Reading for Pleasure – One of The Most Important Lessons in School

“Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.”

― Beverly Cleary

If you ask most middle school children whether they like to read, the answer is usually no.

However, for the last few weeks, my 7th graders have been coming into my class and remarking about the 8th grade books they find left on their desks.

“Oh! The Outsiders! I hear that’s a really good book!”

“When are we going to read this, Mr. Singer?”

“Can I take this home?”

That’s what you get when you pique a student’s interest – even a reluctant reader.

The problem is one of speed and instant gratification.

Today’s children have a multitude competing for their attention.

Video games, social media, TikTok videos – they haven’t the time to sit down with a book.

Doing so seems like something an old person would do or at least something too hard for them to enjoy.

I remember when I was growing up, my father always read Stephen King paperbacks. I still remember the covers of some of those books. The snarling Saint Bernard of “Cujo.” The empty boy’s face of “The Shining.” And “Night Shift” with its creepy bandaged hand slowly coming unraveled to reveal eyes growing under a knuckle…

I wanted nothing more than to read these books and understand what it was that lurked inside the covers.

But today a lot of novels are eBooks. If they have covers, they aren’t visible in the hands of those reading them. They aren’t left on display on a shelf. They’re nearly invisible.

The very idea of books seems like something beyond the reach of many adolescents.

That’s where teachers come in.

We need to dispel these myths, to help our students overcome them.

That means (1) reading books together in class, and (2) allowing kids self-selected reading.

First, we have to actively show kids that reading can be fun.

This means picking the right books to read as a class and trying to make the experience pleasurable.

Luckily there are some classics of young adult literature that rarely disappoint – S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, Lois Lowery’s “The Giver”, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game”, Louis Sachar’s “Holes”, etc.

If you can catch a child’s imagination and place it in a community of learners, the result is both an individual and a social phenomenon.

Each child has his or her own experience, but it is enhanced by the thoughts and comments of others. Trying to solve the secrets of the society in “The Giver” isn’t just something you do alone – it’s a shared endeavor with your peers. Trying to decide what you’d do in the place of Ponyboy from “The Outsiders” isn’t just an academic thought experiment – it’s a way of expressing your thoughts and values and seeing them reflected, absorbed or enhanced by those around you.

However, this can’t always be done in a group setting. And the teacher can’t be the only person guiding the experience.

You have to give students the respect to make their own choices about what they read, too.

Let them choose books from the library and read them silently in class. There can be a culminating assignment like a book report or a book circle at the end of the month, but it has to be driven by individual curiosity.

This is all easier said than done.

Some years the books I pick for my students are a hit. Some years they aren’t.

Things are especially difficult now as we’re just healing from the Covid-19 pandemic. Students are just starting to get back on track and relearn all the social and academic skills they lost in years of quarantine and uncertainty.

I’m finding “The Giver” to be a harder sell this year than in most previous years. Many students want a more immediate and personal story. But some are entranced by the mystery and way the society deals with budding adolescence.

“The Outsiders”, though, is a raging success. My students don’t want to put it down or stop discussing the story. In fact, their enthusiasm is turning into rumors that have spread from grade-to-grade. However, they also aren’t as interested in racing through it toward the end as students from others years have been.

The biggest challenge is always silent reading.

The very idea of sitting down with a book and quietly reading it is entirely alien to some kids. They look around the room or try to sneak their cell phones out of their pockets – anything but turn their eyes to the pages in front of them.

It comes down to (1) finding a book that will interest the individual, and (2) one that they can easily read.

Unless you’re a librarian, it can be really hard to match students and books. As a classroom teacher I know some books that other students have enjoyed in the past and even have a few handy. For example, “Tears of a Tiger” by Sharon Draper is a story a lot of my more mature readers have gotten into – especially children of color. It tells the story of a boy who is dealing with the death of a friend who was riding in the boy’s car while he was driving drunk.

However, I don’t know the entire spectrum of children’s literature as well as a dedicated middle school librarian would. My school used to have one of those and she was brilliant at accomplishing the goal of suggesting books to students. These days, though, we have one librarian for the middle school and high school. That’s just too much ground to cover for any individual. Moreover, when you don’t dedicate your library to reading or research, you lose an incredible resource. There is far too much time when the library is closed for standardized testing or the librarian is asked to teach a class or proctor a study hall.

When it comes to matching a student to a book with a proper reading level, there are tools like Accelerated Reader which gives each book a level and tests students to find out their ability. However, the last thing we need is more standardized testing and computer software. An actual living, breathing librarian who has the time to know students and the literature is better than any technology in the world.

The point, though, is that no matter the challenges, we, as teachers, have to try.

It isn’t our job to simply teach children HOW to read. We have to encourage them TO read. We have to SHOW them that reading can be one of the most enjoyable pastimes in the world.

It may be out of touch with our modern society, but that is why it is so valuable.

Through books we can access any place – even places that never existed. Through books, we can talk with anyone in the entire history of time – even people who were never born.

And in doing so we gain access to that secret part of our own mind – our imagination – and build it into something strong and vibrant.

Few things are more important.

Creating lifelong readers – not a bad way to spend a teaching career.

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”

-Malala Yousafzai


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Who is Education For?

Everyday we send our children to school.

Why?

In whose interest are we sending our kids to school?

Is it for businesses so that they’ll have the kinds of workers they need?

Is it so that our students’ educations will align with the demands of industry?

Or is it for the children? So they’ll become mature, intelligent adults capable of independent thought and making rational decisions?

Who, after all, is this education for?

I mean our society has jobs that need doing and people need to do those jobs or we won’t survive – but is that really the overriding, predominant impetus behind school? Survival?

Are we primarily helping the economy by subjecting our kids to the classroom? Or are we doing something to benefit THEM?

Is there a value in being educated? A value to the person who has become educated?

Does it provide any advantage to a person to know things? To be able to think about things? To be able to express oneself in writing? To be able to make calculations? To use logic and reason? To know history? To be able to read and comprehend what one’s read? To form an educated opinion on what one’s read? To know and practice the scientific method? To express one’s creativity? To do any of a hundred other things kids learn in school?

Or are we just filling the factories with button pushers to keep smoke spilling out of the chimneys?

It’s more than two decades past the millennium, and I can’t believe I still have to ask such questions.

But I do. Because nearly every day some policymaker, pundit, billionaire or other over-privileged talking head feels free to answer these questions wrong.

Five minutes alone in the dark and the answers are inescapable. But these guys (and it’s usually men) don’t have that kind of time or integrity.

It could be the CEO of the world’s largest petroleum company. Or the President of the United States. Or the Secretary of Education.

In what they say, what they do, what they promise, what they ponder in earshot of the press, they show a persistent ignorance of what education is and who it is for.

They think it’s something that can be adequately measured by standardized tests. Something that can be improved by competition. Something that is supposed to earn them money.

So they get the answer wrong. Every time.

I’m tired of telling them the truth. I’m tired of correcting them. Because they don’t care to be corrected. They have a fixed conception of the world, and understanding the truth about education might make that all come tumbling down.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates is purported to have said that 2,400 years ago.

It’s not exactly news.

What’s the purpose of life if you don’t think about things?

But no matter how much money they have, the plutocrats can’t afford to think about things. And they certainly can’t afford for YOU or your children to think about things.

What would happen if we all went around examining our lives? Would we still submit to being cogs in an economy designed to benefit them and not us?

Would we still show up everyday to jobs we hate for salaries incapable of paying the bills?

Would we still shop constantly to fill the aching void in our hearts, not thinking but just re-enacting the American mantra of consume, Consume, CONSUME!?

Would we still worship the rich like gods regardless of the reality – their immature actions, their crude posturing, their obvious amoral banality?

Would we still pretend that skin color determines character, that nationality determines morality, that sex determines temperament, that biology determines gender, that rationality determines politics?

Would we still vote for one of two prepackaged, preconceived, preprocessed options neither of which will actually do what we know needs done but one of which will hurt us and the other of which will hurt others more or not hurt us worse than we already are?

The answers are obvious. We all know. You don’t need me to tell you.

Just like the purpose of education.

It is the most dangerous thing in the world to the status quo.

Education, learning, thought is a cocoon. And no one knows what will come crawling out after the metamorphosis.

No one controls education. Not even the educator.

So how can we let anyone truly be educated? They might end up different – different from their parents, different from their congregations, their friends, neighbors, society.

Who is education for?

For whom would we risk all this?

Who is worth such danger, such terror, such uncertainty?

You know who.


 

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Posting Learning Objectives in the Classroom is Still a Dumb Idea

One of the worst problems in education is that we never let bad ideas die.

There’s always some know-nothing hack from another field who pokes his nose into the profession and makes pronouncements like he’s an expert.

And since he’s so successful at X (usually something in technology or business) we take these pronouncements like they’re holy writ.

This is why we never get rid of standardized testing, charter schools, evaluating teachers on student test scores, and a hundred other practices that have demonstrably failed over-and-over again.

However, perhaps the most annoying of these zombie practices is the demand for teachers to post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom.

This is beyond stupid and a waste of time.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying teachers should go into the classroom with no idea of what they hope their students will learn everyday.

But the idea that we have so much control over our students that we can tell them with pinpoint accuracy exactly what knowledge and/or skills will be implanted in their skulls on any given day is so reductively stupid as to be laughable.

Anyone who still thinks teachers can post A on the wall and A is what will be accomplished has no business in the teaching profession.

Because, Brother, you don’t understand how teaching works!

So let’s begin with the reasons why this idea is still attractive.

First, we want to let students know what they’ll be experiencing in class on a day-by-day basis.

It’s a reasonable request to a degree. How many times have students walked into the classroom and the first thing that comes out of their mouths are, “What are we doing today?”

However, experienced classroom teachers know that this isn’t the real question. Most of the time when a student asks this they aren’t interested in what we are doing. They’re interested in what we AREN’T doing.

They want to know if we’re writing an essay, or if we’re reading a text or something that they specifically don’t feel like doing that day.

I hear this question most often in my last period classes because the students are exhausted from a full day of academics. They want to know if I’m going to tire them further or if there might be a chance at a breather here and there.

The second reason this practice is attractive is for principals.

Today’s principal is a frightening thing. After decades of educational malpractice at colleges and universities in creating new school administrators, principals no longer understand what their job truly is.

They think it’s to be a toady to the Superintendent or higher level administrators. They think they have to demonstrate their performance to their bosses with whatever data is available at every turn. (This is also what they expect teachers to do for them.)

This is why they tend to turn everything into something less important but quantifiable.

So demanding teachers to post learning objectives in their classrooms every day is something concrete and tangible that can be checked on and checked off on a clipboard. They can say to their bosses, “Look at what a good principal I am! My teachers post their learning objectives everyday!”

When I think of how principals used to manage their buildings and create an environment conducive for learning – for teachers to best impact their students – it makes me want to cry.

I miss real principals.

In any case, we can see why this demand is attractive.

However, it’s also really, really dumb.


Here’s why.

First, you have to understand how teaching works.

It’s not behavioralism. It’s not the 1920s anymore.

Students will be able to… WRONG! Students will have the OPPORTUNITY to, they will be ENCOURAGED to, their ENVIRONMENT will be altered to make it most conducive to…

You can’t rob them of agency. And if you think you can, you’re a fool.

No teacher – no matter how skilled or experienced – acts on her students like Gandalf or Dumbledore. Teaching is not magic and students are not passive objects.

You can’t say “Learn how to use nouns!” And WOOSH students can distinguish nouns from pronouns with pinpoint accuracy. You can’t put hands on a student’s head and say “Reading Comprehension!” And suddenly they pick up a book and start reading Shakespeare with absolute fidelity.

Yes, you can post these things on the wall. But what good does it do?

Students may see it and think to themselves, “So that’s what the teacher is trying to get me to know!” But how does that help?

When I took piano lessons, my teacher never told me the lesson was on the chromatic scale. She just gave me a few pieces to practice and helped me over the parts where I was stumbling.

Moreover, even if she had told me that, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Because I didn’t know what the chromatic scale was!

So much of education is skill based. We learn HOW to do something. We don’t spend much time on WHAT it is or any theories of how it all comes together. And even if we did, that would come at the end, not the beginning.

This is one of the major reasons why I resent the very notion of posting my learning objectives in the classroom. It ruins the surprise!

Teaching is an art at least as much as it is a science. We aren’t programing our kids like you would a computer.

When I teach my students how to write a single paragraph essay, for example, I have them write three drafts – a prewriting, a first draft (heavily scaffolded with a planner) and a final copy.

They often complain that this is a lot of writing and want to know why I’m making them do all this when they feel they could probably skip one or two steps and still come to almost as good of a final project.

I ask them to trust me. I tell them this is the best way, and that they’ll understand later. And since I’ve spent so much time creating a relationship of give-and-take, of trust, they often just get on with the work.

What I’m really doing with all these drafts is getting the format of the single paragraph essay embedded in their minds. They’re memorizing it without even knowing it.

Moreover, writing multiple drafts is good practice when you get to more complicated and longer essays. It forces you to re-evaluate what you wrote previously and it encourages you to improve it before you are finished.

Finally, it instills a process into your mind. You start to feel like this is the right way to do something and you resist taking the easier road because the way you were taught has lead to success in the past (and it will probably serve you well in the future as things get more complex).

Do you really think I should stop and explain all that to my students before we begin? Do you think it would help?

Absolutely not! Children (like tech entrepreneurs and business tycoons) often think they know everything when they really know nothing. If you explain everything to them at the beginning, they can get contrary and refuse to do all you ask to demonstrate they know better. This often leads to dead ends and reteaching – if possible.

These are things teachers like me have learned after decades in the classroom. So when a new administrator starts spouting the shallow dictums they were taught in a corporate dominated college course, it’s beyond frustrating.

Education is the one field where experience is considered a detriment. Classroom teachers are all fools. We must control educators top down with administrators full of ideology and little to no actual practical knowledge.

Teachers have far too much to do already without kowtowing to a worthless mandate to post their learning objectives in the classroom.

That, along with writing formal lesson plans, endless faculty meetings and thrown together professional development, compound to make a teacher’s workload unmanageable.

With so many experienced teachers running for the door these days, wouldn’t it be better to stop and listen to them once in a while?

Maybe it might help encourage some of them to stay in the profession?

Maybe that might actually help student learning?

Huh? Maybe?


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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!

 

Every Teacher Knows

I tried to compile a list of things that every teacher knows. I thought it might be helpful to see what kinds of things all teachers understand but that the general public probably doesn’t grasp.

Here’s my list.

Every teacher knows:  

You can’t force students to learn.  

You can’t control what students learn or think. You can only encourage them to learn and think. 

All students can learn something. Most will not learn everything you’re trying to teach

Relationships are more important than curriculum. 

Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, identity all matter in the classroom.  

Students who feel safe and cared for engage more in the process of schooling than those who don’t. 

Home life affects academics – positively and negatively. 

Almost all parents want the best for their kids, but most are struggling to achieve it. 

The best teacher cannot make up for an absent or abusive parent. 

It is important to differentiate instruction but there is only so much differentiation a single person can do effectively. 

Special education is vitally important but it is an unfunded mandate that demands teachers and schools provide services without providing the funding or tools to get things done. 

Class size is important, and most classes would be better with fewer students. 

Education is more of an art than a science

Learning is not quantifiable. It cannot be measured like a physical quantity.  

Standardized tests are poor ways to assess learning. Teacher created tests are better ways to assess learning. Student projects are often the best way to assess learning. 

Student test scores are poor ways to assess teachers. The best way is peer observation of teachers in a classroom context with the nonpunitive goal of improving instruction. 

Per pupil spending has a positive impact on academic outcomes. And in general the more per pupil spending, the better. 

Teachers get no respect

Politicians are afraid of the power teachers have over the next generation. 

Education is a pawn in the culture war. Most things politicians and policymakers say about education are untrue. 

Decision makers rarely listen to teachers

There are very few bad teachers who last beyond 3-5 years in the classroom. There are many bad administrators who spent very little time in the classroom. 

Public school teachers with 4-year (or more) degrees are generally better at their jobs than teachers with emergency certifications, Teach for America temps and uncertified charter school teachers

Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. 

Teachers absorb student trauma. Whether intentionally or not, students often hurt their teachers – emotionally and/or physically. Teachers sometimes hurt their students. 

Teachers’ safety, well-being and health are not valued by most school districts. 

Teachers are not paid a fair wage for the work they do, the amount of education required to get the job, and the impact they have on the lives of their students. 

Teachers are not able to use the bathroom during most of the school day

Teachers do not have enough time untethered to students to plan, collaborate and speak to parents effectively. 

Most paperwork teachers are required to complete, most meetings teachers are required to attend, and most professional development teachers are required to undergo is meaningless. 

Teachers are expected to put their students before their own children and families. 

Teachers are expected to take work home every day, and they often feel guilty if they don’t. 

Teachers are expected to correct the wrongs of every level of society – and accept all the blame. 

Teaching is one of the most important jobs in the world. 

Teachers make a difference every day. 

Many teachers who love their jobs are considering leaving at the first opportunity


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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!

Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

 
 
How does one teach about war?  


 
With pictures or words? 


 
With speeches or documentation? 


 
With prayers or curses? 


 
With laughter or tears? 


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


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


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


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


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


 
A patter at first, then a storm. 


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


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


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


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


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


 
But it led to some interesting discussion.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Tennyson writes


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


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


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


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


 
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
They want to remove the opportunity.  


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


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

Zhyvitʹ revolyutsiyeyu!

 
Viva la revolución! 

Long live the revolution!


 

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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!

My Students Haven’t Lost Learning. They’ve Lost Social and Emotional Development  

 


  
  

There is a student screaming across the hall.  
  
He is holding his gut and rocking back and forth in cries of wordless emotional pain as the rest of the class looks on in bewilderment.  
  
Students from other rooms start to cluster around the door until a security guard makes them go away.  
  
I close the door to my own classroom and try to settle my students down – but we can still hear him through the walls.   
  
And then:  
  
“Shut up!”  
  
“You’re stupid!”  
  
“Why don’t you make me!?” 
 
  
Believe it or not, this is not what teaching middle school used to be like.   
  
Eighth grade students were never perfect angels, but at least by then they used to know how to talk to one another. They could usually interact without constant sniping. They knew what was expected to get respect from each other and at least tried to do it.   
  
But things have changed.   
 
After 18 months of a pandemic, even when they aren’t infected with disease, children still are suffering tremendously from the effects of Covid-19. 
 
Adolescents are dealing with higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and addictive internet behaviors.   
 
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.  
 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC. 
 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of a pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.  
 
As usual, the place where these issues are most visible is our public schools
 
When Covid-19 swept our shores last year, much of the benefit of formal education fell through the cracks.   
 
Consistency went out the window. Many schools went to on-line learning or a hybrid model of in-person and on-line offset with increasingly common periods of quarantine.  
 
These were often necessary to keep kids and their families safe – and in some cases still are. As a society, we could have done more to blunt the blow such as paying parents to stay safe at home as well as supervise their children, but economic concerns took precedence to human ones.  
 
And now we’re seeing the cost
  
Many students attended school haphazardly and their parents often weren’t around to give them the kind of stability, role models or attention they’d normally get at school.   
  
Today, as the pandemic still smolders on, and schools struggle to function as if the danger had passed, the result is classes of emotionally needy and socially awkward children.  
  
There were so many fights in the halls of my building last week, we’re now operating on a soft lockdown to decrease unstructured time between classes.   
  
And you know what – it’s not really kids’ fault.  
  
They’re just trying to live in the world we’ve built for them.   
 
More than 674,000 Americans have died from COVID
 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus. 
 
Globally, that’s more than 1.5 million kids who have lost a parent, guardian or live-in relative to the pandemic, according to the Lancet
 
No wonder kids are having trouble dealing with their emotions! Their support systems are shot! 
  
My students are bright, caring, energetic and creative people. They have the same wants and needs as children always have. They just have fewer tools with which to meet them.   
  
Administrators often focus on academic deficits.   
  
They worry about learning loss and what the kids can’t do today versus students in the same grades before the pandemic. But I think this is a huge mistake.   
  
My students are not suffering from a lack of academics. They’re suffering from a lack of social and emotional development.   
  
I teach Language Arts and, sure, my kids may not have been exposed as deeply to certain concepts as those who came before them. They may not have written an acrostic poem or read Dickens or had as much experience writing. But that doesn’t mean they’re deficient.   
  
Every child – every PERSON – learns at an individual rate. Some take longer than others. Some take more exposure, experience and practice. But learning is never lost.   
  
Teachers know this. That’s why we scaffold our lessons. We get to know our kids and where they are before we can gauge what they still need to learn.  
  
My students may not have read the play they would have in 7th grade, but I can help them understand the components of drama when we read a play in the curriculum for 8th grade. They may not have written a particular type of poem last year, but we can still read one and understand it this year.   
  
Many students have difficulties with spelling and punctuation. That’s true this year as well as any other. That doesn’t mean they’ve lost anything. It means they need more instruction and practice.   
  
I’m not worried about that. It’s really pretty similar to any other year.   
  
What does concern me is the level of immaturity and social awkwardness I’m seeing.   
  
People aren’t machines. You can’t flip a switch and they just learn.  
  
You have to create an environment that is conducive to learning.  
  
Part of that is creating a class culture where everyone feels respected and safe. That’s difficult to do when kids don’t know how to communicate without conflict.   
  
That’s difficult when their sense of safety has been deeply impacted. Community members whining about security measures like wearing masks and getting vaccinated don’t help this – not at all.   
  
In schools, we’re trying to instill a sense of consistency and care. We’re trying to teach kids the basics of human interaction again – something even some adults are having to relearn.  
  
And let me tell you – it’s extremely hard in large, anxious groups dealing with the continuing uncertainty of our times.   
  
My own health has suffered under the pressures with which educators are forced to contend. Unnecessary paperwork, increased expectations, lack of respect and compensation have teachers stretched to a breaking point.   
  
I was in and out of the hospital all last week and the district had great difficulty finding an adult to sub for me.   
  
For two days they resorted to hiring parents from the community to watch my classes. I’m told that one of them reported to the office at the end of the day and promptly told the secretary not to call her tomorrow, that she was never coming back.   
 
It’s hard for professional educators, too. 
 
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers feel comfortable addressing grief or trauma tied to the pandemic. 
  
My kids are not demons.   
  
They are not monsters or evil or incorrigible.   
  
They’re just kids who really need our love and support.   
  
I feel for them. I really do.   
  
When I’m here, I do everything I can to help them feel safe, secure, respected and cared for.   
 
It’s certainly not easy. 
  
At lunch the other day, one student came to my door and scratched on the window. He was in tears.   
  
I let him in and asked what was wrong.   
  
He was at his wits end about his home life and felt lost. I sat with him, we talked it out and I asked if there was anything else I could do for him.  
  
He said, “Yes. Can I have a hug?”  
  
So even now, with COVID out there in the community and my mask securely fastened, I did it. I gave him a hug.   
  
That’s the need I’m seeing in schools right now.   
  
It’s not academics. That will be fine if we can take care of the emotional and social needs of our students.   
  
But this can’t be accomplished by teachers alone – nor even administrators, school boards and districts.   
  
We need to build a world that cares about children.   
  
We need to value their lives and needs.   
  
It’s not enough to care whether a child is born. We have to care whether a child is taken care of, healthy and loved.   
  
And that means looking out for their parents, too.   
  
If parents didn’t have to sacrifice themselves to their jobs, they could spend more time with their kids.   
  
When your job constantly demands more time, at all times of the day and night, you can’t be there effectively for the ones you love.   
  
We talk about family values, but we do little to value families. Only their credit score and earning power.   
  
This is a problem that won’t be solved overnight.   
  
It may far outlast the pandemic, itself.  
  
To heal our kids, we have to heal our society.  
  
In fact, we can’t do one without doing the other.  


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Reckless School Reopenings Cause Long-Term Academic Deficits

The American education system is under attack.

And just like at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, it’s an inside job.

At nearly every level of government – from Presidents to Congress to state legislatures all the way down to local school boards – decision makers have ignored science and sound policy to prioritize anything that will give the economy a quick boost.

It didn’t have to be this way. We could have put humanity first. We could have taken every step possible to protect our children from a deadly virus whose full effects on the human body are unknown. We could have protected their teachers and teachers families who by all accounts are even more susceptible.

But that would mean socialism – giving everyday people survival checks so they can stay home and not go into unsafe work environments. That would mean providing money to parents so they could stay home with their own kids and ensure they were doing their best academically in remote learning.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of country. We have no problem spending $1.8 trillion on tax breaks for the ultra rich, but $2,000 a month for the working class is too extravagant.

Better to make us unnecessarily congregate at non-essential jobs and spread Covid-19 all over the place. No wonder we only have 4% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s Covid cases. No wonder we have about 20% of the world’s Covid fatalities.

Instead of acting like responsible adults, we’ve invariably reopened schools while infection rates are high in surrounding communities.

And efforts at mitigating spread of the disease have been inadequate to lax to nonexistent.

The main excuse for such irresponsible behavior has been that it is in the best interests of children’s academic success.

Kids learn better in-person. So we should reopen schools to in-person instruction.

However, this kind of thinking is hypothetical to a fault. It ignores the specific facts of the situation and pretends they don’t exist.

In-person learning IS better under normal circumstances. But a global pandemic is not normal circumstances.

At so many levels, rushed, unsafe reopenings have already caused long-term academic deficits that will haunt our school system for decades if not longer.

In the short term, most academic programs being practiced during the pandemic are not as effective as alternative plans that would also safeguard student health and safety.

In the long term, factors such as faith in the school system, devastation of the teaching profession and potential lingering health effects of the virus may spell absolute disaster in the coming years even if Covid, itself, becomes nothing but a bad memory.

SHORT TERM EFFECTS

The kind of academics parents are accepting from their duly elected school directors is a national embarrassment.
It’s not that too many schools are providing instruction remotely. It’s that not enough are.

Instead, about 47% of students attend schools providing some kind of in-person instruction, according to a poll by Education Next. That’s about 19% of the districts in the country providing some kind of substandard hybrid program and 28% trying to run blindly as if the pandemic wasn’t happening. Moreover, those open to in-person instruction are most often located in communities with the highest Covid infection rates!

Let’s start with hybrid models. Most involve some kind of in-person instruction combined with remote learning. Partial groups of students come to the buildings certain days and stay remote on others. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of the student body refuses to participate and remains remote entirely.

The result is inconsistent programs. Students switch from one method to another – either because of changes at home or schools rapidly going from one model to another. Kids get used to learning one way and then have to change to another. They have to keep track of elaborate schedules and often fall through the cracks.

No wonder grades are tanking. We’re asking students to do things that are simply too complicated for their ages. And parents who are struggling with their own Covid-inspired juggling acts are often just as confused.

As a parent, it’s hard to make sure your child attends in-person or remote learning sessions when you aren’t even sure when these sessions are. The result is a spike in student absences which can come as a surprise to both parents and students.

And since only a portion of students remain remote – even if that portion is half or more of the total student body – their needs are usually ignored in favor of those willing to attend in person. Time and resources are prioritized for in-person students and taken away from remote students. This should be no surprise since students who remain on remote are much more likely to be poor and/or minorities while those attending in person are more likely to be wealthier and white.

Critics of remote instruction complain that it exacerbates existent inequalities. However, the hybrid model does so to an even greater degree – all with the sanction of the school board. And once inequalities are no longer the result of federal or state legislators or lack of resources but come directly from decision makers in your hometown refusing to care about all students, you have a deep systemic problem that no amount of moving students around from place-to-place can fix.

Even when everyone is on the same page and in the school building for instruction, the normal benefits of having students in-person are outweighed by necessary mitigation factors in schools.

Teachers help students by observing their work and stepping in if students are making mistakes or need help. However, teachers who are attempting to stay outside of 6 feet of their students cannot help because they cannot adequately see what their students are doing.

Moreover, kids benefit by working with each other in small groups. But this cannot be easily accomplished when they have to stay 6 feet apart.

In fact, both situations are best remedied by some kind of remote instruction. Students can share work through devices with both teachers and other students. They can collaborate virtually and get help. Being in-person gives no benefit. In fact, it just obscures the real solution.

IN-PERSON AND REMOTE SIMULTANEOUSLY

Then we have the unreasonable demand that teachers attempt to instruct students in-person while also instructing those on-line at the same time.

This has been an absolute disaster.

Either teachers burn themselves out trying to address the needs of two different groups with two different styles of instruction simultaneously, or they teach the entire group as if it were meeting remotely.

This results in one of two possibilities. One, teachers pay more attention to those in-person and mostly ignore those on-line. Two, they have to spend so much time dealing with technological issues that crop up or that they didn’t have time or training to anticipate that they end up ignoring in-person students.

This is a method that looks good on paper. It makes school boards seem like they are trying to meet the needs of all learners. But what they’re really doing is meeting the needs of none.

And there’s the added benefit that some children and staff may get sick in the process.

BENEFITS OF REMOTE

In the time of high infections, it’s best to keep all students remote. Not only is this the safest option for the health of everyone involved, it provides the best available education.

Academics can be consistent and schedules predictable. Problems can be anticipated, planned for and best solved. And the needs of the most students can be met. Districts can ensure everyone has the necessary technology and wi-fi. They can make sure teachers are trained and have help.

But too many decision makers see this as a defeat. We’re giving in to the virus instead of molding it to our will.

The sad fact is, if we want to defeat Covid, we need to defeat THE VIRUS. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not help anyone.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS

The short-sightedness of current academic plans that try to circumvent remote learning when infections are high will have lasting consequences on American education for years to come.

When politicians and school boards promote reckless policies, it destroys public faith in self-governance. There are plenty of private corporations just chomping at the bit to take over our schools. How can we forestall them when our duly-elected representatives repeatedly show themselves to be unfit for the job? If parents lose their faith in school boards, the beneficiaries will most likely be private corporations.

The same goes for larger government institutions like the President, Congress, the CDC and state legislatures. The Trump administration was a never ending dumpster fire. The hope was that a new administration would be better – and the Biden administration has been more efficient in many ways.

However, it is nearly as pro-corporate as the previous regime. The CDC under Trump commonly rewrote scientific guidance to agree with whatever mad dictate the idiot in the Oval Office just tweeted. Under Biden, the CDC has been more constrained, but it still ignores the world consensus on school closings and countless scientific studies.

Biden needs to rebuild faith in government. That won’t happen when his CDC issues official policy stating that teacher vaccinations are not necessary to reopen schools.

TEACHERS

And that brings me to the teacher shortage.

First, it’s not a shortage. It’s an exodus. Highly trained professionals refuse to submit to ill treatment, loss of autonomy and lack of adequate wages and benefits.

This is not a new problem. Educators have been leaving the profession in droves long before Trump or Biden.

But the current situation is finishing the job.

Few people are going to want to be teachers when they’re treated like this. Their health and safety is taken completely for granted. It isn’t even considered part of the equation or a certain amount of educator deaths are considered acceptable.

Teachers are expected to do multiple jobs at the same time in dangerous conditions at the drop of a hat and accept all the blame and none of the credit for what happens.

Ed tech companies have been waiting in the wings to take over the job of educating children. And the result will not be a superior education. It will be the complete dumbing down of American academics. Instruction will become a way corporations can sell products to students and families. It will not be centered on what is best for individual children.

As much as some people scream and foam at teachers who have the audacity to stand up for their own health and safety, they will miss us when we’re gone.

HEALTH ISSUES

And finally, there’s the lingering health issues caused by ignoring safety protocols for students and staff.

The problem with Covid isn’t just the possibility that you’ll die. Even if you survive, the most common long term effects are fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, and chest pain.

However, other reported long-term symptoms include difficulty with thinking and concentration, depression, muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and heart palpitations.

Long-term complications can include cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological and/or psychiatric problems.

We don’t know how serious or widespread these issues will be. However, we could be dooming a generation of children to increased depression, anxiety, changes in mood, smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, or memory problems.

How will the job market be impacted by large numbers of young people on disability due to inflammation of the heart muscle, lung function abnormalities, acute kidney damage or even crippling rashes and hair loss?

There could be thousands of Covid’s Kids who have to pay the rest of their lives for the recklessness of adults today.

Not to mention adults suffering from these conditions and having to leave the workforce immediately.

So rushing to reopen schools is a bad idea.

It robs kids of the best possible education given pandemic conditions. It increases racial and economic inequality. It erodes faith in government at all levels. And it gambles with the health and safety of everyone – adults and children – caught in the middle.

The best way to promote student learning isn’t to attack the very system providing it. Nor is it to endanger the lives of those who do the work and provide instruction.

The current crisis can be a temporary situation to survive with a minimum of risk and a maximum of support and caution.

Or we can recklessly pretend it isn’t happening and put the future of our children and the nation at large in unnecessary jeopardy.

 


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Kids Are NOT Falling Behind. They Are Surviving a Pandemic

 
 


 
Everyone is worried about how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting children. 


 
And it IS affecting them.  


 
But so much worry is being wasted on the wrong things. 


 
Instead of agonizing about kids being put in danger of infection at in-person schools where the virus is out of control, we’re told to worry about academic regression. 


 
Instead of feeling anxiety about abandoning kids at home as outbreaks close their schools and parents still have to go in to work, we’re told to agonize over failing test scores.  


 
In nearly every case, the reality is papered over by concern trolls clutching their pearls and demanding we point our attention away from the real dangers in favor of papier-mâché boogeymen. 


 
It’s almost as if the rich and powerful don’t want us to solve the real problems because that would cost them money.  


 
Stimulus checks, rent moratoriums, universal healthcare, aide to small businesses – none of that is in the interest of the one percent. 


 
Better to persuade the rest of us it’s better to suck up our pain and that doing so is really for our own good. 


 
And one of the ways they do it is by crying crocodile tears over our children’s academics. 


 
Kids are falling behind, they say.  

Hurry up, Kids. Get going.  


 
You’re behind! 


 
You have to catch up to where you would be if there hadn’t been a global pandemic! 


 
Hurry up! We’ve got this time table and you’re falling behind! FALLING BEHIND! 


 
It’s utter nonsense


 
I’m not saying that kids are learning today what they would have learned had COVID-19 not spread like wildfire across our shores.  


 
But the idea that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed – that is pure fantasy. 


 
Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning


 
At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.  


 
People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 


 
And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 


 
You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 


 
For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool. 


 
That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.  


 
Moreover, kids who live in stable, loving households who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, overcoming neglect or abuse, etc. have a greater chance of being ready more quickly than those trying to manage under a heavier load of problems. 


 
And if a child isn’t ready today, that doesn’t mean she’ll never be ready. 


 
The mind does not take ultimatums. You don’t have to fill up every shelf as soon as space becomes available. In fact, you could never fill it all up if you tried. There’s always more room – just maybe not right now. 


 
If a child doesn’t learn a certain concept or skill as soon as he or she is ready for it, that doesn’t mean he or she will lose out on that opportunity.  


 
Brains are flexible. They’re almost always ready to grasp SOMETHING. It’s just not up to society what those somethings are or when they’re achievable. 


 
That’s why Common Core Academic Standards were such a failure. They tried to map what schools teach like a train schedule, and then blamed educators when children’s brains didn’t match up with corporate expectations. 


 
The key is providing people with the opportunities and the circumstances that maximize the likelihood of learning. Not pedantically checking off skills and benchmarks. 


 
None of this is new. 


 
I am not putting forward a radical theory of cognitive development. 


 
Every teacher with an education degree is taught this in their developmental psychology courses. That’s why so many educational leaders don’t know anything about it.  


 
Policymakers rarely have actual education degrees. In fact, many of them have never taught a day in their lives – especially at the K-12 level.  


 
For example, Teach for America takes graduates from other fields of study (often business), gives them a couple weeks crash course in basic schoolology before throwing them in the classroom for a few years. Then they leave pretending to know everything there is about education, ready to advise lawmakers, work at think tanks, or otherwise set policy.  


 
Imagine how things would change if we expected our educational leaders to actually comprehend the field of study they’re pretending to steer. 


 
Meanwhile, people with 4-5 year degrees in education, like myself, have internalized things like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  


 
We know that learning is best achieved when a person’s foundational necessities are met. At base are physiological prerequisites like food, clothing and shelter as well as the need for safety and security. Then comes psychological requirements like relationships and self-worth. Once all these primary needs have been met, we can most effectively achieve academic goals. 


 
But for most kids the pandemic has been particularly hard on these primary needs. Food, shelter and safety are not nearly as certain today as they were just a year ago. 


 
Children’s physiological needs aren’t being met because their parents livelihoods are in jeopardy. And the very idea that children should be sheltered or kept safe is mocked by the economy first concern trolls demanding parents choose between their children or their jobs. 


 
They pretend to care about our kids so they can get us to do the very things that undermine our children’s safety. And it’s all somehow for our own good. 


 
In-person school, hybrid or distance learning? They don’t really care. 


 
The economy is what they’re really worried about. They want to keep it chugging along so they can continue siphoning profit off of the working class and into their pockets.  


 
And if they have any genuine concern for our children at all, it is merely that our kids get through the academic system and enter the workforce on time so that our kiddos can inject more money (more value) into the gross domestic product.  


 
We don’t need their disingenuous advice. 


 
Our children are suffering, but they’re doing as fine as can be expected under the circumstances.  


 
Yes, their educations have been disrupted by the virus. But a global pandemic will do that.  


 
You want to fix the problem, nothing short of ending the crisis ultimately will work.  


 
We can mitigate the damage, but marching kids into the classroom – sending them into a dangerous situation where they may get sick and (even more likely) bring the virus home to friends and family – will not help anyone.  


 
Schools are not daycare centers. In fact, we shouldn’t have to resort to daycare centers, either, when faced with a deadly airborne virus.  


 
Parents should be allowed (and encouraged!) to stay home and take care of their own kids. We should literally pay them to do so! 


 
These appeals to keep the economy running full steam ahead no matter the cost are nothing less than class warfare. And many of us have been brainwashed that we’re on one side when we’re really on the other.

 
 
Let’s get one thing straight: none of this means learning will stop.  


 
Kids are learning quite a lot, thank you.


 
They see us, adults, fighting over pandemic precautions like wearing face masks when in public. They see us denying science, calling the virus a fake as millions of people get sick and die. They see our President refusing to accept the results of the election. And sometimes they see the same people who should be keeping them safe sending them to school as if nothing is happening


 
The media mogul marketeers would be wise to fear the lessons this generation is learning about the gullibility of adults and the willingness of the ruling class to sacrifice the common folk.  


 
But even though much of the curriculum in 2020 has been unscripted, our schools still function.  


 
In fact, teachers are working harder than ever to provide some continuity. 


 
Where classrooms are closed, distance learning is taking up the slack


 
No, it will never be comparable to the quality of instruction you can provide in-person. But even the quality of in-person instruction is not the same during a pandemic. Hybrid models with necessary precautions of social distancing and mask wearing are, themselves, substandard.  


 
The best that we can do in most cases is learning at a distance.  


 
Will all kids respond?  


 
Absolutely not.  


 
They’ll do the best they can. And this will largely depend on the environmental factors in their homes.  


 
When you have children left to their own devices forced to navigate a virtual learning platform, they will inevitably hit roadblocks. They need their parents to help navigate the rough spots

Kids are just that – kids. They need adults to put them on a schedule, make sure they wake up on time, have breakfast, and hold them accountable for attending their classes – even if those classes are held on-line.

There’s a reason the kids with the best grades often have the most involved parents – parents with the economic freedom to invest more time into their children.

 
That’s something else the marketeers don’t understand. Most of the problems of Covid America aren’t that different from Pre-Covid America. It’s a matter of degree. 


 
Schools have always struggled to overcome the socioeconomic problems of their students. The only difference is that now we can’t just point to standardized test scores and blame it all on teachers.  


 
The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.  


 
A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.  
 


 
So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.  


 
Our children aren’t falling behind.  


 
They’re surviving a pandemic.  


 
 
Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.  


 
 
Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.  


 
 
But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart. 


 
Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.


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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!

The Internet is NOT the Best Place for Kids to Learn After the Coronavirus Pandemic

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 12.46.20 PM

 
If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

 

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

 

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

 

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

 

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

 

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

 

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

 

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

 

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

 

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

 

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

 

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

 

Why?

 

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

 

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

 

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

 

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

 

Online, educators have very little control over this.

 

LINE OF SIGHT

 
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

 

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

 

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

 

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

 

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

 

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

 
When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

 

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

 

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

 

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

 

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

 

TOO MUCH CHOICE

 
One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

 

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

 

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

 

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

 

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

 

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

 

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

 

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

 

HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE

 

 

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

 

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

 

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

 

In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

 

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

 

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

 

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

 

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

 

STUDENTS M.I.A.

 

 

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

 

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

 

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

 

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

 

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

 

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

 

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

 

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

 

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

 

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

 

INVADERS

 
But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

 

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

 

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

 

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

 

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

 

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

 

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

 

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

 

It’s maddening!

 

ASSESSMENTS AND CHEATING

 
Now let’s talk tests.

 

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

 

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

 

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

 

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

 

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

 

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

 

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

 

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

 

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

 

It may require much less.

 

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

 

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

 

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.


 

 

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Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

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My favorite movie of all time is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

In the future (now past) of the movie, HAL is paradoxically the most human personality. Tasked with running the day-to-day operations of a spaceship, HAL becomes strained to the breaking point when he’s given a command to lie about the mission’s true objectives. He ends up having a psychotic break and killing most of the people he was supposed to protect.

 

It’s heartbreaking finally when Dave Bowman slowly turns off the higher functions of HAL’s brain and the supercomputer regresses in intelligence while singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” – one of the first things he was programmed to do.

 

I’m gonna’ be honest here – I cry like a baby at that point.

 

But once I clean up my face and blow my nose, I realize this is science fiction – emphasis on the fiction.

 

 

 

I am well aware that today’s calendar reads 2020, yet our efforts at artificial intelligence are not nearly as advanced as HAL and may never be.

 

That hasn’t stopped supposedly serious publications like Education Week – “The American Education News Site of Record” – from continuously pretending HAL is right around the corner and ready to take over my classroom.

 

 
What’s worse, this isn’t fear mongering – beware the coming robo-apocalypse. It’s an invitation!

 

A few days ago, the on-line periodical published an article called “Teachers, the Robots Are Coming. But That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Kevin Bushweller.

 

It was truly one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a long time.

 

Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week and Executive Editor at both the Ed Tech Leader and Ed Week’s Market Brief, seems to think it is inevitable that robots will replace classroom teachers.

 

This is especially true for educators he describes as “chronically low-performing.”

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

These are teachers whose students get low scores on high stakes standardized tests.

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

These are kids without all the advantages of wealth and class, kids with fewer books in the home and fewer native English speakers as role models, kids suffering from food, housing and healthcare insecurity, kids navigating the immigration system and fearing they or someone they love could be deported, kids faced with institutional racism, kids who’ve lost parents, friends and family to the for-profit prison industry and the inequitable justice system.

 

And what does our society do to help these kids catch up with their more privileged peers? It underfunds their schools, subjects them to increased segregation, narrows their curriculum, offers them as prey to charter school charlatans – in short, it adds to their hurtles more than removes them.

 

So “chronically low-performing” teachers would be those who can’t overcome all these obstacles for their students by just teaching more good.

 

I can’t imagine why such educators can’t get the same results as their colleagues who teach richer, whiter kids without all these issues. It’s almost like teachers can’t do it all, themselves, — and the solution? Robots.

 

 

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

 
Bushweller suggests we fire all the human beings who work in the most impoverished and segregated schools and replace them… with an army of robots.

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

Black and brown kids won’t get interactions with real adult human beings. Instead they can connect with the ed tech version of Siri programmed to drill and kill every aspect of the federally mandated standardized test.

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

 

But the future envisioned by technophiles like Bushweller has NO such people in’t – only robots ensuring the school-to-prison pipeline remains intact for generations to come.

 

In such a techo-utopia, there will be two tiers of education. The rich will get human teachers and the poor and minorities will get Bluetooth connected voice services like Alexa.

 

But when people like me complain, Bushweller gas lights us away as being narrow-minded.
 

He says:

 

“It makes sense that teachers might think that machines would be even worse than bad human educators. And just the idea of a human teacher being replaced by a robot is likely too much for many of us, and especially educators, to believe at this point.”

 
The solution, he says, isn’t to resist being replaced but to actually help train our mechanistic successors:

 

“…educators should not be putting their heads in the sand and hoping they never get replaced by an AI-powered robot. They need to play a big role in the development of these technologies so that whatever is produced is ethical and unbiased, improves student learning, and helps teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. If designed with educator input, these technologies could free up teachers to do what they do best: inspire students to learn and coach them along the way.”

 

To me this sounds very similar to a corporate drone rhapsodizing on the merits of downsizing: Sure your job is being sent overseas, but you get to train your replacement!

 

Forgive me if I am not sufficiently grateful for that privilege.

 

Maybe I should be relieved that he at least admits robots may not be able to replace EVERYTHING teachers do. At least, not yet. In the meantime, he expects robots could become co-teachers or effective tools in the classroom to improve student learning by taking over administrative tasks, grading, and classroom management.

 

And this is the kind of nonsense teachers often get from administrators who’ve fallen under the spell of the Next Big Thing – iPads, software packages, data management systems, etc.

 

However, classroom teachers know the truth. This stuff is more often than not overhyped bells and whistles. It’s stuff that CAN be used to improve learning but rarely with more clarity and efficiency than the way we’re already doing it. And the use of edtech opens up so many dangers to students – loss of privacy, susceptibility to being data mined, exposure to unsafe and untried programs, unscrupulous advertising, etc.

 

 

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Bushweller cites a plethora of examples of how robots are used in other parts of the world to improve learning that are of just this type – gimmicky and shallow.

 

It reminds me of IBM’s Watson computing system that in 2011 famously beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, some of the best players, at the game show Jeopardy.

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

Now that Watson has been applied to the medical field diagnosing cancer patients, doctors are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. Its diagnoses have been dangerous and incorrect – for instance recommending medication that can cause increased bleeding to a hypothetical patient who already suffered from intense bleeding.

 

Do we really want to apply the same kind of artificial intelligence to children’s learning?

 

AI will never be able to replace human beings. They can only displace us.

 

What I mean by that is this: We can put an AI system in the same position as a human being but it will never be of the same high quality.

 

It is a displacement, a disruption, but not an authentic replacement of equal or greater value.

 

In his paper “The Rhetoric and Reality of Anthropomorphism in Artificial Intelligence,” David Watson explains why.

 

Watson (no relation to IBM’s supercomputer) of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Touring Institute, writes that AI do not think in the same way humans do – if what they do can even accurately be described as thinking at all.

 

These are algorithms, not minds. They are sets of rules not contemplations.

 

 

An algorithm of a smile would specify which muscles to move and when. But it wouldn’t be anything a live human being would mistake for an authentic expression of a person’s emotion. At best it would be a parabola, at worst a rictus.

 

 

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Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

In his recent paper in Minds and Machines, Watson outlines three main ways deep neural networks (DNNs) like the ones we’re considering here “think” and “learn” differently from humans.

 

1) DNN’s are easily fooled. While both humans and AIs can recognize things like a picture of an apple, computers are much more easily led astray. Computers are more likely to misconstrue part of the background and foreground, for instance, while human beings naturally comprehend this difference. As a result, humans are less distracted by background noise.

 

2) DNN’s need much more information to learn than human beings. People need relatively fewer examples of a concept like “apple” to be able to recognize one. DNN’s need thousands of examples to be able to do the same thing. Human toddlers demonstrate a much easier capacity for learning than the most advanced AI.

 

3) DNN’s are much more focused on details and less on the bigger picture. For example, a DNN could successfully label a picture of Diane Ravitch as a woman, a historian, and an author. However, switching the position of her mouth and one of her eyes could end up improving the confidence of the DNN’s prediction. The computer wouldn’t see anything wrong with the image though to human eyes there definitely was something glaring incorrect.

 

“It would be a mistake to say that these algorithms recreate human intelligence,” Watson says. “Instead, they introduce some new mode of inference that outperforms us in some ways and falls short in others.”

 

Obviously the technology may improve and change, but it seems more likely that AI’s will always be different. In fact, that’s kind of what we want from them – to outperform human minds in some ways.

 

However, the gap between humanity and AI should never be glossed over.

 

I think that’s what technophiles like Bushweller are doing when they suggest robots could adequately replace teachers. Robots will never do that. They can only be tools.

 

For instance, only the most lonely people frequently have long conversations with SIRI or Alexa. After all, we know there is no one else really there. These wireless Internet voice services are just a trick – an illusion of another person. We turn to them for information but not friendship.

 

The same with teachers. Most of the time, we WANT to be taught by a real human person. If we fear judgment, we may want to look up discrete facts on a device. But if we want guidance, encouragement, direction or feedback, we need a person. AI’s can imitate such things but never as well as the real thing.

 

So we can displace teachers with these subpar imitations. But once the novelty wears off – and it does – we’re left with a lower quality instructor and a subpar education.

 

The computer HAL is not real. To borrow a phrase from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Artificial intelligence is not yet “more human than human.”
 
Maybe it never will be.

 

The problem is not narrow minded teachers unwilling to sacrifice their jobs for some nebulous techno-utopia. The problem is market based solutions that ignore the human cost of steam rolling over educators and students for the sake of profits.

 

As a society, we must commit ourselves to a renewed ethic of humanity. We must value people more than things.

 

And that includes a commitment to never even attempting to forgo human teachers as guides for the most precious things in our lives – our children.

 

“Algorithms are not ‘just like us’… by anthropomorphizing a statistical model, we implicitly grant it a degree of agency that not only overstates its true abilities, but robs us of our own autonomy… It is always humans who choose whether or not to abdicate this authority, to empower some piece of technology to intervene on our behalf. It would be a mistake to presume that this transfer of authority involves a simultaneous absolution of responsibility. It does not.”

David Watson

 


 

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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