What a Semester!

Semester One of 2020–2021 is either over or almost over. How are you feeling?

Back in September, I created a post asking when we would get used to this new normal. When I wrote it, I thought that surely, by December, our new routines would no longer be strange, and we would all feel better about this way of teaching and learning. At the time, I was teaching in a hybrid scenario. Today marks day 22 of fully-remote learning, round two. It still does not feel comfortable.

It’s Not All Bad

It is better in some ways. For example, I don’t have to deal with the dreaded robotic camera because I am not in school. That is a plus! Next time around, I would recommend making a better investment: Buy every student a printer, ink, and a couple of reams of paper. If students could print materials, they could take their eyes off the screen for a while, which would help many students who — like their teachers — are suffering from eye strain.

The iPad that comes with the dreaded robotic camera could be useful, but I felt odd taking it home without a protective case, so it stayed in school.

Another Plus: A Chance to Reinvent My Delivery

Instead of using that little iPad, I use my iPad Pro as a digital document camera. I can share my iPad to the Google Meet, and with an app called Good Notes, I can bring images and PDFs to the iPad and annotate them live. That has been very helpful. My son showed me how he was using his iPad to annotate the lecture notes his professors shared with him, and that was all I needed to give it a try.

I had forgotten how much the very acts of doodling, circling words and phrases, and annotating texts support my thinking process. Reflecting on my metacognitive strategies, I can say that this addition to my teaching toolbox is significant.

Writing Newsletters Again

When I was in the corporate space, training adults to use software, I wrote newsletters to the staff with announcements, words of encouragement, and “Did you know?” sections. It was quite enjoyable. Now, I write newsletters for students and families.

Included in the newsletters are sections that instruct students and families on how to use our LMS to check their grades, send messages, and monitor their calendars for assignments — among other things. The meeting codes for conferences have featured prominently, as well as the high school bell schedule. I also offer words of encouragement and emphasize communication.

Finally, I usually embed an Easter egg in the newsletter that links to a Google form. Lately, this form has included a quiz they can take to receive extra credit points based on their score. It’s like sending a gift each time I do it.

For me, the newsletters have helped with lesson and unit planning as well. It’s a chance to reflect on what has been and what’s to come. Yet another metacognitive moment! Nice.

Still Needed: New Ways to Communicate in Real-Time

Students at the secondary level had little experience being self-directed before we ended up here. Therefore, they may not know how to plan, and they may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves. Many give up due to being overwhelmed. Trying to reach them seems near impossible.

The other day, a student sent me a photo of her screen so I could “diagnose” an issue she had with a site we have to use for career exploration. I saw her unread email count: 191. Holy moly. Talk about being overwhelmed.

In the business world, whole seminars are devoted to controlling email. Although we aren’t in the business world, this is a crossover topic that we should consider spending time on (a newsletter topic!). How many emails are students receiving a day? With seven classes, possibly eight, there could be up to 10 emails a day.

How else do we communicate with them, though? If we teachers were to call each student every time we needed to share information with them, we would never get off the phone. Should we ask them to install another app like Remind on their phone? What about those students who do not have a phone?

Because my district is a 1:1 district, I’m back to email. (You know, this happens a lot: I write myself into a new topic. Yet again, I am reminded of my metacognitive processes. Hooray!)

Happy Holidays to You and Yours

I hope everyone has a joyful, marvelous holiday. I hope you have a chance to unwind, relax, and enjoy one another. Happy holidays.

Image Credit: Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

I Don’t Play the Game of School.

I recommend, respectfully, that you don’t either.

My classes are chock-full of competitive students. Some are competitive with academics, and some are competitive regarding sports or extracurricular activities. Either way, grades determine their future. I also have students who really want an education, and I will address them in this essay, too.

For some, good grades fulfill a short term goal. These students are motivated to perform well because they want to do what they love doing. Good grades allow them that opportunity.

“Will I be eligible to play this week?”

– Question from a student who wanted to play in the “big game.”

“Will I get into that college I want to attend? Will I get a scholarship to go there? How can I ‘beat’ the others?”

– Questions that dominate the competitive high-achiever’s mind.

For others, good grades help them to fulfill a longer-term goal. These students are motivated to maintain a 100 percent in a class. They take multiple weighted courses to gain a GPA advantage over everyone else.

The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation

Either way, the motivation is extrinsic, and that motivation tends to tower over any intrinsic motivation, casting its long shadow over any attempt to struggle with new information, make mistakes, and learn from them.

In my experience, extrinsic-motivation dominance leads to cheating. Students need a specific grade and are willing to go to great lengths to get it. That they have actually learned anything is irrelevant.

Extrinsic motivation’s dominance is evident in their work, as well. Some students are quite honest about it, which I respect. Still, the results of their efforts indicate there is one thing on their mind: Get the assignment done.

Yeah… that doesn’t work for me.

“What’s my grade if I don’t do that assignment that I haven’t done yet?”

– Question from a student who was asked about completing a missed assignment, followed by a shrug when I told her that she would still have a passing grade.

I show my students that it doesn’t work for me through their scores and responses to their (sometimes) infuriating questions. For example, I gave an assignment to a class to analyze a poem we had already probed thoroughly for meaning on one level. This time, I wanted them to identify and consider how the poet employed the literary devices in the poem as another way to interpret it. In other words, I was exposing them to interpretation from multiple entry points with several activities related to one poem.

A student dominated by extrinsic motivation asked me, “How many literary devices do we have to find?”

“Oh friend, you’re in AP® Lit. There’s no magical number! Find as many as you can. You’re not going to find this assignment on the Internet, either, by the way. You have to do this on your own, and you may struggle with it. If you don’t like that, perhaps you need to go into another class.”

– How I wanted to respond to this question. However, I took a deep breath.

“Find as many literary devices as you can. Demonstrate an understanding of the devices by finding them in this poem. We have already analyzed this poem for meaning thoroughly, so I want us to look at it in a different way, to try to glean even more meaning from it. There’s no magical number. This is AP® Lit; there’s no absolutely correct answer for anything.”

How I responded.

Again, I respect the honesty and appreciate the question, as I was given an opportunity to demonstrate why I teach. It’s still infuriating, but each time I try my best to show the students that I care more about their education than their GPA.

I live by a motto taught me by a sensei I used to train with: “The amateur practices until she gets it right. The professional practices until she can’t get it wrong.”

I have modified that motto over the years to apply to particular situations. For example, in this case, I am thinking, “The extrinsically-motivated student only works to the point in which the short-term goal is achieved. The intrinsically-motivated student recognizes how successfully completing one activity will help them achieve success with the next, thereby helping the student achieve their goal to become more educated.”

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

That student who demonstrates intrinsic motivation, or a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, is going to demonstrate a deeper understanding of what our collective goals are, also. They are also going to score just as well as the student who is churning out assignment after assignment and obviously gleaning nothing from it, even if their responses aren’t as polished as the student dominated by extrinsic motivation. They may even score higher! Why? Because I see the effort they are making. After a couple of weeks, I can tell which camp they are in.

“Hey, I actually like reading good literature, but I’m not that good at analyzing it. Still, I’m going to try, because I want to get as much from a text as I can.”

“I will do better over time because I understand that we are here to learn, not to be perfect all the time.”

– What I imagine intrinsically-motivated students are thinking.

The intrinsically-motivated, or balanced, student may make more “mistakes” but demonstrates a willingness to learn from them. This student understands an important purpose of education — namely, to improve oneself — and that mistakes are an opportunity to improve.

The extrinsically-motivated student understands how to play school. It’s a grade game, and they are playing it, even if they have to cheat. They aren’t learning much, I’m afraid. They are also in for a rude awakening when they get to college. It’s my mission to help them understand that.

You see, my classes are not only about literature; they are designed to teach life skills the students can adopt and take with them. I demonstrate what I value: hard work, developing routines, critical thinking, metacognition, and active listening. I model those behaviors for the students explicitly. At times, I tell stories to explain why I feel the way I do.

I’ve told my students about teachers who gave up on me. I struggle with math, you see. My fifth grade teacher actually told me it was a waste of her time to try helping me anymore. My geometry teacher told me the same thing. It was not until I was in trigonometry that I had a math teacher who did not give up on me. I earned a B+ in that class, and she wrote in my yearbook that I would make a great math teacher.

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, pointing to what she wrote. She explained to me that since I’ve experienced the struggle and come out the other side, I could help my students through to the other side too.

I struggled with chemistry as well. In that case, my teacher did not give up on me either. She and I ate lunch together for months until I understood what was going on in class. In the end, I earned an A+ in that class.

“I will never give up on you,” I’ve told my students. If that means not playing the game of school, so be it.

Building Community with Breakout Bell-Ringers

AKA – Breakout Bell-Ringers, Part II

Last week’s article was about a plan for a new type of bell-ringer assignment called “Breakout Bell-Ringers.” In that article, I detailed how I was going to implement the idea in one class. This week’s article reveals the result of the experiment.

Friday

Let’s start on Friday, because that was the day I asked the students if they wanted to continue using breakout bell-ringers or if they wanted to return to the other type of assignment. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that 90% of the students were interested in continuing the experiment. That meant I had a lot of work to do over the weekend developing the next slide deck! Wait until they see it. It combines vocabulary instruction with poetry.

Thursday

On Thursday, the students completed a self-assessment using a rubric for Harkness Discussions that I found on Katherine Cadwell’s site. This assessment was for survey purposes only, and I stressed with the students that they should be as honest with themselves as possible.

The responses were honest. Almost every student either acknowledged a need for improvement, or explained in detail why they thought they were successful. While reviewing the responses, something struck me. While many high-achieving students look for affirmation from their teacher, none of the students did in this assessment. They were focused on evaluating themselves. Even though I had supported this idea by saying, “The only way you will improve is to completely honest with yourself,” before the assessment opened, I did expect some kids to write something that sounded like they were seeking some encouragement from me. Instead, they promised themselves to do better the next time. That isn’t a testament to my teaching. That is a testament to their maturity.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, I noticed that the groups seemed to be in a rhythm already. Even before I opened the breakout rooms, students had the slide deck open and were collaborating. I didn’t open the breakout rooms until the second bell sounded so that everyone was in the main conference and could go into their breakout room simultaneously. By Wednesday, the students were taking full advantage of those few minutes reserved for travel time to complete their task for the day.

Note that this was only the second day of breakout bell-ringers, so I find that pretty impressive.

Tuesday

The first day was, of course, a little awkward. Some students did not know fellow group members, but leaders emerged in a couple of groups and took over coordinating the discussion. According to one response to the self-assessment, the group leader for this student’s group used prompting to help the other students contribute. It seemed natural, this student said. The leader came up with a topic sentence, a riff if you will, and then the rest of the group riffed off of that.

I like that word: riff. I know it is used in music a lot, but isn’t a conversation sort of like a series of jazz solos where each musician takes his or her turn, sharing brilliant notes with the world based on a central phrase that supports them all?

I noticed that the two groups were already forming well. During a debrief with the class after this first assignment, I made note of how these groups were forming. On Wednesday, the other groups attempted to work together similarly.

It Worked!

The students were successful. They had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other students. Hopefully, the sense of social isolation for some was lessened somewhat. Hopefully, we are becoming a team of teams.

We are building a community, one short assignment at a time.

I would love to read your comments or answer any questions you may have. Thank you for reading.

Breakout Bell-Ringers Part I

Featured Image Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

One strand of the ELA curriculum that gets neglected sometimes is “Speaking and Listening.” In the virtual learning/hybrid learning environment, students are – interestingly – hesitant to speak. They don’t want to turn on the microphone and contribute verbally, which astounds me. Since many of my students are active on Instagram and TikTok, so I expected them to want to speak instead of type or remain silent.

Bitmoji Image

I was wrong. I know, it’s shocking…NOT.

I suppose it’s because I am there, speaking and listening. Why? It’s regrettable that kids are somewhat scarred by the wrong-answer penalties levied against them most of their academic careers. The kids I know have learned you cannot take back a wrong answer. Once you provide a wrong answer, it spreads like a stain upon the fabric of the content. Each wrong answer blots out the truth and makes learning more difficult. Students feel they need to silence themselves, fade into the woodwork – or risk more failure.

Why does it bother me that students feel they must silence themselves? It’s simple. Communicating verbally is an important skill we must nurture and develop. Geographical dispersion currently hampers our need to socialize, to vocalize. Not being able to speak with others increases the sense of social isolation we are all feeling, so if we can socialize online using our voices, we may feel more connected.

Addressing the Students’ Needs

So what would happen if I put small groups into breakout rooms and encouraged them to discuss something? Would they continue to type all their responses or remain silent?

I plan to find out.

Hypothesis: For a day or two, some students may continue to be intimidated and reluctant to turn on their microphones, but others are going to speak right away and encourage the other students to participate verbally. The other students will join the conversation verbally, although they may need another day or two.

The Plan

Monday

This week, one class is going to transition from bell-ringers to breakout bell-ringers. Below is a screenshot slideshow of the slide deck I’m using to introduce the activity.

On Monday (oh boy, that’s TOMORROW), the students will view the introductory PDF, and I will answer questions. They will open the slide deck to verify that they can access it. On Tuesday, it’s game on!

Tuesday – Thursday

When students arrive, in-person on virtually, they will join the conference and go to their breakout room. Those in the physical classroom will collaborate with those at home to address the questions on their slide of the day. For the first deck, those questions focus on how students navigate their world.

We will spend the first 10 minutes of class on one slide per day, Tuesday – Thursday. The students can add the group’s thoughts into the speaker notes pane of the slide. Meanwhile, I can monitor progress easily because we will all be in the same slide deck.

Here is my first slide deck, with the students’ names removed.

On Thursday, the students to complete a self-assessment on their speaking and listening performance over the week. They will reflect on what they did well, what they could do better, and what it was like to work in a group.

What about Friday?

Friday is Novel Day. These students are reading, independently, a novel from a selection of novels written by Black, Latin-x, or Indigenous writers. Since they all learn from home on Friday, this is a chance for them to put their feet up and get away from the computer for 30 minutes. So far, it has been working well.

The Results

My next post will detail the results of this experiment. Specifically, I will let you know if:

  • The technology works.
  • Students felt more comfortable verbalizing their thoughts out of my hearing.
  • Students were able to generate good ideas in a short period.
  • Students enjoyed themselves.

Thank you for reading. Stay safe. Be well. Be good to you.

Thank You for Asking

Something nice has been happening that I reflected upon this week. Students online have been asking for permission to use the bathroom or to do something that might take them from their desk for a minute. This, combined with students increasingly asking me how my evening or weekend was before I inquire about theirs, warms my heart. I am grateful. It reinforces my notion that these students are aware of their roles in learning and that they are genuinely respectful and polite people.

I’ve been sure to say, “Thank you for asking,” each time students make these requests. I like to think of each class as a team, and such requests support that idea. Each student is a necessary member of our team, and through teamwork, we can help each other learn and master key skills and concepts they need now and for the rest of their lives. Their attendance is critical to their learning as individuals, too. If we don’t work as a team, we risk leaving a student – or students – behind. This year, it seems so much easier for students to be left behind.

Better Than Breadcrumbs: Collaboration

All our coursework is on our LMS and it is easy enough to follow the breadcrumbs and calendar to understand where we have been if one needs to catch up. We also spent two weeks working on tech skills – including how to use the LMS – while also doing coursework. Rather than having some students following those breadcrumbs, however, I believe in purposeful, thoughtful, and challenging collaborative activities that help all students to keep up with everyone on the team. We work better when we work together; all learning is social (eh, Vygotsky?).

This strategy supports students at home and in the physical classroom simultaneously. All coursework is online, which means that all my students have the same access to the material and instruction. The instructional bridge from the classroom to each online student’s home is the collaborative activity delivered synchronously or asynchronously. Each student has a role and can be held accountable. That’s not meant to be punitive; actually, people tend to want to feel purposeful when they are working. Accountability assigns a certain importance to a task, which suggests the performer of the task has a valuable purpose.

Collaborative activities also help mitigate feelings of social isolation that online students experience. As an online learner myself in the early 2000s, I can tell you that the loneliness can be unbearable. Even with the family around, interacting with classmates and the teacher was impossible, which is why I felt so lonely. I do not think I will ever forget that feeling. It still affects me today, on Fridays, when I am the only person in around in my hallway. All the teachers are home, as are the students.

To help my students (and, I admit, me) nowadays, I use polls, group annotation programs, breakout rooms, group slide decks, digital whiteboards, online discussions, quiz sites that allow for teams to compete, the microphone, and the webcam to demonstrate just how much I care about our little community, our little team. Yes, there are times when it must be quiet and students must work independently, but I try to bookend those tasks with community-building and team-building experiences.

Team-Building Tools We Use

Polls

Our conferencing system has a polling feature that is so easy to use. We have been fortunate enough to have an Internet connection in our class that hasn’t been too flaky lately. I ask the rest of the team in the physical classroom to join the web conference for two reasons: 1) it’s easier to help the students feel part of a team if they have an easy way to communicate and 2) I get to launch polls and get full participation.

Polls help conjure the feeling of a team, but they are also a good tool to check on student engagement. If students don’t respond to a poll, then I know something has happened. I still don’t know what happened, but I can tell the student isn’t participating and follow-up later. Most of the time, I can get the students back by announcing that I am waiting on [number] of students to respond. Sometimes, though, I have to send a message to the student to find out if all is well.

AP® Lit: Group Annotation

In AP® Lit, students learn how to annotate everything. I think students would annotate grocery lists if given the chance. Annotation is taught in the previous grades as well, but in this class, students learn how to do it as quickly as possible so that they can write complete essays in less than 40 minutes. It’s ridiculous, but it is what it is.

It is my opinion that students can learn how to annotate faster if they learn the skills together, studying and marking up the same document simultaneously. Each person will notice something the others won’t. They can debate the annotation’s veracity and usefulness to build their analytical muscles while also enjoying time together. This isn’t a time to compete, but to cooperate.

Breakout Rooms

I am not a breakout-room master by any stretch, so if you have suggestions for these monsters, please leave me a comment. I’ve used them, though, to facilitate discussions when there are multiple subtopics we are working on, like character and plot archetypes. Students report feeling different – positively or negatively – once they are in the room. Perhaps we need more practice. I know I do!

Online Discussions

Our LMS also has a sound online discussion feature. The students are learning and polishing their writing skills while also learning how to give collaborative, encouraging, and constructive feedback to their peers. These discussion assignments have helped our teams develop, and those who are reluctant to unmute themselves to talk in a conference demonstrate their understanding by writing paragraph after paragraph of their responses and replies to peers. I am truly impressed.

Group Slide Decks

Teachers benefit from using group slide decks, especially in Google Slides. With “grid view,” the teacher can watch the slides being edited in real time, so we can address misconceptions or encourage students to do more almost immediately. The kids are having fun, working together, and forming friendships. Additionally, they are really honing their skills with an important piece of software. What more could you ask for?

Quiz Sites

All I need to say about sites like Quizlet, Kahoot!, and Quizizz is this: Kids love them. If you want student engagement, launch a quiz for teams using this site. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Microphone and the Webcam

I saved these for last because they are so important. When I was a lonely, socially isolated online student, it was mostly because there were no synchronous activities. I read the material, completed discussion posts, wrote papers, and read feedback from the professor. Or, I worked with software to help you learn math, statistics, and project management. In other words, I was nothing more than a name to everyone else.

Then, one of my professors called me. His name is John Garot. He called because I emailed him to let him know I was struggling with a text, and he wanted to encourage me to continue reading it. There was a voice to go with the name on the LMS.

In another class, a professor could not take his own isolation, so he decided to hold “live lectures.” The school allowed him to do that, and I think you could hear the collective sigh of relief the first time we all logged in and heard his voice. We, as a team of teacher and students, were grateful for each other.

How do I know the professor needed that interaction as much as we did? Because after the professor asked us how we were, and we responded with something like, “Good, and you?” he said, “Good. Thanks for asking.”

Thank you for reading. Be well. Be safe. Be good to you.

Schools Are Not Businesses. Why Do We Treat Them Like They Are?

“We really have a great product,” I have heard superintendents say. “We have several offerings for the students,” others have said. What is this? A car lot? A factory?
assembly line by Marie Van den Broeck from the Noun Project

For all the talk about differentiation, personalized learning, SAMR (a model for integrating tech into the classroom), UDL (Universal Design for Learning), UbD (Understanding by Design), the LDC (Literacy Design Collaborative) and a whole host of other acronyms for education’s alphabet soup, we are still being urged to use standardized testing and pacing in our classrooms. Why are we still using the assembly line approach?

My First Guess: It’s Easier

It’s easier to use the one-size-fits-all approach, just like it’s easier and possibly more cost effective to push out nightgowns that are one-size-fits-all. No need to re-tool that sewing machine assembly line for different sizes, right?

It’s possibly construed to be more equitable, too, since everyone is tested on the same anchors and eligible content. But have people of all sizes photograph themselves in the nightgown and send the photos to you. Do you really see the same fit for people of all sizes? Or is it only that the fabric covers their bodies, that there is enough coverage?

Coverage and Pacing

We talk about coverage in education as well. “Here’s a textbook,” you are told. Get through Chapters 1-10 and you have covered all you’re expected to cover during a certain time period. Groan… be still my student-centered heart.

That coverage is king is exactly why many of us do not use textbooks. A second reason is that most printed textbooks are not worth the paper they are printed on after they roll off the presses (another assembly line). A third reason: Textbooks are the epitome of “one-size-fits-all” thinking.

Digital versions are better, to a degree. At least authors can update the books with new information, which flows freely thanks to technology. Still, they are standardized, no matter what teaching tips they include. Why? Well, the authors can’t possibly predict what group of kids you will have in front of you!

Pacing is the other problem. I was a long-term substitute in a school that used a reading program I will not name. The idea was that there were levels to the program that did not necessarily correspond to a student’s grade level. Students were placed into a reading class after the diagnostic results came through. That sounded promising.

Once they were in their “appropriate” reading class, however, they “learned” at the same pace as everyone else in their class. The truth is that some kids were still left behind. They did not learn at the same pace as their classmates. They were afraid to ask questions.

Teachers were afraid to take questions, too, because they had to be literally on the same page as their colleagues each day. The curriculum was scripted, too. Yes, you received a script with your curriculum. You were told what to write on the board. You were told what to say. You were told when to pull a Popsicle stick from your apron and call on a student. Yes, you were given an apron to store all your props.

Needless to say, being a long-term sub who had not been formally trained in the program, I pleaded ignorance and went off-script many times. Oops.

The company made a lot of money from this program. The teachers felt better about having a program to lean on, perhaps. Some kids did benefit from it. Some did not. During the “Race to the Top” years, it made sense these programs were flourishing. After all, schools had to prove they were trying to improve, to provide evidence of improvement.

That pesky evidence…

My Second Guess: Observation of Student Engagement Is Hard

The principal and assistant principal of my school are some of the hardest working educators I have ever had the privilege to work with. I could not do their jobs. They have become human octopuses too, especially mentally. There are so many focus points: student engagement, attendance, behavior, building security, building function, staff management, faculty management, compliance, and many others. I do not know how they make it through the many hours of the day they work.

It’s no wonder that observations and evaluations are so stressful and why districts and states strive to standardize the observation process. There is not enough time in the day to understand what is going on in a classroom, with a class of unique students, and still perform all the other duties of an administrator. When faced with many classrooms and many unique groups of students… well, you understand.

Therefore, evidence-gathering has been reduced to a few formal observations, some anecdotal observations, and those pesky test scores.

You know, those test scores don’t tell us a damn thing. For example, the student could have been ill that day, not slept well, been distracted by an argument with a loved one, or been fatigued in general. Perhaps the student didn’t understand the content, but was too afraid to ask a question. Alternatively, perhaps, the teacher needed to go in-depth on a concept or skill he or she knew the students were struggling with and could not “get to” that concept or skill the student is now being tested on.

We need new ways of observing and evaluating teachers. I’m not saying anything that millions of educators don’t already know. So why hasn’t it happened?

Money.

Full Circle: Schools Are Treated Like Businesses, and Then They Aren’t

Schools are not businesses, but they are treated like they are. Funding for schools is disparate, because local tax revenues vary district to district. In that way, districts are like businesses, but businesses are in competition and raise revenue at different rates due to their products and offerings. Districts should never talk about products and offerings. Why? Because they aren’t businesses!

There should be enough money to go around to support students’ education, sports programs, and social and emotional programs that will help them contribute to their communities and become the next generation of leaders. There isn’t.

I am amazed that extracurricular programs depend on ticket sales, bake sales, and many, many fundraisers. We could blame our weight gain over the winter on all the chocolate bars we buy (and consume, of course) to support winter sports!

Has anyone considered the fact that we are asking students to go back to the same folks who do not pay much in taxes because they don’t have the same incomes and property values as folks in another district? What a burden we are putting on parents and community members already struggling to stay afloat! Why do we have to do that?

Well, that’s because the distribution of funds for education is unequal and unfair.

One of the few policies of the previous U.S. administration that I disagreed with was “Race to the Top.” It put the schools in competition with one another. It was stupid. Instead of doing that, why not make educational funding equal?

Sure, sure – the federal and state governments are not supposed to dictate the policies and procedures of local districts. Come on, people. It’s not working. We are less competitive than other educational systems in other countries all the time. It needs to stop.

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a character on The West Wing (my favorite TV show), summed up how education should be in this country a long time ago. I leave you with this quote graphic, which I found via an article written by Jeffrey Dunn on Medium in 2015.

As always, thank you for reading.

To Be or Not to Be Part of the Solution? There Is Only One Answer to That Question.

If asked to be, the answer is ”Yes.” If not asked, that is still the answer.

Isn’t it weird how Shakespeare still entwines himself into our collective consciousness through lines such as those from Hamlet? After being dead for centuries, William Shakespeare still has such a profound influence on us. We are still able to take almost any play he wrote, update clothing and props for the times in which it is performed, and make an impact. It is profound for two reasons. The first, because it demonstrates the lasting power of his arrangement of the alphabet. Second, it shows how little has really changed in the human psyche, and how much we are more alike than we are different, among nations and across time.

This year, it is difficult to find precedents for most things until we start digging a little.

We rely now on historians, with their treasure trove of information, to lead the way. We rely on authors and teachers of literature to help us make sense of things, too, as they scour works to find the right quote, plot line, character, or other element to ground this situation in the “human condition.”

Politicians with a sense of decency and who serve the public are relying on millennia of rhetoric and logic to help them navigate this narrative that seems to spin out of control, sometimes on an hourly basis.

Science relies on the past to inform the present. What worked before? Will the same process work now? What do we have in our arsenal of remedies that might help us heal others? Where is our foundation?

One historian who influenced me greatly in college was Sister Patrice Fehrer of Holy Family University (then Holy Family College). One day, as I was speaking with her, she said to me, “Heather, all of us are absolutely necessary, although none of us is indispensable.”

I have gone to that line hundreds of times since 1992 or 93. Most of the time, it comes to mind when someone declares they are the current Messiah, whether they say that, or use another term.

It speaks to our interdependence. Each human needs the others. We cannot survive unless we all work together. Since we are all fallible, each of us brings to the situation a gift someone else doesn’t have.

Together, we become part of the solution. If we try to go it alone, we often become part of the problem. If we dismiss the good advice of others, we become part of the problem. If we refuse to hear others, we become part of the problem. That is how we end up on what has been called, “the wrong side of history.”

If we want to be part of the solution, we must – to paraphrase the great Maya Angelou – believe people when they reveal their character to us, embrace those who are ethical and humane, and reject those who are not. We must also recognize our interdependence and trust the trustworthy.

We need to stop giving oxygen to the words of those who consistently think they know better than anyone else and who do not act for the good of the rest of us. If someone reveals to you, time and again, that they are narcissistic, I say you need to run. One who is confident and knows his or her capabilities will help the rest of us. One who believes that only they can fix “it” should be avoided. Cult leaders should be avoided at all cost; cult leaders never serve their people, only themselves. History tells us so. Dictators gain followers by presenting their intentions falsely. Once their followers believe him or her and relinquish their power, that person can do almost anything and get away with it. We cannot let that happen.

As teachers, we need to lead the charge to lasting, sustainable change. We need to continue questioning everything and teach our kids to do the same. Look at the history of the world. Prove me wrong.

If This Is the “New Normal,” When Does It Begin to Feel Normal?

They promised we would “get used to it,” but we haven’t yet, and it’s so exhausting.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

“Resistance is futile,” Picard warned us about the Borg, and right now I feel like I’m starting to become part of the Borg Collective… or perhaps a human octopus. I haven’t decided. My laptop, which is supposed to be portable, DOES look like an octopus, and its 8 GB of RAM is maxed out on a regular basis. Close all your applications, I’m told. Really? How am I supposed to teach that way? How can I leave the computer to help someone in class AND see if the kids are chatting questions? I can’t take the thing with me. Remember, it’s now an octopus, with cables coming from every available orifice. How may times should I join the conference so I can manage two things at once with this device and that device and the other device? Oh, and if I ask all the kids to sign onto the conference, my Wi-Fi connection screeches to a halt. So there’s that, too.

What I’m Hearing from Other Teachers, and in My Own Head

Classroom Management

We manage the students joining remotely and manage those who are in the classroom with us by keeping them both as busy as possible while we figuratively split ourselves in three to also manage the logistics of this new normal. Take attendance, let people in the room, remind them all to complete their bell-ringers. Take attendance, let people in the room, remind them all to complete their bell-ringers. (I repeated the sentence on purpose. Most of the time, we have to repeat ourselves and the process.)

Teaching in Two Places at Once

We are on camera and have to remember, too, that we should look like we’re getting cues from a tele-prompter. Don’t forget to look at the kids in the room. Whoops, don’t forget to look at the camera. Okay, back to the kids in the room. Wait, have you looked at the camera lately?

We have to share our screen and ask repeatedly if everyone is seeing what we think we are projecting because the connection freezes. Our camera freezes, too, or completely fails (“Webcam has been disconnected,” or “Screenshare has been disconnected,” the conferencing software tells us.). Then, precious time is wasted reconnecting.

Not Enough Time

We used to have 45 minutes for a class period. Now, it is officially 41. In reality, it’s more like 35. Don’t overload the kids, we are told, so we try to avoid giving homework. So many kids in sports (why are there sports right now?), with multiple games a week, getting home at 10:00 PM. Don’t overload the kids, but make sure you are staying on pace. Oh, and don’t forget to prepare them for the statewide assessments they missed last year! Those are coming soon!

Make sure your lessons are posted by Sunday, but also adjust on the fly and hope the kids remember after you tell them and post to the conference whiteboard that things have changed. Never mind they should check their calendars, which you are training them to do by saying the same thing over and over: Check your calendar daily.

Let’s add something new to your routine this week, we are told during a faculty meeting. Crickets from the audience for a moment and then a chorus of legitimate complaints from the brave few who want to defend the rest of us. Come on, folks… there is enough going on. Hire some hall monitors and be done with it. We cannot manage all this alone.

Oh, you don’t have the money in the budget? Why didn’t you think of that before you bought all this technology that no one is going to use the way it was intended? Remember: People matter first. We can’t have a lapel mic on, our laptops tethered to a camera, an iPad projecting to the Apple TV, and actually help kids in the room without broadcasting what’s happening to everyone. Our ability to teach has been hampered by the notion that this tech will help us teach during this weird, unsettling time.

Student Engagement

The carefully laid plans to build community, do tech training, and run diagnostics? Yes, that happened. However, it feels like it was so long ago that even I vaguely remember doing it. It’s frustrating — there is this feeling chewing the inside lining of my stomach, telling me that I should forget everything I’m trying to teach them and spoon-feed. This will not work, though, if the kids are not held accountable! We have to be a team! They have to do something.

MOST of the kids have been impressive. I should say that before people think I am complaining about the students. They have been patient, cooperative, and kind. Some have started to check out, though. How do I get them back? How do I reach them when I can’t see them in person?

Although We Are Doing Everything We Can, We Are Still Considered “The Problem.”

I heard this weekend we teachers are still being blamed for this nightmare. I have something to say to that, but I won’t. What I will say is we still need your grace, your patience, and your help.

Thank you for reading.

This Is What Happens When an English Teacher Has Writer’s Block

It’s not pretty.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The key to having your voice “heard” is to use it often, but this week’s post topic eludes me. Perhaps it’s fatigue. Maybe it’s this feeling that I’ve already said too much.

Still, I yearn to be part of the conversation. I want to talk about the purpose and goals of education — what they really are and what they should be. I want to scream from the rooftop that ideas such as “patriotic education” are stupid. I want to counter the argument about “patriotic education” with the idea that our history curricula are watered-down versions of the truth (and sometimes lies). We need a civics curriculum, too, but not in the way certain demagogues are imagining it.

“The factory model of education does not work!” I would scream if I could. It will not help students become 21st-century citizens! Grade levels and tracks may have worked last century, but really they didn’t. Which students really felt like they were learning much that was useful in grades K-12, in core classes? Which students felt that teachers were letting them peek behind the curtain to learn WHY something was being taught? Which students honestly felt the teachers were teaching something not only because it needed to be “covered,” but because it had value?

I must admit I was in awe of more than a few of my high school teachers. That said, only three stood out as those who added value to the content by teaching skills we could use the rest of our lives. Those teachers showed us we were capable, helped us learn to think critically, and taught us how to take notes, among many other things.

Pink Floyd performed the song “We Don’t Need No Education,” and it became an anthem. If the education system was working, would that have been the case?

Oh, sure, kids are always going to be cynical about education, you might say. But why is that, actually? We are brought into the world naturally curious and eager to learn. We go into preschool and kindergarten excited about school and all the wonderful things we will learn. And then, it seems, the curiosity, the eagerness, is sucked out of us as if it were pus. By the time kids get to my classroom, years of drainage have passed. Over the summer, each summer, they rediscover curiosity and wonder. It fills their system, and they smile as they rediscover the world. They are happy to be in school for about two days, and then the cynicism kicks in again.

They all want to ask, “Why are we learning this?” but don’t dare to ask it aloud.

I want them to ask! I’m so eager for them to ask that I tell them upfront, and I tell them I have a method to my madness. If they weren’t so tired, I think they might laugh at that.

Why is it that I feel guilty right now for assigning a novel-study portfolio that provided students a healthy list to choose from? Is it because I’m assigning them schoolwork? It’s not supposed to be just “work.” We study literature to better understand the human condition and our place within the world. Great literature is supposed to help us think, dream, and realize. It’s not busywork. It’s not a packet of worksheets. It’s inquiry-based, exploratory… it’s personal. And yet, I still feel like I am imposing.

If education really worked the way it’s supposed to, kids would be eating up the idea of diving into a novel written by an author who won the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Instead, I feel like I’m pulling their teeth.

And don’t get me started about how sports schedules are eating up students’ time outrageously. Why we even have sports happening right now is beyond me!

Ok, rant over.

I have questions.

  1. What have we learned from this experience of virtual or hybrid teaching and learning that we can use if things return to “normal”?
  2. Will we use technology to redefine and redesign educational activities? In other words, are we looking at the SAMR model to transform teaching and learning?
  3. How will we emphasize acquiring 21st-century skills, appreciating diversity, celebrating differences, acknowledging that we are all part of the human family, facing our history and ourselves, and helping each other cut through all the noise?
  4. Can we finally stop death-by-testing? Have the powers-that-be noticed that testing is uber-stressful and a waste of precious class time?
  5. Can we finally adopt more authentic forms of learning and assessment? Wouldn’t it be better if students created more, and we created less?
  6. Do education leaders recognize that ownership of learning is more valuable than playing the GPA game?
  7. Have the education leaders realized that teachers are ready to lose their minds? Are they prepared to review all the plans around the country and call out those that are insane? There are many.

Thank You!

Someday, I will end my blog posts better. For now, please accept my thanks for reading this post. It did help me to overcome my writer’s block.