Category Archives: Teaching Today

Education Evolutions #102

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

With the crush of the end of the school year, I completely failed to get the newsletter out last week. It was actually a confluence of factors but it, unfortunately, stymied any efforts on my part. Still, as I wrap up the final week of exams, this could be the final installment as I typically have taken the summers off. We’ll see if that remains, I may put together some summer issues.

Consequently, that meant there was no shortage of stories in the education world from which I could choose. It often gets difficult to select the three main articles. I always feel like I am leaving good material out. I may need to change the format a little in future. That is one of the things that I will be considering over the summer.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the first one. It is the shortest but it is also the most universally recognizable and potentially applicable one for educators. Alfie Kohn produces a lot of insightful commentary about schools and this New York Times Opinion piece kind of hits a few nails squarely on the head with force and precision.

Here is to a great summer. Teachers enjoy the holiday and time to relax, rejuvenate, and restart in the fall.

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

Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s? – The New York Times – Alfie Kohn (4-minute read)

I write it every time I include something from Alfie Kohn. The longer I am in education the smarter that guy looks and the more I like what he has to say. This piece is no different. He is incredibly adept at blowing up some simple assumptions that are made pervasively across the educational field.

In this recent opinion piece, Kohn does not share anything new as much as he shares it well with a razor-sharp insight. Excellence need not be a zero-sum game. In fact, I would argue that we are far too quick to don goggles that reinforce beliefs of scarcity where there may not be much. It may just be one more consequence of being “Indoctrinated by Econ 101,” which manages to hold a devastating grip on the imagination of many.

So many things Kohn argues here are proven repeatedly to anyone watching closely. If students do too well, it is because things are too easy. He also includes rampant cries of grade inflation but left out another lie in education that most pernicious teacher’s claim of holding the line of “standards” while everyone else is letting them slip.

All of this continues feeding the nonsense about school rankings, like league tables, too. Yet, we can’t seem to stop the sick comparisons, despite professing that we don’t necessarily put a lot of stock in the results. They become a stick when the rankings are bad and prod when they are good. There is never a carrot.

Doublethink Is Stronger Than Orwell Imagined – The Atlantic – George Packer (10-minute read)

This one goes out to all my English colleagues that read 1984 with students. The tenth graders at my school wrapped a unit that featured this novel just weeks ago, culminating in a simulation that is always fascinating. The anniversary of the book and the current state of political affairs has brought a wealth of writing about the work. This article is an interesting ride on that wave.

Part book review, part personal reflection, and part social commentary, Packer manages to cover a lot of ground in this piece. The book review portion of this is actually quite compelling and makes The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 sound like a fascinating read. On that front, it is also an interesting twist on a book review.

Where things take an even more interesting turn is in Packer’s criticism of the political moment, taking relatively equal aim at both the right and the left. Neither the right nor the left seems to have a strong hold on the truth, at least if the American party system is any indication. The final handful of paragraphs are best of all, pointing out how we have a profound tendency to be our own worst enemies.

Here’s how an alleged charter school conspiracy netted $50 million – The San Diego Union Tribune – Morgan Cook (10-minute read)

It seems like there is no end to the mendacity and malfeasance opportunities with charter schools in this country. This in-depth article outlines a fairly elaborate scheme to rob millions of dollars from the state of California, as well as students and families from a decent education. The amount of litigation involving charter schools around things like fraud, embezzlement, and other kinds of grift is actually quite stunning.

While charter schools desperately hold on to the claim that they are public schools, they are not bound by the same oversight or requirements. Somehow this is celebrated as a good and needed thing. It is the kind of innovation required to change a broken system. However, the defendants in this case and so many others merely identify the brokenness as a growth opportunity for their bank accounts. It also seems that online charter schools seem to be the most tainted of the lot.

Not all charter schools are rackets and schemes. Still, the truth is that oversight of charter schools is most often woeful. Add the fact that there is little incentive to shut a charter school down because that would negatively impact a whole lot of families, and they become an almost open invitation for long con scenarios. Yet, as many cases gain attention in the media, the efforts to perpetuate them is mind-boggling. It is open season for scams.

Education Evolutions #101

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Well, this week’s issue is delayed as I have been basking in the victory of my beloved Reds who now reign as the kings of European football. Liverpool won their sixth European Cup and I couldn’t be happier. After absolute heartache last year and a near miss at a league title, the best club in the world won the biggest trophy in all of club football. Winning in Madrid Saturday night, the parade was most of the Sunday back in Liverpool which I couldn’t stop watching. Absolute scenes, even wilder than duck boats by Boston Garden.

Meanwhile, there was a lot of stories in the education world this week. It actually proved a bit tricky to pick from all that I had bookmarked since issue 100. Some of this looks a bit dire or dramatic, but there also is a bit of fun too. That is one of the cool things about curating a bunch of articles regularly, sometimes there are trends or themes that emerge and other times there is just a wide variety of cool things to read.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” has to be the first one. The rate at which we as a nation are employing surveillance strategies on everyone, let alone schools should be alarming to everyone, not just the ACLU. However, schools seem to be seduced by false promises of greater security even more unilaterally than other public spheres. Student data already enters a virtual black box in many schools, where software companies farm out server storage to third parties, and that is without even getting into Google which seems to be particularly opaque about its educational services. Give this one a read. It affects more than just students.

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

Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming – EdWeek – Benjamin Herold (15-minute read)

Fear of faux promises of security have stoked the surveillance gold rush in our country’s schools and we are only just starting to see the consequence of its viral spread. Security cameras are not exactly new in schools, although their proliferation has nearly tripled in the last 15 years. While cameras there is little evidence that suggests that the presence of cameras makes anyone safer, they certainly make policing students a lot easier and they often present a potential vulnerability to be exploited. However, the new array of tech tools to monitor students under the same stale promises of safety are far more chilling.

As schools rush to purchase new and more advanced surveillance systems to monitor a student’s digital life, one that they increasingly make mandatory often as part of the curriculum, there is very little public conversation about it. Administrators are spending no small amount of money on systems under the guise of protecting students while budget battles are waged across the nation around school funding. Far worse is the near acceptance that surveillance is simply a given in schools.

Students already have curtailed rights in a school but do we want to indoctrinate them into an actual Big Brother world? I suspect most parents have no idea to what degree their children are monitored and how far that reach extends. While some undoubtedly may feel safer, as a result, I suspect that there are plenty that would be shocked and possibly distressed. Only by that time, they will have found out about it is will likely be too late.

Federal jury: HISD staff repeatedly violated copyright laws, owe company $9.2M – Houston Chronicle – Jacob Carpenter  (5-minute read)

This story broke late last week and rippled through my online ecosystem. This is the first story that I am aware of where a school, in this case, district, has been punished for a major violation of copyright. Sadly, based on the evidence presented in this article, they seemed to deserve a ruling against them. There is not much of an argument to suggest that the district blatantly disregarded the law.

What makes this story so unfortunate, aside for the company that won in court, is that there is already so much confusion about copyright, especially in schools. It will likely stoke increasing fears and recriminations rather than sensible decision-making, more nuanced understanding of the law, or quality teacher training on the topic. Education has some special standing with regard to copyright and the provision of fair use. By all indications, this case was not even close to a fair use claim.

Fear of litigation already has a chilling effect on many educators and educational institutions with regard to their rights to fair use of copyrighted material. Add the oversimplified and blunt instruments of many technology platforms and user’s rights erode. As educators, we have a responsibility to learn about fair use of copyrighted material and pass that understanding on to our students or risk losing our user’s rights entirely, which is exactly what well-monied interests would like. Sadly, it looks like a principal in Houston failed on multiple counts, as did any staff commitment to righting wrongs, and now the entire district on the hook for major damages.

Nine Teaching Ideas for Using Music to Inspire Student Writing – The New York Times – Natalie Proulx (15-minute read)

This is definitely more upbeat but might be far more appealing to the English teachers out there. Not that using music is the exclusive province of English classes. In fact, I have helped a history teacher with quite a cool music-inspired lesson. Nevertheless, the writing emphasis in many of these ideas means that they probably are more likely to appeal to the English teachers who read this.

There are all kinds of cool lesson resources through The New York Times but this is one of the slickest offerings. One of the best aspects of this post is all the links to examples and other related readings. That can be really powerful, especially when trying one of these ideas for the first time. While a lot of these are not particularly new or novel necessarily, it is a nice compendium of possibilities that could be incorporated quickly and easily in a classroom.

A number of these items I could certainly fold right into my journalism class with almost no adjustments. However, there are some additional ideas that I could fold into any class. One thing I have learned in my years of teaching when students are given choices and can incorporate music it seems a lot less like work to them. I recently rolled out an assignment with a bunch of ninth graders that involved music, a bit like option #5. More than one student actually said things like, “This is going to be fun,” or “I love assignments like this.” It is not every day that a teacher hears that kind of sentiment, so taking advantage of it now and again is definitely worth it.

Education Evolutions #100

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

[animated gif] 100It is hard to believe that this is the 100th time that I have sent this newsletter out into the world. Considering that I usually take breaks when school is not in session, I am kind of amazed that I have reached this milestone, even if this issue is a day late with the holiday weekend. I am not sure that I ever really thought that I would get to the number 100 when I began this little experiment.

In truth, I have nearly stopped on a few occasions. I have pivoted a bit on occasion, like using the weekly endeavor to simultaneously reignite my personal blogging too. While there are a handful of people that get a sleeker email version, it seemed only natural to post it more publicly too on the chance that others might find it appealing. Plus, part of the experimenting has included playing with different ways of distribution but it is easy to subscribe via this site if you prefer an email.

For those reasons, I never actually have a terribly good sense of how many people actually read it. There have been times when that has bothered me but I have tried not to let that get to me too much. On a fundamental level, I enjoy the discipline of knowing that I will sit and write a bit every week about what I have been reading. I have simply hoped others might find it interesting or useful.

So many thanks to any and all those that do.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is probably the second one. I suspect that there are plenty of people that might think that the message in this article is soft or over-the-top. To tell the truth, I might have been one of those people at some point in my life. Fortunately, life experience and perhaps a bit of gained wisdom prevents me from maintaining anything that resembles a position like that. As I acknowledge, I am far from perfect and quite prone to mistakes or even forgetfulness, but every day is another chance to get it right.

So, enjoy this selection of shorter reads. I kept it brief by design in the hopes everyone might go outside for a walk or something.

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

Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good – The New York Times – Nellie Bowles (9-minute read)

I am kind of amazed that this article slipped past me previously, as it is a couple of months old. Regardless, the central point of this article is kind of horrifying. The notion that machines will subsume human contact for any of us is the kind of dystopian vision that I want no part of, to be honest. I would much rather be on Team Human.

When first reading this, I was reminded of an old episode of Click on the BBC. At least the pet cat in that episode was a robot not just an animation on a screen. People may work really hard to convince others that it works, saves money, and all kinds of other nonsense. It all just seems a bit depraved to me. Interacting with some Artificial Intelligent cartoon as an antidote to desperation and loneliness doesn’t seem like living. It seems more like one step from the Matrix.

This is the kind of thing that concerns me about education too. The seemingly never-ending effort to find a teaching machine is not new but it never seems to go away. What’s more, plenty of edtech efforts are a far cry from turning on a television to entertain or occupy. Some have a slot-machine-like quality that is more far more commercially bombastic than educationally sound. I just feel like we can do a whole lot better than subcontracting the care of our elderly or young to some “technology solution.”

When Schools Cause Trauma – Teaching Tolerance Magazine – Carrie Gaffney (5-minute read)

The idea that schools can perpetuate or even perpetrate trauma for students is something that has been on my mind a lot since returning to the classroom. While I am far from being as fully informed about the topic or free from ignorant error, I have been routinely reminding myself to begin with a first-do-no-harm ethos. Some might quickly dismiss the points made in this piece but I think that only exacerbates any problems already in the realm of denial.

The article specifically dives into trama that may be present in curriculum and policies, which seems a good place to start. Even just becoming aware of the possibility that these major elements associated with schools could be contributing factors is a significant step forward. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Still, failing to acknowledge the potential effects, especially after learning of them, is not an option. There is not a lot of room for neutral.

Simply starting with oneself is a good beginning. Taking stock of potential triggers that might be included in any class material, like readings, is one more step than many might think to take. Institutionally, the changes are more complicated. Individually, I cannot support tracking or ranking and sorting students. Of course, no one is perfect and we will continue to make mistakes. Yet knowingly not considering that some obvious subject matter or practices might be a trigger for students is not just unethical but dehumanizing. We can all try to be more aware, sensitive. As the best line in this piece emphasizes, “As teachers, we do things for kids because they are human.”

The New Secession – The Atlantic – Adam Harris (10-minute read)

The history of charter schools is riddled with this kind of chicanery. Yet, some of the people of Baton Rouge clearly could not find the desired answers via that route. So they have decided to quit entirely and are trying to take all their marbles to a new game. To pretend that efforts like this are not tainted by racism and classism is not only dishonest but defies logic. When a group of white citizens attempts to draw up a new municipality, gerrymandered around all of those predominantly black areas, it is pretty difficult to make any other claim.

What is most distressing about stories like this is that they seem to only serve as viral-like templates for other similarly discriminatory practices that aim to do an end run around what is legal or right. The problem with so many of these virulent efforts is that they don’t seem to ever die. Even worse, it is not uncommon for defeat to turn into a mission to corrupt the rules of the game to eventually ensure legal victory. That might not be going on in this particular example, but this story chronicles a Reconstruction-era move.

I recently listened to a DC advocate and operator discuss the nature of politics in our capital. It was enlightening. One thing that has remained with me is the notion that it takes at least 10 years for significant policy change. That is a long time, requiring a lot of tenacity, endurance, and compromise. These people in Baton Rouge are arguing that it is all about their children but this is a fight that began in 2012. It is already closer to the 10-year mark than even five. Many of those advocate’s children who might have been at the start of their educations will be nearing the end or finished before anything significant will happen. So to suggest it is about them is a little disingenuous, to say the least. To think what all that effort channeled toward better public education for all in Baton Rouge or Louisianna for that matter might have looked like over the same amount of time is beyond sobering.