It’s Open Season on Teachers – Again  

  
I am so sick of being a scapegoat.  


  
But Republican lawmakers seem to think they can’t get elected without finding some boogeyman with which to terrify their base.  


  
Whether it’s climate scientists or Hollywood elites or a mythical caravan of brown people determined to burst through our southern border, the GOP cannot function without someone to cast as the monster. 


  
For a political party that scornfully calls others snowflakes, you will never find a more concentrated gathering of self-proclaimed victims than today’s GOP.   


  
Now they’re turning their attention once again to teachers like me.  


 
Across the country, Republican politicians are refusing to let educators give an accurate recounting of history. 


 
In Florida, the GOP is banning math books.   


 
And on Fox News, Tucker Carlson is even calling for mad dads to storm the school and “thrash” the teacher.   


  
In my home state of Pennsylvania, it’s no different.  


 
State Rep. Barbara Gleim (R – Cumberland County) stoked the flames in the Commonwealth this week with the following message to her social media crew:  


  
“We also need conservative eyes and ears in the schools. If anyone can substitute even one day a week, the teachers who are activists and indoctrinating children can be revealed. Not all teachers are for [Critical Race Theory] CRT, etc. We need to identify the ones who are pushing the professional development they received over the summer. Are they putting black children’s tests in separate piles and grading them differently? Have they separated the classrooms? We won’t know these things until parents are allowed back into schools, so the best way is to sub.”  


  
What a load of crap! 


 
Pennsylvania’s public schools are experiencing a sub shortage. I WISH people would volunteer to sub in our public schools.  


 
In fact, back in October I even suggested lawmakers like Gleim volunteer to sub a few times a week to see what’s going on in the classroom instead of pulling vacuous lies out of their butts.  


 
 
They certainly have the time!  Legislators from the Keystone State make the third highest salary in the country, and they’re only in session a few weeks every month! They could easily spend a few days a week struggling with overstuffed classes, in-school suspension, hall duty and the like. 


 
To be a sub in most public school districts in Pennsylvania, essentially all you need is a bachelors degree (it doesn’t even have to be in education) and pass criminal background checks. 


 
Districts that aren’t experiencing a shortage may require a teaching certificate as well, but beggars can’t be choosers. In districts where it is hard to get subs (i.e. those serving poor and minority kids) you can get emergency certified for a year. 


 
But when I made such a suggestion, I naively thought lawmakers might see the problems schools actually have and start to support them.  


 
Fat chance of that! 


 
People with an agenda like Gleim would simply take the most innocent of interactions and pretend they were examples of indoctrination.  


 
In Florida they banned 41% of the math books for being “woke” without a single concrete example and then patted themselves on the back for being transparent. It would be the same here. It would be like the Puritan girls in “The Crucible” finding witches in every classroom and hallway.  


 
This state representative really thinks teachers are putting black children’s tests in separate piles and grading them differently!? As if we’re somehow changing their grades or assessing them more leniently?

 
 
NEWS FLASH: Children of color are not suddenly acing all their tests or rocketing to the head of the class. In fact, just the opposite. There has been a racial proficiency gap for decades based on segregation, lack of resources and punitive and biased standardized tests. 


 
For decades teachers like me have been screaming for change but lawmakers like Gleim either shrug or double down on it. 


 
But back to her social media tirade. She wonders if there are separated classrooms – by which I assume she means classrooms segregated by race. 


 
BINGO! She got that one right! But it’s not what she seems to think.  


 
A majority of children of color are not getting privileged treatment. They’re being underprivileged. They’re in the lower academic tracks and a majority of the white kids are in the honors courses.  


 
Using standardized tests to sort students into academic tracks has hurt minority children and benefited richer white kids.  


 
But back to her social media bubble. She wants parents to be allowed “back” into public schools!? Parents have never been excluded. As long as they can pass the background check, they can come in almost any time.  


 
And if they want to know what’s going on, they can come to any school board meeting and be in the room where all things are decided and be heard during public comment periods. They can even run for school board and make those decisions, themselves.  


 
But way better to pretend a grievance where no such problem exists.  


 
Public schools do not indoctrinate kids.  


 
We teach them to think and come to their own conclusions.  


 
Yes, we teach history, science, English and math. But it’s up to kids to decide what to make of it all.  


 
However, if she wants to see REAL indoctrination all she has to do is look at the private and parochial schools who accept school vouchers – a policy her party usually supports.  


 
These schools use books like America: Land I Love, an A Beka Book; United States History for Christian Schools; and the Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, the last two published by Bob Jones University Press (BJU). 


 
 
The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one text labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from white Europeans. 


 
 
They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science as is the claim that homosexuality is anything but a choice. 


 
 
Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools. 


 
 
And this kind of brain washing is common at voucher schools. 


 
 
If there’s one thing we need to understand about today’s GOP leaders, it’s this: their accusations are always admissions.  


 
They accuse Democrats of the pedophilia Republican congresspeople like Matt Gaetz are already under investigation for.  


 
They accuse Democrats of fixing elections while the last GOP President actually tried to steal an election. 


 
They accuse public schools of indoctrination while private schools routinely do that already


 
Or as the old proverb puts it: 


 
“I looked, and looked, 
 And this I came to see:  
That what I thought was you and you, 
 Was really me and me.”   


  
 
We could stop these shenanigans if the rest of society actually took it seriously.  


 
But that would require news sources to point out the hypocrisy above every time a MAGA supporter started making these sorts of claims.  


 
And that won’t happen because modern media is committed to giving equal measure to both sides of a story – even if one is patently false. They’re too afraid to appear biased to report the truth.  


 
It would stop if the Democrats actually prosecuted the former President and his cronies for the Jan. 6 insurrection.  


 
But that won’t happen because they’re terrified it might lose them a vote. They’re too afraid of being called partisan. Yet there is no middle ground with justice. You either have it or you don’t. 


 
It would require a stance on principle.  


 
So far, it hasn’t happened, and I doubt it will.  


 
So Republicans will continue to take aim at all the usual scapegoats like teachers.  


 
Like when Chris Christie threatened to punch educators in the face.  


 
Their base will get fired up – perhaps maybe even too fired up – and someone will walk into a school with gun-in-hand to take down all these indoctrinating teachers.  


 
That’s the kind of thing that happened a few years ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A MAGA gunman was convinced by Trump that Jews were helping immigrants come into the country illegally. So he decided to kill as many Saturday worshipers as he could. 


 
If we don’t stand up to this, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

 
 
Look. I don’t want to be at the center of this ridiculous culture war.  


 
I just want to teach. I just want to do right by my students and their families.
 


But as our country burns to the ground, the school house often seems to be the center of the blaze.  


 
I am sick of it. 


 
I am sick of it.  
 


I am just so sick of it. 


 

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!

We Say “Gay” in My Classroom

 
 
There are some giggles you dread as a middle school teacher.  


 
Like when one of your students loses all control over a line of poetry. 


 
It happened most recently over these lines of Dylan Thomas


 
 
“Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 


 
 
There it was. The G-A-Y word. The one thing with which adolescent boys and Florida Governors cannot contend. 

One of my 8th graders thought it was the height of hilarity. 


 
“You know that word here just means ‘Happy,” I said.  


 
And he lost it some more.  


 
I tried logic. 


 
“I’m gay. You’re gay. Sometimes we’re all gay.” 


 
A renewed outburst.  


 
“You’re probably the gayest student in my class.” 


 
And the laughter stopped.  


 
“No, you come in here laughing and gay just about every day,” I said.  


 
The frown on his face was serious.  


 
“Me, too. I’m hoping to have a really gay weekend.”  


 
Which seemed to break him. He got up, walked to the other side of the room and sat silently in the corner.  


 
Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for


 
Some people just can’t take the truth. 


 
Like the fact that there are gay kids in middle school.  


 
And, no, I don’t just mean “Happy.” 


 
There are gay kids. 


 
 And straight kids. 


 
 And trans kids


 
 And all kinds of kids.  


 
There are black kids and white kids, Muslim kids and Christian kids, Latinos and Lithuanians, Italians and Iranians, girls, boys and all genders in between.  


 
There are tall kids and short kids. Fat kids and thin kids. And, yes, some kids who like other kids in ways which all adults might not approve. 


 
However, some people are too juvenile to deal with it – they can’t even say the word or can’t even endure someone else saying it!  


 
That’s not so bad when you’re 13 and terrified of your own sexuality, anxious that anyone might question your cis privilege.  


 


 You still have time to grow out of such sophomoric hijinks.  

 
 
But it’s worse when you’re a counterfactual zealot like Ron DeSantis passing laws like the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” 

I’m glad I don’t live in the Sunshine state, but you know ALEC will bring their own copycat version of this fascism to the rest of us sooner or later.


 
Forbid teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation?  


 
Allow parents to sue schools for any comment they take offense to? 


 
Things are tough enough in middle school simply because we’re not such cowards. 


 
We say “gay” and embrace all its multiple meanings – often at once.  


 
 “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” but we talk about everything else.  


 
And we have to! 


 
It is incumbent on teachers to acknowledge the reality before them.  


 
We have to recognize our students for who they are.  


 
That doesn’t mean labeling them. It doesn’t mean trying to convince them of anything in particular about their identities.  


 
But it does mean admitting that identity exists. And it means refusing to accept the intolerance of those who refuse to accept others for who they are. 


 
When a student tells you their pronouns, you listen


 
When a student draws a pride flag on their notebook, you tell them it’s beautiful.

When a student tells you in confidence that they feel ugly, hurt or broken because of what their pastor or parent or classmate said, you tell them they’re marvelous and not to change a thing!

Because we don’t have the luxury to be judgmental. 

It’s not in our job description.

We teach our kids no matter who they are. We love them for who they are. And if DeSantis or any other adult has a problem with that, they can just fuck off! 


 
Silencing the grown-ups in school won’t change who the kids are. It will just forbid us from mentioning reality. It will permit us to recognize only the tiniest fraction of who our students are and leave a de facto shroud over the rest.   


 
I refuse to turn my classroom into a closet.  



 
It might make the most bigoted adults feel better. It might relieve grown-up fears that just talking about other ways to live is enough to mold someone into something against their nature.  

 
 
As if such a thing were possible.  

But it won’t help the kids.


 
People don’t become their sexuality. They discover who they were all along – and ultimately no piece of legislation can stop that. It can make that search more difficult, painful and riddled with guilt. But you are who you are.   


 
It’s regressive shame-based norms like these that encourage little boys to bash those who are different.

 
 
That make them feel the only safety lies in violence against the other so no one questions who they are, themselves.  


 

That scares them enough to giggle at a three-letter word embedded in a poem.

 
 
And speaking of my giggle goose, eventually he got himself under control.  


 

Before the end of the period he came back to the table.

Silently, swiftly, and soberly, he sat down with the rest of us ready to continue discussing “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight.” 

Not a titter or laugh. 


 
It wasn’t until a week later that he turned to me with a smile and asked: 


 
“Mr. Singer, did you have a gay weekend?” 


 
I did, Buddy. I did. 


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!

Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

 
 
How does one teach about war?  


 
With pictures or words? 


 
With speeches or documentation? 


 
With prayers or curses? 


 
With laughter or tears? 


 
I began my class like I always do – with a question


 
“Has anyone heard about what’s happening in Ukraine?” I asked.  


 
A few hands, but they had only heard the words. They didn’t know what was happening.  


 
So I showed my 8th graders a short video that summarized events so far. I drew a map of Europe and Asia on the board. I outlined Ukraine, Russia and the European union. I explained about the Soviet Union and its collapse. I explained about NATO and the struggle for power and prestige.  


 
When I was done, there was a moment of silence. They were all staring up at me. It was one of those rare moments of stillness, a pregnant pause before the questions started raining down.  


 
A patter at first, then a storm. 


 
They asked about what they were hearing at home. They searched for corroboration, explanation and/or other viewpoints. 


 
One child asked if this was NATO’s fault. If it was President Biden’s doing. 


 
Another asked how it would affect us and why we should care. 


 
And yet another asked about nuclear proliferation and whether this war meant the end of the world.  


 
I couldn’t answer all of their questions, though I tried. When there was something I couldn’t say or didn’t know, I pointed them in a direction where they might find some answers.  


 
But it led to some interesting discussion.  


 
Then I asked them if they had talked about any of this in their other classes – perhaps in social studies. They all said no, that a few teachers had promised to get to it after finishing the 13 colonies or another piece of mandated curriculum.  


 
I was surprised but not shocked. I know the tyranny of the curriculum.  


 
I was only able to talk about this, myself, because of the scope and sequence of Language Arts. You see, it was poetry time and I was about to introduce my students to Alfred Lord Tennyson and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” 


 
For those who don’t recall, the poem tells the true story of the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A cavalry regiment of British troops charged Russian gunners and were mostly shot to pieces.  


 
It’s a pillar of English poetry and a perfect opportunity to talk about warfare in general and Ukraine in particular since the battle took place in the same general area of the world. 


 
In the poem, a general mistakenly orders the soldiers on horseback armed only with swords to charge the enemy armed with cannons and guns.  


 
Tennyson writes


 
“Theirs not to make reply, 
   Theirs not to reason why, 
   Theirs but to do and die.” 


 
And after the result is graphically portrayed, the speaker extols their virtue: 


 
“When can their glory fade? 
O the wild charge they made! 
   All the world wondered. 
Honour the charge they made! 
Honour the Light Brigade, 
   Noble six hundred!” 


 
So I ask my students what they think about it. Is it a soldier’s duty to follow orders no matter what? Should they question those orders?  


 
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.  


 
And then I present them with an 80s heavy metal video by Iron Maiden of the song “The Trooper.”

 
 
The video uses images from a silent movie version of the Tennyson poem while singer Bruce Dickinson wails the story of a single soldier of the Light Brigade being senselessly gunned down and dying alone, forgotten on the battle field. 


 
It certainly gives them something to think about as they watch black and white horses flung in the air and our spandex clad narrator commenting on the situation with hairspray piled locks.  


 
Students end up leaving the class continuing the debate with each other about heroism and the waste of war.  


 
I certainly have my own opinions on the matter, but I keep them to myself.  


 
The way I see it, this isn’t the time for me to insert my opinion into the class. It’s an opportunity for my students to think through the problem, themselves.  


 
And, frankly, that’s really the point of most of school.  


 
It’s not the transmission of knowledge. Teachers can’t magic information into children’s heads.  


 
Instead, we provide opportunities to learn. We encourage students to think. We’re more like gardeners than anything else. We water, we weed, we make sure the soil is fertile. But it is up to the child to grow and in which direction to strive.  


 
That’s why far right scare mongers are so ignorant and absurd when they try to constrain teachers from teaching about history or racism.  


 
These campaigns are not aimed at educators. They are aimed at students.  


 
The goal is to offer children only one path in which to grow.  


 
They want to stifle thought, stifle free expression, stifle intellectual freedom by removing the option to think.  


 
They want to remove the opportunity.  


 
It may not be as dramatic as Putin invading. “Shot and shell” may not be flying. But the forces of fascism are equally at work on the minds of our children.  


 
In teaching about the war in Europe, educators are waging a battle against the war at home. 

Zhyvitʹ revolyutsiyeyu!

 
Viva la revolución! 

Long live the revolution!


 

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!

The Absurdity of PROTECTING Kids from the Holocaust Narrative ‘Maus’ 

 
Nudity and bad language.  


 
That’s a Tennessee school board’s excuse for banning Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus.”  


 
Not Holocaust denial.  


 
Not antisemitism. 

Not a hundred other things they don’t want to admit to themselves about themselves.


 
It was simply a dirty drawing and some curse words. 


 
The graphic novel focuses on the cartoonist and his estranged father. Spiegelman slowly unravels the true story of how his dad survived the Holocaust. All the while, the son draws the narrative portraying Jewish people as mice and Germans as cats. 

It’s a work of literature that looks directly into the unfathomable and recontextualizes it into something we can attempt to understand.

The committee at Columbia University awarded the story a Pulitzer Prize – the only graphic novel yet to win such a prestigious award.

But the Tennessee school board awarded it their walking papers.

And why?

Naughty words and risqué images.


 
In particular, the board objected to eight bad words and the drawing of a nude woman.  


 
On its Website, district administrators posted the following explanation of their action


 
“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves. The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.” 


 
Can you imagine living in a community that values refraining from swear words and covering up the human body more than telling the truth about genocide


 
Can you imagine putting a premium on decorum and propriety over an honest portrayal of events? 


 
And who are the McMinn County Board of Education to say these words and this image are “unnecessary” to tell the story!? 


 
It’s the Holocaust! It’s not a Disney theme park! 


 
If you’re talking about the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish people and 5 million non-Jewish people, wouldn’t it be appropriate to use some bad language!?  


 
To their credit, the image the school board objects to isn’t one of mice being tortured and murdered in a concentration camp. It’s not the genitals of naked mice – after all, aren’t mice always naked?  


 
It’s the drawing of the author’s mother who couldn’t live with the atrocities she endured and committed suicide. His father discovers her naked body in the bathtub.  


 
There’s nothing salacious about it.  


 
It’s shocking. It’s disturbing. It’s deeply sad.

But that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.

To react – as this board has – is the height of callousness.

Here we have the story of so many deaths, so many murders, and all they can do is decry the way it is told.

As a person of Jewish ancestry, it hits me hard.

Imagine being told that the story of your family’s murder is only acceptable if it isn’t upsetting.

It’s only acceptable if it doesn’t provoke a reaction in your heart – only if it keeps your eyes dry and your throat unstopped.

But that’s the point! It SHOULD be upsetting! It should hurt your heart! It should make your eyes leak and your throat close up.

However, school director Tony Allman said something that disproved the fiction that the board’s action was limited to pure decorum.

In the meeting minutes he was quoted as saying, “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy. Being in the schools, educators and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.” 

You’re wrong, Sir.

You DO need to promote this stuff.

Not encourage people to engage in future Holocausts but to promote that it DID happen so that it will not happen again.

Because on Oct 27, 2018, it happened again at the Tree of Life synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh when a gunman killed 11 and wounded six.


 
In August 2017, it happened at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of marchers threw Nazi salutes and waved Swastika flags while shouting “Siege Heil” and “Jews will not replace us!”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jewish people in 2021 – an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. This includes five fatalities directly linked to antisemitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults. 


Assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2020 hate crime statistics showed not only that hate crimes were up for all minority groups, but crimes targeting Jewish people made up 54.9% of all religious bias crimes. 

According to the American Jewish Committee, nearly one out of every four Jews in the U.S. has been the subject of antisemitism over the past year.


Seventeen percent of respondents in the committee’s survey said they had been the subject of an antisemitic remark in person, while 12% said they were the victim of an antisemitic remark online. Three percent of Jews who responded to the poll said they were the target of an antisemitic physical attack. 

And this school board thinks the problem is a book that merely reports such events in the past.

Your children don’t need protection from the STORY of the Holocaust.

They need protection from the Holocaust, itself.

They need protection from it happening again – from the kind of violence and bigotry on the rise today.

They need protection from becoming the mice.

They need protection from becoming the cats.

They need adults brave enough to take a stand against these horrors.

It’s just too bad that you aren’t brave enough to do it, yourselves.


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!

Remote Teaching is Much Different This Year 

  
I couldn’t believe what was happening.   


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


  
Or technically none of them were.   


  
It all depends on how you look at it.   


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


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


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


  
But today it just took a click of the mouse.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


  
“That’s fantastic,” I said.   


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
How did this happen on-line?  


 
I think it was a combination of several factors.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
I just wasn’t the only one. 


 
No one wants to catch this thing.  


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


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


 
They know catching COVID is taking a chance. 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


 
My students get that.  
 


I hope their parents do, too.  


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


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


 
It will be a battle of egos, too.


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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

 

 

 

I Teach Banned Books   

  
  
If you want people to do something, forbid them from doing it.  


  
As a middle school language arts teacher, that’s always worked for me.   


  
Many of my students are reluctant readers.  


  
If a text is longer than a Tweet or a YouTube description, most of them would rather skip it.  


  
And when it comes to books, many of them wouldn’t intentionally crack one open under any circumstances.  


  
Unless you tell them not to.   


  
Unless you point out a specific book on the shelf and say it’s off limits.   


  
Unless you open it up right in front of them before quickly snatching it away and saying, “Oops! I forgot! We can’t read that one!”  


  
So most of my curriculum is made up of banned books.  


  
The Giver, Silent to the Bone, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird – all forbidden in one place or another.   


  
Just not in my district.   


  
In fact, my school board has included each of these books on the approved reading list.

  
  
That doesn’t mean I have to use them.  


  
Language Arts teachers like me have a few different options at each grade level. And some of us actively avoid the more controversial texts to keep out of trouble.   


  
But not me.   


  
I go right for these taboo, prohibited, and oh so naughty books – for very good reasons

 

The Giver

  
Take “The Giver” by Lois Lowry.  


  
It’s almost the poster child for why we shouldn’t ban books in the first place. The story is set in a dystopian society where everyone is raised to be the same and people are discouraged from questioning things or having deep feelings.  


  
The book is most often challenged because parents don’t want their children to have to wrestle with its deep social criticism.  


 
When it first came under fire, Lowry responded thusly


 
”Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.”  


 
 
However, not everyone is willing to let children think through these issues themselves – and what a bundle of issues Lowry presents! 


 
In the plot, she mentions sex, infanticide, suicide, starvation, and euthanasia.   


  
Nothing is graphic or developmentally inappropriate for middle schoolers, but the very idea of children thinking about S-E-X and challenging authority is enough to put it afoul of some censors.  


  
Which is exactly why my students love it.   


 
Too often teachers give students short passages taken from standardized tests where the only reason to read is to hunt for multiple choice answers. It’s dry, boring and meaningless to their everyday lives. 


  
That’s why they enjoy books like “The Giver” so much. This isn’t just for a grade. It’s reading something worth taking the time to consider, something that gets under their skin and makes them want to think.  


 
They’re at an age (12-14) when they’re starting to find their own place in society and struggling to understand adult issues like reproduction and romantic attachment. Making these topics explicit and being able to talk through them in the safety of the classroom can be liberating – and worth the effort to decode.   


  
That is – if you accept that children are little human beings who deserve the chance to consider these things aloud.  

Silent to the Bone

  
And speaking of adult issues, there’s the other comprehensive novel I teach in 7th grade – “Silent to the Bone” by E. L. Konigsburg.  


  
It’s a classic detective story where the characters try to discover why a young teen, Branwell, refuses to speak after his baby sister suffers a potentially life threatening injury.   


  
The plot grabs readers from the beginning and students find themselves really invested in unraveling the mystery. But to do so they come face-to-face with topics ranging from family, divorce, death, bigotry, sexuality and exploitation.   


 
It’s not about finding textual details to satisfy the number crunchers at Data Recognition Corp. or NCS Pearson Inc. It’s about getting textual to better understand what happened in the plot and why. 


  
Again the narrative is written for middle school readers but the concepts get them thinking and enthusiastic.  


 
As we come to the big reveal, I’ve had students turn to me with huge smiles saying they can’t believe we’re actually reading about this stuff in school.  
 


In an age where they usually communicate with emojis, I’m just glad that they’re reading. 


 
It can get uncomfortable, but by the end I definitely feel like I’ve reached them.

The Diary of Anne Frank


  
Speaking of uncomfortable, one of the hardest books I teach in 8th grade is “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

  
 
It’s not that the text is so difficult, but as a person of Jewish ancestry, I find it personally harrowing to relive this story every year.  


 
The plot centers on Anne, a historical Jewish girl in 1940s Amsterdam who with her family and others hid from the Nazis before eventually being captured and dying in a concentration camp. 


 
Like most teachers, I eschew the actual diary for the play version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  


 
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine why this book would be banned. After all, it’s a true story of the Holocaust written by one of the people who lived it.   


  
However, there are an increasing number of people in this country these days who want to deny that the Holocaust even happened or claim that it was exaggerated. It’s hard to do that with a witness staring you in the face – even if that witness is just the book she left behind.  


  
Usually the text is challenged not on the basis of its plot so much as its sexual frankness. Not that there is much sex going on with people hiding above a factory in WWII. But the character of Anne is so real, she writes about everything including what it’s like to become a mature woman.   


  
For example, in Act II, scene 1, she mentions getting her period for the first time:  


  
“There is one great change, however. A change within myself. I read somewhere that girls of my age don’t feel quite certain of themselves. That they become quiet within and begin to think of the miracle that is taking place in their bodies. I think what is happening to me is so wonderful… not only what can be seen, but what is taking place inside. Each time it has happened I have the feeling that I have a sweet secret… and in spite of any pain, I long for that time when I shall feel that secret within me again.” 

 
  
  
My students often read over this passage without comment. I usually have to draw their attention to it and ask them what Anne is talking about before someone gets it.   


  
You might be surprised at how freeing this kind of discourse is. Menstruation is a natural part of life for nearly half the population, but it’s something we don’t often talk about.   


 
It’s not central to the story and Anne certainly goes into greater detail in her actual diary. However, even this little digression goes to further humanize her and make her relatable, especially to people like my students who are nearly the same age she was when she wrote it. 


 
She becomes so much more than a victim. She’s someone we know – inside and out.


 

To Kill a Mockingbird

 
The most challenged book I teach is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.  


 
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the 1930s Alabama who defends Tom Robinson, a black man, of a crime he did not commit. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer’s children who go from blissful naivety to uncomfortable understanding. 


 
In the past, people used to object most often to the book’s language since it makes liberal use of the N-word.  


 
It’s still an issue, and I make sure not to have myself or any of the students read these parts aloud. We only hear it on an audiobook as we follow along in the text. And even this only comes after we discuss how hurtful that word is. 


 
However, the language isn’t the book’s biggest sticking point today. It’s more often objected to these days on the basis of white saviorism. Critics complain that the narrative should be centered on Tom, the black man accused of the crime, and not Atticus, the defense attorney and his children.  


 
What makes this particularly troubling is the critics have a point. If the story is about racism, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the target of that racism?  


 
They suggest the book be replaced by more modern novels that center such a narrative appropriately – something like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (itself, a frequently challenged book). 


 
However, in the final analysis, I disagree.  


 
As good a book as Thomas’s is, it just isn’t as well-written or multifarious as Lee’s.  


 
Thomas reveals a lot about racism and the fight against it in today’s world, and her book is certainly worth reading. But it is a mistake to think that racism is only about people of color. White people are the cause of racism. White people have a responsibility to tear down the systems of white supremacy.

By the end of the book, my whole class – regardless of race – is devastated by what happens to Tom and furious at the injustice he experiences. To be honest, that might not happen to the same degree in a book that signals its message right from the beginning.  


 
“Mockingbird” starts quietly. It doesn’t even appear to have anything to do with racism at the beginning. We slowly get acclimated to this world, this time and place before prejudice creeps into view and surprises us. 


 
In my classroom, the book allows us to discuss so many intersectional issues – gender, economics, belief systems, etc. Plus it gives my students more cultural capital than other texts would. Having read “Mockingbird” allows them to understand more and talk to more people than other more modern books. 


 
If they haven’t already, when they go to the high school, they’ll read novels centered on blackness. Their education and discussion of this issue would be incomplete without them. But I don’t think we need to stop reading such a classic as “Mockingbird” that was, itself, part of the civil rights movement.  


 
In any case, the school board has not approved any similar texts at that grade level. If I put aside “Mockingbird,” it would mean not discussing the issue at all. I think that would be much worse. 


 

Conclusions

So this is how I teach. 


 
I know there are some adults out there who would rather my students not read these books.  


 
I know some grownups would rather my kids not think about these things and not come to their own conclusions.  


 
They’d rather children be seen and not heard – like furniture.  


 
But my students know it, too. And they’d rather be treated like actual human beings – even if that means… yuck… reading.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather decision makers put no restrictions on which books students can and cannot read. Even trash like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” shouldn’t be forbidden. I make sure to tell my students that it’s readily available in the library but not recommended.  

Children should not be restricted to only some ideas. They will come into contact with all kinds as they grow older. They need the skill to sort through them and decide for themselves their value.  

In my experience the bigger threat isn’t prohibition, it’s indifference. 

 
As Ray Bradbury famously said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” 


 
Focusing on banned books helps me keep reading real and relevant in my classroom.  


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!

Reducing Students to Their Test Scores Will Only Increase Their Pandemic Wounds 

 

Read the following as quickly and accurately as you can:

‘I know I withought all by he middle on, ” said a between he name a buzzing, he for began open he the only reason for making.”

Very good, you’re told as your teacher clicks a stopwatch and writes on a piece of paper.

Now try this one:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The teacher frowns and writes for a minute straight without comment.

Okay. Give this one a shot:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elity, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.”

No, this isn’t a crash course in some foreign language.

It’s the DIBELS test.

Students as young as Kindergarten (and sometimes younger) are asked to read a text aloud in a given time and each mispronunciation is recorded and marked against them.

And, yes, the texts are often pure nonsense.


My first example was from a nonsense generator of Winnie the Pooh, the second was from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and the last an example of Lorem ipsum, a placeholder text commonly used in the graphic, print, and publishing industries.

To my knowledge none are actually used on the DIBELS test but they give you an idea of what an adult version might be like if given to people our age and not just the littles.

Can you imagine being a child, feeling the pressure of a test and being presented with something that looked like those passages!?

The fear! The sense of urgency to say something before the time runs out! The feeling of inadequacy and confusion as you finished knowing you got it wrong!

And the assurance that this meant there was something wrong with YOU!

That’s reading assessment in the standardized testing age.

Decoding – or working out the actual pronunciation of words – is given primacy over actual comprehension.

Why? Because that way we can break reading down into simple, quantifiable tasks that can be used to sort and rank children.

You know. The goal of standardized testing.

It’s highly controversial among people who study reading acquisition, but extremely common in elementary and middle schools.

And extremely lucrative for the makers of the DIBELS test.

Today I was forced to leave my class of 8th grade students with a sub so an “expert”from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit could lecture me and the rest of my school’s English department in using DIBELS as a gatekeeper assessment for all students.

That way we can group the students more easily based on their reading deficiencies.

I literally had to stop teaching for THAT.

I was bopping around the classroom, reading students’ writing, helping them organize it, helping them fix their explanations and craft sophisticated essays on a short story.

But I had to STOP, so an outside contractor could explain to ME how to teach.

ME, a Nationally Board certified teacher with two decades of classroom experience.

And the rest of the department with similar experience and education. In the group was also the holder of a doctorate in education. Almost all of us at least held a masters degree.

It boggles the mind.

In this time of pandemic stress when just keeping enough teachers in the building to staff our classrooms is a challenge, administration is wasting our time with this.

Before Covid-19, I could almost imagine it.

We did a lot of stupid things back then. But now a deadly virus rages across the country. Several students and staff get sick every week.  


 
There is a shortage of teachers, aides, subs, bus drivers, and other staff. 


 
And even though most school buildings are open, most students are still suffering from the social and emotional effects of the never-ending disaster.  


 
Yet the people who set school policy refuse to see any of it.  


 
They’re like ostriches – in suits – with their heads planted firmly in the ground. 


 
Covid safety protocols, reducing teacher workload, providing counselors for students – none of that is even on their radar.  


 
All they want to do is reinstitute the policies that weren’t working well before the pandemic hit.  


 
The only difference is their sense of urgency.  


 
In fact, the only impact they even recognize of the last year and a half is the dreaded LEARNING LOSS.  


 
Kids weren’t in class consistently. They were in on-line classes, or hybrid classes or maybe they didn’t even show up to class at all.  


 
That means they don’t know as much today as they would have known had the pandemic not happened.  


 
So – we’re told – they’ve lost learning. 


 
Oh no!  


 
But what these decision makers don’t seem to understand is that this whole concept is kind of meaningless.  


 
All people learn at different rates. If you don’t know something today, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it tomorrow.  


 
There’s no time table for understanding. It’s not a race. It doesn’t matter when you learn something only that you continue making progress. 


 
However, you’d need a classroom teacher to explain that to you. And these are more business types. Administrators and number crunchers who may have stood in front of a classroom a long time ago but escaped at the first opportunity. 


 
They look at a class full of students and don’t see human children. They see numbers, data.  


 
And they are just itching to get back to sorting and ranking students based on standardized test scores.  


 
After all – say it with me – LEARNING LOSS!!!! 


 
Unfortunately there’s a whole world of reality up here above ground that they’re ignoring. And up here continuing with their willful fantasy is doing real harm.  


 
When I look at my classes of students, I don’t see overwhelming academic deficiencies.  

Even their test scores don’t justify that myth.


 
According to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA), they’re pretty much where I’d expect them any other year.

 
 
But their behaviors are off the hook


 
They simply don’t know how to interact with each other without conflict.  


 
My students are desperate for attention – any kind of attention – and will do almost anything to get it.  


 
They’d prefer to be respected, but they don’t understand how to treat each other respectfully. So they aim for any kind of response.

 
 
To a large extent this is due to a disruption in the social and emotional development they would have received at school. But robbed of good role models and adequate consequences, they’re somewhat at sea.  


 
Moreover, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their support systems at home. Parents, family members and guardians have lost jobs, become sick and some have even died.


 
They don’t know who to trust and who they can rely on.  


 
So when they get to school, we’re going to meet their needs with more standardized tests!?  


 
That’s one of the worst things we could do. 

Take a child who already has trust issues and force them to read nonsense sentences while we judge them with a stopwatch?


 
Erase their individual identities and try to see them primarily as their scores?


 
These are in the low group. These are in the middle group. These are in the high group.  


 
Instead of giving them robust pieces of literature to read, they’ll get nonfiction scraps devoid of any connection to their lives, interests or aptitudes.  


 
We’ll drill and kill them, make every day about teaching to the test instead of teaching to the student.  


 
We’ll let data drive the instruction instead driving it based on the actual living, breathing, human beings we’re supposed to be serving.  
 


And instead of relying on teachers – highly trained people with decades of experience in how children learn effectively – we’ll put our trust in mega corporations that make more money the less effective their materials are.  


 
Prepare for a test – they make money. 


 
Take a test – they make money. 


 
Fail the test and have to remediate – they make money.  


 
It’s a scam – an endless cycle – and administrators and policy makers keep falling for it.  


 
Will this help meet kids social needs?  


 
Absolutely not. They’ll be segregated by ability and forced to repeat confusing and mind numbing tasks as if that’s what education was.  


 
Will it help meet kids emotional needs?  


 
No way! Being forced to do the same thing over and over and continually told you’re a failure won’t teach anything except a kind of learned helplessness.  


 
Kids will learn “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at reading” rather than the joy that can be found in both activities.  


 
They’ll learn to give up.  


 
And they’ll take out the negative feelings all this generates on each other and their teachers.  


 
It doesn’t have to be this way.  


 
A new world is possible.  


 
The pandemic offers us a chance to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.  


 
We can scrap standardized testing and focus on authentic assessments – teacher constructed assessments the are suited to the individual context, the individual students.  


 
We can focus on lessons that engage students and encourage them to learn intrinsically.


 
We can focus on what students know instead of what they don’t so they learn that they are capable, that they have the power to do the lesson.  


 
We could help students understand how to interact with each other and heal some of the social and emotional wounds of the past year and a half.  


 
But we can’t do that if we’re forced to continue with the same mistakes of the past. 

We have to recognize the reality teachers, students and parents are living through.

And we have to make decisions based on that reality, not the same old preconceptions that have never gotten us anywhere.


 

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!

My Students Haven’t Lost Learning. They’ve Lost Social and Emotional Development  

 


  
  

There is a student screaming across the hall.  
  
He is holding his gut and rocking back and forth in cries of wordless emotional pain as the rest of the class looks on in bewilderment.  
  
Students from other rooms start to cluster around the door until a security guard makes them go away.  
  
I close the door to my own classroom and try to settle my students down – but we can still hear him through the walls.   
  
And then:  
  
“Shut up!”  
  
“You’re stupid!”  
  
“Why don’t you make me!?” 
 
  
Believe it or not, this is not what teaching middle school used to be like.   
  
Eighth grade students were never perfect angels, but at least by then they used to know how to talk to one another. They could usually interact without constant sniping. They knew what was expected to get respect from each other and at least tried to do it.   
  
But things have changed.   
 
After 18 months of a pandemic, even when they aren’t infected with disease, children still are suffering tremendously from the effects of Covid-19. 
 
Adolescents are dealing with higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and addictive internet behaviors.   
 
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.  
 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC. 
 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of a pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.  
 
As usual, the place where these issues are most visible is our public schools
 
When Covid-19 swept our shores last year, much of the benefit of formal education fell through the cracks.   
 
Consistency went out the window. Many schools went to on-line learning or a hybrid model of in-person and on-line offset with increasingly common periods of quarantine.  
 
These were often necessary to keep kids and their families safe – and in some cases still are. As a society, we could have done more to blunt the blow such as paying parents to stay safe at home as well as supervise their children, but economic concerns took precedence to human ones.  
 
And now we’re seeing the cost
  
Many students attended school haphazardly and their parents often weren’t around to give them the kind of stability, role models or attention they’d normally get at school.   
  
Today, as the pandemic still smolders on, and schools struggle to function as if the danger had passed, the result is classes of emotionally needy and socially awkward children.  
  
There were so many fights in the halls of my building last week, we’re now operating on a soft lockdown to decrease unstructured time between classes.   
  
And you know what – it’s not really kids’ fault.  
  
They’re just trying to live in the world we’ve built for them.   
 
More than 674,000 Americans have died from COVID
 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus. 
 
Globally, that’s more than 1.5 million kids who have lost a parent, guardian or live-in relative to the pandemic, according to the Lancet
 
No wonder kids are having trouble dealing with their emotions! Their support systems are shot! 
  
My students are bright, caring, energetic and creative people. They have the same wants and needs as children always have. They just have fewer tools with which to meet them.   
  
Administrators often focus on academic deficits.   
  
They worry about learning loss and what the kids can’t do today versus students in the same grades before the pandemic. But I think this is a huge mistake.   
  
My students are not suffering from a lack of academics. They’re suffering from a lack of social and emotional development.   
  
I teach Language Arts and, sure, my kids may not have been exposed as deeply to certain concepts as those who came before them. They may not have written an acrostic poem or read Dickens or had as much experience writing. But that doesn’t mean they’re deficient.   
  
Every child – every PERSON – learns at an individual rate. Some take longer than others. Some take more exposure, experience and practice. But learning is never lost.   
  
Teachers know this. That’s why we scaffold our lessons. We get to know our kids and where they are before we can gauge what they still need to learn.  
  
My students may not have read the play they would have in 7th grade, but I can help them understand the components of drama when we read a play in the curriculum for 8th grade. They may not have written a particular type of poem last year, but we can still read one and understand it this year.   
  
Many students have difficulties with spelling and punctuation. That’s true this year as well as any other. That doesn’t mean they’ve lost anything. It means they need more instruction and practice.   
  
I’m not worried about that. It’s really pretty similar to any other year.   
  
What does concern me is the level of immaturity and social awkwardness I’m seeing.   
  
People aren’t machines. You can’t flip a switch and they just learn.  
  
You have to create an environment that is conducive to learning.  
  
Part of that is creating a class culture where everyone feels respected and safe. That’s difficult to do when kids don’t know how to communicate without conflict.   
  
That’s difficult when their sense of safety has been deeply impacted. Community members whining about security measures like wearing masks and getting vaccinated don’t help this – not at all.   
  
In schools, we’re trying to instill a sense of consistency and care. We’re trying to teach kids the basics of human interaction again – something even some adults are having to relearn.  
  
And let me tell you – it’s extremely hard in large, anxious groups dealing with the continuing uncertainty of our times.   
  
My own health has suffered under the pressures with which educators are forced to contend. Unnecessary paperwork, increased expectations, lack of respect and compensation have teachers stretched to a breaking point.   
  
I was in and out of the hospital all last week and the district had great difficulty finding an adult to sub for me.   
  
For two days they resorted to hiring parents from the community to watch my classes. I’m told that one of them reported to the office at the end of the day and promptly told the secretary not to call her tomorrow, that she was never coming back.   
 
It’s hard for professional educators, too. 
 
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers feel comfortable addressing grief or trauma tied to the pandemic. 
  
My kids are not demons.   
  
They are not monsters or evil or incorrigible.   
  
They’re just kids who really need our love and support.   
  
I feel for them. I really do.   
  
When I’m here, I do everything I can to help them feel safe, secure, respected and cared for.   
 
It’s certainly not easy. 
  
At lunch the other day, one student came to my door and scratched on the window. He was in tears.   
  
I let him in and asked what was wrong.   
  
He was at his wits end about his home life and felt lost. I sat with him, we talked it out and I asked if there was anything else I could do for him.  
  
He said, “Yes. Can I have a hug?”  
  
So even now, with COVID out there in the community and my mask securely fastened, I did it. I gave him a hug.   
  
That’s the need I’m seeing in schools right now.   
  
It’s not academics. That will be fine if we can take care of the emotional and social needs of our students.   
  
But this can’t be accomplished by teachers alone – nor even administrators, school boards and districts.   
  
We need to build a world that cares about children.   
  
We need to value their lives and needs.   
  
It’s not enough to care whether a child is born. We have to care whether a child is taken care of, healthy and loved.   
  
And that means looking out for their parents, too.   
  
If parents didn’t have to sacrifice themselves to their jobs, they could spend more time with their kids.   
  
When your job constantly demands more time, at all times of the day and night, you can’t be there effectively for the ones you love.   
  
We talk about family values, but we do little to value families. Only their credit score and earning power.   
  
This is a problem that won’t be solved overnight.   
  
It may far outlast the pandemic, itself.  
  
To heal our kids, we have to heal our society.  
  
In fact, we can’t do one without doing the other.  


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!

Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.

At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.

I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.

Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.

It is an attempt to legislate history.

These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.

Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.

The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.

The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.

For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.

The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.

Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.

It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.

Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.

TRUTH

‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘

Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.

No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.

For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.

Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.

Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.

One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.

In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.

If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.

REWRITING HISTORY

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”

In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.

To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.

For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.

Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.

However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.

This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.

Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.

Or as Orwell puts it:

‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘

EDUCATION

Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.

For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.

It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.

This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.

It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.

Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.

Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.

It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.

However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.

As Orwell wrote:

‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘

And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.

It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.

It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?

Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:

‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘

That is not the goal of our current education system.

We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.

Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.

And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.

At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.

What do you do when this happens?

Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.

That is the purpose of education.

Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.

It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.

Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.

But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.

This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.

Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.

We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.

It is absolutely essential.

Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.



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!

Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


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!