Are Your Students Watching History?

One of the more intriguing aspects of Wednesday’s fascinating, glued-to-the-tube Congressional train wreck was the backchannel Twitter conversation among teachers. Specifically: How do we talk to our students about this? Are we watching this with our seniors in government class? It’s history in the making, all right. How do teachers deal?

If you’ve taught as long as I have, you (and your students) have witnessed several crises happening in the world, including politically and socially sensitive events. Anyone who thinks that a teacher can avoid talking about a public tragedy, a politically contentious election outcome or the death of an iconic American is a fool. School is where kids collect, every day. School is where they talk about stuff. Adults can’t and shouldn’t suppress this, but they can provide context.

Even small children talk about big events, often confusing fact and fiction. When Pope John Paul died, in 2005, I was teaching younger children. The funeral took up a lot of time on mainstream TV, and my littles talked about it endlessly. I eventually figured out that some of them didn’t know who the Pope was, why he was important. A couple of my students thought he was ‘old fashioned Santa Claus’ (St. Nicholas) because of his red robes and tall hat. They were bereft.

That’s kind of sweet and chuckle-y. But the morning Kurt Cobain died, there was genuine grief among some of my 8th graders. A mixture of emotions, in fact—confusion, fear, horror and faux detachment. The wanted to present as chill and aloof, but the idea of someone so tuned into their self-image taking his own life was terrifying. I remember taking time to ask them what his music meant to them, how it felt to hear news of such an unnecessary loss. Suicide is tricky ground—but to say nothing, to shut down the mourning of young teenagers, rendering their strong emotions as inconsequential, felt wrong.

There is no template for these discussions, of course. On 9/11, the teachers in my building were directed to carry on with regular lessons, turn off TVs and not to ‘dwell’ on the shocking events. By contrast, a friend teaching in an elementary building told me her principal went classroom to classroom, beginning with the kindergartners, gathering the children in a circle and explaining, in the simplest language, that though terrible things had happened, they were safe in school.

When the cause of a catastrophic incident is politically neutral—the Challenger explosion, for example, which I watched on TV with a library full of sixth graders—teachers are free to talk about O-rings and weather, and to express their own shock and sorrow. When Jim Jones persuaded 900 people to end their lives via lethal Kool-Aid, in Guyana, nobody was arguing about who the bad guy was. Many of my students were certain that if anyone tried to convince them to poison themselves, they would run away and hide in the jungle—a healthy response. Believing that one has control over their actions and feelings is not a bad thing, when you’re a pre-adolescent.

Handling all these occurrences while surrounded by vulnerable children and teens takes excellent teacher judgment, of course. And there are times when mixing the News of the Day with classroom interactions is dicey: when kids are simply too young to process the implications of his lawyer calling the President a ‘conman,’ for example.

On the other hand, we’re forcing very young children to practice sheltering and holding up their bullet-proof backpacks when there’s an active shooter on the premises, which seems, umm, developmentally inappropriate to me.

In fact, the most common crises aftermath for teachers in America revolves around shootings—shooting (and sometimes killing) presidents and national leaders, neighborhood or police-initiated violence, and any number of school shootings. There’s no way to avoid mention of shootings or violence when you’re teaching kids of any age—what matters is how you deal with children’s questions, fears and (now) political goals.

In 2000, when the election results were in limbo for weeks, some of my colleagues were warned off from teaching relevant content—the Electoral College and how it came to be, for example—while the story was unfolding in real time. Which is ironic—one of the most taboo topics in American classrooms (including Civics, History and Government class) is politics.

This isn’t universal. Many excellent social studies teachers wade right into political controversy, urging their students to weigh issues and think for themselves, custom-tailoring language and sophistication of the debate to their students’ level of understanding. But I’d wager that an equal number of teachers tiptoe around politically tinged arguments. They—and their administrators—fear parent or community pushback.

None of this builds genuine informed citizenship. Which is why I think watching the Cohen hearings would be instructive for older students. Right there, on display—a man whose own credibility is highly suspect, charging the President with criminal behavior. This is how democracy is supposed to work. Shouldn’t we all be watching?


I’m a Loser, Baby. So Why Don’t You Kill Me?

I decided right away, when Donald Trump Jr. made his inane remark about ‘loser teachers’ spreading socialism, that I wasn’t going to respond in any tangible way. A serious eye-roll perhaps, or a brief snort. I knew there would be reactions—memes, blogs and columns and snarky tweets, digital photo frames spelling out ‘LOSER’ in red —to wallow in. No need to add to the clutter of pointless, short-term outrage.

After all, the guy’s a moron. Crafting a snarky response for just another forgettable disgrace in the daily parade of verbal horrors would be too easy.

So I waited for the spate of blogs.  I’ve read a at least a dozen pieces written by earnest, irate teachers who work so hard, don’t get enough money or recognition, and are tired of this shit.

Of course, those teachers DO work so hard. Of course, they’re doing a good job, making a difference, changing lives 24/7 for $40K a year, barely able to feed their families and driving 14-year old Cavaliers. It’s outrageous that the President’s feckless son calls them ‘losers,’ for their effort to instill a little lukewarm democracy in their classrooms.

Then I read a piece on Education Week from a teacher blogger making the same case: We have a right, even a duty, to imbue our students with basic principles of citizenship outlined in our constitution. What was most noteworthy about this blog was the number of comments—90, the last time I looked. I blogged at Education Week for nine years, and I never had 90 (angry, accusatory, trolling) comments. EdWeek is a pretty staid place, protected by a paywall, but these were bot-worthy, name-calling anti-teacher, anti-public education comments, posted at a sober website where educators go to discuss policy.

My friend Ken Jackson, who teaches at Wayne State University made this point:

Is this merely an ugly Trumpism or is it something all of us– including those in education — have internalized? Does the remark point to something much more problematic about our collective attitude towards teaching? And when I say “our” I mean, again, those in education.

Ken points out that teaching is only one skill he is supposed to bring to the academy—research and administration are valued as much as, perhaps more, than the act of teaching:

My sense of responsibility towards students is greater than it has ever been. When I see traditional age students, I don’t see a random collection of young people, I see my daughter. And I give the kids in my charge what I would want her to have. That is considerable.

We have made — at all levels of education — getting out of the classroom the GOAL, not the end. Staying in the classroom is to lose.

Check the newspapers: Tom Watkins, Amber Arellano, Tonya Allen, Doug Ross — these are our “education” stars and gurus. People pay THEM to talk and write about education. What do they have in common? They have never seen the inside of a classroom.

Don’t blame “Jr.” — He is us.

Another friend, Cossondra George, teaches math in a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She expressed her disgust with Trump Jr.’s remark and got pushback from local Trump supporters who try to assure her that Jr. didn’t mean ALL teachers or HER, specifically—’just the ones who are willfully trying to push a Socialist agenda and using education as a platform, a misuse of power.”

Cossondra’s response was so powerful that I’m quoting her verbatim here:

 I don’t want to live in a society where we don’t all work together for the good of the all–where we don’t offer education and healthcare to our most vulnerable people, where we don’t have police, fire, ambulance protections. if that means that sometimes, some of my tax dollars support a program I’m not in favor of, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I don’t see how a sane person can think people should be able to choose whether or not to pay taxes. If people don’t choose to, what happens to schools, hospitals, roads, fire departments, etc.?

There is just a huge concern about respect for teachers and public education today. When a ‘trusted’ speaker bashes educators so blatantly, that ‘trickles down’. How many students now feel empowered to be disrespectful to their ‘loser teachers’ because some arrogant ass that has most likely NEVER spent a single day in a public school classroom, makes that kind of remark at a campaign rally for our sitting president?

Remember—she lives in a small town, where her students and their parents will be bumping into her in the produce aisle. I admire her courage.

I’ve now seen many, many similar conversations on social media. This is a big deal. A thoughtful piece in the Washington Post brought it home:

In a stadium filled with people chanting “USA, USA,” the son of the president of the United States called for hostility toward teachers because of their so-called political leanings. This is a message you would expect in an authoritarian regime, not at a rally for the U.S. president.

By working daily with young people, teachers are the stewards of the future. Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red — seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause.

Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists. Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.

I was wrong. We need to pay attention, every day. Thanks, teachers, for speaking out. You may be the first line of defense.


Blackface and Other Ugly Truths. Not Just a Southern Thing.

I have lived in Michigan all my life. I never thought of myself as a Yankee until I started working for an education nonprofit based in the South and quickly picked up that nickname–as well as a reputation for being on the side of teachers’ unions (guilty), and outspoken in a way that was downright unladylike. Nobody ever said ‘Bless your heart’ to me.

In fact, it’s easy for folks who don’t live in the South to feel a little smug about being on the right side of the War Between the States, even though it happened more than 150 years ago. Northern educators are fond of pointing out that the lowest-achieving states tend to cluster across the south-eastern tier of the United States.

We are seldom encouraged, however, as teachers, to think about the range of historical and economic streams—or the policy wars—that led to such disparate outcomes. Worse, we’re not pressed to ask what we can do to address and support equity and justice nationwide in an economy that is increasingly global. We get let off the hook sometimes.

The recent outrage over Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo, and his fumbling response, is a case in point. As Teju Cole points out in a New Yorker podcast, white men of a certain age grew up in a deeply racist culture, and not much has changed since then. Since Reconstruction, blackface and minstrelsy have been used to belittle black Americans. We are nowhere close to reconciling our national shame over deep-seated scars of injustice.

The difference with Northam—what separates him from other political leaders who went to school in the 1980s– is that Northam got caught. And once caught, seemed to have no idea how to express shame, humbly ask for forgiveness, admit that he needs to be educated about his failures, past and present, use his own guilt to lead people in a new direction– and so on.

It’s not the call of non-Virginians, of course, but I think Ralph Northam should resign, even though by most accounts, he’s been a good governor. I also thought my previous governor, Rick Snyder, should resign in disgrace over decisions that led to poisoning the water in Flint, then withholding the truth from the citizens of Michigan. Somehow, however, white men of a certain age can survive insulting—or poisoning—black people. If that’s not insidious racism, I don’t know what is.

There’s been some recent conversation about the biased and inaccurate teaching of history and social studies, in the South particularly, which strikes me as just another way to point fingers at schools, rather than acknowledging that schools are a stage where society plays out its deepest values and goals.

Teachers in the North and the South have chronically bungled the topic of slavery, for starters, but it goes deeper than that. Schools are also a stage where assumptions and taboos and unexamined but common practices play out.

I personally have been warned by an administrator not to ‘focus’ on the African roots of the music my students were marinating in, for example, because parents might not like it. Teachers in all parts of the country tangle daily with politically incorrect ideas and forbidden issues—and not just in Civics class. You’d be surprised what first graders ‘know’ and want to share with their little friends.

Recently, a retired teacher buddy asked me if I remembered ‘slave sales’ being a part of Spirit Week at my school. My friend had been tracking a FB page where adults who went to high school together were lamenting the fact that the ‘fun’ things they did (including a ‘slave sale’ assembly) were now banned. Political correctness run amok was the consensus, among the dozens of commenters. It was all in fun. Wasn’t it? The teachers participated, after all, and the school allowed it. Even worse, there were black and white photos shared, including someone in a KKK hood, and a person in a noose.

A female classmate had called the commenters out, saying this is horrible now and was horrible then. She posted a link on hidden biases, asking folks to turn the conversation toward an examination of why this was considered OK behavior.  This led to a lot of irritated mansplaining and rationalizing and attempts to call HER out. (Who is she, anyway? I don’t remember her.)

Talk about discouraging.

The worst thing for me was that I did remember a ‘slave auction’ at my middle school, in the late 70s or early 80s. It had been a tradition there for years, as a fundraiser for something—the cheerleaders were offered up ‘for sale’ and did the bidding of their ‘owners’ for a day. The auction was shut down when a group of boys pooled their money to buy a cheerleader, then brought out a saddle and put it on her. The principal stepped into the mix (finally) and that was the end of ‘slave’ auctions.

So–let’s not get on our high horses about better behavior in any part of the country.

In the New Yorker podcast, Teju Cole was asked if the Northam affair might be a national tipping point, in our awareness, disapproval and extinguishing of racist behaviors. No, he said. We have no idea what conciliation or reparations look like. We’re currently living with the backlash against a black President. The best we can hope for is incremental growth toward equity.

Is Teju Cole right?  DfVv5LRVAAIyP_F

Third Grade Flunk Laws–and (Un)intended Consequences

Like many states, Michigan has a Third Grade Mandatory Retention law for students who are not reading at grade level in the statewide assessments. And like most states, the law is riddled with exceptions, loopholes and what you might call pre-existing conditions. In other words, well-connected parents who don’t want their child who struggles with reading to fail the third grade will be able to wiggle out of it. If you’re poor or attending a ‘failing’ school, you’re pretty much toast if your reading skills (or test-taking skills) are subpar–when you’re eight years old.

Much of the critique around ‘3rd grade flunk’ legislation centers on the damage done to kids by being forced to repeat a grade, the financial burden on schools as they are compelled to provide an additional year of instruction to large segments of their elementary population, and the complete lack of proof that these laws work. If our goal is higher rates of genuine literacy, rather than punishing schools and vulnerable students, there are better ways to get there.

We could begin by noting that Finland, a perennial head-of-list country when it comes to international comparisons of literacy accomplishment, does not begin formal reading instruction until students are seven years of age—roughly second grade—because they believe that’s when a majority of students are developmentally ready to handle the complex intellectual tasks of phonemic awareness, decoding and making meaning of the symbols on the page. By age nine—4th grade—Finnish students are ahead of ours, even though our 4th graders have been subjected to formal reading instruction for five years at that point.

There’s something seriously wrong here.

Now we are witnessing the other consequences of the Third Grade Threat—pushing inappropriate instruction down to kindergarten, as anxious districts fear that students who are not reading at grade level (a murky goal, to begin with) will embarrass the district when letters go out to parents of third graders who are supposed to be retained. Because it’s the law.

Who’s to blame when students lag behind (arbitrary) literacy benchmarks, for whatever reason, from learning in a second language, an identified disability or merely being a late-bloomer? Teachers, of course.

Early on, much of the angst was directed at ‘those districts’—the ones where high numbers of students lived in poverty, the districts where 40% of kids weren’t reading at grade level, and teachers were presumed to be less-than (an absolute fallacy, by the way). But the dread over having to face public wrath around flunking 8-year olds has spread to alpha districts.

A disgruntled kindergarten teacher in Ann Arbor shared a memo that was sent to KDG teachers in Ann Arbor two days ago. It appears, in its entirety, including misspellings and grammatical errors, below. Ann Arbor is a large, well-regarded district with a diverse population that includes children from well-educated families as well as pockets of poverty. Most of its schools are highly ranked by the State Department of Education, and a couple of its neighborhood schools post test scores lower than the state average.

But Ann Arbor kindergarten teachers, it seems, are now part of a get-tough literacy accountability pipeline, where their personal beliefs about how children learn emphatically do not matter, and their coaches and administrators are taking them to task, including a ominously worded reminder that their instruction could and will be observed at any time.

They are reminded that ‘large’ numbers of kids—kindergartners, remember, three years before the hatchet falls—are failing.  And the boss wants to know why. In writing. Including a response to the question of how teachers are ‘demonstrating rigor’ in their ELA instruction.

It’s a crackdown, all right: ‘Student progress begins and ends with you. We cannot let borderline students get a pass.’

If this is happening in Ann Arbor—not a perfect district, but one that has demonstrated some progressive ideas and academic successes—how has this law negatively impacted reading instruction in other districts?

Are these unintended consequences? Or is this what the Third Grade Flunk law was supposed to do all along—wrest control of reading instruction from professional teachers?

Memo of February 6 to kindergarten teachers in Ann Arbor (italics are mine):

“Good afternoon K teachers,

I hope that you all had a wonderful day off and stayed off of the slippery roads. The purpose of this email is to get the conversation started with you all ASAP and for us to better understand where are (sic) K students are and how we are going to ensure their success. In hopes for us to get the full picture of what we need to look at there are several questions and items that we need more information from you by Friday, February 8, 2019. (Note: email sent February 6.)

  1. Please share with XX and I your reading groups (specifically name of students, days/times you meet with them and for how long). When we read them, these schedules should reflect at least 4-5 days a week with your lowest (below grade level) readers and fewer days for those at or above target. Please note that we may pop in during the time you give to see how a few friends are doing.
  2. Please provide XX and I with a hard copy of your most current benchmark assessment that helped you to determine reading groups.
  3. Questions that require honest answers…

How many of your kids be ready to read for 1st grade teachers at a level “E” by the beginning of next year? Please list them.

What literacy supports and strategies have you been offering students and families that go beyond the classroom?

What do you believe is your responsibility to students in the area of ELA?

This year we had a very LARGE number of students falling significantly below grade level.
What was the underlying cause for this last year? 
What have you changed about your practice this year so that this does not happen again?
How are you demonstrating rigor with in your ELA practice?

As we dive into how our youngest and brightest look at this point, we must also remember that our personal views and opinions around developmental appropriateness may not match what the district is asking you to achieve. Nonetheless, each of you is still responsible for meeting and achieving the grade level outcomes set out by the district. Please remember that student progress and success begins and ends with you.

In addition, growth data is dependent on the level of success student have. As you go into the next round of evaluations do you have the evidence and data that will accurately demonstrate the appropriate reading growth. This year we will not be using “the standard error of deviation”, either students have made the necessary growth or they have not. With the NEW THIRD GRADE READING LAW we can not let borderline kids get a pass. These student will have to securely demonstrate success. (Caps not in original email.)

Thank you in advance for you thoughtful responses and speediness in getting this information to us. We will be setting up a mandatory meeting to discuss these points further for sometime next week. We will have XX join us as our Literacy Expert.




Defining ‘High-Quality’ Curriculum

photo-1514339013457-0fcf969367dfHey, remember when Bill Gates and his disciples were pushing the Common Core and every day there was another info piece published in Ed World saying, emphatically and even snippily, that these were STANDARDS, not a CURRICULUM?

Remember those assurances that a national consensus on standards and reliable, aligned assessments evaluating student mastery of those core standards were merely a conceptual framework–the beginning and the end of their Grand Master National Make-Schools-Better plan. Remember when they claimed school districts and individual teachers were free to craft their own curricula? Because teachers knew the kids (duh) and how best to teach them to reach those standards–providing students continued to do well on the tests, of course.

Well, that was then. The headline now is ‘Gates Giving Millions to Train Teachers on High-Quality Curriculum,’ closing the instructional cycle: Standards—Curriculum—Assessments.

Grantees will work to improve how teachers are taught to use and modify existing series that are well aligned to state learning standards.

So–teachers won’t be using hand-selected materials or instructional activities they find relevant or engaging to their students’ lives. They won’t have the authority to ditch packaged materials that don’t work for their kids and create something that does. They will merely be trained—my least favorite word, when it comes to authentic teaching—to ‘use existing series.’  Series pre-approved by Gates and constructed by off-site by textbook writers. Whoopee.

You could see it coming, with the surfeit of dismissive articles on how teachers rely on Pinterest to create their lessons and wouldn’t know rich, rigorous curriculum if it dropped from the sky. This underlying disdain for teachers is often masked by chipper sentences like this one:

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.

I went to ed school a long time ago, but I left with the conviction that my job would be centered on creation of a relevant curriculum for my students and the pedagogical skill to deliver that curriculum. If teaching is not pedagogy and instructional design, what is it that teachers are supposed to be doing?

I do—unlike some of my colleagues—see the value of a loosely framed set of disciplinary standards to follow VOLUNTARILY, especially early in a teaching career. It helps to know how to sequence core learning objectives (some old-school language from the 70s that still applies). It helps to have a toolkit full of strategies to teach those objectives. What helps most is friendly, talented colleagues who provide running support when things don’t go well—another way to teach a key concept or go-to materials that aren’t in ‘the series.’

Sometimes, I think all the hand-wringing around teachers being unable to select, organize and teach a coherent curriculum comes mostly from those who are worried that teachers might choose learning materials and goals that they don’t agree with. It’s true that teachers have a lot to do, day in and day out, but taking their most critical responsibilities away from them means stripping them of what it means to be a teacher, turning them into technicians, record-keepers and disciplinarians enforcing work they don’t believe in. It’s demeaning.

I also don’t believe this is about Gates and Company making more money. It’s about control over a once-creative, socially essential occupational field.

A few years ago, I applied to become a ‘model lesson’ designer in a project launched by my State Department of Education. The money was not impressive, but the work was done over two weeks at a beautiful resort in northern Michigan, and several of my teacher colleagues were participating. The idea was to design exemplary lessons around topics and skills in the state grade-level curriculum standards (pre-Common Core). These lessons would then be available for all teachers in Michigan to use, to enhance their curriculum.

The work was done using a nationally familiar model of lesson design. Thousands of teachers across the country have read the book and undergone the training. Because this workshop was organized in a hurry (had to spend that grant money!) the sponsoring organization didn’t have a trainer available. Instead, they sent out two teachers to deliver the training and help us write the units.

These teachers were flat-out great. Both knew the lesson design process and material well but were pragmatic in assuring us that the ‘gourmet’ lessons we were designing were not the stuff of everyday teaching. They were ambitious and creative and used technology (one of the requirements) that lots of teachers didn’t have access to. A couple days in, there was a discussion about how the Department expected these lessons to be used.

One of the teachers leading the workshop admitted that he didn’t believe ANY lesson could be used, wholesale, by another teacher.  You might find a great idea or strategy, he said—but any smart teacher will tweak and modify. Tweaking and modifying are what teaching is. And creating your own lessons, custom-tailored to the kids in front of you—that’s what great teaching is.

There was applause when he said this, but the Department folks at the back of the room, scrolling through their phones, looked uneasy. The two teachers were gone in two days, replaced by a woman from the sponsoring organization, who made us discard the work we’d done already as ‘drafts’ and start over. To my knowledge, the lessons were never used.

So much for ‘high-quality’ curriculum. It’s hard to see how the millions Gates is dropping on this project will end up benefiting real kids. There is no such thing as a sure-fire, teacher-proof lesson. The person in front of the room always matters more.

Photo: Thammie Cascales