Archives for category: Teaching

A reader with the anonymous sobriquet “Kindergarten Interlude” writes:

For my kindergartners distance-learning was never fun. And Lord knows for me it is not just a challenge but truly sad. How do you connect with five and six-year-olds through a computer screen? And the parents are losing it. I give them a lot of credit!

Of course I am trying to make the best of this for my students, but gone is the essence of teaching and learning in kindergarten: The human touch, the facial expressions, the spontaneous moments, the joy – reading and singing and dancing and yoga and Simon Says and Thumbs Up at the end of the day. And Discovery Centers (my code word for play centers)- teamwork and problem-solving and using one’s imagination and learning basic social skills like taking turns and sharing. There is great satisfaction (and joy!) in learning and practicing these skills and working together as a team. It is how friendships are planted and take root over the weeks and months of working and playing and learning together. Deep feelings of security and acceptance come from belonging to a community. A REAL community, not a screen.

So no, this was never fun and it is an untenable way to teach kindergarten and I imagine pretty much every grade.

Because at the end of the day, it is all about that beautiful community that is established. That’s the essence of successful teaching and learning in kindergarten.

Mitchell Robinson is a professor of music education at Michigan State University. He has been remote teaching, and he is not pleased with it at all.

He begins:

A friend asked me how I was doing during this pandemic, and I thought I’d share my perspective as a teacher who has struggled to find my footing in our new reality…

How am I doing, you ask?

To be honest, not well. I’ve been a teacher for 40 years now, and I really love teaching. I love the interactions with my students, and colleagues. I loved teaching high school band for 10 years–I couldn’t believe I got paid to make music with kids–and I really get a thrill now out of helping my college students find their voices as musicians and teachers, and helping them to realize their dreams; whether that’s being a middle school chorus teacher, or an early childhood music teacher, or a freshly minted college professor.

But I didn’t go into teaching to invite students to a Zoom meeting, wear a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and talk through a mic to a Brady-Bunch-style laptop screen where my most frequent advice is to remind my students to “unmute” their microphones. It feels artificial, and stale, and impersonal. Few of my favorite teaching “moves” translate very well to online instruction–no one has figured out how to rehearse a band virtually, and I simultaneously kind of doubt they will, while hoping they won’t.

Because teaching isn’t about the mere transfer of information, like some sort of antiseptic banking transaction. The best teaching is messy, and loud, and unruly, and chaotic, and unpredictable.

And I really, really miss it.

So, not so well.

Now, if there is a silver lining in this situation, I dearly hope that everyone currently struggling with our temporary reality, juggling “homeschooling” (it’s not homeschooling–it’s emergency teaching) with working from home, and mostly failing, will somehow come to understand the real value of public education. That when done well, it’s about much more than just teaching and learning, and about a whole lot more than obsessively testing every student from kindergarten to graduate school, until we’ve beaten the very last drop of joy and wonder out of learning.

The Syracuse, New York, journal has sound advice for Andrew Cuomo: Remote Learning is a stopgap. Parents and students want real teachers and real schools. Stop musing about “reimagining” education. Your musings are unsound. Listen to parents and teachers. Let the Board of Regents and the New York State Education Fepartnent do their job.

The editorial begins:

Parents, teachers and students had barely come to terms with the cancellation of the rest of the school year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped another bomb: Maybe, he mused, going to school in person is simply obsolete in the age of coronavirus.

The reaction from educators and parents was swift and fierce. Aides later walked back the governor’s ambiguous and tone-deaf inference that remote instruction could replace the face-to-face kind, saying it would be a supplement.

It can’t be a replacement. You know this if you are a parent with children learning at home for the past seven weeks, or a teacher trying to instruct those students. We see firsthand much is lost in translation from classroom to computer screen. It may be necessary to use remote learning as a bridge to returning to school full time, or when virus flareups close schools temporarily, but it cannot be permanent.

Kids need to go to school. And they need to go to school this fall, in whatever form the virus permits.

Despite good intentions, we can see that homeschooling is not going well for many students — most of all the ones lacking the technology to keep up, or having to share it among siblings. Special needs students are adrift. We also can feel how much being separated from their peers and mentors in a school community is damaging kids’ social and emotional well-being. They are increasingly sad, unmotivated and glued to one screen or another. Without support from teachers and counselors, stressed-out parents are struggling to keep it together.

The governor also knows that reopening schools and childcare settings are key to getting adults back to work. And yet schools are in the last phase of Cuomo’s four-phase plan to reopen the economy, alongside arts, entertainment and recreation. This is a major disconnect. Concerts and baseball games are not essential (as much as they make life more enjoyable). Education is essential.

We’re with Cuomo’s impulse to take the lessons from the coronavirus to “build back better.” What have we learned about schools? Inequities are magnified. Homes are not always ideal learning environments. Access to computers and high-speed internet varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, district to district and region to region. These are some of the issues New York needs to solve first, before it can lean on remote learning for anything beyond an emergency.

As for Gates and Schmidt, the editorial says, “Proceed with caution.”

When your only tol is a hammer, every problem looks,Ike a nail. When you ask two tech magnates to reinvent education, they have only one strategy: more tech. And the past two months have proved that more tech is not what’s needed.

What’s needed is smaller classes and the resources to meet the needs of children. Perhaps Gates and Schmidt could spare a few billions to solve real problems.

Gary Rubinstein was one of the earliest corps members of Teach for America. He knows it’s routines well. He has long been critical of the inadequacies of its teacher preparation program, which offers a five-week training to young college graduates before they start teaching real classes. As he explains here, the teachers in training get only 20 hours of practice teaching, which he thinks should be eighty hours.

The TFA training is about to be watered down considerably, as the recruits will be remotely taught this summer.

He writes:

I learned yesterday that TFA has chosen not to cancel the 2020 Institute, but instead to hold it remotely. So this means that TFA has weighed out the pros and cons of cancelling training vs. remote training and decided that the reward of remote training outweighs the risks of remote training. I see this as a huge mistakes that harms children. But for this decision to harm children, there are three other parties that share responsibility. I will outline who these other parties are in a minute.

Teach For America surely knows that a remote training with no actual student teaching will produce extremely unprepared teachers. And those teachers will each teach 30 (or up to 150) students next year and each of those students will suffer for having such an untrained teacher. I don’t know what alternatives TFA explored, but there was another option besides just cancelling the institute altogether. If I were in charge I would take some of the $300 million that TFA has in the bank and make this summer a remote training for teacher assistants. Next year will be a challenge for teachers and having 3,000 teacher assistants who are knowledgeable about the different remote learning options can be very useful. And TFA could pay the salaries of these 3,000 teacher assistants too. This way, the 2020 corps members can actually be helping improve education and there would not be student victims who have completely untrained teachers as their lead teachers. But this is not the decision TFA went with. They are comfortable sending teachers with zero hours of student teaching into real schools next year with students who have just suffered the emotional, physical, and educational trauma of the previous six months.

But as I mentioned, TFA is not the sole culprit here.

He also blames the states that approve contracts with TFA and the principals that hire “teachers” who have never actually taught anyone before entering their classrooms.

John Merrow has some good suggestions in this essay about the month of May and how to use it wisely and well:

May has been an educational ‘dead zone’ for years. Because of our national obsession with standardized test scores, teachers–particularly in low income areas–spend class time showing students how to guess at answers, giving practice tests, and even teaching children how to fill in bubbles for the standardized, multiple choice ‘bubble’ tests that await them. These activities come with a huge opportunity cost for students, because they are of no educational benefit whatsoever and probably set their learning back; for teachers, they are an insult to their profession. And school districts spend billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading the bubble tests required by their states and the federal government.

When I was reporting I occasionally heard people complaining–in song–about “the morbid, miserable month of May,” riffing off an old Stephen Foster tune, “The Merry, Merry Month of May.” As I recall, the expression surfaced in 2003 or 2004, which is when the unintended consequences of the 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” law became apparent. Because NCLB penalized schools that didn’t achieve what it called ‘adequate yearly progress’ on standardized tests, many districts eliminated art, music, drama, journalism, and even recess in order to concentrate on ‘the basics.’

That’s when the month of May became a ‘morbid’ dead zone, educationally speaking.

I don’t remember where I first heard the expression. It might have been in the suburban North Carolina elementary school that held ‘pep rallies’ in advance of the upcoming state exams, or in Richmond, Virginia, where a veteran middle school teacher told me “Teaching and learning are done; now it’s all test prep.” Or perhaps it was the Chicago high school teacher who confessed that he vomited in his wastebasket when he saw his students’ scores, or the custodian in a Success Academy charter school in New York City who said he rinsed out classroom trash cans every night because students regularly threw up in them during testing. Another possibility is the Washington, DC, parent whose young son couldn’t sleep because his teacher said she’d get fired if they didn’t do well on the tests.

The good news is that May 2020 does not have to be ‘morbid,’ ‘miserable,’ or ‘malignant.’ Because schools are closed and state standardized testing has been cancelled, May is a blank slate–and an opportunity for us to make it ‘magical’ and ‘memorable.’

News reports indicate that many parents are unhappy in the role of ‘teacher at home.’ (They are also coming to realize just how hard it is to be an effective teacher!) Teachers are frustrated because nothing in their training prepared them for teaching remotely. And so, because the March-April experiment in ‘remote learning’ hasn’t been a rousing success and because May is a tabula rasa, let’s embrace ‘out of the box’ thinking. Stop thinking like educators whose jobs depend on high test scores. Think differently!

(An earlier blog post about librarians, swimming instructors, highway engineers, and gardeners is here.)

Imagine for a moment that you don’t have a captive audience (because right now you don’t). IE, think like a librarian. Public libraries are different from schools in one important way: they do not have required attendance. But even though no one is forced to attend the library, library usage continues to climb. To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to draw them into their buildings and electronic networks. For the most part, they’ve succeeded without pandering. That’s what’s called for in education at this moment.

The Bald Piano Guy is a very clever public school teacher in Great Neck, New York, who posts musical videos on YouTube expressing his views about education and politics, always with a smile. I erred in thinking he was a NYC teacher.

In this video, he has advice for Betsy DeVos:

Go back to selling Amway/
Teaching really isn’t your thing.”

Randi Weingarten proposes an alternative to end of the year tests. This is such a good idea that Congress should consider making it a replacement for annual standardized tests, which are inherently an assertion that teachers can’t be trusted to judge their students’ progress. Furthermore, Randi’s idea of testing what students know and can do will inspire student thoughtfulness and creativity, which is far superior to picking the right answer.

Classrooms that would have been abuzz with activity now sit empty, as most states have closed schools to slow the spread of COVID-19. These have been agonizing choices because schools are not simply where students learn, they are where many children receive meals and healthcare, where they learn life lessons, forge relationships and build resiliency. We are all feeling the shockwaves of this unprecedented upheaval.

But as educators and school staff know, the majority of the instructional year has already taken place, and students have learned and experienced much already. The federal government will waive federally mandated assessments as a result of the widespread school closures. There are still meaningful ways teachers can help students sum up their academic progress and bring closure to this school year. So, at this extraordinary time, I propose ending the school year by giving all teachers the latitude to work with their students on capstone or term projects instead of statewide standardized assessments — to choose age appropriate activities, assessments and projects that demonstrate their learning for the year. This flexibility will both allow districts to ensure that our school communities maintain the social distancing necessary to avoid further spread of the virus and give our students the chance to end their school year on a positive note.

Nearly 53 million of the country’s 57 million K-12 students have been affected by school closures. That number is likely to grow, and the situation is likely to persist, as states like Kansas decide to close public schools for the rest of the school year. Educators are building the plane while flying it. Within the span of one week, districts across the country have rushed to open “grab-and-go” meal centers, launch distance learning programs, meet the needs of our most vulnerable children, and provide child care for the frontline healthcare and other essential workers who are protecting the health and safety of all Americans. And state and district leaders are trying to figure this out with little guidance from the federal government, and what guidance they’ve gotten has often been unclear or contradictory.

As these logistical challenges continue to be addressed, our members across the country are simultaneously creating plans to ensure that their students’ learning does not end with the closure of their school buildings and trying to ascertain whether their efforts have succeeded. There are many ways outside of state accountability systems to show student learning, as teachers can attest. They just need the freedom to use their professional judgment. Teachers do this throughout the year — administering tests and guiding students on projects and portfolios. We know that students love to show what they know to people who matter to them. We need to trust teachers, in consultation with their principals and colleagues, to design meaningful, educationally appropriate tasks. For example: Elementary students could complete a composition on a favorite book they read this year, which could be turned in by sending it back on the same bus that is delivering grab-and-go meals (while observing scientists’ recommendations regarding safe paper handling). Middle school students could hold a virtual debate on the internet, or they could interview a relative for a family history, which is the quintessential American story. High school students could research a topic they now won’t be covering in class and present their research via video on their phone. Because of the digital divide, many students do not have access to computers, smart phones or internet hot spots, so the tried-and-true writing — or drawing or composing music — with pen and paper, should be envisioned as well.

Teachers will need time and support to develop plans for project-based assessments that are appropriate given their students’ ages, special education requirements, proficiency in English, physical needs and access to technology. This is especially important since many will be used in the context of remote learning. Local latitude and autonomy is important. Let’s give educators, working with their colleagues and administrators, the freedom to figure this out, including the freedom to determine how high school seniors can finish the year and graduate.

Teachers are working hard to maintain essential connections with their students. Let’s trust them to develop the kinds of end-of-year activities, assessments and capstone projects I am proposing. Let’s trust them to use their expertise and knowledge of their students, because no idea will work for every student and teacher. My hope is to capture and celebrate student learning and, in the process, show that we trust teachers.

This is a delightful post by Mercedes Schneider, whom we usually expect to write about scams, hoaxes, and frauds in the education biz.

But this time she shows off a student’s work in her English class.

What a delight!

She reminds us that this is what education is all about. Not dollars, but the joy of learning!


G.F. Brandenburg posted a graph from a recent report of the OECD–the same organization that sponsors the PISA tests–which shows the number of hours that teachers work in every country tested.

Teachers in the United States reported working an average of 46.2 hours a week, according to the Teaching and Learning International Survey, which was coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and included responses from educators in 49 education systems. The global survey average was 38.3 hours a week. Only teachers in two other education systems—Japan and Kazakhstan—reported working more hours.

Of the hours U.S. teachers reported working, the bulk of that time—28 hours—is spent teaching, as opposed to on administrative work or professional development. That’s more than teachers in any other education system. The survey average was 20 hours spent teaching.

Open the link to see the graph.

Steven Wilson, founder and CEO of the Brooklyn-based Ascend Charter Schools, was fired by the board of directors after a petition on, apparently started by students at one of the charter schools, complained that an essay he had written was racist and exemplifed “white supremacy.”

Two charter-school advocates, one employed by the Walton Family Foundation, the other from the IDEA charter chain, defended Wilson and demanded that the board reinstate him. Their letter to the board was published in the rightwing EdNext.

The essay is a lengthy complaint about American public schools, asserting that they are deeply anti-intellectual and that children have been deprived of “intellectual joy” since the very inception of public education.

He argues that all children without exception should participate in “intellectual joy,” which would seem to me to be an unassailable position.

However, the critics of his essay say that it is an assertion of “white supremacy.” The board fired Wilson.

Now about that essay.

As a historian, I find much that is troubling in his depiction of the history of public education. It is true that public schools were not temples of academic learning in the 19th century. Most children left school when they were old enough to work. It was a mark of accomplishment to finish the eighth grade. Parents wanted their children to have just enough education to do what was necessary in daily life. The McGuffey’s Readers were almost universal. The McGuffey Readers contained excerpts of essays and poems that most students probably didn’t understand but memorized for recitation. The typical stuff of grades 1-8 was not deeply intellectual, that’s for sure. Most teachers were barely high school graduates. College attendance was still rare, limited only to the children of wealthy families, and they did not become teachers, which was a position of low esteem and low pay. High schools were rare until late in the 19th century, and they too leaned heavily on memorization and recitation. Most taught Latin and Greek, which no doubt gladdens Wilson’s heart. History textbooks were mainly recitations of wars, battles, and big events in the life of the U.S. or Europe. There was little about other nations or cultures. Private schools were not great temples of academic joy either.

It is fair to say that Steven Wilson would have been disappointed in the intellectual quality of most schools in the 19th century, whether public or private.

In the 20th century, the big urban centers of the nation were swamped with one of the biggest migrations of history, the transit of Europeans to the U.S. Most were illiterate or didn’t speak English or both. The big city classrooms typically had a poorly educated teacher trying her best to school some 80-100 children in her classroom, usually sitting two at the same desk. Not too much intellectual joy there.

I wrote a book about anti-intellectualism in American education. It is called Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform.

I tried to disentangle the strands of the progressive movement. Some progressives were concerned about the health and well-being of children and worked together with settlement house workers to better the lives of poor urban children. Some were interested in political activism and wanted the school to be the instrument to remake society (a hopeless endeavor). Some wanted the schools to be child-centered and to focus on the needs and interests of children. Others, including some of the child-centered progressives, were openly disdainful of the academic curriculum. Be it noted that there was good reason to be disdainful of the academic curriculum as it was then construed. Students spent endless hours memorizing words from textbooks or readers, then reciting them to the satisfaction of their teachers. Memorization played a big role–too big a role in the academic program. Even the Committee of Ten, the illustrious education leaders who called for a revamping of the academic curriculum in 1893, urged the use of active learning and projects to enliven instruction in history. Given the low standards and rock-bottom salaries for teachers, it was hard to imagine that the typical public school would ever be a beacon of intellectual enlightenment.

I was hyper-critical of anti-intellectualism, but unlike Wilson, I never smeared all of public education as an intellectual desert, openly hostile to ideas and determined to belittle the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. If you don’t see schooling in its historical and cultural context, it is easy to dismiss them as scornful of academic learning.

I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. My public schools were typical of the 1950s. What mattered most was sports, clothes, pop music (Elvis!), pop culture (James Dean!), and popularity. San Jacinto High School had good teachers and mediocre teachers. I had abysmal instruction in U.S. history, but a stellar teacher of English and American literature who left her classes longing for more, and whose door at “sign-up time” always had a long line of students eager to learn from her. No gifted classes, no AP courses, no test prep. Yet somehow I managed to get admitted to Wellesley College, one of the nation’s best colleges. And somehow I managed to hold my own in a class where at least half the students had gone to the nation’s best private schools. And all I had was a public school education!

Wilson’s jeremiad about public schools is insulting to public schools and their dedicated teachers, for sure. What’s more, he blames John Dewey for the dissolution of the curriculum, repudiating liberal education, and denigrating academic teaching. But anyone who read the first-hand accounts of the Dewey School at the University of Chicago would know that Wilson is dealing in second-hand stereotypes. I wrote about it in Left Back:

Teachers at the Dewey School created projects and activities to enliven the studies that were taught by rote in more traditional schools. They wanted to show that the traditional subjects, so often taught without any imagination, could be turned into exciting learning experiences. Far from being hostile to subject matter, they continually experimented with different ways of involving their young students in learning about primitive life in the Bronze Age; Phoenician civilization; early Greek civilization; the voyages and adventures of Marco Polo, Prince Henry of Portugal, Columbus, and other explorers; English village life in the tenth century, the story of William the Conqueror and his conquest of England, and the Crusades; American colonial history; the European background of the colonies; Shakespeare’s plays; science; mathematics; algebra and geometry; English, French, even Latin. (Left Back, p. 171).

If there were a Dewey School today, the curriculum would be multicultural and would reflect the cultures and interests of the students, it would explore the crimes of colonialism and imperialism, but one thing is certain: it was NOT anti-intellectual. In fact, it would be accurate to say that the teachers at the Dewey School were trying to find ways to ignite the love of learning and to connect history to their students’ lives and interests.

Wilson was also in error in setting the “Life Adjustment Movement” in the 1920s. It was a post-World War II craze.

Wilson defends the Common Core and asserts that it demands “intellectual performance” of a high quality. I find this bizarre, since the Common Core is lacking in any curricular coherence; even E.D. Hirsch Jr. has abandoned it because of its vacuousness. “Regrettably,” Wilson writes, “in many states, governors capitulated to anti-testing forces and retreated from the Core.” There is more that is wrong with the Core than the testing—with its absurd passing marks—that accompanies it.

But the students (or teachers) who wrote the petition against his essay were insulted for other reasons. They thought his essay was racist. They accused him of “equating a liberal education to whiteness,” thereby displaying a sense of “white supremacy.”

The petition says:

The underlying message here is that a liberal education is whiteness, whiteness is therefore intellectual, and any challenge to a liberal education is a challenge to whiteness, so any challenge to whiteness is anti-intellectual. The article later reinforces the importance of this liberal education by stating such an education “empowers them to escape poverty and dependency.”

Perhaps it was these sentences that troubled them:

“Just as schools are organizing to overcome these challenges [e.g, overtesting], they face a new threat to intellectual engagement. As schools strive to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive and to ensure cultural responsive teaching, there is the growing risk that these imperatives will be shamefully exploited to justify reduced intellectual expectations of students. One document widely used in diversity workshops, including in the training of all New York City administrators and principals identifies 13 ‘damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.’ One is ‘objectivity,’ which is manifested as ‘the belief that there is such a thing as being objective’ and ‘requiring people to think in a linear way.” Anti-intellectualism often takes the position that there are only subjective perspectives. Another is the ‘worship of the written word,” where ‘those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued’…But how tragic it would be if any child was taught that a reverence for the written word was a white characteristic. What would they make of Frederic [sic] Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook’ in The Fire Next Time? As writers, they were deeply learned and dazzling stylists. Their words explode on the page, inspiring millions in the urgent work of racial justice. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive message to teachers and their students. This too will surely come to be seen as another wrong turn on the way to equal educational opportunity.”

He then goes on to discuss a closed door conversation in which he refers to the word intellectual, and someone in the group says that the word “has a connotation. Intellectual speaks to colonized and oppressed.” The group prefers the word rigor.

But, he says, when the session is over, the members of the group tell him to ignore the discussion.

Clearly the students (if they were students) who reacted strongly to his paper did not ignore it. They thought his paper was patronizing and racist and that it reeks of white supremacy.

They see his crusade for intellectualism as elitist and condescending.

His defenders from the charter sector accused the board of succumbing to “racialist bullying.”

Clearly there is a failure to communicate.

On all sides.

Since I am a historian by training, not a teacher, I can’t weigh in on how to teach “intellectual joy.” I know that being an intellectual won’t make one a good teacher; I have seen very well educated people give up as teachers because they were unable to connect to their students. Clearly something in Steven’s tone sent a message that he did not intend. The critics of the essay had antennae that he did not understand.

I asked my friend Anthony Cody, who is an experienced teacher who taught science in the Oakland public schools, about engaging students’ love of learning, and he offered this advice:

When I think of how we go about igniting passion for learning in students, it has more to do with connecting to their experiences and building on them — stretching them to consider new approaches that still relate to their realities. The conception of “intellect” in this essay seems to me a rather abstract one, which would struggle to inspire most of the teachers I have worked with over the past decade. 
For me, one of the most valuable things we could do for students would be to get their teachers actively engaged in a lively intellectual process of questioning what, why and how they are teaching. When that lively process is taking place within a school, it will infect every classroom and provide students with a variety of models of inquiry, experimentation and reflection, all of which are the basic processes of intellectual growth. That is why packaged curriculum and prescriptive standards and timelines are the death of real thought in our schools.