Don’t Tread on Me, But Let Me Tread All Over You: The Credo of Personal Freedom and Limitless Greed

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Every neighborhood has one.

 

A yellow flag showing a coiled spring of a snake above the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

 

In my usually well-manicured suburb, you’ll find it waving bravely over the garbage house.

 

There’s three broken down RVs sitting on the lawn, a busted sofa in the back yard, a rotten picnic bench and several rusted out vehicles in various states of disrepair.

 

I’m not sure why the owners think anyone would want to tread on them. We’d much rather walk quickly on by without being seen or commented on.

 

Because in my experience that’s the thing about most of the people who fly this flag.

 

They’re indignant about anyone stepping on their rights but all too ready to step all over yours.

 

I remember it wasn’t really too long ago that this flag had no such connotations.

 

It was simply the Gadsen flag, a relic of the American Revolution. It was nothing more than a reminder of a time when we cherished our national independence from Great Britain and wanted to make sure they knew we didn’t want the King to come back and start ordering us around.

 

In fact, it was designed by American general and politician Christopher Gadsden in 1775. This “Sam Adams of South Carolina” modeled his patriotic statement first used by the Continental Marines on an earlier famous cartoon from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

 

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You’ve probably seen it. A snake is cut into several pieces – each representing one of the colonies – with the motto, “Join or Die.”

 

So originally it was a call for unity, perhaps even federalism. It was a way of framing the argument that we’d be stronger as one nation than as a group of separate states.

 

Gadsen’s version was really a continuation of that same thought. It was as if he were saying, “Here we are, one unified nation ready to strike to protect itself from tyranny.”

 

It wasn’t until 2009 that Gadsen’s flag became associated with the radical right.

 

Like so many hitherto nonpartisan symbols, it was appropriated by the Tea Party movement, which tried to cast their libertarian extremism as somehow harkening back to the American Revolution.

 

Even the name Tea Party is a misnomer. The original Boston members of the Sons of Liberty who threw British tea into the harbor in 1773 were protesting taxation without representation. Modern day Tea Partiers were protesting the taxes levied by their own duly elected representatives.

 

They were poor people duped into thinking the rich paid too much despite the fact of gross income inequality and the wealthy not paying their fair share.

 

It’s this willful ignorance that typifies the contemporary right.

 

The truth doesn’t matter. It only matters what can be spun into a pithy sound bite that can be broadcast on Fox News or some other propaganda source and then repeated ad infinitum in place of any real debate or conversation.

 

To be fair, the left does it, too, but not nearly to the same degree.

 

When a topic makes the rounds of the 24-hour news cycle, you can hear the same canned responses from right and left on just about every channel regardless of who is speaking. The only difference is that the left usually makes at least passing reference to reality while the right closes its eyes and says whatever it believes to be true with perfect conviction.

 

The Gadsen flag is a perfect example of this hypocrisy.

 

The motto “Don’t Tread on Me” has come to mean radical individual freedom.

 

I can do whatever I like and there’s nothing you can do about it.

 

I can own as many guns as I like. I can teach my kids whatever facts I like. I can discriminate against anyone I like.

 

But there’s never a mention about other people except to limit what they can do in relation to the speaker.

 

In short, there’s nothing explicit about making this rule universal – I won’t tread on you if you won’t tread on me.

 

It’s just don’t tread on me and I’ll do whatever I like in relation to you.

 

After all, many of these personal freedoms the radical right cherishes actually do impact the rest of us.

 

Unregulated gun ownership means more shootings, more suicides, more deadly instances of domestic violence, more kids coming to school with semi-automatic guns in their book bags and more malls and theaters slick with bystander blood.

 

Moreover, if you teach your kids whatever facts you like, that means you indoctrinate them into your worldview. You don’t give them the chance to see the real world for what it is in case they may have different views on it than you do. This impacts both your children and the country, itself, which will have to somehow run with a greater portion of ignorant and close-minded citizens.

 

And don’t get me started on discrimination! You think you should be able to say whatever you like to whomever you like whenever you like. It’s fine to wear a t-shirt calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt” but when late night comedian Samantha Bee does the same to Ivanka Trump, you’re up in arms!

 

You think you can support laws that allow bakers to refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples but are raving mad when a restaurateur refuses service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders!

 

 

This kind of sanctimonious duplicity has real world consequences.

 

 

Unarmed black people are shot and killed by police at a much higher rate than white people. Yet you won’t tolerate any protest, condemnation or protest. People can’t assemble in the streets, athletes can’t kneel during the national anthem, you won’t even allow the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” because you say, “All Lives Matter,” while in reality you mean “All Lives Except Black Ones.”

 

You oppose abortion but no one is forcing anyone to have abortions. In your headlong crusade for individual freedom you want to ensure that others don’t have this choice because they might choose differently than you. Or at least they might choose differently than you SAY you do, because when the light of day is cast upon you, we find an alarming number of hypocrites here, too.

 

There are too many far right politicians who campaign on overturning Roe v. Wade who pressure their mistresses to abort the unwanted issue of their indiscretion.

 

The underlying cause of such myopia is a perverse focus only on the self.

 

You look at what you want for you and pay no attention at all to what others should likewise be allowed.

 

It is the underlying selfishness of post Enlightenment Western thought come back to haunt us.

 

Hobbes and Locke and Smith told us that greed was good.

 

It’s what makes the world go round.

 

You look to your self-interest, and I’ll look to mine, and that’s what’s best for everyone.

 

However, they forgot that everyone doesn’t have the same power – physical, social, financial or political. Some people are strong and some are weak. Some are rich and some are poor. If you pull the shortest straw at the lottery of birth, you won’t be able to get the same things for yourself as those who won it as soon as the doctor slapped their newborn bums.

 

So we have layers and layers of class and economics. We have social structures designed to keep black people here and Hispanics there and white people at the top. We have a society that worships the rich and bedevils the poor. We have belief systems that praise one kind of sexuality only and demonizes anything that diverges from that norm. And the most defining thing of any newborn baby is what you’ll find between its legs.

 

“Don’t Tread on Me” has become a farce.

 

It’s a maxim hoisted on those with very little individual power to convince them to join together and become powerful while guarding the door for the wealthy.

 

They sit atop their mountains of trash as if they were dragons on piles of gold.

 

And they point their pitchforks at the rest of us as if we wanted a piece of it.

 

In this way, they make themselves the willing patsies of the ruling class.

 

It’s a sad thing to behold.

 

Because if we all just stopped for a second and recognized our common humanity, we’d agree that the status quo is unacceptable.

 

If we were more concerned about the rights of all than just our own rights, we’d agree that the wealth of this great nation has not been fairly distributed.

 

The snake is coiled and ready to strike but it is pointed in the wrong direction.

 

It shouldn’t be pointed at 99% of us. And it shouldn’t be so solitary.

 

It should be a sea of snakes, a great slithering mass of humanity, hissing and spitting with venom, our reptilian eyes focused on the elites.

 

Don’t tread on me?

 

Don’t tread on USSSSSSSSSSS!


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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Antwon Rose’s Life Matters

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Antwon Rose could have been my student.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts in a district located minutes away from where the 17-year-old was shot and killed by police.

 

East Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where his car was stopped and where he ran from officers before being shot three times in the back, is minutes from my house.

 

He went to Woodland Hills School District, minutes from my house.

 

Michael Rosfeld, the officer who just started working at East Pittsburgh less than two hours before he shot and killed Antwon, had been fired with cause from his previous job as a security officer at the University of Pittsburgh, where I got both my graduate and undergraduate degrees and where my wife works.

 

The poem Antwon wrote about not wanting to become another statistic that was read aloud at a protest was the product of an assignment I give my own classes.

 

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So I say again – he could have been my student.

 

I have had many children like him.

 

Most of my kids are like him.

 

Promising, smart, burdened by fears no teenager should have to face.

 

When I look at the smiling picture of Antwon released to the media, he looks like so many others I have known and loved.

 

How many kids have passed before me worried that they’ll be the victims of police violence?

 

How many kids have sat in those seats trying to concentrate on my work while anxious about the reality of the streets they have to walk just to get home?

 

How many kids have been afraid that if the worst happens, the rest of us will forget their humanity?

 

I am a white teacher. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a black person in America except by extension of what my kids and others tell me.

 

When my daughter goes to school or plays in the yard, I don’t have to worry the police will consider her a threat simply because of the amount of melanin in her skin.

 

But I do see how white people like me blame a 17-year-old kid for his own death.

 

If he hadn’t been in that car, he’d still be alive. If he hadn’t run from police, they wouldn’t have shot.

 

Maybe. Maybe not.

 

But being in the wrong place at the wrong time shouldn’t bring with it a death sentence. Running away shouldn’t bring with it the finality of the grave.

 

Yesterday Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide. That’s a good start.

 

But plenty of questions remain.

 

Rosfeld is still on unpaid leave. Why hasn’t he been arrested?

 

Civil rights writer Shaun King reports that when Rosfeld worked at the University of Pittsburgh, he had a history of harassing black students and was only let go after he harassed one of the chancellor’s own children. If true, was that reported to East Pittsburgh before they hired him?

 

Why is it police can apprehend white shooters with no violence, but when a suspect is black the rules of engagement start and end with bloodshed?

 

Protests have rocked this city for two days and will continue today.

 

And I’m glad.

 

We need answers to those and more questions. We need justice for Antwon.

 

But more than anything we need to recognize that he was a human being.

 

He was a little boy with his whole life ahead of him.

 

His life matters.

 

I don’t say “mattered” because even though he’s gone, his life still matters.

 

We can’t bring him back, but we can honor who he was.

 

We can recognize his common humanity is the same as anyone else’s.

 

We can give him and his family justice.

 

And we must – we MUST – make sure that things like this don’t happen again.

 

I’ve had far too many students die at the end of a gun.

 

At absolute minimum, the hand holding it shouldn’t belong to someone tasked with the job to serve and protect.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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This Fathers Day Let’s Be Worthy of Our Children

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My daughter wrote me a card for Father’s Day.

 

 

It had a heart on the front and the following message on the back:

 

 

“Happy Fathers Day! Dad, you are my superstar. You help me when I’m sad. And I love everything you do for me. That is why I wish you a Happy Fathers Day.”

 

 

It was a sweet token of affection from a 9-year-old to her sleepy daddy sitting at the kitchen table.

 

 

But it got me thinking.

 

 

All over this country fathers are probably receiving something similar from their children.

 

 

Hawaiian shirts, blotchy neckties and more finger paintings than you could fit in the Louvre.

 

 

But the sentiment is probably the same.

 

 

Thank you for being there for me.

 

 

But are we there for America’s children?

 

 

We may be there for our own kids, but where genetics end, are we there for others?

 

 

Our government has separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents at the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

 

 

Two thousand children forcibly separated from their parents in our name and we dare to celebrate Father’s Day?

 

 

From April through May, the policy has separated 1,995 minors from 1,940 adults traveling with them who said they were the children’s guardians.

 

 

A country that doesn’t respect the rights of parents – even if those parents aren’t documented US citizens – has no right to pretend it values fatherhood or motherhood.

 

 

At best, we value WHITE parenthood, and that, my friends, is not good enough.

 

 

Look at what we subject our own children to in the public school system.

 

 

We segregate our schools by race and class so we can horde resources for wealthy and middle class white kids while providing the bare minimum to the poor and children of color.

 

 

In the name of accountability we bestow upon them high stakes standardized tests to “prove” even those meager funds are wasted – yet we ignore the financial disparity, the social problems, the health issues and a host of other obstacles the underprivileged face.

 

 

The only help we’re willing to offer is privatized schools that can pocket a portion of their funding and reduce resources for these kids. We demand local control and democratically elected school boards for rich white kids, but expect the poor brown ones at charter and voucher schools to get along with appointed boards where their parents have no choice except to take it or leave it.

 

 

Does a society that routinely treats its children this way deserve a thank you card? I think not.

 

 

Last month, the CDC released a report indicating that the U.S. birth rate ― the number of babies born nationwide ― is the lowest it’s been in 30 years and is below the “replacement” rate needed to sustain the population.

 

Various media sources were quick to blame women nationwide. Women put off having kids because they want to focus on careers. They aren’t sexy or submissive enough.

 

Yet few look at the responsibilities of men in this equation.

 

Who is it behind the salary gap between men and women? Who conflates women’s healthcare with abortion and communism? Who makes it easier to get a gun in this country than proper maternity leave, childcare or any adequate resources to make having a family sustainable?

 

Answer: men.

 

We’re grossly over-represented in government, business and management.

 

We don’t even support men who want to have families. Men make more money than women, but salaries are down for them as well. If there’s little support for pregnant women, there’s little support for the fathers who impregnated them.

 

We pretend family values are the bedrock of our society but we don’t do much to support families.

 

And when we look to the future, it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

 

Big business and huge corporations are salivating all over the prospect of further monetizing our children.

 

They’re piloting scores of so-called personalized learning programs, apps and devices to spy on children and monitor every aspect of their learning.

 

Not only are they asking kids whether they feel excited or bored by canned test prep lessons provided on-line, they’re focusing cameras on children’s faces, monitoring their breathing and heart rate. They’re collecting mountains of data with little accountability, privacy or even the promise of these things.

 

Investment bankers and hedge fund managers are funding these programs and more to create a priceless database on each individual child that can be used for lifelong marketing, job placement, even profiling by law enforcement.

 

These are not practices that are done in the best interest of children. They are in the best interest of investors and free market privateers.

 

No wonder fewer people are having children! They don’t want their kids to become helpless victims to a society that cares less and less about our humanity and more and more about our marketability.

 

It is us vs. them – where the us is significantly limited by race, economics and class.

 

So this Fathers Day, we need to do more than accept a congratulatory pat on the back.

 

We need to accept our responsibility for the status quo.

 

If we don’t like the way things are, we need to commit ourselves to doing something about it.

 

Call and/or write your Senators and Representatives about the policy of separating undocumented parents and children. Visit your lawmakers’ offices and demand fair funding and an end to school segregation, high stakes testing and school privatization. Get active in your local school district going to meetings and making your voice heard. Do everything you can to educate the powers that be on the coming Ed Tech scandal and remove or block it from your district.

 

We’re not just fathers on Fathers Day.

 

We’re fathers all year long.

 

Let’s do something more to deserve it.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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“He Was Kind” – My Students Describe What I’m Like as a Teacher

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What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?

 

 

Some might say intelligence.

 

 

You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.

 

 

Others might say classroom management.

 

 

You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.

 

 

But for me the most important thing a teacher can be is kind.

 

 

I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.

 

 

This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.

 

 

It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.

 

 

At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.

 

 

“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”

 

The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.

 

 

Yet the results are always enlightening.

 

 

I wrote in detail two years ago about the survey and the kinds of responses I often get.

 

 

But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.

 

 

“He was kind.”

 

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That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.

 

 

“He was kind.” That’s all.

 

 

It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.

 

 

Another child wrote:

 

 

“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”

 

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And another:

 

 

“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”

 

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This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?

 

 

How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?

 

 

They had an answer for that, too:

 

 

“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”

 

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“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”

 

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“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”

 

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“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”

 

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Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:

 

 

“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”

 

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And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

 

 

This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.

 

 

I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.

 

 

For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.

 

 

They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.

 

 

Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:

 

 

“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”

 

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***

 

 

“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”

 

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Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:

 

 

“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”

 

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I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.

 

Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:

 

[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”

 

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Most comments were unbridled approbation:

 

 

What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”

 

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In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”

 

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“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”

 

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“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”

 

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And so another school year comes to an end.

 

 

I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.

 

 

I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.

 

 

But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.

 

 

They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.

 

 

If I could follow them next year, I would.

 

 

I gave them everything I had to give.

 

 

I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.

 

 

And I got back so much more.

 

 

That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.

 

 

Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.

 

 

Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.

 

 

Thank you so much, last year’s students.

 

 

Thank you for letting me be your teacher.

 

 

Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly.

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Hard work should be rewarded.

 

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

 

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

 

If everyone in class gives it their best shot, they should all get A’s. It is not the teacher’s job to split hairs and sort kids into arbitrary categories in order to preserve a monetary myth about grades’ value based on a model of scarcity.

 

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

 

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

 

To which I reply: Bullshit.

 

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

 

According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?

 

Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?

 

The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.

 

It’s nothing new.

 

Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.

 

It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.

 

We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.

 

It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)

 

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

 

The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.

 

If students work hard, they should be rewarded.

 

I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.

 

This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.

 

They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.

 

Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.

 

In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.

 

To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.

 

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

 

 

Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.

 

This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.

 

Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.

 

You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.

 

For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.

 

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

 

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

 

He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.

 

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

 

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

 

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

 

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

 

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

 

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

 

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

 

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

 

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

 

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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Dear Betsy DeVos, I Will NEVER Report My Students to ICE

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Teachers fill a lot of roles in our public schools.

 

 

We’re mentors to kids in need.

 

 

We’re aides to students struggling with new concepts and skills.

 

 

We’re homework-givers, pencil-providers, idea-encouragers, lunch-buyers, scrape-bandagers, hand-holders, hug-givers, good listeners, counselors, caregivers and – yes – sometimes even butt-kickers.

 

 

It’s no wonder that we occasionally get mistaken for mothers and fathers.

 

 

But one thing we will never be is a snitch.

 

 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently intimated that principals and teachers could report their undocumented children to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

 

 

She’s not going to say what we should do one way or another. She’s just saying that this is something we COULD do if we wanted.

 

 

If that results in those kids and their families being deported, well we are a nation of laws, after all.

 

 

It’s a remark that sounds so reasonable to some folks.

 

 

Luckily, I speak dog whistle.

 

 

So did the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1982 when justices ruled in Plyler v. Doe that schools cannot deny children their right to a free education based on immigration status.

 

 

When kids are afraid to learn because they or their parents or extended family may be undocumented, that has a smothering affect on the classroom.

 

 

When ICE raids a local business, we see a sudden drop in class attendance.

 

So if students thought their teachers or principals were scrutinizing them to determine their citizenship status, we’d be discouraging many with brown skin or extra-national credentials from ever coming back.

 

By suggesting that educators have a choice whether to obey established law or to become self-appointed border patrol officers, DeVos actually is prescribing how we should act.

 

Well, not this teacher, Betsy.

 

Not now. Not EVER.

 

No matter who you are – black, white or brown – a public school is a sanctuary. It is where kids of all different races and creeds come to escape from the ravages of poverty, violence and indifference.

 

Teachers are not the enforcers of our broken, bent and biased immigration policy. It is not our job to oblige xenophobia and bigotry.

 

It is our job to teach, to protect and inspire.

 

Sure, I’ve made my fair share of calls to parents, healthcare professionals and Child Protective Services.

 

I’ve reported abuse, addiction and mental illness.

 

But I did that to protect my kids. And I do think of them as my kids.

 

When these little people come toddling into my class, I take a kind of ownership of them.

 

For the time they’re here, we’re family. I take interest in their lives and they take interest in mine.

 

They know all about my wife and daughter, my parents and grandparents. And I know about theirs.

 

We don’t just learn grammar, reading and writing. We share our lives with each other.

 

We share a mutual trust and respect.

 

If I reported even a single student for a suspected immigration violation, I would lose that forever.

 

It’s sad how much things have changed in a little over year.

 

Hispanic names have become Anglicized. Angelo has becomes Angel. Julio has become Jules. Jorge is now George.

 

 

The dulcet melody of Spanish has been silenced. You’ll only hear it in muffled voices if you wander by a few lockers, but never in class.

 

 

My kids aren’t even 13 yet, but many of them have already learned to hide.

 

 

Don’t appear different. Don’t let anyone know your roots extend beyond national borders.

 

 

Be “normal.” Be homogenized, bland American.

 

 

That’s the world we’ve built and it’s the one that DeVos is encouraging with her tin pot nationalism.

 

 

Some things don’t change when you cross municipal lines – human decency is one of them.

 

 

So I won’t be reporting any of my students to ICE.

 

 

I won’t help the Gestapo separate parents and children based on citizenship status.

 

 

I won’t help set up ethnic checkpoints where armed guards get to ask “suspicious persons” for their papers.

 

 

White supremacy was bad enough before Trump was elected. I won’t help the unfortunately named Department of Homeland Security become the protector of a new white trash Fatherland.

 

 

I will defend my students. I will stand up for their safety and their rights.

 

 

That’s just what we do in public school. We look after our own.

 


Like this post? I’ve 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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


Like this post? I’ve 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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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