Learning from the Best Teachers

For me personally, one of the greatest joys of having been a teacher for many years is the continuing relationships I have with former students. Discovering how they are making their way in the world and getting to know them as adults and peers is a gift. It also pleases me enormously that so many of my former students have chosen to teach. Some have left the classroom, but others are still phenomenally engaged.

Even as I struggle with the current teacher shortage and an inadequate teacher pipeline, I find hope in the passion and commitment of some teachers currently in the classroom. I recently got to talk to one of those teachers, my student almost twenty-five years ago, and his remarks inspired confidence in me once again. So I’d like to share some of them here.

Marc Nelson teaches art to 4th through 8th graders in Kewanee, Illinois, a district where 80% of students receive free lunch. His lovely wife, Jill Bartelt, teaches reading and math there. I remember his phenomenal artwork and his passion for literature in high school, including his I-Search paper on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Like me, Marc was inspired to become a teacher when a fourth-grade teacher invited him to teach his sister’s first grade class about his passion for Knights. Just as I fell in love with teaching as a sixth-grader when I read to my first-grade teacher’s children, Marc, too, was captivated by teaching. He initially thought he would teach history at the college level, but his love for literature and an amazing Shakespeare professor at Augustana inspired him to unite his passions through his art.

Because I follow Marc on Facebook, I have seen first-hand the way he incorporates other fields in his classroom. His kids don’t get to museums and art galleries, and they live in a more rural environment, but Marc introduces them to art and artists they would otherwise never meet. He involves them in projects that extend well beyond the classroom.

I asked what has been most satisfying about teaching for him. Marc spoke of a great administration and the amount of freedom and support they offer him. Every year he gets to try new projects and align classroom work with content area teachers. For example, when social studies classes are exploring the Great Depression, that becomes the focus in his art class. He says, “There are seemingly endless opportunities and ways to teach certain things.” He used available stop-motion equipment so his 7th and 8th graders could create a film together based on a true incident. His students often brainstorm a list of subjects they’re interested in and try to marry two of them. They’ve combined Covid and WW II, and the Ukraine in general and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe with mass graves that weren’t found until the 1990s. That’s the crux of why he loves this job so much – “It never gets old.”

When I asked about frustrations, he acknowledged a real drop in base knowledge of the average student and in maturity levels. Since the pandemic, behavior and attendance are bigger issues. Marc claims he’s pretty easy-going, so sometimes students test his limits. Yet Marc retains remarkable enthusiasm.

Marc’s experience in Americorps took him to numerous public schools where he saw vitality and energy. He chose to teach public school instead of college and likes that middle school and high school students aren’t yet fully formed. He found subbing at the local junior college art class quiet and less dynamic. The joy of discovery that his younger students find delights and surprises him. He engages them in community projects. “The work goes beyond the walls of the school, and the kids get so excited!”

Marc has avoided some of the parent interactions and interference that have been the bane of existence for other teachers. In addition to his administrative support, he tries to anticipate parent issues and come up with appropriate responses. He has had parents question some of his projects, but thoughtful discussion resolved those issues.

I admire Marc’s use of his art outside the classroom as well. He has mounted shows of his drawings of oppressed people in Syria, Israel, and Gaza. His students see him walk his talk about going out into the world, and that must inspire them. You can explore his work at www.marcnelsonart.com.

I also asked about advice for new teachers. Marc said, “Invest yourself in whatever you’re teaching, find a way that it’s fascinating to you which will help you ‘deliver’ it effectively.” He also urges parents to use their time with their kids to foster interests and raise a consummate, lifelong learner. They should ask their students about their passions and learning, build on that, read them books and take them places, and support the current instruction at home. He urges the public: “Do not give lip service to the importance of children but then hamstring teachers. Back up that importance with support for teachers and the schools. Attend events, go to fundraisers.” Too many people seem to think that public school teachers are just servants who are not worthy of respect.

Marc respects his students: “They’re so much more capable of remarkable things than I gave them credit for before I knew them.”  He likes responding to what’s happening with artists and what’s happening in the world. He gets them to engage with the times we’re living in and tells them, “When you walk through this door, you’re an artist and this is your studio.”

In a perfect world, Marc he would love to have more world-based projects – for all classes. He agrees that better pay and more respect for teachers are overdue. The workload remains arduous, but Marc avoids burnout by doing what he’s passionate about. He appreciates the freedom not to be bogged down testing and grading tests, and he values the support he gets (and gives).

Clearly there aren’t enough Marc Nelsons to go around – don’t we wish we could clone teachers like him? But he offers clear guidelines on how we all can help other teachers be their best selves:

  • Good teachers who are meeting standards need the freedom to design how they get there.
  • Students deserve projects and experiences that take them beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • Teachers need to support and encourage each other. Administrators, parents, and community members need to support good teachers.
  • When teachers can find a point of passion in their subject, they transmit that passion. The curriculum needs to be flexible enough to let them find those passions.

These are not “pie-in-the-sky” goals. They are achievable and worthwhile. Aren’t our kids worth it?

Charter Schools: Yay or Nay?

Image by Adam Lapuník

As an educator, I have complicated feelings about charter schools. I am committed to a public school system that serves all of our children, and I do worry that charters siphon off students who might help lead classrooms if they stayed in public school. On the other hand, the inertia of our school system makes change very challenging to accomplish. Unlike parochial schools and other private schools, charter schools are public schools funded by state and federal governments; they’re free to attend and open to the public. Depending on the state they’re in and their particular charter, however, they do not share all the constraints of traditional public schools. Charter schools have a level of freedom that’s valuable.

It’s been 35 years since Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, first suggested charter schools, and 31 years since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota.(charterschoolcenter.ed.gov) Now over 7,000 charter schools in North America have more than 3 million students enrolled. (chalkbeat.org)

Chris Drew, PhD known as “The Helpful Professor,” identifies potential strengths of charter schools that are not as tied to state regulations, such as innovative and effective teaching, methods, a sense of community, and specialization in specific curricular areas. He warns, though, that charter schools vary by state, vary in quality, may have high teacher turnover rates, and often depend on fundraising. (helpfulprofessor.com)

According to Psyche Pascual of GreatSchools.org, charters are like public schools in that they administer the same state-mandated standardized tests; don’t charge tuition; can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment; and are accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter. They can organize staff differently, however, and they may be run by a non-profit or a for-profit organization. They may have a founding educational philosophy like Waldorf or Montessori, but they may not. Nor are they always limited to hiring teachers with credentials. Many charters were founded by a group of committed parents or community members, and they often require parental involvement. (greatschools.org)

Current research suggests that charter schools are clearly gaining on public schools in terms of student achievement. In a recent landmark study, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which studies charter schools, found that Black and Hispanic

charter school students advanced more than their counterparts in traditional public schools “by large margins” in math and reading. The study also found stronger “academic growth” among charter school students living in poverty and English-language learners, compared with similar students at traditional public schools. (usnews.com)

The Stanford 2023 report shows that, in the 15 years since their 2009 study, public school performance remained relatively flat, while students enrolled in charter schools showed large, positive growth. Over the 15 years between the studies, the reading growth of students in charter schools rose by 23 days of learning each year and student learning in math increased by 37 days of learning each year. (ncss3.stanford.edu)

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research used multiple factors beyond test scores to evaluate Chicago charter high schools. Although their students had a higher turnover rate than those in public schools (which is typical of charter schools), they still outperformed their public equivalents. Charter students appear to benefit from certain advantages over public schools: a collegial sense of responsibility and trust, higher expectations for moving up a grade and for college attendance, and greater parental involvement. (chalkbeat.org)

The charter school population continues to grow as well. Since the pandemic, 1.5 million students have left public schools, while enrollment at public charter schools grew by more than 300,000 students between 2019-20 and 2022-23, a 9% increase.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2022 annual enrollment report identified multiple factors valued by parents: higher-quality instruction (54%), smaller school and class sizes (47%), and better safety (47%) than district schools. (the74million.org)

Research on return on investment is especially compelling. Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform compared funding with performance data from the National Assessment of Education Progress and research findings from the CREDO Institute at Stanford University. They found significantly higher gains in charter schools compared to their public counterpoints: in reading, charters average 4.4 NAEP points higher per $1,000 spent than traditional public schools, making charter schools 41% more cost-effective in reading; in math, charters average 4.7 points higher per $1,000 funded, making them 43% more cost-effective in math. On average, each dollar invested in a student’s schooling in traditional public schools yields $3.94 in lifetime earnings. That same dollar invested in a charter school student yields $6.25 in lifetime earnings — a 58% higher return on investment over the course of a 13-year education. (bpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com)

The varied success rates of charter schools mirror the varied success rates of public schools, so their biggest advantage may well be the choice that parents and students get. Research confirms however, that charter school students are gaining an advantage over their public school peers. As an educator, surely I should be convinced to support charters. I have a grandchild in San Francisco who will benefit from school choice. Does that make me squirm? A bit… I do wish that public schools could have some of the flexibility available to charter schools, which might allow them to see equally fine results. If and when that happens, I will remain an avid supporter of public schools. In the meantime, however, I acknowledge the advantage of choice for so many of our students.

A Win-Win Solution

when did portland

The teacher shortage remains serious. The job has gotten even harder, pay has not kept up, and student and parent behavior is often problematical.

Portland, Oregon had its first-ever teacher strike this November after bargaining for five months when the previous contract expired. Portland’s over 4000 teachers were striking not only for more pay but for smaller classes and better working conditions. (apnews.com) They did reach a tentative agreement on November 26, and students returned to school on November 27. Teacher pay did increase, but not as much as teachers had sought, and the new contract does include extra pay for larger classes and class size committees instead of hard caps. (opb.org) Will changes like these in Portland and other districts be enough? Only time will tell.

Understaffed schools around the country are hiring long-term subs and unqualified candidates for roles normally filled by certified teachers. Teacher turnover rose to a historically high 14 percent in the 2021-22 school year, further exacerbating the problem. 

The Annenberg Institute at Brown University analyzed national teacher shortages. They found a national vacancy rate of at least 36,500 teaching positions, but when they extrapolate to include states that didn’t provide data, they believe the vacancy rate is closer to 52,800 positions. They also assert that over 5% of positions are held by unqualified teachers. They point out that the vacancy rates vary dramatically across regions and states. “For example, the vacancy rate per 10,000 students is more than 159 times as high in Mississippi as it is in Missouri.” (researchgate.net)

Teachers currently serving in schools are leaving faster than usual. Over a year ago, Brenda Cassellius, the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, wrote about their high vacancy rate and shortage of bus drivers and substitutes. She asserts that we are losing current teachers and don’t have enough in the pipeline because pay and working conditions are so much better in other fields. (washingtonpost.com) My friends who are still teaching say that helicopter parents and students who too often no longer honor behavioral norms are driving them out. Hannah Natanson, a prize-winning education journalist for The Washington Post, provides a litany of factors: “Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.” (washingtonpost.com2)

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization committed to covering education and school improvement, warns that “Teachers appear to be leaving at higher rates, and there’s been a longer-standing decline in people training to become teachers. At the same time, schools may have wanted to hire more teachers than usual because they remain flush with COVID relief money and want to address learning loss. That’s a recipe for a shortage.” They also point out that high-poverty schools are the hardest hit. (chalkbeat.org)

NPR points out that certain kinds of teachers are still in short supply, teacher shortages hit high-poverty and high-minority schools more, teacher pay has stagnated even as the cost of a teaching degree has nearly doubled, and fewer people have been training to become teachers for nearly a decade. (npr.org) We need to address all of these factors.

“The Biden administration has unveiled a three-point plan to address teacher shortages: partner with recruitment firms to find new potential applicants, subsidize other prospective teachers’ training, and pay them more so they’ll stay…” (edweek.org) Improving pay, calming the culture wars, offering mentoring programs would all help.

There is another answer, though. Teaching is an exhausting job. Veteran teachers might not retire if they were permitted to job share with another teacher and cut their days and workload. Young teachers who might be primary parents might jump at the chance to job share to make their teaching role more compatible with the demands of their personal life. Younger teachers might help veterans update their skills in evolving areas like technology, while those veterans could mentor their younger partners in areas like classroom management and assessment. Ideally, each might even help cover the absences of the other.

 Helly Douglas claims “the lack of flexible working is a key reason teachers don’t return to the job after taking a career break. There are 250,000 former teachers of working age who are not teaching in state schools. Increasing part-time options could be a massive help to those who want to return but can’t because of health, family commitments or lack of available part-time jobs.” (medium.com) Just imagine what a powerful addition many of those teachers could be.

I loved teaching and really enjoyed mentoring new teachers, but I retired because I wanted to spend time with my grandchildren before they grew up completely and because I was tired. When I posed job-sharing to my district, they turned me down. People like me, with a job-share partner, could fill many of those shortages, and job-sharing teachers could learn from each other, which would benefit their students. This is an idea whose time has come!

Happier News for a Change

When so much of the news is distressing, here’s a break with some good news about education:

  • The American Exchange Project helps students build bridges across the American divide. Co-founded by 29-year-old David McCullough III, grandson of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, it pays to for youth to spend a week in the summer after senior year “in an American town that is politically and socio-economically and culturally very different from the one that they’re growing up in,” McCullough said. Participants report bonding with others very different from themselves and seeing shades of gray in a world that used to be more black-and-white. (cbsnews.com)
  • Boston has opened high school reengagement centers that “offer a proven, scalable way to help more students find a path to a diploma and a better life.” Dozens of volunteers visit the home of students living well below the poverty line who have had poor attendance to encourage them to stay in school. Bostons’ four-year graduation rate went from 59% in 2006 to 81% in 2022. The five-year rate jumped from 65% to 84%.  Other districts could certainly duplicate this effort. (nextcity.org)
  • Indiana already had some work-based programs to prepare students for chosen careers, including those that do not require college. Now their Career Scholarship Accounts are available to every student as a sophomore in high school. “Students participating in qualifying programs can apply for $5,000 each year to pay for career training courses, enroll in earn-and-learn opportunities and cover the costs of items like transportation to and from work sites, uniforms, tools and certification exams.” (the74million.org)
  • Education Reimagined is developing partnerships with educators, communities, and researchers to shift the current model of schooling to “one built on community-based ecosystems of learning that offer deeply personalized opportunities to all students.”  For example, the brand-new City View Community High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, uses the local Chamber of Commerce as students’ home base and creates personalized learning activities, connected to standards, and community-based projects and problem solving. (the74million.org2)
  • Michael Hayes, a male fifth-grade language arts teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary school, started “Men Count” to ensure that Charlotte students see more men of color in the school so that many can see themselves. Male volunteers from all over Charlotte participate, providing role models children can relate to. (charlotteobserver.com)
  • Hope Chicago is taking a two-generation approach to attacking poverty by working with five Chicago schools to provide scholarships for both students and a parent of those students. As long as the student stays in school, the parent does, too. An April 2023 report by “Belfield, a City University scholar, found that college enrollment rates averaged 74% — a 17% increase — in the organization’s first year partnering with the five schools.” Chicago Hope plans to expand the program. (the74million.org3)
  • Ed tech nonprofit UPchieve offers free, individualized, on-demand academic support. This 24-hour online tutoring service relies on 20,000 volunteer tutors to offer free, on-demand academic and college application support to any U.S. middle or high school student attending a Title I school or living in a low-income neighborhood. (the74million.org4)
  • Two years ago, some students at a 60% white school in East Ridge, Minnesota, met to brainstorm what they could do to make students of color feel less isolated. They founded the Close the Gap club, which offers free tutoring by students for students. 40-50 teens participate and appreciate the support, finding it easier to get help from peers than teachers. (startribune.com)
  • Last spring Aleksander Simeunovic, a high school student in Batavia, Illinois, created Fox Valley Coding Buddies to promote online safety and digital literacy for elementary and middle school students. The group has already hosted 46 workshops across eight suburban school districts for students in grades 3-8 with 1,550 student participants, using 76 trained volunteers and eight executive board members. They tailor each workshop to the specific schools’ needs. (www.shawlocal.com)
  • New Jersey is the first state in the country to require public schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students. They believe that “students will become better citizens as adults by learning how to conduct research, analyze information, determine credible sources and ask questions to better reach their own conclusions.” (dailygazette.com)
  • Last month St. Charles, Illinois, offered a parent program entitled “Make Kindness Go Viral: Addressing Cyberbullying at Home.” A presenter from the Cyberbullying
    Research Center provided information on how kids use the Internet and their devices first and then examined cyberbullying, sexting, and unwise social media use along with practical strategies for identification, prevention, and response. (district303.org)
  • Two college students in Tulsa, Oklahoma, live in a senior community for free in exchange for performing music concerts and practices and engaging with residents. Although the financial benefits attracted them, both they and the residents say the bonding has been wonderful. The students bring joy and life to the facility, and the residents provide encouragement and advice. (kjrh.com)
  • A first grader in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, has been working on improving her reading by going door to door in her community and practicing by reading to seniors. Not only has Maggie’s reading improved as the seniors support her and help with difficult words, but they really enjoy the company! (kare11.com) In my own hometown retired adults work in the elementary schools as volunteers and report the cross-generational experiences are truly fulfilling. Perhaps we can expand opportunities like this across the nation.

It’s easy to feel discouraged about education given the strains schools are facing and the impact of the pandemic on learners. News items like these can remind us that good work continues around the country. We should support it and urge expansion of the best initiatives.

1984: Ahead of It Time

I used to love Orwell’s novel, foolishly believing we would heed his warnings, like those of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Surely we would never turn into book burners,  and – while we don’t always acknowledge the full truth of our history – surely we would not seek to revise it completely.

I was wrong. We have failed to heed those warnings too often. We must turn the tide.

Book banning and revisionist history are both on the rise. You need only to look at Valdimir Putin’s efforts to develop new history books. “Dictators are not content with controlling the present; they want to control the past as well. ‘Correctly’ crafted historical narratives can give them an appearance of legitimacy and provide justification for their actions” (washingtonpost.com). Despite being in the midst of a tragic war with Ukraine, Putin took the time to create a task force to produce a new history textbook for 10th and 11th graders. Completed in less than four months, the new texts offer new versions of Russian history. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident jailed for his opposition to the war against Ukraine, writes:

Russian students will be taught that both the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan were conducted at the behest of these countries’ own governments; that “human rights violations” (written exactly like this, in quotation marks) in the Soviet Union were just a pretext for Western interference in its internal affairs; and that Mikhail Gorbachev was an incompetent and ignorant leader whose policies led to the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” as the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. is described in the textbook, using Putin’s well-known expression. The history of the Soviet dissident movement is illustrated with a “primary source” — not a declaration or pamphlet by dissidents or human rights groups, of course, but a 1972 report from KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov about “organized subversive activity … by anti-Soviet elements.” (Ibid.)

Even these fabrications pale compared to the way the texts present the war with Ukraine. It is unusual, to say the least, to include current and unfinished events in a so-called history textbook, but Putin wants to reshape history and squash opposition, so the books call Ukraine a “neo-Nazi” state that came to power in a “military coup” in 2014 and claim Ukraine started the war. The books even claim that Russian soldiers are now “fighting shoulder to shoulder for goodness and the truth… and the special military operation has consolidated our society” (Ibid.). Putin would replace history and truth with propaganda and slogans.

This matters, not only in Russia. We are seeing efforts within our own borders to revise history; just look at what the Governor of Florida’s history commission claims about slavery. Book banning runs rampant in some of our states, trying to limit access to ideas and issues disliked by the book banners. Even though they often claim they have the right to limit access as parents concerned about their children, they are content to limit the rights of other parents to decide for their own children.

At least in our country, the backlash is beginning to make an impact. When Florida’s Martin County, trying to interpret the bill DeSantis pushed through, released a lengthy list of books to be removed from school library, authors fought back. Most were selected because of the complaints of a single parent! This list included twenty books by Jodi Picoult, claiming they are “adult romance.” They are not, but they do address controversial issues. Picoult slammed the bans. She said, “We have actual proof that marginalized kids who read books about marginalized characters wind up feeling less alone… Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them” (washingtonpost.com2).

The New York Public Library has a new program called “Books for All: Protect the Freedom to Read in Your Community.” They offer toolkits for activists, free digital access to banned books, discussion groups, teen writing contests, reading lists, and ways to take action (https://www.nypl.org/spotlight/books-for-all). The American Library Association partnered with the New York Public Library, and they, too, offer resources.

Rewriting history and limiting access to books that don’t agree with the objectors’ views are a proven path to repression and authoritarianism. We can’t let that happen here. Speak up! Follow your library and school board meetings. We need to turn the tide while we still can.

The Culture Wars: A Harmful Distraction

Politicians and other public figures continue to push the culture wars as a distraction instead of focusing on solving the very real problems facing our schools and communities. Their actions cause harm while preventing the kind of collaborative problem-solving we so urgently need. All of us must speak up.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles in just the first eight months of 2023. The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, a year that had already shattered censorship records. Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of documented challenges, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022. Challenges by a single person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles dominate, with over 90% of the overall number of books challenged included as part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.

“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy” (uniteagainstbookbans.org).

Libraires themselves are under attack. “Some libraries have received bomb threats; others are at risk of having their funding slashed, or even face closure, over disputes about book removals. In some instances, librarians have been harassed, threatened and called groomers and pedophiles” (nytimes.com).

According to PEN America, the movement to ban books is driven by a vocal minority demanding censorship despite a 2022 poll showing that over 70% of parents oppose book banning. PEN counted book removals in school and classroom libraries during the 2022-2023 school year and found 3,362 cases of books being removed, a 33 percent increase over the previous school year. More than 1,550 individual titles were targeted. Many of the same books are challenged around the country, including classics by Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and contemporary young adult fiction by popular authors like John Green. “The most dramatic spike in book bans took place in Florida, which removed more than 1,400 books and surpassed Texas as the state with the highest number of removals, according to PEN. Florida emerged as a hot spot for book challenges after the state passed several laws aimed in part at restricting educational and reading material on certain subjects. As school districts scrambled to comply with the new regulations earlier this year, some teachers and librarians removed entire shelves of books” (pen.org).

Free speech advocates worry that some school districts will further limit book access by suspending new book purchases or avoid stocking books on topics that might be viewed as controversial. “The way it’s going to begin to manifest may look different,” said Kasey Meehan, the lead author of PEN’s report. “We’ll begin to see this chilled atmosphere play out in different ways, either through quietly removing books, or not bringing books in, in the first place” (nytimes.com).

The novelist Nora Roberts responded to the decision of a Martin County, Florida school to purge eight of her novels based on the complaints of a single member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty: “All of it is shocking…If you don’t want your teenager reading this book, that’s your right as a mom — and good luck with that. But you don’t have the right to say nobody’s kid can read this book.” The very same parents who want their parental rights protected too often would do so by denying those rights to other parents (washingtonpost.com).

Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian, recently testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee, “Our democracy depends on a marketplace of ideas [that] will not function if we ban books, because we will be banning ideas and preventing our children from thinking for themselves and having the ability to debate and learn and understand different perspectives” (chicagotribune.com). But even in Illinois books are being removed. The Yorkville school board removed the book Just Mercy from the curriculum, deeming it inappropriate and upsetting for teens. This book explores issues in the American justice system and should promote meaningful discussion.  I’m proud of Yorkville High School senior Alexis Barkman. She said, “By allowing the opinions of a select few to influence what is taught in our classrooms, you’re sending the message that their beliefs are more important that the quality of our education. You’re depriving us of our freedom to read and form our own opinions about the subjects you deem too controversial” (shawlocal.com).

Such behavior for political purposes is offensive to me. Look at a Missouri candidate for governor, State Senator Bill Eigel.  A long-shot at best, he very publicly used a flamethrower to set cardboard boxes on fire. Eigel said he would burn books he found objectionable, and that he’d do it on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion. Later he claimed this was all a metaphor for how he would attack “the woke liberal agenda” (chicagotribune.com). Is this dangerous stunt more important than the key issues defined by Missouri University Extension: economic opportunity, educational access and workforce preparedness, and health and wellbeing (muextensionway.missouri.edu)? Of course not.

And books aren’t the only front line. The United States Senate is arguing over a dress code even as the nation faces a likely government shutdown and its consequential impact. A black student in Texas just filed a federal civil rights lawsuit because his high school disapproves of his dreadlocks even though he ties them up on his head to meet school requirements (chicagotribune.com). When we continue to face an achievement gap for students of color and a school-to-prison pipeline, is this really our priority?

Heidi Stevens, my favorite Chicago Tribune columnist, said it best: “Stop pretending book bans are about sex… Stop pretending we can solve the most pressing, dire issues of our time – the climate crisis, the opioid overdose epidemic, gun violence, the recent doubling of childhood poverty – the mental health crisis among young people – without including all sorts of voices, stories, perspectives, ideas, experiences, and wisdom in public discourse and policy making” (www.chicagotribune.com).  Please heed her call to action and reach out to your elected officials.

“Let the Children Lead the Way”

Whitney Houston was right when she sang, “I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

At a time when political polarization continues to fracture families and communities, we hear voices of reason among our youth. An opinion piece in The Washington Post this week proves that once again.

Eli Tillemann, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, described a divisive issue in his school that led to further polarization among adults (washingtonpost.com). This top-rated magnet school saw its selective admissions process overhauled by the Fairfax County School Board in an effort to improve diversity. No longer would applicants have to pay a $100 application fee or undergo standardized testing. Sadly, the infighting that followed nearly ended the Parent Teacher Association and a lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court.

Tillemann shows more maturity than most of us when he writes, “Over the past two years, many of my classmates and I have learned a valuable lesson from this factional squabbling: It doesn’t work. When a society separates into warring camps, no one is left to have a meaningful conversation about fixing the underlying issues.” Instead of taking sides, he and many classmates decided to write their own curriculum, to learn to debate constructively and “to build a program that prepares students to navigate our increasingly tribal cognitive ecosystem.” With help from Niels Rosenquist, a psychiatrist and an interdisciplinary researcher at Harvard Medical School, and digital media executive Stuart Schulzke, they created “Dialectic,” a program now being looked at in states like California, Utah, and Massachusetts.

As president of both the Democrats and Republicans at his school, Tillemann has brought them together to host lectures on “the science around communication in the digital age, the neurobiology of tribalism and, perhaps most important, how to disagree.” He writes that more than 70 students attended the kickoff lecture, and that he and his classmates really want to learn how to disagree better, how to avoid the tribalism so apparent in the adults around them.

These students seek to tackle controversial problems, working together to generate better solutions. He writes, “This is not just civility for civility’s sake. The best outcomes in policy, business and life usually emerge from a competition of ideas and a compromise on solutions.”

These young people recognize that their solutions may not be adopted, but they hope to change the acrid environment surrounding the debate about the issue. They recognize that the well-intended changes to the admissions process are still flawed, and they are suggesting options to avoid some of the problems. I am impressed!

But Tillemann is right that we need more work like this around the nation. He says it far more effectively than I could: “Americans must level up the caliber of our discourse by relearning the benefits of practical debate. Constructive, respectful disagreement is vital to a functioning democracy. It is time for both sides to embrace a new strategy for resolving our differences.”

Out of the mouths of babes…

The Power of Perspective

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson in BroadwaySF’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

We just had the privilege of seeing Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in Chicago. Full disclosure: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and I loved teaching it to high school students. I love the Gregory Peck movie, too. But Sorkin’s version made me rethink the book. He forced me to recognize some of its limitations even as he managed to make it feel incredibly current.

I grew up with parents who worked for civil rights, and I have tried to honor their commitments by making my own efforts. The horrific events that propelled “Black Lives Matter” spurred my women’s activist group to build on our reading and discussion of White Fragility with other readings and with actions, like questionnaires for school districts and local candidates. I’ve always believed myself to be an ally even when we didn’t seem to be making much impact. So Atticus had always seemed heroic to me.

Toni Morrison was right in 2015, however, when she argued that TKAM perpetuated a “white savior” narrative, in which whites led the fight for civil rights and blacks were helpless, passive actors. So how do we acknowledge the limitations of a book that fit its time period but now seems outdated?

Enter Aaron Sorkin. He shifted the focus and added tough questions. Sorkin recognized that Atticus never changed in the book, nor did he have the heroic flaw that Aristotle insisted was required for effective drama. In the book, both of his children experience a loss of innocence, and Sorkin created an Atticus with a sense of humor who had his own loss of innocence. Atticus taught his children that everyone must be treated with respect, but both Atticus and the audience have to grapple with question of how we should respond to those who show bigotry and commit heinous deeds, a very timely question. Sorkin challenged the white savior arc of the book and the passivity of its victimized blacks. He gave his characters of color more agency. His Calpurnia, the black housekeeper and surrogate mother to the children of Atticus, challenges his liberal views and commitment to niceness, forcing him to recognize the corrosive evil of racism. Sorkin’s story questions the purity of our justice system. And the play, which begins with the trial and references it periodically throughout, ends with a call to action as Scout shouts, “All rise!” Sorkin challenges liberals like himself to stop sitting back and offering empathy in place of action.

As a teacher, I long for the chance to take this play back to the classroom as part of an extended study of sources. I’d take Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, along with her Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 Academy Award winning movie starring Gregory Peck, the 1990 stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, and Sorkin’s play script. What a remarkable opportunity to see the impact of a novel’s time period on its views and the perception of it, to recognize the impact of great editing to evolve from the first novel to its follow-up second version, and – most of all – to appreciate the way literature allows us to confront our world and its limitations. I remain a voracious reader not only because reading transports me to other worlds and other worldviews, but because literature and the discussion of what we read gives us a fictional venue to explore tough issues in a context once removed from our own daily lives. The evolution of my response to TKAM reminds me of the power of great writing once again.

Partnering with AI

Image courtesy of Dall-E

Educators around the country recognize that AI is ushering in an unavoidable transformation. Those who fear this transformation wring their hands and try to block AI, “ [b]ut the barricade has fallen. Tools like ChatGPT aren’t going anywhere; they’re only going to improve, and barring some major regulatory intervention, this particular form of machine intelligence is now a fixture of our society” (nytimes.com). The “breakneck pace of AI developments suggests that humans could never outrun it,” so we need to learn how to embrace AI and use it wisely. Educational technology researcher Mike Sharples, of the UK’s The Open University, says transformers like GPT-3 are set to disrupt education. Teachers will have to change the way they teach. “As educators, if we are setting students assignments that can be answered by AI, are we really helping students learn?” he asks. (thespinoff.co.nz)

Education faces a critical choice now: we can fight an inevitable shift, or we can learn to use that shift to improve teaching and learning. The first approach is doomed, the second overdue. The pressure of AI should force educators to develop deeper questioning and thinking approaches.

We already know about efforts to defeat AI that won’t work. Last December Markham Heid, a health and science writer, called for handwritten essays to “beat AI.” He claimed, “The dump-and-edit method isn’t necessarily an inferior way to produce quality writing. But in many ways, it is less challenging for the brain — and challenging the brain is central to education itself” (thewashingtonpost.com). While writing by hand has a different neurological impact than keyboarding that may be useful, it also has significant drawbacks: slowing down the process for fast keyboarders who cannot write as fast as they think [a major issue for me], potential legibility issues for the teacher who’s reading the work, and greater challenges to performing significant revision. And handwritten essays would have to be completed during class time, to ensure no use of AI, which would shorten any writing opportunity.

Nor can we avoid “cheating with AI” by turning to technology. Tools to detect the use of AI and prevent cheating “aren’t reliably accurate, and it’s relatively easy to fool them by changing a few words, or using a different A.I. program to paraphrase certain passages” (nytimes.com).

From Kevin Roose, a technology columnist: “Instead of starting an endless game of whack-a-mole against an ever-expanding army of A.I. chatbots, here’s a suggestion: For the rest of the academic year, schools should treat ChatGPT the way they treat calculators — allowing it for some assignments, but not others, and assuming that unless students are being supervised in person with their devices stashed away, they’re probably using one” (Ibid.). This approach fails to address writing outside the classroom adequately, though. Should we just succumb to AI or consider how best to make writing outside the classroom enhanced by AI instead of being replaced by it?

Mike Sharples, a professor in the U.K., used GPT-3 “to urge educators to “rethink teaching and assessment” in light of the technology, so that we might make it a teaching assistant and a tool for creativity instead of a cheating resource (theatlantic.com). Paul Fyfe, English professor and instructor in a “Data and the Human” course, went further, asking students to “cheat” by writing an assignment with AI and then reflecting on “how the experiment tested or changed their ideas about writing, AI or humanness.” He argues that students who refine their awareness of artificial prose may also be better equipped to recognize what Fyfe calls “synthetic disinformation” in the wild. Students in his experiment, for example, discovered plausible-sounding false statements and quotes from nonexistent experts in the essays they produced with the help of AI” (https://www.insidehighered.com/).

Peter Greene, a writer about K-12 policies and practices, posits that “Authentic assignments grow out of classroom discussion and debate. When an English class studies a particularly rich work of literature, the focus and emphasis will grow out of the class itself, leading naturally to ideas for essays about the work. The discussion becomes one of the texts being considered, and it’s a text the software has no access to.” He also suggests using local concerns, current events, and real issues in the school community; such topics are not only challenging for algorithms to fake, but they also tend to be “richer and more rewarding.” Research papers that use primary sources and live interviews are another option. (forbes.com)

If ChatGPT kills certain types of writing, like formulaic five-paragraph essays and typical college admission essays, will that really be a loss? Only if we fail to replace those performative types of writing with deeper, more meaningful kinds of writing. For example, Greene suggests using  ChatGPT as a prompt tester. If teachers feed their prompts to the chatbot and it produces an essay they would consider well-written, then “that prompt should be refined, reworked, or simply scrapped… if you have come up with an assignment that can be satisfactorily completed by computer software, why bother assigning it to a human being?” (forbes.com2)

What other concrete strategies will make AI a helpful partner in education?

  • Create outlines: Cherie Shields, a high school English teacher in Oregon, had students in one of her classes to use ChatGPT to create outlines for their essays comparing and contrasting two 19th-century short stories that touch on themes of gender and mental health. Students evaluated the outlines and then used their revised versions to write their essays longhand. She said this approach “had not only deepened students’ understanding of the stories” but also ”taught them about interacting with A.I. models, and how to coax a helpful response out of one” (nytimes.com).
  • Focus on process as well as product: New Zealand education technology expert Stephen Marshall, from Victoria University of Wellington: “Teaching that looks at a completed product only – an essay for example – is finished” (thespinoff.co.nz)
  • Use AI to learn to edit and verify instead of regurgitating: Ben Thompson, full-time writer for Stratechery, which provides analysis of the strategy and business side of technology and media as well as the impact of technology on society, suggests a radical approach: schools should have a software suite that tracks AI use and challenges students to use that suite to generate their answers to one given prompt: “every answer that is generated is recorded so that teachers can instantly ascertain that students didn’t use a different system.” He predicts that “the system will frequently give the wrong answers (and not just on accident — wrong answers will be often pushed out on purpose); the real skill in the homework assignment will be in verifying the answers the system churns out — learning how to be a verifier and an editor, instead of a regurgitator.” Wouldn’t that help develop critical twenty-first century skills for an AI-dominated world? (stratechery.com)
  • Evaluation and critical thinking: “Several teachers…instructed students to try to trip up ChatGPT, or evaluate its responses the way a teacher would evaluate a student’s”  (nytimes.com). Krista Fancher’s student loaded a social entrepreneurship project from the previous year and “asked chat gpt to find everything wrong with the solution. It did. He used the list of flaws to redesign the project and built a new prototype designed to connect grandparents and their grandchildren.” (ditchthattextbook.com).
  • Problem-solving and synthesis: AI can help students create projects in which themes and elements are connected in non-linear fashion. One teacher annually checked her seniors’ understanding of Paradise Lost by having them put John Milton on trial before local lawyers, asking if he had successfully justified the ways of God to man. (forbes.com)
  • Teacher planning: use AI to
    • write personalized lesson plans for each student
    • generate ideas for classroom activities
    • serve as an after-hours tutor debate sparring partner
    • serve as a tool for English language learners to improve their basic writing skills.
  • AI applied rubrics: Ronak Shah gave his science fair rubric to ChatGPt and had students submit their work for feedback that would have taken him hours. He and his students found the feedback helpful: “it offered tweaks to improve replicability and validity. It complimented innovative and unique ideas. In fact, it summarized all of its feedback with lots of ‘glow and grow’ phrasing” (edweek.org).
  • Challenge students to best ChatGPT: Shah also gave ChatGPT test questions from his science test and then gave the machine- generated answers to students. He challenged them to improve on the machine’s answer, and “Students were offended at the notion that a robot could be smarter than they are and worked collaboratively to find any way to strengthen the otherwise very strong responses” (Ibid.).
  • Ronak Shah recommends these changes:
    • “First, validate the world students actually live in and question rigid attachments to pedagogy that don’t fit the world they’ll inherit. As teachers, it is our responsibility to open ourselves up to the challenges students will have to face. If we focus our time and energy on that, we’ll be able to do it better. It’s OK to let go of the rest.
    • “Second, change the relationship among students, teachers, and technology… Challenge the students to form an alliance with you, to create content and express knowledge better than a generative AI tool like ChatGPT.
    • “Third, we have to change the way we assess students and the role those assessments play in school accountability. Our assessments are mostly designed to test student thinking on items that are easy to ask and measure on a test. But just because they’re easy to measure doesn’t mean we’re measuring the right things.
    • “Let’s move toward a future where teachers and assessments focus on collaborative, real-world performance rather than answers to narrow skill or fact questions. And let’s embrace ChatGPT and other AI software to help us get there” (Ibid.).

In May 2023, United States Office of Educational Technology published Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning, a thorough if somewhat academic explorationwith seven recommendations:

  • Emphasize Humans in the Loop
  • Align AI Models to a Shared Vision for Education
  • Design Using Modern Learning Principles
  • Prioritize Strengthening Trust
  • Inform and Involve Educators
  • Focus R&D on Addressing Context and Enhancing Trust and Safety
  • Develop Education-Specific Guidelines and Guardrails (teched.gov)

This committee jargon is unlikely to drive coordinated and meaningful change. Neither individual school districts nor teachers themselves have the capacity and resources to make such global changes. We need a national approach.

Trailblazing teachers are publishing ways to use AI and sharing their ideas – check out “Ditch that Textbook” for excellent examples (ditchthattextbook.com). That’s a great start, but it’s not enough. The pace of AI advancement may seem terrifying, but fear won’t slow it down. We need a coordinated national response on how to deal with AI’s impacts across the board. In education, we need a coordinated national response to professional learning about AI for educators. AI can destroy or transform education. It’s up to us to fight for a valuable and long overdue transformation that will not only convert AI from an enemy to a partner but will also force us to provide the kind of deeper learning opportunities and adaptation of currently needed skills that we have yet to accomplish. The time is now, if not yesterday!

Five Score!

Somewhat to my surprise, I just realized that this is my hundredth blog entry. I began this blogover six years ago because I was writing my memoir, and every writing workshop and source insisted that published authors had to have a “platform.” I settled for my writing website [www.imwriter.com], an author page on Facebook, and this blog, forgoing other social media like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram for now. I have no idea if my blog has brought me readers, and Tales Told Out of School has been out for over a year, but I still find myself blogging!

I’ve been a writer since grade school, when several of us were pulled from class to join a writing group that went on to publish mimeographed booklets with mustard yellow covers. My contribution of poems with forced rhyming makes me cringe now, but that experience kickstarted a lifetime habit. And my process of writing has changed so much over the years. I wrote my high school papers longhand, my college papers on a Smith Corona manual [one that I even took to Grenada on a family vacation so I could finish my honors thesis!], my lesson plans and handouts on a used IBM electric typewriter. We bought our first computer in 1981, an Apple II+, and spent a fortune on a word processing program that was WYSISYG [“what you see is what you get”]. Its complexity defeated me until Don built me a cheat sheet.

I went on to write dozens of professional articles and graduate school papers on the Apple II+, which we replaced with an Apple IIe a few years later, which became on the second in a long line of computers, laptops, and tablets. Writing at a keyboard allowed me to write almost as fast as I think, a huge leap forward.

When my school district bought Macs for teachers in exchange for our taking classes to learn how to use them, I wrote my first two books, Writing with Appleworks [1992] and Writing with Microsoft Works [1994]. Computers were still new in our school, and each book tackled all kinds of writing, teaching new computer skills at the relevant point in the writing process [i.e., teaching cut-and-paste during the revision process]. I’m proud of those books. Unfortunately, the textbook publishers favored by English Departments weren’t committed to writing with computers yet, so the now defunct Southwestern Publishing, a business-focused textbook publisher, did produce my book but lacked the English Department connections to get it sold. When they finally gave up and planned to destroy the warehoused copies, I begged them to give those books to needy schools and offered to forego my pittance of a royalty to save them, but I lost that battle.

But I kept writing articles and eventually got paid for professional development materials by the state of Illinois and then by TeacherMatch. Throughout my final years of teaching and the early years of my retirement, though, I longed to turn the teaching stories I used to tell at parties into a book. Hence my start in 2016, followed by the evolution of this blog. Tales Told Out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher launched fifteen months ago and is now also available on Kindle. That left me casting about for something to write.

My frustration over recent developments in education [censorship, micromanagement, book banning, etc.] led me to my first serious endeavor with fiction. My main character emerged of her own volition, keeping me awake at night as she told me her story. For the first time in all my decades, I didn’t need to turn to my personal experience to write. I’ve read that other authors have had a similar experience, but the compelling “aliveness” of a character is new to me. I find myself knowing another inciting event or bit of dialogue when I didn’t even know I was thinking about her. I’ve been taking classes and webinars on story structure and bringing characters to life, and now I am consumed by this story!

So someday – hopefully it won’t take another seven years – I’ll introduce you to Claire Peters and her experiences as a Texas transplant and teacher. However long it takes, I love getting to know her and researching the issues she has to face. I hope her story wont’ take another 100 blogs before it’s complete!