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Opinion – edu|FOCUS
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The Alt Right Has a Friend in Common Core

  Let’s say you’re a modern-day hipster Nazi. You’re bummed out. No one wants to hang out with you because of your bald head and your red suspenders and your commitment to the ideals of a defeated and disgraced totalitarian regime. What are you to do? REBRAND, son! It’s simple. No more National Socialist German Workers Party! That sounds too pinko! Now you’re simply a member of the Alt Right! It’s not racist! You’re just committed to traditional attitudes and values — if those traditional attitudes and values come from 1945 Berlin! Heck, you don’t even have to call yourself Alt Right. You can call yourself a White Identitarian. You aren’t over-concerned with any one side of the political spectrum or other. You just strongly identify with whiteness — and by extension increasing the political power of white people at the expense of all others. That’s all. It should be obvious that this isn’t merely rebranding. It’s propaganda. In today’s fast paced information age – where every fact is merely a Google away – that can be hard to get away with – UNLESS… Unless you already have a readymade tool to protect propaganda from the kind of informed critical thought that can pop it like a bubble. Something to insolate the ignorance and keep out the enlightened analysis. I am, of course, talking about Common Core. What!? How does Common Core have anything to do with white nationalism? Common Core is just a set of academic standards for what should be taught in public schools adopted by 42 of 50 states. Academic standards aren’t political. Are they? Actually, they are. Quite political. Just take a look at how the standards came to be adopted in the first place. The Obama administration bribed and coerced the states to adopt these standards before many of them were even done being written. Hold your horses. The Obama administration!? That doesn’t sound exactly like a friend of the Third Reich. And it wasn’t. It was a friend to big business. When first created, these standards weren’t the result of a real educational need, nor were they written by classroom educators and psychologists. They were written by the standardized testing industry as a ploy to get federal, state and local governments to recommit to standardized testing through buying new tests, new text books, new software and new remediation materials. It was a bipartisan effort supported by the likes of Obama, the Clintons and Bill Gates on the left and Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos and Bobby Jindal on the right. After Obama’s success pushing them down our collective throats, many Republicans vocally decried the standards – often while quietly supporting them. That’s why after all this time very few state legislatures have repealed them despite being controlled predominantly by Republicans. Okay, so what does this have to do with the Alt Right? People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are engaged in redefining the conservative movement. Instead of circulating ideas with a merely racist and...

The Lone Voice of Dissent Against Standardized Testing

Everybody wants to fight the good fight. Until the battle begins. Then many of us are all too ready to give in to what was intolerable just a moment before. To paraphrase Thomas Paine: These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from service, but those who stand up in time of need deserve the love and thanks of every man and woman. I see this almost every day in our schools. Ask nearly any teacher what they think about high stakes standardized testing, and they’ll complain until they’re blue in the face. They’ll give you gripes and grievances galore. The tests take too long. They’re not valid assessments. They narrow the curriculum. They’re dumbing down the teaching profession and ripping away our autonomy. To which I say – Amen, Sister! Standardized tests more accurately measure economics than academics – poor kids generally fail and rich kids pass. They’re culturally biased, poorly put together, unscientifically graded and demonstrate a gobbsmacking conflict of interest. Two conflicts of interest, actually. First, the people who make the tests, grade the tests and thus have a financial interest in failing the most students possible because that means we have to buy more remediation material which they also conveniently sell. Second, these test scores are used by the school privatization industry to unfairly label public schools failures so they can more easily sell fly-by-night charter and voucher schools. So, yeah. Almost all of us agree standardized testing sucks. But when there’s an administrator present, I too often find I’m the only one willing to speak that truth. My colleagues, who are pleased as punch to gripe in private, suddenly go quiet in the presence of their superiors. What’s worse, some of them don’t just stay quiet – they offer arguments to support whatever nonsensical test-based solution our boss has in mind today. Let’s say an administrator suggests we do something about the handful of students who opt out of standardized tests. We could just respect the rights of parents who have handed in their written intention to opt their children out under a religious exemption – the only option in Pennsylvania. Or we could do as the administrator suggests and force kids who’ve been opted out to take a standardized look-a-like assessment. I hear something like that, and I’m on my feet ready to fight. But I find myself standing there alone. “You can’t do that,” I say. “It violates state law. In particular, Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4.” (Okay, I had to look up the particulars later, but I made sure the administrator got them.) Consider subsection (d) (4). And I quote: “If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied…” Or how about...

How to Oppose White Supremacists Without Becoming a Monster, Yourself

  There is a danger in opposing white supremacists. In confronting such an odious set of beliefs, you can justify suspending your own strongest held moral convictions as a necessary end to defeating their prejudices. It’s easy to see how this might happen. When hearing an ignorant troll like Richard Spencer arrogantly spouting warmed over Nazi propaganda, it is quite natural to wish to issue a rebuttal in the form of your fist. You can follow the logic all the way from your heart to your knuckles. Your thought process might go something like this: This fool is so enamored with violence, let him suffer the consequences of it. But that is conceding the point. That is giving the white supremacist his due. It’s entering his world and playing by his rules. Oh, I’m sure it’s satisfying, but it’s the wrong way to respond. However, on the other hand one can’t simply smile and nod during Spencer’s tirade and then expect to reciprocate with an academic treatise. No cogent, logical, professorial come back is going to counter the purely emotional arguments made by white supremacists. They are stoking fear and hatred. Logic is useless here. So what are anti-racist anti-facists like ourselves supposed to do when confronted with people like this? We have to walk a razor’s edge between two poles. On the one hand, we can’t tolerate intolerance. I know that’s paradoxical. But it’s true. As Vienna-born philosopher Karl Popper put it in The Open Society and Its Enemies, unlimited tolerance leads to the destruction of tolerance. If we tolerate the intolerant, if we give them equal time to offer their point of view and don’t aggressively counter their views, they will inevitably resort to violence and wipe our side out. This doesn’t mean immediately punching them in the face or violently attacking them. For Popper, we should let rationality run its course, let them have their say and usually their ideas will be rejected and ignored. However, if this doesn’t happen and these ideas start to take root as they did in Nazi Germany (or perhaps even today in Trump’s America), then Popper says we must stop them by “fists or pistols.” In short, Popper writes: “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.” Popper believed in the free expression of ideas, but when one of those ideas leads to violence, it is no longer to be tolerated. Then it is outside the law and must be destroyed. What then do we do with our commitment to nonviolence? Do we reluctantly agree to push this constraint to the side if push comes to shove? No. This is the other pole we must navigate...

Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout

The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch. The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it. In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it. I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead. I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response. Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go. Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating. However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go. That’s a hard position to be in. It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket. But I tried. When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why. The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away. I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted. Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out. The room exploded. They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting. But that was pretty much it. They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it. It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket. I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe! We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters. We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building. They couldn’t just mill around for all that time. Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence. Students quickly...

kids watching movie in classroom

Visual Media in the Classroom

Visual media in the classroom should not be a replacement for hands-on learning or teachers by any means but that doesn't mean they can’t serve a purpose to the classroom. While a number of people would disagree with me, and sometimes for good reasons, we know for a fact that the average person is a visual learner - we learn quicker through imagery and sound than we do through traditional methods like reading. For example, I think it’s still important to have students read books for a literature class, but this question had me wondering if teachers should show movie adaptations of those books afterward? When you bring this idea up, the first thing parents ask is whether or not it defeats the purpose of reading the book if kids could just skip it and watch the movie? I think, as with most things a balance has to be struck but videos and visual media are as important as books if we want kids to actually absorb what they have learned. When I was in school, I remember we watched a lot of videos in place of class time, and I looked forward to those times, because watching a movie was the fastest way to pass the time in class. And to make it better, the average class time is 45 minutes, so most of the time we would have to take 2-3 classes to watch the whole movie. Now that I'm older, I realize that not only did it feel like we were passing time, but we actually learned a lot that I still remember to this day, because I learned it visually and without any stress or pressure to learn. I think a lot of us might remember watching episodes of The Magic School Bus or Bill Nye the Science Guy in science class. My parents remember Reading Rainbow and Electric Company. The school I went to had 1st through 3rd-grade classes watched quite a bit of Veggie Tales as well. I believe the movies and shows we watched provided equal educational value to the books we read and instruction we received. I've come to find, the less stressful the situation, the easier it is to absorb and learn. Visual media makes the learning environment less stressful, in my opinion, making it easier for today's students to absorb information. To make visual media effective, however, there should be reflective discussion and follow-up work after the movie or show is over. One example is when my English class was watching the movie Glory which is a movie that highlights the contributions and struggles of black soldiers who fought for the North during the Civil War. The teacher had us taking notes during the movie, so that we could complete an assignment around the civil war and how people used the English language to express themselves compared to today. In that experience, I feel we all learned a little more about the civil war, about the contributions of black soldiers in the North, and...

The Problem with Shifting Paradigms

You get fooled into thinking you know where you’re going. Since my recent posts, I have received several emails. That doesn’t usually happen on to me through this site. Several of these were promoting a canned variation on personalized learning. An opportunity to use software tracking and student assessments to customize lessons. Offering more summative assessments that prescribe a specific lesson script is not what I envisioned when I began trying to fashion a path. Using a sophisticated logarithm to understand our student is a popular path on the road to individualized instruction, but frankly, it is more of what we have rather than better than what we have. It does not seem to shift our paradigm as much as it merely shakes it up. What I did see as a fundamental piece of this shift was getting devices in the hands of our students. That didn’t happen. As part of a large district, we have the agility and responsiveness of an aircraft carrier. Therefore, when a manufacturer stops production of the device you planned to hand out to 10,000 students, adapting to that change requires a process. So, with my small group of trailblazing teachers and students lined up, with nothing to hand them, we were forced to pause, plan, ponder how we wanted all this to play out. As a generalization, those “trailblazing early adopters”, are not especially patient planners. However, the power of letting, (or even forcing) that same cohort to frame their pedagogy and define their goals had more value than any of us might have thought. Our vision of what we can and want to do with our new tools has not only changed but clarified. It is not the apps that will be creating change but the access to information and options. With our planned and plotted future in sight, I was again greeted by a response to my earlier posting about digital personalized learning. This one from a friend, Dr. Kevin Clark, who is a UCLA faculty member and peer-respected expert in the use and development of neurotechnology for biomedical and educational applications. I was schooled. My vision of how technology will change our teaching and learning is limited and ill-informed. The very near future will “…include cutting-edge quantum and hybrid computing hardware for sensor, command, and control platforms; it includes cutting-edge real-time interactive cognitive computing software analyses and (deductive and inductive) decision tools, and it includes data in a myriad of forms… These technologies now outperform the world's best intellects on a range of tasks, including scientific and medical breakthroughs. These technologies don't simply inform scientists where to find the most effective result among a range of alternatives; they find the most effective result and can act on that result. …These technologies will similarly help to teach and to learn; to make education more insightful, precise, efficient, and, yes, personalized.” I cannot pretend to understand how these seismic shifts play out in a classroom but I have little doubt that our educational paradigm will be...


Should All Teachers Be Education Majors?

There is a school system in Savannah, GA that offers a non-traditional path for people to become teachers (you can read about it in an article here).  Leaders there are questioning whether or not all teachers should be education majors. In a district with over 400 teaching positions to fill, the process basically allows for a larger application pool from which to select the most qualified teachers, including some who didn’t start out in the field; for example, having a retired army veteran who worked in aerospace engineering to teach math. The program has been around for a while, but is getting more publicity recently due to the teacher shortages in the district and the state. I’ve mentioned before how public education today suffers from being a system stuck in the past, disproportionately adapting to how the world works today.  So I think this school district’s method for selecting new educators holds some merit.  Not to say that those who pursue a career in teaching from the get-go are any more or less qualified to teach, but that there is something to be said for those who can relate their actual life experiences to the classrooms they lead.  They tell writers to “write what you know” in order to make a good story, so why not apply that thinking here?  Teach what you know. In this instance these “new teachers” are mostly coming out of necessity to fill positions, so it could seem like more of a desperate attempt rather than a way to facilitate new (better?) learning methods.  But it’s not as though these educators are randomly plucked out of their office buildings and told to teach - I would hope that they at least have some desire to pass on their knowledge.  Plus, as the article points out, they are required to pass a teacher preparatory program and pass educator exams and background checks.  The only thing they’re missing is a title on their diploma.  I know of a few people who majored in completely different subjects in college, and ended up becoming teachers in public and charter schools, only getting certified in teaching after the fact, so again, it’s not this is a particularly new practice. But I think one of the biggest benefits to having alternate career professionals come into schools to teach is having a more direct way to relate subject matter to lesson plans, and to showcase exactly where and how those lessons can be used in an actual job. Teaching in general gets a pretty bad rap since people are less likely to take a job that comes off as being thankless, underpaying, and stressful.  This means there fewer people actually pursuing a degree in education, which is what is has led to the situation many places across the country now face – not enough qualified teachers.  By openly and proudly offering an alternative path for those who may want a career change (into the world of education), it could lead to a revolution in the way many...


“Adulting” or Teaching Kids to Be Adults

You’ve probably heard the term “adulting” being thrown around by those from my generation (gen-Y, not millennial,  thank you very much) whenever we accomplish something that seems like it should be normal behavior for someone our age.  There’s even a book and blog on the topic.  But whether or not you like the term, it is a real feeling that comes from the fear of not being good enough or responsible enough at your/our age for appropriate amounts of time, mainly because you feel as though no one has taught you how. Life is hard, and there is no manual on how to get through it, but there are certain life skills that can be taught to help make the transitions easier.  Most of them should come from a home setting, but that may not be the most helpful/available for all people.  School, however, is available for all, and there was a time when subjects like home economics (or family consumer sciences circa 2000-something) were taught with some importance. I personally would have liked to have classes available on how to deal with personal financing, like how to do taxes, or how investing in the stock market and 401Ks work (I still don’t fully know, honestly).  True, parents/guardians can shoulder some of the responsibility in making sure their children know these things, but one way to definitely make sure kids get a decent amount on exposure in dealing with real life situations is to include it naturally in school curricula.  Instead of focusing on having a student body full of trigonometry and calculus experts, we could have student bodies full of kids who know the nuances of taxes and budgetary needs for their lives and their communities.  Imagine how much more helpful it would be in the long run. And as outdated as it may seem, I also think some kind of class on how to present oneself socially and professionally should also be added to the school roster, as many people seem to have forgotten the basics of decent human interaction.  If working years in retail has taught me anything, it’s that not everyone understands what it’s like to live as someone else on a different social scale.  Plus, in today’s digital age, social etiquette is much different from what it used to be, so that’s the kind of education that could benefit multiple generations. From what I remember, these life lessons were somewhat taught when I was in high school, lumped together in one class – family consumer sciences.  The problem was that no one really took it seriously because it was a) more of an elective and b) it was generally taught by older teachers who either didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to relate the subject to the new and changing generation.  One of the biggest things I envy about students today is their accessibility to the world via the internet, and how easy it is to find ways to apply what is taught in schools to the world...

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