Klein moves on to discuss my favorite education thinker—Neil Postman—and his terrific 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The publisher’s note is a succinct descriptor: a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.
As it happens, education, religion, journalism and politics are the things I am most interested in, my personal passions. And I’ve seen all of them changing in alarming ways, to fit the attention spans and expectations of immediate gratification that technological change has shaped.
Americans, of course, think they are immune to this. Klein says:
Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use.
I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”
What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.
Why don’t we have the foresight to just say no to attractive technologies that are harmful to children’s—or even adults’—development and emotional well-being? They’re addictive. And remember what Frances Haugen told us about Facebook: They knew it was harmful to young women especially. But they buried that knowledge in pursuit of profit.
Kind of makes you long for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where folks took picnic baskets for refreshment, and each candidate spoke, uninterrupted, for a total of 90 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended. And there were no sound bites, memes, re-runs or cable news analysis. The medium—each man, speaking his ideas—was the message.
Ms. Dixon seems to be the candidate Republicans thought had the best chance of winning: someone who looks a lot like the current governor, but is a relatively blank slate, having never held elected office. Clearly, this isn’t about making good public policy, or the kind of leadership we need. But it illustrates the degree to which the medium—and Dixon has a history in media–is more important than the message.
Fights at school board meetings and public arguments about cherished young adult novels are probably more entertaining than the pedestrian work of stretching public dollars and finding a special ed teacher in August. Boring meetings seldom draw camera crews, and don’t offer the possibility of a mic being stuck in your face.
But there is a role for order and rules and civil discourse. Every teacher in the country understands this.
I live in a wonderful small town in the ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten. Cedar sits squarely in the center of the Leelanau peninsula, settled a century and a half ago by Polish farmers, whose names are sprinkled across the landscape on businesses, farms and roads. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1883, is the conservative spiritual home to many of the residents.
In many ways, Leelanau County—a spectacularly beautiful place, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and marked by blooming orchards, massive sand dunes and rolling, wooded terrain—is a microcosm of American politics. A half-dozen charming resort towns, multi-million dollar lakeside homes, and more modest interior villages where family roots go deep. All of it built on land that was mostly ceded to the Tribes, in 1855, then promptly platted up and sold to white immigrants anyway.
If this is starting to sound like a political ad, that may be because I just got through a primary election, running for County Commissioner in my (mostly rural, heart-of-the-peninsula) district. I love it here, and think we could do a much better job of protecting our assets, bringing in young families, and building community.
I have loved living in Cedar since the first summer we moved here, and learned that the Big Deal Event in Cedar was the annual Polka Festival. We went our first Polkafest parade in 2011—and found it heartwarming. Vintage farm trucks, a dancing pierogi, accordion players on flatbeds and a group of friendly folks in the 60-ish demographic, carrying Vote Blue! signs.
Aha, I thought. Those are my people.
And it turned out that they were. I have been in the parade multiple times since, in election years, marching with Democratic candidates and stalwarts. Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs.The other side was there, too—we’d wave, and they’d wave back. It’s a friendly local parade, and we’re all neighbors.
There was no Polka Festival in 2020—postponed into oblivion, like so many things– and we missed it. There’s round-the-clock dancing in a big white tent, authentic Polish food in Styrofoam containers and a mass in Polish, at Holy Rosary. Not so much fun with a dangerous virus circulating.
Last year, with the Polkafest on again, the local Dems applied to send a marching unit, and were told that the Polkafest Parade was now apolitical—no campaigning, no partisanship. Just a community event.
The previous presidential election and the Big Lie made it a year like no other, of course, and the new rules made sense to me. With so many community traditions, 2021 was supposed to be a return to normal. A chance to have fun together. Let’s leave politics out of it. I was OK with that.
Except that the current County Commissioner (who’s held the seat almost 26 years, and will be my opponent, come November 8) was in the 2021 parade, riding an old red farm tractor with signs wired to its sides, suggesting we re-elect her. She was throwing out candy, too.
The Dems called the parade organizers, afterward, and asked what happened to the apolitical parade. We were told that the rules now stated that elected politicians were allowed, but by invitation only.
The day after last week’s Primary, I applied to field a polka band for the 2022 parade. I play in a number of local musical groups, including a community band, and knew I could assemble a handful of good musicians and Roll Out the Barrel.
I’d put an “Elect Nancy Flanagan” sign on the side of the truck. It wasn’t an original idea—I was in a small, truck-bed band in the nearby Leland Fourth of July parade, with political signs for a different candidate, and it was really fun.
The rejection came back immediately. No political units, except for (and the organizer made this sentence outsized and bold) “seated official representatives elected by the people, by invitation only”.
There was some back and forth—Did she want a list of seated, duly elected Democrats to invite? No—but in the end the polka band folks I’d recruited, after tossing around the idea of calling ourselves the ‘Step to the Left Polka Band,’ decided to opt out rather than go incognito or risk a public kerfuffle.
Yup. I realize it’s a pretty small slight, an early lesson in politics. Organizers can invite the side they want to be at their event, and turn the other folks away. Those with power win, those without lose. It’s how the game is played. Especially in 2022.
Yet I imagine newcomers to Leelanau County watching the parade, seeing 26-year County Commissioner riding on her tractor, thinking: Why didn’t the Democrats choose to be in this parade? Where is that woman who’s running against her?
Or maybe they’ll be too busy looking for the dancing pierogi.
In the early 2000s, my middle school spent a couple of years plagued by bomb threats. This was around the time when the shock and awe of Columbine were still percolating in the minds of educators. Threats were taken seriously, always.
And so we would find ourselves being bused to the HS Auditorium, or scurrying out to wait in the snowy parking lot so students could go home early, right after the kindergarten runs. Teachers, of course, were free to re-enter the building, but students had to abandon lunches and calculators. The police were involved. Students were warned in assemblies about the Serious Consequences of getting caught—and that they would indeed get caught, one day. And so on.
It would be quiet for a few weeks and then—someone would scrawl a threatening note on the bathroom wall, about a bomb in a locker. And the day was over. Again.
…more than 100 students in Michigan accused of threatening schools in the days and weeks after a terrifying shooting rampage at Oxford High School left four students dead and seven people injured. Scores of schools were forced to shut down, while police and sheriff’s departments were overwhelmed as officers raced to investigate each case.
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said his officers investigate about two school threats a month. “A lot of times, (a threat) means throwing every resource we have at it. We had school threats on consecutive days, and we had 19 officers on it,” he said. “A lot of times it comes out that it’s a seventh-grader who didn’t want to go to school, but by the time we figure that out, we’ve spent 24 hours investigating.”
And that’s what makes this such an intractable problem: Kids do stupid things. How do we deal with that?
Will they do stupid things again if they’re not severely punished the first time? Should they be banished from the school district forever? Sent to Juvie for making an empty threat? Made to pay for their behavior via community service?
The rules are ever-evolving. And for every fan of Restorative Justice, there’s someone else who’s sick of being steamrollered for insisting on strict classroom discipline.
No matter who’s doing the sentencing, there are equivocating factors, including the age and intent of the perpetrator, the level of violence employed or implied, and the political environment of the place where youthful threats are made.
Here are the questions I’d like answered, instead:
What could have been done to mitigate this situation, before it ever happened? Why do so many students immediately attempt copycat threats? What is there about living in this nation, going to school here, that makes students attracted to aggression, even bloodshed?
With a shooting, we can look at access to lethal weapons. But how do we prevent the urge to cause chaos, to get attention, to seek revenge? To harm other human beings?
If you think I’m suggesting that this job should fall into the laps of teachers, think again.
Teachers need both clear policy and honed human judgment to effectively teach young people. But neither of those is enough to prevent the forces that are pushing students to some very bad decisions involving weapons.
Solving these problems won’t happen with Zero Tolerance policies either, no matter how tough that language sounds to communities.
We all live in this overheated country. We all see what happens to communities when a whole classroom is mowed down, or an ordinary supermarket becomes a place of terror. We all witness violence in what should be safe community spaces.
In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?
Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.
So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?
One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.
I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.
I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?
He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?
(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)
I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.
But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.
Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.
Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.
The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.
It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?
For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce.
Well, there you have it. Job training.
One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.
Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.
The Michigan primary is in three weeks, on August 2nd. This is the first pre-election summer I’ve ever been a candidate for anything, so I’m spending more time—what? Thinking politically? Dividing the world into red and blue, R and D? Despairing of the current climate?
Actually, what I’ve been thinking most about is lies. Untruths, mendacities, outright deceit, yada yada—and the party that uses them as bait.
The Capitol Steps –may they rest–a musical comedy group originated over 40 years ago, with a collection of congressional staffers who saw the humor potential in pretty much everything that went down in D.C., had a series of sketches called Lirty Dies.
Lirty Dies were merely phrases with the first letters exchanged—in Capitol Steps parlance, when you WHip their FLurds. A great political tradition: We’re not quite sure what we’re saying; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing. Think Herschel Walker.
The problem? Liars win.
This has always been true—plenty of obvious examples in recent history, from the deceptive Trump appointees on the Supreme Court who knew what settled law was, to that dude in Missouri who said that women who were ‘legitimately’ raped could shut that whole thing down.
But in 2022, alternative facts are the norm in every election, from the Big Lie about 2020 to my own small-potatoes campaign for County Commissioner.
In my State Senate district (MI 37th), for example, there are three candidates running on the Democratic ticket. Only one is actually a Democrat. The other two are both Republicans, active in their county parties–and sometime felons, by the way. One of them was quoted as saying, during his podcast on March 31, that the media was trying to destroy the “nuclear family,” with every commercial showing a “biracial mom and dad.” It’s pretty clear who the target audience is.
I’m not really clear on why they think this tactic—running in the party they loathe—will work. There are two actual Republicans running in the primary, so it’s not as if there was nobody to vote for. Just a chance to SPew up real political SCReech, I guess. (That was a Lirty Die.)
As many Republicans push conspiracies about schoolchildren being “groomed” in public schools, a bill introduced by Democrats in the Michigan House that would create a legal pathway to prosecute people who “groom” minors in sexual abuse cases idles, untouched by the Republican majority.
Partly this is because former (Republican) House Speaker Chatfield is under investigation for actually grooming a 15-yr old girl when he was her teacher at a Christian Academy founded by his father. But mostly, it’s just a ruby-red response to being called out and held accountable for Lirty Dies.
Two weeks ago, the four women running for the Democratic slot in my County Commission district (including me) held an open-air listening session at a local park. We sent out postcards to likely primary voters to invite them. The weather was perfect, and we had live music and cookies.
The event was a great success—somewhere between 50 and 60 voters showed up, and for two hours, each of us was grilled (or encouraged) by friendly neighbors. People asked good questions about local issues—why our internet infrastructure is inadequate or worse, how to build and repurpose affordable housing, and so on.
The biggest issue is clean water. We live on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan, so passing a mandatory septic ordinance, while the least sexy of issues, is critical.
Midway through the afternoon, an older gentleman and his wife showed up. I greeted him with an outstretched hand, as he passed a table with a fellow Dem collecting signatures for Promote the Vote. Are they for or against mail-in ballots? He asked. For, I told him.
Mail-in ballots are how the 2020 election was stolen, he said. Oh oh.
I decided to just listen to his issues and concerns. He talked about responsible farming and compost, which seemed to be something we had in common. Then he asked me about my background. I told him I was a retired teacher.
And he proceeded to regurgitate incredible slander about public education, the crapola now floating above every local election: The teachers were teaching kids to hate being white. They were telling lies about history. They were teaching kids about perverted sex (he was embarrassed when he said this, looking down at the ground). There were dirty books, too.
Ironically, his seven children had all attended and graduated from the public school no more than a mile down the road. This is a school where I volunteered—before the pandemic—and that I thought was a good public school, a school that offered a lot of programming for a small district and had a solid staff.
I told him I had been in the classroom for nearly 35 years, then volunteered in three local districts in this county, and I did not believe that teachers routinely did those things. Any teacher who overstepped their bounds in the classroom could and should be called out. By parents—or by an administrator. But this was not the way public education (which is controlled by a locally elected board) worked.
Well, he said. This just started.
He was OK with the school when his kids were there—the teachers were pretty good, and he went to all the football games. But now, he said, teachers have started doing bad things all over the country.
What, specifically? Well, supporting the Blacks, he said. Against the police. Going against the Bible. He struggled to remember what he’d read—some letters, maybe? (No way was I going to fill in the acronym for him. He’d already soaked up too much falsehood.)
You should start volunteering again, he said. Things have really changed in the last couple of years.
I passed him on to another candidate, but he lingered in my mind. Not a bad guy. But he’d been lied to, and he trusted the liars. It was as simple as that.
Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)
Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.
Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.
Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)
In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.
The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power. Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.
Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.
As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.
I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.
Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.
So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?
Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.
In The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:
What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?
What’s driving the screaming matches at local school board meetings—the ones where organized parent groups show up to have their say about everything from critical race theory to bulletproof doors?
There are a lot of overlapping factors: A nation that’s bitterly divided. The pandemic we’re still dealing with, and its impact on children. Racism, sexism and the fear of losing “rights.” Gun violence. The political upheaval resulting in an insurrection, which played out live, on national TV.
I’m no stranger to parent-led fireworks at Board meetings. I’ve witnessed verbal storms over sex education and teacher strikes and girls who wanted to lift weights with the wrestling team.
During my second year of teaching, in October, the School Board decided to lay off 20 teachers (including me) who signed annual contracts in the spring, because an August millage election had failed. They made cuts to programs across the board, and established a pay-to-play model for all HS sports. There was a huge board meeting that went on until the wee hours. And what were the parents upset about? Eliminating foreign languages—or elementary art and music?
No. It was about the football team.
One mom was outraged at being asked to fund her son’s final year on the team. “This is his time to shine! Teachers can always find another job—but my son has only one chance to play football in his senior year!” There were perhaps a hundred teachers at this meeting. You can imagine how that remark went down with them.
Many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states.
Parents have always had rights—including the right to see what their children are learning, access to instructional materials, the option of observing their child in his classroom, and the opportunity to talk to his teachers about any of these.
Teachers have the responsibility to know the curriculum well, to be able to tell parents why certain materials and teaching strategies were selected. And—should parents be genuinely concerned about any of these things—the responsibility to justify the value of a particular technique or content, to adapt or offer alternatives.
That, in a nutshell, is good teaching–based on trusting relationships and understanding. Every veteran teacher and school leader reading this has had difficult conversations with parents about what and how their children are learning. It’s part of the job. Always has been.
It’s also one of the reasons many teachers pushed back against the Common Core: the standards didn’t fit the students they were teaching. Driving responsibility for determining standards, curriculum and assessment upwards means that teachers are left with explanation that they’re teaching something because it’s on the state test, even though it may be inappropriate or irrelevant for a particular child.
It’s not just parents who want to strip control from schools. From Education Week:
States have a limited amount of power over what materials teachers use in the classroom. A new report shows how some of them are trying—and succeeding—to wield influence anyway. In the majority of the country, districts operate under local control, meaning that school systems, or sometimes individual schools or teachers, have the ultimate authority in deciding what curriculum is taught.
That means that if states want to influence what teachers are using, they have to get creative about what levers to pull. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that some states have managed to do just that.
Look for the phrase ‘High-Quality Instructional Materials’ accompanied by some disdainful blah-blah about how clueless teachers design lessons based on what they see on Pinterest, so professional curriculum deciders need to step in and choose better materials. Well-paid deciders, naturally.
I’ve spent the last few days talking to voters and candidates in New Hampshire who powered record turnout, resounding wins for public school advocates. One theme keeps coming up. Voters were REPELLED by the extremism of “parents’ rights” groups. This was a backlash to the backlash.
Nationwide accusations of schools teaching “critical race theory” found their way into Connecticut despite any evidence of its existence or even any accurate explanation of what CRT really means from the critics. Superintendent Freeman “cited letters to the editor and social media posts regarding the school’s teaching and equity policies which imply that ‘parents shouldn’t be trusting the teachers and school administrators who are shaping the experience for their children in Guilford.’”
I have not felt such pressure personally, aside from comments on social media from those calling me a “groomer” and “brainwasher” of children. Granted, I don’t know these people personally, and the only thing they know about me is that I’m a teacher. But that’s the point: Strategic political posturing has convinced scores of people that, rather than a noble and essential profession, teaching is an insidious endeavor whose primary purpose is to push a far-left agenda.
It’s not about the things parents already have a say in—their children’s learning.
Back when I was in ed school—undergraduate and masters-level, in the 1970s—one of the seminal truths we read about and discussed at length was ‘individual attention:’ Why class size matters, how to reach students personally, and the superiority of one-to-one tutoring in knowledge acquisition.
No better way to learn than to have the undivided attention and expertise of a single teacher. If, of course, the family can afford private tutoring, and that tutor is a content expert, skilled in teaching techniques. And also—big point– compatible with the pupil. Tutoring is ideal, in other words, except when it isn’t.
I remember a band-director colleague telling me that in order to play in his select high school band, students were required to take weekly private lessons. He was working in a well-heeled suburban district, and many of his students were studying privately with members of the Detroit Symphony.
It wasn’t clear how he was getting away with this demand—it wouldn’t fly in my school—but it was a dazzling thought: All of students’ technical issues, solved, on the parents’ dime, by explicit and targeted outside instruction. All he had to do was put these elite student musicians together with high-quality music, then conduct. Easy-peasy.
That’s not exactly right, of course—there’s much more to learning and playing music together than individual skills. In fact, learning, in every subject and in every classroom, depends on a stew of cooperation and community, in addition to dealing with diverse understandings, talents and proficiencies, led by the—caring, one hopes—person in charge.
That doesn’t mean that tutoring isn’t a useful strategy. It certainly is. There are plenty of stories about kids who struggle with something academic, then connect with a tutor who helps them over the hump—learning to read fluently or solve equations or whatever.
A friend’s son initially got mediocre scores on his ACT test, meaning he wasn’t going to be accepted at any of the colleges he was aiming for. The son’s English teacher recommended a local woman, a former teacher, who had created a business tutoring students through the college application process.
My friend was grateful for the targeted assistance–her son’s self-concept as capable student improved enormously, as well. But she asked me—Why didn’t he learn to write an excellent essay in school? What did he learn in four hours that had not been conveyed in the previous 12 years?
There are lots of differences between working with a private coach vs. learning in a class of 30 or more. Motivation, for one. Privacy—not exposing a weakness in front of peers—is another. In the end, it’s the same stuff we talked about in my ed classes: reaching students on an emotionally neutral, personal level and a class size of one, where feedback and re-dos are immediate.
I also remember the NCLB tutoring—private tutoring vendors scrambling to use federal money to set up yet another government-funded after-school program to fix kids who weren’t reading at grade level or were lacking the credits to graduate. The lack of oversight—or coordination with schools—made a lot of those programs useless.
“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”
Of course. Districts are now supposed to locate and hire suitable tutors, set up programs, provide materials, find transportation, then evaluate student progress. Because, despite all their best efforts during a pandemic, students have ‘fallen behind’ benchmarks set by federal and state policy. The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.
A lot of the literature and articles around tutoring refer to an Annenberg study on ‘recovery design principles.’ When you see the phrase ‘high-dosage tutoring’ in a ‘recovery’ plan, someone’s been using the Annenberg research to support a plan for additional instruction. The study is actually useful—it lays out the factors necessary for tutoring to have real impact:
One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring in math. In reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. Simply providing students with access to tutoring is unlikely to be effective for all students. Paraprofessionals and volunteers may be better suited to one-to-one tutoring because they are less likely to have developed the skills in behavior management and group instruction that are needed for working with multiple students. Tutoring interventions often are not successful when there are no minimum dosage requirements, little oversight, and minimal connections with the students’ schools. A key element of successful tutoring programs is being able to establish a rigorous and caring culture.
It turns out that the most effective tutoring happens three or more times a week, at school, in very small groups or one-to-one. And the most effective tutors are trained educators familiar to students. Which takes us right back to what we have always known about instruction—small class sizes and individual attention from a trusted teacher work best. No surprise at all.
Voting is not enough to turn this nation and its communities around, although everyone MUST vote their conscience and core values. It’s a cornerstone strategy in change.
Nor is speaking out enough—although plaudits to every teacher, organization, political candidate and basketball coach who has spoken out against the ugly spasms of hate and violence. More, please—keep talking and keep writing about how we are collectively losing something we once thought invincible: a safe and just democracy.
Policy, political power and public discourse are valuable tools—but we need a public uprising, a change in hearts and minds. We can do better. We need to understand how connected we all are, first.
Education depends on safe, orderly, predictable systems—something that the COVID-19 pandemic undermined. It’s taught many of us how interdependent we all are and how interconnected our systems can be. (Renee Owen, in Education Week.)
And the teachers in Uvalde were exactly the kinds of educators we need right now: Committed to kids, thoroughly embedded in the Uvalde community. Skilled veteran teachers. Role models, in a community where over half the citizens speak Spanish at home. They were obviously teaching the children in their care that they were valuable, that they could accomplish great things.
How were they doing this? Safe, orderly and predictable systems that put structure into their work at Robb Elementary School. Until one day, all of those interdependent, interconnected systems failed, and fourth graders were calling 911, begging the police to come and save their lives.
The national conversation right now is centered around what policies, tactics, and personnel could have prevented this.
Several popular-with-Republican theories have been roundly debunked: There were at least 19 good guys with guns who apparently did nothing. The community had already spent more than $600K in ‘hardening’ the building. There was a nine-member local SWAT team to handle shooters on the loose, but they were ‘unavailable.’ The resource officer wasn’t on site, and when he arrived, the shooter walked right past him.
Ted Cruz went with the inane ‘one door’ strategy, proving he’d never dropped his kids off at school—and Sean Hannity talked about trip wires, because those sound cool. That’s enraging, all right—almost as bad as Alex Jones asserting that Sandy Hook never happened.
All of these ‘solutions’ and strategic assertions are missing the point, however.
Which is: What is there about the United States that breeds domestic terrorism? Especially in young men? We can—and absolutely should—limit access to weapons and ammunition. But why do these disaffected, weapon-toting kids with grudges keep emerging, to threaten peaceful shoppers and innocent fourth graders?
This brings up the question of what we should be aiming for, in public education.
How about this? Human beings who feel accepted as part of a community, and also know they have something to offer that community. You know, the building blocks of successful adulthood– things that make students finish high school with some optimism that the world of independent living and work will pan out for them.
Many of Ramos’ threats to assault women, the young women added, barely stood out from the undercurrent of sexism that pervades the Internet — something they said they have fought back against but also come to accept.
That made me incredibly sad. Not just empathy for the young women who are (still) fighting sexism. But that the internet, where countless kids hang out 24/7, is precisely where a kid could incubate the idea that shooting up a school would get him attention, establish himself as a badass dude.
We have a generation of school-aged kids who have experienced significant loss of the safe, orderly and predictable routines found in school for two years. And now, parents are worried that we’re spending too much time on social and emotional issues?
In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.
Speaking for all the experienced teachers who were introduced to the ‘growth mindset’ concept and its promotion as silver bullet teaching practice: Would that it were so easy. And researchers are just now noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on what students are thinking? Seriously?
And what about grit?The desirable persistence, an ability to pursue goals in the face of discouragement, the thing that underachieving slackers in public schools didn’t seem to have inculcated? They weren’t dumb (or hungry, scared, exhausted or neglected). They just lacked grit. Right.
Both of those things, packaged as programs, were embraced by professional developers, as part of a suite of soft skills that could be used to enhance student performance. There are plenty of other terms veteran educators have run into: Character Development. Restorative Justice. Conflict Resolution.
They all fall under the general category of encouraging the social and emotional welfare of students, giving them tools to manage their emotions and relationships—so they can learn. Also: (unspoken but obvious) so their test scores will go up.
Social-emotional learning (SEL–the reality, not any official program) is just a rather random collection of ways that school staff has always made students (who have all kinds of reasons for feeling anxious and off-balance these days) comfortable enough in a school setting that they can settle down to learn.
Different SEL programs have different foci: Positive behaviors. Making friends. Sticking with tough tasks. Being more thoughtful, less aggressive. Every time you hear a teacher say ‘Use your words’ or ‘What would you like to say to Jason?’ or ‘Take a minute to calm down’—they’re riffing on SEL ideas.
In a good column at Curmudgucation, Peter Greene says that SEL is a real thing, all right, but he can’t defend SEL programs which are now taking a beating from parents. These are, one has to assume, the same parents who thought grit was just the ticket for kids who were living in their family’s car, or that telling certain kids they were smart could cause their heads to swell and spoil them for the workforce.
A year after a terrible incident at a local HS, where students of color were put ‘up for sale’ on Snapchat, some parents here still think that systemic racism doesn’t exist here in Traverse City. Some of them saw the incident as simple bullying, no big deal, and others thought it was a matter to be handled by police rather than the school board, although the idea started and was centered among HS students. All of them seemed to think addressing it would cause even more divisiveness.
I prepared lessons designed to engage my middle school band students emotionally, by learning Ashokan Farewell, the music Ken Burns used to great effect in his Civil War series, then tying the plaintive tune to the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wifein 1861, a week before being killed in battle. We talked about how many of the recruits at the end of the Civil War were no older than the boys sitting in the band room, how bloody the war was, dividing families.
The filmmaker wasn’t looking for a lesson that used emotion to drive home learning (something that teachers do all the time, by the way, from reading great literature to the exploding mysteries of the baking soda volcano). She wanted to see stormy outbursts from middle schoolers.
Your classroom is like Mayberry, she told me. Everyone is friendly and nice. I desisted from telling her how long it took (speaking of grit) to build a community of 13 year-olds who worked together. I did not say that there were, in fact, days when the emotional temperature of the room was not so pleasant.
While the film crew was there, one of my students returned to school from a month at home recovering from surgery and treatment for testicular cancer. The other kids were happy to see him, and the film director asked me where he’d been. Oh, wow, she said, when I told her. Let’s use this in the episode.
I was aghast. Absolutely not, I said. Not everyone knows why he’s been out—only that he was ill. It would be a terrible violation of his personal privacy. He would never trust me again. He is so fragile right now—how can you even suggest something like this?
The next morning, the film crew was gone, two days earlier than planned, leaving my office filled with dirty coffee cups and discarded papers. I didn’t hear back from the production company, and never got the complimentary set of videos I was promised—so I never saw myself trying to teach using social-emotional learning. Whatever that is.
My first baby was breast-fed, even though I was working full-time as a teacher. My daughter’s caregiver lived a quarter-mile from school, and I was able, when she was tiny, to buzz over and feed her during my planning period, mid-day.
By the time she was six months old, and eating cereal (with breast milk), I could stay at school all day, and feed her after school. She drank from a cup at eight months, and I was off the hook shortly after her first birthday.
But I was always aware of how fortunate I was to have support—at school, at day care, and at home—that made it possible for me to feed my child. Being given a third-hour prep period, attached to lunch, for example, because I asked for it—I have known school administrators who would balk at that. I’ve heard horror stories from teaching moms who have to pump their milk in the only staff restroom, and much worse.
My second child—adopted at three months—was bottle-fed. He was lactose intolerant and had to have a special, soy-based formula that wasn’t available every place. We had to remind well-meaning people never to feed him Similac or Enfamil. And we had to cope, for the first time, with the need for clean water, sterilizing bottles, heating them in the middle of the night, and securing a stock of his special formula. Not to mention getting out of bed.
He was worth every bit of that trouble, of course. But I’ve been thinking about current shortages of baby formula, and how they have re-started the old, tired Mom Wars, the judging of mothers for all kinds of choices: medicated childbirth, smoking/drinking during pregnancy, scheduled C-sections, caffeine consumption and going back to work.
Many times, what is labeled choice is actually set in concrete by interlocking layers of policy, built up over time. The answer, for example, to why more women don’t breast feed—it’s easier, it’s free, and ideally suited for the baby, after all—is buried under dozens of reasons, beginning with our capitalistic system that doesn’t provide adequate, compensated time off for the birth of a child.
Of course, there’s no choice at all in needing to work to have food and a roof over your head vs. living in a homeless shelter with a newborn. From San Antonio, TX:
The shortage has been a challenge for families across the country, but it is especially palpable at grocery stores and food banks in San Antonio, a Latino-majority city in South Texas where many mothers lack health insurance and work at low-wage jobs that give them little opportunity to breastfeed. Across the city, baby food aisles are nearly empty and nonprofit agencies are working overtime to get their hands on new supplies. Republicans have seized on the widening anxiety among parents to blame President Biden, arguing that the administration has not done enough to ramp up production.
There are reports of on-line stashes of formula being offered at four times the retail price—and even more for specialty formulas, like the one we used. How low can vendors go to make a profit? And why aren’t there enforced policies against that?
How do we understand decisions that compel women to proceed with an unwanted or medically threatening pregnancy? With centuries of policy, hoarding power and control.
Baby formula is, indeed, a useful technology, a way to provide nutrition to infants whose mothers are unable—for any reason—to feed them by other means.
The problem is not that world has refused to use infant formula, but that corporations have used advertising to make it essential, then let other marketing technologies (just-in-time supply chains, for example) control a good that they have made indispensable. Congress hasn’t seen fit to provide parental leave, like virtually all other first-world nations.
If we’re going to point fingers, leave mothers out of it.
This is a blog about Teacher Stuff—the pedestrian daily tools of successful instruction. The boring and ordinary instruments of professional work that teachers, from kindergarten to AP chemistry, use every day.
A story: Several years ago, I was facilitating an on-line mentoring program for career-change teachers, who had previously worked for a Big Well-Known Corporation.
BWC decided to off-load a layer of expensive senior employees (those with 20 years or more) by giving them an exit ramp: Go back to school (on our dime) and become certified teachers. We’ll even subsidize your student teaching. Then resign, and we’ll replace you with cheap recent graduates.
That last line wasn’t actually in the program description, but everybody involved knew the score. BWC promo-ed the program on their website—Giving Back to Your Community!–and added an additional sweetener: BWC would provide e-mentoring, through a national non-profit, for the novice teachers’ first year, since they understood that public schools were filled with terrible teachers who couldn’t possibly be of assistance. After all, their (too-expensive) employees were masters of applied STEM content, who could probably teach veteran educators a thing or two.
It was an interesting gig.
A lot of the work was just dealing with misconceptions. Like the woman who was upset when she was told by the university where she was taking ed classes that she couldn’t have a student teaching placement as a ‘third grade math instructor’ because the job didn’t exist in most places. She could student teach in a 3rd grade, but would also have to teach reading, social studies, science and accept bus and lunch duty, which was a deal-breaker for her. She left the program.
One of my mentees had just started a job as a chemistry teacher in a suburban Connecticut high school. He had been assigned four sections of chemistry and one of AP chemistry. In our first exchange, he was panicked because he had asked for the lessons plans to go along with the texts, and was told they didn’t exist. He checked with his official on-site mentor (the other chemistry teacher at his school) who told him that books didn’t come with lesson plans because you have to tailor lesson plans to the students you have.
Which my mentee thought was not just rude but ridiculous. You mean I have to make up ten separate lesson plans each week? How inefficient! At BWC, all the work was pre-organized. You just followed the templates. This is why public education is such a disaster, yada yada.
If you are not an educator, it might in fact be surprising to suddenly be immersed in typical pedagogical practice where what initially appears to be ‘inefficiency’ turns out to be more effective in the long run. I’m thinking here of those little flip-top heads on a conveyor belt, receiving ‘content’ in ‘Waiting for Superman’–director Davis Guggenheim’s conception of how children learn.
My point here is that the other chemistry teacher was spot-on: Good teachers structure learning goals, lesson plans and instructional methods to meet the needs and quirks of the students in front of them. They also pay attention to results in real time (meaning—you don’t have to wait for test scores), and re-adjust when things aren’t going well.
I spent thirty-odd years planning the week ahead on Sunday nights, with a glass of wine. My plan book was where I scribbled notes when I had a brainstorm (or a failure). The plans were always messed up by mid-week, but I had five preps, and absolutely couldn’t teach without them. But nobody ever fly-specked my plans to make sure I wasn’t inserting CRT or SEL or any other acronym into the pedagogy I saw working for my students, on a daily basis.
Just as social conservatism is all about religion, so religion — or at least this version of it — is all about not only order and obedience, but also faith (which means belief without evidence) in the conviction that Truth resides, fully formed, in certain texts. Carole Edelsky, an emeritus education professor at Arizona State University, has explained that “the far right’s love affair with phonics” reflects their “universe of moral absolutes,” the goal being to decode “what is ‘there’ [and to affirm] appropriate hierarchies – the authority of text over interpretation and ultimately of (the Christian) God over man. To the theocratic right, promoting phonics is a tactic for asserting Christian control of schools.”
That one made me stop and think.
The great irony here is that obedience and faith are what certain politicians want—but not the blue-chip businesses who will be hiring our graduates. Education Week just surveyed ten such companies, asking:What problem-solving skills do you want to see from early-career job seekers that tend to be lacking? And what should K-12 schools do to help bridge those skill gaps?
Corporations said: Flexibility. Cooperation and collaboration. Soft skills. Real-world applications. Learning to fail. Curiosity. Appreciating diversity. Service learning. Teamwork. Creativity and innovation—out of the box thinking.
All of which require a great deal of careful planning, diverse instructional strategies and materials, and zero emphasis on standardization and compliance, which is the pedagogical train we’ve been on for two decades now.
I am running for office. The County Commission, District 7, in Leelanau County, Michigan, to be precise. I am running for a position that has been held by the same Republican woman (whose name will not be mentioned) for 26 years.
It goes without saying that a lot has happened in Leelanau County, the gorgeous, rolling ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten, in the past 26 years.
I’ve been a property holder here—some 14 acres, sold on a land contract—since 1987. We built a home and moved here in 2010. And within a year or two, it was pretty clear that some of the people making decisions about my life needed to get some new ideas about local governance. There were plenty of issues.
In 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020, I worked on Democratic campaigns for the Board of Commissioner seat in District 7. They were worthy candidates, with good ideas. And in all four elections, they lost.
The data jugglers for the local Democratic party (for which, I serve as Secretary) seem to feel that no Democrat, no matter how smart they are or how hard they campaign, could win in the ruby-red center of the county.
The outer edges of the county—lots of well-heeled retirees—were turning blue or at least purple. Joe Biden edged out a win in 2020. But District 7—again, lots of farmland and a couple of tiny towns– remained persistently Republican.
Twenty-six Year Veteran doesn’t really bother campaigning much. In the newspaper candidate forums, she writes about how her family has ‘always’ lived here, and how she protects citizens from excessive spending and taxation. No need for any new-fangled ideas, programs or, especially, regulations. My district is studded with Trump signs and those yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags.
First, because somebody had to. If nobody ran, Twenty-Six Year Veteran might assume that everyone feels as she does: Cut taxes. Cut services. Ignore problems. Bury your garbage (this was a response to voter-approved recycling). Vote Trump.
As it turned out, there were four of us willing to run. We all filed the paperwork, then met a couple of days later, promising that whoever won the primary would have the full support of the other three. We toasted with a glass of Prosecco, then talked about issues. We’re all on the same wavelength.
We’re tired of all the Republican baloney that’s been mucking up a full-fledged, voter-approved effort to un-gerrymander Michigan.We’re tired of ongoing fights over issues we thought were settled by public vote—like funding programs for early childhood. We don’t understand why all the rich people buying up properties here shouldn’t be compelled to fund a point-of-sale septic inspection, a crucial first step in protecting our water.
We have watched Republicans force public prayer (Christians only!) at County Commission meetings (yes, I understand the dubious legality) and drive out a hard-working, super-competent local Health Department authority over masking.
There’s more. Way more.
I’ll be writing about the issues (including school-related hot topics) in subsequent columns. I am running a zero dollars-based green campaign: No signs. No paper literature.
But in the meantime, I’m running for the County Commission.
Several years ago, I wrote a blog entitled “I Hate American Idol” for Education Week. EdWeek changed the title to “Music Teacher Hates American Idol”—lest they be accused of trashing one of America’s iconic entertainment boondoggles—and it drew thousands upon thousands of readers and a whole array of nasty comments, which could be summarized thusly: Grow up, whiny music teacher.
I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which– let’s be honest–needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence causing Americans to believe that unless your voice and public persona meet some amorphous standard of style and quality, you should just shut up and stop singing.
Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.
Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift–a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no activity that is not made richer or better illuminated by music.
Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion far more effectively than words. While it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.
And that’s what I tell my students– they are born singers.
If you watch television, you’ve seen the Infiniti commercial where Rich White Lady inexplicably drives her luxury vehicle into a tiered room where children are filmed simply holding—often incorrectly—orchestral instruments. There is a soundtrack marked by significantly scratched tone and seriously out of tune chords, unpleasant to the ears of 21st century consumers who are used to perfect (and often auto-tuned) music. RWL rolls up the window, shutting out the sound, lowers her seat, adjusting the rear view mirror so she can see her adorable daughter, who later rides home in the back seat.
Message: Owning the right car will shut out the cacophony of life. Including the disgusting sounds your children make.
Music teachers universally hate this commercial. Many took time out of preparing for spring concerts, the school musical and recruiting musicians for the 2022 marching band (something everyone in the bleachers on Friday night expects) to comment. There’s plenty to say.
There’s also the fact that the children portrayed are not actually playing the piece (something that’s obvious to instrumental music teachers)—or even attempting to play an instrument. Shots of cute children incorrectly holding musical instruments are commonplace in advertising (see below).
It’s this ‘cute’ angle that’s most annoying. Children, as previously noted, are born to make music—to sing, to move, to create. Teaching them to appreciate a delicate instrument, to persist through the difficult challenge of making good sounds, learning to work together to create something magnificent—isn’t this the critical essence of authentic education?
I found the commercial insulting to my life’s work.
And I’m wondering:
What if RWL had rolled up her window and ignored her little soccer player, averting her eyes in embarrassment because he was running, knock-kneed, toward the wrong goal?
What if she was scrolling on her phone while her daughter was on stage at a dance performance—unable to watch because the dancing was so painfully inept?
What if she told her 4th grader that her artwork—on display at the school’s art show—was ‘amateurish?’
Parents who reject their children’s efforts at anything because those efforts are clumsy, childish or hard to hear are doing damage. Telling your child that they shouldn’t do something unless it comes easily or can’t be done perfectly is personal vandalism.
I’m not suggesting kids be praised when praise isn’t warranted. I have had literally hundreds of parents joke about their kids’ early efforts at playing an instrument: Moose mating (low brass). Geese honking (oboes). Pigs squealing (clarinets). If accompanied by encouragement and tolerance, these moments can be light-hearted.
One parent remarked: I have sat through a lot of kid concerts and some of them were painful. Let’s face it, when kids are learning, they often do suck.
Nope. That’s the response of an adult who misunderstands the role of persistence and effort. If it’s ‘painful’ to listen, imagine the pain of a child whose parent shuts out their first steps in any endeavor by rolling up the metaphorical window.
Another comment, from a fellow musician: In my band directing days, when parents and staff would joke or complain about the first beginners concert, I’d tell them it was my absolute favorite concert. Four months ago, they didn’t even know how to assemble their instruments. They might not even have known what instrument it was. And now we’re making music.
The first concert was my favorite, too. All six notes, and all the shining faces.
And pretty soon—with time and effort—they can sound like this, taking those skills and friendships into the adult world. No matter what kind of car they’re driving.
Ever read a book that resonates, for whatever reason, with the life you’re living—the things you’re thinking about, things that are happening in your world right now?
Munich (Robert Harris) is a fictionalized, but well-researched, account of the Munich Conference in September 1938, wherein a cluster of European leaders thought they had signed on to ‘peace in our time,’ when in fact Hitler had no such intention.
It’s one of those slow burn novels that starts out by introducing us to two very different worlds—the chin-up, upper-crust British government, trying desperately to avoid another devastating European war, and the collection of thugs and sycophants hanging around the Fuhrer who were willing to bulldoze anyone and anything to expand their own power.
I saw parallel after parallel, which made the book (published in 2018) chillingly real.
As political thriller, it’s a good read from a guy who’s written a ton of great political thrillers, many centered in Germany, in the 1930s and 40s. BUT–reading it now, as Putin is devastating Ukraine, because he seems to think he needs more space, and world leaders (elected and un-elected) are trying to stay out of war— is stunningly relevant.
The only knowledge I had about Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the pre-war period, left over from History class, is that he was widely considered an ‘appeaser’ once World War II began, and his reputation hasn’t been burnished since.
The book is kinder to him, seeing him as a man of a different age, when one’s word was one’s honor. But the image of someone who believed in the power of diplomacy getting totally snookered by the depth of evil remains—powerfully—in mind.
Once the Munich Conference actually begins, every page in the book has a resonant sentence or paragraph, about power and the men who wield it. Although the whole world now knows the spoiler—World War II and its horrors—the book had me thinking about alternate outcomes, about peace and how to reach it.
Also, of course, what could go wrong in our immediate future, in 2022.
A couple of nights ago, Rachel Maddow had one of my favorite truth-tellers on: Jane Mayer, whose latest piece on the Republican ‘slime machine’digs into the coordinated Lies People Tell to ruin the reputations of Biden’s nominees, the most visible example being the appalling hatchet job attempted on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Maddow precedes the Mayer interview with an illustrated commentary on Stalin, the cover-ups of his hideous crimes against his own people, and the propensity for Russian dictators to use accusations of–get this–pedophilia as an excuse to imprison or execute citizens who give them grief. The video is 20 minutes long, but worth the watch.
I finished the book, then opened Twitter to find my new hero, MI State Senator Mallory McMorrow, burning up the media world. State Senator Lana Theis (who represents the district where I used to live) started slinging around accusations of Democrats grooming and sexualizing children in her fund-raising materials, and McMorrow let go with five beautiful minutes of pure truth to power.
It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history… It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?
Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.
I am aware of the irony of posting this blog—all about lies and social fragmentation—on social media. But maybe social media is our only recourse at the moment. Senator McMorrow has had over 10 million views of her video, and it’s been enthusiastically applauded on left-leaning media.
Someone has to tell the truth. Someone has to pay attention.
I should start by saying that while there were occasionally some very Bad Times indeed in public education in the last century or so—the folks who are in the classroom at this moment are undisputed champions of working through the mind-bending challenges and crises coming at them.
It’s been chaotic even in the best-run schools, a kind of perfect storm of global pandemic and political upheaval, for more than two years. And we’re going to pay for it, down the line, in loss of professional staff and community goodwill. When I say ‘we’—I mean all of us: teachers, parents, and especially students.
You can’t beat good people up ad infinitum; no matter how dedicated they are, teachers eventually tire of trying to balance the rewards with the downside: underpaid, disrespected. And lately, exposed to a dangerous virus and not trusted to teach their own subjects.
‘Past research suggests that many of the people who indicate plans to quit won’t actually do so. But experts warn there are negative consequences from a dissatisfied teacher workforce. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. And students tend to do better in schools with positive work environments.’
Let’s pause here, to say: Duh.
“What people want is to be able to teach and teach well, and if they can’t do it because they can’t afford to do it or because they have a toxic work environment, that discourages them from acting as teachers who are learning and growing and getting better and increasing their commitment to the work,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction. “That’s the side of satisfaction we need to pay attention to—it’s not just keeping people in their positions.”
‘Also, the low satisfaction levels of teachers already in the classroom may impact the pipeline of future teachers. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by about a third over the past decade, and experts say that is likely in part due to the perception of teaching as a low-paid, thankless career.’
Low paid. Thankless. And eligible for food stamps, in some states. What’s not to like?
In the linked article, there is a graph showing the percentage of K-12 teachers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, beginning in 1980. There’s a big dip in 1984 (down to 33%). Beginning in the early 90s, there’s a steady upward climb (to 62%) around 2005 or so, then a downturn, a slippery slope to where things currently stand: 12% of our teacher workforce is very satisfied with their jobs.
I actually remember that dip in the early 80s. There was a serious economic downturn, and oil prices shot up. I worked in the suburban outer ring around Detroit, and the financial crisis hit the auto industry, where lots of our parents worked, particularly hard. For the first time, the district lost students, and families.
I remember waving to a tenor sax player, leaving with his school-owned instrument on the day before spring break. He didn’t come back—and his family’s house went into foreclosure. The family left, and took the sax. We waited for a request for records from a new school that never came. There was no internet to cross-reference serial numbers. Bye-bye, Selmer tenor.
I used to think those were bad times. I was wrong, by orders of magnitude.
It’s not a hopeless situation. Here’s a short list of some ‘just for starters’ things we could do to engender a turnaround. The first two are about a major increase in salaries, and loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching. So basic, and so essential.
What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?
Incident in the Teachers’ Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to grab a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There’s a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?
He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, aninternet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents’ absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.
There is silence, but the custodian isn’t finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel? ——————– I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers’ lounge as I readHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the “Best of 2016″ lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.
J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.
In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.
He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn’t until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he’s been handed a golden ticket, and he’s being watched to see if he can fit in.
Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.
In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn’t until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not “middle class,” but further down in the pecking order. It wasn’t until I read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn’t as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides “success.”
Most of the educators sitting in that teachers’ lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near thepoorly educated tree. Still, the custodian’s comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.
A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.
J.D. Vance’s story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis. I expect absolutely nothing from Tucker Carlson, but J.D. Vance ought to know better. He’d be a terrible senator.
Scrolling through FB posts from teachers these days is an exercise in sorrow. There’s no other word for it. What’s happening is deliberate damage to the very heart of public education, and most of it is highly politicized nonsense.
I follow an Elementary Music Teachers FB page, filled with suggestions for the Spring program, quick lesson plans for tomorrow and advice for any number of classroom management issues. I just skim through it, admiring the teachers who are digging in, paddling and paddling through deep and stormy waters.
Today, someone said they’d signed up for Orff Training Level One (a summer program to teach an elementary music method that uses keyboard percussion, among other techniques and instruments)–and discovered the training was two weeks long.
What followed was 41 comments from other teachers encouraging everyone to take all three levels (that’s six weeks, in the summer, folks) because it was fabulous. Even though there was homework every night, and six hours of classes in the day. It’s great, person after person said–I use what I learned every day. Take the training!
We got all the way down to the 42nd comment, before someone said: Hey. Does your district pay for this?
Nope. Nope. I get $100 year for professional development. I asked the PTA for a scholarship. Nope. District has a policy not to pay for professional development unless they select it. Nope, nope, nope.
So. It’s April, and music teachers are encouraging each other to sign up for useful summer professional development, on their own dime. During a pandemic.
I don’t know whether to be proud that I’m a music teacher, or angry that there isn’t enough money to send teachers to summer programs (let alone pay them for going).
Shout out to music educators everywhere, who spend their summers working.
I was eager to read the piece—because I know these two, both of them stellar educators. I’ve read her students’ work. He guest-blogged on my Education Week site. They are experts. Veterans. Teachers with a full professional toolbox, and insight into how the system works, in both well-heeled and disadvantaged districts.
The article made much of the fact that they’re leaving now—in March—rather than slogging through the rest of the school year. But in many ways, leaving now is the right thing to do, for two interrelated reasons. It gives districts maximum opportunity to hire in the spring as a few newly minted teachers graduate, and provides a heads-up: Look. Get cracking. You’re going to be short lots of critical personnel, and soon.
Teachers who leave in mid-year are acknowledging that teaching is a job, like other jobs. It’s not a divine calling or moral obligation like, say, parenthood. Not anymore.
I generally haven’t retweeted or commented on blogs from teachers who have HAD IT, and are leaving their jobs. Long before I got my first writing gig (a local newspaper column) 20 years ago, I contemplated leaving my job, pretty much annually. If you’ve been a teacher, you can guess at the reasons: Lousy pay. Ridiculous class sizes. Overwhelming workload, leaving little bandwidth for family. Evil administrators. And so on.
While the oft-repeated data shows that half of teachers leave their jobs in the first five years, the actual numbers (where did those teachers go?) are murky. Some of those folks aren’t leaving the profession forever—just that building, at that time. Some people who leave teaching stay ‘in education’ (just ask Teach for America). Divided opinion on whether that’s good or bad.
My take on this is that there is a pre-pandemic baseline for teachers jumping ship, and we won’t know until August just how much trouble public schools are in, when it comes to staffing. But two years’ worth of pandemic teaching has undoubtedly changed the calculation.
Teaching—I repeat—is just a job, and teachers now have plenty of first-hand evidence of how their employers, their state governments, and their clients (parents and older students) value their time, dedication and expertise, during a national health crisis. Answer: not so much.
“Most of our employee base and potential employee base live paycheck to paycheck. Any increase in gas prices cuts into their disposable income. As inflation continues to climb and gas prices continue to go up, that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living. The labor market is about to turn in our favor.”
I would theorize that lots of teachers who are leaving now still like being a teacher—just as there are probably plenty of Applebee’s servers and line cooks who think they could probably do worse than work at Applebee’s.
Can you blame a teacher—let’s say a teacher who has the financial wherewithal to seek another job, or live carefully on a pension—for deciding that it’s time to get out of Dodge?
I personally know at least a dozen teachers who have either quit, turned in their early retirement papers or are holding off on telling their districts that this is their last year, worried about retribution. I know another handful who are actively interviewing for alternate jobs that either pay more or will provide a better lifestyle than teaching.
I talked to one yesterday. Three times in our conversation she said this:
And after it rains there’s a rainbow And all of the colors are black It’s not that the colors aren’t there It’s just imagination they lack Everything’s the same back in my little town
Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town —Paul Simon
Back in the 1970s, when I interviewed for a teaching job in the community where I would work, and then live, for more than 35 years, the principal told me that the small, rural district was the “far edge of white flight.”
He was right. The district never stopped growing while I was teaching there, morphing from a cute little town surrounded by farmland, to a kind of sprawl of dozens of back-to-back subdivisions, each new sub with bigger and more pretentious houses than the last. It remained persistently non-diverse, however, both in demographics and in thinking and behaviors.
When I interviewed there, I didn’t pay much attention to these factors. I was desperate to get a teaching job—we were experiencing a teacher glut at the time, with most Michigan universities exporting newly minted Baby Boomer teachers to states where the pay was abysmal. I wanted to teach in Michigan.
When I got the job in Hartland, I couldn’t believe my good luck. It was a charming little village, with a library, a music hall and the first high school in the county, built in 1921—the building, in fact, where I had the interview. And it was growing—I didn’t need to be worried about being pink-slipped!
My students were generally polite, and their parents showed up for conferences and programs. My colleagues were outstanding—smart, funny and generous with their time. I taught in what used to be the high school band room—probably the nicest classroom I had in all my 30+ years in the district.
Teachers often talk about their disastrous first year of teaching—but it wasn’t like that for me. I loved teaching band and general music at Hartland Middle School. In fact, if it weren’t for my really awesome first year, I might have walked away from Hartland a dozen times.
The trouble started in Year Two, when I was let go (along with 20 other first- and second-year teachers) because of a millage failure. We all signed full-year contracts in April, but two summer funding votes failed, so after starting school in September, the Board decided to lay off a couple dozen teachers. In October.
We took them to court (thank you, strong union), and all of us got a job back—just not the job we were hired to do. I became a district-roving sub, and had to be available from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (split sessions, due to the cutbacks). I was pink-slipped an additional five times over the next few years. We were dependent, it turned out, on an ultra-conservative, anti-tax community.
I also started going to Board meetings, to hear what the nice white people in my community said—about the curriculum, sex education, teacher pay, offensive books in the library, and why don’t we sing Silent Night at the Christmas program like we did back in the day? It was illuminating, hearing parents urge the Board to make ‘necessary’ cuts in their ‘wasteful’ budgets—kids didn’t need music, art, counselors, librarians or other frills. What did they need? Well, football, mostly.
I learned that most people who addressed the Board were concerned only about their personal children, that those children would have access to the educational goodies parents wanted—a gifted/talented program, perhaps, or a soccer team, or maybe a snazzy computer lab. Or a new math program, since the one adopted by teachers didn’t work for Jennifer.
I once attended a Board meeting where a mother demanded that the marching band (MY bailiwick) wear spats. Her kids weren’t in the band, of course, but she just thought they looked good, and insisted we should be wearing them. This is a true story. What’s also true is that her husband was on that Board.
None of those issues was particularly upsetting. This was the reason, I thought, schools have elected Boards—to hash out contentious issues, to represent community beliefs, to address problems that arise.
Over time, those problems grew exponentially more serious. The Hartland football team made national news by hiring strippers to entertain them before a game—then confessed that they usually just watched pornography, but this was a big game. There was a series of bomb threats. There were student suicides. There was overt racism.
None of these things were directly related to curriculum and instruction—but they were reflective of how we handled emerging and controversial concerns with the children entrusted to our care. School—and yes, this is a broken record—is the stage where we prepare our children to handle what’s coming down the pike. Not a place to avoid, cover up and deny what’s happening in the world.
Slowly, it started to feel like maybe Hartland wasn’t such an innocent, wholesome place. Most of that dawning recognition happened when I started paying attention to the students who looked different—the five percent of students who were Black, or Hispanic or Asian. It wasn’t such a comfortable place for them. When students started communicating via device, outside of adult supervision, the cruelty and disrespect became endemic.
I began to understand the role of the public school teacher as much more than Person Who Delivers Academic Content. Teachers are role models, confidantes, discussion leaders and arbitrators. If we want a better, more just, equitable and democratic society, teachers and schools are part of that equation.
Once, when I was doing exactly what I’m doing in this blog, trashing people in my little town for undemocratic and racist behaviors, Maria reminded me that things don’t improve when people are accused of wrongdoing. They improve when people promote healthy, accepting communities. When they’re commended for welcoming diversity and inclusion. Not shamed.
I want to believe Maria is right.
But towns that understand diversity is a strength have better prospects than towns where a high school girl has to deal with threats of being lynched. A town that can’t adapt to change, hanging on to centuries-old prejudices, is in trouble.
It was the most prosaic of news items: a local township planning commission working on a new master plan. They secured a skilled, experienced civic planner who provided a draft, which included (as all good municipal documents do) a brief analysis of the township’s demographics: “94.7 percent of the population reported as white, 2.6 percent of the population as American Indian/Alaskan Natives, 0.2 percent reported as black or African American, and 2.5 percent as Hispanic or Latino.”
Which drew this response from a member of the planning commission:
“I’m opposed to this whole color issue. In my opinion, you’re either a citizen, or you’re not a citizen. And with this government listing everybody by their color, that’s the government and the media promoting racism. I would suggest we make a comment [in the master plan], something to the effect that we have…a diverse community.”
The planning expert: “Well, you don’t. You’ve got a 94.7 percent white [population].”
It went downhill from there—rapidly—and ended up with the hired expert and another member of the planning commission resigning, and a third commissioner stating that the ‘race thing’ in the plan was ridiculous, and oh, by the way, his brother-in-law was Black.
I share this (stupid) story for all the school districts and teachers that feel that they have been unfairly targeted by what seems to be one of our ‘new normals’—rampant, unhinged intolerance.
In other words, teachers and conscientious school leaders, it’s not you—or just you. It’s racism. Or homophobia, or xenophobia.
It’s ignorance. The problem that never goes away—and society expects public educators to solve, somehow, without ticking off parents.
You may have, to your surprise, become the enemy (after two grinding years of serving children and families during a global pandemic), for simply teaching facts and showing compassion and commitment to your students. But you’re not alone. And this is not new.
These anti-truth, anti-education campaigns come and go, in waves. Disinformation and blind opposition and noisy meetings have always been part of government-provided services.
The world is currently witnessing a devastating, lethal master class in international propaganda in Ukraine. Who will tell the truth to our students? Not TikTok. When civic authorities assert that a 95% white township is a ‘diverse community,’ someone needs to speak up for the truth.
In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history. Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state. It’s not clear who’ll win this time. It’s not even clear who won last time. But the distinction between these two moments is less than it seems: what was once contested as a matter of biology—can people change?—has come to be contested as a matter of history. Still, this fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about “parents’ rights,” and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.
LePore ranges widely, sharing plenty of negative, even frightening, examples of the aforementioned American ignorance now being codified into law (as well as cautionary language for elites who feel their progressive views about raising children automatically trump those of conservative and evangelical parents).
She also makes the point that Black intellectuals immediately understood that bills to prevent the teaching of evolution weren’t really about the theory of change in biology, something that is evident to any farmer. It was about the idea that we all spring from common ancestors, that there is no real difference between human races. That’s what really scared folks in the South, some 55 years after the Civil War.
It’s easy to feel discouraged. In Whitewater Township—where the planning commissioners think they have a ‘diverse’ community—60.9 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump in 2020. Presumably, some 40 percent of those believe he actually won the election, if national survey data holds in this tiny, nearly all-white enclave.
Which is why we have to take a deep breath—as educators and citizens—and keep telling the truth.
Because the truth will set us free. Although it may take a long, long time.
Teachers are my favorite group of people on the planet. There’s been a lot of scare-baloney lately about how much schooling has been missed, learning lost blah blah blah—but a pandemic that’s cost us over a million lives is no joke. And teachers have reliably been heroes, showing up to teach, in spite of a firestorm of unsubstantiated criticisms.
I want to offer a special shout-out to music teachers, my super-super-favorite people. And I want to make a prediction: As awful as the pandemic has been in damaging long-standing gold-star music programs, the net effect could be a useful re-thinking of traditional music education.
I joined the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in 1975, as a newbie instrumental and vocal music teacher. In subsequent decades, I was a district and statewide officer, festival host and adjudicator.
The organization existed, in large part, to organize and run festivals. I played the game, attending hundreds of meetings, festivals and conferences, some years with as many as four performing groups. I followed their rules. And in my 40+ year association with the MSBOA, not much changed.
This is not a criticism, by the way. Lots of organizations stick with what worked in the past.
But this year, the MSBOA—wisely—changed their previously rigid festival requirements. They listened to their members’ pandemic teaching woes, and eliminated a couple of technical challenges that might keep school bands and orchestras from participating. They tried, in other words, to increase access to the good things about performing for critique, and made the process more flexible. The new rules are set to expire in three years, unless members choose to keep them permanent—or change them again.
We typically teach secondary music through performing ensembles, and award-winning programs are usually run by teachers with student populations and resources that allow them to cherry-pick talent and supplement instruction with outside lessons and coaching. There was some grumbling about ‘lowering standards’ with the new festival rules from some of these directors (don’t call them teachers). But I saw this as a giant leap forward for music education.
For the past two years, I have marveled at how adaptable music teachers are—teaching from home, using brand-new technologies, holding classes outside or in tents, jerry-rigging masks and sharing information on bioaerosol emissions, something none of us studied in college. I have seen some utterly amazing and ingenious things. Standing-ovation dedication and creativity.
But I also understand that the pandemic has had hidden consequences for music teachers. A small urban program that usually has 45 kids in the HS band has only 23 this year, as students have to re-take classes they failed online, rather than a 3rd or 4th year of band. A choir teacher has become the in-building sub for teachers out with COVID, as her three select choirs are combined into one class. A novice middle school band teacher lost her job in 2021, because her beginning instrumentalists were unable to perform at the Honor Assembly in June, having spent months learning online, instead of playing as a group.
Unless you’ve access to some advanced recording and mixing equipment, the skill to use it, and reliable broadband for all your students–you’re not going to be doing a lot of detail work on rigorous traditional literature. In fact, the person who works magic in those little-heads recordings is the engineer, not the conductor or the individual students. Not to mention—someone taught every one of those 1400 musicians how to play before putting a microphone on their music stand.
I think ‘lost learning’ is total fallacy for all students and subjects, but especially for music. It doesn’t really matter when students (or adults) learn to master an instrument, or start singing with a choir. Music is a life-long skill and pleasure. Introducing competition, benchmarks and timelines into music instruction is almost always counterproductive.
It’s occurred to me that the slower pace and greater individuality in learning might lead to stronger musicians overall, students who will play for enjoyment long past school contests. When live performances have been pushed into the background, there is also time to focus on other aspects of music education: history, culture, elements of musicianship, improvisation and composition. Maybe even fun.
Also: relationships, the heart of all learning. I hear from teachers that kids are quitting because practicing is no longer possible at home. How can we make it possible for those students to continue making music with their friends, when school is the only place that can happen?
Can use what we’ve learned teaching online by setting up computer-based instruction for kids who can’t fit band into their schedule? Or develop alternative music classes to bridge the gap between the advanced orchestra playing Shostakovich and more basic music-making?
Maybe we decide to be music teachers, not competitive ensemble directors. That’s not all bad.
It’s a matter of creativity and flexibility, something music teachers have in spades.
This is a blog about the escalation of smack talk—the reckless/threatening/false/vindictive/facetious things people say, in an effort to gain power by demeaning others– and a thought or two about how much easier it is to be a smack-talker in 2022 than just a few years earlier.
We’re also seeing more smack talk in schools and about schools. Critical race theory and learning loss are among the many widely abused terms that media perceives as real issues. The terms are essentially meaningless, however, in the daily operation of real schools, places where teachers are paying attention to the well-being and nascent citizenship of real children.
In 2017, I was part of a local ‘listening tour’ sponsored by my county Democratic party. We knocked on doors and asked people what they wanted from their local government. We wanted to know what their issues and needs were, for upcoming campaigns—but were also willing to listen to their feedback on the 2016 election. We did not call on strong or ‘leaning’ Republicans—only independent voters and those who may have leaned our way at one time.
What we learned: every single person we talked with had a distinct opinion on Trump vs. Hillary (the gender dynamics of the last name/first name contrast being kind of smack-y in itself). Most were willing to tell us who they voted for, and why, although we were trained not to ask.
They did not like or trust Hillary Clinton—and the ones who declared themselves Trump voters were clear about what attracted them to him: the way he talks. He says what he thinks! He isn’t mealy-mouthed like other politicians. He’s down to earth, but strong. His disrespect of women was ‘just locker room talk.’ More than once we heard: Give the guy a chance. Asked about local issues and government, most of them had no ready response.
What our neighbors had to say was almost completely unsubstantiated and unrelated to governing or current issues, not to mention decades’ worth of real facts about Trump’s history as grifter and narcissistic braggart. They took the measure of a candidate by his (or her) willingness to make insulting remarks. To get in a good dig, to trash your opponent. A few men spoke admiringly about Trump literally stalking or silencing Clinton on the stage, during their debates. He was a ‘fighter’—and would fight for us. Which ‘us’ they were talking about was unspoken.
What interesting to me is the response from the MI Department of Civil Rights: “To ignore the situation without taking those individuals who perpetuated it to account causes a problem and obviously allows it to occur again. So that situation should be controlled not only by the people who are officiating the game, but also the officials who certainly have some control over the students and the actions that they might have later on or during the game itself.”
I agree. Racial slurs and dangerous threats are best handled when they first emerge by the people closest to our students. This is what lies under at anger over faux CRT—adults influencing children to analyze their own prejudice, and respect differences. Good teachers have always done this; it’s the practice of building a classroom community.
So it’s no wonder that judgmental terms like ‘learning loss’ have caught on, and Serious Reports are warning that children in poverty have ‘lost’ the most. All children have been exposed to danger and loss during this pandemic, but whether they’re testing on grade level—whatever that is—should be the least of our worries.
We should be thinking, instead, about turning them into caring and confident citizens, able to identify coarse and deceptive language and reject it.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose Nothin’– it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t free…
Remember free schools? They were all the rage, back in the day—long, long ago—when those folks protesting the error-filled ways of public education were hippie types, not scripted, Republican-funded moms with time on their hands.
Often educated in public schools themselves (where they learned to craft logical arguments and read great books), these lefty parents did not want Moonbeam’s schooling to consist of straight rows, workbooks and bells. They wanted the freedom to discuss Real Issues and pursue personal growth.
Today, more and more laws, caucuses, rallies and hard-right movements use the language of freedom as a cudgel to erode democratic governance and civil rights; these laws expand the creep of authoritarianism. One Jan. 6 insurrectionist insisted, “I’m here for freedom,” when describing his participation in the attack on the Capitol. Mask mandate opponents have cited “health freedom,” even if their refusal to mask denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes communities more vulnerable to Covid.
Freedom, Anker says, has been co-opted.
I can name dozens of other words that no longer clearly mean what they once did: Unconstitutional, for example. Anti-Fascism. Illegal. Forensic Audit. Critical Race Theory. Moms, for Liberty.Election integrity. You can justify putting any number of formerly well-understood terms in scare quotes, these days.
Language, over time, does—and should—morph, as societal norms and technological advances change the way people think and behave. That’s why those 1960s ads with doctors lighting up a Camel to ‘relax,’ are so hilarious.
But I really hate losing freedom, as a political and educational concept. I especially hate knowing that Republicans have weaponized something valuable and politically distinct, turned it into a well-funded, election-winning grievance.
As a music teacher, I wrestled with the concept of freedom every year, and shared those dilemmas with my students. Why is every composition on our required festival list written by a white man—can we break free of that? In a largely white, largely Christian town, should we be representing all winter celebrations in our music, or just having the expected Christmas concert? What are the roots of the music my students are listening to—and is it my responsibility to help them dig into that history?
My career was all about the freedom to teach music in untraditional but deeper ways. And I was incredibly lucky. I never had to deal with rigid standards or statewide assessments, and seldom had parent complaints. I was, far more than other teachers, free to craft curriculum, performances, travel and materials to fit my students, few questions asked.
While parental choice has become the subject of frequent political controversy, the CNN Poll found that most Americans reject the idea that the primary responsibility for what happens in the classroom belongs either to parents or to teachers and school officials. Majorities said both groups should have an equally important role in school-related decisions ranging from Covid-19 precautions to the way various school subjects are taught.
Only about one-fifth of Americans (19%) said parents should be the main decision-makers on mask policies, with 17% saying the same about virtual learning and 16% on teaching about racial issues. Just 7% thought parents should have final say over how to teach math. About 1 in 8 Americans, or 12%, said parents’ views should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught, while roughly twice as many said teachers and school officials should have more influence on those areas. Respondents split equally over how issues regarding race in America are taught, with 16% saying parents should have more say, 16% teachers and school officials, and 62% saying both should be equally important.
These are pretty small numbers, for a so-called movement. Glenn Youngkin may have ridden parent disapproval over school policy to a governorship, but I am far from convinced that there’s a voting majority in all states to swing elections based on book-banning, faux CRT hype and other curricular issues.
When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see this as another cycle of school-parent communication, where schools that listen to parents and work cooperatively with them for the good of all their students, are doing the best job of navigating a global pandemic and political warfare based on the Big Lie. Major challenges, indeed.
One of my former students sent me a note expressing her frustration over the screaming matches at the local school board meetings. I know these people, she said—they live in my neighborhood. And they’re not even parents of school-aged kids. For them, this is political gain. For me, this is about protecting my child.
One of the local Liberty Moms came to her door and asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about how your boys will vote, when they’re adults?’ Actually, she wasn’t concerned about that at all—they won’t be voting for many years, and there are a lot of math facts and swimming lessons and trips to the library that needed to happen first—safely. But there is no clearer example of just what her neighbor is really worried about.
It isn’t freedom. It never was freedom. It was about winning.
I tested positive for COVID last Monday. My husband (with whom I have been exchanging exhalations since 1975) tested positive at home three days earlier, but my rapid test was negative then. We did drive-thru PCR testing, got our mutually positive results in 23 hours, and less than an hour after that, even though I am 2000 miles away from home, I got a friendly call from my local health department.
We’re going to be fine, thanks, due to vaccinations and booster shots. But I have been thinking about social reluctance to share the fact that one has been infected. Back in 2020, isolated from everyone and wiping down groceries, I collected the most credible articles on SARS-CoV-2 I could find—dozens of them, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting information. One of them said that the coronavirus, uncontrolled, would eventually infect 60-70% of Americans and could kill as many as a million of us.
At the time, it was a horrifying prospect. A million deaths? Unthinkable. Tragic. Preventable. And this was before those trucks rolled out of the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo.
I set out to be an Agent of Control, a rule-follower, a curve-flattener. It’s kind of the person I’ve been all my life: Bookish Goody Two-shoes. I was hooked on the nightly cable news—Outbreaks at meat-cutting plants in the Midwest! Crisis in NOLA! Refrigerated morgue trucks in New York City! (Those exclamation points are not sardonic, by the way.)
As the first cases emerged in my rather remote rural county, that same health department (which has been, IMHO, a sterling example of competent public service) released only the sketchiest of information about where and how people were getting sick—fully HIPAA compliant.
Most of what I knew about who had come down with the virus came from personal relationships and gossip. There were cases all around me, per HD statistics, in my rural zip code, but I didn’t know who—and the first ugly anti-mask scuffles had cropped up in front of the grocery mart at the only gas station in town. It’s also the only place to get liquor, so it’s pretty much the town square.
I have a friend whose father died of COVID in the summer of 2020. He was very elderly (and old-school stubborn, refusing to mask or let her shop for him). My friend was his primary caregiver for the last decades of his life; when he died, she included the fact that he’d died of COVID in the newspaper obituary.
Doing so set off a family firestorm. Her older siblings were furious—how he died was nobody’s business! He had lived in this area all his life—why shame him? Just say that he went to be with his Lord and Savior, yada yada.
I don’t get that.
At that point, we had already experienced the rolling failures of the Trump administration—the obfuscation and misinformation, the easily refuted faux-optimistic proclamations, the refusal to mask, the scarf lady’s cringing when Trump suggested that bleach might do the trick, if hydroxychloroquine didn’t.
People who caught COVID-19 hadn’t done anything shameful. They’d been unlucky (and, in his case, vulnerable and a little reckless), but they weren’t bad people. Ironically, his church was the county-wide nexus for local anti-masking protests.
Nothing about catching the virus, it seems to me, needs to be secret. What we know about who is getting sick, and how—and even who died from the coronavirus—is public health information, plain and simple. Not private or classified. And certainly not shameful. Do we look back, 100 years later, on the mostly young and healthy victims of the 1918 flu pandemic as anything other than unfortunate?
It’s this cognitive dissonance that intrigues me. What kind of people deny the very real existence of a deadly virus, willingly endangering others? Why wasn’t the emergence of the pandemic a 9/11 moment, a chance for us all to pull together as other nations did? Letting everyone know when you were infected, and when you were cleared—so they could help you, and you could help them, later? How did ‘I’ll pray for you’ morph into ‘pretend you’re not sick?’
Friends teach in a building where over half of the children were absent for several days running in November. Interviewed for the local news, the superintendent claimed that yes, indeed, there were over two hundred children out sick. However, their (here it comes) ‘research’ showed that almost none of the students who were ill contracted it at school, even though there was no mask mandate. This is a patently ridiculous statement, but people seemed to accept it.
I realize that thousands of articles and blogs have been written about America, Selfish Nation—and worse. In spite of President Biden’s attempts to be a good global citizen, our problems are now spilling over borders:
When you live next to a junkie, you can expect something flaming to land in your backyard eventually. America is a political-anger junkie; the trucker convoy is something flaming that has landed in our backyard.
I just finished There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill. (Read this book. Right now.) Hill deftly ties our national response to the corona virus to something much greater than mere mismanagement—many nations have veered from good to unhelpful decisions and policies while anxiously dealing with a brand-new virus. But in the home of the brave:
Trump played personal and polarizing politics, rather than made policy. Not only the livelihoods but the lives of Americans were at stake. We needed to get our house, America, in order, not just fixate on which man was in the ‘people’s house.’
National unity and purpose, facing a common enemy, have been sacrificed in order for one side to ‘win.’ It’s demoralizing.
I’m hoping my follow-up test tomorrow will be negative. And I’m sharing the news—I got COVID, somewhere—because I want my cautious, civic-minded friends to know that being triple-jabbed means that a positive test isn’t necessarily scary. It hasn’t been fun, being sick, but knowing I wasn’t going to die, thanks to science, and that my local public health officials were tracking me helped immensely.
The first time I was called on the carpet by a parent for something I taught was in my first year of teaching. In the 1970s. The fact that I remember it so clearly, decades later, is significant.
Here’s what happened: I was teaching my sixth grade general music classes about song parodies. We didn’t fret much, in those days, about standards, benchmarks or learning goals, but I actually had some.
I wanted my students to understand how one tune could carry multiple sets of lyrics—that they were two separate things, and the character and tempo of the tune should match the words, ideally. The tunes, written on the board (this was in the days of pre-lined music chalkboards), would illustrate new rhythmic figures. And writing their own words would be an exercise in creativity for the students.
This was before Weird Al, but I encouraged them to use popular songs, and adapt the words. They worked in little teams, then shared what they’d come up with. A group of boys used the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, substituting Santa for Maxwell (it was December). Of course, the class thought this was hilarious: Bang, bang, Santa’s silver hammer came down on her head… (and made sure she was dead).
I can’t remember, exactly, how I responded to the boys’ warbling this song. But the next afternoon, I was called to the principal’s office. A mother had called, all upset about what I was teaching my sixth graders—something about Santa being a killer? Surely, that couldn’t be right. Could it?
Do you want me to handle this? he asked. (Props to him.) He thought it would be better for me to talk to the mom but was willing to run interference. I’d been a music teacher for all of four months, and it was tempting to avoid that conversation, but I told him I’d call her back tomorrow.
Which was good. It gave me an evening to run through the gamut of emotions. Defensiveness. (I didn’t know what the boys were going to sing!) Scorn. (Shouldn’t a sixth grader be a little tougher? Even with a helicopter mom?) Fear. (What if the mom took this higher than the principal—could I be formally reprimanded? Did she have friends on the school board?)
The next day I called her back and essentially fell on my sword. I explained what I was trying to teach, and how the lesson got away from me. I skipped the defensiveness, scorn and fear. She explained that her daughter still believed in Santa Claus and came home devastated and sobbing when those awful boys thought it was funny for Santa—the real Santa—to be so unfairly portrayed. She talked about Santa as the embodiment of fun and joy and childhood.
I did some private eye-rolling, but I apologized, and promised to have a chat with the class the next time I saw them and enlighten them about inappropriate lyrics. She said she felt much better after speaking to me. And—here’s the important part—I had three more children from that family in the music program over the years, with good relationships all around.
When I told the principal about our conversation, he pointed out that sixth grade, the first year of middle school, is scary for sheltering parents. They fear their children’s maturation, often wanting one more year of childhood, to stop the adolescence train from its inevitable arrival. He complimented me on handling it professionally. (He really was a great principal.)
Since that day, I’ve had hundreds of difficult conversations with parents. But very few of them were about what I was teaching—the learning goals, teaching materials, class discussions and curriculum. For more than a dozen years, I took more than 100 8th graders on overnight trips—to see musicals and orchestras, to play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There were risks in that—but also great rewards.
I also wove what you might call controversial topics into my lessons. The ethical dilemmas of downloading ‘free’ music in the days of Napster, for example (when I knew full well that there was illicit downloading going on in many of their homes). The Black roots of American popular music, and our shameful treatment of some of our most influential artists, including theft of their genius. I did a mock trial around sexism in rock music.
My school was 98% white and very middle class, with lots of stay-at-home moms, in a ruby red county. I was able to do this because I built up trust in the community over time. I told parents, at Back to School night in September, what I was planning and why—the broad outlines, anyway.
I say all this not to congratulate myself on being a model, DEI-friendly teacher. I’m telling you that most of what is happening at school board meetings right now, and all of the proposed legislation to insert parent surveillance into instruction, comes from a very different source than helicopter parenting. It’s a gross political calculation, with ugly threats and outright falsehoods upping the ante.
It springs from defensiveness and scorn—I’m entitled to have control over my children’s beliefs, not some left-wing, bottom of the barrel teacher’s BS! But mostly, it’s about fear. That fear was nurtured in concert with four years of terror over and lies about losing political power–plus racial, sexual and xenophobic animus.
Curriculum approved by the district for each school operated by the district.
Each class offered to pupils of the district as part of the curriculum.
A list of each certificated teacher or other individual authorized under state law to teach in this state who is charged with implementing the curriculum.
I cannot imagine any public school district in the United States that couldn’t provide that information in about 20 minutes, unless they were operating in utter chaos, in which case they have bigger problems than answering parents’ (legitimate) questions about what their kids are learning.
Here’s where it gets a little dicey—and insulting. The law also mandates the sharing of:
Textbooks, literature, research projects, writing assignments and field trips that are part of the curriculum.
Extracurricular activities being implemented during designated school hours or under the authority of the school.
And there’s a walloping big threat tucked in:
School districts that don’t comply would lose 5 percent of state funding.
Teachers all over the country have been exclaiming how just how nuts this ultimatum is. Good teachers identify student needs and base their lesson plans on what logically comes next, for the kids in front of them. And often, a great lesson opportunity, something not in the formal curriculum, emerges unexpectedly. Teachers know this as the teachable moment.
Here’s an example of that: I was teaching a 7th grade math class and we had just finished a unit on ratios and percentages. We did pages of calculation, and had a culminating test, but I wasn’t convinced the students knew the utility of ratios and percentages in adult life. I was reading the Sunday Detroit Free Press and there was a four-page feature article on changing housing prices and mortgage rates, with lots of tables and graphs. Eureka.
This was before the days when students had their own devices, so I copied and pasted parts of the article into a packet, and we dug into the costs and financing of homes. The first thing that happened was the shock of a bunch of 12 year-olds learning that their homes probably cost more than $100K, which seemed like a fortune to them. We calculated down payments for the homes they chose from pictures in the article, and monthly payments using different mortgage rates. It was actually fun.
It was basic math, the kind of thing parents always say that they want: practical finance. Would they still say that, today? Would there be a parent who found a lesson like this intrusive, giving students information about the comparative value of homes in disparate neighborhoods—or predatory lending? And would they be able to shut this lesson down, for all the students?
The ‘extracurricular’ reference likely refers to clubs and activities where there is less oversight— like the drama club, school newspaper, or the Gay-Straight Alliance, things that make school rewarding, even bearable, for many students.
Here’s the key thing, though. It is exceptionally difficult to predict or control what gets said and done in schools, even with an ironclad curriculum, because the school staff aren’t the only ones talking. The kids are talking, too. My lesson on song parodies didn’t go awry because of anything I did or said. And ask any kindergarten teacher how much they hear about what goes on in their students’ homes.
There’s lots of transparency in schools—they’re among the most transparent and accountable public institutions on the planet. And that’s a good thing.
Remember the early days of No Child Left Behind? When everyone was trying to figure out precisely who was a ‘highly qualified’ teacher, under federal regulations?
Here is a sample state document—15 pages’ worth—of the required coursework, majors and minors, certifications, licensure tests and ongoing professional development credits that a classroom teacher needed to be deemed highly qualified, under NCLB. Your mileage, in other states, may vary—but not much. The feds were all about making sure the most capable and knowledgeable folks were in front of our public school classrooms.
Or so they said.
At the time, the education community protested: WE should be the ones to determine whether someone (a certified someone, with a college degree, of course) is qualified to teach X! We have seen that person in action!
But federal guidelines, and states that rolled over for them, caused havoc in public schools across the country. In my middle school, it meant that a beloved veteran– but elementary-certified–8th grade English teacher found himself teaching 3rd grade, one of many personnel shuffles.
Teachers with advanced degrees went back to take courses they could have taught themselves. Rural districts, where one Science teacher covered Biology, Earth Science, and Chemistry and Physics in alternate years, found themselves with a host of ‘unqualified’ teachers who’d been on the job, doing yeoman work, for years.
An avalanche of irritated hoop-jumping ensued. So that all teachers could be highly qualified. Professional. Experts in their fields. On paper, anyway.
But chronic substitute shortages have been around (poorly-paid canaries in the teacher preparation coalmine) for decades. I spent three full (non-consecutive) years of my life substitute teaching, in addition to occasional sub gigs as a retired teacher. It usually takes an adult beverage for me to share the details of how those year-long stints came about, but my experience is confirmation that substitute teaching on a day-by-day basis is pretty random.
Some days, the kids are actually moving forward—the teacher has left solid plans and it’s clear that you’re in a place where order is the daily norm. Other days? I once was assigned a 5th grade and arrived to find these plans: ‘Reading—groups. Math—division. Science—rockets.’ That was all—six words. Try to imagine a well-meaning school bus driver-turned-sub attempting to make lemonade out of that for seven hours.
It’s not the substitute teacher pool I’m worried about right now, however. It’s last-ditch moves (after more than a decade of warnings) to fix the leaky teacher pipeline during a pandemic that are really scary. Worth pointing out: if there were ample trained teachers available to work, and acceptable conditions for them (including compensation), the substitute problem would shrink and vanish.
But first, teaching, as a career, must be reconceptualized. We’re rapidly moving in the wrong direction on that score.
It is entirely possible to create an effective and enthusiastic teacher workforce, state by state. It would take time, money and research-based pedagogical expertise, but we, too, could have a uniformly professional teacher pool. State and school-based leaders have proposed viable plans to begin doing just that.
We could also find alternative ways to bring job-changers and other school staff into the classroom, by dedicating real money and programming into mentoring, on-the-job professional learning, and skill/content development for those who want a longer-term career in teaching.
What doesn’t help is uninformed legislation to get highly UNqualified teachers into schools right away—and highly publicized hand-wringing over the pandemic-driven ‘crisis’ of unstaffed classrooms. It’s a crisis, all right, but it’s a temporary crisis (and one produced by bad education policies over time, more than COVID).
The bill differentiates these aspiring teachers from “student teachers.” The uncertified teachers allowed under the new bill would be paid for their work, and, unlike when working as a student teacher, the bill would allow them to teach completely on their own, without a mentor present in the room.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R) (ironically, a former art teacher) said this:
“We’re at the point where we’re voting to put anyone with a pulse and breathing in a classroom to sub. We need to do something.”
Well, yeah. We needed to do something decades ago, but we followed our usual ‘starve public education’ modus operandi, and it caught up with us during an unanticipated public health crisis. So now we’re hoping ‘aspiring’ 19 year-olds will bail us out?
Bad policy on top of bad policy.
But this feels like more than another dumb idea from a Republican legislator (the MI Department of Ed, the teachers’ unions, universities and Democrats are all adamantly opposed, by the way). It feels like just another strategy to weaken and compromise public education by further de-professionalizing teaching.
The news, it seems, is dreadful: ‘Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.’
I find this interesting, as a musician and sometime music scholar. I spent many years doing lessons with my middle school and high school musicians, pointing out that centuries went by with human beings presumably making music that we can only guess about now—and lots more centuries went by where we have written scores, but no audio confirmation of what folks were listening to.
Commercial radio has been around for about 100 years, accompanied by lots of argument about the best and highest uses of broadcasting. Records—discs, that is, spun at varying speeds and available to the general public—have also been available for about a century.
I am presuming that the ‘old’ music that is slaying new music does not include that vast sweep of music-making prior to the 20th century, even though it’s a pretty large, um, catalog. Also—and this is a simple math problem—doesn’t the growing body of archived music necessitate that newly created music will represent a smaller portion of the whole?
In other words, while I am a strong supporter of music creation, I don’t think the popularity of old music (defined as something released more than 18 months ago) threatens the human compulsion to generate new music. I think it means that music is that rare thing—something that can be experienced repeatedly without growing old or worn out.
This blog was inspired by two things I ran across lately: A thread on Anne Helen Petersen’s Substack, Culture Study which asked readers to name a ‘perfect’ album. And a post from my friend Bill Iveywherein he suggests his readers ‘create a playlist/compilation album that would be your autobiography through song.’
This is the kind of thing I love to do—I keep a folder on my computer entitled My Songs where I dump recordings that move me, and notes about music that I want to hear again, and again. It’s a mixed bag, pages and pages long, going all the way back to medieval chant, the first stuff that was written down. It’s comfort food for my inner life.
And lately, I have needed some comfort. My husband and I lost a good, good friend a couple of days ago and I needed to wallow in the (old) music that has been the soundtrack of all my life events and friendships.
As I was listening, rambling through the list, simultaneously wiping my eyes and laughing at shared memories, I thought that this might be that autobiographical playlist. Heavy on the sad and the spiritual (not religious, but metaphysical). But also about love. Which never gets old.
Hark now, hear the sailors cry Smell the sea and feel the sky Let your soul and spirit fly Into the mystic
I played this once, on my flute, for a funeral—but it’s not about the tune, which is kind of pedestrian. It’s about the words and it’s about Van Morrison. I know Van has been a jerk lately, but his gypsy soul is still present in his music.
You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide You know just where I keep my better side
A song about love and need and fractured relationships that is both tender and ineffably sad; a once-good thing gone bad. I listened to a half-dozen covers (The Corrs, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss), but settle, always, on Linda Thompson’s pleading original.
When you fall in, baptized of all your sins Oh we all take a swim on the River Jordan From what I understand they say the promised land is on the banks of the River Jordan And I must agree I’ve never felt so free As you, me, the river and the morning
May Erlewine is a northern Michigan singer with a broad range of vocal styles and great songwriting chops. This is one of her older songs, often requested—but that hasn’t stopped her from writing many more and exploring new musical turf. So there.
Of all the money that e’er I had I spent it in good company And all the harm I’ve ever done Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit To memory now I can’t recall So fill to me the parting glass Good night and joy be to you all
This one dates back to the 17th century. I played this at another funeral (there should always be music at a memorial service). The local Ancient Order of the Hibernians were there to sing, and needed a pennywhistle to keep them ‘on the tune.’ I came into their rehearsal room to run through it—a large group of men in green sport coats and ties. I introduced myself–I’m Nancy Flanagan—and their leader said ‘Sure you are…’ and they all laughed.
Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me I want you to know I believe in your song And rhythm and rhyme and harmony You’ve helped me along Makin’ me strong
Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
When I die, this is the song I want played at the funeral. (I want a funeral. Not everyone does.)
In My Life(Sara Niemietz, vocals; W.G. Snuffy Walden, guitar/Lennon & McCartney)
There are places I’ll remember All my life, though some have changed Some forever, not for better Some have gone and some remain All these places have their moments With lovers and friends I still can recall Some are dead and some are living In my life, I’ve loved them all
Everyone knows the Beatles version. I picked this one to highlight the way a great, subtle guitar sketches the harmonies, which are the soul of this otherwise simple tune. The vocalist is superb, too.
It seems like everywhere I go The more I see, the less I know But I know one thing–that I love you I love you, I love you, I love you
I saw Michael Franti play in Grand Rapids and it was more like a religious experience than a concert. He came out with members of the band as we were waiting in lines in the hot parking lot, holding lawn chairs, and entertained us.
One love, one heart Let’s get together and feel all right Hear the children crying (one love) Hear the children crying (one heart) Sayin’ “Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right” Sayin’ “Let’s get together and feel all right”
It would be hard to pick a single Bob Marley song, but this recording (at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, with a beautifully diverse crowd singing their hearts out) never fails to move me.
I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.
Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.
Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.
I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.
#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.
Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:
A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
Difference between standards and curriculum
Research-based value of recess and exercise
Differentiation vs. tracking
What quality teaching looks like in practice
The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.
And on and on.
#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.
#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.
#4.Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.
#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.
#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?
#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.
#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.
Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.
#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.
#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
From the perspective of 2022: Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.
Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.
Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.
I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.
I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.As Peter Greene notes: It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough.
I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.
It’s also likely this was just one of So Many Stories about Trump’s desperate behavior, post-election, that it has been eclipsed in the national memory, but on November 20, 2020, lots of Michiganders were pretty sure that Shirkey and Chatfield weren’t sitting in the hotel bar discussing truth and justice.
So–the former MI Speaker, Lee Chatfield, has found himself in a bit of a pickle lately.
Chatfield became Speaker of the House at age 30, and was term-limited out in 2020. He is now 33. He is married to his HS sweetheart, with five children. He claims his relationship with the victim (which began when she was 14 or 15) was ‘consensual.’ In MI, the age of consent is 16—18 if the older person is an educator.
Lots of hand-wringing by his fellow Repubs, of course. And disgust from people who have always perceived Chatfield as a hard-right lightweight, not worthy of the responsibility of making policy for almost 10 million citizens in Michigan.
What interests me in this story, however, is not the salacious details (and there are way more than the summary, above). It’s the fact that Chatfield was– it pains me to say this—a teacher. Not in any sense a conventional teacher (certified, licensed, prepared, ethical)– but a teacher nonetheless (and, every story reminds us, also a coach and the Athletic Director).
In fact, Lee Chatfield is kind of the poster child for why we have laws in education—why public schools must have elected boards, qualified and vetted staff, new-teacher mentoring and supervision, ongoing professional learning, teacher evaluation, and so on.
Chatfield’s district is not far from where I live—and I know that a small K-12 Christian school in the rural woods of northern Michigan might be appealing to parents looking for ‘choice’ and made fearful by the media-fed blabber about how their white children would be made to feel guilty in public schools.
They wouldn’t be terribly concerned about vetting the teachers—they’re Christians, right?—or investigating the curriculum.
(In fact, even though we had a curriculum night every year, wherever I was teaching, parents seldom struck me as being deeply concerned about finer point of disciplinary benchmarks and content outlines. They came to see the face and hear the voice of the person in front of the classroom. Which makes the whole anti-CRT crapola inexplicable, except as a politically motivated and funded scam.)
Sometimes, the person in front of the classroom is an entitled, over-confident predator.
There are plenty of lessons for policy-makers here, ironically, beginning with a reminder that almost everything we do in public education is controlled by well-worn laws and policies.
Genuinely ethical practice protects and nurtures children. And he who makes his own rules can’t be trusted.
Four days ago, I wrote a Blog of Despair—all about the forthcoming demise (or destruction, take your pick) of America’s best idea: public education. I’m not backing down from that conviction; I think the more or less permanent downfall of public schooling is inescapable, unless there are major, sudden shifts in public and political opinion.
One of my former students, now a mother with two school-aged boys, commented on the blog: If we could start over and build education from scratch, what would it look like?
First—I have to admit that I’m proud of Kendra for asking the kind of question that doctoral students at research universities have been noodling over (without transformational results) since forever.
While there are optimistic legislative packages and snazzy new tools, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. The idea of starting from scratch lies under most reform—charter schools were originally touted as a way to get rid of red tape and innovate. (Pause for cynical laughter.)
The thing is: transformational change involves determination and investment. It’s uncomfortable, expensive—and it takes time. Most change in public schools is driven by forces—financial, technical, social—outside of education. We’re not very visionary or intentional about education.
Education policy thinkers tend to be Stephen Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.
But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but over two decades of No Child, in various incarnations, have come and gone– and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve education in any meaningful way.
I have been a teacher in five distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations. But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?
My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Five Decades of American Education:
The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview.
Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no instructional oversight, no mandated materials and nothing resembling “professional development.”
Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got. Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away.
I was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.
Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, and very autonomous job. Most days, it was lots of fun.
The Eighties: Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.
Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, a popular cafeteria-style ed specialty (like Career Ed, Distance Learning, etc.). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers in other districts. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations.
None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough time, staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.
Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables was nauseating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.
The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 are kind of inane–First in the world in math and science! –but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and the belief that public education can and should improve.
Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever!
Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. There are national standards and benchmarks in most subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days, although the quality is still iffy.
Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.
Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.
The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke. All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!
Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.
We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.
Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts were shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.
The Twenty-Tens: The decade begins with the depressing realization that the Obama administration has fully bought into the privatizing, standardizing “accountability” movement, where no child can go untested. There are tweaks to NCLB, but the idea that we can accurately measure teaching/learning excellence through data becomes embedded wisdom. Federal policy demands grow—and competitive financial incentives are dangled in front of states to meet questionable regulatory goals that do little to innovate or improve schools.
The Common Core State (sic) Standards are launched, adopted, fleshed out with assessments and aligned instructional materials during the first half of the decade. Teachers have lots of complaints, but are knocked down by the big systemic wave of federally-driven homogenization. Mid-decade, however, community pushback against the Common Core strengthens—another silver bullet with no results—and its trajectory rapidly descends. Baby Boomer teachers, like me, the core of the profession (for better and worse), leave the field; the conventional teacher pipeline begins to dry up, along with the concept of teacher professionalism.
Now retired, I visit classrooms every week, as substitute, volunteer, special instructor or teacher coach. Every school I visit still looks and feels familiar—the crowded hallways, the marginal hot-lunch pizza, the goofy Things Kids Say. Things have changed since the 1970s, and not for the better, but school is still school.
And then, there’s an election.
The day after the 2016 election, a group of middle schoolers in Royal Oak, Michigan is videotaped shouting ‘Build That Wall!’ to a cluster of Hispanic kids, in the lunchroom. Four years of destroying useful education policy and practice ensue, led by a cartoonishly incompetent Education Secretary and newly emboldened, racist policy-makers. Things in public education go from bad to So Much Worse.
And then came the pandemic.
In April of 2020, I wrote a wildly optimistic blog titled A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic. I mention this, because I have often, like Kendra, asked myself how I would change public education, if I could start from scratch. I genuinely believed that a pandemic could serve as a cleared slate, a turning point, for our social institutions. Maybe it’s too early to give up on that idea—a reclamation of public education’s mission—but I’m not optimistic.
I would sketch the last 50 years of public education as a bobbling, but slowly rising curve through the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a downturn at Y2K, falling gradually until the last five years, after which the line plummets due south, rapidly. Way south.
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice
There is no more local-politics issue than public education.
From Mom gossip about teachers, watching Little Leaguers play, to intense competition for valedictory honors with all the teenaged strivers loading up on useless AP credits—any community’s buzz continually includes trash-talking the local public schools.
My first political activity, in fact, was phone-banking against a voucher initiative in MI in 1978 (it went down, 3 to 1—like two subsequent voucher proposals). The first time I went to a heated school board meeting, to defend my district’s well-designed sex education curriculum, was even earlier.
Public education has always been under-resourced, contentious and subject to the community it serves. The people who work in public education have always been underpaid, but generally aspire to improve society by helping kids. There are exceptions, of course, but years of history and research bear this out.
You might think I’d be used to this, what with all the banned books, slashed programs (often my own) and vehement parent rhetoric in my personal past. You might think I would be applying the evergreen ‘this too will pass’ theory to what’s happening today, confident that the pendulum will swing, the pandemic angst will fade, and we’ll be back to our highly imperfect normal: public education under siege, but still standing.
It’s taken some time for me to come to this opinion, but I foresee the end of what we currently call public education.
It’s a pretty good piece, featuring an array of teachers and curricular experts discussing the difficulties of teaching current events on the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, after the nation and the Republican party has had a year to, you know, just get over it.
There are brave teachers in MA and MT who are planning to show news videos and discuss the root causes and eventual outcomes. But there’s also a special ed teacher (and regional chapter chair of Moms for Liberty) in Indiana, who’s sticking to math and English, in an effort to be ‘unbiased.’
Unbiased against what? Protecting the rights of camo-clad faux-military marauders to despoil the U.S. Capitol and threaten the lives of Members of Congress? Not willing to sway student thinking about the peaceful transfer of power? Trying to stay neutral on the topic of domestic terrorism?
The story ends with a quote from a middle school teacher, Dylan Huiskan: Not addressing the attack is to suggest that the civic ideals we teach exist in a vacuum and don’t have any real-world application, that civic knowledge is mere trivia.
Veteran public school teachers like me have spent decades developing real-world content discipline applications for our students. We have fought against sterile data-driven education, the relentless pursuit of test scores, the pushing Science and Social Studies and the Arts out of the curriculum. We’ve been trying to DE-trivialize education, professionalizing our own work in the process.
But now we’ve got teachers who think their colleagues are indoctrinating students, by showing them actual live news footage, or discussing an event that happened within their short memory and has huge impact on their own futures as American citizens.
Once, years ago, I wrote a blog using the phrase ‘data Nazis’ and a friend I respect, and trust, chastised me. Use logic and facts, he said. You weaken your arguments when you oversell and hype the danger.
Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.
On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.
Is that overkill? Unclear.
But if it’s not—what are our weapons against losing genuinely public education?
For the last decade, I’ve set a goal of reading (at least) 100 books per year. I have accomplished that goal nine out of ten years (missing the boat only 2017, when I clocked in at 97).
I started logging my reading in 2012 with a goal of 135 books a year, mostly because my friend Claudia Swisher was reading 135 books a year. I, however, am no Claudia Swisher—more’s the pity—and have had to convince myself that two books per week, with the elasticity of a nice, round-number goal is Good Enough.
But I have my doubts about that statistic. Not that people aren’t reading—they are, probably more than ever. They’re increasingly sharing their thoughts about their on-line reading, as well. Books, not so much.
The whole ‘Do Your Own Research’schtick is based on reading. The January 6th Insurrection was organized via social-media reading and writing. Spelling, no—but being a good speller is usually the result of doing lots and lots of reading (of correctly spelled and reasonably accurate text, of course).
These are my five-star, recommended reads from the 110 novels and non-fiction titles I read in 2021. Eight fiction, six non-fiction. Fiction first, plus a disclaimer that I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and five-star my favorites, even if they’re not (ahem) literature.
Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr)It’s a difficult book to get into–and it’s long. You have to have faith that there will be an emotional payoff; it took maybe 100 pages before I started to feel like I was living in five stories simultaneously. There are moments in the book that are shattering–and poignant, and meticulously written (like the scenes during the Korean War, or the building of a cannon before the siege of Constantinople). And again, and again, the book makes us understand the terrible times we live in–that there’s essentially nothing new under the sun, just stories and human foibles.
Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone (Diana Gabaldon)I am a major Gabaldon fan—the only series that I regularly re-read—and it’s been more than seven years since her last ‘Outlander’ book. If you have only seen the TV show (which I also like, but feels pale next to Gabaldon’s writing and sense of time and history), you owe it to yourself to start with ‘Outlander’ (the weakest book in the series) and hang out with Jamie and Claire for a few decades, through the whole saga of nine. It’s a hard book to review (so much has Gone Before), but the book (all 888 pages) is loaded with small and lovely vignettes.
Early Morning Riser (Katherine Heiny) Jane, the protagonist is a second-grade teacher in Boyne City, Michigan (about an hour northeast of here) and all the local details ring absolutely true. The plot kind of meanders around, but every single one of the characters is uniquely drawn and…interesting. And the writing is spectacularly good, ranging from wise through long stretches of amusing with bolts of flat-out hilarious. Heiny gets school teaching (something authors frequently mischaracterize) absolutely right. She also gets love and marriage and life right.
Like all of Krueger’s books– his two standalones were also written from the POV of a boy–it’s easy to appreciate his flair for realistic dialogue. I spent 30 years teaching middle school boys, and Krueger gets their boy-boy smack-chatter just right. There’s one scene, in the last 25 pages of the book, of three boys sitting around a campfire, that feels like the dialogue from the movie ‘Stand By Me,’ which was adapted from a Stephen King story–half goofy, half profound. The book touches lots of subjects, especially growing up and understanding the world. It’s a well-written gem.
Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell)Shakespeare is a very flawed husband, in this fictional account, and his creative, intuitive but illiterate wife is the one with strength of character, grounded in her village and close-to-nature way of life. The most wrenching parts of the book, however, are the life/death rhythms of living in the time of plague, the fragility of life. They make the book both beautiful and heart-breaking.
Firekeeper’s Daughter (Angeline Boulley)I live in Michigan, have been on Sugar Island, know the U.P. territory (rural poverty) and trust that Boulley has the language and setting and events right. Her desire, which took years to reach, was writing a book from the POV of an enrolled Tribal member, for teenagers. It seems right to me. Boulley shares the tensions between Native Americans and white people, and Daunis’s enrollment, in a way that feels authentic to me.
The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)The book is about reversing changes to the biosphere and what happens if we don’t, so it’s a book about all of the lives of all of the people on the planet. It is wide-ranging, covering economic systems, political systems, technologies, crypto-currency and carbon sequestration, the internet and terrorism, just for starters. As soon as I started reading it, I looked at the world and the United States differently.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab)When you boil away all the historical references and characters (which I liked, a lot) and the romance, the story is one more Faustian fable–the devil cuts a deal and lets yet another clueless human live the life of what she believes are her dreams–with the moral being that nobody outsmarts the devil. Maybe. The story ends in a way I didn’t expect, but tilts the playing field and left me smiling, because Addie uses the oldest tricks (word chosen deliberately) in the book. NON-FICTION: Two titles about racism (and a third that illustrates why white people have a great deal to answer for and understand); Two titles about sexism (and a third that loops in historic sexism around the topic of adoption).
“Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today.”
American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption (Gabrielle Glaser)There’s a lot of good information in the book–and things I’ve not put together, like the money-making aspect of the adoption industry and why their ‘evidence-based’ policies were created. But what makes the book memorable is Glaser’s case study, woven through the facts and figures. The end of the book, while sad, is also powerfully hopeful. As an adoptive parent, I’ve read lots of books about adoption. This is one of the very best.
Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (Kate Manne)I would estimate that 75% of the facts, cases and statistics in the book were things I’d read before, but even if the book were a mere pastiche of Famous Misogynistic Stories, it would be useful, just to see all the evidence in one place. It’s more than that, however. I really appreciated Manne’s perspective on Elizabeth Warren: she was undeniably the most community-building, smart plan-crafting candidate for president, and why because of (not in spite of) that, she failed.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (Heather McGhee)This may well be–like “Caste” in 2020–the best book of 2021, the book that helps white people understand how centuries of racist policy have hamstrung ALL of us (not just people of color) and made our world poorer and weaker. And it’s based on a nationwide array of examples of just how racist policy has not only left a legacy of inequity, but continues to shape our thinking and our prospects and opportunities.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Robin Wall Kimmerer)Kimmerer is a lively writer, who weaves stories around data, and honors her Native ancestry and beliefs. I took lots of ideas away from the book, beginning with the fact that indigenous people lived in harmony with the earth for eons longer than the white people who make fun of their ‘primitive’ culture. It’s a book to make you re-think everything you believed about ritual and religion, fear of dying, the morality of climate change, even living through a pandemic.
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo) A sober and research-based work, covering a disparate set of topics–politics, sports, education, media and women in the workplace. Oluo’s observations are intersectional in nature, demonstrating how things that seem ‘natural’–things ranging from salaries, power structures, health and welfare–appear that way because policies have been designed to keep them that way. By white men.
So here we are, at our local schools, trying to stay afloat, with daily crises incoming.
The adults who are still bravely teaching, teaching, teaching (+ making administrative and child welfare decisions) in spite of the fact that the world seems to be on fire around them, need help. Don’t take my word—just read pretty much any educator-written blog from 2021.
When we have massive social problems, how do we generate and roll out solutions?
The answer is: Policy.
Policy is how we mounted a successful response before, during and after World Wars, developed and refined sequential national transportation and communication systems, and came back from significant economic depressions. We can point to any number of policy-driven transformations in these United States.
Once policy is put in place, and implemented, we can see its real-world effects. Optimally, the policy will be tweaked until it does what it’s supposed to do: solve the problem. Or at least move things in the right direction.
Yes, it’s infinitely more complex than that—designing good policy is way more than guesswork and a good feeling about how to fix the trouble. And yes, policies sometimes make things worse. Way worse.
I would argue that public education is one area where terrible policy is now endemic—and sometimes, after clear failure, overlaid with even worse policy. The sheer dispersal of decision-making responsibility is part of the reason. There are legislative levels—federal/state/local—and a whole array of other organizations (the PTA) and people (the Athletic Director, the Union president) who have policy-making roles, assigned as well as assumed.
In fact, it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.
Lately, this wrong-policy trend in education has been on steroids—both the frightening gravity of the problems as well as the foolish, even ludicrous suggestions to address them.
PROBLEM: Student scores on standardized tests remain stagnant, or go down
WRONG SOLUTION:Fix the teachers, through rigorous evaluation of their behaviors and ‘success,’ including those same test scores. If this solution feels convoluted—well, the idea that a mountain of data could serve as a spur to improve practice has never worked particularly well, anywhere. It’s a data-focused non-problem, with a data-focused solution, neither of which matter much, in the real outcomes we want from public education.
PROBLEM: As COVID numbers rise, merely coming to school is stressful. Widespread absences and anxiety.
WRONG SOLUTION:Adding more half-days to the school schedule. This one started out on the right track—less time exposed to unvaccinated children, pre-planned time away from face-to-face learning. But, as most districts have learned, asking for Wednesday afternoons off is not likely to endear you to parents, who have pushed for full-time school in a pandemic, because they need to work. Less time in school and more technology-focused interaction is probably where we’re headed anyway, like it or not. Four-day weeks. Virtual conferencing. On-line lessons. The new normal. But let’s not worsen the child care crisis in the process.
Where should policy-creators get their ideas about solving big problems?
Because we are living in a completely different world now than we were two years ago, we should look first at the proposed solutions from people who are up close and personal with the problem. The people who are still, in spite of the danger and frustration, willing to be public school educators.
One last thing, for those who would like to tailor solutions to ‘the marketplace’ rather than the common good: Problems in public education are also problems in private and quasi-private (read: charter) schools. School violence, student mental health, the empty teacher pipeline, lack of resources—they’re apparent across the country, in all kinds of schools.
I got a heart-tugging message from a friend who is Principal in a small Catholic elementary school on the border of Detroit, a couple days after the shooting in Oxford. Local police had alerted her to threats that were ‘terrorist in nature,’ suggesting the school close down. But in consultation with her staff, they thought students (who had lost many relatives and caregivers over the past year) would be safer in school.
She said it was a fairly normal day, although she couldn’t wait for the dismissal bell. Then, she went home and threw up.
I am so done with all of this. My job is no longer one of an educational leader. I am an emergency manager around pandemic, school safety, bad weather conditions that flood our school or knock the boiler out… It is rare, very rare to have anything to do with education. I want to return to overseas international schools where the innocence has not been stolen from children. What we have here in the USA is worse than when I fled Sudan due to a revolution. I could understand a revolution. This I do not understand.
I waited for the headlines, and here they came: Oxford School District Likely to Be Sued Over Shootings. Further tart media observations: What does it take to get suspended from Oxford High or searched after violent scribbles? And: Red flags the superintendent blandly describes as “concerning drawings and written statements” that alarmed his teacher.
If I were only seeing these remarks on right-leaning media (where public schools are all presumed to be guilty of So Many Things—including blandness), I wouldn’t be surprised.
But I’m also seeing remarks trying to pinpoint blame for this shooting posted on teacher/education/lefty sites—by teachers blaming weak-on-discipline administrators, university professors going after mush-mouthed PR-driven superintendents, and school leaders saying their hands are legally tied, when it comes to searching backpacks and booting kids out of a public school without due process.
I’ve read perhaps a dozen lengthy descriptions of what happened, including a detailed timeline provided by the district superintendent, who keeps stressing that the Oxford Schools want to be transparent.
And frankly, my take-away—this is incredibly sad—is that school folks did what they reasonably should have in this instance, and that nothing will cause real change (including metal detectors, more school resource officers, tripling the number of guidance counselors and requiring clear plastic backpacks), until there is a national, minds-and-hearts shift. Gun control, yes, but also a different political ecology.
There’s a whole complex of reasons why American students are surrounded each and every day by allowed, even encouraged, violence.
I was a classroom teacher for more than 32 years, most in the same district, all but one year in secondary schools. I have had students who committed grisly murders. I have students who are currently in prison for major crimes (including one dude who scratched an epithet into a brand-new tuba when he was in the 7th grade). I had kids who sold weed and pharmeceuticals. A handful of my former students took their own lives, or the lives of others, in various ways. One of my students burned down his own house. On purpose.
Each and every one of these students was white, and attended school in a small-town-values kind of place.
Sometimes, there are obvious signs. Sometimes, not. Some kids grow up and out of their worst behavior. Others, who appear to be quiet or moody, turn out to be capable of unspeakable actions. Contrary to what some believe, there is no infallible ‘check for mental health’ procedure.
The worst-behaved student I ever had—a daily pain in the ass who disrupted the entire school building with his rambunctious and hostile behavior —is now a multi-million dollar real estate salesman.
Many years ago, a HS student in a nearby district brought a gun to school, and showed it to a friend. This was in the zero tolerance/punk prisons era—and he was expelled and sent to Juvie. It was in the local newspapers. Because he was a minor, his name was never printed.
A month or two later, I got a new student in the HS band, a tenor sax player. I asked where he went to school previously, and he told me: the next district over. He was a good player, and quickly made friends. The more I got to know him, the more I appreciated his wit, kindness and intelligence. I took him on a band trip to Toronto. He graduated.
Later, of course, the school counselor caught me in the hallway and informed me that he was the kid who brought the gun to school. Thought you should know, she said. You weren’t here when we had the meeting about accepting him.
Social media comments proclaim that any kid who sketched weapons with blood dripping, or penned a self-doom/anti-social message in gothic lettering that caught a teacher’s eye, should be searched immediately then sent home. Pronto.
But–kids draw and paste all kinds of stuff in their notebooks and on their homework—everything from swastikas to oversized anatomical features. Think: video games.
Are we seeing incipient violent tendencies—or teenage boredom? Who gets to judge? The fact is, we don’t generally kick kids out of school for their immature drawings or weird teenage behavior—unless there’s a pattern, over time.
The fact that two teachers reported ‘concerning’ drawings and cell phone use to find ammunition, over the space of a couple of days, means that the adults in school actually were tracking this child. They asked his parents to take him home, and get him immediate counseling. They shared their fears. And the parents refused.
I was struck by one of the superintendent’s remarks—that if they had forced the child out of the building, when the parents refused to take him, the boy would have been home alone. Hanging behind that remark is another fear educators are dealing with during a mental health crisis: What happens when depressed children are home alone, and there are weapons?
I had a student once, a 7th grade girl, who wrote little notes to me, about her feelings of being ugly, a dork, not having friends, and so on. I tried to pay special attention to her, but the language became more frightening– ‘What will they think when I’m gone?’ I took the problem to the school counselor. She asked: Do you think this girl would harm herself, or is she just seeking attention?
I honestly didn’t think she would. I thought she was just lonely. But I still wanted a referral to the counselor, and a parent call. The counselor agreed, but said that parent calls of that nature often didn’t go well. The school might be seen as high-handed and intrusive, telling a family their child had talked about suicide.
Still, she was willing to do it. Because it was the next step. There are protocols for this kind of thing, she said. We follow them.
You’ve probably noticed that there are Moms for Liberty organizations and now, faux legal strategies for parents to demand the rights they already have, popping up like mushrooms, to keep those high-handed, mask-demanding schools in their place, to press forward on incendiary social issues. The climate for productive school-parent conversations (never a given), has been negatively impacted by living through a highly stressful pandemic and its emotional aftermath.
The core resource for well-functioning schools is—and always has been—trust. All good school practice—public/private/rich/poor—hinges on relational trust.
When parents don’t trust schools to have their kids’ best interests at heart, we’re all in trouble. When there is a deliberate push to de-stabilize school boards and overrun safety rules, the trouble gets worse. Without some measure of trust, we can never help the kids who need our help most.
My heart goes out to all the educational staff in the Oxford Schools, working through the worst that can happen in a school community.
Thank you, as the saying goes, for your service. I wish you and your school healing.
It’s been a terrible week for teachers in southeastern Michigan. A terrible week for students and families and school communities as well. Early yesterday morning, school districts—by my count, at least 60, but that was an early tally*—began announcing that out of the proverbial abundance of caution, they were closing down for two days.
They’re not closing due to COVID (although Michigan’s school-based infection rates are ghastly at the moment). They’re shutting down because of spiraling threats of in-school violence, spread on social media.
School leaders are terrified. Not one of them wants to be the next school where an angry, disaffected kid shoots off more than his mouth.
I have dozens of friends who teach near Oxford, site of Tuesday’s massacre in Oakland County, and know many others who have children or grandchildren in the district.
I have been reading their social media threads: First, the reassurance that they’re fine. Then, sharing of how they knew the students who were injured or killed: a friend of their daughter’s, their babysitter, the boy who was in their second grade class, years ago. Sometimes, anger over the words and actions of the shooter’s parents. Photos of the dead, and #OxfordStrong hashtags.
Then, inevitably, the conversation turns to blame. Copies of the two messages of reassurance sent by Oxford school administrators to parents earlier this month—saying hey, we know about these threats and we’re doing something—are shared. There are repeated acknowledgements that the school followed all the recommended safety protocols. So how did this happen?
Two things—true things—are repeated endlessly in these dialogues. The first is that the nation exposed its true values nine years ago after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, choosing unrestricted gun ownership over the lives of children. The second is that we need a greater understanding and focus on mental health. In our schools, of course.
What is often missing from these heart-wrenching discussions is the fact that schools are just like malls and movie theatres and churches and political rallies—stages for playing out what it means to be an American citizen in 2021, our deepest principles and beliefs.
Despite selfless and heroic actions, despite good parenting and good teaching and due diligence on the part of school administrators and counselors—we live in a pretty ugly country right now.
None of this mitigates the reprehensible behavior of this teenager. He is fully responsible for what he did. But it’s worth thinking about the unique context of growing up in America, the people respected as leaders in this nation, the ruthless tactics used to acquire and maintain power and ‘freedom.’
As Eugene Robinson said: I wonder if the people of Oxford, Mich., feel they have more freedom today than they did before Tuesday.
There are kids like [Ethan Crumbley] in high schools around the world. But only in the United States do we enable them to express their teenage angst by bringing guns to school and opening fire on the students, teachers and administrators they see as their tormentors. Only in this country do we make it easier for youths to get their hands on a handgun or an assault rifle than to work up the courage to ask a classmate out on a date.
That leaves us with the broad recommendation that we need more attention to mental health, everyone’s favorite ‘solution’ to the problem of social violence. I always wonder just what people think enhanced mental health services look like, in schools. Who’s in charge? What do they do?
I am a strong believer in school counseling, but anyone who’s worked in a school knows that counselors—if they even exist—are stretched over multiple responsibilities and way too many students.
The urgent, squeaky wheels for counselors are often standardized test administration, scheduling and college applications, not dealing with individual students’ bitterness or rage. If we had ten times as many qualified counselors, it would only be a band-aid on mental health for children. Compared to other nations, we have miles to go.
I would argue that public school teachers in America understand the simple fact that kids can’t learn when they’re anxious, depressed, or hostile. Everyone’s running their own informal, ad hoc SEL program, all the time.
It’s called caring about your students. * Per Bridge Magazine, over 150 school districts in Michigan shut down, as a precaution.
Probably the best, most challenging, book I read in 2021 is The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s not great literature, but it’s an integrated compendium of thinking on how we could save the planet—ecologically, politically, and economically. If that sounds, well, deep—it is. But it’s still fiction and therefore both story and speculation.
Early in the book, Mary, who is chair of The Ministry for the Future (a kind of ongoing fictional offshoot of the actual Paris Accord and COP26) and her most trusted lieutenant are discussing this question:
What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?
A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.
Mary (and, I am assuming, Robinson’s readership) snorts. A religion. Yeah. Right.
We don’t want to accomplish a sustainable planet by means of war. Or experience horrific loss of life due to unchecked disease or heat, because we cannot agree on how to consume less. We don’t want change to be spurred by questionable but charismatic leaders, or by rigid legal control over human rights, or by terrorism.
We want people to see the need, and make changes voluntarily, to understand the rising tide lifting all boats as metaphor, not terrifying reality.
Maybe this can’t be accomplished without a touch of the supernatural. Or at least the communal.
Religion and its varying doctrinal rules and customs have historically been the cause of, not a balm for, conflict. Kind of makes you wonder why parents aren’t mobbing school board meetings demanding that we excise the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition from the study of world history, because they might make Catholic kids feel bad.
This argument, however—we need a new religion to generate commitment to developing environmentally critical beliefs—can’t be easily dismissed by a joke. I am tempted to suggest that the answer lies in education, the systemic study of belief systems and their commonalities—and agreeing that there are some immutable truths and public goods: Justice. Equity. Respect for all life.
The question remains: If we want to sustain life, across the globe, we must work together. How can we do this? If we don’t trust our churches and we don’t trust our public schools, and believe our government is on the wrong track, who will lead us toward a vision of sustainable life on the planet we share?
Beats me. Which is why I keep thinking about a new kind of religion. One without a clearly defined God figure, but anchored by a belief in the power of community and good will.
Churches are closing all over the nation, and have been, for decades. I have been a church musician for most of my life, and worked for churches where people were loving and non-judgmental, as well as deeply conflicted congregations. I have also seen, over and over again, people turn to a church when their lives are falling apart, and find comfort.
Maybe what we need is Kurt Vonnegut’s Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Its two precepts: Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God. If God is not going to help us clean up this beautiful world, maybe we’d better get on it.
My father has been gone from this world for more than forty years. And as adult children are wont to say—there are so many things I should have asked my dad, things I’ll never know.
What’s even more maddening is that much of what I ‘know’ about my dad is likely to be somewhat inaccurate, dependent on faulty memory and well-worn family stories. Still—I am certain that World War II was the experience that made him a man, and left him with some lifelong wounds.
My dad enlisted early in 1942. He was 20 years old, a high school dropout (another long story) who lived at home, contributing to the family income, knocking around his hometown. He was tested and put in what he described as a ‘special group’—men that would be part of the Army’s young Air Corps. Did he want to be part of a new air force, to fly? You betcha.
He was sent to Chicago to train, staying at the Palmer House Hotel. From the time I was a child, I knew that the Palmer House was the most beautiful hotel in the world, because my dad swore it was true. When I first visited the Palmer House, as an adult, I imagined my dad, a first-generation American, walking into the impressively ornate lobby, big-eyed but trying to be cool, like all the other 20-somethings going off to war, still safe but up for adventure.
He trained as a radio gunner, and became part of a combat team that stayed together through most of the war. Well into the 1970s, my mother exchanged Christmas cards with the other members of his flight crew, an annual reaching out to acknowledge their once-intense wartime bond. He was our pilot, a smart guy, my dad would say—and Dick lives in Indianapolis now, what a good guy he was, and this guy, he was a radio gunner, like me.
The crew was assigned to the Pacific theatre, and flew numerous missions in a big, ungainly aircraft where my father was seated in an exposed bubble on the side of the plane. In one intense air battle, their plane was shot down.
All of the crew bailed and survived, floating in rafts, until they were picked up by a submarine. Until the sub surfaced, they couldn’t identify its origin: enemy or ally? It turned out to be an Australian submarine, not the symbolic Japanese rising sun they feared it would be.
There are so many things I don’t know: when this happened and precisely where, for example—or how long they floated on open water before they were rescued, although I know that night fell, at least once. Did they go up again, in the same kind of plane? How many missions did they fly after being shot down? And how do you go up again, after that?
Most of what I know came from things my mother told us, often as an excuse for why my father was so touchy. My dad had a cardboard box of war memorabilia that we weren’t allowed to open—it was taped shut—and he kept his feelings taped shut, too. Most of the time.
When my brother was in high school, he interviewed our father about his wartime experiences for a school assignment. My mother took notes and typed up the paper. (As an older sister, my first response to learning this was: I hope she got a good grade.) When my brother mentioned this, some 35 years later, I was shocked. Dad talked to you about the war?
It turned out that what my brother wanted to know was details about the plane (he knew the exact model and could show me the pictures online), the gun, the radio system, the parachute and rescue gear. The war tools. He said my dad remembered lots of concrete details. My brother didn’t remember what happened to his paper. And now, my brother is gone, too.
On February 28, 1945, my dad’s own beloved younger brother, Don, a Marine, was killed on Iwo Jima. At that point, Dad had been in the military for three years. He had seen, done and lost so many things—and now, he’d lost the most precious thing ever. He went AWOL, to try—my mother said—to locate Don’s grave, so he could confirm what he didn’t yet believe, that his brother was dead.
He had risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant. When he returned to his unit, he was busted down to Private, and was honorably discharged, several months later, at the end of the war. My mother told me he had been diagnosed, if that’s the word, with battle fatigue.
Shell shock, PTSD, battle fatigue. What war does to men.
A post-war job where he would be autonomous and not cooped up in an office was recommended by the US Army, upon discharge. His high school girlfriend had graduated and gone on to university, in Kalamazoo. She was sure he could get a GED and enroll at WMU—there would be federal money. But he declined both her and the suggestion, taking a job delivering bread that he kept for the rest of his life.
Shortly after returning home, he met my mother. He was 25 and she was 19. She says he was handsome and seemed like a man of the world. He liked to dance. He taught her to smoke and drink. Within a year, they were married.
But my father, tight-lipped as he was, never completely left the war behind. It was, I believe, both the best and worst period of his life.
He said he’d seen all he wanted to see of the world, when I went backpacking in Europe—that he wouldn’t leave this country for the rest of his life. When I bought my first car—a Toyota Corolla—he wouldn’t let me park it in his driveway, muttering about ‘the Japs.’
In many ways, he was forever stuck in the thinking and prejudices of 1942. But he always loved to fly, that moment of liftoff, wheels up, grinning. When I think of my dad now, I picture him in the wild blue yonder. It’s where he’d want to be.
Thanks for doing your duty, Jay. Another story from the greatest generation.
I once was on a panel at a Governors Summit on Education in Michigan. The topic was ‘teacher leadership.’ It was the usual format—each panelist gets a pre-determined number of minutes to pontificate (which they invariably overrun)—and then (theoretically) there is open discussion among the panelists, and questions from the audience. The line-up was: A state legislator, a representative from one of Michigan’s two teacher unions, and me.
I was the first speaker and started with the premise—copped from Roland Barth—that if all students can learn, then all teachers can lead. I fleshed that idea out, a bit—that practicing teachers need a voice at the policy-making table, that teachers’ control over their own professional work would enhance their practice and enthusiasm for teaching, as well as their efficacy. And so on.
Legislator was the second speaker and he strongly disagreed. He asserted that his role, over so-called teacher leadership, was oversight. Teachers are public employees who need to be kept on a tight rein; their work rigorously evaluated. If they want to lead, they can lead their second-graders out to the playground for recess (audience laughs). He and his colleagues were the rule-makers and goal setters, not teachers.
Then the union guy spoke. And he, too, felt that ‘all teachers can lead’ was a falsehood. Teachers had no business sticking their nose into policy. That was the union’s job. And it was an administrators’ job to lead a district or building—and suffer the consequences of failure. He knew plenty of teachers who were excellent classroom practitioners but didn’t have the skills, desire or moxie to lead. If they wanted to lead, they should run for a position in their union, or get administrative certification. Applause.
Because the Summit was on a weekday, the hundreds of people sitting in the ballroom were mostly legislators or their staffers, heavily from the Governor’s party, plus university and Department of Ed folks, and reporters. Not teachers.
Although I enjoyed a delicious, expensive banquet lunch afterward, I met nobody whose thinking was aligned with mine, re: organic teacher leadership.
Not a great experience. But telling.
Now, many years later, I still believe that experienced teachers want to lead, and are well-positioned to inform the conversation around education policy.
Teachers are under siege. It’s not surprising that free-floating angst, generated by a highly disruptive pandemic, has been aimed at public schools. It happens cyclically—everything from rising pregnancy rates to chronic illiteracy in poverty-ridden neighborhoods is blamed on educators.
Because–you know what’s coming–everyone went to school and thinks they understand schooling. A pandemic that shuts the entire system down, however, is exponentially catastrophic, impacting everyone. Anger at public schools, even for made-up reasons, is inevitable. It’s the nearest target.
For the last century or so, teachers have been an increasingly female workforce, seriously underpaid and subject to increasingly rigid control from government and on-site leadership. Pretty much the model my co-panelists understood and defended: Some of us make the decisions, others do the work. And hey—enjoy your summers!
But it’s a relatively young and inexperienced teacher workforcenow, and the frightening stories about teachers leaving, in droves, with nobody to replace them, ought to force the education community to ask themselves: What would keep the EXPERIENCED TEACHERS WE ALREADY HAVE (sorry) in the classroom for a couple more years, until we rebuild a leaky pipeline?
Well, it isn’t the ‘Wellbeing’ worksheet (see photo, below), which feels like one of those make-work reproducible masters teachers used to pull out on a sub day. Self-care dittos.
Here—fill this out. Feel better! Clearly, whoever designed this worksheet does not understand the relationship between drinking more water and the one three-minute window per day when peeing is possible.
Hiring the best possible people, paying them fairly, giving them time to work collaboratively, honoring their expertise, and releasing their creativity? How does that sound as a recipe for school-based self-care?
I took this Halloween photo on our deck, around 6:15 p.m. For about 10 minutes, there were these shocking pink clouds, and then–in less than minute–they were gone.
I am always introspective on Halloween. Since we moved here, we haven’t had trick-or-treaters (might have something to do with the 750-ft uphill driveway and not being able to see the house from the road). But the night is always filled with a kind of sorrow for me; I resonate more with All Souls/All Saints–the thin time of year–than costumes and candy.
In 1972, 49 years ago today, I was living in Mio, Michigan. I was newly married (may he RIP), and had a job at the drugstore in town. I worked with a teenaged boy, Jerry, who came in after school to sweep and clean up before we closed at 5:00 p.m. It was a boring job, but I liked Jerry, who was learning to play saxophone in Mio’s new band program.
I heard, from neighbors and teachers in town, that Mio kids went on a rampage every Halloween. The owner of the drugstore boarded up his windows, as did many other businesses. I was a little skeptical of the stories I heard, which seemed to be many levels above soaping windows and rotten egg-tossing. More like smashing windows and spray-painting buildings and slashing tires.
I made myself some coffee (a new pleasure for me) and waited with candy but nobody came. I could hear kids screaming in the streets. And then, around 9:00, sirens.
We didn’t hear the story until the next morning. A group of kids (five or six of them) stole a car. None of them had a drivers license. A 15-yr old boy drove the car a few miles out of town and hit a tree, while going at a ridiculous speed. All but one of his passengers (a younger sister) were killed in the crash.
I have looked for the story since, in newspaper archives, but could never find it, to clarify my old memory. I believe four kids (the oldest 15) were killed and the youngest girl survived.
One of the kids who was killed was Jerry.
I have had many happy, joyous Halloweens since 1972, especially when my children were young and we lived in a family-friendly neighborhood.
Tonight, seeing the beautiful sky, I was reminded that if Jerry were still alive, he’d be old enough to retire.
Stay safe out there, everyone. It’s a beautiful world. Stick around as long as you can.
Greene writes, with a certain edge, about a variety of education topics, and he has receipts for his opinions. When I read his words, I am right back at C lunch, listening to the veteran teachers I worked with grumble and snicker about the people who were trying to ‘fix’ schools. And didn’t have a clue about how schools worked, or what happened in real classrooms.
How could you know that every class is a balancing act—attention, content, challenge—whether your students are six or sixteen, unless you’d spent considerable time in front of a classroom? And did so recently—not 40 years ago, when we didn’t expect kindergarteners to read and everyone to take Algebra II?
As we wrestle with ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’ and just what Critical Race Theory actually is and isn’t, we need to hear lots more from experienced teachers. Greene’s aforementioned blog, titled How I Taught Controversial Texts, is precisely what persuadable parents should read right now.
Persuadable parents are those who genuinely care more about the education their children are getting than scoring political points, or throwing their weight around. They’re curious; they want the best for their children. They may be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat—but they’re mostly wondering ‘What kinds of things might our kids talk about in class? What will they learn?’
Well, Peter Greene tells you. In doing so, he condenses decades worth of teacher wisdom into a few pithy paragraphs, around ideas like this:
Teachers often say that students are welcome to their own opinions in the classroom, but students will wait to see if you mean it, or if this is a class where you get points for agreeing with the teacher. So you have to show them. Once students believe that they really don’t have to agree with you, all sorts of good stuff can happen.
Offer perspectives, but let them wrangle. Let them have the argument in their own voices.
Students are where they are. Despite all the panic over teacher indoctrination, the fact is that you will rarely budge the needle on the beliefs that they bring from home.
Don’t get out the controversial stuff before you’ve built an environment of trust, respect, and safety.
There’s more—read it here—but Greene sounded like every good teacher I ever worked with: a person with a deep understanding of their students and a strong sense of the content and activities that would push those kids to think deeply and express themselves clearly.
Of course, my teaching career in a small town in Michigan and Peter Greene’s career in a small town in Pennsylvania overlapped considerably—and we both spent a long time teaching in one place, where families learn to trust teachers.
Teaching has changed radically in the immediate past, mostly due to terrible policy-making at multiple levels, policies that have chipped away at teachers’ professional work and judgment. The pandemic explains only some of those bad decisions.
It’s time we started listening to the unfiltered voices of teachers.
I spent several years reading 12-page portfolio entries, coaching for teachers seeking National Board Certification. I was always amazed at the differing ways teachers wrote about their practice.
It was an honor to tap into their thinking (and watch videos of their lessons). For some, explaining their choices and results seemed to come naturally, something they did every day. They could explicate and justify their learning goals, and included language like Peter Greene used: Trust. Respect. Safety. Let them have the argument in their own voices.
The National Board’s word for this kind of practice is reflection. But teaching public school in 2021 doesn’t leave much time for introspection, planning learning goals and checking for results. Having your state legislature pile on doesn’t lead to better teaching or learning, either.
Writing about what it’s like to be in the classroom now may be the only way well-meaning parents get some insight into ordinary life in schools–the constant effort to turn students of all ages into engaged and curious citizens, good neighbors and conscientious workers. Especially difficult now, when their young lives have been seriously impacted by an uncontrolled virus.
Keep sharing your perspectives, teachers. We need to hear from you.
Not many independently well-off citizens want to become certified teachers, working for fun and pocket change. Gone are the days when teaching could be seen as an easy, optional second income. Especially these days, when teaching could kill you.
Rebuilding the teacher pipeline is actually something we could do. The infrastructure and research necessary for producing fully qualified, even dynamic, public school teachers is in place, and can be expanded and enhanced. All it would take is adequate funding and a commitment to solving a few thorny issues in public education.
Such as respect for the profession, and an acknowledgement of the stabilizing role public school teachers play in American society. For starters.
Done well, there could be a turnaround—in, oh, a decade or so. In the meantime, however…
The MI Department of Education recently sent out thousands of letters to retired teachers, asking them if they’d like to come back, promising to facilitate re-certification procedures, smoothing a temporary path back into the classroom to help stressed local districts. They also pledged to provide some Title II funding for districts to ‘Grow Their Own’ teachers (support staff and other promising candidates) and urged districts to use newly available money to significantly raise early-career teachers’ salaries.
All good, right?
The response from retired teachers was somewhere between bitter and scornful. NOW you want us to come back? When we’re old and more vulnerable to this deadly virus? When you underpaid us and cut support from the schools and kids we served for the last two decades? NOW we’re valuable?
A few years back, newly retired teachers in Michigan were not welcomed back as substitute teachers. Legislation in MI limited retired teachers’ work in public schools, claiming that drawing a pension and substitute teaching was ‘double dipping’—as if picking up an extra 75 bucks a couple times a week was unfairly greedy, rather than a gesture of support for currently practicing teachers and local schools.
Some of them, undoubtedly, were teachers. If 3% of the workforce in a medium sized school district—1000 employees, say—decided the pay/reward equation wasn’t worth it anymore, a district could easily lose 30 people. That would impact everything from bus routes to reading programs.
And those are national figures—it’s hard to calculate just what pandemic teaching in a politically crazed world has done to the public school instructional force. A teacher friend says all conversations about education right now center on: burnout, early retirement, sub shortages, anger & frustration, mental distress and growing & unreasonable expectations.
That’s quite a list. And the profession will be in crisis for some time to come, even if everybody stopped yelling and started working on rebuilding our public education system tomorrow.
It’s worth asking: Cui bono?
Who benefits from this scenario–a constant churn of teachers at the lowest steps of the salary scale, and a re-conceptualizing of the teacher as technician, ‘managing’ learning remotely, teaching as starter career? Who is trying to strip money and professionalism from public education?
It’s that harder-to-define problem. It’s not just about filling classrooms in 2021; it’s about what teaching will look like in 10 years. Teaching has always been a morally-driven job. Unless you are experiencing joy—or at least satisfaction—in your job, it’s unsustainable.
To his credit, Michael Rice, State Superintendent, and the MI Department of Ed, proposed some reasonable policy solutions for producing more qualified teachers, in addition to asking the old ones to come back. They begin with tuition reimbursement for prospective teachers who make a commitment to teaching, and education loan forgiveness for current and future teachers.
They would provide college scholarships for high school seniors who want to teach, and improve access to university ed schools and teacher preparation programs. Better mentoring. License reciprocity with other states. All good ideas. Will they fly?
Michael Rice: If we expect a major commitment from a wave of young people as our next generation of educators in our great state, the least we can do is to make sure that they don’t go into debt to perform this all-important public service.
That—and a major uptick in salaries—would help. But the thing needed most—public trust in teacher professionalism and community schools—is tangled in ugly politics.
Apparently, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of NYC (at the moment, anyway) is promoting a plan to overhaul the Gifted and Talented program in NYC schools. The old G/T program would be replaced— ‘by a program that offers the possibility of accelerated learning to students in the later years of elementary school. And the test given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, already suspended in part because the city’s advisory school board refused to renew it last year, would be permanently ended.’
This action has– predictably– made some people really mad.
Let me say it again: NYC was testing children as they entered kindergarten, and siphoning them off to special classes for the gifted. Given the unprecedented education issues in play right now, beginning with a deadly virus and a lack of qualified staff, NYC was right to put gifted education in the back seat, as a problem to be better addressed later.
To be clear, I believe we could do a much better job of encouraging and challenging our gifted students. I am strongly in favor of every teacher in America looking for students’ strengths, pushing them to develop that potential, encouraging them to find new passions and interests.
I taught many flat-out brilliant students, and have a master’s degree in gifted education. Giftedness is a real thing—although it is vastly broader and more comprehensive than a skill set ascertained by testing five-year-olds.
I have never met a teacher or school administrator who ‘hated’ the gifted or resented children who bring special talents and assets to the classroom. Nor do I believe it is harmful for bright children to spend their days with peers who learn differently.
We will all spend our lives living and interacting with people who are both smarter and less capable than we are. That’s a core value of public education.
Smarick starts out with some good points about competing philosophies—should we honor individual gifts rather than seeking first to level a playing field? Then he shifts to all the reform efforts that supposedly addressed that level playing field: Charter schools. Vouchers. Teach for America. School-finance lawsuits. No Child Left Behind.
He says this: In hindsight, it is striking how little discussion we had in the reform community about how these efforts did or did not address the needs of kids who were excelling, or how these initiatives were landing on non-disadvantaged communities—places where parents liked things just as they were. That lack of self-reflection led to a decade of humbling for reformers.
He winds up with the cliché you see in all the literature put out by organizations supporting specialized programming for the gifted: When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created.
Clearly, Mr. Smarick has not been in many public schools lately, with their (sarcasm alert) cutting-edge technologies and comprehensive arts offerings for children.
But–on the subject of what we’re losing by not skimming off the most academically capable while they’re still wearing sneakers with flashing lights: Think about the most gifted and inspiring people you know. The folks who developed the vaccines that are saving our lives, perhaps, or the MacArthur Genius awardees.
Did they owe their overwhelming success to taking part in a selective program in middle school? Or was it something else nurturing the spark that drove them to succeed?
I’ve been reading a lot about Colin Powell this week, who graduated from a public high school in the Bronx, then went to City College, where joining ROTC led him to a path of outstanding national and international public service. Would being identified as gifted as a first grader have changed anything about his trajectory?
I believe there are two core issues that should–yes, should–make us cautious about special programming for the gifted: Resource allocation and identification.
Resource allocation is the variable that all schools, districts and states must wrestle with, putting their money where their values are. Paying to test academically promising children, then isolating them for ‘special’ instruction, is arguably a misuse of education’s most valuable resource: attention and instruction from a creative and skilled teacher. Nobody ever talks about the middle-of-the-pack child and what precious contributions they won’t make to society unless they get instruction custom-tailored for their needs.
I could name a dozen things that need urgent attention in public education, beginning with recruiting and fairly paying more of those creative and skilled teachers, and addressing the deplorable state of school funding. It is not wrong to prioritize educational needs—and it’s more like triage in 2021. The worst strategy is using scarce resources to avoid parent complaints. When you’re juggling more needs than available solutions, it’s important to see the big picture, not just respond to demands.
Earlier, I mentioned my degree in gifted education. I took a graduate-level class in Identifying the Gifted as part of my coursework, in which we took some of the tests available at the time, studied IQ distribution charts and argued about who was and was not ‘gifted’.
In sixteen weeks, the class never developed a consensus about giftedness, who was deserving–a word I came to loathe–of more consideration, unique instruction, special academic goodies. Giftedness is an incredibly difficult concept to define—and many children don’t come into or fully realize their abilities until they have gone to school, met a mentor, or had a revelatory experience that leads them into a lifelong passion.
After completing the master’s, I worked for about a decade on programming for G/T students. I was mostly interested in my student musicians, some of whom were exceptionally talented and creative. I pushed for G/T programming at my school and in the region, and sought special, challenging experiences in the arts for these kids.
We finally got a commitment from a local university to host a weekend program for gifted middle schoolers, who would stay overnight in the dorms (it was May; university students had gone home). They would choose one of three tracks to explore—the environment, great literature or the arts—and meet professionals from their field, engage in some challenging activities and discuss what they’d learned.
I submitted one of my students’ names—a girl whose proficiency and love for her instrument was extraordinary. The program coordinator called me up and told me to choose someone else, because the student I nominated ‘wasn’t gifted.’ I’m looking at her scores right now, she said. She’s barely above average.
I talked about her exceptional ability as a musician. I don’t know, the coordinator said. I hate to waste the money on someone who may not benefit. And there it was: resource allocation and identification.
Nobody hates the gifted. In fact, we may not even know who they are.
Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. (Clint Smith)
The students Smith is referencing, above, are performing as part of a rich Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island, TX. They were part of a six-week summer program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, designed to teach children the real story about where they live and what happened there.
Don’t all children need to know about the place they come from? Its triumphs and failures?
In the book, Smith—then a doctoral student at Harvard—visits a number of historical sites around the country that chronicle the record of slavery and its impact on every aspect of American life. He begins at Monticello, sharing his conversations with two white women in his tour group who had no idea who Sally Hemings was– the enslaved woman who gave birth to four surviving children by Thomas Jefferson.These older women, interested in ‘seeing history,’ are astonished to hear about the 600 human beings owned by the great statesman.
Each of the chapters is distinct, featuring plantations, graveyards and annual memorials. The chapter on Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is grim, beginning with its original purpose, in the Reconstruction era: to round up, then house, a low-cost workforce for plantation owners who can no longer rely on the enslaved. The chapter on New York City makes clear that nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line can claim that slavery only existed in the South.
The chapter on Goree’ Island takes us to coastal West Africa, where captured Africans were sent off to their new lives (or deaths) as enslaved workers, and includes this quote from the curator of the House of Slaves, a museum on the Island:
After the discovery of America, because of the development of sugarcane plantations, cotton, coffee, rice cultivation, they forced the [Native Americans] to work for them. And it was because the Natives died in great number that they turned to Africa, to replace the Natives with Africans.
And there it is—this is and always has been about gross economic development. How to make money off exploitive and unpaid labor of others, and the ugly rationalizations used to defend such ugly practices. And how far back this goes—long before the Middle Passage.
In a time when employers are begging for workers after a deadly pandemic (that some employers denied or downplayed), this is a particularly resonant message.
This is, indeed, the book we need now.
Smith tells us, in an Afterword, that he went to many more places than the seven he describes in great detail in this volume. That suggests that there are always places nearby—places where students have been, places they are familiar with—that can serve as testimony and memory of our local history.
As educators, it is up to us to teach that history. This is what all the anti-‘CRT’ protestors fear: the truth.
Smith illustrates that learning the truth is never divisive. It may be painful, and may produce rage—but knowing how this country was built, whose backs and hands produced the wealth and power only some of us enjoy is the cornerstone of building a more equitable society. The truth can unite us, over time. But we have to listen to each other.
Clint Smith is a published poet, and he writes like a poet and storyteller–there is lots of detail and description. Once you get past an expectation of fact-based academic writing, you begin to appreciate his nuanced depictions of people and places, the colorful, palm-strewn islands and damp, gray prison cells. Smith adds only enough data and dry content to enrich, not drown, the narration.
The book is easy to read. I read it one chapter at a time (which I recommend), pausing between to absorb and think, because each segment shares a unique perspective. Smith reiterates, in a dozen ways, that slavery didn’t start in Africa, and African-American history didn’t begin with the capture and selling of human beings.
It was a global wickedness, economically driven, but it still impacts America–the idea and the reality of America–deeply. We can’t get past it until we know the history.
I worked in the same school district for more than 30 years. Mostly, I taught music—band, choir, elementary music—but occasionally other things: Seventh grade Math (two years), English as a Second Language (for which I was totally unqualified), and a class called Homework Hall.
This was a kind of holding cell where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent–pulled from elective classes–to receive coaching toward filling in the empty boxes in their teachers’ grade books. A second chance to pass classes they would otherwise fail. A way to protect their permanent record, so to speak.
Back then, the county was a cluster of pretty little all-white towns, interspersed with farmland. When I applied for a teaching position, in the mid-70s, the principal called the village where I got my job “the far edge of white flight.” He was right. More and more people were pushing outward from Detroit, claiming they were looking for a more bucolic setting, and then being surprised when they had to provide their own water, septic and garbage pickup.
Still, it was a good job, and they were hard to come by in 1975. Parents—many of whom had grown up in the area—came to concerts and parent-teacher conferences. They took their kids to the library and volunteered to lead scout troops. They rented band instruments for their children and coached Little League. For a long time—decades—I thought teaching there was ‘easy.’
True, there were worrisome things—the town where my cute, second-floor Mary Tyler Moore apartment was had a reputation as the home of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. There was lots of local trash talk about Flint (30 miles north) and Detroit (50 miles to the east)—although the area’s transition from rural farmland to outlying suburb was driven, economically, by the auto industry, centered in those two cities.
White flight, indeed. My middle school students occasionally made unfiltered, racist remarks—things they’d likely heard at home—but I was never afraid to call them out. That was then.
Here’s a one-minute video that will tell you all you need to know about this town in 2021, shot earlier this week: Click here.
If you haven’t listened to the NY Times podcast series ‘Nice White Parents’, I heartily recommend it. The tagline captures it all: If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in shaping them: white parents.
Sometimes, a kind of common sense prevails—but nice white parents have experience in complaining and getting some action and relief. As a veteran teacher, I can think of dozens of issues that brought angry parents to school board meetings, from sex education to the math curriculum, from bus routes to which neighborhoods got to attend the new, high-tech elementary school (the well-heeled ones, naturally—because those are the parents who showed up to demand access to the new building).
Homework Hall—that class where students got to make up missing work—was created when nice white parents approached administrators, worried that their kid might be doing a second year in the 7th grade. Nice white parents know how to get what they want. And they’re resentful when they do not succeed.
Sarah Schwartz of Education Week: In the months after the 2020 election, former Trump administration officials and allies built up a network of think tanks and donor groups dedicated to continuing to advance his policy agenda. Critical race theory has become a central issue for several of these organizations.
Nice white parents, in other words, are organized and funded. There are partisan threads running through this anger, and differences between parents with a college education and those without. Religion plays a role, as does race and gender.
Political scientist David C. Barker summed it up this way:The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.
At the base of all the fury over education policy, however, is the fact that white parents have historically had way more success in shaping school programs and practices. And most of the stories in education journalism come from white journalists.
As Ray Salazar writes: When journalists come from backgrounds where they usually found success in traditional systems — systems that perpetuate inequality — they report from that worldview, bypassing the insights that would be meaningful to people with a different reality.
That different reality is endangered, along with democracy. Those think tanks and donors supporting Trump’s education policy agenda are made up of nice white parents, not the parents of students who are struggling to learn without adequate broadband, materials and well-trained teachers.
Final point: This isn’t getting any better. Most Republicans now believe the Big Lie. State legislatures are working to limit voter access. Trump is still relevant, the overwhelming favorite in 2024. The anti-democratic political crisis is worse, not better, than it was in January.
It’s a crisis in public education leadership as well.
Does it seem to you as if the logical world has tilted on its axis? Does there seem to be an inordinate amount of destructive mania loose upon the land—shattering norms and making citizens on both the political right and left jumpy? And nasty? Even murderous?
I’ve been bemused by the angst over TikTok’s influence on kids’ behavior. Ridiculous pranks are something teachers are accustomed to—all the way back to stuffing kids in phone booths. From the Tide pod challenge to those goofballs falling off milk crates last summer, there’s always some Stupid Human trick to attract school-age kids. Part of the fun (for kids) is scaring their parents and teachers. You could put an eye out with that BB gun, son—and so on.
If the elected leader of the Western World is openly promoting lies and cruelty, it shouldn’t be surprising that loosening the lug nuts on your principal’s carseems like a fun and even justifiable caper. After all, he’s annoying and gets in the way of what you and your fellow seventh graders feel like doing.
Teachers I know have addressed the roiling surf of tamping down student misbehavior during a pandemic with some low-key, on-the-fly brilliance. A friend reported that his school is encouraging kids to post TikTok videos of random kindnesses—like a crew of high school kids repainting a bathroom wall after the paper towel dispenser took a walk. That kind of thing.
Others have reported deep and serious conversations with their students about issues you would think are universal: Respect for everyone. Stewardship of communal resources. Building a better world.
Some of my best moments as a 30-year classroom veteran, came when there was a crisis—a missing instrument, or someone whose dignity had been damaged by another student. You really can build students’ humanity and kindness by modeling it and talking about it.
As a long-time teacher of teenagers, I say: Good luck with that. You can pass all the laws you want, but kids need adult role models, people who are able to build communities of disparate teenagers, and do some work and learning together. And that’s going to happen a lot less when teachers are threatened by legal or local forces.
Turns out, however, that the book in question has been used for five years at this school, with no problems, largely because every child who took the course had to have a parent sign-off on a statement acknowledging that the college-level materials used in the course might be considered inappropriate. That’s right—parents had to grant written permission for their child to be exposed to writing prompts about drinking and sex. For five years. But in the divided climate of 2021, it suddenly became a Big Issue, worthy of terminating public employees.
Why? And why now?
Why do you think kids all over America are destroying public property, then sharing videos of themselves rampaging in the restroom of their local middle school? Where have they seen behavior like this before—adults despoiling a beautiful public building, then posting videos of themselves as ‘patriots’?
Still, I’m tired of hearing about the schools ‘failing to teach Civics,’ when the same critics show up at Board meetings to complain about discussions of racism in society. What do they think civics is?
We have a lot of work to do to heal the country, in every sense of the word. Public schools and community colleges could be instrumental in that. Schooling has always reflected what’s going on in the nation—and that’s what all those parents and lawmakers are afraid of, and trying to prevent.
In general, I believe elected school boards are a foundational aspect of public education and democratic citizenship. And yes, I worked in a district where an unbalanced school board made my work life unpleasant at times. I have experienced the power-mongering Board president who brings aboard a whole crew of yes-men and yes-women—neighbors and sisters-in-law– in an effort to crush both Superintendent and the teachers union. And even worse.
I also understand the essential aspect of having a reasonable Superintendent who, in turn, is able to communicate effectively with a board made up of people whose primary goals sometimes center around their personal children’s needs and wants. I am familiar with the anti-Whole Language Board, the Back to Basics Will Save Money Board, and the Sports are More Important than Calculus Board.
But still. Those Boards were duly elected (even the elderly farmers who thought spoiled kids today don’t need a school play or orchestra). There’s always another election in a couple of years, when the community gets hot and huffy about whatever the current Big Issue is. It means someone has to step up and run for public office, developing a vision of what locals schools should look like, but civic engagement is a fine thing.
Let me re-state that. Thoughtful, responsible civic engagement is a fine thing. An essential thing.
All the way back to the Scopes Trial, public debate over hot-button issues has incrementally, over time, shifted opinion about the right way (often labelled the democratic way) to do things. Public institutions, like education, are always subject to political environments and trends. And these days, everybody is simultaneously constitutional scholar, curriculum expert, epidemiologist and Clarence Darrow wannabe.
I’ve been working in and watching public schools for 50+ years and can attest that controversy is both unavoidable and cyclical. Every school has issues that light people up. But in 2021, the stakes are higher than ever—we’re subjecting kids to a scary, unpredictable disease. We made a collective decision—school must go on—and now every local educational jurisdiction must wrestle with student safety vs. political expediency.
I would be wrong if I said elected Boards most often act on behalf of their students’ well-being.
How do parents expect their children to respect the rules and authority necessary for safe and productive schooling when those same parents are physically pushing the students to disobey?
The answer is: They don’t, anymore.
And it’s gone way beyond hot tempers at a school board meeting. There are firings and shouting and pushing and shoving. There are also death threats and other aggressions. There’s been a national paradigm shift around who to trust, and who’s in charge.
About 78% of Republican parents opposed a mask mandate and about 18% supported it. Most Democratic parents who were surveyed, 87%, support a mask mandate and 10% oppose it.
For white parents, 41% support a mask mandate and 53% oppose one. Whereas a strong majority of Black parents — 94% — support a mask mandate.
Like every other issue—how to teach history and social studies honestly, for example—student safety (which really is a life and death matter) has become not merely ‘politicized’ but reason for disrespectful, even violent behavior. As Peter Greene notes, ‘”don’t do anything that will get me a phone call” is a terrible administration policy, especially in times when some folks are intent on whipping up controversy for their own political gains.’
It’s ugly, and a terrible example to set for children: scream and scheme until you get your way.
The funny thing is: The PDK Poll, the trusted annual assessment of parents’ views on public schooling recently reported that 84% of public school parents felt their schools were ready to open during a pandemic, and 82% felt it could be safe to do so. Three-quarters of parents felt schools would be able to help their children catch up on missed learning, and more than two-thirds thought schools could also mitigate the social-emotional stressors the pandemic created for students.
Those are big numbers, representing a strong vote of confidence for public schools.
I ask again: Where is all the angst at school board and county commission meetings coming from?
What political events have inspired uncivil, hostile behaviors across the country? Are we letting a small minority of previously entitled people run roughshod over the democratic structures of our public institutions?
Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled. If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging, considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months.
More about the numbers later. First, let me share with you the moment I stopped believing that standardized test data had any valid role in determining whether students or schools were successful.
I was attending a State Board of Education meeting in Lansing. These are monthly day-long affairs where education policy and affairs are discussed and instituted. (Sometimes, the legislature passes different laws, in an attempt to undermine the State Board, but that’s not relevant in this example.) The Board, on this occasion, was setting cut scores from a round of new testing data.
I can’t tell you what year this occurred, exactly, but it was after NCLB was passed, and the Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8.
Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions, and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.
What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased– the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cutoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?
The phrase “set the bar high” was used repeatedly. The word “proficient” became meaningless. The Board spent hours moving cut bars up and down, labeling groups of students to support their own well-meant theories about whether certain schools were “good” and others needed to be shut down. So much for science.
The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even “lost learning” any more, without a mountain of numbers. Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children. When it comes to standardized test score analysis, we are collectively illiterate. And this year’s data? It’s meaningless.
These are, of course, aggregated statewide numbers. Down a few percent, pretty much across the board. Unsurprising, given the conditions under which most elementary and middle school students were learning. Down the most for students of color and those in poverty—again, unsurprising. Still, there’s also immense score variance, school to school, even grade to grade. The aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story–or even the right story.
The media seemed to prefer a bad-news advertising campaign for the alarming idea that our kids are falling further behind. Behind whom, is what I want to know? Aren’t we all in this together? Is a two-point-something score drop while a virus rages reason to clutch your academic pearls?
Furthermore: what does ‘proficient’ even mean? It’s a word which appears repeatedly, with absolutely no precise definition. Everybody (including media) seems to think they understand it, however.
The really interesting thing was looking at district-by-district data. There were places where pretty much everybody took the tests, and schools where almost nobody did. Districts where the third grade scores dropped twenty percent while the fourth grade, in the same school, went up eight percent. What happened there—was it teachers? curriculum? It was also clear that charters, including virtual charters, were not the shining solution to pandemic learning.
What I took away from the data is that public education held up pretty well in Michigan, under some dire and ever-shifting conditions. In some places, kids and teachers did very well, indeed, amidst disruption. Kids without resources—broadband, devices, privacy, constant adult supervision, or even breakfast and lunch—had the hardest time. They’re the ones who need the most attention now. And good luck hiring qualified, experienced teachers to do that.
There’s probably a lot that can be learned from a close look at the 2020-21 data, but most of it isn’t about quantified student learning gains. And please—stop with the “acceleration” crapola. The pace of learning will improve when our students feel safe and part of a community, the exact conditions we’ve been striving for in perpetuity, and aren’t present anywhere, in September 2021.
Stu Bloom said, last week:I’m seriously tired of the politicians, pundits (looking at you, NYT Editorial Board), and policy-makers telling teachers and public schools to single-handedly solve the problems of racism and poverty by increasing test scores. Public schools and public school teachers are not the only ones who have anything to contribute to growing our society!
He then goes on to point out the value of actually investing in public education, in evidence-based policies and practices, designed to improve life and learning for all school-aged children. We know what to do, he says. And he’s right.
It’s time to end our national love affair with testing, to make all Americans understand that educational testing is a sham that’s harmed many children. Testing hasn’t ever worked to improve public education outcomes, and it’s especially wasteful and subject to misinterpretation right now.
I clearly remember all my decade birthdays, except number 20, which is a blur. Not old enough to drink and not really happy with my life. That’s all I got.
It’s easier with subsequent decades. There was a husband and a house at 30, kids at 40, and some professional recognition by 50.And 60 seems like yesterday. Yesterday, alas, was 10 years ago.
Do I have a favorite decade birthday? Yes. When I turned 40, my wonderful husband made all the arrangements to take me on a surprise trip. This is how he did it: He called me from work in the summer before my 40th birthday and told me he was entering a contest for an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the United States. Where would I want to go? Boulder, Colorado, I told him. Ah—good one, he said.
Then he surreptitiously made all the arrangements—flights, members of the family to babysit and keep their mouths shut in the meantime, an adorable little log-cabin resort in the foothills to the west of town with an outdoor hot tub. He told me to pack my hiking boots and my bathing suit—that we were going on a mystery trip.
It was memorable and wonderful in every possible way. Boulder remains one of my favorite places on earth, and I still wear the earrings he bought me from an art show vendor on Pearl Street.
I have passed through decade markers without a whole lot of angst or reflection. Sixty seemed like coming into a certain kind of wisdom and serenity—newly retired, a new home, new friends, new adventures. A time to accomplish all the things I’d been too busy to enjoy while working and raising a family. A time to travel while still healthy and mobile, to garden, to read, to cook. To write about education.
Most importantly, it was a return to the absolute joy of making music—of capitalizing on all the work I did as a teenager to build and polish my musical skills. I joined three community musical groups, got a part-time gig as a church music director, and started taking piano lessons, something I have wanted to do since I was in fifth grade. I got my flute out and practiced. I helped establish a thriving flute ensemble. I played for weddings and funerals and other occasions.
I will be seventy tomorrow.
And for the first time, I feel old-ish. Not old-old, but there is a creeping realization that I have some limitations. I still plan to be around for additional decades—my grandmother lived to 103, and was hale and hearty until her last day on earth. I’m healthy and have possession of my marbles. And I have lots of plans for the future—after all, I have skills and knowledge, things I learned in school, that have made my life, into this eighth decade, rich and rewarding.
I think about my students’ parents, eager to sell that saxophone or trumpet when their child could not decide between band and football. I would ask: What can you give your child today that they can use, literally, for the rest of their lives?
I will be seventy tomorrow. I’ve been playing the same flute—the one my parents re-mortgaged their house to buy—since 1967.
As the new school year started in 2020—last year, before a whole boatload of scientific information was confirmed, or vaccinations rolled out—I got into a Twitter spat with a man whose thinking and scholarship I respect.
He was advocating for all public schools in the United States, or at least his state, to be closed, all instruction taking place online. This was never going to happen–remember who was President a year ago?—but his point was that mandating remote education would save countless lives, many of them children and their teachers.
An excellent point. My counter point was that the case numbers and infection rate were low in my county—and internet connectivity and infrastructure even lower. Lots of students had no access to devices, and even if districts purchased Chromebooks or iPads, there was no broadband to run them. The previous spring, when schools were closed by gubernatorial order, teachers here distributed stapled-together work packets to students along with five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches.
We Twitter-argued, back and forth, for days, about who should be making these decisions.
He would say: Your state or county should make affordable broadband a priority. I would say: We have been working on that with our recalcitrant, pro-privatization County Commission for over a decade. In the meantime, until that problem is solved, kids won’t have access to school or their teachers.
He would say: School buses with wi-fi! I would say: District is 168 square miles of hills and valleys—not even close to enough school buses!
Other educators would drop into the ongoing squabble. Mostly, they were teachers who felt that widespread, mandated remote learning was the only thing that would keep kids safe.
It seemed to me, then, that local decision-making was key to flattening the curve while balancing the needs of schoolkids. That assuming what was right for your school division or state would not necessarily be right for a school on the other side of the country. That we needed to trust school leaders to make the right choices, with input from their unique communities.
Today, I’m not so sure.
Because I grew up in a pro-union household in the flagship state of the UAW, I assumed, when I started teaching, that locally controlled and negotiated policies were ideal. We should be able to determine things like curriculum, testing, hiring and firing, whether to allow baseball caps, etc. etc. We knew best how to use the resources raised by taxing the citizens of our community.
Ironically, the few things that were state-mandated back then were mostly health- and safety-related: Annual TB tests for teachers. Vaccinations for kids before they were admitted to kindergarten. Teachers’ legal obligation to report signs of abuse or self-harm. Seat belts and load limits on buses.
If something was critical enough to public well-being, you’d find it in the Michigan school code. The rest was up to school officials and a locally elected board. As it should be.
The person who disabused me of that notion was Renee Moore, an exemplary educator who taught in Detroit before moving to the Mississippi Delta. She pointed out that many local officials and educators did not have the best interests of all students in mind—that in fact, state and federal policies were essential to the pursuit of equity for traditionally underserved public schools and their students. And always had been.
This was a moment when my own clueless privilege smacked me upside the head. If the government didn’t establish rules around school safety, adequacy and equity, who would?
For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”
Clearly, relying on state and federal government is not the key to student safety and well-being in August 2021—because some state leaders and state legislators are feckless and our window for tapping into federally provided guidance, resources or unity was slammed shut in 2020.
All the devils are loose, and we’re dependent on those separate and individual capacities, plus the relevant evidenceand a big dose of courage. The feds can’t save us. We don’t have a policy problem; we have deliberate misinformation and compliance problems.
We’re dependent on people like this guy, a school superintendent in mid-Michiganwho is mandating masks even though he’s received irate and threatening phone calls: ‘I do not have the same scientific skills as some people who work in the state health department. But if somebody else is uncomfortable making a decision, if I have a reasonable support group around me who believe the same way, I don’t have a problem making that decision.’
Good for you, sir—and thanks for taking the heat, and demonstrating local control at its core: Should I make an unpopular decision if I believe it may save lives? Yes.
Local board-meeting meltdowns make clear that good school policy is more than majority-rule. But effective top-down policy also depends on who is at the top.