State.
More than enough people immediately countered this—the two are nowhere close to comparable—but there were also several commenters who noted that the vast majority of Republicans are good people, appalled by low-rent protestors, who don’t represent the modern Republican party. This isn’t the party my father taught me to love, back in the day. Tsk, tsk.
I pushed back: The time for Republicans to redeem themselves was years ago. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney — who is hardly centrist— the entire party has been complicit. Feckless. They have incented domestic terrorism and protected liars.
I don’t know how you could have watched as nearly half of Congressional Republicans, hours after their very lives and the processes of American democracy were endangered, continue to promote the fallacy that the election was not free and fair, and come to any other conclusion. It is no longer OK to support the Republican party.
Republicans have utterly failed to come and get their boy. We’re seeing editorial columns and think pieces say the same thing, all over the country. It’s on them. From the NY Times, yesterday:
The modern Republican Party, in its systematic efforts to suppress voting, and its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of elections that it loses, is similarly seeking to maintain its political power on the basis of disenfranchisement. Wednesday’s insurrection is evidence of an alarming willingness to pursue that goal with violence.
My friend’s response: This is not true. I hate it when you say Republicans. I am a Republican and I don’t think it’s right to lump everyone into one category because of extremists. It does no good to be just as accusatory as those you don’t agree with. Please stop saying this. It is hurtful and certainly not applicable in my case.
So—here’s where the rubber meets the road. Do you go ahead and destroy a friendship by sticking to your principles? Depends, I think, on how deeply you believe in what you’re defending.
I unfriended a woman who revealed herself as an anti-vaxxer a few months ago. I’ve cut ties to any number of folks who are apologists for ‘polite’ racism—the ‘all lives matter’ folks. I’ve blocked people in my social circle who trashed our governor because they wanted to go out to eat. I’ve sent out the same credible link about what Antifa is and isn’t to dozens of ill-informed folks.
I also have acquaintances who have publicly experienced a come-to-Jesus moment and relinquished their ties to the Republican party. That’s not to say they won’t be lured back, in the next election cycle, when (fingers crossed) Joe Biden gets the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed, or their taxes go up—but I give all kinds of credit to people who publicly stand up against a party gone so far off the rails, even if they once voted reliably R.
As I said, Facebook is the new town square. It’s where people forge relationships, where minds and hearts are changed. The rise of Parler, Gab and TheDonald when FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc. started aggressively fact-checking and suspending accounts are proof of that.
It’s also a dangerous minefield, full of misinformation and opportunity for bitter conflict. As Tristan Harris said, in The Social Dilemma,maybe the only cure for the treacherous spread of lies and propaganda on social media is the opportunity to immediately counter them, on social media. The cause is the cure.
I’m not sure that’s true—but I don’t believe that taking oneself out of the game, permanently, by shutting down your account and pretending to be above the fray does much good. Breaks are good, but for genuine internal peace or supporting causes that mean the most in shaping our lives, refusing to be part of the conversation just means you have no say in the solutions. Also, the only people who can safely take themselves out of the political discussion right now are those with privilege and resources.
What happens in the voting booth is and always should be private. But nobody is born Republican—it’s a deliberate choice to declare allegiance to the party and what it represents, right now. Jonathon Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, ponders these questions:
Why do ideas such as ‘fairness’ and ‘freedom’ mean such different things to different people? Why do we come to blows over politics and religion? We often find it hard to get along because our minds are hardwired to be moralistic, judgmental and self-righteous. Haidt explores how morality evolved to enable us to form communities, and how moral values are not just about justice and equality–for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty matter more.
This makes sense to me. I admit to being moralistic and self-righteous (not good things). I do evaluate justice, fairness and equality as far more important than respect for authority, purity or loyalty. Haidt offers a window into why someone would still claim that Republicans, as a group, are a worthy organization: when deep loyalty and respect for authority are the reason for forming a community, modern-day Republicans are indeed way ahead of any political party in history.
And you can see an echo of this in online conversations everywhere: People who change the subject, tilting it away from contentious talk about justice. People who soothe inflamed tempers, who reinforce relationships in spite of sharp political disagreement, who leap to defend someone whose feelings may have been hurt. These are people who should be incensed by what Republicans have done to their jobs as public school teachers, the health of their friends and families, our fragile democratic republic—but they’re avoiding active conflict in the name of civility and loyalty.
Well, folks. What’s at stake right now is truth. That’s not a rhetorical flourish. It’s about what happened on Wednesday, when millions were disenfranchised by people who lied for political gain, then lied again after the most sacred stage of the American experiment had been desecrated.
Republicans, do you believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election? Your party says it doesn’t. And your party isn’t your grandma, someone you have to love in spite of idiosyncrasies or misunderstandings. It’s not your church, where you overlook the rules about birth control because going to church connects you to your family heritage. Your party is controlling the lives and fortunes of millions of Americans who have not had a choice. And it’s spent four years covering up for an evil, destructive demagogue. Fish or cut bait.
This was my second response (after 24 hours of thinking it over) to the original post:
Sorry–but at this moment in American History, declaring that you are one of the ‘good’ Republicans does nothing to alleviate the danger and damage that Republicans have fomented.
Saying there are some good Republicans is like saying there are some good racists. Or some good anti-vaxxers. Or some good Nazis. Think about all those quiet villagers who lived near Dachau, who claimed to believe they were living near a work camp. That’s where we are–this is Trump’s Reichstag moment.
I might have been willing to agree with your statement–and feel that I was merely disagreeing, politically, with the Republican party–until a year ago, when not even 15 or 20 Republican senators, from all over the country, were willing to convict and remove Donald Trump in the impeachment hearings, after he extorted Ukrainian officials for personal political gain.
I might have had some sympathy for hardcore conservatives if they hadn’t forced people into life-threatening situations, refusing to give them enough to survive on during the pandemic, at the direction of Mitch McConnell. I might feel differently if a majority of Republicans in Congress hadn’t signed on to a patently false statement about the election results, triggering yesterday’s coup. Yes, coup.
Of course, all three of the Republicans who represent me in the MI legislature and Congress signed, knowing full well that MI changed its mind about Trump in 2020. I’ve seen long guns in my own statehouse, and my Democratic governor the target of kidnapping and execution. Organized by the hands of Republicans. Not extremists—Republicans.
Where are these ‘good’ Republicans? I can tell you where they are right now: on TV, blaming all of this on the Capitol Police, and on Mayor Bowser for not being ‘prepared.’ Declaring that the 25th amendment is too cumbersome. Resigning, to avoid taking a stance. In the meantime, for the past two months, genuine preparedness for the next administration, a competent one that will serve both Democrats and Republicans, has been blocked. Costing us tens of thousands of lives. Threatening national security.
I’m not saying that there isn’t room for a party with conservative beliefs and practices–I’m saying that Republicans, the citizens who still call themselves centrists and moderates and those who embrace the party of their fathers, all look like Susan Collins today: Enablers. Weak. Supporters (by omission) of insurrection. Shame on all of them.
I probably lost a friend today—and that’s too bad. She’s smart and feisty– I’ve learned a great deal from her about issues in education that matter to both of us. But what matters even more is truth.
So be it.
Mi Senate Majority leader Mike Shirkey (R- Clarklake) meets with protestors in the gallery of the Michigan Capitol.
Especially his choice for Secretary of Education—but lay off the nit-picky nastiness around the others, too. Yes, YOU might have chosen others. Your favorite candidate may have been left behind. But much of Cabinet-choosing is inside baseball, beyond the ken of Joe Citizen. Stop bellyaching.
There are always Cabinet members who don’t pan out, who are gone in a year—and there are people Biden wants who give me serious pause, too. Biden was far from my favorite Democratic candidate, but he displayed qualities which made him President-elect in the most contentious election in modern history. It doesn’t serve us well to flyspeck untried and unconfirmed Cabinet members, because there’s someone we imagine might be better. I’m taking a wait and see approach.
Frankly, 90 per cent of the people who are raking prospective Cabinet members across specific, overheated coals don’t know much about any of the nominees. But they’re willing to retweet some old error, a comment from years ago– or speculate about just how bad someone will be, based on some pretty limited evidence, or a single issue.
Not every advisor and policy chief will be anxious to break new ground. Some of them are going to try to please multiple constituencies. Most of them will be lucky to reverse a stunning amount of damage, a lot of which has yet to be unearthed. They also have to pass through a confirmation process with a hostile Congress.
What is important right now is remembering whose policies and advice left us with the mess we’re in, and working to right the ship. I still have hope for an FDR-level change, eventually, but there’s work to be done first.
Like most teachers, I’d never heard of Dr. Miguel Cardona until about four days before he was nominated. But unlike many teachers, I was reluctant to name ‘my’ preferred candidate for ED Secretary. I have seen utterly inappropriate people elevated as ideal candidates–most of whom, thankfully, understand the range and scope of the job, as well as the politics, and said so.
I heard Cardona’s acceptance speech on the radio and it felt sincere, even inspiring, to me. Biden appears to be honoring his pledge to nominate someone with classroom experience. And frankly, I don’t think there is a magic number of years in the classroom that makes a person qualified to be EdSec. Cardona enthusiastically trained to be a teacher via a public university—he didn’t come into education as a temp. To me, that’s enough.
Scrolling back through all the Secretaries, in Republican and Democratic administrations, he seems pretty close to what teachers have always said was essential, and what they wanted: someone who believes in the critical importance of public education and understands the people who do the work. Cardona will be only the 12th Secretary of Education, but compared to the previous eleven, we’re getting closer to that ideal.
The Secretary of Education has little control over policy decisions that belong to states—but the rise of federal power in education policy has undeniably been steady, and onerous, for the past two decades. Cardona, as advocate for equity in public education, could be a powerful voice in reducing unnecessary (federally mandated) testing and creating conditions that make it safer for a return to in-person schooling. This might begin with federal oversight over real—not ‘alternative’—CDC recommendations, or, say, rolling out priority vaccination clinics for teachers as first step toward getting kids back to school.
My personal take on this: way too many people do not understand how inequitable virtual schooling is. There are high percentages of public school kids who do not have access. And when I say ‘access,’ I don’t mean an internet hotspot via a bus parked near the projects. I mean enough devices in the home, some privacy and quiet, someone to help you when you run into trouble, and—most of all—adequate bandwidth to run all the programming.
Biden seems to have mostly sent us nominees that will be able to get through the confirmation process. There is SO much work to be done. I might eat my words in a year or two (Ghost of Arne Duncan floats into view), but for right now, I don’t want to waste time wishing someone else was president-elect, choosing candidates whose perspectives mirror my own. As someone once said, it is what it is.
Joe really got into it, adding a lot of detail about placement of single strands of tinsel, and how this was a midnight tradition handed down from his father. The future first lady was bravely smiling, in political wife fashion, but she had that look women get when they want their husbands to stop rambling on.
But personally—I was charmed. It was geezer talk, all right, but it’s refreshing to hear the next Leader of the Free World get all nostalgic about past Christmases and his father. Joe Biden is an unabashedly sentimental empath—and an empath is what we need when there are monsters lurking.
When Joe Biden started getting specific about tinsel, I flashed to my mom. My mother was a post-war bride who saved tinsel, year to year, tied with ribbon. When the newspapers (remember them?) published stories about the high lead content in old-style tinsel, she phased it out, but prior to that she was a single-strand person, carefully doling out the silvery magic, making it last, teetering on her step stool.
Still—all major religious and cultural groups have some kind of ‘turning of the light’ festival, often featuring a hopeful story, feasting, music and merriment. A friend who identifies as a Pagan humanist celebrates the Winter Solstice and puts up a Yule Tree—which from the road looks just like every Christmas tree on her block. When she put a picture of it up on Facebook, however, I was surprised at how many commenters poked at her terminology—reactions ranging from cynical snottiness to genuine antagonism.
Donald Trump knew what he was doing when he bragged that under his reign tenure in office, it would once again be OK to say Merry Christmas. He understood, at some level, the mystical, murky power of nostalgia, and the distress of having your cherished memories and beliefs challenged. He also pumped up the idea of a threatened majority–Santa Claus Matters!
The truth is that people whose memories do not include candlelit midnight masses and glorious, present-saturated dawns with all the trimmings are American citizens, too—and when it comes to family holiday celebrations, religious belief matters less than resources and circumstances. Christmas and other winter holidays are fueled by memory as much as reality.
On Twitter yesterday, a guy named @MohammadHussain wrote this: Growing up, my Muslim family never celebrated Christmas. This year I am not going home, because pandemic, so my roommates are teaching me how to have my first proper Christmas. I am approaching this with anthropological precision.
Hussain’s Tweet thread is hilarious, including the observation that Christmas ornaments fall into two groups: the “fillers” and the “keepers”. The fillers are the generic ones. The keepers are meant to be more special and unique. This second stream is stored in your family’s reliquary to be one day passed on to the children.
In our family reliquary, there are the usual travel souvenirs and construction-paper photo frames. Because I taught band and choir, half the keepers are music-related. There’s also a chipped Hot Wheels rendition of the General Lee (the orange Dodge Charger that the Dukes of Hazzard kept airborne), attached to a string, and hung on a Christmas tree, back in the 1990s by my son, who’s always been a car guy.
Christmas is perfect only in memory. And sometimes—like the Christmas between the diagnosis of my dad’s brain cancer at Thanksgiving, and his death in early January—the memory is dark and riven with sorrow. But it’s still there, reminding me that healing is possible, if you give it enough time and eggnog.
Social media has been filled with trees and lights and So Many Packages. Plus an out-of-control festival of baking. On Tuesday, I will be baking my mom’s caramel butter cookies to take to the local nursing home.
Lest you think my mother was a creative master baker—no. She was an indifferent 1950s cook. Lots of jello, dishes based on cream of something soup, and pedestrian box-mix cakes. But at some point in the 1960s, she was given a cookie press, and I was there watching her (probably because of the novelty) attempt to make caramel butter cookies from the little booklet that came in the box with the press.
Pressing out cookie shapes is harder than it looks. The dough must be the right consistency. She tried adding water. Then extra flour. Then she put the dough and the press in the fridge. The dough went from a food-colored toothpaste-ish ooze to the texture of chilled, unset cement. The cookies were brightly colored disaster-blobs. But I can’t remember ever laughing so hard, tears running down our cheeks. And when my mother died, in 2000, the one thing I wanted was her cookie press.
I was tempted to begin this reflection by saying ‘some of my best friends are Republicans’—but that’s not true, these days. I myself voted for years in the Republican primary, because it was the only way to have some say in who would be representing me, in my ruby-red district. My friends and family run the gamut from fire-breathing leftists to what we in Michigan call Milliken Republicans, after our longest serving, environmentally progressive governor.
Unlike the classic maturation template–moving from idealistic liberalism as a young person toward pragmatism, security and conservatism while aging– I seem to be going in the opposite direction. Fewer and fewer people in my inner circle cop to the label ‘Republican’—with or without qualifying adjectives.
Perhaps what is most true is this: Republicans used to be different.
Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, signed a major Civil Rights bill and promoted peace at critical foreign policy junctures, saying that war was ‘brutal, futile and stupid.’ My kinda guy. Unfortunately, he left office when I was in the fourth grade.
It wasn’t our institutions or norms (things conservative Republicans used to revere) that saved us from a second Trump term where absolutely nothing gets done to benefit the people of these United States, although the courts did their part.
The flaw is vulnerability to party politics. It turns out that if a majority of members of at least one body of Congress exhibits a higher loyalty to its party than to Congress, Congress will not function as a reliable check on a president of that same party. This was what happened with Mr. Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate.
But–what about the Lincoln Project and its needle-sharp anti-Trump ads? What about Michael Steele and Steve Schmidt and John Kasich? What about all the other Democrat-come-latelys?
That’s the third thing: Please stop with the admiration for Brad Raffensperger types—he merely did his job, and is now trying to re-burnish his Republican credentials by trashing Stacey Abrams and her righteous quest to, you know, make it possible for everyone who’s eligible to vote. He’s just one of the most visible Republicans to back away slowly from the Trump administration, pretending that he wasn’t 100% on board, weaseling around with voter purges and shutting down polling sites.
And that’s the last thing: Democrats persist in trying to be nice, to find common ground, to work cooperatively, yada yada. In a different age—say, a few decades ago—this was actually possible. But not after Republicans broke our political system. Gleefully.
I see you raising your hand over there, asking who ‘we’ are. Or saying that Democrats have also, throughout our history, been corrupt and greedy and feckless. Or that all political parties are flawed. To you, I say: Bingo. The perfect time to re-build a party or start a new one is now, after the SIX WEEKS it took to (probably) nail down a secure national election result. Go for it.
In December 1958, almost exactly three years after I entered the House of Representatives, the first American National Election Study, initiated by the University of Michigan, found that 73 percent of Americans trusted the federal government “to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.” As of December 2017, the same study, now conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, found that this number had plummeted to just 18 percent.
There are many reasons for this dramatic decline: the Vietnam War, Watergate, Ronald Reagan’s folksy but popular message that government was not here to help, the Iraq War, and worst of all by far, the Trumpist mind-set. These jackasses who see “deep state” conspiracies in every part of government are a minority of a minority, yet they are now the weakest link in the chain of more than three centuries of our American republic. Ben Franklin was right. The Founders gave us a precious but fragile gift. If we do not protect it with constant vigilance, we will most certainly lose it.
I saw former Governor Bill Milliken in downtown Traverse City a couple of years ago, shortly after he was unceremoniously removed from the local Republican party by a Trump-supporting party hack, after being quoted in the newspaper about his decision to vote for Hillary Clinton. He was coming out of Grand Traverse Pie Company, holding what was probably his dinner. I was tempted to speak to him, to say I was a fan, but declined, thinking he might appreciate a little privacy and a tuna-fish sandwich.
He died about a year ago, in his 90s. I am sorry I didn’t take the opportunity to thank him for his service. He was one of the good ones.
Early in 2016, when it became apparent that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president, the question emerged: just what percentage of the population actually endorsed his brand of brash white nationalism? It always felt impossible that more than a small sliver of the country would honestly embrace (not just tolerate) his behaviors and proclamations.
There was a gut-wrenching piece in the Washington Post yesterday about a mask mandate in Mitchell, South Dakota. If there ever were a place where neighborly norms and civility ought to reign, where people would be willing to help others, it’s small-town South Dakota. A friend of mine used to live there. Her husband was a Methodist minister. If people in Mitchell were like Donna and Dick, they’d be masked up, washing their hands, and dropping food off on ill neighbor’s porches.
But it turns out that they’re not. In fact, many of them are adamantly anti-mask, anti-science. As beloved coaches and grandmothers are dying, they’re insisting on falsehoods. These people aren’t evil, and it’s wrong to dismiss them as dumb and worthless. They are still following community norms. It seems to me that what’s missing is a genuine education—accompanied by a widespread terror that education will change minds and hearts.
Because education has the power to do that. It’s not automatic. But if you have absorbed the habit of being curious and interested in things, education has the power to change your mind. Not always in predictable ways.
When I went off to Central Michigan University, in 1969, I thought I understood what was true and correct in the world. I thought there was a good reason why we were in Vietnam (to stop communism, which I naturally believed was evil). I thought that men in Congress (and they were pretty much all white men) knew more than I did about war and the economy and the rule of law, and were best positioned to make important decisions about war and peace.
I saw my high school classmates and guys who graduated a year or two earlier go off to ‘serve their country’ and saw parents proud of those sons who (like the previous generation who fought in WWII or Korea) ‘did the right thing.’ I saw a couple of them come home in a box, too. We were supposed to be really proud of them because they ‘gave’ their lives, at the same age I was, before having a chance to work, own a home or start a family.
All of those were a result of norms, ethics and civility.
During my freshman year, I started listening to people other than my parents, Walter Cronkite and local politicians. I stopped believing that there was one right way to look at everything. My sociology prof introduced me to Margaret Mead, and I went to lectures, to see Jane Fonda, and William Kunstler. I also went to church.
My professors started pushing on my thinking in both liberal AND conservative directions–after the Kunstler lecture, my philosophy professor called him a ‘greasy ambulance chaser.’ I started to understand the structure of argument and evidence, and to read and talk about things that were wildly divergent from the middle of the road, white, working-class, church-going discourse I’d been surrounded by. Cracks started to form in my mental model of what was true and correct.
The big issue then was, of course, Vietnam. I began to wonder what good it had done for the neighbor kid–Joey Hoeker–to have gone to war and been killed. I grew up with him. He was a big, goofy guy, a couple years ahead of me in school. I found it difficult to believe that he went to Vietnam to fight communism. He went to Vietnam because he was 18, had a low draft number and wasn’t (as they said out loud, back then) ‘college material.’ And he died.
For the first time, it occurred to me that tens of thousands of boys who were killed were just like Joey–kids who didn’t have big plans for their lives, and so were sent into harm’s way. I started showing up for anti-war demonstrations on that basis alone—long before I read about Robert McNamara and the politics of war, I was playing ‘Fortunate Son’ on my little two-speed record player.
I started questioning pretty much everything and reading all the time, including a lot of stuff that wasn’t assigned, like MS. Magazine, newly available in the CMU library. Having access to a top-flight university library was key to any transformative impact on my character. In case you think I was a flaming radical, I also dropped out of school and got married at age 20.
All this happened to me at mild-mannered CMU which was hardly a hotbed of revolutionary thought. I would have to say that most of the students in my music classes or my dorm did NOT go to demonstrations and were uncomfortable with anti-war, anti-government rhetoric. Some of their brothers were serving. Some of them were academically rootless, only in college to avoid the draft and because their parents could afford it. Their dads and moms were Republicans. They claimed to be apolitical.
Norms, ethics and civility were the order of the day.
But–for me–it was education, my first opportunity to soak in diversity of opinion, to dare (and dare is the right word) to think that maybe what I’d been taught, and believed, was mostly whitewash. It was where I learned that a call to ‘unity’ is often whitewash, too, and that norms are not necessarily moral or fair, even though everyone agrees to abide by them.
We’re now looking at the after-effects of Trump’s end game. It will take years to erase the illiberal, undemocratic policies and we’ve suffered unimaginable losses. And the percentage of people willing to believe his con is larger than it was before. Calling for civil behavior before untangling the moral questions that emerged from this election is silly. We have some educating to do.
It’s not a long book—217 pages plus another 40 pages of notes and references—and it’s eminently readable. It would be an excellent choice for anyone who cares about public education—parents and grandparents, policy-makers, teachers and school leaders—to use as concise handbook explaining what the hell happened to public schools over the last couple of decades. There’s a bit of history, a good look at failed-over-time policies, and a clear analysis of the intersecting factors that got us to this point.
Who wants to see public education die, and why? Berkshire and Schneider tell you, but like all interesting and disturbing stories, you have to trace backward first, to the origins and mission of public schooling and the conflicting values America assigned to education, as a start-up nation. This sounds tedious, but it’s not. In short, succinct chapters, the authors spend the first quarter of the book laying the groundwork for the rapid changes—the dismantling of a once-noble idea—we’ve seen in the 21st century.
Ernest Boyer once said that public school is a stage upon which Americans play out their most deep-rooted ethics, and the book deftly illustrates that principle. It takes us through the decline of labor unions, the elevation of the deregulated gig economy and ‘choice,’ and the overwhelming impact of technology on every aspect of American life, school included.
I have lived experience with nearly every theory, concept and action mentioned in the book, from teacher professionalism (or lack thereof) to the DeVos model of privatizing one of the few remaining public goods. Any teacher, at any level, who has been paying attention for the past couple of decades will be familiar with the carefully curated observations and supporting data presented here.
The great benefit of the book is that it connects hundreds of established dots into a flashing arrow: this is the end game, the crushing of once-healthy public schools, monetizing their resources and selling them off for parts. It accurately represents where we are, in the midst of a pandemic and constitutional crisis. The wolf is truly at the door.
Berkshire and Schneider are careful to remind us that the well-heeled will always have school as we know it. Their children will always have creative teachers and challenging curriculum and actual classmates, in a real-life setting, because that is, in the end, the optimum way for students to learn. The question is (and always has been) who’s paying for it, and who gets to share it. The primary goal has never been maximizing each child’s potential, contrary to the thousands of mission statements hanging in front offices everywhere. It’s been ‘What’s in it for my child?’
Although some of the data are optimistic—there is still strong support from parents for their children’s public schools, and for teachers’ demands for adequate funding and resources, even via walk-outs—the authors do not prescribe clearly defined solutions.
I don’t see that as a weakness. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future is utterly unpredictable. In a time when we might be taking a breath, rethinking our values around what matters most in public education, and thanking public school teachers for doing their best under some pretty dire conditions, reformers are busily selling yet more glossy rhetoric (don’t miss the chapter on ‘personalizing’ education) and questionable data analyses.
So—read this book, whether you’re a veteran educator or a kindergarten parent. It’s accurate and sharp, the best education book I’ve read this year.
I Used to Thinkwas a writing and thinking prompt developed for students, part of the work done by Project Zero. Lately, we haven’t been all that interested in what students think, or how their thinking might change, given more information, dialogue and cogitation. Instead, we’ve been interested in raising their test scores by asking them to simply reproduce knowledge–or keeping them six feet apart and masked until they’re tested again.
The last four years have radically changed a lot of what I think. For example:
I used to think that choosing the right Secretary of Education was the first critical key to strengthening public education across the nation. I really enjoyed the game of proposing/comparing people who, from various perspectives, would be great Education Secretaries. My standard of excellence was always Richard Riley. Riley was Governor of South Carolina, where he did a great deal to recruit teachers of color and address poverty in public education, before being tapped by Bill Clinton as EdSec. He was not, however, an educator, and he presided over a time when education reform was considered a good thing. But now—I am uninterested in digging up years-old board memberships and former jobs of prospective candidates for EdSec. I am not convinced that being a long-time educator is a prerequisite for success on the job. Experience in the political and policy realm really matters. I’m not even interested in writing a blog about it. Heresy, I know. But there it is.
I used to think that bipartisanship was a good thing, that moving government forward necessitated both collaboration and compromise. I thought policy creation was sausage-making—everyone gets to put in a little something. I thought having a broad range of opinion, from progressive to conservative, was how the country remained stable, and loyal, and patriotic. But now, I agree with Rebecca Solnit: We shouldn’t meet criminals and Nazis halfway.(Read the link—it’s fantastic.)
I used to think that churches, in spite of their many flaws, were trustworthy organizations that, on balance, did good in their communities. But now, even though I work at a church that is a beacon of kindness and acceptance in a small town, I am horrified at how far astray from core, all-religions wisdom—the universal, do-unto-others stuff—that many Evangelical Christians have wandered. They say there are no atheists in foxholes—and we’re all living in a kind of viral foxhole these days—but I am heartily sick of driving around and seeing God’s Got This! signs in my neighbors’ yards. I think everyone—believers and non-believers, all creeds and traditions—needs to wear a mask, stay home, wash their hands, and stop pretending to be compassionate or ‘saving’ people.
I used to think that racism springs from acute flaws in human character—hatred, and ignorance, likely instilled early by family and community. But now—thanks to Ibram X. Kendi—I recognize that what has held deep-rooted racism in place in America for 400 years is not a continuous stream of benighted people, but policy. White people stole, platted out, and sold land that Indigenous people lived on, hunted and fished, for centuries: policy. Majority-White public schools have always had far more resources and advantages than the schools Black children attended—and policies that nominally have been established to increase equity have also increased segregation. A country that was literally founded on diverse expression of thought has built its own caste system, through layers and layers of interwoven policy. The good news is that it’s possible to change policies.
I used to think that free and fair elections were the cornerstone of American democracy, and that most people saw election day as a kind of Norman Rockwell tableau, a cherished opportunity for everyman to have their say. I thought the peaceful transfer of power was inviolate. But now… I don’t even have to finish this one. Turn on the television.
I used to think that voluntary academic disciplinary standards were a useful way of organizing curriculum, and the occasional standardized test (say, three or four between kindergarten and graduation) didn’t hurt anyone, and provided some valuable baseline information. But now, I think that standardization, and the widespread belief that more data will improve public education, is pure folly, an illustration of the old saw that a man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Rewritten: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.
I used to think that I was a pretty good music teacher–way above average, in fact. But now, watching music teachers struggle, every single day, with how to teach music online—and, incredibly, succeeding, I am humbled. Even more important, I’ve witnessed them forming communities on social media to help each other tackle these challenges and share resources and innovations. I’ve seen them have in-depth conversations about core pedagogical issues and the future of their profession. Humbled, I say. Seriously humbled.
I used to think putting up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving was sacrilege, part of the ugly, metastasizing commercialization that has spoiled a once-simple holiday. But now—this year—I think that, in this season of kindling light against darkness, any cultural or religious tradition that brings joy is spot on, and the sooner, the better.
[Many years ago, at my husband’s class reunion]: Inebriated classmate starts rhapsodizing about the extreme superiority of the education they all got at their well-regarded co-ed Catholic high school in the suburbs of Detroit, back in the day. His monologue derails (did I mentioned he was sloshed?) and he turns to yammering at ME (a public school teacher) about how terrible schools are today (he has no children) and that the public schools—well, they’re the worst of all. Everybody knows that.
I bite my tongue.
I’m used to people assuming that private and religious schools are, somehow, automatically better than public schools. On the face of it, if ‘you get what you pay for’ is a truism, private schools ought to be better than public schools. Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ of course.
Part of the cachet of privately funded education is exclusion. You’re paying for the privilege (a carefully chosen word) of sending your child to a school that other people can’t afford, and having them taught using a set of values (religious and otherwise) that your family has chosen, not been assigned to by location.
You are making the decisions, finding a school with a socio-economic level close to yours, probably, in the hopes your children will make friendships with similar children. There may be scholarship money for students with fewer economic resources, but that involves a different kind of screening and exclusion.
A religious school or an independent private school may be the right choice for your child, and however you get them there, knowing you support the school you chose (financially and values-wise) will help your child understand that you are committed to their education. And that–is huge.
However. I would have to say that the cause dearest to my heart right now is saving public education.
By saving, I don’t mean preserving a nostalgic, return-to-the-past version of public schools where the curriculum was homogenized, the Common Core a distant memory, and everyone sat in straight rows.
I mean saving public education from going under, totally, being dismantled and sold for parts.
Lots of truly ghastly things have happened to public education in the past couple of decades, the pandemic merely being the worst. Teachers have had large chunks of their professional discretion taken away, and their salaries remain in the basement. The accountability movement has turned the mission of public education from citizenship and job training to improving test scores.
And the conflicting parties are not red or blue, conservative or liberal. They’re public and private.
There are some things that need to belong to all of us, be cherished and tended and utilized by all of us, each chipping in as they can, because we understand these things are best accomplished by communal resources and effort: Parks. Libraries. Roads. Hospitals. The Post Office. Museums, theatres and auditoriums. Schools. The people who keep our food supply safe and put out forest fires. And of course, things we must have, like the military, police and prisons.
Most pushback against public initiatives and investments stems, as far as I can see, from two impulses:
It’s my money and you can’t have it.
I don’t want to share anything with them. [Fill in your own personal ‘them’– people who don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ‘our’ parks, libraries, hospitals, etc. People who don’t belong.]
For many people, public funding for things like recycling or early childhood services or a new library represents taking away their right to choose. If you don’t read, recycle or know anyone with small children, maybe It feels like money out of your pocket, your ‘right to choose’ overridden.
You take care of your own, right? You shouldn’t have to meet the needs of others. That this is a profoundly anti-democratic idea doesn’t even occur to you. Selfishness and power-mongering are featured, every night, on the TV news. Its us vs. them—freedom!–not all of us, together.
Of course, many games were cancelled, championships will forever be listed with asterisks, and there are literally hundreds of stories about how teams played without positive-for-COVID stars (or with them, accidentally–or surreptitiously).
We are at a tipping point with public education—either it is recognized as one of the most useful institutions of community-building and progress, or it becomes just another example of scare-labeled ‘socialism.’ Ironically, we used to use public schools to advance public goals—an educated citizenry, training everyone to be productive and innovative, places to vote and be immunized against disease, places to learn the basic concepts of our American government, a genuine melting pot.
It’s time for that national conversation we keep talking about, but never have: What is the real mission of public education? Forget the over-under on who will be the new Secretary of Education. Let’s clearly define the purpose of public schools and stop supporting exclusion with our tax dollars. It’s well worth the fight.
Exclusion precludes belonging. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”
My friends remember, vividly, waking up after Election Day in 2016. The shock. Their personal emotions, from disbelief to outrage, the sense of betrayal. Who voted this racist, sexist joker in? What can we do?
What was born that day, and later refined, by a vast web of progressive people, media and organizations, has been a big driver of my life for the last four years, beginning with the Women’s March in January of 2017. The Trump presidency daily impacts my beliefs and my actions—so much worrying about the country I love. Maybe it’s the retired teacher in me, but I want to help. I want to live in a more just and peaceful world.
I would have sworn, until yesterday, that all that Indivisble-ing and anti-gerrymandering and election challenging was going well in my state and in the country, in general. The Democratic listening tour, the inspired improvised campaigning during a pandemic, the fact that our candidate was mainstream and inoffensive—it all felt like it was going someplace.
A better place.
I’m writing on Thursday morning, so the election is No Sure Thing, although there’s reason to hope, and to be glad that Michigan shifted roughly 80,000 ballots—a paltry amount– in the right direction over four years. There may be other very modest but pleasant surprises, as the week wears on, but essentially, what I’m experiencing today feels most like grief.
In 2016, it felt like you’d just gotten the shocking, painful news that the country was sick—so you immediately went to work to heal it, with lots of energy and political expertise and innovative tools. In 2020, you realize that the country might actually be sick for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.
When they write about this election result in Michigan in the history books–and they will–let the record show that the state was saved for Joe Biden by black voters in the state’s largest cities–Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids.
The same people who have had their drinking water poisoned, their public schools de-funded and emergency managed into disrepair, their cities gentrified. In general, these voters have been abused by their state’s former Republican governor and a Betsy DeVos-funded and directed state legislature who has never treated the African American community in Michigan with even a modicum of respect or common human decency.
It won’t be the first time Black voters have saved white Michiganders from themselves. Thank you.
In my county, three overtly bigoted County Commissioners were all handily re-elected, even though only one of them even bothered to answer questions from citizens about a major dust-up over openly racist language in countywide offices.Even though the County went blue, overall, for the first time since 2008, finding out that my neighbors are fine with Commissioners who think racism is somehow tied to abortion rates, and deeply respect a sheriff who refuses to enforce a Governor’s pandemic restrictions? That’s sobering.
None of this is a matter of win-some/lose-some politics. The proverbial pendulum. We’re used to that—and 2016 was an upside-the head reminder that turnout and voter enthusiasm are always the issue. The difference between 2016 and Tuesday night was the bitter knowledge that MORE of the people in your state, not fewer, think Donald Trump is a better choice. That his four-year reign of incompetence, lawlessness and even death is preferable to whatever mild-mannered Uncle Joe is selling.
I’m also worried, now, about future elections. The vote-suppressionists have been developing an effective ground game under Trump. Even if he goes down tweeting in 2020, the people who are happy to see low turnout and unquestioned, careless lying (and I know who they are, locally anyway) got a good grip on how to screw with elections, in perpetuity: De-fund the Post Office. Phony drop boxes. Refusing to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter, even when they were legally ordered to do so. And so much more.
Rolling back suffrage gains that have been hard-fought, in American history.
Garrison Keeler: For the first 50 years of American elections, only 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote. Thomas Dorr was one of the first politicians to argue that poor people should be given voting rights. As a member of the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr argued that all white adult men should have the vote, regardless of their wealth. He incited a riot to protest the governor’s election of 1842 and went to prison for treason, but most states began to let poor white men vote soon after. Women won the right to vote in 1920, and many African-Americans were prevented from voting throughout the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Widespread voter suppression still happens today, sometimes against specific groups or with specific political motivation.
So what did I do to support the cause? I was an Election Challenger who was sequestered with the Absentee Vote Counting Board in my (rural, red) township. I arrived, with my badge, on Tuesday morning. The Township Clerk met me at the door and—in front of the 2R/2D counting board—loudly proclaimed that I would be sequestered with the counting board until 8 p.m. when the polls closed. But I would not be able to use the restroom at any point during that time.
The counting board’s heads went up—wait, what? Did you say we couldn’t use the bathroom? No, said the Clerk—not you, just her. One of the Dems asked why. Because you’re a hired, trained board, she said (that turned out to be not completely true, vis-à-vis the training). But she’s just a (air quotes) ‘volunteer.’
That was not my first encounter with an in-person lie from a local Republican official. I had the Secretary of State’s full description of what I could and could not do, printed out, in hand. Township Clerks can’t prevent sequestered observers from using the bathroom at breaks in the action. I sneaked out once, unnoticed, when the whole group took a bathroom break—but wondered about why local officials felt it was OK to leave me alone in the counting room, with opened ballots laying on the table, but not to use the restroom. Where did they learn to be petty and punitive?
In 2018, all indicators showed a modest ‘blue wave’ which I assumed was the slow turning of the great ship. I am doubtful about that now, as I have witnessed armed militias and kidnapping attempts.
No matter how this election concludes, America is now a different country. Nearly half of the voters have seen Trump in all of his splendor—his infantile tirades, his disastrous and lethal policies, his contempt for democracy in all its forms—and they decided that they wanted more of it. His voters can no longer hide behind excuses about the corruption of Hillary Clinton or their willingness to take a chance on an unproven political novice. They cannot feign ignorance about how Trump would rule. They know, and they have embraced him.
Sadly, the voters who said in 2016 that they chose Trump because they thought he was “just like them” turned out to be right. Now, by picking him again, those voters are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong.
People sometimes ask me if I struggle to find things to write about. The answer is no. Essentially, never. But this week, I have three unfinished blogs about education sitting on my desktop. Blogger block.
I’ve been blogging pretty much since blogging become a thing—and started getting paid for doing it in the early aughts, which made it feel more like reality and responsibility and less like some cool edu-techie thing, where—look!—you’re on the World Wide Web!
Before 2000, I wrote an occasional column for the local daily newspaper—perhaps once every couple of months. I got this gig because I was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year in 1993, and I also was friends with the paper’s Editor. I was highly circumspect in my opinions and wrote about ordinary classroom issues, but my getting published in the newspaper made administrators at my school exceptionally nervous. To the point where I was finally directed to cease and desist with the op-eds. I complied.
I didn’t have a regular writing gig in 2000 (which is probably good; we were directed not to ‘dwell on’ the craziness going on in Florida, post-election, with our students). By the time I had a blog for a national education nonprofit, we were past 9/11 and into the 2004 campaign. Because I was writing for organizations (and being paid by those organizations) and because I was in the classroom for most of the next 15 years or so, my election-time blogs in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 were also…circumspect.
I went back to look at some of those pieces.
I was surprised to see how heartbroken I was in 2004. I was hardly a huge Kerry supporter, but the very ugliness of the campaign—Swift-boating an actual decorated veteran—was dismaying. It seemed like a new and disgusting level of dishonesty. We went to a concert at the Wharton Center for Kerry—Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Guy Clark—and while hanging around with other 50-something Boomers, thought for an evening that yeah, we might actually get rid of Bush. Good times.
I wrote several blogs in the Fall of 2008, more than any other election season. I was writing a lot about hope and change, and the building certainty that we had a paradigm-shifting election on our hands. We were definitely getting rid of Bush and there was this great Democratic candidate. It was time. So much optimism.
We pictured Margaret Spellings taking her mandated tests and mean-spirited ‘accountability data’ and getting out of Dodge. We pictured a new focus on equity and social justice in public education. So many pictures.
I was blogging for a national publication in 2016. Although I wrote a few tepid blogs about the race, they were mostly around the prospect of our first female president, another paradigm-shifting moment. I also wrote about how the Trump we saw during the campaign (!) was a bad role model for kids.
But those 2016 blogs were tempered by a bad feeling that we weren’t seeing the whole picture. I thought about Bernie Sanders winning the Michigan primary (I voted for him). And the Tea Party, which hadn’t gone away, in the white Midwest where I live.
I went to the Women’s March in D.C. in January of 2017, and wrote about that. And discovered, over that year, that I could no longer blog about school issues only, divorced from politics, because everywhere you looked, public education was being pummeled by terrible policy-making (and policy destruction, misinterpretation and flouting). Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, as someone once said.
Basically, I started my own blog in 2018 because I was sick of holding my political opinions in a separate suitcase, under control. I wrote gleefully about the midterms, where the five top elected offices in MI went to Democratic women, all of whom have done a fine job of governing, and a couple of whom have had their lives threatened for their trouble.
I wrote about the jammed field of teacher bloggers and politics. I was tired of teachers saying that talking about racism or sexism or equity or justice in the classroom was not allowed. I was tired of pretending that the future of public education didn’t depend, 100%, on who gets elected and runs the show. Time to stop being pushed around by people who have no respect for the common school. Or the kids and parents who rely on public education.
I wanted to write for myself. To advocate freely. So here I am.
This year feels most to me like 2008. There’s a big change coming. And rolling into it will not be easy. In 2008, I worried about violence. And I’m worried now, about violence. In my state. At my tiny little Township Hall. Toward my governor. And throughout the lame duck session, and beyond the Inauguration. You can see what’s coming, every night, on the news, as tens of thousands are lined up to vote, masked, and carrying hand sanitizer and a lawn chair.
Voting is what makes this nation progress, or stall, or go completely off the rails. I’ve written plenty about terrible things this administration has done to public education, and which Democrat I wanted to be President. I’ve also written about Joe Biden, whom I believe may be able to hold the country together, perhaps even better than my first choice.
If I’m having a hard time writing about this election, it’s because it feels surreal, more dissected and more consequential than any other election in my lifetime. In 1968, my father vociferously voted for George Wallace and my mother quietly voted for Nixon and I watched cops beat up college kids in Chicago. That one seemed pretty consequential, as my life goal at that point was moving out of the house to become a college kid, who could say what she thought.
In the meantime, like many of you, I’m having a hard time letting go of the daily doomscrolling and cable news addiction. But let go we must. The election is happening, around the clock. Time to protect all those votes.
We need to save our strength and smarts for after the election, too. There should be little 10-second TV spots saying: Make a Plan for all the days after November 3, too!
In the 1970s, we had the MEAP test for 4th, 7th and 10th grades—two to three days’ worth of testing blocks, in the fall. Teachers understood they were tests of basic skills, and the best strategy was simply reviewing traditional concepts. A couple of times, one of the elementary schools in the district where I taught had a 100% pass rate. Because, on the MEAPs, students either did well enough to meet the grade-level benchmark, or they didn’t.
Schools with low pass rates got more money. The state legislature thought more intensive instruction would help children whose critical skills were weak. For the rest, well—the annual check-up was over.
Those were the days.
What this means is that Michigan stands as the first state to have 50 years of testing data, from a wide array of tests. We had state-created tests, aligned with state-crafted standards. For a while, all our juniors took the ACT, whether they were college-bound or not. We’ve used our own, written-by-MI-teacher standards and common standards. We implemented a rigorous, college-bound “merit” curriculum for all, in the hopes that it would raise test scores.
We had cutting-edge hands-on 8th grade science tests, performed in lab groups, where teams of students caused a tubular balloon stretched over a narrow beaker to inflate and deflate, as the gasses inside heated and cooled. That one was fun.
And now, we have students taking computer-based tests at home. In front of their parents. Leaving aside the very real aspect of invalid data, parents are observing, in real time, the testing process. A friend got this message from one of her former students, now a parent herself:
Just had to share how horrified I am by the NWEA tests. Our school this year is allowing us to take them from home and today [my second grader] took the reading and math assessments. He was immediately discouraged by the math (his favorite subject) as the first few questions were things he hasn’t been exposed to yet. This set him up to fail on questions he could answer because he was upset and “feeling stupid”. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have to proctor these assessments for a group of kids and have your own success as an educator be judged by the results of these awful exams.
Thank you for being such a strong voice advocating for all of our kids and for educating educators. I’m so grateful for the amazing teachers I was blessed with all throughout my time at XX and for the fantastic educators my kids have had thus far too! Are there places or people that would be helpful to contact or to share our experience with, in order to help propel change?
The ‘strong voice advocating for all our kids’ this mom is addressing is June Teisan, a nationally recognized teacher leader. And while the thrust of the comment—I had no idea how damaging these tests could be until I saw them for myself!—is more and more common, it’s the last sentence that sets it apart.
Just who needs to know about this? What can parents do?
The Opt-Out movement is still alive, and parents have more reason than ever to reject standardized tests. But this may well be our window for changing, once and for all, our pointless and wasteful love affair with standardized testing. They don’t tell us what we need to know, and they harm kids who don’t deserve harm. It’s as simple as that.
Ask any teacher: What are the real outcomes of using standardized testing? Cui bono?
The scariest thing to me is that any teacher who’s joined the profession in the last 15-20 years is thoroughly familiar with The Tests, and may in fact see them as something we’ve always done, something necessary. Something, without which, we will be flying blind. They might perceive school as a place where all decisions are best made off-site by ‘experts’ and ‘authorities,’ without whom there would be no ‘accountability.’ A lawless place that needs plenty of guardrails and consequences.
It wasn’t always like this.
June and I had a short conversation about this—who might be able to help parents, teachers and school leaders assemble the strength to buck the corporate test-makers and non-profits? Those who depend on the data generated by tests to make proclamations and influence policy-making?
This is the apparent purpose of the paper; selling testing. People are starting to realize standardized testing is a complete fraud; a waste of time, resources and money. The only useful purpose ever for this kind of testing was as a fraudulent means to claim public schools were failing and must be privatized.
The dirty secret of the standardized testing industry is the breathtakingly low quality of the tests themselves. I worked in the educational publishing industry at very high levels for more than twenty years. I have produced materials for all the major standardized test publishers, and I know from experience that quality control processes in that industry have dropped to such low levels that the tests, these days, are typically extraordinarily sloppy and neither reliable nor valid.
The series correctly concludes that state accountability systems have not improved student achievement or closed achievement gaps over the last decade. Despite this conclusion, however, the series puzzlingly insists that state testing and accountability systems must be reinstated in 2020-21 and must focus on schools with the lowest performance levels.
Reports overstate some research conclusions and ignore a large body of research about factors that influence student outcomes. Specifically, the reports do not acknowledge the critical need for access to quality educators and fiscal resources, which are foundational to any serious effort to improve student outcomes. Moreover, the reports focus very narrowly on test scores as the primary outcome of schooling and ignore outcomes such as critical thinking, media literacy, and civics that are more important than ever.
If there were ever a time when testing ought to be suspended, re-examined and scaled back, it’s now.
Why scaling back and not eliminating them, cold turkey? Because I’ve been on this earth long enough to know that it’s not likely that grant-funded education nonprofits and test manufacturers will go down without a fight.
And try explaining to any forty-year old college-educated Dad that tests don’t matter any more, his children don’t have to take them, and every teacher will just be trusted to do their best from now on.
Ideas like ‘accountability’ have seeped into our national consciousness. Fear of ‘falling behind’ has been the subject of any number of local news stories. And let’s not even start with the beating teachers have taken, during a pandemic, when the idea of neat and tidy, leveled learning goals turned into flaming Zambonis.
We’re not getting rid of tests that easily. However.
Now is the perfect time for school leaders to strip off expensive unnecessary standardized tests, using budget crises and lack of technological infrastructure as an excuse. It might be time to put a focus on critical thinking, media literacy and civics, rather than drilling on testable items. Time to support parents who want to opt their children out.
For fifty years, Michigan has been testing, testing, testing. It’s time for a re-think. And it’s time for parents to turn to teachers and school leaders and demand change.
My friend Mitchell Robinson, of Michigan State University asks: Am I the only teacher who finishes a Zoom class, during which I’m sharing a slide show, moderating class discussions, posing questions on assigned readings, and trying to respond to students’ questions in a thoughtful way, only to find out after ending the Zoom session that there was a whole other class happening in the chat window that I couldn’t see because my cursor had disappeared under the 25 windows and tabs I had open, juggling apps and programs?
Ah, yes. The chat box. My theory is that the chat box, used by adults and college students, contains what people want others to believe they’re thinking (cute jokes, pithy observations, deep questions) but don’t want to say out loud. What they’ve always been thinking, in fact, as a ‘presentation’ was occurring, in real time and real life, as well as online: a mishmash of random thoughts, tentative assertions and show-off remarks. Perhaps, in some contexts, a little flirting.
You might even say the chat box contents, especially in a well-run virtual classroom, is what participants will be taking away from this class—not the official material, as displayed, but their reactions to those ideas. Content on the slides will always be there for you, to refer to, like facts in a book. The chat box, and ongoing dialogue following are where the learning juice is found.
Brilliant lectures or important speeches are much better when there is a backchannel conversation going on. Sort of like watching political debates and Twitter at the same time, as people offer bon mots about, say, having a fly on your head, but also more cogent ideas about national leadership.
That’s what Dr. Robinson found, too—his students were ‘sharing their raw and deeply personal “takes” on the day’s discussion prompts that somehow didn’t make their way into the video feed…’
For several years, I facilitated seminars for an online graduate course in teacher leadership. Sometimes, I had guest speakers–including a few well-known authors and thought leaders in education. This was before using an electronic meeting platform was commonplace–and we had to set aside a half-hour before each seminar to help guests and students learn to use the platform, which was called Elluminate.
I wouldn’t dream of outing anyone, but there were more than a couple of people who fly all over the country and get big speaker fees who were adamant that they did not want to ‘talk on the internet’ or have people see them on camera. Can’t I just call in, they’d say? On the phone?
Elluminate had a chat function, too. The chat box was always on the screen unless the moderator made it inaccessible. Some of our participants (mostly teachers) found it maddening or terribly rude that backchannel chat was going on while the class speaker was presenting.
There were speakers who sharply asked participants to HOLD THEIR QUESTIONS until they were finished. Often, it was just get-to-know-you chatting, as participants came from all over the country. Worse, speakers would stop to read the chat every time something was posted, including private messages posted between individuals. Awkward.
They couldn’t relax, and trust that folks were following along, while simultaneously questioning or extending what they were learning.
I started telling guest speakers that this represented the real way students and adults processed any content. I had teachers tell me that this was the problem in education today—nobody had taught their students how to be quiet and pay attention. It was disrespectful.
Questioned, most would admit that they didn’t listen respectfully to every word an administrator said in a mandated staff meeting. And they especially didn’t pay attention to what students communicated to each other during their conventional classes unless it was an Official Discussion where students were Supposed to Contribute. There was a hierarchy of respect, it seems, and you know who was on the bottom.
I think of the chat box as a tool for democracy of thought. Of course, I have mostly used it with teens and adults, who could construct a sentence or express a thought.
But I am guessing that, in spite of the fact that it’s absolutely the wrong way to teach early elementary grades, by the end of the year, many of our youngest students will have absorbed the road rules, democratic or not, of the online classroom. To chat, or not to chat. To type a word, instead of speaking or writing it by hand. I can’t decide if that’s progress or tragedy.
Mitchell Robinson, after marveling at the riches and throwaway thoughts in his chat box, said this, about his students, who are learning to teach and learn in new ways, leapfrogging over traditional practice:
This next generation of teachers is so smart, so thoughtful, and so empathetic. During a time when everything looks so dark, these young teachers offer the promise of a brighter future–it’s just up to us to get them ready to take over. And then get out of the way.
The first time I learned about the 1918 flu pandemic—in school, probably junior high history or civics class—I came home and asked my grandmother (who lived with us) what she remembered about the great flu pandemic. She would have been 28 in 1918, still single and working in a grocery and dry goods store.
Not much, it turned out. None of her nine brothers and sisters or their spouses and children had succumbed, nor any friends. She couldn’t remember being ill herself, although she was notorious for living with pain and discomfort. When she was in her 90s, she fell off a stepladder while washing windows. She broke her hip, something that wasn’t verified for a couple of weeks while she hobbled around saying it wasn’t bad enough to go to the hospital, where they might hold her overnight or give her unwanted drugs.
Grandma was no Donald Trump.
World War II broke out when my mother was a freshman in high school. Many of her classmates left school before graduating, to enlist. When they came back, they were offered GEDs and the GI bill to further their education. There were good-paying, middle class jobs for those who just wanted to work, buy a home or start a family.
Their education was disrupted—but hey, duty calls. What’s put off can be reclaimed.
Since K-12 public education has been widely operational—for a century, more or less—we have experienced wars, depressions and recessions, 9/11, civil unrest, discriminatory school closings in the South and health scares. School has continued, to the extent possible, during all of these national crises. In fact, in the most degraded and troubled places in this nation, public education is one of the few constants: Kids show up. Kids get taught.
Grades, tracking attendance, grade-level content, and opportunities for acceleration are a must. Pass-fail or pass-incomplete, optional attendance, and a focus on remediation will lead to a lost year whose damage could extend into the future.
As Chalkbeat points out: The projections rely on the assumption that students learned nothing (or worse) once schools shut their doors. How could students have lost hundreds of days of learning from missing 60 or so actual days of in-person school?
It has to do with how CREDO converts learning loss, measured in standard deviations, into “days of learning.” The approach is controversial among researchers.
No duh. It also vastly overestimates the real-life utility of testable knowledge students are being fed, the stuff necessary to generate all the predictive data. Test scores—as we all know—do not equate to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. They don’t even equate to the social connections necessary to get a good job. Even worse, they’re a distraction from the challenges that teachers (the real front-line heroes) now face in trying to figure out how to teach under limited and often dangerous circumstances.
Let me say it again. Test-data estimates, alarmist language and shady research do nothing to help us with the most critical problem we have right now: keeping kids connected to their schoolwork and their teachers. However that’s offered and as imperfect as it may be.
Paraphrased Tweet I read recently: Can you name one school or district that has actually reimagined education?
Well-heeled education nonprofits now depend on things NOT being reimagined—deeply ironic for those who call themselves reformers. Without tests and data and uniformity and seat time and standard deviations, we’re just back to good old public school, doing our best under the circumstances.
It’s been another tough week in Teacher Land. My music teacher buddies in Michigan are writing about coming inside from the cold, after a few weeks of humming softly in a circle on the grass, playing ukuleles or meeting under a canvas canopy with tubas and flutes.
How to make music safely, indoors: a challenge I never had to meet, but creative teachers are figuring out, on the fly, every day. Kudos, and more kudos, to every teacher struggling to make whatever form their instruction is taking effective. Y’all rock.
There have been lots of jokes today about needing a middle school teacher at the next debate. Ha ha and all that, but as a veteran, 30-year middle school teacher, let me lay down the law: No more debates.
Media outlets and sponsoring organizations don’t need mutable microphones or better rules. (Better rules and guidelines are a feeble solution to a much bigger problem—something every classroom teacher comes to understand, eventually.)
It’s not about Chris Wallace’s failure—and it was a botched job– to control Donald, either. It was clear to anyone who watched Wallace’s credible interview with him, a few weeks back, that the president was getting his revenge on Wallace and Fox, in a deliberately crafted (and rehearsed) strategy: Dominate. Flood the zone. Humiliate your opponent.
Trump openly abused everything: His opponent. Family loyalty. Voters’ intelligence. Norms of civility.
Turning off the president’s microphone is the political equivalent of making him write ‘I will not interrupt’ one hundred times on the chalkboard. It also opens up the possibility that he would walk offstage, as is his habit during ‘briefings’ at the White House. None of this is something children of any age should witness, if we want to preserve a democracy and civic dialogue.
What we need is a consequence with teeth that also protects the whole country from the harm: No. More. Debates.
There’s enough time for media outlets and sponsoring organizations to make other plans. Maybe they’re just done. Maybe they offer Town Halls around policies, with candidates appearing separately. Whatever. But what our children and our country saw last night on television should not happen again. It wasn’t rough-and-tumble, bare-knuckle politics. It was, instead, obscene.
Biden, in what I thought was one of his best moments last night, turned to the camera and assured us that we could use the institution of free and fair elections to save the republic. Just vote, he said. Trump followed up by declaring the election a fraud and a joke. That’s another thing we don’t want our children to see or believe.
One more teacher story: An award-winning teacher I know in Mississippi started a post today by saying ‘I really need you to read this.’
She said that as a first grade teacher, she had a student whose mother had a blog. After ‘Meet the Teacher’ night, blogging mama wrote about my friend’s ‘weird’ (and ethnically Asian) last name and what she thought about her child having a teacher with that last name.
It was incredibly hurtful, my friend said. Mama ended up pushing to remove her kid from the class. When administration wouldn’t remove him, she withdrew him from school.
I think this is the first time I’ve talked about this, my friend said. It is hard to do. A lot of people never experience racism and xenophobia themselves, so they just aren’t aware of it. I get it. That was me when I was younger too.
She said: I unequivocally denounce white supremacy. I ask that my friends and family join me. I want to see all of my friends and family come out strongly against white supremacy to show love and support of me and my children, as well as love and support of our brothers and sisters who occupy this wonderful planet with us.
She posted two hours ago, and her post has dozens of ‘I denounce white supremacy’ comments, and commiserations from other teachers about dealing with racism in the classroom.
What if every public school teacher said to their class today, in developmentally appropriate language, I unequivocally denounce white supremacy. I denounce it in this classroom. I denounce it in this town. I denounce it in this great nation. White supremacy is—and always has been—wrong.
When I was a junior in HS, my American History teacher was in a serious car accident in the fall, and did not return to teaching. This was 1967, and Social Studies teachers weren’t thick on the ground. The situation was personally worrisome: I had somehow persuaded this history teacher to let me take his required class as an ‘Independent Study’ so I could take both band and choir (which were infinitely more important to me than American History).
As rounds of fill-in teachers appeared, I was basically living in fear that my arrangement with Mr. Gilbert would be uncovered. He apparently left no record that I was even part of his class load. I might have to drop out of the choir—and I loved the choir—being coerced to return to conventional, one-chapter-a-week-test-on-Friday American History. It could go on my permanent record, or something.
Then fate smiled. My school district hired a young, spanking-new graduate of Western Michigan University, in December. She was cool with my studying American History on my own, added my name to the official grade book, and offered me her college history texts. Assignments would be short papers—and conversations with her. She recommended paperbacks I might enjoy.
In one of those conversations, I mentioned that her college Am-Hist textbooks presented things differently from our HS text. Things like the smallpox-infested blankets and how Andrew Jackson might not be a totally upright guy.
She smiled her praise. Good work, she said. You now understand that the people who write about history are usually the ones who benefited from the outcome. There are many ways to interpret the events of history—the ones you’re getting here in high school are pretty sanitized and one-sided.
This was a revelation to me, and made me vastly more interested in (and suspicious about) reading history. Most of my teachers seemed to regard their anthologies and textbooks as gospel truth, and thought we should, too. A fact is a fact.
Learning that there are lots of reasons to argue with the bland, evasive rhetoric found in textbooks was a great gift. I am still friends with that teacher—Marjorie Foster Trapp—and we still poke at each other’s thinking on social media. I got lucky.
As I said, this was 1967, the first year I ever saw those black and white diagrams of how enslaved African people were shackled, head to foot, in ships’ holds. When the Detroit race rebellions were still in the headlines, and in the thick of the Civil Rights Revolution, American students (at least in my school) were reading columns of sterile information about Whigs and Custer’s Last Stand. Has there been significant change in the teaching of our nation’s history?
Let’s hope so.
We’ve got vastly more resources at our fingertips now—the Library of Congress, in fact. A well-read teacher can serve as expert guide to artifacts and stories about important historical events and issues, across the developmental spectrum. History could be engaging, even fascinating; more importantly, students could understand what can be learned from mistakes made in the past. We might even teach them to be suspicious of believing much of what they hear or see on Instagram. To be informed citizens.
I believe this is happening in many, if not most, American classrooms. And I also believe that the teachers in front of those classrooms should be able to select the right materials to challenge their students.
The 1619 Project is not, as some have suggested, a curriculum. It’s a set of digital materials—essays, photo stories, editorial pieces and features—on the impact of slavery on all people and institutions in the United States. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay, America Wasn’t a Democracy until Black Americans Made It One, would be a great assignment to tackle at almost any point in the traditional HS Social Studies chronology. A little close reading, even; there are easily a dozen provocative ideas about American history in this one piece.
Naturally, Mike (Fordham) Petrilli had to weigh in. The Fordham folks think Trump’s proposed anti-1619 response, the 1776 Commission curriculum (as yet mostly unwritten, but absolutely going to be chock-full of real patriotism and heroes), is our window of opportunity to craft an all-American curriculum that does the impossible: pisses off nobody but instills reverence for our exceptionalism, with all the usual Important Dates and lots of winning. Petrilli has several nit-picking critiques for a contemporary media series on the legacy of having been a slave-owning country for 250 years, and other sources:
‘Take the famous Howard Zinn textbook, A People’s History of the United States. Central to its narrative is the premise that the world is, always and forever, divided into oppressors and the oppressed. This is a deeply cynical idea, though resurgent today in discussions of “anti-racism” and “critical race theory.” Do its adherents expect conservative-leaning parents—scratch that, most parents—to welcome this ideology into their children’s schools with open arms?’
First–anti-racism is real, not a word you put in quotes.
And what is Petrilli’s big idea? He is going with Trump’s 1776 Commission. No, seriously. He wrote that Trump was right to question the too-liberal teaching of social studies in our public schools. We need a commission.
You have to wonder what Fordham thinks high school history teachers do all day.
What pedagogical and philosophical errors could they be making, that would somehow be fixed by a Commission? A Commission inspired by Donald Trump’s petty rage over a successful media launch involving the NYT and a topic critical to the health and progress of the nation—dealing with our racism problem? A topic of high interest and importance to teenagers, as well.
To all American History teachers: hang in. Teach your students to embrace America, ugly warts and all, and to vote as if their lives depended on it. Our highly imperfect democratic republic is worth saving, and they’re going to be in charge some day.
So are we tired of the back to school merry-go-round?
My social media feeds are filled with hundreds—maybe thousands—of stories, most of them first-hand, about what’s happening as schools play poker with a deadly virus and human beings.
There are the Never-ending Shitshow posts: School’s in session for three days before COVID makes an appearance.So school’s out, but kids are still playing soccer for some reason. The first day of all-online school, the internet burps at 8:00 a.m., then dies for five hours. Next, the grapevine (not the school) delivers the news that two more kids and a teacher tested positive. Then—football returns after a two-week hiatus, courtesy of a bunch of powerful white dads. And maybe there will now be a different hybrid plan, to please working parents. Stay tuned. And on and on.
There are also the Brave, Let’s Do This posts: Teacher (perhaps one with asthma or a history of breast cancer) publicly declares this isn’t what she wants to be doing, but damn it, she’s going in, to serve the kids she loves. There are the usual ‘here’s my room’ photos, with the furniture against the walls, plastic shields around the teacher’s desk and taped squares on the floor. The word ‘exhausted’ appears frequently, and the word ‘terrified’ leaks out, but a principal hears about it and makes her take it down.
The Oh No It’s Going to Be Like This All Year parent stories, where they realize that March-May was just a tiny sampling of what life is going to be like for this entire school year. If your kid is exerting zero effort at home, is that what he’s like at school? What if my family doesn’t have four computers? Will Grandma monitor the kids when they’re supposed to be working?
But the kind of post that really fries my oysters is the one where the finger points at teachers.
There’s plenty of blame to go around:
Decision-makers who spent the summer hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and not doing squat to set up multiple advance planning scenarios based on available data.
Entire states where masks, social distancing and hand-washing are actively resisted.
The withdrawal of rich, white parents from neighborhood schools because they can form pods, hire tutors, afford high-speed internet and cool programs, leaving schools with students who need school to be cared for and fed.
Utter lack of political leadership, reliable data, easily available testing and contact tracing—all the coronavirus blah-blah that’s been plaguing us since (per Bob Woodward) January.
But let’s go easy on the teachers. Virtually none of this is their fault—and what appear to be teachers’ failings and idiosyncrasies are often WAY out of their control.
It’s not teachers, independent of their colleagues and school leaders, who set rules and guidelines for the use of electronic platforms. Most of them, even experienced master teachers, are being observed for compliance and accountability. Many are criticized for things that are completely out of their direction: choice of programs and platforms, amount of time expected for student log-ins, even ridiculous things like dress codes and hand-raising are often subject to scrutiny.
It’s not teachers who decided to load up class sizes because there isn’t enough room to socially distance, or make mask-wearing optional for students.
If your child is struggling with new procedures and missing the old way of doing school, so is their teacher. Most teachers, even old pros, begin the school year nervous and unsure of what to expect—in a good year. They rely on quickly establishing personal relationships to build a community.
Some of them start with strict rules and little humor, others start out warm and inviting, but the ultimate goal is always the same: a well-ordered, friendly classroom where all students are seen and heard. Where nobody is isolated, and nobody sucks up all the attention.
I have seen kindergarten teachers absolutely enchant 30 five year-olds with songs, stories and fingerplays, sitting in a circle on the floor, creating a little village in a week. But these little villages require constant maintenance and vigilance: A hand on a shoulder. A cheek-to-cheek conversation about what you just did, in the hallway. An encouraging smile. The Look. A belly laugh together, as a class.
NONE of this is available to online teachers, right now. Face to face teachers find their bag of tricks is diminished, too, as they try to avoid a dangerous illness. Some of their best pals have taken early retirement. Some of them are doing double duty, teaching two classes in two modes.
This is not sustainable, their posts say. I’m pedaling as hard as I can. And students will reflect what their parents are saying and doing. A parent who starts the school year nitpicking or condemning their children’s teachers will find their children doing exactly the same. Recipe for discontent.
Please. Give teachers a lot of grace, and a lot of kindness. You owe them as much.
Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, openly, in front of the nation’s eyes, Tre Johnson said this, in the Washington Post: ‘when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.
What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused. Black people live and die every day under the burdens of a racism more insidious than the current virus that’s also disproportionately killing us. And yet white people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress.’
‘while the crafters of anti-racist reading lists are mostly making an earnest effort to educate people, literature and dialogue cannot supplant restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, and structural redress. When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse.’
So—I realize that I am, relative to the antiracist discourse happening right now, at square one or two, and can’t read myself into full partnership. I have to act.
Mentioning things I used to do, in the classroom, would be nothing more than empty virtue signaling. Sharing whatever anti-racist initiatives I’m currently involved in? Ditto. I’m sick of wading through articles from academics analyzing racist and anti-racist literature, in their (white) opinions. I don’t want to be one of those (white) people who are content to take the slow route, because I can.
But I’m still reading. Because I read a lot. It’s my greatest pleasure, and lifelong habit, and it’s currently safe, unlike going downtown to protest, something I’ve promised my children I won’t do.
Last year, and this year—because of the dark cloud of white supremacy manifesting itself everywhere—I decided to read as many books as I could, over both summers, around themes of discrimination. For myself—and perhaps to share with other people who are looking for really powerful things to read. Fiction and non-fiction. How-to books and memoirs. While I understand that reading is not action—it won’t lead to change or redress—sharing what I’m reading might have value.
Because, in the particular place where I live, racism most often manifests as callous and clueless disregard of the history of the land we live on, I looked for books by indigenous writers and people who came here initially as migrant farmworkers. If you have suggestions, I’ll add them to my list.
And because I’m a teacher, I looked for books around discrimination and inequity in education. If there’s a window for important themes and transformative ideas right now, it’s here. We shouldn’t be pointing to Jonathon Kozol and Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—or even Diane Ravitch—all of whom wrote seminal books on inequities in education. What we need now is new volumes, authors of color who don’t simply rehash the deceptive and racist policies that built our imperfect public education structures; we should, instead be gutting rigid curricula, experimenting with new instructional forms, re-examining the damage done to students by high-stakes tests, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into demanding equitable access to devices and broadband for the kids who don’t have it.
Since February of 2019, I’ve read 26 books on how racism and discrimination manifest in the United States, through multiple lenses. Some thumbnails:
Two Books that Absolutely Blew My Mind:
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson) This book is phenomenal. And it’s pointedly not about race, per se. It’s about caste–the societal decision to place its members in a constructed hierarchy, then arrange policies and habits to support that hierarchy over time, defining it as ‘natural’ or God-given. It’s a stunningly good book, and makes a great leap over skin color and the fact that race is a human construct (something that many other authors begin with)–to actual behaviors and policies and how they impact both dominant castes and suppressed castes. The experience of reading now, as the country suffers under a pandemic and its worst leader ever has been almost surreal. Wilkerson gets it–sees why we have failed, perceives what happened. Donald Trump, she tells us (and this is one of those places where she uses data effectively) is the logical endgame for a country that traditionally values and rewards its citizens in a rigid hierarchy–a deeply rooted caste system.
The last chapter, an epilogue, stands alone as the case for recognizing and rooting out caste. Other countries have done so–to their great benefit. Americans would similarly benefit, were we to see how our clinging to our bad habits and self-delusions have held us back from developing a just and democratic society.
So You Want to Talk about Race (Ijeoma Olou) This book hit me right in the solar plexus. It was like Ijeoma Olou was sitting across the table, answering questions—some embarrassing–and responding to ideas I’ve heard for most of my life, but never had the courage to ask or bring up. She’s not pandering to you, trying to make you feel virtuous or even well-meaning. Some of the things she says are painful. But she offers hope that things can get better if we keep trying to listen with an open heart. If you haven’t done much reading, this is the place to start.
Best Books by Scholars
How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi) This book is thick with ideas and intellectual challenges. It’s neither an easy nor quick read. I found myself re-reading paragraphs, to squeeze out the core ideas, which are not intuitive. At first, some ideas–racism is rooted in bad policy, not inborn hate and ignorance–don’t make sense. But read on. If racism is rooted in bad policies, those policies can be changed. Ah. And then better policies will change minds. It’s a hopeful idea. We can change.
How the South Won the Civil War (Heather Cox Richardson) In our history books, we are taught that it was a stunning idea to overthrow the idea of a rigid class structure, the divine right to rule, and the pre-eminence of property (including human beings). When America won its independence, it settled on an extreme and fundamental change in the way it chose to be governed. But the founders were not 100% certain that all men were created equal. More like all white, male property owners. As for men in the rural South, dependent on slavery to retain their ‘natural, God-given’ right to manage the affairs of their women and enslaved workers, the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was not only wrong, but loathsome. Richardson takes us through the Civil War, westward expansion and shifting political loyalties, and finds that, with Donald Trump, we have come full circle, fighting once again against the core principle of democracy, in favor of old, rich, white men and the rights of the individual over that of the community.
White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide(Carol Anderson) Anderson writes lucidly and persuasively about a 400-year old criminal enterprise, taking us through eras in American history–Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the ongoing battle for equity in education, the role of the courts and Congress in shutting off civil rights, the trashing of free and fair elections. The text is data-rich and, while very readable, scholarly. These are not Anderson’s opinions–they are documented facts. And they’re damning. She’s right–it’s white rage that matters as we ask who is to blame for rebellion in our streets.
White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) This book has recently taken a beating in the book-reading press. And it shouldn’t be the only book you read, if you’re choosing to read about bigotry and intolerance—you need multiple perspectives. But DiAngelo made sense to me, laying out a clear sociological framework for white fragility. It’s not easy to read her deconstruction of why all white people are, inherently, racist–and how that manifests in our behaviors and words, even as we think we’re trying to be open and affirming. She uses examples from her work as a diversity trainer, the things white people say and do that reveal their deeply held biases. She teaches readers who want to learn to recognize those defensive and reflexive responses, and deal with them, even learn from them. There’s value in that, even if it’s an imperfect primer.
Best Books for YA and Student Readers
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You(Jason Reynolds) What a wonderful, energizing, lively book–not descriptors you generally find describing a book about racism. Reynolds uses casual, breezy language in explicitly laying out the 400-year old roots of racism in America–without losing the no-shit seriousness of the topic. I would love to be in the classroom (any classroom) right now; this book could supplement a history text. Let me re-state that: this book would slyly correct, then poke at any American history text. Here’s what The Man (and all the books you ever read in school) say–but let’s examine it from another viewpoint. Reynolds rolls in media, from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Planet of the Apes’ to ‘The Cosby Show’, illustrating how white racists, time and again, marshal all their resources to push black people and black culture down.
Me and Carlos (Tom Perotta) This is a 50-page novella, but Perrotta packs a lot of teenaged confusion and rationalizing into a well-told story. Digger is the perennial second-stringer, who can’t quite rise above some petty resentments. Told in his voice, you can see what’s coming, the point at which male jostling and a re-arranged pecking order will lead to something really bad. Perrotta, always a good writer, adopts Digger’s voice and makes the reader uneasy. The novella feels breezy—a young adult-ish story. But I found myself thinking about all the layers—unearned privilege, the blithe male entitlement that high school jocks seem to adopt, jealousy, ethnic discrimination and how the country we live in supports these.
Red at the Bone (Jacqueline Woodson) The book has a YA feel to it, in spite of the ‘adult’ subject matter (which isn’t really adult, at all). There’s no padding–it’s all raw feeling, five different perspectives on a teenage pregnancy, and how family is at the center of both survival and happiness. Woodson’s language is evocative, and all the characters feel very real.
Richest, Most Illuminating Fiction
Salvage the Bones(Jesamyn West) broke my heart. You don’t know it’s going to break your heart, at the beginning of the book. Life in Bois Savage, at Esch’s home, feels chaotic and half-assed. There are four children, and Daddy–Mama died, giving birth to the youngest–so everything, from eating to washing sheets to taking care of Junior, is disorganized and unpredictable. And Esch, 15, and believing she’s in love with one of her brother’s friends, has a terrible secret. Right from the beginning, however, the language used to tell the story is almost poetry. There is beauty in everything, for Esch–the simple curve of her little brother’s skull, her older brother’s jumpshot, and her brother Skeetah’s dedication to his pit bull, China. Gradually, we see how tight this family is, how bonded they are, how forgiving of each others’ sins and failings. How they hold each other up, through unimaginable horror. How brave they are. How faithful. The book will break your heart, too.
The Night Watchman (Louise Erdrich) This book grew on me, as I read it, and the stories of the people, and how life had treated them, began to weave together, powerfully and even tragically. Erdrich always speaks plainly and truthfully, and the story here is greatly enhanced by knowing that she’s writing about her grandfather and his quest to keep the Turtle Mountain Tribe from being ’emancipated’–cut free–from the government that has already taken the best of their land (and, not coincidentally, their people).
Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) A rambling adventure, populated by a young, enslaved man (George Washington Black) and his master’s brother, an abolitionist and world-class eccentric. And many other unique characters, in a world–the 19th century–where slavery is both dying out and accepted as natural. Edugyan makes this world come alive, slipping into the mind of an 11-year old boy who has never lived outside the cruel confines of a sugar plantation in the British West Indies. How to understand the odd words and actions of the plantation owner’s brother? How to understand what real freedom is?
Jubilee (Margaret Walker) Written in 1966, Jubilee presents story of the Civil War from the eyes of one of the enslaved people. Walker goes far deeper in the minds and motivations of all the people in the typical plantation story, covering things like slave owners’ predilection for sexually abusing and impregnating the people they enslaved, the biblical and ‘moral’ rationales they employed, how slaves were terrorized into submission, the lack of information about the real world given to enslaved people–and an introduction to the evils of Reconstruction.
The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead) Outstanding, on many levels. The writing is perfectly styled for the story–the shorthand sentences and the plain thinking of the Nickel boys and their captors, reflecting both the times and the rotten values of the criminal justice system. And the characters are carefully drawn, by an unsympathetic narrator, who lets Elwood and Turner speak for themselves, instead of explaining what makes them tick. The plot is heart-tugging, driven by the boys who found themselves, by hook or crook, living in a version of Hell. And the epilogue is wonderful–it made me cry.
There, There (Tommy Orange) There’s almost too much in the book–the entire history of the Urban Indian, back to the 16th century, the myths and dreams, the horror, compacted in a few pages. There’s so much in it, history and backstory and rationale, that at times, it’s hard to find the story–the intriguing tale that keeps you reading to find out what happens. The book is rich with characters (none of whom feels much joy or hope), and very cleverly structured. You can see what’s coming a mile off, and feel powerless to stop it. And just when you want to know the specific outcomes, Orange pulls the plug. It’s easy to see why he did this–American ‘civilization’ has been doing this for 400 years. It’s a lesson to the reader.
Memoir and Essays
Becoming (Michelle Obama) The book is a festival of little, very human moments: Running to the corner store to get her mother a pack of Newports. Piano lessons. Her teenage boyfriends. Excruciating moments from the campaign. And, of course, what it’s like to love a man with Obama’s fierce intelligence and ambition. The tone is casual, a conversation with a friend—the book reads almost like a novel. A masterpiece of political biography.
All You Can Ever Know (Nicole Chung) As a (white) adoptive parent of a Korean son, the book rang my chimes on many levels. Chung notes, deep in her narrative, that some transracial adoptees do not experience the feelings of being an outsider or the persistent search for identity that she did, and I think that’s true. Each adoptee’s emotional journey is unique. Nonetheless, I think the issues Chung raises are vital, well worth reflection on the part of all parties, including adoptive parents. I learned from her story, which gave me many insights to chew on.
Thick and Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom) Cottom’s essay on being considered ‘incompetent’ in the birth and subsequent loss of her infant daughter will rip your heart out. Her essay on why David Brooks gets to be a full-time writer while producing columns about deli meats, and the NYT and WaPo don’t (or didn’t, at the time) have a full-time black woman op-ed writer is hilarious and spot-on.
Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) The first half of the book is little stories about growing up in South Africa, small examples of cultural differences from a vastly different world. Taken together, they present a picture of what it was like to be Trevor Noah–and what it’s like to live in a world with alternate boundaries and beliefs. It’s a good memoir, easy to read. It gets better, as Noah looks at apartheid, crime, gender dynamics, and so much more. The chapter entitled ‘Cheese Boys’ is brilliant-and his explanation of why South American families call their sons ‘Hitler” was a revelation. The book would make a worthy addition to any course on cultural perspectives.
This isn’t a blog about Our Beloved Post Office, or DeJoy the Impaler or even How to Vote. At its core, my ultimate point here is that Americans are terrible—godawful—media critics. And, consequently, our students–whom we frequently, jokingly label our on-site tech support–are floating in a sea of toxic TikTok spin and political sludge with no paddles and no anchor. While young people are often fearlessly intuitive about using social media tools and platforms, the wisdom that comes from analysis, evaluation, fact-checking–and simply being mature—is not necessarily in place. True, I have, in 30+ years of teaching, met 7th graders I would trust with my life. But one look at 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse’s social media presence ought to give anyone pause.
On the other hand—well, here’s a story about a viral FB post and adults who ought to know better.
This narrative is just one illustration of how misinformation is spread. I have my own theories about how this particular blot on the truth may have happened, but no proof.
It’s kind of like what’s happened to the Post Office this summer—moving from citizens’ early observations about the mail being slow, to a loose accumulation of facts and accusations, with people becoming more informed (or misinformed).
This week, we moved into Congressional hearings that have convinced many people that a critical, constitutionally mandated service is being deliberately destroyed by a guy who knows bupkis about delivering the mail and has an economic stake in shutting it all down.
Many people–but not all people, of course. Because others have read memes and posts and seen tweets that say the USPS has always been second-rate, and it’s time to put this money-losing federal service in the hands of a businessman.
We’re losing our grip on truth.
Around August 14, a post began to appear on my friends’ Facebook pages. Lots of friends—at least three or four dozen close buddies or acquaintances, some of whom have graduate degrees and respected voices in their communities. I won’t quote it all here—but it began with these words:
Good advice for people who feel unsafe about voting in person but now fear the USPS will be unable to deliver a “mail-in” ballot in a timely fashion.
There is a way around it:
1. Request a mail-in ballot.
2. Do not mail it.
Look familiar? This is not good advice.
There are a number of potentially concerning things in the rest of the post. It suggests that your drop box is probably not at/in your polling place (not true—many are). It says you can google your ‘election supervisor’ and find out where the drop box is (not true—and not all states use the same terminology to describe the elected authorities who oversee local elections). It says you can track your ballot—just like an Amazon package! —but neglects to say what to do when the tracking system says your ballot has not arrived, and you can’t track it through the mail’s bar codes.
There’s a lot of happy-talk language in the post: Your ballot gets in on time no matter what happens to the USPS! You don’t have to worry about standing in long lines and risking infection! Just drop it off!
In Michigan, if you drop your ballot into a handy drop box that isn’t in your voting jurisdiction, your ballot will not count. So there’s that.
All states that have mail-in voting of any type got there via a policy shift, at some point, applicable to that state alone. In Michigan we had a ballot initiative in 2018 to use the mail for absentee voting for ALL Michigan voters, no reason needed. Lots of confusing policy proposals and policy changes around voting have been proposed, adopted and rejected, across the country, as a result of the pandemic. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to ensuring that everyone gets the chance to vote.
It would be easy to think this post was from a well-meaning GOTV advocate, quoting advice applicable to their state or locale, thinking it was helpful everywhere. Its folksy tone makes you think you’re talking to a friend about your worries that USPS won’t be able to do its job.
It might make people who put off getting their ballots in the mail think—hey! I’ve got time! There’s got to be a drop box around here, somewhere! Or people who requested absentee ballots and find out too late there’s no box, go to the polls without the absentee ballot they requested (which needs to be ‘spoiled’ by a clerk, to free them up to vote in person). Etc.
At the very bottom of the post, it says this:
***This is very important, and I would appreciate everyone who sees this to copy it on their page. (Press and hold until the copy option pops up)***
This was the point at which I started wondering just who had written this (there was no source, not even ‘a friend wrote this’ on any of the re-posts I saw). Could it be a viral bot-post? Not shareable—one of those ‘cut and paste, so we can get the word out quicker,’ scammy posts?
I went looking. The first place I found it (on August 14) was Reddit, shared (but not authored) by ‘Joe in Canada.’ Two big spreaders were FB pages for ‘Spiritual Surrender’ and ‘The Professor is In’—but I couldn’t find a named author or credible source anywhere. Weird.
I did start pushing back every time I saw it posted, with a set of bulleted facts, similar to what I’ve presented here, only shorter. A couple of people said thanks, and took it down. A half-dozen more edited the post, to fit their city, township or voting jurisdictions and added cautions (that felt good).
But most people argued back, with ‘I know where my drop box is—I always use it’ or ‘I didn’t read the whole thing! Check with your local authorities!’ (leaving the incorrect information in place). One former student deleted my comments and left the post up (that felt bad).
Worse, there’s a similar meme making the rounds today—white text on a dark blue background. Be looking for it.
Lesson: People don’t like to have their random re-posts challenged. In fact, they hate it.
Second lesson: There’s a lot of unverified, even dangerous, garbage floating around out there as citizens try to navigate holding an election during a pandemic. Remember Steve Bannon’s maxim? Flood the zone with shit?And the best kind of, umm, shit is stuff that looks, at first glance, like it might be true.
Coda: I learned that my voting jurisdiction does not have a drop box by asking my County Clerk. She told me I could drop off my absentee ballot or vote early (another perk we supposedly got in the 2018 ballot initiative) by making an appointment at my Township Clerk’s home. Since our Secretary of State offered a free drop box to every township in Michigan, I expressed disappointment. Later, the SOS website showed that there now was a drop box, at the Clerk’s home address. There’s a photo of it, in her unlit, unsecured front porch, below.
The first thing I thought of when people started murmuring about getting groups of kids whose families were connected together for a little home-based mini-school, was the much-heralded advent of charter schools in my state, back in 1995.
Just about everybody who was around and in the thick of education reform back then thought charters held promise. Throwing off the regulatory shackles! Schools with a unique vision and purpose! No more factory-model instruction!
A group of parents, led by one of those perennial PTA-president moms, approached a group of maybe a dozen teachers in the district where I taught, hoping to start a K-8 charter. Several of the teachers had already been discussing a new, arts-infused ‘dream school.’ The parents had a centrally located vacant building in mind, and had run some numbers that showed, somehow, teachers would be paid commensurately with the district’s salary scale, including benefits—and would be freed to run their classes the way they saw fit.
It’s worth noting that this was before NCLB, the Common Core and mandated testing in grades 3-8. I’m finding it hard to remember, in fact, just what we found so onerous and constraining about practices in the buildings we were working in, but that group of teachers (male and female, including several movers and shakers) agreed to meet with the parent organizers.
The parents were super-enthusiastic. They, too, had ideas to roll out, and were thrilled at the prospect of having a greater say in their children’s education, without having to pay private school tuition. The new charter law let them pick and choose teachers and set the tone for who would be welcome there. The leader of the group declared ‘We’re going to have the cream of the crop in our school!’
And that was it. All of the teachers immediately realized why the parents had done so much research and organizing: it was all for their kids. Kids whose parents did not have similar resources and savvy would be left behind, a phrase that hadn’t even entered the education lexicon yet.
I have long been a defender of the idea that parents should do whatever makes them comfortable, when it comes to their children’s education. If you want right-wing religious training, or single-gender education, or a place where your child will not stick out–thinking here of the Obamas not placing their girls, symbolically, into a public school—hey, go for it. One size does not fit all, although a lot of public schools try to accommodate pretty much everyone.
I think trying to tell parents, during a pandemic–especially when there’s a dearth of authentic leadership around making healthy choices for kids–that they have to play by a particular school’s rules is utter folly. Nothing will, or should, stop parents from trying to figure out how to get the best deal for their children during a crisis. That’s what parents are for.
Is that what pod-parents are intending? A way to use a virulent virus to duck out of feeling responsible for all children, or at least those in the immediate vicinity? Or is pod-learning a temporary solution that might lead to a new appreciation of the utterly democratic and cost-effective nature of public education?
~ Pod-learning has no concrete definition. A tutor (please don’t call them zutors) who works with a half-dozen children, twice a week, to accomplish their assigned schoolwork, is a far cry from dropping your child off at someone’s home every day so you can go to work and they can go to school. Do pod-teachers create their own curriculum or merely adapt what’s available, free, from the local public school? Who hires pod-teachers and what recourse do they have when conflicts occur? And on and on.
~ None of this is new. There have been private tutors, one-room schoolhouses and home-schools since colonial times. More recently, we’ve had distance learning and a revolving carousel of online, customer-friendly, charter schools. There are plenty of ways to get your child at least nominally educated—and also into college. Best to keep the focus on genuine learning, which might involve some deeper involvement and hard questions about what your schooling plan does for your child, besides keep them occupied for six hours a day.
~ If you’re counting on your schooling bubble to keep your kids—and hence, all the people in your household—free from infection while enjoying the freedom of not wearing masks or social distancing, there’s a great graphic for you to study at the end of this blog.
~ Surprise! One of the two great benefits of public education is free/inexpensive childcare. (The other is an educated citizenry but almost nobody talks about that.) What that means is those who can afford to chip in on a pod program can also afford childcare. By hiring a bona fide teacher who is fearful of returning to a public school, you’re deepening the division between haves and have-nots. If, as some talking heads are suggesting, you hire a college student at loose ends—you’re doubling down on the false idea that anyone can teach. Didn’t you already figure that out, back in April?
~ Here’s a certainty: if people form pods to educate their kids, bypassing public schools, it will weaken the commitment to annual high-stakes testing, the Common Core (and its identical cousins with different names), and tightly controlled teacher licensure. That’s not all bad, but deregulation has its downside. Think of it as public education being re-created as a gig economy. Teaching as Uber. Caveat emptor.
~ Teacher professionalism and expertise will be devalued. What will suffer then are the (admittedly idealistic) concepts of deep learning, custom-tailored curriculum, relationship-driven instruction–things that can only be supported by an established system run by professional educators.
~ And, of course—the questions around equity. You can argue, correctly, that schools are already inequitable. But what makes a school equitable is not its location or demographics. Equity is built by a reliable stream of resources, committed and talented teachers and genuine leadership. You can’t have an equitable school or provide an equitable education without good people. Temporary, just-in-time pod education disrupts what is good in public education: community-building.
Short synopsis: Old white Road Commission member in Leelanau County (Tom Eckerle, 75) makes egregiously racist remark, using the N-word, at a public meeting. When exposed, and contacted by other news outlets, he compounds the ugliness by using the word repeatedly and making eye-rollingly racist comments about Black Lives Matter and Detroit. County erupts in disgust, mostly, with some people defending him. A recall petition is initiated. The other Road Commission members send him a signed letter asking for his resignation. Even the Republican legislator serving the county asks him to resign, after a lengthy conversation to hear what he really thinks. After 48 hours of repeated insistence he will not resign—Tom Eckerle finally does.
And now, of course, if we are smart and principled, the real work begins. And by ‘real work’ I don’t mean all of that under-the-rug sweeping.
I live in Leelanau County. And I can attest that people make racist remarks here all the time. What made this instance unique was not what Mr. Eckerle said (although his blatant use of the N-word was appalling). It was the fact that it was reported, on the front page of the Leelanau Enterprise, as news. If the reporter (who was tuning into the meeting via phone) had just let his crapola go by (and by all accounts, this guy is full of crapola), the only people who would have been offended would be the other Road Commissioners and the two or three people listening in, waiting to discuss road business.
It is worth mentioning that Eckerle’s anti-BLM outburst was triggered by someone asking him to wear a mask. Think that through.
Leelanau County is the ‘little finger’ of the Michigan mitten. It is a peninsula, surrounded by the beautiful waters of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and it is spectacularly beautiful country. We have both a National Park (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and an Indian reservation, home of the Grand Traverse Band. While the county is outlined by many multi-million dollar waterfront homes, and thriving resort towns, there are also pockets of desperate poverty, an affordable housing crisis and a complete lack of available, reasonably priced broadband for rural consumers.
There are only about 22,000 people in Leelanau County, and 94% of them are white. Of the remaining 6%, nearly all are Native American–or Hispanic, most of whom landed here first as migrant fruit pickers (and yes, ICE has recently made arrests here). Historically, the land has been dominated by farmers—especially fruit farmers. When the cherry and apple trees blossom out—hilltop orchards, overlooking lakes– in May, there is no more beautiful place on earth. And now, there are 26 wineries and upscale dining.
Politically, the county has been deep red for more than a century, but the influx of retirees from downstate has been moving some of the resort towns in a bluish direction. The county voted for Obama in 2008 (not in 2012), but there remains a die-hard core group of generational residents who are deeply suspicious of things like unemployment insurance, early childhood education, recycling and fancy-pants internet. Not to mention a Black President.
Many of these folks hold public office. Sometimes, for decades, in family groups. Republican candidates, even if they are known cranks (as Tom Eckerle appears to be), get elected. I once attended a Township Board meeting, to promote a resolution to stop Enbridge Corporation from using a crumbling 65-year old oil pipelinethat runs under the Straits of Mackinac. After we did our pitch, one of the Board members was clearly shocked at what would happen if the pipeline ruptured, and said so—she had not heard about Line 5. The Township Supervisor turned to her (and to her sister, who also sits on the Board) and said, out loud, ‘We’re voting NO, Shirley.’ And they all did.
Just politics in Leelanau County.
After the Eckerle affair, the local Facebook page, where people post beautiful photos of sunsets over lakes (we have lots of inland lakes) and sell their outgrown ski equipment, was alight with comments, running about three-to-one in favor of forcing a resignation.
There was a lot of pearl-clutching, worries about people thinking everyone in Leelanau County was like this–the local economy depends on tourism–and demands that the Governor yank Eckerle. Governor Whitmer said (correctly, in my opinion) that, dreadful as his comments were, it was the voters in Leelanau County who needed to recall him.
There were also way too many comments about his remarks being ‘just a word—one that Black people use all the time’ and cryptic statements about ‘Detroiters’ looting and bringing COVID up here. To paradise. White person paradise.
“Hatred, which has destroyed so much, never failed to destroy the one who hated, and this was an immutable law…..I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” (James Baldwin)
Facebook post, shared by a colleague: Started band camp last Sunday, two rehearsals per day. No more than 25 students in a group. They wore masks while moving between stations, and after the second rehearsal, two students went home because of low grade fevers. One tested positive. We were forced to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. There was no precaution we didn’t take.
Welcome to 2020, music educators.
About six weeks ago, Texas band directors (a fierce and highly competitive bunch) started posting summer band-camp photos, on a band directors’ site I follow. Flute players with facial shields. Trumpets and mellophones with their bells bagged. Masked percussionists, labeling their mallets, so they’re touched by only one person. They were fired up. Creativity and safety would win the day!
The page today is really tough reading: Shut-down camps. Lost jobs. Will there be a marching band next year if there’s none this year? Pictures of band rooms where precisely 13 students can play while social-distancing. Deep, philosophical chats about the value of music in kids’ lives. And this—how the hell am I supposed to have a band online?
Well, the bad news is: you’re not. And when this pandemic abates, the best-case scenario for all powerhouse performance-based music programs is the option to rebuild. Any teacher (raises hand) who’s ever had to build, then re-build, a music program of any kind knows how difficult that job is, what losses are suffered when your dynamic program loses the thing that makes it magnetic: Pride in performance, fun in preparation.
So don’t think I’m Pollyanna, telling music teachers to keep your chin up and try something new. I know you’re righteously sad about your good work being threatened. What I am offering is this: a few suggestions for doing some authentic music teaching during a terrible time.
For starters—stop calling yourself a band/choir/orchestra director, and begin calling yourself a ‘music teacher.’
Second—understand that your college education and years of experience have given you all the musical expertise you need to create some new ideas about music that can be delivered to students in multiple modes. You know enough about the structure and history of music to create some great lessons. And what you don’t know offhand, you can easily find, without leaving your living room.
Third—don’t think the only curricular options students have are limited to music theory, music history and practicing. Much of our college-level theory and history instruction was deadly dull—no need to repeat it. Also– please don’t assign practicing. You need to give kids a good reason to practice, and logging time for a grade is not a good reason to practice. Learning to play another instrument would be—Bari sax? Ukulele?
Fourth—you know what tools, student interests and previous skills are available to you. If you’re meeting students in groups, and they all have Zoom, you might be able to do some bucket drumming. Or maybe your orchestra would be more interested in a History of Popular Music survey unit—to find out where the music they listened to originated.
Perhaps you’re stuck with phone calls and emails, and have to do something written or shared via email groups. I used to play what I called Sound Samples for my students, around a theme. They listened to a series of 10 or 12 clips, each a couple of minutes long, with a list of what they were listening to (each with a brief description). The list was out of order. The trick was to listen closely enough to identify key features of the music and thus, identify the pieces. Ungraded—but I know from experience students love guessing right, or figuring out what they’re listening to, using the clues.
For those incredibly lucky teachers who have the right technological tools and skills, teaching students to do ensemble playing via technology, with themselves or others, is a possibility (not Zoom, by the way—it’s the wrong tool for ensemble singing/playing). Only a narrow slice of music educators have the equipment and expertise to do this—but perhaps it’s your personal challenge, right now.
Fifth—Keep in mind that students take a music class to play. Teachers are fearful of play. Not only because their professional evaluations and livelihood are often linked to a mandate to produce satisfactory evidence–data– but open-ended play is not generally The Way We Do Things.
In schools, and in the grim, we’re-behind education policy discourse, a teacher who encourages students of any age to poke at ideas, learn from mistakes, and approach established disciplinary content as a treasure chest to explore is seen as disorganized. You tell ‘em what to do. And then you evaluate how well they’re doing what you told ‘em to do.
I am a music teacher–theoretically a creative art–but can state categorically that music, as traditionally taught in secondary schools, is not very imaginative or playful at all. School music programs tend to become performance-oriented only–and often rigorously competitive—as students get older.
There is an important body of information and skills in music. The more of that disciplinary knowledge students have mastered, and the more proficiency they develop, the greater their ability to capably perform interesting and satisfying music, and become a more appreciative and knowledgeable music consumer. These are all worthwhile educational goals, by the way. Far more worthy, in the long run, than bringing home another trophy.
After I’d embraced the rehearse-rehearse-perform model for 20 years, I realized I wasn’t teaching my students much about music other than How to Play Band Music. I started experimenting with composition. I had adopted the practice of thematic teaching—focusing on one broad aspect of music each year. The first year I tried to include composition, our theme was World Music—identifying the musical features that make something sound Italian or Scottish, rustic or refined. We listened to gamelan bandsand balalaika choirs and West African djembe drummers.
And then I asked them to compose something in an ethnic style.
It’s nerve-wracking to turn kids loose to create. How do you structure that lesson? What’s the subject matter takeaway? What if your students create inferior products (as they certainly will, at first)? Must you grade them?
I had to deal with “Just tell me what to do” and “Can’t I do a report instead?” We persisted. And eventually, it was fun, playing with our acquired skills, creating new music–recording it on audio, video, electronic keyboard discs and paper. Their choice.
Some students performed their compositions live, including several groups and soloists playing the blues (that’s how you teach theory, by the way—using it). There were R. Carlos Nakai-ish recorder solos and improvised polkas. And lots and lots of drumming.
Most of the work was fairly unoriginal, but some of it was stunning. Here’s the best part. I assigned it on a Friday, giving them almost a month to get things in. On Monday, there were maybe two dozen completed assignments in my inbox, and groups wanted to know: Can we do another one?
Sixth—like most things about school and learning, music programs that are well-funded and adequately staffed get better results. It costs money to support a music program at any level, and a great deal of money to outfit a HS performing group, beginning with a facility. In some ways, losing daily rehearsals and summer camps and access to a world-class auditorium levels the playing field and lets musicians focus on the heart of music—human expression—rather than being best. This could be the year where imagination and creativity (and, in the process, justice) is the focus.
What if this urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge? What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?
Virtually all of the discussion between educators is now centered on whether it’s feasible, with any kind of plan, to return to in-person schooling in the fall. I believe this national conversation will follow the Major League Baseball template: schools will begin closing as viral clusters pop up, perhaps re-opening, then closing again for the balance of the year, as it finally dawns on the most resistant anti-mask parent and school board member: This just ain’t gonna work. It’s too dangerous.
Teachers settle into a teaching practice– gathering, testing and adopting habits and materials that are effective (and discarding those that aren’t). Many teachers had difficulty abandoning those standardized resources and pedagogies when forced to teach online. They tried to do what they always did—at first, anyway. When that didn’t work so well, they began experimenting, with personal calls and meetings, extending or modifying assignments—and plenty of other strategies.
Teachers quickly discovered that the usual deliver/practice/test model was a bust, with students randomly not showing up or completing things that would have been finished, had the teacher been strolling around the classroom looking over their shoulders. How would this impact grading and testing and comparing? District and state leaders eventually said—we can’t grade (or test or compare). It’s not fair.
Why does the general public assume that learning only matters when it’s quantified? Because we’ve taught them that is the case. Let’s cut to the chase instead: Now that we’re here online (or mailing packets, using phone-in conferences or emailing)—what would be the most useful things to learn?What might be jettisoned in favor of things that address important and current issues?
For children in primary grades, this amounts to lots of basic-skills building around interesting things in their world. When we talk about very young children, most people assume that they’re the ones who need the traditional high-touch curriculum: learning to read, do simple arithmetic, and socializing. In person.
That may not be possible. And I’m not entirely convinced that older kids do better with remote learning. I can think of a number of things that are central to early-childhood learning that might be adapted to learning at home. Vocabulary, speaking and listening, stories that teach us something, counting games, virtual museum visits, nature walks with items being shared and discussed, puppet shows—the list is endless.
The catch, of course, is having someone older around to supervise that nature walk, find the link to the virtual museum, and watch the puppet show after the teacher shares creative ideas and content.
I can also identify the teachers in secondary schools who will struggle the most to develop online models of teaching: music teachers with performing groups, art teachers, physical education and drama teachers, career and technical educators and those with hands-on pedagogies.
“Even when we focus on academics, we too often target low-hanging fruit like graduation rates rather than teaching and learning. Shallow successes allow us to pat ourselves on the back. But a high graduation rate is meaningless when our graduates enter the world without a fundamental grasp of the tools and knowledge necessary for full participation in life and citizenship. We can hope for a reimagining of schooling during this time, but nothing will change in our schools until we prioritize the education of our students.“
We could call it the 2020 Interim Curriculum, to keep those heavily invested in CCSS and annual testing from freaking out. It could be a place-based, context-sensitive approach. Learning during a pandemic. Making it up as we go along. If the things we always do can’t be done, because they require conditions and materials that can’t be had, what worthwhile topics—things currently in the news, things that our students might want to know—can fill in?
I’ve had some practice in the art of making it up as I went along. Here is a brief example:
I taught 7th grade math for two years, when the music program was cut. Both times (more than 20 years apart), all math teachers taught from textbooks. In 2004, it was a new curriculum that used different soft-cover books for individual topics. I was the last teacher in the rotation, and while waiting for the previous teacher to finish the topic and pass books on to my class, I had a few days to fill. No challenge for a veteran math teacher, with dozens of field-tested tricks, but I was new.
The Detroit Free Press had a special section on housing. It discussed housing prices across the metro area, square footage, interest rates on mortgage loans, down payments and the fact that for many families, their homes functioned as their savings investments. Lots of charts and graphs and tables, as well as dozens of photos.
I (illegally) copied a couple of the tables and graphs to interpret, and brought the whole section into class. I read the copy on the front page, and then spent the rest of the week showing them how to figure out why a large down payment might be better than a minimum amount, how housing increased (or decreased) in value, the differences between buying in a popular area and a run-down part of town, and how much of a house payment was principal and how much interest.
Seventh graders, it turns out, know nothing about the price of a home. The idea that the homes they were living in might cost a quarter of a million dollars was stunning. Equally surprising was the idea that a genuine mansion in Detroit, with four times the square footage and six bathrooms, might cost less. We briefly touched on redlining, and its impact on Black families in Detroit. We calculated down payments, monthly costs and equity. There were no homework assignments, but each day was full of math and learning. At the end of the year, in the survey I gave them, lots of them mentioned that learning about housing was the thing they remembered, and enjoyed, the most.
And that was before that kind of information was readily available online. I imagine teachers gathering links to stories about housing, the job market, education loans and careers—practical advice plus practice in calculation and understanding how to use math (or literature, or science) in making a better world.
How do things work? How could they work better, for all of us?
The possibilities are endless. In Part II, a blog about teaching music composition, something face to face music teachers in performance-focused classes seldom do.
The best charter schools have made good use of their freedom from old school district rules and biases. Why shouldn’t teachers and principals at regular public schools have a chance to do that, at least during this crisis?
At least during this crisis—and then, of course, we’ll go back to ignoring their wisdom and treating them like cheap, interchangeable cogs in a dysfunctional machine.
I have been reading Mr. Mathews for two decades. I understand that he represents the old guard in educational journalism—the folks who are actually employed by mainstream news outlets, rather than the motley and generally unpaid crew of folks writing from the trenches. The people who work in schools every day.
The point of this blog is not to evaluate how accurately journalists report on truths about teaching and learning vs. those who rely on call-Randi-then-phone-it-in columns. There are plenty of classroom-based bloggers, after all, who cannot see beyond their school, their students, and their particular needs.
Still–there are lots of people writing about the crisis around returning to schools now, and that’s good, no matter who they are We need to hear all the voices, including those whose crazy idea just might work for someone, somewhere, even if it is a non-starter for you.
So here is my idea: What if this were the best year ever?
More specifically, what if this were the year that we–students, teachers, parents—got to try everything we ever considered doing? What if you could design your own teaching-learning path and your own outcomes? Freed from the constraints of rigid curricular standards, conventional M-F schedules and tests designed to sort, rank, reward and punish—what if you got to choose what David Berliner calls ‘good learning’?
Nearly every argument against this stems from our cast-in-concrete ideas of what school is supposed to be: You are supposed to be reading in first grade. You are supposed to learn to ‘socialize’ in school. You are supposed to learn a tiny bit about multiple, discrete subjects every day, instead of spending a whole day (or week—or month) using only one or two disciplines. You are supposed to be ready for college or a career at the end of the thirteen-year race.
You are supposed to be able to focus, seated, indoors for hours at a time, without frequent breaks to stretch, use the restroom or talk to other people. Or daydream. Or read something interesting. Or doodle, look out the window or immerse yourself in a topic, skill or project that is of great interest to you.
In fact, in some schools, it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in—we have your content and your benchmarks all laid out for you. It’s aligned with the test that will tell us what classes you’ll take next year, and the year after that. Will the pandemic be over then?
Perhaps this feels as if I have gone all Summerhill, (the ‘radical’ book all education majors dissected in the 1970s). As if I’m a fan of unschooling–or one of those people who babble about the factory model and how school stifles their child’s imagination. How classes are boring in person and even worse online.
Not so. In fact, I’m a great fan of public education, of kids adapting to a schedule and learning to get along in groups. I think most schools do a credible job of teaching kids what they need to know—and some teachers and schools do a spectacular job of preparing kids for the world to come. I also think (and have gotten into trouble for saying out loud) that the brightest children amuse themselves and are seldom bored in school, at home or sitting in front of a computer. It’s the kids who rely on structure, attention and directions from an adult who are bored, who use their intelligence to be compliant or competitive, rather than creative.
So let’s use the resources that public education controls—and get creative, for once.
The plans for fall have been repeatedly divided—by media and policy-making spokespersons—into three buckets: Regular, face to face school. Hybrid models. Online instruction. None of these models is universally viable.*
More to the point, all of them are based on the idea that we need to tread water and make school as close as possible to what it was in 2019, while waiting for the virus to go away. The US Department of Education’s vow to not grant testing waivers for 2020-21 is not based on their deep desire to see whether kids have ‘fallen behind’ so they can get ‘caught up.’ The entire K-12 system now requires test scores as our product, the gears and levers used to control and shame public education and, where possible, replace it with privatized, for-profit models (including charters).
If this sounds like happy talk, it’s pretty much what we had 30 years ago. It’s hard to remember, but solving educational problems used to take place at the district and state level, and testing was something states did to make sure tax dollars were being wisely spent. In many states, schools that posted low scores were given compensatory funding and technical assistance, and deficits were assumed to be related to poverty.
That was then. And now, we’re headed into the ‘worst year ever’—but only if you accept that what we’ve been doing for the past two decades has been a good use of our resources.
It could also be the best year ever. This won’t happen without a political overhaul and a cataclysmic upheaval in practice. But it may be the best opportunity we have.
Please don’t tell me that this is a local government problem. I understand that. But my local government, despite 10 years’ worth of being urged to deal with the problem, is reluctant to act, saying that they haven’t heard complaints, and don’t want to spoil the ‘rural character’ of the county. By the time the local government acts, the school year may well be over.
Hard to turn down a request like that, from a friend. This particular friend created a freebie news magazine for parents 20 years ago, filled with local ads and feature stories. It’s professionally assembled and well-known locally—and has just shifted to a glossy online platform. And now, my friend needed some contagion-relevant content for the August issue. Topic: Going back to school. In a pandemic.
Well, I could write about that. Then she said: Remember—nothing political! This has to be advice that will comfort parents and not be considered at all controversial.
One of the reasons I left a national blog perch with a paywall and started my own blog was so I could write about all kinds of juicy and controversial things and Say What I Really Thought. It’s been fun, and the juiciest and most controversial blogs have drawn the most traffic.
But hey. I’m flexible. Besides, I was a public school teacher for 31 years, in a district filled with conservative, traditional parents. I can do middle-of-the-road careful; I can offer up sensible advice while not honking anybody off, too much.
This is what I came up with—five non-controversial ideas for parents about how to approach our eventual return to school, whether that’s next month or next year. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Be flexible. This may be the hardest thing for parents and teachers—and students as well. We’ve become accustomed to guidelines and traditions: School always starts in the fall and ends as summer begins. School is held in buildings, in classrooms. But this year, we just don’t know what will happen. It will be tempting to assess blame—against school leaders or the government—when we are frustrated. The pandemic is nobody’s fault, however—and the most useful ideas for schooling in a pandemic are often unusual. Will your child meet his teacher outdoors, twice a week? Perhaps. Might the school close and reopen multiple times? Maybe. Will there be distance learning, online or via printed packets? Likely, even if it’s not optimal. Stay open and amenable to change. Your children will follow your lead.
Relax—there is no such thing as ‘falling behind.’ First, nearly all schoolchildren are experiencing this disruption to their regular school routine. More important, any veteran teacher will tell you that students do not learn in uniform, year-by-year levels of progress. There are spurts and plateaus, times when new skills and content are gained and times when students merely practice using the things they know and are able to do. Your child—with a little gentle help from you—can continue to grow or solidify their learning: Reading (out loud or silently). Walking in nature. Choosing their own interests and projects to pursue. When in doubt, Google learning ideas for children. And stop stressing over tests and competing. Your child will be OK, in the long run.
Stay in touch with your school. If you have bright ideas about how to cope with stemming the spread of infection, or if your children have specific needs, share this information with school leaders and teachers. Give them a chance to help your family adapt. If at all possible, stick with the school—whether public or private—your family chose last year. This is not the right time to go school shopping, hoping to find something ‘better.’ A school where your child is known is a better bet than rolling the dice, academically, during a dangerous national health crisis.
Trust school leaders and teachers. They are between a viral rock and the hard place of public needs. They are also willing to take risks and learn new things to provide an education for your child. They deserve our support. Their rules and procedures are designed to keep children safe and create order in the school. If your family does not agree with all of the school’s plan and requirements for re-opening, keep in mind that schools are responsible for communities of children, not just your child. Our democratic society was built on the rule of law; modeling that has never been more important. It is vital for children to respect their school’s directions and decisions right now, around masking, distancing and sanitizing. It’s an important step in building their adulthood and citizenship.
We are all in this together. Your children are like millions of schoolchildren across the country, your family’s problems are shared by families across the state. The most productive approach to solving these problems is doing so in a way that benefits everyone in your community, keeping them as safe as possible. Our ability to remain calm and approach a national emergency with a can-do spirit is something Americans have been proud of, in past crises. We will survive this, and even learn from the struggle, if everyone does their part.
I know all the things that are wrong with Facebook, all the reasons why now might be the perfect time to Just. Step. Away. Several friends have virtue-signaled their unwillingness to play nice with a man who sells them (and their data) outand closed down their accounts. Many more have taken extended breaks, keeping a toe in (and, I suspect, checking surreptitiously on the regular). Others have shifted exclusively to Twitter or some other, more hip social media site.
But—like that last cigarette or glass of Pinot Grigio, Facebook is addictive. It—and, from slightly different angles, other social media sites—act as the town square, in 2020. During the pandemic, when choosing which information to believe and act on is a matter, quite literally, of life versus death, Facebook is where a lot of people get their news.
And I’m going to say something surprising: that’s not all bad.
Frequently bad, sometimes ruinous, sure—but also (somewhat randomly) useful.
It’s where dialogue is generated. Notice I didn’t say high-level discourse—but I have learned things from reading Facebook. This is mostly because I don’t accept or keep Facebook friends who can’t carry on a conversation.
I am genuinely interested in what people think. Facebook is where I’ve learned that a lot of really benighted people live in my county—and while that’s not happy news, it’s good to know. It’s also where I have met some of the smarter people on the planet and been enriched by their logic and reason.
Facebook can be a kind of socio-anthropological adventure, if you have thick skin and are willing to research and argue your opinions—and also change your mind. Here’s an example:
One of the most commonly asserted and accepted reasons that children need to go back to school in the fall is the thought that school is good for their mental health—the socialization, the ‘normalcy,’ the daily routines and of course, the all-important knowledge acquisition and skill-building that comes with in-person schooling. There is evidence that school is a safer place, physically, for some students—a place where caring adults are paying attention and providing baseline needs, for seven or eight hours.
I saw that argument as rational, if not 100% convincing. Then, I read this on Facebook, from a child and family therapist, arguments against ‘COVID schooling’ because it’s supposedly ‘good for kids’:
– Having to obey rigid and developmentally inappropriate behavioral expectations to maintain social distancing for hours at a time – Restricting their engagement with their peers even though those peers are right in front of them – Somehow having to have the executive functioning within all of this to meet educational standards and possibly experiencing shame, and self-doubt when they reasonably can’t – Being unable to receive age appropriate comfort from teachers and staff when dysregulated from all of this, thereby experiencing attachment injuries daily
Did this change my mind? Hard to say, because I recognize that there is no one answer to the critical and urgent questions around schooling in the fall. But it widened my perspective. It made me understand that credible people are looking into the other side of ‘kids need school’ when school is a place of fear and rigidity.
I read multiple international, national, statewide and local newspapers, and a couple dozen magazines. I watch TV news. But I also find things on Facebook I wouldn’t find elsewhere—news sources and, more important, the considered thoughts of respected friends, and friends of friends.
There’s value in that. Also danger. It’s easy to believe third-hand quasi-information, especially when it confirms your biases. Raise your hand if you’ve ever re-posted something, then had to take it down, after being embarrassed by a public correction.
Which is why I believe the most important thing we can do, right now, for all literate children, is teach them how to evaluate media. Fortunately, there are great resources to use—and while distance instruction pales in comparison to face to face learning, this is something that can and should be done online
If I were in charge of training teenagers how to assess the media they consume, I’d start with Facebook.
I’d begin with a list of Facebook personalities:
The Plentiful Poster who puts up a dozen or two links every day, designed to share the best (in their opinion) articles and resources.
The Ad Hominem Attacker who goes first for the jugular in personal critiques. The Orange Cheeto? Cruella DeVos? Our Tyrannical Governor? Forget political arguments and opinions—it’s all about who to blame. There are some people who never get past this level.
The Short Attention Spanner who doesn’t read the link they’re posting. Or confirm any outrageous claims with a second source. Or read anything before commenting.
The guy who thinks long is better, and proceeds to type paragraph after paragraph, comment after comment, just to wear you down. The woman who can’t remember where she first saw the post—but was blown away by it, thinks it may have been written by a doctor and is thereby God’s honest truth.
I’d ask the students to provide other (living or social media) typologies from their experience: Who’s credible? Who’s full of baloney? Who’s trying to impress you? Shut you up by policing your anger and demanding ‘civility’? Snow you with phony facts—or (and this is absolutely everywhere) Fake Math?
I see you waving your hand over there—reminding me that we should begin by teaching kids how to evaluate evidence and websites, not the integrity or authority of people they know or are friends with (two different things) on social media.
But I am reminded of one of those old saws about teaching: Start where the student is. And for many of them, that’s personal relationships or relationship chains.
Who should you trust? It’s absolutely the question of the year.
People are uber-touchy, even panicky, about the questions around returning to school—it’s a life and death issue, all right, including potentially gambling with our most precious asset: our children.
Like any venture that is launched before all the facts and outcomes are available—marriage and childbirth spring to mind here—both in-person schooling in some fashion and staying home for distance learning have their vocal supporters and detractors.
There’s free-floating hostility, too—accusations of parents ‘dripping privilege’ who are urging public schools to reopen, knowing they have the resources to keep their children safe. There are politicians who just want ‘normal’ again, blaming the media, the left, and public institutions for pumping up panic.
And there are teachers—without whom, students will not go back to school—self-righteously proclaiming that they’re not babysitters.
This is not a new statement. A few years back, there was a meme that made the rounds—the teacher rounds, anyway—comparing the work of teaching to babysitting for 30 children for seven hours a day. Guess what? The babysitter made more money. Way more money. So there!
I was never sure what the moral of the story was. Proof that teachers are grossly underpaid for the important work they do by saying that even babysitters make more money? How is that helpful?
Here’s the thing: All work that is critical and essential in building a functional society has its moments of mundane, even undignified monotony. A nurse friend who works in endoscopy once remarked that she’d spent four years studying chemistry, anatomy and biology, but her chief responsibility in her daily job was holding senior citizens’ butt cheeks apart so they could get a colonoscopy.
Not a pretty picture. And not really representative of her skills and expertise, which are substantial. Still, many of what society considers high-level occupations—hedge fund manager, say– are nothing more than a narrow band of knowledge, social connections and high-speed internet. A lot of important work is commonplace and undervalued. Like taking care of children.
Let’s acknowledge, upfront, that the nation, as we know it, will not function without a robust system of childcare. Let’s also acknowledge that PK-12 public education is the biggest piece of that.
Let’s admit how fortunate we are, to have public schools that keep our children safe, Monday through Friday, but also enriched intellectually—and, in many cases, fed, inspired and given glimpses of a better life. Every parent knows what a relief it is when your children are finally in school full-time, and your own work or interests can take precedence for part of the day, knowing that the kids are, indeed, all right.
Teachers are, in fact, childcare experts. Occasionally, someone suggests that teachers’ jobs consist of dispensing knowledge and instilling standard competencies, no more. This is 100% baloney.
Ask any first-grade teacher how many lost teeth she has processed (using protocols for blood-borne pathogens she must review annually). Ask any seventh-grade teacher how many times he’s had to deal with a sobbing child who’s just been called ‘fat’ by mean girls. Ask any high school teacher who’s attended the funeral of a student lost to cancer, or to suicide.
Go ahead—ask them: Did you care for this child? And was that caring an important part of your job? A lot of what teachers have been doing during the shutdown is a kind of childcare, by the way.
The most dismal years for schools were between 1932 and 1936. By 1939 educators observed that Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education was very deep rooted.
Of course, attending or teaching school in 1934 didn’t involve a pandemic-level health risk.
There’s been lots of digital ink praising grocery store workers, take-out restaurants and USPS drivers for keeping us fed and informed. But what these folks want is not praise for doing their jobs. They want better wages, personal protection against the virus and good health care, which during a pandemic would include regular, free diagnostic testing.
Teachers want the same things—PPE, a viable workplace, testing/tracing, and acknowledgement that they, too, are indispensable, and valued, front-line workers. Corporations don’t expect workers to do their jobs from home, using personal computers and paying for their own internet—why should schools?
Do we all have to follow the same guidelines?Especially since it’s likely that risk levels and mitigation compliance will change, frequently, over the next few months? More to the point: if schools don’t provide childcare, who will?
I keep thinking about a school where I volunteer. About two-thirds of the students there do not have enough broadband access to attend a Zoom meeting or upload an assignment that includes an image or attachment. Theoretically, half of them have access to a device—which may be a single Smartphone for a whole family.
Every child in this district eats a free hot breakfast and lunch at school. It’s a large rural district with families spread out across the county, so it would take a fleet of buses with wi-fi hotspots and free devices for each child to go full-tilt distance learning—and still, most families could not connect in real time.
We’re talking about in-person school here, at least some of the time–or packets. We’ve lived here for 10 years and can testify that adequate broadband isn’t coming anytime soon—it’s simply not a money-maker in remote rural areas where most students live in poverty.
On the other hand, there is only one class of children per grade, in this school, and the largest class is 16. Some classes are as small as five or six. Unlike the vast majority of schools, there is actually room in the school to social distance. It’s a tight-knit community, and there are just 27 cases of COVID in the county.
Is going back to school riskier—to the whole community— than a patchwork of babysitting neighbors or, more likely, kids staying home alone?
I also keep thinking about this statement: Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education is very deep rooted. Let’s keep it that way.
I wrote this blog on July 5, 2018–at a site that is now blocked by a paywall. Yesterday, I read Donald Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore, and his follow-up speech–pretty much the same blah-blah–at the White House, on July 4. When this popped up in my feed today, it felt as if I was naive then–that I had no idea just how far evil would rise, how a terrible crisis could drive the country even further apart. All of this still applies. ______________
I played my flute in a patriotic-themed outdoor concert last night with the Northport Community Band–as cooling breezes blew across Grand Traverse Bay and firecrackers popped in the distance. There were at least 400 people seated in lawn chairs, clapping along to You’re a Grand Old Flag, TheNational Emblem and The Stars and Stripes Forever. We played a service medley, as we always do, asking veterans to stand when the tune representing their branch of the service was played. This is standard for our summer concerts–and I usually think of this as hokey, the musical equivalent of a ‘Support Our Troops!’ bumper sticker.
But last night, instead of zoning out during the rests, I watched the crowd–the old men struggling to get to their feet or simply waving from their wheelchairs as the crowd clapped and cheered for them. And I thought of all the major sacrifices–not just lives of young, innocent men and women, determined to serve their country, but the endless struggles for civil rights and equity and justice. I reflected on the striving, loss and pain incurred in the ongoing process of trying to make this nation a true democracy (or republic–take your choice).
The people who tartly point out that we have never been a just and fair nation are correct. But I don’t remember a Fourth of July where I’ve felt more discouraged about the home of the brave, land of the not-really free.
I also still feel a deep commitment, an obligation, to the relevant principles, even as they’re chipped away and made meaningless: Liberty. Opportunity. Equity. Justice. Peace. Persistence.
I found myself, unexpectedly, in tears last night. So much has been lost, damaged, soiled or destroyed. Evil is rising. You can’t deny it. Just watch the news.
Were all the sacrifices in vain–going all the way back to the ragtag Colonial armies, losing their lives over taxation and the conviction that somehow this was their land, that they were entitled, by their Creator, to defend their homesteads and the fruits of their labor? What about the terrible price paid to end the scourge of slavery? To build and invest in becoming a world-class power? All the people who steadfastly developed the American dream–is it just the way of the world that their sacrifices were meaningless in the face of greed and corruption?
The etymological root of the word sacrifice is to ‘make sacred.’ I think I was experiencing the sacred last night, watching the 90-something Navy man sing ‘Anchors Aweigh’ in the front row–and the grandfathers who served in Vietnam shyly nod to each other across the crowd.
I also thought about where and how those men and women were educated. Where did they absorb the idea that citizenship is both blessing and duty? Who taught them to read and calculate, who nurtured their talents and their dreams?
In this holiday week, I am choosing to still believe in the things that genuinely have made America great, those blessings of liberty that include a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child.
Meme wisdom: Those who have stayed inside, worn masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.
Of all the hundreds of things I’ve read about distancing, risk assessment, statistical analyses and their failings, back to school/stay home, and whether masking is really an IQ test—I like this one the best.
Every teacher with a couple years’ experience recognizes those kids: the ones who do what they’re supposed to do, even if it means picking up considerable slack generated by other kids. Community-minded kids are not always academic superstars, by the way—some of those really resent having to share their superior intellectual skills in the service of a good grade for a group. They will let the teacher know that, too.
In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.
After all, we were playing together. Music is not an interpersonal competition—it’s a group project. We need each other. That was the party line in the band room, anyway—and most kids actually believed it and lived it. It didn’t come naturally, however.
The question is: how do cooperative kids get to be that way? What is the secret sauce that feeds a sense of community responsibility over personal gratification? How can we have pride and true excellence, while staying within the guardrails of kindness and collaboration?
The quick and easy answer is that children learn (or don’t learn) this concept at home: Our family is a team. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be selfish. Use your manners. Think of others. Share.
I would suggest that students also learn (or don’t learn) these behaviors and beliefs in school—and from absorbing an endless stream of media. And by living in the United States. As Bob Wachter says:
America is good at many things. But handling a pandemic—at least in our current political atmosphere—isn’t one of them. In fact, we suck. We’re too individualistic, too spoiled, too vain, too partisan, and too willing to believe misinformation, conspiracies or craziness.
Still, I’ve been having conversations with teachers—both retired, and still in the classroom—who express surprise and horror at things their former students are saying online: No way am I wearing a mask. This whole thing is so overblown. Even if we get a vaccine, I won’t trust it. I need a haircut! This violates our constitutional rights. I heard they’re just saying everyone who dies had COVID. I think Bill Gates is behind this.
So much for the value of science, the actual documents and principles of our government, statistical analysis and media critique skills. Nice job, Teach! Sigh.
The problem is that these practices—establishing caring communities, cooperative learning—aren’t always valued in the American system. Following agreed-upon rules becomes a fool’s game, something that only suckers and goody two-shoes types buy into. Japan is a homogeneous society, we’re told—but we, here in the home of the so-called free, are more diverse. We must rely on our individual strengths and ruthless determination to get ahead.
How do we get people to obey the rules? Ask a teacher. A few quick thoughts:
Mandates and punishments seldom work to change behavior in schools. Likewise, we can’t arrest every person who tries to enter a business without a mask, or crowds behind us in line. The more time we spend enforcing rules and punishing students, the more we get this— escalation and anger. Schools now defunding in-house police officers are moving in the right direction. Force is the blunt instrument of compliance, as some segments of American society know only too well. Force leads to more force, and all of this is based on fear, a terrible motivator.
Incentives have temporary value. Teachers who gave obedient students Jolly Ranchers know this–it’s basic Skinnerian conditioning, and eventually masks the real goal in favor of the reward. You can give customers wearing masks five percent off their purchase, but the habit is short-lived.
Community disapproval sometimes works, if gentle, but it can horribly backfire, as any teacher with one recalcitrant troublemaker prone to public fit-pitching will tell you. Being shut out of a community is a painful experience for all humans, children and adults. It seldom leads to permanent changes in attitude and can, over time, damage children and adults. Use cautiously.
Persuasion seems to be a wonderful way to change anti-community behaviors. If only it were quick and easy, to just ‘listen to the scientists’ and do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what experts and authorities have to say or how many times you post that clever graphic about the percentages of virus suppression with/without masks—persuasion and its ugly cousin, shaming, seldom work without a long, gradual period of shifting values. We’re a nation of skeptics, encouraged by myth and law to ‘stand our ground’–and our selfish habits die hard.
Modeling can be effective in schools, especially adults who model kindness and cooperation. When children see adults behaving responsibly and with a generous spirit, they get the idea that we’re better off working together (at least at school). Modeling works less well with adults, but it’s always worth trying.
Leadership is a powerful tool in sustaining a school community and creating a climate of safety and caring. I know lots of teachers and school leaders who had students and staff eating out of their hands, due to strong character and clearly expressed values. We have seen some genuine political leadership during this crisis, as well as abject failure. In fact, it’s never been clearer how much leadership matters—it’s emphatically not true that all politicians are crooked and only interested in benefitting themselves.
The first thing I did when I retired from teaching was embark on a PhD program in education policy. When I enrolled, my advisor wondered immediately why a newly retired teacher would want to study education policy. She thought I should be in the teacher education program—or maybe the ed leadership division, with all the wannabe superintendents.
But I wanted to study education policy—to see just how the sausage was made, by whom and for what reasons. As a long-suffering object of education policy, I wanted to untangle the process that had so often made me ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?
I learned a number of things, most of which weren’t part of any syllabus, none more important than the fact that education policy creation is seldom measured and thoughtful, informed by research, goodwill and common goals.
That’s where we are right now. Big problem: returning to school (or not) during a pandemic. Tons of policy options to address this problem. Politics swirling around the issue, from state control over health mandates, a bitter election season and the devastated economy. What does this mean to our youngest citizens? How will they be educated? This is an oversized picture window for policy creation.
Perhaps the Republican legislators read Kingdon, and fear that the window to impose their will might close unless they wrest control of the policy proposals and (especially, given the governor’s 70% approval rating) politics.
The document is a mess (D- to the communications outfit they hired to write it). It’s filled with familiar, yet awkwardly worded, edu-mush like ‘Learning doesn’t stop when a student leaves the classroom. Schools should be measured for how they engage students, not how long a student sits in a seat.’
And there’s this gem: ‘Understanding a student’s knowledge of critical concepts is important to ensuring instruction is focused on the most-needed areas.’ I wonder who thought that one up.
My personal favorite: ‘Our plan empowers school districts to develop flexible learning plans for the 2020-21 school year to maximize student learning.’ What does that even mean?
Most of the items seem to be code for a few things the Republicans have long wanted—‘efficiency’ in education policy– and haven’t been able to get. In veiled and gauzy language, and extremely short on specifics, they cover all the various policy models I learned about in grad school:
Students absolutely will be tested whenever they return to school (no worries, testing companies). Because otherwise we’ll have no idea ‘where they are at academically.’
Forgiven snow days (a really big deal in Michigan) would be limited to two (currently, six snow days don’t have to count toward annual required seat time, and school districts can apply for three more in an exceptionally snowy winter). For a document that proclaims ‘how long a student sits in a seat’ doesn’t matter, this is a bit inconsistent, but the legislature seems to be trying to appear tough, the law-making equivalent of ‘I had to walk through drifts to get to school, damn it, and these kids can, too.’ This and other items appear to be things the legislature is still smarting over, and wants to re-litigate, even though they have little to do with the pandemic.
In-person instruction will be required for grades K-5. This appears to be a gift to parents who must work, as the cutoff age for needing a babysitter is probably 11 or 12 years of age.
Benchmark assessments must be used. (You’re not getting out of that, you lazy teachers!)
Online learners will get the same scope and sequence of curriculum, and the same day and hour requirements as those learning in person. No more one-hour Zoom meetings followed by independent work or reading, even though ‘learning doesn’t stop when the student leaves the classroom.’ This appears to be assurance that the online education they’re gunning for is just as good for older kids as face to face classrooms.
Schools will be directed to focus only on math, reading, science and social studies, called ‘the basics.’ You know what means, and what will be missing, come fall.
There’s a whole section on health and safety, but all it says is that schools will ‘partner’ with their local health departments to ‘ensure’ health and safety practices that ‘make sense,’ and that intermediate school districts will get $80 million to ‘coordinate safe learning measures,’ whatever that means. No money directly to school districts for these health and safety needs. For example, cleaning and sanitizing, ventilation systems, more classroom space, masks. Stuff like that.
There’s a section on ‘Restarting Extracurricular Activities Safely’—with a lot of murky language about empowering parents and local guidance. If you don’t understand what that means, there’s a little basketball icon to subtly explain: Yes, there will be sports.
A one-time $500 reward for ‘front-line’ teachers. This—essentially a signing bonus for coming back to teach during a teacher shortage as well as a dangerous pandemic—fools not one single teacher. It’s not gratitude. It’s desperation.
The lack of specificity, beyond the 5th grade, and the drumbeat of ‘innovation’ and, especially a promise of $800 per student to implement ‘robust distance learning’ is the biggest deal here. In fact, the concept of ‘attendance’ will be ‘redefined’ to mean ‘engaged in instruction rather than physically present.’ That’s huge. Who needs bricks and mortar schools—except for sports?
You don’t need a degree in education policy to see this sloppy one-pager for what it is—exactly the kind of ‘innovation’ that will make educators ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?
About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.
Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.
The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.
The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.
In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.
Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’
The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’
The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?
There were two distinct schools of thought:
One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.
At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?
More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.
The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.
When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.
The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.
But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that Iprefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.
If you only read this blog for thoughts and opinions about education, here’s one you can skip.
I’ve been thinking about Joe Biden.
If you think this is going to be one of those ‘Joe Biden was not even close to my favorite candidate but we all have to vote for him because we’re at the edge of the abyss’ blogs—it’s not. (Although that’s true.)
It’s also not a blog about how we have to fix Joe Biden, by pushing him leftward and micro-managing all the choices he makes, beginning with the woman who ultimately becomes his Vice-Presidential pick. It’s already obvious that whomever he chooses, there will be a segment of likely Democratic voters who think she’s the wrong choice and will post long strings of articles critical of her former career, lack of proper experience, age, and personality.
Nor is it a blog about policy, although policy is totally, totally my thing. We can fly-speck every piece of legislation Joe Biden has ever had his hands on, going back more than 45 years, the reasonable and the terrible. But as the guy currently occupying the White House illustrates—a policy platform is just a piece of paper, not (as you may have assumed) an important statement of the party’s core principles and goals.
This year, for them, it’s all about Trump: Love him or leave him. The rest? Meaningless detail.
The Republicans obviously understand how little most Americans care about policy specifics. It makes me wonder why the people I’m in conversation with have started so many social media fights over such marginal issues as which candidate had the most extravagant education funding multipliers, the most generous health care plan, or the most ideologically pure campaign staffers.
A few weeks ago, friends I respect were posting pieces and supportive thoughts about Tara Reade, the woman who accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her, decades ago. These were people who—like me—were disappointed that we ended up with Joe Biden. They saw him as a deeply, irreparably flawed candidate and Reade as a woman who, like Christine Blausey Ford, had just been afraid to come forward.
There was heat on some of these threads, anger over what appeared to be a double standard in defending some women who had been harassed, but castigating others. Most people were willing to admit that we will never know the truth, but some kept the sharp criticisms of Biden rolling, saying inflammatory things like ‘We shouldn’t have to choose between two rapists’– way over the line.
What did they hope to gain? Well, maybe a brokered convention. Or a Joe Biden who realized he wasn’t up to the fight–and withdrew his name. Someone else to run against Trump. I’m not just spit-balling here. These were things people put in writing. They couldn’t vote for him.
Since then, Reade’s story has fallen apart, pretty convincingly, through a lot of good reporting—like this. And this, and this, and this—and, most comprehensively, this. It’s even possible to imagine that we have learned some things about accusations of sexual misconduct, and how to sort out those that have merit from those that emerge from some other place.
But that still leaves us with Joe Biden, a man about whom many people on the left express marginal enthusiasm or outright contempt. How did we get here?
Former Vice President Joe Biden is still leading the Democratic primary, but is potentially seeing some soft spots in his foundation, according to a group of polls released in recent days. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders has plateaued, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is surging, with Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg holding steady right behind the top three.
It’s hard to remember, but Biden led the pack for many months in 2019. Pundits said it was just name recognition, and Biden’s association with a popular former president. The current POTUS was cooking up crooked ways to destroy the Biden family, a quid pro quo that would play out on TV for half the year and reveal the depth of rot and feckless power-mongering in one party. Plus, there were other, better choices for President—both on the progressive side and more centrist candidates.
It seems remarkable now that we ended up with Uncle Joe, the uninspiring veteran pol with the long history of mistakes, gaffes and foibles.
Then we had a grossly mismanaged pandemic. And millions of outraged citizens calling for change, marching in the streets in face masks. And the military reminding the current president its job was to protect our nation, not Neiman Marcus or Tiffany’s.
I have started to think of Joe Biden as the boy next door, or the bowl of chicken noodle soup we long for when we’re sick. Bland, but soothing, something that everyone likes when they can’t breathe—literally or metaphorically.
He may, in fact, be just the ticket—someone disillusioned white men who thought Trump could give them back their jobs would vote for, seeing him as a blue-collar everyman. Someone white suburban women, fed up with the white male phalanxes in every WH photo op, could vote for. And we already know that it was black voters who put Biden back into the primary.
There’s been some nastiness among progressives around Biden’s carefully doled-out public appearances, and refusal to embrace defunding police, among other issues. Many veteran pols (LBJ springs to mind) used their moderate public profiles to institute great changes in policy, however. And if all Joe Biden does is serve as calming, unifying presence to a bleeding nation, that’s OK. We have to be healthy before we can take advantage of the window of change now opening.
I’m with Joe. And not just because I have no other choice.
I was traveling, in Amsterdam, about five years ago. I was nearly out of cash, so I went to an ATM in a modern mall, part of the Centraal Station area, where trains and trams transport passengers from all over the world. I got 100 euros, using my debit card. I did a little tourist-shopping. Then I stopped for a coffee and a croissant, at a Starbucks. The ultimate American thing to do.
When I got to the cashier, I gave him a ten-euro note from the cash I got from the ATM. He passed it through a machine and, in pleasant, Dutch-inflected English, informed me that the bill was counterfeit.
I was stunned—it can’t be, I said. I just got it from an ATM. He smiled, turned the machine toward me. Watch, he said. Then passed the bill under the machine several times, each time registering a bluish light and a red text: COUNTERFEIT. He pulled a pen-like device out from the cash register and ran it over the bill, as well. It was bad money, all right.
Do you have another way to pay? he asked. Preferably not a credit card?
I did. I gave him a handful of coins, change from other purchases, and it was good. He handed the counterfeit bill back to me. I don’t want it, I said. It’s policy, he said.
I put it back into my zippered travel purse, and he said—ever so politely—you may want to keep that separate from your other money. I pulled it out and stuffed it into my pocket.
I was humiliated, although the cashier could not have been nicer. I left the Starbucks and drank the coffee standing up, out of sight, thinking dark thoughts about how a bank could have given me a bad bill. There was also no recourse. I could hardly go to the bank (if I could even find a bricks-and-mortar bank with the right name) and tell them that they gave me a bogus ten-euro note, demanding my money (approximately 12 dollars) back.
I went back to where we were staying and compared the bill with other ten-euro notes. I could not see the difference. I thought about why a Starbucks in an international crossroads would scan every single bill, and how a usually reliable source of currency like a major bank could make a (face it, relatively minor) mistake. Stuff happens, as the bumper sticker says.
Eventually, I realized how incredibly lucky I was. I was a middle-aged white woman tourist, obviously (to the guy in Starbucks) American—probably to everyone else I passed. I was treated as if—of course—I had inadvertently been given a bad bill.
No harm, no foul. Just pay for your coffee. Stop being a Karen.
As the conversation in America moves to defunding or reshaping police forces across the country, it’s worth thinking about all the minor infractions happening every day in the realm of criminal justice, and how we interpret those as seriously criminal or merely needing correction. Potentially harmful things we all do—not using your turn signal on occasion, for example—but only some of us pay for.
It’s also worth thinking about infractions we deal with in the classroom, where teachers police the behaviors of children.
Any teacher who is honest with herself will, if pressed, acknowledge that some kids get away with more. That we—at least mentally—label kids: Sneaky. Helpful. Lazy. Compliant. Honest—or dishonest.
The first (and only) time a genuine crime was committed in my classroom happened over 25 years ago, when a saxophone was stolen. The child who owned the saxophone suddenly ‘couldn’t find’ it. I thought it would turn up—my personal assumption was that the saxophone’s owner was ‘careless.’
After a month or so, I got a call from the local music store. A woman had tried to sell the saxophone in question to the store, which also dealt in used instruments, saying it was no longer needed by her daughter. Fortunately, the store kept serial numbers of instruments it had sold over time, and it was, indeed, the missing saxophone.
The child who lifted the sax from the band room was a compliant and helpful student. Her mother, who tried to cash in on a stolen instrument, was on the school board. When I brought the mess to my principal, he directed me not to tell anyone. Because it would make US look bad.
The missing sax was returned to its owner—whose parents were not informed that someone tried to sell their kid’s possession. Even though we knew. No harm, no foul. Don’t rock the boat.
Over the past couple of days, there has been a steady stream of resources, generously shared, for anti-racist teaching. Here, for example. Here, here and here and here. And this, just this afternoon.
There are plenty of articles out there speculating on when and how we go back to school, and the consequencesof going back too soon. But all the handwringing over alternate schedules, classroom lunches and sanitizing the playground are a great example of focusing on the urgent rather than the important.
Going back to School as Usual only works for a segment of privileged kids in well-resourced schools. All schools, including those where parent satisfaction is high and student achievement is admirable, can benefit from re-thinking what we teach—more than how we teach.
There have been endless conversations on Twitter and Facebook about the value of suggested resources and materials, just how age-appropriate they are, and how they intersect—or don’t—with traditional, standards-based curricula. These conversations, even when argumentative and heated, are good.
This is (or should be) teachers’ professional work. These should be the things we’re reading about, dissecting with our colleagues, discussing with our friends. We can’t go on merely doing what we always did. That’s not teaching. That’s mindless reproduction. It’s clear that it’s not working.
“Burning, breaking windows, and looting is also an injustice — what happened to Floyd was wrong! A criminal response is also wrong. Any statement otherwise, condones and perpetuates both criminal acts!! …it all starts with being a law abiding citizen – had he not paid with counterfeit money, had he not resisted, had he not been under the influence — then there would be no contact with officers; that does not excuse the officer; it just eliminates the conflict to begin with!! It starts with being a good citizen!”
Yeah. Superintendent of a district with more than 5000 students.
Which is why we must do more than space desks six feet apart and set up hand-washing stations. What good is school if it’s just transmitting sterile, pre-approved information, teaching basic skills and collecting data? Why take the risk, unless students we’re giving students something of value, something that challenges them to create a better world?
Skimming through the resources shared by teachers who want to know more about anti-racist teaching, I had a familiar ache: I miss having my own classroom. There is nothing like the juice of having a few hundred students (music teachers often have a few hundred students) and plenty of occasions to talk with them about social justice and equity—and cultural appropriation.
If there were any one thing I hoped my students would learn, it would be an awareness that they’re consuming black musical culture without crediting it to the correct source–or respecting it. That’s the reason I did any anti-racist work (and I’m not suggesting I was good at it): my students were soaking in the outcomes of how to creatively make music out of oppression, and they were totally unaware of it.
We need anti-racist curriculum, all right. Including–maybe even especially–in the arts.
I remember a conversation I had with one of my colleagues, about doing a unit–this was back before the curriculum was steered strictly by CCSS–on ‘tolerance.’ She was teaching 8th grade English and wanted to do some readings and discussions. I got excited about the kinds of music that could support and weave through that kind of unit–artists and composers and reasons why music has value in the culture, helps bridge differences.
We talked about what the community might push back against–we doubted that parents would openly confront teachers over readings about racism, but agreed a handful were likely to complain about readings about tolerance around sexual orientation.
Tolerance (a weak word, but hang with me) might be defined in such a unit as:
In a particular time or place…who is it OK to beat up on a Saturday night? A hundred years ago, for example, it was OK to beat up your wife or girlfriend. The police and neighbors would overlook that as ‘family business.’ That was tolerated. That’s not OK any more—at least on paper. It’s also no longer OK to beat up an immigrant, someone of a different ethnicity or color, or someone with a different sexual orientation.
Except—we can all think of plenty of current examples where tolerance of difference has been shattered. For plenty of spurious reasons. Including righteous declarations about ‘citizenship.’
We’re in trouble. We need to teach our children to do better. We need to look hard at coded language. We need to emphasize the most basic civic acts: Voting. Speaking out. Media literacy. Being broadly informed, about a range of issues. Talking to our neighbors and families.
All of that takes courage. Not as much courage as taking to the streets, but courage. If we just go back to school and do the same old things, then all the ‘learning community’ and ‘21st century’ and ‘high and rigorous’ blah-blah we’ve been tossing around doesn’t reflect what our students observe with their own eyes. If we don’t take this opportunity to teach what matters, we don’t deserve the honor and responsibility of being educators.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
When I read this quote by Arundhati Roy, it felt like she was speaking directly to educators, as they contemplate the return to school: our data banks and dead ideas vs. a completely new conception of how to equitably and even joyfully–a word that is nearly verboten in these discussions—educate our young.
What’s worth fighting for? What do we keep, and what are we willing to leave behind, passing through this portal?
Following the rules is another thing that teachers are all too familiar with—and masks and social distancing are now the dividing point between those who are willing to put up with a little inconvenience and discomfort to keep the rest of the community as safe as possible, and those who (often adamantly) aren’t.
How do we create a social norm of mask-wearing when, in fact, so many Americans are doing exactly the opposite? One common mistake is drawing attention to the lack of compliance. For instance, highlighting littering as a commonplace problem can inadvertently lead to more littering because it strengthens the perception that littering is the norm. Instead, in press releases and public service announcements, officials should emphasize that the clear trend in this country is toward universal mask-wearing. Norms are also established by high-status role models.
I don’t agree with much of what Duckworth writes, but on this topic, at this moment, she’s right.
These are lessons I learned—often painfully—as a young teacher: Some kids are looking for attention, and will get it any way they can, so it’s much better to focus on their community-minded behaviors than their transgressions. For some kids, outwitting authority is a game—so you have to figure out, first, how, and why, they lost respect for authority. A classroom filled with happy children who understand the rules benefit them is vastly better than a classroom filled with kids who obey out of fear of being punished.
…anti-maskers are losing ground to those advocating mask-wearing. While Trump still refuses to wear one, McConnell, and FNC personality Sean Hannity, among others, have called for wearing masks to help contain the coronavirus.
I want Heather Cox Richardson to be right. But on Monday, I saw plenty of people—in my own little, reasonably safe town—without masks. People not being respectful to the trumpeter on the corner, playing Taps. People gathering in close-in groups to catch up on two months’ worth of gossip. Adults being terrible role models for children.
My inner teacher—hey! (fingersnap)– was seriously activated. I had to remind myself that the best thing I could do was wear my own mask and keep my own distance. Stay on the right side of the divide.
I’m trying to take Arundhati Roy’s advice and walk through this world with little luggage—beyond my mask—looking for a better way to live, and to educate our precious children. There’s much that can be discarded. But not the building of caring communities—that’s what we must fight for first. It’s central to our ultimate health, virus or no virus.
On Memorial Day, I have often dusted off an old column I originally wrote a dozen years ago. It’s about how I never lost my love and appreciation for Memorial Day as an opportunity for school bands and community members to commemorate the sacrifices made so we could live peacefully.
It always seemed like a great lesson for public school children to learn: gratitude and civics.
When parents would call, a few days before the parade, and say—hey, Jason won’t be at the parade Monday because we have company coming for a day at the lake, I never responded with anger or points-off punishments.
But I would feel sad about the missed opportunity for students and their families to take a couple of hours to honor our own history, our own heroes. Memorial Day services are one of the few chances we get to put our communal, democratic values on display, without glorifying war or violence.
When we moved up north, I joined a community band and chorus which have been at the heart of a Memorial Day service here for decades. No parade—most band and choir members are retirees. But we’ve played a service in a misty rain as well as blazing sun. It’s always the same: a few patriotic tunes, a speaker, a prayer. Then Taps.
This Memorial Day, there will be no traditional service at the Northport Cemetery. No inspiring message, no Scouts raising the flag, no Village Voices singing ‘The Last Full Measure of Devotion’–and no Community Band playing ‘National Emblem’. It is too risky to bring the town’s residents together to honor the military sacrifices made so we can enjoy life on our beautiful, peaceful peninsula.
Instead, the Northport Community Band will be offering a ‘Rolling Taps’ to those who live in Northport. Sixteen members of the band’s brass section will station themselves around town and, one after the other, play Taps. The tribute will begin at the Northport sign, at the South end of town, moving northward a block at a time, and travel through the Village, each player handing off to the next. The final player will be stationed at the cannon in the Northport Cemetery.
The director of the band found it easy to recruit players. Everyone was pleased to find a way to contribute in keeping a cherished tradition—Memorial Day in Northport—alive. If our grandfathers could storm the beaches at Normandy, one trumpeter said, we can certainly stand on the corner and play Taps. It’s the very least we can do to honor those who sacrificed so much more.
Village residents are welcome to listen from their front porches, their bikes or cars, but are asked to maintain a good distance from brass players as they perform, and refrain from talking or applauding. Taps—originally a bugle call to signal lights out, a time of rest—has become the most solemn military funeral call, a way to thank and say goodbye to those who served their nation.
Because that’s about where the education community is, right now— dealing with one crisis at a time.
We adamantly reject the ed-tech dream of empty classrooms and every kid at home with a device. We know how badly that’s worked, even when teachers had six full months to get to know their students, in person. But we can’t quite wrap our heads around what’s next. When we try, it feels like admitting that the prospect of School As We Knew It is probably down for the count.
Three weeks ago, I wrote a blog suggesting that we start thinking about a modified ‘gap year’—an admission that school would not be the same until we had confirmed medical solutions for combatting the coronavirus. So we might try ginning up some creative ideas about what to do with P-16 students in the intervening year. It was pretty amorphous service-learning stuff, with young adults and older teens combining on-line coursework with outdoor work and safe environmental or community health projects, a CCC or Peace Corps Lite, adapted to 2020.
That blog got lots of pushback, some of it downright hostile, with nearly all the angst coming from teachers. Nope, they said. Not going to let teens pull garlic mustard out of the woods or direct traffic at COVID testing sites. Not going to let them paint or plant or build. They need to learn! In classrooms! Colleges will fail outright if we encourage a gap year. That can’t happen!
Eventually, I realized that this was grief talking. The anger stage of grief—or maybe denial or bargaining, but grief, all right. Something we love, and have invested our lives in, is now impossible, without a lot of too-risky practices. We’re sad. We’re belligerent. We’re not going to let go of our carefully honed practice or our dreams for our children.
Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.
We have adapted to things before: Seat belts and helmets. No smoking. Airport security. Changes in diet. Cars, instead of horses. Wars. The freaking Internet.
We can do this. In fact, there’s nobody better prepared to re-think how school works than people who work in (and love) schools.
NOW is the time to plan. I know—teachers have worked harder than ever in the past two months and deserve a break. But it’s probably time to consider a year-round calendar, with this summer being the first, planning phase and catch-up time for kids who have dropped off the radar.
If kids have to go to school in smaller groups in the fall (not a bad thing, in general) then we may need split sessions, overlapping terms, staggered transportation schedules. Our first permanent casualty may be 180 days of seat time and three months of summer. In my opinion, overdue.
This would also be a great time to expand project-based and interdisciplinary learning, with students kept in the same small cohorts during their time at school. The usual gripes about PBL and interdisciplinary curriculum center on the fact that they don’t generate higher test scores or rigorous high-level single-discipline learning. But high-quality PBL generates other things—like ingenuity and independence and curiosity. For many teachers, it would be an entirely new way to teach. But change is (sometimes) good.
While good or at least workable ideas are everywhere, this is clearly not something that can be managed via federal or even state fiat. Each school district or region must make their own choices and be prepared to shift again when things go wrong (as they will).
It’s time to think different, Apple said in 1997. Or think differently (as thousands of English teachers corrected).
Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.
The second wave of school change is now bearing down on teachers, students, and parents. You remember March, right? When Mommy-needs-vodka types were posting hilarious blogs thanking teachers and telling them to go right ahead and teach in their jammies? Because holy cow, teachers were the light of the world.
There were those teacher car parades, and funny Zoom memes, before Zoom bombing and low average attendance figures revealed that this was going to be a long, depressing slog. And now? We’re talking about the drop-forge model of school cuts and how unnecessary classrooms are, anyway.
I’m a music teacher. I know what this means. I’ve been through several cut-to-the-bone-and-beyond school reductions. Several of my music teacher friends and social media acquaintances have been dreading the decisions they fear are coming.
Because it’s not just ‘trimming the extras,’ the evergreen but erroneous argument that music, art, physical education, and other active, non-Big Four subjects are somehow less important than the others. It’s acknowledging that some disciplines—in the ways they’re traditionally taught– are currently more dangerous than others.
We’re not going to be singing in groups, as usual, this fall, or rehearsing the band, or learning how to play the euphonium in a beginners’ class.
I sing in a community chorus and play in two community bands, and we’re out of business for months, perhaps a full year. There is no way that students will be allowed to sit, even six feet apart, and breathe deeply while licking their reeds and blowing warm moist air out of their bells. Students will not be leaning their heads in to harmonize or tune. The science is clear: these are genuinely hazardous behaviors.
Trust me when I tell you that band, choir, orchestra, and general music teachers know all about the little boxed heads making wonderful music on your You Tube. They understand far better than the general public about the costs, skills, and technological resources necessary, even for the simplest collaborative music videos. And they also know that 5th grade beginning band students need years before anyone wants to see 45 of them individually negotiating the app, the mic, the conductor, the click-track, the printed music and—oh yeah, producing the right note.
There’s a reason why listening to a scaled-down Toronto Symphony is so exhilarating as they play Appalachian Spring. It’s because all of those musicians once sat in an orchestra full of 10-year-olds, bowing irregularly and approximating pitch, with their teacher–gently, one hopes–praising then correcting them. They learned to love the music (essential for a career) in the same place. All the beauty and ingenuity we’ve seen emerge in music in the last two months started in someone’s music classroom.
Music has gone in and out of favor in American public education. Choral music, easier and cheaper to organize and accomplish, has been around as part of school curricula much longer than instrumental instruction. Bands, as school-based activities and classes, didn’t really get established much before World War II—and then were largely promoted as contests.When the Baby Boom started filling schools, band and orchestra programs took off, as professionally trained music teachers became available and parents and communities saw the value in a wholesome, challenging group activity leading to a lifelong skill.
But that doesn’t mean that school bands, orchestras and choirs haven’t been cyclically imperiled by budget cuts and what might be called fashion. Ask any band director who’s ever had to start a struggling or deceased program over again (raising hand) how long it takes for band to become ‘cool’ in a school culture again, to gather the resources and community enthusiasm needed to build something really magnetic and valuable.
All arts and elective programs go in and out of popularity. Some school sports falter, as well, because they’re expensive or demanding– and kids have other things to do. I’ve been part of a half-dozen ‘Save Our Band’ campaigns. I have boxes full of handouts in my garage as proof. The most persuasive argument, by the way, was always the one that demonstrated music teachers who instruct large performing groups are highly cost-effective; once you start talking about aesthetics and elevating culture, however, you lose your audience.
So what are we to do, facing the school arts abyss caused by the pandemic?
First, remember that good programs are always generated by good people. Creative teachers will innovate, as much as they can, to keep the flame burning, even when the conditions and resources are suboptimal. Outstanding people—not budgets, not equipment, not festival ratings–are the fuel, and the inspiration, for keeping the music education alive in tough times.
Next, we can shift the paradigm of what a good school music program looks like. Strip it down to its basics—the teaching of melody, harmony, beats and Beatles. Focus on what kids need to enjoy music and understand its role in our lives. There is individual skill-building, of course, but also the lifelong value of musical literacy.
Let go—for now, anyway—of all the traditional events and educational practices you’re accustomed to– the big elementary music performance in the gym, recorder class, the choir concert, marching band shows for football games. Stop thinking about the damage pausing or starting over will do to an established program and focus instead on serving kids. Especially let go of competitions. Think outside the grid and the uniform.
Ask students what they want to learn about music, what turns them on, how they’ve used music during the pandemic. Assume that music teachers themselves should be the ones to create pandemic-friendly programs using new ideas and goals—administrators will have other things to worry about, and you really don’t want them to decide how to ‘fix’ music.
All those ideas are a framework for teaching music without large groups singing or playing—but the reality is that many music teachers won’t get the opportunity to innovate, create or rebuild. They’ll be excised. Many schools will not value teachers’ excellence, or work to find ways to keep the arts alive.
I had a friend ask me why it was important to have school bands and choirs now that technology could provide more ‘individualized’ instruction. Why not use pre-recorded backups and autotune and fun little video creation programs or self-instruction guitar modules for music class? Nobody wants to take bassoon lessons anymore, he said.
I asked the obvious question: Did he play in the band or sing in the choir? No. He played football.
It is the ultimate irony, in this #TeacherAppreciationWeek2020, on the very day that America’s teachers, persisting through the worst educational and global crisis in their careers, are supposed to be honored—that a piece like this would be posted.
Titled How to Make the Coming Teacher Layoffs Hurt Schools and Students Less, with the equally cheery subhead School district leaders may be able to protect their most effective classroom teachers, the piece, in essence, says this: Layoffs are coming. The law now lets you skip over seniority and job protection agreements. So take this opportunity to dump off ‘less-effective’ (and also more expensive) veteran teachers and keep the ones who raise test scores.
Larry also noted that keeping older teachers in the classroom might become a liability issue for health insurance corporations, who can’t be in the greatest financial shape these days. I would also add: What a great opportunity to skim off veteran teachers, those most likely to be union leaders, articulate critics of ‘accountability’-based education, those winning recognition for outstanding pedagogy, even building an audience for their own ideas about what works in the classroom, using social media.
Gone! Like magic!
Any white paper report is driven, ultimately, by its funders. And seeing John Bailey, currently advisor to the Walton Foundation, as co-author, is not reassuring. What are Walton’s underlying goals? Get folks back to work, let the younger (cheaper) teachers take the risk? Stop all this social safety net-building?
Cuomo’s remarks were a little blurry but seemed to center on the idea that we don’t need no stinkin’ classrooms, now that teachers had proved that technology could sub in for expensive physical spaces and face to face relationships. Thanks, teachers, for your service! Now—get outta here.
There are upwards of three million high school seniors in the United States, right now. That’s a lot of young people being dumped into a dangerous society, college- and career-unready, to borrow a phrase. What do they need most right now? What do students already enrolled or just leaving college need?
Perhaps we ought to ask first what the nation needs, at this moment.
With worries about fall enrollment and a growing understanding that the fall semester, if it happens at all, will likely be taught at least partly online, colleges will have to argue that what they are delivering onscreen is worth as much as what students would have received in the classroom. This, in turn, may force a conversation about what the colleges are actually selling. Although the service they provide is education, the product for which they charge is the college degree—the piece of paper that promises a student will earn eighty-four per cent more in their lifetime than if they had only a high-school diploma. This and similar statistics are what allow so many college students to think of their loans not as astronomical debts but as investments in their future. Now that future is changing in ways none of us can really apprehend.
But. Tick-tock. It’s going to be September in four months.
What if 2020-21 became a national gap year? With a new conception of ‘credits’ and compensation awarded to young people and older volunteers for doing essential work in health care and rebuilding the economy?
I have seen the suggestion that entering college freshmen now consider taking a gap year, as is common in EU nations. Generally, those tentative proposals are immediately followed by all the reasons that a gap year is not feasible. Gap years, it seems, are perceived to be the purview of the wealthy or well-connected, who can ‘afford’ a year off from school, without affecting their eventual life prospects.
But what if large swaths of the population, young and old, were deputized and put to work for a year, or even six months? Returning to full-time school—not to mention full-time work, full-time commercial enterprise, regular civic and religious activities—will not be possible without several guarantees (testing, viable therapies and vaccines, trust in leadership). Those things will not be in place by September. So why not build a short-term Peace Corps-like volunteer force, including students?
Why aren’t we thinking about creating these kinds of service opportunities for older students as well? I’m not talking about sending high school kids into dangerous hospitals or grocery stores–although the number of people who learn more from jobs that put them through school, than the actual classes, is legion. I learned more waiting tables at the dockside breakfast restaurant, at dawn on summer mornings, than I did in my college lecture courses with their droning lectures and punch-card quizzes. But there wasn’t a pandemic back then—just mouthy fishermen and lousy tippers.
The main worries about secondary school resuming in September come from packing so many students into classes and hallways. I can envision these students attending school mornings or afternoons only—or every other day—to create social-distancing space, then being sent out into the world to address real problems in the off hours, using data collection and analysis, or creative writing, or civic organizing.
Or more free-lance opportunities with the arts, as this lovely article demonstrates. There are lots of creative and practical things older students can do outside the classroom, especially if they have an internet connection and device and a teaching adult checking in with them frequently.
It seems to me that a wide variety of real tasks—everything from shelf-stocking and pizza-making to park maintenance and painting—might be assigned to teens, short-term, as steps in rebuilding essential businesses, acquiring work experience and doing something productive for towns and neighborhoods. These should be tracked, credited and compensated, perhaps in accounts designed to pay for vocational education, college or starter accounts to start small businesses, down the road. It would also give ambitious kids a realistic, insider look at our new economy.
If we were to concentrate education resources now, it might well be around younger children, who cannot be left alone, and cannot be trusted to distance themselves and maintain cleanliness. If there ever were a time to stringently reduce class size, provide high-quality day care and rich, intensive, more-personalized instruction for young children, it would be now.
Bricks-and-mortar schools and good, reliable childcare programming before and after school free parents to return to work, knowing their children are well cared for. This is the first place that daily temperature testing, masks, bracelets that beep at six feet and sanitation standards should be imposed. If this is our new world, no better place to start than first grade.
Programs like a latter-day CCC or a national health service should be federally funded and administered, but most schools or states would be better off creating their own ad hoc ‘gap’ programs as coronavirus therapies, test-and-trace protocols and vaccines make their way into the world. They will need to feel their way through the difficult developmental space between the crowded middle school cafeteria and a full-blown, live-on-campus college education.
One of my most cherished and repeatedly proven theories about middle school students is that we never give them real, meaningful tasks, or the tools to handle genuine responsibility. Instead we fill their days with rules and ‘practice’ assignments and tests. They can do much more—and high school students can do even more than that– and learn by doing.
If we’re going to ask what can be done to rebuild, after the corona deluge, we can start with youth. First, we honor their sorrow and pain, as the small town below did, with graduation banners on Main Street for each of the 83 members of the Class of 2020.
When I was in third grade, I contracted the mumps. This was my final act in the 50’s-Kid Illness Trifecta: measles, chicken pox, mumps. Back then, pre-vaccine, this was considered No Big Deal. Polio was the thing to worry about—it was a killer. I had a cousin die, at age two, from polio, but nobody knew anyone who lost their life from the mumps.
Unfortunately, however, I developed encephalitis—a brain inflammation—from mumps. I don’t have a lot of information about how the illness was diagnosed or treated; my mother, who would have been the keeper of that knowledge, is long gone. I only know that I was out of school for nearly two months.
I have these distinct 8-year old kid memories: Going to the hospital for tests. Needle pokes. Terrible headaches and keeping my face covered by a towel. Bitter blue pills that I took in applesauce. And lying in bed, alone, for weeks on end, as winter turned into spring.
When I returned to school, I was sent for achievement testing. This was not to find out how far I’d fallen behind, but because all the other third graders had taken the test while I was absent. I was pulled out of class and given the test by a different teacher.
When I finished, she took a pencil and skimmed through the answer sheet. You’re a very smart little girl, she said. This made me incredibly happy–and is undoubtedly the reason why I remember a random remark made 60 years ago. Nobody in my family had ever called me smart. In fact, my mother worried because I spent too much time in the house, with my ‘nose in a book.’
And nobody, as far as I can tell, was stressed about how far behind I may have fallen. Kids got sick, they came back to school, teachers tried to catch them up. Sometimes they zoomed forward. Other times, not. Because that’s what learning was like—sometimes fast, sometimes slower. No big deal.
My first thought was that schooling is hard enough when all the kids are there, or all the kids are remote. Expecting schools to smoothly adapt to a bifurcated instructional plan is probably another step toward outright chaos in public education. Leaving us even more vulnerable to astro-turf ‘Commissions’ like these people, waiting in the wings to scoop up funding and ‘create (profitable) solutions.’
For all the good—and real—conversations about how invaluable school is in our national social and economic organization, there has been no solid, easily adopted plan for re-starting public education. We may end up with something that looks quite different at first, and we may morph—for much better or far worse—into a completely altered conception of how ‘school’ works.
Here’s an example: A friend posted the suggestion that students return to school in the classroom they were in when formal school ended, in March. That would, she argued, preserve teacher knowledge about students’ strengths and weaknesses and allow the most tailored, individualized instruction.
Immediately, her elementary-school colleagues started raising ‘buts’—but who will teach the new kindergartners? But what will the 7th grade receiving teachers do—will middle school also have to stay at the same level with the same teachers? But what about seniors? But I don’t want to teach the next-grade curriculum!
Which is ludicrous. Everyone—and especially teachers—knows this is absurd.
Countless articles and books, and reams of scholarly research have confirmed this inescapable fact, which seems to have been the common (and accepted) wisdom when I was in third grade, 60 years ago: Kids learn at different rates, and those rates are variable throughout any school year or other formal period of learning. Also, they’re better at learning some things than others. That’s just the way it is. Do your best to move them forward.
Which leads to this question: How did we get to the point where everyone in the country agreed that certainly no child should be left behind—and then spend billions of dollars trying to precisely define what ‘left behind’ means, using questionable tests and multiple linear regressions?
If there is one good thing that comes out of this pandemic, in terms of public education, it might be an agreement that all children are potentially being ‘left behind,’ right now, in mastering ‘grade level’ concepts. So pricey common core curricula and the expensive standardized tests they support can be acknowledged as useless for the next few years, and perhaps forever.
Creative, compassionate teaching, hybrid schools, flexible schedules and a focus on needs-based, rather than standardized, learning might actually catch on. And we wouldn’t ever have to label a child as ‘left behind’ again.
Reading is my greatest pleasure in life. Well, one of my greatest pleasures.
There’s music, and the Lake Michigan beaches and my family and my daffodils and a few other personal items on that list. But I absolutely love to read.
My idea of a perfect afternoon is a good book and a glass of wine and either a toasty fire or a shady patio. We travel west every February for a few weeks of Arizona sunshine, and I usually log a dozen or more books that month, fiction and non-fiction. This year, I read 15, before a looming pandemic chased us back across the country and home.
So you would think I’d be buried in books during the enforced home stay, tucked up and cozy, in my quiet household. But no.
According to Christian Jarrett, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in the U.K.: “Research shows that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works—the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” Simply put, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” making it difficult to lose yourself in another world.
Which makes sense. Because it is not that I am finding it impossible to read. It’s that I’m reading compulsively all day—news and articles and analysis and, damn it, Tweets, memes and blogs of varying quality. Short, disconnected bits of information and opinion. And 90% of it frightening to some degree.
When I sit down to read a book now, I am usually reading on my iPad. The library closed a month ago. We live so far out in the boonies that we are not within our library’s formal district boundaries, so we are not entitled to download books. Don’t helpfully suggest Overdrive or Hoopla—they’re for folks who reside in a library district.
I have read every hardcopy library book I took out before closure (upside: no late fines) and am stuck with buying books for my e-reader. Reading on an iPad means that checking out what I have missed in the last, oh, twenty minutes of focus is just two clicks away. Bye-bye historic fiction or mystery novel. Hello, rising death toll and political malfeasance.
And yes, I know perfectly well that these are the first-world problems of someone incredibly lucky and sequestered.
Holy tamales. I have been a Kendzior fan since November 2016, when I read her piece We’re Heading Into Dark Times. It was one of those things that you read, and bookmark—in the hopes that someday it will be laughable and obsolete, that things will turn out better and all the angst will fade into obscurity. Sigh.
Kendzior has great credentials, and this book is an easier, more coherent read than her previous book, The View from Flyover Country. Kendzior completed the book last fall, before the impeachment hearings and before the pandemic.
I have now read about 10 full-on books about Donald Trump and his administration—some with excellent insights into the man and his character and others simply more detailed reporting on what has happened since he announced his candidacy. But Hiding in Plain Sight is different. It rolls back the camera and history to the 1980s when Trump was a flashy New York wheeler-dealer, serial philanderer and con man, in and out of financial trouble. You see how he has, over time, made the US part of a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.
Pieces of evidence I had never considered before fell into place, stunning the reader. But the beauty of the book is that it was not written by a left-wing political analyst whose parents paid for his Ivy League education. It was written by a woman who is currently taking her school-age children to state and national parks to see them, to know what our country was once like, before the friendliness and preserved grandeur fade.
It is a far better analysis of who we really are than your standard old-men-at-the-Waffle-House. And it gives the reader a lot to chew on.
Five stars for the book, the first to hold my undivided attention in the past month.
But now—I desperately need something light and amusing. Help me out here. Patio weather will be here in no time.
It may not feel like it now, but out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better America: the America we need.
I look forward to reading every single one of the articles—yesterday’s were about our broken health care system and why the rich fear pandemics—but the introductory piece, which is rich in historical examples of sweeping change, made me ask: What good things might come out of this pandemic?
They are not going for a new normal, one that’s more equitable, with safety and reward spread across the population. They’re trying to figure out how to benefit from the crisis, play the angles. From the POTUS, yesterday: Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten.
Well. I want to open up our great country, too, once it’s safe—but I want this horror to serve as a reminder, forever, of all the things that need changing. Out of this crisis, we really could get a better country, but only if we are willing to fight for it.
My ideas about things that might emerge and stick, if we’re lucky and if we hustle, from this pandemic:
1.Science becomes sexy again and brings math along for the ride. Merely observing social media attempts to calculate the mortality rate of this virus is enough to give any math teacher a headache. Data analysis has become a daily life-vs-death task. And you have to love a world where Anthony Fauci is everyone’s new hero. Coping with a virus is expanding vocabularies, building scientific literacies and a respect for genuine, factchecked expertise—for nearly everyone. Every teacher now has a valid and compelling answer for: Why do we have to learn this stuff?
3. Renewed friendships. One of my husband’s oldest school friends just organized a one-hour Zoom meeting for the gang of guys who hung out together, in their madras shirts, in the 1960s. No special reason—just an hour of catching up, hearing about kids and grandkids, laughing. There is an underlying message, however, to every phone call out of the blue, every event planned for fall or 2021: You matter to me. Let’s make it through this. I love you.
4. A Complete re-do of American elections. This one is multi-layered and complicated. For once, the hype is true: this election matters more than any in your lifetime. If the Democrats hang tough (and they should), we might get national mail-in voting with other policies that make registration and voting easier for the November election. Americans overwhelmingly want this.
Thought experiment: Imagine that Congress passed a law limiting primaries to six months, still way longer than other first-world nations, and set a national primary date with top-three, rank-order voting. That would mean campaigning for November 2020 would begin next month! Knowing what we know now about the world—would debates be about more than the horse race and which state votes first and gotcha questions? If we overturned Citizens United, and set spending limits (again, like other nations), we might ultimately get ourselves a reasonable set of qualified candidates and a fair election.
5. Return of the Post Office and other federal institutions that should not be privatized or replaced by for-profit services. I live in a remote area. ‘One-day’ deliveries from FedEx and UPS often go an extra day or two—and if something needs to be returned, it’s a 50-mile round trip. But the lady from the local Post Office, driving her own adapted car, comes up my driveway. I love the USPS. The Post Office—through no fault of its own—needs a debt bailout. The USPS is now incredibly important for vulnerable and sequestered citizens and will become, God willing, the centerpiece of the November elections. We could stop flirting with privatizing any number of public services (including prisons, schools and the military). We could fund them adequately, paying workers reasonable salaries and benefits. Some things are public, and need to stay public, that’s why.
6. Rethinking the purpose of schooling. I wrote another blog about this—here. Short summary: The attempt to move schooling online has revealed chasms of inequity, and made clear that what K-12 students need, first, is trust in their teachers, a human connection to learning. There are a half-dozen policies that could change—unnecessary testing, useless standardization, grading, uses of technology and so on—but all depend on a national change of heart, re: public education. Once we have generally agreed that the purpose of public education is to offer every child, no matter what they bring to the table, a free, high-quality education, then we can start re-shaping our practice.
10. Widespread inequality and economic hardship—one paycheck away from disaster—is finally brought home and understood. And addressed. From the NYT piece (above): Executive pay has skyrocketed, and shareholders have enjoyed rising stock prices, at least until recently, while most workers are falling behind. If individual income had kept pace with overall economic growth since 1970, Americans in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution would be making an extra $12,000 per year, on average. In effect, the extreme increase in inequality means every worker in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution is sending an annual check for $12,000 to a worker in the top 10 percent.
It turns out that technology cannot, will not replace the human touch, when it comes to learning that is worthwhile and sticks in our students’ brains and hearts. We already knew that, of course. But it’s gratifying to know that school—bricks and mortar, white paste and whiteboards, textbooks and senior proms—is deeply missed.
Public education is part of who we are, as a representative democracy. We’ve never gotten it right—we’ve let down millions of kids over the past century or two and done lots of flailing. There are curriculum wars that never end and bitter battles over equity, the teacher pipeline and funding streams.
It is at school where a kid who might otherwise be looking at a series of low-paying jobs gets interested in science when looking through a microscope for the first time. It is at school where a shy girl shares her first poems with a teacher who says ‘these show great promise’—so she keeps writing them.
It was at school, in my music class, back in the 1970s, where a boy first learned the words ‘a child is black, a child is white, together they grow to see the light,’ singing in my 6th grade general music class. Thirty years later, he got in touch when he saw my name online and told me he was working in Lansing as a civil rights lawyer. I loved that song, he said. Do you remember? You gave us a little sermonette on human rights.
I remember precisely none of this. Here’s what I remembered about him: he had freckles.
If this disaster has taught us one thing, it’s that technology-based communication is and always will be limited. It’s been a lifeline, for sure—medically, socially, commercially—but it does not replace our human institutions. It does not replace the caring and affection that are part of every effective classroom.
Even the low-paying unskilled jobs that have become critical in keeping the world running are not dependent on the things that technology reinforces. Service to others, friendliness, courage and reliability are qualities that can’t be learned in a Zoom meeting or tested on a bubble sheet.
I have not been surprised by the things my fellow music teachers are posting during this lockdown. For them, the end-of-course assessments that will not happen this year are not dreaded standardized tests, final exams and grades. They are the Spring Concert, the Memorial Day parade, the Youth Arts Festival, and graduation, events that demonstrate community pride and pleasure, accomplishment, and even patriotism.
The little church choir that I direct had our last rehearsal on the 12th of March—there were 15 singers present. None of them are spring chickens; one lovely-voiced soprano is 92. The day after our rehearsal, the church council decided not to worship face to face for the foreseeable future. The anthem we worked so hard on, forgotten. But their voices rang in my ears for 14 days until I knew for certain all were well, sheltering in place.
This virus can scare us and ravage our communities, but it cannot damage our innate craving for the beauty and solace of the arts.
At least three times in the past week, I’ve heard some variant of this statement:
I’ve noticed that those who are community-spirited and positive about life have become even more so, reaching out to organize helping systems and cheer people up—and those who are naturally whiny, critical and self-involved have now gone into overdrive.
It’s mostly true. Crisis brings out not just true strength of character, but leadership. Crisis also alerts you to who you wouldn’t want to be stuck with in, say, a bomb shelter.
Crisis has also laid bare the vast and growing distance between those whose primary goals center around more for me and mine—and those who mind the community.
If you’re an educator, you’re familiar with that gap. Maybe you work in a stressed school where lack of qualified staff, supplies and leadership is an ongoing predicament, while well-outfitted schools 25 miles down the road are passing out Chromebooks like peppermints to kids already connected at home. Or maybe your work life is a series of conversations with parents who want special treatment—for their child only.
One education professor I know calls this belief—that some kids are inherently more worthy of educational perks than others— ‘deservingness.’ There are other words: Privilege. Entitlement.
They’re closing the gates to Florida—the federally built highways into a place with over seven million second homes. It all feels kind of medieval—pulling up the drawbridge, standing at the ramparts. Too bad about the taxes you pay on your winter getaway! See you next year, maybe. Now turn around.
I live in a county of twenty-two thousand residents, where the average age is about 55. That’s right. Old folks. Retirees. The gap between rich and poor here is remarkable.
While the county (surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, with other beautiful inland lakes) has the highest average real estate prices in the state, there are in-county schools where virtually all the children receive free and reduced lunch. There are tribal lands—the Grand Traverse Band— in my county. We have no hospitals but rely on a good regional hospital in the next county over.
If there were an influx of refugees from overwhelmed downstate hospitals, we’d be screwed. Rich and poor alike, we’d be competing for scarce resources and scarce medical care. All the entitlement of wealth, the second home and fat bank account, couldn’t secure us a hospital bed, private room and ventilator.
What about Newport, Rhode Island—or Martha’s Vineyard, where the year-round service workers who depend on wealthy part-timers’ business to stay afloat are ambivalent (to say the least) about their early arrival? Here’s what one of my favorite novelists said:
Geraldine Brooks, who has made her home on the island since 2006 and raised her two sons there, has had enough of the stay-away sentiment. She posted on an online forum, “Just asking fellow islanders: where is this marvelous community that has enough beds, enough respirators, enough masks, enough nurses? The lifeboats from the Titanic left half full and didn’t go back for fear of being swamped. This feels like that.”
One of Brooks’s novels, ‘Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague’, set in 1666 and based on a real incident, describes a remote mining village in England, where the bubonic plague is systemically killing village residents. It’s clear she’s wrestled with the morality of pandemics.
It’s hard to argue with people who are moving out of a dangerous situation into a place where the virus seems less prevalent. Like the people in remote areas, worried about sharing whatever safety and resources they have, they’re just trying to protect their own.
My friend Jill Saia, who was teaching in Baton Rouge at the time, described days where batches of new students would appear, shell-shocked and sad, and teachers welcomed and made room for them. They didn’t have enough chairs or textbooks–or toothbrushes–but kids sat on the countertops and teachers bought pencils with their own money. Going to school was normal, and however imperfectly, those children were invited into functioning schools and classrooms for a bit of healing normality.
It’s become abundantly clear that nothing will be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic abates: the economy, the obviously failed American approach to health care and pandemics, our goals in electing political leaders. And, of course, education.
Glass-half-full people (a subset of the population that includes a lot of teachers) have been proposing ways to make society better after we’re back on our feet. From their—healthy—perspective, the only way to see this global catastrophe as a moment that could have a silver-lining backside is to tap into our capacity to change, to make things better. Otherwise, we’re just surviving.
As Ali Velshi said: We can take this moment to change the policies that have failed us…why not be the first generation that fixes wealth disparity, and income inequality, and universal healthcare, and poverty, and homelessness, and racial economic inequality?
I want to go on record. When Trump was elected, I said, “He is going to burn everything to the ground, so we’d better be ready to build an education system that makes sense.” So. The fires are raging. How can we come together to replace the test-and-punish, top-down system with one where reform happens close to students, because teachers are well-trained, work collaboratively, and are free to make informed decisions on how to extend student capabilities to the maximum? When there is a leadership vacuum, leaders step in. What is first on our agenda?
WE NEED A NATIONAL TEACHER PLAN. And we need teachers to help draft it. Here are some of our rough-draft ideas.
First step: Get rid of mandated standardized tests at any point in 2020. (Should be easy–everyone agrees that the tests will tell us nothing, and we now have permission.) And then, lay the groundwork to demonstrate, clearly, that tests have never told us more than who the haves and have-nots were. The 2021 tests will only tell us who got supplementary instruction during the school hiatus—let’s scrap those, too. Instead, let’s focus on assessment expertise for teachers, who can use appropriate tools to do what assessment is supposed to do: Tell us what our students know so we can tailor our instruction appropriately, and give our students useful feedback.
Second step: Focus on actual student needs instead of comparative, tested common standards. When kids return–in the fall, or whenever–the learning inequities, always present, will be endemic. There will be kids who had zero instruction, and kids whose teachers and parents did yeoman work to keep them moving forward. Let’s stop comparing them–forever. Let’s look, district by district, at where kids are, and start there in rebuilding our instructional models and curricula. Let’s use existing standards only voluntarily as broad frameworks—suggestions, possibilities– to guide custom-tailored learning.
Fourth step: Repurpose the testing dollars for teacher education, given the current shortages. All preK-2 teachers should be reading specialists, for starters. We can extend and improve field experiences. We can increase teacher pay and make teacher education more attractive. We can open schools of ed that are cutting-edge models of teacher education and provide a full ride to teacher candidates who then agree to work where they are needed. The answer is not making it easier to get into the classroom—it’s selecting good candidates and giving them in-depth training and experiences.
Fifth step: Re-think grading as ‘normal’ required practice. There’s been a national brouhaha over directives to not grade on-line assignments.Not just because no access to the necessary tools and bandwidth cripples some students—but because teachers wonder how to ‘make’ students do the work without a grade hanging over their head. It’s a great question to ponder. If students are only working to get a grade, what does that say about the motivational underpinnings of learning in America? There are plenty of ways, absent grades, to provide feedback, encouragement and additional instruction to students. And for all the aspects of education that currently hinge on grades—who gets into what college, who gets to be valedictorian, who’s on the honor roll—maybe they all need to be re-thought, as well.
There are five, just off the tops of our heads. Would you like to propose another? Would you like to participate in a conversation about our educator-sourced National Teacher Plan? Here’s the page where the conversation is just starting to bubble up: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1355753381300151/
My favorite teacher-blogger, Peter Green @ Curmudgucation had a good piece today. He writes about how school leaders often forget or ignore their core values and beliefs once they become focused on being managers:
A manager’s job– and not just the management of a school, but any manager– is to create the system, environment and supports that get his people to do their very best work. When it rains, it’s the manager’s job to hold an umbrella over his people. When the wind starts blowing tree limbs across the landscape, it’s the manager’s job to stand before the storm and bat the debris away. And when the Folks at the Top start sending down stupid directives, it’s a manager’s job to protect his people the best he possibly can.
Does your principal / superintendent / department chair /boss evidence those behaviors? Mine neither.
Although there are courageous administrators and titled leaders who do stand up to idiotic and counterproductive directives from above, they are infrequent. The best most teachers can hope for is a good Joe (or JoAnn) who doesn’t revel in their power–and understands or looks the other way when rules are bent or sidestepped for good cause.
Which is why it’s been so interesting to watch how school leaders have responded to statewide school closings, a completely unprecedented event. In a nearby district, while students were sent home from school indefinitely on Friday, teachers were ordered to report to work this week. For older and more vulnerable teachers, this was risky. For teachers at home with their own young children, it meant having to find also-risky child care, pronto.
This is an area where there are frequent snow and ice days, and teachers aren’t generally required to come in when driving to school is dangerous. ‘Act of God’ days are written into all our contracts. Why would a district require teachers to report?
Because someone, in Central Office, was afraid that teachers were going to get a vacation. Or get paid for hanging out in their pajamas, watching the news. Someone who wanted to be in control. To manage.
Having the school open at set times so teachers could pick up needed items? Yes, of course. And there was precious little time to meet and get input from teachers—the ones who know their students best—about how to handle a long period of social distancing, while keeping kids connected to school.
Maybe the first on-line instruction should be a building-wide faculty meeting, hosted by the school administrator, for that conversation: What are the best things we can do for our students, right now? What’s the appropriate platform, appropriate activities, appropriate…educational philosophy for school in the time of coronavirus? How do we want to handle this, together?
A virtual meeting like that would be a great—revealing—exercise in what it means to lead, to create the system and supports for an entirely unanticipated circumstance. There are plenty of administrators who think using technology is a matter of familiarity with a program—and hence, someone else’s responsibility. (There were plenty of professors in my graduate work, 10 years ago, who resisted using online discussion tools, preferring to meet in person once a week, rather than post interesting questions, responses and observations as we did the readings. What that usually boiled down to was discomfort in a) using the program and b) not being the resident expert.)
One of the most fascinating things we’ve seen in this crisis is just WHO has stepped up with ideas that make sense, made tough (often unpopular) decisions, grabbed the viral bull by the horns. Governors, working in partnership with regional colleagues. Senators and Representatives. Some State Education Superintendents (like mine) are doing the right thing and demanding a waiver on testing.
There is leadership out there.
But the leadership I’ve seen today that has flat-out humbled me is coming from classroom teachers, who are sharing their plans, ideas and expertise with complete strangers. Want to know how to use a particular learning management platform? Someone is available to teach it to you, even though they’re new to the tool themselves. Want to join a discussion on the advisability of trying to stick to a schedule and standards? There’s someone who wants to talk about that, too. There are new friends and ideas you never thought of, everywhere. Want an idea that someone just tried for the first time—with success? It’s there for the taking.
Educational leadership is more than supporting and protecting people. It’s unleashing the creativity and generosity of those people. It’s believing in their integrity, their willingness to go above and beyond when the chips are down.
Late this afternoon, I heard that the teachers in the nearby district were no longer required to report for duty this week. Someone got a leadership clue.
Good for them. I know that without COVID-19 testing, we’re flying blind, and the effects of school shutdowns may be negligible.But taking action—and responsibility—is what leaders do.
I was asleep and didn’t learn about the school shutdown until Friday morning. Newscasters, parents and community leaders were all weighing in on how this would impact our daily lives. Teachers, on the other hand, were plotting to get to school early enough to get to the copy machine before the paper and toner ran out.
Thank you to the hundreds of thousands of teachers who organized take-home packets and figured out how to get coursework online, even if they didn’t have a clue about how to do it before last week. And thank you to those who pointed out, with considerable asperity, how incredibly inequitable virtual instruction will be, but went ahead and made plans to do it anyway. Thanks to all who sent home food or arranged for food pickup—or even made a single call to a single household, to make sure an adult was home.
Nobody knows how to do this well. Nobody. But schools and teachers are still trying.
Keeping a functional learning community together is job #1. Meaning: every child, K-12, who is out of school involuntarily, knows for sure that the adults who have been his/her teachers, playground supervisors or joke-around buddies in the hallway, still care. Staying connected and checking in matter much more than reviewing fractions or watching a dissection video.
This may sound really wimpy and imprecise and touchy-feely to reformers and learning measurement types. And it doesn’t mean that teachers should abandon all attempts to build skills or (for lack of a better phrase) deliver content. Only this: the most important skills a child needs right now are empathy, curiosity and self-direction, kindness and civic engagement.
The old ‘guide on the side’ idea applies here, in spades—teachers who have contact with students need not put on their lab coats and shoot dramatic videos. What they can do is help kids unleash and pursue their own discipline-based interests. They can stay in touch. They can listen.
Teachers have been describing their struggles and fears—whether to prepare for time away or push to get their state or district to close, NOW—eloquently. They are wondering whether they will see their students again, and when. One teacher described yesterday as ‘surreal.’ There is lots of black humor, and also lots of tears.
They are wondering if this global pandemic will be a turning point in our national understanding of how we are—and will forever be—global citizens. Will this experience finally bring the United States into line with other first-world countries in strengthening the safety net and providing universal health care? Teachers—first responders, in so many ways– want to know.
From a teacher in New York City (who believes she must remain anonymous):
Many teachers and staff feel like guinea pigs and disposable right now during a global pandemic because our society didn’t have protections and a safety net for young people in poverty, in this failed healthcare system. We teachers know this every day as we go teach and do our jobs and serve young people, which I love doing and which has been my calling since I was six. Teachers do everything, and this is yet another case where everything we do isn’t enough, AND we are expected to carry the burden for a larger society that won’t carry the burden.
Stay safe. Stay in touch. Wash your hands, teachers. We see you.
For more than a dozen years, I took my 8th grade bands on an extensive field trip, near the end of the school year. The trips were always out-of-state (or out of the country), involving two or three nights in a hotel, plus a symphony performance, cultural experiences like museums, university-based skills clinics, plays and musicals, a formal, white-tablecloth dinner out–and someplace for my students to play a concert.
We selected the destination (Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, St. Louis, Washington D.C.) in the fall, and raised funds all year. Lots of parents paid to chaperone. The destination became a kind of instructional theme—we studied the blues in our Chicago years, and all-American composers and patriotic music in the D.C. year.
Nothing I’ve done since has ever been a worthier use of instructional time, or a better learning experience, than taking 135, more or less, 13/14-year olds and perhaps 25 parents out in the wider world for a musical adventure. Playing in a Chicago jazz club (at 2:00 p.m., with pitchers of Coke), wandering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, putting on a concert for veterans in St. Louis, the Phantom of the Opera in Toronto—all good.
The Band Boosters made sure, financially, that everyone went—and one year, we took a virus along with us.
It was some kind of norovirus, according to the local health department, which got into the act after we returned, contacted by a worried mother who thought perhaps her child had been poisoned. But no. All 164 people on the trip got to experience the rapid spread of a virulent virus, up close and personal.
We weren’t 30 minutes out of town, when Bus B (the second of four motor coaches) radioed that one of my flute players was vomiting in the bus bathroom. Her brother had been sick the night before. She said she ‘felt better now.’
My assistant principal was on the trip (on Bus B) and he thought we’d be OK. He isolated her, lying down on the back seat of the bus. Nobody wanted to lose an hour by turning back, and she begged us not to make her go home.
We’d left school around 7:00 p.m. The plan was to drive through the night (approximately a 12-hour drive), have breakfast, then play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the next morning, followed by time to explore the Vietnam Memorial, before checking into the Washington Hilton in the afternoon to dress for a seafood dinner at the Baltimore Harbor, followed by a Symphony concert in the evening.
Of course, even though the bus lights were turned out at 10:00 p.m. and students instructed to snooze or at least rest, that didn’t happen. Kids were keyed up (musician joke). They ate snacks and goofed around and lowered their resistance right to the ground. The concert in the morning was the only thing that went really well all day. I have a great photo of the three bands together, in red, white and blue T-shirts, playing their hearts out, with Lincoln benignly watching them from the shadows behind.
By the time the buses arrived at the Baltimore Harbor, a couple dozen Bus B kids were sick. In the grass, in the water. And—during dinner—in the bushes outside the restaurant. My assistant principal offered to take all the sick kids back to the hotel (an hour away). The bus driver got lost and ended up driving aimlessly around Washington D.C. as students were violently ill, an experience my AP described as similar to being in a Fellini movie.
Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, kids who’d felt fine during dinner were rushing up the aisle at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to despoil the bathrooms there. We did another triage on the three remaining buses. At that point—before anyone had been confined to a hotel room—all the sick people were Bus B students and parents. But by the next morning, the virus had spread to Bus C. At this point, perhaps 50 people were ill, both students and parents.
For the next couple of days, as more people got sick (and some recovered), the field trip became improvisatory. We took healthy kids outdoors, to the Mall, for games and walks. Our bus drivers bravely took those who were well on driving tours to see the White House, Ford’s Theatre, Arlington Cemetery and monuments. Half the chaperones stayed at the hotel and tended the sick.
We cancelled whole-group, ticketed activities in favor of hanging out, on buses or outdoors. The weather was beautiful, which really helped, and we were in Washington D.C. after all. It was a better solution than putting dozens of actively queasy kids on buses to share their symptoms all the way to Michigan.
The hotel and its staffers were incredibly nice. They brought trays of ginger ale to infested rooms. They offered free long-distance phone calls to kids who wanted to contact their moms—this was in 1998, before kids had cell phones. I was carrying a cell—’for emergencies’– but it worked only sporadically in reaching Michigan. I had to call a couple of parents of seriously ill kids, as well. Chaperones kidded: First the Reagan shooting, and now this—but I have strongly positive feelings about the so-called Hinckley Hilton, to this day.
By the 4th day, close to 100 people were sick or had been sick. While it was a nasty bug, it passed through (sorry) expeditiously. Most people were asymptomatic after 24 hours or so, moving into the ‘limp dishrag’ phase of the disease. We decided to stop on the way home, as planned (and paid for), to see Luray Caverns.
I hadn’t been in favor of seeing the caverns initially—not really a cultural thing—but the stop was a godsend. It was something to do together, and the caves were strangely beautiful. Even though there were a few sick kids who opted to stay on Bus D while we toured underground, it felt like we had survived something together, as a group.
Observation: the disease spread predictably. While everyone on Bus B eventually fell ill, and most of Bus C did, about half of Bus D was affected and only one person on Bus A got sick (and she was the mother of a boy who was riding on Bus B). Kids were housed four to a room—and roommates rode the same bus. If you were in the room with a sick person, you got sick.
Once we were home, most parents were just glad to coddle their kids who had lived through an intense illness without them and listen sympathetically to their horror stories. There was underground conversation about the decisions we made, I know (and I was very happy that the assistant principal had been on the trip, to deal with the more out-there accusations). There were unkind things said about the girl who was ill first. But we got through it.
At the Honors Assembly at the end of the year, students and parents presented me with a hand-painted bucket labeled ‘Washington, DC, 1998,’ which drew lots of laughs.
But—I have to say that surviving a cluster virus with a large group of students is no laughing matter. As the COVID-19 epidemic rolls across the country, there will be lots of low-information speculation on what schools and teachers should have done differently, no matter what decision is made.
This is where campaigning against public education becomes a public health issue. For some kids, school may well be the safest place to be, virus or no virus. We need to trust our schools and teachers to do their best. We need to hope for better information from our government. This will, I fear, soon become a matter of ultimate concern.
There are a thousand reasons to admire and support public education—beginning with the idea itself: a free, high-quality public good, offered to all children, a societal building block. There are community schools, with wraparound services and creative magnet schools to nurture special talents and interests. There are new pilot programs and old-faithful heritage programs and Friday night lights. There are special services for kids with a range of disabilities. No one can be turned away. It’s all good.
When the neighborhood is sinking rapidly, businesses leaving and families fleeing, there is good old Oak Avenue Elementary, its playground and parking lot fenced and gated—but still open. Public schools are often the safest places for children, where they can be warm, fed, and cared for, and read a story. Public education may be messed up and threatened these days, in the land of the free, but its noble genesis and its persistence make it one of our best ideas.
This, however, is MY story, the reason why I will defend public schools until my last breath.
My allegiance to public education came first from my dad, who—ironically—received nearly all of his formal education in a Christian school. Not a Catholic school (they’re two different things, where I come from)—a Betsy DeVos-type, all-white Christian school, in western Michigan.
This was a long time ago—in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandparents, who had five children and not much money, scrimped and sacrificed so their children could go to school with the children of other Dutch immigrants, a school with rigid discipline, and very specific expectations.
My grandparents had no compunctions about a school where the children of Italian and Polish immigrants–likely Roman Catholic–or children with dark skin weren’t welcome, a school that used the Bible as text and began each day with prayer. No school dances. No movies downtown. No getting out of your church clothes on Sunday afternoons because you were going to church again on Sunday evening. Better-off families expected to offer Christian schoolteachers a nice chicken dinner on pre-arranged Sundays.
My dad transferred to the public high school in 9th grade and dropped out at the beginning of his senior year, going to work full time and never returning to school. He’d skipped a grade in elementary school, so he was barely 16. It wasn’t a big secret around our house—he claimed he left school because he found it too easy and boring, and he didn’t like being bossed around. My mother used to say that he was the smartest person she knew, and also the touchiest—so perhaps it was true.
My cousins went to Christian school. My brother, sister and I went to public school. When I was in kindergarten, my grandparents offered to pay tuition for me to go to Christian school, but my parents were adamant: their kids were going to public school.
My mother, also from a Dutch immigrant family, went to public school. There was some tension between the two families, centered mostly around who was holier and more upright. It seemed as though letting your children ‘mix’ with God knows who in public schools was irresponsible. Dangerous.
Eventually, my folks moved us to the less prosperous outskirts of town, where there was a K-8 school but no high school. They joined a committee to raise local bond monies to build a high school. I remember my mother canvassing the neighborhood, encouraging neighbors to vote yes, so my baby boomer posse, riding our bikes on the new sidewalks, could have our own neighborhood high school.
I graduated from that high school—with its beautiful auditorium, two gymnasiums, a bowl stadium and a courtyard—in its seventh graduating class. My mom was active in the PTA, and my dad ran the chains beside the field at football games.
My mother also spearheaded a drive called ‘Dollars for Scholars’ which provided no-interest loans to graduates who went on to post-secondary education. Although neither of my parents went to college or saw a college degree as necessary or even desirable–they thought I should go to beauty school–they co-signed when I took out a loan to supplement the scholarships I got from Central Michigan University. Two hundred dollars—a figure that seems ludicrous now, but was the extent of my college borrowing, easily paid back on my generous $9050 salary when I got a teaching job.
It was my teachers who were adamant—I had to go to college. My band teacher, especially, convinced me that I had talent and smarts and belonged on campus, away from home.
Throughout my K-16 career, and even my graduate degree—all in public schools and universities—I got a good, comprehensive education. Most of my teachers, in the 1950s and 1960s, were caring and enthusiastic—and the ones who weren’t taught me other lessons. A small fraction of my HS classmates was college-bound, but that didn’t mean our teachers weren’t demanding. They were. I went to a blue-collar high school, but I was well-prepared for college work. And all of us were educated to be productive citizens—basic skills, a work ethic and the requirements of civic engagement.
At the university, I don’t remember a single graduate assistant teaching any of my classes; my professors were degreed and tenured, and generally worth paying attention to. Friends who went to more prestigious universities joked about undergraduate classes being taught by unqualified, green TAs, while their famous professors were remote, standing in front of massive lecture halls. That was not my experience.
Those were different times, however, and I went through K-16 as part of a huge same-age, post-war bubble. But I clearly remember decades when public education was respected and affordable, and K-12 schools were the center of tens of thousands of communities across the nation.
If you haven’t been paying such close attention to the education wars, you might not realize that policy around education and the public schools has for two decades been the locus of experimentation with the power and reach of billionaire philanthropists seizing a giant public sector institution from the professionals who have been running the schools for generations. The billionaires’ idea has been that strategic investment by data wonks and venture philanthropists can turn around school achievement among poor children.
There have always been students in our schools for whom English is a second language. There are chronically under-resourced schools, as well as serious inequities between schools for white children and those in neighborhoods where black and brown children live. There have been failed busing schemes and teacher shortages and Why Johnny Can’t Read. We’ve been tinkering with the structural problems in public education since Horace Mann. Everybody thinks they know how to ‘fix’ public schools.
But only recently has the general public been subjected to abject crapola like this: Public Schools are Teaching Our Children to Hate America. (Short version: Well-known and well-funded education gadfly blames American students’ lack of skills and knowledge on a single NY Times supplement.)
Still. I owe who and what I am to public education—and know the same is true for the thousands of students I taught, and the millions who are learning in classrooms, well-equipped or derelict, as I write this.
Love your public schools, and they will reward you.