Are Schools Helping to Dumb Down the National Political Conversation?

If there ever was a time when top-notch media analysis skills were crucial for American citizens, the past two weeks were the motherlode of opportunities to sort out manipulated messaging from simple truth.

Dig into that statement a bit. Is it possible to make students better consumers, curators and adjudicators of the digital/media information firehose? Or have schools dumbed down curriculum and academic demands, leading to a heedless citizenry, amusing itself to death? (I didn’t come up with that phrase, BTW—Neil Postman did, long before Facebook, Twitter and Celebrity Apprentice, when cable news was the most dangerous thing on TV.)

The phrase ‘dumbing down’ (or—worse—’dummying down,’ putting emphasis on students’ reputedly flabby brains) has always been anathema to me. I have never—in 40 years of working in classrooms—observed a serious curricular trend toward making things less complex or challenging. In fact, since I started teaching, in the early 1970s, there has been a steady upward push toward what reformy types might call rigor.

States have adopted ‘merit’ curricula, demanding four years of HS math and other course sequences that used to be reserved for the college bound. All public-school students in the nation submit to high-stakes standardized tests annually, beginning when they’re barely eight years old. Seventh graders solve single-variable equations that used be the stuff of ninth grade Algebra. The phrase ‘kindergarten is the new first grade’ is now conventional wisdom in early childhood pedagogy.

Not seeing the dummy-down phenomenon here, except in op-eds by irate business leaders who claim they can’t find the skilled workers they need.

And, of course, some of our Congressional representatives who seemed unable to form rational questions or evaluate and respond to answers when grilling the brave civil servants who sat in front of them last week. Watching and listening, it was easy, over time, to see the obvious chasm between ‘just the facts’ (under oath) and ‘spin, baby, spin’ (not under oath). I kept asking myself: Who is impressed by the shouting, off-topic rants and left-field accusations?

Heather Cox Richardson answered:  Using my eye for propaganda techniques, they reminded me of nothing so much as being a talking head on a documentary. When producers are filming you in that situation, they very carefully ask questions to get a sound bite they can use. It seemed very clear to me that Jordan and Ratcliffe, and especially Nunes, were tangling the witnesses in questions designed to give the questioners short sound bites that they could then make into their own “documentaries.” They were salting the hearings with the language of conspiracies that people who don’t watch Fox cannot understand but which, in their sound bites, can be turned into a narrative that will misrepresent what was said and proven today, marketing it to True Believers who will then continue to support Trump and his party.

And then, as soon as they got their sound bites they would get up and leave.

What I was wondering: Can this ‘eye for propaganda’ be taught? Is it important that our students learn more than facts, timelines and skills? Can they be taught to assess value and truth in all their studies (and I don’t mean just their History, Civics and Government courses)?

Or will they be ripe targets for ‘contagious stories’—simple, emotionally self-validating explanations for current events and issues? Can flagrant lying be ignored or tolerated to maintain the peace, preserve the Republic? We are approaching ‘Germany in the 1930s’ territory here.

Stephen Sawchuk had a provocative piece with a great headline in Education Week: Students Are Really, Really Bad at Spotting Fake News, Misleading Websites. I don’t think it’s only students who are really, really bad—I think it’s the general population, distracted and trying to keep their heads above water, who are finding it hard to get at the truth. It’s all about where you get your news. There is, Sawchuk says:

…alarming evidence that a large majority of students are not well prepared to investigate sources of information for their accuracy, relevance, and quality. And despite more than a decade’s worth of policy chatter about media literacy, whatever schools have been doing doesn’t appear to have been enough to inoculate students against “fake” news. 

It’s doubly concerning given that there are now entire cable-news networks and partisan news sites built around presenting a skewed accounting of facts. Social media hasn’t helped: The atomized nature of online interactions makes it easy to share doctored or fake information. And increasingly, as another recent report coined it, “truth decay” is eroding the notion of objective facts: Americans can’t even agree on a set of basic facts that underpin their arguments or conclusions anymore.

Sawchuk gets this exactly right. I can’t think of a single thing more important, or relevant, in a liberal arts curriculum, K-12, than an investigation of the veracity of news sources. Or teaching kids how, Step One, to be deeply suspicious of pretty much anything that crosses their tiny screens.

It’s not just about sorting out the truthful, centrist sources, and identifying bias in sources. It’s about demonstrating how vulnerable we all are to stories that ring our emotional chimes. Especially kids.

Let me say that again: especially our students. We should be talking about this in schools.

Or else we’re going to end up with more captions like this In rollicking 53-minute conversation, Trump embraces conspiracies, spreads falsehoods and insults opponents—that make it sound like conspiracies, falsehoods and insults were somehow ‘rollicking’ (‘exuberantly lively; amusing’). I know better than to assign blame to the writer—headlines are added later and play by different rules.

But really. Isn’t it time we stopped laughing?

Can schools nurture civic engagement? I think so.

No time like the present.


Should a Cooperating Teacher Make Things More ‘Real’ for His Student Teacher?

Thought experiment: You’re a successful veteran male HS teacher, firing on all instructional cylinders. You take your first student teacher. Your classes this year are right where you want them—the students have begun to trust each other and their own ideas and skills. They’re functioning well. And now—you’re going to turn the teaching over to your young, female student teacher.

You think she’s not likely to have such cooperative classes in her first job. In fact, it took you some time to establish good classroom routines, but hey—that was a long time ago. If she teaches your classes, she might think all kids were that amenable and eager to learn. You ask colleagues for some ideas on how to make her student teaching experience more ‘realistic’—planted behavior problems, stump-the-teacher questions, other ideas to put her on the spot? You’re just trying to give her a taste of the challenges she’s likely to meet. Right?


Stop thinking. Experiment over. Your thoughts?

On the education-group Facebook page where I read a post like this—only not a thought experiment– it was heartening to notice that there were perhaps 50 comments and 45 of them were some variation of ‘what a terrible idea’ or ‘please don’t do this.’

Any student teacher is vulnerable, and tentative. She’ll naturally run into plenty of challenges, no matter how well-behaved the group. While your tips and advice are part of the experience of working with a novice teacher, setting her up for faux problems is not really ethical, dude. You’re supposed to be her guide.

And here’s another thing, something none of the first round of commenters mentioned: There might be a gender dynamic here, including some doubt about a young female teacher’s ability to control a class of high school students. How tempting to be the master teacher, stepping in to save the day, when students are subtly encouraged to relax behavior standards for the student teacher.

If this is beginning feel like a personal story, it is.

Back in the stone age, when I was student teaching, I spent the first two months reorganizing and cataloguing the school’s music library. I handled my cooperating teacher’s correspondence and wrote his monthly column for the band directors’ association. My only ‘teaching’ experience was working one-on-one with isolated students who were having difficulty with a musical passage and giving free flute lessons.

I observed the cooperating teacher work with ‘his’ bands for fourteen weeks, and there was never any spare time for me to direct any group—always a concert or festival coming up, and he wasn’t about to give up his rehearsal time.

Finally, the last week of my student teaching, I got up in front of the high school band, to conduct one piece. The cooperating teacher grabbed someone’s trumpet and started ‘playing student’—slouching, chewing gum, talking loudly. He asked questions he knew I couldn’t answer (Should I play that with an alternate fingering?) and made glaring mistakes. He acted like a jerk. The students laughed.

Any credibility I had with them was gone, in five minutes.

And then, in my final evaluation (which I typed up) he wrote: I think Nancy would be better suited to a position teaching elementary music.

Kind of ironic, since I never had any student teaching experience whatsoever in teaching elementary music. Having now taught music, PK-12, general, vocal and instrumental, I can say with confidence that all levels have challenges.

Cooperating teachers carry great weight in the development of a novice teacher. In my case, I learned what not to do. I learned not to be a bully (and there was a lot more bullying from the podium, back in the 1970s—it was a kind of badge of honor to some). I learned not to control students by fear and threats, but to instill cooperation by being authoritative but kind. I learned that the blood-and-thunder school of band directing was not for me—and I could still have top-notch bands.

And I accepted student teachers. I had a few over my 31 years in the music classroom—and they were all women.  Photo: the author as a first-year teacher.firstyr

What is ‘Quality’ Music? Choosing the Best Materials for Our Students.

Back in the day, when I was an early-career teacher, I was sitting at the judges’ lunch table, at a music festival. It was my first time serving as an adjudicator and the other judges were well-known veteran band directors. One of them was expounding on the poor literature choices made by young band directors. He claimed that identifying quality music was becoming a lost art, and that most newly published band music was ‘trash,’ especially compared to the pieces from the early days of school band programs.

It was out of my mouth before I had time to think: What is ‘quality’ music? How do we know it’s worthy?

His answer was mostly eye-rolling at the other men and sputtering—but he ended by saying that his sainted mother used to listen to country music on the radio, and even as a young lad he knew that it was pure garbage. Nobody was correcting him, by the way. Certainly not me.

I did, however, start thinking more about my own judgment in deciding what music would teach my students the most. I looked for appealing pieces that had some modest challenges embedded. I made some mistakes (buying pieces that were so static and repetitive that even the students were able to see how some music is, well, static and repetitive—and boring). But I also picked some winners, pieces I used again and again, music with some cultural depth or technical tests or simply tunes that the kids loved.

Were my curricular go-tos ‘quality’ music? What features, precisely, comprise quality? Is there a set canon of high-quality titles that should be in every library?

And–who gets to say what those works are, in any discipline? Choosing the best anything is a perennial exercise in taste and appraisal—and over time, the definition of ‘quality’ shifts.

English teachers want their students to read and interact with the most delicious texts. Social Studies teachers want to wrestle with relevant issues and science teachers want to engage their students with scientific solutions to existing real-world problems. What’s most useful and attractive now may not have existed 10 years ago.

I trust teachers to sieve through the Big Ideas and choose good concepts and materials. That’s not possible in many schools, however, where all curricular decisions are made above (if that’s the correct preposition) the classroom. Replacing materials also costs money.

There was a piece in Medium recently that got some deserved attention: Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.  The gist? We need to take a look at the often-racist roots of some American ‘folk music.’

I read about the piece on an Elementary Music Teachers Facebook page. There was a long thread, discussing music that might have problematic origins. Were there ways to get around questionable lyrics while keeping a jaunty, familiar tune? There was a little disagreement—a couple of people upset by ‘political correctness’—but the large majority of the teachers participating thought the article had value in helping them improve their practice by ditching some songs long considered ‘classic.’

Many admitted that all this information was new—and surprising—to them; they could do better. There were comments about high school and college traditional/fight songs with racist roots or references.

I loved reading these conversations. These are questions that teachers should be discussing. Teachers are conscientious for the most part—they want to teach well. They will even occasionally be vulnerable, confessing that they don’t know how to handle a curriculum/instructional dilemma. This discourse supports genuine professional learning.

For music teachers, the next frontier might well be the dearth of music published for school musicians with female or non-white composers.

Composer Dale Trumbore said this:  Let’s talk about quality.

‘I program music based solely on quality.’ ‘I don’t think about race or gender when I program—only whether the music is good.’

This argument is fundamentally flawed. You’re programming based on the quality of music you’ve already heard. If you don’t regularly hear or seek out music by women or composers who aren’t white, their music will never make on to your programs. Lack of quality isn’t the issue here; unconscious programming is.

Is this a key issue for music teachers? It should be. For a dozen reasons—including our old benchmark: quality.

Recently, there was a revelation that a very well-known school band composer, a white man, had been publishing Asian-flavored pieces using a pseudonym that suggested he was a Japanese female. Eventually, he started feeling a bit queasy about the deception (or perhaps his publisher got tired of not having any PR information about ‘Keiko Yamada’). He publicly apologized and recalled all the inventory using his phony name.

The composer, Larry Clark, sat for a long and somewhat rambling interview with Jennifer Jolley, another female composer, explaining, sort of, why he originally chose to use a pseudonym. He is not entirely successful in this effort, although I am certain he now regrets the initial decision. Jolley holds his feet to the fire—it’s a wonderful, in-depth interview. Then she says:

The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. 

I think teachers of all subjects are interested in concepts and materials that show their students the system doesn’t have to be rigged in favor of the privileged—that there are things we all should know and can all appreciate. That curricular materials in all subjects can be authentic and inspiring.

I think I know quality materials when I hear and see them. I also think that our definition of curricular quality has to consider diversity and acknowledge change. Some items are evergreen. Others outlive their usefulness.

How do you define quality?


 Don’t Give Them Your Power

Here’s an eye-catching headline: Middle School Student On A Trip To DC Spat On A Black Person At The African American History Museum.

And the follow-up, somehow even more depressing: The principal of the Connecticut middle school said she did not believe the incident was racially motivated.

There’s more rationalizing, in the local paper. The principal is doing what principals do: trying to express that they’re just kids, prone to goofy adolescent misbehaviors, while explaining just how they’re going to sharply address this in school—assemblies, suspensions, whatever’s in the disciplinary toolbox.

But I’m with Greg Johnson, a local civil rights leader, who said ‘spitting in the museum — opened three years ago to highlight the contributions of African Americans and educating visitors about the history of slavery — was itself a racist act.’

As it happens, I visited the African American History Museum for the first time a few months ago, a road trip with two old friends who were also going for the first time. It was absolutely the best adult field trip ever—it’s a fantastic national resource (thinking like a teacher). And also, one tiny and way-overdue step toward recognizing the unsung economic and cultural contributions of the involuntary diaspora of African-Americans in the United States.

There was a lot to see, to appreciate and to learn. The viewing crowd that day was about 2/3 African American and 1/3 Other. There was a grandmother, wrapped in a colorful homemade afghan in her wheelchair, on a toasty June day–being pushed by an adult granddaughter, who dutifully read the posted copy at each showcase or exhibit. Grandma kept saying ‘Imagine that!’ and every time, her granddaughter rolled her eyes and smiled.

There was a young dad, tracking a wander-y five-year-old, simply telling the boy, at his own level, exactly what they were looking at—the maps, the model ships, the heavy, rusted tools of hard labor. The little boy ran ahead. There is a slave cabin, preserved, transported and rebuilt at the museum. Stepping into the doorway, Dad said ‘this is where one or two whole families of enslaved people lived.’ The boy did a 360-degree turnaround. ‘You kiddin’ me?’ he asked.

It was an amazing day. And then, emerging blinking from the core exhibit, a spiraling, detailed history of slavery, into a sunny atrium, we see them. A half-dozen white boys, middle-school aged –I have 30 years of knowing a middle school boy when I see one–coming down the three-story escalator wearing red MAGA caps. They are, astonishingly enough (or maybe not), accompanied by an adult man, also white, who seems cool with the hats.

People around us freeze, seeing them. A teenaged girl is practically snarling to a friend—Look at them! It’s SO disrespectful. They come HERE—in those hats! Her friend puts a hand on her arm.

Don’t give them your power, she says.

There were more kids in MAGA hats, later in the afternoon, gathering at an appointed spot to meet the bus. Their teachers were busy counting and corralling and wouldn’t have appreciated a question from a stranger: Why didn’t you tell your students to remove their hats? Did you tell them what they were going to see—and why a respectful attitude is required for all visitors to this museum?

Hey. I taught middle school for 30 years. I know that the rules and rationales for visiting this museum may have been hammered out by others, leaving the students’ teachers powerless. It’s better for young adolescents to have had this introductory experience than not.  And, true, 13 year-old boys frequently don’t have great judgment. But all that’s just weak sauce.

Students on any field trip need to be prepared, intellectually, for what they’re going to see or do–or the value of toting kids around to see interesting, meaningful places in the world is seriously diminished. Field trips—like all curricular decisions and activities—are based on the principle that taking students out of the building will make them better able to deal with the ideas and challenges of the real world.

And it’s always wrong to be disrespectful, on purpose, in the real world. Always.

In ‘White People are Broken’, Katherine Fugate shares a story about another museum, and still more white kids wearing MAGA hats, who are confronted by a young black man of the same age, who quietly explains to them that their hats make him uncomfortable. Fugate stands silently by the young man, hoping he will see her as an ally. The MAGA hat students are confused, saying it’s their country. It’s everyone’s country, he replies.

Occasionally, you can read columns–or comments–suggesting that teachers should stick strictly to transmitting factual disciplinary content and stay away from values. There is no such thing, however, as opening students’ flip-top heads and pouring in knowledge. All knowledge, skills and judgment are learned in context, through interaction and practice.

A lot of what is learned in school—and through school-based activities—isn’t ‘content,’ or ‘skills’, per se. It’s how the most important knowledge and skills are useless, unless they’re applicable to living. It’s how to be a thoughtful, curious, responsive person in this world. Or not.

Which means that wearing a MAGA hat in the African American Museum of History and Culture is not just a bad fashion choice. It is, instead, a hateful coded message. And spitting is not just an impulsive decision made by someone too young to know better. It’s an act of degradation, indefensible.

After all, it is truly everyone’s country. Make good choices, and don’t relinquish your power to hate.  AfAm Museum