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?


 

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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.

Patreon+Circle

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

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The 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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The False Paradise of School Privatization

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Create a perfect world!

 

Go ahead! Don’t be shy!

 

What kind of government would you like? Republic, Monarchy, Dictatorship, Anarchy? Some combination or original system?

 

It’s all up to you.

 

How would you structure the economy? Capitalistic, Socialistic, Communistic? Something else?

 

You decide.

 

What would a family look like in your perfect world? How would careers be prepared for and chosen? What level of technology would you choose?

 

All these and more must be answered when creating the ideal community for you and I to live in.

 

It’s what Sir Thomas Moore famously did in his 1516 novel Utopia” about an impossible “best state” for civil society.

 

And it’s what I had my 7th grade students do last week in preparation for reading Lois Lowery’s contemporary science fiction novel, “The Giver.”

 

In small groups, my little ones clustered together at their tables and gave social planning a go.

 

It was stunning the variety of societies they created.

 

 

A group of kids with a history of confronting authority designed a nominal anarchy with an inherited monarchy controlling the military. Those with the highest grades decided all the decisions should be made by people like them in an oligarchy while the underachievers just played video games.

 

 

One of my favorites though was a group equally divided between boys and girls that decided to let women make all the rules except who could marry whom. That was decided only by the men, but women got to decide when to have kids and how many to have.

 

 

 

 

It was fascinating to see how their little minds worked. And even more so how their ideal societies reflected their wants and values.

 

But it was all a preview to Lowery’s novel of a futuristic society where utopia soon descends into its opposite – dystopia.

 

As it often does. In fact, the word coined by Moore literally means “nowhere.”

 

So it made me wonder about the most utopian thinking we find in modern life – education policy.

 

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

 

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

 

 

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of Moore’s novel or the assignment my kids did this week.

 

After all, what is a charter school but some naïve person’s ideal of the perfect educational institution? What’s a voucher school but a theocracy elevated to the normative secular level?

 

In each case, these world builders do the same as my middle schoolers – they build a system that would be perfect – from their own individual point of views and biases.

 

In his book, “Utopian Studies: A Guide,” Prof. Gregory Eck writes:

 

Because… utopia is rooted in theory, it will not always work.  In fact, more is written about the failure and impossibility of utopia than of its success, probably because the ideal has never been reached.

 

 

And why is that ideal never reached? Margaret Atwood, the author of more than a few dystopian novels, has an answer.

 

“Every utopia,” she says, “…faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don’t fit in?”

 

One person’s paradise is another person’s Hell.

 

So the idea of designing one system that fits all is essentially bound to fail.

 

But doesn’t that support the charter and voucher school ideal? They are marketed, after all, as “school choice.” They allegedly give parents and children a choice about which schools to attend.

 

Unfortunately, this is just a marketing term.

 

Charter and voucher schools don’t actually provide more choice. They provide less.

 

Think about it.

 

Who gets to choose whether you attend one of these schools? Not you.

 

Certainly you have to apply, but it’s totally up to the charter or voucher school operators whether they want to accept you.

 

It is the public school system that gives you choice. You decide to live in a certain community – you get to go to that community’s schools. Period.

 

Certainly some communities are more accessible than others, and they are more accessible for some people – whether that be for economic, social, racial or religious reasons.

 

But you have much more choice here than you do from a bunch of nameless bureaucrats making decisions in secret that they never have to justify and for which they will never be held accountable.

 

What about curriculum? Don’t charter and voucher schools offer choice of curriculum?

 

No. They have one way of doing things. They have one curriculum. Either accept it or get out.

 

This is how we do things at KIPP. This is how we do things at Success Academy. You don’t like it, there’s the door.

 

By contrast, public schools tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Each teacher does something different for every child in his or her charge whether those children are in special education, regular education, Emotional Support, the English as a Second Language Program, the academic or honors track.

 

Charter and voucher schools are naive utopias.

 

They propose one ideal way to teach all children and they expect parents to jump at their cultish schemes. All students will wear these sorts of uniforms and chant these sorts of phrases in response to these orders, etc. All children will be expected to provide marketing research to corporations on competency based learning programs and let their data be mined by these advertisers.

 

Because at these schools the emphasis is not on the curriculum. It’s on the system, itself.

 

These are privatized schools. They are schools run by private industry – not the public.

 

Decisions are not made by duly-elected representatives of the community in the light of day. They are made behind closed doors by corporate stooges.

 

THAT is the great innovation behind these schools. Everything else is mere window dressing.

 

If one of these schools found a better way to teach, public schools could pick it up and do it even better because the teachers and principals would be accountable for doing it correctly.

 

Funny how that’s never happened.

 

These so-called lab schools have never produced a single repeatable, verifiable innovation that works for all students without cherry picking the best and brightest.

 

Not once.

 

That’s because the utopia these policy wonks are interested in building isn’t for the students or parents. It’s for the investors.

 

They want to maximize return on investment. They want to decrease costs and increase profits. And whatever happens to the students is purely secondary.

 

It may be the ideal situation for the moneymen, but it’s often pure torture for the students. Charter schools are closed without notice, the money stolen under cloak of night. Voucher schools fool kids into thinking creationism is science and then are no where to be found when reputable colleges want nothing to do with their graduates.

 

Let me be the first to say that public school is no utopia.

 

We have real problems.

 

We need adequate, equitable and sustainable funding. We need integration. We need autonomy, respect and competitive pay for teachers. We need protection from corporate vultures in the standardized testing, publishing, edtech and school privatization industries.

 

But at heart, public schools are a much better choice because they don’t pretend to be perfect.

 

They are constantly changing. Teachers are constantly innovating.

 

A handful of years ago, I never had students design their own utopias before reading “The Giver.” But a colleague came up with the idea, I modified it for my students and we were off.

 

If I teach the same course next year, I’d modify it again based on what worked and what didn’t work this year.

 

I’m not expecting to be perfect.

 

I’m just doing the best I can.

 

Or as Jack Carroll puts it:

 

Perhaps the greatest utopia would be if we could all realize that no utopia is possible; no place to run, no place to hide, just take care of business here and now.


NOTE: A version of this article originally was published under the title “Creating a Charter or Voucher School is Like Designing a Utopia – Biases Prevail.” I reworked some of it, including the title, because I thought readers were confused by my intent and may have passed it over under a mistaken assumption about its contents.

 

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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I Wrote a Book! Yeah. I Can’t Believe It Either.

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How did this happen?

It was only three and a half years ago that I sat down at my computer and decided to write my first blog.

And now I’ve got a book coming out from Garn Press “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

Like the title says, I’m just a public school teacher. I’m not important enough to write a book.

A blog? Sure. That could disappear any day now.

All it would take is WordPress deleting the site or maybe the power goes out and never comes back or a zombie apocalypse or who knows…

But a book. That’s kinda’ permanent.

It has mass and takes up space.

 

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That won’t just poof out of existence if someone unplugs the wrong server.

It would take some sort of conscious effort for a book to go away. People would have to actively work to destroy it. They’d have to pile those rectangular paper bundles in a fire pit, douse them in gasoline and light a match.

Otherwise, they’d just maybe sit in a basement somewhere in boxes, unopened and collecting dust.

Or could it really be that people might actually crack the spine and read the things?

It’s a strange sort of birth this transition from cyberspace to 3-dimensional reality.

And it’s about to transpire with selected bits of my writing.

I am flabbergasted. Shocked. Almost in denial that this is really happening.

 

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Did I mention that I’m a public school teacher? No one is supposed to listen to us.

School policy is made without us. Decisions impacting our kids and our careers are made by people who haven’t seen the classroom in years – if ever. And when we politely raise our hands to let people know that something isn’t working, the best we can hope for is to be ignored; the worst is to be bullied into silence.

Yet my blog has 1,184,000 hits. I’ve got 12,545 followers on Twitter and via email. And now – a book.

So, let me propose a theory: the people at Garn Press are just incredibly nice.

Denny, David and Benjamin Taylor are just fulfilling one of those Make a Wish thingies for a downtrodden soul like me.

Maybe I’ve got some sort of debilitating disease and no one’s told me yet.

 

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The book officially comes out on Nov. 28. So when I’m handed my first actual copy, I’d say it’s even money that the next thing I’ll be handed is some medical document showing I only have moments left to live.

But whatever.

I’ll die with a smile on my face.

It reminds me of a few lines from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

In my 40-some years, I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to make some lasting mark on the world. Tried to leave it a better place than I found it.

 

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I started as a journalist.

It was great! I could shake up a whole community just by writing something, uncovering some hidden truth, asking a tough question.

But I needed to eat, too, and you can’t do that when you’re on call 24-hours a day for nearly minimum wage under the constant threat of downsizing and meddling by the publisher and advertisers.

So I got my masters degree and became a school teacher.

And it’s been great! I can alter the course of a child’s entire life by helping her learn to read, encouraging her to write and getting her to think and ask questions.

But I’m under constant threat by bureaucrats who know nothing about pedagogy and child psychology trying to force me to do things in ways I know are wrong, detrimental or prejudicial.

So I became an activist, too.

And it’s been great. I joined groups of likeminded individuals and we took to the streets and the legislature and lawmakers offices and parent meetings and teachers conferences and just about anywhere you could stir things up and get people to start asking the right questions.

That led directly to the blog and now the book.

 

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So what’s in it?

In short, it’s my hand-selected favorite articles. These are the ones that either got the most readers or that have a special place in my heart or both.

And this summer I sat at my kitchen table and intensively revised almost all of them. Even if you’ve read them before, these are definitive versions. In some cases, they’re considerably different than the versions you might still find up on-line.

Who did I write it for?

You, I hope.

But, if I’m honest, the people I most had in mind reading it were my daughter and my students.

One day my little girl will grow up and she may wonder what her old man thought about X, Y and Z.

What did Daddy think about racism? What did he think a good teacher did? What were his thoughts about politics, prejudice and reform?

I can see some of my students doing the same.

Perhaps I flatter myself that they may dimly remember me – their crazy 7th or 8th grade Language Arts teacher. I wonder what Mr. Singer would have said about… whatever.

I guess this is my way of telling them.

It’s a time capsule of my present day thoughts. And a guide for how to get to a better future.

You’re cordially invited to read it.

If you’re a longtime follower of this blog, let me just say – thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I never would have had the courage to continue without you.

If you’re new to my writing, welcome aboard. I hope I’ve given you reason to keep reading.

And I hope that one or two of you will be inspired to seek out a certain oblong bundle of papers wrapped in a blue and white cover proclaiming my undying, self-chosen, provocative descriptor:

Gadfly on the Wall.

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(Oh! And a special shout out to Denisha Jones and Yohuru Williams for writing incredible introductions to the book! I am beyond honored!)


UPDATE:

The book is now available for purchase at Amazon.com. Just click here!

I am also donating 10% of all proceeds to the Badass Teachers Association.