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.


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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!

You’re Going to Miss Us When We’re Gone – What School May Look Like Once All the Teachers Quit

The alarm buzzed at 4:30 am. Time to get up.

DeShaun and his little brother Marco got out of bed and threw on their clothes.

Mom was in the other room hastily getting her work bag together.

“Are you two ready yet? We’ve got to go in 20 minutes.”

Marco just yawned, but Deshaun dared to complain about the hour.

“We didn’t used to have to get up so early,” he said.

“That was when you still had school. Now I’ve got to get you all to the daycare by 5 or they’ll be full up.”

DeShaun frowned but got ready anyway. He didn’t want to have to sit outside all day again. There were older kids in the park who got kids like him to run drugs during the day. He could make some money that way, but the only kids he knew who did that got hooked on their own supply. That or arrested.

Heck! He’d been arrested for loitering twice this year already.

“Hurry! Let’s go!” Mom shouted as she handed each child a yogurt and a bag of chips.

The bus was full even at this hour.


DeShaun recognized a bunch of kids who usually went to the daycare.

His best friend, Paul, used to ride the bus, but then his mom got him into the private school in the city. She and his dad had to cash in his entire school voucher AND pay an additional $10,000 a year, but they said it was worth it. Still, DeShaun missed his friend.

Octavia was standing a bit further down the aisle though. She was usually good for a trade. He guessed she’d take his yogurt for some Hot Cheetos.

When they got to the right stop, Mom gave his shoulder a squeeze and told him to watch out for his brother. She’d see him at the end of the day.

He and Marco made it just in time.


He saw Octavia get turned away at the door.

“Dang!” He said. He really wanted those Hot Cheetos.

He and Marco took their seats in the back of the room and got out their iPads.

He wanted to play with the toys in the Reward Room, but no one got in there before lunch.

Marco was crying.

“What’s wrong?” He said.

“I can’t find my iPad.”

“Didn’t you pack it?”

“I think I left it on the charger.”

“You dummy!” DeShaun said and handed Marco his own iPad.

“Take this,” he said. “I can use my phone.”

It had a huge crack on the screen but he could probably read through the jagged edges if he tried hard enough. That probably meant no Reward Room though.

First, he clicked on Edu-Mental. It wanted him to read through some stuff about math and do some problems. He couldn’t really see them but he could hear about them through his earbuds.

Then he did Lang-izzy. There was a fun game where you had to shoot all the verbs in these sentences that scrolled across the screen faster and faster. But DeShaun’s timing was off and even though he knew the answers, he couldn’t get a high enough score to get a badge.

He skipped to Sky-ba-Bomb. It had a lot of videos but it was his least favorite. He couldn’t tell which ones were about history and which were advertisements. Plus he got so many pop ups after just a few minutes, he often had to disconnect from the wi-fi or restart his phone.

Oh, what now?

“Miss Lady,” Marco was saying.

The blonde haired new girl came over to him.

“What is it, Sweetie?”

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

She checked her iPad.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. You’ve only been logged on for half an hour. Answer a few more questions and then you can go.”

DeShaun grabbed his shoulder and shook him.

“Why didn’t you go before we left home?”

“I didn’t have-ta go then. I have-ta go NOW!”

He could leave the daycare and go outside. There was even a filthy bathroom at the gas station a few blocks away. But if he left now someone outside was bound to take his spot. And Mom wouldn’t get a refund or nothing.

The blonde was about to walk away when DeShaun stopped her.

“He can take my pass. I’ve been on long enough.”

“That means you won’t get to go until after lunch,” she reminded him.

“I won’t drink anything,” he said.

She shrugged. That seemed to be her main way of communicating with people. She looked barely old enough to be out of daycare, herself.

DeShaun gave Marco his phone and sat there waiting for him to come back.

He remembered what it used to be like.

Back before the pandemic, they used to go to school.

Now that had been SOMETHING!

They had real teachers, not just minimum wage babysitters.

He remembered back in Mrs. Lemon’s class he could go to the bathroom anytime he wanted. In fact, he’d often wait until her period everyday to go to the bathroom. That way he’d have time to walk halfway around the building and look in all the open doorways and see what everyone was doing.

There were groups of kids huddled around desks working on projects together. Other times kids would be sitting in their rows of desks with their hands raised asking questions – and actually getting ANSWERS!


Teachers would stand at the front of the room and talk to them – actually talk and wait to hear their answers!

And if you finished your work, you could draw or read…. Reading…. Yeah they had real books made of paper and everything!

He remembered sitting in a circle in Mr. Sicely’s class and discussing the book they’d read. “The Diary of Anne Frank.” And people got really into it and excited.

We used to complain about the homework, he thought stifling a laugh. What he wouldn’t give for one more day of that homework!

He wondered why they no longer did stuff like that. Why DID the schools close after Covid?

He picked up his iPad that his brother had abandoned on the seat beside him and asked Siri.

He got a bunch of articles about teachers being asked to work in unsafe conditions, getting sick and some even died. He read about the CDC saying that schools could reopen “at any level of community transmission” and that vaccinating teachers wasn’t even necessary.

The government – under both Republicans and Democrats – wouldn’t pay people to stay home so they had to keep working even at nonessential jobs, and doing so just spread the disease. And instead of blaming lawmakers, lots of folks blamed teachers for refusing to risk their lives to teach kids in-person.

Wasn’t that like today, DeShaun thought. But, no, he answered himself. They still taught kids on-line back then. Now there are hardly ever any real people on-line. Kids like him just went from app to app earning various badges in different subjects until they had enough to take the test. Those horrible multiple choice standardized tests!

He could email a question to someone but rarely got an answer back.

When he first started going to daycare, he asked one of the workers a question. There used to be this nice lady, Miss Weathers. She would at least try to answer the kids questions but he thought she got in trouble for doing it and he hadn’t seen her here since.

Now there was rarely the same adult here for more than a week or two. And they kept getting younger. Maybe HE could get a job here if he was good.

Marco came back, snatched the iPad and said “Thanks.”

DeShaun just sat there looking at his cracked phone.

Was this really all he had to look forward to, he thought.

He missed school.

He missed teachers.

He missed everything that used to be.


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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!

An Originalist Reading of Public Schools

Let’s say you went to a restaurant and ordered a big ol’ meat sandwich only to find nothing but straw between two pieces of bread.

“Waiter!” You say, calling over a server.

“What’s wrong, Sir?”

“There’s no meat in my sandwich.”

“Oh, Sir?” He says smiling, examining your plate. “Here at Scalia’s Bar and Grill we adhere to a strict originalist interpretation of language.”

“What does that have to do with my sandwich?”

“Well, Sir, in Old English ‘meat’ meant any solid food, anything other than drink. As in ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’ (1775), Samuel Johnson noted, ‘Our guides told us, that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat.’”

“But that’s not what I ordered!”

“Oh yes it is, Sir. You ordered the meat sandwich. Enjoy your fresh hay and oats.”

In everyday life, you wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense.

But for some reason, far right ideologues think it’s exactly the right way to interpret the U.S. Constitution.

The meanings of words change over time.

But ignoring that fact allows disingenuous crackpots to sweep over centuries of judicial precedent in favor of what they pretend to THINK the words meant at the time the law was written.

It’s not even about what the writers of the law SAID it meant. It’s about what today’s justices decide some hypothetical average Joe of the distant past would take certain words to mean.

The most obvious example, according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, is District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which reversed 200 years of precedent on gun regulations.

Before this ruling, the Second Amendment was interpreted to be referring only to service in the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required each able-bodied male citizen to obtain a firearm (“a good musket or firelock”) so he can participate in the “well regulated militia” the Amendment describes.

It was about the obligation to serve your country, not the right to own a gun. However, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – the most infamous proponent of judicial originalism – orchestrated the majority opinion in this case changing all that. By doing a thought experiment about what words might have meant in the 1700s, he papered over two centuries of established law. He was so proud of it that he even described it as “my masterpiece.”

THAT’S judicial originalism.

And now that Scalia fanboy and federal judge for not even three whole years, Amy Coney Barrett, is being rammed through Senate Confirmation Hearings, that preposterous ideology is about to have another proponent on the highest court in the land.

Just imagine if we interpreted everything like people living in the 18th Century!

Black people would lose any semblance of equal rights even being forced back into slavery.

Women couldn’t get checking accounts, their own healthcare, make decisions about their own bodies, even vote (least of all hold positions on the Supreme Court).

And our public schools wouldn’t even exist!

After all, there was no widespread, comprehensive system of public education in the country before John Dewey championed it in the 1930s.

Sure, Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all spoke at length about the importance of education to a free and just democratic society.

But remember, originalists don’t care about the writer’s intent. They only care about what regular people would understand by the terms. And regular people wouldn’t even understand the words “public” and “school” used together as a single concept at the time.

The first school that opened in what would become the United States was The Boston Latin School in 1635.

Its mission, and that of other colonial schools, was not to teach academics like math and literacy. It taught religion, family values and community spirit kind of like many parochial schools today.

Moreover, most schools were for boys only. If they deigned to teach girls at all, they taught them how to read but not write. No reason to give people a voice who weren’t seen as worthy of being heard.

Academics didn’t become something schools were responsible for until the mid-1800s. And even then, how they went about achieving it differed greatly from region to region of the country.

In the South, education rarely had anything to do with anything we’d call a school today. Rich families paid private tutors for their children. Everyone else was expected to work as soon as they were able.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction era began when public schooling really became a thing in the South.

And even when it did, it didn’t look much like our schools of today. These were often one-room schoolhouses where a single teacher tried to educate children of various ages, grades and abilities.

Moreover, these schools weren’t solely supported by taxes – if at all. These Common Schools were more like private or parochial schools of today. Parents paid tuition, provided housing for the teacher, or contributed other commodities in exchange for their children’s education.

Even then, the learning students received wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as our kids routinely expect in even the most under-funded urban public schools today. And special education services was non-existent. Kids with special needs were routinely left out of education altogether.

Only 31 states passed laws requiring children to go to school by 1900, and kids only went from age 8-14. It wasn’t until 1918 that every state even required elementary school.

But let’s not forget segregation.

It was the law of the land until Brown vs. Board in 1954, and even then it took until the late 1970s to become even moderately enforced.

Subsequent rulings have weakened school integration efforts to such a degree that today many districts are as segregated – if not even more – than they were in the 1950s.

Just imagine if Barrett gets together with the wingnut Republican majority on the court to reevaluate that ruling!

Imagine how many centuries of slow progress she could overturn by appealing to the common man – of 1776.

Imagine if she and the regressive right examined free speech cases! After all, many of these laws were written during the time of the Adams Administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts which radically cracked down on free expression.

We could expect a rush to return to the mire and muck that many of our enlightenment heroes were trying to escape in the first place.

But originalists like Barrett claim only they can interpret what the language in these laws originally meant. Yet their training is in law, not literacy or antiquity. They’re not linguists or historians. They don’t have some shortcut to what people used to mean by these words. They’re just playing with the language to make it mean what they want it to mean so they can rule however they so choose.

Even if they could figure out the original meaning of the words in these laws, that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense in today’s world. How, for example, do the founding fathers views on medicine have anything to do with today’s healthcare system that didn’t exist in the 1700s and that the founders couldn’t even comprehend? How do the founders views on gun rights relate to today’s firearms when they knew only of muskets and not automatic weapons?

Finally, why should we give preference to antiquated ideas over modern concepts? The laws of yesteryear may have been suited to the days in which they were written. However, if a law cannot grow to encompass the world as it exists, it has no right to continue to exist.

Judges are not supposed to overturn precedent based on lingual folderol. They’re supposed to uphold the law based on logic, reason and sound judgement.

Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.

It’s ironic that such degeneration would come from the Republican Party.

After all, the GOP platform is certainly different today than it was when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as their first President.

They used to stand for abolitionism, immigrant rights and progressive values.

Now they’re the party of plutocrat neofascist Christian fundamentalism.

If anything were to revert back to its original meaning, I wish it were the Grand Old Party, which is now neither grand, barely a party and merely old.


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 Student-Teacher Relationship is One of the Most Misunderstood and Underrated Aspects of Education

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When I came back to school for the first time since the Coronavirus closed the building, there were a pile of letters waiting for me in my mailbox.

 

I took them to my empty classroom and read the first one:

 

“Hello Mr. Singer, I just thought you should know that you are the greatest teacher I’ve had since Kindergarten all the way to my freshman year of High School and probably will remain that way forever. You always helped me with my work when I was behind and gave me extra time to finish it. Your class was the class I looked forward to every day. You were always a nice and funny man. Thank you for being there for me and everyone else in your classes. I’ll be sure to visit you after school every now and then…”

 

I picked up another:

 

“You have no idea how much I miss you… I quite miss our talks after class about video games, movies and musicals. As cheesy as it sounds, I always looked forward to them; especially during the days I was having problems with other students, your wise words always helped…”

 

And another:

 

“…we had fun times in your class. There wasn’t one non-fun day that we had because if we was going to have a bad day you made it better and way more fun. You also helped us a lot even when we didn’t ask for it. When people didn’t want to do our work, you got them happy and got them to do their work. Thanks for everything and thanks for helping me be a smarter kid.”

 

I felt a lump forming in my throat.

 

My cheeks were hot.

 

And why was my face wet?

 

I hadn’t expected any of this.

 

After a semester of distance learning, I’d come back to school to return all the materials I had hastily marauded from my own filing cabinets and book shelves.

 

I had stopped in the office merely as a matter of course.

 

With the school year at a close, I had gathered the odds and ends in my mailbox including this bundle of correspondence.

 

Now as I sat at my desk smiling, laughing and crying – experiencing each letter like a warm hug on a winters day – I remembered something Ms. Williams had said in an email.

 

She had assigned a thank you letter to her high school business classes. Her students had to write a formal thank you to a previous teacher. But that was all that was required. Who they wrote to and what they said was entirely up to them.

 

She had written to me months ago to let me know these letters were coming.
It was just bad luck that the assignment was due just as the global pandemic closed everything down so I was only reading them now.

 

Kids usually spend about 1,000 hours with their teachers in a single year.

 

During that time we build strong relationships.

 

While just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things.

 

Some policymakers will insist on limiting that relationship to connections that increase academic outcomes. Others advise a more holistic approach.

 

Both are backed by research.

 

A review of 46 educational studies concluded that strong student-teacher relationships are associated with positive outcomes in everything from higher student academic engagement, attendance and grades, better behavior and fewer suspensions to higher graduation rates. And this is true of both short term and long term effects and even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds.

 

However, many studies disregard everything but standardized test scores. That is the primary goal and arbiter of effectiveness. As such, in those cases the relationship they are looking for is much different than in those with broader aims.

 

A 2018 study from Arizona State University found a disparity in teacher-training programs that highlighted this difference.

 

Some programs prioritized an “instrumental focus” with students where teachers were encouraged to use personal information on students to get them to behave and do their work. The goal was compliance not autonomy or problem solving.

 

Other programs valued a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal was free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures.

 

Moreover, the study found that the differences in focus corresponded to where aspiring teachers were expected to get a job after the training was complete. The instrumental focused teacher prep programs invariably trained incoming educators for low-income and high-minority schools. The reciprocal approach was preferred for teachers preparing for wealthier and whiter students.

 

So once again the physical segregation of our children becomes “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But while President George W. Bush used that famous phrase to demonize anyone who thought poverty and racism were barriers to achievement, it is actually a focus on test scores that is bigoted.

 

We expect teachers to care about their wealthy white students but merely manipulate their poor brown ones.

 
This just goes to justify my own reciprocal approach in the classroom.

 

Test-obsessed policy makers will tell educators to manage everything with a clipboard and a spreadsheet – for example, to increase the percentage of positive interactions vs negative ones in a given class period. But such a data-centric mindset dehumanizes both student and teacher.

 

The goal cannot be to maximize numbers whether they be test scores or some other metric. It has to be about the relationship, itself.

 

Teachers have to care about their students. All teachers. All students.

 

Or at least we have to try.

 

A little bit of empathy goes a long way. And not just to get students to jump through hoops.

You have to care about each student as a person.

 

The goal can never be a test score. It has to be self actualization.

 

Teachers have to help kids become their best selves. And the definition of what counts as your best self is largely defined by the student, his- or herself.

 

How telling that we implicitly understand this when it comes to high socioeconomic kids with lighter skin! How pathetic that we lower our sights when it comes to poor kids and children of color.

 

I teach mostly minority students in a low income school in Western Pennsylvania. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always fought against this prescription to see student relationships as instrumental to their outcomes.

 

And the results are evident in what they wrote to me.

 

“…now that I’m no longer in your class I’ve decided it was about time that I give you a proper thank you for all you did, putting up with me and dealing with me in class… You helped me learn how to write essays. But most important of all, for two years you made school fun for me again, which was something I thought was impossible.”

 

***

 

“…Everyday I was always looking forward to having your class because I knew that having your class would be thrilling. I miss having your class because you made me laugh and in return I made you laugh a couple of times.”

***

 

“…Being in your class made me enjoy learning and reading more. It was almost always something I looked forward to throughout my day. We were always learning about interesting topics and I was never bored in your class… Thank you for being the greatest teacher ever and a cool dude.”

 

***

 

“…I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”

 

***

 

“You were my favorite teacher because your class was always fun and we were always doing fun things and fun projects in your class and your class was never boring. You also taught us a lot of useful things… we’ve been using them so far this year. You were also never in a bad mood and always were positive in the morning so you always brought my energy up… I never looked forward to a morning class besides your class because I knew that we were going to do something fun.”

 

***

 

“…Your class was the only class that I got excited for because we always read good stories and did fun things… I also wanted to say I’m sorry for talking and disrupting the classroom when I was carrying on. I should have been paying attention to what you had to say and what you were trying to teach me.”

 

***

 

“It was interesting to have a teacher that wrote a book because not a lot of teachers write books. It was also interesting [you had a] TED Talk…”

 

***

 

“You have had some pretty good accomplishments in your life if I may say so. Like your book “Gadfly on the Wall”, and I have to say it’s a pretty good book. I read some of it and I get what you’re saying.”

 

***

 

“…middle school was hard for me. I had difficult days with tons of IXLS piled [on from other classes] but instead of you giving them to me you actually taught me by yourself. Also we were able to joke around a lot about books and just random things in class.”

 

***

 

“…you taught me how to write and put punctuation in my sentences and in my paragraphs. Coming into your class in the beginning of 7th grade I didn’t know how to read that good or consistent… My vocabulary and speech increased in your class.”

 
***

 

“…You always had a way to make the class fun or easy. Also you always had a way to keep me on track and prepared… If I didn’t have you for 7th and 8th grade I don’t think I would be able to handle 9th grade… I’m glad to of had you for two years because I learned double the stuff and was double ready for 9th grade. I’m doing well [now] because of you…”

 
***

 

“I wanted to write to you because you’re honestly my favorite teacher and you kept my spirits up. I had your class for two years [7th and 8th grade]; the first year I wasn’t sure how I felt about you but overtime I realized you’re pretty cool. I loved Socratic Seminars . They were a way to voice your opinion and that’s always fun… You helped me find a few of my favorite books like “The Outsiders”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which my friends and I still mention to this day… I’m in the musical this year and… without you I don’t think I would have been able to build up the courage to try out… You made me the person I am today. You taught me to challenge things that are unfair and to treat people with respect.”

 
Those are just some of the highlights.

 

I think more than anything I could say, they prove the point.

 

But to put a cherry on top, I’ll add one last thing.

 

In my 8th grade poetry unit, we watch “Dead Poets Society.”

 

Last year my students threatened to reenact the ending of the film where the kids stand on their desks to honor Mr. Keating, their English teacher who taught them to think for themselves instead of being cogs in the machine.

 

On the last day of school, they did it, too.

 

I cautioned against it because I didn’t want anyone to fall and get hurt. But when the last bell rang and emotions ran high, I simply took the compliment.

 

A year later, they must have remembered the moment as much as I did because many, many of the letters weren’t addressed just to Mr. Singer.

 

They were addressed to “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

 

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I wrote each student a personal response and sent it to them via the US Post Office. For many this may be the first actual letter they’ve received.

 


 

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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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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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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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How Did America’s Schools Cope with Spanish Flu vs. Coronavirus?

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They say history repeats itself.

 

And if you’ve read any accounts of the bygone days of yesteryear, the current crisis certainly appears like a rerun.

 

Look at all the closed businesses, frightened people venturing out wearing face masks or self quarantined in their homes. It sure looks a lot like 1918.

 

The Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the nation a little more than a century ago bares more than a passing resemblance to COVID-19, the coronavirus. And the ways we are trying to cope with the situation are in many cases modeled on what worked a hundred years ago.

 

For instance, when our ancestors enacted social distancing policies to flatten the curve of infection, their infrastructures were better able to save lives. When they didn’t enact such policies, death tolls were greater.

 

That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.

 

However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.

 

After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.

 

In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.

 

But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?

 

There-in lies a tale.

 

America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.

 

They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.

 

Wait. Educate at a distance? In 1918?

 

Yep.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

PITTSBURGH

 
Let’s begin in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 
City officials didn’t take the matter seriously enough and as a result, Pittsburgh ended up with the highest death rate of any major city in the country. The Spanish Flu killed at least 4,500 people – a smaller total than cities like Philadelphia, but it represented more than 1 in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 people sought treatment at local hospitals.

 

According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.

 

This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”

 

City officials were at least partly to blame.

 

Though local colleges and universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and Carnegie Tech all closed their doors near the start of the outbreak, city public schools initially were kept open.

 

In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.

 

However, as Kenneth White put it in his 1985 article “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918”:

 

“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”

 
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.

 

Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.

 

Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.

 

Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.

 

I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.

 

NEW YORK CITY

 

New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.

 

While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.

 

However, just like Pittsburgh, New York kept its schools open.

 

In an October 5th New York Times article, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland explained his logic behind the controversial decision to keep students in class:

 

“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”

 

In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.

 

In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.

 

According to Francesco Aimone in “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New York City: A Review of the Public Health Response”:

 

“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”

 
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.

 

Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”

 

CHICAGO

 

However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.

 

Keeping schools open in the Windy City more closely emulated the situation in Pittsburgh.

 

According to a timeline of preventive measures published in the American Journal of Public Health by Chicago’s Health Commissioner Dr. John Dill Robertson, city schools weren’t closed because officials didn’t think children were getting sick more than adults. They thought it would be better to keep students indoors where they could be watched for symptoms.

 

However, children ended up dying from the flu in Chicago at a higher rate than their parents.

 

Like in Pittsburgh, any student who coughed or sneezed was immediately sent home – though eventually this also came with a mandatory home quarantine.

 

SMALLER TOWNS

 
Officials were more sensible in smaller towns like Adrian and Tecumseh, Michigan.

 

In both municipalities all schools were closed by the end of October when the epidemic began there.

 

By Dec. 12 there was a plan to reopen, however that was revised as the death toll continued to rise. Schools ultimately remained closed until January 1919.

 

Schools made up the missing days of class by extending the remaining year.
They stayed open for 30 minutes beyond their usual dismissal time and held half-day sessions on Saturdays.

 

Another small town that wasn’t taking chances was Pontiac, Illinois.

 

Not only did officials close the schools, they ended up using them as field hospitals for the sick.

 

Moreover, when classes were cancelled, school age children were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they had to run an errand. Anyone with the flu was immediately quarantined in his or her home.

 

Schools were closed on October 15 for what was originally supposed to be just five weeks. However, when the second wave of the flu hit, the closure was extended.

 

Things got so bad that from December 3rd through January 1st, school buildings were used as a hospital to treat those with the flu.

 

By early January, the worst had passed and schools were reopened. Beginning on January 10, 1919, the high school held an extra session on Saturday to help make up some of the missed class work.

 

This seems to be the general pattern. Larger cities tried to push on and keep things as normal as possible – with usually disastrous results. Smaller towns took more serious precautions and limited the death toll.

 

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

 

And then there’s Lakeland, Florida.

 
Leave it to this district in Polk County to be the oddball.

 

On Oct. 10, the schools were officially closed. But not really.

 

Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:

 

“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”

 

Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.

 

Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.

 

Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.

 

Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help.
 Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.

 

Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.

 

However, instead of waiting for the crisis to pass before addressing any academic deficiencies, many districts are requiring distance learning.

 

Teachers are being made to go in to school buildings or work from home creating online courses from scratch with little to no training.

 

True, this doesn’t expose educators to an added risk of catching the virus, themselves, but it does seem a bit mercenary.

 

We’re in a public health crisis where thousands of people are getting sick and dying. And the thing ourschool administrators are most concerned about is continued academic performance. They’d rather keep going with whatever quality of instruction can be provided in slapdash fashion than wait until it can be provided in the best possible circumstances.

 

They’d rather risk leaving behind those students without Internet access or whose special needs can’t be met online. Anything rather than extending the school year?

 

It’s interesting to compare today’s solutions to those of yesteryear.

 

Why didn’t more districts in 1918 try to make teachers instruct students through the newspaper and over the phone? Why didn’t more districts make teachers go to school buildings and even students homes during an epidemic?

 

Are we really doing the right thing by emulating those solutions?


 

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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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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Public Schools Can Recover from the COVID-19 Quarantine by Skipping High Stakes Tests

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There is one plus from being sick during a global pandemic.

 

You get perspective.

 

While all the schools in Pennsylvania are closed for at least the next two weeks to help stop the spread of COVID-19 (colloquially known as the Coronavirus), I self-quarantined a day early.

 

No, I don’t think I have the virus, but I’m not taking any chances.

 

Still, sitting here at my laptop with a steaming mug of tea, I’m filled with optimism.

 

My symptoms don’t match those of the virus – no fever, no dry cough, no difficulty breathing, no runny nose or sore throat. I just sneeze occasionally, have an intermittent wet cough and feel a bone deep fatigue.

 

Probably not the culprit sending the world into shutdown mode. But best to rest up anyway.

 

I’m also filled with a deep sense of gratitude that I’m a public school teacher.

 

My last class was a rough one – 7th graders running around the room with half written poetry demanding instruction, guidance, reassurance. My morning 8th graders were likewise rushing to complete a poetry assignment – frantically asking for help interpreting Auden, Calvert, Henley, Poe, Thomas.

 

What a privilege it has been to be there for them! How much I will miss that over the few next weeks!

 

Who would ever have thought we’d go into self quarantine to stop people from getting infected?

 

It says something about us that what seemed impossible just a few days ago has become a reality. We actually saw a problem and took logical steps to avoid it!

 

I know – we could have done a better job. We could have acted more quickly and in many areas we haven’t done nearly enough (New York, I’m looking at you).

 

But what we have done already shows that human beings aren’t finished. We have massive problems waiting to be solved – global climate change, social and racial inequality, the corrupting influence of money in politics, etc. However, we CAN do the logical thing and solve these problems!

 

No matter how crazy it seems now, tomorrow could be filled with rational solutions. If only we allow ourselves that chance.

 

So my spirits are high here in my little hollow nestled in with my family.

 

But being a teacher I can’t help thinking about what’s to come next.

 

Eventually this whole ordeal will be over.

 

Schools will reopen. Things will get back to normal. Or try to, anyway.

 

The challenge will be attempting to overcome the month or more of lost schooling.

 

Some will be thankful they relied on virtual schooling to fill in the gaps. When this whole crisis began, officials chided us to make preparations for “teleschool” in case of just this eventuality.

 

I’m glad we didn’t.

 

Frankly, (1) it would have been a huge cost that schools don’t have the money to meet and (2) it would have been money down the drain.

 

There is nothing innovative about sending kids on-line to do their assignments. The majority of work that can be done that way is of the lowest quality.

 

That’s workbook nonsense that the laziest and most checked out educators of generations past gave to their students to keep them quiet.

 

We see students in China who are being educated that way finding ways around it – giving their education apps low star reviews in the app store so that they’ll be removed, etc.

 

Here in the USA, all children don’t even have access to the Internet. They rely on the local libraries to get online – not a good idea in a pandemic.

 

So most schools have had to do without.

 

School is cancelled for about a month or so, and then – hopefully – it will return.

 

The question remains – what do we do when we get back to class?

 

We could extend the school year, but families have vacations planned and other obligations. This wouldn’t solve much and frankly I don’t think it will happen unless we’re out for longer than expected.

 

I anticipate being back in school by mid April or so. That would leave about a month and a half left in the year.

 

This really leaves us with only two options: (1) hold our end of the year standardized tests and then fit in whatever else we can, or (2) forgo the tests and teach the curriculum.

 

If we have the tests, we could hold them shortly after school is back in session. That at least would give us more time to teach, but it would reduce the quality of the test scores. Kids wouldn’t be as prepared and the results would be used to further dismantle the public school network.

 

Much better I think is option two: skip the tests altogether.

 

Frankly, we don’t need them. Teachers observe students every day. We give formal and informal assessments every time we see our kids. We’re like scientists engaged in a long-term study taking daily measurements and meticulously recording them before coming to our year end conclusions called classroom grades.

 

In my classes, I think I could teach just about the same material in the remaining time if I didn’t have to worry about the high stakes tests.

 

In 7th grade, this would mean finishing up our almost completed poetry unit – having kids put together their poetry portfolios and sharing them. Then we’d begin our final novel of the year, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg, talk about mystery stories, reader perspectives and how truth impacts fiction.

 

In 8th grade, we could likewise finish up poetry with some presentations on students’ favorites from the assigned group. Then we could read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and selections from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”We could discuss propaganda, prejudice and compare the historical perspective of Europe and the United States.

 

In both cases, we might have to forgo a year-end project, but at least we’d cover the majority of what we proposed at the beginning of the year.

 

Students would leave their respective grades with just about everything we set out to give them. They’d be prepared and ready to meet the challenges of the coming grade.

 

That seems a worthy goal to me.

 

But I hear someone ask – what about the standardized testing? Won’t students be less prepared having skipped over those assessments?

 

The answer is no. They would not be less prepared.

 

They would be better educated without a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

 

The shame is that this alteration in schedule would probably only last one year.

 

In 2020-21, we’d probably reinstate these standardized assessments.

 

This is at least a month of wasted schooling. If we got rid of all the pretests and administrator required teaching-to-the-test, we could clear up a good 9-weeks of extra class time.

 

Imagine what teachers could do with those surplus days!

 

My 8th graders could read the whole of “Mockingbird,” for one. instead of just selections. My 7th graders could read another entire novel – probably Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman.” Not to mention the addition of more women and writers of color, the extra time for creative writing, an emphasis on finding your own point of view.

 

And for me that’s the benefit of this COVID-19 crisis. It shows us what could be – what we could do if we were only brave enough to try.

 

Happy self-quarantine, everyone!


 

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.

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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 Ongoing Study of How and When Teachers Should Praise Students

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Should teachers praise their students?

 

 

It’s a simple question with a multiplicity of answers.

 

 

A 2020 study published in the journal Educational Psychology concludes that teachers who use praise see a 30% increase in good behavior from their classes.

 

 

Meanwhile, reprimands actually increase misbehavior and unwillingness to comply with instruction.

 

 

Researches suggest a 3:1 or 4:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio. So for every one reprimand, a teacher should provide three or four positive reinforcements.

 

 

Unfortunately, this study flies in the face of previous research.

 

 

According to a 2014 study by the Sutton Trust, teachers who give struggling pupils “lavish praise” can make them even less likely to succeed.

 

 

Too much praise can “convey a message of low expectations.”

 

 

Researchers warned that if failure brings students too much sympathy, they are more likely to associate that approval with underachievement.

 

 

Yet it’s fine for educators to express anger at underachievement because it doesn’t create positive associations with performing badly. In fact, it motivates them to try harder.

 

 

But another study from 1998 turns this on its head.

 

 

This examination found that it wasn’t a matter of praise or reprimand. What was important was the kind of praise being given to children.

 

 

In short, researchers concluded that the wrong kind of praise can have disastrous consequences.

 

 

If teachers praised the hard work students did on an assignment – even if that work was not completed successfully – it resulted in willingness to work out new approaches in the future.

 
However, if instead the teacher praised the students ability or achievement, that could result in a tendency to give up when confronted with future failures.

 

 

So what are teachers to do?

 

 

Frankly, researchers don’t know.

 

 

They look at discrete data sets and try to make broad conclusions.

 

 

However, when you’re dealing with something as complex as the minds of children, this approach is destined for failure.

 

 

There are simply too many variables at play.

 

 

And that’s something every classroom teacher with any experience knows in her bones.

 

 

Teaching is not like baking a cake. There is no one recipe that will work every time on every student.

 

 

Being an educator is an art as much as it is a science.

 

 

In my own classroom, I praise my students a lot.

 

 

I reprimand, too.

 

 

And though I try to focus on effort, I admit to commending students on the results at times.

 

 

This year I was tasked with creating a new writing course for 8th graders called “Writing is Fundamental.”

 

 

Each day, I give students a writing task – usually focusing on the more creative side – and then I wander from desk to desk observing, answering questions and ultimately reading and commenting on their finished work in real time.

 

 

It’s exhausting.

 

 

At first, I try to be positive even when the writing isn’t that great. But then as I get to know the students and their abilities, I begin to be more critical and offer ways in which they can – and sometimes must – try to improve.

 

 

The results are mixed.

 

 

Some students – especially the lowest achievers – tend to respond to praise like a flower does to light. They soak it up and blossom.

 

 

I had one student who entered the class so embarrassed about his writing he was literally hiding under the desk and making jokes about how terrible a writer he was.

 

 

After just a week, he was working longer than any other student in the class to craft his responses and made sure to share his work with me and sometimes the entire class.

 

 

By the end of the semester, he wasn’t going to win any awards, but his writing had improved by leaps and bounds. And his attitude was almost that of a different person.

 

 

However, in the same class, there were students who didn’t respond as positively.

 

 

One child who was used to taking honors courses was put off by the creative nature of the writing. He preferred to write expository essays and hated the focus on details, figurative language and creativity.

 

 

Students were not required to share their work with the class but doing so earned them participation points. So he felt obliged to do so and was extremely upset that – in his own mind – his work didn’t compare favorably with some of his classmates.

 

 

Other students more used to having their work evaluated on standardized tests were indignant at my continual pushing them to improve. They knew that what they had written would be good enough on the standardized test, so there was no point working any further to refine their craft.

 

 

When it comes to praise, teachers are put in a very difficult position.

 

 

We want to help encourage our students but we don’t want that encouragement to ring false.

 

 

If all I ever did was tell students what a good job they were doing, they would soon catch on that it was meaningless. Every child can’t win a self esteem prize every day for whatever they do.

 

 

However, an amazing piece of work from a student who always does amazing work isn’t as impressive as moderately improved work from a student who has struggled constantly up to this point.

 

 

More than writing, I try to teach my students that learning is not about a destination – it’s a journey. And only they can truly decide whether the work they’ve done has value.

 

 

I offer advice on how they might revise their work, but it’s often up to them whether they want to keep refining a piece of writing or whether they have done enough for the day.

 

 

I’d be lying if I said the relationships I had with students has no baring on this. Many of them want to make me proud of them, but hopefully they get beyond this point.

 

 

In a semester course, the relationships are more transient and not as powerful. But in my year-long classes, they’re deeper and more far-reaching.

 

 

And that’s really the point that I think this body of research misunderstands.

 

 

It’s not praise or reprimands that matter as much as it is relationships.

 

 

Students learn from educators they trust. And part of gaining that trust is giving the proper kind of feedback – encouraging but honest, critical but helpful, opinionated but respectful.

 

 

Maybe if we trusted classroom teachers more to talk authoritatively about their experiences, we’d know more about the realities of education.

 

 

Coming into the classroom occasionally to observe student behavior is extremely shallow when compared to the everyday empiricism of lifelong educators.

 

 

Perhaps before we decide whether to praise students or not, we should agree to give classroom teachers their due.

 


 

 

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 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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