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.

Learning to Read

When educators talk about the Reading Wars, they’re not overexaggerating.

With the possible exception of the similarly bitter Math Wars, there’s no pedagogical battlefield more littered with sacred-cow theories, bold statements, unsubstantiated policy and outright acrimony.

Recently, the combat has heated up again, with a handful of irate but organized parents and a spokesperson with good media connections claiming that the ‘science’ of learning to read is ‘settled.’ As if a proclamation about the One Best Way could convince the public (and, even more ridiculous, reading teachers) that if we all just calmed down and standardized reading instruction, every single child could read by the end of first grade, as God intended.

Which was why it was so refreshing to read this from Michelle Strater Gunderson, long-time first grade teacher (and articulate union leader) in the Chicago Public Schools:

It should not be expected for a child to read by the end of first grade. We should only be concerned if the process of learning to read has not yet taken hold. Please debate.

At this writing, there are 65+ comments, all of which boil down to this: No debate. The statement is true (often followed by personal examples of how this race-to-read pressure has done great damage to children).

I have waded into the reading instruction controversy a couple of times—here and here, for example—and always drew irate observations about my lack of credibility as commenter on reading pedagogy, because I am a music teacher. What did I know about teaching kids to read?

It’s true that I am not a traditional reading teacher. Instead, I taught about 5000 (that’s not a typo) kids to read a new language–music–when they were somewhere around ten or eleven years old.

In other words, fifth or sixth graders, developmentally ready to cope with the intellectual task of interpreting symbols, putting them into musical phrases and sequences, while simultaneously thinking about fingers, embouchures and wind production, tone quality, intonation, expression, and reading at a fixed rate. It’s a very complex process, as difficult as phonic awareness, combining sounds into words, and then making meaning.

I did all this in very large, less-than-ideal mixed-instrument (and mixed ‘ability’) groupings, often as many as 50 students in a class. I need to stress here that I am nothing special, in music-teacher world– secondary band, orchestra and choral teachers do this all the time.

Yes, some students come to us with previous experience as music readers, just as some students come to kindergarten already having a fair grasp of decoding and a healthy vocabulary of sight words. Music students may also have developed unhelpful music-reading habits (inability to keep a steady beat, for example, which plays havoc with group instruction). Other students come to the process of learning to read music as ‘failed’ traditional readers, but end up becoming valuable members of our musical groups, because of the adaptation skills they have developed—watching and listening for cues that aren’t apparent to them through visual symbolic interpretation.

I was able to teach kids across a wide spectrum to read music because:

  • My students, at age 10 and above, were developmentally ready for the knowledge work, the interpretation of representative symbols—in current ‘reading expert’ parlance, the ‘codes’ established in Western music.
  • They were strongly motivated.
  • The learning process was both challenging and fun.
  • Strugglers were not singled out, but allowed to make mistakes, anonymously, for a relatively long period of time, until they perceived their own errors, asked for help, or were corrected. Nor were students grouped by any perception of their ability or talent—there were no ‘Bluebird groups’ in beginning band, where the core learning took place.
  • There was little home pressure–not many parents were expecting virtuosos (or cared all that much); it was an elective and it was supposed to be a pleasurable enrichment activity.
  • Learning was non-competitive.
  • There were multiple modes of learning available in every single lesson: Reading accurately (visual). Watching and imitating the teacher or other players until fingers and positions or vocal production felt comfortable (kinesthetic). Listening and matching (auditory). An uncritical acceptance of mistakes as a way to learn (social acceptance), then trying again.

What amazes me is that none of this is ever considered ‘reading instruction’ or ‘the science of learning to play an instrument.’  We just collectively stumble our way through the early stages of learning to play or to sing, using every tool available, having fun while we’re at it. There are schools of thought in music instruction (just as there are in reading pedagogy), but there are no public Music Wars.

Another amazing thing: there is ample evidence that learning to play a musical instrument strengthens all of the innate skills necessary for fluent reading. (Here, and here—and there are dozens more examples in my files.) But I’ve never seen anyone suggest that it would be better to give students supplemental musical instruction when they’re labeled ‘behind’ in reading proficiency (a word I’ve come to mistrust). Instead, we take away the arts and recess, or simply force the child to repeat a grade, repeat the same ineffective reading instruction, believing humiliation is the cure.

Michelle Gunderson is right. We’re pushing too hard, too fast. And it isn’t helping—it’s making things worse.

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Lesson Plans and Other Problematic Tools of Teaching

Once, back in the early days of teacher blogging, I was part of a cadre of ‘recognized’ educators (I know—the term makes me cringe, too), who were pumping out blogs for a national magazine making the transition to an online format. We were posting every two days, because our editor was a little manic about fresh content as key to increased traffic.

What this meant was that I was writing feverishly, coordinating topics with my fellow teacher-writers so that we didn’t all write about the same thing. There was little responding to current policy issues or op-eds popping up on critical national questions. Instead, there was a whole lot of generic, one-in-the-can education writing.

What I remember was that after a year, the editor evaluated our personal relevance via tracking the most-read blog topics. The number one draw? A blog about faculty meetings. Seriously.

Evidently, teachers wanted to read about their ordinary, daily practice. The ultimate tinkering around the edges, pedestrian things that get griped about in the faculty lounge.  This hasn’t changed—my FB and Twitter feeds have been overrun last week by a piece on a recent Hechinger Report entitled ‘Does Lunch Have to Be 45 Minutes?’

This preference for the prosaic bubbles up in mid-summer when the school supplies displays appear (and scary teacher dreams return). Teaching is one of those professions where satisfaction and mastery of the work depends heavily on accruing and curating a wide array of craft knowledge. Good teachers really do have strong opinions on staff meetings and optimum lunch breaks. They matter.

In my building, having your lunch time attached to your planning period–some 90 continuous discretionary minutes–was highly coveted, something given to 20-year veterans who sucked up to the scheduling secretary. The other desirable spot was first hour, when everyone else was teaching and the copy machine was finally available.  These things may sound inconsequential, but they’re not.

One of these evergreen subjects is lessons plans.  Should they be required and collected? Should they be standardized? Should they include goals/objectives/relevant standards? Are they even a real part of what teachers do—or just blah-blah to satisfy someone in the office? What is the real purpose of lesson plans—another mandated task that checks up on lazy teachers? Preparation for an emergency sub? An organizing tool for better teaching?

Offhand, I’d say the answer to all but one of those questions (the last one) should be—or could be–‘NO.’ Here’s a recent piece (again, very popular and widely shared in the teacher circles in which I travel) which makes a lukewarm but (IMHO) flawed case for abolishing required lesson plans, going as far as suggesting that lesson plans are a deterrent for those who might wish to be teachers during a nationwide teacher shortage.

During my 31-year career in the classroom, I often worked with colleagues who resisted the contractual requirement that they turn in weekly lesson plans. As veteran teachers, they felt that detailed planning on paper was mindless hoop jumping. According to them, good teachers could step into a class, all their knowledge and skills percolating, and proceed to do the right things, without having to rely on notes. Good teaching as natural artistry.

The thing is—this never worked for me. Any time I ever went into school without a clear plan for what I was going to do every hour of the day, Things Went Wrong, and I left school with a headache. This was especially true when I was a younger teacher, and my aforementioned craft knowledge was skimpy. For the 31 years I was in the classroom, I sat down every Sunday night, usually with a glass of wine, and wrote lesson plans. Because on the Sundays that I didn’t, I paid for it on Monday. I never outgrew the need for an organizing tool.

Of course, by Wednesday, the plans were defunct, off-track, amended and adjusted—but they still served a purpose. Turning them in to the principal was pointless, although I always complied, and I am profoundly grateful that I never had to follow a lesson plan template or pacing guide, list state standards, or give my plans to a sub who would have been mystified about what to do.

My plans were my own, generally written on a yellow legal pad with thought bubbles, bulleted learning goals, don’t-forget reminders, essential questions and useful extensions, what you need when your amazing 48-minute lesson is—surprise! —over and done in 32 minutes. Extensions are strategies (sometimes, something as simple as a juicy question) that reinforce the core idea or skill. After you’ve taught for years, you’ll have a mental bag full of extensions. Writing them down just reminds you to use them.

Here’s the reason I think lesson plans aren’t non-essential make-work: It took me a good 20 years to understand the parameters of high-quality lesson design. I wrote crappy plans, just to get them done and have a list of things to do, for a long time.

Eventually, I understood the structure of a good lesson—knowing your students and what they need before you plan, setting goals for learning, choosing appealing materials, paying attention to kids’ responses, and reflecting on how effective each lesson was, what students actually learned. After that, I found the lesson planning process indispensable.

I found I’d been planning a lot of disconnected but cool musical activities. My students were always busy—engaged—but I was missing richer and more coherent learning. Because I hadn’t thought deeply about it and put it in my plans.  The best piece I’ve ever read about this phenomenon is here: The Grecian Urn Lesson.

There are undoubtedly veteran teachers who have it all in their heads, but any teacher who resists planning in favor of winging it might take a reflective look at what, precisely, kids are taking away from their classroom. (Photo by CaptPiper)Photo by CaptPiper BY-NC 2.0

Three Years Ago

I wrote this three years ago, right after the shootings in Orlando. I was working, at the time, as pianist for Sunday services in a local church–a nice, friendly church a short distance from my home in northern Michigan. I had an experience there that rattled me–and I wrote about it, on Facebook. It was June, 2016–before the Access Hollywood tape, before the debates, before the dawning recognition that someone had welcomed Russia into our electoral process.

Facebook dished this up to me as a ‘remember when?’ option–and I was startled to see just how prescient it was. So I’m sharing it now, three years later:

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I have been thinking, all day, about something that happened yesterday. It’s been nagging at my consciousness as I read and watch coverage of the tragedy in Orlando. It’s not something I can put into a blog post, because it covers a wider swath than education. But it’s bothering me, a lot.

I live in a purple county in a purplish state. Among my true friends, the big discussion lately has been “Bernie or Hillary?” But among my neighbors, acquaintances and the organizations I belong to (and work for), there are lots of Republicans. Good people, I think–people who work hard, who care for their families and do good work in the community. People who are reasonably intelligent and trustworthy–people I respect and with whom I socialize.

It’s always been that way. I vote my conscience, based on information rather than personality, advertising or family tradition. I have never been a straight-ticket voter. And I have no partisan litmus test for the people I befriend.

I overheard a conversation yesterday, in the least likely place you can imagine, about the shootings and Donald Trump’s response to the tragedy. Four men, all sixty-ish (and all white)–pillars of the community, volunteers and grandfathers–were quietly discussing the events. One said “I’m worried that Trump’s going to say something he’ll regret.” (What? What more could he possibly say than the terrifying, appalling things he’s already said?) Another said “He needs to keep his mouth shut until he’s elected–then he can say things about Muslims and the gays and the Mexicans. But he can’t afford any mistakes right now, not while people are upset about Orlando.”

Mistakes? Mistakes!?

Their conversation continued on, these four “respectable” men– about how Trump would bring back the country they loved. How he’d restore the military, at last, and support small businessmen (no feedback on business women, alas). How their guns would be safe for four years (this is hunting country–the pro-gun bandwagon is big around here). How good it would be to have a man who believes in God (their God, the real God, not the Muslim God Obama worships) back in the White House. How very much they all loathed Hillary Clinton, see her as a criminal. They said these things. Out loud.

I was only a few feet away from the men, who weren’t exactly hiding anything, standing there with their styrofoam cups of coffee, kibbitzing. And it hit me like a concrete block upside the head: there are a whole lot of people who’d probably rather have Kasich or Cruz or Prince Jeb or Little Marco, but will vote for Trump in this election because he’s the one who will be on the ballot. He’s their only choice, as they see it. He may be a bigmouth or wrong on some things–but he’s the one they’ll vote for. And all of these men, trust me, are definitely voters.

It’s not as if I wasn’t aware these Reince Priebus-like people existed–but it rolled over me like an icy wave: People I know and like (or used to like) will be voting for Donald Trump. Not just moronic Tea-Party strangers, bellowing and threatening with misspelled signs at the rallies. Not just richer-than-rich capitalist predators with trophy wives. Not just feckless Republicans-for-life. But–people I know, people I attend services with, joke with at the post office. They’re Trump voters, whether they like him, or not. And they know who they can reveal their political preferences to–and who to avoid, when discussing him. They’re the people who will decide this election, too.

Seriously, it was a paradigm shift, one of those moments when you see your entire social environment in a completely different light. Organizations you found trustworthy become suspect. Core beliefs and principles are held up for examination. What happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s becomes plausible. The unfathomable–the national joke–becomes real.  (June 13, 2016)
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Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Education Policy Blunders

Here’s my theory of how Democrats can win the next election.

It doesn’t have anything to do with electability, because one man’s ‘electable’ is another woman’s ‘no thanks, old white dude.’ It also doesn’t have anything to do with one specific issue—because there are a dozen bona fide Hot! Burning! Critical! issues right now (the destruction of the planet, for starters) and nobody seems to be paying much attention to the one candidate who puts that at the top of his list.

We got troubles, right here in River City.

Fortunately for us, we also have at least a dozen pretty good candidates, probably more. And we have months of opportunity to hear lots more from each of them, to actually use the primary debates as a thoughtful winnowing, an in-depth national conversation on the full range of issues. We can not only pick a candidate, we can audition candidates for other Congressional roles, as potential cabinet members, judges and future political stars.

Unless Donald Trump doesn’t make it to the finish line— and even if the plug gets pulled mid-campaign— we are surely looking two old conservative white men as Republican opponents. While it may seem shallow and obvious to focus on demographics, Democrats can run a ticket that represents women, people of color and younger voters. If you put together women, POC and progressive youth as a voting bloc, that’s a considerably bigger cohort than 50%.  The trick is to get them excited about actually voting.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see educators—teachers! — going after Elizabeth Warren.

Not because she’s my top candidate. I don’t have a top candidate. In fact, I mistrust anyone who’s settled on The One. Because what that means is that you’ll start aggressively looking for flaws in the other candidates and focus entirely on your candidate’s virtues (real or imagined) and the narrow band of issues that mean the most to you. You’ll stop listening to negatives about your candidate (and they all have negatives).

You may actually start writing blogs about why you don’t like a potentially viable candidate, dredging up meh reasons that they cannot be trusted. You may throw around phrases like ‘hard pass’ and ‘no way in hell’ and ‘never liked her anyway.’ You may dig deep into things the candidate said decades ago, even stretch the truth, just a bit, to make your point and attract like-minded readers.

You can also start valuing things that don’t matter much, in the big picture: Which candidate publicly introduced an idea before the other candidates, for example. In building a coherent and comprehensive set of policy suggestions, first isn’t necessarily best. Nor is changing one’s mind a deal-breaker. I admire a candidate who looks at the evidence and then articulately shifts position.

Demanding that a candidate release a full accounting of his or her views on a particular subject RIGHT NOW is also foolish. Candidates deserve the right to listen to lots of potential voting groups and examine their own values before constructing a set of pledges and promises (which, as all adult voters, including MAGA types, know, are not guarantees).

So let’s talk specifics here: Charter schools—and Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren.

I am ardently opposed to charter schools, based on the indisputable outcomes of a mature charter environment, the literal mountain of evidence that has accrued in my home state, Michigan. I’ve written about this at some length (here, here, here) and so has the local press (here).

Some of my former students teach in charters (because that’s the only place new teachers in MI can get jobs); people in my family teach in charters. It’s either that or don’t teach at all. They know how I feel—and mostly, they know what the evidence says. Charters, however—for worse, not ever better, are now deeply woven into the Michigan landscape, inescapable.

When I moved to the town where I now live, some 10 years ago, I joined the League of Women Voters and discovered they’d produced a paper in support of charter schools and choice in general. I was stunned. Didn’t they know what charters were doing to Detroit Public Schools—or why that mattered to them, ultimately?

I learned that the paper had been written when there was one mom-and-pop, hands-on learning/small class size/progressive curriculum charter in town. And some of the members’ grandchildren attended the school, happily. There was no evidence that the educational ecology had been negatively impacted.

That was then. Now, things really are different. There are more than enough data and school closings (and a local charter founder in prison for tax evasion). Anyone who’s paying attention can see what a terrible idea it is to give public money to privately—often secretively—managed schools.

But I understand that many states which have resisted charters, or maintained strong oversight and controlling legislation, are where Michigan was 10-15 years ago. Charters don’t seem like a big deal to some voters—not as big a deal as crushing student debt, the opioid crisis, climate change or the growing and dangerous gap between haves and have-nots. And alienating civic-minded, legislatively engaged parents whose children are in charters (or private schools, for that matter) is a politically unsavvy idea at the moment.

Deciding that one candidate—Warren– must be booted out of contention, simply because the woman who introduced her at a rally had ties to charter world feels nitpicky at best. Charging her with disloyalty because one of her education advisors got his start in Teach for America?

Well. I want to hear a lot more about Warren’s vision for K12. I want to hear what she thinks about rebuilding the teacher pipeline, using fully trained and qualified teachers (and promising to support better pay for important work), not two-year adventure teachers. But I refuse to judge any candidate on what amounts to skimpy, unspecific charges. Working for a non-profit or joining TFA out of college is not a full-throated declaration of principles.

Just as Buttigieg’s stint at McKinsey doesn’t mean he’s a raving conservative capitalist, and Klobuchar’s reputed binder-throwing doesn’t mean she’s abusive, and Harris’s record of doing her job as a big-city prosecutor doesn’t mean she lacks compassion—Warren’s staffers are not proof that she is anti-public education or anti-teacher. We all need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

We have several good, viable candidates. Let’s ask the hard questions. Let’s not pick our personal number-one and go after the others. Resist the lure of the all-American horse race, for once. Develop a list of five, rotating new faces in and out. Look for strengths, rather than inventing weakness. Allow for mind-changing (even for Uncle Joe Biden, and others whose records as governors and mayors are pretty clear). Waiting before pulling the trigger is almost always the best plan.

But what about charters? William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, writing about policy, notes that the most popular and sticky public policies have benefits for everyone, even if their origin was around solving a problem for a specific group. Charter schools, at least rhetorically, were supposed to provide educational options, especially for those whose schools were not meeting their needs. Pretty quickly, they morphed into a back door for those who saw K-12 education as a giant, untapped market.

If Wilson is right, what we need is a system of schools that meet all children’s needs reasonably well. A plan to shut down charters through federal intervention will be neither universally popular nor sticky. We need to support all public schools—the suburban schools that are community centers, the urban schools with wrap-around services, the little boutique schools with unique curricula. We need to make public education so resource-rich and service-oriented—so popular and sticky– that charters can’t compete.

And we aren’t going to do that by trashing any of the Democratic candidates. That’s counter-productive.

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Learning Styles: Detrimental or Useful?

Did you ever sit through a professional development workshop on learning styles? I have—at least twice. Once with the dreaded Outside Presenter (from a university that shall not be named), and once with a well-respected teacher in my building, both at least 20-25 years ago, when learning styles were a thing.

They’re not a thing anymore.

In fact, they’re ‘detrimental.’ According to a number of education psychology experts, learning styles themselves don’t exist, so actually it’s believing in them that’s detrimental. Detrimental to whom? Students. Teachers. Parents.

Shaylene Nancekivell, PhD, visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and lead researcher for a new study on the myth of learning styles, divides folks who believe in them–some 80%-95% of people across the globe, BTW—into two groups: Essentialists and Non-essentialists.

Psychological essentialism is the belief that certain categories of people have a true nature that is biologically based and highly predictive of many factors in their lives. People with essentialist opinions about learning styles may be more resistant to changing their strongly held views even when they learn that numerous studies have debunked the concept of learning styles.

Non-essentialists are ‘more flexible.’  The other group–those who understand that learning styles are myths that have been debunked by scientific research—doesn’t have a formal name. Let’s call them academic pedants.

And now you’ve just read the first reason why these cyclical pieces about how learning styles don’t exist drive me crazy: researchers set up experiments to examine a bit of ‘conventional wisdom’ that some (not all) teachers find useful–or have found useful at some point in their career.

They then inform teachers that their pet theories about teaching and learning are baloney. Next, they label them ‘essentialists’–and build straw teacher-men, speculating about how teachers use these silly, foolish ideas and, by the way, resist change.  Because, you know, they’re teachers.

Previous research has shown that the learning styles model can undermine education in many ways. Educators spend time and money tailoring lessons to certain learning styles for different students even though all students would benefit from learning through various methods. Students study in ways that match their perceived learning style even though it won’t help them succeed. Some teacher certification programs incorporate learning styles into their courses, which perpetuates the myth for the next generation of teachers. Academic support centers and a plethora of products also are focused on learning styles, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting them.

I certainly agree with the last sentence. The number of ‘educational’ products that are built on theoretical quicksand is legion. And I can list a dozen ongoing ‘wars’ around the best way to teach important content, each with its own ‘research base’ and, probably, a vocal advocacy group. The shelf life of an educational theory is often short.

But correctly identifying ‘best practice’ that will help all students succeed is, and always has been, a moving target. Stamping out a belief in learning styles is hardly going lead to an erasure of what Nancekivell calls ‘maladaptive practice.’

In a Facebook discussion on the referenced article, I was touched when a friend (Nate Smith-Tyge) said this:  I do think the learning styles beliefs come from a good place.

I think so, too. Teachers are trying to reach kids by trying different strategies and modalities. Some will work better than others. If paying attention to the easiest, most efficient and indelible way to teach something to an individual child means a teacher is dabbling in learning styles, so be it.

As a 30-year music educator who frequently got the kids who were misidentified as ‘kinesthetic learners,’ I can testify that there are undoubtedly preferences and natural tendencies in learning to play an instrument.

Some students learn to play by reading their beginners method books. They learn the note names and memorize the fingering chart. Their focus is on note-reading, counting and blowing or bowing at the same time. It’s a tricky, uncoordinated multi-task at first, but eventually, through persistence, they get the pieces put together. Instrumental music teachers love kids like this—some teachers won’t let students even pick up their instruments until the preliminary cognitive/visual material is mastered.

Other kids learn to play instruments by watching others and doing what their mouths, arms and fingers do. They couldn’t care less what’s in the book. They want to play! They come in the second day, saying see what I can do! (In my neck of the woods, that was usually ‘Let’s Go Blue!’) How did they learn this? From watching YouTube or maybe an older brother who told them what keys to press.

These kids make the first group, still playing whole notes, heads in their books, nuts.  I always had students who complained that other students were watching their fingers or slide positions—which felt, to the note-readers, like cheating.

Still other novice musicians fool around, trial and error, until they can repeat a sequence of sounds: a tune. Parents were constantly telling me about their amazing child who could pick out any tune on the piano, or saxophone or trombone, after hearing it a few times. It’s hardly an unusual trait—auditory memory—but it’s definitely a learning preference.

It’s also the way many rock, pop and country musicians learn—strictly by listening, and remembering. No paper involved. A friend who plays bass tells me that in a gig with a new group of musicians, he seldom tells folks that he reads music; some people find it off-putting.

The Suzuki method of teaching basic instrumental skills relies on watching and listening, mimicking, repeating and improvising, to a far greater degree than traditional American music pedagogy. Suzuki students learn to DO, and to listen, rather than read, for a long time.

If I believed in learning styles (ha), I would say that Suzuki students exercise and develop their auditory and kinesthetic modes first and save the visual/verbal symbolic interpretation skills until students are older. There’s a lesson there for American educators.

The point is: there are multiple ways to learn to play a musical instrument. All of them have value, and none of them is a ‘best practice’ or ‘maladaptive.’

Dan Willingham is the national guru on the myth of learning styles. I once wrote a blog entitled ‘I Believe in Learning Styles’ and he graciously commented and engaged in a lively discussion about the semantic differences between preferences, abilities and learning styles.

I came away feeling as I still do today: I get the yada-yada about theories of mind and theories of instruction. But I still feel as if teachers who have found benefits from addressing those learning preferences, abilities and styles are coming from a good place. Their observations and gathered evidence matter, too.

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Is Your School Band Playing this Weekend? Thank a Teacher.

I’m not much of a flag waver, really. I always thought that author James Baldwin captured my feelings precisely in Notes of a Native Son when he wrote:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

These days, perpetual criticism is essential. We are headed into dark times, redefining the meaning of patriotism and sacrifice. It’s easy to lose faith in our government and the grand experiment—all men created equal—that founded this nation. It’s easy to let hope die when threats of another pointless war appear on the horizon.

I still believe, however, heart and soul, in the shining but imperfect ideals of a democratic education –equality under the law, the American common school, a free, high-quality education for all children, simply because they deserve it. Thirty years of teaching school have given me a hard crust of cynicism about many things related to education and America. But I never lost my enthusiasm for the Memorial Day parade.

For 25 years, my middle school band students marched through the small town where I taught and lived, in the Memorial Day Parade. There was a whole set of traditions around this event, which grew larger and more complicated every year: the aural passing down of our special drum cadences from the self-appointed 8th grade drumline leaders, mending the color guard flags originally purchased through a pizza sale back in ’88, and patching up hand-me-down snares and sousaphones scrounged from the high school.

There was never a budget for this–middle schools don’t typically have marching bands–but somehow there were always T-shirts, and cold drinks at the end of the parade route. We had a stunning handmade banner that two moms whipped up with lots of lamé and sequins. In my last year, we marched nearly 300 students, on a morning when the sky was a sapphire blue and Air Force jets flew overhead as we rounded the corner by the cemetery.

This took up a fair amount of teaching time. I would get on my knees and beg colleagues for 20 minutes on the Friday before the parade, to assemble five bands into a single marching unit and take a few spins around the parking lot. One year, as I was trying to get the back of the band to master pinwheel corners, the front rank (rambunctious 8th grade trombones) marched right up the sidewalk, opened the front doors, and led the band, playing America the Beautiful at top volume, through the school hallways. By the time I sprinted up to the head of the band (and the principal popped, red-faced, out of his office), marching through the school was a done deal–and became yet another annual tradition.

I was always clear with my students about the meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. They would occasionally whine about how boring America the Beautiful was–Mr. Holland’s band played Louie, Louie, right? I explained that they were old enough to dedicate a morning to thanking local patriots and acknowledging the sacrifices made by Americans over centuries. Older people, watching them march by, would be pleased to hear traditional music. It was about respect.

We do this, I told them, to remember and honor those who made it possible for you to live in this beautiful little town, in this safe world. People like my Uncle Don, who died in February 1945, part of the Fourth Marine Division which stormed Iwo Jima. Or Ray Shineldecker and Joey Hoeker, two high school classmates who lost their lives in Viet Nam. I had lots of funny stories to tell about Joey, who lived around the corner in my old neighborhood–a big, goofy kid who was what guidance counselors in the 1960s called “not college material.”

On our last band trip to Washington D.C., after performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was loading tympani onto the buses as my students toured the Mall. A few girls came running up, calling “Mrs. Flanagan! We found him!” Found who, I asked.

Joey Hoeker, of course–on the Wall. And I lost it, right in front of all those kids.

I thank those who served and sacrificed so I can love my country, and criticize it, too. A hat tip to all the band teachers and student musicians who help make Memorial Day meaningful this weekend. And to hero teachers and band directors everywhere– donating yet another weekend to the community –please keep teaching, in spite of everything.

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The Teacher as Assessor

A little handmade meme has popped up recently in my Facebook feed, shared by Alexandra Penfold, a children’s author and food writer.

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Interesting, no? Being told—by scientific measurement, no less—that you were minimally proficient at the skill that was your heart’s desire and life goal. And then sailing on to the very wonderful career you planned, data be damned.

There are lots of implications here, most importantly that test scores are not even close to reality. The first question I would ask Penfold, if I could, is whether she was ever made to feel as if her skills were ‘remedial’—either by any of her teachers, or by her family. I doubt it.

But I have heard plenty of stories about kids who seemed to be fine, cooking right along, until they were derailed by surprising test results, causing a radical change in plans (different classes, different college, different career). Testing impacts lives—and Penfold probably missed the worst of the data fetishism that has become standard in American public education.

And yet, the alternative—the teacher as sole assessor–has come to feel almost random to us. Do we trust teachers—all teachers—to provide useful and accurate feedback, the kind that nurtures children’s dreams and also pushes them to excel? It’s a tall order.

Teachers develop their personal assessment skills and models over time. And building equity and encouragement into testing and grading (as opposed to using evaluation as sorting or punishing) takes a lot of trial and error. Some teachers are good at using grades and scores as investments in student growth. Others, not so much.

Universities don’t do enough to prepare teachers with a range of assessment strategies—but there are limits to the training even the best college programs provide. The only way to become seriously good at assessment—in ways that help students– is practice over time.

Here’s a story:
When I was a novice teacher (back in the 1970s, when merely suggesting that teachers ought to have common grading scales or practices was considered an insult to one’s academic freedom), one of my assignments was 5th grade beginning band. I met with students in like-instrument groups, twice a week.

There were no grades. Band was considered an elective activity, and none of the elementary electives were graded, largely because the teachers who taught them saw hundreds of students each week. I thought of myself as a Band Director, a more rigorous secondary teacher. I thought part of the reason my students weren’t making the progress I thought they should–backsliding between sessions, snickering when they made mistakes, not taking their learning seriously–was because they weren’t getting a grade.

So I graded them secretly. I had them play, every 2-3 weeks, one at a time, and took notes on a legal pad. I clustered them in groups—the stars, the competent ones, the not-yet-but-maybes, and those who really shouldn’t be in band next year, when they would be meeting daily and at last getting real letter grades. By the end of the year, I had a lot of unshared data on these students.

There was one little girl in the clarinets that I found hopeless. I got tired of switching her hands (left on top, right on the bottom, instead of the reverse) and putting the correct fingers over the holes. She was a sweet girl, chubby, bespectacled and earnest, but her clarinet playing was comprised mainly of squeaking (leaky fingers), honking and miscounting. In my rank ordering of about 20 clarinet players, she was dead last.

The pad went into the bottom of a cardboard box, when I moved up to the middle school the next year. The clarinet player moved up, too. In fact, I taught her for eight years, giving her the John Phillip Sousa award as a senior, as she headed off to the university as a music major.

I found the pad some years later. I had, of course, forgotten all about my earlier assessment of a girl whose persistence carried the day. It was easy to see how her initial failures were largely my fault; by the time I found the ‘assessment,’ I was much better at teaching beginning clarinets. I was also lots better at using the power of the test or grade to enhance learning.

But that’s the bottom line here: assessments have tremendous power, for progress or penalty.

Be careful out there.