Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Storm Before the Storm

For a man who demands loyalty, the steady drip of betrayals and plea bargains have to be driving the president wacky. And by the tone of his recent tweets, I'd say that I'm not saying anything new.

But loyalty is as loyalty does, and President Trump has repeatedly shown that he is not terribly loyal, even to those who have supported him. He's burned through more cabinet members than other recent presidents as well as staff members and advisors, and every person who's left has been the subject of a personal and public attack that demonstrates the personal nature of which the president sees these relationships. Of course, when everything has to be about him, then everything has to be either against him or for him.

The real problem for the president is what Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen have told prosecutors about what he knew and when he knew it, and this can't be good for him. We already know that Trump lied about his sexual liaisons with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, and generally speaking, when people lie about their affairs, there's usually much more skulduggery in their closets.

The president can call Robert Mueller's investigation whatever he wants, but it looks like Mueller is conducting a sober, thorough, evidence-based inquiry that probably bothers the president because none of those three words describes how he approaches problems. It's usually true that when you don't have the ideas to support you, then you go after the person. That's exactly what's happening here. And if Mueller releases his findings close to the November elections, you'll be able to see the fireworks no matter where you look in the sky.

The storms of September will pass and the country will unite to help people who have lost their homes and their property, and we will mourn those who have died. But there are more storms yet to come before November's election and these will be of consequence for everyone.

If you haven't registered to vote and you still can in your state, then please do. And make sure you vote.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Teachers Need Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Most of the nation's schools are now open and running, but what of education?

Here in New Jersey, and in much of the New York suburbs, the opening week was an exercise in damage control. Most school districts, including mine, that do not have air-conditioning suffered through a terrible four days that saw students and teachers getting sick from the heat and school districts that changed their school's schedules to single session days (there's no such thing as a half-day).

As the climate warms, and it is, these days will become as frequent as snow days are in the winter, and will force all schools to have air conditioning as default equipment. This will cost money that the public will need to contribute in taxes, and with property taxes already high in these states, something else might need to be cut to pay for it.

And just wait until next spring when those of us living in states, where the new tax law limits our ability to deduct some mortgage and home equity loan interest and property taxes, complete our returns and realize that the GOP is fleecing the middle class so that corporations can get their 15% tax cut.

Through all of this, and more, teachers are doing their jobs with tremendous help from...exactly. There is simply no national agenda to improve education other than to cut back on regulations, destroy public unions, promote charter and for-profit schools, private school vouchers, and policies that question the value of what really made America exceptional and great: the public schools. With the GOP in charge, the federal government is abandoning its oversight role and giving the power back to the states to set their own academic requirements, student evaluations and equity policies. While it is true that states should have a great deal of power over their public schools, some states have notoriously low standards, are starving their budgets in order to lower taxes, and are falling short of ensuring that all students are protected by the laws and are provided with an effective education.

And if you thought that last school year's teacher walkouts in Oklahoma and West Virginia were isolated events, then you are in for a shock. I have no doubt that this year will bring more walkouts, more labor disputes, and more civil disobedience. I, for one, am in the mood and I work in a state where the teacher's union is strong and salaries allow for a middle class life.

Which makes this week's weather folly all that much more galling for both students and teachers. Many students, including not only my high schoolers, but children as young as five years old, were in classrooms for hours that registered temperatures in the 90s. If we left these same students in cars with the window cracked a half inch for 15 minutes while we ran into Starbucks we'd be arrested for child endangerment. Our administrators sent us messages thanking us and complimenting us all on being "troopers" and "toughing it out," words that have no place in a school.

I'm a teacher, not a soldier. I don't operate on the front lines, I teach in a classroom. And it's my job to prepare today's students to be tomorrow's leaders. Respect, or get out of the way.

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Back-To-School Special: What You Know Beats How You Feel. Every Time.

My school district thought that it would just a fabulous idea to have the faculty report at the end of August, rather than to wait until September as they had for, say, the past 110 years, and to try and mollify us, in addition to giving us something to think about, they contracted with Dr. Robert Brooks and had him deliver a lecture about why it's key that educators create an atmosphere of trust, respect and comfort for our students.

My, what a long sentence that was.

But I digress.

Dr. Brooks's main point was that in order for students to reach their potential as learners, teachers need to provide a supportive, engaging, safe environment in their classrooms. Students should feel welcomed and respected, and they should know that the teacher is going to provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, to work through problems, and to fail, as long as we also provide them with opportunities to correct their mistakes. He also spoke at length about creating resilient children who can use their life experiences, temperament and previous knowledge so they can feel successful and confident in their abilities. Much of what he said reflected what many educators learned in the 1980s and 90s through the Madeline Hunter Instructional Theory Into Practice model. Hunter spoke of "feeling tone'" which was a method of making one's classroom into, you got it, a supportive, engaging, safe environment.

This all sounds reasonable, but then Dr. Brooks lost me completely.

On two occasions during his lecture, he stated that "teachers do not teach math, history, science, 2nd grade or 3rd grade." His point was that we should be focusing on how students feel in the classroom and making them feel comfortable and welcomed in school.

I could not disagree more.

From the time I began teaching 35 years ago, I have called myself a "History Teacher." Not Social Studies--History. There's a difference. My view is that students need to know the subject, and through the subject they learn the disciplines inherent in that subject, the different strategies and learning modalities necessary to succeed in that subject, and the facts, arguments and research that informs the subject. It's through the subject that a student finds their level of engagement and interest, and it's up to the teacher to make that subject as relevant to the student as they can. The subject must drive the teacher's approach to education and to their classroom management. In sum, the subject comes first, then comes the environment.

I do agree with every educational theorist on the merits of creating a classroom environment where students feel welcome and safe, and where children know that the teacher can be trusted to provide them with worthwhile activities and information that will allow them to succeed. But we need to do that through our subjects, not first or separate. I want resilient students who can evaluate their own work against a rubric and edit, rewrite or change their minds to make a more cogent historical argument, and I will create a classroom environment that values those approaches.

What Dr. Brooks did not mention was that learning in and of itself is stressful. It's difficult to fit contradictory or seemingly unfathomable facts into your worldview. I will challenge students and ask difficult questions and, at times, make students uncomfortable because that's how you can assess learning. Many times students leave the classroom, and not just mine, without a resolution or with more questions that need answers. And it's all driven by the subject.

What's happened in education over the past 15 years is that educators have been told to focus more on mindsets, resilience and students' emotional concerns at the expense of actually teaching them a body of knowledge. Academic skills have become more important than facts because, after all, if you can learn how to analyze a source, you can do that in every subject, right? The Common Core gets some of the blame because it was a list of skills that students needed to learn. I thought that was great, but the problem was that the skills ate the content. The other problem is the assumption that we are living in a post-fact world because, after all, you can just look it up on the Internet. As a response to that folly, I am actually planning more lessons that don't require students to open their computers.

Teachers must teach their subjects first and foremost and use that subject to create an inviting classroom where students know they can succeed. To my colleagues around the country, I hope that you and your students have a successful year, and that by the end you have students who are both knowledgeable and happy.

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