Social. Emotional. Learning.

What a difference a few years—and a pandemic and an insurrection—make.

Remember when a ‘growth mindset’ was all the rage among reformy types?

In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.

Speaking for all the experienced teachers who were introduced to the ‘growth mindset’ concept and its promotion as silver bullet teaching practice: Would that it were so easy. And researchers are just now noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on what students are thinking? Seriously?

And what about grit? The desirable persistence, an ability to pursue goals in the face of discouragement, the thing that underachieving slackers in public schools didn’t seem to have inculcated? They weren’t dumb (or hungry, scared, exhausted or neglected). They just lacked grit. Right.

Both of those things, packaged as programs, were embraced by professional developers, as part of a suite of soft skills that could be used to enhance student performance. There are plenty of other terms veteran educators have run into: Character Development. Restorative Justice. Conflict Resolution.

They all fall under the general category of encouraging the social and emotional welfare of students, giving them tools to manage their emotions and relationships—so they can learn. Also: (unspoken but obvious) so their test scores will go up.

Social-emotional learning (SEL–the reality, not any official program) is just a rather random collection of ways that school staff has always made students (who have all kinds of reasons for feeling anxious and off-balance these days) comfortable enough in a school setting that they can settle down to learn.

Different SEL programs have different foci: Positive behaviors. Making friends. Sticking with tough tasks. Being more thoughtful, less aggressive. Every time you hear a teacher say ‘Use your words’ or ‘What would you like to say to Jason?’ or ‘Take a minute to calm down’—they’re riffing on SEL ideas.

In a good column at Curmudgucation, Peter Greene says that SEL is a real thing, all right, but he can’t defend SEL programs which are now taking a beating from parents. These are, one has to assume, the same parents who thought grit was just the ticket for kids who were living in their family’s car, or that telling certain kids they were smart could cause their heads to swell and spoil them for the workforce.  

A whole lot of the murkiness around what SEL is, and how it relates to Critical Race Theory (CRT)—spoiler: it doesn’t—comes from masterful manipulation of language.

A year after a terrible incident at a local HS, where students of color were put ‘up for sale’ on Snapchat, some parents here still think that systemic racism doesn’t exist here in Traverse City. Some of them saw the incident as simple bullying, no big deal, and others thought it was a matter to be handled by police rather than the school board, although the idea started and was centered among HS students. All of them seemed to think addressing it would cause even more divisiveness.

Why wouldn’t you want teachers, using developmentally appropriate strategies and language, to address emotionally sensitive issues? If students don’t have these conversations in school, under the watchful eye of an adult (especially an adult with the skills to help them process their feelings and social challenges), where will they learn to keep a lid on? To distinguish truth from foul lies? To learn the art of cooperation? Restraint? Respect?

Where will they learn to use THEIR words, instead of picking up a gun?

The interesting thing to me is that none of this is new. Twenty-odd years ago, I was recruited to be part of a video series produced by the Annenberg Foundation, called The Learning Classroom. I had a film crew in my classroom (and my office) for an entire week, capturing footage around how I used social-emotional learning to teach more effectively.

I prepared lessons designed to engage my middle school band students emotionally, by learning Ashokan Farewell, the music Ken Burns used to great effect in his Civil War series, then tying the plaintive tune to the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife in 1861, a week before being killed in battle. We talked about how many of the recruits at the end of the Civil War were no older than the boys sitting in the band room, how bloody the war was, dividing families.

The filmmaker wasn’t looking for a lesson that used emotion to drive home learning (something that teachers do all the time, by the way, from reading great literature to the exploding mysteries of the baking soda volcano). She wanted to see stormy outbursts from middle schoolers.

Your classroom is like Mayberry, she told me. Everyone is friendly and nice. I desisted from telling her how long it took (speaking of grit) to build a community of 13 year-olds who worked together. I did not say that there were, in fact, days when the emotional temperature of the room was not so pleasant.

While the film crew was there, one of my students returned to school from a month at home recovering from surgery and treatment for testicular cancer. The other kids were happy to see him, and the film director asked me where he’d been. Oh, wow, she said, when I told her. Let’s use this in the episode.

I was aghast. Absolutely not, I said. Not everyone knows why he’s been out—only that he was ill. It would be a terrible violation of his personal privacy. He would never trust me again. He is so fragile right now—how can you even suggest something like this?

The next morning, the film crew was gone, two days earlier than planned, leaving my office filled with dirty coffee cups and discarded papers. I didn’t hear back from the production company, and never got the complimentary set of videos I was promised—so I never saw myself trying to teach using social-emotional learning. Whatever that is.

Last week, when I was doing some reading on SEL, I accidentally found the Learning Classroom series, and the video where my students and I were featured. If you’d like to see it, our part starts about 15 minutes in.

Seeing the video again made me realize that my students displayed more emotional intelligence than the filmmaker. There’s another lesson there.

Why I am Running for Office

I am running for office. The County Commission, District 7, in Leelanau County, Michigan, to be precise. I am running for a position that has been held by the same Republican woman (whose name will not be mentioned) for 26 years.

It goes without saying that a lot has happened in Leelanau County, the gorgeous, rolling ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten, in the past 26 years.

Leelanau County is a peninsula, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and scattered with smaller lakes. Shorelines are home to new and historic million-dollar homes with killer views, and the center of the peninsula is agricultural. We grow more cherries here than any other state in the union, and the county is overrun with fruit flies every August (you get used to it). In May, however, a Sunday drive through the orchards is absolutely breathtaking.

There is a National Park—Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, named the prettiest place in the United States by Good Morning America, in 2011. There’s also an Indian reservation, on the remnant of land left after white settlers platted up and sold nearly all the land—most of the county—deeded to Indians in 1855.

I’ve been a property holder here—some 14 acres, sold on a land contract—since 1987. We built a home and moved here in 2010. And within a year or two, it was pretty clear that some of the people making decisions about my life needed to get some new ideas about local governance. There were plenty of issues.

In 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020, I worked on Democratic campaigns for the Board of Commissioner seat in District 7. They were worthy candidates, with good ideas. And in all four elections, they lost.

The data jugglers for the local Democratic party (for which, I serve as Secretary) seem to feel that no Democrat, no matter how smart they are or how hard they campaign, could win in the ruby-red center of the county.

The outer edges of the county—lots of well-heeled retirees—were turning blue or at least purple. Joe Biden edged out a win in 2020. But District 7—again, lots of farmland and a couple of tiny towns– remained persistently Republican.

Twenty-six Year Veteran doesn’t really bother campaigning much. In the newspaper candidate forums, she writes about how her family has ‘always’ lived here, and how she protects citizens from excessive spending and taxation. No need for any new-fangled ideas, programs or, especially, regulations. My district is studded with Trump signs and those yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags.

But change is coming. Out of state (and out of country) buyers are scooping up agricultural land and those homes with the killer views. Our sparkling lakes are threatened by the possibility of Enbridge oil spills, and none of the service industry workers the county depends upon, summer and winter, can afford to live here.

And don’t even get me started on access to broadband, the first inkling I had that all was not paradise after we moved to Leelanau County. The majority-Republican County Commission was not interested in expanding access, seeing it as a private business opportunity, not a public utility. Ironic, seeing that Leelanau County was electrified largely by the Rural Electrification Administration, a depression-era federal project. We still pay our electric bills to Cherryland Electric.

The recent influx of federal dollars is finally going toward broadband coverage, but it took a couple more Democratic County Commissioners and a pandemic for the county to seek the kinds of internet service other entire states have enjoyed for the last decade or more.

So why am I running for office?

First, because somebody had to. If nobody ran, Twenty-Six Year Veteran might assume that everyone feels as she does: Cut taxes. Cut services. Ignore problems. Bury your garbage (this was a response to voter-approved recycling). Vote Trump.

As it turned out, there were four of us willing to run. We all filed the paperwork, then met a couple of days later, promising that whoever won the primary would have the full support of the other three. We toasted with a glass of Prosecco, then talked about issues. We’re all on the same wavelength.

We’re tired of all the Republican baloney that’s been mucking up a full-fledged, voter-approved effort to un-gerrymander Michigan. We’re tired of ongoing fights over issues we thought were settled by public vote—like funding programs for early childhood. We don’t understand why all the rich people buying up properties here shouldn’t be compelled to fund a point-of-sale septic inspection, a crucial first step in protecting our water.

We have watched Republicans force public prayer (Christians only!) at County Commission meetings (yes, I understand the dubious legality) and drive out a hard-working, super-competent local Health Department authority over masking.

There’s more. Way more.

I’ll be writing about the issues (including school-related hot topics) in subsequent columns.  I am running a zero dollars-based green campaign: No signs. No paper literature.

But in the meantime, I’m running for the County Commission.

Vote for me!

Nancy Flanagan, Allison Zimpher, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill–all running in District 7.

The Strange Land Where We Find Ourselves Now

Ever read a book that resonates, for whatever reason, with the life you’re living—the things you’re thinking about, things that are happening in your world right now?

Munich (Robert Harris) is a fictionalized, but well-researched, account of the Munich Conference in September 1938, wherein a cluster of European leaders thought they had signed on to ‘peace in our time,’ when in fact Hitler had no such intention.

It’s one of those slow burn novels that starts out by introducing us to two very different worlds—the chin-up, upper-crust British government, trying desperately to avoid another devastating European war, and the collection of thugs and sycophants hanging around the Fuhrer who were willing to bulldoze anyone and anything to expand their own power.

I saw parallel after parallel, which made the book (published in 2018) chillingly real.

As political thriller, it’s a good read from a guy who’s written a ton of great political thrillers, many centered in Germany, in the 1930s and 40s. BUT–reading it now, as Putin is devastating Ukraine, because he seems to think he needs more space, and world leaders (elected and un-elected) are trying to stay out of war— is stunningly relevant.

One particularly galling former leader is trying to cozy up to Putin for political advantage, of course. We’re living in a world of thriller plots.

The only knowledge I had about Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the pre-war period, left over from History class, is that he was widely considered an ‘appeaser’ once World War II began, and his reputation hasn’t been burnished since.

The book is kinder to him, seeing him as a man of a different age, when one’s word was one’s honor. But the image of someone who believed in the power of diplomacy getting totally snookered by the depth of evil remains—powerfully—in mind.

Once the Munich Conference actually begins, every page in the book has a resonant sentence or paragraph, about power and the men who wield it.  Although the whole world now knows the spoiler—World War II and its horrors—the book had me thinking about alternate outcomes, about peace and how to reach it.

Also, of course, what could go wrong in our immediate future, in 2022.

A couple of nights ago, Rachel Maddow had one of my favorite truth-tellers on: Jane Mayer, whose latest piece on the Republican ‘slime machine’digs into the coordinated Lies People Tell to ruin the reputations of Biden’s nominees, the most visible example being the appalling hatchet job attempted on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Maddow precedes the Mayer interview with an illustrated commentary on Stalin, the cover-ups of his hideous crimes against his own people, and the propensity for Russian dictators to use accusations of–get this–pedophilia as an excuse to imprison or execute citizens who give them grief. The video is 20 minutes long, but worth the watch.

I finished the book, then opened Twitter to find my new hero, MI State Senator Mallory McMorrow, burning up the media world. State Senator Lana Theis (who represents the district where I used to live) started slinging around accusations of Democrats grooming and sexualizing children in her fund-raising materials, and McMorrow let go with five beautiful minutes of pure truth to power.

Accusing someone of the sexual abuse of children really is the worst thing one can say about another adult human. Scroll back to 2016, and the QAnon-inspired ‘Pizzagate’ where Hillary Clinton was accused of (yup) pedophilia.

There seems to be a pattern here. After all, it was Joseph Goebbels who said If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

More parallels. And the lying has infected our children, and our schools.

Jonathon Haidt, whose work I deeply admire, thinks that social media has been driving this:

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history… It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.

I am aware of the irony of posting this blog—all about lies and social fragmentation—on social media. But maybe social media is our only recourse at the moment. Senator McMorrow has had over 10 million views of her video, and it’s been enthusiastically applauded on left-leaning media.

Someone has to tell the truth.  Someone has to pay attention.

The Heir and the Hillbilly

By now, you’ve probably seen Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, author and candidate for Senate in Ohio, wondering why right-thinking dads don’t just ‘thrash’ teachers for inserting their personal ‘sex values’ into the minds of innocent children. We all know that Carlson is worse than a destructive ass–but ol’ J.D., the self-described hillbilly who rose from nothing, sat there nodding and grinning along with Tucker as he incited a little righteous violence against your children’s teachers.

Incident in the Teachers’ Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to grab a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There’s a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?

He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, an internet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents’ absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.

There is silence, but the custodian isn’t finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel?
——————–
I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers’ lounge as I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the “Best of 2016″ lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.

J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.

An impressive personal narrative—plaudits to Vance for his persistence—but hardly illustrative of the poor habits and prospects of an entire region of the country. Nor does Hillbilly Elegy illuminate any of the very real problems or crises, per the book’s title, facing working-class families in America today, beginning with the dangerous income gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens the social order.

In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.

He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn’t until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he’s been handed a golden ticket, and he’s being watched to see if he can fit in.

Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.

In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn’t until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not “middle class,” but further down in the pecking order. It wasn’t until I read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn’t as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides “success.”

Here’s the question J.D. Vance avoids: Whose fault is it that more than 50 million Americans live in distressed communities, where nearly a quarter of residents lack a high school diploma?” Conversely, who is responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty? Is this a result of hard work and personal discipline only, “rising above” family characteristics—or do social supports, like public education, military training, and publicly funded scholarships also form the proverbial rising tide?

Most of the educators sitting in that teachers’ lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near the poorly educated tree. Still, the custodian’s comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.

A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.

J.D. Vance’s story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis. I expect absolutely nothing from Tucker Carlson, but J.D. Vance ought to know better. He’d be a terrible senator.

My Little Town

In my little town
I grew up believing

God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord, I recall my little town

And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back in my little town

Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
—Paul Simon

Back in the 1970s, when I interviewed for a teaching job in the community where I would work, and then live, for more than 35 years, the principal told me that the small, rural district was the “far edge of white flight.”

He was right. The district never stopped growing while I was teaching there, morphing from a cute little town surrounded by farmland, to a kind of sprawl of dozens of back-to-back subdivisions, each new sub with bigger and more pretentious houses than the last. It remained persistently non-diverse, however, both in demographics and in thinking and behaviors.

When I interviewed there, I didn’t pay much attention to these factors. I was desperate to get a teaching job—we were experiencing a teacher glut at the time, with most Michigan universities exporting newly minted Baby Boomer teachers to states where the pay was abysmal. I wanted to teach in Michigan.

When I got the job in Hartland, I couldn’t believe my good luck. It was a charming little village, with a library, a music hall and the first high school in the county, built in 1921—the building, in fact, where I had the interview. And it was growing—I didn’t need to be worried about being pink-slipped!

My students were generally polite, and their parents showed up for conferences and programs. My colleagues were outstanding—smart, funny and generous with their time. I taught in what used to be the high school band room—probably the nicest classroom I had in all my 30+ years in the district.

Teachers often talk about their disastrous first year of teaching—but it wasn’t like that for me. I loved teaching band and general music at Hartland Middle School. In fact, if it weren’t for my really awesome first year, I might have walked away from Hartland a dozen times.

The trouble started in Year Two, when I was let go (along with 20 other first- and second-year teachers) because of a millage failure. We all signed full-year contracts in April, but two summer funding votes failed, so after starting school in September, the Board decided to lay off a couple dozen teachers. In October.

We took them to court (thank you, strong union), and all of us got a job back—just not the job we were hired to do. I became a district-roving sub, and had to be available from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (split sessions, due to the cutbacks). I was pink-slipped an additional five times over the next few years. We were dependent, it turned out, on an ultra-conservative, anti-tax community.

I also started going to Board meetings, to hear what the nice white people in my community said—about the curriculum, sex education, teacher pay, offensive books in the library, and why don’t we sing Silent Night at the Christmas program like we did back in the day? It was illuminating, hearing parents urge the Board to make ‘necessary’ cuts in their ‘wasteful’ budgets—kids didn’t need music, art, counselors, librarians or other frills. What did they need? Well, football, mostly.

I learned that most people who addressed the Board were concerned only about their personal children, that those children would have access to the educational goodies parents wanted—a gifted/talented program, perhaps, or a soccer team, or maybe a snazzy computer lab. Or a new math program, since the one adopted by teachers didn’t work for Jennifer.

I once attended a Board meeting where a mother demanded that the marching band (MY bailiwick) wear spats. Her kids weren’t in the band, of course, but she just thought they looked good, and insisted we should be wearing them. This is a true story. What’s also true is that her husband was on that Board.

Note: I never heard a parent talk about all the kids in the community—the disabled children, those who required free lunch, the bullied or the bullies. It was always about advocating for My Child.

None of those issues was particularly upsetting. This was the reason, I thought, schools have elected Boards—to hash out contentious issues, to represent community beliefs, to address problems that arise.

Over time, those problems grew exponentially more serious. The Hartland football team made national news by hiring strippers to entertain them before a game—then confessed that they usually just watched pornography, but this was a big game. There was a series of bomb threats. There were student suicides. There was overt racism.

None of these things were directly related to curriculum and instruction—but they were reflective of how we handled emerging and controversial concerns with the children entrusted to our care. School—and yes, this is a broken record—is the stage where we prepare our children to handle what’s coming down the pike. Not a place to avoid, cover up and deny what’s happening in the world.

Slowly, it started to feel like maybe Hartland wasn’t such an innocent, wholesome place. Most of that dawning recognition happened when I started paying attention to the students who looked different—the five percent of students who were Black, or Hispanic or Asian. It wasn’t such a comfortable place for them. When students started communicating via device, outside of adult supervision, the cruelty and disrespect became endemic.

I began to understand the role of the public school teacher as much more than Person Who Delivers Academic Content. Teachers are role models, confidantes, discussion leaders and arbitrators. If we want a better, more just, equitable and democratic society, teachers and schools are part of that equation.

I no longer live or teach in Hartland. Since I left, there have been many more unsettling things. One of the men who planned to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer lives in Hartland.  And a year ago, a Black student had to be escorted off the Hartland HS campus after being threatened with lynching.  Four students were charged with stalking her, as well as assault and battery. The district was offered assistance from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, but eventually turned away this help, due to parent pressure, and Board worries about the incident leading to (faux) CRT in the district.

I am always cognizant of something my friend Maria Stuart said. Maria lives in the next town over from Hartland—Howell–where there was once, years ago, an active KKK, and even a Grand Dragon. Maria helped found a Diversity Council there, which did a lot of good work to rebuild a town with an ugly reputation for racism and intolerance.

Once, when I was doing exactly what I’m doing in this blog, trashing people in my little town for undemocratic and racist behaviors, Maria reminded me that things don’t improve when people are accused of wrongdoing. They improve when people promote healthy, accepting communities. When they’re commended for welcoming diversity and inclusion. Not shamed.

I want to believe Maria is right.

But towns that understand diversity is a strength have better prospects than towns where a high school girl has to deal with threats of being lynched. A town that can’t adapt to change, hanging on to centuries-old prejudices, is in trouble.

Makes me sad.

A ‘Diverse’ Community Needs to Hear the Truth

It was the most prosaic of news items: a local township planning commission working on a new master plan.  They secured a skilled, experienced civic planner who provided a draft, which included (as all good municipal documents do) a brief analysis of the township’s demographics: “94.7 percent of the population reported as white, 2.6 percent of the population as American Indian/Alaskan Natives, 0.2 percent reported as black or African American, and 2.5 percent as Hispanic or Latino.”

Which drew this response from a member of the planning commission:

“I’m opposed to this whole color issue. In my opinion, you’re either a citizen, or you’re not a citizen. And with this government listing everybody by their color, that’s the government and the media promoting racism. I would suggest we make a comment [in the master plan], something to the effect that we have…a diverse community.”

The planning expert: “Well, you don’t. You’ve got a 94.7 percent white [population].”

It went downhill from there—rapidly—and ended up with the hired expert and another member of the planning commission resigning, and a third commissioner stating that the ‘race thing’ in the plan was ridiculous, and oh, by the way, his brother-in-law was Black.

I share this (stupid) story for all the school districts and teachers that feel that they have been unfairly targeted by what seems to be one of our ‘new normals’—rampant, unhinged intolerance.

In other words, teachers and conscientious school leaders, it’s not you—or just you. It’s racism. Or homophobia, or xenophobia.

It’s ignorance. The problem that never goes away—and society expects public educators to solve, somehow, without ticking off parents.

You may have, to your surprise, become the enemy (after two grinding years of serving children and families during a global pandemic), for simply teaching facts and showing compassion and commitment to your students. But you’re not alone. And this is not new.

These anti-truth, anti-education campaigns come and go, in waves. Disinformation and blind opposition and noisy meetings have always been part of government-provided services.

The world is currently witnessing a devastating, lethal master class in international propaganda in Ukraine. Who will tell the truth to our students? Not TikTok.  When civic authorities assert that a 95% white township is a ‘diverse community,’ someone needs to speak up for the truth.

In a spectacularly good article in The New Yorker, Why the School Wars Still Rage, Jill LePore traces the history of this power struggle in American public education, using the Scopes trial as long-term case study:

In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history. Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state. It’s not clear who’ll win this time. It’s not even clear who won last time. But the distinction between these two moments is less than it seems: what was once contested as a matter of biology—can people change?—has come to be contested as a matter of history. Still, this fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about “parents’ rights,” and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.

LePore ranges widely, sharing plenty of negative, even frightening, examples of the aforementioned American ignorance now being codified into law (as well as cautionary language for elites who feel their progressive views about raising children automatically trump those of conservative and evangelical parents).

She also makes the point that Black intellectuals immediately understood that bills to prevent the teaching of evolution weren’t really about the theory of change in biology, something that is evident to any farmer. It was about the idea that we all spring from common ancestors, that there is no real difference between human races. That’s what really scared folks in the South, some 55 years after the Civil War.

It’s easy to feel discouraged. In Whitewater Township—where the planning commissioners think they have a ‘diverse’ community—60.9 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump in 2020. Presumably, some 40 percent of those believe he actually won the election, if national survey data holds in this tiny, nearly all-white enclave.

Which is why we have to take a deep breath—as educators and citizens—and keep telling the truth.

Because the truth will set us free. Although it may take a long, long time.

Here’s a great story from Jennifer Berkshire to hearten those of you who feel that Truth no longer matters, that the anti-public education crowd, the Moms for Faux Liberty, are winning. Tag line:  An upset victory last week in a red state suggests that the Republican Party’s game plan for attacking public education may not be a winning strategy.

The red state? New Hampshire, where 93.1 percent of the population is white.

Have faith.

Lock and Load and Learning Loss

This is a blog about the escalation of smack talk—the reckless/threatening/false/vindictive/facetious things people say, in an effort to gain power by demeaning others– and a thought or two about how much easier it is to be a smack-talker in 2022 than just a few years earlier.

We’re also seeing more smack talk in schools and about schools. Critical race theory and learning loss are among the many widely abused terms that media perceives as real issues. The terms are essentially meaningless, however, in the daily operation of real schools, places where teachers are paying attention to the well-being and nascent citizenship of real children.

These days, schoolboard meetings are hotbeds of vigilantism driven by smack talk, and we’re witnessing members of Congress—Congress! —trash the sitting President’s strength and motives during a delicate and critical time of international unrest.

Traditionally, school is a place where smack talk is not tolerated, even if it is a regular feature of students’ home life. Poor-mouthing classmates, the use of offensive language, and overt lying are generally suppressed by school cultures, even strongly authoritarian climates where teachers use harsh language to control students.

Every now and then, someone points out that what our students need most now is not Calculus, but media literacy, a carefully developed skill of discretion when bombarded by corrupt but persuasive language.  We used to worry about students being overly influenced by Bart Simpson or semi-dressed babes on MTV—but these days, the filthiest and most damaging lies are coming out of the mouths of politicians and news media. How do you teach kids to ignore their own duly elected Senator?

In 2017, I was part of a local ‘listening tour’ sponsored by my county Democratic party. We knocked on doors and asked people what they wanted from their local government. We wanted to know what their issues and needs were, for upcoming campaigns—but were also willing to listen to their feedback on the 2016 election. We did not call on strong or ‘leaning’ Republicans—only independent voters and those who may have leaned our way at one time.

What we learned: every single person we talked with had a distinct opinion on Trump vs. Hillary (the gender dynamics of the last name/first name contrast being kind of smack-y in itself). Most were willing to tell us who they voted for, and why, although we were trained not to ask.

They did not like or trust Hillary Clinton—and the ones who declared themselves Trump voters were clear about what attracted them to him: the way he talks. He says what he thinks! He isn’t mealy-mouthed like other politicians. He’s down to earth, but strong. His disrespect of women was ‘just locker room talk.’ More than once we heard: Give the guy a chance. Asked about local issues and government, most of them had no ready response.

What our neighbors had to say was almost completely unsubstantiated and unrelated to governing or current issues, not to mention decades’ worth of real facts about Trump’s history as grifter and narcissistic braggart. They took the measure of a candidate by his (or her) willingness to make insulting remarks. To get in a good dig, to trash your opponent. A few men spoke admiringly about Trump literally stalking or silencing Clinton on the stage, during their debates. He was a ‘fighter’—and would fight for us. Which ‘us’ they were talking about was unspoken.

Although hard to prove, beyond prima facie observations, smack talk has become more prevalent everywhere in American life. In my former State House district, for example, one of the Republican candidates told the crowd at a rally to “be prepared to lock and load,” and “show up armed” when going to vote. A Republican gubernatorial candidate suggested voters pull the plug on voting machines, if they didn’t like what they saw at the polls.

Are K-12 students influenced by this kind of loose, vindictive talk? Recently, at a school basketball game, students from a 95% white rural school made monkey noises and used racist insults when Black players on the opposing team were on the court. The report talks of similar occurrences at other games, listing several of these over the past two years.

What interesting to me is the response from the MI Department of Civil Rights: “To ignore the situation without taking those individuals who perpetuated it to account causes a problem and obviously allows it to occur again. So that situation should be controlled not only by the people who are officiating the game, but also the officials who certainly have some control over the students and the actions that they might have later on or during the game itself.”

I agree. Racial slurs and dangerous threats are best handled when they first emerge by the people closest to our students. This is what lies under at anger over faux CRT—adults influencing children to analyze their own prejudice, and respect differences. Good teachers have always done this; it’s the practice of building a classroom community.

So it’s no wonder that judgmental terms like ‘learning loss’ have caught on, and Serious Reports are warning that children in poverty have ‘lost’ the most. All children have been exposed to danger and loss during this pandemic, but whether they’re testing on grade level—whatever that is—should be the least of our worries.

We should be thinking, instead, about turning them into caring and confident citizens, able to identify coarse and deceptive language and reject it.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’– it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t free…

Remember free schools? They were all the rage, back in the day—long, long ago—when those folks protesting the error-filled ways of public education were hippie types, not scripted, Republican-funded moms with time on their hands.

Often educated in public schools themselves (where they learned to craft logical arguments and read great books), these lefty parents did not want Moonbeam’s schooling to consist of straight rows, workbooks and bells. They wanted the freedom to discuss Real Issues and pursue personal growth.

But as always, the times they are a-changin’.

In a brilliant essay in the NY Times, GWU Professor Elizabeth Anker describes how ‘freedom’ has morphed from the Bill of Rights model I learned about in one of those straight-rows public schools, to what she calls ‘ugly freedoms:’

Today, more and more laws, caucuses, rallies and hard-right movements use the language of freedom as a cudgel to erode democratic governance and civil rights; these laws expand the creep of authoritarianism. One Jan. 6 insurrectionist insisted, “I’m here for freedom,” when describing his participation in the attack on the Capitol. Mask mandate opponents have cited “health freedom,” even if their refusal to mask denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes communities more vulnerable to Covid.

Freedom, Anker says, has been co-opted.

I can name dozens of other words that no longer clearly mean what they once did: Unconstitutional, for example. Anti-Fascism. Illegal. Forensic Audit. Critical Race Theory. Moms, for Liberty. Election integrity. You can justify putting any number of formerly well-understood terms in scare quotes, these days.

Language, over time, does—and should—morph, as societal norms and technological advances change the way people think and behave. That’s why those 1960s ads with doctors lighting up a Camel to ‘relax,’ are so hilarious.

But I really hate losing freedom, as a political and educational concept. I especially hate knowing that Republicans have weaponized something valuable and politically distinct, turned it into a well-funded, election-winning grievance.

Freedom is a complex idea. Freedom without responsibility is moral adolescence—a phenomenon we have seen played out endlessly during the pandemic, by anti-mask abusers, phony accusations of ‘tyranny’ and a focus on individual rights rather than the common good—during a public health crisis, no less.

As a music teacher, I wrestled with the concept of freedom every year, and shared those dilemmas with my students. Why is every composition on our required festival list written by a white man—can we break free of that?  In a largely white, largely Christian town, should we be representing all winter celebrations in our music, or just having the expected Christmas concert? What are the roots of the music my students are listening to—and is it my responsibility to help them dig into that history?

My career was all about the freedom to teach music in untraditional but deeper ways. And I was incredibly lucky. I never had to deal with rigid standards or statewide assessments, and seldom had parent complaints. I was, far more than other teachers, free to craft curriculum, performances, travel and materials to fit my students, few questions asked.

What I’m reading now is alarming—the heated School Board meetings, book banning, legislated gag orders and threats over what can/cannot be taught. If you only read the news, you might think that public educators have been so thoroughly intimidated that every bit of color and usefulness will be leached out of learning.

But I have doubts about the long-term impact of this astro-turf, give-me-liberty movement. I think raging against diversity and inclusion by silly law-making is destined to fail—especially when you look at recent CNN survey data:

While parental choice has become the subject of frequent political controversy, the CNN Poll found that most Americans reject the idea that the primary responsibility for what happens in the classroom belongs either to parents or to teachers and school officials. Majorities said both groups should have an equally important role in school-related decisions ranging from Covid-19 precautions to the way various school subjects are taught.

Only about one-fifth of Americans (19%) said parents should be the main decision-makers on mask policies, with 17% saying the same about virtual learning and 16% on teaching about racial issues. Just 7% thought parents should have final say over how to teach math. About 1 in 8 Americans, or 12%, said parents’ views should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught, while roughly twice as many said teachers and school officials should have more influence on those areas. Respondents split equally over how issues regarding race in America are taught, with 16% saying parents should have more say, 16% teachers and school officials, and 62% saying both should be equally important.

These are pretty small numbers, for a so-called movement. Glenn Youngkin may have ridden parent disapproval over school policy to a governorship, but I am far from convinced that there’s a voting majority in all states to swing elections based on book-banning, faux CRT hype and other curricular issues.

When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see this as another cycle of school-parent communication, where schools that listen to parents and work cooperatively with them for the good of all their students, are doing the best job of navigating a global pandemic and political warfare based on the Big Lie. Major challenges, indeed.

One of my former students sent me a note expressing her frustration over the screaming matches at the local school board meetings. I know these people, she said—they live in my neighborhood. And they’re not even parents of school-aged kids. For them, this is political gain. For me, this is about protecting my child.

One of the local Liberty Moms came to her door and asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about how your boys will vote, when they’re adults?’ Actually, she wasn’t concerned about that at all—they won’t be voting for many years, and there are a lot of math facts and swimming lessons and trips to the library that needed to happen first—safely. But there is no clearer example of just what her neighbor is really worried about.

It isn’t freedom. It never was freedom. It was about winning.

 Honesty in the Time of COVID

I tested positive for COVID last Monday. My husband (with whom I have been exchanging exhalations since 1975) tested positive at home three days earlier, but my rapid test was negative then. We did drive-thru PCR testing, got our mutually positive results in 23 hours, and less than an hour after that, even though I am 2000 miles away from home, I got a friendly call from my local health department.

We’re going to be fine, thanks, due to vaccinations and booster shots. But I have been thinking about social reluctance to share the fact that one has been infected. Back in 2020, isolated from everyone and wiping down groceries, I collected the most credible articles on SARS-CoV-2 I could find—dozens of them, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting information. One of them said that the coronavirus, uncontrolled, would eventually infect 60-70% of Americans and could kill as many as a million of us.

At the time, it was a horrifying prospect. A million deaths? Unthinkable. Tragic. Preventable. And this was before those trucks rolled out of the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo.

I set out to be an Agent of Control, a rule-follower, a curve-flattener. It’s kind of the person I’ve been all my life: Bookish Goody Two-shoes. I was hooked on the nightly cable news—Outbreaks at meat-cutting plants in the Midwest! Crisis in NOLA! Refrigerated morgue trucks in New York City! (Those exclamation points are not sardonic, by the way.)

As the first cases emerged in my rather remote rural county, that same health department (which has been, IMHO, a sterling example of competent public service) released only the sketchiest of information about where and how people were getting sick—fully HIPAA compliant.

Most of what I knew about who had come down with the virus came from personal relationships and gossip. There were cases all around me, per HD statistics, in my rural zip code, but I didn’t know who—and the first ugly anti-mask scuffles had cropped up in front of the grocery mart at the only gas station in town. It’s also the only place to get liquor, so it’s pretty much the town square.

I have a friend whose father died of COVID in the summer of 2020. He was very elderly (and old-school stubborn, refusing to mask or let her shop for him). My friend was his primary caregiver for the last decades of his life; when he died, she included the fact that he’d died of COVID in the newspaper obituary.

Doing so set off a family firestorm. Her older siblings were furious—how he died was nobody’s business! He had lived in this area all his life—why shame him? Just say that he went to be with his Lord and Savior, yada yada.

I don’t get that.

At that point, we had already experienced the rolling failures of the Trump administration—the obfuscation and misinformation, the easily refuted faux-optimistic proclamations, the refusal to mask, the scarf lady’s cringing when Trump suggested that bleach might do the trick, if hydroxychloroquine didn’t.

People who caught COVID-19 hadn’t done anything shameful. They’d been unlucky (and, in his case, vulnerable and a little reckless), but they weren’t bad people. Ironically, his church was the county-wide nexus for local anti-masking protests.

Nothing about catching the virus, it seems to me, needs to be secret. What we know about who is getting sick, and how—and even who died from the coronavirus—is public health information, plain and simple. Not private or classified. And certainly not shameful. Do we look back, 100 years later, on the mostly young and healthy victims of the 1918 flu pandemic as anything other than unfortunate?

It’s this cognitive dissonance that intrigues me. What kind of people deny the very real existence of a deadly virus, willingly endangering others? Why wasn’t the emergence of the pandemic a 9/11 moment, a chance for us all to pull together as other nations did? Letting everyone know when you were infected, and when you were cleared—so they could help you, and you could help them, later? How did ‘I’ll pray for you’ morph into ‘pretend you’re not sick?’

Friends teach in a building where over half of the children were absent for several days running in November. Interviewed for the local news, the superintendent claimed that yes, indeed, there were over two hundred children out sick. However, their (here it comes) ‘research’ showed that almost none of the students who were ill contracted it at school, even though there was no mask mandate. This is a patently ridiculous statement, but people seemed to accept it.

I realize that thousands of articles and blogs have been written about America, Selfish Nation—and worse. In spite of President Biden’s attempts to be a good global citizen, our problems are now spilling over borders:

When you live next to a junkie, you can expect something flaming to land in your backyard eventually. America is a political-anger junkie; the trucker convoy is something flaming that has landed in our backyard. 

I just finished There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill. (Read this book. Right now.) Hill deftly ties our national response to the corona virus to something much greater than mere mismanagement—many nations have veered from good to unhelpful decisions and policies while anxiously dealing with a brand-new virus. But in the home of the brave:

Trump played personal and polarizing politics, rather than made policy. Not only the livelihoods but the lives of Americans were at stake. We needed to get our house, America, in order, not just fixate on which man was in the ‘people’s house.’

National unity and purpose, facing a common enemy, have been sacrificed in order for one side to ‘win.’ It’s demoralizing.

I’m hoping my follow-up test tomorrow will be negative. And I’m sharing the news—I got COVID, somewhere—because I want my cautious, civic-minded friends to know that being triple-jabbed means that a positive test isn’t necessarily scary. It hasn’t been fun, being sick, but knowing I wasn’t going to die, thanks to science, and that my local public health officials were tracking me helped immensely.

We’ll get through this together. Maybe.

Legislators’ Guide to Making Useful Education Policy, v. 2.0

I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.

Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.

Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.

I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
  • Formative assessment
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
  • Difference between standards and curriculum
  • Special education
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise
  • Differentiation vs. tracking
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice
  • The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From the perspective of 2022:
Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.

Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.

Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.

I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.

I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.  As Peter Greene notes:  It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough. 

I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.

Plus ca change…