In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 4)

Social Justice Humanitas Academy is located in the city of San Fernando within the Los Angeles Unified School District. According to the website,

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile.

Since SJHA opened in 2011 its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Since March I have published on this blog a series of classroom observations about a school that seeks social justice, advocates student activism, and self-actualization (see here, here, and here). In this post and the next I describe two additional lessons I observed.

Shaved pate, wearing a white shirt, blue tie and grey slacks, English teacher Robert Martinez immediately turns to the white board as the period begins—right after lunch, mind you–and directs the 24 ninth graders’ attention to what he has written on it: “Community Cultural Wealth: A Review.”

The students, sitting 2-4 at a table facing one another, look at the whiteboard as Martinez launches a whole group discussion through a series of slides on Community Cultural Wealth. From time to time, he calls on students to read a slide by addressing the student as Ms. Rodriguez or Mr. Montero.

Earlier classes have dealt with fixed and growth mindsets, grit, and three forms of capital: “Aspirational Capital, Familial Capital and Navigational Capital.” Martinez says, “I use these Capitals to resist and overcome oppression.” Then he asks the class what is “oppression.” A few students offer answers. He then defines the word and refers to the book they are currently reading, Always Running (full title is La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA by Luis Rodriguez).

Whole group discussion continues as teacher moves through slides and students read about Aspirational Capital (hopes and dreams) and Navigational Capital (the different communities beyond family that each student interacts with). On the slide for Aspirational Capital, Martinez points out the upcoming trip to California colleges as a experience they will have that looks to the dreams they have for themselves—many are the first in their family to consider college.

Martinez intersperses reading of slides and occasional questions from students with comments such as: “Ultimately this (different forms of capital) is for you to see yourself, what mindset you have. Make the jump and get out of your comfort zone,” he says. To one student who reads a slide correctly, the teacher compliments her: “College level, girl.”

As I look around the room, I see that about half of the class has notebooks out and are taking notes.

Phone on desk rings and teacher answers. Hangs up and directs a student to go to office. Teacher returns to definitions of different forms of Capital. On Familial Capital, Martinez states: “You know the people who hold you back. You may be in a toxic relationship and have to ask yourself, ‘Do these people have my back?’ “

Some students yell out questions and statements after teacher makes comments about a slide. When he asks for students to calm down, class responds immediately and gets quiet.

After completing the slides on different forms of Capital, Martinez shifts to next part of lesson when he will divide class into groups of 4-6 students to read Chapters 7 and 8 of Always Running. He chooses which students will be in one group and directs them to read Chapter 7 and does the same the other groups asking them to read Chapter 8.

He directs both groups to fill out worksheet on each form of Capital. He passes out the worksheets and asks students to jot down what transpired in each chapter and link examples to different kinds of Capital. Then he says he will reassemble both groups so that each group will present information on their chapter to the other group. Each specific example drawn from the chapter and written on worksheet will get one point, he says. He then announces: “Read for 20 minutes and complete chapter.”

Groups turn to task of reading and completing worksheets. I scan classroom and see that individual students in each group are reading. Martinez walks around monitoring students reading. At this point, I exit the classroom to see another teacher.

 

 

 

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The Problem with Too Much Screen Time And Too Little Privacy Is Parents (Anya Kamenetz)

Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education reporter and the author of “The Art of Screen Time.”

This appeared as op-ed in the New York Times, June 5, 2019

Parents this year were introduced to a goblin for the digital era: Momo, a bird-woman with an eerie grin who commanded the children who watched her videos on YouTube to harm themselves. The story turned out to be essentially a hoax, but it went viral in the first place because it seemed to validate a widely held belief: Our kids are in danger because of threats associated with the dark corners of social media and risk of addiction to phones and tablets.

The annual American Family Survey found last fall that “overuse of technology” had risen to the top of the list of concerns for parents of teenagers, above drugs, sexual activity and mental health. Viral headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and books like “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids” are resonating with parents. One of the authors of the original American Academy of Pediatrics “no screens before age 2” rule (it has since been softened) has written a book with the fearsome title “The Death of Childhood.” Screens are his main culprit.

The truth isn’t so simple. Smartphones and social media may be, in fact, transforming the experience of childhood and adolescence in some ways. But the hard (for many adults to hear) truth is that many of technology’s effects on kids have less to do with screen time per se than they do with the decisions grown-ups are making — many of which place children’s privacy at great risk.

First, there’s surveillance. Children are now under intense scrutiny from a young age, from platforms and advertisers, but also parents and other authority figures.

Many public schools use online gradebooks, and sometimes app-based communication systems like Class Dojo. Depending on their settings, these systems allow parents to instantly see the score on every quiz, and a record of every time their child is disciplined or praised. Family dynamics vary; these updates may be the catalyst to an important conversation, an invitation to hover or get overly involved in a child’s progress, or a prelude to harsh punishment.

Even more worrisome is the widespread use of software from large tech platforms like Google in the classroom. Some privacy advocates have expressed concern about how the data collected on students who are required to use these apps and email services to complete assignments might be used.

As I reported for NPR in 2016, GoGuardian, a form of school-based security software, monitors kids’ online searches on school-issued computers. Middle-school students who searched topics related to suicide, even at home, have been referred to mental health services by school webmasters. Benjamin Herold detailed in Education Week how private companies are monitoring student assignments, emails and even social media posts. Students have become accustomed to the surveillance. One wrote his concerns about a classmate acting strangely in a Google doc, and added profanity to make sure it was flagged by the automated system.

Meanwhile, just a few years since it became possible, checking in on your children as they surf the web and stroll to school is in many circles seen as the basic obligation of a responsible parent. The average age at which a child gets her own smartphone has dropped to 10.3 years. In other words, just as kids start to expand their physical boundaries and spend m ore time with peers, it’s suddenly become standard practice to equip them with a tracking device. The message could not be more mixed: You can spread your wings, sure, but we’ll be banding your ankle, using products like Circle at home and Find My iPhone when you’re out and about.

Then there’s “sharenting.Today, many children’s social media presence starts with a sonogram, posted, obviously, without consent. One study from Britain found that nearly 1,500 images of the average child had been placed online by their fifth birthday. Parents get a lot of gratification from telling kids’ stories online. Advertisers, and platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, get a lot out of it, too. Baby pics drive clicks. “Millennial moms are the holy grail,” one marketer told me.

It’s less clear what our children have to gain from their lives being broadcast in this way. Stacey Steinberg, a scholar at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, wrote in The Emory Law Review that parents’ rights to free speech and self-expression are at odds with children’s rights to privacy when they are young and vulnerable. “A conflict of interests exists as children might one day resent the disclosures made years earlier by their parents,” she noted.

This is especially true when the information is potentially damaging. Imagine a child who has behavior problems, learning disabilities or chronic illness. Mom or Dad understandably want to discuss these struggles and reach out for support. But those posts live on the internet, with potential to be discovered by college admissions officers and future employers, friends and romantic prospects. A child’s life story is written for him before he has a chance to tell it himself.

Even if you confine your posts about your children to sunny days and birthday parties, any information you provide about them — names, dates of birth, geographic location — could be acquired by data brokers, companies that collect personal information and sell it to advertisers.

Finally, there’s display and commodification. In 2018, the top earner on YouTube, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy who brought in $22 million by playing with toys. It’s never seemed more accessible to become famous at a wee age, and the type of children who used to sing into a hairbrush in the mirror are often clamoring to start their own channels today.

What’s the harm? In most cases, none. Maybe even some benefits. But there are horror stories, too. YouTube’s algorithms make it easy to discover ever-more-extreme content, and videos starring children are no exception. Some channels have been taken down from the platform, and parents have even lost custody of their children for harassing and humiliating their own children in videos that earned millions of views. Or, you could post a completely innocuous video of your daughter doing cartwheels and a pedophile could comment with a time code of a particular split-second view as a signal to his fellows.

The most egregious abuses are just the tip of the iceberg, though. For every moneymaking influencer, there are millions of less-successful stage parents and wannabes scratching for followers on YouTube and Instagram. They’re out there shoving cameras in children’s faces, using up their free time, killing spontaneity, warping the everyday rituals of childhood into long working shoots.

Forget Momo. When it comes to childhood and technology, we adults are the horror show.

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Respect for Teaching: One Teacher’s Story

To be a teacher is honored in name, with awards, and fond memories of former students. Sometimes, however, those honors and memories are betrayed, albeit inadvertently, by bureaucratic rules that reveal disrespect for teaching. 

I describe here an incident that occurred to me nearly 50 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools. I was a teacher who became an administrator and then chose to return to the classroom, Sure, five decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the attitudes embedded in organizational procedures that I experienced are contemporary or merely a historical curiosity.

I wrote the following piece for a Washington, D.C. alternative newspaper in 1971.

 

I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the Washington,  D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–-when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of prior teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With well over a decade of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C.

After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….

*******************

Civic and business leaders and politicians often praise teachers. Awards for excellence in teaching abound. Yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too often hides in organizational rules.

_________________________________

*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia.

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Whatever Happened to the Core Knowledge Program?

No, I do not refer to the Common Core standards.

I mean the Core Knowledge program that unfolded in U.S. schools in the decade following the 1987 publication of University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

The book, the creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation and subsequent publication of curricular sequences across academic subjects taught in elementary schools produced a reform that again brought to the surface the historical struggle over what kind of knowledge and skills are worth teaching and learning in tax-supported public schools.

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Hot embers of previous traditional vs. progressive wars in the early 20th century and then in the 1950s over the importance of phonics vs. whole language in reading, exposure to disciplinary knowledge rather than students creating their own meaning  re-ignited in the last decade of the century after Hirsch’s book and the spread of Core Knowledge programs in schools.

 

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What Problems Did the Core Knowledge Program Intend To Solve?

According to Hirsch and advocates for Core Knowledge, the current concentration on building skills–“student will be able to do…”–has handicapped children and youth by ignoring the importance of teaching systematically sequential knowledge as a way of developing reading comprehension, problem-solving, inquiry, and most important understanding the world. Core Knowledge tries to solve this endemic problem in U.S. schooling. As one description put it:

The Core Knowledge Sequence identifies that knowledge base in the core subjects. For example, the American history portion of the Core Knowledge Sequence includes specific events and aspects of history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Underground Railroad; it does not include an objective such as “identify a sequence of events in history.” The Core Knowledge Sequence does indicate study of significant people, stories, and issues, including William Penn and the Quakers, Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote, Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball, Cesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers, Dorthea Dix and the treatment of the insane, Sojourner Truth and women’s rights, and Chief Joseph and the ordeal of the Nez Perce Indians. The American history sequence does not include an objective such as “explain how various cultural groups have participated in the development of the United States.” As the students learn about specific people and events, teachers can guide them to deeper understanding and teach them to apply problem-solving and other analytical skills to what they have learned.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues that educational Progressives such as Dewey wanted children to construct their knowledge, learn by doing and come to understand the world. Such Progressive ideas have ruined American schools, according to Hirsch, by ignoring the importance of children having intellectual capital, that is, a broad and deep base of knowledge to understand core ideas and the present moment.

Diane Ravitch, a member of the Core Knowledge Foundation board, reviewed  another of Hirsch’s books in 2006 and located his place in the historic struggle between Progressives and traditionalists:

In his assault on the precepts of progressive education, Hirsch enters a battle that has been waged for over a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost every high-school student studied Latin. Teachers and parents believed that the study of Latin taught certain skills that could be transferred to any other pursuit or activity, such as precision, judgment, logical thinking, clarity, and so on. It was, in the words of its defenders, a valuable form of mental gymnastics, intended to improve one’s faculties. The same argument was made for algebra and other areas of advanced mathematics. The first generation of education psychologists (such as Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College) took aim at this belief and sought to demonstrate through their studies that “transfer of training” was a myth, and that there was no reason at all to study Latin or any subject that was not immediately useful.

Progressive educators were heartened by Thorndike’s work and concluded that “you study what you study, and you learn what you learn.” In other words, what was the point of learning Latin or algebra or even history since they had no demonstrable utility? ….

In this century-old debate, the great error of traditionalist educators was their failure to defend cultural values in education, that is, the importance of knowledge. By making the case for Latin or history dependent on “transfer of training,” they lost the debate. The culturally important studies such as literature, history, and foreign language never should have been defended for their value in “training the mind,” but for their importance in shaping an educated, civilized human being.

Hirsch now makes that case, and it is a very important contribution to American education. He shows that research is now firmly on the side of those who advocate knowledge as the goal of learning….

What Does a Core Knowledge Program Look Like in Practice?

In elementary schools, Core Knowledge is used for part of the day. Scheduled times are allocated to lessons in language arts, science, social studies, and math. For the rest of the school day familiar activities including art, drama, and physical education occur.

Deanna Zarichansky, Assistant Principal at Trousdale County Elementary School in Hartsville, TN, describes   the program.

Our district adopted Core Knowledge [Language Arts] at the beginning of this school year [2017]. This has been the single most powerful curriculum implementation I have seen in my 16 years of education. We are a small district with a high rate of poverty, with many students who enter school with little to no experiences with literacy. Our school is charged with the difficult task of educating students who come to us with little vocabulary and limited knowledge of the world around them.

At first glance, many teachers were rather skeptical that their students could be successful with themes such as The War of 1812 and Astronomy. These same teachers soon became strong supporters of the program. The students began to use vocabulary and content knowledge they were being exposed to by Core Knowledge in conversations and in writing. Walking down the hallways of our school, you can hear chatter about the Earth’s atmosphere, Rosa Parks, Machu Picchu, and paleontologists. Many second grade students wanted to dress as gods and goddesses for Halloween. They collect rocks on the playground and discuss how they were formed. Parents often tell stories of their children combing through the cabinets and discussing what is healthy and what they shouldn’t be eating, catching their children peeking out of the window looking for the North Star, and rousing dinner conversations about the Civil War. Our librarian shared that students are choosing to check out more nonfiction than ever before.

The walls of our school used to be decorated with holiday items and have now been replaced with diagrams of constellations and descriptive paragraphs about Human Body Systems. This curriculum has changed the culture of our school. It has allowed equalization for students who are now exposed to deep knowledge building about the world around them.

Bridgit McCarthy, a third grade teacher at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina, describes her unit on Rome.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.

JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content….

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.

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I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

Do Core Knowledge Programs Work?

As for many school reforms over the past century, answering the “effectiveness” question–does it work?–is no easy task. The first major issue is answering the question of whether Core Knowledge was fully implemented in classrooms. If not completely implemented, then judging outcomes become suspect. Many of the early studies of Core Knowledge in schools were mixed, some showing higher test scores and some showing no positive effects (see here, here, here, and here). The Core Knowledge Foundation has a list of studies that they assert show positive outcomes. What is so often missing from research on reforms such as Core Knowledge are descriptions of the contextual conditions in which the reform is located and researchers saying clearly: under what conditions does this program prove effective? That is too often missing including the research on Core Knowledge schools.

What Has Happened to Core Knowledge Programs in Schools?

There is now a network of 770 schools using the Core Knowledge Program (there are about 90,000 public elementary schools in the U.S.).

When the Common Core standards initially were published in 2010, Hirsch criticized the standards as having insufficient content. After reviewing the next set of standards and grade-by-grade sequence, Hirsch decided that there was sufficient content and the Core Knowledge Foundation aligned its sequence to the Common Core Standards.

Hirsch commented on this alignment of the program to Common Core Standards:

“This could be bigger than any other reform I can think of. We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. It’s been based on a how-to theory, and not enough attention has been paid to the build-up of knowledge. This is a moment when we really could change the direction.”

 

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Why Teachers Need Their Freedom (Ashley Lamb-Sinclair)

This article appeared in The Atlantic September 10, 2017.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair “is a high-school instructional coach. She is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the founder and CEO of Curio Learning.”

 

My co-teacher and I met in the parking lot before school and stared into my car trunk at the costumes and props we had gathered over the weekend. We were giddy with excitement and nervous because neither of us had tried anything like this before. We also taught in the kind of school where one wrong move in the classroom could lead to disastrous results because of our students’ intense behavioral and learning needs.

The co-teacher, Alice Gnau, had found a book called Teaching Content Outrageously by Stanley Pogrow, which explained how secondary classrooms can incorporate drama into any content to engage students in learning—incorporating the element of surprise, for example, or developing role-play or simulation experiences to teach content and standards. The book inspired us to change how we taught our seventh-grade language-arts students in a high-poverty school that struggled with test scores, especially reading and math.

The sense of urgency in the building was palpable, and the pressure on teachers to increase student achievement was often overwhelming. The district required us to teach a curriculum rigidly aligned with a 15-year-old reading textbook containing outdated articles about Ricky Martin, ice fishing, and cartography in an attempt to provide relevant, entry-level reading for students. I refused to teach from this text on the grounds that it was both condescending and uninteresting. But district personnel insisted that teachers use the textbook, citing evidence that it brought up test scores.

Alice and I decided to take the risk and apply Pogrow’s advice. The mandated curriculum, we decided, would never be enough to encourage our students to love reading and writing.

Which brings me back to the parking lot. Alice and I came up with a plan to integrate some of the ideas and strategies we had read about in Teaching Content Outrageously into a unit on Lord of the Flies. She would be the pilot and I was the flight attendant. We changed in the faculty restroom before school and hid around the corner by the lockers in the hallway as we watched students enter the teacher-less classroom.After a few minutes, we burst into the room with a library rolling cart full of pretend snacks and drinks. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” Alice shouted, “welcome aboard flight 2101 headed to sunny Paraguay. The weather looks great, so we should have you safe and sound to your final destination soon. Now buckle up for important safety information.” She sat down in the front of the room, pretending to pilot, while I instructed the students to sit up straight, to buckle up, and to please enjoy their flights.

Even our toughest kids lit up with excitement; when we prepared for “takeoff,” they went right along until the inevitable happened and we crashed onto a deserted island. As Alice and I popped out of our seats, we morphed from pilot and flight attendant back into teachers.

The remainder of class was a problem-solving simulation in which students worked together to determine how food would be attained and distributed, how medical attention would be administered, how they would find or build shelter, and who would lead—questions the kids debated among themselves as they left for their next class. By the time we finished the novel a few weeks later, our students were either crying or enraged (or both) at the death of (spoiler alert) Piggy. They had engaged intellectually and emotionally with the text and ensuing discussions from the moment we “boarded” that pretend flight to the book’s very last punctuation mark.

So began a year of teaching outrageously, a year that forever changed my practice as an educator. It also changed my students’ learning experience and, arguably, helped improve their test scores. The state accountability system changed in 2011, and although schools had prepared for a drop in scores (both the district and state reading scores did indeed take a hit), the seventh-grade class at our school saw a bump of nearly 5 percentage points in reading.

Teaching outrageously wasn’t just fun, it also gave Alice and I the power to create meaningful and exciting experiences for ourselves and our students—at least for that school year. The school was on the cusp of state takeover the following year, which was my last one there. Three of our four principals resigned or transferred, prompting a series of not-so-great interim principals; teachers felt unsupported, leading to many absent days and some resignations. General student chaos ensued due to a lack of consistency and support—for two weeks straight, someone pulled the fire alarm at least once a day, sometimes more. The best I could muster as a teacher most days—for my own sanity—was to slap on an audio recording of The Hunger Games, hand out a generic graphic organizer, and guide the students step by step through filling it out. I did not have the energy or support to teach outrageously, or even effectively. It may have been controlled, but I was not engaged, the students were not engaged, we were all stunted in our growth. Unsurprisingly, test scores plummeted, and the school closed its doors a year later, only two years after the best year of my career.

After dozens of my peers and I left the school, the state audit team conducted a diagnostic assessment of the school through surveys, observations, data collection and analysis, and stakeholder interviews. Among the final report’s conclusions: Staff struggled to build a cohesive school team due to high teacher turnover, and most teachers “delivered traditional lessons with limited opportunities for students to think critically, participate in group discussions, or collaborate with their peers.” These shortcomings joined the myriad factors that led to such a drastic change in teacher motivation and student achievement.

A body of research illustrates the self-evident reality that students’ interest in what they’re learning is critical to their achievement. And student engagement, according to various studies, is often a direct result of teacher engagement. When Alice and I decided to teach outrageously, our attitudes about our work improved, which data suggests improved our students’ attitudes.

Teaching outrageously, it seems, also put us at a decreased risk for burnout because it allowed us to take control of our craft. One of the biggest reasons teachers quit, contributing to the increasing teacher shortage in the U.S., is a lack of autonomy in the classroom; indeed, overall teacher perception of autonomy in instruction has decreased since 2003. The upshot? As a lack of autonomy helps push more and more teachers out of the profession, children are often left with a steady stream of young, inexperienced educators who lack strong ties to the school.

Teacher engagement and autonomy aren’t a cure-all, of course—some teachers are simply ineffective in their jobs and need additional support to improve their craft. Some ought to leave the profession altogether. Given that teacher effectiveness—the degree to which they hold high expectations for students, successfully manage their classrooms, design lessons that lead to mastery, and so on—is the single best indicator of student success, it makes sense that schools would exercise caution when determining how much control teachers have over the classroom; letting an ill-equipped teacher do what she pleases isn’t smart policy. But does a top-down trickle of scripts and mandates detached from students’ day-to-day lives really improve a teacher’s effectiveness? It could have the reverse effect, forcing educators who might otherwise gain a real knack for teaching over time to rely on others to make decisions for them and become stunted in their ability to improve.

Teacher autonomy is not necessarily incompatible with administrative support. When I was a student teacher, I’d often go to my mentor, Renee Boss, with off-the-wall ideas for the classroom. I wanted to have an “I Love the ‘80s” theme day when I was supposed to be teaching students about the Baroque period. I wanted to show the introduction of the film Desperado because it was a good example of storytelling even though it was violent and riddled with the F-word. And at one point, I wanted to teach debate by organizing a game of kickball outside. Renee listened to these ideas with patience and curiosity. She asked me pointed questions about my reasons, my plans for implementation, and my backup plans for when these ideas inevitably flopped. Each time, I found myself sitting across a table from Renee, breaking down and discussing what worked, what didn’t, and how to get better. She let me take risks. Occasionally, she would talk me out of something (Desperado was a no-no), but usually she found a way to help me turn my crazy ideas into effective lessons that improved my students’ learning and outcomes. My career might have been very different had Renee handed me a binder or a dusty textbook and told me to follow it from beginning to end.

Recently, I guided some educators in a brainstorming session on creating more exciting, student-centered lessons. I asked them to consider the possibility that the full lecture they planned to give, the chapter they hoped to cover, or the worksheet they printed from a cookie-cutter curriculum is as precarious a teaching tool as is, say, a kickball game. If kickball fails at teaching kids about debate, they lose a day in the same way they would have lost a day if they went through the motions of a lesson that bored them and their students. The lecture might feel safer, but safety doesn’t achieve anything if kids leave without learning anything new. Maybe the kids don’t leave kickball learning anything new either, but the approach has an advantage over any hackneyed teaching tool: As an outrageous teaching idea, it gave the teacher an opportunity to create something new, to develop as a professional who thinks about and experiments with pedagogy, and to reflect thoughtfully upon her work. It also allowed her to build trust with students, who desperately want to feel hopeful and engaged at school.

I finally did teach debate kickball effectively after six years of trying to get it right. And I dare anyone to face off with my former students in an argument now.

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Capitalism Camp for Kids (Brendan O’Connor)

Brendan O’Connor is a free-lance journalist. This article appeared in the New York Times Online May 22, 2019. *

At first, I was startled by this article. Now, I am not naive. I have many miles on my speedometer. Sure, I had heard of ambitious (and anxious) parents registering new-born infants in choice preschools. As a teacher and superintendent I saw up close, parents from all social classes who wanted special privileges for their children. So the recent scandal over wealthy parents buying their sons and daughters into top universities hardly surprised me. The dog-eat-dog struggle to get an edge for one’s child among so many other middle-income and affluent families elbowing one another to get to a higher rung on the credentials ladder is, I feel, the nightmarish version of the American Dream.

And then this article appeared on my screen on well-heeled families sending their kids to camp to learn the nuts-and-bolts of becoming an entrepreneur and fully apprised of how capitalism works on a daily basis.There are, of course, many districts that have established classes on financial awareness and, in nearly all districts, economics, both macro- and micro-, are taught. But these summer camps are another step, again led by educated elite who seek that precious edge over other competitive parents, toward the 1 percent of Americans. 

I don’t know about bolts, but I thought this was “nuts.”  Yet it so fits into the mystique that business culture and markets as solutions to all problems has had on U.S. schools for nearly four decades. So I present it to my viewers to see what they think.

 

 

Summer camp: It’s not just for campfires, crushes on counselors and crying alone in a bunk bed. Summer camp is also for capitalism.

Or at least it is for a growing number of children whose parents enroll them in workshops and sleep-away trips that focus on stimulating the entrepreneurial mind-set, enlightening youth about the importance of innovation, and imbuing the next generation with an appreciation for surplus value. Because really, what could be more fun?

Biznovator, a company in South Florida, offers a slew of camps, academies and programs that are designed to teach students about how to be businesspeople and innovators (biznovators!). That includes the weeklong “Kamp for Kids,” which this summer will be held at the Divine Savior Academy, in Doral, Fla. There, children as young as 8 will learn how to monetize their hobbies, interview local corporate executives, and shoot YouTube commercials for their prospective businesses.

It also includes the more advanced “Connect Camp,” for preteens and high schoolers, which is typically run at Florida International University. Campers get tours of places like a Starbucks corporate office or the Federal Reserve, and are tasked with analyzing problems facing various companies and industries. Days are broken up with stints on a ropes course and trust exercises, and students are encouraged to network during lunch, which is included in the cost of tuition. (Suggested topics of discussion, according to a schedule on the camp’s website, include “The Richest Kids in America” and “The Time is Now: Harnessing the power of this moment and taking action today!”)

A New York-based nonprofit, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, also runs in-school and summer programs for students in sixth through 12th grades. One of the offerings — called “BizCamp: Business Ideation and Crafting the Pitch” — includes classes on “Opportunity Recognition” and “Delivering Value to Customers,” and culminates in a pitch competition that is structured like an episode of the TV show “Shark Tank.” (Winners are eligible to compete in a National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, also sponsored by NFTE.)

The goal of the organization — founded almost three decades ago with support from billionaire philanthropists, multinational banks and corporate consultants — has been, since the beginning, to “activate the entrepreneurial mind-set and build start-up skills in youth,” said Sophia Rodriguez, the director of research and analytics at NFTE. (“We actually pronounce it ‘nifty,’” she clarified.)

And because it is not enough to activate the entrepreneurial mind-set — one must measure it, as well — all NFTE students are assessed, by the end of their programs, on “noncognitive skills” and on something called the Entrepreneurial Mind-set Index. That exam, which was written in collaboration with Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, is meant to promote “a very talented pipeline of young people that employers desperately need and are increasingly not finding,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

“We look at NFTE youth as future model employees,” Ms. Rodriguez said. They currently reach about 25,000 students in schools and about 3,000 kids at camps in the U.S. “We’re talking about high school students, but we definitely see interest from our corporate partners on wanting to kind of leverage the learning that our young people are developing.”

Juan Casimiro, the founder and chief executive of Biznovator and a former Bronx public-school teacher, believes children are never too young to start learning about business. “For more than 31 years, I’ve been running entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership camps — typically during the summers,” Mr. Casimiro said. “When I got involved, it was harder to convince parents, funding sources, organizations, that kids can learn business very early. They couldn’t believe that a kid, at 10, can pick up these business principles and literally start their own little micro business.”

Now, Biznovator is piloting a Kamp for Kids program designed for children as young as four years old.

“Just like we teach kids how to dissect a frog in a biology class or lab, they should learn how to dissect a business plan,” Mr. Casimiro said.

The Cookie Monster

That children can learn about doing business at a young age comes as no surprise to the Girl Scouts, which offers 31 entrepreneurship-related badges and has long been defined by its focus on honing leadership skills. (Fourth graders can earn “Cookie CEO” badges, although they have to wait until sixth grade to earn the “Financing My Dreams” or “Marketing” patches.)

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many business owners tell me as adults that their inspiration to become an entrepreneur and business person started by selling Girl Scout Cookies,” Jessica Muroff, the chief executive of the Girl Scouts’ West Central Florida chapter, said.

And Girl Scouts aren’t just in the business of selling cookies. Now, many of the youth organization’s chapters offer a supplemental program called “Camp CEO,” wherein Scouts are paired with a female mentor for a weekend of team-building and skill-sharing exercises.

“It’s the whole spectrum of a woman in business: the challenges she had to overcome, personal branding, communication, etiquette, and then also teaching these girls how to have agency,” Ms. Muroff said. “Then we talk about finances.”

Camp Millionaire

Given that most young people aren’t going to grow up to be titans of industry, education in basic financial literacy is probably the most widely useful lesson these programs have on offer. Alicia Brockwell, the C.O.O. of an event space in Los Angeles’s Highland Park, runs a program called “Camp Millionaire” that is specifically meant to help families in her neighborhood deal with debt and financial pressure. The program’s mission statement is: “We want kids and teens to learn how to be financially savvy before they leave home so they move out, stay out and become responsible, contributing members of society.”

It’s now offered in a variety of locations and is promoted as a way to make financial literacy fun. “The idea is that if you can teach kids and teach the parents, you will now have a generation that won’t be hindered by the burden of debt,” Ms. Brockwell said.

Mr. Casimiro of Biznovator also sees entrepreneurship training as a path to financial literacy though, as well as a path to freedom, especially for students from low-income communities. “We’ve got to teach them that lesson, because what they’ve been exposed to is multigenerational thinking that government owes me something. We want to change that mind-set,” he said.

“Regardless of where and how you were born, with the right support, education, love, mentorship — kids starting with zero, let’s say, in poverty — can become extremely successful,” he said. “I really believe that.”

All this happens in an environment where, year after year, polls show, American young people are developing an increasingly unfavorable view of capitalism.

Future Koch Brothers of America

In Mr. Casimiro’s vision of capitalism, there aren’t winners and losers. “There are winners and there are learners,” he said. Students in Biznovator programs also always learn about the importance of philanthropic giving. “If you study most philanthropists, most of those guys were all entrepreneurs,” Mr. Casimiro said. Yes, there is a direct benefit, from a tax incentive perspective, for wealthy people to engage in philanthropy, but, he said, “I want to really believe that most are doing it for the right reasons — to change or impact the world.”

Take Charles Koch for example. The C.E.O. of a company he inherited from his father, Mr. Koch is likely one of the ten richest people in the world and has dedicated most of his adult life to giving his money away to causes in which he believes. Best known for building a network of wealthy donors and powerful political operatives to rival the Republican Party itself, Mr. Koch has also donated to NFTE.

In fact, Steve Mariotti, NFTE’s founder, joined Mr. Koch on the Libertarian Party’s National Executive Committee in 1977, where he rewrote the party’s platform, as Mr. Mariotti recalled in an essay for HuffPost about Ayn Rand.

Embedded in these programs is at least one contradiction: They promote entrepreneurship and leadership, but are also training kids to be good employees; to be innovators and disrupters, but also to be model office drones.

When asked whether NFTE’s programming is meant to inoculate children against the clarion call of socialism, Ms. Rodriguez demurred. “We’re pretty apolitical,” she said. “We definitely are promoting the entrepreneurial spirit in youth, but it’s not so much in order to promote capitalism versus socialism. I think it’s even bigger. It’s empowering the individual to feel like they can succeed no matter what the future looks like.”

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  • I thank Janice and Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.

 

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Why Has the “School as Factory” Metaphor Persisted?

Why has the image of tax-supported public schools looking like and operating as factories stuck?

 

schools-as-factories.jpg

 

In an earlier post, I traced the history of the metaphor since the early 1900s and its 180-degree switch from a positive to negative meaning. Over the past century, the metaphor of school-as-factory has served the interests of two sets of perennial reformers (yes there is a third group that borrows from each side–see below– but I will stick with the two major groupings).

The Incrementalists

There are reformers (e.g., policy elites, practitioners, parents, researchers, and donors) who see the age-graded school and its standardization of curriculum, instruction, and student behavior in need of improvement to make it work as it was intended, particularly for poor and minority students.The purpose of schooling is to prepare the young for a demanding and ever-changing workplace and future civic duties.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan made that point initially in 2010 and again in 2018:

About 100 years ago, America made secondary education in high school compulsory. That was almost unprecedented, a massive leap forward, and it drove a lot of our economic boom over the past 100 years. The problem is we haven’t moved past that and we haven’t adjusted the model. Obviously, the world is radically different from that time, but unfortunately education isn’t much different. And you see other nations out-educating, out-investing, out-innovating us. Not only have the skills needs changed dramatically, but we now have a globally competitive economy, a flat world. It’s no longer Iowa versus Indiana versus Montana for jobs, we’re competing with India and China and Singapore and everywhere else. That’s the world where our kids – my kids – are going to grow up into, and we’re never going to go back the opposite direction. It’s only going to accelerate….

[W]e were able to get high school graduation rates to an all-time high of 84 percent, which we were very proud of but obviously that’s nowhere near high enough. The current administration’s goal should be up to get that 84 up to 90 percent. Third, we should make sure that 100 percent of those high school graduates are college ready, with higher standards. And then fourth, we should try and lead the world again in college completion. That’s four-year universities, that’s two-year community colleges, it’s trade, technical and vocational training.

 

Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class, those are jobs that keep our civic democracy healthy. We should unite behind goals and have lots of vigorous debate around the strategies to achieve those goals. What works well in Montana may work differently in California. Something in Detroit may be radically different. So we should have lots of flexibility and local innovation around the best means and we should see what works best in rural communities and in urban communities and on Native American reservations, but we should unite around those goals. No one has a monopoly of good ideas.

 

“[W]e haven’t adjusted the model,” Duncan says. That has been the basic belief driving this set of reformers for decades. From smaller class size to Common Core Curriculum standards to better trained teachers, the incrementalists call for the age-graded school to be a more productive machine of instruction—higher test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions–to do what it is supposed to do in the 21st century.

 

 

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Of course, incrementalist reformers avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory made products. They talk about the need for schools to be efficiently run (principals and superintendents as managers and CEOs), producing better test scores on domestic and international tests, being held accountable for what students achieve and what classroom teachers do, and, most important, cranking out graduates ready to enter the labor market fully equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the workplace. These reformers want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

The Fundamentalists

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability that are central features of the age-graded school as harming both students and teachers. This cartoon says it all.

common-core-assembly-line-education-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These critics who often use of the metaphor of school-as-factory dismissively want to overhaul, even abolish the age-graded school. They want schools to be places where children are treated as whole human beings. Schools are places where children of different ages work together on projects that draw from many subject areas and are connected to the world outside of the schoolhouse. Such schools are places where teachers work in teams using devices and software that focus on content and skills that can be mastered by individual students working at different paces. Schools where creativity and problem solving are central to a curriculum designed by teachers and students and not the state.

Do such schools exist? Some do.

Scattered around the country, many of these schools are private (see here and here) and some are public (see here, here, here, and here).

Clearly, then, Incrementalists dominate school reform in the the early decades of the 21st century. Fundamentalist reformers are strong on rhetoric and plans for change but, for the most part, instances of these schools are confined to the margins of public schools in  districts across the nation (see here).

The Borrowers

While there are many practical schools leaders and staffs across the U.S. who borrow ideas and practices from both Incrementalists and Fundamentalists to create hybrids, such borrowing of this-and-that program and procedure, it turns out, only reinforces existing age-graded structures. Well-intentioned and honest reformers make changes that end up preserving its stability. That is not intended as a criticism but an observation of what occurs time and again.

 

 

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