Posts by nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.

Rule Followers, Unite! And Stay Alive…

Meme wisdom: Those who have stayed inside, worn masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.

Of all the hundreds of things I’ve read about distancing, risk assessment, statistical analyses and their failings, back to school/stay home, and whether masking is really an IQ test—I like this one the best.

Every teacher with a couple years’ experience recognizes those kids: the ones who do what they’re supposed to do, even if it means picking up considerable slack generated by other kids. Community-minded kids are not always academic superstars, by the way—some of those really resent having to share their superior intellectual skills in the service of a good grade for a group. They will let the teacher know that, too.

In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.

After all, we were playing together. Music is not an interpersonal competition—it’s a group project. We need each other. That was the party line in the band room, anyway—and most kids actually believed it and lived it. It didn’t come naturally, however.

The question is: how do cooperative kids get to be that way? What is the secret sauce that feeds a sense of community responsibility over personal gratification? How can we have pride and true excellence, while staying within the guardrails of kindness and collaboration?

The quick and easy answer is that children learn (or don’t learn) this concept at home: Our family is a team. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be selfish. Use your manners. Think of others. Share.

I would suggest that students also learn (or don’t learn) these behaviors and beliefs in school—and from absorbing an endless stream of media. And by living in the United States. As Bob Wachter says:

America is good at many things. But handling a pandemic—at least in our current political atmosphere—isn’t one of them. In fact, we suck. We’re too individualistic, too spoiled, too vain, too partisan, and too willing to believe misinformation, conspiracies or craziness.

Yikes.

Still, I’ve been having conversations with teachers—both retired, and still in the classroom—who express surprise and horror at things their former students are saying online: No way am I wearing a mask. This whole thing is so overblown. Even if we get a vaccine, I won’t trust it. I need a haircut! This violates our constitutional rights. I heard they’re just saying everyone who dies had COVID. I think Bill Gates is behind this.

So much for the value of science, the actual documents and principles of our government, statistical analysis and media critique skills. Nice job, Teach! Sigh.

In a class on International Education, a Japanese teacher told us that the first goal in every elementary classroom in Japan was a focus on building community—acceptance of every child, no matter what their academic skills or personality, as a valuable and functional member of the group. We work together, we clean together, we play together, she said. It’s our social foundation.

Indeed, many teachers in the United States do several of the same things—build their classroom communities and procedures for working together early in the year, knowing that it’s a worthwhile investment of time that pays off in better discussions, a better atmosphere, better individual and group work. Whatever success teachers had in their lightning-quick shift to distance learning was built on relationships that were nurtured early in the 2019-20 school year.

The problem is that these practices—establishing caring communities, cooperative learning—aren’t always valued in the American system. Following agreed-upon rules becomes a fool’s game, something that only suckers and goody two-shoes types buy into. Japan is a homogeneous society, we’re told—but we, here in the home of the so-called free, are more diverse. We must rely on our individual strengths and ruthless determination to get ahead.

And so we end up with this—and this, both of which illustrate the point where  refusal to comply with simple rules becomes psychopathy. Plus—staggering COVID infection and death rates that could have been prevented or mitigated if everyone—parents, educators, and political leaders—did their part and followed the guidelines.

How do we get people to obey the rules? Ask a teacher. A few quick thoughts:

  • Mandates and punishments seldom work to change behavior in schools. Likewise, we can’t arrest every person who tries to enter a business without a mask, or crowds behind us in line. The more time we spend enforcing rules and punishing students, the more we get this escalation and anger. Schools now defunding in-house police officers are moving in the right direction. Force is the blunt instrument of compliance, as some segments of American society know only too well. Force leads to more force, and all of this is based on fear, a terrible motivator.
  • Incentives have temporary value. Teachers who gave obedient students Jolly Ranchers know this–it’s basic Skinnerian conditioning, and eventually masks the real goal in favor of the reward. You can give customers wearing masks five percent off their purchase, but the habit is short-lived.
  • Community disapproval sometimes works, if gentle, but it can horribly backfire, as any teacher with one recalcitrant troublemaker prone to public fit-pitching will tell you. Being shut out of a community is a painful experience for all humans, children and adults. It seldom leads to permanent changes in attitude and can, over time, damage children and adults. Use cautiously.
  • Persuasion seems to be a wonderful way to change anti-community behaviors. If only it were quick and easy, to just ‘listen to the scientists’ and do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what experts and authorities have to say or how many times you post that clever graphic about the percentages of virus suppression with/without masks—persuasion and its ugly cousin, shaming, seldom work without a long, gradual period of shifting values. We’re a nation of skeptics, encouraged by myth and law to ‘stand our ground’–and our selfish habits die hard.
  • Modeling can be effective in schools, especially adults who model kindness and cooperation. When children see adults behaving responsibly and with a generous spirit, they get the idea that we’re better off working together (at least at school). Modeling works less well with adults, but it’s always worth trying.
  • Leadership is a powerful tool in sustaining a school community and creating a climate of safety and caring. I know lots of teachers and school leaders who had students and staff eating out of their hands, due to strong character and clearly expressed values. We have seen some genuine political leadership during this crisis, as well as abject failure. In fact, it’s never been clearer how much leadership matters—it’s emphatically not true that all politicians are crooked and only interested in benefitting themselves.

The literature on leadership is vast and often contradictory, but every nation that has been successful in quickly changing the habits of its citizens to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus has powerful and well-regarded leaders. In the battle to get citizens to follow the rules we need both leadership and courage. We also need to remember that all these tools can be used for the wrong ends.

It takes courage to call out citizens who are endangering others, people who value their own temporary pleasure over the well-being of others. Heedless people. Selfish people.

People who are tired of being the ones who do all the work in that whole group project, UNITE!

Photo by Will Harper. The local sheriff, when contacted by marina staff, declined to come.

Michigan Republicans Attempt to Get Out Ahead in Back-to-School Policy

The first thing I did when I retired from teaching was embark on a PhD program in education policy. When I enrolled, my advisor wondered immediately why a newly retired teacher would want to study education policy. She thought I should be in the teacher education program—or maybe the ed leadership division, with all the wannabe superintendents.

But I wanted to study education policy—to see just how the sausage was made, by whom and for what reasons. As a long-suffering object of education policy, I wanted to untangle the process that had so often made me ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

I learned a number of things, most of which weren’t part of any syllabus, none more important than the fact that education policy creation is seldom measured and thoughtful, informed by research, goodwill and common goals.

John Kingdon, one of the most influential thinkers on policy creation, believes that there are ‘windows’ where changes in policy become possible as three streams—a problem, a policy proposal, and politics converge to yield something new.

That’s where we are right now. Big problem: returning to school (or not) during a pandemic. Tons of policy options to address this problem. Politics swirling around the issue, from state control over health mandates, a bitter election season and the devastated economy. What does this mean to our youngest citizens? How will they be educated? This is an oversized picture window for policy creation.

Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, announced a ‘Return to Learn Advisory Council’ in mid-May. It was composed of educators, school leaders, public health coordinators and mental health specialists. The panel would use a data-informed and science-based approach with input from epidemiologists to determine if, when and how students can return to school this fall and what that will look like.‘  Last week, Whitmer said that students will be going back to school in some form, as long as our numbers remain low and the virus is reasonably controlled. All good, right? The rest is TBD.

Yesterday, Republicans in the state legislature released a one-page plan that they labeled ‘Return to Learn’ (sound familiar?)–and it is not really based on science or even data, unless you count the ROI numbers that the ed-tech-corp folks must be running about now (Ding! Ding! Ding!).

Perhaps the Republican legislators read Kingdon, and fear that the window to impose their will might close unless they wrest control of the policy proposals and (especially, given the governor’s 70% approval rating) politics.

The document is a mess (D- to the communications outfit they hired to write it). It’s filled with familiar, yet awkwardly worded, edu-mush like ‘Learning doesn’t stop when a student leaves the classroom. Schools should be measured for how they engage students, not how long a student sits in a seat.’

And there’s this gem: ‘Understanding a student’s knowledge of critical concepts is important to ensuring instruction is focused on the most-needed areas.’ I wonder who thought that one up.

My personal favorite: ‘Our plan empowers school districts to develop flexible learning plans for the 2020-21 school year to maximize student learning.’ What does that even mean?

Most of the items seem to be code for a few things the Republicans have long wanted—‘efficiency’ in education policy– and haven’t been able to get. In veiled and gauzy language, and extremely short on specifics, they cover all the various policy models I learned about in grad school:

Mandates:

  • Students absolutely will be tested whenever they return to school (no worries, testing companies). Because otherwise we’ll have no idea ‘where they are at academically.’
  •  Forgiven snow days (a really big deal in Michigan) would be limited to two (currently, six snow days don’t have to count toward annual required seat time, and school districts can apply for three more in an exceptionally snowy winter). For a document that proclaims ‘how long a student sits in a seat’ doesn’t matter, this is a bit inconsistent, but the legislature seems to be trying to appear tough, the law-making equivalent of ‘I had to walk through drifts to get to school, damn it, and these kids can, too.’ This and other items appear to be things the legislature is still smarting over, and wants to re-litigate, even though they have little to do with the pandemic.
  • In-person instruction will be required for grades K-5. This appears to be a gift to parents who must work, as the cutoff age for needing a babysitter is probably 11 or 12 years of age.
  • Benchmark assessments must be used. (You’re not getting out of that, you lazy teachers!)
  • Online learners will get the same scope and sequence of curriculum, and the same day and hour requirements as those learning in person. No more one-hour Zoom meetings followed by independent work or reading, even though ‘learning doesn’t stop when the student leaves the classroom.’ This appears to be assurance that the online education they’re gunning for is just as good for older kids as face to face classrooms.
  • Schools will be directed to focus only on math, reading, science and social studies, called ‘the basics.’ You know what means, and what will be missing, come fall.

Persuasive Policies:

  • There’s a whole section on health and safety, but all it says is that schools will ‘partner’ with their local health departments to ‘ensure’ health and safety practices that ‘make sense,’ and that intermediate school districts will get $80 million to ‘coordinate safe learning measures,’ whatever that means. No money directly to school districts for these health and safety needs. For example, cleaning and sanitizing, ventilation systems, more classroom space, masks. Stuff like that.

Inducements:

  • There’s a section on ‘Restarting Extracurricular Activities Safely’—with a lot of murky language about empowering parents and local guidance. If you don’t understand what that means, there’s a little basketball icon to subtly explain: Yes, there will be sports.
  • A one-time $500 reward for ‘front-line’ teachers. This—essentially a signing bonus for coming back to teach during a teacher shortage as well as a dangerous pandemic—fools not one single teacher. It’s not gratitude. It’s desperation.

System-changing Policies:

  • The lack of specificity, beyond the 5th grade, and the drumbeat of ‘innovation’ and, especially a promise of $800 per student to implement ‘robust distance learning’ is the biggest deal here. In fact, the concept of ‘attendance’ will be ‘redefined’ to mean ‘engaged in instruction rather than physically present.’ That’s huge. Who needs bricks and mortar schools—except for sports?
  • Schools have already been told to expect cuts—as much as $2000 per student, in a state where baseline funding per student hovers just over $8000/per. Now, in a financial sleight of hand, the legislature is promising $800 per student to spend on distance learning plans.

There’s more, hidden in the policy weeds and glittering generalities, but we all know that a budget, not fancy talk, is how priorities are revealed. A lot of this language comes directly from the Great Lakes Education Project, a DeVos-funded policy house

You don’t need a degree in education policy to see this sloppy one-pager for what it is—exactly the kind of ‘innovation’ that will make educators ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

Strummin’ on the Old Banjo

About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.

Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.

The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.

The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.

In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.

Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’

The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’

The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?

There were two distinct schools of thought:

  • One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
  • Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.

At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?

More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.

The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.

When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.

Thankfully, these issues have not gone away. Dialogue between music teachers has become richer and digging into folk music and popular standards has revealed a lot of low-level, unrecognized or underestimated racism, in addition to the blatant, out-there stuff. There is significant scholarship around the value of non-Western music—and pushback as well; this piece and the comments are a good example.

I frequently read threads now on music educators’ groups, as well as journals, articles and casual conversations about musical literature and how to re-think habitual literature choices. Nine out of ten preservice music teachers are white. This is a big deal.

For white teachers, reading through compilations of music with racist roots that they’ve sung as children and used in their classrooms is similar to teachers who love Dr. Seuss learning that his books carry some racist baggage.  I’ve been working on the railroad? How can that be racist?

The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’ says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.

But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that I prefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.

About Joe Biden…

If you only read this blog for thoughts and opinions about education, here’s one you can skip.

I’ve been thinking about Joe Biden.

If you think this is going to be one of those ‘Joe Biden was not even close to my favorite candidate but we all have to vote for him because we’re at the edge of the abyss’ blogs—it’s not.  (Although that’s true.) 

It’s also not a blog about how we have to fix Joe Biden, by pushing him leftward and micro-managing all the choices he makes, beginning with the woman who ultimately becomes his Vice-Presidential pick. It’s already obvious that whomever he chooses, there will be a segment of likely Democratic voters who think she’s the wrong choice and will post long strings of articles critical of her former career, lack of proper experience, age, and personality.

Nor is it a blog about policy, although policy is totally, totally my thing. We can fly-speck every piece of legislation Joe Biden has ever had his hands on, going back more than 45 years, the reasonable and the terrible. But as the guy currently occupying the White House illustrates—a policy platform is just a piece of paper, not (as you may have assumed) an important statement of the party’s core principles and goals.

I mean this literally—the Republicans just announced they will, in fact, be recycling their old platform from 2016; Jared wants to shrink it down to a bulleted 3 x 5 card. He probably wants to drown it in a bathtub, too.

This year, for them, it’s all about Trump: Love him or leave him. The rest? Meaningless detail.

The Republicans obviously understand how little most Americans care about policy specifics. It makes me wonder why the people I’m in conversation with have started so many social media fights over such marginal issues as which candidate had the most extravagant education funding multipliers, the most generous  health care plan, or the most ideologically pure campaign staffers.

A few weeks ago, friends I respect were posting pieces and supportive thoughts about Tara Reade, the woman who accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her, decades ago. These were people who—like me—were disappointed that we ended up with Joe Biden. They saw him as a deeply, irreparably flawed candidate and Reade as a woman who, like Christine Blausey Ford, had just been afraid to come forward.

There was heat on some of these threads, anger over what appeared to be a double standard in defending some women who had been harassed, but castigating others. Most people were willing to admit that we will never know the truth, but some kept the sharp criticisms of Biden rolling, saying inflammatory things like ‘We shouldn’t have to choose between two rapists’– way over the line.

What did they hope to gain? Well, maybe a brokered convention. Or a Joe Biden who realized he wasn’t up to the fight–and withdrew his name. Someone else to run against Trump. I’m not just spit-balling here. These were things people put in writing. They couldn’t vote for him.

Since then, Reade’s story has fallen apart, pretty convincingly, through a lot of good reporting—like this. And this, and this, and this—and, most comprehensively, this. It’s even possible to imagine that we have learned some things about accusations of sexual misconduct, and how to sort out those that have merit from those that emerge from some other place.

But that still leaves us with Joe Biden, a man about whom many people on the left express marginal enthusiasm or outright contempt. How did we get here?

Go back—way back, a year ago. From June 17, 2019:

 Former Vice President Joe Biden is still leading the Democratic primary, but is potentially seeing some soft spots in his foundation, according to a group of polls released in recent days. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders has plateaued, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is surging, with Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg holding steady right behind the top three.

It’s hard to remember, but Biden led the pack for many months in 2019. Pundits said it was just name recognition, and Biden’s association with a popular former president. The current POTUS was cooking up crooked ways to destroy the Biden family, a quid pro quo that would play out on TV for half the year and reveal the depth of rot and feckless power-mongering in one party. Plus, there were other, better choices for President—both on the progressive side and more centrist candidates.

It seems remarkable now that we ended up with Uncle Joe, the uninspiring veteran pol with the long history of mistakes, gaffes and foibles.

Then we had a grossly mismanaged pandemic. And millions of outraged citizens calling for change, marching in the streets in face masks. And the military reminding the current president its job was to protect our nation, not Neiman Marcus or Tiffany’s.

I have started to think of Joe Biden as the boy next door, or the bowl of chicken noodle soup we long for when we’re sick. Bland, but soothing, something that everyone likes when they can’t breathe—literally or metaphorically.

He may, in fact, be just the ticket—someone disillusioned white men who thought Trump could give them back their jobs would vote for, seeing him as a blue-collar everyman. Someone white suburban women, fed up with the white male phalanxes in every WH photo op, could vote for. And we already know that it was black voters who put Biden back into the primary.

At this moment, I doubt if there’s another Democrat (including the ones I was enthusiastic about) who would be a more universally acceptable candidate to America. Joe isn’t breaking down any barriers, true, but what we need right now is someone a strong majority can vote for.

There’s been some nastiness among progressives around Biden’s carefully doled-out public appearances, and refusal to embrace defunding police, among other issues. Many veteran pols (LBJ springs to mind) used their moderate public profiles to institute great changes in policy, however. And if all Joe Biden does is serve as calming, unifying presence to a bleeding nation, that’s OK. We have to be healthy before we can take advantage of the window of change now opening.

I’m with Joe. And not just because I have no other choice.

Passing Counterfeit Money and Other Thoughts on Policing

Here’s a story about passing counterfeit money:

I was traveling, in Amsterdam, about five years ago. I was nearly out of cash, so I went to an ATM in a modern mall, part of the Centraal Station area, where trains and trams transport passengers from all over the world. I got 100 euros, using my debit card. I did a little tourist-shopping. Then I stopped for a coffee and a croissant, at a Starbucks. The ultimate American thing to do.

When I got to the cashier, I gave him a ten-euro note from the cash I got from the ATM. He passed it through a machine and, in pleasant, Dutch-inflected English, informed me that the bill was counterfeit.

I was stunned—it can’t be, I said. I just got it from an ATM. He smiled, turned the machine toward me. Watch, he said. Then passed the bill under the machine several times, each time registering a bluish light and a red text: COUNTERFEIT. He pulled a pen-like device out from the cash register and ran it over the bill, as well. It was bad money, all right.

Do you have another way to pay? he asked. Preferably not a credit card?

I did. I gave him a handful of coins, change from other purchases, and it was good. He handed the counterfeit bill back to me. I don’t want it, I said. It’s policy, he said. 

I put it back into my zippered travel purse, and he said—ever so politely—you may want to keep that separate from your other money. I pulled it out and stuffed it into my pocket.

I was humiliated, although the cashier could not have been nicer. I left the Starbucks and drank the coffee standing up, out of sight, thinking dark thoughts about how a bank could have given me a bad bill. There was also no recourse. I could hardly go to the bank (if I could even find a bricks-and-mortar bank with the right name) and tell them that they gave me a bogus ten-euro note, demanding my money (approximately 12 dollars) back.

I went back to where we were staying and compared the bill with other ten-euro notes. I could not see the difference.  I thought about why a Starbucks in an international crossroads would scan every single bill, and how a usually reliable source of currency like a major bank could make a (face it, relatively minor) mistake. Stuff happens, as the bumper sticker says.

Eventually, I realized how incredibly lucky I was. I was a middle-aged white woman tourist, obviously (to the guy in Starbucks) American—probably to everyone else I passed. I was treated as if—of course—I had inadvertently been given a bad bill.

No harm, no foul. Just pay for your coffee. Stop being a Karen.

As the conversation in America moves to defunding or reshaping police forces across the country, it’s worth thinking about all the minor infractions happening every day in the realm of criminal justice, and how we interpret those as seriously criminal or merely needing correction. Potentially harmful things we all do—not using your turn signal on occasion, for example—but only some of us pay for.

It’s also worth thinking about infractions we deal with in the classroom, where teachers police the behaviors of children.  

Any teacher who is honest with herself will, if pressed, acknowledge that some kids get away with more. That we—at least mentally—label kids: Sneaky. Helpful. Lazy. Compliant. Honest—or dishonest.

The first (and only) time a genuine crime was committed in my classroom happened over 25 years ago, when a saxophone was stolen. The child who owned the saxophone suddenly ‘couldn’t find’ it. I thought it would turn up—my personal assumption was that the saxophone’s owner was ‘careless.’

After a month or so, I got a call from the local music store. A woman had tried to sell the saxophone in question to the store, which also dealt in used instruments, saying it was no longer needed by her daughter. Fortunately, the store kept serial numbers of instruments it had sold over time, and it was, indeed, the missing saxophone.

The child who lifted the sax from the band room was a compliant and helpful student. Her mother, who tried to cash in on a stolen instrument, was on the school board. When I brought the mess to my principal, he directed me not to tell anyone. Because it would make US look bad.

The missing sax was returned to its owner—whose parents were not informed that someone tried to sell their kid’s possession. Even though we knew. No harm, no foul. Don’t rock the boat.

All of these people are white, of course.

Things have got to change.

Changing What We Teach

Over the past couple of days, there has been a steady stream of resources, generously shared, for anti-racist teaching.  Here, for example.  Here, here and here and here. And this, just this afternoon.

There are plenty of articles out there speculating on when and how we go back to school, and the consequences of going back too soon. But all the handwringing over alternate schedules, classroom lunches and sanitizing the playground are a great example of focusing on the urgent rather than the important.

Going back to School as Usual only works for a segment of privileged kids in well-resourced schools. All schools, including those where parent satisfaction is high and student achievement is admirable, can benefit from re-thinking what we teach—more than how we teach.

There have been endless conversations on Twitter and Facebook about the value of suggested resources and materials, just how age-appropriate they are, and how they intersect—or don’t—with traditional, standards-based curricula. These conversations, even when argumentative and heated, are good.

This is (or should be) teachers’ professional work. These should be the things we’re reading about, dissecting with our colleagues, discussing with our friends. We can’t go on merely doing what we always did. That’s not teaching. That’s mindless reproduction. It’s clear that it’s not working.

This will involve changing who we are and what we think, sometimes. Take this school superintendent in Michigan, for example, who commented, on his Facebook page:   

“Burning, breaking windows, and looting is also an injustice — what happened to Floyd was wrong! A criminal response is also wrong. Any statement otherwise, condones and perpetuates both criminal acts!!  …it all starts with being a law abiding citizen – had he not paid with counterfeit money, had he not resisted, had he not been under the influence — then there would be no contact with officers; that does not excuse the officer; it just eliminates the conflict to begin with!! It starts with being a good citizen!”

Yeah.  Superintendent of a district with more than 5000 students.

But—I have seen and heard other remarks like his in the past week, and in many years past, in times of unrest. From all kinds of people who see themselves as well-meaning, even progressive. From teachers, too, who see themselves as ‘good citizens.’

Which is why we must do more than space desks six feet apart and set up hand-washing stations. What good is school if it’s just transmitting sterile, pre-approved information, teaching basic skills and collecting data? Why take the risk, unless students we’re giving students something of value, something that challenges them to create a better world?

Skimming through the resources shared by teachers who want to know more about anti-racist teaching, I had a familiar ache: I miss having my own classroom. There is nothing like the juice of having a few hundred students (music teachers often have a few hundred students) and plenty of occasions to talk with them about social justice and equity—and cultural appropriation.

If there were any one thing I hoped my students would learn, it would be an awareness that they’re consuming black musical culture without crediting it to the correct source–or respecting it. That’s the reason I did any anti-racist work (and I’m not suggesting I was good at it): my students were soaking in the outcomes of how to creatively make music out of oppression, and they were totally unaware of it.

We need anti-racist curriculum, all right. Including–maybe even especially–in the arts.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my colleagues, about doing a unit–this was back before the curriculum was steered strictly by CCSS–on ‘tolerance.’ She was teaching 8th grade English and wanted to do some readings and discussions. I got excited about the kinds of music that could support and weave through that kind of unit–artists and composers and reasons why music has value in the culture, helps bridge differences.

We talked about what the community might push back against–we doubted that parents would openly confront teachers over readings about racism, but agreed a handful were likely to complain about readings about tolerance around sexual orientation.

Tolerance (a weak word, but hang with me) might be defined in such a unit as:

In a particular time or place…who is it OK to beat up on a Saturday night? A hundred years ago, for example, it was OK to beat up your wife or girlfriend. The police and neighbors would overlook that as ‘family business.’ That was tolerated. That’s not OK any more—at least on paper. It’s also no longer OK to beat up an immigrant, someone of a different ethnicity or color, or someone with a different sexual orientation.

Except—we can all think of plenty of current examples where tolerance of difference has been shattered. For plenty of spurious reasons. Including righteous declarations about ‘citizenship.’

We’re in trouble. We need to teach our children to do better. We need to look hard at coded language. We need to emphasize the most basic civic acts: Voting. Speaking out. Media literacy. Being broadly informed, about a range of issues. Talking to our neighbors and families.

All of that takes courage. Not as much courage as taking to the streets, but courage. If we just go back to school and do the same old things, then all the ‘learning community’ and ‘21st century’ and ‘high and rigorous’ blah-blah we’ve been tossing around doesn’t reflect what our students observe with their own eyes. If we don’t take this opportunity to teach what matters, we don’t deserve the honor and responsibility of being educators.

All about the Mask

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy

When I read this quote by Arundhati Roy, it felt like she was speaking directly to educators, as they contemplate the return to school: our data banks and dead ideas vs. a completely new conception of how to equitably and even joyfully–a word that is nearly verboten in these discussions—educate our young.

What’s worth fighting for? What do we keep, and what are we willing to leave behind, passing through this portal?

Because it is a gateway to a new world. Consider this headline: Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine:

Embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of America’s pandemic response, experts say. A future with an enduring coronavirus means that normal no longer exists.

The struggle to get people to think long-term, of course, is not new to public health. We know that smoking can kill us. Yet, it is still responsible for 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States.

“The problem is people putting the present ahead of the future,” said Tom Frieden, who led the CDC from 2009 to 2017.

Ah yes. Every teacher in America is intimately familiar with those who put an entertaining, carefree present WAY ahead of a sober, worthwhile future. They’re called students.

But students are hardly the only folks who value today’s pleasures over tomorrow’s safety and security. My timeline is filled with exclamations over first forays out into the community, and how few people are willing to follow the rules.

Following the rules is another thing that teachers are all too familiar with—and masks and social distancing are now the dividing point between those who are willing to put up with a little inconvenience and discomfort to keep the rest of the community as safe as possible, and those who (often adamantly) aren’t.

I realize that this is one of those ‘two kinds of people in the world’ gross oversimplifications. But it helps us to understand why a Pennsylvania legislator would deliberately put his opposite-party colleagues at risk while keeping those in his party informed and safe.  My team vs. your team—even when the stakes are life and death.

I was amused to see Angela Duckworth (she of grit celebrity) write in the NY Times:

How do we create a social norm of mask-wearing when, in fact, so many Americans are doing exactly the opposite? One common mistake is drawing attention to the lack of compliance. For instance, highlighting littering as a commonplace problem can inadvertently lead to more littering because it strengthens the perception that littering is the norm. Instead, in press releases and public service announcements, officials should emphasize that the clear trend in this country is toward universal mask-wearing. Norms are also established by high-status role models. 

I don’t agree with much of what Duckworth writes, but on this topic, at this moment, she’s right. 

These are lessons I learned—often painfully—as a young teacher:  Some kids are looking for attention, and will get it any way they can, so it’s much better to focus on their community-minded behaviors than their transgressions. For some kids, outwitting authority is a game—so you have to figure out, first, how, and why, they lost respect for authority. A classroom filled with happy children who understand the rules benefit them is vastly better than a classroom filled with kids who obey out of fear of being punished.

I was pleased to see, in Heather Cox Richardson’s daily newsletter this morning an acknowledgement that masks have become symbolic—and that:

…anti-maskers are losing ground to those advocating mask-wearing. While Trump still refuses to wear one, McConnell, and FNC personality Sean Hannity, among others, have called for wearing masks to help contain the coronavirus.

I want Heather Cox Richardson to be right. But on Monday, I saw plenty of people—in my own little, reasonably safe town—without masks. People not being respectful to the trumpeter on the corner, playing Taps. People gathering in close-in groups to catch up on two months’ worth of gossip. Adults being terrible role models for children.

My inner teacher—hey! (fingersnap)– was seriously activated. I had to remind myself that the best thing I could do was wear my own mask and keep my own distance. Stay on the right side of the divide.

I’m trying to take Arundhati Roy’s advice and walk through this world with little luggage—beyond my mask—looking for a better way to live, and to educate our precious children. There’s much that can be discarded. But not the building of caring communities—that’s what we must fight for first. It’s central to our ultimate health, virus or no virus.



Memorial Day 2020

On Memorial Day, I have often dusted off an old column I originally wrote a dozen years ago. It’s about how I never lost my love and appreciation for Memorial Day as an opportunity for school bands and community members to commemorate the sacrifices made so we could live peacefully.

It always seemed like a great lesson for public school children to learn: gratitude and civics.  

When parents would call, a few days before the parade, and say—hey, Jason won’t be at the parade Monday because we have company coming for a day at the lake, I never responded with anger or points-off punishments.

But I would feel sad about the missed opportunity for students and their families to take a couple of hours to honor our own history, our own heroes. Memorial Day services are one of the few chances we get to put our communal, democratic values on display, without glorifying war or violence.

When we moved up north, I joined a community band and chorus which have been at the heart of a Memorial Day service here for decades. No parade—most band and choir members are retirees. But we’ve played a service in a misty rain as well as blazing sun. It’s always the same: a few patriotic tunes, a speaker, a prayer. Then Taps.

This Memorial Day, there will be no traditional service at the Northport Cemetery. No inspiring message, no Scouts raising the flag, no Village Voices singing ‘The Last Full Measure of Devotion’–and no Community Band playing ‘National Emblem’. It is too risky to bring the town’s residents together to honor the military sacrifices made so we can enjoy life on our beautiful, peaceful peninsula.

Instead, the Northport Community Band will be offering a ‘Rolling Taps’ to those who live in Northport. Sixteen members of the band’s brass section will station themselves around town and, one after the other, play Taps. The tribute will begin at the Northport sign, at the South end of town, moving northward a block at a time, and travel through the Village, each player handing off to the next. The final player will be stationed at the cannon in the Northport Cemetery.

The director of the band found it easy to recruit players. Everyone was pleased to find a way to contribute in keeping a cherished tradition—Memorial Day in Northport—alive. If our grandfathers could storm the beaches at Normandy, one trumpeter said, we can certainly stand on the corner and play Taps. It’s the very least we can do to honor those who sacrificed so much more.

Village residents are welcome to listen from their front porches, their bikes or cars, but are asked to maintain a good distance from brass players as they perform, and refrain from talking or applauding.  Taps—originally a bugle call to signal lights out, a time of rest—has become the most solemn military funeral call, a way to thank and say goodbye to those who served their nation.

Much of the Northport Band’s and Village Voices’ summer season has been cancelled. There’s reason to be sad. But there’s also reason to remember sacrifices made. There are sacrifices being made right now, for the health and strength of this nation. Let us continue to keep the flame burning, beginning on Memorial Day.

Day is done. Gone the sun. From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.

Memorial Day 2020

On Memorial Day, I have often dusted off an old column I originally wrote a dozen years ago. It’s about how I never lost my love and appreciation for Memorial Day as an opportunity for school bands and community members to commemorate the sacrifices made so we could live peacefully.

It always seemed like a great lesson for public school children to learn: gratitude and civics.  

When parents would call, a few days before the parade, and say—hey, Jason won’t be at the parade Monday because we have company coming for a day at the lake, I never responded with anger or points-off punishments.

But I would feel sad about the missed opportunity for students and their families to take a couple of hours to honor our own history, our own heroes. Memorial Day services are one of the few chances we get to put our communal, democratic values on display, without glorifying war or violence.

When we moved up north, I joined a community band and chorus which have been at the heart of a Memorial Day service here for decades. No parade—most band and choir members are retirees. But we’ve played a service in a misty rain as well as blazing sun. It’s always the same: a few patriotic tunes, a speaker, a prayer. Then Taps.

This Memorial Day, there will be no traditional service at the Northport Cemetery. No inspiring message, no Scouts raising the flag, no Village Voices singing ‘The Last Full Measure of Devotion’–and no Community Band playing ‘National Emblem’. It is too risky to bring the town’s residents together to honor the military sacrifices made so we can enjoy life on our beautiful, peaceful peninsula.

Instead, the Northport Community Band will be offering a ‘Rolling Taps’ to those who live in Northport. Sixteen members of the band’s brass section will station themselves around town and, one after the other, play Taps. The tribute will begin at the Northport sign, at the South end of town, moving northward a block at a time, and travel through the Village, each player handing off to the next. The final player will be stationed at the cannon in the Northport Cemetery.

The director of the band found it easy to recruit players. Everyone was pleased to find a way to contribute in keeping a cherished tradition—Memorial Day in Northport—alive. If our grandfathers could storm the beaches at Normandy, one trumpeter said, we can certainly stand on the corner and play Taps. It’s the very least we can do to honor those who sacrificed so much more.

Village residents are welcome to listen from their front porches, their bikes or cars, but are asked to maintain a good distance from brass players as they perform, and refrain from talking or applauding.  Taps—originally a bugle call to signal lights out, a time of rest—has become the most solemn military funeral call, a way to thank and say goodbye to those who served their nation.

Much of the Northport Band’s and Village Voices’ summer season has been cancelled. There’s reason to be sad. But there’s also reason to remember sacrifices made. There are sacrifices being made right now, for the health and strength of this nation. Let us continue to keep the flame burning, beginning on Memorial Day.

Day is done. Gone the sun. From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.

Thinking WAY Out of the Education Box

Heartwarming current ed-news:
Indiana decides that every teacher deserves to be Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2020!

Education Week gives us another five creative ideas for how to pandemic-proof your graduation ceremony!

Don’t miss 10 Ways to Inject a Little Fun into the End of the School Year!

Because that’s about where the education community is, right now— dealing with one crisis at a time.

We adamantly reject the ed-tech dream of empty classrooms and every kid at home with a device. We know how badly that’s worked, even when teachers had six full months to get to know their students, in person. But we can’t quite wrap our heads around what’s next. When we try, it feels like admitting that the prospect of School As We Knew It is probably down for the count.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a blog suggesting that we start thinking about a modified ‘gap year—an admission that school would not be the same until we had confirmed medical solutions for combatting the coronavirus. So we might try ginning up some creative ideas about what to do with P-16 students in the intervening year. It was pretty amorphous service-learning stuff, with young adults and older teens combining on-line coursework with outdoor work and safe environmental or community health projects, a CCC or Peace Corps Lite, adapted to 2020.

That blog got lots of pushback, some of it downright hostile, with nearly all the angst coming from teachers. Nope, they said. Not going to let teens pull garlic mustard out of the woods or direct traffic at COVID testing sites. Not going to let them paint or plant or build. They need to learn! In classrooms! Colleges will fail outright if we encourage a gap year. That can’t happen!

Eventually, I realized that this was grief talking. The anger stage of grief—or maybe denial or bargaining, but grief, all right. Something we love, and have invested our lives in, is now impossible, without a lot of too-risky practices. We’re sad. We’re belligerent. We’re not going to let go of our carefully honed practice or our dreams for our children.

This week, the CDC guidelines for returning to schools, day camps and day care centers became widely available, and the arguments are around whether a particular meme-ish interpretation of the guidelines is accurate. What does ‘if possible’ mean? Are we at Step One or Two? Is it true that the one-page summary was written by a homeschooler, trying to take another swipe at public education?

Because those are things we can deal with—we’re used to counteracting anti-public education crapola, unfortunately. It’s easy to argue about the rules, and how expensive they would be to implement. It’s easy to say that whoever wrote the rules has never been in a classroom with actual children. It’s easy to complain about not being invited to the table. Again. It’s incredibly easy to shoot down every single strategy, from bus-riding to individually packaged lunches.

We’re tired. We know how much work online learning is—how many ‘trial and error’ pedagogical strategies we’ve attempted, then rejected. We’re heartily sick of parents second-guessing the balance of synchronous and asynchronous work, especially under the guise of teacher ‘accountability.’ We know that access to the internet is sketchy, and our hearts break to see how some of our students must adapt.

Here’s the thing, however.  It’s time to put forth solutions (temporary or long-term) from the standpoint of educator expertise. To accept that nothing is the same for the foreseeable future. That ‘temporary’ changes we make now may be set in concrete, eventually. That we can learn a great deal from systems around the world . . .  and in our own neighborhoods. That now may be the time to save money on some things (no more testing) and put them toward others (smaller class sizes).

Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.

We have adapted to things before: Seat belts and helmets. No smoking. Airport security. Changes in diet. Cars, instead of horses.  Wars. The freaking Internet.

We can do this. In fact, there’s nobody better prepared to re-think how school works than people who work in (and love) schools.

NOW is the time to plan. I know—teachers have worked harder than ever in the past two months and deserve a break. But it’s probably time to consider a year-round calendar, with this summer being the first, planning phase and catch-up time for kids who have dropped off the radar.

If kids have to go to school in smaller groups in the fall (not a bad thing, in general) then we may need split sessions, overlapping terms, staggered transportation schedules. Our first permanent casualty may be 180 days of seat time and three months of summer. In my opinion, overdue.

This would also be a great time to expand project-based and interdisciplinary learning, with students kept in the same small cohorts during their time at school. The usual gripes about PBL and interdisciplinary curriculum center on the fact that they don’t generate higher test scores or rigorous high-level single-discipline learning. But high-quality PBL generates other things—like ingenuity and independence and curiosity. For many teachers, it would be an entirely new way to teach. But change is (sometimes) good.

Jeff Bryant had a great piece about New Mexico’s community schools—another way to approach change, by formally making schools what they often are in practice: community hubs.

While good or at least workable ideas are everywhere, this is clearly not something that can be managed via federal or even state fiat. Each school district or region must make their own choices and be prepared to shift again when things go wrong (as they will).

It’s time to think different, Apple said in 1997. Or think differently (as thousands of English teachers corrected).

Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.

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