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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The Best Evidence Against Common Core

Classroom-Management2

There were hands in the air. Lots of them.

It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.

My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.

We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.

It wasn’t me who did it.

The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.

This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.

We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.

If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.

But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.

That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.

For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:

The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1

Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.

The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.

But hush. Destiny is speaking.

“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”

“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”

“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”

Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.

And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.

Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”

This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.

Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.

At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.

The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.

So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.

Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gates coerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.

It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.

To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.

Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.

Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.

But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.

Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.

When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”

Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?

It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.

Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.

We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.

Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!

Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?

Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.

My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)

When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!

If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.

Coleman and the Common Core designers would know that if they had ever led a classroom of students. But hardly any of them are educators. They’re bureaucrats, politicians and millionaire philanthropists.

They’re missing the true picture.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.


NOTES:

1 – Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.

This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Life or Death Professional Development

12184861-standard

You know what’s funny about school shootings?

It’s the only time the public still universally loves teachers.

We don’t trust them with collective bargaining rights. We don’t think they deserve a decent salary. Heck! We don’t even trust their judgement to design their own teaching standards, lead their own classrooms or be evaluated by their own principals!

But when armed assailants show up at school, then we think teachers are just great.

When angry teens arrive rifles strapped to their trench-coated backs, carrying duffel bags full of ammunition – then teachers are heroes.

I guess you can’t standardize your way past a bullet.

My school district had an outstanding training today. Administration brought in current and retired FBI agents, local law enforcement and EMTs to practice active shooter drills with the teachers.

We spent the morning learning about common factors between various school shootings, what to look for to stop the violence before it even begins and what strategies we should consider if we’re ever in such a situation.

This may sound a bit vague but the trainers asked us specifically not to give away the details. They fear if too much of this becomes common knowledge, mass shooters will better be able to prepare for their killings. So in deference to law enforcement, I’m not going to get into any specifics that might help a shooter increase his body count.

The afternoon was taken up with various scenarios. We were split into groups and given roles to play as a law enforcement officer took on the role of a school shooter.

The officer had a gun filled with blanks. We were given the opportunity to hear what it sounds like to have a gun go off in our building at various distances. It certainly wasn’t what I expected but gave us an excellent point of reference in case the real thing ever happened.

Probably the most frightening scenarios were in our own classrooms. I was sent to the room where I teach with a group of teachers who would play the role of students. Then we practiced locking down.

When the announcement was made, I locked my door, had the “students” turn over the desks for cover and turned off the light. One of the “students” was an army veteran so he tied his leather belt to the doorknob making it harder to open.

We heard the shooter walking the halls, screaming at others, even knocking on our door and trying unsuccessfully to get inside.

However, in the very next room, he broke in causing real damage to the door. He made the teachers kneel on the ground and asked them if they had children, if they wanted to live before shooting them with blanks.

When it was over, their faces were bloodless and scared.

During another scenario, I was only able to save one student in my room before the shooter arrived. I looked right at the shooter before slamming my door shut. There was just no time to do more.

The two of us hid along the wall with the lights out. We even tried our army friend’s belt trick but it did no good. The shooter broke through the door breaking the belt. I had my chair raised above my head and brought it down gently on his gun arm as he entered the room.

He turned to me and said “that was a good idea,” before shooting me. In my defense, had this been real and not practice, I would have brought the chair down with much more force. But dead I remained until police swept the room and the scenario ended.

A friend of mine in another room said the shooter entered her classroom and asked, “Who’s the teacher!?” My friend rose from the floor and said it was her. He took her outside of the room at gun point, turned her around and told her to run. She said she tried to follow his directions but her legs barely obeyed her. She doesn’t remember if he shot her.

Others froze in the halls against lockers or on the floor becoming easy targets as the shooter approached.

At one point he yelled, “Where’s the principal!?” Another friend calmly gave him directions how to get to the office. “Just go out these doors, make a left…” But by then the principal had already run from the building. She admitted to feeling horrible after she was safe.

We did a few other scenarios where the shooter approached us in areas where there was much less cover and you had to decide immediately what to do, where to go. It became something of a mad dash. One of the teachers even fell and broke her nose. She was treated on the scene by EMTs and taken to the hospital.

All-in-all, it was a thoughtful and fascinating training. It’s unfortunate we need to take the time away from academic concerns, but it is necessary. Our trainers called it “fear inoculation.” They said it would help us be less frightened, more able to act if the real thing ever were to happen.

The irony is that our public schools ARE safe – safer even than our homes. You have a better chance of being struck by lightening than you do being involved in a mass shooting. But these things do happen and it’s best to be prepared.

It certainly brought home the experience for me. I know what I’d do. I’d protect my students with my last breath. I think most teachers would. It’s who we are.

We don’t get into teaching for the salary or tenure. We certainly don’t do it for the standardization, dwindling autonomy, and fading professional regard.

We do it for the children.


I was honored to have this article featured on Freshly Pressed.