Strategies to Support Learning

I know I must sound like a broken record when I keep returning to social and emotional learning as a pandemic priority… but I found more support in an Education Week piece by Stephanie Jones, “4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now” [EdWeek]. The Gerald S. Lesser Professor in early-childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, she affirms the imperative that teachers and parents work to “help children feel stable, safe, and ready to learn.” Jones offers four specific strategies:

  • “Ask questions and listen actively.”

Jones describes the disappointments and traumas of the last two years and the intense pressure that children [and parents] feel about catching up academically. She urges adults to check in with children and have conversations about how they’re feeling.

  • “Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.”

I have always seen value in this approach, but it becomes even more important in times that feel unstable. Jones urges teachers to establish concrete and predictable procedures, and to give students more time when they need it. She encourages families to develop predictable rituals and routines at home, and to invite conversations with prompts like “What was the hardest and easiest for you today?” or “What are you grateful for today?” Students need to be seen and heard, especially when they are under stress, and adults need to provide those opportunities.

  • “Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.”

Helping students thrive in the current climate requires more support for emotional development and stability. Jones urges “respectful, open, and accepting learning environments.” She offers several strategies, including journaling, daily greetings, and open discussion about how students are feeling. Neuroscientists tell us that students’ readiness to learn is highly correlated with their emotional well-being. “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior” [Frontiers in Psychology]. Investing time and energy in the emotional well-being of students ultimately pays off in their learning.

  • “Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.”

Jones asserts that the responsibility to support students and their learning should not depend only on teachers. “Parents and other guardians can play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort” [Op.Cit.]. She suggests that parents share their own feelings and sense of vulnerability, then listen actively and affirm what their children say.

I loved Jones’ closing statements: “…it is only when students feel safe, listened to, and supported by adults in their life that they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do” [Op.Cit.]. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

The Harmful Impact of Social Media

The refrain repeats relentlessly: our students are struggling. The pandemic has robbed them of normalcy. Parents, teachers, and taxpayers fret over lost reading and math skill development, but experts keep telling us that our students social and emotional health must come first. “Eight in ten students are struggling with focus on school or work and avoiding distractions” [https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey]. “Three in 10 parents say child’s emotional, mental health suffering now” [Gallup poll]. “More than half of California students who responded to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said they experienced serious stress, anxiety or depression at least some time during the past year. An increasing number said they had suicidal thoughts” [Edsource]. Ample documentation of these concerns is widely available, and I have written before about the importance of attending to students’ mental and emotional health first if we are to close the academic gaps they’ve endured.

This week brought more bad news. Facebook has known for at least two years that its Instagram app “makes body image issues worse for teenage girls”; a slide from an internal presentation in 2019, as confirmed by the Wall Street Journal” acknowledges the issue for one in three girls [The Guardian]. A subsequent study one year later confirmed these numbers [Ibid.].

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said a slide from one internal presentation in 2019, seen by the Wall Street Journal. “Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a subsequent presentation reported in March 2020. A “transatlantic study found more than 40% of Instagram users who reported feeling ‘unattractive’ said the feeling began on the app; about a quarter of the teenagers who reported feeling ‘not good enough’ said it started on Instagram” [Ibid.]. Other studies “ implicate social media in an epidemic of mental health problems among young people” [Ibid.]

The Washington Post calls out Facebook not only for hiding these research results and failing to address them with changing algorithyms and standards; it also claims that “In some cases, its executives even made public statements at odds with the findings.” [Washington Post].

Social media fails to police itself. Too often it hides behind claims its own research does not support. At a time when our students are already struggling with so many present issues – the continuing pandemic, climate change and drastic weather, social injustice, community assaults on their schools and school boards – social media adds one more layer damaging to the emotional and mental health of our students.

What will we do about it? Will the federal government seek meaningful changes that protect our children? Will parents guide children through their struggle? We need to acknowledge the harm being done and work to change the experience of our students.

Attacks on School Boards

Several dozen crowd the lobby of the Vail Education Center and begin “electing” their own board of governors after the Vail School District governing board meeting was shut down before it could begin, Tucson, Ariz., April 27, 2021.Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

School Boards are under assault. Opponents argue against the teaching of critical race theory; they rally against mask and vaccine mandates even as Delta causes another surge and children remain hospitalized with Covid in record numbers.

In many states, including my own state of Illinois, school board members remain unpaid volunteers who generously give their time and expertise. But the polarization of our country and this ongoing lack of civility now plague their meetings.

A friend who is a school board member in a nearby town says, “This is a really tough time for everybody. There’s a lot of fear and anger and misinformation, so governing is really hard. I’m trying to be a good listener, and I’ve reached out to people I don’t agree with so we can have a dialogue. The compassion between people is completely gone. We’ve put everybody into boxes and we assume a lot.”

This summer Pam Lindbergh, a school board member for six years in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, resigned her position, saying, “I will not continue to accept that hateful and disrespectful behavior with my service to the community … The hate is too much. I no longer feel respected nor effective.” [Sun Sailor] Suspending the public comment portion of school board meetings, the Carmel Clay, Indiana, schools “sent an Aug. 18 email to parents that stated the new measures are in response to disruptions, verbal attacks, intimidation, inappropriate behavior and the presence of a firearm by an attendee at recent school board meetings” [youarecurrent.com].

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is concerned enough to have developed a specific policy: “The individual dignity of board members, district employees, students, and members of the public must be respected by all speakers. Board members, employees, students, nor members of the public will be subjected to verbal abuse” [tulsaschoolboards.org]. Places as diverse as Vail, Colorado; Hartford County, Maryland; and the Louisiana State School Board have had to suspend meetings because of protesters’ behavior.

The New York Times takes a national perspective in “The School Culture Wars.” “In Williamson County, Tennessee, protesters outside a packed, hours-long school board meeting last week shouted, ‘No more masks, no more masks.’” The decision of the Loudon County, Virginia, school board to allow transgender students to join sports that match their gender identity and to have chosen pronouns honored “brought raucous crowds to school board meetings this summer, culminating last week with dueling parking lot rallies.” A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, parent yelled at the school board about critical race theory so viciously that the school board president took the parent’s microphone away and had her escorted from the lectern [nytimes.com].

“‘The water pressure is higher than it has ever been and there are more leaks than I have fingers,’ said Kevin Boyles, a school board official in Brainerd, Minn., who said he recently received 80 emails in three days about face masks. He described being followed to his car and called ‘evil’ after a board meeting where he supported a commitment to equity. Another time, a man speaking to the board about race quoted the Bible and said he would ‘dump hot coals on all your heads’” [Ibid.].

The article reminds us that schools, already hampered by the pandemic’s forcing closures and virtual learning, are trying to reopen just as the Delta surge becomes a serious threat. School officials should be focused on keeping students safe, improving their mental health, and making up academic gaps. “But at this critical moment, many school officials find themselves engulfed in highly partisan battles, which often have distracted from the most urgent issues. The tense environment comes amid a growing movement to recall school board officials, over everything from teachings on race to school closures. Nationwide, there have been at least 58 recall efforts targeting more than 140 officials this year, more than the previous two years combined, according to Ballotpedia” [Ibid.].

The Times article offers some perspective, reminding readers about the 1920s pushback over the teaching of evolution and the 1950s fights over school desegregation. “’Schools are particularly fraught spaces because they represent a potential challenge to the family and the authority of parents,’ said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York City [Ibid.].

This time feels different, though, as politicians and political groups stoke these divides. “The two biggest divides in schools today are also highly volatile because they challenge fundamental narratives of what it means to be an American. The debate over mask mandates puts two values into conflict, collective responsibility versus personal liberty. And an examination of the country’s history of racism challenges cherished ideas about America’s founding” [Ibid.]. Any internet search turns up these conflicts around the country.

This situation is not sustainable. School officials and educators are distracted from urgent decisions and actions. They are resigning after being attacked personally. Who will run our schools if this trend continues?

At Last!

Photo by Wojciech Celiński

Finally! It’s done.

Six years of writing, getting my manuscript workshopped by my first-rate writing group, and revising and editing until I no longer see what’s on the page clearly any more… Always a passionate storyteller, I used to share my favorite stories of teaching at dinner parties and family gatherings. Now they’re organized into a teaching memoir being published by Politics & Prose.

This book has incubated in my head for so long that I can’t quite wrap my head around its publication later this fall. I’m working with my point person on the cover, seeing a long-time vision finally coming to fruition.

It has been 26 years since I published my second textbook about writing. I wrote my first text on a Mac Classic in the early 90’s. I had to send the floppy disks to my editor by snail mail then, and, in the days before background printing, I had to stop writing whenever I printed new documents. The current ease of communication and revision has been a godsend. I’ve loved revisiting the experiences that stood out for me, even those that made me squirm.

And I find myself thinking about my Advanced Placement literature students and their struggle to complete their I-Search papers. Less than six months instead of more than six years, yet the same kind of mountain to climb. They got to pick an author and book that touched them personally. Their papers had three sections:

  • The story of their search: what they knew when they began, what they wanted to know, and the research process they used to learn, including dead ends
  • What they learned and how they related to their book
  • Their reflections on the process and its impact on them.

More personal than the traditional research paper and certainly more time-consuming and intimidating, the I-Search absorbed my students for more than a semester. As they completed their work, many of them grew euphoric. I usually enjoyed reading about their journeys, and I appreciated their commitment to stick with the work until they were done. They climbed their own mountains with their efforts.

Here I am, in the final stretch, with the hardest work done. I seek the euphoria they enjoyed… Like their papers, this book is very personal to me. I’m certainly enjoying focusing on details like cover design. I certainly appreciate the lack of constant deadlines, albeit self-imposed, that I’ve faced for so long. But I’m still stumbling about in disbelief. I can’t remember not being consumed with this manuscript.

Some time this fall, though, I will be holding my book in my hand at last! I can’t wait.

The Role of Civics Education in our Democratic Republic

Earlier this month in her Letters from an American newsletter, History Professor Heather Cox Richardson discussed the letter from 37 Republicans to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, accusing him of trying to advance a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history. She called this “a full embrace of the latest Republican attempt to turn teaching history into a culture war.”

The back story: Last April the Department of Education sought public comments on proposed grants with two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs: to promote “information literacy skills” that will help students “meaningfully participate in our democracy and distinguish fact from misinformation” and to “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning” (Educating for American Democracy). Republicans objected to the latter. It’s worth noting that just 24 percent of U.S. students were proficient in civics in 2018, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Nations Report Card).

The Department report, Educating for American Democracy, does not attempt to create a national curriculum. Instead, it offers seven themes and six pedagogical principles. It argues that Civics education has been neglected in this country, in part because of “dysfunctional controversy about its content.” It asserts that, “Despite our country’s polarization, we need a shared focus on achieving excellence in civic and history education for all learners. We propose an answer to questions about what is most important to teach in American history and civics, how to teach it, and above all, why. Our framework is flexible and provides significant room for differences of emphasis and diverse experiments with implementation. We celebrate that anticipated diversity of approach. Yet all are called to participate in a shared endeavor to achieve excellence in history and civic education and in so doing, to secure our civic strength.”

In a May 15 Atlantic article entitled “Can Civics Save America?”, George Packer describes the origin of the report: “in 2019, a group of scholars and educators began an ambitious effort to lay out a vision for how American children in the 21st century should learn about their multi-everything, relentlessly divided democracy. The project was started by Danielle Allen, the Harvard classicist, and Louise Dubé, who leads a Massachusetts education outfit called iCivics. They brought in, among others, Carrese of Arizona State, ‘to lend more of a conservative perspective,’ Dubé told me. ‘It’s been a very deliberate effort to negotiate across a very wide diversity of political views.’”

This offers an antithesis to former President Trump’s hand-picked commission inside the Department of Education charged with promoting “patriotic education” in the nation’s schools, national parks, and museum, on November 2, 2020, just before the election.

That commission released The 1776 Report, written not by historians but by right-wing activists and politicians, just two days before Trump left office, claiming that no other nation had worked harder or done more to bring to life “the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice, and government by consent.” I cannot reconcile that claim with the revelations of last year and the social unrest over racial and social injustice. President Biden has dissolved the commission that wrote the report and taken it off the website, but the fight continues.

Like Richardson, Packer details an assault from the right. “’The pro-Trump outlet American Greatness called the report ‘a Trojan horse for woke education.’ National Review, the Federalist Society, and the Heritage Foundation all warned of a conspiracy to impose a national left-wing agenda on American schoolchildren. In a barrage of polemics by the writer Stanley Kurtz, National Review zeroed in on the term action civics, described in the report as ‘learning by direct engagement with a democratic system and institutions, and reflection on impact’—in short, activism.’

Richardson warns us that Republican legislators in five states filed nearly identical legislation to cut funding for any school or college that uses the school curriculum based on the 1619 Project produced by the Pulitzer Center, which aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’. Republican governors continue to push for “patriotic education.” Many oppose both the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, a movement “started by legal scholars as a way to examine how laws and systems uphold and perpetuate inequality for traditionally marginalized groups” (Time).

Clearly the teaching of Civics in American public schools is at a crossroads. Those who would continue to deny the systemic racism and inequality in our country oppose any teaching that acknowledges those realities. Within 25 years, however, the United States will no longer have a white majority (Brookings), increasing even more the need for a critical and balanced view. The politicization of civics hurts all of us. “This is straight down the middle, classic civic education,” said Shawn Healy, senior director for policy and advocacy at iCivics, a group that provides educational material on civics and advocates for civics education. “This is something that should bring us together, not tear us apart” (Washington Post). We need to support this effort. We cannot afford to succumb to a Republican whitewash if our republic is to thrive.

Change Is Overdue

Tonight I spoke once again at a Geneva School Board Meeting, imploring the Board to address the current racist bullying at the Geneva Middle School with meaningful policies and staff development. It brought back the bullying our younger son endured in the 1980s. It brought back the tragic 2010 suicide of a Geneva student bullied for his sexual orientation and gender identity. I spoke to the Board then, too. Their response: one evening speaker for the community and one session of training for a handful of educators.

Change does not happen with one-off efforts. It requires a sustained, ongoing commitment to training and a clear vision of values. Staff need to practice effective interventions before they’re needed. Research shows that students must feel safe to learn. The primary job of the school Board is to ensure that all students have the best learning opportunity possible. That means that they need to make sure all students are safe to learn.

Students need to learn that bullying and racism are not acceptable, and that there are clear and established consequences for those who persist anyway. Students, too, need to learn how to speak up. Role-playing with trainers can make a huge difference.

Yet here we are again. The mother of one of a Geneva student has told the Board how he has been bullied and subjected to racial epithets. Our Superintendent claims that the Board does not tolerate such behavior, but his words are empty without meaningful actions to accompany them. Surely the last year has laid bare the systemic racism that supports this bullying, yet it appears that little has been done. Once again, I find myself imploring the Geneva School Board to honor their commitment to all of their students by providing meaningful training about implicit bias and about how to intervene effectively. I am asking what their process and protocols are to address bullying and how they might improve them. Every school district needs to take a clear stand against bullying and against racism. Every district needs a clear policy that is enforceable and enforced, that provides safety for students and consequences for bullies who won’t reform their ways. And every educator needs to learn how to pay attention to the signs of bullying and how to intervene effectively, instead of ignoring the issue or making things worse.

Geneva schools served my older son – and no doubt most of their students – well. After more than thirty-five years, though, we don’t see much progress for students who are bullied. That progress is long overdue. The School Board needs to take meaningful and effective action now. We all will be watching.

Learning from Dr. Seuss

I have been following the controversy over the removal of some books from the catalog of Dr. Seuss by his estate. Some tried to make this a political issue, blaming one party for “cancel culture” efforts. But the decision was made by the caretakers of Seuss’s legacy who determined that his outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, and gender differences did not serve readers. Their choice is part of a larger movement to avoid harmful stereotypes and caricatures. “’These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,’ Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in the statement. The business said the decision came after working with a panel of experts, including educators, and reviewing its catalog of titles” [NYTimes].

This is not a new issue, and Dr. Seuss’s work is not alone in facing criticism.  “Children’s publishers and literary estates are trying to walk a delicate line by preserving an author’s legacy, while recognizing and rejecting aspects of a writer’s work that are out of step with current social and cultural values” [NYTimes]. Roald Dahl was criticized for racist and anti-Semitic portrayals. Richard Scarry’s illustrated books often promoted archaic gender roles and racial stereotypes [Ibid.], and many have since been revised. The Tintin and Babar serieshave been removed from many children’s sections in libraries for their colonialist and imperialist viewpoints. Such re-evaluations may become more common as we grow our own understanding of their potential negative impact of these portrayals and of the need for readers to see themselves reflected positively in what they read.

For me this controversy raises two key issues for Language Arts teachers in public schools. The first is whether we should ban books containing offensive material or choose to teach them in context, helping readers recognize their bias and its potential impact. While I think the latter approach is valuable for older high school students, its success depends on the ability and sensitivity of teachers to manage that, a tough call. When I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my students and I spent time exploring the accusations of racism against Mark Twain, the use of the N-word and how to navigate that in reading aloud and in writing, and the relative depiction of white and black characters in the novel. I’d like to think I did a good job of facilitating that exploration, but I occasionally had one or two students of color in my class, and I feared they were made uncomfortable. For younger students, however, I am convinced that the potential negative impact of unhelpful portrayals makes them unacceptable. For younger readers I would limit those books that promote stereotypes.

For me a second question comes up about the literary canon, the literature widely considered to be the best and most worth teaching and handing down from generation to generation. What books should be included? I confess I taught mostly dead white male authors far too much of the time. That’s what our textbooks contained, and the curriculum focused on these “classics.” I supplemented where I could, when I could, but it wasn’t until later in my career that I was able to include more female authors, more authors of color, and more contemporary authors.

Dead white male authors dominate the literary canon, even today. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why not keep some of their works that offer an opportunity to explore the big questions: What does it mean to be a human being? To live a good life? What are our obligations to each other? And so on … But then why not give some of those books up and instead add works by women and BIPOC authors? Their perspectives can widen and enrich our world views and address those questions as well, and more of our readers may then see themselves in the works they read. That approach is long overdue.

First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Our grandson, who runs a creative learning pod for a group of Chicago sixth-graders with his sister, encouraged me to read Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. A well-respected educational historian and former assistant secretary of education, she once led the drive to create a national curriculum. For the last ten years, she has repudiated her earlier support of punitive accountability through programs like No Child Left Behind and of charter schools.

In this book Ravitch argues that the business model does not support meaningful school reform, that privatization and charter schools do more harm than good. She reminds us that “The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers” [Wall Street Journal 2010] and warns us that the charter school and testing reform movement was started by billionaires and “right wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation,” for the purpose of destroying public education and teachers’ unions” [newyorkbooks.com 2010]. Using specific examples from major cities to show the perilous state of education, she argues for major policy shifts. She points out that we lag behind other nations in both prenatal care and quality preschool educational opportunities even as we face serious inequities and child poverty. Social policies to address those issues should support educational reform.

Ravitch would shift charter schools to educate the learners most in need of help, rather than make them an escape from public schools for other students. She would encourage family involvement from an early age. She would treat educators with respect, paying a fair wage for work and acknowledging that we lack the tools for merit pay to be reasonable. Most of all, she would leave educational decisions to educators, not politicians or businessmen.

Three years later, Ravitch published Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and Its Danger to America’s Public Schools, arguing against privatization and for public education. Her chapters describe the steps toward better education for all students as she advocates for more rigorous preschools, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and comprehensive social services. She would professionalize teaching and turn more of the decision-making over to teachers.

Ravitch’s vision gives me hope. I have long believed that American education was on the wrong track, that charters and vouchers hurt the students left behind, that micromanagement by non-educators hamstrung good teaching, that teachers long to be effective and need to be given the time, tools, and support to do their best work.

Does any of this matter right now? During remote and hybrid learning, aren’t students, teachers, and parents just struggling to stay afloat? No doubt that’s true, but when the stranglehold of the Covid-19 pandemic releases its grip, as it ultimately will do, education will be ripe for reform. We’d do well to follow Ravitch’s lead and revise our policies and approaches accordingly.