Befriending AI

Columns and comments about emerging AI continue to abound, and I find myself “going down the rabbit hole” as I try to determine which predictions are most likely and what changes will occur. Free artificial intelligence apps are widely available. What do we do about them for education?

I’m old, old enough that my youth predates not just computers, smart phones, TV streaming, and virtual reality. I remember the revelations of ATMs, email, fiber optics, robotic surgeries, solar energy, bar codes, and MRIs. I didn’t get my first calculator until college [not that I ever really mastered using a slide rule…], I typed my high school and college papers on a manual typewriter after drafting them on legal pads longhand, and long-distance phone calls were an absolute luxury. I have often pondered the way technological innovations have changed my own life, and the way they changed my teaching.  The one thing I’m sure of is that, for better or worse, tech innovations will continue. It’s up to us to figure out the “for better.”

Free AI, through sites like https://openai.com/ and https://openai.com/dall-e-2/ , will impact teaching. That’s a given. But artificial intelligence, at least so far, is only as good as the data it’s fed. Since it is generative rather than creative, it cobbles together writing from the data sets that have been inputted into “large language learning models” [LLMs], the same tools that allow auto-complete in apps like Microsoft Word and most email apps. These LLMs are, however, much more powerful: “It turns out that with enough training data and sufficiently deep neural nets, large language models can display remarkable skill if you ask them not just to fill in the missing word, but also to continue on writing whole paragraphs in the style of the initial prompt” [nytimes.com]. That means AI can generate the kinds of essays and technical writing we too often ask our students to produce.

Does that make AI the end of teaching content area writing in schools as we know it? I hope so. I’ve long thought our focus on the formulaic three-part, five-paragraph essay stifles meaningful thought. We have an exciting opportunity here: AI can transform the teaching of writing if we let it. If we discard our traditional approach of parroting back ideas in favor of asking deep prompts that require original and personalized thought, we can not only beat the system of having AI replace students’ own writing, but we can make teaching and learning more powerful at the same time. For example, my final exam question for some of my more advanced classes was to trace the evolution of one significant idea throughout the literature we’d read all year along with how the student’s own vision of that idea evolved from the readings. How can AI answer not only questions like what it means to be a good citizen or what our responsibility as humans is to each other but also provide the student’s personal response? I suspected that AI cannot give a profound reply, so I asked it the following prompt: “Based on the books we read, what does it mean to be a good citizen and what do I believe?” As I expected, the generated paragraph was superficial and grossly inadequate:

Being a good citizen typically means being responsible, law-abiding, and actively engaged in the community. This can include things like paying taxes, obeying laws, participating in the democratic process, volunteering, and treating others with respect. Ultimately, what it means to be a good citizen may vary depending on the individual and the context, and what you believe may depend on your personal values and beliefs. [written by openai.com]

My students, on the other hand, grappled with this question with specificity that showed their thinking and their learning.

Issues remain. AI is flawed: “Some skeptics argue that the software is capable only of blind mimicry — that it’s imitating the syntactic patterns of human language but is incapable of generating its own ideas or making complex decisions, a fundamental limitation that will keep the L.L.M. approach from ever maturing into anything resembling human intelligence… Other critics believe that software like GPT-3 will forever remain compromised by the biases and propaganda and misinformation in the data it has been trained on, meaning that using it for anything more than parlor tricks will always be irresponsible” [Ibid.]. Furthermore, our legal system lags behind technological developments, and we have work to do about intellectual property and plagiarism.

But AI isn’t going away, and we need to decide how best to harness it. Kevin Roose, author and technology columnist for the New York Times, argues that “schools should thoughtfully embrace ChatGPT as a teaching aid — one that could unlock student creativity, offer personalized tutoring, and better prepare students to work alongside A.I. systems as adults” [nytimes.com 2]. He argues that banning AI won’t work: even if schools block openai.com, learners will find ways to access it. He also assures readers that AI can be a valuable teaching tool, writing about its effectiveness in helping students work through their outlines, helping teachers work though their lesson plans, and serving as a debate sparring partner and an after-school tutor. Roose writes, “Even ChatGPT’s flaws — such as the fact that its answers to factual questions are often wrong — can become fodder for a critical thinking exercise. Several teachers told me that they had instructed students to try to trip up ChatGPT, or evaluate its responses the way a teacher would evaluate a student’s” [Ibid.]. He even sends us to Ditch that Textbook [ditchthattextbook.com], which offers 20 specific strategies to make AI an ally for learning.

Going back to my advanced age… I find myself remembering the controversy about other technological innovations: would calculator use render us unable to do math in our heads, would online translation obliterate the need to learn other languages, would internet research make plagiarism inevitable and hard to spot, etc. Over time, learning from each other, we have managed to harness the potential of other technologies while limiting its harm somewhat. We need to approach AI with that mindset. I expect the journey will be challenging, but if it leads to deeper questions and more hands-on learning, it will be worth it.

Note: The image was generated by Dall-E, but all the writing except the indented paragraph is indeed my own!

AI Is Here!

AI [Artificial Intelligence] has the potential to impact teaching writing in a number of ways. For example, AI-powered writing assistants can help students improve their writing skills by providing real-time feedback and suggestions on grammar, spelling, and style. AI-powered tools can also help teachers grade written assignments more quickly and accurately, freeing up time for other activities such as providing individualized feedback to students. Additionally, AI can be used to create personalized learning plans for students, helping them to progress at their own pace and improve their writing skills more effectively.

While AI has the potential to greatly improve the teaching of English, there are also some potential dangers to consider. For example, relying too heavily on AI-powered tools could lead to students becoming overly reliant on technology and losing their ability to think and write independently. Additionally, AI tools are only as good as the data they are trained on, so if they are not trained on a diverse range of writing styles and voices, they may not be able to accurately assess or improve students’ writing. Finally, the use of AI in education raises concerns about privacy and the potential for bias in the technology. It is important for educators and policy makers to carefully consider these potential dangers and take steps to mitigate them when using AI in the teaching of English.

Bet you thought I wrote those first two paragraphs. Nope! I asked open-source artificial intelligence [https://chat.openai.com/chat] to write them. The prompt for the first was “how will ai impact teaching writing” and the second, “the dangers of ai for teaching English.” Both paragraphs are well written and informative. How many students would offer a more clear and effective expression of the issues?

What does this mean for education? Because each generated block of text and image is unique, plagiarism becomes impossible to identify through an internet search. Students can turn in essays and submit college essays written by AI, and no one would know the difference. What do schools do to adjust to this new reality? Making all writing happen within the classroom period penalizes students who take time with their writing process and prevents true polishing of written drafts. We need to rethink how we teach and evaluate writing.

Artificial intelligence now can also generate unique, free, uncopyrighted images with Dall-E. To make Dall-E work, researchers feed images to a computer, matching them with word descriptors. AI is trained to make connections and then use them to produce new images, but the images are only as good as the input and training. “Bias found on the internet can show up in results, such as a prompt for a “CEO” that produces only white men” [washpost.com].Researchers then overlay “noise” in terms of visual static and teach AI to remove the noise to reveal a clear image. AI generates the images based on the words used as input. Dall-E generated the image accompanying this blog after I requested “a water color image of a computer screen with AI generated images” [https://labs.openai.com]. As a blogger, I no longer have to pay to use images or worry about avoiding copyright issues. Where, though, does that leave visual artists?

Wael Abd-Almageed, a professor at the University of Southern California’s school of engineering, warns that “Once the line between truth and fake is eroded, everything will become fake. We will not be able to believe anything” [washpost.com2]. Such image generation poses clear risks. “Each evolution of image technology has introduced potential harms alongside increased efficiency. Photoshop enabled precision editing and enhancement of photos, but also served to distort body images, especially among girls, studies show” [Ibid.]. AI can generate the kind of “deep fakes” that have been misused politically. Companies that offer and use AI have struggled to build in safeguards, but the technology is progressing more quickly than those efforts. AI researcher Maarten Sap said “asking whether OpenAI acted responsibly was the wrong question. ‘There’s just a severe lack of legislation that limits the negative or harmful usage of technology. The United States is just really behind on that stuff’” [Ibid.].

Hand wringing won’t help. Teachers need to focus on process more than output. New Zealand education technology expert warns that AI will transform teaching: “it’s going to require an awful lot of work from teachers and institutions. Teaching that looks at a completed product only – an essay for example – is finished” [the spinoff]. And, since “AI doesn’t know or care about truth” [Ibid.], educators will need to find strategies to evaluate for truth and teach students those strategies.

Whether we like the advent of AI or fear it, we need to figure out how best to work with it. AI does provide opportunities. For example, “teachers could generate a set of AI ‘essays’ on a topic, then set students (individually or in groups) to critique them and write their own better version” [Ibid.]. AI may even prompt long overdue changes in pedagogy. Perhaps we will finally focus on “better ways to assess for learning, such as constructive feedback, peer assessment, teachback” [Ibid.].

This is all fairly new to education. In the summer of 2020, OpenAI began offering limited access to a new program called Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3 [GPT-3]. Even if “GPT-3 seems to be manipulating higher-order concepts and putting them into new combinations, rather than just mimicking patterns of text” [nytimes.com], we face a sea change in communication and education. We are behind the 8 ball in thinking about how to adapt and even thrive with this new world order and how to regulate it fairly and effectively. But we must, for a continuously increasing ability of computers to generate text and images is already happening. AI is here now.

The Kids Are Not All Right

The stats are in and confirm what we already knew: academic achievement is in trouble.  This crisis parallels the mental health crisis students face.

We already knew that student mental health struggles dramatically increased during the pandemic; I’ve written about this often enough. Suicidal ideation and completed suicide rates have both risen. New data from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34, and the rate for people aged 15 to 24 rose 8 percent. Last July nationwide hotline for mental health emergencies experienced  a 45 percent increase in calls, texts and chats in its first month after changing to a simpler phone number [washingtonpost.com]. The stats from the Center for Disease Control offer little hope:

  • From February to March 2021, the number of hospital emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts jumped by 51 percent for girls and 4% for boys compare to that period in 2019.
  • Provisional data for 2021 showed an increase in the national rate from 2020 to 2021, especially for people ages 15 to 24.
  • Nearly 45 percent of high school students were so persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 they were unable to engage in regular activities.
  • Almost 1 in 5 high school students seriously considered suicide.
  • 9 percent of teenagers surveyed by the CDC tried to take their lives during the previous 12 months.
  • The percentage of gay, lesbian, bisexual, other and questioning students reporting a suicide attempt is even higher.
  • Nearly 30 percent of students said an adult in their home had lost a job, and 24 percent said they went hungry for a lack of food.
  • More than 230,000 U.S. students under 18 are believed to be mourning the ultimate loss: the death of a parent or primary caregiver in a pandemic-related loss, according to research by the CDC, Imperial College London, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cape Town.
  • The loss for Black and Hispanic children was nearly twice the rate of White children.
  • Schools don’t have enough mental health professionals. Professional organizations recommend one school psychologist per 500 students, but the national average is one school psychologist per 1,160 students, with some states approaching one per 5,000, well below the recommended rate of one for every 500 students. Similarly, the recommended ratio of one school counselor per 250 students is not widespread. [washingtonpost.com]

Now layer that with the disappointing test results for academic achievement. The National Educational Assessment of Progress scores released in April show stark declines, especially in math. “Math scores for eighth grade fell by eight points, from 282 in 2019 to 274 this year, on a 500-point scale, and in fourth grade, by five points — the steepest declines recorded in more than a half century of testing.” These declines come on the heels of a pre-pandemic decline in both math and reading for 13-year-olds [washingtonpost.com]. Many 2019 scores were bad, and current scores are even worse. And the declines play favorites: low-income students and students of color fared far worse [nytimes.com]. Older students – with less time left in their public education to make up learning losses – are recovering more slowly than younger children [washingtonpost.com]. Support for virtual learning during the pandemic varied dramatically among communities, and students who were in virtual learning longer fared worse as well [Ibid.]. I live in Illinois, where schools were closed for a long time. That choice may have supported how much better Illinois did with Covid than many states, but our state’s children now pay the price.

Expressions of concern and hand-wringing over troubling scores will not move us off the dime. I support the call for a historic investment in education published by leading educators in an opinion piece for the Washington Post entitled “To help students shoot for the moon, we must think bigger and bolder” [washingtonpost.com]. Their metaphor of a moonshot is apt; we must support a major effort to address these losses that is both immediate and effective. Under President Kennedy, NASA realized they would need a much bigger rocket to reach the moon than we’d ever built, and major investment allowed the development of the Saturn V that took us to the moon. Research offers several solutions to our current crisis in education:

  • Providing students with three hours of tutoring, with three or fewer students per teacher — each week can produce a year’s worth of additional growth.
  • Summer school provides an academic quarter of growth.
  • One additional period of algebra instruction can teach a semester’s worth of algebra [Ibid.].

 I would add a number of other strategies:

  • Offer classroom teachers more support and professional development.
  • Offer parents/guardians specific work that they might help their students accomplish.
  • Increase the teacher pipeline so we don’t have classrooms being combined and supervised by non-teachers, a serious problem now. We need teachers to feel valued and supported, not exhausted.
  • Increase mental health services on site for both students and faculty/staff.
  • Increase the mental health pipeline.
  • Find a way to limit political attacks on school board members so that they can focus on the urgent issues we all face.

None of this will be inexpensive. As a nation, though, we need a 21st century work force of critical thinkers, collaborative workers, and quality producers. We need a comprehensive approach to mental health issues, behavior, and academics. That won’t happen unless we seize this opportunity for another “moonshot.”

Becoming a “Lighthouse”

This week I had the privilege of attending a Special Education Eligibility Hearing for a student for whom I’m a Guardian ad Litem. I drove a fair distance to an unfamiliar school; there I was welcomed and made to feel included.
 
Eleven of us gathered around a conference table to explore how best to support this student. An innocent victim of a tragic accident, this student has very specific needs for services to support vision and hearing. I have attended hearings like these as a teacher, but my perspective at this hearing felt so different. As a teacher, I might have worried about how to manage the required accommodations, but as a guardian I worked to be sure those accommodations would be made available.
 
My first teaching job in 1970 preceded any kind of special education for students like this. Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, wasn’t signed into law until late 1975.The EHA guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country.  It has been renamed and amended since then, but the purpose remains: to guarantee an appropriate education for every student, at no cost to parents, in the least restrictive environment, with an “Individualized Education Program” that identifies each student’s individual needs and how they will be met.
 
Our group included the DCFS Caseworker, the foster mother, and eight staff members, including teachers, the school psychologist, the vision support specialist, the speech therapist, the social worker, and the chair of Special Education. As I listened to these committed, compassionate adults develop an action plan, I thought about what would have happened to this student in the early days of my teaching, before 94-142. My student would have faced untold struggles and been unlikely to achieve a fulfilled and independent adult life, yet this is a resilient youth whose struggles were caused by others and who deserves assistance to achieve success in school and build a full life.
 
When I was still teaching, I enjoyed collaborating with our Special Education Department. I worked with special ed English classes on creative writing, I helped them produce a newsletter as well as a performance where they read their work to family members, and I co-taught an American Literature inclusion class for juniors with six to eight special education joining other students to be team-taught by the special ed department chair and me. I thought I was a supportive enough advocate, but this week’s hearing strengthened my resolve. Providing special resources and accommodations like extra time on tests or different kinds of printed materials certainly is a burden on already overloaded schools and teachers. But it’s necessary and right, and I remain in awe of a team like this that is not only making it happen, but that also works on how to make it acceptable for a student like mine who desperately wants not to be seen as different.
 
That would have been epiphany enough for this week – smile – but yesterday reinforced it when I got to hear Steve Pemberton speak. Pemberton wrote A Chance in the World, his personal memoir of being raised in a series of abusive foster homes and what helped him find his way to a fulfilling adult life. His follow-up book, The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World, shows how ordinary people can become “human lighthouses” for those in situations like those of his childhood. Yesterday Pemberton spoke about the three lighthouses who changed the trajectory of his life; then he encouraged us to continue to be lighthouses for others. His talk, delivered with humor and without a trace of self-pity, inspired me to recommit to my guardian work. It made me want to share his perspective with the people who sat around that table, each and every one of whom is a lighthouse. Last night I had a wonderful call with the foster mother of my student, and I explained to her why she is a lighthouse. When I finish the book, I’ll pass it on to her – she’s earned it! And I will continue to push myself to be a lighthouse for the youths in my cases. Every child deserves a fair chance, and we all can make a difference.

Rethinking Priorities

We spent last week on the East Coast for a wonderful three-day family reunion. Fifty of us gathered in a heated tent, somewhat protected from the cold, damp weather. On Sunday, though, when the crowd was smaller, we spent more time inside my cousins’ lake house. Nine children with ages ranging from 7 years to only 1 ½, played together quite happily in a small room off the great room. We could see and hear them through the French doors, and they rarely needed any adult intervention. Six of the children are cousins who see each other more frequently, and they’re remarkably good about sharing and playing.

Their ability to have such a good time inspired me. I found myself thinking about the remarkable book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. In it she describes the importance of free play for young children and the way it teaches them to self-regulate. She warns that over-scheduled, always supervised children lose that opportunity to their detriment.

Her warning seems particularly valuable right now, as students struggle to re-adapt to school after the disruptions of the pandemic. As I’ve written about before, teachers report poor behavior, lack of cooperation, and lack of engagement. Surely the months of isolation, already proven to have taken a severe toll on the mental and emotional well-being of students, have also disrupted their shared experiences of working together in a classroom. I acknowledge the legitimate concerns about lost skills, about poor reading and math test scores, but I remain convinced that we cannot turn those around until our students are in a better place emotionally and mentally.

This weekend I began to wonder if we also need to work more directly on rebuilding the skills needed for collaboration and cooperation in the classroom. Students who are not ready to learn will not accomplish the academic progress we seek. Do our students need to re-develop their ability to function as a unit in the classroom? Should we be focusing on that as well as their emotional and mental health?

If those needs are as real as they appear to me, how do we support teachers trying to do far more than teach math and reading? What kind of help and professional development do they need? And how do we convince school boards and administrators and parents that these tasks are urgent and take precedence over pure academic achievement, that they will pay off with better academic achievement in the long run?

I don’t have the answers, but I am convinced that these questions deserve answers, that we need to redirect our efforts to achieve the eventual outcomes we all hope for.

Education in Crisis

Image from printersrowlitfest.org

Last Saturday I had the privilege of selling my teaching memoir, Tales Told Out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher, at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the majority of my customers and visitors were teachers. Everyone who had not yet retired reported the same concerns:

  • The kids are not all right. The pandemic and the dysfunction in our country have taken a huge toll.
  • The kids are not behaving as well as they did pre-pandemic. They are less cooperative, less engaged, and less friendly.
  • We aren’t going to help kids make up academic deficits until we address their mental health issues.
  • The controversies swirling around so many districts about what can and cannot be taught are disempowering to teachers and make them question their willingness to stay in the profession.
  • Teachers are tired, too. They’ve paid a heavy price during the pandemic, too.
  • There’s just too much micro-management.
  • The pressure on current teachers to cover empty classes on top of their own load is too great a burden.

I recognize that this is a small group of anecdotes, not a vetted research study. But on Wednesday, when I was joined a group of former colleagues for a tram ride through the spectacular Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, I shared that feedback with them. The woman seated directly in front of me turned around and said, “Both my grown daughters are teachers. They’re in two different states and teach different grades, but that’s exactly what they say!”

Research studies about mental health issues for young people abound. I’ve written about them before, and I’ll write about them again. And we already have a serious teacher shortage and a grossly inadequate pipeline of teachers in training. The response, to let college students [Arizona and potentially Michigan] and veterans [Florida] teach without proper training and certification is not the answer. Even in the best of times, teaching has always required commitment, content knowledge, classroom management skills, and training in effective methods and best practices. Yet teaching may never have been more challenging than it is today, so teachers really need good preparation. We cannot help teachers and students recover unless we make significant changes:

  • We need to work on a culture that too often doesn’t value teachers or treat them with respect. Imagine, for example, if the media did more news stories about classrooms that are working well.
  • We need to empower teachers to do the decision-making for which they were trained instead of having screaming adults at school board meetings force administrations to surrender decision-making.
  • Every teacher needs a living wage and a workable class load.
  • We need to expand and develop programs that help teachers-in-training with college tuition in exchange for some years of service teaching in under-served areas after graduation.
  • We should provide mentoring for new teachers.
  • We must staff mental health positions in schools. The NASP has long recommended a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students, yet the national ratio average is 1:1211 and approaches1:5000 in some states [nasponline.org].  The need has never been greater, and classroom teachers have neither the time nor the training to fill it.

I felt so lucky to teach for over 30 years, to know so many students, to work with communities of colleagues. Let’s make sure those still in the classroom get to feel that way. Let’s invest in changes that support both teachers and students. That’s our best hope for retaining teachers and reaching and supporting students.

Is It Already Too Late?

Phto by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

I fear for the future of public education in this nation. These forces fuel my angst:

  • Students, teachers, parents and administrators are dealing with lost learning and lost connections from the pandemic.
  • Public support for education seems less reliable. From my first teaching experience in 1970 until my retirement, I saw a shift from teachers almost always being right to teachers almost always being wrong, neither of which seems right to me. The assault on teachers’ choices and on school board decisions suggests an us-you dynamic instead of collaborative support.
  • Micromanaging public education by non-educators has become a costly epidemic. From the days of “No Child Left Behind” to now, legislators have been setting rules and guidelines that may not align with known “Best Practices” and that disempower teachers and teacher decision-making.
  • People using the “culture wars” for their own political purposes are polarizing communities and hurting support for schools. They are robbing schools and educators of decision-making, hamstringing their ability to teach students to think and learn.
  • Critical thinking, perhaps the most important life skill schools should nurture, cannot be taught without exploring more than one side of an issue. Unfortunately, too often today adults want kids to parrot their beliefs instead of developing their own.

I hold core values that matter here:

  • All students can learn given good teachers and appropriate materials and lessons. One size has never fit all, and well-trained teachers are best equipped to figure out how to reach a wide array of students.
  • Educators have a moral responsibility to nurture students thinking, especially critical thinking. We seem to be living in a time when many don’t value critical thinking, when many adults want students to toe their line of thinking instead. How can we solve the great problems facing our world if we can’t think about them openly and explore possibilities collaboratively?
  • Educators can – and should – be responsive to parental concerns about curriculum on a case-by-case basis, thereby honoring their family values without dictating them to everyone else. When I had a parent concerned about controversial content, I could offer alternatives without the entire class being deprived of an important experience or exposure to ideas.
  • Educators, especially when they work in teams and have their curricula evaluated by their administrations and boards of education, are by far the most qualified to develop curricula. Teachers have been trained to evaluate material and put it in a meaningful context. Working in teams, they are best suited to identify what is appropriate and provides an opportunity for learning.
  • Winston Churchill [and/or George Santayana] supposedly said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How can we teach history from which we can learn valuable lessons if we continue to sanitize it and dismiss uncomfortable past realities?

I knew I wanted to spend my life teaching and learning by the time I was in sixth grade, and I loved my career most of the time. Now, though, I’m less convinced that I would choose it. The politics in Florida may be among the more extreme, but their policies are catching on in other states. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act” regulates what schools can teach about race and identity [washingtonpost.com]. Although the law is currently being challenged in court, it should still strike fear in proponents of public education. Critics warn that the efforts in Florida are a harbinger for other states [Ibid.]. “’Florida may be leading the charge,’ said Fairfield University mathematics professor Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, adding that Texas is not far behind and that many other states are following suit. ‘It’s a trend in the larger culture wars … where you see these politicians trying to throw red meat to the base and stir people up’” [Ibid.].

Florida is trying to control every aspect of education and to focus on a sanitized and Christian worldview. “The DeSantis administration has decried teachings on race, suggested civics instruction that downplays the historical separation of church and state, told school districts to ignore advice from the federal government that guarantees civil rights protections for LGBTQ students and, on Wednesday, asserted that children in elementary schools are being told they are the wrong gender” [washingtonpost.com]. The vagueness of the rules and the conflicting instruction from the state and federal governments are sowing fear and confusion. According to Michael Woods, a Palm Beach teacher and member of the Classroom Teachers Association, “’The vagueness of these laws is doing exactly what it was intended to do. It’s silencing teachers… I have grown people coming up to me worried about what they can say’” [Ibid.].

Florida also requires new civics training for public school teachers that includes the statement that it is a “’misconception’ that “the Founders desired strict separation of church and state’” [washingtonpost.com]. This flies in the face of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which scholars widely interpret to require a separation of church and state. Broward County teacher Richard Judd, who attended the three-day training on the new civics curriculum, said the trainers told teachers, “This is the way you should think” [Ibid.]. Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said, “Then they kind of slipped in a Christian values piece, ignoring the fact that this country is made up of so many different cultures and religions” [Ibid.]. If teachers can only present one view, how can students learn to think critically and evaluate the information offered?

And this same state has flip-flopped over the use of a specific textbook in health and still hasn’t made a decision for the start of this year’s instruction. Health professionals are alarmed, especially in a state with the third-highest rate of new HIV infections in the country according to the CDC, in a state ranked 23rd for teen pregnancies. They point out that public opinion surveys show significant support for sexual education [Ibid.].

If these actions were limited to one state, I would be less concerned. But they are not. Lawmakers across the country are proposing bills like these: “’First Florida. Then Alabama. Now, lawmakers in Ohio and Louisiana are considering legislation that mimics the Florida law,’ according to NPR” [catholicvote.org]. After Florida passed the Don’t Say Gay Bill, 19 other states have introduced similar legislation [nbcnews.com]. For this issue alone, The Guardian identifies Georgia, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, and South Carolina as states emulating the Florida Don’t Say Gay Bill. Education Week shows similarcontagion from state to state [theguardian.com].

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the only flashpoint. Since January 2021, 14 states have passed laws prohibiting “critical race theory, even though that term refers to post-secondary scholarship. Legislators want to sanitize the nation’s history of slavery. These laws and orders, combined with local actions to restrict certain types of instruction, now impact more than one out of every three children in the country, according to a recent study from UCLA [edweek.org]. Education Week analyzed active state bills and warns that “Republicans this year have drastically broadened their legislative efforts to censor what’s taught in the classroom. What started in early 2021 as a conservative effort to prohibit teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in so-called ‘divisive’ ways or taking sides on ‘controversial’ issues has now expanded to include proposed restrictions on teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist, according to an Education Week analysis of 61 new bills and other state-level actions” [Ibid.].

Teaching has always been hard, and other factors [like the pandemic and verbal fights at school board meetings] have only increased its difficulty. But this national movement to disempower educators, to take away their decision-making, to make them fearful of lawsuits as they try to determine what subject matter is safe in their state, is crippling their ability to teach. A survey of members of the American Federation of Teachers shows dramatically increased job dissatisfaction, up from 27% in 2014 to 79% in 2022 [AFT Member Survey]. That news should be especially concerning given the existing shortage of teachers and the insufficiency of the pipeline of teachers in training.

Publishing my teaching memoir this year reminded me of the joys as well as the challenges of my career. Would I choose it now? I don’t know. Will others? The current climate hardly encourages the best and the brightest. Don’t our students deserve them?

“The Children Are Our Future”

While many complain about teens, my problem-based learning elective class, which fostered service projects for the school and larger community, taught me that teens can and will make major contributions to their community. Right now, when so much education news keeps me awake at night, I loved reading about the high school senior in Olivia, Minnesota, who did just that.
 
The son of a military veteran and relative of others, Dominique Claseman grew dismayed that his small town didn’t have a veteran’s memorial. Although some residents of this farming community of 2500 people 90 miles from the Twin Cities had put up a few rocks and signs in recognition, that didn’t seem adequate to Claseman. He was ready to design and enact his Eagle Scout project, and his veteran father was his scoutmaster. Claseman and his parents toured war memorials in other towns. Then Claseman began his own PR campaign to raise funds. He sought interviews at local radio stations, handed out brochures, and went door-to-door to local businesses. He offered families the opportunity to sponsor stone pavers engraved with their veteran’s name. Although his initial goal was a modest $12,000 – 15,000 dollars, donations came not only from Olivia but from surrounding towns, hitting almost $77,000.
 
Claseman drew up a sketch inspired by memorials he’d seen. His contractor grandfather helped with the design. By May, the finalized blueprint showed “a long walkway leading to a stone monument and four granite benches in a 21-foot circle representing the 21 boot steps the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns walks. The memorial also would include flagpoles and Army helmet sculptures in honor of two local men who died in Iraq. A local crew volunteered to pour the concrete if Claseman would purchase the supplies. Then his dad walked across the wet cement in his Army boots to complete a walk of honor with 21 footprints” [washingtonpost.com].
 
Over three weekends, Claseman and his family, along with other members of his scout troop, installed the landscaping and 280 inscribed pavers. “’There were about 10,000 pounds of rock, so, yeah, it was a lot of work,’ Claseman said’ [Ibid.]. This past Memorial Day, two years after Claseman began fundraising and designing, the monument was dedicated. Jon Hawkinson, mayor of Olivia, said, “’Dom’s project proved to us that when creativity meets ambition, wonderful things can happen’” [Ibid.]. Several hundred people attended the dedication and grew quite emotional. 91-year-old Marjorie Barber came to honor her uncle who died in World War I at the age of 21 along with more than a dozen relatives who served during World War II, including her late husband. “’We have 17 members of my family on the memorial — almost all are gone, a few are still living…We never had a place to remember our veterans before, so what Dominique did is really wonderful and uplifting for our town’” [Ibid.]. Kim Wertish, whose 20-year-old son James was killed in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2009, bought markers for her son and some of his comrades. She called the Olivia memorial “extra special.”
 
Claseman expects his younger brothers to add to the memorial for their own Eagle Scout projects. He said he was thrilled to see his friends and neighbors paying their respects on the Fourth of July. “’Everyone came together for the veterans,’ Claseman said. ‘That’s what this is all about’” [Ibid.].
 
This heartwarming story feels remarkable, and Dominique Claseman is an admirable young man, but I feel confident that his story is not unique. While the news is full of grim updates about the concerning state of education, some young people continue to rise to the occasion and even to exceed anyone’s expectation. We should learn more of these stories. I find myself humming Whitney Houston’s song:
“I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride
To make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

Out of Africa

In 2010, when we were on our second safari in Tanzania, we again splurged on a posh yurt village in the Serengeti. This time we met a wealthy couple from England, pompous name-droppers who claimed to be friends of David Cameron, then the Prime Minister. I knew we held different values when she appeared at dinner in a flowing white linen shirt and palazzo pants, knowing full well that locals would have to try to wash them in water heated over an open fire. At dinner one night, she confirmed that sense when she started denigrating zoos. Another guest and I pointed out that zoos were responsible for significant conservation efforts, like the Amsterdam Zoo’s program for black rhinos, and that many people could only learn about animals through zoo. “Oh, no,” she replied blithely. “They should just all come to Africa to see animals for themselves.” Clueless and out of touch, she failed to see the value of empowering people to learn about the world beyond their own lives.

I have been thinking of her attitude a lot lately as I continue to read about the attacks at library board and school board meetings as people fight to curtail access to books for readers. Yet reading is an invaluable way for each of us to expand our awareness of worlds hitherto unknown to us. As a teacher, I always accommodated parents who had concerns about works in our curriculum. As an educator, parent, grandparent, and citizen of this country, I am appalled at the efforts of conservative individuals and groups to limit not only their reading of their own family members but of everyone. They would remove so many books from libraries and schools that many students would never see themselves reflected in their reading, much less learn about others who are different.

Consider this passage from Reading is Fundamental [scenicregional.org]:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.

I am somewhat comforted, though, by Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I am relieved to see many organizations actively working to support those of us who would fight such censorship. These include the following:

If I were still in an English classroom, I would depend upon the efforts of the National Council of Teachers of English. Their “This Story Matters” initiative provides rationales to defend books under attack. Their position says it best:

The right to read is one of the foundations of a democratic society, and teachers need the freedom to support that right so their students can make informed decisions and be valuable contributors to our world. A story can encourage diversity of thought, broaden global perspectives, celebrate unique cultures, and motivate the reader to achieve their dreams. This right matters. This Story Matters.

Tennessee Leads the Way!

Image from governorsfoundation.org

Like so many states, Tennessee is concerned about the “COVID Slide,” the estimated learning loss for students from the pandemic’s school closures and disruptions. Their Department of Education recently released data that projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math. This is about 2.5 times higher than the learning loss students can experience during a normal summer break” [governorsfoundation.org].

Such data is not news, but Tennessee’s approach to this harsh reality is news. The Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation [GELF] addresses this problem: “The mission of Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation is to strengthen early literacy in Tennessee. Our vision is a Tennessee where all children have access to the resources, guidance and support they need to become lifelong learners” [tn.gov/education]. In January of 2021, GELF, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, “announced a statewide rollout of Ready4K, a research-based text messaging program to help parents support their students in learning at home” [Ibid.]. Their research confirmed that 97% of parents had smart phones and texted [Ibid.]140,000 families with children enrolled in pre-K through third grade received, at no charge, “three weekly text messages with facts, easy tips, and activities on how to help each child learn and grow by building on existing family routines. Text messages match each child’s age, with simple, engaging facts and suggestions for building on existing daily routines, such as getting dressed, bath time, or preparing a meal” [Ibid.]. 

“’Tennessee is taking a leadership role in providing families with accessible, evidence-based family engagement text messages to help foster child development and bridge the gap between home and school during a time of unprecedented challenges,’ said Ben York, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Ready4K. ‘With more than 15 million children in the U.S. living without adequate internet access or devices, the use of texting addresses the country’s digital divide and enables even the hardest-to-reach parents to access high-quality information and resources for their children’” [Ibid.]. 

An evidence-based program, Ready4K is continuously being evaluated and improved through ongoing partnerships at Stanford, Brown and Notre Dame universities. It “has been shown to increase family engagement at home and school and increase child learning by 2-3 months over the course of a school year” [Ibid.]. 

Last week GELF announced its second year of Its K-3 Book Delivery program. Partnering with Scholastic Library Publishing, it will deliver half a million books to teachers and students all over Tennessee, including to every first grader in the state. The high-quality and age-appropriate books will be delivered directly to homes at no charge [businesswire.com]. Encouraging students to read through the summer improves their literacy and reduces learning loss.

Participants agree. A survey by GELF showed a positive response to the program from caregivers, teachers, and students of 94-97% [Ibid.]. 

This program builds on Dolly Parton’s incredible leadership for childhood literacy. “Since 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program has delivered meticulously chosen, personalized, age-appropriate books every month to children up to five years old — all free of charge” [rollingstone.com]. Initially a very local program, it kept expanding and, by February of 2021, had distributed nearly 155 million books [Ibid.]. Now the state of Tennessee is following her lead.

The pandemic has brought about lots of handwringing about learning loss, and I myself have written about it often enough. Here, though, is meaningful good news. Here is a state, one not necessarily known nationwide for leadership in education, that offers a concrete solution to address the COVID slide. Their leadership makes me hopeful for the children of Tennessee. Now may other states follow suit, developing programs like these or their own alternatives, so that our students catch up and become literate adults!