The Book We Need Now

Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. (Clint Smith)

In this shocking era, when states are passing ill-advised, deceptive laws to prohibit K-12 students from knowing about the sickening, wounding realities of their own history, we truly need a book like Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.

The students Smith is referencing, above, are performing as part of a rich Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island, TX. They were part of a six-week summer program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, designed to teach children the real story about where they live and what happened there.

Don’t all children need to know about the place they come from? Its triumphs and failures?

In the book, Smith—then a doctoral student at Harvard—visits a number of historical sites around the country that chronicle the record of slavery and its impact on every aspect of American life. He begins at Monticello, sharing his conversations with two white women in his tour group who had no idea who Sally Hemings was– the enslaved woman who gave birth to four surviving children by Thomas Jefferson. These older women, interested in ‘seeing history,’ are astonished to hear about the 600 human beings owned by the great statesman.

Each of the chapters is distinct, featuring plantations, graveyards and annual memorials. The chapter on Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is grim, beginning with its original purpose, in the Reconstruction era: to round up, then house, a low-cost workforce for plantation owners who can no longer rely on the enslaved. The chapter on New York City makes clear that nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line can claim that slavery only existed in the South.

The chapter on Goree’ Island takes us to coastal West Africa, where captured Africans were sent off to their new lives (or deaths) as enslaved workers, and includes this quote from the curator of the House of Slaves, a museum on the Island:

After the discovery of America, because of the development of sugarcane plantations, cotton, coffee, rice cultivation, they forced the [Native Americans] to work for them. And it was because the Natives died in great number that they turned to Africa, to replace the Natives with Africans.

And there it is—this is and always has been about gross economic development. How to make money off exploitive and unpaid labor of others, and the ugly rationalizations used to defend such ugly practices. And how far back this goes—long before the Middle Passage.

In a time when employers are begging for workers after a deadly pandemic (that some employers denied or downplayed), this is a particularly resonant message.

This is, indeed, the book we need now.

Smith tells us, in an Afterword, that he went to many more places than the seven he describes in great detail in this volume. That suggests that there are always places nearby—places where students have been, places they are familiar with—that can serve as testimony and memory of our local history.

As educators, it is up to us to teach that history. This is what all the anti-‘CRT’ protestors fear: the truth.

Smith illustrates that learning the truth is never divisive. It may be painful, and may produce rage—but knowing how this country was built, whose backs and hands produced the wealth and power only some of us enjoy is the cornerstone of building a more equitable society. The truth can unite us, over time. But we have to listen to each other.

Clint Smith is a published poet, and he writes like a poet and storyteller–there is lots of detail and description. Once you get past an expectation of fact-based academic writing, you begin to appreciate his nuanced depictions of people and places, the colorful, palm-strewn islands and damp, gray prison cells. Smith adds only enough data and dry content to enrich, not drown, the narration.

The book is easy to read. I read it one chapter at a time (which I recommend), pausing between to absorb and think, because each segment shares a unique perspective. Smith reiterates, in a dozen ways, that slavery didn’t start in Africa, and African-American history didn’t begin with the capture and selling of human beings.

It was a global wickedness, economically driven, but it still impacts America–the idea and the reality of America–deeply. We can’t get past it until we know the history.

Read this book.

Nice White–Resentful–Parent Syndrome

I worked in the same school district for more than 30 years. Mostly, I taught music—band, choir, elementary music—but occasionally other things: Seventh grade Math (two years), English as a Second Language (for which I was totally unqualified), and a class called Homework Hall.

This was a kind of holding cell where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent–pulled from elective classes–to receive coaching toward filling in the empty boxes in their teachers’ grade books. A second chance to pass classes they would otherwise fail. A way to protect their permanent record, so to speak.

Back then, the county was a cluster of pretty little all-white towns, interspersed with farmland. When I applied for a teaching position, in the mid-70s, the principal called the village where I got my job “the far edge of white flight.” He was right. More and more people were pushing outward from Detroit, claiming they were looking for a more bucolic setting, and then being surprised when they had to provide their own water, septic and garbage pickup.

Still, it was a good job, and they were hard to come by in 1975. Parents—many of whom had grown up in the area—came to concerts and parent-teacher conferences. They took their kids to the library and volunteered to lead scout troops. They rented band instruments for their children and coached Little League. For a long time—decades—I thought teaching there was ‘easy.’

True, there were worrisome things—the town where my cute, second-floor Mary Tyler Moore apartment was had a reputation as the home of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. There was lots of local trash talk about Flint (30 miles north) and Detroit (50 miles to the east)—although the area’s transition from rural farmland to outlying suburb was driven, economically, by the auto industry, centered in those two cities.

White flight, indeed. My middle school students occasionally made unfiltered, racist remarks—things they’d likely heard at home—but I was never afraid to call them out. That was then.

Here’s a one-minute video that will tell you all you need to know about this town in 2021, shot earlier this week: Click here.

If you haven’t listened to the NY Times podcast series ‘Nice White Parents’, I heartily recommend it. The tagline captures it all: If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in shaping them: white parents.

I no longer live in that town. I moved four hours north several years ago. And guess what? There are lots of ‘nice’ white parents here, too. The stakes are now higher, and student actions are no longer limited to random, clueless remarks. There is outright cruelty—and stormy, ugly school board and county commission meetings.

Sometimes, a kind of common sense prevails—but nice white parents have experience in complaining and getting some action and relief. As a veteran teacher, I can think of dozens of issues that brought angry parents to school board meetings, from sex education to the math curriculum, from bus routes to which neighborhoods got to attend the new, high-tech elementary school (the well-heeled ones, naturally—because those are the parents who showed up to demand access to the new building).

Homework Hall—that class where students got to make up missing work—was created when nice white parents approached administrators, worried that their kid might be doing a second year in the 7th grade. Nice white parents know how to get what they want. And they’re resentful when they do not succeed.

Here’s what I want to know, in 2021: Who is driving the current pushback against honest, warts-and-all American history and civics in the classroom? Who wants to send their unvaccinated children to school unmasked? Who is demanding that teachers scrap their own, self-acquired libraries—the books teachers buy to provide engaging texts for their students?  

Sarah Schwartz of Education Week: In the months after the 2020 election, former Trump administration officials and allies built up a network of think tanks and donor groups dedicated to continuing to advance his policy agenda. Critical race theory has become a central issue for several of these organizations.

Nice white parents, in other words, are organized and funded. There are partisan threads running through this anger, and differences between parents with a college education and those without. Religion plays a role, as does race and gender.

Political scientist David C. Barker summed it up this way:  The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.

At the base of all the fury over education policy, however, is the fact that white parents have historically had way more success in shaping school programs and practices. And most of the stories in education journalism come from white journalists.

As Ray Salazar writes:  When journalists come from backgrounds where they usually found success in traditional systems — systems that perpetuate inequality — they report from that worldview, bypassing the insights that would be meaningful to people with a different reality.

That different reality is endangered, along with democracy. Those think tanks and donors supporting Trump’s education policy agenda are made up of nice white parents, not the parents of students who are struggling to learn without adequate broadband, materials and well-trained teachers.

Final point: This isn’t getting any better. Most Republicans now believe the Big Lie. State legislatures are working to limit voter access. Trump is still relevant, the overwhelming favorite in 2024.  The anti-democratic political crisis is worse, not better, than it was in January.

It’s a crisis in public education leadership as well.

What is this World Coming To? No. Seriously.

Does it seem to you as if the logical world has tilted on its axis? Does there seem to be an inordinate amount of destructive mania loose upon the land—shattering norms and making citizens on both the political right and left jumpy? And nasty? Even murderous?

Critical questions: Why? And why now?

I started thinking about this while reading about the TikTok ‘Devious Licks’ campaign, which has sent kids into their public school bathrooms to, you know, steal shit. The soap dispenser, the TP holder, the sink. You name it, if you can rip it off the wall and–key point–videotape the stunt to share on TikTok, you are officially cool. And next month, you’ll get to smack your teacher. What fun. Until you get arrested.

I’ve been bemused by the angst over TikTok’s influence on kids’ behavior. Ridiculous pranks are something teachers are accustomed to—all the way back to stuffing kids in phone booths. From the Tide pod challenge to those goofballs falling off milk crates last summer, there’s always some Stupid Human trick to attract school-age kids. Part of the fun (for kids) is scaring their parents and teachers.  You could put an eye out with that BB gun, son—and so on.

Some would like to pin the blame on TikTok, which now has a billion users per month. But here’s what I thought about: those kids in that Michigan middle school shouting ‘Build that Wall!’ on the day after the 2016 election.

If the elected leader of the Western World is openly promoting lies and cruelty, it shouldn’t be surprising that loosening the lug nuts on your principal’s car seems like a fun and even justifiable caper. After all, he’s annoying and gets in the way of what you and your fellow seventh graders feel like doing.

So many norms—from patient care during a pandemic to moderation in political viewpoints to practicing simple and considerate behaviors to protect ourselves and our neighbors—have been bent or shattered in the past 18 months.

Teachers I know have addressed the roiling surf of tamping down student misbehavior during a pandemic with some low-key, on-the-fly brilliance. A friend reported that his school is encouraging kids to post TikTok videos of random kindnesses—like a crew of high school kids repainting a bathroom wall after the paper towel dispenser took a walk. That kind of thing.

Others have reported deep and serious conversations with their students about issues you would think are universal: Respect for everyone. Stewardship of communal resources. Building a better world.

Some of my best moments as a 30-year classroom veteran, came when there was a crisis—a missing instrument, or someone whose dignity had been damaged by another student. You really can build students’ humanity and kindness by modeling it and talking about it.

But now there are parent organizations and reporting forms to track ordinary classroom exchanges, turning students into—for lack of a better term—snitches. State legislatures are trying to figure out how to prevent students from even talking about race and gender.

As a long-time teacher of teenagers, I say: Good luck with that. You can pass all the laws you want, but kids need adult role models, people who are able to build communities of disparate teenagers, and do some work and learning together. And that’s going to happen a lot less when teachers are threatened by legal or local forces.

Here’s one small and local, but telling, example that I found interesting:
In Hudson, OH, high school some seniors are taking a college course in writing, part of an Early College program. They use a book of writing prompts that includes, in over 600 prompts, perhaps a dozen that are not appropriate for high school students—things about drinking and sex, mostly. A parent sees these, and forms a group that wants to see heads roll: school board members, building administrators and teachers. There’s a Facebook post, and suddenly tens of thousands of people are posting their wrath—This is why we have to pass laws! These teachers exposed my child to filth! Fire ‘em all!

Turns out, however, that the book in question has been used for five years at this school, with no problems, largely because every child who took the course had to have a parent sign-off on a statement acknowledging that the college-level materials used in the course might be considered inappropriate. That’s right—parents had to grant written permission for their child to be exposed to writing prompts about drinking and sex. For five years. But in the divided climate of 2021, it suddenly became a Big Issue, worthy of terminating public employees.

Why? And why now?

 Why do you think kids all over America are destroying public property, then sharing videos of themselves rampaging in the restroom of their local middle school? Where have they seen behavior like this before—adults despoiling a beautiful public building, then posting videos of themselves as ‘patriots’?

It’s hard to say what kind of crisis this is—what’s making people show up at meetings and organize demonstrations? So many social factors, including a pandemic, are making people twitchy.

Still, I’m tired of hearing about the schools ‘failing to teach Civics,’ when the same critics show up at Board meetings to complain about discussions of racism in society. What do they think civics is?

We have a lot of work to do to heal the country, in every sense of the word. Public schools and community colleges could be instrumental in that. Schooling has always reflected what’s going on in the nation—and that’s what all those parents and lawmakers are afraid of, and trying to prevent.

Birthdays and Gifts

I clearly remember all my decade birthdays, except number 20, which is a blur. Not old enough to drink and not really happy with my life. That’s all I got.

It’s easier with subsequent decades. There was a husband and a house at 30, kids at 40, and some professional recognition by 50.  And 60 seems like yesterday. Yesterday, alas, was 10 years ago.

Do I have a favorite decade birthday? Yes. When I turned 40, my wonderful husband made all the arrangements to take me on a surprise trip. This is how he did it: He called me from work in the summer before my 40th birthday and told me he was entering a contest for an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the United States. Where would I want to go? Boulder, Colorado, I told him. Ah—good one, he said.

Then he surreptitiously made all the arrangements—flights, members of the family to babysit and keep their mouths shut in the meantime, an adorable little log-cabin resort in the foothills to the west of town with an outdoor hot tub. He told me to pack my hiking boots and my bathing suit—that we were going on a mystery trip.

It was memorable and wonderful in every possible way. Boulder remains one of my favorite places on earth, and I still wear the earrings he bought me from an art show vendor on Pearl Street.

I have passed through decade markers without a whole lot of angst or reflection. Sixty seemed like coming into a certain kind of wisdom and serenity—newly retired, a new home, new friends, new adventures. A time to accomplish all the things I’d been too busy to enjoy while working and raising a family. A time to travel while still healthy and mobile, to garden, to read, to cook. To write about education.

Most importantly, it was a return to the absolute joy of making music—of capitalizing on all the work I did as a teenager to build and polish my musical skills.  I joined three community musical groups, got a part-time gig as a church music director, and started taking piano lessons, something I have wanted to do since I was in fifth grade. I got my flute out and practiced. I helped establish a thriving flute ensemble. I played for weddings and funerals and other occasions.

I will be seventy tomorrow.

And for the first time, I feel old-ish. Not old-old, but there is a creeping realization that I have some limitations. I still plan to be around for additional decades—my grandmother lived to 103, and was hale and hearty until her last day on earth. I’m healthy and have possession of my marbles.  And I have lots of plans for the future—after all, I have skills and knowledge, things I learned in school, that have made my life, into this eighth decade, rich and rewarding.

I think about my students’ parents, eager to sell that saxophone or trumpet when their child could not decide between band and football. I would ask: What can you give your child today that they can use, literally, for the rest of their lives?

I will be seventy tomorrow. I’ve been playing the same flute—the one my parents re-mortgaged their house to buy—since 1967.

Thanks, mom and dad. I made it to 70!

Tucker Carlson Goes to School. Your School.

A colleague was just told she cannot have her high school freshmen read The Autobiography of Malcom X this year, a book her students’ parents were likely to have been assigned when they were in school. This is in a blue state with no “divisive concepts” legislation passed. (Anne Lutz Fernandez, via Twitter)

And… there you go. It’s everywhere now, red states and blue. The fear, the anxiety, the confusion. The misinformation/disinformation/lack of information. A backlash to the utter tumult that was 2020—21.

Fear. Is there anything you can do, brave educator, to stop it?

In her daily column, Heather Cox Richardson drew parallels between McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the current pushback against an actively progressive government:   

WI Senator Joe McCarthy__insisted that the country was made up of “Liberals,” who were guiding the nation toward socialism, and “Conservatives,” who were standing alone against the Democrats and Republicans who made up a majority of the country and liked the new business regulations, safety net, and infrastructure.

Sound familiar? Needless fear. It’s a good reminder, however, that we’ve been to this rodeo before, as citizens. And as public school educators:

Banned books. Sex education. Insertion/deletion of religion into school practices. Girls’ sports. Hairstyle battles. Student protests against [you name it]. New math. Drugs in schools.  Teacher salaries. Remote, hybrid or face to face. Whole language vs. phonics.

It’s always something. Public schools are where a community’s fears and aspirations for their children and the future play out. It’s one of the few places where citizens can confront the elected peers who are making decisions about taxpayer-funded community goods.

And for attention-seekers, public schools are low-hanging fruit. Here’s how Tucker Carlson recalls his first-grade teacher:

The Fox host had written that his distaste for liberals began at seven years old, with his teacher Marianna Raymond — a “parody of mother-earth liberalism” who “wore long Indian-print skirts.” He claimed Raymond eschewed “conventional academic topics, like reading and penmanship,” and would sob “theatrically” at her desk. “Mrs. Raymond never did teach us [to read]; my father had to hire a tutor to get me through phonics,” Carlson wrote in Ship of Fools. His “sojourn as a conservative thinker” began shortly thereafter, adds the Post.

Raymond, however, has a completely different account of Carlson’s time in her class at the affluent La Jolla Country Day School. She remembers Carlson as “very precious and very, very polite and sweet,” and denies sobbing at her desk, wearing an Indian skirt, or venturing into political territory at all. What’s more, not only did she teach Carlson reading in the classroom — she was later hired to tutor him at home, the Post reports.

If you’ve been a public school teacher for a few years, you’ll recognize the nastiness in Tucker Carlson’s tone. It’s the old trope: Everyone went to school; therefore, everyone thinks they’re an expert.

What is Tucker Carlson, really? A distraction.

A distraction with millions of viewers, certainly—but if we were to draw up a list of what needs doing right now, for kids, and what teachers are saying about the upcoming year, it would never include combat over Critical Race Theory, since nine out of ten teachers say they’ve never taught it.

What should we be working on? Vaccination rates—all vaccinations, not just COVID. Safety protocols. Finding enough qualified staff. More recess and free play. Mental health for kids. Civil rights, as academic content and high-interest current event. Using the arts to help children understand and cope with a pandemic. Getting books into kids’ hands.

We can’t count on our organizations to solve our problems, although they have stepped up to help on the CRT front. Ultimately, however, issues have to be addressed school by school, classroom by classroom. Because that’s where the real juice is—in the interactions between teachers and students.

Teacher Tom says:

If a teacher rightly has any power at all, it is the power of Now. It isn’t the power of hierarchy, of being right, of being in charge. Now is the ultimate power of seizing an opportunity. The children with whom I work already understand this power much more fully than do I. Now is the natural habitat of the very young and it is where teachers must go if we are to be any good at all. That is where the power is.

So forget about Tucker Carlson. Really.

The Handmaid Teacher’s Tale

Every now and then, someone will ask about favorite books, the ones you’ve re-read repeatedly. Books that influenced your life. Answers often range from classics (‘Little Women’) to the Bible. I have my own list of a dozen or so—but it’s easy for me to share the book that most influenced my life: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I like what the Washington Post said about it in an early review: Published in 1985, this is a novel of such power that the reader is unable to forget its images and its forecast. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. “A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex.”

Darker interconnections, indeed.

When I first read the book (sometime in 1986, shortly after it was published), I was a new mother; my baby daughter was born in 1985. I was also a full-time teacher, with a 45-minute commute, who didn’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading or meandering trips to the library.

I had, however, read and liked Surfacing, one of Atwood’s early works that was on many short lists of early feminist reading—The Golden Notebook, Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar, and the like, those now-classic novels  about women figuring out how the world works. I checked Handmaid out from the library, and hoo boy—that book was one powerful, dystopian reading experience.

Some years later, I read an interview with Atwood (by then, one of my favorite authors), where she noted that there is real-life precedent for everything in Handmaid’s Tale. This truth re-emerged when Hulu created a TV series based on the book in 2017, and viewers commented on the dark and violent nature of the story—I can’t watch! It’s too violent! And totally unrealistic! Umm—nope.

Lest you think I was a raging, underwear-torching feminist back then—hardly. I was happily married, and embarrassingly grateful for my low-wage, womens-work career as a teacher. I went to exactly one consciousness-raising meeting, and came home with a headache, thinking that these women were whiners who needed to solve their own problems rather than waiting for The Movement to change their lives.

And yet. All the way back to my first day as a band teacher, in 1975, I knew that it was a man’s, man’s etc. world, and the power in K-12 education was firmly in male hands. Although the percentage of women who hold down K-12 teaching positions has steadily increased since the 1960s, I was in a heavily male-dominated subset of teachers: band directors. In the late 70s, working on my masters thesis, I acquired the mailing list of all secondary instrumental music teachers in MI. There were seven women holding down HS band jobs in the entire state, somewhere between one and two percent.

That number has slowly, gradually shifted—but it’s taken forty years, and we’re not anywhere near parity yet. I have dozens of humiliating stories about being the only soprano in a room full of tenors and basses, the designated secretary and coffee-maker at professional meetings. Some of them still hurt. Occasionally, on social media, a female band director will share a story about inappropriate remarks made by a male colleague—and there will still, still be men who defend the other man as ‘well-meaning.’

All of this reminds me of a passage in Handmaid’s Tale where Offred–June, for those who know the TV series—reminisces about the day her bank account is frozen, and her husband Luke says not to worry, he’ll take care of her. And he intends to—because he means well. Luke, Offred thinks, is a little too sanguine about all of this—and he’s one of the good ones.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession was a lot of that operating assumption: good relationships with men were the key to a productive educational work life. If your principal liked you, or your male band-teacher colleagues liked you, you were probably fine. Underestimated, misjudged and overlooked, perhaps. But they’d be polite and friendly, as long as you were no threat to their presumed superiority in a competitive education arena.

A lot of the sexism in education flies way under the radar. It’s subtle. So subtle that the people who are exposing it in their own behavior don’t see their own words and actions as sexist. This cluelessness is not surprising. Unrecognized, unacknowledged sexism is everywhere—in politics, media coverage of current events, everyplace from childbirth practices to cooking.

And paying attention to it matters, a lot, if we care about raising healthy children and building healthy cities.The current debates on transgender students, for example, are rooted in sexism (and, it could be argued, violence):

Supporters of [a bill to prevent transgender students from participating in sports] heavily centered their arguments around athletic differences between cisgender women and cisgender men. Gabriel Higerd, a former adjunct professor of exercise science who researches transgender sports policy, said “biological females are one of our nation’s greatest treasures” and argued that this bill is necessary because it protects cisgender female athletes from competing against transgender female athletes. I have never heard any single group of Americans described as “one of our nation’s greatest treasures” as if they were some sort of commodity and not human beings.

And there you go: Biological females, a great treasure to our nation. We’re back in 1985—or 1947, as women (white women) were forced out of the post-war job market and persuaded their place was in the home, caring for as many children as they could bear. Go back as far as you like. You’ll find sexism. Atwood took us to a place in a not-distant future when men acted on the principle of female fertility being a ‘great (and biblically designated) treasure.’ Not hard to fathom, at all.

I am a big fan of the beautifully filmed Handmaid TV series which uses Atwood’s book as starting point, and of her sequel novel, The Testaments. I did not re-read Handmaid for 30 years. When the series was announced, I bought a digital copy. I remembered all kinds of things about the characters, passages of text, the plot and the utterly chilling world that Atwood created: Gilead. It rang true—or at least possible—in 1986, and just as plausible, if not more so, in 2016.  

 I also know that every time I have written a blog, over the past 17 years, about how women and their talents have been suppressed in EdWorld, I have received pushback. Some of it has been downright ugly.

Which is why I don’t pay attention to reviewers who think that Handmaid’s Tale, focused more and more about savage retribution in Season 4, has jumped the shark. I prefer to think of it as cautionary tale.

Watch—or read—and learn. What goes around, comes around.

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Arizona, a first-flight of the fully immunized, and a chance to warm up, eat incredible takeout and be somewhere other than home. A vacation, to see our first-born, in a city that has hundreds of gorgeous outdoor dining patios.

I took along a book—The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been saving it for this vacation, when I could sit on a shaded patio, uninterrupted, and read. Friends recommended it. And it kind of rocked my world.

I don’t read lots of sci-fi, so Robinson’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but I can understand why he has plenty of fans. As dystopian/utopian fiction, the story was pretty good, but what made it unforgettable was the other stuff that Robinson tucks in around the narrative: Observations, testimonies, riddles and mini-lectures on an array of systems impacting the way the world operates, now and possibly in the next few decades.

It’s a series of enlightenments on practices that must become habit before we all think and act globally: economics, politics, health, equity, and above all, the imminent threat of climate catastrophe.

You would think living through a global pandemic would be the kind of event to jump-start that thinking.

We’ve all seen the Crisis = Opportunity meme, but far too many outright crises—dangerous inflection points—have come and gone in these United States without any positive long-term outcomes. In the war against complacency and intransigence, we are losing.

Back in the late 1970s, I took a graduate course in Futurism. If I took one thing away from the class as reliable truth, it was this: the point of studying the future is not prediction—it’s planning. Goal-setting. The textbook we used (remember using textbooks in every class?) included, as an appendix, predictions about alternative futures from famous prognosticators.

Reading through those now is amusing—we have far outstripped where the predictions say we would be in 2020 when it comes to technologies, with our Jetsons phones and carrying the Library of Congress in our pockets. Other changes, however, were just a blip on the horizon 45 years ago: climate collapse, social unrest, the dangerous and growing gap between haves and have-nots. Defunding the police? The student loan crisis? Nobody was talking about those in 1978.

It goes without saying that nobody expected to spend four years of their future living under (and I chose that preposition deliberately) Donald Trump. Preventing another disastrous waste of time, resources and international goodwill like the Trump administration ought to be one of our goals as educators.

We have been talking continuously over the past year about re-thinking the purpose and mission of public education, but most of that talk has been about peripheral things—Zoom classrooms, hybrid models, and the damned tests.

Here’s the question we should be asking: What skills and knowledge do children and teenagers need to make sense of this world and give them agency?

Every young child, for example, should have a thought or two about why sharing with other people makes both of us happier. Every teenager should have experience with service work, and understand the difference between a law and cultural norm. Every single person on the planet ought to be able to distinguish between verifiable truth and burnished opinion.

This pandemic period will linger in the memories on American citizens. What have we done to prepare our world for other, inevitable turning points? Have we trained our children to understand the impact of governance and policy creation? Or does that fall into the caption of ‘Social Studies’ and get swept aside in our eagerness to ‘get back to normal’ and pursue high scores in math and reading?

The Ministry for the Future begins with an unimaginably disastrous, climate-related event that kicks an international team of scientists, political leaders and thinkers, a remnant of the Paris Climate Accord, into action. Each well-considered step they take is designed to, literally, save the planet. Some things work well. Others fail. But all make obvious that we can’t just keep on keepin’ on. We have to change.

Change is scary. Preparing our students ought to address this fact. It’s worth the fight.

Ministry is one of those books that drops a lens in front of the reader. It goes like this: Knowing what I know about the health of the planet and well-being of my fellow citizens, what do I observe about daily life that makes me hopeful? And what do I observe that makes me cynical or afraid?

As it happens, we flew from a state where COVID is out of control and parents are jamming Board meetings to demand that their children go mask-less, to a state where infection rates are among the lowest in the nation. It’s hard to draw comparisons without living someplace, long-term, but Arizonians were mask-compliant everywhere we went. And that compliance was enforced by restaurants and museums, not state law.

Delta’s policies struck me as smart and in-control. Lots of annoying things—rude passengers, late flights, inefficient plane loading, and the drunken seatmate—were not in evidence. The airports were clean and quiet, and absolutely everyone was masked. Old white men doing the ‘not MY nose’ mask thing were publicly corrected. People who failed to check a big, heavy suitcase were corrected, too, when the flight attendant wouldn’t assist.

I could get used to flying masked, and touchless check-in, forever. Air travel is also hard on the environment. Maybe what we all need to get used to is staying home, until air travel is carbon-neutral.

I am mostly on the Cynical and Fearful team, and I put a great deal of the blame on my own nation. On the other hand, I believe there is still inherent in America an opportunity to lead globally. But it means tapping into the talents and resolve of young people. You know–education. 

There are a thousand policy ideas about positive change in schooling leading to an engaged and productive citizenry. But first, we need to have a common vision. I have always liked what Neil Postman said about public schooling and the commons, back in 1995. He understood the future of education, a quarter century ago.

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public?

The question is: What kind of public does it create?

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?

The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools.

The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”

― Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995)

Pick up The Ministry for the Future. It will make you think.

Acceleration Nation

There it was—an ad for dealing with imaginary learning loss. Nope—your kid doesn’t need remediation to bring him up to speed after this year of screen-based semi-school. He needs acceleration! Sure he’s, umm, fallen behind somebody, somewhere. But the solution is not reviewing what he may have missed—it’s accelerating. Going faster. Catching up, then presumably surging ahead. Winning.

I was so struck by the totally American nature of this language—We Must Compete! No remediation for us!—that I googled the company’s motto and found that there are several pre-packaged learning systems and books using the same theme and jargon.

Acceleration, it appears, is having (another) sexy moment. It may even be sexy enough to tap into some of that federal funding this summer, if education vendors hustle and enough media figures wring their hands while bemoaning ‘learning loss.’  

If your kids have been moping around, griping about not seeing their friends and the head-banging monotony of Zoom lessons, it’s logical to be a little anxious about what they have not learned in the past year. Things that might have been not only interesting or challenging, but important for future coursework and plans. It’s OK to worry about their emotional health, their need for exercise and socializing.

But while I have absolute faith in well-prepared, caring teachers to do their best to move students forward, there are still a lot of balls in the air. Will enough people, old and young, be vaccinated in time for a new school year? What curve balls might the virus still be capable of? How will we re-evaluate most critical uses of instructional time with our overstuffed core curriculum—and how much permanent impact will a year of uncertainty and danger have on what ‘school’ looks like, this fall and all future school years?

Hard to say, but I am fairly certain that simply prescribing acceleration rather than remediation is an example of rhetorical flourish over substance.

My Masters degree is in Gifted Education. In my introductory courses, the foundational thinking in every article and text was that there were two basic streams of instructional practice designed to address the needs of gifted children—enrichment and acceleration. In short, going deeper or going faster. Or a combination of both.

The drawback of enrichment was that providing unique challenges for very bright kids meant you had to diversify learning, custom-tailoring lessons for differing ability, something that has always been available, but is a classroom management challenge. With acceleration, you could move children through existing structures faster—taking HS Algebra in 6th grade, for example. If you were willing to put your 11 year old in a class with high school freshmen, that is—and had a plan for what happened when her ability to the do the work outstripped her emotional maturity.

Working in the field of gifted education, it turned out that most parents didn’t care much about going deeper. What they wanted was not in-depth exploration but getting ahead of other students. Accelerating. The idea of extensive, hands-on digging into something Bright Child was passionately interested in was not appealing, especially if there were no tangible identifying markers of giftedness in the process.

I don’t remember much about elementary school, but I clearly remember my reading instruction in 5th grade. Instead of traditional reading groups, we were using brand-new SRA reading kits, color-coded 8 x 11 cards featuring stories or non-fiction articles. You moved up through the colors by passing little comprehension tests at the end of each card, until you reached aqua (or maybe it was gray). Then you started at the beginning of the next box.

You could accelerate by acing colors quickly. Miss a few questions, however, and you were stuck in purple for weeks. I remember scanning the room, or meeting someone at the box to exchange a card and noticing, hmmm—too bad, she’s on orange.

My teacher, Mrs. Wildfong, let me breeze through the first box. Then one day, instead of starting me on the 6th grade box, she pulled me into a corner of the room and showed me a small bookshelf. Quietly, she told me that for the rest of the year, I could read anything I liked on the lowest shelf. After I read the book, I was supposed to write a page in a small spiral-bound notebook about what I’d just read. There were no questions about POV, themes or characters—just my opinion, or what I’d learned.

I read every book on that shelf and filled several notebooks. After that, I had a permanent pass to the library, and permission to go during reading class whenever I needed new reading material. I read completely through the Beany Malone series, the Cherry Ames series, and a group of biographies with blue covers featuring black silhouettes. I also recall that other kids in the class wondered, with some resentment, why nobody else got to go to the library whenever they felt like it.

I remember the year, and Mrs. Wildfong, with great fondness. I tell this story not because I was ‘gifted’—I wasn’t—but because Mrs. Wildfong improvised enrichment, tailoring my reading curriculum without shorting her other students. For the rest of the day, I was doing long division and coloring maps with everyone else. Deeper, not faster.

In the 6th grade, I started at the beginning of the SRA box with everyone else, and when I started moving ‘too fast,’ my teacher made me stay for weeks in one color, reading all the yellow cards then all the brown cards, because heaven forbid any child should outstrip The SRA Box. I did not resent this—I really loved my 6th grade teacher—and my parents did not go to school to complain, to demand that a child reading at the 12th grade level be given special privileges, blah blah blah.

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

One is that the pandemic, for some children, may have been like my reading shelf and library pass—a chance to do something educational that they’re good at and enjoy, without the constraints of a large classroom full of kids who are good at and enjoy vastly different things, and a teacher trying to maintain order.

Another lesson is that some—again, just some—children will move forward on concepts or skills they normally would have encountered in the previous year very quickly, once they are given a bit of personal attention from a teacher who is not trying to teach 15 live children and 15 tiny, boxed heads on a screen simultaneously.

This is not about ‘acceleration’—it’s about a caring adult who has experience teaching this particular skill to children. We need teachers (and, importantly, school leaders) willing to dump pacing charts and incessant testing in favor of knowing their students–their personal goals and challenges, not their test scores. We need to reinforce skill- and knowledge-building, confidence and healing after a very rough year. There is no need to ‘set a high bar’—kids have always cleared learning bars at their own pace and feeling OK about yourself is a prerequisite.

A third lesson is that public education has increasingly become a consumer product, and advertising for that product now uses commercial language and advertising techniques. This doesn’t bode well, and probably lies under the insistence of many education nonprofits that standardized testing be done now, so the ‘data’ generated allows them to present a picture of deficient kids who need to go faster rather than deeper.

Let’s stop asking about learning loss and catching up. It’s not a race. Let’s provide the resources to move kids forward.

tl;dr = dd

So—here’s a phrase I hate: Dumbing down.

Pretty much every instance of its use in the education discourse is wrongly construed, unsupported by evidence, and reflects lack of first-hand experience by the speaker. As in: The Common Core has dumbed down the curriculum! Test scores prove that American public schools are dumbed down from the intellectual rigor present in [time frame when speaker was in K-12 school]. Why should we dumb down the canon by letting students read books they choose? And so on.

A lot of educational practices that are labeled ‘dumbed down’ are merely—changed. Evolved. Altered. Less—or more—important to learn than 50 or even 20 years ago, because the world has changed. When it comes to curricula and instruction, the heart of what we do in school, change is essential. Because the world changes, educators must also change. This is a hard concept for a lot of people to understand.

I taught school in five different decades. In my experience, the school curriculum has never once, during that time, been gradually less challenging or dumbed down, overall. In fact, I would argue that most of what is taken as evidence of diminishing academic accomplishment and expectations has roots in excessive testing, a radically altered view of who should be pursuing higher education, pushing curriculum down so far that it’s developmentally inappropriate for the students who are supposed to master it—and shifting demographics.  

We’re not dumbing things down. We’re realigning our priorities, while rowing upstream, against strong currents. Why are we doing this? So we can better teach the kids sitting in front of us.

The first time I ran into the internet shorthand ‘tl;dr’ it was a direct insult. The person who wrote it was ranting about one of my blogs, based on a title that my publisher had given it. Because I think dialogue is the only reason to put your thoughts out on the net, I pointed out that he was accusing me of saying pretty much the opposite of what I’d written in the blog. I took a half hour out of my life to go point-by-point in telling him why (there were some nasty accusations in his comment). I tried to remain calm.

He commented back—oh, I didn’t read it—tl;dr.

The blog was just under 800 words. Most bloggers know what 800 words looks and feels like. They also know that shorter pieces get more eyes. (So do pieces with numbers in the title—speaking of genuine dumbing down.) I started wondering: just how long is tl?

The experience also made me start noticing how often my friends (real friends, people I actually know and respect) would share something with a comment like ‘long but worth it’ or ‘read all the way to the end—the last paragraph will break your heart.’ If a friend shares something, I presume they’ve read it, and there’s something worth absorbing in the piece, whether it’s 200 words or 2000 words.

Even more disconcerting: I frequently post my own writing on other sites and have had readers tell me that my responses to comments are ‘not what the blogger meant.’ When I point out that I AM the blogger, they’re surprised. Where do people think free content comes from?

I know we live in a Twitter media culture, where tweets (the grandchildren of sound bites) are burnished for sharing, or linked in boxcar-like threads, 15 thoughts representing a thesis with supporting evidence. I also know that our, umm, former guy ran an entire first-world nation—some would say into the ground—using mainly random misspelled nuggets of braggadocio and bias. He paired them with rambling, often nonsensical speech-rants to large crowds. And people seemed to like them. In fact, one of the most frequent man-on-the-street comments about Former Guy was: He tells it like it is. God forbid.

So here’s what I don’t get: FG’s speeches frequently ran well over an hour, and were given to people standing outside. In the cold. When you look at transcripts, they’re pretty much an amalgam of incoherence laced with sporadic insults. The exact opposite of toastmasters recommend—short, pithy and laced with humor.

Here are my questions:

  • Are we reverting to an oral culture, where long-form reading is mostly abandoned?
  • Does this have to do with the way we have pushed reading instruction down into kindergarten, short-circuiting the love of stories and language that turns children into eager readers?
  • Is tl;dr evidence of the real dumbing down?

You tell me. And in case you’re wondering, 766 words.

Books of 2020

One of my favorite things to do with my largely unstructured pandemic days and nights is read, then talk with people about books. Online. I’m always looking for new titles, recommendations of someone’s old favorite—and also thumbs-down reviews, especially when they’re about books everyone seems to be reading or praising (lookin’ at you, Bridgertons).

I’ve never been good about choosing my 10 favorite anything as the year turns over. But I did do a lot of intentional reading in 2020 (meaning I had to order library books online and wait three months for them to become available for curbside pickup—or purchase them). While some of these are new titles, some are recommendations from friends that I finally got around to.

It was a good year for fiction. I have been trying to read books around the issue of racism (an earlier review of several of those books here), and found the fiction just as instructive as the non-fiction. Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward). The Night Watchman (Louise Erdrich). The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). All powerful reading. More about fiction, later.

Non-fiction fell into three categories—that big bucket of reading about bias and prejudice, “school stuff” and (unfortunately) books about Donald Trump. The only book I read this year about our Crime Boss President that might have lasting utility was Hiding in Plain Sight: The invention of Donald Trump and the erosion of America (Sarah Kendzior). Kendzior has been absolutely prescient about all of Trump’s behavior. I’m almost scared to re-read it, because she got so much of this right, back when there was still hope that cherished institutions would save the day. On January 6th, she was proved right, yet again.

There were two big, don’t-miss education books on my 2020 list: A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The dismantling of public education and the future of school(Jennifer Berkshire, Jack Schneider) and Slaying Goliath: The passionate resistance to privatization and the fight to save America’s Public Schools(Diane Ravitch). Click the links to see earlier, blogged reviews—but note that the year began and ended with a warning that public education is genuinely imperiled. Even before the pandemic.

My two favorite non-fiction titles around the theme of anti-racism in an earlier review were So You Want to Talk about Race? (Ijeoma Oluo) and Caste: The origins of our discontents (Isabel Wilkerson). Since that review, I’ve read an additional book by each author—and they’re both awesome.

I read Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s great migration, which made me understand my own hometown and why people lived where they lived, in that town—plus so much more.  And I just finished Oluo’s Mediocre: The Dangerous legacy of white male power. While her earlier book is a straightforward invitation to keep talking about race, dense with good ideas but written from a personal vantage point, Mediocre covers more scholarly turf. It’s a broad-ranging collection of evidence that white men don’t like it when you challenge their authority and power. If you’re either a woman or a BIPOC, you’ll find plenty to relate to. Oluo keeps the focus on making her case—but if you read this book, as I did, during the lead-up to the insurrection at the Capitol, she makes a terrible and prescient argument for what just happened. Highly recommended.

Now for the fun part—fiction. I am completely unsnobbish about fiction (as you will note). If it’s a good story, I’m in. Here are nine books and two authors I have enjoyed immensely during the Great Lockdown.

It’s a particular kind of irony that I read A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) during the pandemic year, as the aforementioned gentleman spent a long time (50 years?) in a single hotel, by government decree. I can relate. All the people who recommended the book were right—it’s a classic.

Chances Are (Richard Russo) is a minor novel by a major author, but I loved this one best of all his books. It involves a mystery and a weekend meeting, 50 years later, of three men who were in college together, in the late 1960s. In other words, three characters the same age as me—which is, of course, why I loved this book so much. By the book’s ending, we’ve been dragged through American history, and asked if any of us, given a chance to do it over again, would have made different choices.

 The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) If all fantasy books were like this, I would read nothing else. Imaginative, spooky, colorful, mysterious—with the lingering scent of caramel corn.

The Overstory (Richard Powers) I admit that I had to read this in chunks, with periods for digestion. But every time I went back, there were amazing new things to consider, mostly about my role in the ecology of my home, my world and my life. Truly a transformative book; worth the effort.

The Searcher (Tana French) This one is getting lukewarm reviews, but I am a huge Tana French fan, and if this book stretches beyond her usual Dublin Murder Squad m.o. it’s fun to see what she can do with a more introspective, character-driven mystery. Besides, there’s a wonderful kid in this book—Tana French has nailed a 13-year old better than anyone I’ve read in years.

Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout) With the possible exception of Stewart O’Nan, nobody writes stories about old ladies better than Elizabeth Strout. If you liked Olive the first time, you’ll like this one, too.

Normal People (Sally Rooney) I am actually surprised I liked this book so much. Rooney’s earlier stuff was kind of tedious, mostly millennial relationship angst, in beautiful prose. But this book—although still about relationship building among young people–had an aching poignancy around the two central characters that anyone who was ever 18 and itching to be loved will recognize.

Sourdough (Robin Sloan) This was just a delightful read, a story with a moral as well as great characters, twisty plotting and a magic sourdough starter. The idea that a colony of micro-organisms could change your life was utterly believable in 2020.

One series I will always pick up is John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport books, which are reliably 4-star reads, with the occasional 5-star designation. Masked Prey, the latest, makes that cut. The plot centers around keeping a senator’s teenage daughter safe from a right-wing looney whom she has attracted by becoming an ‘influencer.’ The parallels—intended and unintended—between the storyline and the actual news were eerie.

New Authors:

 Liz  Moore, who wrote  Long Bright River and  The Unseen World,  deserves to be added to anyone’s list of authors to try. The two books are both delicious, even though they’re completely different. River is a cop story unlike other cop stories, and World is hard to describe—a mix of science fiction and a tender story about unusual people and families. Both are excellent.

And, finally, Donna Leon. Early on—last March—I was having trouble reading. It was difficult to muster up an attention span. Complaining about this on-line yielded a whole bunch of ‘what to read that will take your mind off the prospect of being locked up for months’ suggestions.

A guy I went to high school with suggested Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (thanks, Doug), noting that it was set in Venice. Bingo. I read eight this year—again, reliably good, with a couple of them outstanding. The first book in the series is pretty good, but jumping ahead reveals that Leon has really honed her character and made her work richer. Feel free not to read in order.