Monday, September 30, 2013

Common Knowledge, Part 1

Disclaimer: I love Congress, state and local governments, and my fellow Americans. I may flip out on them a little this week. They can take it, and besides—they yell at me and my fellow educators all the time.

At some point, I knew this blog would address the education reforms we are currently implementing in this country, but I have avoided it because of the level of nastiness surrounding the public discourse on the subject. During the past two weeks, however, I have seen citizen reactions to reform reach such alarming levels of inaccuracy and inexplicable rage that I have decided to dip my toe in these hostile waters.

Regardless of your thoughts on school reform, by all means, keep talking! For too long, teachers, parents, and administrators have played ball with misguided education policy (myself included), and we all hoped that, at some point, the cavalry would ride in and save the day. That’s not going to happen. We must all be advocates for children and for the future of this nation, and we must all be heard. Right now, a very narrow set of views is dominating the public discourse on education reform, and that must end. Ask questions. Read. Listen. Then make noise.

My first foray into the grit and grime of school reform will largely concern what I consider to be a huge instructional issue for many of the debaters: the most vocal of the bunch don’t know their vocabulary terms. I have heard “Common Core” used to refer to every reform that is occurring in education, and I have heard really ugly partisan word-drool, even though all of our education policy problems were created by bipartisan tomfoolery (True bipartisanship! It can happen!). 

Each day this week, I’ll write about one of the key terms in reform. I will define the term as objectively as I can, and then I take off the gloves and let you know what I think about it and public reaction to it. Fasten your seatbelts!

Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz Friday!)


No Child Left Behind (NCLB): The current education law in play regarding the funding and requirements for American public schools. It is the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and this version was a joint endeavor of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy (in other words, both parties are to blame for this law, and we must all accept that). These well-meaning parents of private school students (who themselves never darkened the door of public schools as students) aimed to reform American public education by creating testing targets for all schools so that we would have all students testing at a proficient level in English and mathematics by 2014. Each state could adopt its own standards and create its own tests for this purpose, and thus its failure was assured.

NCLB matters because it was the most dramatic federal intercession into day-to-day ops in schools to date, and the new reforms under Race to the Top are the federal response to NCLB’s problems. As for NCLB itself (which many people do not understand is still the law), schools are not going to make 100% proficiency next year, and anyone who knows anything about the way students learn knew from the get-go that this would be the case, not because schools suck but because students do not learn at the same rate or to the same degree in tandem with their grade levels. They are humans, and that complicates things.

Remember how these proficiency targets were devised: In broad terms, students were given a test in 2002 to set the baseline achievement score for a school. That achievement percentage was subtracted from 100% to indicate the gap that the school needed to fill to reach 100% by 2014. The government then divided that gap number by 12 (the number of years schools had to reach 100%), and schools had to make that designated annual improvement target (Adequate Yearly Progress) each year or face dire consequences. That arbitrary math is in no way reflective of whether good instruction or real improvement occurred, but it makes people who do not understand education feel as if they are addressing The Issue. They did not address The Issue; rather, they created new ones.

This law should have been revised and reauthorized by Congress years ago, but Congress ultimately doesn’t know what to do about education (I’m not being sarcastic here—I believe they genuinely don’t know because education’s complexity makes this stuff really hard), so its members will continue to delay and spout tirades about education policy on cable news channels as a defense mechanism.

Lessons to learn from NCLB:

1.      When lawyers (the most common profession among our nation’s lawmakers) make education policy, no one wins. Lawyers typically did very well in school and on standardized tests, so they think that those tests are valid and reliable and awesome. They do not know a thing about sound assessment or the complexities of students who struggle. This is best evidenced by the fact that any time student issues that affect achievement and that require resources arise regarding education policy, these folks say that these issues are “excuses” that schools make for students not achieving instead of acknowledging what they are: real factors that jeopardize students’ futures and must be addressed at all levels, including the distribution of federal monies. This ignorance will likely always be the case, and you, the voting American taxpayer, can change the future by voting for lawmakers who understand (or are willing to learn) how children learn.

2.      NCLB fails because its fundamental premise is not true: All students do not learn at the same rate across the grade levels. The notion that they do so is tempting because it is so much easier to decide who’s doing a good job and who is not if that premise is true. The key problem with the US public education system is also its most noble characteristic: it is the most enormously inclusive school system in the world. We take every child, regardless of their situation. If they learn on schedule, we’ll keep them around until they are 18 or 19. If they do not learn on schedule (i.e., have a documented learning disability or other significant issue), we’ll keep them until they are 21. That is absolutely the moral thing to do, but it is also why we will never have the standardized test scores of the rest of the world. We’re shaping democracy here. We have taken on a larger, nobler task in walking the talk of the US Constitution by including everyone until they reach adulthood (and sometimes beyond). Comparisons to nations that do not do that (i.e., nearly all of the world’s nations) are exasperatingly nonsensical.

NCLB’s big sister is the 1983 federal document, A Nation at Risk, which lit the fuse on this toxic set of premises. The media and lawmakers have fed off of a steady diet of its conclusions for the past 30 years, and the chickens have come home to roost. We need to get to the place where we accept the hard, cold, ugly truth about education: it must be individualized, it must be continually evolving as our knowledge of students evolves, it must no longer be a reflection of the misconceptions of policymakers, and it’s expensive—it’s really, really expensive. It’s also worth it, America, so let’s get down to business.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss NCLB’s replacement, the reforms associated with Race to the Top. Even with all of its problems, Race to the Top gives us the chance to right some of NCLB’s wrongs, and we need an active, informed citizenry to make that happen. See you then!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Muy Loco Parentis: A Bad Teacher’s Meth-odology

I love the television show, Breaking Bad. If you have never watched it, here are the facts you need to know to understand this post:
  1. Walter White is a 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher.
  2. Walter White finds out that he has terminal cancer and decides to provide financially for his family after his death by spending his final days making illegal batches of methamphetamine.
  3.  He joins forces with a former student who works as a low-level drug dealer, 24-year-old Jesse Pinkman, to help him “cook” and sell their dangerous product.
  4.  Jesse Pinkman is a sweet guy, albeit a drug dealer and (later on, to protect Walter White) a murderer.
Breaking Bad works on many levels because its meaty guiding principle is to make its protagonist (White) its antagonist by the time the series ends (and, by the way, mission accomplished). For English nerds in particular, this is fascinating stuff. We watch the series annihilate traditional methods of character and plot development to create some of the most riveting interactions I have ever seen on film. We watch “Mr. White” (as Jesse continues to call him, years after they were in a classroom together), over time, abandon his moral principles, abandon his family emotionally and physically, and abandon all sense of decency. But it gets worse: Walter White is a bad teacher, and for me, that is the part that is truly unacceptable. Why is he a bad teacher? I have reasons.

Walter White: stereotype feeder. The rap on high school teachers has always been that we love our content area more than we love our students. This is, of course, ridiculous. I have rarely ever heard high school folks themselves spout this notion. If you spend all day with rotating sets of 20-30 teenagers every 60-90 minutes, you love them. You love them so much you cannot see straight. The only reason you would do such a difficult job is because you love them. Walter White, however, plays right into this stereotype. He loves chemistry and has devoted his life to it, but he has nearly no connection to the kids in the room. He cannot even get students to pay much attention when he sets things on FIRE! Fire! If I could use fire in English class, I cannot even imagine the things I could do! But I digress. Walter White cares, but he cares about compounds, not about the sizable organic matter in front of him, his students.

Walter White: sub plan slacker. When Walt is absent from school for his cancer treatments, he is never once seen making a substitute lesson plan. In one episode, he decides at the last minute (last minute!) to stay home from school (home from school!) and never once mentions making sub plans. (Why is his wife never seen driving his sub plans to school? Can she really ever be a realistic teacher-spouse if she has never done so?) Now, you may say, “Hey, dude is having cancer treatment. Cut him some slack—they can use his emergency plans.” Well, if he was not simultaneously operating a multimillion-dollar meth ring from that same sick bed (the real reason he stayed home that morning), I would agree with you, but all teachers know what this situation says about Walt: he is one of those people who frequently calls in at the last minute (last minute!) with no plans (no plans!) and makes the rest of us create plans for him while we are scrambling to get ready for first period ourselves. Imagine how many planning periods the other teachers in that building have sacrificed to cover his classes because he waited too long to call in for a sub. I bet he has played that game for years. Scumbag.

Walter White: power abuser. In all seriousness, this is the one that makes me furious. Teachers often feel powerless in this world. You know what our salaries are, you know that we are the ones who are labeled “the problem” in every education debate, blah, blah, blah. The fact is, in our classrooms, we are Hercules. We hold so much power to elevate and to destroy that it frightens me. One cross word from a teacher can cause a student to psychologically check out of that content area (or school entirely) for years. One positive word from a teacher can influence college decisions, decisions about dropping out of school, choices of careers, and so forth. It is an overwhelming responsibility, and, in my mind, it is the key reason why teachers are often the fabric holding this democracy together. Most of us are holding down the emotional fort for kids—but not Walter White. We hold the power to crush the soul of even the toughest student in the room because of a little Latin phrase, in loco parentis.

In loco parentis is a legal term indicating that, during the school day, teachers and school staff have the same responsibility to protect and care for students that a parent has. In loco parentis is also the unspoken attitude that students hold toward teachers. They view us as parent figures regardless of whether we acknowledge that responsibility ourselves, regardless of whether they like us, regardless of whether we deserve it. Because they will never know us as deeply as they do their own parents (and thus are likely to have fewer conflicts with us overall), they often elevate us in their minds, sometimes to superhuman levels. Thus their awkwardness when they see us in the grocery store (“Ms. Thomas buys toilet paper?”). Thus their screams and squeals when they see us all dressed up at prom when they just saw us at school six hours earlier. Thus their friend requests to us on Facebook the day after graduation. Thus their inability to call us by our first names even after they reach age 30. To students, I am forever “Ms. Thomas.”

“Ms. Thomas” and “Mr. White” illustrate my key point: as with our own children, in loco parentis never really ends. Students always continue to view us in this parental light to some extent, and, ethically, we never cease having some degree of emotional responsibility for them. We continue to wield power over them long after diploma distribution. When Walter White recruits Jesse to build a meth empire, White violates in loco parentis. He knows how easy it is for him to manipulate Jesse because he knows that Jesse views him as a father figure. He abuses Jesse and the people Jesse loves in the most horrific ways for his own selfish ends because he knows that Jesse lives in their sick version of the in loco parentis dynamic and will not turn on him. When Jesse finally did turn on him a couple of weeks ago (yea!), Walter White’s reaction was as swift and harsh as any of the worst child-abusing parents you’ve ever known.

This twisted version of the in loco parentis dynamic usually does not take the dramatic form it does on Breaking Bad or the equally sinister form resulting from, shall we say, a “lack of appropriate boundaries” in student-teacher relationships that we see in the news. More typically, it involves the teachers who do not see themselves as responsible for caring for 17-year-olds, who do not see themselves as people whose job is to guide students to a better life, who do not see themselves as having any responsibility to students after the duty day ends. Why they do not leave and find an easier job I will never understand. As I said, this job is not worth doing if you do not love students. Loving students and caring for them are the fundamental reasons we are here. In loco parentis is the legal and (more importantly) moral guide for everything we do, and its ethical boundaries extend far beyond the school day, the school year, or the school building.

So Walter White, you are a meth kingpin, a killer, a family destroyer, and a bad dresser. Jesus wants us all to forgive you for those things, and I can try. But you are also a bad teacher. You knowingly destroyed a student from the inside out, and that means you are dead to me. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Banned Books Week 2013

Today marks the start of Banned Books Week! Below are the 10 most challenged books of 2012. When you live in a society where Captain Underpants is literary public enemy #1, you know it's time to take action, so please read something subversive all week long!

1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
5. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
9. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Monday, September 16, 2013

Too Young To Be a Curmudgeon: Meetings and Why They Hurt People

Author's note: Periodically, I plan to rant in this forum, and I thought my opening salvo should focus on something I hate with the fire of a thousand suns: meetings. I'm thinking of this Too Young To Be a Curmudgeon series as a column of sorts. Expect to see future posts on other burning topics like people who use the word "surreal" when they mean "unreal," Gwyneth Paltrow, and Olive Garden.

"Let's meet as little as we can." --Shakespeare

I hate meetings. I have had many different types of jobs (grocery store clerk, medical journal editor, classroom teacher, professional developer, super-scooper in an ice cream shop), and meetings are the same no matter where I’ve been. One maxim holds true: the most functional work environments I’ve known are the ones that involved the fewest meetings. Meetings, for me, are Satan’s playground and should be avoided as much as possible.
Here’s why I hate meetings.
1.      Only one person in the room is truly invested in the meeting (the person who called the meeting and set its agenda). Everyone else is just killing time hoping that it ends soon, even the people who are being polite and seem engaged. The people you think were so awesome and listening to you? They were counting the seconds, too. They were smiling in the hope that you would shut up and let them go home if they did enough head-nodding.

2.      Reason #1 causes people to agree to things they don’t really agree with because they want the meeting to end sooner. I hate myself when I speak up (and I usually do speak up) because I know I have made the meeting longer, even when dissent in that situation is really important and I am right to speak up. Imagine how many times we acquiesce to bad decisions because we just want the meeting to end. Imagine the damage we have done to this world because we just wanted everyone to keep quiet so the meeting would end. Imagine.

3.      Meetings prevent real work from happening. They delay decisions, they take away valuable work time, and they are always (ALWAYS) twice as long as they need to be. Always.

4.      Meetings give the false impression that many “stakeholders” have participated in the making of decisions. In fact, a very small number of people make the decisions in any meeting. I have been on both sides (part of the small elite and part of the overruled madding crowd), and this dynamic is always true. In fact, the larger the group, the more likely it is that the small elite will dominate. The majority is interestingly weak in a meeting; oligarchs (i.e., the meeting callers/agenda setters and their closest pals) hold the power. On the rare occasion that a dissenting voice does pipe up and makes something happen that is not the designated outcome of that meeting, the meeting caller/agenda setter usually complains afterward, “__________ just hijacked my meeting!” or , “____________  just doesn’t get it!” or, “__________ is trying to undermine this process!” No, dude, you actually just got some legitimate stakeholder input. Congratulations.

5.      Meetings give the false impression that real work has occurred (see Reason  #3). Real work has not occurred; the meeting stopped real work. Real work will resume when the meeting is over.

One last thought: Think of a meeting that you remember being very valuable and productive. You were the meeting caller/agenda setter in that one, weren’t you? I think I’ve made my case. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Walk This Feng Shui

Classroom prettiness can be a surprisingly hot-button issue in the educator world. The differences between the elementary and secondary approaches are often dramatic, as are the results. I am occasionally made sport of for the attention I pay to my high school classroom. Bring it on—and bring me more duct tape for my posters while you’re at it.

                                2011: new building glamour

Thomas' Top 5 Maxims for Classroom Cuteness

1.      Care about cuteness. Environment matters. An environment that says, “I care about you, I’m ready for you, I want you to be happy here, and I am happy here,” is a first-strike weapon against disengagement. A student known for challenging behaviors once said to me, “Ms. Thomas, I can tell you love it here.” She loved it there, too.

2.      Everything on the walls does not need to be instructional in nature. I’ve heard that tense, overworked administrators have sometimes commanded that all classroom décor has to be in service of a particular instructional goal. My Bruce Springsteen posters, college pennants, and pictures of my family are as much a part of setting a tone of excellence and achievement as any instructional acronyms are—and they’re cuter. Once, on the first day of school, a young man said to me, “Ms. Thomas, you like Springsteen and the White Stripes? This is going to be a good year.” It was a good year. Bringing in those types of items is about connection because they are about personality, and (with apologies to Samuel L. Jackson) a little personality goes a long way.

3.      Mask the nasty. I have taught in less-than-glamorous, old buildings. They look a lot newer and nicer when I put stuff on the walls and clean my desk. Funny—the same thing goes in my house.

4.      Learn from the young. By “young,” I mean elementary teachers. Those folks know how to organize lesson components, instructional materials, and learning concepts better than we secondary folks do, and they find the cutest motifs! My sister’s last name is “Bass,” and her first elementary classroom was adorably fish-ified. Elementary undergraduate programs care about classroom environment; they teach preservice teachers how to make a classroom a warm and inviting place. Secondary teachers should be taught that more consistently, too. (Get on it, higher ed.)

5.      Learn from the old. By “old,” I mean secondary teachers. We know how to elevate the energy in the room with high-level literary material, thought-provoking quotations, and an affinity for intellectual humor that our friends in the lower grades often avoid. Rigorousness has a role in the classroom environs, too, not just in lesson content.

                                2013: vintage building glamour

My obsession with classroom décor has led to me having a bit of a spending problem in museum gift shops. My long-suffering husband once compared me to the little boy in The Sixth Sense on a visit to the Jefferson Memorial. “But instead of dead people, everywhere you go it’s ‘I see lesson plans. I see classroom stuff.’” Baby, you’re the greatest—and don’t quit your day job.

Attention to aesthetics not only reinforces instruction, but also it demonstrates the teacher’s love of the content area, love of learning, and love for students. I am always still surprised when some of my colleagues wear their stripped-down cinderblock approach as a badge of honor. The room itself is another tool, another way to engage, another way to connect.

I am not so bold as to directly attribute specific student behaviors and achievement to classroom prettiness, but I know that I respond to my environment, that I want to be in a cheerful-looking place, that I want to know my host is happy to see me when I am away from home. I’m pretty sure that kids respond the same way. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Using My Bad Words

I love profanity. When I was in second grade, the class bad boy, Robbie (not his real name), was (for all 7-year-old intents and purposes) my boyfriend. Robbie came from what we then called a “broken home” and exhibited what I now know to be the classic behaviors of a boy whose father has abandoned him. His defining characteristic among his peers was his vocabulary. Like the father in A Christmas Story, Robbie wove “a tapestry of obscenity” every day and shared with me this unique knowledge of how to inflame one’s elders with decisive diction.

Profanity feels good. I honestly do try to control myself outside the safety of my own home, but I love saying the words. They feel right in my mouth. And the more inflammatory their meaning, the more satisfying they are to say, even when one does not intend to offend, merely to vent. I’ve spent more time than I should pondering this issue, and I think the very structure of the words plays a large role in why profanity works emotionally. Take the F bomb, for example. The “f” sound at the beginning allows one to crescendo, to drag out that soft sound as long as necessary to indicate one’s specific level of outrage/physical pain/frustration “Well, fffffffffuuuuuu---.” The word ends on the hard “k” sound, which allows one the crispness and clarity that an abrupt ending provides, in addition to the appropriately Germanic harshness that one desires in expressions of anger.

Similarly, words like “bullsh$%” and the less common (but for some reason more comical) “horsesh$%” start with harmless, monosyllabic animal words and end with that crisp “t” sound, again allowing one to punctuate one’s thoughts swiftly and with force. “Sh$%” on its own, of course, gives one the same crescendo of the F bomb (“Aw, sssshhhhhh$%!”), which no doubt contributes to its ubiquity and flexibility.  The most offensive swears in my world involve taking the Lord’s name in vain, and that, too, involves that soft-then-abrupt buildup that I have come to believe is necessary in any expletive: “Jeeeeeeesus CHRIST.” A crescendo and then BLAMMO! When one finds oneself surrounded by the proverbial “clowns to left of me, jokers to the right,” only that crass and classless cry will do (and I apologize).

Why do we reject profanity? Clearly, social rules of order require that we know when to use specific types of language in specific instances.  Using profanity in front of one’s employer, teacher, parent, or other authority figure certainly can have dire consequences. But why do we avoid using it instructionally in school, especially as students become older? Why do parents and community groups often reject the teaching of excellent literature that involves the “bad words”? Aside from their obvious advantage in motivation and engagement (and don’t kid yourselves, prudish parents—your kids love the stuff most of all), I think we need to include these adult-themed works not only because of their association with excellent modern texts but also specifically because they offend.

We cannot help students to judge for themselves which language is appropriate and when and what constitutes offensive behavior if we don’t have the words in play in the texts we analyze. You want to have a deep discussion about language? Bring profanity into the room. You want students to determine which characters are moral, which are hypocrites, and which are evildoers? Examine which types of language they use and when. Sure, students giggle and look shocked when we analyze this kind of word choice, but they get it. In using that forbidden vocabulary, they examine the types and roles of language. No language is more engaging and emotionally meaningful for that type of examination than profanity. Profanity is an instructional workhorse that we underuse in high schools and in the teaching of rhetorical devices in general.

I am a parent, and I try to protect my children from the world’s harsh realities, too. When I found out that my elder son had viewed Pulp Fiction (one of my favorite films, particularly because of its writing) when he was 18, I mourned the loss of his innocence. Likewise, speaking to him and his brother candidly about pedophiles during their elementary years broke my heart. I wanted to protect them from the world, but I don’t kid myself that I can. In the end, my children were prepared and knew what to do if solicited by a pedophile. My sons can handle watching Pulp Fiction and appreciate it as literature without trying to emulate its ugliness. Avoiding ugliness does not make ugliness go away. Rather, avoidance creates unprepared and unworldly people who end up having a more difficult time in their lives and careers because they have limited experience in analyzing and understanding the world’s dark side.  Responsibly preparing students for the world means speaking to them frankly about the ugly people, places, ideas, and language in the world. I have never seen the opposite approach to be effective in preparing anyone for anything.

Language evolves. Language matters. ALL language matters. Robbie (not his real name) understood that and taught me the same. Profanity is a rhetorical device. Let’s treat it like one. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

True Grit

The issue of Ed Leadership pictured provided a good counterpoint to a disturbing article I read in  The Atlantic on the effects of poverty on the brain. Ultimately, poverty is the main driver in my public education mission: it is the issue (politically, socially, ethically) for everything evil that happens in this world. Our unwillingness to deal with it locally, nationally, and globally makes me want to punch walls because we can deal with it (and this issue addresses some of the interesting psychology of that). This is the first issue of Ed Leadership that I have read cover to cover in a long time. Sidebar: Angela Lee Duckworth and I need to be BFFs.

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