I just finished A School of Our Own, a strange, frustrating, and provocative book about a “school within a school” founded by a precocious 16-year-old, the son of an education and development theorist.It’s strange because the co-author (the mother) cedes well over half of the book to the articulate but nonetheless unpolished journals and reflections of her son as he went through the process. It reads like a whip-smart 16-year-old kept a detailed journal and shaped it together in grad school, which I imagine is something like how it happened in real life.It’s frustrating because the nature of the program was so tiny (8 students, at least one of them personal friends of the author) and the duration so short (six months) and the circumstances so unique (the program seemed to be largely led by the author himself, with some support from his peers, and with little faculty intervention save mentoring roles) that it hardly seems replicable in its particular incarnation, let alone scalable.But what was fascinating about it was that the central premise of the book, the big “so what” of it to my mind, had nothing to do with any of those seemingly obvious flaws of the book and of the program, and it’s something I’ve been returning to a lot as I enter my third year teaching at an alternative high school:What if students not only knew what they wanted, but also knew what they needed from school, too?The first premise – that students know what they want – is hardly uncontroversial. Still, in most progressive education, this idea, whether it involves following interests, developing unique projects with broad parameters, following one’s educational muse, so to speak, this general idea that students should know what they want and “what I want” should be incorporated into the school day is fairly well accepted in various forms. Media literacy education places much of the engagement in digital media and popular culture; critical literacies connect social justice to one’s place in one’s community and in the world; expeditionary learning assumes ownership in mastery, and on and on.But none of these progressive approaches, as far as I can tell, truly cross the rubicon to the second proposition, that students know what they need from school. If they knew what they needed, after all, a name for their program would be unnecessary. The students would just do it themselves. Indeed, the oddly provisional title of the school in A School of Our Own – the Independent Project – seems almost pathologically neutral in expressing any of its radical potential.In the car a few weeks ago, my wife asked me, “what would you do if you could open your own school?” And after thinking for a few minutes, since I’d never really thought about this so directly before, I answered, “I’d ask the kids what they wanted and I would trust what they told me.”Then we had a conversation about what my wife wanted in high school, and whether what she wanted synced up with what she valued in education after high school. It was – she would have jettisoned classes she hated, tried out more classes on a trial basis to see whether she might like them (this was how she found the one science course that resonated with her – auditing a class she didn’t need and taking it anyway), spending more time reading and less time doing things she found boring.But even in this conversation, my wife was quick to point out that she didn’t think that would work for “everybody.” The idea here is that of course the most capable students could map out educational outcomes for themselves, but they had the support and perhaps the natural inclination to do this, and other people need more structure, more of a predetermined path.Oddly, my experiences teaching with students who have been systematically shut out of educational opportunities has suggested almost exactly the opposite. What seems truer, to me, is simply that these students have a different way of thinking about education and about their own lives that seems foreign to the kinds of students who might have designed an Independent Project that looks like the one in the book (my wife’s would have been nearly identical, in fact). And this is the great disconnect in what it means to design a school for students who don’t seem to benefit from the structures and privileges of relative affluence – that is, a fully functioning and even thriving school system at the most material level, if not at a pedagogical level: just because my students want dramatically different things from what’s being offered to them doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or that it’s not what they need.I had my students design a school of their own on the first day (we enroll new students every ten weeks). Amid the traditional schools that simply operated more smoothly and had better food and later starting times (a universal request – pay attention!), there were schools that were far more vocationally based, schools that taught students how to roll a proper joint and had marijuana dispensaries on campus, schools that turned all math into financial planning classes*. Schools that were something like community schools, whose primary purpose was to provide child care and job training opportunities. Schools where college professors had to come and give special lessons for shared community college credit.All of these are ideas that currently exist, at least in pieces, but when my students designed the schools, their priorities didn’t assume there were also these other things that experts could bring in that were outside of their current understandings and experiences that would somehow elevate them beyond their current imagination. They didn’t assume that many of the goals of current progressive and other alternative educational models were ones that they should care about, or that they should consult with an education expert, say, to find out. It didn’t occur to them, and the radical element of trusting students here would be to accept that some outside idea wouldn’t necessarily provide any real benefit to their design.But I think it’s instructive for people who design educational experiences to do a thought exercise where you ask the students you work with what they want, and to immediately translate that into what they need. It may not work – and there are signs that the Independent Project itself was relatively unsuccessful after its charismatic founder left the school – but I’ve found that it’s helped to change my mindset around what education is at some basic level. It was a good way to tap-dance around a post on political horizons for education that I’ve been mulling over for months now.*There’s a somewhat remarkable post-script in A School of Our Own, under the heading “Math,” where the authors admit that they screwed math up, and that through this experience they came to the belief that math is much less necessary to high school education than they assumed going in. They express the belief that math is too specialized to be particularly useful in any broadly interest-based curriculum designed by students, and that it’s essentially a waste of time to teach discrete math concepts disconnected from other subjects. I don’t know if I agree with this, but having now taught math as a kind of all-purpose academic support teacher for a few months, there is something deeply wrong with math and math teaching. More on that later, maybe.
I’ve been thinking a bit about an off-hand comment I made in my last post, about prison abolition.
My statement, which was too unequivocal in hindsight, suggested that I have problems with the idea of “prison abolition” as a policy or social goal. And it’s true that I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the basic idea of prisons – the existence of an institution designed to deprive people of their liberty, perhaps for some other positive (i.e. rehabilitative) purpose, or perhaps not (in the case of simply removing people from the general population for the good of others).
I was thinking at that time specifically of an interview with Roger Lancaster, whose critique of abolitionist thinking both (1) suggested to me, based on previous experience with such critiques in other fields, that he was being uncharitable to people who identify as abolitionists (perhaps especially his refusal to put actual names of scholars to his critiques) but (2) also hit on a few ideas that I’ve grappled with myself as I think about the role of prisons in society. I searched for pushback and the best thread I could find on the subject was on Facebook, a Nikhil Singh post that is, predictably, very long and very messy and it devolves quickly. Lancaster responds directly there. My sense remains that he is conflating “abolitionism” with “abolitionists,” and that in doing so he takes on an easier target that he can stretch to match his critique (the -ism) than the actual people whose opinions such an -ism indirectly point to. So it goes.
The one idea that emerged from that thread that I’m returning to is prison abolition as a political horizon, an ideal that informs incremental work but may never see full fruition. To the extent that prison abolition functions as a political horizon that does not then get adopted (as a horizon) by many communities for whom any work toward that horizon would provide benefits – that is, you work with prison abolition in mind and (some of) the people you’re working with really WANT prisons, just fewer prisons that are more humane – abolition as a horizon or goal seems, if not moot, then not a front-and-center issue when the prison system is so utterly extreme.
My hesitation here comes partly from engaging with students who have been in or around the prison system via friends and neighbors and loved ones. Very few of them ever talk about getting rid of prisons, nor would they even think of it. They don’t think they should have gone to prison, but they can’t imagine a world without them. This is NOT true of all of their beliefs. They can easily imagine a world without police. They can easily imagine a world without schools (not as a political horizon, usually, but something more like a political abyss). They often try to imagine a world without race – which is more accurately to say, a world without racism.
I’m doubling back here to say that in some important way, I don’t think that my own sense of horizon necessarily changes the kind of work I would want to do in the here and now to end injustice in the prison system. I want fewer prisons, fewer prisoners, addressing horrible problems every step of the way that would look similar whether you wanted “humane prisons” or whether you wanted none. Lancaster describes Finland as, on the whole, a country with fairly aggressive, punishment-oriented social views toward crime but with an extremely small prison “footprint” in society, as it were. (Not sure how accurate this is.)
So as a thought experiment, I wonder what I would be pushing for if the United States were Finland, with 10% or less of our current prison population, working rights for prisoners who have dormitory restrictions but can leave site during the day, much shorter sentences overall. Would I be pushing to reduce things further, to push things toward zero? I really don’t know. I know that it’s not a philosophical approach that a lot of people who have received the brunt of our system’s oppression would agree with very strongly.
What was useful about this argument about horizons wasn’t so much around prisons or crime, since clearly this is an area where my own thinking is muddled and in flux. But it did help me to think about other institutions, partiuclarly education, with the basic question of what the horizon might be for change.
What is the political horizon for education? That’s the one that I find myself turning to more, and not coincidentally my challenges and questions around prisons show up, in modified forms or in different articulations, when I think about education. But that will have to be for another post.
Finally finished American Crime Story, one of two shows about O.J. Simpson that received quite a bit of conversation and acclaim last year. Most of my commentary on it as a piece of media would probably retread well-worn analysis; none of it is particularly illuminating. If you’re curious, I thought the series had two or three excellent episodes, was overlong, and only managed about half of a decent cast (Sarah Paulson, Courtney Vance, and Sterling Brown), the other half settling for rather than elevating material a cut above a Lifetime movie.
The series is at its best when it plays into the mythology and popular imagination of the O.J. case – its thrilling depiction of the Bronco ride in angles not captured from news helicopters; its depiction of Johnnie Cochran’s aside to Chris Darden after they parry on use of the “N-word” in the trial, which says more about race in two minutes than the entire finale manages in retelling the story of the verdict; and, especially, Marcia Clark cutting her hair to the strains of “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal (Paulson’s interview about the series on Fresh Air was in many ways better than the series).
What ended up staying with me through the series, though, was a melancholic reminder of how formative the O.J. trial was in my own incipient sense of justice, its peculiar (and cruel) form in the United States, and, especially, its racialized dimensions. I was so incredibly angry after the O.J. Simpson trial. I have an image in my mind of the entrance to my school building at dismissal time, mustering every swear word at my disposal while climbing aboard the “Gold Bus” (the neighborhood color code for our otherwise identical short buses) parked in the school’s drop-off circle, stewing and clenching on those vibrating leather seats, wanting to scream. It’s as vivid a memory as anything I have, one of those indelible images seared into memory. My coursing, insatiable anger. I was 11.
My work has made it impossible for me not to think about criminal justice. Many of my students are in the justice system to some degree, and many (though not a lot) have been incarcerated. Most of them are, by most definitions, guilty of the crimes for which they were either convicted of or, more frequently, plead guilty to. The language of criminal justice in my classroom is usually one of beating a rap, not of being charged with a crime that wasn’t committed, a language of technicality and cleverness more than just simply injustice.
And yet the punishment meted out on my students is unfathomably cruel and usually far out of proportion with the underlying, often violent (as in “violent crime” versus “nonviolent crime” – not always actually that violent), but almost always relatively minor offenses.
When someone seems to get away with murder, especially an unusual one, and especially one with a high profile, it’s easy to key into the kind of anger that I felt after the O.J. trial, and perhaps again in periods after 9/11 when friends argued with me against the invasion of Afghanistan. But what I find odd about the O.J. trial today is how much that anger has subsided over time, and how the utter absurdity of so much of the trial all but guaranteed at least a mistrial if not an acquittal. (The many points at which a mistrial by all rights should have been declared in the O.J. case constitute one of the few true “crime story” elements of the series that were helpful from a historiographic perspective. I don’t suspect that was a major aim of the show.)
I think more now about the barbarity of criminal justice in our country, the idea that to commit even a ghastly crime must be countered with a ghastly punishment. Marcia Clarke, who in many ways is treated with the most care and perhaps most writerly interest in the series, fights initially to charge Simpson with the death penalty. She goes on later to explain how her sense of justice can be described as “vengeance for victims,” based on her own experiences as a rape survivor.
And yet I am at a loss for how state-mandated vengeance can truly serve the purposes of criminal justice. At the same time, I find myself equally unable to truly embrace total prison abolition. But it seems clear to me that vengeance should never be the primary motivator for dealing with crimes. It’s a kind of blanket vengeance, exacted against students like mine, that takes their admitted foolishness (at best) or cruelty (at worst) and proceeds to use it as a means to dismantle their lives, blunt their potential, often before they’ve turned 18. (Expungement petitioning is a popular workshop topic among our students, and I hope to be able to do more to help them with this next year.)
And so my primary thought leaving the series is simply that my remaining sense of Simpson’s guilt simply isn’t and was never commensurate with the thirst for blood that accompanied his acquittal, and that this imbalance, multiplied many times over, has profound implications for how the system works for or against others. (Oddly enough, my first sense of this value system emerged after the imprisonment of Paris Hilton, a sense that a misplaced public thirst for vengeance among people I may have otherwise respected was papering over and perhaps even implicitly supporting wildly outsized forms of punishment to non-Hiltons.)
That thirst was there in me, humming quietly in the background, and it was marshalled toward an outlier case that seems to have had few precedents and certainly seems not to have had many direct followers. Understanding that thirst, grappling with it, disassembling and defusing it, that’s what marks the biggest challenge in my thinking about what it means to have criminal justice. And it seems alien to many of the same students who have dealt with the criminal justice system – the ones who ask me, for instance, what I would do if someone shot someone I loved, as though it were obvious that I or any sane person would retaliate. But I really wouldn’t. I dreamt of retaliation and vengeance throughout my childhood; I killed bad guys and imagined righting wrongs and addressing slights with swift retribution. But the story of my adult life has been the diminishment of those dreams, even as I had more and more to lose, even as I could identify so mcuh more deeply with Ron Goldman’s parents, a constant somber and stone-faced presence on my television screen for a year of my life.
This defusing process, this decoupling of vengeance and justice, is something that is necessary for us to get a handle on what crime and punishment is in this country or what it should be, what it’s there for. I’ve come to believe that you can have justice or you can have vengeance, but you can’t really have them both at the same time. And so the Simpson trial saddens me, and still angers me in many ways, but it no longer recalls that other thing, that dark and hateful thing that marked what was more or less my introduction to the criminal justice system.
Seven Tips for Teaching News Literacy to Eight- to 12-Year-Olds: Forgot to share here the article I wrote for School Library Journal on K-6 news literacy. For me, the big point I’ve been thinking about a lot (and have written about here) is #5 – thinking of sources as a question of “who,” not of “where” or “what”:
Tactics for spotting fake news or assessing journalistic credibility often treat newspapers, websites, and other sources of information as “places” to find information, rather than focusing on the specific people who create that information.
The next point, about “getting things from Google,” is a sneak peek at a book chapter I wrote with a colleague about fair use in elementary school contexts, out next year.
From Mein Kampf onward, Nazi jurists and policy makers took a sustained interest in American race law. Especially during the early 1930s, the era of the making of the Nuremberg Laws, Nazis engaged in detailed study of American immigration law, American second-class citizenship law, and American anti-miscegenation and mongrelization law. Some of them saw attractions in the system of Jim Crow segregation. In particular, the Prussian Memorandum, the 1933 text that laid out the basic statement of the radical Nazi legal program, specifically invoked Jim Crow – though it proposed a more “limited” version for Nazi Germany. Certain aspects of American race law struck Nazi observers as appealing: in particular, the exceptional American practice of harshly criminalizing interracial marriage lay in the background of the Blood Law. Other aspects, like the one-drop rule, struck them as excessively severe. Some of the more vicious Nazis, notably Roland Freisler, championed the lessons to be learned from American legislation and jurisprudence, while moderates like Justice Minister Gurtner worked to downplay the usefulness of American precedents. Nobody argued in favor of a wholesale importation of American practices; everybody was aware that America had liberal traditions that were at war with its racism, but many expressed their approval of what the National Socialist Handbook of Law and Legislation called America’s “fundamental recognition” of the imperative of creating a legally enforced race order – though Nazi authors always added that the task of building a fully realized race state remained for National Socialist Germany to complete.
Page 135 of Hitler’s American Model by James Whitman provides a precis of the whole book, which should really be a must for all authors of non-fiction intended for lay audiences.
If you don’t have time to read the book, his interview on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News summarizes many key points.
He does this summarizing so that he can put some of his claims in context with how we might interpret some of the influences and echoes of American racist law from the current era – and not overinterpret his findings to call America of the 1930s “fascist,” say – with a particular focus on how our American common law traditions have directly led to some of our most pressing current injustices:
The great jurisprudential conflict at work in Nazi Germany was not the conflict between common-law liberty and civil-state state power. The great conflict was between lawfulness, as founded in a civil-law idea of legal science, and lawlessness, in favor of which a man like Freisler could invoke the American common law. Nazi law, as a man like Freisler imagined it, was not a crass form of legal positivism, reducing the law to a duty of obedience to the command of the superiors. Nazi law was law that was liberated from the juristic past – it was law that would free the judges, legislators, and party bosses of Nazi Germany from the shackles of inherited conceptions of justice, allowing them to “work toward” the realization of the racist goals of the regime, with a sense of their duty to use their discretion in the spirit of Adolf Hitler. Judges in particular were to enjoy meaningful independence to be exercised in line with the goals of the Fuhrer. By this means, the law would institutionalize and perpetuate a savage form of national revolution, by giving discretion to the savage instincts of innumerable Hitlers in innumerable state offices.
…Sometimes the American democratic political process produces admirable legislation. But to have a common-law system like that of America is to have a system in which the traditions of the law do indeed have little power to ride herd on the demands of the politicians, and when the politics is bad, the law can be very bad indeed.
This second element of America’s influence on jurisprudence in Nazi Germany – our system’s far-reaching discretion of prosecutors and judges – is one that has survived the repeal of so many explicitly racist laws that comprise the majority of the commentary of the book (summarized in that precis above). Our system of elected prosecutors and judges and highly politicized judicial system leads to what Whitman identifies as current issues: for instance, he cites habitual sentencing (e.g. “three strikes”) to Nazi policies that define someone as a criminal. And this is the element that’s been identified in other recent work – by James Forman, Jr., John Pfaff, and others – that still makes the criminal justice system in the U.S. an “exemplar” for oppression.
NOTE: This is something I wrote the day after the election and then sat on for months. It was too raw to post when I wrote it, but I think there’s a lot in it that I’d still like to explore, and I don’t want to give up the things I like about it even though there’s a lot here I’m uncertain about.
A quick note on terminology: I will not write the word “uneducated” without scare quotes. I also will not write the phrase “only a high school degree” without putting scare quotes around the word “only.” Hopefully my reasons for this will be clear below.
My job right now is to work with the “uneducated.” These are students who for a variety of reasons – some mundane, some utterly soul-crushing – dropped out of high school. Most, not all, are black. Many, not all, live at or below the poverty line. Their blackness and their poorness have no obvious correlation to their success in our school, or at least we work really hard to make this true.
I teach students who just skipped school, because they hated it, until there were no obvious alternative but a literal “alternative school.” I teach students who were pregnant or caring for younger siblings or elderly family members and simply fell too far behind. I teach students who were incarcerated. I teach students who have gone through unspeakable tragedies and I am awed that they’re just there, day after day. But I also teach students who are more or less comfortable, just didn’t “click” with school, and needed something different to get over the finish line. And I should note that none of these categories are mutually exclusive.
The one thing that quickly became screamingly obvious in my job is this:
They did not fail. Education failed them.
I have a lot of ideas and opinions and beliefs. Today they swirl around in my head as I shadowbox myself and my perceptions of many others, as I worry about “what to say in school on Monday” as though there’s anything to say, as though I know more than anyone else, as though I can’t just listen, which would be so much harder (oh well; it’s what I have to do).
But the only truly bedrock one standing after a year of teaching in an alternative high school, and one that has been underlined, amplified, spotlit, and emblazoned across my heart and my mind especially after this election and its rhetoric, is that education is a human right, and a person who can’t achieve some significant, if minimum, level of status – and according opportunity from that status – have been robbed of that right.
All of the students I teach, aside from a handful whom I often suspect are concern trolling their classmates, despise Trump with a passion unmatched in any other figure in the United States today. They believe that, along with the election being rigged (for Trump), and with the uneasy sense that their voice, and hence their vote, doesn’t truly matter, that Trump will usher in the most racist policies they can imagine. “Bringing back slavery” is how they usually put it.
They don’t believe these things simply because they are “uneducated,” even if in some technical sense they can sometimes be wrong. Conspiracy theories are merely a backdrop for a more intuitive understanding of the gross injustices that are with them, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground, all the time.
And I believe the same to be true, more or less, of Trump supporters generally, at least those with “only” a high school diploma, who have been held up as, essentially, too stupid not to vote for Trump. They too have their own, if different, conspiracy theories that provide context for their sense of gross injustice, sometimes racist ones. (The SNL “Black Jeopardy” sketch made something like this point af few weeks ago.)
In a Guardian article published a few days before the election, Chris Arnande describes the split between the “uneducated” white and black communities he visits this way:
Natchitoches [in Louisiana] was like many other towns with their share of enthusiastic Trump supporters. It had suffered a devastating economic downturn in the 1970s and 1980s when the cotton gin mills closed. Other than jobs related to the state university, it has since offered little opportunity. Those in town whose lives were not connected to the university lifeline were the Trump voters.
Well, the white people in town. Natchitoches, like the US, has long been divided along racial lines, with black residents confined to a lesser choice of jobs, homes, and schools. And Trump was dividing them further.
America has changed fundamentally over the last 35 years, and I saw and heard the impact of those changes. America had finally started upending a longstanding and ugly racial hierarchy, removing legal barriers that had made the playing field anything but level. For this, minorities overwhelmingly supported the new system, despite still suffering economically and socially more than white Americans.
Yet we replaced that system with one based on schooling, building a playing field that was tilted dramatically towards anyone with the “right” education. The jobs requiring muscle decreased (many going overseas) while the jobs requiring school increased. Compounding the pain from this, we started giving the winners a much larger share of the profits.
The early Trump voters I met were the losers from these changes. Their once superior status – based only on being white – was being dismantled, while their lack of education was also being punished. They lived in towns and communities devastated by economic upheaval. They were born in them and stayed in them, despite their fall. For many, who had focused on their community over career, it felt like their entire world was collapsing.
What I like about this analysis is that it doesn’t take racism off the table, but contextualizes white racism with the legitimate struggles that white Americans deal with – and deal with, in part, by doubling down on those few advantages they feel are being threatened. They are right, I think, to believe those advantages are also their rights; but they are wrong, I think, to believe that other people aren’t equally and in some cases more deserving of those advantages, which are also their (the others’) rights.
(Generally I’ve been frustrated by critiques of this election, from many perspectives, that conflate “white supremacy” and “white supremacists.” The idea that you can’t factor in white supremacy to the mindset of a person who voted for Obama and then Trump, for instance, is to confuse that person, who has undoubtedly benefitted from white surpemacy without seeing those benefits for themselves in any meaningful way, just by dint of not knowing what it’s like not to be white, for a white supremacist. The on-record white supremacists also turned out in droves for Trump, but not necessarily for the same reasons. More than one problem led us to Trump.)
We can mock or deride “uneducated” whites and insist that education would change them. But when we talk like this, it seems like we’ve got the problem the wrong way around. Whites with “only” a high school diploma don’t want to throw a “Molotov cocktail right in the center of the bastards who did this to us” (in Michael Moore’s prescient phrasing) because they are uneducated. They are uneducated because they are in a system that isn’t working for them, to the extent that it seems to require a Molotov cocktail. They just don’t recognize, or don’t care, that the fire won’t hurt them as much as it hurts other people for whom the system isn’t working either.
I’m not absolving whites with “only” a high school diploma from their votes for Trump (and I can’t absolve myself for not talking to more white people who I knew would likely vote for Trump). Like my students’ fear they’ll be “sent back to Africa,” on some level, lots of Trump voters are simply mistaken about a lot of what they believe, especially as regards what a Republican-controlled Congress and a President Trump would do about their problems, the source of those problems, and any possible hard solutions. But what they’re not mistaken about is the existence of their problems. Their “uneducated” status is a symptom of those problems, not its cause.
(So how about those whites with college degrees, like the insurance adjuster I met last night who delightedly quipped that he is “NOT! Disappointed!” in the election results, before returning workmanlike to the everyday functions of his high-paying job that reqires a college degree? He’s not the same. But then I’d also hazard to guess he didn’t support Trump in the same way that the subjects of Arnande’s piece did. Again, more than one problem led us to Trump.)
To see things the other way around – to think that people vote Trump because they are uneducated, rather than that a breakdown in education and basic security as human right is one of many factors that makes Trump look particularly appealing to white voters with “only” a high school degree – to see things this way is to use the same logic that paints my students, who are in a system that has failed them, as failures themselves. In this telling, “dumb people voted against their interests,: we are making the inexcusable mistake of equating the "uneducated” and a whole group of unrelated adjectives – stupid, bad, ridiculous. Even after I’d taught at my school for about ten minutes I knew, if I didn’t know it before, that there is no obvious correlation between any of these words and whether or not my students had (or later, “only” had) their high school diploma.
So yes, by all means, we need to improve the social infrastructure that guarantees rights to people to a safe and productive and meaningful life. But thinking that “to educate,” beyond improving that social infrastructure, means something like “present the right facts and different perspectives and watch the problems go away” is not only naive – it’s an insult to those “uneducated” out there who know a lot, but about things that don’t make it any easier for them to succeed in their society.
My students all start their time at my school “uneducated.” They, for the most part, leave with “only” a high school diploma. That is an enormous achievement often made against cruel barriers. What we can’t do is guarantee that other people – those who make up our colleges, our local, state, and federal government, our social welfare support systems – have taken the steps they need to do their part, too.
So many strands have been bouncing around in my head as I think and read and teach in the age of the Trump administration that I haven’t really been able to make any of them coalesce. I find my politics, which were always fairly left, moving toward a more coherent leftist philosophy. I find my teaching relaxing, letting social justice and humor and bullshit commingle fairly indiscriminately, listening a lot, not having a set idea of where I want things to go. I find myself giving more money, paying attention to more things (showing up is still a problem – baby #2 arrived in early March).
For whatever reason, what finally clicked for me, after reading about Ida B. Wells and precariously carceral Philadelphians and primitive accumulation in a rapidly industrializing America and a seemingly endless stream of articles and thinkpieces and Facebook posts and – I can’t even believe it myself – podcasts – after all that, what clicked is the simple idea that poor people work.
That phrase is probably a window into my own privilege. But there’s something deeper in it. Poor people work. Distinguishing between the American working class and American poverty is an incoherent distinction.
For some reason, when many scholars confront the cruelty of American poverty, they seem to bracket it from the working class as a coherent socioeconomic category. This was most obvious to me when I read Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau, whose inability to find any meaningful commentary on parental strategies (or lack thereof) within urban poverty, I now realize, in part reflected her need to separate the cruelties of American poverty from the larger distintegration and precariousness of the working class writ large. When we simply combine these two categories and refuse to see them separately, most of her observations about the working class hold true to her sample of poor parents, except those in poverty are trapped more acutely (and, in her telling, unconscionably).
But I’ve been breaking down the distinction between poor and working class. To be reductive about it, treating the students I teach as “poor” stigmatizes them and their likely trajectory through postsecondary learning or work. It does this in two ways, one that I think is a “progressive” trap and the other that is a more obviously bankrupt way.
The bankrupt thing that the label of “poor” does is simply remove students from larger society, putting them into a singular category that is somehow separate from the larger functioning of their society. It isolates them, treats them as a “social problem” in ways that often are blind to the subtle ways in which they do or do not conform to expectations of what it is to be poor in America in 2017. It can lead to assumptions about their eagerness to work (I can relay my own anecdotal evidence that 100% of my students are always, actively looking for work). This is a trap that affects left and right perceptions of poverty – on the right, someone like Ben Carson can use this isolation to frame poverty as a “state of mind,” while on the left someone might be tempted to think about social safety nets and social welfare without considering how poor folks themselves imagine the role of these supports in their own lives (short story: it’s really complicated, and the right-wing perversion of this complexity doesn’t come from nowhere).
The more “progressive” trap is the one I’ve been grappling with. Isolating poverty from a working-class distinction among my own students gave me an incredibly naive and unrealistic understanding of their own sense of possibility; the real, likely course of their postsecondary trajectories; and where success is possible for a majority of my students within a working class which many of them are not only aspiring to have a solid footing in, but are proud to have a solid footing in.
The idea that someone might be proud of being working class is oddly taboo among the political coversations I find myself having about urban poverty. But at my school, students are incredibly proud of achievements that just don’t fit a lot of privileged ideas of what it means to have “postsecondary success.” I’m thinking of my students who go on to short-term vocational training and secure long-term employment with benefits and modest but fair salaries. I’m thinking of students who can bump their hourly ask from $8 an hour to $12. I’m thinking of students who have a clear-eyed vision for their working class future that involves some college or postsecondary training but no greater vision of achieving a life that they can’t currently imagine.
I always have room in my mind for students exploring, dreaming big, doing things like “learning to think” – the sorts of things that are long said to be the unique territory of undergraduate education (and, specifically, non-community private or public undergraduate education). But I also worry about students going in to a private college with little postsecondary support and dropping out before their sophomore year, making few gains beyond a high school diploma statistically and taking on massive amounts of debt. I worry about the racism they may face in minority-black higher education institutions that they haven’t been prepared for and may not have much support to enter.
I have two thoughts here. One is that high school needs to be more in the habit of teaching those skills that seem, rhetorically at least, to be so important in undergraduate teaching, while also serving remediation and foundational literacy practices. (This is an area I think media literacy has a lot to offer – more on that to come, I hope.)
Another is that we need to break down the privileged fantasy of undergraduate education as a ticket to more privilege, and be more realistic – and transparent – about the role of college in the perpetuation of privilege and not a ladder to it for those without.
I don’t think that this should be the end of the story. I think it needs to be the more realistic start of the story, so that (1) we educators who view postsecondary success in a limited way can be prouder of trajectories that don’t fit those views and (2) we can work to provide meaningful postsecondary education experiences to populations for whom the racket of a four-year university isn’t and maybe shouldn’t be a dominant framework for their future development as thinkers, producers, and leaders.
Media educators (and other educators too) have dealt with media intrusions for a long time – from passing notes to students bringing portable radios into class to texting or taking phone calls on a flip phone.
But smart phones are different.
We have conversation after conversation among teachers and administration at my school about our cell phone policies. Many schools simply forbid them, collecting phones at the beginning of the day and giving them back at dismissal. We don’t do that, but we don’t really have anything concrete in its place. Some teachers will consider cell phone use a classroom disruption; others are more ambivalent about it (I’m usually in the latter category, with some exceptions).
I’ve read plenty of “progressive” ideas for integrating cell phones into learning environments, from disciplinary strategies (positive reinforcement, a no-fault “turn in your phone for the period” policy, a demerit system, etc. etc. etc.) to engaging classroom activities. I have my students use cell phones for academic reasons all the time, for what it’s worth. And I’m not prepared to say “none of these strategies work,” because I’m still too new at it and my own classroom management is not particularly enviable, though it’s gotten a little better. But…so far, I’m not convinced that any of these strategies DO actually work.
I think there’s a more important issue than the disruptive potential of cell phone use in the classroom, though. It seems to me that the nature of cell phones (of the smart phone variety) at school makes their presence a unique and possibly intractable problem for teachers who view cell phones as “distractions.”
One thing that every student tells me when I ask about cell phones is that they usually go on their phones because they are bored. Yes, students use their cell phones when they are bored. Revelatory! I know that sounds obvious. But we often think about cell phone use as a one-way problem –- from the preventive side, how do we train students not to have to use the cell phones in “inappropriate situations”? From the proactive side, how do we give them incentives to want to use cell phones in a more productive way?
But we rarely ask the quesiton in the other direction: why are students so bored that they hop on their phones? And the answer I have to this question now is not the one that I entertained prior to being a teacher, which was something like: school just isn’t interesting or engaging enough and if it were, then students wouldn’t need so many distractions (literally one second’s reflection on my own high school experiences would have dispelled this, of course). Don’t get me wrong, school often is unnecesarily, and sometimes crushingly, boring. But students often opt for the phones anyway. Even in really engaging classrooms, where the students tell you they like the lesson and are engaged, cell phones still pop up like a game of whack-a-mole.
One thing that smart phones have changed, I think categorically, and not just for students, is the threshold of boredom that it now requires to turn to your phone instead of engaging in the moment. There are so many things to do with a cell phone, so many ways to re-engage with your out-of-school life (this is what smart phones do, in ways far more immersive than flip phones, say, could ever do), that the cost-benefit analysis changes from “am I so bored that I would do anything rather than sit here right now?” to “would I like to check in on literally anything else going on in my life right now?”
That is a much lower threshold. It’s the difference between going under a limbo stick and walking through a doorway. It’s right there.
A key insight from my students here is that it’s not just them. It’s not just my students, or their generation, that are asking this question. It’s all of us. I have never (never!) been in a business meeting, conference, or, hell, even a dinner with more than a few people – most of whom have established adult careers that they are in no danger of losing due to cell phone overuse – in which someone didn’t check their cell phone.
Smart phones are one place where the needle hasn’t just moved at the student level, as might have been true with other forms of media distraction in classrooms. Most professionals aren’t so bored in meetings, say, that they would do anything besides just pay attention to where they currently are – listening to a radio broadcast in a staff meeting or passing notes (though even that happens occasionally still). In every meeting I have ever attended with more than five people or so, someone has at some point decided they need to check in with the rest of their life outside of this meeting, glancing at their phone for texts or missed calls or checking their email or their Facebook or something, just for one second, rather than give their full attention to the meeting.
I would say something like “we need to decide as a society whether this is the example we want to set for our students” but beyond seeming too preachy, it’s just too late for that. To understand cell phone use among students, teachers need to reframe the way they think about media as a “distraction.” We are connected to our full, messy, complicated, real lives 100% of the time, and these connections are both immediately accessible and relatively discreet (you can check under the table if you’re sneaky). Nearly every adult I’ve engaged with in a professional capacity has done the cost-benefit analysis that my students do every hour of the day – “does literally anything else that might be happening in my life trump what’s happening in this room right now?”
That is a fundamentally different question, and it’s not a “distraction” in the sense that we tend to use that word as teachers. It’s a total shift in mindset that has affected everyone. If pre-smart-phone distractions were a limbo stick and smart phones are a doorway, it’s the difference between choosing to do something intentionally versus drifting into doing something, perhaps only somewhat consciously, or even accidentally. (Which, I should add, is exactly what a lot of cell phone use in my classroom looks like – semi-conscious, or even unconscious, slipping through the doorway. In the lexicon of classic classroom distractions, it’s much closer to doodling than it is to passing notes.)
I don’t have any solutions here; but I do know that thinking of it this way has eased my irritation at the presence of cell phones in my classroom. First, I don’t take distractedness so personally, any more than I take students doodling personally. (In some cases doodling improves memory retention, such as during note-taking. I’m not aware of a corresponding cell phone benefit, though.) When I’m honest, I concede that I would probably make the same decision myself, even in situations that were genuinely engaging.
I do have one idea, but it’s not an attractive one -– have no restrictions on cell phone use during class at all, but instead set rules about discretion. Legal as long as you don’t get caught – it’s a “text under the table rule.” Send your text and then re-focus. Glance and then re-focus. Beyond being skeptical that this would work (people, not just students in a classroom, are far more distracted by cell phone use than they think they are; studies have shown that glancing at your phone to text while driving, for instance, distracts you for a full ten seconds AFTER you’ve put your eyes back on the road), it just doesn’t feel like the right message to send to students.
But this idea is related to another idea I’ve been having: trying to be more transparent when I’m asking students to code-switch. A lot of “code-switching” we ask students to do at our school is one-sided – that is, we want them to switch into some other mode of academic or professional engagement, but we never really let them switch back, nor do we explain that we are asking them to do something that will probably feel uncomfortable and is not, and may never be, natural for them, or even fair to them. Transparency in code-switching requires not just the switching, but a deconstruction of the codes themselves, pointing out when certain academic or professional expectations are culturally insensitive, actively uncomfortable, or even the direct product of racism.
A code-switch framework for cell phone use may be less specifically cultural, and would probably apply to teachers in almost exactly the same way – teachers would give up their phones in a way that is actively uncomfortable and then reflect on the experience. Have teachers “turn in their phones” before meetings. Do workshops specifically about our relationships to mobile devices to figure out how they help us and how they hurt us, from a personal perspective, not just the blanket statement that they’re distracting. (It’s really hard to convince a distracted student who doesn’t feel distracted that they are, in fact, distracted, just as if you’ve ever texted while driving you probably didn’t think you were distracted after your eyes were back on the road.)
Along those lines, I’ve had a lot of conversations about cell phone use, lots of parsing of why students use their phones and when. I’ll pause class for a day and just talk about it with my students for a half-hour every now and then. What I’ve noticed is that only a minority of my students have what they describe in their own words as a “cell phone addiction.” A subset of these “phone addiction” students will willingly give their phones over sometimes, given the opportunity, knowing they can’t help themselves from looking at their phone during class. As for the rest of my students, when I’m charitable to them, I notice that the ones without a specific “phone issue” don’t really check their phones that much, and when they do, it’s also likely that they’ve finished their work or a lesson is floundering. That is, for the majority of my students, cell phone use is a symptom of a problem (in the classroom, anyway) rather than the cause of one.
A lot of cell phone problems, from the perspective of teachers anyway, are a visiblity problem, not a distraction problem. It’s the teacher who is distracted, not the students –- I notice that sometimes I tend not to discriminate between students using their phones and therefore I’m not actually tracking who is using their phone occasionally but staying relatively on task (i.e. is using the level of discretion my co-workers and I use in meetings) and who is a chronic user or using the phone to escape the lesson. “Cell phones are out” can become a binary variable, but I imagine there are more complicated patterns happening in any given classroom along three variables –- what’s happening in the classroom, who has a specific “cell phone problem,” and who has reached their low boredom threshold but, given another activity, would still re-focus and be on task.
Anyway, I have no actual answers here, just observing that this is a problem that really is unique to teaching right now because it’s unique to society as a whole right now. Comparisons to other distractions and ways of disengaging just don’t work, because those other distractions aren’t mirrored so exactly in the adult world that we’re supposedly modeling for our students. Cell phone use has transformed into something like doodling on the margins of notes, daydreaming, or thinking about something else. But unlike those things, it’s plain to see. It’s "daydreaming” that accidentally buzzes or beeps or plays a Beyonce song sometimes.
I can’t tell my students with a straight face that I would never glance at my phone in a professional context given even the slightest opportunity or reason to do so. So why should I expect them to feel any differently?
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what kinds of things have changed the most in the first year of full-time teaching. As I began this work, I could sense a shift in my sense of priorities and maybe even philosophies around teaching media education. But then as I look back over old posts, I see that actually I am for the most part putting a lot of beliefs and norms into action that I’ve internalized reading about and writing about and thinking about and doing media education for almost ten years. I’ve tinkered at the edges of some of these beliefs, but nothing has been shaken, really.
The biggest difference between teaching in an enrichment or college environment and teaching high school is almost entirely physical. I teach five days a week, five periods a day, and teach two classes during the summer. We work in short 9-week “cycles” that more or less correspond to a marking period (quarter or semester). I quickly realized that teaching is marathon, not sprint, and that most of my methods and techniques for teaching developed for enrichment and college (which, as it’s turning out, are far closer in structure than either is to day-to-day high school teaching) just plain don’t work over a long haul.
The metaphor I’ve been returning to is the “Hamburg period” of the Beatles mythology – the short story is that the Beatles were basically a local group of no particular significance, then got an odd and grueling gig in Hamburg playing for hours and hours and hours, over the course of a few years. (Don’t worry if you don’t know or don’t like the Beatles – you could fill in any number of examples to approximate that “marathon/sprint” style dichotomy, but the running metaphor wasn’t working for me.)
To me, the key difference between teaching high school and teaching in less intensive environments is basically the difference between Hamburg and what might be considered a lighter, or at least more sporadic, mode of engagement. Here are some of the key differences:
YOU CAN’T PERFORM ORIGINALS ALL NIGHT EVERY NIGHT. The Beatles didn’t have a back catalog when they played Hamburg, but even if they somehow had literally their entire songbook at their disposal, they wouldn’t be able to fill even a fraction of the time they had on stage. This has been perhaps the biggest “aha” moment for me, especially as someone who has some experience designing curriculum and enrichment activities. I was reminded of the difference this past week when I had an opportunity to teach a 30-minute stand-alone mini-lesson on stereotypes to students outside of my regular classes. It went really well! But it was the kind of structured, contained lesson that doesn’t work in a sustained Hamburg engagement. First, it’s just not long enough. My lesson fit into 30 minutes perfectly, could have stretched to 45 or 50, and could have expanded the creative element to do maybe a two-day lesson. But that’s less than half of a weekly structure, and there was nowhere to go after it was finished. Second, the Hamburg audiences had a lot of overlap, and if you play the same set every night, things start to get tedious. I’ve already started to figure out which of my standard activities can withstand lots of recycling (online research templates, storyboards and outlines) and which don’t work more than once (nearly all content-specific worksheets, many novel project ideas).
YOU NEED COVERS – LOTS OF THEM. Before I taught full-time, I had a mild disdain for the whole basic idea of a pre-written curriculum. At its worst, I’ve seen teachers literally read scripts in a wooden monotone while asking students about things like their interpretations and opinions of a story. But it turns out that’s merely a perversion of a necessary component of long haul teaching – I never appreciated how the structure of the job demands cover versions and a radically omnivorous approach to curriculum development. Again Hamburg was a guidepost: sometimes you make covers your own, but more often you incorporate others’ ideas and work into something more like your house style. You don’t rework so much as filter through your own lens. Extensive reworking is often impossible under time and other restraints, so you need to work in whatever materials you can find to your environment without feeling the pressure to rip it up and start it over. And you need a LOT of material. By the end of my first year, I’m feeling practically empty, and I often look to like-minded educators for new foundations to build on. Curriculum from media literacy and media education simply isn’t enough, either – when the Beatles ran out of rock ‘n’ roll, they grabbed showtunes, music hall, pretty much anything that could fill another five minutes.
YOU NEED STAMINA. Here’s an underrated component of teaching that I’m not sure I’ve seen discussed well except for one book on the subject, Inside Teaching by Mary Kennedy. In that book, Kennedy discusses a lot of the structural factors that keep teachers doing what they do – things that, from the outside, may look like inefficient or even counter-productive behaviors for quality learning in a classroom. One of them that I was fascinated by at the time, and have returned to repeatedly this year, is her concept of tranquility as a bedrock psychological requirement for teachers in their learning environments. She argues that disruptions to tranquility often lead teachers to overcompensate to essentially preserve what tranquility they can. I’ve noticed that often my own needs for tranquility are in total opposition to the natural energy of a media classroom. These needs aren’t as obvious in shorter-form learning environments, because stamina isn’t a key attribute. But in a regular high school environment, that need for tranquility starts to crowd to front and center very forcefully, and on a daily basis. My own strange rituals have been a surprise to me, as I haven’t needed them before. I could be “on” for an hour, then off for three. But I can’t be “on” for five hours. Ever. And so I need to take stock of how I cultivate tranquility for myself and adapt or prioritize those needs based on how well they complement learning. That said, there are times where my tranquility trumps learning, period – it’s just a matter of physical necessity. That’s something I haven’t yet experienced as an educator.
YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE ON THE JOB. One reason teaching full-time is so physically difficult is that you really don’t have any “off” time to speak of. Professional development, even when it’s available, doesn’t really tend to deal in the day to day management of the classroom, which by its nature is pretty ad hoc. What that means is that aside from prep periods and personal time – neither of which are totally sufficient to prepare new material or master new concepts as a teacher – the only time you have to reflect, adapt, and shift your strategies is while you’re in the classroom. In some ways, this is actually an ideal way to work out new material with your class, but when it’s the only way to work out new material, it also means that your failures are “live” in a way that they aren’t when you have more of a break between teaching sessions. The structure of the school day is interesting in that, like a live set, if you teach a lesson multiple times through the day, you can experiment with what works in real-time, adapting as you go along. But the flipside of that is that when things go well the first time, the likelihood of pulling it off at the same level of quality three more times on the same day is basically nil. The cumulative impact of this is that teaching becomes an extended period of something between practice and performance (in a music metaphor – not entirely comfortable with thinking of teaching purely as an act of “performance” though obviously there’s a big element of it). There is both flexibility and stress in knowing that nothing that you’re doing is ever entirely baked – this is something that is true to all teaching, in a certain way (the missing ingredients, as it were, are the actual students you’re working with), but full-time teaching is a little different in that you’re never totally “started” or “stopped” – sorry to mix so many metaphors (did I mention I’m exhausted?) – but if in discontinuous and part-time teaching you have different results from your oven to reflect on, in full-time teaching the oven never really turns off, you just keep making batch after batch on the fly, and by the time you can actually stop you simply have too much product (too many practice sessions, too many performances) to do anything but take a more holistic view of the whole thing. Which leads me to…
YOU SUCCEED AND FAIL CONSTANTLY, AND IT’S REALLY HARD TO DO A “SPOT CHECK” REFLECTION ON HOW YOU’RE DOING. By the end of their Hamburg stints, the Beatles were a formidable touring band, even though by all accounts they were amateurish when they started. When you look at the big picture, you can see how they evolved after the end of a year or two years, but on any given night what you get is, essentially, noise. I also think about the Ramones, who after years of grueling tours shaved seconds here and there from their set lists until they could play everything at nearly double speed in thirty minutes. But tracking that in the day to day would be pointless – like tracking hair growth or aging (I’ve sprouted some gray at the temples, for what it’s worth). You only notice the changes down the line cumulatively. The great drawback of this approach to change in teaching, of course, is that it’s really important to have useful feedback when you feel like you’ve failed or succeeded. But you rack up failures and successes so rapidly that those kinds of check-ins feel fruitless in the moment, but become unwieldy down the road. I have a mass of student produced videos, well-intentioned (but ultimately useless) worksheets, writing, journals, Powerpoint slides, audio snippets, survey data, conversations both remembered and recorded. Piles and piles of it. But I don’t have nearly the bandwidth to process it all, along with my own observations or those of my students, and much of it was glossed over or not given the attention it deserved when it was created. In the aggregate, I have some big take-aways of what works and what doesn’t, but at that granular everyday level, I just don’t really know what works or what doesn’t work outside of a few obvious exemplars (which, to go back to point one, doesn’t begin to cover the amount of class time I have to prepare for). I can assume that shifting my big picture outlook will shift the everyday stuff, too – once you’ve shaved off twenty minutes of set time, your new material will be incorporated differently than it would have been before – but once the grind starts back up, it will be difficult to determine what’s working and why.
In my next post, I’ll try to list some of the things I’ve learned and observed in my first year.
I was talking with a friend a while ago about how like the problem with Teaching Critical Thinking is that you actually can’t think critically about anything without some kind of fact-based framework about it and she was like “yeah, I think that’s why students learn a lot of it through English classes, because you can have all the information of a text” and at the time I was like “oh true” but actually I have thought about it since and I am starting to feel like maybe that is a lie perpetuated by mediocre English teachers!
Been looking for a way to expand a little on one of my previous posts and this post sparked something…
I had a fascinating debate with my wife about something like this – she was responding to my preliminary thoughts on “credibility” that I wrote about here. She basically argued that you can’t understand texts without understanding a bunch of other stuff, and that this process is actually especially difficult in the context of something like an English class, where what you need to know in terms of context can stretch out to infinity. (The idea that everything is “there in the text” is probably just an artifact of there being such a huge number of possibilities of how to read a text – a way of looking right through the air and assuming there’s “nothing” in front of you. I actually think ALL subjects work this way, but it’s especially unavoidable in literature settings – the fiction of “right and wrong” isn’t really in the teacher’s toolbox in the same way it is in math class.)
I was reminded a little of Lisa Delpit’s critique of the trend of “developing voice” in ELA, especially among black students, indigenous students, and students of color – reductively (and from memory, so I may be a little off here – this was just my takeaway of her position), she argues that kids HAVE voice already; the problem isn’t with whether or not students have a voice, but whether anyone respects or “hears” their voice, and whether they can communicate it in ways that are, usually unfairly, outside of their experience or culture. What students don’t necessarily have is a base of particular (usually culturally-specific) knowledge and skills that they will need to be better understood to people who don’t really value the voice they already have.
One issue here, I think, is that (in my experience, at least) the more background knowledge you build on a given issue, the less strongly-voiced and obvious your “criticality” tends to get. There’s a kind of uncanny valley of “critical voice.” Actually, it’s more of an uncanny moiuntain – quiet on both ends and loud in the middle. On one end, you have relative ignorance, which leads to (most often) a lack of opinion or interest in a topic. This side of the valley is where the vast majority of students spend the vast majority of their time in school – not really knowing and not really caring.
(There’s a version of this “know-little” side of the valley that may lead to something like strongly-held but misinformed opinions – though actually many of these kinds of strongly-held, seemingly “wrong” opinions usually ARE built on some kind of background knowledge, just not of a variety that teachers are comfortable with or respect. That is, they actually fall in the middle of the mountain, but we pretend that they’re the result of ignorance, because it’s easier to “fix” ignorance than it is to change the heart or mind of someone who is profoundly different from you.)
On the other side of the mountain, you have something like expertise – a subtle and extensive set of knowledge about a particular topic that allows for a variety of different perspectives and constant updating. It is exhausting, and usually forces one to begin any discussion of an issue in prefaces and caveats and multiple options for how to engage. (I.e., you end up answering most questions with “It depends.”) This isn’t to say that you have nothing to say, but that you paradoxically have so MUCH to say that it doesn’t necessarily code as “critical voice” even though it is.
But in the middle, we have what I think a lot of people, and certainly a lot of teachers, see as “critical” – a small base of knowledge and some meaningful if limited set of skills to learn enough about any given topic to Have Something Informed to Say about it. In practice, I find a lot of these kinds of responses from students to be extremely shallow and often counter-productive to complicating an issue. Or, more problematically, their learning process uproots a meaningful opinion or idea they had from intuition or experience – on the other side of the mountain – that they can’t really support with the available evidence but is valuable nonetheless.
When I started consciously learning more about music and becoming a “music critic” in my own mind, I actually erased a huge swathe of important ideas and experiences from my thinking and writing all in the name of having a more informed opinion. (It took me about 10 years to reclaim it.)
One example I’ve been thinking about lately: many of my students have a blanket distrust of government sources of information, based on life experiences that haven’t really proven to them that major institutions have their best interests at heart. But when doing science research, it’s important in the short term for them to trust, say, the NIH or CDC over Yahoo Answers. And yet on the farther side of the critical uncanney valley, they would be able to critique even the most seemingly authoritative sources for inadequacy, differing points of view (e.g. using data to make one argument instead of another). They would go from being instinctively cynical about everything to instinctively skeptical about everything. And it’s a very slim difference from outside appearances (from totally not trusting to generally not trusting), with thousands of hours of analysis making up the actual difference in mindset.
By privileging the CDC over Yahoo, I’m doing a short-term service to their “critical thinking,” maybe, but at some foundational level I’m doing a long-term disservice, I think, to the whole point of trusting the CDC over Yahoo, which is that actually you don’t start out “trusting” anything, but you also know enough to figure out how to trust something more than something else.
I often think that I underestimate just how much stuff you need to know to develop that newfound critical understanding of information, and how constant a process it is in updating your information and revising how you feel about something. But it’s also difficult to think back along that process and remember what it was like to be on the far end of the Critical Thinking uncanny valley. One way to do it is to constantly force yourself onto the “know-little” side of a given issue. I like to believe that this is something that teachers can do in class – it involves finding areas of expertise your students already have, and then learning from them, casting them as the experts to begin with. But that’s easier said than done. The crux of my wife’s argument was that it would be misleading in many classes and subjects to claim that students have meaningful expertise that is relevant to what they’re supposed to be learning.
I found a weird echo of an idea I’ve beeng thinking about lately in Strangers Drowning, a book about “hyper-idealists.” The book itself is merely provocative, a patchwork of well-told yarns about the idealists themselves, and falters on the analysis, which seems shallow. For instance, the quote that resonated with me is, I suspect, at least a simplification, if not a straw man argument, about utilitarianism as philosophical school of thought:
“[U]tilitarianism claims that you should act so as to bring about the most well-being possible in the world. Taken literally, this means that every single thing you do, at every moment of your life, should be motivated by that goal. Which is to say that there is no point at which you can say, I have done my duty, I have followed the rules, and I am now free to do what I want.”
What struck me about the quote was not its merit according to its actual subject (frankly, I don’t really care, not being anything near a “hyper-idealist” myself and finding most of these subjects irritating going on creepy) but the way it bounced off a question I find myself asking a lot in teaching lately:
Why can’t my students just take a break?
I don’t mean “down time” for a few minutes at the end of a lesson or an alternative activity that’s tenuously connected to the ostensible subject for the day. What I mean is, why isn’t OK for my students to just kind of check out for a day? Why do they have to be in learning mode every minute they’re in my room?
This isn’t some principled stance against “bell to bell” learning, mind. I’m actually grappling with my own sense that teachers owe it to their students to provide learning – even if only spaces for learning or opportunities for learning – while they’re in school.
The most common complaint I get from students, whether it’s around cell phone use (allowed in our school, but not particularly warmly welcomed within the school culture, not because we’re opposed to it but because we don’t really know how to deal with the radical disruption of it – more on that later) or assignments that fall short of the bell or just not “feeling it” on a particular day is that they can’t opt out, especially when they’ve ostensibly finished their work for the day.
I tend to frustrate some of my students because my “work for the day” can always be stretched past an initial goal. This might be something as simple as revising something they’ve written before the bell, or as complicated as turning something they figured was a final copy into the first part of a new phase of a project.
But at some level, I take their question seriously. If they’re done, why can’t they just be done?
And actually I’d go further than that. If they’re not feeling it today – that is, if they didn’t even get close to “done” – why can’t they just sit out, take a break, and come back?
My sense so far is that teachers tend to be suspicious, sometimes outright dismissive, of students’ assessment of their own efficacy. Surely students who think they’re “done” simply haven’t worked hard enough (say), or haven’t done as much as they could do if pushed to deepen their engagement (or something).
But when I’m honest with myself, usually when students finish my assignments early, it’s because I misjudged how complex the assignment would be, or how committed my students would be to go beyond the bare minimum required to (genuinely) complete the assignment – which, again, is usually a reflection on the assignment, not my students. That is, when they say they’re done, they’re very often really done.
So why can’t they just tune out?
And when it comes to “not feeling it,” forcing a student into work mode usually results in them disengaging completely or even finding ways to escape the classroom altogether, only to return when they are “feeling it.” For plenty of students, this amounts to a bad day. For others, what they’re “not feeling” is just the “resting” mildly oppressive environment of school. I remember feeling mildly oppressed in school, too. Not a big deal, just a kind of low-frequency hum of boredom and irritation. I get it.
What I settle on is kind of punting on the “on and off” question. I try to offer corrollaries to things students do in their down time, like keeping track of the videos they’re watching on YouTube, say, or listening to music while doing some free writing or research for a bigger project. But these kinds of compromises, beyond being obviously ineffective (i.e., it’s easy to pretend to “free write” or “research” without really doing anything), seem kind of…wrong.
Not really wrong. Just kind of “off.” I sympathize with my students’ impulse to just not care about school all the time, or even most of the time. To want to do what they need to do and no more. To, in the utilitarian framework above, follow the rules and then be free to do what they want.
I wonder if students need much more time in school to not demonstrably “learn” anything. (Of course it’s possible that we learn things – important things – while goofing off, but my point is that we shouldn’t have to. I’m not talking about “informal learning.” I’m talking about not having to do anything.) I also think they generally need more time in school, period, but that there should be some not-insignifcant portion of this time devoted to not “being in school.” And I think part of this should be in the form of a kind of informal agreement in classrooms themselves.
I imagine things like nap rooms and mindfulness breaks and “opt out” opportunities. The alternative – the status quo – seems to pathologize classrooms as a place where students perform, mostly punishing those who suffer the most from performance anxiety or, conversely, just don’t like performing. As someone who falls into both categories but who nonetheless thrived in school (which isn’t to say I “liked” it, per se, just that I was good at it), I can’t help but imagine what school would look like when students feel comfortable opting out and opting in, in their own time and at their own rhythm, which I’m sure wouldn’t really match the rhythm of a bell schedule.
(And a final parenthetical here to remind folks reading that in this series if I seem to end up shadowboxing it’s squarely with myself. I’m not trying to turn other people’s school philosophies into straw men – even realistic ones. If I’m strawmanning, it’s gotta be my own ideas, at least.)
NOTE: I’ve been writing up some notes I’ve been taking as a new high school teacher, and I’ll hopefully be posting more of these in the coming few days or weeks. These are mostly “first drafts” of my thoughts so far based on what’s worked or not worked.
I’ve been struggling as a new media teacher with the best way to tackle the issue of credibility in my classes. I find that a lot of standard ways of teaching, e.g., journalistic credibility (in the realm of news literacy) or source credibility are a harder slog without arbitrarily deciding beforehand which sources “count” as credible.
But I don’t want my students trusting, say, the New York Times just because I said so. For one thing, this denies the reality that any given author, subject, or section differs in its level of credibility, and that even in a generally “credible” source there can be untrustworthy information.
This presents a bit of a challenge, as I can’t predict with any real accuracy what my students already trust or why they trust it, and what they do wind up trusting often leaves me in a world of little-known networks and sources of information. To put it another way, I feel about the sources that they tend to trust – from websites, social media, YouTube, and other places – the same way they feel about my left-of-center semi-mainstream journalism diet.
And it’s in this admission, that I don’t know whether or not I can trust their sources – which is very different from assuming I can’t trust them – that’s led me to what I think is a more productive way of thinking about “teaching credibility”: credibility isn’t just an attribute that you apply to a person or a source; it’s a relationship you have with a person or source.
The way I’ve been breaking it down this cycle is a four-part determination that includes BOTH the source of information my students have and their own knowledge. That way they can chart not only the qualities of what they’re reading, but also note where they may have a difference of opinion or experience, or a lack of sufficient background knowledge to even determine credibility.
The four that I’ve been working on, though I’m not really happy with them just yet, are:
Point of view: the general position or outlook one has as it relates to what’s being said.
Experience: Relevant experiences one has had in the subject area or with an event or topic.
Interests: The reasons, especially those having to do with status, money, or other beneficial self-interest, people may have for saying or arguing something
Sources: The other sources one defers to for authority.
What I like about these four attributes is that they fit into a chart that students can fill out about both their source and their own background knowledge, i.e.:
MY POV / THEIR POV; MY EXPERIENCE / THEIR EXPERIENCE; MY INTEREST / THEIR INTEREST; MY SOURCES / THEIR SOURCES.
(The word “interests” can be a little confusing, since if I ask a student “what’s your interest in this,” I’ll often get a response like “I’m not that interested.” I usually define it as “what’s in it for me,” something like that.)
One really useful starting point for many of my students, for instance, is to look at local news from their neighborhoods for incidents that may have involved people they know directly or indirectly. (These usually come up unprompted when I ask a simple question like “what’s going on in the world”; I wouldn’t force a student to talk about an incident they knew about if they didn’t offer it.) In these cases, the local news coverage nearly always misses details (minimal experience in the neighborhood), spins the event in a particular way in its tone (a particular way of thinking about and presenting crime stories), betrays a need to attract eyeballs without digging deeper or returning to the story (financial and programming interests), and relies on police and often tenuously related bystander sources.
So in this exercise, my students start off knowing MORE than the “official” reports do, and have a means of charting that knowledge – their point of view as a resident, their experiences with both crime and news coverage of crime, their interest in knowing the truth about the event for their own curiosity or sometimes their own safety, and sources that news media tend not to cultivate (neighborhood networks connected to the event). I don’t have to throw them into the deep end of a news landscape that they may or may not know.
Rather than just say that the news story is or is not credible (my students will more or less tell me that local news stories are generally credible, just sensationalistic), it establishes a comparison between author and audience. In a story about a cure for a little-known disease, by contrast, students may genuinely have little “skin in the game” in terms of their point of view, experience, or interest. (Usually their self-interest in thinking about a story like this is that they have to for class, which is a powerful interest, mind, but a little…boring? But boring works sometimes, more on that later, maybe.) They may need to rely primarily on the sources that the story uses and other information they can glean about the author (is this someone who writes about science all the time? A medical professional? A drug company representative? What’s their track record?).
This also somewhat solves the “Wikipedia problem,” where students immediately discount the credibility of a Wikipedia article (or any source without clear authorship, like something an aggregator spits out) mostly because of their former teachers’ distrust. Instead, they can, without delving too much into the POV, experience, or interests of Wikipedia and Wikipedia editors (which certainly exist, but aren’t really my primary target for teaching about thoughtful Wikipedia use for research), they can go straight to the secondary sources, where the questions are usually a bit easier to figure out. That is to say that a good Wikipedia article already satisfies one out of four of the categories needed to assess credibility, meaning that any Wikipedia article is potentially “credible,” depending on where the editors get their information, which then goes back into the process. The bigger point, though, is that how credible something is depends largely on what you bring to the table – your own ability to understand the context in which the thing was created and compare it to what you know (or can find out).
That credibility is relative isn’t meant to pathologically destroy the idea of credibility altogether – it would be stupid to say that one source can’t be more or less trustworthy (or, frankly, more or less right) than another. It’s just that the relativity of credibility requires us to understand where we stand in relation to something else. It isn’t an attribute that can just be bestowed upon a source; if we don’t actually know where we sit in relation to that source, it’s not really “assessing credibility” to use some other set of criteria alone – scanning for education credentials, news legacy, production value, strong byline, etc. – to figure out whether what’s being said is something we should trust to be true. The model I’m moving toward, I hope, puts my students and what they know at the center of the process. But it’s too soon to know whether this is any more effective at getting students to actually research well than just saying, in effect, “you can trust this…trust me.” In fact I know the latter is easier, and achieves the result of students putting together source lists that I (from my own position) would call “credible.” But I don’t know if it’s worth the cost to how they view research – as a process orchestrated by some other authority whom you’ve assigned credibility. The whole point is to learn enough to become authority enough to decide who to trust.
HERE IS AN ALTERNATE LINK WHILE THE AUDIO IS DOWN AT YOUTUBE.
On the ten-year anniversary of Kanye West’s statement on national television that “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” I thought I’d listen again to Legendary K.O.’s “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” But as you’ll see, the audio has been muted, which is partiuclarly egregious timing (and probably not coincidental), as others I’m sure have had the same idea.
I was fortunate enough to play for my remix class a little over one week ago from this very link. The audio was working just fine.
This is a nice case study for my class, who just started their journey thinking about the relationship between remix, copyright, and fair use. There is pretty much zero hard legal precedent for Legendary K.O.’s remix as fair use, but there is a culture and community of remixers that nonetheless uses fair use as cornerstone.
If the issue isn’t resolved with a counter-claim, I’ll put up my own copy of the song with excerpts of my class’s discussion, which was both incisive and a nice start to the year. I’m teaching students at an accelerated high school designed for people who have left the public school system for a lot of different reasons, and their commentary ten years later was both inspiring (it had the traction of formative political memories that 9/11 no longer has for students who were too young to understand it on the day it happened), and a good way to energize the class on a topic that can be a little ambiguous. (A few students struggled with the ambiguity of fair use this week, too, but when they created their own remixes in class today, there were a lot of “aha” moments.)
From what my class already knows about fair use, I think most would characterize “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” as an obvious example of fair use. They identified its purpose as different even before thinking about “four factors” just through basic discussion of difference between the remix and the original. The song couldn’t be mistaken for a market substitute. It has obvious social value even in the wake of at least one court decision that made the issue of “social value” more ambiguous than ever.
But there is no clear community of practice for claiming fair use in music remix (remix artists/DJs and fiction filmmakers are two communities I continue to watch and wait for on the issue), and this is clearly going to be a big ethical (and maybe legal) issue for me moving forward as a teacher – my students aren’t just students. They produce, record, and distribute music whose production I’ve started to facilitate. Their “student remixes” aren’t just parodies of popular songs with course content or school pride replacing original lyrics (even outside of educational considerations for fair use, these kinds of parodies are widely protected).
In a conversation with other educators using fair use in their classrooms, there was general confusion around music’s “OK-ness” in media production and media education. Youth media video producers in schools generally don’t use copyrighted music, opting for (frankly, usually terrible) license-free background music or student-produced music when possible. And music production in schools that I’m aware of rarely blurs the lines between amateur and professional sample-based work the way my studnets already do – the kinds of unlicensed remix my students take for granted in mixtape and DJ culture take on new issues when they aren’t being released as mixtapes and DJ sets, but in the context of a classroom with a teacher who wants them to flex their actual fair use reasoning muscles and not feel like they’re circumventing or ignoring copyright law.
I’ll let you know how it goes, but I hope that for now at least a few others will re-post and then challenge the takedown of the Legendary K.O. song soon. I can say from experience that it is an essential remix text on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and if you’re able to, you should have your students listen to it and talk about it.
United States Supreme Court Rules Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive: Not a lawyer and haven’t looked through this at all (it was a FB share) but it seems like pretty good news.
(I’ve been off this account for a while but would like to try to jumpstart it again…)
Race and Discipline in Spotlight After South Carolina Officer Drags Student: I’ve been thinking about this story a lot, obviously, but the big takeaway for me – since I have been under no delusion that many black students are subject to degrading treatment by school security that’s been outsourced to police – is the role of teachers to educate students about video documentation as a form of civic engagement and political resistance.
Obviously I can’t be certain, but I suspect that the video is the only reason anyone has noticed this story at all. Incidents like this – aggressive police action used to stand in for other disciplinary measures – happen daily in high schools around the country.
I’ve already found in my very brief stint so far as a media teacher that giving students the frameworks and skills to understand and use their phones as powerful computing and documentation tools, especially when they have no or unreliable home internet access (which is over half of my students), has quickly become an essential component of media education, one that grows more important every year.
But with that power comes new, uncomfortable questions. How should we as teachers approach issues like documentation of police encounters? I personally believe my students have not only the right but the responsibility to understand how to document and share incidents that contribute to issues like police accountability when it is safe and legal for them to do so. But I also know that in teaching them how to document and share, often against the wishes and even against the (incorrect) knowledge of authority figures, puts them in real danger – teachers can’t predict when using these skills will be unsafe. The classmate who documented and shared this footage should be applauded for courage. But the decision put this classmate in a dangerous situation and had unfair and terrifying consequences.
My sense is that a careful understanding of civic context, tools, and a kind of mental “flow chart” of possibilities (including real dangers), especially informed by the incidents that we do have knowledge of from current events, is within my bounds as a media teacher. But the extra activist proposition of actually encouraging my students to use these tools to resist and reveal injustice seems a lot less sound because of the real dangers that taking action poses. But is “providing the tools” for activism and then backing away from an explicitly activist action step categorically different from sparking a kind of activism that may put students in danger?
There might be an analogue in the “safer” realm of other aspects of civic education and current events analysis, where foundations are shaped by and gesture toward, but often stop just short of explicitly endorsing, a clear political agenda. Current events, like popular culture texts, can provide a kind of screen with which students don’t necessarily have to see themselves at the center of ethical, moral, and institutional issues, even though they may and often do choose to center themselves there. One can learn about the Bill of Rights, even in the context of a clearly progressive or social justice-oriented agenda, without then being asked directly to go out and exercise those rights (e.g., teach about protest, but don’t make protesting mandatory).
Still, the considerations for teaching still seem fraught, because when the new knowledge and skills do meet reality – and when decisions to resist, as in the video documentation in South Carolina, do actually happen – the fact is that my students are putting themselves at risk with tools that I have consciously made part of their education.
But these kinds of concerns also start to diminish somewhat when I remember how important it is to understand context in incidents like this – especially ones that happen with some control from school authority figures (adults accompanying students to a protest, say, or an altercation happening on school grounds).
I wonder what this incident would have looked like if the teacher had been on the side of the student. It’s naive to think that there will never be an incident that may require a school administrator to intervene, and in schools where officers aid administrators, police may be called in as a matter of course, whether a teacher is comfortable with it or not (this is, of course, ignoring the wildly inappropriate overuse of police in schools in the first place, which is hopefully a national conversation that will be sparked by this incident). But what a teacher does when the administrator, police officer, or other authority enters is not open and shut. Teachers don’t relinquish authority or responsibility when an administrator enters the room.
And so in this particular incident, I wind up thinking that as much as we rightfully focus on the officer in this case, the teacher in that classroom had a direct responsibility to speak up and do anything possible to resist. The teacher could have been the one with a phone out, recording the altercation, spreading the word about what happened, alongside the students (South Carolina is a one-party consent state where the legality of filming police altercations is less ambiguous than in Pennsylvania, for instance). [EDIT: There seems to be a growing legal consensus that filming police officers in the line of duty is not applicable to conset laws, but these are the kinds of things I would want to be far more knowledgable about before even thinking about bringing it into the classroom.] That’s a lot to ask, but it’s far less than we’re asking of the students who experience or are haunted by the real possibility of harrassment and brutality.
oh, yikes. i am having a really hard time thinking of anything with zero dollar impact. here’s some relatively low cost ones:
mentoring for new teachers. the lowest cost way to do this is by using retired teachers, rather than reassigning current teachers. this should consist of mentoring in areas like classroom management, curriculum and lesson development, school and district policies and procedures, and, frankly, just listening while the new teacher freaks out. this has been shown to significantly impact teacher retention, and experienced teachers are much more effective, so over time, the teacher corps at a school would be overall more experienced and more effective.
curriculum standards. they are controversial. i like them! i think there are a lot of teachers who can benefit from clear guidance about semester and year-long content goals, as well as subcomponent skills and how to build up to those larger goals. i also think having some standardization of content and expectations helps kids overall - within a state, district, and even a school - to make sure expectations are consistent and there’s a clear way to gauge whether kids are being left behind. this isn’t no cost because teachers need materials, training, monitoring, etc, in order to reasonably implement standards.
in-school health clinics. ok, this is a little tricky, because it’s nowhere near zero cost, but a lot of the cost can come from medicaid and other health program reimbursement, rather than from the schools themselves. (aside from dedicating the space.) these in-school clinics would treat both students and their parents. treating students in-school, rather than requiring them to leave school for treatment, can lead to earlier intervention in health problems and dramatically reduce the amount of time spent out of the classroom. for example, if a student with an impending asthma attack can be treated in the school building, that’s half a day out of the classroom. if she has to go to the ER for treatment, that could be 2 days out of the classroom. tons of student health issues are directly related to achievement and better prevention and management of these health issues would lead to far lower absentee rates and improved student achievement.
“Whether they are solidly middle- or upper-income or poor, neither group of blacks controls the critical economic levers shaping school reform. And, this is because urban school reform is not about schools or reform. It is about land development.” - An essential post from dean of the Howard University Ed School that doesn’t just stop at an attack on TFA and charterization as phenomena, but explicitly links bad options for black families across the SES spectrum with economic policies and land development deals largely negotiated without their input.
I grew up in Prince George’s County, MD, and benefited from just one of many tools contributing to de facto segregation (magnet programs) that ultimately drained resources, and high-performing students, from local schools and placed them in less-diverse programs that received special funding and privileges. But even those programs seem positively egalitarian compared to how the trend has accelerated. Now, in Philadelphia, I see the same patterns enacted at arguably an even bigger scale, as (e.g.) outrageous tax incentives for charters lead to multimillion dollar property contracts that are only possible with public subsidies – see this eye-opening report from Philly.com for more information.
“A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly: “Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?”
He gets even more specific: “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?” The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness.
The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises.” The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: “I shouldn’t have blown up at the teacher.” Whoa.” - Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 85% (via mchotdog)
what a radical idea yo
Bam. Kids “misbehave” for actual, real, valid reasons. And have feelings.
For fuck’s sake, it takes the people in charge so long to figure shit like this out! Good for Lincoln High!
This needs to be the policy EVERYWHERE…
This is also why teachers need more resources, smaller class sizes, more adults in the classroom.
Something like this happened when I was student teaching in a third grade classroom. During a writing assignment, a boy was not working, muttering swear words at his desk, banging things. Instead of telling him to stop being disruptive or putting his name on the board, I came close and crouched down and said I could see he was feeling upset and asked what was wrong. It turned out he had forgotten his rough draft (they were supposed to be copying their edited rough drafts into a final draft) and he didn’t know what to do now and he figured he was going to get a zero and fail the assignment and be in trouble.
I suggested he could do his best to rewrite his one-page story from memory. Just write as much as you can, give me your best effort and I’ll accept it as your assignment. Well, he was SO HAPPY that he wasn’t just going to straight-up fail that he actually did a great job remembering what his story had been about and rewriting it as best he could. I know this isn’t as big an issue as the alcoholic father, but it’s still a case of finding the cause of the problem vs. punishing the symptom.
But here’s the thing: I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been a student teacher in that room, if the regular teacher hadn’t been there to keep the rest of the class on task and quiet. One teacher in a room of thirty kids isn’t always *able* to give that kind of individual attention.
Teachers get so much crap for what they do and don’t do, for the choices they make with the resources they have. Criticism is always necessary, but it needs to be followed up with support.
Ross Greene’s Lost at School and the collaborative problem solving model offer a great set of resources to help incorporate these strategies into classrooms. Resources available here.
Tips for the Top 5 Problem Players: kierongillen:
This was kinda inspirational. Not quite what you’d expect.
I just started a new job at a high school in Philadelphia as a media instructor – and then, in my second week, was hit by a car, giving me a lot of time to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t in the one week of rubber hitting the road I actually had before, er, rubber hit me. (I’m doing OK.)
This video was an unexpected summary of some of what I’ve gone through so far. I love finding echoes of issues in teaching in unexpected places, and certainly game nights can pose challening issues of negotiation between different types of people, all of whom have different motivations and interest levels.
Teaching always requires what is crudely called “classroom management”; no matter how anti-CM your teaching philosophy is, there is the basic reality that you are negotiating 20 different people in one space, which means that behavioral considerations are going to come into play whether “behavioralism” gives you hives or not.
That particular issue of mine – the aversion to behavioral approaches designed to gain classroom authority – is something I left behind years ago in various teaching positions. But the issue has flared up again as my need for good strategies that move the class forward together became much more urgent in the new setting.
So this video was a bit of a tonic; it’s a reminder that part of the question of “what’s wrong with my classroom” has to be “what’s wrong with me” – not as self-deprecation, but as self-reflection. At its worst, classroom management becomes an end unto itself, a kind of technical exercise that puts control first and learning second. Though it’s true that there’s no learning without some control, it’s also true that you don’t need constant, totalizing control, either.
After getting to know my students a bit, I realized that a lot of gimmicks I’d brainstormed to keep the classroom respectful and engaged were more trouble than they were worth, and I quickly jettisoned them. I also realized that dealing with specific disruptions in the classroom wouldn’t be possible before I knew who my students were. If two people are talking in the back and I don’t know their names or their relationship to each other yet, all I have are my “strategies.” Those may work in the short-term, but the cost is high. Anonymous, dispassionate discipline – treating students interchangeably and holding them to standards that I may or may not expect of myself – is disrespectful, even when it works.
To give one example: I teach the same course four times a day during this semester. Each lesson is new to me and new to the students. I also have a larger class in the morning than I have at any other time of the day. So every day, almost without exception, my lesson just barely “fits” within the time allotted for my first period. By seecond period, we have a five-minute chunk at the end of the period for wrap-up. But by the third and fourth period, that time expands to 10 or even 15 minutes, meaning I need an additional component of the lesson to stretch out the timing – but it can’t be a component that fundamentally changes the pace of learning or introduces a new concept.
The question that has really bugged me (along the lines of the video) is: do I really care if we don’t have anything to do for five minutes at the end of class?
Or: “The fastest way to fix a problem player is to change the contract between yourself and them, so that their behavior isn’t a problem anymore.”
The classroom manager in me is disgusted that I would even suggest changing the expectations instead of changing the behavior. (Of course, the biggest problem with the “classroom manager” is that all of his expectations deal with classroom management.) But the ME in me knows that if we got through the lesson, we got through the lesson. If I build “down time” into lessons that end 5 minutes early (and remember, this is only applicable to one or maybe two of my periods out of four – if it were all periods, I’d need to redesign the lessons!), I, the non-classroom-manager, think free play within boundaries is a better use of students’ time than tacking superficial learning (“learniness”) onto the end.
What I’d started to do, before getting derailed for the semester with the accident, was to work out classroom agreements (contracts) with each of my sections. Each agreement looks a little different for each section. All “rules” come only from students; their ideas in their language. I express a need I have, then they suggest a solution, then I write down what they say, end of story. We start with one or two and add ones as needed.
One student asked if we should have rules for food and drink, and I told the class that I didn’t think food or drink was a problem yet, and when it was a problem, we’d deal with it. We were approaching the need in one or two of my periods to add a line to the contract to define “down time” – how to deal with a spare five minutes, especially in the last period of the day – because this is something I didn’t anticipate before starting. (None of the expectations on my syllabus have anything to do with “classroom management,” because I assume that the biggest challenges to a supportive classroom environment will almost necessarily be unpredictable and unique.)
When I can finally return to work, I’ll let you know how it goes. Our school creed includes the line, “Every challenge is an opportunity; every opportunity is a gift.” So I’ll use my challenge here as an opportunity to be better-armed for “classroom management” when I return by figuring out how to tame my “touch of the control freak.”
State Supreme Court: Charter schools are unconstitutional: The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 that charter schools are unconstitutional because “money that is dedicated to common schools is unconstitutionally diverted to charter schools.” I’m not really up to date with my Washington state constitution, but I’m curious about how their rationale – that charters are not “common schools” because they have appointed rather than elected boards – and definition of “common schools” translates to other states.
I just finished A School of Our Own, a strange, frustrating, and provocative book about a “school within a school” founded by a precocious 16-year-old, the son of an education and development theorist.It’s strange because the co-author (the mother) cedes well over half of the book to the articulate but nonetheless unpolished journals and reflections of her s […]
I’ve been thinking a bit about an off-hand comment I made in my last post, about prison abolition. My statement, which was too unequivocal in hindsight, suggested that I have problems with the idea of “prison abolition” as a policy or social goal. And it’s true that I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the basic idea of prisons – the existence of an insti […]
Finally finished American Crime Story, one of two shows about O.J. Simpson that received quite a bit of conversation and acclaim last year. Most of my commentary on it as a piece of media would probably retread well-worn analysis; none of it is particularly illuminating. If you’re curious, I thought the series had two or three excellent episodes, was overlon […]
Seven Tips for Teaching News Literacy to Eight- to 12-Year-Olds: Forgot to share here the article I wrote for School Library Journal on K-6 news literacy. For me, the big point I’ve been thinking about a lot (and have written about here) is #5 – thinking of sources as a question of “who,” not of “where” or “what”: Tactics for spotting fake news or assessing […]
From Mein Kampf onward, Nazi jurists and policy makers took a sustained interest in American race law. Especially during the early 1930s, the era of the making of the Nuremberg Laws, Nazis engaged in detailed study of American immigration law, American second-class citizenship law, and American anti-miscegenation and mongrelization law. Some of them saw attr […]