Adventures in Online Teaching: Reinventing the Wheel for a Handful of Students

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Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.

 

I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.

 

Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.

 

Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.

 

And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.

 

The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.

 

“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.

 

Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.

 

If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.

 

He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.

 

About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.

 

What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.

 

He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.

 

So I moved on.

 

We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.

 

Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”

 

Nothing.

 

She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.

 

I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.

 

How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?

 

I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”

 

These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.

 

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.

 

Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.

 

More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.

 

The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.

 

I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.

 

Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.

 

I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.

 

We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.

 

Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.

 

When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.

 

When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.

 

But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.

 

I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.

 

That’s just life in the age of distance learning.

 

But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.

 

My district doesn’t require me to do all this.

 

I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.

 

That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.

 

But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?

 

My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.

 

So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.

 

The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.

 

I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.

 

I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.

 

I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.

 

Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.

 

If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.

 

And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.

 

They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.

 

Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.

 

It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.

 

However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.

 

Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.

 

Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.

 

The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.

 

I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.

 

It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.

 

For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.

 

In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.

 

Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.

 

I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.

 

I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.

 

I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.

 

She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.

 

With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.

 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.

 

But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.

 

I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.

 

Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.

 

However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.

 

School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.

 

I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.

 

There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.

 

But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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Top 10 Things I Want My Students to do During the Coronavirus Quarantine

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Dear Students,

 

A schoolteacher without a classroom is kind of like a firefighter without a fire.

 

Or a police officer without crime.

 

But here we are – self-quarantined at home.

 

Our classroom sits empty, and everyday this week we sit here at home wondering what to do.

 

I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about all of you.

 

I hope you’re doing alright during this unprecedented moment in history. It probably seemed like a lot of fun when it first happened.

 

No school for the foreseeable future!

 

The whole thing came together so quickly that our district didn’t even have time to get together work to send home with you. And like most schools throughout the country, many of you don’t have home internet access so we can’t fairly give you on-line lessons, either.

 

So you’ve been at home with little guidance from us. Sure we have free breakfast and lunches available for pick up at the school, but you’re probably growing a bit stir crazy.

 

I know I am. (And I’m sure your folks are, too!)

 

I’m at home with my daughter trying to keep her busy.

 

We’ve been creating Mario Maker boards for each other on our Nintendo 3DS and Switch.

 

We keep trying to stump each other, and me, being a teacher, I keep trying to get her to think outside of the box.

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where you have to get a mushroom through a maze?”

 

Or

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where the walls close in?”
Or

 

“I wonder if you could beat a Thwomp in a race down a pit?”

 

We were having a really good time until I tried to get her to watch a science video. I put on the original Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the early 1980s.

 

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.

 

Today I won her over though with the new Cosmos series featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. She turned to me after about five minutes and said, “Much better.”

 

We’ve been drawing and reading and playing video games and having a good ol’ time.

 

I hope you have people at home who can help you get through all this, too.

 

I’ve been getting a lot of emails recently from your folks.

 

They want to know what they should be doing to help you academically.

 

Whenever this whole thing is over – and it will be over someday soon I hope – they want to make sure you won’t fall too far behind.

 

Let me start with a word of caution.

 

We don’t know how long this self-quarantine will last.

 

We’re trying to stay home to stop the spread of this virus – COVID-19. It can be deadly to some people – even some young people like you.

 

It’s in everybody’s best interest that we wait this thing out so that the hospitals can deal with the people who get sick.

 

Then when the disease has passed, we can continue our normal lives.

 

But no one knows how long that will take. It could be a few more weeks – but more likely months.

 

It is very possible that we will not go back to school again until after the summer.

 

So it’s hard to say exactly what you should do to keep yourself in the best academic shape because we don’t know what you’ll be coming back to.

 

We DO know that we won’t have to make up some or all of the days we missed.

 

And we know we won’t (here in Pennsylvania) have to take the PSSA or Keystone tests this year.

 

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.

 

Read something – anything you want.

 

It will while away the hours, relax you and maybe get your mind to thinking about things above and beyond how much mac and cheese you’ve got stored in the cupboard.

 

3) Keep a Journal

 

Do you realize you’re living through a moment of history? People will look back on this and wonder how people got through it. You could fill in the blanks for some future researcher. Just a description of your everyday activities, what you’re thinking and feeling, your hopes and dreams – all of it has historical value. Plus, you’ll get some practice expressing yourself in writing. And just think – a simple story about how you survived the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 could end up being taught in the classrooms of the future!

 

Make it a good one!

4) Take a Break from Video Games

 

I know some of you have built a fort out of sofa cushions, covered it in blankets and are nestled in this hideaway doing nothing but playing Fortnite or Roblox or Minecraft with friends on-line. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. You go ahead and do that.

 

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.

 

7) Listen to Music/ Draw/ Do Something Creative

 

I know you. You’re a bundle of creative energy bound together waiting to explode. Go do that. Whatever you enjoy doing, create something. Write a song, make a comic book, paste together a collage. Express yourself, and if you’re not in the mood for that – enjoy the expressions of others. Listen to music, read a poem, watch a movie.

 

8) Help Out Your Folks

 

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.

 

Stay safe!

 

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Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ Has Never Been More Important Than It is Today

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The biggest mistake people make about “The Diary of Anne Frank” is to assume it’s about a little dead girl.

 

 

It’s not.

 

 

Anne Frank is not dead.

 

 

Not in 1945. Not in 2019.

 

 

Anne was a Dutch Jew hiding from the Nazis with her family and four others in a loft above her father’s former factory in Amsterdam.

 

 

The teenager is the most famous victim of the Holocaust, but her story doesn’t end when she succumbed to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the closing days of WWII.

 

 

Because it’s a story that never ends.

 

 

Her physical self may be gone, but her spirit remains.

 

 

In the 1990s, she was a Muslim Bosniak child killed by Christian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

In the 2000s, she was a Christian Darfuri in Western Sudan killed by Arab militias.

 

 

A decade ago, she was a Palestinian toddler torn to pieces on the West Bank – a victim of Israeli bombs.

 

 

 

And, yes, today she is a brown skinned Central American girl fleeing from violence to the United States only to be forcibly separated from her family and thrown in a cage.

 

 

 

Not only is Anne Frank not dead, she is more alive than most people who draw breath, whose hearts still pump blood, whose eyes shrink from the violence, prejudice and hatred all around them.

 

 

 

Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to teach her Diary in my 8th grade class.

 

 

It’s not a particularly difficult book.

 

 

Her prose is uncomplicated. Her ideas clear.

 

 

In fact, she jumps right off the page and into the classroom.

 

 

But that’s what makes her so difficult for me, the teacher.

 

 

Every year I help bring her to life for my students. And I suffer her loss all over again each time.

 

 

I think everyone sees something different in Anne.

 

 

My students see themselves in her. Or they see their friends or siblings.

 

 

Her problems are their problems. They, too, can feel closer to one parent than another.

 

 

They, too, can hate to be compared with a “perfect” sibling.

 

 

They, too, feel all the emotions and frustrations of growing up – the confusion, passion and hurt.

 

 

For me, though, it is different.

 

 

I don’t see Anne primarily as myself. I see her as my daughter. Or perhaps I see my daughter in her.

 

 

A precocious child hunched over a book scribbling away her deepest thoughts? Sounds like my precious 10-year-old drawing her comic books, or writing her stories, or acting out melodramas with her dolls and stuffed animals.

 

 

I want to take her somewhere safe, to keep her away from the Nazis, to conceal her from all the evil in the world.

 

 

After teaching the book for almost a decade and a half, it was only this year that I hit upon a new perspective. I realized that if Anne had survived, she would be almost the same age as my grandmother.

 

 

And for a moment, an image of her was almost superimposed over my Grandma Ce Ce. There she was – a physical Anne, a living person. But then it was gone.

 

 

When speaking about her to my students, I try to be extremely careful of their feelings. I make it exceedingly clear from the very beginning where her physical life ends.

 

 

She and her family are in hiding for 25 months before the Nazis find and send them to concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, is left.

 

 

I don’t want any of that to be a surprise.

 

 

Yet it is.

 

 

Every time.

 

 

My classes stare back at me with shocked expressions when we reach the last page.

 

 

That can’t be the end. There has to be more.

 

 

So we read first hand accounts of Anne in the camp.

 

 

But that can’t be all, either. Can it?

 

 

So we learn about her legacy – about the Anne Frank House, the Academy Award winning film, and how her book is an international best seller.

 

 

Somehow her spirit still refuses to die.

 

 

I think it’s because she has become more than just a victim. More even than a single physical person.

 

 

We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. We know that 5 million non-Jews were also killed. But no matter how many documentaries we see, or how many pictures we look at – none of them come alive in quite the same way as Anne.

 

 

She is a face for these faceless.

 

 

She irreparably humanizes the other.

 

 

Once you read her Diary, you can’t forget that smiling little girl whose light was so suddenly snuffed out.

 

 

We can go numb at the numbers – the sheer scale of these atrocities.

 

 

But with Anne, it becomes something personal.

 

 

On Dec. 24, 1943, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good, plain fun.

 

We see you, Anne.

 

 

And because we do, we see beyond you, too.

 

 

We see you in the continuing horrors of our age.

 

 

Because your death is never in the past tense. It is always present.

 

 

Your eyes look out at us through the victims of our day, too.

 

 

And your words ring in our ears:

 

“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” (May 7, 1944)

 

 

We have not prevented it.

 

 

It continues.

 

 

Hatred and prejudice and murder echo through our human interactions.

 

 

All while the history fades.

 

 

According to a 2018 study, only 22 percent of millennials say they’ve even heard of the Holocaust.

 

 

I don’t think any of those young adults read your Diary, because my students remember you.

 

 

That’s why I’ll never stop teaching your story.

 

 

In the vain hope that by remembering you, they’ll see your eyes on the faces of all the future’s would-be victims.

 

 

In the vain hope that caring about you will help them care about the faceless strangers, the propagandized others.

 

 

In the vain hope that knowing your face will force their eyes to see – actually see – the faces of those who are demonized and dehumanized so someone will care when the boot comes down on their visage.

 

 

So that someone will stop the boot from ever coming down again.

 

 

In one of her last entries, on July 15, 1944, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”

 

 

That time has come for us all.

 

 

Anne’s Diary remains to remind us – a clarion call to empathy and action.


 

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

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The Staggering Naivety of Those Criticizing Public Schools as Out-of-Date

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There is a popular idea going around that public schools need to change because they’re outmoded, obsolete and passé.

While public schools certainly could do with a great deal of change to improve, this criticism is incredibly naïve.

It’s the intellectual equivalent of displaying a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses prominently on your bookshelf without actually having read it.

It’s like demanding everything you eat be gluten free without actually having celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

It’s the conceptual analogue to learning a trendy “word of the day” and trying desperately to fit it into your every conversation regardless of need or propriety.

America’s public school system is incredibly complex. And like most complex things, any criticism of it is at least partially correct.

There are ways in which the system is antiquated and could use updating. But to claim that the entire system should be scrapped in favor of a largely untested, disproven and – frankly – profit-driven model is supremely stupid.

The criticism seems to be well encapsulated in a flashy animated video from Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based charter school network operating 165 schools in 25 states and nine countries. The organization has been heavily praised by the likes of former President Barack Obama and philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates.

Let’s examine the six main components of the video explaining why the charter operators think public schools are out of date and should be replaced:

1) Public Schools are Relics of the Industrial Age 

The criticism goes like this. The public school model was created in the Industrial Age and thus prepares students to be factory workers. All day long in public schools students follow orders and do exactly what they’re told. Today’s workers need different skills. They need creativity, the ability to communicate ideas and collaborate.

First, while it is true that the American public school system was created during the Industrial Revolution, the same thing can be said for the United States, itself. Beginning in 1760 and going until 1840, manufacturing began to dominate the western economy. Does that mean the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped? Clearly our form of government could do with a few renovations, but not by appeal to its temporal genesis, to when it was created.

Second, IS it true that America’s public schools expect students to do nothing but listen to orders and follow them to the letter?

Absolutely not.

In fact, this is exactly what teachers across the country DON’T want their students to do. We work very hard to make sure students have as much choice and ownership of lessons as possible.

We often begin by assessing what they know and what they’d like to know on a given subject. We try to connect it to their lives and experiences. We try to bring it alive and show them how vital and important it is.

Do we exclude creativity, communication and collaboration from our lessons?

Absolutely not.

In my class, creativity is a must. Students are required to write journals, creative fiction, and poetry. They draw pictures, maps, posters, advertisements. They make Keynote presentations, iMovies, audio recordings using Garage Band, create quizzes on Kahoot, etc. And they often do so in small groups where they are required to collaborate.

The idea that students are somehow all sitting in rigid rows while the teacher blabs on and on is pure fantasy. It betrays a complete ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

2) Lack of Autonomy

The criticism goes that students in public school have no choices. Every minute of the day is controlled by the teacher, principals or other adults. However, in today’s world we need workers who can manage their own time and make their own decisions about what to do and when to do it.

Once again we see a complete ignorance of what goes on in public schools.

Today’s students are not only expected to make decisions and manage their time, they could not pass their classes without doing so.

Teachers often go to great lengths to give students choices. Would you like to read this story or that one? Would you like to demonstrate your learning through a test, a paper, an art project or through a digital medium?

For instance, my students are required to read silently for 15-minutes every other day. But they get to select which books to read. Eventually, they have to complete a project using their self-selected book, but they are in charge of ensuring the book they pick meets the requirements, how much they read each day in class and outside of class, and whether they should complete a given book or pick a new one.

Even when it comes to something as mundane as homework, students have to develop time management. I give my students the homework for the entire week on Monday, and it’s due on Friday. This means they have to decide how much to do each night and make sure it gets done on time.

Today’s students have much more ownership of their learning then I did when I went to school. Those throwing stones at our public school system would know that, if they actually talked to someone in it.

3) Inauthentic Learning

Critics say most of the learning in public schools is inauthentic because it relies on memorization and/or rote learning. It relies on a generic set of knowledge that all children must know and then we measure it with standardized tests. Learning should be deeper and its subjects should be something students intrinsically care about.

Once again…

Actually this one is kind of spot on.

Or at least, it’s partially true.

It accurately represents one kind of curriculum being mandated on public schools from the state and federal government. It’s called corporate education reform, and as pervasive as it is, you’ll also find the overwhelming majority of school teachers and community members against it.

This is why Common Core is so unpopular – especially among teachers. This is why almost everyone wants to reduce standardized testing and the kind of narrowing of the curriculum and teach-to-the-test practices it brings.

However, there’s something incredibly disingenuous about this criticism coming from a charter network chain. The educational practices these critics of public schools often propose replacing this standardization with are often just a rehash of that same standardization using more modern technology.

Business interests, like Big Picture Learning, often propose using competency based education or personalized education programs on computers or devices. These are extremely standardized. They follow the same Common Core standards and use computerized stealth assessments to determine whether students have learned the prescribed standard or not.

In short, yes, corporate education reform should be challenged and defeated. However, as in this instance, often the same people criticizing public schools for these practices don’t want to undo them – they just want to expand them so they can be more effectively monetized by big businesses like them!

4) No Room for Student Interests

Critics say the standardized public school system requires each child to learn the same things in the same ways at the same times. However, each of us are different and have individual interests and passions. The current system has no room for self-discovery, finding out what children enjoy doing, what they’re good at and where they fit in.

Once again, there is some truth to these criticisms.

The corporate education model is guilty of exactly these things. However, teachers have been pushing to include an increasing amount of individualization in lessons.

This struggle is inherent in the essential dichotomy of what it means to be an educator today. We’re told we must individualize our lessons for each student but standardize our assessments. This is fundamentally impossible and betrays a lack of vision from those making policy.

If the lawmakers and policy wonks who made the rules only listened to teachers, child psychologists and other experts, we would not be in this predicament.

As it is, many teachers do what they can to ensure students interests are part of the lesson. They gauge student interest before beginning a lesson and let it guide their instruction. For instance, if students want to know more about the weaponry used by the two sides in the Trojan War, that can become part of the unit. If, instead, they wonder about the role of women in both societies, that can also become part of the curriculum. Just because the higher ups demand students learn about the Trojan War doesn’t mean student interest must be ignored. In fact, it is vital that it be a component.

Moreover, creative writing, journaling and class discussion can help students grow as learners and engage in authentic self-discovery. Two weeks don’t go by in my class without a Socratic Seminar group discussion where students debate thematic and textual questions about literature that often spark dialogues on life issues. When students hear what their peers have to say about a given subject, it often results in them changing their own opinions and rethinking unquestioned beliefs and values.

In short, less corporate education reform means room for more student passion, interest and self-discovery.

But these critics don’t want less. They want more!

5) They Don’t Respect How We Learn

Critics say that each student is different in terms of how they learn best and in how much time it takes to learn. As a result, students who comprehend something at a slower rate than others are considered failures by the current system.

In the corporate model, this is true. However, most districts take great pains to give students multiple chances to learn a given concept or skill.

The fact that not all students will know the same things at the same times is built in to the curriculum. Teachers are familiar with their students and know which children need more help with which skills. Concepts are reviewed and retaught – sometimes through copious mini-lessons, sometimes with one-on-one instruction, sometimes with exercises for the whole class.

The further one gets from standardized tests and Common Core, the more individual student needs are respected and met.

But again that’s not the goal of these critics. They blame public schools for what they only wish to continue at higher intensity.

6) Too Much Lecturing

Critics say that under the current system, students are lectured to for more than 5 hours a day. However, this requires students to be unable to interact with each other for long periods of time. Students are at different levels of understanding and nothing can be done to help them until the lecture is over. Wouldn’t it be better to let students pursue their own education through computers and the internet so they could proceed at their own pace like at the Khan Academy?

And here we have the real pitch at the heart of the criticism.

People who wish to tear down public schools are not agnostic about what should replace them. They often prefer privatized and computerized alternatives – like the Big Picture charter chain model!

However, these are not entirely novel and new approaches. We’ve tried them, though on a smaller scale than the traditional public school model, and unlike that traditional system, they’re an abject failure.

Giving students a computer and letting them explore to their hearts content is the core of cyber charter schools – perhaps the most ineffective academic system in existence today. In my state of Pennsylvania, it was actually determined that students would learn more having no formal schooling at all than to go to cyber charter schools.

The reason? It is beyond naïve to expect children to be mature enough to control every aspect of their learning. Yes, they should have choice. Yes, they should be able to explore and develop as individuals at their own pace. But if you just let children go, most will choose something more immediately gratifying than learning. Most children would rather sit around all day playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty than watch even the most interesting educational video about math or science.

Adolescents need structure. They need motivation. In short, they need a teacher – a human authority figure in the same room with them who can help guide their learning and hold them accountable for their actions.

The mere presence of information on the Internet will not make children smarter just as the mere presence of a book won’t increase their knowledge. Certainly some children are self-motivated enough and may benefit from this approach, but the overwhelming majority will not and do not.

Our public schools do need a reformation, but this edtech-biased criticism only hits part of the mark.

The major problems are corporate education reform and standardization. And unfortunately edtech plans like privatization and competency based schemes only seek to increase these pedagogies.

Public schools are not outdated. They have changed and evolved to meet the needs of the students attending them. The fact that they serve every student in a given community without weeding out the less motivated or those with special needs as charter chains like Big Picture do, demonstrates this very flexibility and daily innovation.

They can be robust systems fostering self-discovery, autonomy and deep student learning. We just need to have the courage to support them, strengthen their autonomy and avoid trendy, shallow and self-centered criticisms from charter chains hoping we’ll buy what they’re selling.

School Accountability Without Standardized Testing

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Q: Is it possible to ensure educational accountability without giving standardized tests?

 

A: Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

 

In fact, we will never have accountability while we continue giving standardized tests.

 

This is the irony of modern education policy.

 

High stakes testing is seen as the only tool that can ensure schools operate correctly when in reality it is the very thing that blocks true responsibility.

 

Pundits and policymakers cry crocodile tears as they draw up elaborate ways to punish teachers and students for low test scores. Meanwhile they ignore some of the most basic facts about how education works.

 

FACT: Students and teachers are not the only factors.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t decide how much funding their schools get.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t get to decide education policy.

 

FACT: An education system is made up of a complex interplay of several interconnected factors that include parents, the community, the economy, culture, media, and local, state and federal governments.

 

FACT: High stakes testing ensures that teachers and students are held accountable for the entire education system including the vast majority of factors beyond their control.

 

So let’s stop pretending that standardized tests hold schools accountable. They don’t. They just point the finger without offering anything to help.

 

True accountability would be about diagnosing problems so we can fix them, not trying to fire your way to the top. When you break your arm, the doctor doesn’t immediately suggest you chop it off. He sets the bone and puts it in a cast and sling so it can heal.

 

When it comes to true accountability, we need to look beyond the school at all the factors involved. We also need to look to the legislature, the taxpayers, parents, the community, the media, and all stake holders.

 

However, this does not mean there are no ways to assess if schools, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and students are doing a good job.

 

In fact, it’s not even difficult to achieve. And we don’t need a single standardized test to do it.

 

We need a two-pronged approach. We must assess student learning, but we also must assess the adequacy of school funding, where it’s going and where it needs to go.

 

These measures are most often ignored in accountability discussions. When it comes to adequate funding, we usually blame the poor for being unable to provide for their children. And since many states allocate education funding based largely on local property taxes, we have rich schools with oodles of cash and poor schools that are falling over. True accountability would ensure all students – both rich and poor – start from an equal playing field. When society neglects this, it is society that is failing, not poor children.

 

When it comes to how funding is spent, we either throw up our hands that there’s no way to evaluate school funding or we pretend that school directors will be transparent just because. Both are untrue.

 

I still believe that local control is the best way to ensure true accountability. When school directors are not elected but appointed– as they are in charter schools – there is no reason to spend wisely. In fact, the laws are set up to shield charter school boards from having to show the community how they are spending taxpayer money. And since most are set up for-profit, there is an incentive to reduce services for students while keeping the saving as profit for themselves and their shareholders.

 

When school boards are elected and are required to hold deliberations in public, accountability is built in. Voters decide who gets to make decisions and if those decisions made in the light of day are in the best interests of their children. Moreover, elected school directors who come from the community have an incentive to make that community in which they live the best it can be and to provide the best quality education they can.

 

This isn’t to say that elected school boards are perfect. They are made up of human beings and are therefore fallible. You don’t have to go far to find local school directors who try to deliberate important decisions in private without notifying the public, circumvent the bidding process, make backroom deals, etc.

 

But there are ways to hold them and the community accountable for providing a quality education.

 

California has come up with an ingenious plan.

 

For the second year, the Golden State has been engaged in a bold experiment. Policymakers have initiated a new K-12 finance system: the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that go with it.

 

Basically, California public schools use multiple-indicators to determine where funding needs to go and how to hold schools accountable for spending it wisely.

 

It’s not perfect. It certainly has some bugs in it, and I do NOT recommend we simply extend the program nationwide as is.

 

For instance, the program still uses standardized testing as one of many multiple measures of success. This is better than having testing be the sole measure or even the most important one. But – as you shall see – we can do better.

 

The law requires each district to identify specific goals and spending priorities in eight areas. I would modify them as follows:

  1. Basic services such as equipped classrooms, qualified teachers, textbooks and materials. It is essential to know if these needs are being met so we can budget accordingly. If funding is lacking, assessing the deficiency in this way helps make the argument for an increase of cash.

 

  1. Implementation of District Created Standards for all students, including English Learners (ELs). California specifically denotes Common Core standards here. I think that is a mistake. Accepting wholesale a set of unproven standards made by non-educators who have never been inside a district building or in front of a classroom is a recipe for disaster. Instead, teachers in each district should develop their own standards and then test whether they are achieving their goal. Many policymakers are in love with the idea of national standards but that’s like suggesting all restaurants must have some version of the McDonalds value menu. Standards should be locally developed to meet the needs of real students not idealized ones.

 

 

  1. Parental Involvement. This simply cannot be ignored. Schools need to know if parents are invested in the district, and if not, administrators and faculty need to work to find ways to bring them in. Schools can institute family game nights, community picnics, parent-teacher nights with food and babysitting services. No school can ever achieve greatness without parents. We must find ways to increase involvement where it is lacking and encourage increased involvement where it is present at all. We must work to make parents feel welcome and make them a part of the decision-making process for school activities and functions.

 

  1. Student Achievement as measured by district assessments, English Learner reclassification to fluency, and other criteria. California includes Common-core aligned standardized tests in this area. I think this is a mistake and that we can find better assessments here. I’ll return to this in a moment.

 

  1. Student Engagement determined by rates of attendance and absenteeism, dropout rates, and graduation. We must gauge how well students are buying in to what the school has to offer. And if it is lacking, we must take steps to improve it. Schools shouldn’t just provide a prepackaged product. They should actively engage students and provide classes and services suited to their needs. Student engagement is one way to determine if schools are successfully doing that.

 

 

  1. School Climate evident in rates of suspension and expulsion, as well as other locally-identified measures. Discipline is very important but must be conducted judiciously. It must be fair and not unduly harsh. It must serve the purpose of improving academic outcomes. Moreover, we need to make sure there are no racial or cultural biases at work – even if they are unconscious. We want to create an inviting atmosphere, not a stepping stone to the prison system.

 

  1. Access to a Broad Curriculum evident through student enrollment across grade levels and subject areas. We know high stakes testing narrows the curriculum. We must work to actively broaden the curriculum and offer students a wide range of classes to maximize their educational experience. This includes arts, music, foreign languages and extra curricular activities. If we don’t have the funds to make that happen, what better tool to help argue for an increase than a detailed account of what’s missing and why it’s important?

 

  1. Other Student Outcomes as identified locally, which may include locally chosen tests and assessments. This could include participation in AP exams, college courses, etc. No accountability system would be complete without an “Other” category. Districts should be free to customize to meet the needs of students, parents and the community.

 

Which brings us back to testing.

 

We’ve got to have it. There must be some way to assess student learning. But we needn’t resort to money-making corporate products.

 

Teachers have been creating tests since the beginning of time. No one ever thought there was anything wrong with that until giant corporations discovered they could make huge profits selling us their standardized assessments.

 

We need to trust teachers again to assess as they see fit. But we can do more than that. We can have district-wide assessments systems that are not standardized – that are personalized – yet comparable across the district.

 

Performance or portfolio-based assessments.

Schools around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports, papers and portfolios of work collected over time. These provide much more accurate reflections of student learning than snapshot tests developed far from the classroom. Moreover, if properly coordinated by departments and administrators, these assessments are comparable across the district.

 

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is leading the way. It consists of 28 schools, including grades 6-12, throughout the state that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests.

 

And the results have been tremendous! These public schools have higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools. We say we’re looking for innovations that work. This is it!

 

Just imagine a school that used such an accountability system. It would have a plethora of data about what’s working, what isn’t working and what needs to be done to correct deficiencies.

 

We forget that accountability systems show our values. High stakes testing pretends that the only thing that matters is the results of a standardized test. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

 

A system like the one I’ve described would ensure every student receives a robust education that is assessed fairly. It would invigorate children, parents and the community. And when students graduate from such a school, they would be prepared for whatever comes next.

 

Moreover, there’s not a single standardized test necessary in the whole system!

 

Our policymakers need to start thinking along these lines. These aren’t pie in the sky suggestions. Most of these ideas already have been tested and proven effective.

 

We need to free our minds from a reliance on the testing industry. We need to think outside the bubble and free our children from corporate servitude as education policy – a system that ensures they won’t receive a quality education – all under the guise of “accountability.”

 

Can real accountability exist without standardized tests?

 

Yes. That’s the only way it can.

Putting the Arts Back in Language Arts – One Journal at a Time

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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts focused on the value of art in our lives, and the role art can play in resisting the test and punish model of education.  See the intro and links to other posts in the series here.


Sometimes in public school you’ve just got to cut the crap.

No testing. No close reading. No multiple choice nonsense.

Get back to basics – pass out notebooks, crack them open and students just write.

Not an essay. Not a formal narrative. Not an official document. Just pick up a pencil and see where your imagination takes you.

You’d be surprised the places you’ll go.

You might invent a new superhero and describe her adventures in a marshmallow wonderland. You might create a television show about strangers trapped in an elevator. You might imagine what life would be like if you were no bigger than a flea.

Or you might write about things closer to home. You might describe what it’s like to have to take care of your three younger brothers and sisters after school until just before bedtime when your mom comes back from her third minimum wage job. You might chronicle the dangers of walking home after dismissal where drug dealers rule certain corners and gangs patrol the alleys. You might report on where you got those black and blue marks on your arms, your shoulders, places no one can see when you’re fully clothed.

My class is not for the academic all stars. It’s for children from impoverished families, kids with mostly black and brown skin and test scores that threaten to close their school and put me out of work.

So all these topics and more are fair game. You can write about pretty much whatever you want. I might give you something to get you started. I might ask you a question to get you thinking, or try to challenge you to write about something you’ve never thought about or to avoid certain words or phrases that are just too darn obvious. I might ask your opinion of something in the news or what you think about the school dress code or get your thoughts about how things could improve.

Because I actually care what you think.

Strange, I know.

At times like these, I’m not asking you to dig through a nonfiction text or try to interpret a famous literary icon’s grasp of figurative language. It’s not the author’s opinion that matters – it’s yours – because you are the author. Yes, YOU.

You matter. Your thoughts matter. Your feelings. YOU MATTER!

And sometimes students raise their hands and ask me to read what they’ve written. And sometimes – more often than not – the first thing they say is, “It’s no good.” “I don’t like it.” “I did bad on this.”

So I stop reading, I look them right in the eyes and ask them who wrote it.

“Me?” they say.

And I respond, “Then I’m sure it’s excellent.” And it usually is.

My 8th grade students have been ground down so low under the weight of a society that could care less about their well being that they’ve begun to internalize it. They think their thoughts and feelings are worthless. No one cares about what they think.

But I do.

So I offer them a chance to share what they’ve written. I don’t demand. I don’t force anyone to read anything. I know that some things that spill out on the page aren’t for sharing. But I want them to know that I value what they’ve just put down and that I think it’s worth taking the class time to let others hear it, too.

“Mr. Singer, I wrote five pages,” Jaquae tells me this afternoon. “That’s too long to share.”

“I disagree,” I say. “If you think it’s worth our time, you should read it. You deserve our attention.”

So he reads, blows out a cleansing breath and smiles.

In the process, we all become ennobled. We become more. We become a community. We get a peak at our common humanity.

It’s so easy to look at others as mere adversaries. Even our national education policy sees things in terms of a competition, a race. We set children against each other for points, for grades, for attention, just to feel valuable. You’re a Proficient. You’re a Basic. You’re a Below Basic. And somewhere along the way they lose the sense that they’re all valuable because they’re all human beings with thoughts, feelings and experiences that no one else has ever gone through before – but with which everyone can relate.

So I write, too. Every time I set my students a journal, I put pen to paper, as well.

At the beginning of the year, I share what I wrote to show them that it’s okay. At the middle of the year I ask them if they want me to share. And at the end of the year I remain silent unless they ask me to do otherwise.

Because these class moments aren’t about me. They’re about them. I’m willing to be as much a part of their creative space as they want, but it’s a choice, not a dictate.

In my class I will make you learn, but I don’t control what you learn or how you feel about it.

I extend my students this respect because I know that what we’re really doing isn’t some meaningless exercise. We’re creating art.

Not just scribbles on a page. Not something done just to please the teacher. This is an excavation of the soul. We dive into the depths of ourselves and come back all the better for it.

That’s why my students journal almost every day.

That’s why we put mechanics and spelling and grammar aside for a few moments and just write what we need to say.

Because Language Arts, after all, is an Art. It says that right in the title.

My students are artists. I am their muse. I hold a mirror up to their fractured and beaten spirits to show them the grandeur of what resides inside them.

And hopefully they come away inspired.

Because they are wonders. They are joyous. They are little pieces of my heart.


NOTE: This article was also published in Living in Dialogue, the Badass Teachers Association Blog and mentioned on Diane Ravitch’s blog.