Five Things I Learned About Ed Tech While Playing ‘Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

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I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”

 

This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.

 

And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.

 

There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.

 

But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.

 

As the kids say, I’m jelly.

 

My video game skills are lit.

 

You can’t handle me, bro.

 

And so on.

 

 

But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.

 

Didn’t I have anything better to do?

 

Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.

 

As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.

 

That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.

 

I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.

 

The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.

 

I even asked for a few tips after class.

 

One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).

 

It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.

 

At least, that’s my hope.

 

But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.

 

Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.

 

I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.

 

Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.

 

We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.

 

Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.

 

It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.

 

The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.

 

Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.

 

I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.

 

But playing this game has given me hope.

 

In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.

 

I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.

 

Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.

 

Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.

 

In any case, here is what I learned.

1) Focus on Fun

 

One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.

 

The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.

 

By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.

 

Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.

 

There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.

 

You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.

 

However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.

 

If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.

 

In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.

 

In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.

 

If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.

 

I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.

 

2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum

 

There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.

 

However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.

 

A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.

 

The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.

 

The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.

 

Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.

 

In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.

 

That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.

 

The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.

 

 

Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.

 

That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.

 

3) Option to Seek Help

 

One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.

 

If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.

 

It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.

 

One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.

 

It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.

 

If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.

 

For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.

 

I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.

 

4) Open Ended

 

One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.

 

On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.

 

At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.

 

It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.

 

The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.

 

Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.

 

There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.

 

I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.

 

Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.

 

In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.

 

If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.

 

5) Choice to Play or Not

 

And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.

 

Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.

 

They become a task, a trial, an assignment.

 

Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.

 

We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.

 

In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.

 

Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.

 

At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.

 

To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.

 

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.

 

They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.

 

Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.

 

Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.

 


 

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 Staggering Naivety of Those Criticizing Public Schools as Out-of-Date

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There is a popular idea going around that public schools need to change because they’re outmoded, obsolete and passé.

While public schools certainly could do with a great deal of change to improve, this criticism is incredibly naïve.

It’s the intellectual equivalent of displaying a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses prominently on your bookshelf without actually having read it.

It’s like demanding everything you eat be gluten free without actually having celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

It’s the conceptual analogue to learning a trendy “word of the day” and trying desperately to fit it into your every conversation regardless of need or propriety.

America’s public school system is incredibly complex. And like most complex things, any criticism of it is at least partially correct.

There are ways in which the system is antiquated and could use updating. But to claim that the entire system should be scrapped in favor of a largely untested, disproven and – frankly – profit-driven model is supremely stupid.

The criticism seems to be well encapsulated in a flashy animated video from Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based charter school network operating 165 schools in 25 states and nine countries. The organization has been heavily praised by the likes of former President Barack Obama and philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates.

Let’s examine the six main components of the video explaining why the charter operators think public schools are out of date and should be replaced:

1) Public Schools are Relics of the Industrial Age 

The criticism goes like this. The public school model was created in the Industrial Age and thus prepares students to be factory workers. All day long in public schools students follow orders and do exactly what they’re told. Today’s workers need different skills. They need creativity, the ability to communicate ideas and collaborate.

First, while it is true that the American public school system was created during the Industrial Revolution, the same thing can be said for the United States, itself. Beginning in 1760 and going until 1840, manufacturing began to dominate the western economy. Does that mean the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped? Clearly our form of government could do with a few renovations, but not by appeal to its temporal genesis, to when it was created.

Second, IS it true that America’s public schools expect students to do nothing but listen to orders and follow them to the letter?

Absolutely not.

In fact, this is exactly what teachers across the country DON’T want their students to do. We work very hard to make sure students have as much choice and ownership of lessons as possible.

We often begin by assessing what they know and what they’d like to know on a given subject. We try to connect it to their lives and experiences. We try to bring it alive and show them how vital and important it is.

Do we exclude creativity, communication and collaboration from our lessons?

Absolutely not.

In my class, creativity is a must. Students are required to write journals, creative fiction, and poetry. They draw pictures, maps, posters, advertisements. They make Keynote presentations, iMovies, audio recordings using Garage Band, create quizzes on Kahoot, etc. And they often do so in small groups where they are required to collaborate.

The idea that students are somehow all sitting in rigid rows while the teacher blabs on and on is pure fantasy. It betrays a complete ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

2) Lack of Autonomy

The criticism goes that students in public school have no choices. Every minute of the day is controlled by the teacher, principals or other adults. However, in today’s world we need workers who can manage their own time and make their own decisions about what to do and when to do it.

Once again we see a complete ignorance of what goes on in public schools.

Today’s students are not only expected to make decisions and manage their time, they could not pass their classes without doing so.

Teachers often go to great lengths to give students choices. Would you like to read this story or that one? Would you like to demonstrate your learning through a test, a paper, an art project or through a digital medium?

For instance, my students are required to read silently for 15-minutes every other day. But they get to select which books to read. Eventually, they have to complete a project using their self-selected book, but they are in charge of ensuring the book they pick meets the requirements, how much they read each day in class and outside of class, and whether they should complete a given book or pick a new one.

Even when it comes to something as mundane as homework, students have to develop time management. I give my students the homework for the entire week on Monday, and it’s due on Friday. This means they have to decide how much to do each night and make sure it gets done on time.

Today’s students have much more ownership of their learning then I did when I went to school. Those throwing stones at our public school system would know that, if they actually talked to someone in it.

3) Inauthentic Learning

Critics say most of the learning in public schools is inauthentic because it relies on memorization and/or rote learning. It relies on a generic set of knowledge that all children must know and then we measure it with standardized tests. Learning should be deeper and its subjects should be something students intrinsically care about.

Once again…

Actually this one is kind of spot on.

Or at least, it’s partially true.

It accurately represents one kind of curriculum being mandated on public schools from the state and federal government. It’s called corporate education reform, and as pervasive as it is, you’ll also find the overwhelming majority of school teachers and community members against it.

This is why Common Core is so unpopular – especially among teachers. This is why almost everyone wants to reduce standardized testing and the kind of narrowing of the curriculum and teach-to-the-test practices it brings.

However, there’s something incredibly disingenuous about this criticism coming from a charter network chain. The educational practices these critics of public schools often propose replacing this standardization with are often just a rehash of that same standardization using more modern technology.

Business interests, like Big Picture Learning, often propose using competency based education or personalized education programs on computers or devices. These are extremely standardized. They follow the same Common Core standards and use computerized stealth assessments to determine whether students have learned the prescribed standard or not.

In short, yes, corporate education reform should be challenged and defeated. However, as in this instance, often the same people criticizing public schools for these practices don’t want to undo them – they just want to expand them so they can be more effectively monetized by big businesses like them!

4) No Room for Student Interests

Critics say the standardized public school system requires each child to learn the same things in the same ways at the same times. However, each of us are different and have individual interests and passions. The current system has no room for self-discovery, finding out what children enjoy doing, what they’re good at and where they fit in.

Once again, there is some truth to these criticisms.

The corporate education model is guilty of exactly these things. However, teachers have been pushing to include an increasing amount of individualization in lessons.

This struggle is inherent in the essential dichotomy of what it means to be an educator today. We’re told we must individualize our lessons for each student but standardize our assessments. This is fundamentally impossible and betrays a lack of vision from those making policy.

If the lawmakers and policy wonks who made the rules only listened to teachers, child psychologists and other experts, we would not be in this predicament.

As it is, many teachers do what they can to ensure students interests are part of the lesson. They gauge student interest before beginning a lesson and let it guide their instruction. For instance, if students want to know more about the weaponry used by the two sides in the Trojan War, that can become part of the unit. If, instead, they wonder about the role of women in both societies, that can also become part of the curriculum. Just because the higher ups demand students learn about the Trojan War doesn’t mean student interest must be ignored. In fact, it is vital that it be a component.

Moreover, creative writing, journaling and class discussion can help students grow as learners and engage in authentic self-discovery. Two weeks don’t go by in my class without a Socratic Seminar group discussion where students debate thematic and textual questions about literature that often spark dialogues on life issues. When students hear what their peers have to say about a given subject, it often results in them changing their own opinions and rethinking unquestioned beliefs and values.

In short, less corporate education reform means room for more student passion, interest and self-discovery.

But these critics don’t want less. They want more!

5) They Don’t Respect How We Learn

Critics say that each student is different in terms of how they learn best and in how much time it takes to learn. As a result, students who comprehend something at a slower rate than others are considered failures by the current system.

In the corporate model, this is true. However, most districts take great pains to give students multiple chances to learn a given concept or skill.

The fact that not all students will know the same things at the same times is built in to the curriculum. Teachers are familiar with their students and know which children need more help with which skills. Concepts are reviewed and retaught – sometimes through copious mini-lessons, sometimes with one-on-one instruction, sometimes with exercises for the whole class.

The further one gets from standardized tests and Common Core, the more individual student needs are respected and met.

But again that’s not the goal of these critics. They blame public schools for what they only wish to continue at higher intensity.

6) Too Much Lecturing

Critics say that under the current system, students are lectured to for more than 5 hours a day. However, this requires students to be unable to interact with each other for long periods of time. Students are at different levels of understanding and nothing can be done to help them until the lecture is over. Wouldn’t it be better to let students pursue their own education through computers and the internet so they could proceed at their own pace like at the Khan Academy?

And here we have the real pitch at the heart of the criticism.

People who wish to tear down public schools are not agnostic about what should replace them. They often prefer privatized and computerized alternatives – like the Big Picture charter chain model!

However, these are not entirely novel and new approaches. We’ve tried them, though on a smaller scale than the traditional public school model, and unlike that traditional system, they’re an abject failure.

Giving students a computer and letting them explore to their hearts content is the core of cyber charter schools – perhaps the most ineffective academic system in existence today. In my state of Pennsylvania, it was actually determined that students would learn more having no formal schooling at all than to go to cyber charter schools.

The reason? It is beyond naïve to expect children to be mature enough to control every aspect of their learning. Yes, they should have choice. Yes, they should be able to explore and develop as individuals at their own pace. But if you just let children go, most will choose something more immediately gratifying than learning. Most children would rather sit around all day playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty than watch even the most interesting educational video about math or science.

Adolescents need structure. They need motivation. In short, they need a teacher – a human authority figure in the same room with them who can help guide their learning and hold them accountable for their actions.

The mere presence of information on the Internet will not make children smarter just as the mere presence of a book won’t increase their knowledge. Certainly some children are self-motivated enough and may benefit from this approach, but the overwhelming majority will not and do not.

Our public schools do need a reformation, but this edtech-biased criticism only hits part of the mark.

The major problems are corporate education reform and standardization. And unfortunately edtech plans like privatization and competency based schemes only seek to increase these pedagogies.

Public schools are not outdated. They have changed and evolved to meet the needs of the students attending them. The fact that they serve every student in a given community without weeding out the less motivated or those with special needs as charter chains like Big Picture do, demonstrates this very flexibility and daily innovation.

They can be robust systems fostering self-discovery, autonomy and deep student learning. We just need to have the courage to support them, strengthen their autonomy and avoid trendy, shallow and self-centered criticisms from charter chains hoping we’ll buy what they’re selling.

The Worst Sort of Violence Against Children

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She was smiling and laughing, but her eyes were terrified.

Sitting in class among her fellow middle school students, her words were all bravado. But her gestures were wild and frightened. Tears were close.

So as the morning bell rang and the conversation continued unabated, I held myself in check. I stopped the loud rebuke forming in my teacher’s throat and just listened.

“You know that shooting at Monroeville Mall Saturday night, Mr. Singer? I was there!”

I swallowed. “My gosh, Paulette. Are you okay?”

She acts street smart and unbreakable, but I can still see the little girl in her. She’s only 13.

She slowed down and told us what happened; a story framed as bragging but really a desperate plea for safety and love.

She went to the mall with her mother. When they separated so she could go to the restroom, the gunfire began. She ran out and Mom was gone. She was ushered into a nearby store where the customers were kept in lockdown. She stayed there until the police cleared the mall, and it was safe to find her mother and go home.

A 17-year-old boy had gunned down three people. One was his target. The others were bystanders – parents who had gotten in the way. Now they were all in the hospital, two in critical condition.

And my student – my beautiful, precious, pain-in-the-butt, braggadocious, darling little child – was stuck in the mix.

I could imagine how scared she must have been separated from her mother, hiding with strangers as police swept the shops, food court and children’s play center.

Here she was telling the class her story and getting more upset with each word.

I gave her a meaningful look and told her we’d talk more later. Then I began class.

But I kept my eye on her. Was that relief I saw as the talk turned from bullets and bloodshed to similes and metaphors? Did the flush leave her cheeks as we crafted multi-paragraph theses? I hope so.

I think I know her pretty well by now. She’s been mine for two years – in both 7th and 8th grades. I even taught her older brother when he was in middle school.

I know she’s rarely going to do her homework – and if she does, it will be finished in the last 20 minutes. I know she’d rather be out playing volleyball or cheerleading than in school writing or reading. I know when she’s secure and when she’s scared.

And I know that today’s lesson will be a breeze for her. So why not put her in her comfort zone, show her things haven’t changed, she’s still the same person, she can still do this – nothing is different?

At least, that was the plan.

As any experienced public school teacher knows, you have to satisfy a person’s basic needs before you have any chance at teaching them something new. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is always at the back of mind.

Students must have their physical needs met first – be fed, have a full night’s rest, etc. Then they have to feel safe, loved, and esteemed before they can reach their potentials.

But meeting these needs is a daily challenge. Our students come to us with a wealth of traumas and we’re given a poverty of resources to deal with them.

How many times have I given a child breakfast or bought a lunch? How many kids were given second-hand clothes or books? How many hours have I spent before or after school just listening to a tearful child pour out his heart?

Let me be clear. I don’t mind.

Not one bit.

It’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. I WANT to be there for these kids. I want to be someone they can come to when they need help. It’s important to me.

But what I do mind is doing this alone. And then being blamed for not healing all the years of accumulated hurt.

Because that’s exactly what’s expected of teachers these days. Fix this insurmountable problem with few tools and if you can’t, it’s your fault.

I didn’t shoot up the mall. I didn’t pass the laws that make it so easy for kids to get a hold of a gun. I didn’t pass the laws that allow such rampant income inequality and the perpetuation of crippling poverty that more than half of our nation’s public school children live with every day. And I sure didn’t slash public school budgets while wealthy corporations got a tax holiday.

But when society’s evils are visited on our innocent children, I’m expected to handle it alone. And if I can’t solve it all by myself, I should be fired.

That is where I take umbrage.

The issue is violence but not all of it comes at the end of a gun.

Keeping public schools defunded and dysfunctional is also a form of violence. Promoting privatization and competition when kids really just need resources is also cruelty. Pretending that standardized curriculum and tests are a Civil Right is also savagery.

It’s called class warfare. Its most prominent victims are children. Its most active soldiers are teachers. And we’re on the front lines every day.

When the bell rang to end class, Paulette stopped by my desk.

I looked up at her ready to give whatever support I could. It was my lunch break, but I was willing to skip it and just talk. I’d get the guidance counselor. I’d call home. Whatever she needed.

But none of it was necessary.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah.” She gave me a big smile and a deep breath.

I returned it.

Today would be alright. Tomorrow? We’ll meet that together.

But we sure could use some help.


NOTE: Names and other minor details may have been changed to preserve anonymity.

This Article was also published in The Progressive, Portside Navigator, Common Dreams, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

A Curriculum of Compassion

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Rayvin was back.

I had been told to expect her today. She’d been on my class roster since the beginning of the year but this was the first time I had seen her in person.

Such sad eyes. Such a defeated look on such a young, beautiful face.

“Welcome back!” I said smiling and picking up her loose hand to give it a silly shake.

“I thought we might see you today!” I said ushering her to a choice seat in a front corner.

She said nothing.

Rayvin had been in my class last year when I taught 7th grade. She had disappeared about halfway through the year – sucked into a mire of horrific circumstances, homeless shelters and life experiences no one should have to endure.

Now that I was teaching 8th grade and she had come back to the district, she had been returned to me like a dead letter.

The poor thing slumped into the seat I had given her. But I wasn’t about to give up.

I gave her an assignment I knew she’d enjoy. I remembered she liked to read horror stories so I put a book under her nose and opened it to Edgar Allan Poe.

She obeyed with no comment. But I wasn’t about to give up.

As the class discussed the story, I offered her a chance to participate. After every question I’d ask, I let me eyes casually fall on her face to see if she was interested in commenting before giving someone else a chance. She met my gaze but said nothing.

When class was over, she crumpled her papers in her hand like a tube.

Just as she got up, I asked, “Would you like a folder?”

She stopped as if she had heard me for the first time.

“Yes,” she almost whispered.

“Would you like a three-ring binder?” I asked and reached under a desk to a pile of supplies I collected for just such occasions.

Her face lit up into a smile.

I don’t remember what she said after that. I gave her the binder and she left.

It was the best moment of my day. The best moment of my whole week.

I had gotten through to her. She knew that someone – SOMEONE – cared.

THAT’S why I teach.

We waste a lot of talk in academic circles on curriculum and standards and lesson plans. But in the classroom, most of the time it’s all empty words.

Teachers have to make lightning fast decisions in real time. They can’t refer to a workbook, their notes or government-sanctioned benchmarks.

They have to appraise the situation and act.

If a student is misbehaving, the teacher has to quickly make a judgement why it’s happening, who it’s affecting and what’s the best course to correct it before it spreads out of control.

If a student isn’t acting like his-or-herself, the teacher has to mentally take note of the situation, compare it to past knowledge of the child’s history and then decide how best to help the young person without bringing down undue attention.

If a student doesn’t understand something, the teacher has to find out where the misunderstanding comes from, explain away the troubled spot and then gauge to see if his action has solved the problem.

And all in the blink of an eye.

It’s one of the things I love about teaching. It’s also why not everyone can do it.

You have to not only live in the moment but persevere. You have to be there for all 20-or-30-something students as well as you can, as quickly as you can, at the same time.

It’s a rush, let me tell you.

It’s also draining and frustrating and painful.

But it’s so worth it.

You get to help people – people who really need it. Not at a remove. You get to stand in front of those in need and help them up – even if they don’t know they’re on the ground.

There is such joy in what I do.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I’ll keep doing it even though my state and local government are determined to evaluate me to death with mountains of paperwork and statistics that would make even a statistician weep.

I’ll keep doing it even though my duly-elected school board publicly bad mouths their staff and refuses to even negotiate with us in person so we can afford to keep our own families.

I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.

One day I may not be able to do it anymore.

My health suffers. Time with my wife and daughter gets sacrificed.

But no matter what happens, I helped Billy express himself in writing. I made shy Kelcey feel safe enough to share her journal with the class. I showed Shaun that sometimes stories are about people just like him.

And I made Rayvin smile.

That’s so much more than enough!


NOTE: In an effort to preserve students’ anonymity, names and unimportant details may have been changed.

This article has been published in Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Standardized Dress – School Uniforms and Conformity as Social Norm

Pink-Floyd-The-Wall1982The-groups-musical-film-starred-Bob-Geldof-and-Bob-Hoskins

It was just a normal Monday. Two emotionally disturbed students chased each other into my classroom playing keep away with each others’ belongings.

I stopped them, reprimanded them and sent them to opposite corners of the room. Meanwhile the rest of the class hadn’t bothered to begin their warmup activity. I explained the assignment and got them back on track.

Finally, a girl sitting in the front row raised her hand and offered a solution to the problem on the board.

We were back in business and learning could continue.

At the end of class, an administrator stormed in. There was an urgent problem that needed solving immediately.

It wasn’t that the emotionally disturbed students were misplaced in the regular education setting. It wasn’t that the other students had needed redirection. It was the girl in the front row.

She was wearing a pink shirt!

When board members enact a school uniform policy – as was just accomplished at my district – they turn every educator in the building into the fashion police.

Individualized instruction, classroom management, content knowledge – all become secondary to the driving force of our schools: who isn’t conforming to the norm?

When did this become our educational philosophy? We should be doing just the opposite.

Schools should be engines of self-discovery and self-expression. In a world of stifling poverty and dangers from within and without, our schools should be places where kids can be themselves. We should be providing them safe places to learn who that is and what their relationship is to the rest of the world.

Instead, we standardize the curriculum with test prep and Common Core. We standardize their assessments with days of fill-in-the-bubble state-mandated testing and pretesting and post-testing.

To be fair, much of this is forced on us from the state and federal government. But now when your local school directors get an opportunity to make a rare decision about how to run their own community schools, they decide to standardize student dress!? They think having everyone look the same in drab colors and similar outfits is going to improve the situation!?

No! It simply continues the trend of turning our children into prisoners and turning our teachers into their wardens.

Case-in-point: my classroom is very cold. Even in summer the air conditioning blows out too much frigid air, and the maintenance department never seems able to adjust it properly.

I’ve almost given up complaining to administrators. After a few introductory attempts, I move on to things I can actually control.

In the past, I’ve simply told my students to bring a jacket. Most of them end up bringing a hoodie, but this year that’s against the dress code. They can wear a certain kind of plain sweatshirt or sweater, but they can’t wear one with a hood.

The result is a class of shivering children many of whom still try gamely to learn. I must admit, even standing there, myself, wearing a suit jacket, I go numb after a while.

So I took pity on my class and allowed them to discretely bring hoodies into class if that was all they had available. Almost immediately after the first student donned the verboten clothing, an administrator looked into my room and saw it. She pulled the student into the hall yelling and screaming that this was the second time the child had been seen wearing a hoodie, and disciplinary action would be taken.

The child turned to me with lost, helpless eyes before I spoke up and took the blame. He got off with a warning and shivered through the rest of my lesson.

Is this really the best use of our educational resources? We have real problems – such as dealing with the consequences of our “lowest responsible bidder” air conditioning service. But instead of tackling any of that, we’re pounding children into submission for a school uniform policy that doesn’t make any sense.

What lesson does it teach? Hoodies are evil? Wearing pink or – God help you! – navy blue will ruin your life!?

No. You must be the same as everyone else or you will be punished for being different.

This is what happens when school directors glance at the mountain of insurmountable problems they’ve volunteered to correct. But instead of solving any of them, they opt for a measure that solves nothing but looks good on paper – the newspaper, specifically.

A school uniform policy allows them to talk tough. We’re taking a strong stance against misbehavior by forcing student to dress the same way. We won’t put up with shenanigans at our school like gangs, violence and freedom of expression!

It’s ludicrous.

Do uniforms reduce violence and increase positive behaviors? There is no proof that they do. In every study that claims to prove the efficacy of uniforms for positive behaviors, districts made additional rule and administrative changes to the school environment at the same time. There is no way to isolate uniforms as the one factor among many that caused better behaviors.

What’s worse, there are long-standing, well respected studies that go further and conclude that uniforms are – at best – ineffective and – at worst – actually INCREASE negative behaviors.

Take this 1998 statistical study produced by the University of Notre Dame‘s Sociology Department that studied 10th grade students. Researchers showed that uniforms had no direct effect on “substance abuse, behavioral problems or attendance.” In fact, uniforms actually had a negative effect on student achievements for those students who previously considered themselves ‘pro-school’.

Researchers concluded:

“Student uniform use was not significantly correlated with any of the school commitment variables such as absenteeism, behavior, or substance use (drugs). In addition, students wearing uniforms did not appear to have any significantly different academic preparedness, proschool attitudes, or peer group structures with proschool attitudes than other students.”

What about academics? Supporters claim uniforms will boost academic achievement by removing distractions to learning.

It’s a curious claim to make.

Statistics show that mandatory school uniforms actually work AGAINST learning. States that require uniforms rank at the bottom for academic achievement. States without mandatory school uniforms rank at the top.

This is why school districts that adopt mandatory school uniforms often see a drop in property values. Mandatory uniforms are a hallmark of failing schools.

Consider what kinds of schools require uniforms. Hint: it’s not the rich suburban ones. It’s the poverty-stricken inner city ones. Specifically, 47% of high-poverty schools reported requiring school uniforms. While only 6% of low poverty schools did the same, according to the US Department of Education.

The National Center for Educational Statistics surveyed both primary and secondary school students from 1988 to 2004. Their conclusion: “Once I control for a number of factors, including race, sex and socioeconomic status… there is little evidence that school uniforms have an impact on student outcomes.”

In short, it’s time to stop reform for reform’s sake. We need to stop reaching for easy answers. Our children deserve better.

We need to give up this strange notion that in the land of the free, the home of the brave, the best ideal we can drum up for our schools is everyone marching in line, wearing the same clothing, thinking the same thoughts. That’s not the American dream. That’s the Communist one!

We’ve got to be okay with difference. In fact, we need to encourage it. Yes, there are limits, but they should be placed back as far as possible.

John Mason wrote, “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy.” Let’s not force our children into a mold.

Let’s guide them, nurture them to become independent thinkers who sometimes shock us with their originality.

Let our decisions today be worthy of the adults they may one day become.

Let them be free.

Reformers Standardize – Teachers Individualize

head in book
If you turn on the TV these days, you’re bound to come across a news program talking about education reform. You’ll see at least five talking heads – not one of whom is an actual school teacher.

 

And no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that.

 

You’ll find actors, sports stars, politicians, hedge fund managers, vulture capitalists, economists… anyone but a living, breathing educator. If you’re lucky, you might find someone like Michelle Rhee who taught for about three years before becoming a professional education reformer and then was embroiled in various cheating scandals.

 

Would we find this acceptable if it were in other fields? I wonder if a panel on medical reform held without a single doctor would have the same gravitas. Maybe a discussion on safe ways to fly an airplane without any airplane pilots would be well received. ‘Laws Without Lawyers’ would sure be an informative talk! Heck! We even hire ex-athletes and coaches to go on ESPN and talk about the games they, themselves, played and/or coached!

 

Only in the field of education do we find The Professional completely superfluous. Much has been made of the public’s disregard for teachers: the idea that since you’ve graduated high school, you know what it means to be a teacher. You don’t.

 

You don’t get a teaching certification digging around in a Crackerjack box. People earn genuine college degrees in this – many of them get masters and doctorates. Those degrees even require you to go out and do some actual teaching! Let me assure you, none of it entails reminiscing about your old high school days and all the teachers who were mean to you.

 

So why does the public love reformers but hate teachers so much? I think it’s because we let them define the debate and frame the narrative.

 

“He who frames the question wins the debate,” goes the old saying. Though erroneously attributed to Randall Terry (There is no evidence he was the first to use it), it’s true.

 

We’ve let the Michelle Rhee’s of the world do exactly this. To see how, ask yourself the following question: What do we call THEM?

 

The answer: Education reformers. Some of us try to put a disparaging “Corporate” at the front, but by then the damage is done.

 

They’re the “reformers,” and what do we call those who oppose them? We don’t even really have a name. Nothing except “TEACHERS!” said with a sneer! Or maybe they’ll try to stick in “UNIONS!” with that same sarcasm! Even if you don’t belong to a union, even if you aren’t a teacher, they’ll try to tie you to those pejorative terms: “You’re in the pay of the teacher’s unions!” Heaven help us!

 

In the court of public opinion, the facts don’t matter. This is where we’ve lost. It doesn’t matter that the state and federal government has been trying out the pet projects of these “reformers” for at least a dozen years and none of their promises have come true. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, high-stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers – it’s all the same snake oil they keep selling the public again-and-again…  AND PEOPLE KEEP BUYING IT!

 

But what choice do they have? These are the “reformers.” If I’m against them, what am I? An obstructionist? Am I in favor of the status quo? Do I just want to keep things the way they are?

 

Of course not! But we’re stuck without a name to call ourselves and, to be honest, a more accurate (but polite) term to call them.

 

Let me offer a solution.

 

We’ve seen that the reformers really aren’t reformers at all. They’re “STANDARDIZERS.” Isn’t that, after all, the goal of all their botched and bungled education efforts?

 

Our national and state education policies push for students and teachers to be evaluated on standardized tests. Teachers must use common standards from which to design their lessons. Many times, teachers are required to read their lessons right from a standardized script. It’s all about making students and teachers march in line to the ca-ching of the cash register as public money flows into privateers’ pockets. (Who do you think pays for all those tests and test prep? You do, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer!)

 

Even the debate on teacher tenure is about standardization. The shadowy AstroTurf organizations financing these attacks want teachers to shut up and get in line. No more due process so they can fire whoever they want, whenever they want. No more talking out against these failed reforms. No more push back. Just read from the script, do your test prep, proctor your standardized tests and when you’ve either quit or your salary is too expensive, it’s time for you to go into another field.

 

STANDARDIZERS want our public schools to look like the educational equivalent of Walmart or McDonalds. On any given day, walk into an 8th grade class in a school in Brooklyn and walk into one in Kansas City or Los Angeles or anywhere in the country and you’ll see the same lesson being taught the same way by your easily replaceable and inexperienced teacher.

 

Many of us oppose this goal. We think this isn’t the best way to educate our children. But what do you call us? What term best characterizes our educational outlook and goals not just by contrast to what STANDARDIZERS do but also positively describes what we think a good educational system should look like?

 

I’d suggest “INDIVIDUALIZERS.” After all, that’s what good teachers do. We individualize children’s education.

 

We construct our lessons so that they address the various learning styles of our students. We let students make choices and hold them responsible for those choices. We talk to parents and psychologists and make decisions based on our students needs. We thoroughly read our students IEPs and abide by them (instead of just ignoring them like the STANDARDIZERS do). We meet kids where they are and help them progress from there. We don’t start at some arbitrary standard. We don’t tell them facts are all that matter. We cherish their opinions and help them make stronger arguments based on facts.

 

This includes school funding. STANDARDIZERS say they want every school to get equal funding! That sounds great – equality – but what we need is equity. Poorer schools require more funding than those that serve a wealthier population. Impoverished students need extra tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other wraparound services for the things that – for whatever reason – don’t get provided at home. And there are an awful lot of kids in need. A majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families. Poor kids just cost more to educate.

 

The rest of the industrialized world knows this and funds schools accordingly. We’re one of the few countries that willfully refuses to do it. It’s like the racist who claims he “can’t see color.” STANDARDIZERS won’t see poverty. They also won’t see that many of these impoverished children are minorities, either.

 

A sure way to tell if you’re talking to a STANDARDIZER is if he says that we need to stop wasting money on schools that don’t work and start investing in ones that do. It just means he thinks rich kids deserve more money than poor kids. You don’t think STANDARDIZERS want all this mechanized horror for their own kids, do you?

 

Despite what they say, STANDARDIZERS know standardization isn’t what’s really best for children. You can tell by where they send their own kids – private and parochial schools that don’t have to abide by their own standardized policies! (Wow! Isn’t that a shock!?)

 

This robotic utopia isn’t for their own children. If you walk into a rich school – probably a charter, parochial or private school – you won’t see standardization. If they want public schools to be Mickey Dees, they want their kids schools to be a celebrity chef’s burger bistro selling made-to-order patties of Kobe beef topped with Foie Gras! And there’s nothing wrong with that, BUT it’s awfully telling that what they want for their own children is too good for yours and mine.

 

So to review, Corporate Education Reform is all about standardization. Those who oppose it are in favor of individualization.

 

Or to put it in a soundbite: Reformers Standardize – Teachers Individualize.

 

I think if we start talking about it like this, we may see a change. Every time a STANDARDIZER tries to frame it their way, correct them. Don’t let anyone characterize the status quo as “reform” without correcting them that it’s actually about standardization. We need individualization.

 

It will take time, and we need to continue making the arguments we’re already making about why this is true. But eventually things might change.

 

One day in the not-so-distant future, you might turn on a TV news program about education reform and hear from – GASP! – a teacher!

 

 

NOTE: Many Individualizers self-identify with activist groups to oppose the work of standardization. For example, some call themselves BATS or Badass Teachers since they belong to the Badass Teachers Association. (I know I do!) And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I think we need a close synonym, a broader blanket term for the entire aggregate of people who oppose standardization. Not everyone will want to be called a Badass Teacher. But we can all be Individualizers. And, moreover, the use of that term in contrast to “standardizer” helps us frame the narrative in a more truthful way than that currently being popularized.