Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Few Thoughts



I thought about this one today as I wrote college recommendation letters for students. I guess I'm not a part of the real world, since whether I complete and submit the letter for my students by the deadline actually does matter. Sometimes in life, a single mistake actually has life altering consequences not only for ourselves, but others.

I think it's pretty "pompous" to act like this issue is black and white and to paint teachers that require deadlines as uncaring or idiotically out of touch with reality. The fact is, we must balance accountability with understanding. How about giving us support in that instead of attacking from the outside.

2. Homework


This one has popped up in my newsfeed on several platforms lately. In my Psychology class I teach students to recognize that usually the phrase "research shows" is a power statement that people use to bolster a weak argument or to hide a lack of substance. Too often, research is cherry-picked to support our preconceived beliefs rather than used effectively to shape our practices. The research on homework is inconclusive and it would be foolish to strongly argue either side without enough humility to acknowledge you may be wrong. In the absence of a unified set of data to inform universal attitudes toward homework administrators, teachers, students, and parents must work together to discover what is best in a particular context.

3. An attempt to induce a little Cognitive Dissonance

No picture for this one, but it strikes me that sometimes the same voices that unilaterally dismiss the value of homework and deadlines love the way technology allows us to "extend the learning" beyond the school day. When did we go from thinking that a teacher lecturing in the classroom was bad instruction to thinking that a teacher lecturing to a student at home via video was great? And if spending a few hours reading and responding is an unreasonable burden for some students at home, how is spending a few hours watching a video and responding somehow manageable? I don't have a major problem with this type of "flipping", but when the same people who've bemoaned the burden of homework on students suddenly love the idea of technology providing the chance to keep students learning 24/7, I think you can't have it both ways.

4. Twitter and education.

Twitter has helped me grow as an educator in the last two years more than any other professional development in my career. If you're not using it, I won't say you must, but you really should give it a try and not be dismissive.

But I would like to let administrators know something. Sometimes your tweets sound dismissive and condescending toward teachers. They are hurtful and damage your credibility with people you work with. Most of them probably earn you credibility with your fellow admins and promote your attempt to build a larger platform. I suggest that first, you run your ideas by your staff and think them through in the depth and detail that our students deserve, and then, if your thought or idea is both valuable, practical, and novel tweet it out. It's easy to make people think you're a progressive educator 140 characters at a time, but make sure you're serving your primary audience- students, teachers, and parents in your own school- before you think you can make a difference in the world.

5. Twenty-First Century education.

Just throwing it out there, but I don't see many classrooms anymore that look like they came out of the 1950's. But what hasn't changed since the 1950's? Organizational structures of education oriented in a vertical hierarchy. We know that integrating technology without addressing pedagogy doesn't change much. Can we apply 21st century learning in a classroom embedded in the leadership structure of the 20th century?

6. Word/Phrase of the Year

Here I'd like to offer my suggestion for the Phrase of 2014 that should be put to rest. Drumroll....

"What's best for the student"

It's not the idea I want to retire, but the wording or anything like it. This phrase shuts down any productive dialogue in education. Perhaps some devious types actually got into the business or stay in the business because they want to make a buck at the expense of the most vulnerable of our species, but if I think that is true of another person I can't respect anything they do or suggest. When someone thinks that about me, I am offended and realize that my ideas or suggestions are not respected (because they shouldn't be if it's true).

Whether it's Arne Duncan or the teacher next door to me we must assume that our motivation is to do what is best and most appropriate children in our schools. Only from that posture will we stand on level ground able to learn from one another and through our conflict and compromise find the best path toward serving our children to the best of our ability.

7. Final thoughts.

I feel like Ferris Bueller at the end of the movie. "Why are you still here? Go home." If you made it this far, thanks for reading. The Teaching Underground has been rather quiet for some time. Personally, I started to feel like we were saying the same thing over and over. Also, we took some of our own advice if you look at #4. The first priorities are the students in front of us every day, our own families at home, and the people we work with. It's gotten harder to attend to those priorities and consistently blog as we have in the past.

We're not dead, just a little quieter than before. But we do wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season and thanks for taking the time to care enough to read what we write.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


To the readers who once upon a time used to frequent this blog, we're sorry.  We just don't have time right now.  Our focus on family and work over the past few months has meant we have less time to dedicate to this endeavor.  But don't fear...there are plenty of teachers out there providing a glimpse into their experiences which will suffice in our absence.  Are they the TU?  No.  But might they have something to offer?  Yes.  Personally I feel our lack of activity is a direct byproduct of the reality that we rarely have time to eat lunch with each other or anyone else for that matter.  What does that say?

I am sorry to disappoint those of you who happened upon this post thinking it mostly dealt with the recent TIME magazine cover.  You could read this past post to kind of get an idea of where we're at on that one.  In short...yes you could dump the "worst" teachers...but that doesn't fix the problem and why they exist there in the first place.   Too bad no one in the article asked teachers for their thoughts.  I thought this letter to the editor and the comments did a fine job with what I don't have time to do.   And don't for a second think there hasn't been plenty to write about.

We could have covered the ground level impact and perceptions of  maker spaces, the lockdown of our school that came before we even had a lockdown drill,  the debate about our Where's Waldo  "1%" raise, the conviction of our state's former first family, the rise on ISIS, the Ukraine crisis, the 4th year of the 8 period day or a thousand other things that sail through the collective minds in our workplace on any given day.  Instead, we've just been trying  to make sense of the world around us and teach our students down in our little basement. For me that always is a bit easier with a little inspiration.  Needless to say for teachers, that inspiration seems harder and harder to come by. So take it wherever you find it.  From your faith, your students, your curriculum or somewhere else.   Don't let the bad news get you down.  Try to not stop dreaming.

 I'd have done better in Neil science class I think...
Also it often helps to listen to some Movie Theme Music while you grade

Or if you prefer...

No doubt at some point when we find the time and inspiration we will reappear with greater frequency.  Or maybe we'll just starting eating lunch together with some regularity.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Taking the Underground Out of the Ground

Just because we teach in a basement doesn't mean that's where we always stay. (Just most of the time) Recently my co-author took his classroom out-of-doors for an authentic experience in learning how we learn about Prehistory. Here's the video from our local news:

Click image to play video

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's Go Time

Go Time Indeed
So tomorrow marks the official end of summer for teachers in my division with the arrival of students back at school.  The week long formal preparation has come to an end.  Most teachers have been prepping on some level since school got out in June but day 1 sneaks up quickly and you must manage the butterflies and find ways to serve your future students.  This year with 1 to 1 rolling out at our school there has been a bit more preparing than normal, but preparing is a rite of passage for teachers in August.

As I did prepare I was making a few copies in our new "Paper-Lite"(buzzword anyone?) technology blended workplace, I overheard a younger teacher ask a much more seasoned teacher if they were ready for school to start.  The reply fit the moment.

"You are never really ready...You just go."

That statement epitomizes my feelings exactly. And tomorrow is go time.   I could spend a whole month getting ready for the arrival of students and still find in many ways I still eel unprepared.Truth is I hate Pre-school week as I spend the majority of it in meetings or engaged in Organized Procrastination ( We can all get a little blue from the start of school).  Yep...some might say I seem intent on rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic instead of getting down to preparing in ways that really matter.  I focus a lot on my room.  Learning spaces are important...and recent trends to continue to place focus on shiny new spaces.  So I spent much of this week removing dated furniture, storing rarely used texts and finding a way to open things up a little by removing the clutter.  Hopefully it will be an improvement.  But we are still in a basement you know.

Another reason I don't enjoy this week is that there are no students in the building.  If the school building is the body, the staff is the skeleton that holds it together and the students are the blood in the veins.  The place lacks life without them.  Save the occasional visit from those getting a head start and mapping out their travel plan or those fixing scheduling issues its been just us teachers.  As energetic as we've been we can't replicate the buzz created by the young folks when they fill the building.  This year especially they will really FILL our building but until tomorrow it has just seems stale and empty.  At least when they are there going crazy there's some energy in the place.

So no I am not complaining about being back at work, quite the contrary.  My sister who teaches in Southwest VA has been back for 2 weeks already so I count my blessings for a little extra time with the family.  Sure I'd need my head examined if I didn't secretly wish for a few more days(or weeks)  of summer.  But it is go time.  Time to get back to the routines, the normalcy, the unpredictable chaos.  Schools in our area will fill with the young and the not so young but the mission is the same.  Help them grow, learn, think, engage, understand, cope, create, discover and do our best to educate them to the best of our ability.

Students, parents and teachers alike will lay our heads down tonight with a curious blend of anticipation, anxiety, excitement, and even dread.  In the months ahead we will will journey together with all of life's little adventures.   It will take time to learn each others stories and there is so much to do but at 8:55 tomorrow we get down to it.  Best of luck to all those who will greet the new and old faces and wishing everyone the best for a safe, successful and memorable school year!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How I Missed My Son's 8th Grade Graduation

I'm pretty sure it was the largest class to ever graduate from Jack Jouett Middle School. Somewhere close to two-hundred and fifty eighth graders. So large, they moved the graduation down the road to Albemarle High School. It worked out well for me, that's where I teach. I wouldn't even have to take leave to slide down to the auditorium for a short middle school graduation.

My wife and I found good seats in the standing room only crowd. Like most graduations, we were there to watch our son walk across the stage, literally, from one stage of life to the next. But I missed it, and all I got instead was this lousy picture.

Bearing my name, I knew he'd be in the second half of the second half of the alphabet. I patiently waited for the "S's" to remove my phone from my pocket to ready the camera. I tried out the angles and settings as the first "T" was called and sat prepared to capture my son's milestone.

They called his name. As he walked up the steps I snapped a shot and inspected. "Too soon, that's no good, I've got time for another." So I tried again. "Too far away, I need more zoom." By now he's reaching for his certificate. "Last chance, better make it good." As I inspected the picture above, he started down the aisle, walking toward the back of the room and I realized, "I didn't even see him graduate."

I'd gotten so concerned about documenting and preserving the experience that in the end, I missed out and all I've got to show for it is a poor quality picture. That image would mean so much more if I'd paused to savor the moment, paid attention to what was happening, and allowed that memory to process for me to hold in my mind forever.

But I've learned a valuable lesson moving forward into this school year. The moment is so much more important than the documentation. We've become a culture that values the proof more than the experience. It's not enough to do. There has to be evidence that it's been done.

This is true of our vacations that we document on social media and it's true of our classrooms where the shiny project for display takes precedence over learning.

I'm not missing out this year, and I'm not going to let my students miss out. I'll still snap pictures when something cool is happening, I'll still have students produce projects to complement their learning. But I'm not going to waste so much time "trying to take the picture" that I miss out on the important things that are going on.

This happens in many ways in our classrooms:
1) The grade becomes more important than the learning
2) The project becomes a showpiece instead of a learning process
3) The teacher evaluation becomes self-promotion instead of honest self-reflection
4) The student work is displayed to demonstrate the creativity of the teacher instead of reinforcing the effort of the student.

I'm sure there's more. But I think all of it is solved by committing to be fully present to our students and their needs in every interaction we have with them.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Testing, the Blob, and the Great Escape

It is a monster.  I've seen it terrorize thousands of children.  They can't run.  They can't hide.  It will catch them eventually.  I've seen it kill kids...or at least kill their love of school and learning.  Like the movie monster Frankenstein it is a freightening patchwork, but in this case not one of used body parts but of misdirected education policy of our own creation that sparks fear, misunderstanding and even panic among people.  But Frankenstein wasn't bad...just a guy that got a little over nervous and freaked out.  When I was little Frankenstein didn't scare me,  what scared me was the blob.  Testing is worse than the blob. But the description from the 1958 movie poster of "Indescribable! Indestructable! Nothing Can Stop It!"  sure does fit.

By now you certainly know that large scale testing has had a dramatic effect on American Education.  It has literally change the way we learn and teach.  Depending on who you believe, or trust, that is either a really good thing, or a really bad thing.  The voice from educators who work directly with kids seems to express the consensus that it is not so good.  Surprise surprise. 

"Testing Season," as it is un-affectionately known, begins in May and basically normal school grind to an abrupt halt.  It puts parts of the school and large portions of our student body on lockdown for weeks on end.  Testing brings any real learning to a halt.  We do testing in 3 or 4 main locations but during that span our gymnasiums(we have 2) are sealed up tight.  Student routines and teacher days are changed to feed the monster.  We all are forced to proctor.  And forced to do worse.  I am always thinking there is a certain indignity involved when you have to escort a student to the restroom for both us, and them. I won't even begin to enumerate the actual number of tests kids take in our state...but we're well into the thousands just at our school alone.  It makes everyone grumpy.

 Testing leads to a curious phenomenon...testing fatigue.   It overcomes a usually vibrant and energetic group of people.  It is a real monster. Upperclassmen "check out" both mentally and physically.  The courses I teach with underclassmen become ineffective as on any given day half of the students or more may be missing.  testing has forever altered the end of school.   I stated before how unfortunate it is that the days of engaging and interesting activities serving to tie everything together have been undermined by all the crap we have railed against on this blog.

Radiation ...reform...what's the diff?
Lange's + Bridges' best work :)
Testing arguably destroys schools and the people within them.  It's the worst of all the most famous monsters.  Like Godzilla it is a beast of our own creation.  Like the blob it grows more powerful and entrenched the longer it is around.  Like Dracula it sucks the life out of victims.  It has the potential to yield great profit like King Kong and that is what causes the problems.  Like Kong it is hard to control but unlike Kong it is unsympathetic.  Like the Mummy it has the potential to be around for a very very long time.  It has tentacles that reach out and cling to just about every aspect of education, like the Giant Squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  It seems to function as an agent of some greater diabolical purpose like the creatures from Alien.  Have I made my point about it being a monster?

  Like I said it can be destructive.  This is not an assemblage like that of Disney Pixar's Monster's University.  Fortunately the standardized testing has not overtaken that fictional campus yet..  But in our
I put this image in for my kids
public schools this destruction is incremental and hard to perceive.  I have witnessed many times just as I did this year the reaction of students when they learn they didn't pass.  They are certainly disappointed, even upset, but that deflation is quickly replaced with a callous "I don't care."  I think that on one hand they really shouldn't.  The test does not define them.  But I always want my students to care.  So when they say that they don;t care  sometimes it is true and often was long before any test.  But when it is not, and students do care about results, it is sad to see their earnest  efforts go unrewarded.  I'd unnecessarily add here that there's more to learning that just being able to pass a test. It can't measure so many immeasurable things.  But it does matter according to our state's policy.  A whole lot.

For a teacher, the monster might mean that they literally no longer have a job or a school to work in. It is a very helpless feeling watching your students take a test.  In my state, as I suspect in many others, there is no real way to improve the students efforts.  The test results and accompanying feedback don't give much insight.  Worse yet is once they have taken the test, there is no real way to target remediation so they could pass.  I can't tell what they did well, I can't tell what they didn't.  If it is merely supposed to be one of many tools used by teachers.  We pay for this tool and I hope we kept the receipt.  I would also offer we should stop buying things off late night infomercials.   Tests, even standardized ones, have a place and a role.  But I suspect this monstrous of using tests in ways they were never intended.

Proof it is a poor tool is evident in the Student Performance By Question(SPBQ) report.  It is even more non-descript that the blob.  It is arguably less useful.  This despite the "helpful link" on the VDOE website intended to make this report useful.  I can find out the number of questions a student got correct or incorrect, but I cannot with certainty find what that specific content or concept that student did or did not know. So since they have to pass the test, I feel rather helpless and cannot outrun the monster. I am forced to stand by and watch it consume more victims.  Allow me to share a few other gems from my efforts to make such a report useful:

This one illustrates the non-specific language that all our testing efforts produce.
So a couple million  $ buys you some "maybes"?
So once they take the take I should be wary of using it to figure out what they do and do not know.
So its OK for everyone else to overstress SOL results, just not teachers.
Well, I might teach differently if I knew where to start.

Fighting the Monster
There are literally thousands of examples of teachers crying out against the testing machine.  But it must be fed.  Raw Scores, Scaled Scores, Failing Scores, Remediation, and Online Testing all took time to entrench themselves in our schools.  But maybe there is light ahead and we are entering a new era of education where parents and students, even districts like our own join teachers in saying enough is enough.  Is it likely that we can together defeat the monster?  I don't know.  There is a lot of money tied up in all of this.

The testing monster will be tough to rid ourselves of.  It will take a collective effort and not be an easy task.  Even still it is likely to be a worthy foe.  Reliance on political leadership from statehouses and capital domes will likely mean we'll just confront sequels of the same terror, in scarier form.  testing has its place.  But massive, poorly done, standardized testing is nothing but a destructive and undesirable force that must be stopped.  Maybe if we had a champion like Steve McQueen was in the 1963 film, he could lead us in The Great Escape.   Lest we not forget in that one he didn't actually escape.  Maybe one day we will. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

To the Class of 2014

Each year we watch another class of students walk across the stage to graduate and every cohort differs from the year before. I've composed addresses to each of these classes based on their personalities and my experiences with them. (2013 , 2012 , 2011 ) Below is this years edition of our "graduation speech that wouldn't be".

To the Class of 2014:

I am hopeful about your future. But I’m afraid that some of the important lessons of life that you should have learned by now are going to happen before you’re able to go boldly into that future. I’ve taught some of the brightest and hardest working students of my career this year, but I’ve also watched many students struggle to cope with the changing demands of our current context.

This year I discovered that many of you have learned the unhealthy coping mechanism of avoidance. While my normal absence rate was around 6 or 7 percent, that number magically went up to over twenty percent on every test day. Somewhere along the line you’ve learned “why do it today if I can put it off until tomorrow.” And I’ve had to tolerate giving you the chance to make it up on your own schedule and timeframe.

Educators point out it’s about the learning and find it clever to point out SATs, MCATs, LSATs, etc., can be taken over and over until you pass. But if you don’t perform next year to the standards of your school, they won’t let you come back, at least for another year. Some decisions are final and all decisions have consequences. So I hope that you take advantage of second chances without assuming beforehand that you’ll always have them.

This year I discovered that many of you have adopted the unhealthy attitude of American adults that glorifies “21st century” excess. The excess of our century is busyness, activity, and work. You take eight classes, participate in a sport, maintain a social life, and leave town for a four day field trip with your band just a few weeks after Spring Break and just a few weeks before AP and End of Year testing and wonder why you’re so overburdened with work.

There’s nothing wrong with experiencing all that you can while you’re young, but time is not limitless. We reach a point where participation in something is going to affect our performance. An adult must work a little harder to plan for and then work a little harder to catch up from a weeks vacation from work. Along the way, you’ve learned that you should be able to do it all—the coach should give you playing time, the teacher should give you an A, you should have time to practice your part in the play, and your social life shouldn’t suffer.

You have a hard time handling life when it doesn’t work out this way. I’ve had to provide more weeks of material for your homebound instruction this year than at any point in the past. And the reasons for homebound instruction have not been physical recovery, they’ve all been psychological. We’re quick to treat your mental health, but slow to question whether your mental health is fine, perhaps the environment is toxic.

More likely than not, you’re going to be fine. Most of you were accountable for yourselves even when you didn’t have to be. Some of you will learn that after leaving this place, that only you are accountable for yourself. No other institution is going to take the blame for your bad behaviors, lack of preparation, or the fact that you just choose to not show up.

Of course every person is different, but based on my time with you collectively, if I had to offer one piece of advice to help you into the future it would be this:

“Simplify. Life can only progress one moment at a time. Learn what you can handle in those moments and make them count. There is only so much in life that you can be responsible for, but taking on more than that is no excuse for being irresponsible. Despite what you’ve heard, you can’t have it all, but you can have enough.”

Friday, May 9, 2014


Well Teacher Appreciation week came and went at my elsewhere around the nation and world.  So with all the hubbub the real question to address is do I feel appreciated.  Yes and No. 

I will start with the bad. There is plenty of that.  In the recent past I am coming off another demoralizing budget season.  Sure money is tight, it always is.  But I have slowly come to grips with the fact I live in a community and a state that could do a better job supporting education, but chooses not to.  That's putting it gently.  Some outwardly decry taxes are too high and blame wasteful schools and dare I say...overpaid teachers.  Maybe so.  But more likely the levels of bureaucratic decision makers all take and redirect their share before it comes anywhere near me or my classroom.  I have what I need I suppose.  I know I have it way better than many around the nation.  So I learn not to complain or open my hand and whine too often.  But over the last few years most of the heavy lifting when it comes to balancing budgets, teaching more classes and more kids falls on guess who?  Mr. and Mrs. Appreciated.  But I don't like talking about money and few teachers start teaching in order to get rich.  If they did, they are dum(I like that one).

So there is one strike against appreciation.  But I get it elsewhere too.  Let's stick to the last week when a colleague who is a fellow coach couldn't get a sub for when he left early with the team he coached.  Maybe some of that was on him but this Spring has been crazy with cancellations so instead he had to struggle to find a colleague who could give up their unencumbered planning to cover his class.  A day before another teacher who wasn't feeling well heard the same thing.  That doesn't make me feel appreciated.   I was also informed of the Required Summer Professional Development where I was given no real choice.  Just choose among what and when I want to take it.  Next I dealt with the run up to next Fall when our overcrowded school will get another 100 or so 9th graders. 

During all that I kept focused in the hectic weeks before you guessed it, testing season.  ARGH! Already stressed and overworked with unrealistic and unsustainable expectations I had a young man in my class illustrate a point for me. I exist in a landscape  where  a 14 yr student chooses to put his head down, 3 minutes after I made a special effort to reach him about doing his best and what he is capable in the hopes I could get him through the 9th grade.  I felt more powerless than usual and that says something.   

I am in the not so sweet spot part of my career where I am devalued since I am not "new" and choose not to leave the classroom as a senior teacher in favor of some other role.  Most efforts on a national level seem to depreciate teachers.  From how they are evaluated to the ever tightening knot that limits how they practice their craft.  I did get the normal mass mailing letters of appreciation from the school board and division superintendent which I thought was nice.  But truth be told I am tired of being "told" I am appreciated.  But it wasn't all bad.

So how do I feel appreciated you ask?  There were some small gestures from students.  The applegrams, brief notes from students, yep... I received a handful.  I did get a small gift of appreciation from a family with a nice note.  I teach 135 kids so the odds were in my favor.  I did also get a few E-mail thanks which were nice gestures as well.  The most noticeable efforts were school wide in the form of some well timed and very tasty meals, snacks and treats from our parent teacher organization.  A thousand thanks to them!  So I do I suppose feel more appreciated than last week. 

Still what I appreciate has nothing to do with what week it is or what gets organized.  It is the psychological pay from countless seemingly meaningless interactions with the vibrant and infectious energy of youth.  It is seeing the world through their eyes and thinking of it as if they were my own children.  It is seeing the newness of learning brighten a day and the occasional light bulb go off.  Usually it goes off now on a cell phone first...  It is the unexpected thank you for something you did to help a student out.  It is the feeling of appreciation when students look to you for help, guidance and support.  The moments that are ever so briefly and arre, but also but also profound that make me feel appreciated as a teacher.  Thanks. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Senior Skip Day 21st Century Style

It's not a new phenomena, but senior skip day in the modern high school is exponentially more effective today than even five years ago. Thanks interwebs.

I remember my high school days, the tradition of senior skip day fell on the same day every year. I can't be sure, but I bet it was even partially engineered by teachers and administrators to give students a little sense of power or maybe just a little outlet for some harmless rebellion.

When I started teaching, students had taken the initiative to call the "senior skip day" at their pleasure. It was a tricky task because one could never be certain that the message would spread, or even heeded if so. The skip day had to coincide with expected good weather and some other motivating event like prom or a three day weekend. Calling the skip day came with risk, because if a critical mass didn't participate, students could miss too much at school that day.

I guess we can blame it on twitter. Senior skip days are now more effective and efficient than at any other time in history. A premature call on the skip day will quickly be shot down by others, and lack of participation comes with early warning and I've known of more than a few events that have been called off at the last minute.

Today was not one of those days. Out of sixty-five students who were supposed to be in class today, I had twenty show up. Ten of them were juniors. The AP test for my class is exactly three weeks from today. We've missed over a dozen days of class this year. We had a full week (plus one day) of Spring Break the week before last. Today seemed like a good day for a skip day.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Is Oppressive Homework a Myth?

A recent report from the Brooking Institute making the media rounds claims that the homework burden of students today have not significantly changed in the last several decades. Surely the headlines will vary, but from what I've seen already, I expect the narrative will shape itself around a lack of rigor and preparation of 21st century students. Like most issues, I'm sure this one will be treated with simplicity. Here are a few thoughts:

1) Lets assume that students today have less homework and the complaints of so many parents and students are unfounded. What then is different that leads to this perception? Students today have many more expectations than those of twenty years ago. In addition to the pressure of earning a class grade, every student has a battery of standardized tests adding to the pressure of school. On top of it, many others deal with AP testing, ACTs and SATs in their junior and senior years. (and some in freshman and sophomore)

2) The days of "math 9, math 10, math 11, math 12" are over. Every student takes higher level math courses. Most students twenty years ago were taking Algebra and Geometry in 9th and 10th grade or later. Today its more likely to be 7th and 8th grade.

3) At the end of junior year into the fall of senior year of high school, the college application process can seem like an entire additional class worth of work.

4) Graduation requirements have increased. In the time that I've been teaching (since 1996) the number of classes that a student takes have grown from six to eight in a year.

5) Students are expected in many cases and required in others to engage in community and civic service.

6) The number of extracurricular activities available to students has grown, and "travel" sports are much more common today.

7) Because internet. I've been known to spend a little more time getting my work done when working on the computer at home. Twenty years ago we had a single landline in the home and a few dozen channels on the tube if you were lucky for a distraction. I guess we had Mario and the NES by the late 80s. Kids today have many more distractions today that will fit in their pocket than kids 20 years ago had in an entire house.

8) The 21st century value of choice, options, and individual attention: Twenty years ago we might have said "you can't have your cake and eat it too." Today's mantra is "I want it all, I want it now."

Maybe students today do less homework. But they're doing a whole lot of something else. Conversations about 21st century education get stuck on the use of technology, but there's something bigger than that. It's an all out culture shift and we're all struggling to adapt.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Is it really fair to label reformers as "Eugenicists"

We've really slowed down on the blogging lately. We'll blame it on our day jobs. Not to mention the fact that winter just won't seem to pass. This post was originally intended for Monday, March 3. With several snow days between then and now, it got lost in the shuffle. It starts with a little "declaration" of sorts, because oddly enough from the TU, it defends the reformers a bit. But only just a bit. We can't get too carried away.

I believe that “corporate reform” is bad for U.S. education. I believe that test based accountability has gone too far and become a hindrance to progress. I believe that education is an integral part of the economic and social structure of our society, but not the single driving force. I don’t doubt that nearly everyone involved in public education policy and debate want to create a better system of education in the United States, even if I question their ability to understand the reality of these complex systems.

If you’ve read most anything we’ve written, you know our position.

I needed to write that because I’ve noticed lately an increasing rhetoric pointed toward those who disagree. I’m appalled by how many people have begun tossing around the accusation of “Eugenicists” toward people who hold a different view of how students learn and how to best serve them. The most recent and perhaps highest profile use of this accusation came from Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

She summarizes a brief history of testing that every high school Psychology teacher should know. An honest test devised by Binet in response to Universal Education Laws in France. A test to identify and best meet the needs of children arriving in school. For much of the rest of the twentieth century, this style of testing and identifying would devolve and became a backbone of the science of Eugenics. A science that resulted in great harm and immoral actions by individuals and societies reaching it’s apex under Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.

It is important to stay mindful of the past and avoid its mistakes (an understatement in this case) but, equating current proponents of test based accountability and Grit with Eugenicists is a logical fallacy pushing the discussion of what’s best for students on the backburner while the adults who think they know best attack one another over who is right. (And might I take the time to point out that while this is going on, a caring teacher is in the classroom doing their best to take care of and educate their children)

Frankly, I’m surprised that any conversation comes from this type of talk.

As a teacher, when my voice is countered with the argument “it’s about the kids, not the adults”, I’m out of the dialogue. Whomever says this to me has indicated they believe I’m making decisions for my own benefit and not that of my students. If they really believe that’s true then they should have little reason to respect anything else that I say.

Likewise, if I truly believed someone’s primary motivation is rooted in the desire to purify the gene pool, I wouldn’t want to even hear their opinion.

So, let’s watch the rhetoric. It might sound good and get a rise out of people. It might lift your profile and get people talking about you on the internet. But, from where I sit everyday facing a hundred or so children, it doesn’t do anything to advance the cause of our students in public schools. So stop. And do something helpful.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I'm Tired of People Arguing About Grit

I’m tired of the online arguing and posturing over the concept of “Grit.”  At first, it sounded like a good idea, successful people have attitudes that lead to persistence and hard work, allowing them to overcome obstacles and reach their goals.  We can teach these qualities to students and increase their chances of success.

Then the critics come to say that is just elitist B.S., even calling some of its proponents modern day “eugenicists.”  Grit is fine for the privileged they say, but citing Grit as the reason for success is just another way to “blame the victim” and place the fault of failure squarely on the shoulder of our children and not the systems that place obstacle after obstacle in their way.

So they endlessly chatter. And chatter some more. Baiting each other into argument and reveling in their intellectual exchange.  All the while ignoring the damage their polarizing attitudes, rooted in theory divorced from practice, can have on public school students in America. It creates a false dichotomy.

Haven’t we learned anything from the polarized politics of Washington and our state houses that seem to miss the reality of people’s everyday lives?

So what do our kids need?  Grit or Slack.

If you are in a classroom everyday the answer is easy.  Both.

Every child is different and every day is different.  Still, in many ways, they are not much different from us.

For example, I get a tax refund every year.  (we can debate that wisdom later)  Knowing that my government owes me money, I am motivated to file early, so I’m hoping to file by Monday.  For most Americans who owe Uncle Sam, what day are they most likely to file?  That’s right, April 15.  Some might even take the hit and file late.

When do students complete their work?  That’s right, when they have to.  Just like you and I, a deadline or a due date is the day that you finish what you have to finish.  Without compelling reason or reward, you just aren’t likely to finish early.  And sometimes you shouldn’t.  It is wise to use all of your allotted time to do something well.

Sometimes a student needs a deadline.  They need to know that it means something.  If it is not enforced then it is no longer a deadline. 

Sometimes a student needs a break.  We know they have had issues that other students have not dealt with.  We know their reason for not doing what they are supposed to is understandable. 

Not always, and sure we get it wrong sometimes.

So why not err on the side of the student, right?  Give them the benefit of a doubt.  As the mantra goes, “it about what’s best for the student.”  What is best for the student?

I got the benefit of a doubt too many times in high school.  I could remember almost anything I heard and so long as I paid attention in class, I could count on doing well on tests.  If teachers required additional work, I did just enough to keep an “A” (or a “B” if it was an AP because those were weighted).  I knew that in most classes teachers would not bother to penalize me for poor work habits if I could score well on their tests.

This relates to Carol Dweck’s ideas on “mindset.”  I didn’t achieve because of effort, school just came easy to me.  I relied on my abilities and didn’t even get that my effort (or lack thereof) mattered.

It was good enough to earn me admission to the University of Virginia, but I barely escaped my first year without an academic suspension.  I never opened a book to read for biology or psychology, the teacher went over homework in math every Friday, so I didn’t bother to do it ahead of time, and Latin homework wasn’t collected or graded so I never did it.

I spent the first three weeks of the summer of 1991 on the assembly line of the Bassett Furniture factory where I’d worked the last three summers wondering whether that was the place I’d spend the rest of my life.

Taking my excuses for not doing work and giving me second chances when the grade I had earned at the end of a marking period was not as high as I wanted wasn’t in my best interests.  After the scare of suspension and prospects of life in a factory (which would have turned into unemployment) I tried something different.  I actually read the texts assigned on schedule.  I did assignments even when they were not graded.  I found other people in my classes to study with.  I did this because after a year of college I learned that effort matters.  I finished college with a decent GPA, but more importantly, I learned in the process.

What I am advocating is not a “no excuses” attitude.  Nevertheless, there is a little truth to the old teacher mantra of “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas.”  Any successful teacher who has been at it for more than a few years does not need an armchair quarterback to explain how students work.  Grit and the qualities of perseverance are vital.  Students need to learn self-control, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills vital to success in the world.  They need external standards of accountability.  They also need to be subject to the spirit and not the letter of the law.  Situations require flexibility and because there is a relationship between teachers and learners, teachers recognize that there is a time for slack.

Writing books and engaging in theoretical arguments are fun, but when you deal with the reality of whether a student is going to graduate or not and struggle with the question of whether they will walk into their future equipped for success or set up for failure, that’s when you really understand the question “What’s in the best interest of the child?”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 2014 Official Teaching Underground Response to the State of the Union

It's that time of year again. It's our annual custom to respond to the President's annual State of the Union Address. It looks like this year there's going to be three official responses. Not just the Republican response, but the Tea Party response and a response from Rand Paul. This rebuttal business is getting pretty competitive.

So he starts with this:
"Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades." 
Well, not this teacher, but I did spend extra time with another teacher. A first year teacher, 23 years old, part-time, splitting his days every morning teaching high school then driving down the street to the local middle school to teach two seventh grade classes. He'd prefer working full time at one school, but this is the best we can do for him. It's about what's best for the kids though, right?

Is that really all he's going to say about education?

Oh, wait, here it is:

Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids. We worked with lenders to reform student loans, and today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before. Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.

Race to the Top? Too often, raising expectations looks more like making the tests more "difficult." Not rigorous or particularly valid, just harder. And along with raising the expectations, where is the support to raise the quality of instruction? That last sentence is dead on though. If only we could find the legs to make that idea actually move.

I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.

That's comforting. Our elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists have done a stand-up job so far in reforming education.

Last year, I also pledged to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.

I don't care what you think about technology, it's advancing. Quickly. The better and faster we take care of closing the gaps of access, the better off our kids will be. I think our nation will suffer if this is a gap that we allow to grow.

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.

Vocational education has suffered in the last twenty years. The vocational ed of the 20th century doesn't do much for 21st century students, but we need to acknowledge the reality that not everyone will go to college and give them the tools to succeed right out of high school.

That's all for k-12 education. But he did end this section of the speech with this: But we know our opportunity agenda won’t be complete – and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise – unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.

I like that. It seems to acknowledge that the struggles of the American economy is not the fault of our public education system and that we can't look solely to the public education system as the solution to our economic woes. If more people would realize this and see education for what it is-- an integral and vital piece of American society, but just that, a piece, not the single driving factor-- we'd start looking for more holistic solutions instead of scapegoating.

And that's the State of the Union, at least as far as the Teaching Underground is concerned.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Too Cold for School?

I’ve been a part of k-12 public education for over thirty years (I’m counting my years as a student) and this is the first year that I ever remember school being disrupted because of cold weather.

Beginning Sunday, I noticed on Twitter, several of my teacher friends in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois posting about no school on Monday and thought it must be pretty cold up there for school to be cancelled, thankful that I lived in balmy Virginia.

Then, Monday afternoon the e-mail came. Albemarle County schools will operate on a two-hour delay tomorrow due to cold weather. Later in the day, surrounding counties started announcing delays and even closings because of the weather.

Whenever schools alter schedules, people complain. “Who ever heard of closing school because it’s too cold” they say. Well, my son (using the new technology he got for Christmas) pointed out this morning that temperatures in central Virginia are colder than the North Pole, and our good friend Al Roker noted that some of the states mentioned above are seeing temperatures lower than the South Pole.

Have you ever seen those Arctic science stations? Me neither, but they’re built to deal with this kind of temperature extremes, and people don’t usually hang out there for the long term either.

Sometimes extreme things happen. When they do, we deal the best we can. It’s not often the forecast for my hometown is Sunny with a high of 15 degrees, but today, that’s what we get.

And we thought technology was the disruptive force in 21st century education. Score one for mother nature.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014