Antiracist Reading

Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, openly,  in front of the nation’s eyes, Tre Johnson said this, in the Washington Post:
‘when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.

What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused. Black people live and die every day under the burdens of a racism more insidious than the current virus that’s also disproportionately killing us. And yet white people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress.’

You should read all of what he said. Because it’s important. And while you’re at it, take a look at this, as well:

‘while the crafters of anti-racist reading lists are mostly making an earnest effort to educate people, literature and dialogue cannot supplant restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, and structural redress. When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse.’ 

So—I realize that I am, relative to the antiracist discourse happening right now, at square one or two, and can’t read myself into full partnership. I have to act.

Mentioning things I used to do, in the classroom, would be nothing more than empty virtue signaling. Sharing whatever anti-racist initiatives I’m currently involved in? Ditto. I’m sick of wading through articles from academics analyzing racist and anti-racist literature, in their (white) opinions. I don’t want to be one of those (white) people who are content to take the slow route, because I can.

It’s headache-inducing.

But I’m still reading. Because I read a lot. It’s my greatest pleasure, and lifelong habit, and it’s currently safe, unlike going downtown to protest, something I’ve promised my children I won’t do.

Last year, and this year—because of the dark cloud of white supremacy manifesting itself everywhere—I decided to read as many books as I could, over both summers, around themes of discrimination. For myself—and perhaps to share with other people who are looking for really powerful things to read. Fiction and non-fiction. How-to books and memoirs. While I understand that reading is not action—it won’t lead to change or redress—sharing what I’m reading might have value.

Because, in the particular place where I live, racism most often manifests as callous and clueless disregard of the history of the land we live on, I looked for books by indigenous writers and people who came here initially as migrant farmworkers. If you have suggestions, I’ll add them to my list.

And because I’m a teacher, I looked for books around discrimination and inequity in education. If there’s a window for important themes and transformative ideas right now, it’s here. We shouldn’t be pointing to Jonathon Kozol and Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—or even Diane Ravitch—all of whom wrote seminal books on inequities in education. What we need now is new volumes, authors of color who don’t simply rehash the deceptive and racist policies that built our imperfect public education structures; we should, instead be gutting rigid curricula, experimenting with new instructional forms, re-examining the damage done to students by high-stakes tests, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into demanding equitable access to devices and broadband for the kids who don’t have it.

 ————————————————————————————-

Since February of 2019, I’ve read 26 books on how racism and discrimination manifest in the United States, through multiple lenses.  Some thumbnails:

Two Books that Absolutely Blew My Mind:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson) This book is phenomenal. And it’s pointedly not about race, per se. It’s about caste–the societal decision to place its members in a constructed hierarchy, then arrange policies and habits to support that hierarchy over time, defining it as ‘natural’ or God-given. It’s a stunningly good book, and makes a great leap over skin color and the fact that race is a human construct (something that many other authors begin with)–to actual behaviors and policies and how they impact both dominant castes and suppressed castes. The experience of reading now, as the country suffers under a pandemic and its worst leader ever has been almost surreal. Wilkerson gets it–sees why we have failed, perceives what happened. Donald Trump, she tells us (and this is one of those places where she uses data effectively) is the logical endgame for a country that traditionally values and rewards its citizens in a rigid hierarchy–a deeply rooted caste system.

The last chapter, an epilogue, stands alone as the case for recognizing and rooting out caste. Other countries have done so–to their great benefit. Americans would similarly benefit, were we to see how our clinging to our bad habits and self-delusions have held us back from developing a just and democratic society.

So You Want to Talk about Race  (Ijeoma Olou) This book hit me right in the solar plexus. It was like Ijeoma Olou was sitting across the table, answering questions—some embarrassing–and responding to ideas I’ve heard for most of my life, but never had the courage to ask or bring up. She’s not pandering to you, trying to make you feel virtuous or even well-meaning. Some of the things she says are painful. But she offers hope that things can get better if we keep trying to listen with an open heart. If you haven’t done much reading, this is the place to start.

Best Books by Scholars

How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi) This book is thick with ideas and intellectual challenges. It’s neither an easy nor quick read. I found myself re-reading paragraphs, to squeeze out the core ideas, which are not intuitive. At first, some ideas–racism is rooted in bad policy, not inborn hate and ignorance–don’t make sense. But read on. If racism is rooted in bad policies, those policies can be changed. Ah. And then better policies will change minds. It’s a hopeful idea. We can change.

How the South Won the Civil War (Heather Cox Richardson) In our history books, we are taught that it was a stunning idea to overthrow the idea of a rigid class structure, the divine right to rule, and the pre-eminence of property (including human beings). When America won its independence, it settled on an extreme and fundamental change in the way it chose to be governed. But the founders were not 100% certain that all men were created equal. More like all white, male property owners. As for men in the rural South, dependent on slavery to retain their ‘natural, God-given’ right to manage the affairs of their women and enslaved workers, the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was not only wrong, but loathsome. Richardson takes us through the Civil War, westward expansion and shifting political loyalties, and finds that, with Donald Trump, we have come full circle, fighting once again against the core principle of democracy, in favor of old, rich, white men and the rights of the individual over that of the community.

White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Carol Anderson) Anderson writes lucidly and persuasively about a 400-year old criminal enterprise, taking us through eras in American history–Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the ongoing battle for equity in education, the role of the courts and Congress in shutting off civil rights, the trashing of free and fair elections. The text is data-rich and, while very readable, scholarly. These are not Anderson’s opinions–they are documented facts. And they’re damning. She’s right–it’s white rage that matters as we ask who is to blame for rebellion in our streets.

White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) This book has recently taken a beating in the book-reading press. And it shouldn’t be the only book you read, if you’re choosing to read about bigotry and intolerance—you need multiple perspectives. But DiAngelo made sense to me, laying out a clear sociological framework for white fragility. It’s not easy to read her deconstruction of why all white people are, inherently, racist–and how that manifests in our behaviors and words, even as we think we’re trying to be open and affirming. She uses examples from her work as a diversity trainer, the things white people say and do that reveal their deeply held biases. She teaches readers who want to learn to recognize those defensive and reflexive responses, and deal with them, even learn from them. There’s value in that, even if it’s an imperfect primer.

Best Books for YA and Student Readers

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You (Jason Reynolds) What a wonderful, energizing, lively book–not descriptors you generally find describing a book about racism. Reynolds uses casual, breezy language in explicitly laying out the 400-year old roots of racism in America–without losing the no-shit seriousness of the topic. I would love to be in the classroom (any classroom) right now; this book could supplement a history text. Let me re-state that: this book would slyly correct, then poke at any American history text. Here’s what The Man (and all the books you ever read in school) say–but let’s examine it from another viewpoint. Reynolds rolls in media, from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Planet of the Apes’ to ‘The Cosby Show’, illustrating how white racists, time and again, marshal all their resources to push black people and black culture down.

Me and Carlos (Tom Perotta) This is a 50-page novella, but Perrotta packs a lot of teenaged confusion and rationalizing into a well-told story. Digger is the perennial second-stringer, who can’t quite rise above some petty resentments. Told in his voice, you can see what’s coming, the point at which male jostling and a re-arranged pecking order will lead to something really bad. Perrotta, always a good writer, adopts Digger’s voice and makes the reader uneasy. The novella feels breezy—a young adult-ish story. But I found myself thinking about all the layers—unearned privilege, the blithe male entitlement that high school jocks seem to adopt, jealousy, ethnic discrimination and how the country we live in supports these.

Red at the Bone  (Jacqueline Woodson) The book has a YA feel to it, in spite of the ‘adult’ subject matter (which isn’t really adult, at all). There’s no padding–it’s all raw feeling, five different perspectives on a teenage pregnancy, and how family is at the center of both survival and happiness. Woodson’s language is evocative, and all the characters feel very real.

Richest, Most Illuminating Fiction

Salvage the Bones (Jesamyn West) broke my heart. You don’t know it’s going to break your heart, at the beginning of the book. Life in Bois Savage, at Esch’s home, feels chaotic and half-assed. There are four children, and Daddy–Mama died, giving birth to the youngest–so everything, from eating to washing sheets to taking care of Junior, is disorganized and unpredictable. And Esch, 15, and believing she’s in love with one of her brother’s friends, has a terrible secret. Right from the beginning, however, the language used to tell the story is almost poetry. There is beauty in everything, for Esch–the simple curve of her little brother’s skull, her older brother’s jumpshot, and her brother Skeetah’s dedication to his pit bull, China. Gradually, we see how tight this family is, how bonded they are, how forgiving of each others’ sins and failings. How they hold each other up, through unimaginable horror. How brave they are. How faithful. The book will break your heart, too.

The Night Watchman  (Louise Erdrich) This book grew on me, as I read it, and the stories of the people, and how life had treated them, began to weave together, powerfully and even tragically. Erdrich always speaks plainly and truthfully, and the story here is greatly enhanced by knowing that she’s writing about her grandfather and his quest to keep the Turtle Mountain Tribe from being ’emancipated’–cut free–from the government that has already taken the best of their land (and, not coincidentally, their people).

Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) A rambling adventure, populated by a young, enslaved man (George Washington Black) and his master’s brother, an abolitionist and world-class eccentric. And many other unique characters, in a world–the 19th century–where slavery is both dying out and accepted as natural. Edugyan makes this world come alive, slipping into the mind of an 11-year old boy who has never lived outside the cruel confines of a sugar plantation in the British West Indies. How to understand the odd words and actions of the plantation owner’s brother? How to understand what real freedom is?

Jubilee (Margaret Walker) Written in 1966, Jubilee presents story of the Civil War from the eyes of one of the enslaved people. Walker goes far deeper in the minds and motivations of all the people in the typical plantation story, covering things like slave owners’ predilection for sexually abusing and impregnating the people they enslaved, the biblical and ‘moral’ rationales they employed, how slaves were terrorized into submission, the lack of information about the real world given to enslaved people–and an introduction to the evils of Reconstruction.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead) Outstanding, on many levels. The writing is perfectly styled for the story–the shorthand sentences and the plain thinking of the Nickel boys and their captors, reflecting both the times and the rotten values of the criminal justice system. And the characters are carefully drawn, by an unsympathetic narrator, who lets Elwood and Turner speak for themselves, instead of explaining what makes them tick. The plot is heart-tugging, driven by the boys who found themselves, by hook or crook, living in a version of Hell. And the epilogue is wonderful–it made me cry.

There, There (Tommy Orange) There’s almost too much in the book–the entire history of the Urban Indian, back to the 16th century, the myths and dreams, the horror, compacted in a few pages. There’s so much in it, history and backstory and rationale, that at times, it’s hard to find the story–the intriguing tale that keeps you reading to find out what happens. The book is rich with characters (none of whom feels much joy or hope), and very cleverly structured. You can see what’s coming a mile off, and feel powerless to stop it. And just when you want to know the specific outcomes, Orange pulls the plug. It’s easy to see why he did this–American ‘civilization’ has been doing this for 400 years. It’s a lesson to the reader.

Memoir and Essays

Becoming (Michelle Obama) The book is a festival of little, very human moments: Running to the corner store to get her mother a pack of Newports. Piano lessons. Her teenage boyfriends. Excruciating moments from the campaign. And, of course, what it’s like to love a man with Obama’s fierce intelligence and ambition. The tone is casual, a conversation with a friend—the book reads almost like a novel. A masterpiece of political biography.

All You Can Ever Know  (Nicole Chung) As a (white) adoptive parent of a Korean son, the book rang my chimes on many levels. Chung notes, deep in her narrative, that some transracial adoptees do not experience the feelings of being an outsider or the persistent search for identity that she did, and I think that’s true. Each adoptee’s emotional journey is unique. Nonetheless, I think the issues Chung raises are vital, well worth reflection on the part of all parties, including adoptive parents. I learned from her story, which gave me many insights to chew on.

Thick and Other Essays  (Tressie McMillan Cottom) Cottom’s essay on being considered ‘incompetent’ in the birth and subsequent loss of her infant daughter will rip your heart out. Her essay on why David Brooks gets to be a full-time writer while producing columns about deli meats, and the NYT and WaPo don’t (or didn’t, at the time) have a full-time black woman op-ed writer is hilarious and spot-on.

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) The first half of the book is little stories about growing up in South Africa, small examples of cultural differences from a vastly different world. Taken together, they present a picture of what it was like to be Trevor Noah–and what it’s like to live in a world with alternate boundaries and beliefs. It’s a good memoir, easy to read. It gets better, as Noah looks at apartheid, crime, gender dynamics, and so much more. The chapter entitled ‘Cheese Boys’ is brilliant-and his explanation of why South American families call their sons ‘Hitler” was a revelation. The book would make a worthy addition to any course on cultural perspectives.

Other Titles of Interest; Your Mileage May Vary

The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett)

Such a Fun Age (Kiley Reid)

An American Marriage (Tayari Jones)

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories (Lucia Berlin)

The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait (Gray and Barbara Villet)

Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Debby Irving)

The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide (Zerlina Maxwell)

What essential books am I missing? Discuss.

The Post Office, the Election and Social Media—Four Lessons

This isn’t a blog about Our Beloved Post Office, or DeJoy the Impaler or even How to Vote. At its core, my ultimate point here is that Americans are terrible—godawful—media critics. And, consequently, our students–whom we frequently, jokingly label our on-site tech support–are floating in a sea of toxic TikTok spin and political sludge with no paddles and no anchor.
While young people are often fearlessly intuitive about using social media tools and platforms, the wisdom that comes from analysis, evaluation, fact-checking–and simply being mature—is not necessarily in place. True, I have, in 30+ years of teaching, met 7th graders I would trust with my life. But one look at 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse’s social media presence ought to give anyone pause.

On the other hand—well, here’s a story about a viral FB post and adults who ought to know better.

This narrative is just one illustration of how misinformation is spread. I have my own theories about how this particular blot on the truth may have happened, but no proof.

It’s kind of like what’s happened to the Post Office this summer—moving from citizens’ early observations about the mail being slow, to a loose accumulation of facts and accusations, with people becoming more informed (or misinformed).

This week, we moved into Congressional hearings that have convinced many people that a critical, constitutionally mandated service is being deliberately destroyed by a guy who knows bupkis about delivering the mail and has an economic stake in shutting it all down.

Many people–but not all people, of course. Because others have read memes and posts and seen tweets that say the USPS has always been second-rate, and it’s time to put this money-losing federal service in the hands of a businessman.

We’re losing our grip on truth.

Around August 14, a post began to appear on my friends’ Facebook pages. Lots of friends—at least three or four dozen close buddies or acquaintances, some of whom have graduate degrees and respected voices in their communities. I won’t quote it all here—but it began with these words:

Good advice for people who feel unsafe about voting in person but now fear the USPS will be unable to deliver a “mail-in” ballot in a timely fashion.

There is a way around it:

1. Request a mail-in ballot.

2. Do not mail it.

Look familiar?  This is not good advice.

There are a number of potentially concerning things in the rest of the post. It suggests that your drop box is probably not at/in your polling place (not true—many are). It says you can google your ‘election supervisor’ and find out where the drop box is (not true—and not all states use the same terminology to describe the elected authorities who oversee local elections). It says you can track your ballot—just like an Amazon package! —but neglects to say what to do when the tracking system says your ballot has not arrived, and you can’t track it through the mail’s bar codes.

There’s a lot of happy-talk language in the post: Your ballot gets in on time no matter what happens to the USPS! You don’t have to worry about standing in long lines and risking infection! Just drop it off!

In Michigan, if you drop your ballot into a handy drop box that isn’t in your voting jurisdiction, your ballot will not count. So there’s that.

And, it says (in capitals): ALL STATES ALLOW THIS!! As a matter of fact, the Trump re-election campaign sued the state of Pennsylvania and county elections officials in June, saying that drop boxes were unconstitutional. The case is still tied up in the courts. Are we going to see more such lawsuits across the country, negating or muddying the use of drop boxes?

All states that have mail-in voting of any type got there via a policy shift, at some point, applicable to that state alone. In Michigan we had a ballot initiative in 2018 to use the mail for absentee voting for ALL Michigan voters, no reason needed. Lots of confusing policy proposals and policy changes around voting have been proposed, adopted and rejected, across the country, as a result of the pandemic. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to ensuring that everyone gets the chance to vote.

It would be easy to think this post was from a well-meaning GOTV advocate, quoting advice applicable to their state or locale, thinking it was helpful everywhere. Its folksy tone makes you think you’re talking to a friend about your worries that USPS won’t be able to do its job.

It might make people who put off getting their ballots in the mail think—hey! I’ve got time! There’s got to be a drop box around here, somewhere! Or people who requested absentee ballots and find out too late there’s no box, go to the polls without the absentee ballot they requested (which needs to be ‘spoiled’ by a clerk, to free them up to vote in person). Etc.

At the very bottom of the post, it says this:

***This is very important, and I would appreciate everyone who sees this to copy it on their page. (Press and hold until the copy option pops up)***

This was the point at which I started wondering just who had written this (there was no source, not even ‘a friend wrote this’ on any of the re-posts I saw). Could it be a viral bot-post? Not shareable—one of those ‘cut and paste, so we can get the word out quicker,’ scammy posts?

I went looking. The first place I found it (on August 14) was Reddit, shared (but not authored) by ‘Joe in Canada.’ Two big spreaders were FB pages for ‘Spiritual Surrender’ and ‘The Professor is In’—but I couldn’t find a named author or credible source anywhere. Weird.

I did start pushing back every time I saw it posted, with a set of bulleted facts, similar to what I’ve presented here, only shorter. A couple of people said thanks, and took it down. A half-dozen more edited the post, to fit their city, township or voting jurisdictions and added cautions (that felt good).

But most people argued back, with ‘I know where my drop box is—I always use it’ or ‘I didn’t read the whole thing! Check with your local authorities!’ (leaving the incorrect information in place). One former student deleted my comments and left the post up (that felt bad).

Worse, there’s a similar meme making the rounds today—white text on a dark blue background. Be looking for it.

Lesson: People don’t like to have their random re-posts challenged. In fact, they hate it.

Second lesson: There’s a lot of unverified, even dangerous, garbage floating around out there as citizens try to navigate holding an election during a pandemic. Remember Steve Bannon’s maxim? Flood the zone with shit?And the best kind of, umm, shit is stuff that looks, at first glance, like it might be true.

Third lesson: Check for sources. Don’t ever put faith in an uncredited, my-friend-said post or video. (This is important for our students to know—here’s one great resource to help teachers with that.)

Fourth lesson:  There’s good information out there for all of us. AARP (go figure) has excellent non-partisan guides for all states. It’s our responsibility to inform our friends when something they have posted is wrong. Knowledge is power.

Coda: I learned that my voting jurisdiction does not have a drop box by asking my County Clerk. She told me I could drop off my absentee ballot or vote early (another perk we supposedly got in the 2018 ballot initiative) by making an appointment at my Township Clerk’s home. Since our Secretary of State offered a free drop box to every township in Michigan, I expressed disappointment. Later, the SOS website showed that there now was a drop box, at the Clerk’s home address.  There’s a photo of it, in her unlit, unsecured front porch, below.

Pod Save Us: How Learning Pods are Going to Destroy Public Education. Or Not.

The first thing I thought of when people started murmuring about getting groups of kids whose families were connected together for a little home-based mini-school, was the much-heralded advent of charter schools in my state, back in 1995.

Just about everybody who was around and in the thick of education reform back then thought charters held promise. Throwing off the regulatory shackles! Schools with a unique vision and purpose! No more factory-model instruction!

A group of parents, led by one of those perennial PTA-president moms, approached a group of maybe a dozen teachers in the district where I taught, hoping to start a K-8 charter. Several of the teachers had already been discussing a new, arts-infused ‘dream school.’ The parents had a centrally located vacant building in mind, and had run some numbers that showed, somehow, teachers would be paid commensurately with the district’s salary scale, including benefits—and would be freed to run their classes the way they saw fit.

It’s worth noting that this was before NCLB, the Common Core and mandated testing in grades 3-8. I’m finding it hard to remember, in fact, just what we found so onerous and constraining about practices in the buildings we were working in, but that group of teachers (male and female, including several movers and shakers) agreed to meet with the parent organizers.

The parents were super-enthusiastic. They, too, had ideas to roll out, and were thrilled at the prospect of having a greater say in their children’s education, without having to pay private school tuition. The new charter law let them pick and choose teachers and set the tone for who would be welcome there. The leader of the group declared ‘We’re going to have the cream of the crop in our school!’

And that was it. All of the teachers immediately realized why the parents had done so much research and organizing: it was all for their kids. Kids whose parents did not have similar resources and savvy would be left behind, a phrase that hadn’t even entered the education lexicon yet.

I have long been a defender of the idea that parents should do whatever makes them comfortable, when it comes to their children’s education. If you want right-wing religious training, or single-gender education, or a place where your child will not stick out–thinking here of the Obamas not placing their girls, symbolically, into a public school—hey, go for it. One size does not fit all, although a lot of public schools try to accommodate pretty much everyone.

I think trying to tell parents, during a pandemic–especially when there’s a dearth of authentic leadership around making healthy choices for kids–that they have to play by a particular school’s rules is utter folly. Nothing will, or should, stop parents from trying to figure out how to get the best deal for their children during a crisis. That’s what parents are for.

There will be lots of chaos, changes and new understandings about the nature and importance of public school as we muddle through the beginning of the school year. What I’m hoping is that it won’t be another New Orleans after Katrina—where powerful (mostly white) people dismantled a struggling system for their own purposes. Because they had more money and more power, and they could.

Is that what pod-parents are intending? A way to use a virulent virus to duck out of feeling responsible for all children, or at least those in the immediate vicinity? Or is pod-learning a temporary solution that might lead to a new appreciation of the utterly democratic and cost-effective nature of public education?

Conflicting ideas:

~ Pod-learning has no concrete definition. A tutor (please don’t call them zutors) who works with a half-dozen children, twice a week, to accomplish their assigned schoolwork, is a far cry from dropping your child off at someone’s home every day so you can go to work and they can go to school. Do pod-teachers create their own curriculum or merely adapt what’s available, free, from the local public school? Who hires pod-teachers and what recourse do they have when conflicts occur? And on and on.

~ None of this is new. There have been private tutors, one-room schoolhouses and home-schools since colonial times. More recently, we’ve had distance learning and a revolving carousel of online, customer-friendly, charter schools. There are plenty of ways to get your child at least nominally educated—and also into college. Best to keep the focus on genuine learning, which might involve some deeper involvement and hard questions about what your schooling plan does for your child, besides keep them occupied for six hours a day.

~ If you’re counting on your schooling bubble to keep your kids—and hence, all the people in your household—free from infection while enjoying the freedom of not wearing masks or social distancing, there’s a great graphic for you to study at the end of this blog.

~ Surprise! One of the two great benefits of public education is free/inexpensive childcare. (The other is an educated citizenry but almost nobody talks about that.) What that means is those who can afford to chip in on a pod program can also afford childcare. By hiring a bona fide teacher who is fearful of returning to a public school, you’re deepening the division between haves and have-nots. If, as some talking heads are suggesting, you hire a college student at loose ends—you’re doubling down on the false idea that anyone can teach. Didn’t you already figure that out, back in April?

~ Here’s a certainty: if people form pods to educate their kids, bypassing public schools, it will weaken the commitment to annual high-stakes testing, the Common Core (and its identical cousins with different names), and tightly controlled teacher licensure. That’s not all bad, but deregulation has its downside. Think of it as public education being re-created as a gig economy. Teaching as Uber. Caveat emptor.

~ Teacher professionalism and expertise will be devalued. What will suffer then are the (admittedly idealistic) concepts of deep learning, custom-tailored curriculum, relationship-driven instruction–things that can only be supported by an established system run by professional educators.

~ Pods will have all the problems that public schools have: unsuitable teachers that some parents and children dislike, personality and values conflicts, lack of necessary resources, unforeseen changes in numbers and support for the pod model. Doesn’t matter how large or small your pod is. Doesn’t matter if you’re teaching in a geodesic dome in your backyard—there will be problems.

~ And, of course—the questions around equity. You can argue, correctly, that schools are already inequitable. But what makes a school equitable is not its location or demographics. Equity is built by a reliable stream of resources, committed and talented teachers and genuine leadership. You can’t have an equitable school or provide an equitable education without good people. Temporary, just-in-time pod education disrupts what is good in public education: community-building.

Creative and Just Curriculum, Pt II: Six Ideas about Teaching Music During a Pandemic

Facebook post, shared by a colleague: Started band camp last Sunday, two rehearsals per day. No more than 25 students in a group. They wore masks while moving between stations, and after the second rehearsal, two students went home because of low grade fevers. One tested positive. We were forced to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. There was no precaution we didn’t take.

Welcome to 2020, music educators.

About six weeks ago, Texas band directors (a fierce and highly competitive bunch) started posting summer band-camp photos, on a band directors’ site I follow. Flute players with facial shields. Trumpets and mellophones with their bells bagged. Masked percussionists, labeling their mallets, so they’re touched by only one person. They were fired up. Creativity and safety would win the day!

The page today is really tough reading: Shut-down camps. Lost jobs. Will there be a marching band next year if there’s none this year? Pictures of band rooms where precisely 13 students can play while social-distancing. Deep, philosophical chats about the value of music in kids’ lives. And this—how the hell am I supposed to have a band online?

Well, the bad news is: you’re not. And when this pandemic abates, the best-case scenario for all powerhouse performance-based music programs is the option to rebuild. Any teacher (raises hand) who’s ever had to build, then re-build, a music program of any kind knows how difficult that job is, what losses are suffered when your dynamic program loses the thing that makes it magnetic: Pride in performance, fun in preparation.

So don’t think I’m Pollyanna, telling music teachers to keep your chin up and try something new. I know you’re righteously sad about your good work being threatened. What I am offering is this: a few suggestions for doing some authentic music teaching during a terrible time.

For starters—stop calling yourself a band/choir/orchestra director, and begin calling yourself a ‘music teacher.’

Second—understand that your college education and years of experience have given you all the musical expertise you need to create some new ideas about music that can be delivered to students in multiple modes. You know enough about the structure and history of music to create some great lessons. And what you don’t know offhand, you can easily find, without leaving your living room.

Third—don’t think the only curricular options students have are limited to music theory, music history and practicing. Much of our college-level theory and history instruction was deadly dull—no need to repeat it. Also– please don’t assign practicing. You need to give kids a good reason to practice, and logging time for a grade is not a good reason to practice. Learning to play another instrument would be—Bari sax? Ukulele?  

Fourth—you know what tools, student interests and previous skills are available to you. If you’re meeting students in groups, and they all have Zoom, you might be able to do some bucket drumming. Or maybe your orchestra would be more interested in a History of Popular Music survey unit—to find out where the music they listened to originated.

Perhaps you’re stuck with phone calls and emails, and have to do something written or shared via email groups. I used to play what I called Sound Samples for my students, around a theme. They listened to a series of 10 or 12 clips, each a couple of minutes long, with a list of what they were listening to (each with a brief description). The list was out of order. The trick was to listen closely enough to identify key features of the music and thus, identify the pieces. Ungraded—but I know from experience students love guessing right, or figuring out what they’re listening to, using the clues.

For those incredibly lucky teachers who have the right technological tools and skills, teaching students to do ensemble playing via technology, with themselves or others, is a possibility (not Zoom, by the way—it’s the wrong tool for ensemble singing/playing). Only a narrow slice of music educators have the equipment and expertise to do this—but perhaps it’s your personal challenge, right now.

Fifth—Keep in mind that students take a music class to play. Teachers are fearful of play. Not only because their professional evaluations and livelihood are often linked to a mandate to produce satisfactory evidence–data– but open-ended play is not generally The Way We Do Things.

In schools, and in the grim, we’re-behind education policy discourse, a teacher who encourages students of any age to poke at ideas, learn from mistakes, and approach established disciplinary content as a treasure chest to explore is seen as disorganized. You tell ‘em what to do. And then you evaluate how well they’re doing what you told ‘em to do.

I am a music teacher–theoretically a creative art–but can state categorically that music, as traditionally taught in secondary schools, is not very imaginative or playful at all. School music programs tend to become performance-oriented only–and often rigorously competitive—as students get older.

There is an important body of information and skills in music. The more of that disciplinary knowledge students have mastered, and the more proficiency they develop, the greater their ability to capably perform interesting and satisfying music, and become a more appreciative and knowledgeable music consumer. These are all worthwhile educational goals, by the way. Far more worthy, in the long run, than bringing home another trophy.

The National Association for Music Education standards include composition, often overlooked in school music programs focused on replicating already-created music with a high degree of perfection.

After I’d embraced the rehearse-rehearse-perform model for 20 years, I realized I wasn’t teaching my students much about music other than How to Play Band Music. I started experimenting with composition. I had adopted the practice of thematic teaching—focusing on one broad aspect of music each year. The first year I tried to include composition, our theme was World Music—identifying the musical features that make something sound Italian or Scottish, rustic or refined. We listened to gamelan bands and balalaika choirs and West African djembe drummers.

And then I asked them to compose something in an ethnic style.

It’s nerve-wracking to turn kids loose to create. How do you structure that lesson? What’s the subject matter takeaway? What if your students create inferior products (as they certainly will, at first)? Must you grade them?

I had to deal with “Just tell me what to do” and “Can’t I do a report instead?” We persisted. And eventually, it was fun, playing with our acquired skills, creating new music–recording it on audio, video, electronic keyboard discs and paper. Their choice.

Some students performed their compositions live, including several groups and soloists playing the blues (that’s how you teach theory, by the way—using it).  There were R. Carlos Nakai-ish recorder solos and improvised polkas. And lots and lots of drumming.

Most of the work was fairly unoriginal, but some of it was stunning. Here’s the best part. I assigned it on a Friday, giving them almost a month to get things in. On Monday, there were maybe two dozen completed assignments in my inbox, and groups wanted to know: Can we do another one?

Sixth—like most things about school and learning, music programs that are well-funded and adequately staffed get better results. It costs money to support a music program at any level, and a great deal of money to outfit a HS performing group, beginning with a facility. In some ways, losing daily rehearsals and summer camps and access to a world-class auditorium levels the playing field and lets musicians focus on the heart of music—human expression—rather than being best. This could be the year where imagination and creativity (and, in the process, justice) is the focus.

From a marvelous blog, What If We Radically Reimagined the New School Year:

What if this urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge? What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?

Toward a More Just (and Creative) Curriculum, Part I

Virtually all of the discussion between educators is now centered on whether it’s feasible, with any kind of plan, to return to in-person schooling in the fall. I believe this national conversation will follow the Major League Baseball template: schools will begin closing as viral clusters pop up, perhaps re-opening, then closing again for the balance of the year, as it finally dawns on the most resistant anti-mask parent and school board member: This just ain’t gonna work. It’s too dangerous.

Wouldn’t it be great to just skip that step and focus instead on two things: getting adequate broadband to the half of students and teachers who don’t have it, and figuring out how to use available connections to teach kids things that actually matter?

Teachers settle into a teaching practice– gathering, testing and adopting habits and materials that are effective (and discarding those that aren’t). Many teachers had difficulty abandoning those standardized resources and pedagogies when forced to teach online. They tried to do what they always did—at first, anyway. When that didn’t work so well, they began experimenting, with personal calls and meetings, extending or modifying assignments—and plenty of other strategies.

Teachers quickly discovered that the usual deliver/practice/test model was a bust, with students randomly not showing up or completing things that would have been finished, had the teacher been strolling around the classroom looking over their shoulders. How would this impact grading and testing and comparing? District and state leaders eventually said—we can’t grade (or test or compare). It’s not fair.

The news media, of course,  interpreted this as ‘Students Do Work but It Doesn’t Count!’

Why does the general public assume that learning only matters when it’s quantified? Because we’ve taught them that is the case. Let’s cut to the chase instead: Now that we’re here online (or mailing packets, using phone-in conferences or emailing)—what would be the most useful things to learn? What might be jettisoned in favor of things that address important and current issues?

For children in primary grades, this amounts to lots of basic-skills building around interesting things in their world. When we talk about very young children, most people assume that they’re the ones who need the traditional high-touch curriculum: learning to read, do simple arithmetic, and socializing. In person.

That may not be possible. And I’m not entirely convinced that older kids do better with remote learning. I can think of a number of things that are central to early-childhood learning that might be adapted to learning at home. Vocabulary, speaking and listening, stories that teach us something, counting games, virtual museum visits, nature walks with items being shared and discussed, puppet shows—the list is endless.

The catch, of course, is having someone older around to supervise that nature walk, find the link to the virtual museum, and watch the puppet show after the teacher shares creative ideas and content.

I can also identify the teachers in secondary schools who will struggle the most to develop online models of teaching: music teachers with performing groups, art teachers, physical education and drama teachers, career and technical educators and those with hands-on pedagogies.

We need to be very clear that what elementary-grades schooling provides is free enriched childcare, and that the dangers in online learning generally come from those who would cannibalize both public education and the legitimate, even exciting, uses of technology toward the goal of making a profit.  These are separate issues, and it’s easy to conflate them.

What if, instead, we turned this new way of teaching and learning toward breaking free from lockstep curriculum, and focused on the great issues now facing our country? Things like inequity, antiracism, community-building to help ease the pandemic and other critical problems that need solving? What if we tried to establish a virtual culture of justice, one tailored to our school and our students?


Even when we focus on academics, we too often target low-hanging fruit like graduation rates rather than teaching and learning. Shallow successes allow us to pat ourselves on the back. But a high graduation rate is meaningless when our graduates enter the world without a fundamental grasp of the tools and knowledge necessary for full participation in life and citizenship. We can hope for a reimagining of schooling during this time, but nothing will change in our schools until we prioritize the education of our students.

We could call it the 2020 Interim Curriculum, to keep those heavily invested in CCSS and annual testing from freaking out. It could be a place-based, context-sensitive approach. Learning during a pandemic. Making it up as we go along. If the things we always do can’t be done, because they require conditions and materials that can’t be had, what worthwhile topics—things currently in the news, things that our students might want to know—can fill in?

I’ve had some practice in the art of making it up as I went along. Here is a brief example:

I taught 7th grade math for two years, when the music program was cut. Both times (more than 20 years apart), all math teachers taught from textbooks. In 2004, it was a new curriculum that used different soft-cover books for individual topics. I was the last teacher in the rotation, and while waiting for the previous teacher to finish the topic and pass books on to my class, I had a few days to fill. No challenge for a veteran math teacher, with dozens of field-tested tricks, but I was new.

The Detroit Free Press had a special section on housing. It discussed housing prices across the metro area, square footage, interest rates on mortgage loans, down payments and the fact that for many families, their homes functioned as their savings investments. Lots of charts and graphs and tables, as well as dozens of photos.

I (illegally) copied a couple of the tables and graphs to interpret, and brought the whole section into class. I read the copy on the front page, and then spent the rest of the week showing them how to figure out why a large down payment might be better than a minimum amount, how housing increased (or decreased) in value, the differences between buying in a popular area and a run-down part of town, and how much of a house payment was principal and how much interest.

Seventh graders, it turns out, know nothing about the price of a home. The idea that the homes they were living in might cost a quarter of a million dollars was stunning. Equally surprising was the idea that a genuine mansion in Detroit, with four times the square footage and six bathrooms, might cost less. We briefly touched on redlining, and its impact on Black families in Detroit. We calculated down payments, monthly costs and equity. There were no homework assignments, but each day was full of math and learning. At the end of the year, in the survey I gave them, lots of them mentioned that learning about housing was the thing they remembered, and enjoyed, the most.

And that was before that kind of information was readily available online. I imagine teachers gathering links to stories about housing, the job market, education loans and careers—practical advice plus practice in calculation and understanding how to use math (or literature, or science) in making a better world.

How do things work? How could they work better, for all of us?

The possibilities are endless.  In Part II, a blog about teaching music composition, something face to face music teachers in performance-focused classes seldom do.