Sunday, January 22, 2017

We Shall Overcome

Two major events dominated the news cycle last week: the presidential inauguration and the women’s march the following day. Before the march, I overheard white female teachers, whom I highly respect, discussing in person and on social media, the pointlessness of the march. After all, why march for women’s rights, which is something that women already have? Why should people go out of their way to demonstrate that they’re sore losers? If people are going to march for something, why not make it for a cause that is worthwhile?
To those who believe that women have equal rights to men, that the women’s march was just a bunch of sore losers showing off, and that the march wasn’t for a just cause, to you I say, I wish you had been there. I wish you could have felt the positive vibes emanating from the largest protest in this country’s history. Millions of people took to the streets because they wanted to stand next to their brothers and sisters in order to take a stand for human rights and against sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Each person who attended one of the marches had a specific purpose for being there, but everyone who marched had that common goal. People across the world have seen a rise of destructive populist political leaders. It was time for the people’s voice to be heard in a way that Thoreau, Gandhi, and King would have been proud. The nonviolent resistance has begun.
President Trump’s inauguration speech, like his campaign, was littered with stretched truths and bold inaccuracies. However, one thing he said that will hold true through the duration of his administration is that the power lies with the people. As he delivered his speech and attempted to appear as a man of and for the people, representatives of corporate America (like the CEOs of Exxon and Hardee’s) stood directly behind him. The people are not blind.
We, the people, were paying attention when, within hours of becoming President, funding for the National Endowment of the Arts (like PBS and NPR) had been cut, as well as a discount on FHA home mortgage rates that was enacted under President Obama. We’re listening to Trump staffers when they say that his proposed budget will include eliminating funding for Violence Against Women Grants, the Office of Energy Efficiency, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the Minority Business Development Agency. We noticed when immediately deleted pages on LGBT rights, civil rights, climate change, and health care from its “issues” section after Donald Trump took the oath of office.
This brings me to why I decided to march. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe in my core that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and I recognize that the next four years are going to be a fight. The time to look away has ended. I intend to set an example for the the students I see every single day in my classroom and for my two young daughters at home. If you watched the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing, then you can understand why I marched for them. I also marched for my wife, my mom, my step-mom, my sister, and all of the women in this country who, despite having the right to vote, have never been treated as equals. I carried their baggage on my shoulders, too. I feel the agony of 19-year-old Nina Donovan of Franklin, TN when she mentioned in her now viral poem “Nasty Woman” that, “even when women go into high-paying careers, their wages are still cut with blades sharpened with testosterone. Tell me why the work of a black woman and an hispanic woman are only worth 63% and 54% of a white man’s paycheck? This is not just a feminist myth. This is inequality. So we are not here to be debunked. We are here to be respected.”

By itself, the women’s march is not enough to earn that respect, but it’s definitely an excellent first step. It got everyone’s attention and dominated the news cycle and social media. Some of the best lessons that I can teach are the ones I give by my own example; this must include staying informed and paying attention to what’s going on, and then following up with more non-violent resistance. If last week’s marchers can channel this momentum into committing to doing the same thing, then we, the people, will begin reclaiming power from the wealthy oligarchs and plutocrats who were recently chosen to run this country.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Responsibility of Citizenship

Living in a rural county in a red state, I have many friends who openly support our president-elect, and I can honestly say that each of them is a very good person. Many of them feel an emboldened sense of entitlement after Mr. Trump pulled off the biggest upset in this country’s history (with a little help from his friends). The following is my personal viewpoint on this week’s impending life-changing inauguration.

In a few short hours, @realDonaldTrump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. He will place his thin-skinned, nepotistic Twitter fingers on a holy book that he hasn’t read and take an oath that he won’t keep to protect a Constitution that he clearly doesn’t understand. But he won, however unfairly, and he now has a job to do. Nothing will be the same four years from now. The environment, civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance, public education, 74 consecutive months of job growth, and women’s health are among the many things that I expect to decline during this presidency.

I could be wrong. It’s happened before, and I would love nothing more than to be wrong about this. I don’t cheer for Mr. Trump to fail because, in so doing, I would be cheering for the suffering of the real underdogs in this scenario--my brothers and sisters across this country and around the world who are electing right-wing populist candidates in hopes that they will finally be represented by someone who truly understands their plight of living paycheck-to-paycheck and even then not really getting by. I get it. As a public school teacher supporting a family of four, I’m right there with you.

As a public school teacher, I’m also unwilling to accept any more finger-pointing about why things can’t get done. You see, an essential part of my growth-mindset as a teacher is that I attempt to maintain an open mind about which learning strategies will work in the classroom. I’m willing to try almost anything if it will help my students learn more efficiently than they did before. If you show me a teacher who is unwilling to try new things, then I’ll show you a teacher who probably needs to find something else to do. My open mind helps me be willing to allow the Republicans to remind Americans how they govern. I enter my classroom every morning with a  smile on my face and determined to do an excellent job because, in theory, I only have 200 days to work miracles (and if you don’t think that learning is a miraculous endeavor, then you haven’t studied the psychology behind it). Teachers fight against a constantly changing, pro-privatization landscape--where lobbyists ensure that the cards are stacked against us--and where we stare in the face of increasingly high expectations to reach every child and motivate them to learn, whether they want to learn something that day or not. Yet, public school teachers across this state yield superb results year after year. We are driven to teach the students who are in front of us and we understand that making excuses is an exercise in futility.

Likewise, the Republican Party fought hard to inherit a dysfunctional political system--part of which is their own obstructionist fault. They are now in charge of correcting what isn’t working. Doing so would require them to shore up division within their own party in a political era where “party leaders” are largely a relic of the past. As a concerned father of two beautiful daughters, and as a father in loco parentis of over 100 children every year, I will be intently watching their every move. Undoubtedly, the time will come when I will need to shift from father and educator to activist, and I hope that every citizen is willing to do the same. America loves a good underdog story, and there are no greater underdogs than our children.

Regardless of political affiliation, we all share the the desire to leave this world a better place for our kids than it was for us. We all want America to be great, and we must be willing to act and have our voices heard. In the words of President Obama in his farewell address: “All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Vouchers "Wrong Answer" for TN Schools

This column, which originally appeared in Tennessee Education Report, is from State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, who is the Democratic Leader in the TN House of Representatives.

Every one of us learns something new every day.  Whether it is in a classroom, something we read or hear through media, or just a new fact we get from a friend or family member, we are constantly learning new things about our communities, our state and country, and our world.

Being educated doesn’t mean you will always know the answers; it means you have the tools to go and find the answers.  As a young man growing up, there is no way that my friends and I could have imagined the technological advances that we see today.  But my teachers in tiny Ripley, Tennessee worked hard to make sure that we went out into the world prepared to learn throughout our lives, and I know our state is full of dedicated teachers who are continuing in this tradition.

HB 1049, the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the latest version of the voucher program that we have discussed in the General Assembly.  On Monday, February 8th, members of the Tennessee House of Representatives will vote on whether or not to take money from our already underfunded public schools.  A state that is ranked 47th nationally in school funding cannot take more money from its students.  We must listen to the people of our state and vote no.

Consider this: the Tennessee School Board Association has 141 member boards.  I asked their representative in a committee meeting how many of their school boards are against vouchers.  His answer: 141.  Not one school board in our state is for this program, but the proponents of the bill would have you believe that there is a ground swell for vouchers; there is not.  School board members have some of the closest relationships with their constituents, and they are positively not for vouchers.

Vouchers are not only the wrong answer for Tennessee; they aren’t addressing the true question of why schools and districts are having problems.  Kids who struggle in school are almost always having a deficiency in some areas of their life: they may be hungry, their home life may not be stable, and they may struggle with the hurdle of a learning disability, or simply may need glasses to see the board.  Vouchers do not address these issues.  Changing the location where a child goes during the school day does not change the environment to which they return every night.  We have large-scale issues that must be addressed to improve our schools.  A child that is hungry, tired and not prepared for the school day cannot be a success, no matter where their classroom is.

Voucher programs leave kids behind.  We as a government, and as a society, are tasked with making sure each and every child receives a quality education.  And kids are left behind in two ways: the first is that a child that doesn’t receive a voucher is left to what voucher proponents label a failing school.  Second, the school district loses that portion of the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding that is delineated for each student.  If we are removing money from our schools—to the tune of $130 million under this voucher bill—how will our public schools ever survive?  To take money from our schools is akin to tying a milestone around someone’s neck, tossing them into a lake, and then ask them why they are drowning.

Public schools are the backbone of our society. They are what drive our communities.  Good public school systems attract businesses and homebuyers.  One of the first questions a prospective homeowner will ask—even if they aren’t parents—is the quality of the local schools.  Any fall Tennessee evening you will find thousands of our neighbors at the local high school, cheering on their kids: the future of our state.   Schools make our communities.
I do understand—and agree—that many of our schools and our students are struggling to achieve their goals.  I know that not every school is the best it can be, and that to get all our students scoring were we want them to will be a Sisyphean effort, one that every student, teacher, administrator, parent and officeholder will have to work together to achieve.  This is hard work, but not impossible work.  As I heard a Metro Nashville Public School parent say during a committee meeting on vouchers, his kids didn’t need a voucher: they need a new school building, instead of the portable classrooms they learn in today.

The answer for successful Tennessee schools is this: we have to fully fund our public schools, support our students, teachers and administrators, and realize that we have no greater responsibility as a society than to make sure our children are healthy and educated.  
Our future literally depends on it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Living the Dream

New Year’s resolutions came early for me this year, just like they have for the past thirteen years, actually. When the first semester of the school year comes to a close, I begin my annual two week period of introspection about what’s working in my classroom and what’s not. I have been teaching long enough to develop an ever-growing bag of tricks; however, since students change every year, finding that perfect balance of the right activities and the right time is quite challenging. That’s why good teaching is both a science and an art.
Over the break, I finished reading a pedagogy book, Visible Learning for Literacy: Accelerating the Practices that Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning, which I highly recommend to any K-12 literacy teacher. I am proud to say that I am already incorporating many of the things mentioned in the book, but I realized that there is room for me to do them better. For example, students’ reflection over their work is the number one most effective learning strategy. In my gradeless classroom, student reflection is a vital component of the process, but I need to do a better job of providing my students with clear learning targets so they have an increased understanding of where they’re going before they get there. This should result in my students’ reflections being more authentic which, in turn, should increase their retention of the material.
I also watched a webinar during my break about the purpose of homework. Over the years, I my position about homework at the high school level has certainly wavered. According to my pedagogy book, research shows that homework is more effective for student learning the older the student gets, but only if the homework is something that the students can do quickly and independently. Alice Keeler, an education goddess who conducted the webinar, took the position that homework is rarely, if ever, necessary, regardless of the grade level. She made the argument that what teachers spend time on in class is what students will regard as the most important information, and that parents should not be expected to help their children with their homework because they are oftentimes too busy or unable to help, and they’re not necessarily masters of the content that the student needs to learn.

Approximately half of the work my students received during the first semester was homework. Their completion rate began very low and only meagerly increased during the course of the semester. I took quite a bit of time to contemplate the homework that I assigned. Were they capable of doing it on their own? Was it purposeful? Did they see the benefit of doing the work? I came to the conclusion that almost all of them were capable of doing the work, and it was purposeful, but I was missing buy-in. When it came down to doing homework in my class versus doing homework in another class, rarely was the the work in my class done first. Further, I learned from talking to my students that after school jobs combined with the length of my homework contributed to their low response rate. I plan on continuing to assign homework during the second semester, but I need to change nature of the work, make it more time-efficient for them to complete, and help them understand how completing the homework will make them better students and better people.

The opportunity to reflect on my teaching practices and rework how my classroom operates is one of the things that I truly enjoy about being a teacher. How many professions exist where the employee has so much autonomy over day-to-day operations? Since seventh grade, it’s always been my dream to be a great public school teacher. In fact, I want to be one of the best teachers that my students have ever had; however, in order for me to accomplish that dream, I need to continue to be introspective and adaptive to their needs. Each class period inside of each school day within each school year is an opportunity for me to experience my dream. The new calendar year and the new semester offers a great opportunity for my students and myself, and I can’t wait to get started.