Tuesday, May 31, 2016

To The Class of 2016

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, if a school actually invited me to give a graduation speech I wouldn't want to be associated with that type of school. But the annual graduation address has a long history at the Teaching Underground, and I would hate to see the tradition die. So...

To the Class of 2016,

Congratulations, your mortar boards are straight, you make the gown look good, and in short time you'll have an official piece of paper in your hand. But you're smart enough to know that these things aren't the things that you've worked for. These things are the things that mark an achievement.

Some people scoff at the symbol and the ceremony. Some people scoff at the system and it's goals. Grades, deadlines, bells, rules... But we know better. We've worked hard together. And behind all of the veneer-- under the cap and gown, behind that official piece of paper-- that's where we find all of the effort that you put in and all of the shortcuts that you've taken. The relationships that helped you grow, and the pain caused by others. The way you changed your thinking about some things, and dug in your heels to resist certain others.

The classes you enjoyed, the classes you endured, and the classes that you skipped.

Outside looking in, it's easy to just see the cap and the gown and the paper. But you know what's underneath.

As you go out into the world remember that. Remember that humanity and its experience has depth. Both virtuous and flawed. You haven't participated in a perfect system for the last thirteen years, but you have been a part of a system that has strived to support you into becoming the best person that you can be.

We've had successes. We've had failure. Yes, there has been the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Now you embarq on a new stage of your life. Hopefully you'll learn that schools are not broken, government is not broken, religion isn't broken, the world isn't broken-- they're just made up of people, like you, like me, a complex mix of virtue and flaw. This means that we work on the flaws, and strive for virtue, learning as we go.

Just like what you find underneath that cap and gown is a complex mix of virtuous and flawed humanity, the systems that we create are the same. That means that we work on the flaws, and strive for virtue, and continue learning all the way.

I wish you the best on your way.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Let the kids Sleep!

To start off the school year in AP Psychology, I share with students four lessons from Psychology that can make them a better student. Number one, we talk about metacognition. Two, deep vs. shallow processing. Three, spaced/distributed vs. massed practice. And, point number four is simple: Get enough sleep! Students laugh at this point as if it is too simple to be of value and also because for many of them the idea of sleeping for eight hours or more is just a joke.

If you were hungry, it would be inhuman to keep you from food. If you're thirsty, your body is telling you it's time for water. When you need to go to the bathroom, well, you get where I'm going. These are all physical needs that must be met, and we've recognized for a long time that in school, you better make sure these needs are attended to if there is any hope of getting to the job of educating.

Last night, a fellow high school Psych teacher tweeted out a link to a CDC study headlined "Most US Middle and High Schools Start the Day Too Early." Occasionally, I'll have a student suggest that since teenagers tend to sleep later, they should go to school later, but in my district, they're in for a shock when they learn that we've known that for a while and adjusted the schedule accordingly.

When I went to high school, our day started at 8:20am. Not too bad, but still ten minutes earlier than the time recommended by the CDC. For as long as I can remember teaching in Albemarle County, Virginia, we've started school no earlier than 8:50am. Another Psych teacher twitter friend thought I was joking and shared that his school day begins at 7:15 in the morning.

Adequate sleep is not an option. Sleep deprivation has negative short and long term effects. I don't think that I've been capable of going to bed earlier than 10pm since I was about fourteen years old. If that is a reasonable bed time, then a teen would need to sleep until at least 6:30am to get eight and a half hours of sleep, and 7:30am to get nine and a half. I can't imagine the average teenager able to go to sleep before then even with close parental supervision. If it takes an hour to get showered, dressed, eat a quick breakfast, and travel to school, that gets us to the recommended time from the CDC.

I asked in our twitter exchange what could possibly be the rationale for such early start times for high school students. The only real argument seems to be participation in sports and other extra-curriculars. If that's it, then why can't middle schools get it right on start times? But, these obstacles clearly aren't impossible to overcome. From time to time, early dismissals for athletes competing away can be a problem, but an average of once a week in season doesn't compare to the cumulative effect of sleep loss over an entire year.

This is still assuming that most teenagers are going to bed before 11pm.

So why do so many districts insist on such early start times for middle and high school? The phrase "what's best for the kids" seems to only apply when it's directed to a classroom policy of a teacher. For all of the district administrators and decision-makers having kids start class before 8:00 in the morning, is that really what's best for the kids?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What? Me Worry.


Why do we worry?

Because we care.

I remember after the birth of my first child. I felt guilty at the amount of anxiety and fear I felt rush over me the day he was born. A close friend put it in perspective by saying "what should really upset you would've been not feeling worried and afraid." What he meant was that those feelings showed that I understood it was a big deal and I knew that life was about to change.

I'm still worried and anxious about tomorrow, even though I've done this more times than I care to mention. It's the first day of school, and it's a big deal for my students, for my parents, and because of that...

...it's a big deal for me.

I'm sure it's going to go well. But I'm still worried. And I wouldn't want to be any other way right now.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What I Learned From Julian Bond

I can’t begin to communicate the level of ignorance in my life when I entered college out of small town southern Virginia in 1990. I was shocked to learn that support for presidents Reagan and Bush was anything less than 100% and struggled to come to grips with the reality that professional wrestling might not actually be a legitimate sport. It didn’t take long on a college campus for me to learn that I wasn’t even smart enough to know the things that I didn’t know.
I took Julian Bond’s “History of the Civil Rights Movement” out of genuine interest in learning about those things that I didn’t know. I had no idea who Julian Bond was. He told a joke on the first day of class about walking with Dr. Martin Luther King along the D.C. mall. Dr. King shared a dream from the night before during which he said “I had a nightmare,” to which Julian Bond replied “No, Dr. King, You have a dream.” He then went on to take credit for the title of MLK’s famous speech.

I laughed along with everyone else, assuming the entire scenario was just a fiction to break the ice in class. Only several weeks later did I notice in our assigned readings, the name of my teacher kept coming up—Then I realized, it was this man who played such an instrumental role in the journey towards civil rights in America that I have been given the privilege to learn from.

I learned first in that class, that I had grown up largely unaware of the privilege my race had afforded me. Walking into the room, the make up of the class was still majority white, but much less than any other classroom I’d entered. It made me uncomfortable, even more, the fact that I was uncomfortable without any good reason made me more uncomfortable and brought some of my hidden biases to the surface where they had to be dealt with.

I learned that the best way to approach new people is with humility and not arrogance. I entered the classroom expecting a “teacher” who would tell me about “history.” What I got was a “history maker” telling and showing me how he “shaped history.” I still regret that it took me a few weeks to realize that fact. I’m thankful that he was the regular instructor of the class for the entire semester. We often miss great opportunities to learn because we don’t take other people seriously enough.

I learned that I had to own my history and live my present. As a white male, I don’t need to defend my history, deny my privilege, or bristle when racism is named. Julian Bond recreated “sit-in” training sessions similar to sessions run by the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee in the sixties. These simulations were difficult and hard to handle, but in light of the fact that they were just that—simulations of training—made the brutal reality of events that actually happened impossible to deny. The past shouldn’t make me feel guilty, but it should definitely inform how I move into the future.

Most importantly, I continued to learn long after leaving Julian Bond’s classroom. From the perspective gained from him I found a new lens with which to view the world. A lens that recognizes the varied experiences of the people in our world and a mind that values the way these varied experiences have weaved the tapestry of humanity that we are a part of today.

I don’t even know how many years he taught this class at the University of Virginia, but I know that several thousand students at least had the opportunity to learn from him. This is just one small way out of many that Julian Bond has shaped the world in which we live.