Busyness Is Not A Badge Of Honor

No Stone Unturned

After devoting the vast majority of my writing and thinking to education-related issues and other publishing platforms in the past year or two, I’ve decided to revive the ‘Stew!

Out of curiosity, I used Medium to post my latest effort.  Thanks for reading!

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What Do You Do Without A Screen?

No Stone Unturned

I’m not sure when I realized a determination to continue to learn and do things that do not actively require a digital screen.  

This desire to be present and hands-on could have been fostered at an early age; I remember putting on a plastic hard hat and hammering away on rocks, shards of stone rocketing off into the grass, while my uncle fixed the foundation to our barn.  I remember constructing forts out of plywood and potato guns out of PVC piping (sorry, mom).  My friend Chris once allowed me to borrow his stick-shift Honda Accord for a week so I could learn how to drive a manual.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

With each passing year and new gadget becoming the latest rage, it’s far too easy to let convenience, leisure, and screen time consume all waking hours. I’m victim to bleary eyes from staring at a screen, checking my phone too often, and defaulting to mindless internet browsing.

But I check myself. I don’t feel good if I fail to step away from technology on a fairly regular basis.

While I’m an active Twitter user and blogger, my students don’t understand what I do when I’m not teaching.  “Do you have a life?” they inevitably ask, when I tell them I haven’t seen the latest viral YouTube clip, or TV show, or haven’t heard that a pop star has gone into rehab.  I’ve got hobbies, I tell them.  I like to try and build things, cook, brew beer, hunt deer (although this past season was my first shut out, to my dismay).  They shake their heads.  They are truly perplexed, but they don’t do much questioning when I tell them I’m glad I grew up right before the smartphone revolution. 

Is it becoming a norm in society to not know how to do anything of disengaged from digital connectivity? Is it the norm to pursue as much leisure and convenience as one can?

Sure seems like it. Effort becomes devalued, as does work, in favor of instant gratification, a point Wendell Berry makes in The Art of the Commonplace: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.”

With Berry’s quote in mind, I suppose a lot of what I like to do might be considered work or not worth the effort. But here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this. I wonder if, at some point, they’ll have their own epiphanies and start to engage themselves, with others, and the world around them in different ways.

What do you take pride in being able to do without a screen?  What are some pros and cons to the relentless onslaught of technologies that promote leisure and entertainment?  How well would you cope without your phone or internet for 48 hours?

Why Value Education When I Have Everything I Need?

No Stone Unturned

I’m not too worried about the recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores, which revealed that American teenagers are lagging behind their counterparts all around the globe. I’m not worried about being outperformed by Estonia, Poland, and Ireland in reading, and I’m not worried that we’re only one spot ahead of Lithuania in math. After all, we’ve been here before.

Jordan Weissman’s points out in the The Atlantic that our teens have tended to botch these internationally benchmarked exams for almost 50 years now, but that hasn’t spelled economic doom for us. In 1983, we were A Nation At Risk. Relative to the rest of the world, we weren’t a nation at risk then, nor are we now.

But I am concerned that the discouraging test results might reveal a motivational divide. Is this a general sign of coddled students? An indictment of the high-stakes-testing-saturated nature of our public education system? Perhaps a combination of both? Or is it something else?

Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times:

The “digital divide” will soon disappear. Fairly soon, virtually everyone will have a screen and an Internet connection. In that world, argues futurist Marina Gorbis, the big divide will be “the motivational divide” — who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn. And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs.

The “motivational divide” is already playing out in classrooms around the United States–mine included. It bothers me to no end to work with students given tools, skills, and opportunities to take advantage of digital media and constant connectivity, only to push aside learning in favor of distraction and leisure on their phones. But I also see the benefits of those students who do have the self-motivation, grit and persistence to elevate their learning explorations to new levels. It’s amazing to see.

If a motivational divide exists between teens in the United States versus teens in other places in the world, then one cause could be relative material comfort and standard of living.

Many of our disadvantaged students have a material standard of living much greater than those students who are outperforming them, and I wonder how this informs their effort in school. Why value education when I have everything I need?

It’s easy to have relative material wealth and modern comforts in the United States without being well-educated. I doubt it’s the same in many other places around the world.

Do you think there’s any truth to my theory?  We obviously still have far too much poverty in the United States for such a wealthy nation, but could it be possible that for many students, cheap consumer electronics, ubiquitous smart phones (instant entertainment), and other material comforts weaken motivation to do well in school?

A Priority: Changing How We Talk About School

Room 137

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog at the Center for Teaching Quality.

Wordle: Thunder words

In 2008, one of my first published articles challenged the dominant discourse in education. I was fed up with the way many of my colleagues and administrators conversed about teaching and learning, believing their words stifled innovation.

I heard grades, standards, depth of knowledge, future, rigor, and test scores all the time. But I wanted to talk about and employ pedagogy relating to community, inspiration, discovery, projects, and the present.

The way we talk about school has shifted a little bit, but it’s still dominated by language relating to content standards and testing, sometimes pushing aside more meaningful ideas and practice.

Our language reflects our philosophy, and I wonder how often we educators blindly accept words set forth before us without examining underlying belief systems behind the lingo. Here are a few phrases or words worth critically challenging:

College and Career Readiness (CCR)

It has a nice ring to it, no?  We all want our students to be prepared to succeed after they stroll across the stage after graduation. I can’t argue with that.  Are students really CCR by solely posting a minimal ACT score? Of course not, but this is way these words have been twisted. I’m bombarded daily with reminders of the need to increase CCR scores, and I’m tired of it.

Being CCR means a lot more than a qualifying test score.  It means being able to communicate using varied mediums and devices. It means being able to ask questions and solve problems. It could mean building student capacity to identify community and school issues, making their world a better place.

Focusing on CCR scores ignores the fact there can be meaningful, varied opportunities right NOW. Not in the future. “You’ll need that (insert content or test score here) years down the road” is simply an excuse for bypassing authentic teaching and learning in the present.

  • Let’s talk about how we define CCR in our schools. Let’s talk about what we can do right now, in order to provide students valuable skills and experiences in the present.

Achievement Gap

Like CCR, this discourse is focused on student deficit, rather than student strength. Sure, we’d love to see groups of students achieve on more equal levels. But by focusing on what students lack and trying to build a bridge to span these gaps, are we missing opportunities to explore student strengths? How are student schedules altered by focusing on student weaknesses? Then there’s the whole issue of how achievement is defined within this discourse, which is in the context of standardized test scores.

  • Let’s talk about what it means to focus on student strength instead of weakness. Let’s talk about different definitions of achievement.

Data

Yes, it’s great to make informed instructional decisions based on what we know, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that teaching and learning is best served by examining quantitative data.  Can meaningful experience in the classroom really be distilled to multiple choice data?

More educators should ask why? when it comes to quantitative data, like Esther Quintero questions in her Answer Sheet column at the Washington Post.  “Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data),” she writes. Quintero is right–we often aren’t collecting the right data or asking the right questions.

  • Let’s talk about why we collect certain types of data.  Let’s talk about embracing qualitative observations as an alternative or supplement to narrowly-defined multiple choice data.

I’ll admit I need to do a better job starting these conversations within my own building, and tomorrow’s inservice day will be a good place to start. How about you? What do you wish was talked about more in schools? Outside of school, what places/organizations use language that seems to distract from worthwhile goals? 

Show Me Respect, Or Else!

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

A few weeks ago, two students showed up for English class a few minutes late–not the first time–and shuffled into their seats, smirking and tossing their backpacks to the floor. While I began to explain the lesson, a hand shot up from the back of the classroom.  “Mr. B, can I go to the bathroom?” He’d been in the room for two, maybe three minutes, and now he had audacity to request leaving.

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I glanced back with a scowl, feeling my heart thump a little louder than normal. Are you kidding me? I thought.  The same student just displayed a disregard for the start of class by being tardy. Given that we’d been discussing the idea of respect in the context of the book The Other Wes Moore, I fired back. “You’ll have to wait.  You realize how disrespectful it is to ask me after coming to class late?”

“How is it disrespectful?”  he responded without sarcasm. I took a breath, realizing that he perhaps had no clue why his action was disrespectful to me and our classroom time and space.  It was a teachable moment, and I regret missing the opportunity to have a productive conversation.

Many students have skewed notions of respect, largely fueled by pop culture, fear, and violence. Ask students what respect means, and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers.

Some will tell you it’s about fear and power. Think about the bully who trolls the hallways, puffing out his chest, bumping students with his shoulder, demanding respect. Respect based on fear, violence, and intimidation.

Some will tell you it’s all about making sure you acknowledge their presence, their being, regardless of their behavior. I think about times when I’ve asked challenging students to move seats to minimize their off-task behavior, and they openly state they don’t like being disrespected like that. What?!

Others, mostly our refugee students, will provide a definition of respect based on family status or age. One Cuban girl told me she has to respect all the elders in her family.

Yet few will actually give you a textbook definition of respect: admiring and recognizing people for positive qualities, abilities, or achievements. Or acknowledging the traditions or routines in an environment, not wanting to interfere or harm.

The following passage from the book, a story about two men with the same names and drastically different fates, seemed to have an impact on many students.  In the scene, one of the Wes Moores, now a cadet at a military academy, witnesses a fellow student command attention and deference based on qualities he’d never witnessed before back in his Bronx neighborhood:

“In spite of myself, I was impressed. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a man, a peer, demand that much respect from his people. I had seen Shea demand respect in the neighborhood, but this was different. This was real respect, the kind you can’t beat or scare out of people. That’s when I started to understand that I was in a different environment. Not simply because I was in the middle of Pennsylvania instead of the Bronx or Baltimore. It was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized.”

Wes Moore, like many students I deal with, need to be deliberately taught different modes of perceiving themselves and the world.  There is perhaps too much emphasis on academics in school, given the social-emotional deficits students bring to the table.  Is it more important to learn the periodic table or learn and practice real tolerance and respect?  How do you think you learned respect?  If you are a teacher or have/work with young people, what are you observations regarding respect?

Would You–Or Do You–Monitor Your Child’s Digital Activity?

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

In 1994, when I was 13 years old, I did what I suspect many 13 year-old boys might do.  I snuck into my younger sister’s room, found her colorfully-bound private journal, read it, dusted off my fingerprints, and smirked, knowing I now possessed information to get under her skin.  It seemed like the best way to torment my sister, who didn’t deserve the heckling that ensued after I teased her about a boy she clearly liked.  She’d devoted several pages to him in her journal.

Fast forward to 2013.  I’m not sure how many students keep a traditional journal, but many students use social media and the internet to broadcast their thoughts by the day, hour, and even minute.  Many students either don’t think their parents know what’s going on, or they think their parents are oblivious to belligerent online activity.  Many parents are.

Given this fact, to what extent should parents monitor, curtail, or even spy on their child’s cell phone or internet use?

I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I’m completely aware of the innocent and nefarious ways kids and teenagers use their digital devices.  I’ve heard students talking about Snapchat, where they can take a picture of themselves then send it to a friend or acquaintance, with the file being supposedly self-destructing after 10 seconds.  You can imagine the type of photos some reckless and hormone-riddled teens send to each other.  Some students bully each other to the point of tragedy, described here by blogger Caitlin Kelly over at BroadsideThen there’s Twitter and Instagram, tools many teenagers use to supply the world with endless streams of narcissistic drivel, trash-talk, and “selfies.

On the other hand, students engage in positive online communities relating to their interests.  I’m thinking about my students who are self-described “nerds,” using social media to connect with other anime or gaming aficionados.  “

Here’s some hypothetical scenarios to consider:

  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 15 year-old boy and suspect drug-use, bullying, or other reckless behavior.  Your son has left for the afternoon to hang out with some friends at the bowling alley, and, surprisingly, he left his phone on the kitchen counter. Would you search through your his cell phone records or Twitter feed without he or she knowing it?  What would you do if you found incriminating evidence?
  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 13 year-old girl, and you’ve been in a year-long battle with her over how she dresses.  Despite your best efforts to keep her from dressing in what you deem as racy attire, you suspect her exhibitionist streak is manifesting itself online.  While she heads to living room to complete some algebra homework, you notice her laptop is open and the screen seems to show a picture that can’t be your daughter in a skimpy bathing suit.  Except that it is, and you sneak into her room and scroll down to find other photos more fit for a 21-year old aspiring model.  What do you do?
  • Your child has just received his driver’s license.  You require him to check in whenever he gets to his stated destination, but you’re suspicious that he isn’t always where he says he is.  You’re also aware of small GPS tracking devices that can be affixed to cars.  Do you install a device, to keep secret tabs on where your teen is headed, given his new freedom?

A couple years removed from college, I helped a former sociology professor with field research for her book.  I interviewed parents about their own surveillance.  After conducting and recording 8-10 extensive interviews, it became apparent that those parent-child dynamics based more on trust, versus spying and surveillance, seemed to spawn healthier relationships.  At the time, the ubiquity of cell phones was on the verge of manifesting itself, but the prevalence of digital tools in our lives wasn’t as intense as it is 8 or so years later.  There are certainly new challenges and considerations for parents, regarding the choices about access and surveillance.

As parents and would-be parents, I’m wondering how you might respond to the scenarios above.  Or do you–would you–not allow a teen to have his or her laptop?  How about cell phones–at what age should a child have a phone?  What restrictions or monitoring do you–or would you–employ?  

“I like knowledge, but I don’t like school,” says a student.

No Stone Unturned

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog for Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) on September 25th, 2013.  The blog focuses on questions, issues, and solutions surrounding the Common Core State Standards and School Redesign.  CTQ has an impressive array of teacher leaders and voices at the site–check it out!

I’ve cringed when I’ve heard students in the past make discouraging remarks about other classes, and if you’ve spent any time in the classroom, you’ve inevitably heard both positive and negative reviews of your colleagues. These informal reviews are often spot-on, a contention Amanda Ripley argues in The Atlantic, as strong evidence exists suggesting students are the best evaluators of teaching effectiveness.

But what about student voice regarding general school reform?  Is it possible student insight should be considered more as we redesign schools, classrooms, curriculums, and policy?  

Obviously, students don’t have master’s degrees in Education Leadership. Students generally don’t study pedagogy, read Education Week, or converse online about education-related debates. But they do know what is most engaging, impactful, and inspiring in schools. After all, they’re the subjects of countless lab experiments, so to speak, all with wildly different results.

I asked some of my students from Fern Creek High School in Louisville to discuss what changes they believe would be beneficial to schools. All of the students have, at some point, been frustrated with a “sit and get” model of education, and they didn’t prepare their responses.  

Listen by clicking here.  

What strikes you most about their words? For me, what’s alarming is their perception of a lack of student choice in course selection, in addition to a dearth of creative opportunities.  

As we plow ahead with implementing the Common Core Standards, it’s imperative that we design instruction to allow for discovery, creation, and action.

At Fern Creek, Brent Peters and Joe Franzen have designed a dynamic English III course centered around food, with students beginning each instructional unit facing a big question leading to critical inquiry, intensive writing, and hands-on learning: What is good food?Is food sacred?, and Is school lunch saving our generation? are among the questions students tackle. The class is a hit with the kids.

As for me, I’ve attempted to exploit the open-ended language of the CCSS to allow for student discovery, creation, and action as well, designing a digital media course titled Unleashing Digital Storytelling.

Can you imagine a school system that listens more to students?  What are some pros and cons to this approach?

Can You Imagine Schools Without Sports?

No Stone Unturned

Americans are known throughout the world for being competitive people. We like to win Olympic medals, build the biggest houses, and maintain a superior military force. We have the most human and natural resources any nation has ever known. But do we have the best schools?  

Perhaps we have the very best at the top, but we also have too many schools that fail to provide and foster academic opportunities.  

Many people, including Amanda Ripley writing in The Atlantic magazine, are out to figure out why our schools and students–on average–lag behind other nations less prosperous than ours. Ripley’s latest argument piqued my interest–could sports be the primary reason many of our schools are mediocre compared to schools in less prosperous nations?

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Sports are a bigger deal here than anywhere else, yet few people seem willing to critique our collective obsession with Friday night lights, homecoming basketball games, and training year round for various activities. Ruth, one of my foreign students who hails from Rwanda, said she couldn’t believe how important sports were to Americans upon arriving in the country.  

Could our focus on sports detract us from better academic options and outcomes? Or are sports so integral to our school communities that we couldn’t function with them?  

Ripley cites a school district in Premont, Texas–perhaps the most crazed football state in the nation–that cancelled its sports programs in 2012 in order to save the school. The cost of funding the teams was simply too high. Some students were outraged, and others transferred to neighboring school districts.  So what happened?

The first fall without a football program, 80% of the students passed their classes, compared to 50% the year before. 160 parents showed up at parent-teacher conferences, compared to 6 the previous fall. The money saved went to raises for teachers. As the district’s budget became balanced, sports are gradually being reintroduced, but the former football coach says the culture shift has been striking–in a good way. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” he said, “compared to 2 percent before.”

Talking with students in my English III class last week, even some athletes admitted that sports may be overemphasized. Yet Cory, a junior on the baseball team, made the astute point that for him and many others, sports motivate many students to do better in school and keep grades up. And then there’s the way sports can bring people together.

Think about how community traditions, support, and participation merge during a typical football game.  Take our homecoming football game, for instance. The band, cheerleading squad, dance team, and alumni all participated in the event. The softball and baseball teams, I believe, manned the concession stand and ticket booth. Our football team played and won the game, of course.  So many people are able to come together, helping create school spirit and culture.  

As for me, I had a wonderful experience playing high school football and baseball, and some of my best friends today were members of the 1998 Crimson Tide gridiron team in Concord, New Hampshire. I had tough coaches who instilled life lessons.  I’m also fortunate to have had well-educated parents who knew that doing well in school–not being a football or baseball star–would be the best ticket to college.

During the past ten years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with far too many students who struggle in the classroom, but spend hours upon hours at practice, instead of going to tutoring, reading, or otherwise being involved in something more academically-oriented.  Many students talk about the importance of doing well in school, but their actions speak louder than their words.  

In many cases, it’s not the students’ fault they value their athletic experiences so highly–they are reflecting our societal values.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how much stronger our schools might be if all the money, time, and energy poured into sports–on all levels– was funneled in other directions.

Are sports overemphasized in your communities?  Can you imagine school without sports?  

School Segregation Persists, But Not In Louisville

No Stone Unturned

If you’re a black public school student in Chicago, there’s a 70% chance you’re in an intensely segregated school (90%+ minority student body).  Similar trends occur for Latino students in Los Angeles.  Examine enrollments in many urban districts across the land and you’ll see similar trends suggesting that despite our country’s status as a melting pot, many of our public schools are more like one or two ingredient stews. 

chicago public school students

And according to The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, fifteen percent of black students and 14 percent of Latino students attend “apartheid schools” across the nation in which whites make up zero to 1 percent of the enrollment.  

There’s no law driving these numbers, but there is also little being done to remedy inequities, and The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss sums up the research: 

“Segregation in public schools has been linked to a number of problems that affect the achievement of minorities. Schools with a big majority of students who live in poverty have higher dropout rates, fewer experienced teachers and far less resources than schools with majorities of middle- and upper-class students. The studies note that expert teachers and advanced courses more common in predominantly white and/or wealthy schools help create educational advantages over minority segregated settings.”

If the above is true, then how come there aren’t more incentives for experienced teachers to teach in more segregated schools?  How come policy-wonks obsess over closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, yet most school systems accept these types of structural inequalities?  

Civic leaders and policy makers in Louisville, Kentucky, however, have long determined that we don’t want de facto segregation to rule the roost.  After all, we could have neighborhood schools that are intensely segregated by race and income.  We’re no different than many urban areas regarding housing and neighborhood demographics.

As school ended this afternoon in Louisville, thousands of public school students boarded buses to begin their journeys home.  For some, a simple five or ten minute drive delivered them to their stop.  For others, their trek included a transfer at a bus depot, and a much longer trip.  There are students who live in the predominantly black West End and attend schools in the lily-white eastern suburbs.  And vice-versa.

I grew up in Concord, NH, and I always attended my neighborhood public school.  It seemed like everybody did.  Bake sales, open houses, and other community events were big deals, and they were also relatively easy to get to.  More than 90% of my classmates were white, and I was oblivious and insulated from the challenges–both on a personal and systemic level–that plague our urban schools.

I honestly don’t know what would be better for our community.  We still have large achievement gaps.  We still have disproportionately high discipline problems with minority students.  We still have “schools within schools,” where tracking and AP courses result in classrooms segregated within our buildings.  Home and neighborhood influences still seems to exert greater sway over educational outcomes, despite the fact that many of our students, in theory, attend “better” schools due to busing.

I’d like to believe the busing has positive effects on the educational attainment–and also the personal growth–of our students.

Even if the academic effects are marginally positive, isn’t busing a good thing to help foster tough-to-measure human characteristics like tolerance? If you’re a single-parent in an impoverished part of the city, is it beneficial for your student to travel away from the neighborhood to attend school?  Does the busing lead to less neighborhood cohesion, as true neighborhood schools are generally diluted?  Do our students become more prepared for the “real world” thanks to exposure and interaction with those different from themselves?

Look forward to your thoughts.