R.I.P., R.B.G. – The Lesson She Lived

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

There are few people known for their whole name – first, middle and last.

Even fewer known just for their initials.

And maybe no other white, Jewish, woman in history to be christened with an honorific reminiscent of martyred rap royalty.

But Ruth Bader Ginsburg was all that and more.

R.B.G.

The Notorious R.B.G.

Let it never be said that she was given that title out of public relations or pique.

No matter where you stood, she earned the designation “notorious.” Because she WAS. In nearly everything she did.

Whether it was issuing the dissenting opinion on Bush v. Gore or lifting weights in a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “SUPER DIVA,” she was in your face and indomitable.

She was an icon, a pioneer, a living piece of “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” as Tennyson might say.

And though she made her most indelible mark as a Supreme Court Justice, in a 2018 documentary about her life, RBG, she said she felt like a teacher:

“I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed. One of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, ‘Think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.’”

She did eventually teach law at Columbia University where she enumerated the changes in sexual discrimination litigation throughout her career. While in private practice, she won five cases involving women’s rights before donning the Supreme Court robes. At the time, she was quoted in Time magazine as saying her strategy was to “attack the most pervasive stereotype in the law – that men are independent and women are men’s dependents.”

To live at the same time as such a figure is not that uncommon.

We’re often surprised to read obituaries of great historical heroes we hadn’t known were still alive until their passing.

But that such a model was still WORKING, still doing that for which she had built her reputation, still holding together the fragments of our system as it threatened to crumble! That was truly amazing.

She was there. STILL there. For all of us.

Working well into her 80s through colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.

And now she’s gone.

It’s hard to fathom.

This is the horror story we’d been warned about every election season for as long as I can remember. This is the nightmare scenario used to shepherd the Democratic flock together, to keep us all under one big tent while lightning flashed and thunder raged.

And it is here. Now. Today.

I never met Justice Ginsburg. Never talked with her. Never had the honor.

But I don’t think she accepted being used in this way. After all, if her biggest concern was the Chief Executive or even Congressional politics, she could have stepped down near the end of President Barack Obama’s first term and been replaced.

Or could she?

Perhaps she had to rethink her own retirement plans after the whole Merrick Garland affair when Senate Republicans refused to even discuss Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death a full nine months before the election.

There’s no way to know for sure.

But given Ginsburg’s record of tenacious dissent in the face of injustice, I can’t imagine her counseling moderation as solidarity.

She stood for justice when no one else would.

That’s what she did!

In 2007, her dissent in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter – a supervisor for Goodyear Tires – was so compelling it sparked the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She literally explained why the court was wrong and that this was a case of discriminating against women in employment, and that led to a change in the law two years later!

In 2013, when the court all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, her dissent was equal parts logic, prophecy and prescription. The majority of the justices made the bizarre argument that the Voting Right Act – and one of its features, known as “preclearance” – had already solved voter suppression.

Ginsburg responded:

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

When she read the dissent aloud in court, she went beyond her written remarks quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then she added that it only bends that way, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

Her remarks about what would happen in the wake of this decision have largely proven true with waves of voter suppression sweeping the country – especially in areas where this would have been impossible had the court ruled differently.

There’s a lesson here for all of us.

Dissent should not be dismissed as divisive.

In the presence of injustice, it is the only proper response.

When refugee children are being locked away in cages at the border, there is no other viable response than dissent.

When police are being militarized and used as thugs to violently put down largely nonviolent protests, there is no appropriate response other than dissent.

When the President is lying to us, flouting our laws, and Congress refuses to hold him accountable, there is no other response than dissent.

We must all have the courage of the Notorious R.B.G. to stand up against injustice and call it by its true name – even to its face.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so will somehow be enough to dismantle that injustice.

But we have to try.

And even if we don’t succeed today, we will have saved ourselves from becoming a part of the injustice around us.

Just days before her death, Ginsberg told her granddaughter, Clara Spera:

“My most fervent wish is, that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

If Republicans retreat from their own precedent and push through a new justice 47 days or less before the election, there are still things we can do.

We can fight like Hell to get rid of the worst President in American history, Donald J. Trump, and elect Joe Biden. We can vote like our lives depend on it to get a progressive majority in Congress.

And when we win, we increase the number of justices in the Supreme Court and pack them full of progressives.

We undo all the chicanery Republicans have done for decades – end the filibuster, make Puerto Rico and DC states, end gerrymandering and pass a new Voting Rights Act that actually protects the most important principle of our system of government – the one without which our system is nominal at best.

This and more is the dissent we must wage.

They give us injustice, we respond with its opposite.

We must look this fetid, decaying nation in the eye and say with all the ferociousness of our fallen Supreme Court Justice:

I dissent!

I dissent!

I dissent!


 


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The Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

Teaching is one of the few things in life that is not concerned with now.

It is essentially about the future.

We put all this time and energy into helping kids learn. Why?

Not so that they’ll be able to do anything today. But so that they’ll be able to do things tomorrow.

Sure they may be able to read better or solve math problems, but the reason we want them to know that isn’t so much about what they’ll do with it as adolescents. It’s how those skills will shape the people they grow up to be.

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

We take a bit of today and invest it in tomorrow.


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

The west is on fire. Storms are threatening our southern coasts. Police brutality is out of control and bands of neofascist thugs are given free rein to beat and murder protesters. We’ve separated immigrant families and put their kids in cages. The President has lied to us, disparaged our troops, bragged about breaking countless laws and the government is powerless to stop him. Our political system and social fabric is coming apart at the seams. And everyone from the average Joe to the lawmakers who represent him can’t get up the gumption to take precautions against the killer virus that has already put more Americans in their graves than every war since WWII.

You look at the raging dumpster fire around you and wonder – how do we invest in the future when we aren’t sure there will be one?

I’ve had students in my on-line class for only two days so far.

And it’s been great.

They show up in record numbers smiling and ready to learn.

We talk, they tell me about their summers, and I remember how much I love teaching.

But I had to fight almost every day from June through August just so the school building wouldn’t become an incubation center for COVID-19 and classes could be conducted through the Internet.

I’m not saying it was all me that did it, but I fought and worried and cajoled and wrote and begged and did everything I could think to do. And it very nearly didn’t happen.

Summer is supposed to be a break after the stresses of a long school year. And 2019-20 was perhaps the most difficult year I’ve ever had teaching.

But 2020-21 has already promised to be much more challenging.

After all, when you have to fight just for the safety of your children and yourself as a prerequisite to everything that happens in your class, how much strength is there left for actual teaching?

My district has committed to being on-line only through September, so the fight continues month-by-month.

Where are the local newspapers that would have reported on each school district as people test positive for the virus and others are contact traced? We closed most of them and downsized the newsrooms of others to make up lost advertising revenue.

If you’re not a supersized district serving millions, they only report on bed bugs, poorly trained security guards or whatever public relations statement the superintendent released today.

So we trudge on in silence just hoping to get through the day.

And what days they are!

Teaching on-line is a heck of a lot more work.

You’ve got to plan for just about everything. You put the assignments on Google Classroom and set up the Zoom meetings and make your handouts into PDFs and try to digitize your books and figure out how classroom policies designed around a physical space can be revised for cyber space. You answer countless questions and concerns, videotaping your lessons for those who can’t be there in person. You try to make things interesting with new apps, new software, new grading systems, new approaches to the same material you’ve been teaching for over a decade.

And it never ends.

By the time the day is supposed to be over, the emails are still rolling in, the assignments are still being submitted, administrators are making pronouncements, and you haven’t even finished all the things you have to do to get ready for tomorrow yet.

When is there time for my family? When do I have time to make dinner or check on my own child’s progress in her own online experience?

What’s worse is that when things go wrong, I’m afraid to bring them up for fear that some decision maker long removed from the classroom will simply shoot from the hip and end on-line instruction.

We had all summer to plan how to do this better, but we spent all that time diddling about WHETHER we should teach on-line or not. We should have just bit the bullet and worked on improving the quality of instruction instead of putting all our chips on the gambit that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Now – as usual – it’s all in the hands of everyday classroom teachers. We’re left to just figure it out.

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

I love finding new ways of doing things and seeing if they’ll work out better. I’m excited about seeing how my students will react to a Bitmoji classroom or a new Kahoot or this video or not being hassled if they keep their cameras off in Zoom.

I know on-line teaching can never really hold a candle to in-person instruction. But that’s not an option right now. And pretending like reality is something different than it is will do no one any good.

But just saying something positive about cyber schooling gets the technophobes coming down on you.

They’re so scared that online teaching will replace real, live educators that they can’t admit of any positive qualities to the new normal.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with them. I fear that, too. But it’s a war we have to wage later. Just like the election.

Biden is not great on education. Trump is worse. So we have to support Biden while we prepare to fight him in January. And that’s IF we can both defeat Trump at the polls and somehow avoid a constitutional crisis if he refuses to leave the Oval Office willingly.

Everything is one fight after another. We have to win this battle before we can wage the next one.

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

Everyone is worn out, but no one more so than classroom teachers.

We’re caught at the crossroads of nearly every conflagration in America.

I sit here on a Sunday afternoon and my bones feel like boulders under my skin.

I sleep like a beaten boxer – all bruises under the sheets.

But I’ll wake up on Monday, make myself a cup of tea and trudge back to my computer screen ready to begin again.

Because despite it all, there is a core part of me that still believes.

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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White People, We Need to be Responsible for Our Own Racism

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Hey, White people.

 

We need to talk.

 

You may be watching all these protests and demonstrations lately and be wondering what they have to do with you.

 

After all, you didn’t kill George Floyd. You didn’t put up a Confederate statue. You didn’t call the police on a Black person just because he was being Black.

 

At least, I hope you didn’t.

 

But all this strife and unrest really does have a lot to do with you.
Not because of anything you did necessarily, but because of who you are – your role in society.

 

Now don’t get all defensive on me.

 

I’m not saying you should feel guilty for things that you had no control over, don’t approve of or possibly didn’t even know happened.

 

As James Baldwin said:

 

“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason…”

 

That’s really the point – responsibility.

 

You have responsibilities just by being a White citizen of the United States. I have those same obligations.

 

And it’s high time we talked about exactly what those commitments are and how we can meet them.

 

One of those responsibilities is consciousness.

 

We can’t be so ignorant of racism and White supremacy anymore.

 

I know everyone is different and some people know more about these things than others. However, you have to admit that just being a White person, you probably don’t know nearly as much about them as any random Black person.

 

After all, Black folks deal with this every day. You and I, we’re just visiting.

 
And, heck, maybe we don’t know much about them.

 

Maybe the schools should have taught us more. Maybe movies and TV and media should have prepared us better.

 

But they didn’t.

 

So we need to remedy that ignorance.

 

That means reading up on the subject – reading a book like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander or “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, or “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

 

There are also some great films like “13th” and “When They See Us” by Ava Duvernay, “Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee or “I Am Not Your Negro” by Raoul Peck.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying this like I know everything there is about the subject. I need to crack open some more books, watch some more movies and learn more, too.

 

There’s always more to learn.

 

The fact that so many white people found out about the Tulsa Massacre from the HBO’s series “Watchmen” proves that, as does the fact that many of us learned about Juneteenth only because President Trump suggested having one of his hate-filled MAGA rallies in Tulsa on that date.

 

Knowledge is power. So let’s get some.

 

Second, we need to understand that racism is first and foremost a system.

 

It is a built-in component of almost every social structure, government policy, historical narrative and media message in this country.

 

Think about what that means.

 

We don’t need racists to have racism.

 

The system, itself, is enough.

 

Let’s say we had a ray gun that could eliminate racism. You shoot people with this zap gun and POOF they’re no longer racist.

 

So we take the gun to space and hit everyone in the US with it. All racist attitudes immediately disappear. Not a single person in the entire country is racist.

 

It wouldn’t matter.

 

All of our systems are still racist.

 

The way our government works, the legal system, law enforcement, housing, the tax code, the schools – everything.

 

You don’t need a single racist person. The system, itself, perpetuates the ideology by treating people of color unfairly and pretending that this injustice is exactly the opposite, and – what’s worse – our unquestioning acceptance of that system makes it invisible.

 

That gives us another responsibility.

 

We have to actively change the system.

 

To go back to Baldwin:

 

“I’m an American whether I like it or not and I’ve got to take responsibility for it, though it’s not my doing. What can you do about it except accept that, and then you protest it with all your strength. I’m not responsible for Vietnam, but I had to take responsibility for it, at least to the extent of opposing my government’s role in Vietnam.”

 

So it is our responsibility to recognize where our systems are racist and to do everything we can to change them.

 

We need to fully integrate our schools, for instance. We need to reform our criminal justice system so that Black people are not arrested and convicted at higher rates than White people who commit the same crimes. We need to stop police or others from killing unarmed Black people and getting away with it. We need to stop denigrating Black people for the “crime” of having Black-sounding names.

 

This is the work of social justice. It requires us to get involved in organizations like Black Lives Matter, Journey for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

 

It requires us to think about which policies we support and which politicians we can support at the polls.

 

But that’s not all.

 

We have one more great responsibility to meet.

 

We can’t just understand racism and fight systems of oppression. We have to fight the most insidious proponent of White supremacy.

 

And it is us.

 

These systems that create an unjust society also created you and me.

 

So to a greater or lesser degree they have shaped our minds, our conceptions, our norms, our values.

 

If we’re being honest, we have to admit that includes some racism.

 

We didn’t ask for it, but racist ideas have seeped into our consciousnesses.

 

And most of the time we may not even be aware they’re there.

 

I know I’m not.

 

Let me give you an example.

 

Several years ago my wife and I won free tickets to an opera recital. We like that sort of thing so we dressed in our finest and went to the concert hall to enjoy some culture.

 

The soprano was a local girl I’d never heard of (I’m sorry. I can’t remember her name), but she was wonderful. She was also Black.

 

And the Black community was out in force to support her. The concert hall was filled with mostly Black faces above suits and Sunday dresses.

 

It was the first time I could remember not being in the majority, and it made me uncomfortable.

 

I knew it was stupid. The other people there at the concert were no danger. No one was going to take their suit jacket off to jump a couple of White people who came to hear Puccini and Verdi.

 

But I felt some fear in my gut.

 

It wasn’t rational. I guess all those nightly news reports disproportionately megaphoning Black crime while ignoring that committed by White folks had an effect on me. I didn’t ask to be taught that fear. I didn’t want it. I recognized it as dumb and bigoted.

 

I couldn’t control the way I felt. But I could control the way I reacted.

 

I made an effort to talk with those around us and be as friendly as possible. And for their part these folks were entirely warm, cordial and inviting.

 

That’s what I’m talking about.

 

We, White people, have to take a step beyond learning about racism and acting against it. We have to do some soul searching and locate it within ourselves.

 

It’s probably there.

 

You can’t grow up in America without having it grow inside you like an alien pathogen.

 

We are sick with it – some people more than others – but all of us White folks are infected.

 

Maybe that doesn’t bother you.

 

It bothers me.

 

I don’t want it.

 

I don’t want these stupid ideas inside my head. And, yes, I don’t want the privileges I get just because of my pigmentation.

 

If I succeed in this life, let it be because I did something worthy of success. Don’t let it be just because of the lack of melanin in my skin.

 

Everyone deserves to be treated fairly.

 

Black people even more so because they are so often not treated that way.

 

As Baldwin said:

 

“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

 

I bring this up not to judge you.

 

Brother, I’ve never met you. Sister, I don’t know you.

 

I’m on my own parallel journey.

 

There is only one person you have to be accountable to – and that is yourself.

 

Can you live with yourself if you have not taken these few steps?

 

If you believe in justice, don’t you have a responsibility to be so in all your dealings with other people?

 

Black people are people.

 

Black lives matter.

 

White people like us have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters of color.

 

Let’s meet them.


 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

I picked up another:

 

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

 

And another:

 

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

 

I felt a lump forming in my throat.

 

My cheeks were hot.

 

And why was my face wet?

 

I hadn’t expected any of this.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

During that time we build strong relationships.

 

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

 

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

 

Both are backed by research.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Or at least we have to try.

 

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

You have to care about each student as a person.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

***

 

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

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 
***

 

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

 
***

 

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

 
Those are just some of the highlights.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

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

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Virtual Learning Through Quarantine Will Leave Poor and Disabled Students Behind

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In the wake of the coronavirus crisis with most people self quarantined at home, schools across the country are shut down.

 

Some offer (or are considering offering) distance learning over the Internet.

 

However, this poses problems.

 

Not all student services can be provided via computer.

 

And not all students even have a computer, online compatible device or Internet access.

 

Should our nation’s public schools soldier on anyway and provide some kind of learning experience for those not thus encumbered at the expense of those who will be left behind?

 
The U.S. Senate’s proposed coronavirus aid package includes a provision to waive existing federal law that requires all schools to provide services to special education students. Removing this specification would allow districts to move forward with virtual learning without having to worry about meeting the needs of their special education students.

 

Advocates worry that even a temporary suspension of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) could have devastating long term effects on students with disabilities and ultimately remove the requirement upheld for the last 45 years that they receive a free public education.

 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a gleeful statement in favor of dispensing with protections for students with autism, cerebral palsy, learning disorders and other special needs:

 

“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids. This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.

 

“Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction. We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear. These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion, and the Department stands ready to assist you in your efforts.”

 

The Department of Education issued a Fact Sheet that went even further:

 

“To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

 

This is tantamount to prioritizing the education of some students over others. In short, if we follow DeVos’ guidelines, we will be saying that regular education students are more important than students with special needs.

 

It is a dangerous precedent.

 

However, perhaps even more dangerous is the abdication of any responsibility for, even complete erasure of any mention of poor students without Internet access.

 

This just underlines the importance of legislation. Special education students have IDEA. Poor students have nothing. There is no right to education for them at all.

 

If there had been some legislation specifically enshrining the rights of the underprivileged, however, it is clear this administration would be likewise proposing measures to dispense with it.

 

I understand that we are in a crisis. I understand that some think it is better to take half measures so that something gets done rather than nothing.

 

However, the coronavirus outbreak is expected to be a temporary situation. It may last weeks or months, but it will not last forever.

 

We want to do things in the best interests of children now, but we also must be aware of later. And trying to meet some kids needs now while writing off a large chunk of the rest would have a huge negative impact later.

 

If we educate just the privileged kids, we will be worsening the socioeconomic gap between students – a gap that is already too wide.

 

According to the most recent federal data, nearly 7 million students in the United States do not have Internet access at home. That is about 14 percent of all U.S. students. And of those with online access at home, 18 percent do not have home access to broadband Internet so they would also have difficulty retrieving lessons or participating in Zoom meetings online.

 
Moving to distance learning on the Internet would leave tens of millions of children behind.

 
Is this really what we want to do?

 

In addition, there is the question of quality.

 

Few teachers are trained or have experience with distance learning. They will probably be able to provide some kind of learning – but it will almost certainly not be the best they could be providing.

 

Moreover, there are real questions about the quality of learning that CAN be provided in a virtual environment even under the best of circumstances.

 

Cyber schools are a perfect fit for some students. Older and more mature students would probably have an easier time adjusting to it.

 

However, many students – especially younger ones – need the face-to-face interactions of school to get the most out of the experience. Forcing them into a mold that may at best be unsuited to them individually and at worst developmentally inappropriate will only cause them undo trauma.

 

I understand that everyone wants to appear like they’re doing something to meet the challenges provided by this crisis. However, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.

 

One day the quarantine will be lifted. At that point, we can reopen the schools.

 

This may mean a few months of summer school. Or we could extend the 2020-21 school year to make up the difference.

 
Neither are perfect solutions. But they’re both better than virtual learning.

 

Neither require us to write off our poor and special education students.

 

And THAT is the most important thing.

 

Public schools don’t have to settle for whatever fad is offered from disaster capitalists.

 

We can still do what’s right for our kids.

 

All of our kids.

 


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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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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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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.

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

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Don’t Extend Kids’ School Day; Shorten Parents’ Work Week

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It’s rough being the parent of an American school student.

 
You often leave for work before your kids have even made it to school yet – and you get home long after they’ve returned.

 
When exactly are you supposed to parent?

 

Your kids have to get themselves to school. They have to get themselves home. And helping with homework, talking about their days, even setting a good example are all luxuries you have to pay dearly for with an ever-shrinking amount of time.

 

 

So what’s the solution?

 

 

For those of the think tank persuasion, the answer is more school.

 
Parents and kids schedules aren’t aligned? Well, align them then. Have kids in class from 9 to 5 just like their parents.

 
Not only will that make it easier for adults to take them to-and-from school, but it will prepare kids for the rigors of the adult world.

 

The neoliberal Center for American Progress, for instance, suggests that synching the school and workday would better allow parents to meet their obligations to their children.

 

This is especially true, they say, for kids in low-income communities where competitive grant programs could fund the initiative while also holding the money hostage unless their schools engage in more test prep as part of their curriculums.

 

It’s a terrible idea proposed by terrible individuals working for billionaire philanthrocapitalists.

 

The think tank is run by John Podesta who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and manager of President Barack Obama’s transition team – which tells you a lot about Democratic politics of the last several decades.

 

However, it does hold a kernel of truth.

 

The school and workday ARE out of step with each other.

 

This DOES cause problems.

 

Something SHOULD be done.

 

But the solution isn’t to lengthen the time kids are required to spend in the classroom. It is solved by reducing the amount of time their parents have to stay at work.

 

Think about it.

 

A LONGER SCHOOL DAY WOULD BE HARMFUL TO STUDENTS

 

Currently, most children attend school for six to seven hours a day.

 

If school started earlier or was in session later, we’d be forcing many kids to put in as much as 12-hour days – especially when you factor in transportation and after-school activities.

 

Students in rural areas or those who live the farthest from school would be the most impacted. Many kids get to school early for breakfast. So if classes began at 9 am, many kids would need to get to school by 8:30 am at the latest – that could mean leaving home by 7:30 am. If the school day ended at 5 pm, these same kids wouldn’t get home until 6 to 7 pm or later.

 

This would not lead to better academic performance or well adjusted kids. It would result in exhausted and burned out students. Some – perhaps many – would probably cut out after-school activities which would hurt their social, emotional and physical development.

 

Moreover, kids need time – free time – to discover who they are. They need time to spend with friends, build relationships and enjoy themselves.

 

 

They shouldn’t be forced to be adults before they are developmentally ready to do so.

 

And it’s not just me who says so. Youth advocate Vicki Abeles is sounding the alarm against the idea of a longer school day, too. Abeles, who authored Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, and Underestimated Generation, wrote in The New York Times:
 

 

“Many of our children are already stretched to unhealthy breaking points, loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring because they’re led to believe high test scores, a slew of Advanced Placement classes and a packed résumé are their ticket to college and success. This has led to an epidemic of anxious, unhealthy, sleep-deprived, burned-out, disengaged, unprepared children — and overwhelmed and discouraged teachers. The key is creating a healthier, more balanced, more engaging and effective school day, not a longer one.”

 

Moreover, this is not what other high achieving nations do to succeed. Countries like Finland, Singapore, and China have SHORTER school days – not longer ones. They just try to make the most of the class time they have.

 

In fact, U.S. teachers already spend more time in the classroom with students than their peers in practically every other developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 

Maybe instead of listening to think tank fools like Podesta, we should pay attention to educators around the world.

 

And this is to say nothing of cost.

 

Nine years ago, it took $10 million to lengthen the day at 50 Chicago schools. Each school got $150,000 just to pay for additional salary to compensate teachers for the extra time. The district projected that it would have cost $84 million to increase the program to all its schools.

 

But that doesn’t include the cost for additional electricity, maintenance and other utilities which is more difficult to estimate.

 

Who’s going to pay this extra money? We don’t even adequately fund the time kids spend in class NOW! We’re going to stretch tax revenue even further to increase those hours!?

 

This is the definition of doing more with less. More time, less quality.

 

SHORTENING THE ADULT WORK WEEK

 

It would make far more sense to cut parents’ time at work than to increase children’s time at school.

 

Adults already work too many hours as it is.

 

In fact, doing so actually makes adults better at their jobs.

 

That’s not just conjecture or wish fulfillment. It’s been tried and proven correct.

 

In 2019, Microsoft conducted an experiment at its offices in Japan where employees had to take every Friday off as a paid vacation day. The result was a boost in productivity of 40 percent.

 

 

In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trustee services firm, did almost the same thing on a trial basis. It had employees work four eight-hour days a week but paid them for five. Once again this resulted in an increase in productivity, but also lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.

 

The idea of a 32-hour workweek (instead of the traditional 40) is gaining support. After all, much of our time on the job is wasted.

 

The average number of truly productive hours in an eight-hour day is two hours and 53 minutes, according to a survey of U.K. office workers. Human beings aren’t robots. We can’t just sit at our desks and work. We have all these pointless meetings, frivolous emails and phone calls, co-worker discussions, disruptions and distractions. Imagine if we didn’t have to waste so much time and could focus on other endeavors after putting in a few effective hours at the office. We could get things done and still have time to live our lives.

 

The five-day, 40-hour workweek is a relatively new invention. A century ago, it was not uncommon for people to work six ten-hour days with only Sundays off for religious worship. Then Henry Ford started giving his autoworkers more time off to create leisure time – so they might have reason to actually buy the cars they were making. It became common practice throughout the country in 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law was meant to improve conditions and pay for manufacturing workers – and it did that. However, that doesn’t mean it was the be all, end all. We should continue the trend to shorten the workweek even further.

 

In fact, this is what people expected would happen – that work hours would continue to shrink over time.

 

 

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the working week eventually would be cut to 15 hours. He figured that by 2030, people would have far more leisure time as their material needs were met.

 

However, the trend changed in the 1970s as Americans started spending more – not less – time at their jobs. This also coincided with the weakening of labor unions, corporate downsizing and demanding more from employees for decreasing wages and benefits.

 

Now the US and Korea lead the developed world in long workdays. Americans average 1,786 work hours a year, which is 423 more hours than workers in Germany and over 100 hours more than workers in Japan, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

 

CONCLUSION

 
These long hours take a toll on our health and well-being.

 

It’s telling that instead of realizing that adults need fewer hours on the job, policy wonks try to convince us to make our children shoulder the same burden.

 

It reminds me of Max Weber’s thesis in his seminal “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In the book, the sociologist and economist argues that underneath our economic values lies an abiding belief in a Puritan work ethic. The value of work is given a religious and ethical fervor far beyond what it gains us monetarily.

 

Perhaps we need to take a step back from these unconscious and toxic values to see what is really in the best interests of individuals and families.

 

It is far past time to shorten the workweek for adults.

 

That would give us the time we need to be better parents to our children, allow us to be more present and available for them.

 

It would be far better for families to spend more time together learning and growing than to throw that time down an endless bin of empty industry.

 


 

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 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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Who Will Protect My Right NOT to Pay for Your Child’s Religious Education?

Image: Supreme Court Hears Montana State Tax Credit Case

 

 

When I was a kid back in middle school, I had a crush on this girl, let’s call her Patty.

 

 

She wasn’t the most popular or beautiful girl in class, but I kinda’ liked her.

 

 

 

Of course, she had no idea I was alive.

 

 

Or so I thought, until one day she walked straight up to my desk and started rubbing my hair.

 

 

I was shocked at first, but then I just closed my eyes and went with it.

 

 

 

I remember the soft caress of her fingers in my mop of curls. She seemed to massage every inch of my scalp. Then she asked, “Where are they?”

 

 

“Where are what?” I asked.

 

 

“Your horns,” she said. “I want to see your horns.”

 

 

“What?” I said. “I don’t have any horns.”

 

 

“Of course you do,” she said. “My pastor said all you Jews have horns but you hide them in your hair. I want to see them.”

 

 

I had never even heard that bit of anti-Semitism before Patty. But I knew when I was being ridiculed.

 

 

The laughter. The embarrassment. I think I asked to go to the bathroom and stayed until the class was over.

 

 

 

Why bring up such childhood trauma?

 

 

It has baring on a case before the US Supreme Court this week –  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

 

 

Three women are suing the state of Montana for refusing to pay for their kids to attend religious schools through a defunct voucher program.

 

 

Backing the effort are far right figures and groups like The Cato Institute, The Council for American Private Education, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Center for Education Reform – all of which have filed Amici Curiae briefs arguing that prohibiting religious schools from getting public money is somehow a violation of the First Amendment.

 

 

If successful, the case would open the door to publicly-funded private religious education across the country – not to mention siphoning much-needed money away from the public schools.

 

 

It’s bad enough that kids learn prejudicial lies from the pulpit and parochial schools. It’s worse if the victims of such prejudice have to pay for their tormentors to be thus indoctrinated.

 

 

In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical . . . ”

 

 

I agree. That is sinful and tyrannical. Especially if those abhorrent beliefs lead to actions detrimental to the health and well-being of those being forced to pay for just such ignorance to be renewed in yet another generation.

 

 

The incident with Patty wasn’t the first or last time I suffered through religious persecution. I went to public school but the worst torment usually came from kids who had a year or two of parochial education.

 

 

For example, I can’t tell you how many times classmates asked me why I killed Jesus.

 

 

Now I’m a middle school teacher, myself.

 

 

I do my best to foster understanding and acceptance of all peoples no matter their race, gender, orientation or creed.

 

 

That doesn’t mean I squash religious discussion or opinions, either.

 

 

Kids are allowed to think and say what they choose. If they want to pray or express a religious belief, that’s fine so long as they don’t hurt others.

 

 

Though radical right ideologues decry the loss of religion in public schools, all that really means is that the adults don’t get to express their theologies. The kids have never been thus encumbered.

 

 

Even so, religious ignorance is never far away.

 

 

 

Every year before I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” I go over the history of the Holocaust.

 

 

 

At least one student always raises his or her hand and asks if Hitler was Jewish.

 

 

I patiently explain that he wasn’t, but they insist that he must have been. After all, Father Such-And-Such said it, so it must be true.

 

 

And this is the kind of nonsense that is often taught as fact at parochial schools.

 

 

Private religious institutions are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

 

 

The American Christian Education (ACE) organization provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks. A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

 

 

In their pages you’ll find glowing descriptions of the Ku Klux Klan, how the massacre of Native Americans saved many souls, African slaves had really good lives, homosexuals are no better than rapists and child molesters, and progressive attempts at equal rights such as Brown vs. Board of Education were illegal and misguided. You know – all the greatest Donald Trump campaign hits!

 

 

Today these claims are uncritically being taught to children at schools receiving school vouchers. We’re using public money to increase the racism and prejudice in the next generation.

 

 

In any sane country, a case like Espinoza would be about stopping such nonsense! But the plaintiffs and their billionaire backers actually want to EXPAND IT!

 

 

The goal is to destroy facts and promote ignorance. That requires the destruction of public schools.

 

 

Kyle Olson said as much in a 2018 op-ed for National School Choice Week – a bit of propaganda he helped create in 2011 through his lobbying firm, the Education Action Group. In fact, he credited Jesus, himself, with anti-public school venom.

 

Olson wrote:

 

“I would like to think that, yes, Jesus would destroy the public education temple and save the children from despair and a hopeless future.”

 

 

These are the folks complaining that public tax dollars aren’t being allowed to fund parochial schools everywhere and where they are allowed to bankroll such schools they aren’t being allowed to do so enough.

 

 

Technically, the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to support religious schools.

 

 

But the Espinoza crowd think that laundering the money through Tax Credit Scholarships somehow makes it all okay. A business or rich donor hands money to families to send their kids to private schools. Except that money makes a stop at a “scholarship” organization first, and the donors get to deduct their contributions from their taxes. Blogger Peter Greene tells us to think of it like this:

 

 

“I’m the state, and you owe me $100. I am not allowed to gamble, but if you give that $100 to my bookie instead, I’ll consider us square.”

 

 

It’s a shell game that pretends spending tax money before it gets deposited in the government’s account frees our public servants from following the rules.

 

 

I don’t care where it’s been, that’s my money as good as if you took it from my wallet because it’s money owed to me and every other taxpayer. That money is owed to the public good, not some ideologue’s Sunday school project, and its absence means I have to pay more to fund things we all need like police, firefighters, public transportation, and public schools.

 

 

They’re right about one thing. This is an issue of religious freedom, but it’s not about their freedom. It’s about MY freedom not to support their beliefs.

 

 

I say – let them believe what they will. It’s their choice, and they have the right to subject their children to it if they want.

 

 

But leave me out of it.

 

 

Don’t expect me to foot the bill.

 

 

I’m rightly compelled to pay for public education because it benefits everyone. It creates an educated populace capable of keeping the lights on. It creates people who know enough about the world that they can make knowledgeable decisions and vote for good leaders.

 

 

But parochial schools are exclusionary by design. Spreading their ignorance does not benefit society. It hurts it.

 

 

We talk a lot about the First Amendment, but we seem to forget what it actually says:

 

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

 

 

That should be our guiding principle – religious freedom.

 

 

Let people practice their faiths however they see fit.

 

 

But respect my freedom from religion as much as I respect your freedom of it.


 

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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