Top 10 Things I Want My Students to do During the Coronavirus Quarantine

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Dear Students,

 

A schoolteacher without a classroom is kind of like a firefighter without a fire.

 

Or a police officer without crime.

 

But here we are – self-quarantined at home.

 

Our classroom sits empty, and everyday this week we sit here at home wondering what to do.

 

I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about all of you.

 

I hope you’re doing alright during this unprecedented moment in history. It probably seemed like a lot of fun when it first happened.

 

No school for the foreseeable future!

 

The whole thing came together so quickly that our district didn’t even have time to get together work to send home with you. And like most schools throughout the country, many of you don’t have home internet access so we can’t fairly give you on-line lessons, either.

 

So you’ve been at home with little guidance from us. Sure we have free breakfast and lunches available for pick up at the school, but you’re probably growing a bit stir crazy.

 

I know I am. (And I’m sure your folks are, too!)

 

I’m at home with my daughter trying to keep her busy.

 

We’ve been creating Mario Maker boards for each other on our Nintendo 3DS and Switch.

 

We keep trying to stump each other, and me, being a teacher, I keep trying to get her to think outside of the box.

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where you have to get a mushroom through a maze?”

 

Or

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where the walls close in?”
Or

 

“I wonder if you could beat a Thwomp in a race down a pit?”

 

We were having a really good time until I tried to get her to watch a science video. I put on the original Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the early 1980s.

 

My daughter loves looking up at the stars and asking me questions about the constellations. I thought this would be a perfect fit – after all, Sagan was an astronomer and can answer her questions way better than I can.

 

However, the old school effects were simply no match for today’s aesthetic. She revolted after about 20 minutes.

 

Today I won her over though with the new Cosmos series featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. She turned to me after about five minutes and said, “Much better.”

 

We’ve been drawing and reading and playing video games and having a good ol’ time.

 

I hope you have people at home who can help you get through all this, too.

 

I’ve been getting a lot of emails recently from your folks.

 

They want to know what they should be doing to help you academically.

 

Whenever this whole thing is over – and it will be over someday soon I hope – they want to make sure you won’t fall too far behind.

 

Let me start with a word of caution.

 

We don’t know how long this self-quarantine will last.

 

We’re trying to stay home to stop the spread of this virus – COVID-19. It can be deadly to some people – even some young people like you.

 

It’s in everybody’s best interest that we wait this thing out so that the hospitals can deal with the people who get sick.

 

Then when the disease has passed, we can continue our normal lives.

 

But no one knows how long that will take. It could be a few more weeks – but more likely months.

 

It is very possible that we will not go back to school again until after the summer.

 

So it’s hard to say exactly what you should do to keep yourself in the best academic shape because we don’t know what you’ll be coming back to.

 

We DO know that we won’t have to make up some or all of the days we missed.

 

And we know we won’t (here in Pennsylvania) have to take the PSSA or Keystone tests this year.

 

But when this is over, what grade will you be in? Will you just move on to the next grade or will there be a bit of mopping up to do first? And if you don’t finish the curriculum, will you be ready for the challenges ahead?

 

We don’t know any of that yet.

 

But here are a few guidelines and some things you might want to do while you’re at home.

 

You don’t have to do all of them, but they’re some things to think about.

 

So here’s my top 10 things for my students to do during quarantine:

 

1) Finish Whatever School Work You Can

 

You may have some outstanding school work with you in your book bag. I know I sent my seventh graders home with their poetry projects. My eighth graders should either be done or have taken their projects home to finish.

 

So if you have work that’s not done, finish it to the best of your ability. You certainly have enough time.

 

2) Read a Book

 

I ask all of may students to have a self-selected book handy for sustained silent reading in class. Hopefully you brought it home. If not, take a look around the house. Maybe you’ve got a dusty tome hanging out in some corner. Or – hey – if you have Internet access, you probably have the ability to get an ebook.

 

Read something – anything you want.

 

It will while away the hours, relax you and maybe get your mind to thinking about things above and beyond how much mac and cheese you’ve got stored in the cupboard.

 

3) Keep a Journal

 

Do you realize you’re living through a moment of history? People will look back on this and wonder how people got through it. You could fill in the blanks for some future researcher. Just a description of your everyday activities, what you’re thinking and feeling, your hopes and dreams – all of it has historical value. Plus, you’ll get some practice expressing yourself in writing. And just think – a simple story about how you survived the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 could end up being taught in the classrooms of the future!

 

Make it a good one!

4) Take a Break from Video Games

 

I know some of you have built a fort out of sofa cushions, covered it in blankets and are nestled in this hideaway doing nothing but playing Fortnite or Roblox or Minecraft with friends on-line. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. You go ahead and do that.

 

Just remember to take breaks for more than just food and the bathroom. Getting lost in a fantasy world is great so long as you leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back out again.

 

Don’t forget the trail. Don’t forget there’s a world out there that needs you. Set definite limits for how long you spend in there and try really hard to adhere to them.

 

5) Watch Something Educational on TV or the Internet

 

Education isn’t limited to something a teacher told you to do. Find a video or TV show that explains something you never knew before. Youtube is great for this if you know what to look for.

 

I don’t mean to find some rant by your favorite Youtuber. I mean find something about science, history, art, literature, math, etc. Make it something you care about but might not watch just for fun.

 

You’ll be surprised at what you can find out there. The channel CrashCourse with author John Greene (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and his brother Hank is particularly informative, entertaining and far reaching. I also love John Michael Godier for all things astronomy and Composer David Bruce for discussions of music.

 

6) Watch/Read the News

 

There are extraordinary things happening every day. Knowing about them can help you prepare for what’s next and think about what we can and should be doing to make things better.

 

7) Listen to Music/ Draw/ Do Something Creative

 

I know you. You’re a bundle of creative energy bound together waiting to explode. Go do that. Whatever you enjoy doing, create something. Write a song, make a comic book, paste together a collage. Express yourself, and if you’re not in the mood for that – enjoy the expressions of others. Listen to music, read a poem, watch a movie.

 

8) Help Out Your Folks

 

We, adults, can seem like we’ve got it all under control. We don’t. We’re just as anxious, fearful and uncertain as you about this whole self-quarantine thing. None of us were around the last time something like this happened (the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic). Anything you can do – helping take out the trash, cleaning up messes, even just trying extra hard not to argue with your siblings – can be a big help.

 

9) Talk to Friends and Family about How You’re Feeling

 

No one expects you to be a robot. These are trying times. It’s okay to feel a certain way about that. Share those feelings with someone you trust. And be a sympathetic ear for them to do the same. The best way we can get through all this is with each other’s help.

 

10) Know That You Are Loved

 

My dear precious little students! There are people out there who love you so much. There are people who would move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. I know you’re scared and bored and anxious. But remember we’re in this together. And no matter where you are or what you’re doing there’s at least your crazy English teacher who loves you very much and can’t wait to see you all again.

 

Stay safe!

 

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

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

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

 
When exactly are you supposed to parent?

 

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

 

 

So what’s the solution?

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

However, it does hold a kernel of truth.

 

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

 

This DOES cause problems.

 

Something SHOULD be done.

 

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

 

Think about it.

 

A LONGER SCHOOL DAY WOULD BE HARMFUL TO STUDENTS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And this is to say nothing of cost.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SHORTENING THE ADULT WORK WEEK

 

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

 

Adults already work too many hours as it is.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CONCLUSION

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

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

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Gov. Wolf Proposes Saving $280 Million a Year in PA With Charter School Reform

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Charter schools waste taxpayer money.

 

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proposes we stop wasting that money by holding charter schools as accountable as the state’s authentic public schools.

 

The Democratic governor made his most recent proposal yesterday as part of his 2020-21 budget address.

 

It’s a common sense proposal that only seems revolutionary because officials have been so blinded with school privatization fantasies.

 

Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but can be run by business interests thereby forgoing elected school boards and a host of regulations meant to safeguard children and the community’s investment.

 

The Commonwealth is infamous for allowing some of the most permissive charter school policies in the nation, which destabilize authentic public schools and force local tax increases and reductions in student services while charter operators get rich.

 

During his budget proposal, Wolf suggested three main improvements.

 

First, he wants charter schools to use a new tiered funding formula to determine how much money they get for special education students enrolled in their schools. He estimates this would save $147 million annually.

 

Right now, charters get tuition based on the average amount the local public school spends on special education.

 

This incentivizes charters to enroll (and identify) children with minimal special needs. That way, the school gets more money than needed to help students learn and operators can pocket the difference.

 

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It also incentivizes charters not to enroll students with greater special needs because operators won’t receive the money necessary to meet them.

 

This helps explain why charter schools in the Commonwealth typically enroll fewer and less needy special education students than authentic public schools do. Charters typically end up collecting $10,000 or more per student than they spend providing services, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public school advocacy group.

 

 

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Wolf’s new proposal would more closely match the level of special education students need with the funding charter schools get for enrolling them, thus removing any financial incentives for selective enrollment of these students.

 

 

Second, Wolf wants to stop cyber charter schools from collecting the same amount of money for each student as brick and mortar schools get.

 

Cyber charters schools do not have school buildings to keep up. They do not have physical classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, gymnasiums, athletic fields, etc. In most cases, they have administrative offices and laptop computers given to students to use at their own homes.

 

At present, the statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools ranges from $7,700 to $21,400 per student per year.

 

Wolf figures that number should be a flat $9,500. That should save an estimated $133 million annually.

 

However, Wolf’s proposal is double the cost of providing a full-time education at home via computer. It reduces the waste, but his figure could still use a trim.

 

Finally, the governor proposes fixing the way we mediate financial disputes between charter schools and authentic public schools.

 

Right now, if a school district does not pay the tuition for its resident students who attend a charter school or there is some dispute between the two on tuition payments, the charter school turns to the state Department of Education (PDE) to reconcile the dispute. Wolf proposes several changes to increase fairness, accountability, and transparency in this process. For instance, he wants to require charter schools to report their expenditures and deductions so they could be included in deciding what the tuition should be at a given charter school.

 

If enacted such reforms would save $280 million a year and go a long way to fixing many of the problems with charter school finances.

 

The Democratic governor has suggested similar improvements before – even going so far as to threaten enacting some of them with executive orders if the Republican-controlled legislature continues to shirk its duty. However, yesterday’s budget proposal was the closest it has come to fruition.

 

Typically, Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, saw Wolf’s proposal as an attack on her industry.

 

Wolf wants to cut funding to charters to increase it at public schools, she said, but charter schools are, also, public schools.

 

“The level of hypocrisy from our governor knows no bounds,” she said in a written statement. “Charter school students and their families are not second-class citizens. These parents pay their taxes and their children attend a PA-designated public school. There is no reason why charter school students deserve less financial support than their district peers.”

 

However, wolf’s proposal does not leave charter school students with less. It reduces waste and helps authentic public schools keep the same level of services without having to resort to local tax increases.

 

 

Charter schools should not be allowed to squander taxpayer money, and students at authentic public schools and their communities should not be forced to pay for that fiscal irresponsibility.

 

“Our charter school system is in desperate need of reform,” Wolf said. “It’s time to close the loopholes, it’s time to establish real standards, and it’s time to level the playing field.”

 

 

Wolf’s proposal doesn’t stop with his budget outline.

 

Democratic legislators are set to introduce a 120-page proposal in Harrisburg that builds on it even further.

 
The legislation – House Bill 2261 to be introduced by Rep. Joseph Ciresi (D-Montgomery), and Senate Bill 1024, to be introduced by Senators Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) and James Brewster (D-Allegheny), would do the following:

 

  • Require charter school trustees and administrators to comply with the same financial and ethical reporting standards as school board members and district officials;
  • Require charter school meetings to comply with the Sunshine Act;
  • Require any company running a charter school to open up their records;
  • Establish a statewide, data-driven cyber charter school tuition rate;
  • Apply the state special education funding formula used by public schools to charter schools;
  • Require charter schools to use actual accounting and enrollment in calculating tuition – backed up by PA Department of Education – to make sure payments are fair, consistent, and promises are kept;
  • Require charter schools to carry enough insurance to take care of kids and families if the charter closes or the parent company goes out of business;
  • Create a standard state framework for charter school applications;
  • Standardize the method to change charter schools’ missions and goals to reward innovation and best practices, and ensure school districts have the tools needed to evaluate changes to charters;
  • Create a state grading system for charters to allow high-performing schools even more self-determination while focusing attention on low-performing schools;
  • Stop the creation of new cyber charter schools until the existing schools improve performance and require PDE to create enrollment and performance standards.

Here’s hoping that such common sense initiatives can find bipartisan support.

 


 

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

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The Ongoing Study of How and When Teachers Should Praise Students

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Should teachers praise their students?

 

 

It’s a simple question with a multiplicity of answers.

 

 

A 2020 study published in the journal Educational Psychology concludes that teachers who use praise see a 30% increase in good behavior from their classes.

 

 

Meanwhile, reprimands actually increase misbehavior and unwillingness to comply with instruction.

 

 

Researches suggest a 3:1 or 4:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio. So for every one reprimand, a teacher should provide three or four positive reinforcements.

 

 

Unfortunately, this study flies in the face of previous research.

 

 

According to a 2014 study by the Sutton Trust, teachers who give struggling pupils “lavish praise” can make them even less likely to succeed.

 

 

Too much praise can “convey a message of low expectations.”

 

 

Researchers warned that if failure brings students too much sympathy, they are more likely to associate that approval with underachievement.

 

 

Yet it’s fine for educators to express anger at underachievement because it doesn’t create positive associations with performing badly. In fact, it motivates them to try harder.

 

 

But another study from 1998 turns this on its head.

 

 

This examination found that it wasn’t a matter of praise or reprimand. What was important was the kind of praise being given to children.

 

 

In short, researchers concluded that the wrong kind of praise can have disastrous consequences.

 

 

If teachers praised the hard work students did on an assignment – even if that work was not completed successfully – it resulted in willingness to work out new approaches in the future.

 
However, if instead the teacher praised the students ability or achievement, that could result in a tendency to give up when confronted with future failures.

 

 

So what are teachers to do?

 

 

Frankly, researchers don’t know.

 

 

They look at discrete data sets and try to make broad conclusions.

 

 

However, when you’re dealing with something as complex as the minds of children, this approach is destined for failure.

 

 

There are simply too many variables at play.

 

 

And that’s something every classroom teacher with any experience knows in her bones.

 

 

Teaching is not like baking a cake. There is no one recipe that will work every time on every student.

 

 

Being an educator is an art as much as it is a science.

 

 

In my own classroom, I praise my students a lot.

 

 

I reprimand, too.

 

 

And though I try to focus on effort, I admit to commending students on the results at times.

 

 

This year I was tasked with creating a new writing course for 8th graders called “Writing is Fundamental.”

 

 

Each day, I give students a writing task – usually focusing on the more creative side – and then I wander from desk to desk observing, answering questions and ultimately reading and commenting on their finished work in real time.

 

 

It’s exhausting.

 

 

At first, I try to be positive even when the writing isn’t that great. But then as I get to know the students and their abilities, I begin to be more critical and offer ways in which they can – and sometimes must – try to improve.

 

 

The results are mixed.

 

 

Some students – especially the lowest achievers – tend to respond to praise like a flower does to light. They soak it up and blossom.

 

 

I had one student who entered the class so embarrassed about his writing he was literally hiding under the desk and making jokes about how terrible a writer he was.

 

 

After just a week, he was working longer than any other student in the class to craft his responses and made sure to share his work with me and sometimes the entire class.

 

 

By the end of the semester, he wasn’t going to win any awards, but his writing had improved by leaps and bounds. And his attitude was almost that of a different person.

 

 

However, in the same class, there were students who didn’t respond as positively.

 

 

One child who was used to taking honors courses was put off by the creative nature of the writing. He preferred to write expository essays and hated the focus on details, figurative language and creativity.

 

 

Students were not required to share their work with the class but doing so earned them participation points. So he felt obliged to do so and was extremely upset that – in his own mind – his work didn’t compare favorably with some of his classmates.

 

 

Other students more used to having their work evaluated on standardized tests were indignant at my continual pushing them to improve. They knew that what they had written would be good enough on the standardized test, so there was no point working any further to refine their craft.

 

 

When it comes to praise, teachers are put in a very difficult position.

 

 

We want to help encourage our students but we don’t want that encouragement to ring false.

 

 

If all I ever did was tell students what a good job they were doing, they would soon catch on that it was meaningless. Every child can’t win a self esteem prize every day for whatever they do.

 

 

However, an amazing piece of work from a student who always does amazing work isn’t as impressive as moderately improved work from a student who has struggled constantly up to this point.

 

 

More than writing, I try to teach my students that learning is not about a destination – it’s a journey. And only they can truly decide whether the work they’ve done has value.

 

 

I offer advice on how they might revise their work, but it’s often up to them whether they want to keep refining a piece of writing or whether they have done enough for the day.

 

 

I’d be lying if I said the relationships I had with students has no baring on this. Many of them want to make me proud of them, but hopefully they get beyond this point.

 

 

In a semester course, the relationships are more transient and not as powerful. But in my year-long classes, they’re deeper and more far-reaching.

 

 

And that’s really the point that I think this body of research misunderstands.

 

 

It’s not praise or reprimands that matter as much as it is relationships.

 

 

Students learn from educators they trust. And part of gaining that trust is giving the proper kind of feedback – encouraging but honest, critical but helpful, opinionated but respectful.

 

 

Maybe if we trusted classroom teachers more to talk authoritatively about their experiences, we’d know more about the realities of education.

 

 

Coming into the classroom occasionally to observe student behavior is extremely shallow when compared to the everyday empiricism of lifelong educators.

 

 

Perhaps before we decide whether to praise students or not, we should agree to give classroom teachers their due.

 


 

 

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

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Trump Administration’s “Junk Food Loophole” is Symptomatic of School Privatization

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Who wants children to eat more junk food?

 

 

Apparently the Trump administration does.

 

 

This seemed to be the Department of Agriculture’s concern when it announced plans last week to further reduce regulations for healthy meals at the nation’s public schools.

 

The Department’s new scheme would change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to include what critics call a “junk food loophole” in meals offered at public schools – usually breakfasts and lunches.

 

Currently, sweets and fried foods are allowed only once in a while as part of a balanced meal. But this new proposal would permit them to be offered every day.

 

Students could substitute healthy choices like fruits for things like blueberry muffins and replace green vegetables with French fries.

 

 

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Source: The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity.

 

The media rushed to characterize the changes as an attack on Michelle Obama who championed the original legislation during her husband, Barack’s, administration. And – heck – maybe they’re right seeing as the Trump administration made the proposal on Mrs. Obama’s birthday.

 

 

But one needn’t guess at political motivations behind the move when it so obviously fits the pattern of school privatization – a way of conceptualizing education supported by both the Obama’s and Trump.

 

 

Let me be clear. School cafeterias generally are not privatized. They’re usually run by local school districts. However, the insistence that such programs turn a profit and make decisions based on sales rather than nutrition are symptomatic of the privatization mindset.

 

 

We didn’t always require everything to bring in money. We used to see things like education and journalism as public goods and absolved them from the need to generate financial gain.

 

 

But that seems like a long time ago.

 

 

The current administration’s claim that it’s rolling back restrictions to stop food waste and help public schools increase lunch profits is a case in point.

 

 

If profit is king, that’s all that matters. Who cares whether kids are getting better nutrition or not? What matters is the bottom line.

 

 

School lunches are not an opportunity to teach kids better eating habits. They are a financial transaction to enrich district budgets at the expense of the children enrolled there.

 

 

If children as young as 5 can’t make that decision on their own – well, caveat emptor.

 

 

The same goes with things like charter schools and high stakes standardized tests. It doesn’t matter if these things are better or worse for children. It matters whether they make money.

 

 

The invisible hand of the market is our pedagogue in chief.

 

 

It turns out that these things are rarely – if ever – in the best interests of children. Charter schools increase the likelihood of fiscal mismanagement, school segregation, prejudicial discipline policies, cherry picking which students to enroll – all while reducing transparency and fiscal accountability. Meanwhile, high stakes testing produces assessments that more clearly illuminate parental wealth than student learning – all while creating captive markets for testing, publishing and software companies.

 

 

The “junk food loophole” is just more of the same.

 

 

The administration contends that fewer middle and upper class kids are buying lunches at school when the choices are healthier. Meanwhile, among the 30 million students who depend on free and low-cost school lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, they say more are simply throwing away healthy foods than eating them.

 

 

The administration maintains that more food would be sold and less thrown out if children were given the choice to buy more cheeseburgers and fries than carrots and yogurt.

 

 

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this. Kids do seem to like junk food. As a middle school teacher, I’ve seen far too many kids bring Flaming Hot Cheetos and energy drinks for breakfast than take a free box of cereal, juice or even a piece of breakfast pizza.

 

 

And the number of kids who throw away fresh fruit because they’re forced to put it on their tray is heartbreaking.

 

 

However, we tend to focus on the negative and miss the positive.

 

 

This idea that kids don’t choose healthy foods actually flies in the face of the Department of Agriculture’s own research on the effects of the Obama-era rules. In its 2019 “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” the department found no significant changes in the amount of food waste since the healthier rules were put in place, and also found that the healthier choices led to more kids participating in school meal programs.

 

 

The study also found scores for the Healthy Eating Index (which measures the quality of the diet) shot up drastically from 49.6 in 2009-2010 to 71.3 in 2014-2015.

 

 

So there is evidence that the program is actually increasing students’ healthy eating.

 

 

If we valued what’s best for children, we would continue – and maybe even strengthen – the legislation.

 

 

However, this newest proposal to weaken the law is the second time in three years that the federal government has undercut this policy.

 

 

In 2018, the Department started allowing schools to stop offering foods lower in sodium and higher in whole-grains.

 
That decision is being challenged in court by a coalition of six states and Washington, DC, on the grounds that it endangers student health.

 

If this second set of rollbacks are implemented, they too may be challenged in court.

 
Unfortunately the problem isn’t limited to mealtimes.

 

 

This is indicative of the school privatization mindset.

 

 

We must stop allowing the profit principle to function as the arbiter of sound academic policy.

 

 

Reducing regulations requiring healthy foods in schools is a bad idea. But so are charter schools, high stakes testing, Common Core, runaway ed tech and a host of other market-based school policies.

 

 

We can’t continue to ignore what’s best for children in the name of rampant consumerism.

 

 

The purpose of school is to teach children – not to exploit them as a captive market for financial gain.

 


 

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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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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Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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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