Education Evolutions #126

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I realized this week that the service I have been using to deliver this newsletter to many is no longer distributing things as quickly as I thought. While I post it online too, it really started in email form. So I was a little surprised when I received the email midweek for a newsletter that I had finished and published on Sunday as usual. All I can say about it is sorry and now that I am aware I will have to investigate some other possible methods for pushing it out.

This week the selection seemed to defy any notion of theme. A little bit about writing, digital life, and grades are on the docket and none of the articles is particularly long so there is a chance you could easily be enriched by reading them all. They are an eclectic mix that certainly falls under the wider remit I have set up for this newsletter.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the second one, which rarely happens. It is a quick read, slightly out of the ordinary style, and filled with some strong and intuitive observations. If you cannot remember the last time you cleaned up your Google drive or lamented the state of it, which is just about everyone I meet, then this is a good read.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it – The Guardian – Lynn Steger Strong (5-minute read)

As an English and journalism teacher and someone who sits down and writes more regularly than I ever have in my life, hoping to generate work worth reading, I found this article compelling. At this point in my life, completely out of choice, I am generating somewhere around 3000 to 4000+ words a week, whether it be this newsletter or the articles I have been writing after every Liverpool match (now on the verge of winning their first league title in 30 years) over the last five years. Of course, I would bever claim to be a writer by profession. I am a teacher. Yet, I am a writer too, despite it not being my primary vocation.

I made a decision some time ago that I needed to be a practicing writer if I was going to be teaching young writers anything genuine or meaningful. For me, that meant committing to the discipline of writing regularly for real audiences, however many I might find. I had no illusions about making money from the work but occasionally wonder about what kind of possibilities there might be. Ultimately, I felt if there was any hope of writing anything that required a long, sustained effort, I had better prove to myself that I could put in the kind of graft that is required to do it before making the attempt. Perhaps I will one day.

However, this article is proof of something that may well be unfortunately true of nearly all creative fields. Making any kind of money via creative work is profoundly difficult in the prevailing system by which we live. Steger Strong pretty well nails it with the notion that “long-term creative work than time and space – these things cost money – and the fact that some people have access to it for reasons that are often outside of their control continues to create an ecosystem in which the tenor of the voices that we hear from most often remains similar.” While it is not exactly that every productive creative individual needs a supporting patron, we are not necessarily as far from it as we might like to think. This piece is about the cost of writing but it could potentially be about any creative or artistic field, which is not necessarily a good thing for anyone.

What the Death of iTunes Says About Our Digital Habits – The Atlantic – Robinson Meyer (6-minute read)

This is a creative and insightful commentary that uses the recent death of Apple’s everpresent music app iTunes symbolically as symptomatic a far greater shift in the way we consume and operate in digital spaces. Much has changed in the last decade regarding how we interact and use digital devices. The computer truly became as ubiquitous as all the science fiction once upon a time stories suggested. The final hurdle of ordinariness arrived with the smartphone that enabled nearly anyone to walk with a computer in their pocket at all times.

Aside from the creative structure and setup if this piece in the numbered list, Meyer also offers some penetrating perceptions about how our relationship to the various devices has evolved as we migrated to living increasingly inside a computer-mediated reality. His assessment of Gmail’s victory seems particularly keen in moving from hard drives to the cloud. In a way, looking back as Meyer has done, Google’s email app was the thin edge of the wedge needed for companies to convince customers that owning things was so 20th century and the future was leasing in perpetuity.

The colonization of the digital world, which looks increasingly like the real world, began and continues apace. All the promise of online and free would eventually give way to the subscription because nobody could find a more creative way. Meyer’s items 10 and 11 are the most critical and reflective of all. They are also the most thought-provoking and telling. Boundaries have broken down but not always in a good way. The digital world privileges timelessness and dislocation among other things. As a consequence “the clock is always running, and that the work will never end” seems right on the mark to me.

What If We Didn’t Grade?: A Bibliography – Jesse Stommel’s blog – Jesse Stommel (7-minute read)

The move towards ungrading remains one of the most interesting and important things happening in education. While Jesse Stommel works at the university level and has been one of a handful of leaders exploring the prospects of going gradeless in higher education, there are plenty of secondary teachers doing so too. I often wonder where the movement is likely to be more embraced and successful. More than that, anyone that wants to engage or explore the prospects might suffer from no clear or obvious place to begin the journey. This post seems to fill that void.

I have included a number of items on this topic and I am always on the lookout for more. Over the course of my teaching career, I have seen first-hand the adverse affects grading has had on my classroom and my students. I have often commented that I feel I have spent the majority of my time as a teacher trying to diminish grades as much as I can, although I have never gone completely gradeless. Honestly, I am not sure that it would fly. Of course, grades are a requirement of the institution. Yet, as Stommel suggests, it has never been as simple as “just removing grades.” It certainly requires a lot of reflection and entering into a wider discussion.

What is so great about this post is that he has already considered many of the questions and shares them, as well as links to no shortage of resources to investigate as part of that reflective process. Some of the resources I have seen before but many I have not. Consequently, I am encouraged to dig around in some of the readings he recommends at length, as I continually reassess how grades work in my classroom and where they might be headed. It seemed only natural to share this with more people, especially those giving grades a serious think, as well.

Education Evolutions #125

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

After a week off, it was nice to sit down and collect some of these readings and associated thoughts. Plus, this is another one of those milestone issues, number 125. Every time one of those kinds of numbers appears, I remain mildly surprised to have reached it.

This week, after returning from a week of vacation, I was definitely on the hunt for some less dour material. I succeeded without reaching too far, which was encouraging. There are so many challenges in teaching, technology, and education today. Plus, this is around the time every year when every student and teacher can start to feel a bit sluggish, waiting for the recharge that spring brings with it. Hopefully, some of these items will be restorative and informative.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the first one, for a change. Given just how topsy-turvey things can sometimes seem, I really was hoping to find something more positive and uplifting. For anyone that reads this and benefitted from the public school system as a student, may it serve as a pleasant reminder of all those working in that system who helped along the way.

While I don’t find a video every week, I came across this one and thought it was really lovely. Bloom is also a nice reminder that spring is on its way, literally and figuratively.

Here are three curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Public Education: a Love Story – Teacher in a Strange Land blog – Nancy Flanagan (6-minute read)

I am not sure it has ever happened before but the first item two weeks in a row comes from the same source. I only recently became aware of Nancy Flanagan’s blog, Teacher in a Strange Land, despite her writing a past column of the same name for EdWeek. Also, this is a decidedly upbeat and rather beautiful post about public schools. I love it when I find and read something that I wish I had written myself with the subsequent realization that the one I am reading probably is better than I would have written anyway. This is that kind of piece.

I am continually amazed by just how many people seem to buy all the hype from public school bashing. Living in the state that consistently has produced some of the best public schools by any measure, as well as being in close proximity to a high performing charter school, I continue to be stunned by how many people chomping at the bit waiting for admission into an alternative to the public schools. Of course, I am biased being a public school teacher, working in a strong school. And I understand that there are challenges and things are far from perfect but the system has endured, despite generations of attacks. I work in public schools because I too love them.

I grew up in a place and at a time where anyone that could send their kid to a Catholic school they did to avoid the public schools. My parents did not have the money and I suspect the inclination for a Catholic education. So as I was entering school age, we moved out of the big city. In some ways, I won the lottery when my parents bought a little house in an unincorporated township that allowed me to attend some of the best schools in the state at that time. I was privy to an amazing array of cagey, veteran teachers, as well as no shortage of young, ambitious ones just starting to hit their professional strides. The sheer timing of it all was incredibly lucky. When I finished high school one of the best community colleges in the country was waiting mere miles from my high school. While I eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree from a private university, it was only because I got the most money through grants and scholarships to offset the costs and keep my loan payments down after the two years I attended. I was the first in my immediate family to get a degree. There were so many teachers along the way that helped me find a path and make it all happen, all working at public schools. They are an indispensable reason why I became and remain a teacher. This post was a reminder of all that. Hopefully, it will do that for anyone that takes the time to read it too.

Report: U.S. government wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools and still fails to adequately monitor grants – The Washington Post – Valarie Strauss (5-minute read)

Anyone that may have seen Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the President’s 2021 Education Budget Request hearing may have wondered about the details of her deplorable performance in front of Congressional representatives. This article details the report that Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan cited when grilling the secretary about the financial record of charter schools and the federal Department of Education.

The article is pretty direct and straightforward about where the report came from and is transparent about the organization that produced it. However, it is fascinating how quickly DeVos dismissed the findings of the report as “debunked…propaganda,” all the while having absolutely no substantive data to support any claims to the contrary. Of course, any of her pro-charter, pro-voucher, or other anti-public school schemes are not labeled as propaganda, especially the latest edreformy term du jour “government schools.”

The brutal display in front of the representatives saw Connecticut’s Representative Katherine Clark call for DeVos’ resignation, which seems to have become a nearly regular occurrence whenever the secretary makes a public appearance in front of anybody charged with holding her or the department she heads accountable at all. While the Network for Public Education is pretty clear about its advocacy, the report looks pretty well-researched, especially given the dearth of data released by the Department of Education since its last major audit in 2015. The very fact that the current secretary has nothing but empty rhetoric to counter any claims made in this report should be exhibit A in support of the claims by the Network for Public Education, regardless of whether they are an advocacy group or not. Plus, at least they are transparent about their organization, unlike so many of the charlatans supporting and maintaining current zombie-like edreform efforts that continually are exposed as empty and ineffective.

High Stakes Tests Aren’t Better—And They Never Will Be – Boston Review – Lelac Almagor (11-minute read)

This article continues the conversation about the wrong-headed advancement of standardized tests and malignant legacy of No Child Left Behind, not to mention the more recent Common Core. While there is not necessarily a lot that is new, it remains a compelling testimony to the kind of foolishness that is routinely required of teachers, especially as school boards, administrators, and parents chase scores in a profoundly sick system.

What this piece highlights exceptionally well is how there are no private schools putting their students through the crucible of testing subjected to public school students. For all the talk of choices and vouchers, there are no commensurate demands of accountability (see the article above for a more profound example of how selective accountability measures are). Of course, falling test scores usually trip school systems into a kind of learning death spiral, as ever more time will be spent on preparing for tests that are at best hollow measures of any learning that truly matters but serve as extremely worthwhile cudgels to beat students, teachers, and whole systems.

Ultimately, this piece makes a pretty strong case about the paradox of the high-stakes, standardized testing regime. It is profoundly costly in both time and money, yields relatively meaningless or reductive data, and perpetuates a corrosive and regressive impact on public schools. Despite a massive abandonment of the Common Core assessment organizations, its influence lives on in countless insidious ways. The defective system of accountability has damaged schools and students. There are other ways to maintain a level of accountability that is more meaningful and far better for all parties involved in educating young people. However, there are no easy solutions such as the current testing regime falsely promises.

Education Evolutions #124

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

So, this is a day late as I am still shaking off whatever bug took hold of me at the end of last week. It pretty well wrecked the weekend and slowed me down. Still, here are a handful of readings that are not quite as dark as recent issues have seemed. I do like to find a little balance if possible and given the breadth of topics I try to cover with this newsletter is not completely impossible.

Given that this a vacation week for me, there will not be an issue next week. That has been pretty standard practice since I started this little experiment. So, issue #125 will arrive in nary a couple of weeks. Every time I see a milestone number I am a little surprised still. I never thought it would last as long as it has but I still like doing it and I have gotten some very kind feedback of late too.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one, of course. Anyone that reads this newsletter and cares about data privacy will have encountered the new California law before now. However, this piece walks everyone through the way that you can take advantage of the new protections, in some cases, whether or not you reside in California. We have so much further to go but this provides a great place to get started and begin to really take stock of all the services you currently use. it is a good prompt for a digital spring cleaning.

Here are three curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

The Soft Bigotry of Hard Grading – Teacher in a Strange Land blog – Nancy Flanagan (7-minute read)

There are so many good thoughts in this post it is hard to highlight them all. The title alone drew me, then I read it and was hooked. Ironically, I saw the Fordham Great Expectations report prior to reading this, spent a few seconds and moved on. I have long passed the point of taking anything seriously that comes from that institution or its cadre. Yet, it is good to stay aware of those with other points of view are espousing, I suppose even if they are little more than a shill front for edreformy, anti-teacher, and high-stakes testing industry interests. That is part of what makes this takedown so good, as a matter of fact.

Pulling a line from the Bush-era that ushered in the madness of NCLB, giving a greater voice to the likes of Fordham charlatans, and using it to highlight the ridiculousness was a creative masterstroke. Flanagan takes that blame-the-victim frame job and turns it on its head. Even better, she cuts through a lot of mythic silliness associated with grades. Grades are a kind of fiction. They might be realistic, maybe even historical fiction but fiction nonetheless. They are crude approximations at best. Plus, Flanagan is dead right when she writes, “Bad grades don’t motivate kids to try harder.” This is one of the most pernicious myths many teachers learn the hard way if they learn it at all. Of course, there is always an example of a student that perpetuates this myth, but how often does every conversation with that student revolve around grades rather than learning or the course?

I am also fascinated by those who bang on about standards or any holding-the-line mentality gibberish and then make arguments about grading. In a true standards-based system there really is no need for grades, at least as we familiar. A student meets the standard or does not. Anything beyond that has the whiff of the kind of elitism that is only interested in ranking and sorting. Then again, that is pretty much the stock and trade of most material that comes from outfits like Fordham. I am glad someone took aim and helped clarify some of these points.

‘Schools are killing curiosity’: why we need to stop telling children to shut up and learn – The Guardian – Wendy Berliner (5-minute read)

While this article is mostly recycled from a book by the columnist, cultivating curiosity and crafting questions has been an area that has fascinated me for a number of years in my teaching career. Getting past the somewhat sensationalist headline, anyone that teaches at the secondary level knows that to some degree school can do a great job of teaching the curiosity right out of students. Of course, it never is really quite as simple as all that, however.

What is interesting is the longitudinal study used to suggest how critical curiosity might be in academic achievement. While there is a certain, “Obviously” quality to this finding, it is a healthy reminder of how compliance can be prized over curiosity, especially with large groups of students. Yet, the more school becomes a transaction game, the less room there is for things like curiosity. As the findings of Williams College professor Susan Engle suggest, “The questions they asked were aimed at improving their results, whereas the questions asked by more curious students were aimed at understanding a topic more deeply.” Again, teaching in a high school provides plenty of evidence this is a pretty accurate assessment.

There are not necessarily a lot of suggestions on how to combat the kind of curiosity killing that can occur in school. Perhaps those answers are left out to encourage buying the book. For a number of years now, I have tried to use student questions to drive most of our work in class. If they do not derive the kind of questions specifically suggested in any curricular planning, it is not too difficult to add some related questions into the mix. However, part of building a relationship with any student can involve encouraging questions and curiosity. It may only be a small step but it can set a tone and help cultivate a place where questions are encouraged and rewarded. Any teacher can find time for this if it is important to them.

Don’t sell my data! We finally have a law for that – The Washington Post – Geoffrey Fowler (9-minute read)

This is a kind of feel-good article. Now that the California Consumer Privacy Act has passed the ramifications are starting to ripple through the system. It is mildly encouraging that there are a number of companies that have opted to extend the rights to all Americans rather than simply Californians. For the largest companies that probably makes the most sense actually. Maybe if more states gathered together to adopt similar laws and possibly adopt the California standard, at least in the early going, it might force everyone’s hands.

Best of all Fowler has already started the process and provides a pretty interesting tale of his experience, highlighting the oddest or most dramatic requests from companies wanting confirmation. Reading some of them strike me as potentially even more invasive than what is being collected. Still, the other really excellent element in this article is the list of links provided at the end for readers to start the process for themselves.

I am not sure that the California Consumer Privacy Act goes far enough, to be honest, but agree with Fowler that it is an important first step. I also tend to be pretty dubious about any next legislative steps at the minute, especially since political campaigns specifically are benefitting from some of these kinds of data collection and sales practices. However, I also wonder how many companies will actually become worse everywhere they can outside of the Golden State, as a result of the new law. I have not seen anything to suggest that is happening but I would not be surprised at all if it did. Anyway, this is a good start if nothing else.