Today, I used 5 miles of my 20-mile bike ride to record a video of my thoughts about curriculum and instruction at this time. I’m calling it the first “bike monologue.” It’s an experiment, which is an aspect of learning to teach and teaching to learn I wholeheartedly embrace.
If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the highlights.
We Don’t Need to Do What We Did March – June
…and We Shouldn’t.
Instead of doing what we did before, which was akin to flipping the light switch on a bunch of gremlins, we teachers and students should take the lessons we have learned and apply them to virtual teaching and learning this upcoming quarter. For example, when we are in “class” – either virtual or brick-and-mortar – we should be doing something as often as possible.
Flip the classroom so they come to school prepared to work in class and we are prepared to help them.
Engage the students right away with activity.
Avoid passive learning as much as possible.
Encourage active learning as much as possible.
The COVID-19 Slide Exacerbated the Summer Slide
Since it is true that students may have regressed during the last quarter of 19-20, it is also true that it was a mistake to cancel summer reading and other enrichment activities this year. All we can do now is try to help students rediscover the love of learning we are all born with. Now is not the time for drills that kill that love of learning. Now is the time to help students explore their world and interests and develop their confidence as self-directed learners.
Alternative Assignments and Assessments
Now is also the time to consider alternatives to traditional assignments and assessments. We could even consider letting students design their own assessments. How will they demonstrate mastery of key skills they need? With our help, they can learn how to design their own assessments (and assignments) that will prove they understand the material, have mastered the skills, and are ready to take on the next challenge. Here are just a few alternative assignments and assessments.
Seminar Design and Delivery
Infographics / Posters
I want to thank you for reading this. Being able to write out my thoughts has helped me put words to my perspective and my fears. It is my hope that my words help others as well.
There are other districts that have implemented a one-to-one initiative whereby every student receives either a tablet or a laptop to use during the school year. Some districts were able to get tech to their students during the crisis. Some were able to offer WiFi hotspots to their students at no cost to them. Internet companies worked hard to bring access to those who did not have it before. For those who were able to offer such technology, my suggestion below could have worked. For those who were not, more packets could have worked.
If we had continued “virtual learning” (further developing the skills we learned through “crisis teaching”) through the summer, would we still be having this national meltdown about re-opening in the fall? Perhaps we could have helped students stop their learning regression and restart their progress if we had just “soldiered on” for a little while longer. There was an opportunity to support educational experiences, and we did not take advantage of it. These hypothetical “experiences” would not need to look like “traditional learning.” Kids would not need to sit in front of their computer for hours a day. We could have crafted highly-engaging activities using project-based learning principles and portfolios that could have helped students rediscover what education is: The process of acquiring freedom.
Instead, many districts did not even assign summer reading this year. We were and are burned out, for sure, but that was a mistake. What better time to climb a tree and read? (For those who are not that adventurous, perhaps curling up on the couch or somewhere outside is preferable. Wear sunscreen! Take your mask with you!)
Everyone needed a break; that’s obvious. However, it is important to wonder if all of us would have benefited from some more time with the technology and the chance to develop the online community and its norms we are certainly going to need this year. Perhaps we will reopen in August and September, but trends suggest that we will be virtual again by Thanksgiving. Some colleges are already preparing for that, for example, and sending their students home at Thanksgiving break to complete the semester.
It’s all about money, which is – again – heartbreaking. I know that local entities are supposed to be in charge of education and that leads to a disparity in opportunities because of property-tax revenues. Still, it is not fair. Every child should have the same chance to receive a quality education, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status.
None of this is fair. None of it.
What Is the Purpose of Education?
After listening to several arguments about reopening schools, my first thought was an angry one. Why are we being asked to sacrifice ourselves and the children so that the economy can reopen? What role do they think teachers and staff play in a child’s life? If we are opening schools ONLY because people need to go back to work, then we are not valuing the needs of the children over the economy. We are definitely not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, that’s for sure. When did we become such a crass country?
What happens if someone gets sick? Oh, the chances of that are rare, we are told. The likelihood of children regressing socially is higher than the chances they get sick. The number of behavioral health issues has increased since schools were closed too. Considering the number of videos online in which parents beg teachers to take their kids back, I believe that. While these videos make us chuckle a bit, they also make us realize just how important school is for monitoring and mitigating behavioral issues. Still, is there not another way to socialize?
What about the teachers? The likelihood that teachers will get sick IS high, considering that many of us are older.
It is time for us to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education. I’m not talking about the factory model of education, the one that is supposed to “produce” excellent citizens who can make a contribution to our society. I’m talking Socrates here. Education should be about freedom; through our acquisition of knowledge and our development of critical thinking skills, we realize we are free. By storing and using learning techniques, we can function as independent people within a society of interdependence. We know what we are capable of and no one can take that away from us. We can reveal truth to ourselves and others, citing evidence along the way that is concrete and verifiable. We prove that we are not sheep; we are the shepherd.
“We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about `and’. ” – Arthur Eddington
Just take a moment to consider that quote and how it is such a powerful use of language. In martial-arts terms, it’s the cross followed by the hook. Boom! It knocked me out. It came from a student who has realized he is a self-directed learner. If he wants to achieve his dreams, he has to make them happen. He’s a voracious reader, adept thinker, and avid “tinkerer” with all things technological. We need to help more students achieve this level of development, and we can. If we have to do it online, so be it. If we can get back into the classroom safely, that is preferable. The key word is SAFELY.
Anyone who has studied Maslow knows that if physical and safety needs are not met, then there is little motivation to move onto the other aspects of the hierarchy. That just makes sense. Question: How much real learning is going to happen if everyone in the classroom is worried about whether today is the day he or she gets sick?
Until we are convinced that the “experts” know what they are doing, we need to consider all the options for reopening school, in my opinion.
As I write this, I am struggling with the notion that next year I have to teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time. Therefore, I am using my blog to create a question paper, to write to learn about why I feel so hesitant.
Why am I struggling to accept that I must teach To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) this upcoming school year? Is it the fact that the N-word is present in the text and I have many problems with that word? Is it that a white woman wrote it and the story includes the arrest and trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman? Is it that I am not sure how 15-year-old students are supposed to grasp the nuances in the novel, just as I did not when I first read it?
Or is it that I fear students might be suffering from racism-fatigue? I don’t even know if that is a word, but it sounds reasonable, and are my students suffering from it? What do I do about students who are tired of talking about race, especially in our current cultural climate? How do I make this relevant to them? And what about the African American and Latin-x students I have in the room? How are they going to feel about this story? How are they going to feel about a white teacher presenting this story and trying to have honest conversations about it when she truly doesn’t understand? Haven’t they been through enough trauma?
Isn’t there a text by an African American or Latin-x writer that I could use instead? Or would that be like avoiding an honest-to-goodness discussion of race, white privilege, bias, perspective, and our nation’s history? Would it make more sense to let an alternative text lead the discussion, or would it be wiser to confront this one head on? What about the students’ families? How are they going to react to this text? Apparently, it’s been in the curriculum for years, but how will they react to it this year, a year in which yet another black man was killed for nothing? And why hasn’t it been challenged before now, and why should I challenge it now?
I think I know why I am so hesitant. I’m afraid. I’m afraid I am going to blow an opportunity to have an impact. I don’t teach merely to teach. I teach literature to help all of us understand the human condition and how to choose our place, our role, within the human community.
One of Mrs. Parker’s students created this peaceful protest message using apropos quotes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is why I, and thousands of my colleagues, teach literature. As Mrs. Parker noted in her post: “He gets it.” We study literature to understand the human condition. It’s not all about the key concepts we are supposed to teach so that students understand literature better; it’s about the understanding. For more information on the six facets of understanding, as proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, check out this article.
If you want to know how one lunatic managed to take over an entire country with his words, which were eventually backed up with military might, in the 1930s, take a look at tweets and hours upon hours of video showing history repeating itself. In recent months, Mr. Trump has been tweeting things like “Liberate Minnesota!” He’s also called for liberating other states which just happen to have Democratic governors. He held rallies where he riled up his followers, calling the press the “enemy of the people” and “human scum.” He called the protestors “thugs.” He hasn’t denounced the police officers who murdered George Floyd. He hasn’t called for their arrest either. Top law-enforcement officer? I think not.
Yesterday, he topped all this off by sending in a huge law enforcement presence, complete with tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse peaceful protesters from a park, so he could walk through it to do a photo-op at a church while holding a Bible. A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say. Here’s one that I think tells the tale well. Granted, it’s the words in the picture that also matter, but it’s still a picture.
Here’s another one of a very unfortunate headline from The New York Times. Do better, NYT; you totally missed the point.
On the same day, Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden in which he said:
I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.
From rev.com; emphasis is mine.
Coincidence? Hunt down people with our second-amendment-guaranteed weapons? Again, I think not. That, dear reader, was a ‘dog whistle’ if ever I heard one. Someone is going to get killed and it will all be traced back to these messages coming from these people. Hopefully, that will be today and not twenty years from now.
During World War II, John Steinbeck wrote a propaganda piece called The Moon Is Down at the behest of the U.S. Government. It was meant to support those under Nazi occupation. It was so important to people that it was copied and distributed in Norway to bolster the morale of the Norwegian people in World War II. Steinbeck was awarded the King Haakon IV Freedom Cross for his work. The book was also distributed in numerous other territories occupied by the Nazis. Churchill was quite enthusiastic about the book as well. I highly recommend it. It isn’t the greatest piece of literature, but one of the more important.
Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.
Take that and choke on it, those who think that we should just take their word for it.
We literature teachers look for the messages writers send in their works. Sometimes, we’re right and sometimes we are imposing our own reality on theirs, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily wrong. When Charlotte Bronte wrote about many of the students in Jane Eyre’s school dying of typhus, was she not recalling her childhood and making a comment about the poor treatment of indigent children? When Toni Morrison wrote about Pilate’s complete capitulation to the police while in the station trying to retrieve her property, what message was she sending about the lengths that African Americans have to go to get any cooperation at all? What about Charles Dickens? Surely he was sending many messages about social disparity. And what was Alice Walker trying to say when Celie let loose on Mr. ___ and his son? That was a classic scene of a woman standing up for herself. My final example refers you to the first picture I posted. It will be the first novel we read in AP® Lit this year. Those are a few examples that come to my mind as I write this.
Somewhere, there is a writer crafting the first COVID-19 novel that touches poignantly on all the problems we have today: systemic racism, high unemployment, cuts to essential services to bolster “industry,” class disparity – and the list that goes on and on while one’s heart breaks. I can’t wait to read it.
There are so many articles, blog posts, and books about the purpose of education that it might seem odd to see yet another one. However, this might be a good exercise for any teacher to try, if only to determine his or her own views on the subject. Reading about it, or listening to someone speak of it, is one thing; forming an argument is quite another.
If you ask almost any teacher why he or she entered the teaching profession, you are likely to hear something like this: “I want to help people, especially the kids.” And if you were to ask those same teachers what they think the purpose of education is, you are likely to hear that it is to help students learn what they need to know to become effective, productive, and happy people as they mature into adulthood and beyond. That is true.
That is not the whole story, though, and we all know it. History tells us that many schools were established centuries ago in the colonies to teach children how to read the printed word. The Bible was a popular text, for example, as Protestantism indicated that reading the Bible for oneself was virtuous and recommended. Instead of relying on the minister to show one the way, it was important that a Protestant was somewhat self-reliant and able to speak to passages in the Bible that were relevant to the situation in which they found themselves.
History will also tell us that as the country industrialized, so too did the education system. School became the main venue for teaching students how to work hard in factories, pay attention to directions, and do basic things like reading, writing, and math (the 3Rs). When you read literature about this priority in education, you will often see a photo of students sitting in rows of desks with their hands folded in front of them, patiently listening to the teacher. This helps the reader connect schooling to aspects of industrialization such as the assembly line.
Finally (at least in this post), schooling was used as an assimilation vehicle, too. As immigration to the United States increased, schooling provided the children with the opportunity to learn about what it means to be an American, and to learn English. Schools’ practices related to this varied widely, of course, depending on the location. Assimilation continues to be a priority today.
Some controversies surrounding public schooling can be traced back to the inequitable quality of education that groups of students received based on their location and the funding available to the schools / school districts. In higher-income areas, students enjoy more advantages: better technology, more experienced teachers, pristine infrastructure, and more extracurricular activities with up-to-date facilities. My high school benefited from affluent alumni; we received donations all the time to keep our facilities thriving. We needed those donations, as the school district was always in a financial bind. But other high schools in the district were not so fortunate, and it showed – crumbling buildings, ineffective faculty, disengaged students, and few resources. I subbed in one school district that featured a bank branch in its high school as well as its own TV studio from which students would broadcast the news during homeroom, and in another school district where trash cans served to catch rain as it leaked through the roof, and teachers had to buy their own copy paper. The quality of education was strikingly different. The affluent school district allowed teachers more freedom to innovate, and encouraged its students to develop 21st Century Skills. The poorer district forced teachers to use a ‘standardized’ curriculum that was scripted and required teachers to be literally on the same page each day. The students and parents lined up once a week to receive donations from the Panera located in the town adjacent to theirs. The students learned hand signals and cues to keep the class on track. My ‘favorite’ was “Clap once if you can hear me,” to get the students to quiet down. If that didn’t work, the teacher asked, “Clap twice…” and then, “Clap three times…” – you get the idea. There was also a procedure that involved snapping one’s fingers, but I can’t remember exactly when that was used. Teachers in this school spent a lot more time on classroom management than they did on fostering collaboration and creativity. No, it was not the kids who were to blame; it was the adults’ view of the kids’ capabilities that was.
Therefore, it would seem (to me, at least) that the practice of education often runs counter to the expressed purpose of education. In my study of education over the years, I have found the following expressed purposes of education. Some we can all agree with, others are worthy of debate, and some just make us cringe.
• To prepare children for adult lives
• To help them become “God-fearing” people
• To prepare them to become effective and informed citizens
• To inspire students to be creative, innovative adults prepared for jobs that don’t exist yet
• To further humanity down the road of progress
• To “produce” adults who know how to follow directions
• To “provide” the knowledge they’ll need to succeed in their profession
• To lift children out of poverty
• To help the nation become a melting pot of cultures that all get along
• To help children learn how to learn so they can be lifelong, self-directed learners
• To encourage children to approach life as fierce competitors, prepared to win
• To develop critical thinking skills that will protect children from charismatic and overly ambitious people
• To demonstrate that geographical boundaries are no longer as relevant as they’d once been
• To convince children that all can learn once they understand their own processes, and can construct knowledge
• To push children beyond their perceived limits and barriers
• To instill in children a realistic confidence in themselves – and others
• To promote collaboration in the world of work and regular life
• To enculture children in the content areas they study, which they may someday enter as academics or professionals
• To explore “strange new worlds”
• To inspire children to become teachers too
• To further the cause of education’s continuous improvement
• To identify the special and support their development
Those who have been disappointed by the U.S. education system may add the following.
• To give kids something to do
• To turn them into “sheeple”
• To help them “ace” standardized tests and become “standardized people”
• To control children’s thought processes and mold them into those that best serve authority
• To show children what their “place” is in the world
• To keep children tied to their communities
• To regulate the knowledge that students have access to
• To teach kids irrelevant stuff they’ll never use again
I think that the purpose of education emerges school by school, and perhaps even classroom by classroom. A beautiful principle that makes up the American Idea is that divergent thought is supposed to be supported. Even in the age of standardized testing, teachers still expressed themselves through their practice, and this is wonderful. What would help these creative, compassionate, passionate teachers would be to provide them all with the same access to tools they need to educate 21st century kids to use 21st century skills. What would be wonderful is to see the schools in any neighborhood in terrific condition, radiating hope for, and confidence in, the students it serves. Its doors would be open to the community, allowing anyone who wanted to learn the chance to do just that. If we could agree on just these simple things, perhaps we could fulfill the purpose of education so many teachers go into the profession believing to be most important: to help children become happy, healthy, productive, passionate, compassionate, critically thinking, creative, and loving adults.