Field Trips Gone Wild

Truth meme, about teaching middle school: Sometimes, Stuff Happens. Or, more accurately, stuff happens all the time and pretty much everyone rolls with it. Because middle school.

I almost hate posting this blog. I know the district and the union would prefer that this incident be quickly forgotten, as it should have been. And as it would have been, had a newbie board member not turned it into an opportunistic fanning the flames of Our Schools are Corrupting Innocent Youth.

Short synopsis: Middle school band and orchestra students, accompanied by their teachers, take a field trip to see the Detroit Symphony. They stop for a pizza lunch on the way home. Because there are so many of them, the owner of the pizza joint offers extra space upstairs to eat. This space—empty when the students are eating there—is set up as a nightclub on weekends. Kids take photos of themselves swinging on poles—and Board member foments outrage by talking about how teachers are taking their kids to strip clubs in a sketchy area, inviting parents to complain.

Yeah. Because that’s what music teachers do—take their students to naughty places. Grooming them, via Beethoven and bassoons.  

What bothers me most is that nobody—not in any of the articles or social media outbursts—comments on the teachers’ professional generosity and ambitious goal for their students– to see and hear a world-class orchestra, and include lunch in the deal.

As any teacher who’s ever initiated a field trip—even a walk to the local fire station—knows, these things take a lot of time and planning. There are the parent permission slips (which these students had), the content students must absorb before going (how to behave, when to clap, which instruments form an orchestra, information about the music they’re going to hear and the musicians playing it). There is the problem of recruiting enough parent chaperones. Don’t forget the financial arrangements—whether the cost was picked up by the school, the boosters organization or the students themselves—which represent hours of management, collecting money and fund-raising.

Why isn’t anybody saying Wow! Plaudits to those music teachers for their hard work in putting together a worthy field trip for music students?

Because I’m fairly certain that this will be the last time those particular teachers take their kids to see the Detroit Symphony. Or any other special, academically valuable foray outside the school walls.

I say this as a 30-year veteran of taking music students places, to see/hear/experience music beyond our own band room. I took 8th graders out of state and occasionally out of the country every year, to see and hear things that weren’t available to them in our semi-rural community. There were always two concerts on these multi-day trips—one to listen to, the other that we played—and a focus on music and culture. There were also formal, sit-down dinners, buffet breakfasts, museums and science centers, musicals and movies on the bus and rules! So many rules!—all of which took preparation and parent buy-in.

And I have stories.

Lots of stories, most of which are like this pizza lunch—amusing, spur of the moment, Stuff that Happened, certainly not pre-planned. I’ve had students get lost in the Toronto Science Center (with a parent, no less). I’ve had tornadoes come through the city where we were staying, requiring us to kneel in the hallway of the hotel, hands laced over our necks. I once took a student who was eight months pregnant on a four-day field trip in another state (she was a dedicated musician, who now sings professionally).

Then there was the time that more than half of the 130 students came down with a stomach bug, while on the trip. Not fun at all.

The story I’d like to share, however, is about taking my students to a night club in Chicago, on Rush Street, near Division. It had been a great trip—the Chicago Symphony, seeing West Side Story at Drury Lane, eating at Ed Debevic’s—and on the last day, we scheduled a pizza lunch at this particular club, so we could hear the house band play some blues before heading home.

As we entered the place, it smelled strongly of smoke. In the daylight, it was not a glamorous place—there was a little stage, sans pole– but it was clean, and the staff was bringing out pizzas and pitchers of soda and water. The four-piece band started playing and the students started pulling their chairs up to listen.

The tour guide—a retired band director—unpacked his trombone and played a few choruses, and the kids applauded wildly. The band made comments between tunes, explaining how they played from memory and lead sheet, and what made certain songs ‘the blues.’ They took questions from the students.

Then they asked if any of the students wanted to sit in. One of my percussionists (let’s call him Scott Ego) volunteered, and had the experience of playing drums with four grizzled, legit jazz musicians on Rush Street in Chicago, at age 13.

After the trip was over, we always surveyed students about what they learned. Hands-down, the pizza lunch with jazz was their favorite thing; the comments were filled with respect and information. 

What are the kids on the Detroit Symphony field trip learning?

Maybe that adults are using them and their teachers to politicize a harmless incident.

Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum

There is a certain irony, I realize, in a music teacher writing a piece called ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum.’ Music education is generally one of those areas that Moms for Faux Liberty types ignore (unless—and this comes from personal experience—it’s critiquing the tunes chosen by the marching band whose entire existence, to some people, hinges on supporting football players).

Who cares what they’re learning? It’s just music! There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, beginning with the universality of music—as human beings, we’re swimming in it—but first, I want to talk about all everyday curriculum, across the K-12 spectrum–and who controls it.

My pitch here is about the individual teacher voice in selecting materials and designing lessons for students, and it’s based on two fundamental teacher competencies: *
1. Knowing your students well, and being committed to their learning.

2. Having deep and always-growing knowledge and pedagogical expertise in the subjects and developmental levels you teach.

The second of these is something that can and should be continuously improved, across a teaching career. It’s the point (if not the actual outcome) of what we call professional development.

The first, however, depends on the individual teacher’s character and temperament, their belief that all students have a right to learn.

Now—I’m not opposed to standards or other common agreements, whatever each state or district calls them, the big buckets of what students should learn and when. Broad standards can organize and sequence curriculum; outlining disciplinary essentials and giving all educators a framework for what students should know and be able to do, at the end of their schooling, is undeniably important.

What I’m saying is that site-specific agreements– what all 9th graders in the district should read, for example, or how to teach the life cycle of a butterfly–ought to be made by those on the front lines. The ones who know the kids, and are committed to their learning.

This idea ought to be glaringly self-evident—to educators, to parents, even to Joe Lunchbucket who watches Fox News. Kids who live in Flint, Michigan may need to know and be able to do different things than kids who live in Dallas—or Anchorage. Who is best positioned to choose engaging materials, develop concepts, deliver instruction, lead discussions and check for learning?

Certainly not Chris Rufo, who seems to be everywhere these days, merrily inserting his personal beliefs into college syllabi and waging gleeful war on beleaguered K-12 public schoolteachers trying dutifully to teach things, it must be noted, prescribed by others.

It was the linked article on Rufo—and this piece–that inspired this blog. The story is about an Ohio administrator who interrupts a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches during a recording session intended for an NPR podcast.  A third grader makes a very astute comment; the teacher (Mandy Robek) continues reading, but the admin (Amanda Beeman) shuts that whole thing down:    

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected … Like, white people disrespected Black people…,” a third grade student is heard saying on the podcast.

Robek keeps on reading, but it’s shortly after this student’s comment is made on the podcast that Beeman interrupts the reading.  

“I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” Beeman said on the podcast. “So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

(NPR reporter) Beras tried to tell Beeman that “The Sneetches” is about preferences, open markets and economic loss, but Beeman replied, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.”

I actually have some empathy for the administrator. She’s totally wrong—kudos to the teacher and the reporter for choosing the book and understanding the relevance of the child’s comment—but I’m sure Beeman envisioned her job security disappearing in a wave of rabid, sign-waving Moms for Control Over Everything at the next school board meeting, and panicked.

But that’s the point here: Educators need to be prepared to defend their curricular choices, with passion, conviction, and carefully considered rationales. Rolling over for the likes of Chris Rufo, the Hillsdale crowd, and dark-money funded and fully politicized organizations who wish to take down public education is not professional behavior.

Once they control what gets said and read in the classroom, the next target will be public libraries. All publicly funded services, the things that build healthy civilization and make diverse communities strong, will be on the chopping block. Ironically, this is about what the Sneetches were trying to teach the kids in Ohio: preferences, open markets and economic loss. What students learn, even in 3rd grade, matters, it seems.

This is a huge issue, wrestling over curriculum and parents’ desires, and it’s been part of public education since the very beginning. No matter how many standards are imposed, or school board meetings disrupted, however, the most critical aspect of instruction remains the individual teacher’s understanding of what is useful and important for the students in their care, and their personal knowledge and skill in delivering those things. 

Here’s a story:

In 2008, I was e-mentoring some first-year teachers in an alternative-entry program (in other words, not traditionally trained). They were white teachers, assigned to an all-Black district in eastern North Carolina, country that was once endless tobacco fields. Most of them came from elite universities, and all were laboring under the misconception that they were ‘giving back’ to society. A lot of their conversations were about raising the bar, making a difference, blah blah blah.

It was also the Fall of 2008, when Obama was closing in on the presidency. Students in the school were wild with excitement. One of my mentees, teaching Civics and Government, kept sending me long emails pouring out his concern over the ‘unprofessional’ teachers–the ones who had been there for years. They allowed students to disregard the official curriculum! They spent classroom time talking about this miracle that was about to happen, even letting students campaign. Unethical!

He, of course, maintained that he was sticking to standards and remaining neutral about the race. After all, the students would be taking statewide exams next spring, and he wanted them to score well.  He went so far as talking to the principal about his concerns.

I tried to suggest that he was teaching during events that could make history—and incorporating real life into lessons made them more meaningful. I asked if he had conversations with his veteran colleagues, about why they thought abandoning the prescribed curriculum was sometimes okay. Our dialogue got more and more strained, until he basically stopped communicating with me.

This young man had always considered himself an outstanding scholar in the social sciences. His lesson designs (debates, short-writes, small-group discussions, film clips) weren’t bad at all, especially for a newbie. He had some ideas about how to be a good teacher, and passion for the subject matter. What he was missing was knowledge of students and commitment to their learning. When the principal had a pep assembly to celebrate Obama’s victory, he was disgusted. For a public school, this is totally wrong! he wrote.

I have thought of him often—I’m fairly sure he’s not teaching any more. Which is too bad. Because being a master at custom-tailoring worthy curriculum to the students in front of you is a skill that takes time and confidence. It really cannot be outsourced.

* If you sat for National Board Certification, these principles will look familiar. If they resonate with you, check out the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Five Core Propositions. Good stuff.

Back to Basics

Here in the Mitten State, our very good governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is running against a political novice whose qualifications seem to be that she resembles the current governor and that she used to host a right-wing TV show: GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon defended blackface, called hijabs oppressive garments, and amplified racist remarks and conspiracy theories during her two years hosting a daily TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice.

Not a nice person, but she is attractive. Stephen Colbert called her ‘Kirkland Gretchen Whitmer’ and followed up with several substantively awful but amusing things she’s said and done. I have been intrigued by her rehearsed talking points (which you can practically see her mentally retrieving), especially the blah-blah she’s been spouting about public schools.

She’s gone full-tilt Youngkin, of course, with the ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography’ accusations, kindergartners being shown how to have sex and pumping up scary nonsense about transgender athletes (the MI HS Athletic Association says there have been 10 documented cases of transgender athletes in the past five years, hardly a trend, let alone a crisis of ‘unfairness’).

But she’s also been talking—repeatedly—about taking public school curriculum ‘back to basics.’  She is clear about what this involves: reading, writing and arithmetic. All the rest is, in her opinion, unimportant, and the reason that our test scores have gone down in Michigan.

Dixon’s four daughters attend private schools. Now, I am a great believer in parents’ rights—the kind that let well-heeled parents send their kids to any school they choose, because of their religious beliefs, the kind of programming they want, or because they think public schools are where the unwashed send their unfortunate children.

If you can afford private school, fine. You go. Just don’t use that as an excuse to cheese out on public education, using deceptive language and–let’s tell it like it is–big fat lies.

As it happens, I know exactly where Tudor Dixon lives—I grew up in that town, and remember factory after factory, places where our dads worked, shutting down in the 1970s and 80s. I know the schools there—I graduated from one of them. People I know and love teach there, and put their trust in public education. My social media stream is awash in photos of their children in those very schools: fall carnivals, Friday night games, and student-of-the-month certificates.

Those are the schools that Tudor Dixon wants to ‘go back to basics’—a term that seems to be evergreen.

“Frankly, our schools have lost their way,” Dixon said, announcing the first of her policies. “Somewhere along the way, radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments, and our children are their lab rats. And we’re saying enough is enough.”

Well. Veteran political activists teachers may remember other back-to-basics agendas, through the years. Here’s one definition:

Back-to-Basics Movement– During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students’ choice of so many electives considered to be “soft” academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the “hippies.”

I was there, in the classroom, when a recession in the early 80s triggered a slice-n-dice on the enriched curriculum we were building, in the name of going back to ‘essentials’ which didn’t include music or art. I remember waves of ‘back to basics’ under certain other—Republican—governors, including a proposal to create ‘value schools’ where public school kids would get a ‘basic’ education for less than $5000/per pupil.

Back to Basics has always been code language for ‘spend less money on public education and those kids.’ (Preferably, a lot less.) It’s always been Betsy DeVos’s core mission, and of course Dixon’s campaign is being largely financed by DeVos.

Back to Basics is also a vague and empty idea. Aside from literacy and numeracy, it’s hard to define just what is meant by a ‘basic’ education. The least children need? Foundational principles—and then you’re on your own?

We’ve already stripped comprehensive social studies education and—God help us—recess from the elementary curriculum. Now, apparently, we’re taking interesting books out of the library and relegating active classes to sit-and-get. What else can we yank, because it’s not basic?

Did you notice the definition of the movement in the late 70s was driven by ‘declining scores on standardized tests’? Michigan was the first state to introduce mandated, statewide assessments in the 1970s—the MEAP—so it’s worth asking how those new, baseline scores were declining.

There was a dip in SAT and ACT scores in the 1960s as the first baby-boomers went off to college, and established a new and much larger testing pool. But it’s taken decades and lots of laws to put every student under the testing microscope—is this all so we can take away things that make school fun and joyful?

Back to basics. See it for the propaganda it is.

Church and State

I have been a churchgoer much of my life.

Initially, my parents went to church, so I went with them. Aside from ditching Sunday School with my friend Sue in high school, I never really rebelled against their conservative religious training.

Then I went to college.

I experimented with other faiths—occasionally—on campus, but spent most Sunday mornings sleeping in, procrastinating and regretting my life choices. There followed a long stretch of life where church was not on my to-do list. Then I had kids.

It seemed important to give them some experience with religion. We fumbled around, rejecting churches that embraced the death penalty or excoriated abortion. One church— a campus-based Catholic congregation—refused to baptize our first-born because both of us had been divorced. We settled on a liberal congregation where our kids were part of services and programs. Eventually, I became the music director there.

Since then, I have worked for seven different congregations, my side-hustle of choice. For me, church is not about being saved, whatever that means, or being told what behaviors and beliefs are good or bad.

It’s about finding an inclusive community whose core mission is doing good. And it’s about the music.

There aren’t many places, anymore, where group singing is a regular occurrence. I’m a dedicated, lifelong musician, and much of the world’s musical literature has sacred roots. The central purpose of music is to illustrate powerful ideas, to release emotion, to spark joy. If you’re not getting live, participatory music in church, where can you get it?

I share these personal details, because I am worried about the separation of church and state—and I want to establish myself as a person who is not anti-church or anti-Christian theology (another thing I’ve seen a lot on social media).

I strongly endorse every person’s right to choose and practice any faith tradition or reject the idea of a higher power entirely. Up to you. But please—keep your religion out of government, be that the public school, the statehouse or the county commission. Or the midterm elections.

I’m well aware that mainline Protestant denominations in America are fading. Evangelicals are in decline, too, although not as fast. Roman Catholics aren’t doing much better. Modern first world nations –the places where people have universal health care, free post-secondary education and report the highest levels of happiness—are largely secular. Islam is by far the fastest-growing religion in the world, but the right doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

So why did the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy—the Bremerton, Washington HS football coach who prayed with his team at midfield—spur another round of educators feeling as if Christian prayer in schools is somehow the answer to our national problems?

I’m also a veteran teacher, one who has wrestled with church v. state issues in my overwhelmingly Christian school district, mostly around Christmas music. I understand the difference between cultural expressions (OK) and proselytizing (not OK).

I used to share my classroom and office with a Catholic congregation that was building a church and paying to use our cafetorium, attached to the band room, for services. Father Dave kept his cassocks and vestments in my office closet, because he often went for a run before mass.

We all got along. But our functions, while in the same physical space, were distinctly different.

What music is OK in schools is a perennial, often heated, topic in social media groups for music teachers. The Kennedy decision isn’t going to help, or clarify. It seems to suggest that Coach Kennedy’s personal beliefs and freedom of religion—expressed by praying ostentatiously on the 50-yard line—did not impact his influence (this is where the proselytizing comes in) on his football players.

Baloney.

I was not a coach, but if I had ever talked to my students in December about a baby born in a manger, sent by God to save the world, I would have to believe that some of them, especially the youngest, would have thought I was telling them something important and real—something that might be On The Test. Unethical, to say the least.

Similarly, I am troubled by Republicans on our County Commission who, in May of 2021, passed a policy on partisan lines, to open Commission meetings with prayer. A flurry of rules, sub-rules and adjustments followed: Only official clergy could pray. From recognized religions. That had real churches. In Leelanau County (meaning that the closest synagogue, across the county line, could not send a representative).  

Eventually, after lots of letters and right-wing media attention, the Commission revisited their vote, and settled on a moment of silence. But it took nine months and diverted attention from their real work.

Which raises the question: Whose idea was inserting formal, clergy-led prayer into prosaic local government meetings?

The biggest church in my district makes subtle suggestions about how folks should vote—I read a column on the church’s website this summer, re: which party reflects this particular church’s values, urging congregants to choose that party in the upcoming primaries. I went back to find the piece and insert a link into this blog, but it was no longer there.

Probably because it’s illegal for churches, as tax-exempt organizations, to tell their members how to vote.

Separation of church and state. It’s a good thing.

What Do Students Need to Know? World Languages or the Arts or Personal Finance?

In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?

Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.

So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?

One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.

I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.

I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?

He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?

(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)

I thought of him when I learned that Michigan has just signed into law a bill requiring every HS student to take a half-credit class in Personal Finance, in order to graduate. The requirement begins with this year’s eighth grade class, giving schools time to figure out how to incorporate yet another new requirement into an already overstuffed schedule.

I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.

But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.

Here’s what bothers me most about adding curricular requirements: Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule. At the moment, the (also-required) Michigan Merit Curriculum has control over nearly all those slots. What will this new course replace? Because something’s got to go.

Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.

Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.

The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.

It would be great to use this (and dozens of similar suggestions—like axing social studies and arts courses in favor of STEM) as a kickoff to a deep, statewide conversation on re-thinking credits, standardization and student choice.

It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?

For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce. 

Well, there you have it. Job training.

One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.

Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.

Are Christians to Blame for the Political Mess We Find Ourselves In?

Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)

Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.

Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.  

Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)

Arguing over religious beliefs is our real national heritage. And the separation of church and state is the tool we use to distinguish what is appropriate at home but not at school. The new SCOTUS ruling that permits private (Christian) prayer on public school occasions as long as it’s not required, is another chunk out of that wall of separation. And any veteran teacher will tell you that bringing personal religious beliefs into the classroom is a recipe for disaster.

Contrary to Fox News commentary, good educators are not part of a century-long conspiracy to brainwash little kids about the moral framework of life in community. In my 30+ years in the classroom, most everyone skirted around explicitly talking about religion for fear of violating The Wall of Separation. In some classrooms—the aforementioned history class, for example—discussion of religion is inevitable. Music class, as well.  And literature. And science.

In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.

The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power.  Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.

Lately, the Christians have seemed to be ascending, in terms of political power.   It may have something to do with existential uncertainty of life during the pandemic, or the former President using certain Christians for his own purposes. Or the spate of SCOTUS decisions dragging the nation backwards against social progress, led by a Catholic majority.

Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.

As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.

I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.

Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.

So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?

Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

In  The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:

What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?

A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.

My friend Fred Bartels put it this way: God is a personalization of community.

Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.

Tutoring Our Way to Excellence?

Back when I was in ed school—undergraduate and masters-level, in the 1970s—one of the seminal truths we read about and discussed at length was ‘individual attention:’ Why class size matters, how to reach students personally, and the superiority of one-to-one tutoring in knowledge acquisition.

No better way to learn than to have the undivided attention and expertise of a single teacher. If, of course, the family can afford private tutoring, and that tutor is a content expert, skilled in teaching techniques. And also—big point– compatible with the pupil. Tutoring is ideal, in other words, except when it isn’t.

I remember a band-director colleague telling me that in order to play in his select high school band, students were required to take weekly private lessons. He was working in a well-heeled suburban district, and many of his students were studying privately with members of the Detroit Symphony.  

It wasn’t clear how he was getting away with this demand—it wouldn’t fly in my school—but it was a dazzling thought: All of students’ technical issues, solved, on the parents’ dime, by explicit and targeted outside instruction. All he had to do was put these elite student musicians together with high-quality music, then conduct. Easy-peasy.

That’s not exactly right, of course—there’s much more to learning and playing music together than individual skills. In fact, learning, in every subject and in every classroom, depends on a stew of cooperation and community, in addition to dealing with diverse understandings, talents and proficiencies, led by the—caring, one hopes—person in charge.

There are, to put it succinctly, lots of things that cannot be precisely measured, when it comes to learning. The idea that we can accurately  diagnose what students have learned/not learned, and confidently prescribe the best of three strategies to ‘catch them up’ is folly. Student learning is not a statistics problem or a disease, where the correct number of ‘high-dosage’ tutoring sessions will guarantee a return to normal. Whatever that is.

That doesn’t mean that tutoring isn’t a useful strategy. It certainly is. There are plenty of stories about kids who struggle with something academic, then connect with a tutor who helps them over the hump—learning to read fluently or solve equations or whatever.

A friend’s son initially got mediocre scores on his ACT test, meaning he wasn’t going to be accepted at any of the colleges he was aiming for. The son’s English teacher recommended a local woman, a former teacher, who had created a business tutoring students through the college application process.

The boy was unenthused, but met with the tutor four times, then re-took the ACT, gaining nine points, more than enough to expand his college options. On the ACT writing test (now optional), he earned a six, the highest score.

My friend was grateful for the targeted assistance–her son’s self-concept as capable student improved enormously, as well. But she asked me—Why didn’t he learn to write an excellent essay in school? What did he learn in four hours that had not been conveyed in the previous 12 years?

There are lots of differences between working with a private coach vs. learning in a class of 30 or more. Motivation, for one. Privacy—not exposing a weakness in front of peers—is another. In the end, it’s the same stuff we talked about in my ed classes: reaching students on an emotionally neutral, personal level and a class size of one, where feedback and re-dos are immediate.

There have been bursts of enthusiasm around auxiliary tutoring for public school students in the past. Free tutoring was a part of No Child Left Behind’s efforts to help kids in schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, and were deemed ‘failing.’ We are all familiar with commercial ‘learning centers’ in strip malls that promise success in radio ads, before even meeting your child.

Michigan is now considering using $280 million in federal COVID recovery monies for tutoring to get kids ‘back on track.’ And I wish I saw this as a viable option for all children who have missed a lot of in-person schooling during the pandemic.

But the first thing I thought about when I read the Governor’s plan was: If we don’t have enough qualified teachers to fill our classrooms—where are all those skilled tutors going to come from? Because all the research on tutoring, while generally positive, is clear that small groups and expert tutors are essential.

I also remember the NCLB tutoring—private tutoring vendors scrambling to use federal money to set up yet another government-funded after-school program to fix kids who weren’t reading at grade level or were lacking the credits to graduate. The lack of oversight—or coordination with schools—made a lot of those programs useless.

So—who’s going to monitor these new tutoring programs? You guessed it:
It’s not clear what standards the state program would use to evaluate tutors or identify tutoring programs.

“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”

Of course. Districts are now supposed to locate and hire suitable tutors, set up programs, provide materials, find transportation, then evaluate student progress. Because, despite all their best efforts during a pandemic, students have ‘fallen behind’ benchmarks set by federal and state policy. The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.

A lot of the literature and articles around tutoring refer to an Annenberg study on ‘recovery design principles.’ When you see the phrase ‘high-dosage tutoring’ in a ‘recovery’ plan, someone’s been using the Annenberg research to support a plan for additional instruction. The study is actually useful—it lays out the factors necessary for tutoring to have real impact:

One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring in math. In reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. Simply providing students with access to tutoring is unlikely to be effective for all students. Paraprofessionals and volunteers may be better suited to one-to-one tutoring because they are less likely to have developed the skills in behavior management and group instruction that are needed for working with multiple students. Tutoring interventions often are not successful when there are no minimum dosage requirements, little oversight, and minimal connections with the students’ schools. A key element of successful tutoring programs is being able to establish a rigorous and caring culture.

It turns out that the most effective tutoring happens three or more times a week, at school, in very small groups or one-to-one. And the most effective tutors are trained educators familiar to students. Which takes us right back to what we have always known about instruction—small class sizes and individual attention from a trusted teacher work best. No surprise at all.

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.

That Infiniti Commercial

Several years ago, I wrote a blog entitled “I Hate American Idol” for Education Week. EdWeek changed the title to “Music Teacher Hates American Idol”—lest they be accused of trashing one of America’s iconic entertainment boondoggles—and it drew thousands upon thousands of readers and a whole array of nasty comments, which could be summarized thusly: Grow up, whiny music teacher.

Here’s the lede:
I hate American Idol. I really do.

I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which– let’s be honest–needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence causing Americans to believe that unless your voice and public persona meet some amorphous standard of style and quality, you should just shut up and stop singing.

Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.

Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift–a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no activity that is not made richer or better illuminated by music.

Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion far more effectively than words. While it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.

And that’s what I tell my students– they are born singers.

If you watch television, you’ve seen the Infiniti commercial where Rich White Lady inexplicably drives her luxury vehicle into a tiered room where children are filmed simply holding—often incorrectly—orchestral instruments. There is a soundtrack marked by significantly scratched tone and seriously out of tune chords, unpleasant to the ears of 21st century consumers who are used to perfect (and often auto-tuned) music. RWL rolls up the window, shutting out the sound, lowers her seat, adjusting the rear view mirror so she can see her adorable daughter, who later rides home in the back seat.

Message: Owning the right car will shut out the cacophony of life. Including the disgusting sounds your children make.

Music teachers universally hate this commercial. Many took time out of preparing for spring concerts, the school musical and recruiting musicians for the 2022 marching band (something everyone in the bleachers on Friday night expects) to comment. There’s plenty to say.

For starters, the piece the students are pretend-butchering is Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on a literary work by Friedrich Nietzsche, which incorporates the idea that God is dead. So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that the children portrayed are not actually playing the piece (something that’s obvious to instrumental music teachers)—or even attempting to play an instrument. Shots of cute children incorrectly holding musical instruments are commonplace in advertising (see below).

It’s this ‘cute’ angle that’s most annoying. Children, as previously noted, are born to make music—to sing, to move, to create. Teaching them to appreciate a delicate instrument, to persist through the difficult challenge of making good sounds, learning to work together to create something magnificent—isn’t this the critical essence of authentic education?

I found the commercial insulting to my life’s work.

 And I’m wondering:

What if RWL had rolled up her window and ignored her little soccer player, averting her eyes in embarrassment because he was running, knock-kneed, toward the wrong goal?

What if she was scrolling on her phone while her daughter was on stage at a dance performance—unable to watch because the dancing was so painfully inept?

What if she told her 4th grader that her artwork—on display at the school’s art show—was ‘amateurish?’

Parents who reject their children’s efforts at anything because those efforts are clumsy, childish or hard to hear are doing damage. Telling your child that they shouldn’t do something unless it comes easily or can’t be done perfectly is personal vandalism.

I’m not suggesting kids be praised when praise isn’t warranted. I have had literally hundreds of parents joke about their kids’ early efforts at playing an instrument: Moose mating (low brass). Geese honking (oboes). Pigs squealing (clarinets). If accompanied by encouragement and tolerance, these moments can be light-hearted.

One parent remarked: I have sat through a lot of kid concerts and some of them were painful. Let’s face it, when kids are learning, they often do suck.

Nope. That’s the response of an adult who misunderstands the role of persistence and effort. If it’s ‘painful’ to listen, imagine the pain of a child whose parent shuts out their first steps in any endeavor by rolling up the metaphorical window.

Another comment, from a fellow musician: In my band directing days, when parents and staff would joke or complain about the first beginners concert, I’d tell them it was my absolute favorite concert. Four months ago, they didn’t even know how to assemble their instruments. They might not even have known what instrument it was. And now we’re making music.

The first concert was my favorite, too. All six notes, and all the shining faces.

And pretty soon—with time and effort—they can sound like this, taking those skills and friendships into the adult world. No matter what kind of car they’re driving.

Because we’re all born to make music.

Good Times, Bad Times. Public Education.

I should start by saying that while there were occasionally some very Bad Times indeed in public education in the last century or so—the folks who are in the classroom at this moment are undisputed champions of working through the mind-bending challenges and crises coming at them.

It’s been chaotic even in the best-run schools, a kind of perfect storm of global pandemic and political upheaval, for more than two years. And we’re going to pay for it, down the line, in loss of professional staff and community goodwill. When I say ‘we’—I mean all of us: teachers, parents, and especially students.

You can’t beat good people up ad infinitum; no matter how dedicated they are, teachers eventually tire of trying to balance the rewards with the downside: underpaid, disrespected. And lately, exposed to a dangerous virus and not trusted to teach their own subjects.

It’s easy to tire of ‘Why I’m Leaving’ articles, but this one caught my eye: Teacher Job Satisfaction Hits an All-Time Low:

‘Past research suggests that many of the people who indicate plans to quit won’t actually do so. But experts warn there are negative consequences from a dissatisfied teacher workforce. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. And students tend to do better in schools with positive work environments.’

Let’s pause here, to say: Duh.

“What people want is to be able to teach and teach well, and if they can’t do it because they can’t afford to do it or because they have a toxic work environment, that discourages them from acting as teachers who are learning and growing and getting better and increasing their commitment to the work,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction. “That’s the side of satisfaction we need to pay attention to—it’s not just keeping people in their positions.”

‘Also, the low satisfaction levels of teachers already in the classroom may impact the pipeline of future teachers. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by about a third over the past decade, and experts say that is likely in part due to the perception of teaching as a low-paid, thankless career.’

Low paid. Thankless. And eligible for food stamps, in some states. What’s not to like?

In the linked article, there is a graph showing the percentage of K-12 teachers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, beginning in 1980. There’s a big dip in 1984 (down to 33%). Beginning in the early 90s, there’s a steady upward climb (to 62%) around 2005 or so, then a downturn, a slippery slope to where things currently stand: 12% of our teacher workforce is very satisfied with their jobs.

Educators aren’t happy.

Remember the famous Santayana quote–Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? There have been terrible times in education before—segregation and gross inequities, pre-Brown Decision in 1954, and the shameful reaction to it, for example. School funding crises and hot-button issues bubble up periodically.  Hard times are not new.

I actually remember that dip in the early 80s. There was a serious economic downturn, and oil prices shot up. I worked in the suburban outer ring around Detroit, and the financial crisis hit the auto industry, where lots of our parents worked, particularly hard. For the first time, the district lost students, and families.

I remember waving to a tenor sax player, leaving with his school-owned instrument on the day before spring break. He didn’t come back—and his family’s house went into foreclosure. The family left, and took the sax. We waited for a request for records from a new school that never came. There was no internet to cross-reference serial numbers. Bye-bye, Selmer tenor.

I used to think those were bad times. I was wrong, by orders of magnitude.

It’s not a hopeless situation. Here’s a short list of some ‘just for starters’ things we could do to engender a turnaround.  The first two are about a major increase in salaries, and loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching. So basic, and so essential.

What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?