Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #5 Language Is Power

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

Language is power. It is, many times, just as powerful, even more powerful, than the barrel of a gun, because it is language that determines where the barrel of the gun will be aimed.

This is certainly not the only age, maybe not even the worst age, to demonstrate how the power of language can shape arguments, protect the guilty, rain down abuse on the innocent. But the US would certainly be in a different place today if more citizens had well-honed bullshit detectors.

There are always different ways to say things; every statement, observation, sentence, part of a sentence represents a set of choices and, intentionally or not, those choices tell us something about the person who strung those words together. But we have to be good enough at language to see what the person is showing us. And there is only one way to get better at that, and that is to read read read read read.

Ditto for writing. Every time we start stringing words together, we make choices, either deliberate and mindful, or spinning out of habit and instinct. If we want to get a point across, we need to assemble the tools that will do it. I knew a guy back in the day who could perform all manner of juggling and tossing and balancing with a tennis racket, because he was a tennis player and he worked with that racket every single day, knew it so well that it was like an extension of his hand. It was his tool.

Tools are the big thing. My students generally had one of two main problems with writing-- one was not having really thought about what they wanted to say (most writing problems are really thinking problems) , but the other was just not having the language they needed, of only having a word handy that was close, almost, sort of the word they needed.

We know this; it's why most language teachers teach vocabulary, even if we mostly teach it badly. We know that students needs larger vocabularies, but you don't get there with "here's a list to memorize for a test Friday." You build your vocabulary by reading and by-- well, no, it's pretty much by reading. Having someone around who uses the words is a distant second. It's reading. I have never known a good writer who was not also a reader.

Language is power. It lets you shape how people see an issue, think about a situation, even remember events. It lets you shape how they interpret the world. It lets you shape how they see you.

To use it for all these purposes, you have to know it, how it feels, how it works, how it fits, how it gives names to things that people couldn't name before. You get that by reading. You get that by consuming language every day so that you can feel it.

Having this kind of knowledge and control of language means that others have less power over you with their use of language. You can see behind the curtain, unwrap the meanings that they are trying to twist and camouflage. You can spot bullshit when someone throws it at you; maybe you can even see through clearly enough to spot the weaknesses, the fault lines, the vulnerabilities, and then you can exercise some power of your own.

Language is power, and you get better at using it by reading it, day after day, especially the good stuff, and seeing how it's done.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Career And Technical Education Deserves A Resurgence. Let’s Not Mess-- Oh, Hell

Amidst all his slashing of the education budget, Donald Trump has proposed an enormous spending increase for one area—career and technical education. 
The Trump budget includes an increase of $900 million in spending on CTE. Of that, $680 million would be directed through the Carl D. Perkins program, the main conduit for moving federal money into high school and post-high school CTE programs, the kinds of programs that produce workers to fill the skilled labor jobs that keep a country functioning. The program is long overdue for a boost; the last twenty years of education reform have emphasized college preparedness over blue-collar work. This may be the rare Trumpian budget item that survives Congress.
CTE has been allowed to languish in some school systems, but the district in which I taught is part of a consortium that has run a seven-district vocational-technical school (the old-fashioned name for CTE) for decades. It has been a vibrant and valuable part of the education system, an important choice within the system that has served many of students well. I taught those students for most of my career; I cannot overstate the value of a good CTE program.
But as with all educational ideas, it is possible to do CTE badly. And, it turns out, one can even disrupt it entirely. Since this originally ran at Forbes.com, most schooling in the country has shut down. There has been a huge amount of discussion of whether or not the wave of forced distance learning can properly serve students with special needs-- but what about CTE students? How is a student supposed to gain competencies in welding or building trades over the internet? I'm afraid that many young people are seeing a critical part of their education coming to a complete, grinding halt.
So when things get back in gear again, here are some of the basic mistakes to avoid.
CTE as warehousing. In some districts, CTE has a bad history of being a dumping ground, a place to stick students who are a problem elsewhere within the system. CTE cannot be a default for students that stymie adults; imagine saying, “Well, I don’t know what to do with him, so let’s just send him to college.” CTE programs are not the place to hide your school’s challenging students. 
Cheating students out of the rest of their education. There is no reason to conclude that since Chris is going to be a welder, beautician, or home health care provider, Chris does not need to spend time learning to read or write or do math or learn history or study science or play in the band. A CTE student’s needs may be different (a welder may not need to know how to write a full MLA paper of literary analysis), but that student should have access to the full range of educational enrichment.
Becoming a business’s training center. A good CTE program taps into the local business community for everything from materials to instruction and work-study programs. A good CTE program also keeps an eye on where the needs are in the working world. Partnership with local business is essential, but that partnership needs to be balanced, and not simply focused on the needs of the business. Training should be applicable across the industry, and not just for a single employer. An employer may think it’s great to have the school crank out fifty workers for ten jobs, so that the business gets a good selection to choose from, but the school is responsible for all fifty of those students, not just the top ten.
Datafication. Cite Goodhart’s Law or Campbell’s Law or the mountain of words thrown up over high stakes testing—once you start trying to reduce everything in education to mass-manageable data, you stop asking “Is this important?” and start asking “Is this easy to measure?” Before you know it, the whole system is being aimed to shoot carefully at the wrong target. Most industries have good, solid measures in place. Welding certification is great. The fact that you can’t compare a welding student in Iowa with a heavy equipment operation student in Ohio does not mean that new layers of datafication are needed. 
A solid CTE program has provided many of my former students with rich and rewarding lives, as well as providing their communities with the invaluable benefits of their expertise. The US needs these programs, but it also needs them to be done well.

Please Hold Your Applause

Yeah, you. The one posting the memes about heroic grocery store workers and medical personnel. The one posting all the heartwarming stories about our collective outpourings of love and appreciation for the people doing the hard work right now, out in the world where viruses can find them. The one sharing articles about how we should all help keep these front line workers healthy. The one sharing posts about the cool ways teachers are filling in the education gaps and the heroic blue collar workers making sorely-needed stuff. You even put up some of those cartoons comparing them to superheroes.

Just hold on for a second.

It's not that these aren't great sentiments. It's not that the front line workers don't deserve a giant truckload of your personal "Hey thanks for fixing it so I was less likely to die" gratitude. It's not that we shouldn't all say, "Thank you for your service." It's not that there is something wonderful about the literal parades of thankful citizens. Because they deserve every bit of that.

But weren't you the one, not a few months ago, complaining about the foolishness of raising the minimum wage to $15/hour? Weren't you the one arguing how Those People want to just steal from the hard-working well-deserving rich folks who have by God earned their money doing Really Important Things? When a nurse near you was complaining about being overworked and underpaid in Ordinary Times, did I not see you shrug and mutter something about what "goes with the job"? Aren't you the person who routinely argues that if people don't want to live with poverty wages and no health insurance, they should have gotten more education so they could land better jobs? Or maybe you were the one who was quietly ignoring all of these issues, figuring they were somebody else's problem.

Okay, maybe that was then and this is now. Maybe you've seen the error of your ways. Maybe you know better now.

But still. Just hold on.

It's not that you shouldn't be appreciative now. You should. But given your past performance, it rings a little hollow. So while this is still going on, be grateful, be appreciative, and for heaven's sake, try, as much as possible, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

But hold that applause. Hold onto those warm thoughts.

Hold onto them for a few months. Hold onto them until this mess has passed.

And then, if you're really still feeling this vibe, this "hooray for health care and blue collar workers who keep our country function ing and its people alive they really are te backbone of our nation" vibe, here are some things you can do.

When the subject of a minimum living wage in this country comes up, as it will, be a vocal supporter of a minimum wage raise. Hound your elected representative. Speak out. When CEOs whine that it's just not fiscally possible, remind them that when the economy slowed to a crawl, the people who kept the basic actions, the basic "take the customer's money" lifeblood of business flowing-- those were not the multimillionaires in the C-suites, but the front line workers. Do not accept the claim that the jobs are unimportant; we are living through the proof that this is not so.

And pay attention to the issues of pay. Things like the crappy rules that let restaurant owners pay workers less than three dollars an hour--even when they aren't serving customers, or the rules that let bosses give someone a fake "promotion" to a salaried position, so that the worker puts in way more hours for virtually no more pay. Things like the many tricks for committing wage theft. Does it all seem kind of obscure and wonky? Go study up.

Become a vocal supporter of affordable health care for all. I'm not going to be picky; you can go help picket the local MegaMart to push them to provide insurance for every single worker, or you can start hounding your elected representative for Medicare for All or some form of single payer health care.

And,  at a minimum, paid sick days.

Treat people who do these kinds of work with respect, every single day for the rest of your life. Treat them like human beings who are just as important as you are, and not like The Help.

Vote like it matters. Stop voting for people who think only rich folks matter.

When you hear bout them having to work in crappy conditions, like teaching in schools that are falling apart or working hospitals that are crumbling or being systematically mistreated and ripped off by their bosses, make a fuss. None of your business? Baloney-- as of the moment you decided these folks are heroes, it became your business.

Look, do you think these people are heroes? Well, heroes deserve to make enough money to live on. They deserve to have good, affordable health care so that illness or accident do not result in financial ruin. Heroes working heroically in heroic jobs deserve not to have to listen to a bunch of baloney about how their jobs aren't "good" jobs, especially when the reason they aren't good jobs is because the rest of us stood by and let the powers that be turn them into crappy jobs.

If you think these folks are heroes now, then please by God hold that thought until things get back to normalish, and demand that they be treated like heroes then. And don't accept bullshit about how we can't afford to treat them better-- in this century alone, we have somehow found trillions of dollars to "rescue" all sorts of folks and corporations. What we're discovering right now is that we can't afford for these people to not be on the front lines for us as a country.

(P.S. For all of you posting about how great it is that it's the music and performance and the arts that are getting us through-- you can back that up by making sure that the artists that are getting you through are getting paid.)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

ICYMI: What Day Is This Edition (3/29)

I feel like retirement gave me a head start, but yes-- after a while, the days kind of blend together. Still, we have some reading from the week. Remember, share safely.

The Biggest Obstacle To Moving America's Public Schools Online

Susan Adams, my editor at Forbes, takes a look at some of the problems with just tossing school onto the interwebz.

Baghian and Vallas candidates for LA state ed chief job

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider shows us once again that there is no failure that some of these reformsters can't walk away from, their reputations and careers intact and rising. Why the hell would anyone hire Paul Vallas? It's a mystery.

Misreading the main idea about reading

God bless Paul Thomas for repeatedly wading back into the current iteration of the reading wars, and thank heavens he's willing to add his expertise to the conversation.

What do we need to teach now?

A reminder from Deborah Cohan at Inside Higher Ed that we shouldn't get so distracted by the challenging how of the current situation that we lose sight of the what.

Where left and right agree on civics education.

From Education Next, a fairly well-balanced look at where the left and the right do and don't disagree when it comes to civics education.

Physical distance, social collective mourning

A personal dispatch from the JLV in NYC, where pandemic death has already hit the education community in the gut.

Online education is not winning over college students

One of the seventy-gabillion notes this week that some folks do not love the computer fed education life. From Hechinger Report.

Online Privacy Concerns

From EdWeek, a compendium of the many privacy concerns being raised as everyone rushes hook students to screens.

How about a national teacher plan?

Nancy Flanagan and friends with some important thoughts about this crisis-forged moment of opportunity. If we could rebuild from scratch, what would we build...?

Real learning in a virtual classroom is difficult 

Chris Lee, writing for Ars Technica, opens with a quote from his wife, a high school English teacher: "Remote teaching sucks. It's yucky, and it's not the future of education." He ends with a quote from one of his kidfs-- "I fucking hate it." In between some pretty thoughtful stuff about why this is not the future.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #4 Books Versus Video

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

You may have read the first three installments and thought (or imagined your students thinking) "Heck, I can get all that by watching tv or videos." Here's why I disagree.

For non-fiction, video can be useful. An afternoon of Crash Course on YouTube is pretty educational. I will even credit the medium with making the speaker's voice plain, so that bias is readily visible and identifiable. But video, because it's way more linear than text (you are compelled to watch the frames in a particular order) and because it demands steady and constant focus, is severely limited. There's a reason TED talks are short, that educational videos are super-brief. You can only watch for so long. That in turn limits the depth that can be covered. To turn a great work like Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography into a visual medium resulted in a stage show that takes a few hours to watch and still cuts corners from Chernow's original work.

Video is simply too limited to do any heavy lifting in the non-fiction world. Factoids, juicy tidbits, isolated items-- sure. But no more. There will always be more there there on the printed page than in any other medium.

With fiction, those advantages of print are even greater.

Movies and television have become more sophisticated over the years, but tv in particular features an awful lot of bad acting. Our students absorb a lot of that, a lot of "Oh, so that's how a person looks when they're shocked" or "That's how a person acts when they're sad." TV gives us lots of character shorthand in which actors boldly and unsubtly mug their character's feelings for the camera. It's quick and clear and lets the production zip through a story swiftly, but does it show students much about how real, live human beings function? It's a complex issue in some ways, because we've now had several generations growing up thinking that, say, the hyper-dramatic bloviations of professional wrestling are real life, and have used tv acting as a guide, a long and messy process that arguably helped bring us to the point of putting a shallow, lying reality tv star in the White House.

I know that I'm being a bit of a snob, and that humans and human drama are better portrayed on screens today than in the past (certainly better than the hacky tv of my own youth). And a visual medium can do things with imagery and non-verbal portraits that the printed word cannot. I would not for a million dollars bar students from learning via video.


A performance of a work is built around a single interpretation. Where a work on the page may be open to interpretation and arguments about what is going on, what it means, all such arguments have to be settled before the cameras can roll. The video version requires actors and directors to settle on an interpretation of the character, to identify a particular idea as the theme. There is little room on the screen for what my old college professor called "the ambiguity that enriches." Video can't help but lean toward the notion that there is only One True Reading of the text. Reading literature invites us to a relationship with the text, a relationship that can grow and change over the years. A video is a lecture, a demonstration of one specific chosen path.

For my money, literature in this respect far more closely resembles actual life in the world.

There are the limits of space and time, the hyperlinear quality of video that leaves us little chance to re-examine or drill into a particular passage, because it's always moving forward at its own speed. There's little room to dig in or break down what we're seeing, while the written word allows us to move at our pace, to double back, dig in, pause and reflect.

Videos, movie, tv, new hybrid steaming forms of screen stuff-- it's all valuable, and it all has stuff tom offer. But it's still less than literature.

Decades ago, pundits predicted that screens would replace books, that students would get all of their education from video tape and movies. More recently, people bet on Youtube as the nation's educator.  But it didn't happen. None of it happened. Because literature, the printed word, still contains more depth-- more accessible depth-- than anything else we've come up with, with the possible exception of conversation with real live humans.

So, no. As I work my way through this series of posts, I don't think we can just as easily replace books with screens.

When Tech Makes Educational Decisions

"The internet is a bad place. Young people really shouldn't use it at all."

The speaker was not some cranky parent or enraged luddite. It was the guy in charge of maintaining the network in my high school. In other words, the guy responsible for making sure it was possible for our students to access the internet. This was many years ago, but it slapped me upside the head with the realization that thanks to technology, a lot of educational choices were being made by folks who were not actually educators.

Okay, maybe we shouldn't have let him drive...
Plenty of teachers remember the worst of the early days of school internet connections. Inadequate infrastructure and bandwidth because nobody in IT actually asked teachers what they thought they would do with the internet once it was hooked up. Clunky hardware running crappy software that had been purchased without talking to any classroom teachers. And when teachers were consulted, it largely took the form of, "This is what we're going to do unless you convince us it's a terrible idea in the next day or two." (Note that this approach does not allow for the possibility that it's a mediocre idea and that many better ones exist.)

Oh, and internet access. Schools and their IT departments were afraid of the dark corners that students would wander into, and the various tech grants required filtering. So in many locations, the default was that pretty much everything on the internet was blocked unless someone in IT decided that there was a good reason for teachers to have access to a particular site. Teachers may have been given access to a form that would allow them to make their case.

Conditions improved, but the tension between teachers and techs is probably destined to be eternal. In my school, teachers initiated adoption of Moodle as a learning platform, but after a few years the tech department determined that it was too expensive and troublesome to maintain, so we switched to something that came bundled with the security service.

The tide can be tuned in positive directions, including opening up the internet much further to staff use. And in fairness, classroom teachers can drive IT folks up the wall, too (we could talk about my colleague who couldn't figure out why her computer was slowing down after she filled her entire hard drive with cross-stitch patterns, or the time I set off an alert by accidentally turning up a bunch of search returns loaded with obscene images). The solution is often more surveillance (in house, not the usual corporate data mining that comes with every software product, which is its own area of concern, though it can also be a chance for students to learn two important digital safety rules-- nothing you do on line is private, and nothing you "erase" is ever gone. At any rate, IT folks have legitimate concerns and priorities-- they just don't always match up with educational ones.

Every school district should have a system in place for the tech folks to get feedback and direction from the teaching staff, and no, some sort of form that allows teachers to humbly request favors from the tech department doesn't count.

I have been thinking about all of this as the current coronavirus pandemic shuts down schools and millions of students are thrown onto on-line schooling. How many learning platforms, software packages, content sets, and other techy details of education are, at this moment, being chosen and controlled by non-educators? How many teachers are finding that their hands are tied by the folks who run their school's IT department?

This is, of course, the smaller local version of the national argument that has been raging since education reform was a tiny glint in Bill Gates' eye. Silicon Valley has a real problem with knowing what they don't know. Witness this tweet from this morning:

please, tech people. PLEASE. if you dont have a background working in healthcare/medicine, stop the hackathons and just give money.

the potential to do harm is too high, and designing for medicine is a thing. health communication/tooling is a specialty, not a weekend project.

Ed tech is one of those areas where I wish teachers were less shy about asserting their expertise, more willing to say, "I'm the professional expert here, and you need to listen to what I have to tell you about this program, or there's no point in our talking." I really hope that as schools migrate on line for the next few days/weeks/months, teachers speak up and say things like "I need the program to do X; please, make that happen for me" instead of "Well, okay, this isn't really what I want or need, but I guess I'll find a way to work with it." It's a great thing that US teachers are adaptable and accommodating--that's how we've managed to get the work done over the years. But we have often been too accommodating to amateurs who want to sit in the driver's seat when they've never driven before.

Education decisions should be made by the education professionals, not the tech department. With rare exception, they don't have the training or experience for it, and their main concerns are not education concerns. They have no more business deciding what tools teachers should have for teaching than teachers have telling them how to run a 150-unit computer network smoothly. Teachers, insist on speaking up.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Business and Humanity (When People Tell You Who They Are)

It has been a central conflict in education for decades now. Should education be organized around the needs of the business world, guided by the invisible hand in service to The Economy.

We've heard it over and over again. Business is the customer for the product created by schools, so schools should be organized around cranking out the kinds of meat widgets that corporations want. And while we're at it, schools should be run more like a business, steered by visionary CEOs who don't have to answer to unions and government regulations. Data. Efficiency. Outputs. All of these things matter far more than all that fuzzy talk about whole children and, you know, education. We've been listening to it since A Nation at Risk cranked up the clarion call that the state of schooling was scary, not threatening our citizens' happiness or wisdom or humanity, but threatening our economy, our ability to compete globally. Our invisible hand is in danger of losing an arm wrestling match with their invisible hand.

We've known all along, some of us, that this is fundamentally wrong, not just anti-education, but anti-human (I've got literally several thousand posts on this blog about it).

And now we have arrived at the starkest expression of this business-over-humans attitude yet. Trump wants people to get back to work. Dan Patrick thinks that a few dead oldsters is a small price to pay for keeping The Economy humming along. The line-up of commentators arguing that, well, sure, human life is nice and all, but you have to balance that against a healthy economy-- well, it's staggering. And this is not people arguing, "It's just the flu--nothing to worry about." The argument is that lives would be lost, but The Economy is more important.

It's not new or surprising. I've argued for a while that many of the dysfunctions of our society exist because of the ways we have valued what's best for business over what's best for citizens. Yes, yes, yes, I know-- without a functioning economy of some sort, humans tend to starve. But without any functioning moral center, economies tend to rot from the center, doing a crappier and crappier job for more and more people while a handful of wealthy enjoy a nice massage from the invisible hand.

We've been trending more and more in the latter direction, which is how we arrive at the spot where alleged serious people seriously suggest that Grampa should die so that the Dow Jones can more quickly bounce back.

This is what valuing The Economy over actual human beings gets you--a ranking of human beings based on their economic value, as set by whoever is on top. It gets you the President of the country seriously suggesting that Easter, the central holiday of the Christian faith that so many of these invisible hand-lickers claim is dear to their heart-- Easter should be used as a photo op so that the Economy can pose for a glossy photo showing how healthy it is, and if some people have to die for that to happen, oh, well.

Look-- no pathology grows inside the education system. Every problem, every bad thing, every crappy dysfunction in the system, migrated there from the culture at large. Every problem schools have is a reflection of the culture at large.

So it's important to remember that these invisible hand advocates of human sacrifice are some of the same people who want to rebuild education, privatize it, inject business dna into its bones. And right now, they are telling us loud and clear what their values are--

The Economy matters more than people. The needs of business are more important than the needs of humans. If some low-value humans have to be sacrificed so that business runs more smoothly and profitably, well, that's as it should be. Every little meat widget should aspire to be a really useful widget, happily doing whatever it takes to make some deserving master of the universe more wealthy, because that's where the worth of a meat widget lies.

Yes, yes, yes-- a functioning economy is necessary, and we can't all just eat berries and toss wildflowers at each other. But an economy that does not value human beings is a shitty thing, asking people to settle for shitty treatment, demanding that they settle for shitty conditions, and, apparently, insisting that they give up their lives for shitty reasons.

So what's my answer? I don't know-- I've mulled on this for decades as I've watched capitalism turn progressively more destructive and anti-human. I believe that just as any political system can be turned into an authoritarian nightmare, any economic system can be infected with evil. I have no patience with "If we just shifted to System X, everything would be okay" arguments. And while I deeply believe that an important function of government is to protect citizens from large, powerful wealth centers and their tendency to be rapacious and oppressive, I don't believe that you can pass legislation that will force people to embrace a moral core. So, I don't know.

But I know this-- these people should be given as little say as possible over what happens in public education. They have told us, keep telling us, and are telling us right now that they are opposed to a human-centered education system, one that doesn't simply manufacture meat widgets for The Economy's consumption.

I think our highest purpose is to take care of each other, and some days I despair of finding any way to communicate that to some folks. I don't know how to explain to someone who doesn't get it that you are supposed to care about other people. There are business-tilted people who still understand it; I'm hoping one of them can pass the message up the line.

But schools should not be businesses. Schools should not be subverted to business interests, most particularly because that path leads you inevitably to a place where you decide that some students have to sacrifice their lives. No, not all at once. Not in a single pandemic or a single day. But it's not okay to demand that people sacrifice their lives a day at a time, year after year, either.

If we don't value human beings more than business, more than the economy, more than the clammy grasp of the invisible hand, then what are we even doing? And why in God's name would we want to be doing it in schools?