On Parents in Learning

I write this from my one and only perspective of authority: I write this as a career public school teacher. I do not write it as a parent, because I am not one, and that role is irrelevant and not remotely prerequisite to my understanding of children or my ability to teach children, as an educator, because the role of the teacher differs fundamentally from the role of the parent. Conflating them demonstrates misunderstanding of what a teacher is and what s/he does.

I was asked recently in a contentious context what I believed the role of the parent to be. I responded, “the facilitation of authenticity.” I believe there was a misperception that this is a minimizing or dismissive statement… but authenticity in the human experience is the paramount objective, in my view. Imagine Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment: Envision the fulfillment of self-actualization, for a person to become as completely one’s self as one can be. To achieve the true, highest self.

This is not “merely” anything. This is the truest and highest aim of humanity, and the cliches of what parents want for their kids are better summarized thusly than any other way, to me.

“I want my child to be happy.” Well, no, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes happiness would be falsity, but I gather parents mean this more generally. “I want what’s best for my child.” Well, no, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want what you think is best despite there being possibly ample empirical or anecdotal evidence to suggest something else is better, but it discomforts you. “I want my child to be a productive member of society.” If your child is authentic and happy and does nothing to contribute to the fabric of America, but harms no one and is self sufficient, will you be disappointed in her?

I don’t seek oversimple or convenient understandings of what’s best for a child. “Facilitating authenticity” accepts in the former term that one can only attempt and has no true control, because one cannot nor ought to truly control another person, but rather love and provide for them; and in the second term that every individual child is unique, and what one is best and right and true and real for one child will bear little to no resemblance to what is best and right and true and real for another child. We facilitate authenticity: We seek with every vehicle at our disposal to create conditions for and support the development of the child’s full potential, as s/he would have it.

Are children in need of significant guidance and direct intervention if not supervision? At times in youth, absolutely, yes, and I am not suggesting we allow a seven year old to predetermine his or her own path and then enact that plan without deviation, but the specifics on my feelings about the unfolding and unique timeline of moving children from dependency to independence, and the elimination of our usurpation of their rights and individuality and control over time into the encouragement of their experimentation, exploration, and ultimate self-determination, free of adult coercion, is another subject entirely. I do not dodge it; I merely say, that is not the specific matter at hand. Right now, we’re talking adult roles.

I choose my language about children intentionally, and it is true, it can be challenging to hear sometimes. But if you converse with me, if you go with me down this rabbit hole of art and science, and examine the human condition and seek understanding of the child as a total entity, and include sociology, psychology, emotion, learning, awareness, consciousness, play, freedom, liberty, passion, will, and action in totality, I believe that you will find “authenticity” is that which most of us seek most desperately, and that the facilitation of the conditions in which a child may thrive to be his or her true self is the highest, noblest aim.

It is the mutual aim of the true parent and the true teacher, though our roles in facilitating that authenticity are fundamentally different, and in many ways mutually exclusive.

The parent is biased. The parent is, must be, ought to be biased: Deeply, passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to the child. To that parent’s child. The parent must never apologize for or relinquish a steel grip on love for his or her own child.

The teacher must not be biased. The teacher must not be, ought never to be biased: Deeply, passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to all children. To all parents’ children. The teacher must never apologize for or relinquish a steel grip on love for all children, equally.

A parent parents. A teacher teaches. They are not the same role, even if they both (ideally) are full of love for the same child. Better to have both roles working tirelessly in concert than one role dictating (at best) or ostracizing (at worst) the other. I believe, passionately, in collaboration, as anyone who has read my work or observed me in my schools will know.

While in so, so many cases these aims and perspectives overlap, the times in which they do not, in the interstices of good intention and fair-minded action in which opposition exists, collaboration is and must be key. I was accused in this conversation of having an adversarial view of parents. I do not. I have an adversarial view of the law and of debate processes, as has been the heart of jurisprudence and the generation of accord in Western society since it was founded. But I do not view parents as natural adversaries; I view them as necessary allies, as we share (or ought to share) a common aim: the total love of the total child.

However, I am not afforded, as a teacher, the luxury of selecting which children may thrive and which may account for an acceptable rate of attrition. I have no right to allow for acceptable losses. When I am tasked with the care of, responsibility for, and teaching of 36 children, you (parent, citizen, onlooker, policymaker) task me with 36 instances of the most daunting task, every one of which must be a blazing success. In the course of discharging that duty – one I take seriously and do so joyously – I must have the full facilty of my professional skill and the full support of my colleagues, my leaders, my policy, and my community. I have no adversarial view of the parent by default.

What I do regard with the most cutting, disparaging frustration and disrespect is a parent who believes I work for him or her, or that his or her role as a parent is “superior” to mine. There is no superiority among men, nor of men over children, nor of any one child over another. I reject it with ferocity. I am an uncompromising egalitarian, and demand flatness in education. This, to some parents, is defeating and disdainful. To them, I say, you do not understand me, or my position. I might go so far as to say, to a parent who is putting his or her ego squarely in the way of what is demonstrably best for the child, that s/he is being no parent at all. But those are specific instances, and I reserve that kind of judgment for the most select of confused, angry adults. They are, fortunately, exceedingly rare. However, they do exist, and I do not have the right to tolerate a parent causing suffering for his or her child when I know it to occur and can intervene on the child’s behalf. (Indeed, the law tasks me with doing so. But I digress. Again, these monsters are rare.)

I do not believe a parent any more important in the teaching of a child than a teacher. If you say “a parent is more important to a child than a teacher in that child’s life,” I would not disagree. But do not say “a parent is more important than a teacher in that child’s learning.” No, sir, he is not. No, madam, she is not. There is absolute flatness in educational hierarchy: The only person that is, will be, ought to be elevated is the child himself or herself. Everyone else is subservient to that unique, powerful intellectual and emotional creature, and clambering to lift one’s self up artificially when there is no cause whatsoever to do so is hubris tantamount to betraying the child.

If that disquiets a parent, this idea that the parent’s thoughts and feelings ought to be considered no more important than a teacher’s, in the course of a child’s schooling, then that parent has (in my view) an ethical responsibility to leave the public school system and seek the sycophancy of private tutelage, where teachers will work for parents instead of for children. Moreover, any teacher that would abuse this educational philosophy and elevate himself or herself to be more important than the parent, or the paraprofessional, or the psychologist, or the therapist, and gain a haughty anti-parent attitude, has no place in my school.

Yes, difficult parents can be difficult, but why? Generally, in my experience, it is because they love their children very much, and are doing what they think is right. We have a responsibility to engage with and, yes, to educate these adults. (A parent that believes s/he has nothing to learn about his/her child is demonstrating incredible arrogance. A parent that believes s/he knows everything s/he needs to know about child development and educating children is a master of self-delusion.) I hear parents say, “who are you, who have no children, to teach me about my kid?” I’m a professional educator. I have made my life’s work the study of children and how they learn. I would never presume to tell you I know your field better than you do; who are you to do so to me, simply because it makes you uncomfortable or frightens you? We can immediately get into the adversarial conflict that way, but I don’t seek it and I don’t want it. This interaction – the most common one – stems from a parent initiating the conflict. “I know my kid better than you do.” No, you don’t. You know your kid as a parent does. But a teacher has a different perspective, one honed by training, experience, science, and objectivity. We need to work together to take full advantage of this wonderful opportunity to bring together our unique perspectives. But no, you don’t know your child “better” than I do. It’s comparing apples and oranges. We have different roles. It’d be like you telling a doctor “I know my child better than you do.” Not in terms of kidney function, you don’t. Not when it comes to the mechanics of his cardiovascular system, you don’t. That’s arrogant. That’s adversarial.

Granted, this position assumes the efficacy and quality of the teacher in question. I consider that my responsibility, as a leader. I expect a lot of teachers. (Wouldn’t you want me to, parents? Don’t you?) If we are incapable of being wiser about, more knowledgeable about, more skilled at teaching, and more capable of understanding children writ large than our parent partners, then we’re not qualified and oughtta get outta Dodge. I take the understanding of pedagogy very, very seriously, and the passionate pursuit of comprehensive understanding of the child mind is my life’s work. I want to understand, and I want to share in and collaborate in that understanding with everyone invested in the wellness and development of every child in my care.

There is nothing adversarial about a perspective that believes so passionately in love for, respect for, and care for every single child in my charge that I will do anything and work with anyone to help facilitate every child’s authentic development and fulfillment of potential. I aim for authenticity. I hope for joy. I work for children. I invite you to join me.

And I respect the hell out of the parent role. I respect it, celebrate it, uplift it, and admire it, when done with real love and genuine care.

Finally, a comment was made in the course of this conversation with which I fully agree: “This won’t be well received.” That’s true. Social delusions are powerful things. They’re forces, edifices, institutions, egregores… The collective social delusion is immensely powerful, and we have convinced ourselves as a society that “children ought to go to college and get a job that makes them productive contributors to the workforce so they can be happy.” I think, as I’ll outline in my book, that it is an insidious lie that is ultimately inhumane and anti-child. But that notwithstanding, my position that the whole of American public education is effectively a lie includes, by its very nature, that parents have absolutely no idea what is going on with their child’s learning as a general rule. (I think this is something that ought to infuriate parents, but that’s another story. I am, despite suggestions to the contrary, on the side of anyone who is on the side of children, and that generally includes parents.) This suggestion of systematic, widespread, and sometimes intentional duplicity will, undoubtedly, not be well received.

It is, however, the truth. Truth is rarely convenient, and it is often not well received.

The Hidden Cost of Placating Parents

The amount of time, energy, and resources we waste on trying to make mopey parents feel better, make angry parents happy, and brush problems under the carpet is staggering, but we never seem to want to face the hidden costs.

Teachers who are circumvented, who are ignored, trampled upon, brushed aside, plowed under, and thrown to the wolves burn out. They teach less effectively because they’re under massive stress, and more children suffer because of the parent(s) of one kid.

We insist too often in education on making concrete that which must be fluid. “My child needs X.” “My kid must have Y.” “You’re doing Z when you should be doing A, B, and C.” These adversarial, motto-riddled, emblazoned-in-granite-over-edifice conversations are contrary to any child’s best interest. Collaborative conversations between the primary observers and guardians of a child – the parents – and the trained, experienced professionals in child psychosociology, pedagogy, and development – the educators – can accomplish wonders when they work together, especially when paired with thoughtful paraprofessionals. (And I include specialized, degreed non-educator child experts like psychologists, therapists, and counselors in the “paraprofessional” category.)

But all the best intentions and opportunities in the world are for naught when higher-ups circumvent hard conversations for the sake of convenience. The vast majority of the time, I’ve seen teacher-parent relationships blossom because of mutuality: everyone has the child’s best interests genuinely at heart, and disagreements about style are easily overcome through substance. (Note to professional practitioners: Have your research in line before you walk into the room, or don’t ask me to back your play. You purport to be an expert in children by virtue of sitting on my side of the table. Know your stuff, or find another chair.) However, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to have an adversarial relationship with a parent. Specifically, when a parent wants something that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt to be contrary to the child’s best interests, we have an ethical and professional obligation to say “no.” At best, this leads to clarification and parent education. At worst, this can lead to due process hearings and legal proceedings.

So what? Let it. In short: Go ahead. Sue me.

You heard me. Bring it on. “I’m an attorney, sir…” I’m going to go ahead and stop you right there. Oh, what, you thought there was more? No, I’m really just going to stop you. I have no interest in what comes out of your mouth after you, as a parent, say something like that. If you’re an attorney, you know that our system of laws exists in a naturally-adversarial condition. It’s designed that way. Even “no fault” cases are often heard with plaintiffs and defendants, and involve evidence and process to guarantee that everyone gets a fair say. So I say, bring it on. If I know, in my heart of hearts, what I’m doing is accordant with the law, compliant with research and child science, consistent with best practices, and representative of the state-of-the-art of teaching, bring it on.

You always have a right to leave the public schools if you want what you think is best for your child despite the facts. (In my world, we call doing something you know to be wrong “stupidity,” but hey, I’m just a teacher. What do I know about definitions and meaning?)

See, I think we’ve sold our credibility down the toilet by placating parents. I’m not interested in complacent parents. Are you a parent? Are you pissed off at this blog post? Why? Do you want to be coddled and complacent? Do you want me to ignore the facts of modern child science when doing right by your kid? Or would you rather your child’s school be populated with people that constantly pursue, with unmitigated tenacity and unbridled passion the absolute bleeding edge of what modern psychology, sociology, pedagogy, medicine, and the multifarious content disciplines tell us to be best for your child? I’m not interested in making you happy, parents. I’m sorry if that busts your chops; I really am. I wish you’d believe me when I say I hope it’s a fringe benefit, but as an action, I could give two shakes if you’re “happy” with me as a teacher. What I want, more than anything that involves your ego, emotions, feelings, whims, thoughts, or aspirations, is what’s best for your child. Fortunately, 95% of the time, parents and teachers are on the same page about these things. I’d bet most of you have rarely, if ever, experienced a real confrontation with one of your kid’s education professionals.

But in the 5% of the time when a haughty know-it-all, an egomaniacal fact-flaunter, or a self-appointed homeschool-leaning dilettante decides to act or speak contrary to what we, as professionals, know to be best for the child in question, I say take it to the mat.

Do we fight stupid and unnecessary fights in our field? Absolutely. There’s stuff I desperately want to teach teachers is unimportant, useless, and counterproductive. There’s a lot of completely avoidable tribulation in our schools, and I’m neither blind to it nor unwilling to tackle it and make some fairly sweeping culture shifts to ensure we put down our baggage. But there are times when we’re right, you’re wrong, and it’s as clear as day to any objective observer.

The cost of placating parents when they’re wrong is worse than wasting massive time and energy and money that could be better spent helping kids. Make no mistake, tiny fraction of parents that put “winning the fight” ahead of respecting good educational science: you’re hurting your kid and many other kids with your shenanigans. The real cost of placating parents is that it hurts kids.

Usually, the kid hurt the most, is the kid at the center of the situation, and you know me: I will never acquiesce in the face of defending a child.

Letter Grades: Lying to Children Since 1785

I recently had a discussion with a colleague in which s/he revealed that a principal mandate that 30% of all letter grades issued be As, 30% Bs, 30% Cs, and only 10% Ds or Fs. This is not a completely unheard of phenomenon. The idea is that we should limit the number of failures. Only 10% of kids are “allowed” to fail, at maximum. Otherwise, the teacher isn’t doing his or her job, right? 90% of kids pass, and they’re equally distributed into average, good, and excellent performance.

That’s such a crock, I’ve edited this line for profanity about a half-dozen times. There are so many things wrong with this that I would have to seriously consider the employability of such a school leader. This demonstrates such an egregious misunderstanding of what grades are, what they should be, and how to grade, that I cannot help but question this educator’s entire concept of assessment.

Beyond the obvious fact that this is not a normal distribution, it also presumes absolutes in assessment that don’t exist. There is nothing in this policy that prevents a teacher from shifting the grade scale writ large to artificially inflate numbers until the failure rate lowers to 10%. Letter grades are relative, not absolute. Saying “only 10% of children can get Fs” doesn’t mean “only 10% of children will fail.”

Kids that can’t do what you’re asking them to do can’t magically do it just because you call their skill a D instead of an F, nor does a kid that can do what you’re asking “fail” if you call it an F. Letter grades provide no meaningful granular performance data to illustrate to children and their families what those children can do, how they can do it, and how they can improve upon the things they cannot yet do. Letter grades are relative and limited at best, and arbitrary and harmful (as ignorance-inducing) at worst.

I know many schools identify “at risk students who are failing.” But what is failing? Do we have any confidence in the assessment systems we use, when they’re predicated upon oversimplified letter grades and (more often than not) oversimplified, irrelevant, counterproductive integers generated through standardized multiple-choice assessments?

“Grading” is a distraction from learning. All assessment should be for learning, and for the learners at that. Assessment should be comprehensive, performance-based, conducted in an authentic context, and unquestionably low-stakes. There is no need to “test” a learner when it comes to measuring skill; “tests” are oversimplified and limited in modality. Instead, afford students unlimited, multifarious, rubric-based opportunities to authentically demonstrate skill mastery and content knowledge mastery in the ways they choose. When asked, “how well does my child multiply?” give a serious answer, not a letter response.

Using that example, “B” tells me nothing. What does that mean? 82% of the time he gets the right answer? What’s happening during the other 18%? What process is he using? Is there a comprehension error or is there something else at work? Is there an underlying skill that needs remediation? Is the child perfectly capable of getting 100% in certain situations, and nearly incapable in others, and if so, does that have implications for learning environment, assistive technology, or placement? Assessment is not a simple matter, and ABCDF grading distracts from the real work of meaningfully understanding children and helping them understand themselves and their learning more effectively.

On that very note, we can eliminate the entire “zeroes and Fs are hurtful” factor, and instead get back to the labor of being honest with kids. If a child has zero appreciable skill in a certain area, then we do the child no service by lying to him or her. Instead, by making zeroes and Fs bogeymen, we terrify kids into thinking that failure is undesirable, instead of telling them the truth that failure – regular, meaningful failure – is absolutely essential to learning.

The sooner we eradicate ABCDF and replace “grading” with meaningful, granular, individualized, comprehensive assessments measured through authentic low-stakes performance, the sooner we can stop lying to children.

ABCDF is a bad enough lie without rigging it to artificially twist already artificial data.

School Rules

“School rules” is a difficult topic for me, considering how much time I spend shouting at the top of my lungs about how we must love children and how free they should be. I talk a lot about non-coercion, but rules by definition are coercive by nature. In prohibiting certain behaviors by attaching sanction to them if enacted, rules seek to curtail said behaviors before they transpire, and that is a form of coercion.

Let’s be clear about a few things. Kids need rules. I’ve often said throughout my career that kids crave structure, either theirs or yours, and in the absence of yours, it will most certainly be theirs. The lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provide, in my opinion, a form of structure. At the least, we can generally agree to intervene when a little one attempts to jump off of the top of the monkey bars and fly. Basic humanitarian safety is a “takes-a-village” net consciousness that says, “let’s try to keep each other safe.” Further up the hierarchy, all children need a sense of belonging, and belonging involves relationships, and relationships have structure merely by virtue of existing.

Fiercely independent children, highly intellectual learners, those who are motivated to be self-sufficient for any number of reasons, who strongly desire not to rely upon others, who prefer to discover and do for themselves, or who like to work in groups of one, must be supported and affirmed in doing so whenever and wherever possible, but that is itself a form of structure, and a school’s rules ought to protect them.

Children who are highly social, who like to work in large groups, who like to move significantly from one setting to another, who may have highly-nontraditional ways of organizing their information or their learning, or who need to be (to the outside observer) loud, social, talkative, and off-topic, must also be supported in their learning. Their highly individualized ways of organizing information and thinking about problems also deserve our fervent protection.

Children are to be loved, universally, in all conditions, in all modes, no questions, no exceptions. I make no exceptions to this core tenet.

But while I concede that “children need rules,” insofar as humane protectionism warrants, so too do I say “we have too many rules.” The ancient totalitarian view of children as ignorant, addled little monsters of willful defiance besetting orderly Victorian adulthood is absurd, parody-worthy, and utterly incomprehensible to us radical pedagogues. Children are not to be “controlled” or “managed,” and a teacher ought to think back to introductory teacher preparation – authoritative versus authoritarian! – if s/he thinks that s/he ought to be Master and Commander over a uniformed complement of little Calamys and Holloms.

School rules, in my opinion, ought to exist to protect and empower children. Period. Anything that does not protect them and their individual learning is not worthwhile as a rule. That is my personal, passionate position. It is why, as an aspiring school leader, when I created my hypothetical code of conduct – I have a hypothetical everything for the time I may need it, because I spend an inordinate, nerdly amount of time thinking about these things, because of either how much I care or how loony I am, likely both – that the rules I included are based on Supreme Court precedent and case law. If a rule does not have an extant Supreme Court precedent, then it is unlikely to be a rule in my book.

Consequently, life might be a little more challenging at times for teachers at my school. There is no rule in my handbook against hats, for example. There is no SCOTUS precedent that explicitly prohibits hats. For a long time, I would write my rules in such a way as to justify these behaviors in half-measure. For example, in my band handbook, I indicated as a classroom rule that no student should wear a hat with a brim that covers the eyes. (All other hats were fine.) If a student had a hat with a brim, I just asked them to turn it around. (A not-unstylish thing to do when I was teaching.) This proved an extraordinarily popular rule, because elsewhere in the school, students were not allowed to wear hats at all. It was considered “disrespectful.” One does not need to be Lawrence Cremin to drill that rule back to Judeo-Christian roots. As I regard the inclusion of religious sentiment in the secular sphere of the public school to be expressly prohibited by SCOTUS precedent, I did not feel justified in enforcing that idea despite having been expressly instructed to do so by my administration. (Add this to the long list of reasons why my first job and I were a lousy fit for one another…)

The brim is not the issue. I wanted students to have direct line of sight to my baton, as the director. My thought was that one could not possibly successfully receive my cues, and enter on time, if you were not looking at me with direct or peripheral vision. I no longer believe that to be the case. While my experience as a conductor shows me that virtually every student I have ever instructed performs more accurately and effectively as part of the ensemble when they have clear sight lines to the conductor, we must not restrict learners through inductive reasoning. Induction is a perfectly valid way of designing instructional experiences and learning environments, but I must always allow for the possibility of the exceptional learner. This allowance virtually guarantees that some students will fail – the kid that thinks he can play a note on time without a direct line of sight, and can’t – which reinforces why failure must be a regular, safe, positive experience for children in every learning setting. We allow for uniqueness and trial and error (read: failure) and as such, failure is no longer failure at all, but learning, which is the ultimate goal of all teaching. I believe insisting that all students, without exception, must have direct line-of-sight to my baton before I’ve given each student the opportunity to choose and learn for himself or herself what to do after I’ve explained my rationale as to why I believe the students will find greater success by following my instruction, is prescriptive. It’s coercive, and anti-differentiating, and that violates my core beliefs. In insisting a child do precisely what I say, the way I’ve said it, simply on the basis of my being the teacher, I have denied the child absolutely necessary discovery, reflection, analysis, questioning, application, and individual personal first-hand experience. I’ve predetermined how that learner best learns, and that runs contrary to everything we know about the criticality of individualized learning.

In creating this rule, do I not preclude the remotest possibility that a student could hear the breath of the ensemble, experience those around him or her in the section around them, catch the glinting cues from the instruments and movements around them, looking in a completely different direction, and properly enter and play correctly every time?

I believe it is remotely possible, and so my rule stands against a child, and cannot be allowed to do so.

Do I think this hypothetical extraordinary learner is likely to be in my band? No, certainly not. In fact, I cannot point to a single instance of such near-clairvoyant musicianship. Will I effectively teach my students why it is that we have hundreds of years of evidence that a quality visual relationship between performer and conductor is so important to the effective performance of ensemble music? Of course I will, and I am more than equipped to do so, as a well-trained, experienced, and not-wholly-untalented music teacher. But I will not explicitly prohibit students from learning and experiencing music in other ways. That’s irresponsible, prescriptive, and I ought not to do that.

So persistent has my belief in noncoercion and child protection become, having taught thousands of children in my career so far, that the Student Code I’ve written reads (as it is) like a document designed to empower children, not restrict them. A summary of Article I headings in my prototype includes:

  • I.§A.¶1. Right to Equal Education.
  • I.§A.¶2. Right to Equal Access.
  • I.§A.¶3. Right to Freedom from Gender Bias.
  • I.§A.¶4. Right to Due Process.
  • I.§A.¶5. Right to Peaceable Protest Within School Rules.
  • I.§A.¶6. Right to Secular Education and Protection / Separation of Religion.
  • I.§A.¶7. In Loco Parentis.
  • I.§A.¶8. Search and Seizure.
  • I.§A.¶9. Freedom of Expression.
  • I.§A.¶10. Freedom of the Press.
  • I.§A.¶11. Right to Diverse Library Materials.
  • I.§B.¶1. Right to Safety and Security.
  • I.§B.¶2. Right to Respectful Treatment.
  • I.§B.¶3. Right to Essential Human Dignity.
  • I.§B.¶4. Right to Freedom from Compulsory Politics.
  • I.§C.¶1. Restrooms.

Section A is all rooted in Supreme Court precedent. Section B is rooted in extant case law. Section C tackles what I believe is a unique example of lacking precedent being cloudy is the topic of “the right to go to the bathroom.” There is no clear national case law that states definitively that a student has the right to use the bathroom. That said, Brian Freeman has made a compelling case over the years, since he first wrote on the subject at Whittier Law, that in loco parentis (“in the place of the parent”) as established by Lander v. Seaver in 1859 has significant limits, and ought not be used as an implement of power and control to deny students basic human rights. I am entirely comfortable with his inference that denial of urination is a form of corporal punishment, and would go so far as to say that denying a child with a legitimate need to relieve himself or herself is not merely tantamount to, but is in actuality, abuse. (For education law enthusiasts, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals did, in 1987, find in Jefferson v. Yselta ISD, that “a young student who is not being properly punished or disciplined has a constitutional right not to be … denied … the basic liberty of access to the bathroom when needed.” I do not consider this definitive national precedent for the right to relieve one’s self, but it’s a start.)

Profanity is another difficult topic, as a further example. There is no SCOTUS rule that explicitly prohibits profanity in school, or empowers us to do so. It is not one of the “enumerated powers” granted us by previous precedent. I recently was made aware of an incident in which a student was profane and sexually-explicit in an online chat environment. When the report of this incident was presented, the administration opinion returned was that the report was an overreaction, as the students were merely collaborating (which they were, to be fair), the incident was quite mild (which it was, to be fair), and it was a first infraction (which it was, to be fair). The report illustrated a patent and documented violation of a published county-wide rule, specifically the district’s electronic communication policy, which explicitly prohibited profanity and sexually explicit communication online. Now, if that action had transpired in person, directly in front of an administrator, one could easily assume, having seen administrators enforce rules that do not appear in print, that an administrator would have at least counseled the student.

School cultures are often rife with double-standard.

If we believe in a rule, if we believe that it exists to protect students and is therefore valid – and you can make the case why eliminating profanity from a school protects children; a loose case, but a case nonetheless – then we must enforce it equitably. Otherwise, we are playing favorites. We are picking and choosing, on arbitrary bases, which children we will protect and which we will not, which establishes the precedent that some children are more valuable than others, and that is an unloving act violating my central tenet.

If, on the other hand, we do not believe in a rule, and we do not believe it exists to protect students and is therefore invalid, then the appropriate leadership decision is to rewrite or eliminate the rule. You do not leave a rule on the books that is not a rule at all. That creates double-standards and promotes a condition in which children could be selectively disciplined, or in which children are miscommunicated to by people they are supposed to be able to trust (teachers). Conditions of contradiction confound children and adults alike. Promoting such an environment through action or inaction is also an unloving act, which also violates my central tenet.

Therefore, inaction in this case is unacceptable. If you make a rule a rule, you have to treat it like a rule, and if you’re not going to treat it like a rule, then it ought not be a rule. It’s that simple. Failure to act in this case is, at best, a misunderstanding of the circumstances and a failure to consider the larger perspective. At worst…

…wait for it…

…it is unloving and anti-child.

Teaching, not Training

“Teach,” as a verb, is defined as the act of imparting knowledge or skill. Many dictionaries consider synonyms to include “coach,” “inform,” “enlighten,” “drill,” or even “indoctrinate.” It comes from the Old English word tǣcan, meaning “sign or token.”

“Train,” as a verb, is defined as the act of developing or forming the habits, thoughts, or behavior of another through instruction. I’ve seen dictionaries refer to “teach” for synonyms. It comes from the French trahiner by way of the Latin traginare, meaning “to pull along.”

“Facilitate,” as a verb, is defined as the easing or lessening of difficulty, or to assist progress. It comes from the French faciliter by way of the Latin facilis, meaning “easy.”

Training is not teaching. Facilitation is not teaching. Teaching is teaching, and the dictionary definition of teaching leaves much to be desired.

Everywhere I look today, I see charlatans. They’re everywhere: frauds and cheats, misguided pollyannas at best, liars and neerdowells at worst.

“I can teach you how to do that.” Can you? “I teach so and so.” Do you? Or do you just know something, and are willing and able to replicate that knowledge or skill in another person verbatim? That’s not teaching. That’s training. Or perhaps you have a trick-of-the-trade that will help a person save a lot of time and energy doing a thing they’re doing, that you know how to do more efficiently. That’s not teaching. That’s facilitation.

Teachers do not train. Training is dispassionate, uncreative, repetitive, rote, scripted, mechanical… It doesn’t want new thoughts. It wants reproduction of itself. It wants duplication. (And sometimes, that’s ideal for the task at hand.) Teachers do not facilitate. They may labor tirelessly to increase the ease of learning, but ultimately learning isn’t about what’s easy; it’s about learning, and a teacher cannot ensure all students are learning if s/he is ultimately preoccupied with eliminating labor. Teachers teach, and teaching is the creation of holistic conditions – physical, intellectual, psychological, and emotional – to enable every student to learn.

Sound too simple? It’s not. Learning is defined as the act of acquiring knowledge or skill by study, instruction, or experience. It comes from the Middle English lernen, a German cognate, meaning “learn.” It seems like a circular definition, as compared to the other etymological derivations, doesn’t it? I believe there is a reason for that: true learning is unique. It is its own phenomenon, and does not define itself through other things. In fact, if you etymologically drill down lernen further, you come to the Gothic lais, “to know,” with a root sense of “to follow or find the path,” from the Old English lǣst, meaning “the sole of the foot.” In short, learning is finding one’s path.

It’s individual by nature. It must be achieved by the learner, and cannot be achieved by the teacher. Teachers do not create knowledge and skill, nor can they give it, because then it is not true knowledge and skill that has been learned, as all learning must be unique to and borne of the individual. The “imparting” of knowledge and skill as the dictionary defines it is a regressive, banking type of pedagogy to which I do not subscribe, as a radical, but regardless of one’s pedagogical philosophy, I believe the fact remains that learning must come from the learner, not the teacher.

All learners find their own paths, but we teachers must ensure that while they explore and discover amid their trailblazing that we do not lose a single one of our flock. There is no acceptable rate of attrition in teaching and learning. Teachers never leave a learner behind. Not one. Not one, not ever. No excuses.

“What about a lazy kid?” You never leave a learner behind.

“What about a kid that just doesn’t want to work?” You never leave a learner behind.

“What about a kid that’s misplaced and shouldn’t be there?” You never leave a learner behind.

Never. Ever.

You will not get me to budge on this point, and if you call yourself a teacher and insist on fighting with me on this, then you must accept as a maxim that to you abandoning some kids is okay with you, and I say you should be ashamed of that attitude. Maybe you’re jaded. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you’re stymied.

Or maybe you don’t mean it and you ought to reflect upon your language as well as your attitude. (I didn’t say this was going to be an easy conversation.)

I’m not blind to how screwed up the system is. If you know me at all, you know that fighting to right those wrongs is one of my life’s missions. But do not ask me to accept that teachers abandon kids. They don’t. They fight for their learners’ learning. They sacrifice for it. They lie down in front of buses and end up underneath them for their kids.

And they certainly don’t take children out into the wilderness of massive knowledge and new discovery, and let them wander off into the intellectual woods and say “sorry, Timmy, that’s too far, and now you’re on your own.” That’s abandoning a child. That’s betraying your responsibility. You never, ever, ever leave a child alone. I have said it ad nauseam and shall continue to reiterate it until the day you believe me or leave teaching never to return: Children are for one thing, and that is to be loved. They are never, ever to be “done to.” They are to be loved, and you cannot love a child by cutting him or her off and leaving him or her to be alone.

Rote memorization can provide useful intellectual tools, but memorization is not learning. It’s the difference between knowing (read: awareness) and knowing (read: understanding). I know that Pearl Harbor was bombed December 7, 1941. But that fact doesn’t mean I understand the nuances of how we got there, what happened then, what happened after, and the reasons behind it all. Knowing a fact is not “learning” any more than someone who knows many facts is “smart.” Moreover, every individual learner’s knowledge, skill, and experience is unique by its very nature, and so rote memorization cannot possibly provide for real learning. Learners are inquisitive while learning. Learning requires curiosity, and so teaching requires curiosity. Training does not.

If a student has a question, a teacher must answer it. The answer may well be “I don’t know,” but that is always an antecedent, that must lead immediately and directly to a consequent of discovery or inquiry. Why doesn’t the teacher know? (Not punitively, but genuinely: Why not? Is it a new question? Is it a new perspective? Might it infer a link that may or may not exist?) How can both the teacher and the learner find out together?

Understand, I do differentiate between teachers and professional teachers in terms of career. I expect professional teachers to have certain skills and that often involves credentialing because pedagogy is such a complex art and science that is vastly undertaught in our teacher preparation programs and grossly undervalued by our administrators. But you can, of course, be a teacher even if teaching not your vocation… but I don’t think it happens often. Teaching – true teaching, as I define it – requires passion and commitment of time and energy I find few have in sufficient measure to do effectively while maintaining an alternative vocation. 

Training shouldn’t be disparaged, either, nor should facilitation. Both are useful. But to me, there is a nigh-Hippocratic responsibility that “I teach” includes, that is not nearly present enough in the daily minds and attitudes of many of those that purport to do so. One ought to be an effective master of the knowledge and skill included in and ancillary to one’s subject or content before attempting to teach it, and needs to be a constant and lifelong learner to ensure the ever-expansion of that knowledge and skill, but so too must a teacher be an effective master of the art and science of teaching. Pedagogy is a word I use a lot, and it may have a simple definition on paper, but it’s a massive thing. It’s a concept as well as a skill, a collection of methodologies as well as the inclusive thought on all methodologies. It’s like “science” or “art” or “philosophy.” These are huge, huge “schools” of thinking, creating, doing, and being. As such, there is a sacrosanct trust around “I teach” that requires much more than a shingle hung out front and a few happily-trained doers of a thing to scrawl out testimonials.

Students are individuals, and being unique, they will understand, explore, discover, and create in ways no one ever has. That requires us to provide for our students taking up their intellectual lanterns and strapping on their thoughtful boots, and trudging off into parts of our field, of learning, of content, of human experience, that we are unprepared for and that, at times, might well create misunderstanding, misconception, or misapplication. That is why we must have small troops on these great field trips of exploration (smaller class sizes), take great care to check on every individual learner often without stopping them and sitting them down (lightweight ungraded formative assessment), be sure students can do what they must be able to do before we tackle the next obstacle (effective summative assessment based on skill and aptitude, not age-based promotion or school-social convenience and the corresponding remediation and individual teaching), and never, ever leave a learner behind.

An unanswered question is an unanswered call for help.

An unaddressed misconception is a rope bridge with busted slats.

An unattended discovery is letting that kid tempt the rabid animal with a smore.

An unassisted stumble is an ignored open wound.

Teachers never abandon their kids in the wilderness. It’s unloving, and it’s anti-child. Those that believe that there is an acceptable rate of loss when it comes to learners are sellers of snake oil, portrayers of safe and sincere teaching who are truly predators, malicious neglectors, self-aggrandizing quacks. They are the Adolfo Pirellis to my Sweeney Todd, and I will assail the mountebanks with the same ardor, though I’ll use my words and my pro-child actions in lieu of the razor and furnace.

Trainers have their place. There are things that can be understood through training, and it may in fact be the very best way to accurately duplicate a skill that must be done precisely the same, regardless of individuality. There may be only one way to do a thing, as a general rule, and training is more than sufficient but the ideal fusion of saving time and minimal effort to achieve the greatest result, and facilitators may be able to improve even upon that baseline. These are valuable things in our world. But they are not, and never will be, the same thing as teaching.

Teachers never leave a learner behind. Not one.

Not ever.

First Life, Second Life, Real Life

Summary of 2 hour conversation: People are real.

The medium by which you manifest your reality is secondary, and is artifice. You, as flesh, is a medium. You, as pixels, is a medium. It’s all sodium and potassium down carbon. That’s all. Everything you are, everything you have been, and everything you ever will be, is the exchange of ions involving sodium, and potassium, and carbon. That’s all a nerve impulse is, and you are nothing – at least the you we care about – without that. The power of the virtual environment is the ability to mitigate that which is liability in flesh or “first life” through the medium of pixels or “second life.” I can walk through fire, into lava, through the outer layers of a star, and into the heart of a fusion reaction in second life, which I cannot do in first. But you can still say something cruel and hurt me in second life. Hurt me “for real,” and therefore have a deleterious effect in the artifice of first. All medium is artifice; all that is real is real.

It’s not solipsistic, either, because it’s not “only” that self is real, but it’s that ALL that is the extension of self is ALSO real, and THAT is the real reason we progressive educational technologists ought to be paying FAR better attention to virtual environments and virtual reality than we do, and why I am not only a participant in a second life, but why I HAVE a Second Life in a very meaningful way. It is an extended medium – artifice though it may be – that gives me extension of my real self beyond that which those of you that do not have such a life have. It is as if you choose to live life lesser by failing to take that which is a free, ready medium of the extension of yourself.

Our students won’t make such a foolish mistake, and so we ought not be so shortsighted.

#k12punkrock

It’s time to speak truth to power.

Ultimately, it’s one of the cornerstones of lacking courage that’s the modern hallmark of the American public education system. I adore Diane Ravitch and respect her work immensely, but she and I differ on one key point: She says the American public education system is not a failure. I say it is. I don’t say all American public schools are failures, but a system that permits laypeople with no educational background, no educational training, no educational wisdom, and no educational philosophy to enact and perpetuate anti-child, pro-corporation, non-instructional policy day in and day out is a failure, and we ought not shy away from saying that.

We should say it clearly, and loudly. Very loudly. Harshly, if necessary. It’s not quiet. It’s not well behaved. It’s not nice.

And I don’t care.

It’s high time we started acting like real revolutionaries, and as I’ll detail in my upcoming book, Insurrection, it’s not going to be a lovely tea party. We are on a build up to a real explosion in educational policy and practice, and we’ve known it’s been coming for a long time. As we lead up to the Big Show, it’s time to start speaking truth to power on social media, and get real. So if you post something that’s a clear-voiced rally cry, a Revolutionary’s war yaulp, a visionary or bellwether statement about fixing schools, I invite you to join me as we rock it out. Use #k12punkrock to unify, to raise your fists skyward, and get your “hell yeah” on for public education.

It’s time to do punk rock right.

Sonata for Trumpet

I began composing in earnest in 1996, thanks to the inspiration of my band director and first theory teacher, Tony Maio at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, who created a school MIDI lab well ahead of the curve, and richly appointed for its day. Roland MIDI synths, great monitors, thoroughly decent computers, and Finale 3.5.2, if I recall correctly. Right about that time, my marching band visual coordinator, Ron Abaté – one of the most talented educators I’ve ever known, a tremendous artist and musician, and a personal hero of mine – gave me two things that changed my musical career forever: some software help, and some sagacious advice:

“Let your ideas unfold. Don’t rush to finish a musical thought.”

My early writing was frenetic, disjunct, and incomplete. My self-disciplined efforts to stabilize resulted in near-obsessive ostinato to the point of emulating Philip Glass, and a nearly pedantic adherence to tone center, avoiding modulations unconsciously. It took my first formal composition teacher, Dana Wilson, to directly tackle my theoretical monotony.

Well, I’m not sure if any of these three poor gentlemen would want to be associated with my work at this point, given my unimpressive tenure as an undergraduate at Ithaca and my subsequently less-than-sterling reputation in education having become the rabble-rousing policy insurgent I am, but my heart will always be filled with music, and I continue to try diligently to improve my craft as a composer. I’ve been privileged enough to write for some decent groups, and I have high hopes that as I begin a new chapter of my life now in my mid-thirties, I’ll be able to grow more and offer some of my sound to the world.

When I do write, it usually happens one of two ways: I diligently set out to complete a task, and construct the work piece-by-piece… or a very different, shockingly-rapid process unfolds, as it did with the work I share today. It’s almost like archaeology: A work comes to me, finished. I can hear it. It’s just there, and my job is to uncover it. I feel about these beautiful little things like I do about tattoos: they were already there; you just had to uncover them.

It’s been about eighteen years since I started writing music, and for the first time, I have a work for my primary instrument. Thusly, I share  Sonata for Trumpet in Bb and Piano. Enjoy.

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Why Second Life?

The collective set of skills and experiences we associate with interacting with other people, as diverse as each of our experiences are as individuals, has some general overlap.

Most of us respond to faces, gestures, and other physical language. Almost all of us respond more humanely to a human-like (anthropomorphic) representation than a faceless voice or, even more non-interactive, simple text. We hear nuance in tone of voice, and associate emotional and familiar responses with the appearance of those we know. This phenomenon in reverse is why people can be less thoughtful on an email than they’d ever be in person. The converse also exists in our neuropsychological space: Sometimes anxiety of the face-to-face interpersonal can overwhelm, and a certain distance can be stress-alleviating and facilitate more meaningful interaction. It all depends on the individual.

When we use a live telecommunications medium, we largely mitigate the “dehumanizing anonymity” of strictly textual platforms, both synchronous and asynchronous, and as such, many of us get a great deal more personal association with our colleagues during a Google Hangout as compared to a Google Chat conversation. But even as sophisticated as a Google Hangout can be, it is limited in its interactivity.

I’m me, and can be seen and heard as me, and I can share my two dimensional screen and associated files.

But what if I want to be someone else, like Lincoln or Genghis Khan or an alien or John Dewey or a potential school shooter during a security exercise? What if I want to collaborate not in text, but the exploration of a 3D object like a planet our a molecule? Or an environment, like Jamestown or Mars or a puzzle or a school not yet built? Or collaborate on creating such an environment? What if I want to maintain a permanent presence in a platform that allows anyone these abilities, and has a robust, years-tested developmental community constantly expanding and improving the basic mechanics, the content, and the community? What if I want the extensibility and flexibility to create in 3D, with physics and lighting and and interactivity? What if I want real, immersive virtual environments?

I use Second Life.

A virtual environment on the scale of Second Life – arguably the premiere freeform virtual world, or “grid,” in the world, managed by Linden Labs out of San Francisco, California – provides not only the tools to facilitate the above extensions of digital collaboration, but the content to support the experiences that would otherwise be theoretical. I can say “wouldn’t it be great to be able to see the site of the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang in Xi’an without having to travel to Shaanxi province,” but if there’s no recreation, there’s no virtual opportunity. In Second Life, there is, along with countless other analogs to real-world artifacts, sites, and experiences, as well as the utterly fantastic. The ability to stand in the midst of a solar system, and interact with the planets, seeing from the angle one chooses, has the potential to engage a learner and lead to discovery and clarifying questions far better than a static resource. By utilizing Second Life for professional development, we educational technology professionals have opportunities to further our understandings of the possibilities of the three-dimensional virtual world from a curricular and pedagogical perspective, given the plethora of extant content. This can then translate to student-focused applications of other more self-contained grids in more effective ways.

In short, Second Life is a nexus for the development of best practices in a way no other grid can be, because of its primacy, scope, and history. It is the “major leagues” of virtual worlds. Understanding the liabilities of the platform – socially, technically, and practically – is part of developing a robust framework of best practices.

The network of educational technologists in Second Life includes some remarkable leaders, and I consider disengaging from virtual environments to be short-sighted. The era of the interactive whiteboard is largely behind us, but the era of virtual environments, gaming, and simulation is dawning. This is why I believe progressive educators with a strong interest in meaningful immersion and creating fluency in semiotic domains – something I think any serious educational technologist needs to consider when considering the child mind and the needs of the learner – should continue investing deeply in virtual worlds, including and most especially Second Life.

It is a powerful vehicle for understanding various thinking, learning, and experiential modalities using extant virtual content and providing for tremendous extension and creation on an established and funded platform that promises stability for the foreseeable future. It may not be the answer to all professional development or form the backbone of virtual learning, but it is the precursor to truly expansive and immersive virtual experiences to come. Why would one not want to be on such a bus?

Teachers with Guns are Betraying Their Duty

Nearly two dozen Clarksville, Arkansas teachers will be carrying concealed weapons to class starting in the fall, according to AP.

A teacher that carries a gun to class is betraying children. A teacher that thinks s/he can be an effective educator while keeping the vigilant mindset of armed guardian misunderstands psychology, has flawed logic, and maintains an attitude I find cavalier, megalomaniacal, and unacceptable. Teachers have a duty to nurture children, to be focused on teaching and learning every moment of their professional lives. It is a motto of mine and the mantra of our profession: Children and their learning, first and foremost, in all things, now and forever.

The role of the soldier is to “run toward the noise.” Trained professional marksmen and those in positions to defend must react at a moment’s notice with deadly force to stop assailants. The role of the teacher is to “run away from the noise,” leading children to safety and security without regard for what or why, and without regard for personal safety.

The two roles are mutually exclusive.

A teacher with a gun isn’t a teacher. Period. A teacher cannot flip into the role of the armed defender without ceasing to be a teacher, and that’s not what we want from our teachers. The debate about whether or not armed security should be present in schools is one debate, but it is not the same debate as arming teachers. A teacher that is armed, trained or not, cannot perform the duties we expect of a teacher, which is unquestioning flight. The “fight or flight” response must be trained to go one way. Let security fight; we want teachers and children on the run for designated shelters.

Reading the literature on the subject of school shootings will show you getting children to isolated safety behind a closed door as rapidly as possible is the best chance children have for survival. Clarksville Superintendent David Hopkins is dead wrong. He says “lock your doors and turn off your lights” isn’t a plan. He’s wrong, and the fact that he doesn’t understand the statistics surrounding mass school shootings in this country gives me troubling pause, coming from a supposed school leader. Of the just over sixty school shootings in this country, isolation behind a secure door has YET to be penetrated. We know that shooters don’t go through locked doors; they take the path of least resistance. “Lock your doors and turn off your lights, get down, stay out of sight, be quiet” is not only a plan, it’s effective. An armed teacher would inevitably be tempted to break that isolation, thereby endangering children. 

And don’t let this AP story fool you: Cheyne Dougan has never found himself in the real situation he “trained” for. He went into a mock shooting situation knowing a shooting was coming, armed with a pistol he intended to use with deadly force. This situation shows that not only is Clarksville dangerously out of touch, it doesn’t know good pedagogy. That’s not authentic. You predisposed the learner (Mr. Dougan) and didn’t immerse him in an authentic situation. Unless Mr. Dougan permanently shifts his attention away from his Assistant Principal duties and retrains his mind to that of the soldier, to that of the vigilant watchman, the training and scenario are both bogus.

Which do you want? A soldier or a teacher? Because you can’t have both. It’s a fallacy, and ironically it’s our military professionals that have the best take on this. They know that an effective soldier needs to be trained to snap into action to “run toward the noise,” ready to execute programmed directives on instinct, or people die. How arrogant is Clarksville to think it can casually push gung-ho gun-toting volunteers into soldierly mindset, then turn them back around and send them in to rooms of children expecting nurturing.

The nightmare scenarios unfold: Teacher gets a trigger finger with an uppity kid. Teacher can’t talk down a mouthy teenager. Teacher is intentionally provoked by a troubled youth. Teacher gets into an altercation with a feisty parent. Rest assured my friends, this leads to more violence, not less. Clarksville should be ashamed of itself, and rational teachers everywhere should be horrified at this idea.

If you want to guard children with a gun, be a security officer, because you can’t be a teacher at the same time.

Soldiers run toward the noise. Teachers must run away, because no one focused on nurturing children can instantly conceive of deadly force. It would require so deeply-disturbed a psychology that said teacher never should have been a teacher in the first place.

You want more armed guards in a school, hire them. But don’t you dare suggest that a teacher can be a teacher with a gun. It’s impossible, and I have the deepest fear about how soon it will be before I’m quoting this article in a link to a horrible tragedy.

My thanks to my friend, Mr. James Russell, for articulating several points that I quote in this article. The views expressed here are personal, and are not representative of those of any organization or institution.

Addendum

Whether or not a person trained is not the question: When one is in the role of teacher one must disengage from the mindset required to effectively react with deadly force to neutralize an assailant. Even a former sniper with the Marines, if a good and effective teacher properly immersed in his work, will not be in a position to instantly slam into “run to the noise, get the bad guy” mode. If he’s hovering between the two worlds, or worse yet, constantly checking in in “sniper mode,” he is a deadly liability amid children. It cannot be permitted. The two psychologies are absolutely mutually exclusive. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t invest millions of dollars and thousands of man hours constantly forging teenage and young 20-something minds in the military into instantaneous reaction machines. The nurturing pro-child mentality is not simultaneously compatible with a defend-and-attack mentality. Consequently, training is irrelevant and may even be harmful.

The professional website of Keith David Reeves