Monday, January 29, 2018

Good Morning Class...and Good Luck Part Two.

Recently I met with several fellow teachers for a book study group that was required by our district. The book, "The Differentiated Classroom" was an excellent book for starting discussions and is part of the latest trend or buzz word in education "Differentiation" - tailoring lessons to suit each individual learner. Two things stood out for me. One was that after reading many anecdotal accounts of well designed and differentiated classrooms our group talked about what we had read, and the first thing that came up was "Where are the students who throw their chairs against the wall?" "Where is the student who randomly yells or makes noises during class?" "Why are there no mentions of the six or eight students in the class who not only doing no work, but also breaking pencils or throwing erasers at other kids?" We were left to assume that the classrooms described in the book were either works of pure fiction or existed in some alternate universe devoid of special needs children or ones who choose for whatever reason to not follow expectations. Our take away was that it all sounded nice but since what was portrayed was so far from our reality it was hard to see how to make use of any of the ideas.
The book, which was highly touted by the district, talked of curriculum that followed the interests of the students and allowed for open exploration. One of the teachers in our group asked rather bluntly if we'd ever be allowed to do anything like this given that the demands on curriculum pacing are tied directly to testing and every student must complete the exact same classwork, the exact same tests in the same order and pacing as everyone else. The answer was an honest "No". Which obviously begs the question "Why are we reading something that explains a curriculum we can't actually teach?" Never mind the questions about whether or not the style of teaching is truly workable, or makes sense, we can't even begin to set up a system as described in the book. What was the purpose in reading this?
In my twenty plus in education I've seen many "latest and greatest" curriculums, theories and practices and that's not to mention the multitude of educational philosophies that appear in books and are the topic of deeply engaged conversation for the next day until replaced by something new.
Strangely enough, if my grandmother who taught elementary school seventy years ago could be transported magically into a fifth grade classroom at my school, apart from the laptop, she'd have no problem fitting in - "We're studying multi-digit multiplication, okay!" So little has really changed. And yet we're constantly bombarded with ideas and suggestions, many of which are promoted as the best thing since sliced bread while in most cases there's no chance that the ideas will actually be implemented either because it's impossible in the current structure of schools or because when push comes to shove those in authority don't really like the idea or don't understand what it implies.
When Writing Workshop was the hot new style of literacy instruction I took a job at an elementary school where they were thrilled that I had previously worked at the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University where the actual text books the school would be using were written. The principal was pretty much horrified to discover what Writing Workshop actually entailed once I got there. They had been excited to have an expert in the latest, greatest trend, the only problem was no one really had any idea about what they were promoting.
Do other fields have this problem? A constant bouncing about to the latest idea, shifting resources and energies back and forth only to come back to more or less the same model as before? Any study of history will show that the basic best practices of education haven't changed since the days of Plato. Of course a serious and honest assessment of that fact would cause panic in the education publishing field, but who are we supposed to be serving here?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Good Morning Class...and Good Luck.

This cute t-shirt design caught my eye the other day, worn by an elementary school student who does their best every day to live up to the motto on the shirt.  It's a funny reminder of what many teachers experience on a daily basis, that definition of insanity to try the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
I teach art in an elementary school and I see students from kindergarten through fifth grade every day. Classroom teachers at every level often drop their students off for art with a comment like "They're insane today...good luck" or "I'm sorry we're late, it took ten minutes to get them quiet enough to walk down the hall". What's going on?
As educators we've all been taught to construct assessments based on what has been taught, and if a large number of students do poorly on an exam one area you must look at is your presentation of the material. That always has to be considered. Perhaps you didn't cover the material well enough, maybe you were asking for something on the test that students couldn't reasonably do.
More than one teacher this past month has said "With this class, if you are not on top of them like a drill sergeant 24-7 it's complete chaos, they can't work on their own at all, everything has to be directed". My classroom is in the middle of the building so I hear classes passing in the halls and see and hear students in the lunch room across the hall. Every day I hear an almost endless "Shhhhhhh", everyday I notice the lights turned off in the lunchroom, the signal that it's too loud and students must eat silently. Having been there, I can't say I disagree with the "too loud"description, but what's going on? Why is this the normal experience, not just in the first week of school, but all year long?
Could it be that the rigorous testing that goes on every day in kindergarten through fifth grade is too much? Could it be that early elementary grades K-2 should have some free time to build, explore, and interact with other? Is there a problem when the first time apart from a 15 minute recess that a five year old gets to have some freedom of choice comes in art class when they can use the watercolors to paint whatever they like? My guess is that most people have no clue that the early elementary grades no longer include nap time, or much story time for reading out loud, building blocks etc. Most people probably have no clue that students are expected to read and write in kindergarten.
I realize that part of my job when a student comes into my class jumping up and down, yelling, breaking things right and left, is to stop them from doing that, but I think it's also worth asking why? Why are they behaving this way?
I don't have any good answers.
I do have some observations though that might lead to questions, discussions and possible answers.
Elementary students are expected to be in class from 9 -3:30 each day paying attention and looking like they're paying serious attention. There's a 20 minute lunch and a 15 minute recess but no coffee breaks and no real break in the kind of work they're doing. How many adults have that kind of job?
Young children who are often experiencing their first extended social interactions are given little if any time for that important skill, they are expected to be "on task" all day long.
Teachers are expected to "differentiate" or offer learning experiences tailored to the 30 or so students they have that will meet each students specific and unique needs. There are few, if any, support people to assist the teacher. Students who once were consigned to special ed. classrooms are now mainstreamed without real support for their needs. When a child is disruptive a teacher can take time to talk with them, have them reflect on what they were doing, come up with a plan to make things right while teaching the rest of the class, giving one-on-one attention to students while monitoring the whole group. Sound impossible?
Why are we doing this?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Two Houses That Occupy The Same Space Cannot Stand.

During the 2016 election Donald Trump and his supporters argued that America was a devastated landscape economically, that only his financial genius could turn the country around. The day after his inauguration his fans cheered the amazing turn around in this country's fortunes. A year later those songs of praise still ring loudly even though many of the economic indicators show either no change from the previous four or five years or in some cases a slight slow down. The same economic data that was previously a disaster is now a startling accomplishment. Imagine that the New England Patriots, on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance were talking in press conferences about the need to "Turn the team around and get on the right track". Any reasonable person would doubt their sanity, just as reasonable people doubt the sanity or the motives of the Trump supporters.
Apart from the electoral consequences of his supporters living in an alternate reality where Mexico's government will be paying for a wall in penance for their practice of selecting murders and rapists to send across the border to steal jobs when they're not otherwise busy with killing and raping, there is, perhaps, a larger problem for us to consider.
I believe that many in the top 1% of the 1% understand the game plan, disheveled and crazy as it seems at times of the Trump administration - to move more and more of the country's wealth into fewer and fewer hands. The greediest of this group no doubt applauds that practice and some may honestly believe that this will benefit the country as a whole. The extreme racists, the neo-Nazis, the Klan etc. are perfectly tuned into his wavelength and understand clearly the racist message, recognizing their own propaganda finally freed from dog whistles and innuendo. There is another group I see in his followers; those who don't identify as white supremacists although they may share some core beliefs and who are certainly not in the top 1% of wealthiest citizens, and yet accept the same alternate reality that the administration has delivered.
When this administration is gone we'll still have the disgruntled racists and they'll most likely retreat from center stage as they did in the 1960s as the civil rights marchers began to be seen as the heroes and respectable participants in the struggle while those will the clubs, fire hoses and angry dogs became a national embarrassment. The greediest of the wealthy will be able to retreat into their many homes and continue the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, but what of the rest?
One would hope they would recognize the false narrative they've been fed and begin to support polices rooted in reality whether liberal or conservative, but with the option of 24-7 input from Fox News, Breitbart etc. it's easy to see how they could continue in this Twilight Zone of hatred and rage. It really is a science fiction scenario, a group of people who are living in an alternate reality, an unreal world set in the real world where the actions of those alternate reality people impacts the real world around them, and ultimately themselves and yet remain unaware.
Discussion, debate, progress requires a shared reality - either economic indicators are up or down, 4% unemployment is good or bad, it can't change minute to minute and it can't be both simultaneously. We may have to deal with fellow citizens who continue to live in the alternate reality that has been fashioned for them because they still occupy the same physical plane as the rest of us, and their actions can still have real world consequences. I would argue it's easier and more productive to debate policy with someone who acknowledges the same set of facts as you but suggests another approach than you've thought of than to try to work with someone who sees black as white and up as down.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

You Just Might Be A Racist.

I've heard the comments many times in the past year that so-called liberals are doing themselves a disservice by labeling people with terms like racist or bigot, that all they are doing is creating a toxic atmosphere where they won't be listened to. On one hand it's good to know that words like racist and bigot are still powerful enough to create unease or even revulsion. They are nasty words and should carry some bite.
When members of various white supremacy groups marched in Charlottesville in August 2017 the news and social media were blanketed with photos of angry white mostly young men carrying torches and chanting slogans borrowed from the Nazis of a previous generation. Thanks to the improved technology of cell phones the photos were quite clear even in torchlight and the participants easily identified. Following those marches there was no shortage of outrage and horror on the part of many who were there at being seen, being identified and now being called racist.
It is hard to generate much sympathy for the marchers who couldn't connect the dots to understand that their actions were indeed racist, but at the same time understood that the term once applied to them might cost them social standing or a job, but there you have it - a sad, strange world of ignorance to and yet also extreme sensitivity to consequences.
If there is some sympathy to offer it might come from a recognition that the world has changed, just as it always has. As a teacher I know that for years now we've taught history lessons on the civil rights era where racists were those people beating in the heads of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were portrayed as somehow alien and inhuman beings who were defeated when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech which ushered in an era of equality for all. That is essentially the narrative I have seen presented over the last 30 years that I've worked in education whether at the elementary or secondary level. It is not hard, given that background, to see where a young person today would hear about taking pride in your race, or how all lives matter and think that's only striving for equality or fairness, just like Dr. King. In my experience we, as educators and curriculum developers, have done a poor job of tracing the lines of prejudice and racism from George Wallace and Bull Connor to the current President calling mostly black football players protesting racism "Sons of bitches". We have also done a poor job of acknowledging that the world has changed. In 1965 you'd be hard pressed to find someone who would place marriage equality or gender identity in the civil rights struggle, but the world has changed.
Perhaps some of those marchers who were deeply offended by being labeled racist or bigot were truly ignorant of the changes that have occurred in the world around them and maybe it's just too bad that they didn't have someone around to stop them before taking to the streets with torches in hand. Nobody likes to be taught a lesson so publicly, but the world changes and learning is essential to progress.
I've said that education has done a poor job of connecting the dots and pointing out the modern day versions of the racists we see in those old newsreels and maybe the answer is that we all need to be teachers. How do we do that? We could start by giving no safe haven to racist or bigoted words. We could confront every Confederate flag or complaint about gays ruining the institution of marriage. We could remind, gently even, anyone who shouts "Religious Freedom" in their defense of discrimination that freedom doesn't mean you never will encounter someone who is different from you. To create a society where no one is confused about whether or not they're a bigot or racists, that would be a good start.

Friday, January 12, 2018

What Do I Hate?

Is Donald Trump and evil person?
This is something I'm thinking about and this is why I believe that calling someone "evil" as opposed to condemning their actions, rather than their humanity might be important.
I should say that I realize this may be primarily a matter of semantics.
If we use the word "evil" to describe a person or people as in "The Nazis were evil, and Adolph Hitler was Satan incarnate" it can set those people apart from ourselves.
To me, it can feel like I'm describing something so far outside the human experience that it's akin to encountering an alien life form and I begin to lose any connection to myself, including whatever connection that might help me see any tendencies or leanings in their direction myself.
In case there's any doubt, I consider the actions and words of the Nazi Party who ruled Germany in the 1930s through 40s to be evil and those who participated committed unspeakable evil. Those who participated, primarily at the higher levels of the party, have been rightly held responsible.
Donald Trump's words and actions are also evil, his embrace of ignorance, bigotry and racism bound together with a string of disdain for decency and celebration of vulgarity is astounding. His followers, supporter and enablers are equally complicit. Their support is abhorrent.
Can Donald Trump and his supporters be "good people"? Do their evil actions preclude any goodness? Can I, or should I, judge someone as a "good person" or "bad person".
I use the phrase all the time "He's a good guy" when talking about someone who would come pick you up if you car broke down or take the time to show you how to play "Angeline The Baker" on banjo. What if that same person who would help you fix your backyard fence also supports racism and bigotry?
I don't know.
What I do know is that the words, actions and intentions of President Trump and his supporters, and for the record, this includes all who use the "Well, I don't always like his methods..." excuse are vile and vulgar examples of the worst of humanity. Those words, actions and intentions are evil.