Education At The Tipping Point


Oklahoma teachers and parents rallying for funding

If you have been watching the news this week, it is likely you have heard the sound bytes of Oklahoma teachers protesting for higher salaries and increased funding. Schools statewide have been shut down. An AP English teacher prepping students for the upcoming exam, held class in front of the statehouse.

Oklahoma schools are ranked 48th in the nation. Teachers there have been working with outdated textbooks and in poorly maintained facilities. Like their colleagues across the country, they purchase school supplies using their own money.  Oklahoma teacher salaries have declined since 2000 even as the cost of living has continued to rise. Oklahoma spends almost 4% less on education than the national state average.

So what?

47 states are doing a better job schooling their youth. That’s good, right? Yesterday’s textbooks were fine for the previous generation.  Most teachers willingly admit that they never entered their profession expecting to make a million.  Besides, those teachers, you know, they have it pretty easy, don’t they? Working 8-3, 184 days a year? And they knew what they were signing on for when they took seats in their first ed course.

Make no mistake. This isn’t just a labor dispute. This is a fight for the future of public education in America. 

A Turning Point

Public education in America is at a crossroads. We have reached that tipping point when we either put up or shut up. Amid abundant lip service of the importance of good schools and teacher competency, funding lags.

Federal policy is currently determined by an education department led by Betsy DeVos, a self-serving bureaucrat with zero public school experience.  Her inability to answer simple questions about public education earns her an ineffective rating on the Danielson scale.  Yet, she holds some of the purse strings for an institution she knows so little about. Her appointment and confirmation speak volumes about what we really think about the importance of education.

    And while we continue the incessant chatter about school as central to future success, respect for educators declines. You wouldn’t try to remove your own appendix. A lawyer who represents herself has a fool for a client. Yet teachers enter classrooms daily in defensive postures. Everyone, it seems, think she could do this job and do it better than the pros.

If we want the best for our kids–and most of us agree that we do–we have to be willing to pay for the best and the brightest. We want innovators in our classrooms, challenging our kids to think, to act.   As the cost of college and required graduate school degrees continue to rise, kids with other options will opt for more lucrative professions. Can you blame them? If teaching means holding down two, sometimes three jobs to pay the rent, top candidates will take their talents elsewhere.

We have to be willing to buy the basic supplies, provide access to advanced technology and find ways to keep American kids competitive with their peers across the globe.

People who know about these things predict teacher strikes will spread. Clearly we are about to see changes. Where these changes will lead us is still unclear. What isn’t in question, however, is the importance of education. An educated populace is central to a functioning democracy and for prosperity.





Walking Out on Gun Violence

    On Wednesday, kids across the country used their collective voices to call attention to a problem that we, as adults, have been unable to solve: school shootings.

Kids are scared. They are sad and they are angry.

In a planned protest intended to coincide with the one month anniversary of the Parkland shootings, they walked out of their classes. They walked out in Seattle. They walked out in Brooklyn. They walked out in Montana. They wanted us–grown ups– to know they have seen enough death. They walked for the kids who died in Columbine, Colorado and Paduka, Kentucky and Blackburn, Virgina and Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida. They walked for survivors who live with fear and guilt.  They walked for themselves and their friends. They walked for their future.

Kids are scared.

Some adults derided the protest as a stunt, a means to escape conjugating verbs or solving for X.  For sure, some kids went along for the ride of a seventeen minute break from the argumentative essay.  But just talk to these kids. And listen. Most of them have done their homework. They will give you statistics about gun violence. They speak passionately about lives cut short and their own fears.

Others called the protest an inappropriate expression, suggesting that rather than walk out, they should “walk up,” that walking up would prevent the marginalized shooters from taking aim. The flaw in the “walk up” argument is it shifts blame to the kids–the victims– for violence. Do I think kids should be nicer to one another? Of course. Kindness, civility, humanity are lacking not just in schools, but in our social fabric.  But to tell kids that preventing the next school shooting is on them is just wrong.  The kids who turn guns on their peers and teachers suffer from complex disturbances that no sixteen year-old should feel responsible to settle.

Kids are sad.

From veterans returning from combat, we accept the long term effects of trauma. Kids who have survived a school shooting suffer similarly from PTSD.  Loud noises, unfamiliar faces, even the sulky kid in the back of the room all take on villainous significance. They wonder why they are alive but the kid who sat next to them in chemistry is dead.

And even kids whose schools have thus far been safe from gun violence are changed by what they have seen and heard.  Kids have been shaken. Adults mistakenly think kids believe themselves to be invulnerable, immortal. Talk to a few kids. You’ll see how far from the truth this stereotype is. There is a deep sorrow embedded in kids’ daily lives, a sadness they articulated in their protests.

Kids are angry.

And they don’t believe the maxim that the answer to “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun.”  This seems to be universal, even among kids who have grown up with guns, even among kids who support gun ownership. They want us to hear them, to have a plan and they will tell you that the plan they hope for isn’t about more guns.

Talk to kids. They will tell you the truth. They want us, the adults in the room, to do something. They don’t want this issue–an issue that affects them so personally– to continue to be buried in the political battleground that currently defines this country.

Wednesday’s walk out should have woken us up, should have expanded the conversation, should have moved us closer to action.  But in so many cases, grown ups have just expanded the abyss, deepening the divide as opposed to finding solutions that actually work. Everyone seems to want to hear himself talk when what we need to do is listen.




Guns in Schools? Just Say, “No.”

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So, in the years after the tragedy of Sandy Hook, we are still hearing about arming teachers as both a deterrent and solution to school shootings.

Deterrent? That presupposes rational thought. Someone who takes an automatic weapon into a school clearly isn’t rational. Before advocating arming teachers, the president himself declared this shooter was mentally ill.

Solution? You would think that losing 20 first graders and six of their adult caretakers would have jarred us into the recognition that the answer to gun violence isn’t simply more guns.

It would be arrogant to pretend to believe in a quick and easy solution to this deadly and swelling problem. However, with 25+ years’ experience in NY public schools comes insight into what teaching entails and why adding marksmanship to our professional duties is not an appropriate response.

Image result for classroom images   A good teacher makes what happens in a classroom every day look easy. Learning flourishes through a series of choreographed procedures and high expectations. Reading. Writing. Mathematical calculations. Critical thinking.  Kids learn to share and take turns. As members of a well-oiled learning community, they learn to see themselves as part of something bigger than they are.  They learn to take academic risks, that mistakes don’t equal failure, that success isn’t defined by the number of times they mess up, but rather by how they respond to error.

Teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of a reluctant scholar. Teachers create lessons to capitalize on inquisitiveness. They are expected to turn in positive standardized test scores. They communicate with families, file paperwork, grade student work. In many parts of the country, teachers are working with finite budgets, doing what they can with severely limited supplies.

And embedded in those daily routines are hundreds of unpredictable distractions. Sick kids. Angry kids. Frustrated kids. Hungry kids. Lonely kids. Most teachers know their work isn’t just about content area instruction. Good teachers understand they have to shift gears to address issues as they arise. Great teachers do it all seamlessly.

Anyone who thinks this all happens easily has never been alone with 25 third graders after recess or introduced the classical source-based argument to middle schoolers or set sophomores lose in a chem lab.

In any profession, what happens behind the scenes is not always apparent to an outsider. This is simply a description of the job teachers choose because it is what they love to do.

Which brings us back to the question of arming teachers.  

The idea of arming teachers is a knee jerk reaction, a quick tweet if you will, that raises more questions than it answers. It is the response of an outsider whose understanding of what happens in a school, in a classroom, is limited to a few characters in social media.

What kind of professional development would teachers be given to carry a concealed weapon?  Please don’t tell me this will be about those already trained.  A weapon in a classroom is not like a gun anywhere else. Schools are not sparsely inhabited forests and despite the potential for unexpected violence, schools are not battlefields. A teacher who hunts, a teacher who has handled guns all her life, even a teacher who has been deployed is not—is not—qualified to manage a fire arm in a school.  Unlike the TV shoot-outs we see, the accuracy of even the most carefully trained marksmen in emergency situations is far less than one hundred percent.

And then there are the variables that inevitably arise: What if the shooter is a student the armed teacher knows, has a relationship with, likes? What if the teacher kills a child through friendly fire? What if police mistake the armed teacher for the shooter? Does the armed teacher leave kids unprotected in her own classroom to find the shooter?

This argument does not even begin to take into account the purpose of schools.

Arming teachers is not the answer. Limiting access to weapons of war is a start. Private individual do not need an AR 15. These are military guns designed for one goal: killing a lot of people quickly.  Gun control is not about taking guns away from people. It is about common sense and societal responsibility. The fact that controlling fire arms has devolved into a political argument speaks to the current state of our nation.

Image result for guns in schools   Longer term, as a society, we need to be looking at the whys of this phenomena. Why are so many young men—it is primarily boys who commit these acts—doing this? Why aren’t we doing more to support these kids before they kill? Why has our cultural climate led to repeated gun violence?


The kids of Parkland, the kids around the nation represent hope. Kids are demanding that adults quit the obstinate fight over gun rights and make some changes.  As a teacher, I see hope for the future in this generation. As an adult, I am listening to them.

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Enriching Reading in Secondary Classes Via Selected Non-Fiction Texts

Image result for images of kids reading black and white The Common Core has rightfully taken a good deal of heat. Rushed implementation. Invalid exams. Student scores tied to teacher evaluations.  Families and schools soon showed signs of test-fatigue.  Eventually, public criticism led to test boycotts and demands for reform.

The Common Core isn’t all bad, though. English teachers have always loved close reading and supported argument.   And though initially, my literary heart broke when I was told that, by senior year, seventy percent of students’ reading would be non-fiction, I soon discovered integrating informational texts into curriculum maps could be a win-win.

My Confessions

Like many secondary English teachers, after seeing Common Core prototypes, I started out using non-fiction as test-prep. If kids were going to have to read about science and social studies on state exams, and if I would be rated on their performance, then everyone would benefit from a little structured practice. As a trusted colleague put it: “You wouldn’t take the road test without practicing a three-point turn and parallel parking.”  I found articles that seemed interesting and wrote multiple choice questions and created writing prompts to parallel our ever evolving state tests.

And for what it was worth, this worked. Reading about the science of climate change did sharpen comprehension skills. Practice answering multiple choice questions did make kids feel more confident. Timed writing rehearsal promoted efficient test taking. Scores improved.

But stand-alone test prep ate up too much class time. Random readings—as interesting as they might be—weren’t doing much to help struggling scholars crack the historical code in Act 1 of The Crucible or to challenge high fliers to test the science in Jack London’s To Build a Fire.

There Are Many Advantages

Integrating meaningful non-fiction into secondary English classes not only improves test scores and strengthen skills, but enriches the core reading experience for all kids. The key word here is meaningful. Texts have to contribute to an enriched reading experience. Non-fiction must correspond to core readings.  Thoughtfully chosen pre-reading texts, build a base of prior knowledge that supports all readers. Through informational texts, kids can dig into the setting of a literary text. They can experience the science of the conflict between man and nature.  They can evaluate historical or scientific accuracy. Post reading texts can provide information to confirm or refute messages in literary works, promoting critical evaluation.  Incidentally, prior knowledge and critical evaluation also contribute to higher reading comprehension scores on standardized tests.  You can use these texts as a vehicle for differentiation.  You can use these non-fiction readings as mentor texts, too.

Where to Find Informational Texts

Finding sound texts that actually go with the core reading in your classroom means you have to be an avid reader. Considering the amount of time teaching English demands, this is no small task. But good sources for non-fiction might already be on your nightstand or doorstep.

  •  Image result for images of the new york times  The New York Times—Contrary to popular belief, the Times isn’t beyond most secondary students. The reading level in the NYT has been estimated at seventh grade. Kids can learn to apply contextual cues to puzzle out unfamiliar vocabulary.  The Times features science articles, opinion pieces, human interest, travel, book reviews as well as current events.  If you search the archives, there is almost always something you can use with any core literary text.
  •    Image result for images of sports illustrated covers   Sports Illustrated—It may sound crazy, but the heroes in sports and the heroes in literature frequently share character traits: resilience, determination, endurance. The language used in sports reporting is colorful and engaging. Kids get reading experience with varied text structures.
  • Image result for images of national geographic  National Geographic (for both kids and adults)– NG can take kids to faraway places that can coincide with settings in literary texts. Brilliant photos can bring these places to life.
  •  Image result for images of historic documents  Historical documents—Social Studies teachers use primary source historical documents all the time. English teachers not so much. For literary texts centered on historical events, documents can be a link to the past.
  •  Image result for images of autobiography books  Autobiographies—Personal accounts often correspond to fictionalized stories. Students can extract messages about people/characters who have found ways to leave a  mark on their worlds.
  • Image result for images of science booksExcerpts from books in school and public libraries–Use these resources to fill in the blanks about science, history, economics, law.

Image result for images of kids reading black and whiteWhat constitutes “literature” continues to evolve. We have an obligation to prepare kids for life beyond tests, beyond our classrooms. Academic success lies in curiosity, in critical thinking, in self direction. Making informational readings organic elements of the secondary English class experience supports all of these.



Making Kids Feel Safe in An Uncertain World

Image result for images of the doomsday clock  Scientists who know about such things announced the “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced thirty seconds closer to midnight, the metaphorical moment of annihilation, leaving humans two minutes to tend to potential self-destruction. Global nuclear gamesmanship and climate change joined forces, prompting the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to issue this dire warning.   Image result for images of the doomsday clock


Even to adults, that news is pretty terrifying.

But bombs and meteorological disaster are not the only bad news for mankind.  Every day, anchors deliver grim accounts of violence, dishonesty, prejudice, inequality, poverty, disease.

Make no mistake: our kids do overhear sound bytes about school shootings, ICE raids and terrorist attacks. Screens transport them into images of mass destruction: super storms, wild fires, mud slides, mushroom clouds.


Image result for images of fear        2018 is a tough time to be a child.       Image result for images of fear


So how can teachers make kids feel safe when the world around them is so uncertain?

1. Create a community

It is the most challenging element of teaching. We don’t learn how to do it in grad school.  Community evolves over time and is among the significant features of successful classrooms. In today’s world, where danger seems to loom perpetually, community is more important than ever.  Computers or administrators generate our class lists. Kids are brought together by external factors: ability, age, geography.  For better or worse, they come to us in tidy alphabetical order. Some of them already know one another. Some even show up disliking each other. It is up to us to create a community of learners. Within the context of daily instruction, we have to find ways to grow trust, inspire tolerance, encourage mutual esteem. Predictability, fairness, structure and respect define safe classrooms. Kids have to feel safe with us and with one another to able be ask questions, to take the academic risks essential for progress and success. They have to learn to trust us and to trust each other. When we refuse to accept stereotypes, when we promote kindness, we are building community and being part of something bigger than themselves where they feel valued makes kids feel safe, even if it is only for 45 minutes at a time.

2.  Practice safety

Fire drills. Lock-down drills. Weather drills. Unwelcome interruptions in what we want to accomplish each day. No one wants to think about worst case scenarios, but we have to have a plan.  Practicing safety means mastering procedures, who to call, where to go, what to do. Adults may think that drills scare kids, but knowing that their teachers are in control is reassuring. And we have to practice safety every day, even when there are no alarms going off.

3. Use your school’s resources

Counselors, social workers, psychologists are all school professionals trained to support kids in times of stress and anxiety.  They have the skills to provide strategies to kids who fear deportation or random violence.  They provide teachers with a means to this end as well. They have ways of interacting with kids that mere mortal teachers don’t. They can guide kids to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes without being preachy or condescending. Call on their expertise.

4. Listen to kids’ fears

Sometimes kids just have to talk and know someone hears them.  When horrifying things occur, kids need to debrief and speaking out at home may not be an option.  They just want to articulate what scares them. When so many other demands are competing for our attention, finding time to simply listen is challenging, but to a child afraid that his parents might be on a deportation hit list, a teacher’s ear can be a lifeline. If a child has chosen you to hear her fears, be present.

5. Empower students

Finally, we have to find ways to infuse control into kids’ daily lives. Fear is most potent when we feel helpless. The world around kids today is ripe with dangers too big for them to manage, problems they cannot solve. Finding ways to empower kids puts them in the drivers’ seats.  Kids can’t prevent leaders from taunting one another with the nuclear button, but providing some choice within the learning community gives kids a sense of control within their own lives. Having a say in what happens to them in school can make kids feel temporarily safe.

Teachers in high risk districts have known this all along: the world beyond the classroom can be a scary place.  Information overload now brings a host of terrors into everyday life. Before our kids can absorb the wonderful lessons we labor to create for them, they have to feel safe enough to learn.

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Teachers Matter

Image result for education images “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of education.”  

Most people would readily agree: Education matters. Schools matter.  Kids matter. Teachers matter.

And when we achieve Dr. King’s goal for education, it follows that people matter.  Humankind–regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual identity–matters.

Even to the mathematically challenged like me, this equation seems simple enough.

Then we see this on the evening news: a teacher is handcuffed for questioning administrative salary increases.  We get the message in this image: teachers do not matter. That Louisiana English teacher, Deysha Hargrave, is right; we should all be appalled.   Teachers in her district have not had a pay raise in ten years. Ten years.

Teachers in many parts of the country say that in  order to do what they do, they must secure a second job, a part-time gig, to supplement their teacher salaries. Schools are often so poorly funded that these same teachers must dig deep into their pockets for basic classroom supplies.

But teachers matter? Education matters? Kids matter? Humankind matters?

How can we expect the best and brightest to enter a profession that requires advanced degrees but doesn’t pay enough to cover transportation, rent and food? If we aren’t interested in the quality of candidates attracted to teaching, how can we say education matters? How can we continue to say kids matter?

Our culture values education for the tangible returns we can recoup from our investments.  Certainly schooling provides a means to an economic end. Diplomas and degrees are employment requirements. There can be no denying the statistical correlation between schooling and earning.  Why don’t we apply this principle to the people we entrust with our most precious possessions, our kids?

Our kids matter. We want them to excel academically. We want them feel safe and confident. Teachers make these things happen. Therefore, teachers do matter.

And beyond individual classrooms, the world continues to shrink. Global issues threaten to morph into local challenges: climate change, race relations, health care, food and energy production.  Will we have the intelligence and character to collaborate in the search for solutions? Teachers definitely matter.

Image result for education images As Dr. King asserts, education–true education– is so much more. Education is an ignited curiosity and thick questions that may not have concrete answers. Education is accepting that we are part of a world that is so much bigger than ourselves. Education is understanding value in humanity in all its shapes and forms.  It is education that will ultimately determine the fate of humankind.







But They Make it Look So Easy

Image result for images of pencils  When people are skilled, they make the things they are able to do look so easy.

My son in law solves complex computer mysteries with a few clicks of his mouse.  Olympic sprinters break speed records without breaking a sweat.  And Jerry and Sergio consistently–and seemingly effortlessly–serve up the best polenta and osso bucco this side of the Atlantic.

Their complete competence makes you think you can do what they do. Except that you really can’t.

They do their work with ease.  What don’t we see?  Years of practice, training, and experience come together seamlessly–and often, invisibly– for success.

Image result for images of pencils Take teaching. To the casual observer,  an accomplished teacher makes it look simple to wrangle twenty first graders to the carpet or to get middle school kids excited about the Age of Exploration or guide sophomores through the steps in a science lab. Students seem to shuttle from station to station independently. Group work is focused.  Hands are up and discussion is rich. It all looks, well, so easy.

Good teachers can make an outsider believe that this teaching business is a piece of cake.  Hell, a good teacher can make anyone think,”I can do this.”  Except that they really can’t.

Image result for images of pencils Classroom feng shui creates lanes for traffic to the trash basket, minimizing distractions, keeping kids focused on instruction.  There are high expectations for every learner and multiple routes toward achievement. Monitored group work is designed to promote discovery and fuel enthusiasm. Carefully crafted, differentiated lessons flow seamlessly into one another toward tangible culminations.  Students and their families get timely feedback on assignments.

And that is just the beginning of what goes into teaching. Every. Single. Day.

Image result for images of pencils So, even though I can dig deep for the computer skills to publish a blog, even though I can jog a 5K, even though I can whip up a pretty tasty grilled cheese, and even though the pros make their work in these fields look easy, I know I cannot do what they do.

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