Thursday, April 6, 2017

Professional Development...What is it good for? Absolutely Everything!

So...before I dig in, a little background on my current situation.  I am writing this in Wichita, Kansas, fresh off of an incredible one-day seminar through the "Teaching Literacy Through History" (TLTH) program of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  This seminar was focused on Vietnam (hence the playful title of the post), and featured the tried and true "seminar + pedagogy" format that works so well.  The seminar portion was presented by Dr. Frederik Logevall, the Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner.  And it was awesome.  I've taught history for twelve years, and learned more about the conflict in that 3 hours than I ever had before.  I just finished typing up my notes, and have already considered ways in which my teaching of the war will differ next year.  The pedagogy was fantastic as well- here is the information, now here is what you can do with it.  Truly a great method.  Seriously, if you teach history, and haven't been to a Gilder Lehrman seminar, you're missing out!

Now, to my point.  During a break today I was looking over my notes, and it struck me just how much I was getting out of this experience.  It isn't the first time I've felt that way during a professional development experience, just the latest.  And I couldn't help but think of how many other teachers would benefit from this experience, from any quality professional development.  This post will focus on the why, as well as the obstacles to professional development.  First- the why.

I am a teacher.  It is the best job in the world.  But if one thing is clear it is that teaching is not a static job.  Or at least it shouldn't be.  Teaching is a career in which one must be committed to many things, one of the foremost being the importance of remaining a life-long learner.  I've always kept, as a personal mantra, a belief that the moment I feel like I've figured it all out is the precise moment I need to leave the teaching profession.  The truth is that there is not a single teacher who should ever feel this way.  I've known and worked with amazing educators, award-winning educators who inspire me and challenge me.  But none of them should ever feel that way.  There is always room to grow, new approaches to adopt; there is always something new that we can learn to better serve our students.  Professional development is not an option for the classroom teacher; it is a mandate.

So...why don't more teachers pursue these opportunities.  Obstacles.  Some of these barriers are self-imposed, others outside of their control.  The self-imposed are the most frustrating for me personally, because it is likely derived from an excuse.  Now, before I get chastised for not appreciating the busy schedules of a teacher, hold it.  I'm not saying that a teacher should be attending some kind of training every week, or even every month.  But I find it hard to believe that a teacher cannot miss a day, here and there, to grow as a professional.  Once a teacher understands that pursuing professional development is a requirement for sound practice, then that particular obstacle is removed.  But what about the obstacles placed in the way by educational realities, like money.  Many school districts lack the money to send teachers to development sessions; others requires teachers to take personal days to attend these sessions.  My message to teachers facing these obstacles is this:  look harder.  Many organizations have taken to pursuing outside funding so that not only are training sessions free, but often substitute reimbursement can be given.  Today's seminar with the Gilder Lehrman Institute was sponsored, very generously, through the Koch Foundation; teachers did not pay a dime to attend, and subs were reimbursed.  In some cases, especially with Saturday or summer trainings, teachers may even get paid a stipend for attending.  My message to state or national professional organizations is, on a similar vein, to consider the dearth of money available to teachers for the pursuit of professional development.  Asking a teacher to pay, out of pocket, for a training is becoming too much to ask.  If I am going to tell teachers to search harder, I would also tell professional groups to search harder.  Ask yourself- how can we provide development opportunities to our teachers at no or little cost.

In the end, here is my point- reach out, ask, research and find development.  It's out there- I promise.  And pursue it.  If you can, provide it. Understand that our students are not the only learners in a classroom; so are you.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Art and the Social Studies Classroom

As I sit here with Nina Simone singing in the background, and reflect on the past #sunchat discussion on the arts in the classroom, and consider the recent cuts to the NEA suggested by the Trump Administration, I felt compelled to post about both my belief in their much needed inclusion in every classroom, and some of my favorite ways to do just that in our social studies classroom.

As mentioned, I teach high school social studies.  And while I believe that the arts belong in every classroom, a social studies classroom is the ideal place to mix the contents.  After teaching history for twelve years, I have found that one of the greatest challenges is forging a personal connection between the content and the student.  We are asking students to connect with people and events that took place 5, 10, 100 years ago, and that is a tall task for any person.  This, I believe, is often what perpetuates the thought of history class as "boring."  We must endeavor to present history in such a way that it appeals to as many of the students' senses as possible.  When thinking of the way that art can help achieve this, I am often reminded of this quote from the artist Mathiole:
Image result for art speaks where words are unable to explain
History shouldn't be studied by merely looking at or reading words; it should be experienced, through the photographs, the paintings, the music, etc. of those who lived it.  By using those mediums to study, one can begin to "touch" history, and perhaps even understand it, if not empathize.

I have to admit- photography is one of my passions.  Ever since I was exposed to the great Robert Frank collection, "The Americans", I have been convinced of the power of the photograph.  And as a social studies educator, I have come to believe that this medium is among the foremost of ways to not only present content, but to present the message of an event, the emotion of someone directly involved.  For example, when discussing the Great Depression recently, I could have had students simply read about a young woman named Florence Owens Thompson, and some undoubtedly might have learned something about the reality of life during this dark period of American history.  But instead, I posted the more famous picture of Florence on the projection screen as students entered the room, and asked them to infer what they saw and to describe the emotion seen in the photograph.

When one combines the story with the photograph, something changes...something becomes more real.  And that is the power of art.  As the quote says, art can convey something words cannot.  Words can state that the Great Depression was difficult; this photograph proves it.

A favorite way for us to combine the arts and our content is through what I call a "photo essay". It plays on the traditional essay, a written work in which a message is relayed or an argument made, and one in which evidence must be given to support said point while considering the importance of flow in writing.  When discussing events like the Progressive Era and the era of Vietnam, when a history teacher is trying to convey to students the difficulties of industrial life, the sad realities of child labor, the experience of the American soldier, or the passion of protest here at home, reading or lecturing about it will not do alone.  Students need to see the evidence.  The challenge is quite simple- choose a focus, select appropriate pictures, make sure to cite the source, and arrange the photographs in such a way that a point can be made, a message conveyed.  When looking at photographs from the Vietnam Era, students can choose the perspective of the American soldier, the Vietnamese soldier, the photojournalist, the protester, among others.  When done well, the student work is powerful, and the experience is that much more real.

Last year I made the decision to finish up the year by encouraging the students to take this experience to the next level.  Up to this point students had been using someone else's photographs; I wanted them to tell a story using photographs that they had taken.  For our focus I blended this push with our efforts at including state history into the curriculum, and thus challenged the students to answer the questions "What is Indiana?", "What is a Hoosier?" through photograph.  I gave the students categories to include, and made sure to include student choice in the assignment.  And the results were amazing.  With a topic like Indiana, to be sure, there were a lot of corn fields, barns, and basketball goals.  But there were also fantastic photos taken of favorite places for the students when they camp or kayak with their families.  There were photos of basketball goals that had been installed by their great-grandfather on an old barn.  There were photos of old trucks that had been used on their family's farm, but were now collecting dust in the barn.  In short, it was the most fun I had ever had grading.  And the stories the students' told...what a joy it was to see these kids grow in their appreciation of their state and community, to have spent time with their family and friends.  To view a a short video, linked to QR code in my classroom, that highlights a few exemplary photos which are hanging in the room, follow this link.

In short, there is nothing that we teach that is not made better, richer, more real through art.  At a time when the arts are seemingly being pushed away, it is up to teachers to keep their vital influence in our classrooms.  Our kids deserve it!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Document "Mapping" in the SS Croom

A few days ago I posted a picture of some of my US History students at work, under the label of "document mapping".  I was asked the same question by several colleagues- "What is document mapping?"  At the time, it honestly prompted me to ask myself the same question, along with "Why did you choose that label for this activity?"  Truly I took the picture and posted it, typing in that label almost as an afterthought, an instinct.  It just felt right.  But as I've thought about primary document use in our croom I can see that "mapping" is exactly what we do...but perhaps not in the traditional way to which social studies teachers might be accustomed.

Since this post is likely going to focus a bit on semantics, a few reminders-

  • A primary document is any kind of source that was produced at the time of the event it describes.  These sources could be text (like a diary entry), visual (like a battle map or a photograph), something to be heard (like a song or a speech), etc.
  • As a social studies teacher I am an ardent proponent of using these sources in the croom.  I truly believe they are the lifeblood of what we teach, and often the most interesting lesson plan supplement we could use (I mean, who wants to "talk" about the 60's when we could listen to some Bob Dylan?)  For some of my favorite places to access great primary documents, check out this past blog entry.
In the traditional social studies croom, mapping is exactly that- working with maps.  And in that sense it is absolutely crucial.  The "where" is often as important as the "what" when studying history.  There is a great deal that can be learned by analyzing events in a geographic sense.  But does "mapping" always have to refer to geography?

Mapping is about relationship.  It is about comparing one thing to another.  It is about examining the process of something.  Key word- process.  Process- welcome to social studies 101.  As it turns out, I chose the right word after all. 

The lesson I posted was a lesson in which students in US History were focused on why exactly the United States had entered World War II.  We had spent the past several weeks looking at the US in World War I, and as usual we focused more on the "why" and the consequences more than we focused on the fighting itself.  A US History teacher cannot talk about the why of either war without talking about the intense attitude of isolationism seen in the country before both wars.  Americans were simply not sold on entering this war, and in both cases would have to be shown, in very tragic terms, why the United States could not stay out.  As we began the discussion of World War II, it was important that students dig in to understand this attitude, and how it changed, along with circumstances and realities around the world, leading up to American entry after Pearl Harbor.  We began this discussion with me asking students to explain why the US entered World War II, to which I had several students shout out "Pearl Harbor".  My next question to the students- "Would the United States have entered World War II if Pearl Harbor had never happened?"  Pearl Harbor was a direct attack, a clear reason for the US to exit its attitude of isolationism and get involved.  But were we headed there already?

        US History students discussing their documents

Process.  The word is at the center of what these students were examining.  How did we get from here to there?  To both challenge them and get them talking, students were each given a document that pertained directly to the process, ranging from the Kellogg-Briand Pact to a recording of a fireside chat on September 11, 1941, during which FDR discussed the sinking of an American ship at the hands of the Germans.  Students were given a few short analysis questions to focus their thinking, and then given a few minutes to compare their answers with other students who had the same document.  This also allowed me to quickly move through the groups to answer questions that might exist on the document.  Next the students were separated into slightly larger groups, each group featuring at least one student from each document.  Students were then challenged to place the documents in chronological order and then discuss their document with the rest of the group. Throughout this process the overarching question was kept on the board as a reminder- "Would the United States have entered World War II if Pearl Harbor had never happened?"  Students were asked, at the end, to answer this question in their journals, leaning heavily on the discussion from the day's lesson.

Process.  I keep coming back to that word because so much of what we do in social studies classrooms is about examining process.  How did this happen, how did a people go from here to there, why- these are questions which guide learning in our crooms, and if we can encourage students to find these answers in the actual voices of the past, their understanding of history is all that much more deep and meaningful.  Social studies teachers are in the midst of a revolution in teaching methods, ditching the textbooks and taking the learning to the source, giving students an opportunity to experience history on their own.  It's not as easy as the textbook, but it is most certainly better. Step up!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

How Can We Reach Absent Students?

After 12 years in the classroom, I find that I still have many questions, many areas of the craft where I still need to reflect and consider on my methods.  One area which has always left me pondering is how best to ensure that students who are absent truly understand what we discussed in class. Especially on days where a new concept has been introduced, or on the few days where our classroom might feature a more formal seminar, the only options seemingly available for absent students to gain the information were study sessions after school, or for the student to talk to his or her fellow classmates.  Recently, however, I have started using live streaming, and I'm excited about the possibilities that this will offer.

The How
I've long had a webcam through which students in our class have communicated with politicians, professors, and (hopefully soon) other classes.  Now, thanks to a little bit of help from our technology department, I am able to put this webcam to use for a live stream of our class.  Not every class is streamed, of course; as teachers we all know we have those days where students are working on test corrections, reviewing for a test, etc., where little would be accomplished from actually tuning in.  But on days when new concepts, discussion, explanation of an assignment, and the like are being covered, the stream is live.

We set up the webcam in the back of the room, and placed the camera so that it captured the whole of the front of the classroom, and kept as many of the kids out of the view as possible.  Going into this endeavor I knew that some parents might not want their students on the stream, so I have placed the camera in such a way so that few students are actually seen.  The start-up for this project took all of 5 minutes, but required the creation of a Youtube Channel.  When ready I simply open my Youtube account, access "Video Manager", and then select "Live Streaming." I then select "Events", and schedule an event.  I title the event with the class and the date, which makes it easy for students and parents to find the day missed.  After hitting "Go Live Now" Google Hangouts is automatically opened, and we are ready to stream.  The stream is accessible in live form through the Youtube channel (which is linked on my class website), but once the stream has been terminated, the captured video automatically uploads to the channel for later viewing.

What You Will Need
1. Webcam- can be purchased for as little as $20.  Make sure that the webcam has a multi-directional microphone, however; you will need this to record your voice, and it will allow you to move throughout the room.
2. Youtube Channel- this is easily created, and the link can be posted on your website or Google Classroom.

Things to Consider
Based on my initial efforts with this new resource, I have found a few things that should be considered when implementing this into your croom:
1. Make sure when scheduling the event through Youtube (see instructions above), click on "Advanced Settings" and turn off the "live chat".  Trust'll thank me later.
2. Strongly consider making this resource known to parents, both so that they can help keep tabs on student work, but also because it will give them an opportunity to let you know if you might need to move their child.  Often school acceptable use policies will take care of this potential issue, but it is a good way to ensure that you are covered.
3. Remind the kids that, while streaming, the microphone and webcam is picking up every word they say, and everything they do.
4. Watch for copyright issues.  I often use clips of video footage in class, but if it is live streamed the original makers of the video may report the use to Youtube, which will flag your recorded discussion.

When streaming class I often want the kids to see what is on my computer as opposed to the classroom itself.  In the actual class students can see my projector, but the projector usually does not come through well on the webcam.  Fortunately Google Hangouts allows for screensharing, meaning with one click I can switch to the computer.  In the short time that we've made use of this resource I've already had several students mention that they've tuned into the live stream on a day when they were sick, or ahead of time when they knew they need to leave early.  The benefit to the students seems clear, but I'm also excited for the potential for parents.  Giving the link to the parents allows for them to tune in and have a first hand look at their child's educational experience!  As a parent myself who would love to know what my son is doing from time to time, I see this as a benefit for our parents.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Qualified"- How Important Is That Word?

Sometime today, 50 United States Senators and the Vice-President will approve Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education.  Such is the nature of a republic, but this vote will culminate in the selection of someone who is remarkably unqualified to hold a leadership position in education, or any position in education period.  Policy disagreements with Mrs. Devos aside, the biggest buzzword in this debate has been "unqualified."  Thousands of teachers across the country have spent the past several weeks contacting their Senator, sounding the call for her denial.  Several senators have publicly spoken out against her confirmation.  And the voice has been the same- Betsy Devos is unqualified for this position.  But this public outrage begs the question- how important are qualifications in the field of education?

The realities of teaching are daunting, to say the least.  Low pay and increased standards have led to a dramatic dearth in pre-service teachers, percentages at their lowest in 70 years.  According to a survey done last year by the Chronicle for Higher Education, only 4.2% of college freshmen expressed an intention to major in education.  Combine that with the impending retirement of the baby boomer generation, and one can understand the fear of many school districts across the country in being able to fill its classroom with teachers.  Most states require a degree in education, specialization in a content area (particularly at the secondary level), and a valid teaching license.  In my home state of Indiana, secondary teachers are expected to hold a degree in the content area and minor in education, at minimum.  But, in the face of a teacher shortage, districts across the country have begun to hire non-certified teachers to lead classrooms.  At a time when debates are raging over the qualifications of the person who will lead the US Department of Education, are we discussing enough the qualifications of the persons who will lead our individual classrooms?

I take education very seriously, not just as a professional, but as a father of two sons.  As a professional, I have found myself, after 12 years of teaching, to be a passionate educator who has never once questioned my chosen field.  I am decorated and proud to hold a position of respect at the state and national level.  But among the highest sources of pride for me is knowing I have earned every bit of it.  I believe in the importance of humility and I think most who know me would agree that I am not a "horn-tooter."  But I do appreciate positions of leadership and respect, and believe that I can fill those because I have worked extremely hard to earn those positions, and have a voice that lends experienced and credible insight.  Those educators of whom I have the utmost respect are those who bring similar credentials to the table and I have had the good fortune to have learned with, and from, some incredible educators.  

It is never lost on me that each day parents send their most precious gift to our school and our classroom, and trust me to provide them with quality teaching and guidance.  This is a heady responsibility and it has long been the guiding influence behind my drive to not only pursue further education, but continuous professional growth.  I want to be the best teacher possible for my students. I want to be the teacher I want my own sons to have.

I have no misconceptions regarding a belief that every classroom possesses a great teacher.  As much as I want this, it is impossible.  And I know that simply having the qualifications of being a teacher does not necessarily correlate with good teaching.  But I also know that caring about kids or being a good person also does not correlate with good teaching.  Passion for teaching is key, perhaps the most important element in effective teaching.  But it cannot, repeat CANNOT, be the only qualification.  I have no doubt that I am a better teacher for having had the opportunity to reflect on methods and theory, to have had the chance to learn from examples of real teachers, both good and bad, as a pre-service educator.  These "hoops" through which I jumped in my preparation were absolutely key in my growth as a teacher.  The teachers I remember, the teachers I respect, and the teachers I hope teach my own children are those that possess both qualifications and passion for the kids.

Full disclosure: I am not an administrator and therefore am not directly involved in hiring.  With that in mind, I am aware that some might find me naive in my view.  I fully understand that, as a nation and as individual states, we face a teacher shortage.  But the solution to that problem cannot be to fill those positions with those who are unqualified to hold the position.  It insinuates that anyone can walk in off the street and teach a class.  The solution seems clear- make the career more enticing.  I love what I do and would never leave for another field.  But even I recognize that the benefits for teaching are scant.  This must be considered or the education system runs the risk of being filled with unqualified employees.  In a climate focused on test scores, performance-based pay, AYP, and other like factors, does anyone think that these foci, as misguided as they may be (a subject for another blog) will be met or exceeded by an unqualified teacher?  

I am a professional, one who considers teaching to one of the great things I will get to do with my life and as such, I want to teach with other educators who will share that passion and the qualifications and expertise from which to speak and grow.  

I am a parent and as such, I want my children to be taught by teachers who are well-qualified in their field every step of the way.  I know that the passion for education will not be in every teacher my children have, or each I work with, but I do not believe that it is too much to ask for those teachers to be qualified.

Although, when a national standard is set so low as it just was (as I finished writing this Vice-President Pence cast the deciding vote on Mrs. Devos), perhaps this is too much.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

Why Teaching Government Has Never Been Harder

One of my favorite movies is "Gladiator".  Great acting throughout, even if a bit dramatic at times. One of my favorite Richard Harris roles without a doubt.  His time in the movie is short, but features a great bit of dialogue between Harris' Marcus Aurelius and Russell Crowe's Maximus- "There was once a dream that was Rome.  You could only whisper it.  Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile."  The Caesar was making a reference to the "ideal" of Rome, and how it compared to the reality.  He was expressing a desire for Rome to live up to its ideal.  I've thought a lot about that recently.

I teach government.  I love politics and government.  I am more than aware of the expectations leveled on a government teacher.  As a public servant it is my job to help ensure that my students will leave our four walls knowing, at the least, a basic understanding of how their government operates. You can see it in the prologue of the Indiana Government Standards, which state:

United States Government provides a framework for understanding the purposes, principles, and practices of constitutional representative democracy in the United States. Responsible and effective participation of citizens is stressed. Students understand the nature of citizenship, politics, and governments and understand the rights and responsibilities of citizens and how these are part of local, state, and national government. Students examine how the United States Constitution protects rights and provides the structure and functions of various levels of government. 

Interesting words here- "purpose", "responsible", "effective", "citizenship"'s an expectation of me to push these words, these ideas, to inspire a desire to participate, vote, trust in their government.  That has never been harder than it is right now.

Now before anyone starts claiming that this teacher is now going to start pushing some kind of agenda on his students, check it.  I've always held the philosophy that I must ensure that multiple perspectives are heard in our classroom, and that this requires me to keep personal thoughts largely to myself when in the croom.  But my students are not blind.  They read the news, they watch the proceedings on C-SPAN.  They really do.  And they see what I see:  a government focused on political game play rather the best interest of the people.

Yesterday I posted my reasons for fighting against the confirmation of Betsy Devos as Education Secretary.  I've been joined by countless educators, parents, and private citizens across the country in calling our Senators and expressing our frustration in such a pick.  By any measure Mrs. Devos is remarkably unqualified to hold this position.  She is unqualified to be a teacher for that matter.  In a recent interview with Erica Hill on "On The Story", a Devos surrogate defended her with the claim that she met "minimum qualifications" which point I shook my head in bewilderment.  In a country filled with actual educators, the best we can do is someone who meets "minimum qualifications" (a statement which is, in itself, questionable).  Monday morning, at 6:30am, the Senate will begin voting on Mrs. Devos, and it would appear that, despite two Republican Senators stating that they will not vote for the nominee, the vote will end in a tie, at which point the Vice President, as his Constitutional duty prescribes, will cast the tie-breaking vote putting Mrs. Devos into the position of Secretary of Education.  The reality of this is sobering to say the least, but what this represents is far more depressing.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday I've been around politics for a while.  I know that I won't like everyone elected to public office, I won't like every decision they make, and I won't like every Cabinet Secretary a President nominates.  I don't have to, as it is the nature of American republicanism that the officials elected to represent us are not always the ones for whom I voted.  But I should be able to expect qualified individuals to hold a position of influence and power.  I should expect that someone who will be "America's Top Educator" to actually be an educator.  But that won't happen; on Monday the Senate will confirm Mrs. Devos.  And in the absence of a vote based on legitimate qualifications, I have to assume that the "yea" votes will be based purely on politics, and not out of a true desire to do the right thing.  This. Is. Depressing.

And it is not a Republican problem; Democrats are every bit a part of this problem as well.  I'm tasked with teaching the "ideal" when my students are fully aware of the reality, and when they ask me the inevitable "Why" when it comes to government action, it is getting increasingly harder to answer.  It is truly difficult to combat increasing levels of cynicism in our students when I'm trying to combat it myself.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Why "No" To Betsy Devos- Here's my Answer's been quite a week.  And that's putting it mildly.  But for many teachers, the concerns with President Trump began well before he took the oath of office and officially became President of the United States.  It right and truly began when he nominated Betsy Devos for the position of Secretary of the US Department of Education.  Over the past several weeks I have joined thousands of educators around the country in working for and very vocally calling for her nomination to be snubbed.  Last night I was asked, very fairly, why.  All bullfeathers (wink to President Teddy) aside, what is my problem with Mrs. Devos, and how might her confirmation affect our children 2, 4, 10 years down the road. goes.

Let me begin by focusing thought on the primary criticisms which have been leveled at Mrs. Devos, of which there are three:
1. Her substantial donations to the campaigns of several politicians, some of which sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in front of which she had her hearing;
2. Her advocacy for school choice and voucher initiatives;
3. Her lack of experience in education.
With this focus in mind, allow me to talk about my reaction to each, and make my issues with her clear.

Fact- Betsy Devos has a ton of money.  Fact- she, and her family, have given that money, in large sums, as donations to candidates.  Fact- she has said that she expects some return on those donations.  Fact- Some of the politicians to which her money has gone have influential positions in the US Senate from which to help her secure her confirmation.  Fact- this doesn't bother me.  This might surprise some, but the fact is that I've been around politics a long time (I worked my first election when I was 7).  Perhaps it is a sad indictment of where we are, but as a realist I tend to not get wrapped up in who gave money to whom as much as I focus on other issues.  Money is a reality of politics; it's hard to get elected without money.  Would I prefer that Senators like Todd Young (who was given a substantial donation from Mrs. Devos) recuse themselves during a vote like this- yes.  But that is not reality, and we can talk all we want about unicorns, but it doesn't mean I'll ride one in my lifetime.

School Choice
Here is where my issues begin to take shape.  Honestly, school choice is something with which I am ok.  For me, there are three great things that I'll get to do with my life- be a husband, be a father, and be a teacher.  I take my job very seriously (some might say too seriously, but...I don't understand that thought, so whatever).  I look at education from the perspective of both a teacher and a father.  Very little means more to me than good education.  And to that end, I believe that parents should have a choice about where their child goes to school.  But, I am also a consequence guy.  I believe that every choice comes with potential consequences, and these must be weighed with the choice.  Every student is given the right to a free public education (and yes, I do believe this is a civil right).  However, if a parent does not wish for their child to attend a public school, that is their choice.  They can send their child to a private school, charter school, Montessori school, etc.  I will always stand up for that choice.  AND, I truly have no issue with these schools teaching a curriculum of their choice (even though I personally wouldn't want my own children to be taught in such a fashion).  So...what's the problem, because it sounds like I am aligned with Mrs. Devos in this belief.  Here's the rub- the reason those schools can teach what they want is because they do not receive any money from the government, at least they are not meant to.  It's this pesky thing called "separation of church and state" (I know, I know- this phrase isn't in the Constitution, it was used by Tom Jefferson in a letter to a group of Baptist ministers in Danbury, CT, but the First Amendment seems pretty clear on this subject).  BUT- these schools are receiving government money, in the form of vouchers, which help parents pay for the often very high tuition of a private school.  Uh oh, there are those consequences- by passing on the free public education you have to pay the tuition of a private school.  So taxpayer money is going to a school teaching a curriculum that may be religiously focused.  That doesn't sit well with me, but I can even make my peace with that issue.  Here is where I have a real issue:  these schools are often not being held to the same standards as a public school.  They should be expected to deal with the impact of standardized tests, and they certainly should be held to the same standards of accessibility to students who may face disabilities.  But they are not.

Honestly, this is my biggest hangup with Mrs. Devos.  She has no experience in public education.  None.  I've heard many of her supporters argue against this point by saying that she cares about our children.  That is, without a doubt, important.  In fact I would argue that the most important qualification for anyone in education is passion for our kids.  But THIS SHOULD NOT BE THE ONLY QUALIFICATION.  Every single American should care about our kids.  If I were in a position to hire/fire, I would never hire someone who didn't have this passion, but I would also not hire anyone who only had this qualification.  For all the talk about education, it is a job that is truly impossible to understand without first-hand experience.  Teachers are often handed the blame for poor school performance, and we shoulder that blame.  No one feels the pain of failure quite like a teacher.  Few ache for our students like a teacher.  Quite frankly, I'm insulted that any teacher would be made to look to someone who doesn't have that first-hand experience.  Say what you want, but until you have stayed up until 1am to grade papers and plan a lesson, and then gotten back up at 4am to finish; until you have sat down with a student, and listened to them share the pain in their life, and cried with that student because you see that you love and care for that student more than most others in their life; until you have dealt with the realities of being a classroom teacher, please do not make the assumption that you have any idea what being an educator is really all about.  The day to day work with our students is not a business transaction; it is an endeavor in love.

How could the confirmation of Betsy Devos affect our kids directly?  In some ways- not much.  Much of education is still handled by Boards of Education at the state level.  But if the Department of Education at the federal level does nothing else, it can affect national policy on vouchers, which could result in millions of dollars, which are meant to be used for the improvement of public schools, being taken from said schools.  This means less money for facilities, curriculum, professional development, resources, teacher pay, etc.  And it certainly is there to ensure the basic rights of every child in schools across the country.  If there was no other reason to fight her confirmation, it would be enough to see her lack of understanding of national law like the IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which works to ensure that our students with disabilities are given the resources that they require, and more importantly, deserve.  When asked about this law in her confirmation hearing, Mrs. Devos appeared to know very little about these requirements, and that alone should scare anyone.

Why have I, and countless other figures in education, fought this confirmation?  Because Betsy Devos simply does not have the resume to warrant such a position.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Teaching in the New Era- What Does It Mean?

Yesterday I watched the final day of the administration of President Obama, and the beginning of the Trump Administration.  I watched it with a pit in my stomach, not one of anger, or of some overwhelming sense of hope that this man would fail.  It was a pit of fear- fear of the unknown, fear of the what could be.  I listened to the President's speech, a dark and troubling look into what might be.  I watched the protests turn violent, and grew agitated as I saw the verification for many that all those who are concerned with President Trump are out of control social dividers.  And yet, I woke up this morning feeling, for lack of a better word, steeled.  Steeled in the knowledge of the impact that I can make, as a father and as a teacher, to encourage respect, self-awareness, mindfulness, and, most of all, love.  You see, I can't sit here and hope that the Trump Administration fails.  I am deeply concerned when I hear his words, see how he carries himself, and certainly when I see those people that he has chosen to lead the various departments within his Cabinet.  But I can't hope that he fails.  I have to keep my hope in the fabric of this nation, in the belief that good government is a good thing, in the belief that the American people can work to help hold the new President accountable for his actions.  I think being concerned is good, being vocal in that concern is good; these are part of the fabric of this country.  But hoping for his failure out of some desire to proclaim "Neener, neener" demonstrates a lack of understanding of what's at stake.

I could go on and on, but I promised a post on teaching in this new age, and so here are my thoughts on what the regime change means for teachers.  Truthfully, for this teacher, it means very little, at least in my approach to the job.  You see, as I've grown over the past 12 years of teaching, I've come to view certain foci as the core of who I am as a teacher, and what I want to accomplish in our classroom.  Content is, of course, important, but certainly not more so than the kids themselves.  I've always tried to be someone who's love for his kiddos was clear and obvious, but that expected respect, and demonstrated fairness.  I've tried to structure opportunities for the kids to be exposed to multiple perspectives, whether it be in interpreting historical events or current events, not out of some vain hope that a student will adopt any certain philosophy, but instead out of a desire for each student to realize the value in being their own person and having their own thoughts, that a student will have the chance to shape their own view of the world, rather than one prescribed for them.  I've reminded my students that their age is not an obstacle to their voice, that their voice has value.
At the same time I pushed them to develop a voice that leans on knowledge than simply pure emotion.  "Just because" is never the right answer to "Why".  I can't count how many times I've argued a point of view different than my own just so that a student can see and hear the other side.  We as teachers cannot endeavor to mold a student's mind into our own personal definition of "right", but equip each with the necessary tools to define themselves.

So what will the change in leadership mean for this teacher- very little.  I will continue to push my students, challenge them to see that there is rarely one side to any story.  I will continue to push them to consider the consequences of decisions.  I will continue to allow a forum for their voice to be heard, but will also continue to expect that this voice be an informed one.  I will continue to value my students for who they are, not despite who they are.  In our classroom students will continue to be protected.  I will continue to encourage the all-important value of respect.  I will continue to stand up for my students, all of them.  Most of all, I will continue to love every single one of my students for who they are, not who I or anyone else thinks they should be.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

In School on MLK? YES!

When I was younger, so much younger than today...I remembered loving that magical Monday in January, when, after having been back in school for two weeks after winter break, we were given a day off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I can honestly say that I don't remember my teachers saying much about it, and I certainly didn't spend that day reflecting on the work of Dr. King, but I sure do remember the day off.  And now here I am, 35 years old and a teacher in a school that is not giving this day off, and I've listened to my students complain about having to do go to school when so many other students have the day off.

As I sit here grading papers for tomorrow (remember- it is a school day), I've thought about this one day, one national holiday to celebrate this man.  And I can't help but feel like it's wrong.  Now, before you scream and castigate me, allow me to explain.  You see, the real meaning of this day seems clearer to me now than it ever has before.  There are few figures in American history that I respect more than Dr. King, and for that matter figures like John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and the countless others of all races who gave so much in the fight for civil rights.  But what I've come to respect most about Dr. King is that I truly believe he knew that while his work was important, his legacy was just as important, if not more so.  I believe that Dr. King knew that the fight would be far from over when his time came, and that, while a man may die, an idea can live on forever.  That is what MLK Day has come to mean for me.

It's not so much about a man, but an idea.  An idea born of the passion that only comes from true conviction.  The idea that the outside of a person means far less than the inside.  That a person's soul is truly all that matters.  That skin color, wealth, advantage, and a wide host of other items to a person that some might see fit to judge are insignificant to the fact that a person's mere existence entitles them to the right to be treated as equal.  That our actions and our words are the only thing that can truly make a person inferior.  That love means something more important than anything else.  This is a conviction, and I believe that Dr. King embodied that conviction, allowed that passion to serve as his legacy.  If you need a set-aside day to celebrate the man, fine.  But celebrate his legacy, the meaning to his life, every day.  Be love.

As I said, I teach.  And we are entering a time period of, well, many things, but uncertainty is the only certainty.  We stand, as a country, at the precipice of great choices, but none greater than the choice to open ourselves to love, or succumb ourselves to hate.  And the choice we make will undoubtedly make it's way into our classrooms.  Hate is easy, especially now.  It seems like there is so much fear and anger, and, as Yoda made clear, that leads to the dark side.  But it's this environment that has brought so much uncertainty into our students' hearts and minds.  Everywhere around them loud voices feed anger, and it is easy to feel like that must be the right mindset.  This is where we come in. We get the chance to work with and talk to these students every single day.  We have the chance to show a student love and compassion, to engage with them in a civil dialogue, to introduce them to multiple perspectives.  We have the chance to channel so much of what Dr. King stood for...or just be part of the problem.

As for me, I am excited to be at school tomorrow, as I am every day.  I am excited to have the chance to love my kids.