Sunday, August 28, 2016

The American Dream

As a young boy, I grew up during the heyday of professional wrestling organizations like the WWF (now WWE) and WCW. Hulk Hogan, with his blonde hair, yellow shirt and yellow tights, encouraged kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins. He was a larger-than-life figure whose popularity at the time paralleled that of LeBron James today. I certainly admired the Hulkster and he remains one of my favorite wrestlers (despite recent despicable newsworthy incidents), but he isn’t my all-time favorite. That distinction belongs to the late “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
At six foot two and weighing a little over 300 pounds, he was much larger than the average American and he had quite the atypical wrestler physique. The son of a plumber, he initially wanted to be a professional football player, and only tried out to be a professional wrestler after seeing an advertisement in a local newspaper. What he lacked in wrestling ability, he compensated for with his charisma, which he had in spades. Rhodes learned the ropes of professional wrestling so well that he literally put both the WWF and WCW on the map through his endless promoting and inventive gimmick matches. In the process, he niched out a forty year career and made himself, and his family, quite a bit of money. Dusty Rhodes was a self-made man and lived up to the title of “The American Dream.”
As my 11th grade students begin their journey through American literature, I thought it relevant to ask them how they would define the American Dream and if it’s in trouble. All of my classes independently cited one common trait as the most important component of the American Dream--opportunity. My classes were mixed, however, in whether the American Dream is alive and well today.
Perhaps Marianne Cooper is correct in her October article “The Downsizing of the American Dream” in The Atlantic, where she asserts that the American Dream isn’t dead; it’s just different. Americans still believe that hard work leads to success, but instead of buying a new home and starting a family, they are more concerned with holding on to the assets they already have. America’s desire to be debt-free is more important than moving up the financial ladder. This sentiment was echoed by my students, many of whom defined the American Dream as “financial security.”
We currently have a presidential candidate running on the platform of “Making America Great Again.” Although I can’t think of a specific time when America was truly “great” (because minorities have always suffered at the expense of the majority), it seems to me that Americans having a dream of being debt free is a wonderful first step down the yellow brick road of our country’s future prosperity--especially being barely eight years removed from the worst economic catastrophe since The Great Depression.
Like Dusty Rhodes, I want my students to leave Coffee County High School and experience the American Dream. However, if we are going to continue our upswing as a society, it’s crucial this election cycle to elect candidates who will fully fund the education system, from Pre-K through college. This state’s poor leadership has created a $1 billion surplus and is not using it to build a solid foundation for future Tennesseans. This is evidenced by the state facing lawsuits from both rural and urban school districts across the state for underfunding K-12 education.
There’s another $1.4 billion in federal money waiting to enter our state, if our legislature would pass Insure Tennessee--a bill that is supported by Governor Haslam and two-thirds of all Tennesseans. This would help the education system because it will put people to work by creating an estimated 15,000 jobs (which means more tax revenue), and 280,000 more Tennesseans will have access to health insurance, thereby decreasing the state’s health care costs. As a result, more money will be available to: fund a universal Pre-K system, give educators a true cost-of-living wage increase that would put us on a level playing field with the rest of the country, and return funding to its universities--many of which have seen their state funding cut in half over the past fifteen years. The American Dream that my students envision for themselves includes being debt-free, and not paying on student loans for two decades or more.

It's Time to Focus

It has been an honor to have participated in Coffee County High School’s first faculty show, Arsenic and Old Lace. Frankly, a school the size of the one I teach at should have an active theater program, and I am glad that I have played a part in helping make that happen. When I took theater in high school, it had a profound effect on my self-confidence and I credit that experience for beginning to bring this natural introvert out of his shell. I want to thank everyone who came to see Arsenic and Old Lace. The audiences have been wonderful, and the cast has had fun feeding from your energy.
With the play now behind me, it’s time for me to do what I hope I do best: plan lessons and focus on my students. I surveyed my students in the first week of school so that I can learn about their likes and dislikes, as well as their access to internet and technology outside of school. In this survey, I learned that most of my 11th grade students are into music, animals, and sports, followed closely by nature, video games, and watching TV. When I asked them who are their heroes, real or fantasy, moms and dads made the top of the list--and it wasn’t even very close. If given a choice, they’d mostly prefer to read mystery/suspense or horror/thriller stories and two-thirds of them are returning from summer break not currently reading a book for pleasure. My students come from a background of strongly disliking reading. Unfortunately, school does that to students, and I am hoping to change that. In terms of technology, 86% report having reliable internet access at home, with another 5% who claim they will have it soon, and of the 9% who do not have reliable internet at home, half of them are capable of going somewhere that does have internet.
All of this information is crucial for me to know as I plan my lessons. There are many things that I can’t control in my classroom, like the bell schedule, the state standards, and for which state and national tests I must prepare my students (if it were up to me, I would have them take either TNReady or ACT, not both, but that’s another discussion). I have complete control over how the information is presented to my students and, because I want them to grow as learners and as human beings, I need to present the information in such a way that allows them to connect this new information to something they already know. It’s not an easy task, but this challenge is part of what draws me to the classroom and it’s absolutely what makes educators the professionals that we are. Differentiating lessons goes beyond changing the difficulty of the content for different learners. It also includes changing the activities based on their interests.
Every good teacher will also find a way to include their own interests into the lessons. When students see my own passion for the content, it increases their enthusiasm, even if they’re not inherently enthusiastic in the topic. Something that I have always been passionate about is current events. Ever since I was a young boy, I have always been interested in what’s going on around the country and around the world. I strongly believe that my students need to know current events, because they are mostly oblivious to them and they are a year or two away from becoming registered voters. Therefore, I will start something new this year called “Article of the Week.” I will seek out current events articles for my students to read that thematically relate to the content of the course at the time. The students will read, annotate, summarize, and provide their own analysis of each article. At the end of the week, I will facilitate a short class discussion over the article so that they have an opportunity to learn from each other.
Thomas Jefferson believed that “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” My overall goal is that, by the time my students leave my class and graduate into society, they will have a rekindled spirit for learning new things, which includes reading books for pleasure.

It's Time to Throw Out Grades

My primary objective as an educator is to do my absolute best teaching my students so that they are prepared to be successful in society once they graduate. I know that this statement is probably overly simplistic, but this creed keeps me going on days when I’m exhausted and struggle to find motivation. I am blessed to have the opportunity each year to improve how I do things. For my students, on the other hand, this is a one shot deal. I owe it to them to bring my best every class period, every day.

My drive to continuously improve my craft also leads me to read professional books in my free time. I seek out new ideas that challenge my current educational philosophy and, if I am lucky, I will find an idea that will shatter it. This moment happened when I read Mark Barnes’ book Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Gradebook and Inspire Learning.

Basically, the concept is that in lieu of putting number and letter grades on their assignments, students will receive feedback on how well they mastered the objective of the assignment. It’s not fundamentally different from how most people learn new skills. For example, when I watched my 5-year-old daughter during swimming lessons this summer, she was given immediate feedback on what she was doing well and what she needed to improve. Similarly, I gave feedback to my now 11-year-old daughter several years ago when she was learning how to ride a bicycle.

Given that feedback is how students authentically learn the best, Barnes’ book caused me to question why this feedback model isn’t used more frequently with students in a school setting. After all, if this method works for teaching someone how to swim and how to ride a bicycle, then wouldn’t it also work in my class for teaching someone to write better summaries and how to read more deeply? There are likely many reasons why this concept isn’t more commonly used. It’s a relatively new idea in the educational landscape and many teachers are not familiar with it. Also, giving grades for assignments and on report cards is the way things have seemingly always been done.

For the sake of my students, neither of these are valid reasons to prevent me from throwing out grades. I want my students’ focus to be on the objectives of the assignment, and not on getting a good grade. Numbers and letters say very little about what a student has actually learned. All of us have experienced times in school when we received good grades on assignments when no actual learning occurred. Research indicates that measuring learning with numbers, percentages, or letters is an inadequate way to assess learning.

Therefore, learning in my classroom will be assessed differently from a typical classroom. My students and I will evaluate learning together using an ongoing dialogue. I will provide written and/or verbal feedback about what they have accomplished and what may still need to be learned. They will then spend time reviewing what they learned from their completed activities and we will discuss how this fits into the letter grade world that they and their parents are accustomed to using. After this evaluation and our discussion, the students will provide input on what their final report card grade should be. If a student assigns a grade that is not compatible with my assessment of his/her performance and quality of work, I will provide my viewpoint based on the feedback that I had given on their assignments as well as on their standards-based assessments. The student will then be asked to reevaluate his or her response to encourage deeper thinking.

This feedback approach to assessment leads to self-evaluation and ultimately to mastery of learning. It will also help students become self-critical, independent learners, which are essential attributes for them to succeed after high school.

Big Money

In a prior lifetime, I worked under a principal in Metro-Nashville Public Schools whose motto was “We’re about the business of school.” He loved the motto so much that he had it printed on the back of t-shirts, with the school’s logo on the opposite side, and faculty members wore the shirts every Friday.
I frequently hear the comparisons between operating a school, or school system, and a operating a business. Indeed, there are many similarities, such as pushing conformity upon its employees who are all working toward a common purpose, having a payroll, offering insurance, and even their very structure--with a main person in charge and subordinate bosses below them. With that said, the one fundamental difference between these two entities is their purpose. Businesses ultimately exist to make money. Schools are a public service and are there to help improve the fabric of our society by building a strong electorate and a skilled workforce. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that schools are not businesses, nor should they be treated as such. This very concept is reflected in the tax code. Businesses pay taxes, while schools do not.
There’s been a national trend to transform schools into businesses by turning them into charter schools. By definition, a charter school is a publicly funded school that is run by another entity and is not subject to the same rules as other public schools in the school system or even in the state. These “other entities” that operate charter schools are frequently businesses who are trying to increase their bottom lines. The relative autonomy of charter schools results in varying degrees of success.
Arguably the most scary component of charter schools is that they are publicly funded. Taxpayers still foot the bill for someone else to run the school. Turning the operation of schools over to businesses--while occasionally successful--is not something that needs to become a habit; yet, they are very rapidly expanding across the state. Charter schools need to be kept in check. Nashville’s school board recently took this very stance, wanting to slow down charter school expansion, and they have been met with opposition from both the Tennessee State Board of Education and charter school groups.
It’s understandable, then, why pro-charter school group Stand for Children is pumping more than a half million dollars into the school board races in Nashville. Organizations like Stand for Children, which is based in Portland, Oregon and is funded in part by the Walton family (owners of Wal-Mart) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are legally allowed to do this because of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. $500,000 is an extreme amount of money for an outside organization to invest in a local school board election. Obviously, Stand for Children is hoping that Nashvillians will elect school board members who will allow their organization into the city to create more charter schools.
It would be naive to think that Nashville is the only city where this is happening, and Stand for Children is certainly not the only organization trying to buy elections. For example, the Koch brothers frequently intervene in national and local elections. Hopefully, Citizens United will be overturned either by a future Supreme Court with nine justices or by a constitutional amendment. The 2010 Supreme Court decision not only negatively impacts politics by legally allowing untold sums of money to be spent on political candidates who, upon being elected, are required by their respective political parties to fundraise for the organizations that helped them. Citizens United is detrimentally influencing the quality of education in this state, and around the country, by allowing big money to influence school board elections and education policy to support things like charter schools. It adversely impacts everyone who expects schools to do a quality job graduating productive citizens.