Be Vulnerable ! Who Can Fix My Code (Neil Finney)

Teacher educators tell the novices sitting in front of them to take risks when they teach–that is how you learn, they say. Education pundits dwell on the importance of the teacher modeling how to learn–admitting that they don’t know a fact, a concept, or have trouble acquiring a skill. Professors write scholarly articles on the importance, nay, the significance of teachers saying “I don’t know.”

But when teachers close their doors and face the class and the lesson that they had planned to teach, much of this well-intended advice flies out the transom. Why? Because it is very hard to show students that teachers can admit to mistakes and learn from their students. Canadian teacher Neil Finney in his blog describes precisely this behavior.

According to his blog: “I am a teacher in an Ontario school and hope to ignite discussion, incite action and inspire change to the way we teach students. Incorporating more technology and driving our programming through a student-centered model will reach our learners and meet their potential effectively. Currently teaching a grade 7&8 class in Orillia, Ontario and enjoying every day as an opportunity to change what I do!”

Modeling can be everything as an educator in today’s classroom. During this week’s “Hour of Code,” I tried to put that idea to the test…

I signed out as many ipads as I could get my hands on for a 1.5 hour block of time. I started the lesson using the projector and screen at the front of my room and plugged in an ipad to show them the “Kodable” app as our first activity. I had already created a class “Kodable” account – so now I can track the progress of my students on skills such as; variables, strings, loops, sequences and functions. I showed them my solutions to the first 2 easy levels (first telling them to put all the ipads face down on the table and hands-off) and then turned the time over to them to explore and learn.

About half-way through the time, I asked them to exit “Kodable” and try “Tynker.” There was no explicit teaching this time. Except, I also picked up an ipad and started the “Tynker” app. I worked away at the first couple of puzzles and then hit a brick wall. After trying a number of solutions – without any being successful – I realized that this was a moment for learning.

“Who can fix my code?” I asked out loud – while my ipad and current incorrect code was being projected at the front of the room. I immediately saw 4 hands go up. I chose someone – a student who does not often raise his hand during lessons or class discussions – and invited him to come up to the front and change the code that I had used to try and solve the level. He changed a couple of things and ran the code – but it still wasn’t successful. The next thing that happened is what I was waiting for…

Two other students instinctively got up and walked to the front to help the first student “fix the code.” For the next couple of minutes, I had a group of three students (representing both grades 7 and 8) working together to solve a problem and modeling their strategies for the rest of the class to see. They did end up fixing my code. They were successful. And all the while, I watched as a common problem became the source of inspiration to collaborate and problem solve.

We often ask our students to try new things and take risks in their own learning. How often, though, do we sit back and observe? If coding matters – and as the teacher in the room – I have never modeled coding (and the problem-solving; trial-and-error; failure and success; risk-taking that it demands) – then I have not validated it to my students as being important enough for me to learn.

Some of our students will want to code. Some will excel at the independent learning style that many of the coding applications require. Some, though, will put up walls and struggle when the code they write doesn’t work. It is those students that, not only, want to hear us say that it is a valuable skill to learn; but also, watch as we (their teacher) struggle with a new area of learning. How we approach learning and risk-taking is evident everyday in the classroom….


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The Heroism of Incremental Change (Part 2)

In a recent  podcast, economist Ed Glaeser and journalist Stephen Dubner were discussing “big bang” solutions, big leaders who make dramatic changes, and the folly of looking for such “solutions” and leaders. Here is their exchange on civil rights between the 1940s and 1980s.

DUBNER: So civil-rights reform strikes me as one where, incrementally, there have been massive improvements, and yet it seems as though the appetite for an overnight  solution to every civil-rights issue is kind of expected. And when that doesn’t happen, there’s massive hue and cry — even though, overall, the trend has been moving in the right direction. You see that as well, or do you think I’m wrong on that?

GLAESER: No, no I agree totally with that. And it required people who — the NAACP for example, which worked for decades before the Civil Rights Act, right, to move the ball forward. Often in, you know, ways that were important, but seem today quite modest. I mean fighting up to the Supreme Court. Fighting the attempts to zone by race, for example, which it did in the teens. Right? You know, American segregation would’ve been even worse if cities could explicitly zoned by, by race, but they couldn’t. Fighting restrictive covenants as it did in the 40s. Fighting segregation in American schools as it did in the 50s. Decade by decade, increment by increment. And once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, we lose that, we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.

In short, important changes in our individual lives and our society simply don’t happen out of the blue. Small changes aimed toward a larger goal accumulate and make a huge difference when considering a longer time frame. And that is the case with schools and individual teachers.

Schools as Institutions

The thirteen years that every child in the U.S. goes to tax-supported public schools didn’t happen out of the blue. For voters to tax themselves including those who had no children in order to support schooling meant that larger goals were at stake beyond literacy. The connection between a public education and a working democracy were explicit in the minds of political leaders in the  early 19th century.Building an institutional framework for public schools took well over 150 years. But it was built.

Early 19th century public schools were part-time and scattered across the largely rural U.S.  Those children who attended went for a few years to one-room schools–racially segregated by law–where teachers taught lessons to 6 year-olds and youth altogether over the course of the few months they were open.

As cities grew, innovative age-graded schools, an import from Prussia in the 1840s, slowly replaced one-room schools. The “grammar school,” a building housing grades one through eight, became the norm. By the late-19th century, high schools catering to the academically inclined began to appear throughout urban America. At that time, one out of 10 teenagers went to a high school.

By the early 20th century,another innovation, the junior high school arose and elementary schools became grades 1-6, as the  7-9 organizational innovation spread across the U.S. Once academic high schools slowly became comprehensive ones offering multiple curricula for those who sought jobs after graduation and those who went to college. By 1950s, kindergartens–a late-19th century experiment added to public schools–had become widespread enough for school districts to become K-12 organizations.

By the 1970s, pre-kindergartens were appearing in public schools and tax-supported community colleges open to high school graduates now made public schools pre-K through community colleges a publicly financed institution. That steady process of incremental organizational changes has not stopped. It continues now.

Incremental changes added up over nearly two centuries to become the existing public school system. Surely, its incremental growth then and now has become a target for critics at every stage of of its steady growth, with critics proposing innovations at every phase of its expansion. And in the early 21st century, a proliferation of options at every level of schooling exist including alternative schools, magnets, and charters. There were no “big bang” changes then or now.

So tax-supported public schools didn’t happen out of the blue. They were built slowly and steadily into a vital institution by those who saw the essential linkages between schooling and democratic life. That “heroism of incremental change” occurred in public schools over time. As it has for classroom teachers.

Classroom Teachers

Listen to Kim Hughey, a 15 year veteran math teacher at a central Texas high school, recall an incremental change she made in her teaching a few years ago.

During our inservice meetings before school, we had a great speaker who was not only humorous, but was full of helpful advice that could be applied to any classroom.  One of the things I took away from her presentation was a discipline technique that is simple and effective with any age of student.

Over the years, I’ve learned it is best to avoid direct confrontation with teenagers and to not put them in a position where they have to defend themselves in front of their peers.  Although I do my best to avoid this type of nasty situation, there are times when for one reason or another, I find myself having to confront unwanted behavior in my classroom.

The technique the speaker presented is simply to avoid conflict by addressing the behavior and not the student.  She demonstrated several situations and did a great job by using dramatic pauses as she addressed the evil deed doer.

So this week when I saw headphones in Johnny’s ears, I didn’t say a word to Johnny.  I simply gazed out into the classroom and said, without looking at anyone in particular, “If you (dramatic pause) currently have earbuds in your ears, I am going to need you to take them out at this time”.  The entire class looked around trying to figure out who had the earphones and the guilty person sheepishly took them out while I continued teaching.

When charming little Ashley had her cell phone underneath her back pack and was busy texting, I stopped my lesson and calmly said, “If you (dramatic pause) currently have your cell phone out, I am going to need you to put that away”.  Again, instant compliance and I don’t think anyone other than the offender had a clue who it was that had their cell phone out.

In one class after lunch, I looked out and saw several heads on the desk, so you guessed it, I simply said “If you currently have your head down on your desk, I’m going to need you to lift it up right now.”  Every single person complied without a single argument.

I literally used this technique every day  last week without a single problem.  The flow of the lesson was not interrupted by someone trying to defend themselves by saying “I’m just checking my phone to see what time it is or “my earbuds are in, but my music is off”.  There was no need to defend themselves because I never pointed them out in front of the class. 

Incremental changes like the one Hughey made are the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. The small but significant change she made in addressing a common management issue in lessons–noting behavior rather than the individual–was a big deal for her. The heart of teaching and learning is having a firm, caring relationship with a class and individual students. The small change she made–an innovation for her–strengthened that relationship.

From changes in content, how to approach different skills, room arrangement, trying out a new piece of software, letting students make key decisions on content and projects—I could go on and on with examples from so many teachers including instances from my years in the classroom but I won’t. Making bite-sized changes, trying them out to see how they fit and then shedding them or incorporating them into one’s repertoire is what teachers have done for decades and continue to do now.

Nothing dramatic. No headlines accompany such changes. But over time these small changes add up to who a teacher is and what she does. And what students learn.

Like primary care physicians, classroom teachers practice the “heroism of incremental change.”


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“Heroism of Incremental Change.” Part 1

So much has been written about the importance of “transformational” change in health care, schools, and criminal justice.  Seeking fundamental changes quickly in how institutions operate is dramatic, visible, and garners media coverage. Too often, however, glowing rhetoric exceeds actions.

Making small changes, for example, in how health care for millions of previously uninsured Americans is delivered and paid for is undramatic and often goes unnoticed. The Affordable Care Act–Obamacare to many–is a prime example of an incremental change in health insurance for more Americans that is both important and substantial. The current “repeal and replace” political rhetoric promising dramatic changes in the Affordable Care Act that will “transform” health insurance remains, as I write, just words.

Similarly, claims for “transforming” changes in teaching and learning through “personalized learning,” robotics, and virtual reality are, well, still magical incantations that have yet to transpire in most U.S. schools.

But small changes in schooling can accumulate and help students learn. Teachers spending more time with individual students and increasing teacher collaboration are less visible, less media appealing changes. Setting aside time in daily schedules when children and youth can interact with teachers outside of lessons sounds so procedural, even trivial to starry-eyed reformers yet remains significant to individual teachers and students because those adult-student relationships are at the core of learning.

Or small changes in getting police officers in largely minority communities to treat individual citizens with respect, even at a time when social media saturates police-citizen interactions, reformers greet such changes with yawns and shrugs. The yearning for massive, swift, and head-turning change is strong among Americans. Yet….

In most things in life, the important changes are small and, over time, may accumulate into a transformation. Giving a six year-old responsibility for daily chores around meal time and increasing their responsibilities in small chunks as the child gets older can lead to driving privileges at 16. Yes, such planned changes gather slowly and build up to substantial shifts in behavior.

Sure, there are dramatic interventions that change lives:  the eight hour surgery that removes a brain tumor; the pilot who landed a crippled jet in the Hudson River in 2009; a successful mission to rescue hostages. Those decisions, those events, those changes have powerful effects on individuals and their families.

Yearning for the dramatic intervention overlooks, however, the building up of small changes over time that accumulate in a family, school, and organization behaving in ways that become evident over time. Consider policymakers allocating annual funds to fix the inevitable wear-and-tear  in bridges, highways and dams before a collapse occurs. Those actions become the heroism of incremental change. We need more of this rather than the showy, media-grabbing attention of promised “fundamental” or “revolutionary” change that disappears in the next 24-hour news cycle.

Consider surgeons and mortality rates.

Avoiding mistakes in operating rooms can save lives. Errors in surgery often cost lives. Studies showed that having surgeons and nurses go through a simple checklist prior to administering anesthesia and wielding the scalpel would reduce deaths from surgery.

*confirm the patient’s identity.

*Mark the surgical site.

*Ask about allergies.

*Discuss any anticipated blood loss.

*Introduce yourself by name.

Such checklists, according to studies done in the U.S. and Europe have shown sharp reductions in surgery-related fatalities (See here, here, and here)

A small addition to what surgeons and nurses do daily saves lives. Yet even this incremental change has been hard put to show sustained gains over time because implementation of checklists vary among hospital staffs.

Implementation is the key word. It is a ho-hum activity to policymakers and wannabe reformers because it lacks pizazz and eye-catching tweets or headlines. Putting an idea into practice requires careful attention to detail.

Where surgery is dramatic and can be life-saving, primary care physicians traffic in colds, headaches, stitching up cuts, painful knees, lower back pain, and listening to patients. Surgeons may use checklists and reduce errors but surgeons are not in the business of listening.

But primary care doctors are. . They aim for  prevention, stability in patient health, step-by-step progress in combating difficult problems, one patient at a time. And this incremental approach reduces mortality rates

A Boston surgeon visited and wrote about a nearby clinic to see primary care physicians in action.

The clinic is in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and it has three full-time physicians, several part-timers, three physician assistants, three social workers, a nurse, a pharmacist, and a nutritionist. Together, they get some fourteen thousand patient visits a year in fifteen clinic rooms, which were going pretty much non-stop on the day I dropped by.

People came in with leg pains, arm pains, belly pains, joint pains, head pains, or just for a checkup. I met an eighty-eight-year-old man who had survived a cardiac arrest in a parking lot. I talked to a physician assistant who, in the previous few hours, had administered vaccinations, cleaned wax out of the ears of an elderly woman with hearing trouble, adjusted the medications of a man whose home blood-pressure readings were far too high, and followed up on a patient with diabetes.

An expert in primary care told the Boston surgeon that the success of primary care is that patients and doctors develop relationships over time. The surgeon visiting this clinic writes:

I began to understand only after I noticed that the doctors, the nurses, and the front-desk staff knew by name almost every patient who came through the door. Often, they had known the patient for years and would know him for years to come. In a single, isolated moment of care for, say, a man who came in with abdominal pain, [to] Asaf [primary care expert] looked like nothing special. But once I took in the fact that patient and doctor really knew each other—that the man had visited three months earlier, for back pain, and six months before that, for a flu—I started to realize the significance of their familiarity.

For one thing, it made the man willing to seek medical attention for potentially serious symptoms far sooner, instead of putting it off until it was too late. There is solid evidence behind this. Studies have established that having a regular source of medical care, from a doctor who knows you, has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek care for severe symptoms. This alone appears to be a significant contributor to lower death rates.

Observing the care, I began to grasp how the commitment to seeing people over time leads primary-care clinicians to take an approach to problem-solving that is very different from that of doctors, like me, who provide mainly episodic care.

Unlike surgeons, primary care doctors see patients time and again, develop relationships as they tend to their aches, pains, and wounds. And they listen. They are the “heroes of incremental change.”

Part 2 turns to teachers as the “heroes of incremental change.”


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Let’s Plan A Unit! (Peter ​Anderson)

For policymakers, journalists, parents, and pundits a daily lesson is easy to understand. The teacher has a 45- to 90-minute period and covers certain content and skills. There are objectives and activities that unfold before an observer’s eyes. There is a beginning, middle,and end of a lesson that a typical observer–who had once been a child and youth sitting a few feet away from his or her teacher–can parse easily enough.

But not a unit. A unit is a collection of lessons lasting one to four or more weeks that has overall goals and an arsenal of activities. The various lessons connect daily objectives and tasks to unit goals. Few policymakers, school reformers, parents, and journalists have a sense of how much planning occurs before a teacher crosses the threshold of her classroom to introduce a new unit to her charges. Searching for resources, constructing engaging activities, getting feedback from students, assessing what students learn, all of these soak up a large chunk of a teacher’s time before, after school,at nights and during holidays. Here is one teacher’s description of a unit he created for his middle school students.

Peter Anderson teaches 7th grade English Language Arts in Northern Virginia. He is a National Writing Project teacher-consultant. This post appeared on his blog December 2,2016.

Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.

The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.

The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.

Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)

This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.

Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.

Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.

With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.

This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup,, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)

Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.

I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.

Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.

The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.


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Cartoons on the Politics of Schooling

For this month, I have gathered a bunch of cartoons that get at the fact that schools are political institutions. They are wholly dependent upon taxpayers and voters for resources to operate schools. Thus, parents, lobbyists, civic and business leaders, the courts, media, and community groups push, shove, and caress school board members, district administrators and faculties to cut costs while maintaining academic excellence, and embracing the changes they seek. Furthermore, because schools are political, shifts in government, social, and economic changes inexorably spill over to classroom. Enjoy!















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The Importance of Asking the Right Policy Question: Technology in Schools

About a century ago, electronic technologies entered the classroom. Initially  as the film (1920s), radio (1930s), and instructional television (1960s), these devices derived from the entertainment business. The hype surrounding each promised that teachers would have access to the world beyond the classroom and the library. Teachers would have engaging tools that turn on students to what had to be learned. And students would be able to learn more, faster, and better.

The policy question driving these entertainment-oriented devices was: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

Both teacher and student access to these electronic devices, however, was limited by costs of film projectors, classroom radio sets, and television wiring and equipment. Districts parceled out equipment to schools and established audiovisual departments. Consider further that finding the best film for a unit took much time as teachers scoured public libraries and district audiovisual departments. Teachers competed for the projectors, available films,radio sets, and television monitors so classroom use was seldom regular but occasional or none at all. Limited access for teachers and students–say once a month–kept this question front and center.

Now enter the desktop computer in the early 1980s. The hoopla surrounding its launching in schools (who recalls the TRS-80, and Apple II?) when teachers would get one computer for their classrooms and the school would have a set of devices for a lab.

As competitors entered the education market and the price of these desktops fell, what became clear was that these devices were far more powerful in teaching the young about both academic subjects and the world than earlier generations of film, radio, and instructional TV. These devices were interactive, drawing students into responding to what was on the screen. The entry of these devices and subsequent generations of more powerful and sophisticated hardware and software occurred simultaneous with the push by  federal and state officials to raise graduation requirements, install higher academic standards, and improve student test scores in reading, math and science on international and state tests. Access for teachers and students grew, albeit with “digital divides,”and regular use in classrooms expanded. Using technology became a rallying cry complete with cries of astonishment over how engaged students are with new technologies. This was the “Golly,Gee Whiz” stage when computers were in the foreground.

By the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind had become law and higher standards, testing, and accountability had become the mantra of school reformers. In the section of NCLB devoted to technology, it  said: “The primary goal  is to improve student academic achievement through the use of technology in elementary schools and secondary schools.” 

The emerging policy question about these new technologies that now arose from the intersection of the spread of less expensive devices and the press for higher test scores was: can these new electronic devices and their software improve students’ academic performance?

This question shifted the center of gravity from the earlier one that concentrated on how the new electronic devices a century ago could help the teacher do what she had to do to a concentration on the machines and their software. The software on desktops (and later laptops) would do all of the work of teaching. And students would learn more, faster, and better from the new technologies. Of course, there were always some teachers and principals who kept asking the older policy question as they trudged into their classrooms and schools integrating these new devices into daily lessons. But they were a distinct minority.

Computers were now in the foreground of more and more classrooms as districts and schools chased contributions of devices from companies, foundation funding, and eventually local monies from community referenda and school board budgets. Media reported story after story of students of all ages sitting in front of screens as the “new” education.

As student access and use of computers spread, research studies piled up and educator experiences accumulated into the growing realization that these new technologies (remember MS-DOS on PCs and CD-ROMs?) were powerfully entrancing to students at first but fell far short of improving student academic performance in of themselves. Improved teaching and learning, policymakers and practitioners learned, were far more complex in the many home and school interacting variables that come into play in determining student academic performance.

In the past decade, however, access to computer devices and software has become nearly ubiquitous giving each teacher and her students opportunities to “integrate” these new technologies into daily lessons. Most technology vendors and promoters have shifted from touting their devices as ending the white/minority achievement gap or raising test scores to speaking of student engagement and the ease of using software and hardware in daily lessons.

Many more individual teachers, schools, and districts across the country–still far from a majority of teachers or schools–have seamlessly (OK, a few stitches here and there may have been dropped) integrated the technologies into classroom routines. Software use has become as familiar as paper, pencils, and notebooks.  In these places, devices and software have become the background–white noise– and are no longer in the foreground. And as more integration occurs at the school and district levels, the older and more grounded policy question is re-emerging: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

The slow but steady movement of new technologies from the foreground to background in a minority of classrooms, schools, and districts has resurrected this all-important policy question asked nearly a century ago that top decision-makers, practitioners, administrators, parents and voters now need to ask anew.


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Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 4)

The following lesson was posted on a blog written by Ed Realist, “a teacher at a Title I high school who usually teaches math, but every so often jumps at the opportunity to teach US history. Ed has credentials in math, social science, and English.”

I have kicked off my planned US History curriculum and on one day’s experience, it’s going gangbusters. I decided the students would best grasp the significance of the electoral college if we began with the recent election–give them a frame of reference as we then look back.

First, I gave them a copy of Article II, section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment, explaining that the elections we’d be reviewing would use both the original and amended text. But the big takeaway I wanted them to get for the first go-round was:  Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

This was new information–well, more accurately, it was relevant information, something they’d clearly been wondering about. When we got to the text about the electors meeting to elect the president, I played that Martin Sheen et al video.

“These actors were trying to change the electors’ minds. As we just read, if no candidate receives more than half the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. So you can see they didn’t have to change everyone’s minds, just enough to push the vote below the halfway mark.”

“And they’re Democrats?”

“No. The House is controlled by Republicans. I have to say I never quite understood the logic of this effort.”

“Why do they keep repeating everything?” Elian asked.

“They must think we’re stupid.” Bart observed.

“I think they did it for artistic effect. But let’s move on. That’s how the president is actually elected. So now lets see how many electors each state gets. Who knows how many Senators we have?”

The guesses were all over the place until I asked for the names of our senators. Then they all figured out it was two.

“Right. Two for each state. Each state, no matter how big or small, gets two senators. And since we have 50 states, we have a total of…..” (I always wait. Are they paying attention? I get 100 back pretty quickly.) “House of Representatives works differently. The House, for reasons we’ll discuss later, assigns representatives based on population. But about a century ago, Congress froze the number of seats at 435.”


“Good question. We’ll explore that later. For now, I just want you guys to get an understanding of the rules on the ground.”

“So every state gets two electors, no matter what, right?” asks Pippa. “Because they have two Senators.”

“Yes, good. They actually get three, no matter what. They elected two senators and one representative, so three electoral votes.”

“That sucks,” Eddie observed. “They only get three people to represent the state.”

“Actually, that three is a good deal. Let’s just take two states: Montana, with a population of about a million, and New York, with a population of 20 million. So New York is twenty times bigger than Montana. Montana gets 3 electoral votes. Any guesses as to how many New York gets?”

“Well, if it’s twenty times bigger, they should get sixty.” Anita.

“That can’t be right, though,” observed Priya.  “New York isn’t the biggest state, and if it has 60, then how many does Texas or California have?”

“Very good.” and I passed out the worksheet I’d cobbled up. One side was an image of the country with electoral votes by state,  the other was a table looking something like this.

“Wait. New York only has 29 electoral votes? Holy crap.”

“Yeah. Now you’re starting to see. New York only gets nine times as many electoral votes, despite having twenty times as many people.”

“That’s not fair to the big states!”

“It might feel that way. However, there was a lot of reasoning that went into that decision. We’ll be talking about it later, and you can judge. For now, here’s a simple task. I want you to mark the map with the winners, as many as you remember or want to guess. Then, on the back, put your guess and then the electoral vote total in each column. I don’t expect everyone to know all of them. I just think it will be a good discussion, get you seeing how much you know or remember. Then I’ll help you fill it in.”

I was pleased to see kids filled in a good bit of the map based on their own knowledge. Many knew the South was mostly Republican. They all, without exception, called Florida for Trump. A cheering number was aware that the Rust Belt states had flipped. After ten minutes or so, I brought up the same map on my Promethean [interactive white board] and marked it up with their results, correcting for reality as needed. During the conversation, I added in some tidbits–what the polls in each state had showed, what states Hillary never saw coming, demographic voting patterns, DC’s three electoral votes, and so on.

When we finished marking the map up, Kevin mused, “Jesus. Trump won a lot of states.”

“He did indeed.”

On instinct, I went to a browser and brought up the 2016 electoral results map.


It was a good instinct. The class literally gasped.

“Holy sh**! He won all those states?” Eduardo was aghast.

“Huh.” Eddie, as dedicated a Trump hater as ever existed, had bitterly snarked about borders in an inequalities lesson immediately after the election. I’m hoping he’ll  feel less hardly done by in the future.

Here is something I learned: the kids had been told many times that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They understood what that meant. But not until this moment had they ever genuinely grasped the visuals of Trump’s win. What Trump’s win looked like. The map was a huge reveal. Minds weren’t changed, but perspectives were.

“Our Constitution gives voice to all citizens, but through the states. It’s a balance. It’s not always perfect. But it exists for a reason. Maybe this map gives you a sense of why.”

I had an extra fifteen minutes, so again on impulse, I brought up the classic youtube compilation of famous and influential people saying, with confidence, that Donald Trump could never win. I pointed out the lesser known ones, but they got the drift and loved it. I will note they were shocked (and not in a good way) at Seth Meyers’ disrespect. Loud applause at the end. I hit pause and got their attention.

“Here’s what I want you to know: not a single person in that compilation lost their jobs. Well. Except Obama, but his term was up. Every person on TV, acting as an expert. Every comedian. Every politician. You just saw pretty much every famous person in America laughing hysterically at the very idea that Trump might win. And none of them were held accountable. None of the media people who confidently predicted Trump had no chance of winning got fired. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you could easily have assumed you could stay home. Why bother voting? Trump couldn’t win. And when Trump won, these same media folk were all aghast. Then they ran all these stories about  devastated people, heartbroken by Trump’s victory. Rarely did you see stories on people who voted for Trump, who were thrilled at his win.”


“I want you to go home tonight, turn on cable news–well, except Fox–and you’ll see all those people you just saw and more, talking about the demonstrations against Trump’s new immigration policy. Trump’s naming a new justice, maybe there’ll be more demonstrations. All the people on TV, many of them who are newspaper reporters talking about their own print stories, will talk about how big the demonstrations are, how meaningful they are, how important they are, how the people are speaking.”

“And when they sound certain. When they sound like experts. When they talk to experts who sound certain. I want you to remember that video. Because then it might not come as much of a shock to learn that 49% of Americans polled support Trump’s immigration E[xecutive] O[rder].”

“Yeah. I get it.” Omar nodded. “It’s like the media only shows people who agree with them.”

“It’s like they don’t even realize people don’t agree with them.” said Amy.

” So if all the cool people hating on Trump, maybe no one will want to, you know, be a d*** who likes Trump.”

“But I do hate Trump!” said Eddie.

“Well, I’d like you to think about using a different word than ‘hate’. But sure. LOTS of people disagreed with Trump. More people voted who wanted Clinton, remember? That’s where we started. ”

“It’s like, don’t be fooled. Don’t think that just because all the famous people think the way you do, that everyone does.” Omar again.

” If you surround yourself with people who think just like you do and never associate with people who don’t, you might lose track of what’s normal. It’s called ‘living in a bubble’.”

“You know,” observed Pippa, “I’ve always thought it was kind of cool that Trump won.”

“WHAT???” Eddie, outraged.

“No, I hate him. I mean, I disagree with him. But now that I see that video, I think it’s even cooler. All these famous people were laughing at him.”

“Yeah, mocking him. Nasty stuff.” agreed Lennie.

“And he went out there and ignored them and took his ideas to the people. And won!”

“I swear to you, Pippa, that’s exactly what I love about this election. I said that verbatim to my advisory. I truly believe that only in America, only with our rules, could someone go out and speak to the country and get the votes needed to win the presidency.”

The bell rang.

Good first day.


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