Sunday, April 5, 2020

ICYMI: I'm Pretty Sure It's Palm Sunday Edition (4/5)

So here we all are, sitting at home and nervously watching the numbers, while a whole lot of folks pretend that all they have to do is wave their hands and teachers will somehow fix the school part of this. Here's the reading. I've tried to include some things to brighten your day a bit.

Remote Learning Is Turning Out To Be A Burden for Parents

Yeah, a zillion folks have figured this out, but this is the New York Post, the newspaper that is pretty sure any dope can be a teacher.

This is not an experiment

John Warner reminds us that while there is data to be gathered, this is not any kind of experiment.

Can my son get more worksheets before the world ends

McSweeney's is on a roll right now. This is just one of the posts I'll include this week.

Another charter school attempts a hostile takeover

In Los Angeles, a reminder that some parts of business as usual are still going on, like charters trying to push public schools out of public school buildings.

Astrophysicist gets magnets stuck up nose

From Australia. This has nothing to do with education; it's just funny. "My partner took me to the hospital that she works in because she wanted all her colleagues to laugh at me."

Five concerns about the rush to online learning

From Valerie Strauss. A worthwhile list.

We, the Hard-Working, Newly Homeschooling Parents of America, Have Rewritten the Common Core Standards

McSweeney's again. If you're staying in place with children, you will recognize these goals.

The Homeschooling movement sees an opportunity  

Jeff Bryant at Citizen Truth (though, weirdly, someone else's name is on the byline). A good thorough look at some of the forces being marshalled during the pandemic.

Learning from home is hard enough. Try doing it where wifi is illegal.

Really interesting piece from Mother Jones. Turns out that in West Virginia where the big radio telescope is aimed at the universe, there's a whole area where wifi and cell phones are banned. If you think your school is having trouble transitioning...

15,000 high school students are AWOL

How's distance learning going in LAUSD? Well, could be a little better. From the LA Times.

Day 12: We should not be requiring parents to teach their children from home

Susie Johnson, Not Your Average Mom, offers a solid articulation of one point of view about the whole home school-ish thing.

DeVos weighs waivers for special ed.  

It's the big fear. The New York Times looks at the possibility that DeVos will just scrap special ed requirements.

North Lenoir student treks three miles to school for wifi.  

You know there are stories like this all over the country. A reminder, once again, that not every home is internet-ready.

Hula Dancing, Singing and a Teacher's Impact  

I've missed Russ Walsh in the blogosphere, but he has returned recently, and here's a nice little piece to remind us about the long term impact of a teacher's work.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Get Your Shift Together

The interwebs have been drowning in hot takes, thinky pieces and unsolicited teacher advice for the business of shifting education from the classroom to the web. This is hands down the smartest, best quick advice on the subject I've seen.

A shift in medium must always lead to a shift in content.

Consider film. Initially used to simply record a performance presented as if on a stage, directors quickly learned that film opened up a whole new vocabulary, and negated some of the old. Audio recordings started out essentially as recordings of live performances, but by the time of Les Paul and the Beatles, artists had figured out how to record things that couldn't be reproduced on stage. On a very fundamental level, the new medium was about the same thing as the old one--drama, acting, music--but it also opened the door for new things.

Sometimes the shift is a small change of form within the medium. I'm still watching the evolution of video story-telling. When you sit down and watch an entire "season" of Stranger Things, that's not like watching a series in weekly episodes, and it's not like watching a movie. I think we're living through the invention of the screen equivalent of a novel.

There are also shifts of medium that turn out to be dead ends. Film strips were going to revolutionize story telling (and education) except that they mostly didn't. They destroyed most of the old vocabulary, but did not provide any new vocabulary that was particularly helpful. Ditto for quadrophonic stereo and 3D television. E-books are still thrashing around, but mostly they seem to have destroyed a bunch of old vocabulary and offer nothing new except being compact. Include on the dead end list the early versions of tele-learning. Point a camera, hook up a microphone, do it again on the other end, try to make the phone call, hope that what comes across is intelligible.

Online instruction is still trying to prove itself; mostly it adds some new tools to a pre-existing classroom, but obliterates so much of the old teaching vocabulary--particularly all the parts related to a personal human touch-- while providing very little new in return. It tells us something that the cyberschools, who have theoretically working on the problem for years, appear to have largely failed to crack the code. I'm not convinced, but maybe in a decade I'll be cyber-eating my e-words.

In the meantime, the vocabulary is so different that it requires any class to be redesigned from the bottom up. Trying to just shift by doing what you always do, but doing it over a computer, is like trying to translate a English language speech for a Japanese audience by just doing the same speech slower and louder.

Hardly anybody is getting enough time to do this properly, to get their shift together. But it will be helpful to be clear about what is happening-- not homeschooling, not distance learning, not online school, but a quick-baked crisis school that represents the best you can do under unprecedented rough conditions.

Privilege and the Pandemic

The pandemic-powered slide into crisis schooling is highlighting many aspects of how our public education system works (or doesn't). In particular, the push for some version of distance learning is underlining the huge gap between haves and have-nots.

We see the gap on the district level, between districts that can quickly muster the hardware and resources to maintain "continuity of instruction" (which sounds so much fancier than just "keep doing the work") and districts that have to really struggle for solutions. Various businesses are hoping to "help meet the needs" of districts and make some bucks doing it, presumably focusing on those districts that offer the best promise of long-term ROI.

In homes, the gap is even more severe. It seems particularly stark when one looks at all the perky advice about organizing your home school experience, laying out ideas that I'm sure are super-great if you are in a household where parents aren't trying to work from home, or aren't suddenly unemployed and uninsured, or aren't single parents trying to meet all the schooling obligations just laid on your multiple kids, aren't spending most of your days wracked with fear and uncertainty about how you're going to make it through all of this, or aren't still going out to work every day so that everyone else can have health care or food or some other essential service while you wonder how to get someone to watch your kids during the day as you also wonder if this is the day someone sneezes on you and kills you.

Social media is loaded with parent shaming, often parent on parent, about how "COVID is not a vacation from education" and you should be getting those kids logged on and distance learning away. Does that prospect strike you as somewhere between "stressful" and "nearly impossible" (imagine one parent and three students who all have to work from home on one computer with a lousy wifi connection)? There are also plenty of posts giving advice on how to adjust your attitude so that you can stop whining and just breeze through this.

In short, the current mess is not just highlighting the gap, but highlighting how oblivious some people are to it.

But as schools are forced shut, it's clear-- some students will get some sort of education at home, and some others will not. Schools are better positioned to serve some students than others, and some families are better positioned to keep the ball rolling than others.

Here's the thing-- that has always been true.

Yet districts have been wrestling with how to handle the gap? Do we just leave some students behind because we don't know how to bring them along, as Betsy DeVos seems to suggest? Do we just cancel the year? And if we do, who does that hurt (spoiler alert-- not the privileged families who can keep educating their own children)?

But when the COVID shutdown is over, all of these questions should still remain. In fact, we should be asking where the line is, the line that we just crossed where on the other side we know there is huge inequity in the system but it's an acceptable level. What is that acceptable level of a privilege gap?

It's an uncomfortable question, and yet when we have to put the wheels back on the education system, we may well have to ask it out loud. We can claim that it just sort of evolved to the pre-pandemic point we have reached, but when we go to prop things back up, folks will have to make a conscious decision, may have to actually say out loud what they think is "enough" for the children of "those people."

In the meantime, while crisis schooling, we'll have to be aware of things like the meme that points out that if you're giving grades during the shutdown, you're actually grading privilege. Which, again, will be useful to remember when schools re-open.

There are layers to this. Take the classic class project. Pat comes in with a giant diorama made out of fresh new poster board and legos with a nice paint job and some cool accessories that Pat's mom ordered on line; Chris comes in with a battered old shoe box with details drawn in with a ball point pen. As soon as you start to grade on "quality" or even "effort," you're grading privilege. And even if you are conscious of that, you can never be conscious enough. Because Pat knows that Pat's mom will run to the store for whatever Pat needs, the sky is the limit in the conception stage. Meanwhile, Chris never even gets to "what would be cool for this project" because Chris is stuck on "what can I do with the little bit of stuff I have to work with?" Privilege doesn't just give you a leg up on the task at hand; it broadens your sense of what is possible.

If only we could apply that broad sense of possibility to the big challenge of US education-- providing a quality education to every student, despite whatever obstacles they may face.

I don't know that many districts are going to resolve the issue before this school year limps across whatever arbitrary finish line the powers that be settle on for this year. But even if the summer somehow brings an end to the pandemic and schools can open again in the fall, the issue will not have gone away.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Of Pandemics And Teacher Motivation

Remember that time that schools were shut down because of a pandemic, and all the teachers said, "Yippee! Extra vacation! I am out of here" and all jumped in their Porches and drove to their beach homes?

Yeah, neither do I.

Here's what I'll remember. Teacher after teacher, from the ones in my Twitter feeds to the ones in my email to the ones that I know personally, sharing how miserable and worried they are, how they can't sleep for worrying about their students. Teacher after teacher frustrated about a lack of clear direction and leadership-- can we work? how can we work? what resources are we going to be given, or do we just have to hunt down the right tech ourselves?

And the scrambling. I'll never forget that when our governor finally closed schools, he announced it after 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, leaving many teachers no time to say "see you soon" to students or to grab materials from their rooms (this morning, my wife was finally allowed back into her classroom for twenty minutes, to grab whatever she could). The scrambling mixed in with the waiting for communication from bosses, political leaders, or a chance to connect with colleagues.

The scrambling was everywhere, with some teachers expected to convert to some sort of crisis schooling model in twenty-four hours. The varied and bizarre obstacles (like these teachers who work where wi-fi and cellphones are illegal).

Plus the pitching in. A thousand little stories, like the teachers who helped out medical workers with 3D printers.Yesterday my wife went in to school to take her turn handing through car windows to families of students who depend on the school for that kind of support.

There are so many things many teachers still don't know. How will all this be counted? How will students be determined as passing or failing? Has anybody figured out how we're going to take care of those students with exceptionally special needs? Will school open again, and if so, for how long? Contractually, what is going to count as a day of work, and does anybody have the faintest idea of how we'll decide if teachers have fulfilled contractual obligations to the district?

These are not small questions, and yet I've not heard tales of teachers who have sat down stubbornly refusing to lift a finger until they get some answers.

Teachers have done what medical personnel and blue collar workers and a large number of people have done-- they've simply rushed forward to fill the needs they see as best they can.

Know what else I remember?

I remember when a bunch of non-educators started making noises about how we needed to remake the entire education system and drastically overhaul the accountability system because clearly the only way to motivate teachers to do the work was to threaten them with financial punishment or offer financial reward.

I don't want to hear from these people any more. I don't want to hear any more baloney about the already-disproven notion that human beings are motivated strictly by economic incentives. I don't want to hear any more about the only way to whip those damned teachers into shape is to find ways to hold their paychecks hostage. I don't want to hear any more about how the unions exist to protect millions of fat, lazy slackers who thought teaching would be an easy way to live high on the government hog.

Teachers do the work because they want to do the work, because they even feel born to do the work, and will keep trying to do the work even when unprecedented obstacles are thrown in their way. If you think the only reason anyone ever does anything is to get paid, then I am sad for you. But keep your sad hands off education policy. When this storm has passed, sit down, shut up, and let the teachers work.

FL: Path Opens To Killing Public Schools

If there was a state most likely to grab the coronaviral opportunity to gut its public school system, it would have to be Florida, some those ducks appear to be lining up.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has had its share of rough times. Started by the state in the 90s, spun into a private business (a "publicly-funded non-profit," so a charter school), and then mired in a mess of incompetence and corruption, the entire shooting match had its board replaced by the state, which installed a bunch of politically connected board members, and a half-assed audit was ordered up. Now the Board of Trustees is the Sate Board of Education, headed by evolution-denier Andy Tuck. That was just last year, but apparently everyone is feeling much more confident about FLVS no because, as trumpeted by reformster cheerleading site redefinED, FLVS is "preparing to blast off."

By "blast off" they mean "get a huge infusion of money." FLVS has already been handed some great help from the state legislature, which mandates that all Florida students must take at least one on-line course in order to graduate. That's a great deal for FLVS, which is paid by taxpayers based on the volume of business they do-- and the do just happen to have a model that allows students to enroll fulltime, part time, or whatever. Now they have bigger plans.

FLVS is looking to pump about $4.3 million into "technology upgrades" for the system to give itself a big student capacity boost, from 200K-ish to around 2.7 million. That would be roughly all the K-12 students in Florida. FLVS chief Louis Algaze offers this:

I applaud Governor Ron DeSantis for ensuring students have the ability to continue their education as we work together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I am proud of the work our team is doing to provide school districts, charter schools and private schools with solutions and resources to keep Florida students on track with their education as we all navigate these unprecedented times together.

And there's this:

“The most important thing we can do to help children through COVID-19 is to keep them safe, healthy, and give them the best possible education we can during these times,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said. “As the state turns to online learning, it is imperative that we work together to provide resources that support our families, teachers and school leaders.”

I have many questions, but the biggest one is this-- what the hell kind of education program only requires a technology upgrade to give itself a 1,300% capacity increase? That's like suggesting that we can triple the capacity of a school by buying more desks. FLVS says its current teaching staff each serves about 162 students. Perhaps the plan is that the districts that sign up will have their own staff "teach" these courses that they did not design, assuming they can just familiarize themselves with the content, the software, etc, in the next couple of weeks.

Florida's politicians and profiteers never tire of looking for ways to gut the public school system and privatize education. Governor DeSantis was slow to shut down the state until spring breakers had finished rolling in and out (and not for churches-- they can still gather all they want), but the state looks less hesitant about taking advantage of the pandemic to take another whack at busting public schools. Heaven only knows what's coming next.

Annnnnnd as soon as this post went up, folks let me know that Alaska has also jumped on board and that FLVS is being touted as an exemplar in several states. Damn.

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, 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.