I Wrote a Guest Post on Dad Gone Wild

I wrote something about my experience in an alternative teacher licensure program and sent it to TC Webber of Dad Gone Wild. He posted it and hopefully it will get the conversation going about teacher training. Here’s a permanent link. I’m super excited that Diane Ravitch retweeted me!

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Books on Teaching, part 2

Here are two books I’ve read recently that are written for teachers about improving their classroom practice. My favorite things about these books are their titles, and for once they actually live up to them.

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Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson

The title of this book comes from something I’ve seen and done many times–a teacher working really hard in front of a passive group of students–working so hard she’s actually doing stuff they should be doing, like answering her own questions, and voicing all sides of a discussion. A lot of this book’s info is stuff I learned in my MAT classes–begin with the end in mind, zone of proximal development–but it’s the kind of stuff that’s good to hear again in a new way. I liked that Jackson is so reasonable in her expectations of what teachers will be able to actually accomplish. For example, she acknowledges that you can’t teach every standard, so she gives you a principle to help you pick which ones to teach and which ones to skip. Her advice is grounded in the reality of a teacher’s classroom experience and she acknowledges at every turn how hard this job is.

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Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

Again, the title of this book was tailored to appeal to me. I’ve joked that the reason I became a teacher is because I like school, am good at it, and never wanted to leave it. Even 7 years in, it’s honestly a little baffling for me when students don’t feel the same. This book is organized around questions teachers might ask about classroom challenges that psychologists can answer. The title question is also one answered in Thinking, Fast and Slow: the brain isn’t made for deep, abstract thinking, but for doing minimal work with minimal effort. Willingham focuses a teacher’s attention on whether or not the specific actions they’re asking students to do will help them build skills and remember facts or not, pointing out that “dog and pony shows” are often counterproductive (no matter how much principals may like them). He also gives a few concrete strategies, like storytelling and building background knowledge.

I loved the way this book debunked several myths about the brain and education that create more work for teachers without enhancing student learning, especially the idea of multiple intelligences, and the idea that students need to learn to “think like scientists” and other experts.

Internet Roundup: Education Part 7

Betsy DeVos, who Trump has announced he will nominate to be Secretary of Education, is like many of his cabinet picks, a fox put in charge of the henhouse, vowing to destroy the institution he has chosen to entrust her with. If Detroit’s terrible decentralized all-charter school system is any indication of what she intends to do with the rest of the country’s schools, we are all in trouble.

DeVos and those who agree with her about educational issues talk a lot about “school choice,” which is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but does not work as advertised. The logic of free markets does not apply to education for a few reasons. First, education is not a consumer product, it is a public good and a human right. Second, all parents are not necessarily able to act as “informed consumers” where schools are concerned, and are constrained in their choices by geography, transportation, and a lack of time to research different schools. Third, allowing companies to profit from education incentivizes them to spend as little money on educating students as possible, so that they can keep more for themselves. Fourth, “choice” does not guarantee quality. It doesn’t mean “pick any school in the world.” It usually means “pick one of the two terrible schools in your neighborhood.”

Here are a few articles that fully explain the folly of charter schools, vouchers, other “school choice” policies, and debunk the arguments behind them.

“The Problem with Choice” by Pauline Hawkins

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice” by Steven Singer

“Why Is ‘The Decimation of Public Schools’ a Bad Thing?” by Nathan J. Robinson

If school choice isn’t the answer, what is? This article discusses in a very comprehensive way the concrete reforms and changes in education that would actually work. The author is a Texas legislator who visited all 55 of the schools in his district and conducted many interviews. Time, stability, resources, support staff, wraparound services: it’s really common sense, but also expensive.

What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators” by Diego Bernal

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.

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Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.

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The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

How I’m Dealing with This Terrible Election

I don’t usually write about politics, but writing is how I process events, and this is something I have to do now. I know I’m not alone in feeling that this election has shaken me to my core and changed my world for the worse, perhaps irreparably. The last time I remember feeling this upset about a news event was September 11, 2001. At a time like this, pausing for self-care and mourning is important. I’ve taken some time to talk to people I love who feel similarly, to meet new people who feel similarly, and grieve with them. I’m probably not really done with that stage of grief, but I am also feeling restless and unsettled and need to channel some energy into planning next steps.

I feel tremendous guilt that I didn’t do more to change the outcome of this election. I did vote, and voting is crucial, but apparently not enough. I have lots of excuses: this was the year I had a baby, I was complacent because the media and my carefully curated facebook echo chamber told me that Hillary would easily win, it’s really hard to change people’s opinions and confrontation is hard. But those are just excuses. Taking action starting now to turn the tide back is so important that I can’t content myself with excuses anymore. I’m hoping that in addition to helping to change the horrible situation we find our country in, making a plan and following through will also help me to cope and keep me from despair.

These are the concrete things I’m going to do to deal with the next 4 years. I’m making this plan public to keep myself accountable. Some of these actions you might be able to do too.

  1. Get involved locally. I’ve put a meeting of the local neighborhood association on my calendar. I know these groups are very small, and the changes they enact are small too, but they’re also the place where city council members get their start, and city council members become mayors, who become representatives and congressmen and governors. Meetings like this are where I can meet my neighbors and get to know them and maybe eventually influence them.
  2. Pick an issue, learn about it, and intensify your activism there. My issue is education. I’ve started going to meetings for a local group of education activists, who are getting involved at the state and district level. I’ve blogged sometimes about education as well.
  3. Join a union. I’m in Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, a local chapter of NEA. I’m not just paying dues, but going to meetings and talking about the union with the other teachers in my building. I know not all professions have unions, sadly, but some professional organizations do similar advocacy. Another alternative might be just joining a mailing list or facebook group for a general union like the AFL-CIO. Robert Reich is another person I follow on facebook for info and opinions. That way you can pay attention to labor issues and see what these groups say about different candidates at election time.
  4. Every time Trump says something or does something that upsets me and makes me scared, I will donate a small amount of money to an organization related to that particular outrage. The amounts have to be small because I’m not rich and because I anticipate having to do this frequently. Online giving is quick and easy. When he says something sexist or misogynist or objectifying, I will donate to RAINN. When he does something that makes me scared about the environment, I will donate to the Sierra Club. When he says something racist, I will donate to the Movement for Black Lives. When he attacks immigrants, I will donate to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. When he does something that makes people in other countries less safe, I will donate to UNICEF. When he attacks journalists, free speech rights, or freedom of religion, I will donate to the ACLU. When he or Pence does something to hurt LGBTQIA people, I will donate to Lamda Legal. When he insults people with disabilities, I will donate to Easterseals. When a fresh outrage I haven’t anticipated here comes up, I will research it then and find a relevant organization to donate to. I’m hoping that taking an immediate action like this will assuage my fear and anger, as well as helping the causes that need so much more support now than ever.
  5. I will write my senator, congressman, state representative, and state congressman. Frequently. Whether or not I voted for them, whether or not I can promise to vote for them next time. Whenever an issue comes up and I have a minute. Emails are not that hard. Sometimes I might call. I’ll keep track of my contacts with them so that I can make sure I’m keeping my commitment and that they keep theirs.
  6. Before the 2018 elections, I will phone bank and canvass for Democratic candidates to the House, Senate, and Tennessee Assembly. I will write letters to right-leaning family members in other states to try to influence them to vote Democratic. I will text friends with reminders to vote. I will offer to give people rides to the polls. I will try to organize voter registration and/or a speaker at my school to talk to students about the election. Taking a branch of government away from the Republicans is so important. It is the best damage control measure we have available.
  7. I will push back when friends and loved ones make political statements I disagree with. My challenge might be to do this without losing my cool or making extreme statements that alienate them. I think in these cases it helps to avoid strong language and make it personal and specific if possible.  It also helps to ask questions and be genuinely curious about the answer, rather than using the question to make a point. Here are some things I’ve thought of to say that are not overly confrontational:
  • Yes, I’m glad the election is over, but I’m not happy with the outcome.
  • Actually, I’m disappointed in the election. That Access Hollywood video really bothered me.
  • He didn’t win the popular vote, you know.
  • Did you know that third party voters in swing states could have changed the outcome of this election?
  • Some of the students I have taught are immigrants or the kids of immigrants. They’re worried about their families being separated.
  • I’m nervous about Trump’s reactive personality and the unpredictable things he might do, especially in foreign policy.
  • I’m worried about the fact that Trump is going to make a climate change denier head of the EPA.
  • I looked at Hillary and Trump’s plans for maternity leave and child care, and Hillary’s plan would have helped my family a lot more. It might be the difference between whether or not I can have any more children.
  • You said you don’t like the things he said about Mexicans, but I’m wondering why party loyalty outweighs that?
  • We might have to agree to disagree, but when you’re open to having a real conversation about it, I’m here.

I’m certainly not the first one to write about steps we can take to get involved in politics. Here’s another really good list of ideas: How to Channel Your Post-Election Anger, Sadness, and Fear Into Action.

Please comment if you have other ideas for concrete things we can all do to oppose Trump, minimize the damage he will do, and help those that he will hurt. If you have other strategies for these hard conversations with relatives and friends, please share! If there are other charities or organizations that are doing this work that I haven’t thought of, I’d love to hear about it!

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 6

I’ve been keeping myself informed on education policy for a few years now, and am beginning to get involved in local efforts to improve laws and programs. There’s a lot going on in Nashville in this arena; for some great commentary on our local education politics, follow TC Weber’s blog Dad Gone Wild. Now that I’m no longer in survival mode with a brand-new baby, I am starting to go to meetings and get to know the people here in Nashville who are making a difference in our schools. I even spoke at a school board meeting last month!

I like to share some of the things I read and find noteworthy, but there’s been so much happening this year that it’s hard to tell what to link. This time rather than highlighting specific policies or changes, I picked some articles that address overarching themes in the debate.

“Education Does Not Cure Poverty–It Cures Ignorance” by Steven Singer 

So much of education policy is driven by the idea that if more people graduate high school and college with useful skills, they’ll be able to get good jobs, and the economy will improve. But improving your income is not the point of education. It’s a nice side effect. And counting on schools to improve our country’s economy lets a lot of people off the hook–the ones who are paying low wages, the ones who speculated irresponsibly and crashed the stock market. I love how Singer gets into big questions about what makes life worth living, and turns lawmakers’ conventional wisdom on its head.

“Stop Humiliating Teachers” by David Denby

It’s past time for the attacks on teachers to stop. The assumption behind so many education “reform” laws is that teachers are lazy idiots who do the bare minimum for their cushy benefits, who won’t do any real work unless they’re in fear for their jobs. This insult does more to hurt teacher morale and scare bright young people away from the profession than anything else, except perhaps the low pay, which is insulting in a different way. Denby puts the blame squarely where it belongs, on poverty.

“The Myth of the Superhero Teacher” by JP Fugler

If we depend on teachers to be superheroes in order to adequately educate our children, we’re going to be disappointed. First, there are not enough “rock star” teachers out there, and second, it’s a recipe for burnout. And as Fugler points out, it’s patronizing, substituting fawning praise for tangible rewards. I wish he had addressed the data-driven arguments I often hear about how giving students a “good” teacher three years in a row can reverse the achievement gap. That bogus research is based on formulas that predict the growth of corn. But I love how Fugler points to the movies that perpetuate this myth.  Teachers are just normal people trying to do an emotionally taxing, cognitively complex job, and we need support and resources and freedom from excessive, unfair scrutiny more than we need a pat on the back.