Friday, May 31, 2013

To The Class of 2013

One more year and one more time that the Teaching Underground hasn't been invited to share a graduation message at one of the nation's elite educational institutions. But, our very own Mr. Lindsay will have the honor of reading the names of our high school graduates at this year's commencement exercises.

As in 2011 and 2012, I've once again attempted to write the graduation speech that won't be delivered to the class of 2013. Enjoy.

To the class of 2013. Remember privacy.

You live in a world where data rules. From “MoneyBall” to SOL tests, from Algorithms suggesting friends to music that you might enjoy.

Much of this is nice. Decision-making is difficult. By the time you’re my age, like me, you will be sick of the conversation that starts with, “what do you feel like for dinner tonight?”

Movie recommendations on Netflix, friend suggestions on social media, food suggestions from supermarkets based on your purchase history—this is empowering. You don’t have to waste so much time on meaningless decisions anymore. Now that brain power is freed up, liberated.

To do what?

I’ve heard the President doesn’t even pick out his clothes for the day because of the mental energy devoted to making choices.

I don’t have as many important decisions in the day as the President, so I’ll keep picking out my own clothes. For now.

And you probably should too.

Adults might hold the ideal that we just need to get out of the way and let you become who you’re meant to be. You might like that idea too. But when I get out of the way, something else will step right in to take my place.

Your generation probably deals with more influence from the outside world than any before you. Part of it is because they know so much about you it’s easy to manipulate your preferences and likes.

I’m not trying to be a Luddite, but I want you to know, if you’re not careful about outsourcing your decision-making, eventually you won’t even realize that someone else is in control of your life.

It’s only natural. You may have heard of choice paralysis. Sometimes when we have too many options, we don’t know what to do. I like having the supermarket push items in the weekly sales ad that fits my shopping profile. I don’t like it when marketers or political pollsters know the balance on my mortgage and what that predicts about my future behavior.

These will be the most important decisions about life that you will have to make in the coming years. How much of myself will I expose to the world and how much will I hold back.

And in the age of information, if you choose to expose, there’s no going back inside.

Good luck navigating the twenty-first century.

Friday, May 17, 2013

My Day in Court

I teach in a basement with five other teachers. During a tornado drill, my class gets to stay put because we’re in the safest place in the building. Recently I quipped with my principal that every time I poke my head above ground I feel like I’m walking into the aftermath of a tornado and want to retreat below the surface.

Three months ago I ventured above ground to make copies for class. As I walked across the courtyard of our school, some students gathered in social groups, others were moving toward their classes. I nearly made it all the way across when a young man approached a small group and punched another young man in the back of the head.

I was far enough along to keep moving and pretend I didn’t notice. I won’t lie, I considered this option. I could have ducked into the building, leaving the action behind. As the men (can you call 17 and 18 year olds boys?) began posturing and yelling at each other I looked across the courtyard for other adults.

No one.

Now I’m stuck.

A fight is breaking out and no one is here to help.

Before they started throwing punches I determined that coming between them was a no win approach for any of us. I couldn’t choose one to restrain without just holding him for the other to pummel. So as the arms started flying, I embraced them both, bringing them as close together as possible, keeping them from punching.

The three of us continued an awkward dance for what seemed like two or three minutes. Probably more like seconds. All three of us ended up on the ground before two other teachers, three administrators, a security aide, and the school resource officer finally separated the mass of people.

We haven’t had a fight in the basement in over fifteen years. It had been a while since I’ve had to intervene. I had such an adrenaline rush during the incident I felt hungover the rest of the day.

I’d never seen the two students before. I didn’t know their names. The administrators didn’t make me write a referral, but I had to write a description of what I saw. I completed it that day and sent it. Story over, right.


Today I get to spend the day in court.

I want to be an enlightened educator. I want to provide meaningful experiences for students. I want to give them freedom and choice in their education. I want them to collaborate and learn together. I want students to engage in discovery. And I try to make all of this happen.

But today, my students will take a multiple choice test and watch a video because their year is one day from over and I’m in court.

There is a realism to teaching that gets lost. It’s easy to talk about the ideal of intrinsically motivated students just waiting for a teacher to find the spark that drives them to creativity and a passion for learning.
But then you step in between two grown men throwing punches at each other. You sit in the back of the classroom for several minutes allowing your body to recover while students discuss “who won.” You worry that the dirt on one of the three pairs of nice pants you own will wash out. You hope the pain in your forty year old back is only temporary. You wonder how many other adults in the world are expected to use physical force in their job without any formal training. And you wonder how easy it would have been to just stay underground and keep your head down.

Then you realize you’re better than all that. The progressives can criticize us for lack of creativity, the corporate reformers can criticize us for incompetence, and nearly everyone can accuse us of thinking of ourselves instead of our students.

Even when our actions everyday say otherwise.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Ninety Second Evaluation

So an “enlightened” student calls out a “terrible” teacher and the nation takes notice. It doesn’t bother me so much that a “terrible” teacher, teaching by packet may finally be getting his/her comeuppance so much as the belief that a minute and thirty seconds is all that we need to make a judgment.

Does context matter?

I worry about context in my classroom regularly. When students in my class learn about Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus complex, a minute of class taken out of context could lead to serious questions about my fitness for the classroom.

Pulling situations out of context takes me back to my Fundamentalist Baptist upbringings where I learned that you would go to hell for drinking beer or growing long hair. All you’ve got to do is lift a few obscure verses from the Bible and you can support about any argument you want.

So, for the teacher haters, here’s another verse to add to your arsenal. Nevermind the hundreds of minutes in that classroom outside of the minute+ clip. Now you have proof. Teachers are lazy because most of them just sit at their desks and watch students do worksheets.

We are primed for this.

The narrative of the bad teacher has taken a foothold, so strongly that even educational leaders are willing to propagate the story even when they make little serious effort to “right the wrong” they perceive in the classroom outside of dreaming dreams about how it should be done.

I think some people want this to happen. In the nineteen-eighties, the “welfare queen” imagery changed the dialogue on public assistance. Today, even progressive educators propagate the “lazy teacher” taking advantage of the cognitive shortcut to real critical thinking as a way to promote themselves or their agenda. In a different era or culture, the immediate critique would point to the student’s lack of respect and discipline. I’m not saying that’s where we should go, but we’re creating a culture primed to find the fault in the educator.

What’s fair to judge?

Walk a mile… I teach highly motivated 11th and 12th graders an AP curriculum. I have a hard time thinking I’m a better teacher than my colleagues teaching younger students who aren’t inherently engaged in the activities of school. It’s hard work, and just because my students are engaged and I don’t write discipline referrals doesn’t mean I know how everyone else should do it. I can humbly offer suggestions, but too often they get bravado from the all star educator or the professional thinkers in education that have the nerve to suggest that lack of engagement is 100% a teacher problem.

I don’t teach by packet. I’ve asked students to learn on their own from time to time with paper and pencil and technology, but I recognize as the young man in the video that not everyone learns that way. If they did, I’d be irrelevant.

If every word from the kid was true, if the teacher engages the class the majority of the time in the manner we see in the video, then yes, there is a problem. Perhaps some other questions should be asked:

Is the teacher held fully accountable for student knowledge of numerous discreet facts they will have to know for a standardized test?

Does the teacher receive adequate time to plan engaging activities for the classroom?

Does the teacher receive adequate time to evaluate student learning well enough to allow it to inform instruction?

Does the school create an appropriate schedule and provide time for the teacher to collaborate with other teachers to share ideas and keep each other informed (and accountable) of what’s working and what is not in the classroom?

Is the teacher encouraged to share success and failures, to take risks, or has she learned that as long as you lay low and don’t make waves they’ll assume you’re doing a good job and overlook you?

I know this much is true. A teacher in Texas had a bad minute and a half.

If that’s an accurate representation of her professional accomplishments I hate it for the young man in the video and every student who’s suffered under her instruction.

If we saw the culmination of a strained relationship between an obstinate young man and his exhausted teacher then shame on everyone who thinks they’d do a better job.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

6 Smart and the Dumb Things They Say(and why that matters)

The setting was Education Nation 2.0 2011 at Stanford University.  Yeah it has been two years,  but this still very much applies today.  So as we look back, think of today. 

"Master interviewer and PBS host Charlie Rose and a distinguished panel of luminaries tackle the tough questions of how to improve our troubled school system and provide a better future for our nation's greatest resource, our kids."

If by "distinguished panel of luminaries" they mean people at least 2x as smart as me, own nice suits and probably read a lot more books, they they are right.  But I am confident I know as much as any of them about the state of education and what will and won't work.  Too bad no members of the TU have ever been described as a "luminaries".  Because we are remarkably average in many ways.But that would make this post too long.  :)

So let's talk participants for a moment.

Charlie Rose-"master interviewer"(Charlie is my man...but Chuck appears to have had some Kool Aid somewhere, maybe in the Green Room or on the plane out West.  He all too readily accepts just about everything that is said.  I give him an F for this one.  Too bad no one representing the average teacher was invited.  Maybe they were.  But if they were I suspect they were too busy actually teaching students to show up.

Salman Khan-from the Khan AcademyI love this guy.  But he is way too smart for average people.  I think he's been in "the bubble" near Gates too long and lost touch.  We've mentioned him before and are not wary what he does, instead by how it can be misunderstood and misrepresented by politicians.  Still, of all the participants, he seems to be the only one to have really tried to help... and has done some work instead of only talking, telling others what to do or writing a book about working. 

Corey A. Booker-Two time Mayor of Newark, NJ who's made plenty of news lately.  He never met a camera he didn't like and is a classic politician from humble roots.  Not faulting him there.  Better man than me.  Seems like a heck of a guy.  But also one who's ideas always trump those of everyone else.  Booker  is very into doing stuff.  Action for the sake of action.  There's a lot of that going around in education. Much of what he says either outrages me or makes me feel better.  He's a wild card.   Like Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

John L. Hennessy- Stanford University's 10th president and inaugural holder of the Bing Presidential Professorship-(what is that?). As President of Stanford he gets to be on all round tables automatically-at least that makes sense anyway?  What exactly does he know about the average public school classroom in America? 

Kim Smith- CEO of Bellweather Education Partners and one of the original of TFA(yuck) founders.  I am ignoring what she says simply because of that.  Well not all of it actually but I still am programmed for skepticism after a decade and a half of teaching.  My bad. I'm sure she is a great person.

Claude M. Steele-Despite his awesome name, the Dean of Stanford’s School of Education, he is simply way too bright for me to understand fully without visual aids.  I think I rarely beat up on academics for being academics.  But I feel like I want to in this case.   I'll take Remington Steele instead.

Reed Hastings-co-founder and CEO of Netflix.  OK, not sure why he is even there unless someone with actual merit regarding education canceled last minute. Maybe the CEO of Blockbuster backed out?   Netflix?  I mean come on, they want 40% original programming?....even I know that's probably a dumb idea.  But again, why is he there?  Maybe his presence would have been a good chance to suggest they kindly put the stuff online that I like watching.

So some of what they said:
"Frame for us the issues"-Hmmm, so basically tell us what you think is wrong.  Not everyone think r sees things the same and that is good.  But when one group imposes its version as the way it is, not so good.  Ask any teacher to frame the issues  and odds are you'll get a somewhat different response. 
"Redefine education before it redefines us."  Wow that is so catchy.  Makes me want to run out and design a school on a CAD program somewhere.  Then throw a bunch of kids inside and walk away. 
America's schools are in trouble. Twenty-five percent of American kids drop out of high school. Those that do graduate often are ill prepared for either college or a job. The U.S. Secretary of Education has even mandated: "we have to deal with the brutal truth."
Is the problem money? School administrators? Teachers unions? Parents? There's plenty of blame to go around, yet all agree it's a problem we must address. If we wait, the U.S. will lose its competitive edge, more young Americans will end up in dead-end jobs, and the U.S will drop to second-tier status. -  There is a lot here to break down.  I don't have time.  Some in trouble yes.  If the Secretary of Education says it, it must be true.  no way politics or anything like that would affect judgment. 

Designing an education that builds the necessary skills for today's diverse student population is not easy. But there is hope: innovations and innovators that challenge the status quo; research to help us understand how to make the changes; and reformers experimenting with new ways to teach, learn, and run our public schools.
The questions that need answering are complex:
  • How do we attract and retain good teachers, especially in math and science?
  • What is the best way to hold schools accountable and promote effective instruction?
  • What should the role of unions be?
  • How do charter schools fit into the overall solution?
-All of that makes sense but ignores the fact that education and schools are full of people.  Many of them innovators.  To imply, overtly or tacitly that innovation has to come from outside is not only foolish but dangerous. Especially when those innovators stand to make large sums of money from gaining access, influence and  and control.

Get rid of elected schooboards.-  Yes absolutely, let's remove democratic principles and put for profit or non profit entities in charge of all things...our children.  One cannot be selective in the application of democracy  You are either with us, or waving a red flag and playing soccer with your Che shirt on.   I know the West coast tends to lean left but the fact no one called him on this is worrisome.  To me this is proof that those inside the bubble not only won't get it, but can't. 

At the 9:10 mark Corey Booker discusses the "Silence and inaction of the majority of Americans."  he views this as a failure to respond to current conditions.  That is a great point and perhaps he is correct.  He certainly would be in many districts across the nation.  But is this true everywhere?  Are all districts and schools the same?

Once again I am left scratching my head at the lack of honest and open discourse and inclusion of others views which may very well be the only chance for successful and meaningful reform. I guess it makes for good TV though. 

It matters because here you have some clearly intelligent and well meaning people whose proximity to the actual classroom and actual students minimizes their awareness.  Yet it is they and others like them who have been entrusted to steer the boat.  They are not sure how it works, how much it can take or how exactly it works.

The TU would like to create a Education Renovation 3.0 , 2013.  It is faster, better and has more memory than the 2.0 version.  The panel here consists of not luminaries but people who work with kids. We probably can't afford a nice stage or TV cameras or a webcast.  But it would though generate local innovation and momentum for positive change, hopefully free of the pitfalls plaguing current reform efforts.    There would be a panel with one or more educational leaders,  concerned parents,  building level administrators, counselors, community members, business people, and policy experts.  But if there was anyone on the stage, the largest number of seats would go to experienced teachers.  The people who face the realities of education firsthand.  These teachers would represent a broad spectrum of communities.  Rich and Poor. Urban and Rural.  And not to be forgotten we would find some way to involve students.