Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Easier vs. Better

In his latest Tumblr post, "Easier vs. Better", Will Richardson reminds us of how we came to the heavy, and often-times bureaucratic system of brick and mortar schools, bells, rows of chairs, etc.  In the early 1900s we were concerned to transform a whole population of rural children into adults who could perform adequately in urban and industrial society.

What I like about this post is what he writes next to remind us that it is, you know, the 21st century:

But now the premise has changed. We’re getting more and more easy access to “quality” content and instruction (if we’re literate enough to know it when we see it), and that means that some of those once fine ideas for “getting an education” just don’t fit any more. Many of those old answers are feeling less and less useful when it comes to actually developing learners out of our kids instead of workers.
Yet we stick to them. And I know the reasons are many and complex (it’s what we know and what we expect schools to be,) but I think at the end of the day, we’re loathe to change because it’s just easier this way. It’s not what best for our kids, but it’s what’s easiest for us. (I know…a lot of you are thinking “there ain’t nothing easy about this,” and you’re right. Caring for kids and doing right by them educationally in whatever system we have is hard, hard work.)
But I’m thinking it’s time to call some of these old school habits out and ask, “are we really doing what’s best for kids, or are we doing what’s easiest for us?”
  • Is it better for our kids to be grouped by chronological age, or is it just easier for us?
  • Is it better for our kids to separate out the disciplines, or is it just easier for us?
  • Is it better for our kids to give every one of them pretty much the same curriculum, or is it just easier for us?
  • Is it better for our kids to turn off all of their technology in school, or is it just easier for us? 
  • Is it better for our kids that we assess everyone the same way, or is it just easier for us?
  • Is it better for our kids for us to decide what they should learn and how they should learn it, or is it just easier for us?
He is right on target here.  After 16 years in the traditional public and alternative public classroom I have had it with the hyper-reactionary resistance to trying new forms of education.  The legit question is not "Is this new, and am I comfortable with it?"  The question is "Will this improve my students' lives and move them forward into this new century."  What do you think?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thinly-Sliced Education Standards & Extreme Hypocrisy of the Oklahoma Legislature

While there are other states that have now passed legislation that makes it mandatory for U.S. History teachers to commemorate the horrible 9/11 attacks on a particular anniversary day, the fact that the Oklahoma legislature has passed such legislation without also showing its concern to compel teachers to commemorate the Murrah Building bombing is hypocritical, if not surreal.

Like all dutiful Social Studies teachers in Oklahoma public schools, I commemorated the 9/11 attacks in my U.S. History classes yesterday.  I also reminded my students that we would be taking a much more in-depth look at those attacks and their impact on American life and policy when we reached that point on our timeline later.

Our hip-shooting legislators have passed legislation that requires history teachers to commemorate 9/11, Constitution Day, and a few others.  But if they are so concerned to make sure that I teach important events in our recent history, why not the Murrah Federal Building Bombing right here in Oklahoma City?  Because the perpetrator of that horrific act was a domestic right-wing extremist, not far off in political philosophy from those who have taken over our legislature.

Timothy McVeigh's prosecution now is a part of public record and the evidence is overwhelming.  He circulated in extremist right-wing militias that were active in Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma at the time.  He truly believed that our federal government was so widely-hated that his attack in Oklahoma City would touch off a nation-wide insurrection.  His philosophy was the most virulent of anti-government tripe that has now made its way into mainstream political speech.

My legislature may want me to commemorate the horrific acts of foreign terrorism that happened ten years ago, and I will be glad to do it and add much more to my students' learning later.  But, I will also remember and teach the first horrible act of domestic terrorism right in the center of Oklahoma by people who espoused the same views as some on the right who regularly run for, and win public office today.

The memory of those victims, and the 9/11 victims demands no less.

Added on 9/11:

I appreciate a former staffer at the Oklahoma SDE pointing out that they had included the study of the Murrah Building bombing in their statutory curriculum submissions (buried along with hundreds of others) to our Legislature for approval right before Supt. Garrett left the SDE.  I have been aware of the Murrah Building Bombing being included in our U.S. History PASS objectives along with 9/11 and other recent events.  Those topics have been incorporated into my curriculum for some time.

However, my original criticism still stands: Those on the far Right who control our legislature have made sure to coerce by statute our remembering 9/11 on a particular day, and they have resisted the same idea for much longer when it comes to the Murrah Building Bombing - 1995, Murrah Building Bombing vs. 2001, 9/11.  They have required our focus upon foreign terrorism, and carefully avoided it when it comes to domestic terrorism committed right here in central Oklahoma.  My contention, still, is that this is intentional.

Of even deeper concern is how our legislature has chosen, by statute, to coerce classroom teachers to change our focus away from Veteran's Day to "Celebrate Freedom Week".  This is not happen-stance.  It is a clear desire to program our classrooms to avoid discussion of the sacrifices that two wars have asked of us, and will ask of us in the future.  It is intended to make us focus instead upon the illusive, mushy "freedom" word that is used as a dog whistle on the far right.

Monday, August 15, 2011

How Rick Perry Can Split the Education Vote

Is it possible for Rick Perry to split the education vote?  Yes.

Yesterday in her blog The Answer Sheet at the Washington Post, Valerie Straus brought up an interesting issue for those who watch education issues: What is President Obama going to do about Rick Perry's anti-NCLB stance? And, I would add this question: How are activist teachers who resent EdSec Duncan's tone-deafness to education professionals going to respond to Perry?

Texas' Gov. Perry has been very busy over the last several years opposing the pro-NCLB stance of Duncan and the Education Dept.  Here is Straus' rundown:
Perry, who won election to his third term as Texas governor last year, trashed the administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top, and rejected the administration-backed Common Core State Standards effort (which all but six states, including Texas, have agreed to adopt). Perry also fought with the Obama administration over more than $800 million in federal funds that U.S. officials said could go to Texas if the money was spent on education; the Texas governor said he couldn't accept any conditions on use of the money.

In a Jan. 13, 2010 letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Perry wrote, “I will not commit Texas taxpayers to unfunded federal obligations or to the adoption of unproven, cost-prohibitive national curriculum standards and tests.... We believe that education policy, curriculum and standards should be determined in Texas, not in Washington D.C.”
For those of us who have been active in the Save-Our-Schools movement even in the slightest bit, it is easy to pick out quite a bit of Perry's stand on the EdSec's policies that would easily resonate within our ranks.  Most especially, teachers in those districts that have already started buying into the Race-To-The-Top demands that teachers be retained, promoted, or fired based heavily on test scores, would easily identify Perry as a type of ally.  That has certainly been the case in Texas:
Standing with Perry during a press conference on that same day was Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, and Jeri Stone , executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, both union leaders who backed Perry’s decision on Race to the Top.
For those who have essentially given up on Obama/Duncan ever truly advocating for teachers and authentic teaching, Perry's stance creates a dilemma.  Are they going to continue to support Obama in the next election, sit it out, giving Perry or anyone else a stronger shot at Obama, or simply go over to Perry and hope that he is not as strange on other issues as he now appears.

Being in the next state from that former republic to our South, I can say that if we buy Perry's education stance, we are not only buying that; but, all of what Perry is about.  We would do well to remember that his biggest supporters are also the biggest, loudest, and meanest critics of public education.  Those teachers who are politically involved might be tempted to support Perry out of our own deep pain about the state of things in education; but, we should carefully weigh the whole package of Perry before making that leap.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why I Won't Support Teachers who Test-Cheat

 I fully agree with those who argue that it is past time for the current testing culture to be sacked and an entirely new approach to mass, public education be developed.  That’s why I attended the Save-Our-Schools March in Washington, D.C. this summer.

But, that is at the policy level.  On a professional level, as a professional teacher, I am very clear that there are no excuses for test-cheating among teachers or administrators.  I will not voice any support for those who are caught.  And, if I find out about fellow teachers or administrators test-cheating, I will gladly and quickly blow the whistle with no second thoughts.  Why?

1.  Test-cheating is profoundly cynical. 

In general, test-cheats represent a deep cynicism about our profession by those who should be the most passionate about guarding it.  They cheapen the profession of teaching and confirm what hostile critics are saying about teachers as a group.  Our students, parents, and public deserve better.

2.  In turn, this cynicism makes life harder for students, parents, and especially those teachers who produce and guard honest test scores. 

Skewed scores mislead everyone in the process and don’t provide the feedback needed for anyone to improve for the next year.  In districts where the re-hiring of teachers is based on those false test scores, the honest teachers are punished due to apparently low scores while the test-cheats are rewarded.  Eventually, the very cynics who should not be in the classroom influencing our children are the only ones left.  Comforting, isn’t it?

3.  If a testing regimen is wrong, it is our professional and political responsibility to organize and resist.

Test-cheating in places like Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. revealed a particular immediate lack of individual moral will and long-term group political laziness that is inexcusable.   Yes, many of us find ourselves in life situations that sometimes make it very hard to stand up and say “no”.  Yet, many teachers across the nation who are in equally-as-hard personal situations stand up, are counted, and sometimes are fired for it when they could not afford to be fired.  And, are you really going to argue how hard it is to take political stands to those Wisconsin teachers who marched in sub-freezing temperatures this past winter and occupied their state capital?  Yea…I didn’t think so.

Those are the reasons why I won’t support test-cheating and those who perpetrate it, no matter who they are.


In case you have not been following the controversies this summer there are many good resources out there for learning about them:

Just yesterday, Valerie Straus had another good post on her Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, about the ramifications of test-cheating.

Larry Ferlazzo has the most comprehensive listing of the strongest articles on his blog.

For those of you who like to read “top-five”-type articles this one, by Melanie Smollin,  is an especially good briefing on recent test cheating scandals.

And for those of you who buy into the reformy spin going on out there and believe that Teach for America’s golden kiddies are the answer, yes, even three TFA grads have confessed to participating in the Atlanta PS test cheating scandal.

All of these resources are good and offer good insights into the glaring problems that are created by a wooden-headed testing culture that reformy types have created.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

SOSMarch Inspires and Motivates Teachers to Continue the Fight

Teachers from across the U.S. stood up for our own profession and professional selves yesterday in Washington, D.C.

The crowd was large and impressive, and the points that were made by the speakers motivated us and served to bring our issues to the forefront so that others might ask questions about the gobble-de-gook that is passing for education theory in public discourse today.

It was especially fun for me to see the Wisconsin teachers who I have been watching, admiring, and openly supporting from a very long distance this winter show up in force for this march.  There was a particular energy and certainty among these teachers that energized me and the whole rest of the crowd.  The energy seemed to come from practice that had yielded results.  The certainty was from having been forced to clarify their position and approach in the face of a sudden turn of political events in Wisconsin.  I also believe that their boldness and certainty came from the support that many of us have given them in our blogs and on Twitter.  The Twitter hashtags #wearewi and #wiunion were prevalent on Twitter during this last winter and even now.  I encourage you to continue or start using them.

That fight is also our fight.  The same forces that are doing so much to harm Wisconsin teachers are also pushing our own legislatures nation-wide to do the same things.

When the march itself formed up and began to move toward the White House, I found myself drifting in and among the Wisconsin teachers.  It was really fun to be with this group, so experienced, determined and passionate about our cause.

And, finally this from Matt Damon who makes a point about how the skills that he learned and values that he values the most can NOT be tested:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why I'm Going to the #SOSMarch in D.C

I've never gone anywhere out of my home state of Oklahoma to attend a demonstration or rally of any sort. But, this is different....

More than ever before there are strong forces with monetary and ideological motives who seriously want to kill not just some bad public schools; but, the concept of public schools and all that goes with it.

Of course we need reform. Been ready for that since my first year of teaching. This isn't about that.
I'm marching because public political action in mass is just about all we have left to channel passions for reform toward the benefit of our parents and students and away from a wealthy minority who only want to loot a system - a public asset - that took 100 years to build.

I'm marching because it is too easy for the less informed among us to believe the jingoistic crap that is being passed off as education thinking. If they see masses of teachers, administrators, and school board members marching on national TV and locally, too, at least they'll start asking questions and wondering just what the deal really is.

I knew for several years now that if I was patient, I could find a good use for those award miles. I found it. Got my hat and sunscreen out. Running shoes and shorts packed.

I'll see you there....

Friday, July 15, 2011

So, Teacher, you don't want to be "political"? That's No Longer An Option

I know, you are in the teaching life to teach, to instruct, to give to the next generation.  So am I.  But, I have come to some stark realizations lately:

Teachers Protest Budget Cuts & Union-busting
Legislation at the Oklahoma State Capitol
Photo by Brett Dickerson
1.  If you are a public school teacher, you are involved in politics right now, whether you acknowledge it or not.  Professional writers and pundits have been hired and paid handsomely to attack public school teachers and our representative organizations as their full time job.  And in case you missed it, they are attacking you, too.

2.  Even if you don't like the idea of being involved in some sort of job collective, like being active in your union, your critics will lump you together with all other teachers anyway.  Sorry, your critics won't let you out, no matter how much you want to be seen as that virginal, non-collective, not-dirty-with-politics, nice-smelling teacher.

3.  Critics will want you to forget that your democratically-elected union leaders at the local, and state levels have been, and in many cases still are in the classroom, teaching every day.  They will begin presumptive statements with phrases like "greedy union bosses" and hope that you forget that your "bosses" are still certified teachers, deeply committed to the profession.  For instance, the president of my local teaches AP English full-time with a huge grading load and is working on his Masters Degree while being a responsible husband and father.  Wow, what a "greedy union boss."

4. If your union falls apart, you will be on your own to negotiate a job or contract up against big-money interests who have teams of staff lawyers just waiting to overwhelm you if there is ever any legal action that you may bring.  Don't believe me?  Ask any number of professionals, including doctors and nurses who work for huge hospital corporations.  Remember, school administrations operate in collective ways, also, not just teachers.  And they won't stop even if all teachers unions go away.  It is in their best interest to act collectively.  Hmmmmm...Maybe it's in our best interests, too.

5.  If you have any concern for the poorest of your students, you will want them to have the consistency of a good education, right?  The original purpose of public schools was to create that kind of consistency.  Those who want to dismantle public schools today want only to "open up a new market" of private schools that will come into existence, fail, over and again. Isn't that what wide open, freewheeling business does today?  Sure it is.  And not much of anyone thinks anything of it.  Would we think something of it if a charter school collapsed and closed at odd times and their students had no place else to go for the rest of the year.  Oh, yea.  Who stands between "market" education and consistent public ed?  The teachers unions.  That's the whole purpose of the attacks.

The only way left for you to not be "political" is to stop being committed to public education.  So, welcome to "the collective", like it or not.  Your critics have made sure that you are locked in.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why Incentive Pay for Teachers is a Trojan Horse

The same people who have been promoting incentive and merit pay for teachers are also those who want cuts in taxes and government.  The two will never go together, and proponents of the incentive approach know it.

On June 24th, newly-elected Oklahoma State Supt. of Schools, Janet Barresi cast the tie-breaking vote that, among other things, ended one of the best National Board Certification incentive programs in the United States.

According to the Oklahoma Education Associations website "The NBCT program has made a significant impact in Oklahoma. Oklahoma ranks 9th in the nation for the percentage of NBCTs. As a result of this achievement, Oklahoma also ranks in the top ten nationwide for teacher quality and high standards, according to Education Week's Quality Counts report."

The same Republican-controlled Oklahoma State Legislature and Republican governor who can't seem to cut enough taxes, issues one press release after another that presumes that there just isn't enough money to go around.

So, the game is: Offer lower salaries in exchange for incentives.  Cut taxes and then say "we're broke, we have to cut".  First thing, cut teacher incentives.  Achieve the result of lowering teacher pay without any politician taking blame for doing so.

Our Republican State Superintendent agrees, and chooses to take away a nationally-recognized incentive program as one of her very first budgeting acts in office.

Tell me again who is in favor of merit pay and incentives?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. As More Than a Cardboard Cutout

For a history teacher, one of the easiest, yet most damning mistakes in teaching is to allow the history of the United States to become safe, sanitized, vanilla, and sloganized.  I have never met a history teacher who wants to be credited with such an offense to the discipline; but, it does happen even to the most vigilant.

First, there are the teaching objectives: usually the lowest common denominator from a long, arduous committee process at the state level.  Next is the earnest desire to not offend someone from among the broadest spectrum of cultures that teachers have ever faced in the same classroom in the history of American education.

The objectives can be dealt with easily after a few years of experience.  It's that second factor that slowly, like dripping water, wears away at the U.S. history teacher.  There comes a point where principals and teachers start to wonder about the worth of those battles with parents who just don't want some particular part of history to be taught.

That's the point when the history teacher can choose to keep actual people in history alive in the fullness of who they were rather than cardboard cutouts.

It is so much easier to play the end only of King's "I Have A Dream" speech and let students engage in a vacuous exercise such as writing a letter to him.  About what?  The inevitable questions surface:
"Who was that dude, again?"
"What was he dreamin' about?"
Other teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors will love it.  It's just what anyone who has not taught history imagines is good history teaching.  It plays well in meetings and the teachers' lounge over lunch.

But we know better.

Life, and so, history is untidy, uneven, often offensive to someone.  That's why this audio of King's "A Knock At Midnight" is so much more appropriate and powerful to remember and use.  It is confessional.  It shows King, the man who fears for the lives of his wife and children.  It reveals the fervent Christian who struggles with the call to faith and action.  It also reveals the sheer brutality, violence, and, yes, evil that he faced day-to-day in a place where the ruling class had one "Christian" personna in the day, and entirely another at night.

History in all of it's fullness is far more interesting and engaging to our students, but far more irritating to others who want to twist it to fit their own current agendas.

It is the history teacher's job to keep untwisting history. Our students will be truly inspired to live full lives of meaning if we do.  The cardboard cutout can stay in the closet.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Still A Student

My yoga teacher, Trinity Mays

My twenty-something yoga teacher is a great student of her students.  That's why she is such a good teacher.  She knows what is going on with this fifty-something guy in her class who sometimes has problems with contrary knees...and back...and...and.  What's important is that she studies, remembers, adjusts, yet always challenges her students to grow.  There is a very impressive organic approach that she takes to teaching.  In addition to the obvious benefits to my yoga practice under this teacher, I learn much about teaching from being her student.

That's what I want to do in my classroom:  I want to see my students for who they really are.  Right now.  Today.  Yea.  That kid with the green shirt on.  The one who just walked past me smelling like he just came in from fighting a forest fire.  Only there isn't one.  And his eyes are not red because he has an eye infection.

I want to connect with that kid.  And it won't happen without my becoming a student of him.  I am still a student in order to be a teacher.