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.

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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How Can I Keep from Singing?

The second wave of school change is now bearing down on teachers, students, and parents. You remember March, right? When Mommy-needs-vodka types were posting hilarious blogs thanking teachers and telling them to go right ahead and teach in their jammies? Because holy cow, teachers were the light of the world.

There were those teacher car parades, and funny Zoom memes, before Zoom bombing and low average attendance figures revealed that this was going to be a long, depressing slog. And now? We’re talking about the drop-forge model of school cuts and how unnecessary classrooms are, anyway.

I’m a music teacher. I know what this means. I’ve been through several cut-to-the-bone-and-beyond school reductions. Several of my music teacher friends and social media acquaintances have been dreading the decisions they fear are coming.

Because it’s not just ‘trimming the extras,’ the evergreen but erroneous argument that music, art, physical education, and other active, non-Big Four subjects are somehow less important than the others. It’s acknowledging that some disciplines—in the ways they’re traditionally taught– are currently more dangerous than others.

We’re not going to be singing in groups, as usual, this fall, or rehearsing the band, or learning how to play the euphonium in a beginners’ class.

I sing in a community chorus and play in two community bands, and we’re out of business for months, perhaps a full year. There is no way that students will be allowed to sit, even six feet apart, and breathe deeply while licking their reeds and blowing warm moist air out of their bells. Students will not be leaning their heads in to harmonize or tune. The science is clear: these are genuinely hazardous behaviors.

Trust me when I tell you that band, choir, orchestra, and general music teachers know all about the little boxed heads making wonderful music on your You Tube. They understand far better than the general public about the costs, skills, and technological resources necessary, even for the simplest collaborative music videos. And they also know that 5th grade beginning band students need years before anyone wants to see 45 of them individually negotiating the app, the mic, the conductor, the click-track, the printed music and—oh yeah, producing the right note.

There’s a reason why listening to a scaled-down Toronto Symphony is so exhilarating as they play Appalachian Spring. It’s because all of those musicians once sat in an orchestra full of 10-year-olds, bowing irregularly and approximating pitch, with their teacher–gently, one hopes–praising then correcting them. They learned to love the music (essential for a career) in the same place. All the beauty and ingenuity we’ve seen emerge in music in the last two months started in someone’s music classroom.

Music has gone in and out of favor in American public education. Choral music, easier and cheaper to organize and accomplish, has been around as part of school curricula much longer than instrumental instruction. Bands, as school-based activities and classes, didn’t really get established much before World War II—and then were largely promoted as contests. When the Baby Boom started filling schools, band and orchestra programs took off, as professionally trained music teachers became available and parents and communities saw the value in a wholesome, challenging group activity leading to a lifelong skill.

But that doesn’t mean that school bands, orchestras and choirs haven’t been cyclically imperiled by budget cuts and what might be called fashion. Ask any band director who’s ever had to start a struggling or deceased program over again (raising hand) how long it takes for band to become ‘cool’ in a school culture again, to gather the resources and community enthusiasm needed to build something really magnetic and valuable.

All arts and elective programs go in and out of popularity. Some school sports falter, as well, because they’re expensive or demanding– and kids have other things to do. I’ve been part of a half-dozen ‘Save Our Band’ campaigns. I have boxes full of handouts in my garage as proof. The most persuasive argument, by the way, was always the one that demonstrated music teachers who instruct large performing groups are highly cost-effective; once you start talking about aesthetics and elevating culture, however, you lose your audience.

So what are we to do, facing the school arts abyss caused by the pandemic?

  • First, remember that good programs are always generated by good people. Creative teachers will innovate, as much as they can, to keep the flame burning, even when the conditions and resources are suboptimal. Outstanding people—not budgets, not equipment, not festival ratings–are the fuel, and the inspiration, for keeping the music education alive in tough times.
  • Next, we can shift the paradigm of what a good school music program looks like. Strip it down to its basics—the teaching of melody, harmony, beats and Beatles. Focus on what kids need to enjoy music and understand its role in our lives. There is individual skill-building, of course, but also the lifelong value of musical literacy.
  • Let go—for now, anyway—of all the traditional events and educational practices you’re accustomed to– the big elementary music performance in the gym, recorder class, the choir concert, marching band shows for football games. Stop thinking about the damage pausing or starting over will do to an established program and focus instead on serving kids. Especially let go of competitions. Think outside the grid and the uniform.
  • Ask students what they want to learn about music, what turns them on, how they’ve used music during the pandemic. Assume that music teachers themselves should be the ones to create pandemic-friendly programs using new ideas and goals—administrators will have other things to worry about, and you really don’t want them to decide how to ‘fix’ music.

All those ideas are a framework for teaching music without large groups singing or playing—but the reality is that many music teachers won’t get the opportunity to innovate, create or rebuild. They’ll be excised. Many schools will not value teachers’ excellence, or work to find ways to keep the arts alive.

I had a friend ask me why it was important to have school bands and choirs now that technology could provide more ‘individualized’ instruction.  Why not use pre-recorded backups and autotune and fun little video creation programs or self-instruction guitar modules for music class? Nobody wants to take bassoon lessons anymore, he said.

I asked the obvious question: Did he play in the band or sing in the choir? No. He played football.

I pointed out that the ultimate payoff—teamwork in doing something pleasurable—was similar, but he stopped listening before the kicker: Music is something you can do for the rest of your life. Football, not so much.

There’s one more thing teachers can do: Plan now. Jot ideas and suggestions down. Don’t wait for your state legislature to use the crisis to hack away once again, saying their hands are tied.  That’s the easy path for policy-makers—no money for schools, so sad. Be there with your plan and your pitch early.

You’re protecting something vital to humanity. Don’t stop.

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Punching Down on Veteran Teachers

It is the ultimate irony, in this #TeacherAppreciationWeek2020, on the very day that America’s teachers, persisting through the worst educational and global crisis in their careers, are supposed to be honored—that a piece like this would be posted.

Titled How to Make the Coming Teacher Layoffs Hurt Schools and Students Less, with the equally cheery subhead School district leaders may be able to protect their most effective classroom teachers, the piece, in essence, says this: Layoffs are coming. The law now lets you skip over seniority and job protection agreements. So take this opportunity to dump off ‘less-effective’ (and also more expensive) veteran teachers and keep the ones who raise test scores.

But wait! There’s more.

Most states have given up on evaluating teachers in the 2019-2020 school year, either just skipping over this year, because there’s no ‘data’–or using last year’s evaluation. Built into that assumption is that the only true evaluation of teacher efficacy is the test score, but it’s worth the evaluator’s time to ‘pop into’ a virtual classroom. (If there is one, of course.) Where they just might see a veteran teacher, struggling.

On Monday, Larry Ferlazzo pointed out, in an excellent blog, that the American Enterprise Institute’s brand new white paper is suggesting that teachers 55 and older be offered retirement or on-line teaching only, as students return to school. Larry deftly pointed out that 29% of teachers are 50 or older, meaning some 800,000 of us might be put out to pasture. For our own good.

Larry also noted that keeping older teachers in the classroom might become a liability issue for health insurance corporations, who can’t be in the greatest financial shape these days. I would also add: What a great opportunity to skim off veteran teachers, those most likely to be union leaders, articulate critics of ‘accountability’-based education, those winning recognition for outstanding pedagogy, even building an audience for their own ideas about what works in the classroom, using social media.

Gone! Like magic!

Any white paper report is driven, ultimately, by its funders. And seeing John Bailey, currently advisor to the Walton Foundation, as co-author, is not reassuring. What are Walton’s underlying goals? Get folks back to work, let the younger (cheaper) teachers take the risk? Stop all this social safety net-building?

Of course, Andrew Cuomo (and Bill Gates, I’m assuming) chose #TeacherAppreciationWeek2020 to announce that Gates would have a hand in ‘rethinking’ schooling in New York. This set off a chain of alarm among educators across the country, and especially New York.

Cuomo’s remarks were a little blurry but seemed to center on the idea that we don’t need no stinkin’ classrooms, now that teachers had proved that technology could sub in for expensive physical spaces and face to face relationships. Thanks, teachers, for your service! Now—get outta here.

Not a good week to be a teacher. If this is appreciation, no thanks. Also, if this is high-quality research and innovation, it’s worth asking—again and again—where is the teacher voice in all this upbeat Rethinking the Future? Because teachers, who have bailed out the system to the best of their abilities, would have plenty to say. Especially the ones who have been around long enough to not be afraid of speaking their minds.

There’s even alternative research that challenges the idea that our kids are ‘falling behind’ and if so, it’s all the teachers’ fault. But who cares about alternative research or out-of-the-box thinking about how we might permanently change our approach to school? Or our approach to the so-called American Way of Life?

Dear Skilled and Talented Veteran Teachers,

This is supposed to be YOUR week.

 Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum*

*If there are any Latin teachers reading—I know, I know. Took four years of Latin myself.

(Edited) Cuomo slide by Peter Rawitsch

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Do We Need a National Gap Year?

It was the worst of times, and then…it got even worse. The age of foolishness, incredulity and the winter of our darkness and despair. But now, it’s spring, and even in Michigan, the snow patches in the woods have receded and everyone’s talking about what comes next. Because, clearly, Plans Must Be Made.

We have to get back to normal. Even though normal wasn’t working all that well for us, six months ago.

I have a friend who lives in California. His high school senior son, after a lengthy college decision-making process, chose Purdue, in Indiana. Right now, the focus is on the missing final exams and graduation ceremony. But soon, my friend may be sending his child 2000 miles across the country to start college during a pandemic. Because Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana, says it’s OK.

There are upwards of three million high school seniors in the United States, right now. That’s a lot of young people being dumped into a dangerous society, college- and career-unready, to borrow a phrase. What do they need most right now? What do students already enrolled or just leaving college need?

Perhaps we ought to ask first what the nation needs, at this moment.

There have been hundreds of op-ed and think pieces published, about the transformative nature of a pandemic, as applied to education. And I love reading this stuff—the idea of re-making education from the ground up, fashioning an equitable system that’s based on genuine human and social needs, is just so magnetic. I have participated joyfully in the ‘just imagine’ exercises and soberly considered questions like this:

With worries about fall enrollment and a growing understanding that the fall semester, if it happens at all, will likely be taught at least partly online, colleges will have to argue that what they are delivering onscreen is worth as much as what students would have received in the classroom. This, in turn, may force a conversation about what the colleges are actually selling. Although the service they provide is education, the product for which they charge is the college degree—the piece of paper that promises a student will earn eighty-four per cent more in their lifetime than if they had only a high-school diploma. This and similar statistics are what allow so many college students to think of their loans not as astronomical debts but as investments in their future. Now that future is changing in ways none of us can really apprehend.

But. Tick-tock. It’s going to be September in four months.

Are we going to have school—PK-16—or not? Evidently, unless there are some more convincing guarantees of safety and lots more testing, folks—by a huge margin—don’t want to see conventional school re-opening.

What if 2020-21 became a national gap year? With a new conception of ‘credits’ and compensation awarded to young people and older volunteers for doing essential work in health care and rebuilding the economy?

I have seen the suggestion that entering college freshmen now consider taking a gap year, as is common in EU nations. Generally, those tentative proposals are immediately followed by all the reasons that a gap year is not feasible. Gap years, it seems, are perceived to be the purview of the wealthy or well-connected, who can ‘afford’ a year off from school, without affecting their eventual life prospects.

But what if large swaths of the population, young and old, were deputized and put to work for a year, or even six months? Returning to full-time school—not to mention full-time work, full-time commercial enterprise, regular civic and religious activities—will not be possible without several guarantees (testing, viable therapies and vaccines, trust in leadership). Those things will not be in place by September. So why not build a short-term Peace Corps-like volunteer force, including students?

The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a piece proposing that twenty thousand incoming medical students take a year off from medical school to form a national service program for public health. There would be a stipend for these students and a guarantee that medical school would be waiting for them, in a year, when they returned with a better understanding of infectious disease, contact tracing, working with live patients–and perhaps a new purpose.

Appalachian Magazine also suggested that a 21st century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps be established, with work and training available for unemployed citizens. Our crumbling national infrastructure and underserved public institutions—libraries, schools, parks and the post office, for starters—could provide jobs for a year or two, with the feds picking up the tab (better than unemployment). Workers could fill in critical gaps and pick up new skills along the way.

Why aren’t we thinking about creating these kinds of service opportunities for older students as well? I’m not talking about sending high school kids into dangerous hospitals or grocery stores–although the number of people who learn more from jobs that put them through school, than the actual classes, is legion. I learned more waiting tables at the dockside breakfast restaurant, at dawn on summer mornings, than I did in my college lecture courses with their droning lectures and punch-card quizzes. But there wasn’t a pandemic back then—just mouthy fishermen and lousy tippers.

The main worries about secondary school resuming in September come from packing so many students into classes and hallways. I can envision these students attending school mornings or afternoons only—or every other day—to create social-distancing space, then being sent out into the world to address real problems in the off hours, using data collection and analysis, or creative writing, or civic organizing.

Or more free-lance opportunities with the arts, as this lovely article demonstrates. There are lots of creative and practical things older students can do outside the classroom, especially if they have an internet connection and device and a teaching adult checking in with them frequently.

It seems to me that a wide variety of real tasks—everything from shelf-stocking and pizza-making to park maintenance and painting—might be assigned to teens, short-term, as steps in rebuilding essential businesses, acquiring work experience and doing something productive for towns and neighborhoods. These should be tracked, credited and compensated, perhaps in accounts designed to pay for vocational education, college or starter accounts to start small businesses, down the road. It would also give ambitious kids a realistic, insider look at our new economy.

If we were to concentrate education resources now, it might well be around younger children, who cannot be left alone, and cannot be trusted to distance themselves and maintain cleanliness. If there ever were a time to stringently reduce class size, provide high-quality day care and rich, intensive, more-personalized instruction for young children, it would be now.

Bricks-and-mortar schools and good, reliable childcare programming before and after school free parents to return to work, knowing their children are well cared for.  This is the first place that daily temperature testing, masks, bracelets that beep at six feet and sanitation standards should be imposed. If this is our new world, no better place to start than first grade.

Programs like a latter-day CCC or a national health service should be federally funded and administered, but most schools or states would be better off creating their own ad hoc ‘gap’ programs as coronavirus therapies, test-and-trace protocols and vaccines make their way into the world. They will need to feel their way through the difficult developmental space between the crowded middle school cafeteria and a full-blown, live-on-campus college education.

One of my most cherished and repeatedly proven theories about middle school students is that we never give them real, meaningful tasks, or the tools to handle genuine responsibility. Instead we fill their days with rules and ‘practice’ assignments and tests. They can do much more—and high school students can do even more than that– and learn by doing.

If we’re going to ask what can be done to rebuild, after the corona deluge, we can start with youth. First, we honor their sorrow and pain, as the small town below did, with graduation banners on Main Street for each of the 83 members of the Class of 2020.

Then, we ask them to contribute. We need them.

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Every Child Left Behind

When I was in third grade, I contracted the mumps. This was my final act in the 50’s-Kid Illness Trifecta: measles, chicken pox, mumps. Back then, pre-vaccine, this was considered No Big Deal. Polio was the thing to worry about—it was a killer. I had a cousin die, at age two, from polio, but nobody knew anyone who lost their life from the mumps.

Unfortunately, however, I developed encephalitis—a brain inflammation—from mumps. I don’t have a lot of information about how the illness was diagnosed or treated; my mother, who would have been the keeper of that knowledge, is long gone. I only know that I was out of school for nearly two months.

I have these distinct 8-year old kid memories: Going to the hospital for tests. Needle pokes. Terrible headaches and keeping my face covered by a towel. Bitter blue pills that I took in applesauce. And lying in bed, alone, for weeks on end, as winter turned into spring.

When I returned to school, I was sent for achievement testing. This was not to find out how far I’d fallen behind, but because all the other third graders had taken the test while I was absent. I was pulled out of class and given the test by a different teacher.

When I finished, she took a pencil and skimmed through the answer sheet. You’re a very smart little girl, she said. This made me incredibly happy–and is undoubtedly the reason why I remember a random remark made 60 years ago. Nobody in my family had ever called me smart. In fact, my mother worried because I spent too much time in the house, with my ‘nose in a book.’

And nobody, as far as I can tell, was stressed about how far behind I may have fallen. Kids got sick, they came back to school, teachers tried to catch them up. Sometimes they zoomed forward. Other times, not. Because that’s what learning was like—sometimes fast, sometimes slower. No big deal.

I read today that Australia has decided that when schools re-open, school attendance will be at parents’ discretion. Those parents who are able to work from home have the option of keeping their children home and using school-provided on-line resources. Parents who are essential workers and have out-of-home jobs to return to may send their children back to bricks-and-mortar schools.

My first thought was that schooling is hard enough when all the kids are there, or all the kids are remote. Expecting schools to smoothly adapt to a bifurcated instructional plan is probably another step toward outright chaos in public education. Leaving us even more vulnerable to astro-turf ‘Commissions’ like these people, waiting in the wings to scoop up funding and ‘create (profitable) solutions.’

My second thought was that hybrid home instruction/physical school might well happen here. We are, at the very least, a year and half away from a world where children are not only themselves safe from a virus, but unlikely to become adorable little vectors.

For all the good—and real—conversations about how invaluable school is in our national social and economic organization, there has been no solid, easily adopted plan for re-starting public education. We may end up with something that looks quite different at first, and we may morph—for much better or far worse—into a completely altered conception of how ‘school’ works.

Here’s an example: A friend posted the suggestion that students return to school in the classroom they were in when formal school ended, in March. That would, she argued, preserve teacher knowledge about students’ strengths and weaknesses and allow the most tailored, individualized instruction.

Immediately, her elementary-school colleagues started raising ‘buts’—but who will teach the new kindergartners? But what will the 7th grade receiving teachers do—will middle school also have to stay at the same level with the same teachers? But what about seniors? But I don’t want to teach the next-grade curriculum!

All of these arguments are based on the idea that all important knowledge and skills can be divided into thirteen neat slices and all students should encounter, engage with and even master these slices, in order, based on their age, before they can successfully navigate to the next grade or higher education or the world of work.

Which is ludicrous. Everyone—and especially teachers—knows this is absurd.

Countless articles and books, and reams of scholarly research have confirmed this inescapable fact, which seems to have been the common (and accepted) wisdom when I was in third grade, 60 years ago: Kids learn at different rates, and those rates are variable throughout any school year or other formal period of learning. Also, they’re better at learning some things than others. That’s just the way it is. Do your best to move them forward.

Which leads to this question: How did we get to the point where everyone in the country agreed that certainly no child should be left behind—and then spend billions of dollars trying to precisely define what ‘left behind’ means, using questionable tests and multiple linear regressions?

If there is one good thing that comes out of this pandemic, in terms of public education, it might be an agreement that all children are potentially being ‘left behind,’ right now, in mastering ‘grade level’ concepts. So pricey common core curricula and the expensive standardized tests they support can be acknowledged as useless for the next few years, and perhaps forever.

Creative, compassionate teaching, hybrid schools, flexible schedules and a focus on needs-based, rather than standardized, learning might actually catch on. And we wouldn’t ever have to label a child as ‘left behind’ again.

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Help! I Can’t Read!

Reading is my greatest pleasure in life. Well, one of my greatest pleasures.

There’s music, and the Lake Michigan beaches and my family and my daffodils and a few other personal items on that list. But I absolutely love to read.

My idea of a perfect afternoon is a good book and a glass of wine and either a toasty fire or a shady patio. We travel west every February for a few weeks of Arizona sunshine, and I usually log a dozen or more books that month, fiction and non-fiction. This year, I read 15, before a looming pandemic chased us back across the country and home.

So you would think I’d be buried in books during the enforced home stay, tucked up and cozy, in my quiet household. But no.

I am finding it incredibly difficult to read books. And I am not alone.

According to Christian Jarrett, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in the U.K.:  “Research shows that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works—the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” Simply put, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” making it difficult to lose yourself in another world.

Which makes sense. Because it is not that I am finding it impossible to read. It’s that I’m reading compulsively all day—news and articles and analysis and, damn it, Tweets, memes and blogs of varying quality. Short, disconnected bits of information and opinion. And 90% of it frightening to some degree.

When I sit down to read a book now, I am usually reading on my iPad. The library closed a month ago. We live so far out in the boonies that we are not within our library’s formal district boundaries, so we are not entitled to download books. Don’t helpfully suggest Overdrive or Hoopla—they’re for folks who reside in a library district.

I have read every hardcopy library book I took out before closure (upside: no late fines) and am stuck with buying books for my e-reader. Reading on an iPad means that checking out what I have missed in the last, oh, twenty minutes of focus is just two clicks away. Bye-bye historic fiction or mystery novel. Hello, rising death toll and political malfeasance.

And yes, I know perfectly well that these are the first-world problems of someone incredibly lucky and sequestered.

I have been looking for the perfect escape read. As it happens, I pre-ordered Sarah Kendzior’s new book  Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America,  a few weeks ago and it was delivered to my Kindle last week, just as I was casting about for something that would be so magnetic I couldn’t tear myself away.

Holy tamales. I have been a Kendzior fan since November 2016, when I read her piece We’re Heading Into Dark Times. It was one of those things that you read, and bookmark—in the hopes that someday it will be laughable and obsolete, that things will turn out better and all the angst will fade into obscurity. Sigh.

Kendzior has great credentials, and this book is an easier, more coherent read than her previous book, The View from Flyover Country.  Kendzior completed the book last fall, before the impeachment hearings and before the pandemic.

I have now read about 10 full-on books about Donald Trump and his administration—some with excellent insights into the man and his character and others simply more detailed reporting on what has happened since he announced his candidacy. But Hiding in Plain Sight is different. It rolls back the camera and history to the 1980s when Trump was a flashy New York wheeler-dealer, serial philanderer and con man, in and out of financial trouble. You see how he has, over time, made the US part of a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.

Pieces of evidence I had never considered before fell into place, stunning the reader. But the beauty of the book is that it was not written by a left-wing political analyst whose parents paid for his Ivy League education. It was written by a woman who is currently taking her school-age children to state and national parks to see them, to know what our country was once like, before the friendliness and preserved grandeur fade.

It is a far better analysis of who we really are than your standard old-men-at-the-Waffle-House. And it gives the reader a lot to chew on.

Five stars for the book, the first to hold my undivided attention in the past month.

But now—I desperately need something light and amusing. Help me out here. Patio weather will be here in no time.

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A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic

The NY Times launched a series of investigations and articles Thursday around this theme:

It may not feel like it now, but out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better America: the America we need.

I look forward to reading every single one of the articles—yesterday’s were about our broken health care system and why the rich fear pandemics—but the introductory piece, which is rich in historical examples of sweeping change, made me ask: What good things might come out of this pandemic?

Certainly not the trust in our government that the German people have, the confidence that made them follow the rules, flatten their curve and listen to Mrs. Merkel.

You can already see the folks in power itching to return to the way things were six weeks ago. They’re restless, fretting about an economy that’s rewarded them and left the rest of the country one paycheck and one dangerous job away from disaster.

They are not going for a new normal, one that’s more equitable, with safety and reward spread across the population. They’re trying to figure out how to benefit from the crisis, play the angles.  From the POTUS, yesterday: Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten.

Well. I want to open up our great country, too, once it’s safe—but I want this horror to serve as a reminder, forever, of all the things that need changing. Out of this crisis, we really could get a better country, but only if we are willing to fight for it.

My ideas about things that might emerge and stick, if we’re lucky and if we hustle, from this pandemic:

1.  Science becomes sexy again and brings math along for the ride. Merely observing social media attempts to calculate the mortality rate of this virus is enough to give any math teacher a headache. Data analysis has become a daily life-vs-death task. And you have to love a world where Anthony Fauci is everyone’s new hero.  Coping with a virus is expanding vocabularies, building scientific literacies and a respect for genuine, factchecked expertise—for nearly everyone.  Every teacher now has a valid and compelling answer for: Why do we have to learn this stuff?

2. Better air and water quality. You may have seen the pictures of Venetian canals, deep blue and transparent for the first time in a century. You may have read about temporarily clean air over the smoggiest cities, or about citizens in India, now seeing the Himalayas for the first time. But did you know that breathing polluted air makes it more likely that you’ll get COVID-19, and less likely that you’ll survive? Wouldn’t it be great if we got used to cleaner air and water and decided to do whatever it took to keep it that way?

3. Renewed friendships. One of my husband’s oldest school friends just organized a one-hour Zoom meeting for the gang of guys who hung out together, in their madras shirts, in the 1960s. No special reason—just an hour of catching up, hearing about kids and grandkids, laughing. There is an underlying message, however, to every phone call out of the blue, every event planned for fall or 2021: You matter to me. Let’s make it through this. I love you.

4. A Complete re-do of American elections. This one is multi-layered and complicated. For once, the hype is true: this election matters more than any in your lifetime. If the Democrats hang tough (and they should), we might get national mail-in voting with other policies that make registration and voting easier for the November election. Americans overwhelmingly want this.

There could be even more, given a Democratic Congress and Executive branch in the fall. We could jettison or alter the Electoral College.  We could also pass a law limiting the presidential primary, given the headaches, unnecessary spending and ultimate results we got this time. Canada, our closest and most similar neighbor, elected its last prime minister in eleven weeks.

Thought experiment: Imagine that Congress passed a law limiting primaries to six months, still way longer than other first-world nations, and set a national primary date with top-three, rank-order voting. That would mean campaigning for November 2020 would begin next month! Knowing what we know now about the world—would debates be about more than the horse race and which state votes first and gotcha questions? If we overturned Citizens United, and set spending limits (again, like other nations), we might ultimately get ourselves a reasonable set of qualified candidates and a fair election.

5. Return of the Post Office and other federal institutions that should not be privatized or replaced by for-profit services. I live in a remote area. ‘One-day’ deliveries from FedEx and UPS often go an extra day or two—and if something needs to be returned, it’s a 50-mile round trip. But the lady from the local Post Office, driving her own adapted car, comes up my driveway. I love the USPS. The Post Office—through no fault of its own—needs a debt bailout. The USPS is now incredibly important for vulnerable and sequestered citizens and will become, God willing, the centerpiece of the November elections. We could stop flirting with privatizing any number of public services (including prisons, schools and the military). We could fund them adequately, paying workers reasonable salaries and benefits. Some things are public, and need to stay public, that’s why.

6. Rethinking the purpose of schooling. I wrote another blog about this—here. Short summary: The attempt to move schooling online has revealed chasms of inequity, and made clear that what K-12 students need, first, is trust in their teachers, a human connection to learning. There are a half-dozen policies that could change—unnecessary testing, useless standardization, grading, uses of technology and so on—but all depend on a national change of heart, re: public education. Once we have generally agreed that the purpose of public education is to offer every child, no matter what they bring to the table, a free, high-quality education, then we can start re-shaping our practice.

7. Recognition that bandwidth and technological access are the 21st century equivalents of electricity. The Rural Electrification Administration was created by the Roosevelt Administration in 1935 to bring electricity to rural areas. Only 10% of farmers and rural dwellers had access to electricity in the 1930s. Private companies didn’t want to spend the money to run lines to poor people. In 10 years, the REA had improved that statistic to 90%, connecting rural citizens and farmers to running water, refrigerators, modern sanitation and the radio. The Superintendent of Schools in Michigan just reported that a full third of our students do not have access to the internet or devices to use it. It’s time to recognize that access to the internet is equivalent to bringing electricity to farmers and rural areas in the 1930s.

8. The United States become united, rather than 50 competitors. Our president, of course, is operating on precisely the opposite principle: divide and conquer. The more competition and hostility he can generate—through supply theft, preferential distribution of necessities, and plain old nasty remarks—the more he thinks he’s solidifying his base. But there is significant evidence that states aren’t having it. Governors, Republican or Democrat, interviewed on TV, talk about the outstanding leadership of their gubernatorial colleagues without regard to party. They are sending critical supplies from their own stocks to where they’re needed. They’re stepping up, forming networks, generating trust and cooperation between states. It’s the states who are moving to build the unity necessary to federalize the response. Remember how it felt after 9/11? We could have that ‘one country’ feeling again.

9. Factual news becomes the go-to source for Americans. OK, this one’s a stretch—and depends on election outcomes. But even the Wall Street Journal, bastion of bankers and corporate interests, has sharply criticized the President’s fact-free daily rallies. VP Mike Pence backed down from his demand that CNN air all of the President’s baloney sausage, and not just the qualified public health authorities’ segments. Maybe facts matter now more than ever. Because when the lying stops working, we will all understand what is and is not fake news. And can go back to valuing a free and fair press.

10. Widespread inequality and economic hardship—one paycheck away from disaster—is finally brought home and understood. And addressed. From the NYT piece (above): Executive pay has skyrocketed, and shareholders have enjoyed rising stock prices, at least until recently, while most workers are falling behind. If individual income had kept pace with overall economic growth since 1970, Americans in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution would be making an extra $12,000 per year, on average. In effect, the extreme increase in inequality means every worker in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution is sending an annual check for $12,000 to a worker in the top 10 percent.

It’s time Americans stopped thinking that a rising stock market and low unemployment represents prosperity. The safety net is shredded. Even social distancing is an economic perk. Our very fates—including whether or not we get dinner—are in the hands of underpaid and underappreciated workers. Income inequality is worse in America than any other first-world nation. (This is what Elizabeth Warren kept bringing up, by the way, when everyone was trying to decide whether she was a shrew or a schoolmarm.) That $12K extra per year figure keeps resonating—what would life be like if every lower-income American made another $12,000 per year? A completely different society, and lots more discretionary income pumped into the economy?

11. A rising social justice movement, led by young people. We’re just seeing the early evidence of this. The outsized American health crisis is grounded in residual white supremacy and xenophobia. The costs and agony of the pandemic will be unfairly borne by people of color and young people. And, as Ta-Nehisi Coates said, last night: The bill comes due, eventually.

12. America finally gets universal health care. This is the biggie, of course—the cornerstone of all these other hopes and dreams. We can lay our highest-in-the-world rate of COVID-19 transmission and unprepared health systems squarely at the feet of our inequitable, employer-funded policies. It will be painful and bitterly contested, but it must happen. It’s both ironic and tragic that universal coverage will be pushed into place, despite the kicking and screaming, not by political leadership but by disaster. But I simply cannot imagine Americans looking at how terrible our system is, compared to all other nations, and all the pain and heartbreak it’s caused, and not demanding something better. What that better is remains to be seen, but we will certainly see change.

Dozen donuts

If Technology Can’t Save Us, What Will?

All the ed bloggers during this pandemic are consumed with whatever we’re calling our frantic attempts to reach out to our students–to ‘keep them on track’—or (more realistically) provide whatever educational succor can be squeezed out of phone calls, emails and glitchy electronic platforms. Or, God forbid, packets.

The academic show, it seems, must go on–and the in-the-trenches edu-commentariat has done some great work, asking the right questions, sharing their tools and materials and philosophies, and warning us off predatory data capture and greedy education commerce. There’s also been a fair amount of righteous bitching. All of this is justified—and welcome.

It turns out that technology cannot, will not replace the human touch, when it comes to learning that is worthwhile and sticks in our students’ brains and hearts. We already knew that, of course. But it’s gratifying to know that school—bricks and mortar, white paste and whiteboards, textbooks and senior proms—is deeply missed.

Public education is part of who we are, as a representative democracy. We’ve never gotten it right—we’ve let down millions of kids over the past century or two and done lots of flailing. There are curriculum wars that never end and bitter battles over equity, the teacher pipeline and funding streams.

 But still. We need school.

It is at school where a kid who might otherwise be looking at a series of low-paying jobs gets interested in science when looking through a microscope for the first time. It is at school where a shy girl shares her first poems with a teacher who says ‘these show great promise’—so she keeps writing them.

It was at school, in my music class, back in the 1970s, where a boy first learned the words a child is black, a child is white, together they grow to see the light,’ singing in my 6th grade general music class. Thirty years later, he got in touch when he saw my name online and told me he was working in Lansing as a civil rights lawyer. I loved that song, he said. Do you remember? You gave us a little sermonette on human rights.

I remember precisely none of this. Here’s what I remembered about him: he had freckles.

If this disaster has taught us one thing, it’s that technology-based communication is and always will be limited. It’s been a lifeline, for sure—medically, socially, commercially—but it does not replace our human institutions. It does not replace the caring and affection that are part of every effective classroom.

Even the low-paying unskilled jobs that have become critical in keeping the world running are not dependent on the things that technology reinforces. Service to others, friendliness, courage and reliability are qualities that can’t be learned in a Zoom meeting or tested on a bubble sheet.

I have not been surprised by the things my fellow music teachers are posting during this lockdown. For them, the end-of-course assessments that will not happen this year are not dreaded standardized tests, final exams and grades. They are the Spring Concert, the Memorial Day parade, the Youth Arts Festival, and graduation, events that demonstrate community pride and pleasure, accomplishment, and even patriotism.

This is why you’re seeing that gallery of faces singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the orchestra offering us an Appalachian Spring. That’s why #PlayOnThePorch is so much fun–and families starring in their own home-bound musicals are all over social media.

Of all the heart-tearing stories of sickness and loss that I’ve read, the one that hit me hardest was about an adult choir in Mount Vernon, Washington that decided to go ahead and rehearse on March 10. About 60 choir members attended. Now, 45 are sick, three in the hospital, and two are dead.

The little church choir that I direct had our last rehearsal on the 12th of March—there were 15 singers present. None of them are spring chickens; one lovely-voiced soprano is 92. The day after our rehearsal, the church council decided not to worship face to face for the foreseeable future. The anthem we worked so hard on, forgotten. But their voices rang in my ears for 14 days until I knew for certain all were well, sheltering in place.

This virus can scare us and ravage our communities, but it cannot damage our innate craving for the beauty and solace of the arts.

No matter what the circumstances are, no matter how bleak and despairing, human beings find ways to create and imagine, to sing and to play.

It’s what we were born to do.

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We Are Just Trying to Protect Our Own

At least three times in the past week, I’ve heard some variant of this statement:

I’ve noticed that those who are community-spirited and positive about life have become even more so, reaching out to organize helping systems and cheer people up—and those who are naturally whiny, critical and self-involved have now gone into overdrive.

It’s mostly true. Crisis brings out not just true strength of character, but leadership. Crisis also alerts you to who you wouldn’t want to be stuck with in, say, a bomb shelter.

Crisis has also laid bare the vast and growing distance between those whose primary goals center around more for me and mine—and those who mind the community.

If you’re an educator, you’re familiar with that gap. Maybe you work in a stressed school where lack of qualified staff, supplies and leadership is an ongoing predicament, while well-outfitted schools 25 miles down the road are passing out Chromebooks like peppermints to kids already connected at home. Or maybe your work life is a series of conversations with parents who want special treatment—for their child only.

One education professor I know calls this belief—that some kids are inherently more worthy of educational perks than others— ‘deservingness.’  There are other words: Privilege. Entitlement.

Since the founding of the nation, we have wrestled with the tension between mythic rugged individualism, Ayn Rand-style, making it ‘on your own’—and the reality that we’re all on this big national boat together, capitalizing (deliberate word choice) on the contributions of our forebearers.

And now—we have the horror of Florida Governor DeSantis shutting out citizens from states that are particularly hard-hit with COVID-19, by setting up checkpoints on the highway. The implication is that Florida, a state which used its beaches as commercial draws, spreading the contagion across the Eastern Seaboard, is now closing its doors to those seeking to escape that very illness.

They’re closing the gates to Florida—the federally built highways into a place with over seven million second homes. It all feels kind of medieval—pulling up the drawbridge, standing at the ramparts. Too bad about the taxes you pay on your winter getaway! See you next year, maybe. Now turn around.

I live in a county of twenty-two thousand residents, where the average age is about 55.  That’s right. Old folks. Retirees. The gap between rich and poor here is remarkable.

While the county (surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, with other beautiful inland lakes) has the highest average real estate prices in the state, there are in-county schools where virtually all the children receive free and reduced lunch. There are tribal lands—the Grand Traverse Band in my county. We have no hospitals but rely on a good regional hospital in the next county over.

If there were an influx of refugees from overwhelmed downstate hospitals, we’d be screwed. Rich and poor alike, we’d be competing for scarce resources and scarce medical care. All the entitlement of wealth, the second home and fat bank account, couldn’t secure us a hospital bed, private room and ventilator.

This is what scares people around the country—the raw, indiscriminate nature of the virus. Like the folks in this article on Door County, in Wisconsin, very similar to the place where I live, urging people to stay in their winter homes: We’re just trying to protect our own.

What about Newport, Rhode Island—or Martha’s Vineyard, where the year-round service workers who depend on wealthy part-timers’ business to stay afloat are ambivalent (to say the least) about their early arrival? Here’s what one of my favorite novelists said:

Geraldine Brooks, who has made her home on the island since 2006 and raised her two sons there, has had enough of the stay-away sentiment. She posted on an online forum, “Just asking fellow islanders: where is this marvelous community that has enough beds, enough respirators, enough masks, enough nurses? The lifeboats from the Titanic left half full and didn’t go back for fear of being swamped. This feels like that.”

One of Brooks’s novels, ‘Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague’, set in 1666 and based on a real incident, describes a remote mining village in England, where the bubonic plague is systemically killing village residents. It’s clear she’s wrestled with the morality of pandemics.

It’s hard to argue with people who are moving out of a dangerous situation into a place where the virus seems less prevalent. Like the people in remote areas, worried about sharing whatever safety and resources they have, they’re just trying to protect their own.

It’s also hard to argue with people who will do almost anything to get a better deal for their children—including filing a false residency so their child could attend a good public school.

If there’s one lesson we could all learn from this disaster, it’s that we’re all in the same boat, like it or not. Mind the community.
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