Artificially Intelligent Chatbots Will Not Replace Teachers

Education pundits are a lot like the guy in the “Distracted Boyfriend”meme.

They’re walking with teachers but looking around at the first thing possible to replace them.

This weekend it’s AI chatbots.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with Siri from Apple or Alexa from Amazon, you’ve interacted with a chatbot.

Bill Gates already invested more than $240 million in personalized learning and called it the future of education.

And many on social media were ready to second his claim when ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by artificial intelligence company OpenAI, responded in seemingly creative ways to users on-line.

It answered users requests to rewrite the 90s hit song, “Baby Got Back,” in the style of “The Canterbury Tales.” It wrote a letter to remove a bad account from a credit report (rather than using a credit repair lawyer). It explained nuclear fusion in a limerick.

It even wrote a 5-paragraph essay on the novel “Wuthering Heights” for the AP English exam.

Josh Ong, the Twitter user who asked for the Emily Bronte essay, wrote, “Teachers are in so much trouble with AI.”

But are they? Really?

Teachers do a lot more than provide right answers. They ask the right questions.

They get students to think and find the answers on their own.

They get to know students on a personal level and develop lessons individually suited to each child’s learning style.

That MIGHT involve explaining a math concept as a limerick or rewriting a 90’s rap song in Middle English, but only if that’s what students need to help them learn.

It’s interpersonal relationships that guide the journey and even the most sophisticated chatbot can’t do that yet and probably never will have that capacity.

ChatGPT’s responses are entertaining because we know we’re not communicating with a human being. But that’s exactly what you need to encourage the most complex learning.

Human interaction is an essential part of good teaching. You can’t do that with something that is not, in itself, human – something that cannot form relationships but can only mimic what it thinks good communication and good relationships sound like.

Even when it comes to providing right answers, chatbots have an extremely high error rate. People extolling these AI’s virtues are overlooking how often they get things wrong.

Anyone who has used Siri or Alexa knows that – sometimes they reply to your questions with non sequiturs or a bunch of random words that don’t even make sense.

ChatGPT is no different.

As more people used it, ChatGPT’s answers became so erratic that Stack Overflow – a Q&A platform for coders and programmers – temporarily banned users from sharing information from ChatGPT, noting that it’s “substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for correct answers.”

The answers it provides are not thought out responses. They are approximations – good approximations – of what it calculates would be a correct answer if asked of a human being.

The chatbot is operating “without a contextual understanding of the language,” said Lian Jye Su, a research director at market research firm ABI Research.

“It is very easy for the model to give plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers,” she said. “It guessed when it was supposed to clarify and sometimes responded to harmful instructions or exhibited biased behavior. It also lacks regional and country-specific understanding.”

Which brings up another major problem with chatbots. They learn to mimic users, including racist and prejudicial assumptions, language and biases.

For example, Microsoft Corp.’s AI bot ‘Tay’ was taken down in 2016 after Twitter users taught it to say racist, sexist and offensive remarks. Another developed by Meta Platforms Inc. had similar problems just this year. 

Great! Just what we need! Racist Chatbots!

This kind of technology is not new, and has historically been used with mixed success at best.

ChatGPT may have received increased media coverage because its parent company, OpenAI, was co-founded by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world.

Eager for any headline that didn’t center on his disastrous takeover of Twitter, Musk endorsed the new AI even though he left the company in 2018 after disagreements over its direction.

However, AI and even chatbots have been used in some classrooms successfully.

Professor Ashok Goel secretly used a chatbot called Jill Watson as an assistant teacher of online courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The AI answered routine questions from students, while professors concentrated on more complicated issues. At the end of the course, when Goel revealed that Jill Watson was a chatbot, many students expressed surprise and said they had thought she was a real person.

This appears to be the primary use of a chatbot in education.

“Students have a lot of the same questions over and over again. They’re looking for the answers to easy administrative questions, and they have similar questions regarding their subjects each year. Chatbots help to get rid of some of the noise. Students are able to get to answers as quickly as possible and move on,” said Erik Bøylestad Nilsen from BI Norwegian Business School.

However, even in such instances, chatbots are expensive as yet to install, run and maintain, and (as with most EdTech) they almost always collect student data that is often sold to businesses.

Much better to rely on teachers.

You remember us? Warm blooded, fallible, human teachers.

The best innovation is still people.


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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!

 

Teachers are Being Spied on for Thoughtcrimes

Teachers, be careful.

Big Mother is watching you.

When you post a rainbow flag on your Facebook profile…

When you tweet support for Black Lives Matter…

When you like a YouTube video of someone punching a Nazi…

Big Mother is watching.

Or more specifically, Moms for Liberty is watching.


And, no, the group’s members probably don’t get the irony of their name.

Moms for Liberty (MFL) is a billionaire-funded front group dedicated to spreading disinformation and chaos at public schools across the country.

They’ve offered cash prizes for turning in teachers who dare to educate on topics that go against far right doctrine. They’ve demanded books on similar topics be removed from school libraries and curriculum. And they’ve even stormed school board meetings where they don’t necessary live to complain about every petty grievance Fox News is broadcasting this week.

Now they’re coming after teachers social media.

They’re creating workshops to encourage people to find public educators’ online accounts and report anything they don’t like at school board meetings or in the media, ultimately demanding the offenders be fired.

After all, if Miss Roosevelt has a rainbow flag on her personal Facebook account, what’s to stop her from making her students gay!?

If Mr. Kennedy tweeted in favor of Black Lives Matter, what’s to stop him from making our White children hate themselves because of the color of their skin!?

And if Mrs. Gore liked a YouTube video where a Nazi got punched in the face, how do we know she won’t condone such violence in the classroom!?

MFL is based in Florida, but operates on a county-by-county basis, claiming 200 chapters in 37 states including Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Eerie, Bucks, Lancaster counties, etc).

This is an image advertising one such workshop in Nueces, Texas, but they are popping up everywhere.

One of the many ironies about the situation is how the idea has been pulled almost directly from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”

Orwell coined the term “thoughtcrime” to describe a person’s politically unorthodox thoughts – anything that runs counter to the party line. In criminalizing thought and even tasking the Thinkpol (i.e. thought police) with monitoring things people say, write or how they act, Orwell could be describing MFL.

In the fictional country of Oceania, the party controls all speech, actions and thoughts of citizens. This is pretty much what MFL is trying to do here.

It’s a strange way to love “liberty.”

These right-wingers actively harass people on the left for their politics, but cry foul when anyone dares to call them out on theirs.

The Florida-based organization claims to be just “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” Yet it’s infamous for encouraging a “mass exodus from the public school system” while disrupting that same system at every turn.

Its members are using culture war shenanigans to intimidate and harass people into silence.

They’re weaponizing fear to coerce people into curtailing political speech of which they don’t approve.

As infuriating as this is, it’s not new.

There have always been a few petty people in nearly every community willing to scroll through teachers feeds looking for trouble. Frankly, it’s why new educators are warned to keep their personal lives off the Internet or to keep their information private.

The only difference now is how concentrated these spying efforts may become.

We’re not talking about just the local crank looking for photos of teachers drinking or engaged in the crime of living an adult life.

We’re talking about well-funded ideologues out to destroy the public school system, one teacher at a time.

Incorporated in 2021, MFL is a 501(c)4 corporation, so it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. However, one of the group’s founders is Bridget Ziegler, wife of the Florida vice chairman of the Republican Party. The organization is affiliated with at least three separate PACs, and has the funds to pay for keynote speakers like Megyn Kelly and Ben Carson at its fundraisers. Some of its biggest supporters are the Koch family, the DeVos family, former Trump officials and The Federalist Society. 

They have the money to go through your Web footprint with a fine toothed comb.

So what should teachers do about it?

As a public school teacher, myself, the way I see it, there are two things we can do:

1) Lock down or disengage from social media


2) Keep doing what you’re doing

Your response will depend on your own situation.

If you live in a so-called Right to Work state or where worker protections are few and far between, you should probably get a tight grip on your online presence.

Make sure your personal Facebook account and any groups you belong to are private and secure. Ensure that anyone invited into these groups is verified through either questions or personal invitation. Check that everyone has agreed not to screen shot any discussions happening – and even then be careful what you post because nothing is ever 100% secure.

Use a privacy audit to make sure you don’t have something embarrassing out there. This guide from Violet Blue is a good starting place to ensure your private information is not easily findable online.

On the other hand, if you live in a state with strong union protections, you have a reliable union at your school, etc., then you have less to worry about.

You can’t be fired for expressing your freedom of speech on your own time on your own social media accounts. As long as you’re not on school devices, using or sharing such accounts in school or with students, you should be fine.

That doesn’t mean someone won’t try to harass you over your digital presence. But if you understand the dangers and feel relatively safe, you probably are.

I’ve been writing on education and civil rights issues for 8 years. I actively TRY to get people to read this stuff.

In that time, there have been a lot of folks mad at me for what I write. I sometimes get hate mail (usually email) calling me everything you can think of and more you can’t. And when some of these folks find out where I work, they sometimes call up to complain and demand I be let go with haste!

Nothing has come of it.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen tomorrow. But I refuse to live in fear.

I am who I am.

I shout it to the world.

And if someone wants to fire me for it, then fine.

There are lots of things I could be doing other than this.

We’re in a national crisis with teachers leaving the profession in droves at least in part because of fascist shenanigans like this.

Bottom line: I love teaching, but I’m not going to change who I am to do it.

Moms for Liberty can rage. They can spend all of Betsy DeVos’ billions trying to fire me and other educators who dare to have thoughts that may deviate from the right-wing.

Big Mother is not MY mom. And I don’t owe her anything.


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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!

 

I Will NOT Lead My Students in Prayer and Neither Should You

As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.

In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.

The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.

The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.

Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.

I know this from personal experience.

When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.

I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…

Except one – Silent Night.

I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”

So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.

I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.

I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.

But the choral teacher did.

She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.

She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.

It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.

But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.

In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.

However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.

It took me decades to get over it. Really.

Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.

So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.

It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.

And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.

We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.

By and large, public school teachers today make an effort not to force their ways onto their students.

It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.

When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.

Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.

And this includes discussions of religion.

When something Biblical or theological comes out of a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders,” we give it our full attention.

I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.

Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.

I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.

And that’s how it should be.

Kids have never been forbidden from talking about God or praying in school.

It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.

Until now.

However just because an increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court makes a regressive ruling doesn’t mean teachers have to change.

Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.

But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.

So here’s what I suggest we do.

We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.

Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.

Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.

Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.

Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.

When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.

We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.

We should use it to protect our children.


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.

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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!

How Teachers Like Me Can Renew Ourselves This Summer

This school year was perhaps the most difficult one I’ve experienced in two decades in the classroom.

From constantly having to cover for sick or otherwise absent staff, to absorbing student traumas suffered in years of a pandemic, to increased student fights, social awkwardness and administrators demanding more paperwork and untried initiatives that get dropped for another fad next week…

It’s been rough!

Now that most K-12 schools have begun or are about to begin summer break, it can be hard to rest and renew yourself for the coming year.

To be honest, many teachers have already decided to leave.

At my district, more teachers have retired this year than at any time since I was hired – about 10% of the staff.

And some even quit in the middle of the year – something that hardly ever happens.

If things don’t change this year, it will be worse next year.

But for those like me planning on returning in the Fall, congratulations. You made it through.

Now what?

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself nibbled by stress and anxiety.

I try to sleep, I try to rest, but worry and hopelessness settle down on me like a shroud.

If you’re like me, you may need some help getting through it all.

So here’s a list of five things we can do – not just you, but me, too – that hopefully will help us rejuvenate ourselves somewhat in the next few months and set us up for a successful year with our students.

1) Be Present with Friends and Family

Teachers often live in their heads.

We’re always planning a new lesson or thinking about how to help a student or improve something from the year before.

But this is summer break.

It’s time to tune out and turn off.

You’re home and hopefully you can find some time to spend with friends and family.

Just remember to try to be there. Actually be there.

Don’t live in your head. Live in the moment.

Let the present open up in front of you and actually enjoy the things you’re doing.

Our professional lives often demand we sacrifice so much time with our significant others, our kids, and the people we care about. Now is the time to balance the scales and enjoy their company. And nothing else.

This can be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.

2) Don’t Focus on Things You Can’t Change

There is so much going on in the world, and we’re teachers. We’re problem solvers.

We want to fix broken things, and there is so much broken out there. The news is often not our friend.

I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on. We do so at our peril. But we have to try to put it all in context.

We’re just people – individuals caught in nets of complexity. We can’t solve all these problems ourselves.

A horrible regressive monster is running for Governor in the Fall who would destroy your profession and endanger your child’s future. Got it.

The government still hasn’t passed any meaningful measures to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. Got it.

Politicians are still attacking your profession, history, science, math and enlightenment values. Argh!

And they’ll still be doing it at the end of August.

Take a break from it all.

Worrying will not change anything. And it will all be there for you later.

Just try to focus your mind elsewhere – for a little while.

3) Let Go of Resentments

This can be really hard but important.

There are a lot of people who have probably said or done things that made your life difficult this year.

It could be that parent who screamed at you on the phone over an assignment their child didn’t turn in.

It could be an administrator who made another stupid initiative that makes him/her look good while increasing your work load but does nothing to help the students.

It could be a sincerely stupid politician accused with pedophilia and insurrection who thinks taking pot shots at teachers will win him votes from the lowest common denominator.

It could be… so many people.

Take a deep breath and let it go.

You don’t need that baggage weighing you down.

As Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said:

“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.”

Leave that behind.

There will be plenty more next year.

4) Don’t Expect Too Much of Yourself

Often our harshest critic is ourselves.

We try so hard to be kind to everyone all year. This summer, be kind to yourself.

It’s break time. You don’t have to clean the whole house top to bottom. You don’t have to finally rearrange the utility drawer or any of a million other things that have been waiting around for you to get to them.

By all means, make those doctor’s appointments you’ve been waiting on. Buy a new pair of shoes. Cut the grass.

But if something doesn’t get done, don’t feel like it’s a failure.

You are allowed to simply do nothing.

Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.

Be as productive as you want. Sometimes that helps alleviate stress, too – the satisfaction of getting things accomplished.

However, this break is not all about crossing things off your TO DO list.

It’s about rest and renewal.

Cut yourself some slack.

No one else will.

5) Remember Why You Got into Teaching

When you feel ready to turn your mind back to the job, try not to think of all the negative things waiting for you.

Don’t even let your mind rest on the uncertainties and anxieties ahead.

Focus on why you’re still a teacher.

You’re not chained to this profession. You probably had the chance to leave if you’d wanted.

Why did you get into education in the first place?

What are the things about it that you still love and enjoy?

For me, it’s nearly everything in the classroom, itself.

It’s interacting with students.

It’s helping them succeed and then seeing the look of joy on their faces when they do.

I love everything about my job – the subject I teach, the students, being there when there’s no one else.

It’s just all the stuff outside the classroom that I can’t stand.

I make a file during the year full of Christmas cards, goodbye messages from parents and students, positive emails, etc. During the summer is a perfect time to read through them and remember the good things.

At least, that’s what I try to do anyway.

So there’s my list. I hope you found it helpful.

Health, relaxation, calm. Be warned – I’m certainly no expert on the subject.

Remember the words of author Nakeia Homer:

“You are not lazy, unmotivated, or stuck. After years of living your life in survival mode, you are exhausted.”

Finding ways to recharge and renew is something I know I desperately need – maybe as you do, too.

Here’s hoping we can find the peace we need this summer.

The new academic year will be here before we know it.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is Still Relevant Because it Forces Us to Confront Ourselves 

 
 
Parris is peering into a crumpled paperback with a huge smile on his face. 


 
“Mr. Singer, I love this book…” he says.  


 
He stops, pauses and adds, “I hate what’s happening, but I love the book.” 


 
In my middle school classroom, that’s a pretty routine reaction to Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 


 
My 8th grade students approach the climax and resolution with equal parts dread and delight.  


 
But it doesn’t always start that way. 


 
No book I teach has gone through a greater change in cultural opinion than “Mockingbird.” 


 
It used to be considered a bastion of anti-racism. Now some folks actually consider it to be racist. 


 
The story is about Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Most of the drama centers on their father, Atticus, who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, in court against trumped up charges of raping a white woman.  


 
Ever since its publication in 1960, people have tried to ban the book from school libraries and from school curriculum.  


 
And that’s still true today. However, this used to be the work of the far right. Today there are almost as many objections from the far left – though for very different reasons. 


 
For 50 years, the biggest complaints came from conservatives about the book’s strong language, discussion of sexuality, rape, and use of the n-word. Though today you’ll find almost as many on the left proclaiming that the book actually perpetuates the racial intolerance it purports to be against. 


 
Republicans have become more extreme than ever. They see any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” – a conflation of a legal framework not actually taught in K-12 schools with any substantive discussion of racial inequality. It’s really just a simple dog whistle to try and shut down any discussion of the racial status quo. 


 
Teachers have become accustomed to conservatives hyperventilating that discussing racism and prejudice might mean having to admit these things still exist and therefore requiring us to do something about them. They’re terrified their kids might come to different conclusions about the world than their parents, and instead of confronting their own views with the facts, they prefer to sweep reality under the rug to preserve the fictions underlying their ideologies. 


These sort of complaints are typified by the Biloxi Public School Board in Mississippi which in 2017 removed Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from its curriculum because, “It makes people uncomfortable.” 


 
What they don’t seem to realize is that the discomfort is part of the point. 


 
On the other side of the coin are people on the other pole of the political spectrum. Writers like Kristian Wilson Colyard don’t object to a discussion of racism and prejudice. They think “Mockingbird” doesn’t go far enough – or at least that the discussion it has is framed incorrectly. 


 
Colyard doesn’t think the book should be banned or removed from libraries, but instead insists it isn’t a good teaching tool.  


 
She writes


“Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experiences of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior.” 


While I think Colyard has a fair point of literary analysis, I don’t agree with her conclusion.  


At first glance, there is something strange about approaching racism through the lens of white people, but that doesn’t make it invalid. In fact, racism is a product of whiteness. In this country, white people are the ones doing it. Therefore, it makes sense to speak directly to and from the experience of white people. 


 Oppression, after all, is relational. It takes both the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor to fully understand it. And if we want to help end the cycle, it makes sense to show the oppressor how to bring that about. 


Moreover, the book sneaks up on its themes. There’s very little about outright intolerance on the first page or even the first few chapters. The idea creeps up on you as the narrator slowly becomes aware of the prejudices around her and the trial comes deeper into focus. 


As to the question of white saviorism, I think this is more often a buzzword than a legitimate criticism. White people are not heroes for attempting to put right something they put wrong. It is their responsibility, and seeing someone do that in fiction is a really powerful thing.  


Atticus doesn’t think he’s saving his client Tom Robinson. He doesn’t think he’s special for doing so. He’s doing what he thinks is right. Now Scout certainly views this through rose-colored glasses and lionizes him for it, but that’s a character’s point of view. It’s up to the reader to look at all this critically and come to your own judgement about it.  


Frankly, I think that’s one of the real values of the book. It provides a deep narrative, well told, for readers to examine and discuss very complex issues.  


 
If you think Atticus is given too much credit for what he does, that’s something you can discuss with other readers. I don’t see how doing so cheapens or hurts the cause of antiracism.  


In addition, the problem of centering the story on the white people is rectified by reading more widely in the literature. “Mockingbird” shouldn’t be the only book on the topic you read. To be well-rounded, you should read more from the point of view of people of color subjected to white people’s intolerance. And there are so many wonderful books to choose from – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” etc.  


However, teachers shouldn’t be made to feel like they’ve wasted an opportunity by using “Mockingbird” in the classroom – even if it’s the only book that year they read on this topic. There must be more opportunities in years to come. Racism and prejudice should not be a one-and-done topic in US schools. It is too important for that. 


In my classroom, this book is far from our first discussion of the issue.  


We talk about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. We talk about the 1968 Olympics Black power fist. We talk about Black cowboys like Bass Reeves. We talk about Bessie Coleman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and so many others.  


When we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” – a book that almost entirely eschews the topic – I make sure to point out that the narrative takes place in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we discuss Black Wall Street and the massacre of Black people perpetrated by their White neighbors.  


And so when we get to “Mockingbird,” the discussions we have of the text is rich and deep. Students of color feel seen because of the book’s portrayal of the kind of racial injustice they experience in their own lives. Likewise, white students feel empowered to join in the struggle against it. 


When the verdict of the trial comes down, there are real tears and stares of disbelief.  


One of my students this year, Mya said, “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I thought it was going to turn out differently.” 


Me, too. Every time I read it. 


The book confronts students with the world as it is and challenges them to do something about it.  


White or Black, it holds up the reality of injustice and demands we take a side.  


And that’s why this book remains relevant and just as important today as it ever was. 


 

 

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It’s Open Season on Teachers – Again  

  
I am so sick of being a scapegoat.  


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


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


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


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


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


 
In Florida, the GOP is banning math books.   


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


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


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


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


  
What a load of crap! 


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Fat chance of that! 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Public schools do not indoctrinate kids.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Or as the old proverb puts it: 


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
It would require a stance on principle.  


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


 
I am sick of it. 


 
I am sick of it.  
 


I am just so sick of it. 


 

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We Say “Gay” in My Classroom

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


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


 
It happened most recently over these lines of Dylan Thomas


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

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 


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

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


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


 
And he lost it some more.  


 
I tried logic. 


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


 
A renewed outburst.  


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


 
And the laughter stopped.  


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


 
The frown on his face was serious.  


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


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


 
Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for


 
Some people just can’t take the truth. 


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


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


 
There are gay kids. 


 
 And straight kids. 


 
 And trans kids


 
 And all kinds of kids.  


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


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


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


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


 


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

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

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


 
Forbid teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation?  


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


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


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


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


 
And we have to! 


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


 
We have to recognize our students for who they are.  


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


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


 
When a student tells you their pronouns, you listen


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

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

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

It’s not in our job description.

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


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


 
I refuse to turn my classroom into a closet.  



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

 
 
As if such a thing were possible.  

But it won’t help the kids.


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


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

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


 

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

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


 

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

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

Not a titter or laugh. 


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


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


 
I did, Buddy. I did. 


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Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

 
 
How does one teach about war?  


 
With pictures or words? 


 
With speeches or documentation? 


 
With prayers or curses? 


 
With laughter or tears? 


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


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


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


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


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


 
A patter at first, then a storm. 


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


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


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


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


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


 
But it led to some interesting discussion.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Tennyson writes


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


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


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


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


 
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
They want to remove the opportunity.  


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


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

Zhyvitʹ revolyutsiyeyu!

 
Viva la revolución! 

Long live the revolution!


 

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

 
Nudity and bad language.  


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


 
Not Holocaust denial.  


 
Not antisemitism. 

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


 
It was simply a dirty drawing and some curse words. 


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

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

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

But the Tennessee school board awarded it their walking papers.

And why?

Naughty words and risqué images.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
There’s nothing salacious about it.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re wrong, Sir.

You DO need to promote this stuff.

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

They need protection from the Holocaust, itself.

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

They need protection from becoming the mice.

They need protection from becoming the cats.

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

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


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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!

Remote Teaching is Much Different This Year 

  
I couldn’t believe what was happening.   


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


  
Or technically none of them were.   


  
It all depends on how you look at it.   


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


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


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


  
But today it just took a click of the mouse.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


  
“That’s fantastic,” I said.   


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
How did this happen on-line?  


 
I think it was a combination of several factors.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
I just wasn’t the only one. 


 
No one wants to catch this thing.  


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


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


 
They know catching COVID is taking a chance. 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


 
My students get that.  
 


I hope their parents do, too.  


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


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


 
It will be a battle of egos, too.


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