DeShaun frowned but got ready anyway. He didn’t want to have to sit outside all day again. There were older kids in the park who got kids like him to run drugs during the day. He could make some money that way, but the only kids he knew who did that got hooked on their own supply. That or arrested.
Heck! He’d been arrested for loitering twice this year already.
“Hurry! Let’s go!” Mom shouted as she handed each child a yogurt and a bag of chips.
The bus was full even at this hour.
DeShaun recognized a bunch of kids who usually went to the daycare.
His best friend, Paul, used to ride the bus, but then his mom got him into the private school in the city. She and his dad had to cash in his entire school voucherAND pay an additional $10,000 a year, but they said it was worth it. Still, DeShaun missed his friend.
Octavia was standing a bit further down the aisle though. She was usually good for a trade. He guessed she’d take his yogurt for some Hot Cheetos.
When they got to the right stop, Mom gave his shoulder a squeeze and told him to watch out for his brother. She’d see him at the end of the day.
He and Marco made it just in time.
He saw Octavia get turned away at the door.
“Dang!” He said. He really wanted those Hot Cheetos.
He wanted to play with the toys in the Reward Room, but no one got in there before lunch.
Marco was crying.
“What’s wrong?” He said.
“I can’t find my iPad.”
“Didn’t you pack it?”
“I think I left it on the charger.”
“You dummy!” DeShaun said and handed Marco his own iPad.
“Take this,” he said. “I can use my phone.”
It had a huge crack on the screen but he could probably read through the jagged edges if he tried hard enough. That probably meant no Reward Room though.
First, he clicked on Edu-Mental. It wanted him to read through some stuff about math and do some problems. He couldn’t really see them but he could hear about them through his earbuds.
Then he didLang-izzy. There was a fun game where you had to shoot all the verbs in these sentences that scrolled across the screen faster and faster. But DeShaun’s timing was off and even though he knew the answers, he couldn’t get a high enough score to get a badge.
He skipped to Sky-ba-Bomb. It had a lot of videos but it was his least favorite. He couldn’t tell which ones were about history and which were advertisements. Plus he got so many pop ups after just a few minutes, he often had to disconnect from the wi-fi or restart his phone.
Oh, what now?
“Miss Lady,” Marco was saying.
The blonde haired new girl came over to him.
“What is it, Sweetie?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
She checked her iPad.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. You’ve only been logged on for half an hour. Answer a few more questions and then you can go.”
DeShaun grabbed his shoulder and shook him.
“Why didn’t you go before we left home?”
“I didn’t have-ta go then. I have-ta go NOW!”
He could leave the daycare and go outside. There was even a filthy bathroom at the gas station a few blocks away. But if he left now someone outside was bound to take his spot. And Mom wouldn’t get a refund or nothing.
The blonde was about to walk away when DeShaun stopped her.
“He can take my pass. I’ve been on long enough.”
“That means you won’t get to go until after lunch,” she reminded him.
“I won’t drink anything,” he said.
She shrugged. That seemed to be her main way of communicating with people. She looked barely old enough to be out of daycare, herself.
DeShaun gave Marco his phone and sat there waiting for him to come back.
He remembered back in Mrs. Lemon’s class he could go to the bathroom anytime he wanted. In fact, he’d often wait until her period everyday to go to the bathroom. That way he’d have time to walk halfway around the building and look in all the open doorways and see what everyone was doing.
He could email a question to someone but rarely got an answer back.
When he first started going to daycare, he asked one of the workers a question. There used to be this nice lady, Miss Weathers. She would at least try to answer the kids questions but he thought she got in trouble for doing it and he hadn’t seen her here since.
Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
It really comes down to who controls the environment.
In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.
I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.
Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.
You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.
In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.
As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.
Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.
HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE
Then there’s the question of… well… questions.
In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.
The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.
Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.
I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.
However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.
In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.
These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.
Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.
Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.
Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.
There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.
On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.
So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.
That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.
However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.
After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.
In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.
But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?
There-in lies a tale.
America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.
They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.
According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.
This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”
In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.
“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.
Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.
Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.
Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.
I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.
NEW YORK CITY
New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.
While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.
“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”
In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.
In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.
“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.
Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”
However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.
Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:
“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”
Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.
Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.
Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.
Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help. Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.
The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.
Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.
My daughter loves looking up at the stars and asking me questions about the constellations. I thought this would be a perfect fit – after all, Sagan was an astronomer and can answer her questions way better than I can.
However, the old school effects were simply no match for today’s aesthetic. She revolted after about 20 minutes.
But when this is over, what grade will you be in? Will you just move on to the next grade or will there be a bit of mopping up to do first? And if you don’t finish the curriculum, will you be ready for the challenges ahead?
We don’t know any of that yet.
But here are a few guidelines and some things you might want to do while you’re at home.
You don’t have to do all of them, but they’re some things to think about.
So here’s my top 10 things for my students to do during quarantine:
1) Finish Whatever School Work You Can
You may have some outstanding school work with you in your book bag. I know I sent my seventh graders home with their poetry projects. My eighth graders should either be done or have taken their projects home to finish.
So if you have work that’s not done, finish it to the best of your ability. You certainly have enough time.
2) Read a Book
I ask all of may students to have a self-selected book handy for sustained silent reading in class. Hopefully you brought it home. If not, take a look around the house. Maybe you’ve got a dusty tome hanging out in some corner. Or – hey – if you have Internet access, you probably have the ability to get an ebook.
Just remember to take breaks for more than just food and the bathroom. Getting lost in a fantasy world is great so long as you leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back out again.
Don’t forget the trail. Don’t forget there’s a world out there that needs you. Set definite limits for how long you spend in there and try really hard to adhere to them.
5) Watch Something Educational on TV or the Internet
Education isn’t limited to something a teacher told you to do. Find a video or TV show that explains something you never knew before. Youtube is great for this if you know what to look for.
I don’t mean to find some rant by your favorite Youtuber. I mean find something about science, history, art, literature, math, etc. Make it something you care about but might not watch just for fun.
You’ll be surprised at what you can find out there. The channel CrashCourse with author John Greene (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and his brother Hank is particularly informative, entertaining and far reaching. I also love John Michael Godier for all things astronomy and Composer David Bruce for discussions of music.
6) Watch/Read the News
There are extraordinary things happening every day. Knowing about them can help you prepare for what’s next and think about what we can and should be doing to make things better.
We, adults, can seem like we’ve got it all under control. We don’t. We’re just as anxious, fearful and uncertain as you about this whole self-quarantine thing. None of us were around the last time something like this happened (the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic). Anything you can do – helping take out the trash, cleaning up messes, even just trying extra hard not to argue with your siblings – can be a big help.
9) Talk to Friends and Family about How You’re Feeling
No one expects you to be a robot. These are trying times. It’s okay to feel a certain way about that. Share those feelings with someone you trust. And be a sympathetic ear for them to do the same. The best way we can get through all this is with each other’s help.
10) Know That You Are Loved
My dear precious little students! There are people out there who love you so much. There are people who would move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. I know you’re scared and bored and anxious. But remember we’re in this together. And no matter where you are or what you’re doing there’s at least your crazy English teacher who loves you very much and can’t wait to see you all again.
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Only 14 people have been infected in the U.S., and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) writes on its Website that the “immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low” for the average American – especially those who have not traveled recently to Wuhan, the surrounding Hubei Province or elsewhere in mainland China.
However, this is certainly scary news for anyone – especially parents, teachers and students.
In fact, federal officials singled out schools at a press conference on Tuesday about possible responses to the disease if it gets worse on these shores.
No! We’re concerned mostly because KIDS MIGHT MISS SCHOOL!!!!
But, hey, no worries because the Trump administration figures this new and unpredictable disease which typically causes symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath can be circumvented with… cyber school?
Second, not all kids have Internet access at home. Many of our most underprivileged children need to go to a public place like a library to get online. So if we require students to submit assignments this way during a closure, we’re forcing them to increase their chances of infection at a public place or get behind in their work. Not exactly fair.
Sure, they can try to muddle through a computer program or do virtual work and submit it online. But how is that really different from the bad old days when the most checked out educators would disseminate a worksheet to the class and then hide behind a newspaper at their desks?
This is the kind of curriculum we used to criticize teachers for and that very few modern day educators could get away with in our modern public school system – UNLESS they do it behind a computer and/or software package.
This is not being “future ready” or “innovative.” It is the worst practices of the past repackaged so a bunch of suits at the corporate offices can cash in.
Much of this software asks for and saves student inputs which can be compromised or actively sold to third parties.
These are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”
Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. It could even be sold to unscrupulous corporations or exploited by other children to bully and harass classmates.
And now the same disease has come to our shores on the eve of the 2020 Presidential election. You’ll forgive me for admiring what could be the most effective means of voter suppression in modern politics!
This may be an unlikely scenario – especially given the degree of secrecy and competence it would require – but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the powerful will stop at nothing to keep their power.
Beyond mere financial gain, some may hope that teleschooling in the wake of predictable disasters could dumb down our children’s education just enough to deprive them of that lesson, themselves.
The best way to stop skepticism is to undercut the education of the next generation.
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Your kids have to get themselves to school. They have to get themselves home. And helping with homework, talking about their days, even setting a good example are all luxuries you have to pay dearly for with an ever-shrinking amount of time.
Parents and kids schedules aren’t aligned? Well, align them then. Have kids in class from 9 to 5 just like their parents.
Not only will that make it easier for adults to take them to-and-from school, but it will prepare kids for the rigors of the adult world.
The neoliberal Center for American Progress, for instance, suggests that synching the school and workday would better allow parents to meet their obligations to their children.
This is especially true, they say, for kids in low-income communities where competitive grant programs could fund the initiative while also holding the money hostage unless their schools engage in more test prep as part of their curriculums.
It’s a terrible idea proposed by terrible individuals working for billionaire philanthrocapitalists.
The think tank is run by John Podesta who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and manager of President Barack Obama’s transition team – which tells you a lot about Democratic politics of the last several decades.
However, it does hold a kernel of truth.
The school and workday ARE out of step with each other.
This DOES cause problems.
Something SHOULD be done.
But the solution isn’t to lengthen the time kids are required to spend in the classroom. It is solved by reducing the amount of time their parents have to stay at work.
Think about it.
A LONGER SCHOOL DAY WOULD BE HARMFUL TO STUDENTS
Currently, most children attend school for six to seven hours a day.
Students in rural areas or those who live the farthest from school would be the most impacted. Many kids get to school early for breakfast. So if classes began at 9 am, many kids would need to get to school by 8:30 am at the latest – that could mean leaving home by 7:30 am. If the school day ended at 5 pm, these same kids wouldn’t get home until 6 to 7 pm or later.
This would not lead to better academic performance or well adjusted kids. It would result in exhausted and burned out students. Some – perhaps many – would probably cut out after-school activities which would hurt their social, emotional and physical development.
Moreover, kids need time – free time – to discover who they are. They need time to spend with friends, build relationships and enjoy themselves.
They shouldn’t be forced to be adults before they are developmentally ready to do so.
“Many of our children are already stretched to unhealthy breaking points, loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring because they’re led to believe high test scores, a slew of Advanced Placement classes and a packed résumé are their ticket to college and success. This has led to an epidemic of anxious, unhealthy, sleep-deprived, burned-out, disengaged, unprepared children — and overwhelmed and discouraged teachers. The key is creating a healthier, more balanced, more engaging and effective school day, not a longer one.”
Moreover, this is not what other high achieving nations do to succeed. Countries like Finland, Singapore, and China have SHORTER school days – not longer ones. They just try to make the most of the class time they have.
Maybe instead of listening to think tank fools like Podesta, we should pay attention to educators around the world.
And this is to say nothing of cost.
Nine years ago, it took $10 million to lengthen the day at 50 Chicago schools. Each school got $150,000 just to pay for additional salary to compensate teachers for the extra time. The district projected that it would have cost $84 million to increase the program to all its schools.
But that doesn’t include the cost for additional electricity, maintenance and other utilities which is more difficult to estimate.
This is the definition of doing more with less. More time, less quality.
SHORTENING THE ADULT WORK WEEK
It would make far more sense to cut parents’ time at work than to increase children’s time at school.
Adults already work too many hours as it is.
In fact, doing so actually makes adults better at their jobs.
That’s not just conjecture or wish fulfillment. It’s been tried and proven correct.
In 2019, Microsoft conducted an experiment at its offices in Japan where employees had to take every Friday off as a paid vacation day. The result was a boost in productivity of 40 percent.
In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trustee services firm, did almost the same thing on a trial basis. It had employees work four eight-hour days a week but paid them for five. Once again this resulted in an increase in productivity, but also lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.
The idea of a 32-hour workweek (instead of the traditional 40) is gaining support. After all, much of our time on the job is wasted.
The average number of truly productive hours in an eight-hour day is two hours and 53 minutes, according to a survey of U.K. office workers. Human beings aren’t robots. We can’t just sit at our desks and work. We have all these pointless meetings, frivolous emails and phone calls, co-worker discussions, disruptions and distractions. Imagine if we didn’t have to waste so much time and could focus on other endeavors after putting in a few effective hours at the office. We could get things done and still have time to live our lives.
The five-day, 40-hour workweek is a relatively new invention. A century ago, it was not uncommon for people to work six ten-hour days with only Sundays off for religious worship. Then Henry Ford started giving his autoworkers more time off to create leisure time – so they might have reason to actually buy the cars they were making. It became common practice throughout the country in 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law was meant to improve conditions and pay for manufacturing workers – and it did that. However, that doesn’t mean it was the be all, end all. We should continue the trend to shorten the workweek even further.
In fact, this is what people expected would happen – that work hours would continue to shrink over time.
However, the trend changed in the 1970s as Americans started spending more – not less – time at their jobs. This also coincided with the weakening of labor unions, corporate downsizing and demanding more from employees for decreasing wages and benefits.
Now the US and Korea lead the developed world in long workdays. Americans average 1,786 work hours a year, which is 423 more hours than workers in Germany and over 100 hours more than workers in Japan, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
These long hours take a toll on our health and well-being.
It’s telling that instead of realizing that adults need fewer hours on the job, policy wonks try to convince us to make our children shoulder the same burden.
It reminds me of Max Weber’s thesis in his seminal “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In the book, the sociologist and economist argues that underneath our economic values lies an abiding belief in a Puritan work ethic. The value of work is given a religious and ethical fervor far beyond what it gains us monetarily.
Perhaps we need to take a step back from these unconscious and toxic values to see what is really in the best interests of individuals and families.
Teachers put their assignments into an on-line data base.
Students access them on their computers, iPads or other devices and then submit their work via the Internet.
What could go wrong?
Plenty. Especially when the company that provides this service goes bankrupt.
And that’s exactly what’s happened with Texas-based educational technology company eBackpack.
All those teacher assignments and student works are still there in computer servers somewhere. And now that eBackpack has filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, all of it has become assets the company could decide to sell off to pay its debts.
“The information we collect is used to improve the content of our Web pages and the quality of our service, and is not shared with or sold to other organizations for commercial purposes, except to provide products or services you’ve requested, when we have your permission, or under the following circumstances:
Well that’s comforting. I wonder how a company that will no longer exist will have staff to notify former customers about what’s happening to the mountains of data we put in its hands.
Even under the best of circumstances, who will it notify? Teachers? Students? Parents? Or just the administrators or school boards who managed the over all accounts for individual districts?
“-eBackpack may assign its rights and obligations under these Terms to a third party without your consent.
“-You agree to use the Service at your own risk, without any liability whatsoever to eBackpack.
-1.1. Your use of the Service is at your sole risk. The Service is provided on an “as is,” “as available” and “with all faults” basis. The Service is owned and copyrighted by eBackpack and offered through a subscription, not sold, to you.
-10.1. eBackpack reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice.
-By submitting Content to eBackpack, you grant eBackpack a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free right to copy, display, modify, transmit, make derivative works of, and distribute your Content for the purpose of providing or developing the Service.
-14.2. You consent to eBackpack’s use and/or references to your name, directly or indirectly, in eBackpack’s marketing and training materials. You consent to eBackpack’s use of your communication with eBackpack for marketing and training materials. You may not use eBackpack’s name or trademark without eBackpack’s prior written consent.”
The bureau advised parents, teachers and administrators to take several steps to safeguard children’s privacy. The organization also pushed for the federal government to revise privacy laws to better protect kids from this industry.
The authors wrote that there is “a widespread lack of transparency, as well as inconsistent privacy and security practices” in how student information is collected, used, and disclosed.
Why would any company want such student data?
It helps market products and, itself, can be a very marketable product.
For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.
Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.
There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 3rd grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services become a liability on your credit record.
Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs as it may be in this instance.
I experimented somewhat with the platform, myself, to see what it offered and to weigh whether the advantages canceled out the disadvantages.
If I had decided to move forward, I would have asked parent permission first, but in the end, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk – and boy am I glad!
Yet having interacted with the platform at all, I received the following email from the company yesterday:
We regret to inform you that this 2018-2019 school year is the last year eBackpack will be operating. We will not be accepting any renewals going forward and we will not be providing any services past July 31, 2019. All services will be terminated on that date. Please download and save to your own devices any data prior to July 31, 2019. Once the services for eBackpack are turned off, your files and data will no longer be accessible, and we will not have staff available to respond to any customer inquiries. We appreciate your support over the past years and we will truly miss working with you all!
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Again, we appreciate your time with us and all of your support.
Thank you, eBackpack Team”
I haven’t tried to contact the company, but I’m seeing on Reddit that others have been unable to do so.
“We use eBackpack and we are unable to pay our bill as no one answers their number or responds to emails. A quick Google search shows recent bankruptcy procedure. Anyone know anything? Am I the only one still using them?”
Chapter 7 is sometimes called straight bankruptcy or liquidation bankruptcy. In general, the court appoints a trustee to oversee the case, take the company’s assets, sell them and distribute the money to the creditors who file claims. However, the trustee doesn’t take every last bit of company property. Owners are allowed to keep enough “exempt” property to get a “fresh start.”
As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.
Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.
But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:
“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”
Will this be on the test?
In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?
What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?
I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.
So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.
It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.
Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?
He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.
I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.
If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?
After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.
Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.
It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.
It will just be.
And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.
Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.
Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?
Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.
But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.
People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?
When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?
Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?
Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?
“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.
It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.
You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.
The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.
The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.
As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.
In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.
My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.
Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.
But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.
After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.
As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.
Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.
Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.
But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.
Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.
In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.
However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.
A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.
Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.
That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.
Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.
It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.
I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.
I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.
The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.
They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.
So where does that leave us?
We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.
Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.
My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.
Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.
This applies to homework, too.
I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.
So why do I give homework?
For several reasons:
1) It prepares students for the higher grades.
Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.
However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.
2) It makes kids responsible.
There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.
3) It’s good practice.
In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.
Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.