Remote Teaching is Much Different This Year 

  
I couldn’t believe what was happening.   


  
It was 8:30 am and nearly all of my students were in class.   


  
Or technically none of them were.   


  
It all depends on how you look at it.   


  
This was a remote teaching day, after all, and the classROOM was empty somewhere across town.  


 
My middle schoolers and I were all snug in our various homes communicating with each other via Zoom. But through the magic of the Internet, we were all together in one place and ready to get started.   


  
It was surprising because on most days of in-person learning it takes at least 30 to 40 minutes in the morning for students to stumble in. 


  
But today it just took a click of the mouse.  


  
Not only that but we were awake, and chatting, and happy to be together!  

 
  
“Hey, Rian! Nice to see you!” I said as I clicked in a student.   


  
“Morning, Mr. Singer. Did you have a nice weekend?” she responded.  


  
“You bet. You all staying warm out there?”  


  
“Nah. I made a snowman with my little brothers. But it was fun.”  


  
“I’m so excited!” another student offered.  “My mom just had an ultrasound of her new baby. She says its nose looks just like mine.”  


  
“That’s fantastic,” I said.   


  
“Yeah. I’m going to be the oldest. There will be 12 years between us.”  


  
Who were these children and what had they done with my students?  


 
This is not what I had come to expect of students on-line. 


 
Through the pandemic, the last two years of on-and-off remote learning were a slog. Most days getting students to respond verbally was like pulling teeth. They’d hide behind screensavers, their cameras off and for all I knew they could be on Mars. 


    
Admittedly today the screensavers were still in place, but the ebullient chatter was like something you’d hear… well… in school!  


 
In the physical classroom some of my kids might engage in this kind of banter. But not before 9 or 10 am!  


  
My language arts students and I went over the homework and the kids even volunteered to read the directions and attempted the questions about prepositional phrases and appositives.   


  
They wrote in depth answers to thematic questions about the book we’d been reading together, S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”   


  
And then we discussed those questions together in a virtual Socratic Seminar.   


  
These are all things I’d done before in previous years with remote students. But it never came off like today.   


  
They put up hand raising emojis to indicate they wanted to speak and gave some of the most thoughtful comments I’d heard from them all year.   


  
They talked about the main character, Ponyboy, and his responsibility to save some kids from a burning church. And others argued that he had no responsibility – it was the adults who should have watched the kids more closely. Or they argued that Ponyboy losing his life wouldn’t have helped the trapped kids any. Or they argued that it didn’t matter whether they saved the kids but whether they were willing to put more good into the world by trying…  


  
I was astonished. We laughed. We pondered. It was a lot of fun.   


 
How did this happen on-line?  


 
I think it was a combination of several factors.  


 
First, this was a high interest lesson of a high interest text.  


 
Give kids something meaningful to do and they’ll exceed your expectations more often than not


 
But even more than that – and this may come as a shock – I think they were actually grateful to be learning on remote. 


 
That’s not to say they just naturally love the cyber school experience. But it’s been a scary few months in the school building. 


 
We’d all watched in fear as COVID-19 spread through the district like wildfire. 


  
All last week students and staff had steadily been going missing.  


 
We got phone messages daily telling us how many people had tested positive but not who they were or how many additional folks had been quarantined because of close contacts.  


  
Even several administrators and our building principal mysteriously vanished, and with them so did some of the secrecy.   


 
One of my students was removed from class with an apparent positive test and the next day students were called to the office in ones and twos not to be seen again. Until the rooms were nearly empty.  


  
On Friday, my last class of usually 20 had been whittled down to four. 


 
And of those left was a child who sniffled and coughed  complaining that his mom wouldn’t let him go anywhere after school until he had a negative COVID test.   


  
So when they finally announced we were going to remote this week, the dominant feeling I had was relief.  


 
I just wasn’t the only one. 


 
No one wants to catch this thing.  


 
You don’t know whether it’s going to manifest as a week-long cold, symptoms that last for months, a stay at the hospital or worse.  


 
And don’t tell me kids aren’t affected. They may not often get as sick as adults, but they’ve seen the impact of this disease on others.  


 
They know catching COVID is taking a chance. 


 
That’s why most of them still wear face masks at school – even after the state Supreme Court overturned the Governor’s mask mandate. Even after school directors chose not to require masks on their own.  


 
Policymakers roll the dice but it’s the rest of us who pay the tab


 
I think my students were grateful that for once their safety and that of their families was being put first.

 
 
Or there just wasn’t enough staff available to keep the schools open. And not enough students left to teach in-person. 


 
Don’t get me wrong. Today wasn’t perfect.  


 
There were a few absent students – though much fewer than on any regular day. 


 
There were a few who hid behind their screensavers – though less than those who checkout in the classroom. 


 
Nor do I think remote learning is the best way to teach. Under normal circumstances, in-person is much more effective.  


 
But these aren’t normal circumstances. And until cases come under control and we take adequate precautions to ensure everyone’s safety, they won’t be normal circumstances. 


 
My students get that.  
 


I hope their parents do, too.  


 
I hope the administrators who’ve been out sick understand it.  


 
Because they’re going to be back soon, and then it won’t just be a battle with COVID.  


 
It will be a battle of egos, too.


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Students and Staff are Catching COVID at School. What Does That Mean? 

 
 
Everyday people catch Covid-19 at my school


 
Sometimes you can only tell by the vanishing students and teachers or the everyday need to sub for staff members mysteriously absent for days or weeks in a row.  


 
Sometimes a student will stop by the room to tell you she’s leaving and will be quarantined for the next five days.  


 
Sometimes a fellow teacher will cough and sneeze their way through hall duty and then disappear for the next week or so.  


 
But always, ALWAYS the emails and phone calls: 


 
“We have learned that two High School students, two High School staff members, three Middle School students, six Elementary students and one Elementary staff member have tested positive for COVID-19.  Close contacts have been identified and notified.  Thank you.” 


 
What does it all mean? 


 
One thing’s for sure – we aren’t taking this pandemic very seriously.  


 
Gone is any attempt to keep people from getting sick


 
No mask mandate. No vaccine mandate. No random testing to see if anyone even has the disease.

 
 
Now it’s a constant game of chicken between you and a global pandemic. 


 
Will you beat the odds today?  


 
Given enough time and high infection rates, you probably won’t. And no one seems too worried about that.  


 
We’re acting like this virus is just a cold. People get sick. They convalesce at home. They come back. No problem.  


 
But that is just ableism.  


 
The consequences of getting sick vary from person-to-person.  Some people have symptoms that last for months. Others have permanent damage to their hearts, lungs or other organs.  


 
And someone like me who is triple vaccinated but immunosuppressed because of existing medical conditions could have severe complications.  


 
That’s why I’m afraid. I don’t know if getting sick will mean the sniffles, a stay at the hospital or the morgue. 


 
And no one seems to care.  


 
In fact, nothing seems to make anyone do a thing about the dangerous conditions in which we’re working.  


 
Judging by the emails in the last week and a half, alone, there have been at least 60 people in my small western Pennsylvania district who tested positive for Covid. That’s 17 in the high school (10 students and 7 staff), 22 in the middle school (17 students and 5 staff), and 21 in the elementary schools (16 students and 5 staff). And this doesn’t include close contacts. 


 
However, with the new CDC guidelines that people who test positive only need to quarantine for 5 days, some of these people are probably back at school already. Though it is almost certain they will be replaced by more people testing positive today.  


 
I have a student who just came back a day ago who’s coughing and sneezing in the back of the room with no mask. And there’s not a thing I can do – except spray Lysol all over his seating area once he leaves.  


 
The imperative seems to be to keep the building open at all costs. It doesn’t matter who gets sick, how many get sick – as long as we have one or two adults we can shuffle from room-to-room, the lights will be on and school directors can hold their heads high that they weren’t defeated by Covid.  


 
The daycare center – I mean school – is open and parents can get to work.  


 
But this isn’t the number one concern of all parents. Many are keeping their kids at home because they don’t want them to get sick.  


 
We have a Catholic school right next door. It’s closed and classes have moved on-line.  


 
Don’t get me wrong. I hated teaching remotely on and off during the last few years. But safety is more important to me than being as effective as I can possibly be.  


 
When the Titanic is sinking, you get in the life boats and don’t worry that doing so might mean you won’t dock on time.  


 
Somewhere along the line in the past few years we’ve come to accept the unacceptable: 


 
We’re not in this together. 


 
I don’t have your back. You don’t have mine. 


 
When it comes to a disease like Covid – you’re on your own. 


 


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Don’t Blame Teachers for Covid Quarantines and Closures

 
This week the US reported more than a million Covid-19 cases in one day – a new global record! 


 
As this latest surge in the pandemic hits, schools all over the nation are closing up again and returning to on-line classes.  


 
People everywhere are wondering if teachers are to blame


 
Here are some things for school directors and administrators to consider:  


 
 
If you don’t require all students and staff to wear masks – don’t blame teachers. 

If you don’t regularly test students and staff for Covid – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require all students and staff to be vaccinated – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If your classrooms are not well ventilated – don’t blame teachers. 

If you force staff to come into the building for professional development and don’t allow them to attend remotely – don’t blame teachers.


 
If you don’t provide K95 masks to all students and staff – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you didn’t devise a schedule to keep students socially distanced – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t deep clean each classroom and other student spaces between classes – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If you don’t have lunches outdoors or in some other extremely well-ventilated space – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require a negative Covid test before sick students or staff can return to school – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If students and staff have steadily been getting sick for weeks and you’ve done nothing to prepare – Don’t Blame Teachers. 


 
 
In short, if you haven’t done everything you can do to prevent an outbreak sweeping through your school and your community – DON’T. BLAME. TEACHERS.  


 
BLAME YOURSELF. 


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The Same People Who Think Antiracists Have Gone Too Far Think Standardized Testing Hasn’t Gone Far Enough

Some folks are fed up with modern anti-racism.

Why?

For one, all this focus on equity has made it harder to support standardized testing.

That’s a big problem for these folks.

They think that if being against discrimination means also turning against something as obviously innocuous as fill-in-the-bubble tests, maybe it’s today’s brand of anti-racism that has to go.

However, most of us probably don’t see this as a difficult choice.

High stakes testing – like racism – is one of those really bad ideas that just won’t go away.

Since 2001 unless their parents actively opted out their children, standardized tests have been forced on all public school students in 3-8th grade and at least once in high school.

The scores have been used to judge students, teachers, schools – everything except the corporations who make and score the tests and then sell remediation needed to improve failing test scores. Good money if you can get it.

Low test scores have been used to justify closing schools in poor and minority communities, narrowing the curriculum in those communities to just the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and increasing racial and economic segregation through charter schools and voucher programs.

Most people can see it’s a scam and a racist one to boot.

In the United States, standardized testing was invented by eugenicists trying to prove white Europeans were better than darker skinned immigrants and thus deserved a privileged position in society. This is no hyperbole – in the early 20th Century they were literally used to justify the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of mostly poor, brown-skinned people.

And today the scores still routinely fail Black and Brown people while passing whites thus barring many people of color from graduation or college entrance.

However, describing such a state of affairs as “racist” has been criticized by a self-described anti-woke backlash.

People as diverse as Fox News correspondents, old school neoliberals and contrarian progressive academicians have taken arms together to fight against what they see as an overstatement of the degree of racism present in modern America and an attack on free speech.

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, has long been an apologist for standardized testing and included his decades old arguments defending the practice in his new book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

Tony Norman, a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, writes that McWhorter is:

“…an old-school Black progressive who doesn’t hide his disdain for white liberals and what he considers their Black enablers in academia and the culture. He argues that the anti-racism movement of the “elected” is more performative than intellectually serious and that the white allies who provide the shock troops at universities and street rallies are just as gross as white supremacists because their virtue signaling hides their condescension.”

Ultimately Norman concludes, “I agreed with so much of what the writer had to say about specific hypocrisies of white saviors while disagreeing with much of its premise.”

As a white person, I make no judgment on McWhorter’s overall thesis because I don’t feel qualified to do so.

However, as a classroom educator with more than two decades experience teaching mostly poor and minority students, I feel qualified to address the issue of testing.

After all, I have proctored hundreds of these assessments, seen their impact, studied the history and spoken with hundreds of people of color who oppose the tests and a few like McWhorter who defend them.

The linguist’s main argument can be summed up as follows.

Excusing people of color from the tests because they generally score lower is mere pity. People of color don’t need your pity. Give them the tools necessary to pass the tests like everyone else.

In 2014 he wrote:

“Is it the moral thing to exempt black and Latino kids from the serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children, instead of making an effort to prepare them for it?”

However, McWhorter seems to be missing the point.

Critics of standardized testing do not think the tests should be a “serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children.” It should be abolished altogether.

First of all, testing should not be about competition. It should be about assessment – telling who knows what, not judging who is worthy of what social and economic position later in life.

Second, it’s not just Black and Brown children who are hurt by the testing. It is ALL children.

These test are not unfair just to students of color. They are unfair to the poor, people from non-white cultures, the neurodivergent, and others.

The very term “standardized test” means an assessment based around a standard. It privileges the kinds of questions white students are more likely to get correct. After all, that’s how test questions are chosen – not based on the quality of the question but on whether the majority (i.e. white people) get the questions right and the minority (i.e. people of color and others) consistently get it wrong.

It’s not just about knowing math. It’s about knowing the cultural terms, shared experiences and assumptions the math question is embedded in.

McWhorter sees nothing wrong in this. He thinks people of color simply need the tools necessary to pass the tests even if that means being taught to respond as a white person would and to make the same linguistic assumptions and have the same cultural knowledge as privileged white people.

I think it’s kind of sad that in McWhorter’s view Black people would have to engage in such a radical and complete double consciousness or more likely give up their own uniqueness and assimilate as much as possible just to be considered the equal of a white person.

However, another thing he doesn’t seem to understand is that even if he got his wish and the playing field were level giving all children the same chances on the tests, it wouldn’t change a thing.

Standardized tests are bad at their job of assessing student learning – even when all test takers are white.

These exams are made up of multiple choice questions. This is not the best way to determine whether learning has taken place on complex topics. How a linguist could ever suppose even the most rudimentary subtleties of meaning could be captured by a simple A, B, C and D is beyond me.

Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Chomsky… all just so you could choose between a narrow set of prewritten answers!?

That seems to be McWhorter’s position because he criticizes proposed remedies to the problem:

“And yet it is considered beyond the pale to discuss getting the kids up to speed: Instead we are to change the standards—the current idea is to bring GPA, performance on a state test, and even attendance into the equation as well. What an honor to black kids to have attendance treated as a measure of excellence. What’s next, rhythm?”

However, it’s not a matter of adding ridiculous or insulting data to the mix to make Black kids look better. It’s about adding enough data to give a clear enough picture of a student’s learning.

At best a standardized test is a snapshot of a student’s learning. It shows what a student answers on a single day or even two or three. By contrast, grade point average (GPA) is made up of student assessments (informal, formal, formative and summative) over the course of 360 some days.

By that metric, alone, you should expect a GPA to be more accurate than a standardized test.

Whether you take other things into account like attendance, poverty level, per pupil spending at the school, etc. – that would just give more information.

It could be argued that some of these things are necessary and some irrelevant. But to consider standardized tests as the ne plus ultra is patently absurd.

In fact, if I were using a metric to accurately assess student learning, I would not include standardized testing at all. I would look at many of these other measures like GPA instead.

Standardized assessments are not being used because they are effective or accurate. They are a money-making scheme that victimizes those groups society doesn’t care about – the poor, people of color, English language learners, etc.

It is yet another system that enables and promotes white supremacy.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look to Black thinkers like Jesse Hagopian, Dr. Denisha Jones, Dr. Yohuru Williams, Jitu Brown, and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi who have spoken out against standardized testing. Look to the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement which have called for an end to standardized testing. Look to the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, who have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

These tests are not just immoral because they’re racist, but they’re bad at the act of fairly assessing.

And part of the reason for that is their embedded prejudice.

An assessment that unfairly singles out certain groups not because of their lack of knowledge of the subject being tested but their different enculturation and lack of similar opportunities as the dominant culture can never be a good assessment.

But even if they didn’t do that, they would be like using a pencil to eat soup.

The systems of our society matter. Using the right tool matters.

Whether we call an appreciation of these facts being “woke,” “antiracist” or anything else does not.


 


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!