Friday, May 25, 2018

Legacy

I walked into this building as a seventh grader in 1969. I'll walk out of it as a retiree in less than two weeks.

You get asked a lot of questions when you retire, many of which have the unintended consequence of poking you right in the feels. (I'm definitely not  crying at least once a day, but if I did, I would at least manage to do it when I'm not in front of anybody.) Some are pretty basic (what are you going to do with that filing cabinet) and some dig a little deeper, like the comments about my legacy. Some folks have even offered to watch after my legacy, to preserve it, and I just don't have the heart to tell them that I have no legacy in this building.

I'm the longest-serving member of the current faculty, which means that I've seen a lot of people head out the door, and I know exactly what kind of mark they leave behind them.

Teachers are not billionaires or politicians. We don't generally get to build giant structures and slap our own names on them in hopes that some day we will leave a mark behind us. We don't generally get honored with statues and monuments, not even in a broad Tomb of the Unknown Teacher way, let alone as specific individuals. Nobody is out there carving his third grade teacher's face into the side of a mountain.

A teacher in a school is like a post driven deep into the bed of a river. The current bends around her; maybe it cuts into the bank and certainly it carries river traffic along paths affected by that post. Even the bed of the river will be cut and shaped by the current as it bends around that post. People even start to navigate by the post, as if it's a permanent part of the river.

But something happens when the post is one day removed.

Maybe folks are so impressed by the post that they put a special commemorative marker in place of the post. Maybe some big boulders rolled into place against the post and stay in place long after the post is gone, even when folks don't remember how they ended up there.

But mostly there's a momentary swirl of dirt, a quick rush of water and then, after a brief moment of time, the river bed is smooth again and the river flows as if there was never any post at all.

I don't imagine I will leave much of legacy here, and what little there is will be worn away over time, and that's okay. I do have a legacy, but to see it, you have to look downstream.

I figure that I've worked with, roughly, 5,000 students. Some of them are still carrying around bits of skill or knowledge that I passed on to them, or parts of their lives that grew out of something I passed on to them. They grew up to be living, breathing, growing, active men and women who worked at finding how to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. Undoubtedly some of those students didn't get much out of being in my class, and some have less-than-positive memories of me, but I have to believe that some got something out of their time in my room.

That's my legacy. People who felt just a little better about reading, or just a little better about riding. Here and there some students who actually pursued writing or teaching as careers. Some students who built a foundation of confidence in an activity. Some I hear from now and then, some I talk to regularly, and some whose lives took them far from here, and I have no idea how their stories have unfolded.

My legacy-- and every teacher's legacy-- is not here in this building. This building is just brick and mortar and rules and procedures and "traditions" that sometimes last less than a decade, all carried out by a constantly-changing cast of educators and students. Names and awards are created, but they carry on names even as the person whose name it is is forgotten. My legacy-- and every teacher's legacy-- is out in the world, in those students who passed through this building, and it's not for anyone to "preserve" because it has a life of its own-- as it should.

If I can switch metaphors for a moment-- as teachers, our job is to light a fire, to pass along a flame. Passing on a flame is a curious activity-- the new flame is not a piece of the old one, but its own new thing, with its own new life, even as the old fire continues to burn. Spreading a flame multiplies it, but the new flame is not shaped or controlled by the old one.

If I walk back into this building ten years from now, I don't imagine that I'll find anything to indicate that I was ever here. But, "God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that's gonna outlive me." Teaching has always let me do that-- but not here, not in this building. Not in this stiff structure of unliving steel and stone. Out there in the world, where the water carries us to the sea, new fires spring up to illuminate the world, and human beings full of life and breath roam and grow. If we're going to have a legacy, that's where it will be.



Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Betsy DeVos Does Not Owe You a Damned Explanation

There are so many moments from the nearly four hours that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent chatting with some Congresspersons today, but as a dedicated DeVos watcher, this three minute clip is captivating:



God bless Bobby Scott for not actually throwing something at her.

But I think Splinter (the only place I could find this clip (if for some reason you can't play it, here's a good recap) has made a  critical mistake which perpetuates a mistake people keep making.

I'm having so much fun. It's like teasing a cat with a laser pointer.

It is easy to watch DeVos robotically repeat variations on "If follows the law" and imagine that she is just being obtuse or maybe trying to hide ignorance, but as I have said repeatedly, I do not believe DeVos is a dope.

So you may watch this and think the underlying message from DeVos is "I don't know what I'm doing" or "I haven't done my homework" or "I don't really understand what I'm being asked." But I think the underlying message is something else entirely--

"I don't owe you a damned word of explanation for anything."

"First of all, I'm anointed by God. I'm on a literal mission from the Creator of the Universe, so I answer to a much higher power than a bunch of suits stuffed with cheap-ass lobbyist pocket change.So I don't answer your question. So what? Are you going to scowl at me? Because my brother is Eric Frickin' Prince who kills guys like you-- literally kills guys like you-- before breakfast, and spends his afternoon torturing information out of dangerous men. You think he hasn't given me a few pointers over Thanksgiving dinner? You think I'm not geared up to resist questioning by guys whose most enhanced interrogation technique is Asking The Same Thing Repeatedly With an Annoyed Face?"

"See this smile? It's the smile of someone who has so much money that I don't need anybody else's help. It's the smile of someone who's such tight besties with Jesus that I don't need anybody else's approval."

"Don't know education? I know exactly what I want to do and I know exactly how much of an answer I plan to give you and if you don't like it-- tough. I'm within the letter of the law, and you can't touch me, and if you want to gaze disapprovingly, go right ahead. When I'm relaxing at the right hand of God the Father and you are roasting in Hell, this little chat isn't going to mean a damn thing."

Okay, I may be expanding and paraphrasing a bit. But look at the patented DeVos smirk. This woman knows exactly what she's doing, and she knows that she doesn't have to explain any of it to us plebes or our elected representatives.

Striking Local

While the big news in teacher strikes has been state-wide walkouts, elsewhere in the world, teachers are also dealing with strikes the old fashioned way-- one district at a time.

In fact, right now in my little corner of the world, two local unions are looking at teacher strikes-- one in the fall, and one tomorrow (I will note in the spirit of full disclosure that one of these school districts is the one where my wife works).

I've been through two strikes in my career (one as a new hire, and one as local president). It may seem as if there are many reasons that strikes happen, but there really aren't.

Strikes happen because there is a breakdown in negotiations. When a school board indicates that they are not wiling to negotiate any more, then teachers are out of options. This should not come as a shock to anyone-- if you are trying to buy a car, and the dealer says he will not lower the price that is two grand above what you're willing to pay, what do you do? You walk away. But school boards (or sometimes the administrator's behind them) sometimes fall in love with the notion that they should be able to dictate the terms of the teacher contract. In some states, that is now the law. But Pennsylvania is not one of those states. When you tell your teachers that you refuse to schedule any more sessions and they had better accept your last offer or else-- well, that's dumb, because the only "or else" that can follow is a strike.

Okay, I take it back. There is one other "or else"-- teachers can decide to stop working for you at all. The nationwide teacher shortage is simply a slow motion teacher walkout.

If you say to your staff, "We want to be the school district of last resort, so that you can work only with people who couldn't find any job anywhere else," you are being a dope. Nobody wants that.

The most important thing to understand about a teacher strike is that no teacher wants to strike. Not one. Not ever. Teachers do not suddenly decide they'd like to strike because a couple of rabble-rousers stirred them up. If your teachers are talking strike, it is because you have backed them into a corner. You have convinced them they have no other options short of quitting permanently.

If you're a school board looking at a strike-- well, you made this. You treated them like dopes who couldn't figure out that a $100 salary bump minus a $200 increase in insurance payments i actually a raise (or some similar mathematical baloney).You have convinced them that you are not interested in bargaining in good faith. You have convinced them that you view the contract as a battle to be won instead of a problem to be solved together. You have convinced them that they can't trust you to put the interests of education first. You may even have convinced them that you do not respect or value them.

Schools boards can send messages. In my strike, years ago, the board opened negotiations with "stripping," a move in which the board "offers" to strip dozens of items from the contract-- things they didn't remotely care about, but took as a bargaining position so that they could claim they were "giving something up" when they agreed to only take teachers' arms instead of teachers' arms and legs.  Last night, one board, knowing that the full contingent of teachers were coming to the meeting, moved the meeting to a larger venue, then moved it back to the classroom-sized location so that folks would have to squeeze in and sit on the floor and wait in the hall. This is what is technically known as "a dick move." And it send s a message-- We have the power and you don't. This is our space and you're not welcome.

There are plenty of other delightful things you can expect if you are a teacher on strike.

Fellow teachers who want to hide. "I don't want to wear the union t-shirt. I don't want to wear the color we picked out for that day. I don't want to walk on the picket line. I believe in what we're doing and I want to see this contract settled but couldn't I just stay home and watch Great British Baking and let someone else take care of all the hard stuff?"  I get it. It's scary to actually stand up publicly for something when some people disagree with you. But as with all sorts of negotiations, the principle is very simple. You want A. That's nice-- but how badly do you want it? How much difficulty and inconvenience are you willing to suffer to get it. If the answer I "Now very much," then you aren't going to get it.

Fellow teachers who are conflict averse. My union had several members who were just sure that it was all a big misunderstanding and if we could just explain to the board and the public, it would be okay, so let's just do that. As the strike becomes more real, some teachers will decide that maybe a 0.12% raise isn't that bad. This is normal and understandable and not unusual-- Patrick Henry's whole speech is about responding to the colonials who wanted to try anything else except revolution, and his whole point was that everything else had been tried and had failed.

The race to the bottom. People working in convenience stores make minimum wage and have no benefits. Why should teachers do any better? This would be an excellent argument if schools were competing with Wal-mart for personnel, but they aren't. Good teachers want to work side by side with good teachers. Good teachers want to feel that the school they're investing in is going to have a future. You don't recruit and retain the best by offering the worst; striking teachers are often depicted as greedy and selfish, but strikes are always in part about the teachers of the future-- will any of them want to work here.

Some people just don't like teachers. It not worth wondering why. Some people hate teachers like I hate bats in my house. They will tell you how the union is responsible for everything bad in the world, how teachers are overpaid slobs who think they're so special just because they went to teacher school, how teachers are just glorified babysitters who work two hour days three months a year. Uppity teachers on strike make these people really angry, and they will find all sorts of ways to tell you about it. Warning: do not read the comments to articles about the strike on social media. I'll bet someone will be along to the comments here to explain how I have it all backwards and teachers are just evil greedy terrorists.

The hostage children. This one always comes up. Teachers are just holding children hostage so they can make more money. Of course, saying that is just a way to hold children hostage so that teachers will accept being compensated poorly.

You will have your heart broken. The single most difficult part of being the president of a striking union was the number of people, including friends, neighbors, family, former students, who made it a point to make sure I understood just how little they value the work 've devoted my entire adult life to. Plus the people who indicate that same disregard without even realizing it ("Well, I mean, geeze-- you're only a teacher."). And all of this including families for whom I'd gone an extra mile, or who had made it a point to be friendly to my while Chris and Pat were in my class. As a teacher, you know somewhere in the back of your mind, that an awful large sector of our society does not value education or teachers or any of the rest of the work, but it's one thing to know you're standing on a tightrope and another thing to stare straight down into the abyss.

All that, and more. Did I mention that no teachers actually want to go on strike?

It's not hard to avert a strike. In fact, while I was typing this, word arrived that the school board facing a strike tomorrow has postponed that strike for the moment by reversing their previous position and agreeing to meet with an arbitrator. See? Was that so hard?

I'll let you know how things go.


Police State High School

Next year it's going to be super-awesome to study or work at Lockport High School in New York. It will be super safe. Super super safe.

Facial recognition and tracking software will add an unprecedented level of security at the schools. District officials have decided locked entrance doors, bullet-proof glass and sign-in registers at the front desk are not enough.

The company behind this monstrosity state-of-the-art system brags that this will be the first school in the world to use this system. That could be in part because the Aegis system will cost $1.4 million (part of a $2.75 million security system that will include 300 digital video cameras).

What will the system actually do?

What it can do is alert officials if someone whose photo has been programmed into the system – a registered sex offender, wanted criminal, non-custodial parent, expelled student or disgruntled former employee – comes into range of one of the 300 high-resolution digital cameras.

This database of naughty people will supposedly not include student photos. Well, "unless there's a reason." Then the Creepmaster 5000 goes to work:

“If we had a student who committed some type of offense against the code of conduct, we can follow that student throughout the day to see maybe who they interacted with, where they were prior to the incident, where they went after the incident, so forensically we could also use the software in that capacity as well,” [Depew superintendent] Rabey said.

Depew schools are also interested in this new advance in the surveillance state. How many ways are there to object to this?

One Lockport parents calls it a waste of money, no more effective than locking doors and requiring visitors to check in. And though the company swears their facial recognition software is New and Improved, such software has a bad track record with women, children, and people of color. 

In one of the most drastic examples, facial recognition software was tested last June on the crowd at a championship soccer game in Cardiff, Wales. The system triggered 2,470 alerts for matches with a police database – but 92 percent of the “matches” turned out to be false. The police blamed the poor quality of the photos in the database.

And the director of the Buffalo chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union checks in with an understatement:

Tracking every move of students and teachers is not the best way to make them feel safe at school and can expose them to new risks, especially for students of color who are already over-policed in the classroom

This is a terrible idea. If you want examples of how terrible it could be, consider the Chinese, who are using facial recognition software to monitor students for proper attitudes and attentiveness.Nor is there any reason to believe that it will actually save a single life (it would have been unlikely to help in any of the most recent school shootings). 

Big Brother has always claimed that he is watching you for your own good. Now the students of Lockport can feel his warm and protective embrace, everywhere they go, every day. 




Sad Girls and Angry Boys

I'm in my last two weeks of my 39-year career, and that involves a lot of file clearing. I came across this-- one of the pieces from my local weekly newspaper column-- and it seems oddly apropos at the moment. While it's not explicitly about school, watching my own students is where I observed all of this. The column garnered huge student response-- one at a time. Breaking the cycle of bad high school relationships seems like one of the ongoing challenges at my school.

When you want romantic tragedy, it’s hard to beat a teaming of a sad girl with an angry boy.

Most people know one of these couples. They are not only locally numerous, but they are usually kind of, well, noisy. People often find their partnership mysterious, marked mostly by abuse, meanness, and co-dependency.

Friends of Sad Girl wonder why she takes it. He’s neglectful, mean, and misbehaves badly.

Sad Girl cannot be swayed. “You just don’t understand him like I do,” she’ll say. She may acknowledge that he has a problem with drug abuse, general responsibility, or faithfulness—but those little issues don’t matter. They aren’t the real him. He’s really a wonderful, sweet guy.

Does he push her around, call her names, treat her with enormous disrespect? It’s his unhappy home life, or her fault for the way she behaves.

Sad Girl stays for two apparently contradictory reasons—1) she doesn’t believe she deserves anything better, and 2) the fact that she is the only human being who can see the golden part of this guy is proof of her own special qualities. There’s a certain cachet in being the beauty who can tame the beast.

It’s easier to see why angry boys stay with their sad girls. The world is not exactly filled with people who want to put up with their misbehavior. It’s an area in which the sad girls and angry boys are in perfect agreement—none of the Bad Things in his life are actually his fault.

Can’t hold a job? It’s the fault of his stupid bosses who get all upset just because he won’t show up for work every day, and on time. Got in a screaming match with a relative? It’s because that big stupid jerk disagreed with him.

Broke again? It’s not his fault that people keep taking his money for the things he wants. Stoned or drunk yet again? Hey, he’s entitled to an escape when everyone keeps pushing him and picking on him. Arrested for breaking a law? Again? It’s those darn police who just keep trying to push him around. They don’t like him. They’re out to get him. Just like his school teachers and the mailman and the checkout girl at Giant Eagle.

Angry Boy is angry so much of the time because he can’t quite get a handle on his life. He wants to be able to do what he feels like, when he feels like it, but he still wants things to turn out the way he wants them to.

Somehow, the whole cause and effect thing escapes him. If he feels like hitting himself in the head with a hammer, then by god nobody should be able to stop him—but afterwards why should his head hurt? It’s just not fair. It must be somebody’s fault. Just not his.

It is easy to imagine that Sad Girl and Angry Boy are, well, not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. But this is often not the case. I’ve known lots of Sad Girls who were poised to graduate near the top of their classes who still worked hard to maintain their devotion to an Angry Boy.

Her friends tell her to get out. Even if she have started to think she should, she feels responsible for Angry Boy. “If I leave him,” she says, whiningly, “I don’t know what he’ll do.” In her mind, his fate is in her hands.

Which is part of the attraction, though she would never admit it—perhaps not even to herself. Sad Girl is usually sad because she has lived a lonely, powerless existence. But oddly enough, with Angry Boy, she has some real power over someone.

Still, as much as she hates to give up the power, she usually does. After all, the alternative is to eventually marry him so that he won’t be upset. Sometimes he stomps off; she always begs for him to come back, and he always does.

This is how Angry Boy wants it. Angry Boy never, ever breaks up with Sad Girl. He just keeps pushing her until she’s finally had enough and walks away. This suits him fine, because the end of their relationship, just like every other rotten thing in his life, is not his fault. She walked out on him. She’s just one more person who has dumped on him. In fact, her rotten betrayal will make a great story for softening up the next Sad Girl he meets.

She hurts him when she pulls away(or glances at other guys). He hurts her when he is thoughtless and mean. But don’t tell them to get away from each other. After all, it’s True Love.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Okay. Let's Not Talk About Guns

I know there are earlier examples, but it really starts for me with Jody Billingsley.

Jody was one of my former students, part of a class of students that I really enjoyed for their spark, their joy, their bravery, their curiosity. She was a star athlete, smart, kind-- the sort of decent human being you want your own children to grow up to be.

When she was only 38, she was murdered near Pittsburgh in an LA Fitness Center, gunned down by an angry white guy.

It was 2009, so nobody was talking about InCels yet, but this guy (I'm not printing the son of a bitch's name) fit the description. Angry that life had not delivered the money and female attention that he believed he deserved, he kept a journal of his grievances (because, of course, some day the world would listen to him and pay attention to what he had to say) and made several false starts at his little murder spree (four dead-- barely noteworthy by our current standards). All three of his victims were women; he then killed himself.

And now we have the most recent shooting in Santa Fe, where a student killed ten, despite the school's fully-rehearsed plan and fully-armed officers. The shooter was not a sad loner, but he had been rejected by one of the girls that he murdered, and had pursued her so relentlessly that she ultimately had to publicly embarrass him to get hi m to back off. Only, I guess, he maybe didn't.

So as we look at the long string of deaths and mass murders including the school shootings of the past two decades, we can draw-- and have drawn-- a line between all of these and the use, usually, of America's all-too-plentiful guns.

But this is America, and we don't want to talk about guns.

Fine.

If we're not going to talk about guns, let's talk about the other pattern that is increasingly noticeable.

Let's talk about angry white guys.

Lots of folks have made the observation, usually after whatever the most recent shooting was. Here's Elle after the Las Vegas shooting:

Stephen Paddock was an angry white man with a gun. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people and injured nine at a Colorado Planned Parenthood, was an angry white man with a gun. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people and injured one at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, was an angry white man with a gun. Adam Lanza, who killed 28 people including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary, was an angry white man with a gun. Hell, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 15 people and injured 24 at Columbine High School, were two angry white boys with guns. The Columbine massacre, which sparked a national conversation about the need for better gun control, was in 1999. It’s been 18 years of angry white men with guns appearing next to ever-more-enormous body counts, every few weeks, ever since.

We've also had plenty of discussion of why these white guys are angry. And, in fairness, we have had the contrarian "maybe it's not that bad" takes as well. But even if we've got a proportionately appropriate number of angry white guys killing people, the sheer numbers seem to demand some attention.

At a minimum, we need to learn from the pattern. School shooters are usually guys with a specific grievance. Some folks argue that if we "harden the target" and make schools less easily shoot-uppable, shooters will go shoot up something else, something softer. But shooters like last week's murderer do not pick schools because schools are soft targets-- the pick schools because they want to shoot the people who are at the school. Hardening the target will not deter them into some other pursuit.

The Toronto attacker prompted a look into the InCel world, and that's pretty chilling all by itself. These are angry white guys who, like the SOB who gunned down Jody, believe they have been cheated out of what they deserve, as if the world is a vending machine into which they have pumped quarters only to get nothing in return. They are the terrifying realization of the line that men worry about women laughing at them and women worry about men killing them.

As a culture, we've asked for this. My students know that if they bring up the Twilight book series, they'll get a rant out of me, not because of the laughably bad writing, but because of the romanticizing of stalker behavior. Edward ticks off every single item on the "your boyfriend may be a future abuser" checklist. And that has been marketed as the Great Romance of the 21st century.

That's not a new thing-- from the Phantom of the Opera to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to John Cusack standing in the rain with that damn boom box, the message is that men need to wear women down, be persistent. For young men, romance is supposed to be a simple formula-- make the correct moves, and it should unlock a girl's heart like a video-game achievement. And, at least in the halls of my school, girls buy into this-- I have lost count of how many girls I have heard explain that they "have to" go out with this guy they don't really want to go out with because he did X.

Are we in a new peak of angry guy-ness? I'm not sure; it may just seem worse because the pinnacle of angry white guyness is our President (seriously-- President of the United States of America and he is still perpetually pissed off and aggrieved). I'm sure it's not the whole picture, but I'm equally sure that angry white guyness is part of what got him elected. It's also why things like "p***y grabber" comments and stiffing subcontractors and barely-concealed racism help rather than hurt him-- he has been and is still living the angry white guy dream, where you say or do or grab what you want and people don't keep telling you no, people don't insist that you don't have the power to do that. Angry white guys hate feeling like someone has taken away their power. Hell, isn't that the root of the whole gun argument as forwarded by that army of angry white guys, the NRA-- you can't take our guns because then we lose the power to really hurt bad people who might want to take away our power.



Can we get rid of all the angry white guys? Of course not-- there will always be outliers. Could we do a better job raising young men? Yes. Yes, we could. We could teach them to respect women (and not just as a complex part of getting women to do what we want them to). We really could explain the whole "no" and "yes" thing better, because men have to own women with confusing signals because too many women have grown up in a world where a blunt, clear "no" dangerous. We could, as men, hold each other accountable

As schools, we could intervene more aggressively in abusive relationships. We can create an environment where toxic masculinity does not work-- and we can and must explicitly teach alternatives. And for the love of God, can we please teach our young men how to cope with their feelings by some means other than releasing them in occasional burst of maladptive rage and violence.

If we won't talk about guns, then let's talk about the rest of this. If we want to pitch Social and Emotional Learning for schools, let's talk about creating a more emotionally healthy environment for young men. Not only could we maybe save a few lives, but we could definitely make a whole lot of lives better. We would certainly make schools better environments for learning.

I know this wouldn't be magical, and it is damned hard to get a culture to shift direction. But it would certainly be a more useful conversation than talking about making schools more like prisons or locking students behind a single door (and praying for no fires, ever) or all the other foolish things that are proposed just so we won't talk about guns.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

ICYMI: Birthday Edition (5/20)

Yes, it's my birthday, and none of my tech is working, so I've borrowed my wife's machine-- but I still have some things for us to read. Remember to share-- also, be kind to each other.

The Truth about Yes Prep's 100% College Acceptance

Gary Rubinstein comes through again with solid debunking of not-entirely-truthful clains

Teaching Whiteness in Music Class

Some serious food for thought about how we approach the teaching of music history.

Care Is What Matters

A look at caring for students, and how assessment does or doesn't fit in the picture.

Bill Gates and More of His Damned Money

Okay, that's not the actual title of this AP piece looking at how Gates is trying to run the world of education these days 

He Loved Teaching Math; Now He Manages aa Chick-Fil-A

One more story about how the teaching profession loses good people. This time we're in Michigan.

Black Homeschooling

One of the great non-covered stories of education. Fascinating  stuff.

Who Needs Computers in the Classroom

Nobody, according to this article in PCMagazine of all places

On Creativity: A Classic Commencement Speech from Bill Watterson

Curtesy of Brain Pickings, a blog you really should be subscribing to.