Don’t Let School Lockdown Drills Become the New Normal

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I got an interesting phone call the other day from my daughter’s elementary school.

 

The counselor warned me that my little one’s class would conduct a lockdown drill – the first the kids had ever experienced.

 

With everything in the news about school shootings and the gun debate, the superintendent and principals thought they should prepare for the worst, even though they doubted anything like that would actually happen here.

 

The counselor just wanted me to be aware what was happening and to prepare my daughter for it so she wouldn’t be scared.

 

I thanked her for the call, and went in the other room to speak to my 9-year-old sweetie.

 

She was hunkered on the floor drawing pictures of her toys.

 

Mario and Luigi were chasing a purple Yoshi. Captain America was playing soccer with Wonder Woman. That kind of thing.

 

I opened my mouth — and my throat closed up.

 

I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.

 

What would I say? —-Hey, Honeybunches. You’re going to have a lockdown drill at school tomorrow. Your class is going to prepare in case a gunman breaks in and tries to murder you.

 

She was staring at me now, Mario’s hat half colored in.

 

So I put on my teacher’s cap and explained everything that would happen, but not why.

 

She was completely unfazed.

 

“That’s all? Can I go back to coloring now?” she asked.

 

I nodded.

 

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but I wondered how she’d react. This was a girl who in kindergarten had cried at the violence of a fire alarm.

 

So the next day came and went – no mention from her about what had happened at school.

 

She wasn’t traumatized. She was her usual self – frustrated at her homework, bargaining for a snack, writing an autobiography of her soccer career that would start next fall when she signs up.

 

I waited a week and then asked her about what had happened.

 

In the most matter of fact voice, she told me how her third grade class had stood away from the door, clustered in one corner of the room holding books.

 

“Why books?” I asked, thinking that maybe the drill had gone on too long so they had something to read.

 

She said they were to throw at a bad guy if he sneaked into the room.

 

I imagined a gunman in my daughter’s classroom trying to spray the children with bullets only to be met by a hail of tossed books – Dr. Seuss vs. Smith & Wesson.

 

Then I envisioned her teacher pulling out a revolver and returning fire through the swarm of terrified elementary school bodies darting back and forth.

 

The shock must have shown on my face.

 

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said. “No one broke in.”

 

As usual, children do better with this stuff than adults.

 

But the reason why is exceedingly troubling.

 

They are still forming their concept of normality.

 

When I went to school, we never had lockdown drills. We had monthly fire drills and the occasional severe weather drill. But we never prepared for crazed murderers and terrorists. That just wasn’t in our routine or even our conception of what a school should do.

 

Yet it is now routine for my daughter. It is typical for most children these days.

 

As a teacher in a neighboring district, I had to preside over my own first lockdown drill with my 7th graders a few weeks earlier.

 

We clustered in a corner on the floor – the door locked, the lights off.

 

My class of rambunctious teens who rarely seem able to do anything without a constant stream of words was nearly silent.

 

The worst part was how I felt trying to downplay what we were doing.

 

Nothing to see here, kids. Just an ordinary day pretending to hide in a corner so a killer would pass us by.

 

And now after the drill, I keep my classroom door locked at all times.

 

It’s a huge inconvenience having to stop what you’re doing and physically open the door anytime someone wants to come in. But it’s what we have to do to bolster our sense of security.

 

It’s our new normal.

 

And I don’t like it.

 

It just seems to me like another way my generation has failed our children.

 

We’ve always known our gun laws are insane. We knew there should be SOME sensible regulations on who can buy a gun and where and why. We knew there was no good reason to allow civilians to own automatic weapons.

 

But we did nothing.

 

Okay, a few of us spoke up now and again. It did no good. Our lawmakers just waited out our outrage and kept pocketing the money from the NRA and the gun lobby.

 

And now we’ve accepted that school shootings are just another part of getting an education.

 

It’s just something else to prepare for – like a grease fire in the cafeteria or a flooded gymnasium.

 

I’m sorry, but this is not normal.

 

I refuse to let this be just another possible disaster we feel compelled to add to our list of Might Happens.

 

Thankfully, protestors are still out there demanding action from our politicians. Thankfully, demonstrations and town halls are still in the works like the April 20th National School Walkout.

 

But our leaders still think they can wait us out. And these lockdown drills feel too much like an admission that they’re right.

 

What sense of urgency do we have if we’ve already incorporated shootings into the calendar?

 

I’ll accept that these drills are necessary. But I won’t accept them as permanent.

 

These are temporary measures at best.

 

However, that’s something that must be made explicit. Lockdown drills cannot become a tradition, common, conventional.

 

It shouldn’t be – “Time for the occasional lockdown drill.”

 

It should be – “Look what our cowardly politicians are forcing us to do because they haven’t enough spine to stand up to the NRA!”

 

We mustn’t lose our sense of outrage over this cultural shift. Because if we do, the necessary political change will not come.

 

We need sensible gun regulations – not another B.S. duck and cover exercise to engender a false sense of security and pop our civic resolve.

 

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Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout

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The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

 

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

 

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

 

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

 

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

 

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

 

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

 

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

 

That’s a hard position to be in.

 

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

 

But I tried.

 

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

 

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

 

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

 

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

 

The room exploded.

 

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

 

But that was pretty much it.

 

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

 

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

 

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

 

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

 

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

 

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

 

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

 

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

 

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

 

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

 

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

 

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

 

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

 

One student even wrote her own poem.

 

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

 

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

 

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

 

Screams echo throughout the building.

Blood painting the white tiles.

Bodies laying limp on the ground

Screams of pain

Bullets piercing our skin.

 

Yelling and sobbing increase.

We are escorted out.

 

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

 

 

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

 

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

 

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

 

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

 

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

 

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

 

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

 

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

 

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

 

That was hard.

 

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

 

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

 

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

 

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

 

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

 

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

 

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

 

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

 

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

 

And then it was over.

 

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

 

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

 

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

 

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

 

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

 

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

 

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

 

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

 

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

 

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

 

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

 

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

 

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

 

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

 

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

 

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

 

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

 

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

 

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

 

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

 

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

 

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

 

It was unorganized and a mess.

 

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

 

Their message was a muddle.

 

But they had something to say.

 

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.

Twenty-One Reasons People Hate, Hate, HATE Betsy DeVos

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Lesley Stahl: Why have you become, people say, the most hated Cabinet secretary?

 

Betsy DeVos: I’m not sure exactly how that happened…

I’m more misunderstood than anything.

 

 

The above exchange from last night’s 60 Minutes interview highlights an important point about our Education Secretary.

 

She is deeply unpopular, but not because she’s misunderstood. If anything, she’s understood too well.

 

We know what she stands for and we don’t like it.

 

If she was really so misunderstood, why didn’t her answers in the interview veer away from the same usual canned responses she’s given time-and-time-again to the same type of questions?

 

What’s wrong with schools? NOT ENOUGH CHOICE.

 

How do we prevent school shootings? LET SCHOOLS ARM TEACHERS.

 

You didn’t really even need DeVos to show up to the interview to be able to guess with a high degree of accuracy what her answers would be.

 

In fact, many of her responses seemed to have been coached – as if someone had prepared her with talking points before the interview even took place.

 

So without further ado, here is my exhaustive list of all the reasons I can think of why people really, REALLY hate Betsy Devos. If I’ve left something out, please feel free to add it in a comment.

 

WHY PEOPLE HATE BETSY DEVOS:

 

1) She didn’t earn her position as Education Secretary. She bought it. And even then it took a tie breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence to shove her down our throats.

 

2) She wants to spend tax dollars to boost privatized schools in which she has a financial stake.

 

3) She doesn’t mind taking funding away from public schools to do it.

 

4) She wants to destroy the entire system of public schools which enroll 90% of America’s children.

 

5) She doesn’t really know what public schools are, having never attended one or having never sent her children or grandchildren to one.

 

6) She wants to arm teachers not because it will protect kids from school shooters, but because that boosts her family’s investment portfolio. (i.e. her brother’s mercenary army for hire, Blackwater)

 

7) She won’t make charter and voucher schools give the same services to special education kids as those provided by traditional public schools.

 

8) She’s getting rid of students’ civil rights protections while adding protections for nefarious student loan providers and fly-by-night on-line schools.

 

9) She’s rescinded rules that protected trans students.

 

10) She’s considering rescinding rules that protect minority students from being unfairly and disproportionately disciplined by schools.

 

11) She’s made it harder for victims of sexual assault and harassment to report abuse and easier for those accused to avoid prosecution.

 

12) She talks about state’s rights to determine their own education systems while using the power of the federal government to coerce them to doing things her way.

 

13) She wastes public tax dollars. She is the only Cabinet member protected by Federal Marshals, which costs us nearly $1 million a month. Whether this is necessary or not, as a billionaire she could save the taxpayers money by taking on this cost, herself.

 

14) She doesn’t care if the public doesn’t want her at their school or event. She goes anyway and then pretends to be angry that protestors showed up. She doesn’t seem to understand that as a public servant she should serve at our pleasure – not the other way around.

 

15) She uses tragedy as a photo-op – as she did when she visited the Parkland school to promote arming teachers. She didn’t meet significantly with students or staff. She didn’t listen to their concerns. She even bailed on her own press conference there when the queries weren’t to her liking.

 

16) She has no problem whitewashing black history as she did when she claimed historic black colleges were pioneers of school choice. In reality they had no choice. For many African Americans at the time, it was create black colleges or forgo post-secondary education at all.

 

17) She is ignorant (purposefully or not) of the results of her own policies. Her advocacy of school choice in her home state of Michigan has weakened that state’s public schools, not strengthened them.

 

18) She’s out of touch with average Americans. She’s the richest member of Trump’s cabinet and often travels in her on super luxury yacht.

 

19) She’s rich not because she earned it, but because she was born into it and married into even more wealth. Moreover, much of her wealth is due to her family’s Amway fortune – basically it’s founded on rooking average people out of their hard earned money with what’s essentially a pyramid scheme.

 

20) She’s arrogant. She smiles vacantly at topics that don’t deserve a smile – they deserve serious regard.

 

21) She is extremely biased and partisan. She is supposed to serve the public interest, but her radical Christian Fundamentalism and anti-LGBT activism make her untrustworthy to serve in that capacity. Statements such as “There is enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education… Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom,” do not help.

 

Okay. That’s all I can think of – though more may pop into mind as soon as I publish this. If I missed something please include it in the comments.

 

Hopefully this answers DeVos’ question about why she’s hated.

Rampant Ignorance of What a School Should Be

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From politicians confusing a living wage with a handout—

 

To a white supremacist teacher podcast.

 

From a tone deaf government flunky using tragedy to do anything to stop gun violence except regulate firearms—

 

To a Bronx principal barring a black history lesson during Black History Month.

 

All-in-all, it’s been a crazy news cycle.

 

If one thing was made clear during the last seven plus days, it’s this:

 

Many people have no idea what a school should be.

 

Take West Virginia, the site of a recently resolved statewide teacher strike.

 

After years of watching the cost of living rise while wages remained stagnant, educators took to the streets to demand enough money that they wouldn’t have to quit their teaching jobs and look for work elsewhere.

 

It’s a reasonable request.

 

Imagine if we didn’t pay doctors enough to afford to practice medicine. Imagine if we didn’t pay lawyers enough to afford to practice law.

 

Teachers just wanted enough money so they could focus on educating the next generation and still get perks like food and shelter.

 

However, West Virginia is a self-confessed conservative state where self-identifying conservatives unashamedly explain that a full-throated expression of their conservative values includes the idea that you shouldn’t have to pay people a living wage for a hard day’s work.

 

Or as state Senator Lynne Arvone (R-Raleigh) put it:

 

“The teachers have to understand that West Virginia is a red state, and the free handouts are over.”

 

What, Sen. Arvone? Are you high?

 

A salary is not a “free handout.”

 

That’s redundant – there is no such thing as a free handout. Handouts are by definition free. That’s something you would have known had you paid more attention to your third grade language arts teacher. But, whatever.

 

Moreover, a salary is neither free nor a handout.

 

It is a fixed regular payment – often weekly or biweekly – made by an employer to an employee in exchange for doing a job.

 

West Virginia teachers are doing their job. State representatives like Arvone aren’t doing theirs.

 

They aren’t making teaching an attractive career and thus encouraging the best and brightest to become teachers. When you’ve already got a shortage of people willing to become educators, you have to invest. That’s economics 101! Basic supply and demand.

 

Admittedly, after 8 days of a state-wide strike, the legislature caved and gave teachers a 5% raise, but only moments before introducing a bill to reduce the requirements to become a West Virginia teacher in the future.

 

Boom.

 

It’s like lawmakers are saying: Oh. So you want your raise? Here you go. But the next generation of teachers hired in the state will be more ignorant, less experienced, more unskilled and less professional. In short, they won’t expect to be paid a living wage because we’ve made teaching right up there with being a WalMart greeter!

 

So there!

 

If passed, the academic quality of education provided by West Virginia will drop.

 

But so will the cost. And that seems to be the only thing lawmakers like Arvone and her “conservative” colleagues seem to care about.

 

You know, I don’t think they know what conservative means, either.

 

It’s certainly not what a public school should be.

 

Want another example?

 

Take Dayanna Volitich, a 25-year-old Florida teacher who allegedly ran a white supremacist podcast until non-Aryans heard it, put two-and-two together and removed her from class.

 

On a recent episode she bragged about spreading racist and prejudiced ideas to her students.

 

According to an article in the Huffington Post describing her latest podcast:

 

Volitich also agreed with her guest’s assertion that more white supremacists need to infiltrate public schools and become teachers. “They don’t have to be vocal about their views, but get in there!” her guest said. “Be more covert and just start taking over those places.”

 

“Right,” Volitich said. “I’m absolutely one of them.”

 

Great. Just what we need. An army of undercover white supremacists being encouraged to enter the teaching profession – taking those newly minted minimum wage jobs vacated by more expensive but less biased educators.

 

As a more than 15-year veteran of the public school classroom, I have some advice for white supremacists thinking about becoming teachers: Don’t.

 

We don’t want you here.

 

No one has the time for your warmed over master race lullabies.

 

We don’t need another generation of privileged white people who think the world owes them something just because of the color of their skin.

 

We need an America made up of people of all colors and creeds who believe in a meritocracy. You get what you work for, what you earn.

 

And we need lawmakers to actually create a system that supports this ideal.

 

We need political parties and grassroots movements to push for such an America.

 

Nazi propaganda belongs in one place only – the history books. It is not part of our future.

 

And on a personal note, let me just say that becoming a teacher often makes you more progressive than you were when you started.

 

I know it did me.

 

Especially if you work at a high poverty, high minority district like I do.

 

Your job is to serve students’ needs. You push them to think, you don’t tell them what to think.

 

If that’s not what you’re up for, you’re not up for being an educator.

 

Indoctrination is not what school should be.

 

And that brings me to Betsy DeVos, our billionaire Education Secretary who bought her government position with campaign contributions and political connections.

 

She went to Parkland, Florida, this week to visit with students, teachers and administrators who survived a school shooting a couple weeks ago.

 

Or at least that’s what it probably said on the press release.

 

It was really just a publicity stunt to push for arming teachers instead of sensible gun control.

 

Parkland students have been rocking it holding demonstrations and speaking truth to power demanding that we keep them safe from future violence by banning assault rifles, mandatory background checks on all gun sales and other common sense measures favored by almost 70% of the nation.

 

DeVos took about five questions before walking out of her own press conference.

 

She didn’t meet with students – didn’t even try.

 

She was just there for a photo op.

 

Well, time’s up, Betsy.

 

The next generation isn’t putting up with your tone deaf water carrying. With your own family ties to mercenary soldiers for hire, it’s no surprise you’d be against gun control and in favor of firearms to chase away all the Grizzlies attacking our public schools.

 

It won’t stop the bloodshed but an increase in gun sales will boost your portfolio.

 

Arming teachers is one of the dumbest things on an agenda full of real whoppers from this absurd Presidential administration.

 

Teachers touting guns, shooting it out with armed terrorists – no. That’s not what a school should be, either.

 

So finally we get to the Bronx, where some dimwit who somehow became a principal told an English teacher not to teach a unit on the Harlem Renaissance.

 

You know, the Harlem Renaissance – Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington… Nobodies like them.

 

And if that’s not bad enough, she did it in February during Black History Month.

 

This number crunching pedant thought it was inappropriate because the teacher wasn’t in the social studies department.

 

This is what happens when you try to put education in a box with things like Common Core. Don’t teach background information, just look at every text divorced from everything else around it – the author’s personal history, what was happening in the world at the time or even how the reader responds to it.

 

Administrators like this need to take a seat and get out of teachers ways.

 

This kind of subtly racist micromanaging isn’t a part of what schools should be either.

 

Schools should be places where dedicated professionals are prized and valued. They’re given the autonomy to teach what they know is important and they make these decisions informed by the empiricism of what their students need.

 

Schools should be places without prejudice or racism. They should be cultural melting pots free from segregation and preconceived notions. They should be about academic freedom and the joy of learning.

 

I wish more people understood it.

 

Maybe then we could work to make our schools and our country more like the ideals of the overwhelming majority of the people living here.

 

Instead of continually letting the rich and privileged set the agenda.

When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.

Arming Already Stressed Out Teachers Will Only Increase the Chance of School Shootings

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It happened in Georgia yesterday.

 

A beloved social studies teacher locked himself in his classroom while his students stood outside the door.

 

When the principal came with the key, the teacher fired a handgun through an exterior window.

 

Students ran, one even twisting her ankle in the escape.

 

Thankfully, no one else appears to have been injured.

 

However, the incident brings into focus a vital component of the gun debate.

 

Teachers are already under tremendous stress.

 

Arming them won’t stop gun violence. All it does is add another potential shooter.

 

It’s only been about two weeks since a shooting at Stonemason Douglas High School in Florida left 17 dead.

 

That’s at least 19 school shootings so far in 2018 – and it’s only the beginning of March!

 

In that time, the national media and the Trump administration have focused on one specific solution to stopping such violence from happening again: giving teachers guns.

 

The latest incident in Georgia underlines why this is such a terrible idea.

 

Teachers are not super heroes.

 

Take it from me. I’m an almost 15 year veteran of the middle school classroom in western Pennsylvania.

 

We’re just human beings.

 

My colleagues and I have all the same human failings and weaknesses as everybody else.

 

We get tired and overworked and put upon and stressed and sometimes…

 

…Sometimes we don’t handle it well.

 

I know some people don’t want to hear it.

 

Society has piled all kinds of responsibilities and unreasonable expectations on our shoulders.

 

We’re no longer allowed to be just educators.

 

We’re parents, counselors, disciplinarians, doctors, psychologists, lawyers, nutritionists…. The list goes on-and-on.

 

And now politicians actually want us to add law enforcement to the job description?

 

We’re already under colossal pressure, and some folks want to add a gun to that situation?

 

That’s lighting a fuse.

 

But don’t just take my word for it.

 

Back in 2015, tens of thousands of educators filled out the Quality of Worklife Survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association.

 

After responses from 91,000 school employees and 31,000 who completed the entire 80-question survey, a picture of the emotional landscape became clear.

 

A total 73% of respondents said they often feel stressed at work.

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The reasons? Adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development (71%), negative portrayal of teachers and school employees in the media (55%), uncertain job expectations (47%) and salary (46%) were the most common responses.

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The survey identified the following as most common everyday stressors in the workplace – time pressures, disciplinary issues and even a lack of opportunity to use the bathroom.

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Focusing just on the classroom, top stressors were mandated curriculum, large class sizes and standardized testing.

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Many teachers claimed to be the victims of violence at school.

 

A total 18% of all respondents said they had been threatened with physical violence – though the percentage jumped to 27% when looking solely at special education teachers.

 

A total of 9% of all respondents claimed to have been physically assaulted at school. Again the percentage jumped to 18% of all special education teachers.

 

But it’s not just physical assault.

 

A total of 30% claim to have been bullied by administrators (58%), co-workers (38%), students (34%) and student’s parents (30%).

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This is the situation where policymakers want to throw firearms.

 

Most gun violence doesn’t involve a shooter doing harm to others. The great majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted.

 

Even without adding guns to the mix, several high profile teachers and administrators already have committed suicide.

 

In October of 2010, for example, a California elementary school teacher named Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. took his own life after the Los Angeles Times published a report labeling him a “less effective teacher.” Despite the fact that students and parents praised Ruelas, who taught in one of poorest schools in his district and who also was born, raised and continued to live in area where his school was located, the Times targeted him among other so-called “less effective” teachers as part of a major propaganda campaign.

 

And this isn’t an isolated incident. In July of 2015, a New York City principal under investigation for altering Common Core test scores, killed herself by jumping in front of a subway car.

 

Adding guns to this situation will just mean more teachers taking their own lives with a bullet.

 

That may have been the intent of the Georgia teacher in yesterday’s shooting.

 

Local police said they didn’t think he was trying to injure anyone else. When he shot his gun out of the window, he appeared to be trying to get others to leave him alone.

 

Arming teachers is a terrible solution to school violence. It’s taking an already stifling room and turning up the heat.

 

We need sensible gun regulations to reduce the pressure, not increase it.

 

We need sensible school policies that treat teachers and students like human beings and not just cogs in the system.

 

But this requires us to break out of a dangerous pattern in how we deal with social problems.

 

When we see a problem, we generally just shrug and leave it up to public schools and teachers to solve.

 

Inadequate resources – leave it to teachers to buy school supplies out of pocket.

 

Inequitable funding – increase class size and leave it to teachers to somehow make up the difference.

 

We can’t do the same with gun violence. We can’t just toss teachers a gun and tell them to sort it out.

 

Teachers can’t solve all of society’s problems alone.

 

That’s going to take all of us.

 

And we’ll need more than disingenuous proposals like answering gun violence with more guns.

Gadfly on the Road – Reflections on My First Book Signing

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So there I was standing at a podium in Barnes and Noble before an audience of 25 people who had come to hear me talk about my book.

 

Speech uploaded to my iPad – check.

 

Cough drop – check.

 

Fear that no one would take me seriously – Oh, double, triple check!

 

Let me just say there is a big difference between sitting behind a keyboard pounding out your thoughts for consumption on the Internet, and being somewhere – anywhere – in person.

 

I’ve spoken at rallies. I’ve spoken at school board meetings. I’ve spoken in private with lawmakers and news people.

 

But none of that is quite like being the center of attention at your own invitation, asking people to take time out of their busy lives and drag their physical selves to some prearranged place at some prearranged time just to hear whatever it is you’ve got to say.

 

I had been practicing my remarks for weeks after school.

 

I had a 15-20 minute speech ready to go – a distillation of the main themes in my book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

 

Would people hear what I had to say?

 

 

I surveyed the audience. A few people I didn’t know. But there was my mom and dad, a bit more grey haired than I remembered yet doing their parental duty. There were a few colleagues from work – teachers, aides and substitutes. There were a few students standing in the back with their parents. One of my old high school buddies even showed up though he lived about a half hour away.

 

And there in the second row was my daughter.

 

For a moment, the whole world seemed to be nothing but her 9-year-old face – a mix of emotions – curiosity, nervousness, boredom.

 

In that moment, everything else disappeared. I had an audience of one.

 

I began.

 

It was surreal.

 

I spoke the words I had written weeks before, pausing to look up at the audience when I could.

 

Somehow I was both more and less nervous. I stumbled over parts that had caused no problems when alone. And I hit other points with more passion and purpose than ever before.

 

At certain points I found myself getting angry at the people behind the standardization and privatization of public education.

 

I rebuke these greedy saboteurs just about every week on my blog. But there was something different about putting the words on my tongue in public and letting the vibrations beat a rhythm on the ear drums of those assembled before me.

 

It was like reciting a spell, an incantation. And the effect was visible on the faces of those in front of me.

 

I glanced at my daughter, expecting her to be nagging her Pap to take her to the children’s section, but she was as entranced as the others.

 

And was I kidding myself or was there another emotion there? Pride?

 

 

I finished my remarks, getting a few laughs here and there. Anger and mirth in equal measure.

 

I thanked everyone for coming and took questions.

 

There were quite a bit.

 

Which aspect of corporate education reform was the worst?

 

Is there any way for parents to protect their children from standardized testing?

 

How has the gun debate impacted the move to privatization?

 

My mother even asked what alternative methods of assessment were preferable to standardized testing.

 

It went back and forth for a while.

 

When it seemed to die down, I thanked everyone for coming and said I would be there for as long as anyone would like to talk one-on-one and sign any books if people would like.

 

I had a line.

 

Thankfully, my wife brought me the nicest sharpie marker just before I got up there.

 

I tried to personalize as much as I could but everything seemed to be a variation on “Thanks for Coming.”

 

Students came up to me with huge grins. Parents asked more questions about their children. Lots of handshaking and hugs.

 

Teachers came up to tell me I had done a great job. Many introduced me to their kids – most itty bitty toddlers.

 

A former student who had already graduated got really serious and said, “It was about time someone said that.”

 

 

And it was over.

 

The store manager told me how many books we sold. I had no idea if that was good or bad, but he seemed well satisfied.

 

I packed everything up in my car and then went looking for my family.

 

I found them in the children’s section.

 

They had picked out a few books Mommy was purchasing. A really nice one about Harriet Tubman among them.

 

My daughter was sitting alone by a toy train set. She was worn out. It had been a long day.

 

“Daddy!” she said when she saw me. “You were amazing!”

 

And that was it.

 

That was all I’d needed.

 

She asked me about this or that from the speech. Obviously she didn’t understand the ins and outs of what I had said, but some of it had penetrated.

 

We talked about racism and why that was bad. We talked about what we could do to help stop it.

 

The rest of the time she held my hand and took me on a tour of the store.

 

I have hope for a better world, but if I’m honest, I’m not sure if writing this book or my activism or any of it will ever actually achieve its goal.

 

As ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”

 

But I’ve shown my daughter where I stand.

 

I’ve shown her where I think it’s appropriate to stand.

 

I’ve shown the same to my students, my family, my community.

 

They’ll do with that what they will.

 

I just hope that one day when I’m gone, my daughter will remember what I taught her.

 

She’ll remember and feel my presence though I’m long gone.


 

Photos:

 

Videos of the majority of my speech:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3: