Ouch

Today hurts. There is no escaping that. I’ve been stumbling through, dazed and still trying to wrap my head around what happened last night.

Donald Trump is our next president.

Realistically, we could have eight years of progress bulldozed with the stroke of a pen in January when he officially takes office.

As a teacher, I’m terrified. I’ve seen what GOP control does to the state of education here in Michigan. Now the whole country gets to experience that nightmare. Chris Christie, a man who has made a name for himself bullying and intimidating educators in New Jersey, is sure to play a big role in the Trump administration. Trump himself is a proponent of school choice, an experiment that has already failed on a massive scale both here in America and abroad in Sweden.

I fear that any legitimate objections we raise will simply be ignored, because we swept this man into power with a legislative majority at his fingertips. Could our schools privatize en masse? Could Right To Work legislation become the law of the land? I shudder at the thought.

Let me step away from teaching for a moment to address a more immediate concern, civil rights. Trump said in his victory speech last night:

Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division – have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to get together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

It sounds like a lovely sentiment on its face, but its not. First, for us to start healing, Trump has to acknowledge that many of these wounds have been caused or worsened by his hateful rhetoric. And it’s not about party. We know Democrats, Republicans and independents can work together – they have in the past. A far more troubling division reared its ugly head these past several months. I’m talking about Muslims, Latinos, blacks, women, the LGBTQ community…all of these groups and more have been subjected to abuse from Trump, his surrogates, and his supporters. As scared as I am right now, I can not fathom how some of my friends and students must be feeling. If Trump truly wants to heal the nation, he must reach out to all of the people his campaign demonized.

For our part, we must make sure that now more than ever, the marginalized people in our lives know that we value, love, and support them. Stress the values of respect, kindness, and decency in your classrooms. Do your best to ensure that your students don’t feel afraid or unwelcome in your room. We need to ensure that what really makes this country great – inclusion, diversity, respect – are alive and well in our classrooms and our communities.

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Let’s stop calling the public “customers”

I worked at Jimmy John’s in college. A couple of them, actually. And I was pretty damn good at slinging sandwiches. It’s been at least 10 years since I put on the uniform, and I’m pretty confident that I could still get behind the counter and pump food out quickly.

When I was at JJ’s, I had a pretty clearly defined relationship with our customers. They pay for a sandwich, or sandwiches. I make said sandwich. We exchange pleasantries while I wrap their sandwich. I tell them to have a great day. They leave. It was different with regulars only in the sense that we would repeat this process with them on a daily basis.

That’s where it ended though. When that sandwich left the shop, the door closed on that relationship. I never stayed after my shift had ended to help any of the customers become better at consuming their sandwiches. I never lost any sleep worrying that the Italian Night Club I had made during the lunch rush didn’t have a warm home to go back to. I never had the urge to go check in with sandwiches that I had made years prior.

And after sitting through yet another meeting where somebody described the local community as “our customers”, I couldn’t help but realize just how terrible that label is. “Customer” doesn’t even begin to describe how deep the bonds are between teacher and community. We care deeply for our students even when they leave our classes for the day. We sacrifice our time and energy even when we are off the clock.

When I made a sandwich, there was no considering what impact that Beach Club with extra sprouts would have on the community. When I teach kid? That’s a huge part of my thought process. Is what we’re doing in here benefiting the school community, and the community at large?

When we call the public “customers”, we are selling them short. They are our allies, our supporters, our partners, our stakeholders. Calling them customers does them a disservice. We are just as invested in the students as they are, let’s start conveying that and think of ourselves as more than just customer service reps.

Musical Chairs

A few families this year have asked why I don’t do chair placement auditions with my 7th and 8th grade students. The question always seems to come from a similar place, “That’s the way my old band director did it.” Well, mine too. And while I love my old band director dearly, chair placements are one thing that I’m not a fan of. I’m convinced that rotational seating is the best thing for young musicians.

  • It’s not about competition. Especially not with middle school kids. Our culture has become incredibly obsessed with competition, and it can be found everywhere. The band room, however, is a place where we should all be working toward the same goals. At a young age, these students should be focused on building their musical skills, not beating out their classmates for first chair. It’s also very important to me that our classroom culture is based on supporting each other and celebrating the achievements of others. That’s difficult to do amidst competition for chairs.
  • It’s not an intrinsic motivator. I don’t want a student in my classroom to be motivated by their chair placement. Especially since that motivation can take a serious hit if you’re a student perpetually competing for last chair. I want to foster a sense of intrinsic motivation in my students, so that their own successes are what drive them to improve.
  • It’s all about skill building. Different parts require a different skill set, even when you’re talking about a 1st clarinet part vs. a 3rd clarinet. As young musicians, my students should be developing a well-rounded musical skill set, not just focusing on a single part. I want my clarinet players to be equally comfortable above the break and in the chalumeau register. I want my trumpet players to have a warm, strong low range as well as a solid high register.
  • Rotating creates balance. All parts are equally important, and by rotating seating on each piece we play, I can ensure that there are strong players on each part. Composers write those 2nd and 3rd parts for a reason, and having strong players on each part ensure a full, balanced performance.
  • Rotating fosters mentorships. I get a handful of students brand new to band each year. I make sure they get a lot of individual attention on their instrument, and for times when we can’t do a one-on-one lesson, rotational seating is great. I have a young clarinet player who just started eight weeks ago. At the beginning of the year, they were very uncomfortable with going over the break, so they ended up playing mostly 2nd and 3rd parts at our first concert while we worked on that skill. We have a few strong, experienced clarinet players in their hour, so I paired them up and kept them on the same parts for that first concert cycle. It allowed my new student to learn from a 3rd-year player, and it gave the 3rd-year player a valuable leadership experience.
  • Chaired seating means stress. Middle school is difficult enough already. I don’t want students already freaking out over more difficult classes and a bigger homework load coming to my room freaked out about an upcoming chair challenge. I definitely don’t want somebody brand new to band to have to worry about a chair placement audition before they even know how to put their instrument together. It’s about creating a safe, welcoming, inclusive environment.

Reflections on a student teacher, week one: Primum non nocere

First, do no harm.

My first ever student teacher started with me one week ago, and that phrase has been on my mind a lot. I want him to be able to get his hands dirty, I want him to understand everything that goes into a teacher’s day beyond just teaching, I want him to understand what it’s like to be an educator in today’s political climate. And I want to do all of this without terrifying him.

I know, right?

After just a week, it’s clear that the whole placement is going to be a balancing act. Explaining some of the challenges one might face as a beginning teacher is fine. Drowning him in pessimism thanks to budget cuts and nasty public attacks on teachers is probably less okay. I can get pretty outspoken about the negative perception of education today, but it would be harmful for me to let that discourage a young, enthusiastic teacher.

Watching somebody else teach in my classroom, working with my kids, is also a surreal experience. That has made me consciously think about why I do things the way I do, because he’s watching me teach as well, and asking questions. There are times where I’ll want to jump in and make a suggestion, but I recognize that doing so would disrupt the learning process for both my students and my student teacher. Instead, I take notes and we debrief after class. I’m not trying to say I want to jump in because he’s doing poorly; quite the opposite. I want to jump in because I’ve known these kids for 2-3 years and I understand how they operate. He’ll develop that with time though, so I take notes instead.

An unexpected benefit of welcoming a student teacher into the classroom has been a boost in my own energy each day. There are opportunities to split classes up into smaller groups, I’ve been able to grab a secondary instrument and play along with my students for long chunks of time while not on the podium, and it’s another person to closely collaborate with each day.

Seven more weeks to go, and I’ll try to post a regular reflection each week.

On Gun Violence

Stuff happens.

That completely tone-deaf remark by Jeb Bush in the aftermath of yet another school shooting is just a symptom of the overall indifference we as a nation seem to have when it comes to these tragedies. It was a disgusting moment that stood out during the aftermath of the most recent tragedy, but it’s hardly fair to blame Bush entirely. He is far from the only leader who has failed miserably when it comes to protecting our children.

It’s amazing to me just how much the attitude toward gun violence has shifted over the past several years. I remember coming home as an 8th grader in April of 1999, and seeing my mom glued to the TV. She was watching the tragic events at Columbine High School unfold, and I remember thinking this isn’t supposed to happen at a school. It was shocking and horrifying.

Now? School shootings remain horrifying and tragic, but they are no longer surprising. The cycle of events is depressingly predictable. A gunman shoots up a school. Politicians everywhere claim to feel for the victims and families. There are renewed cries for gun control, followed by shouts from gun lovers that more regulations would infringe on their freedoms. And nothing is ever changed.

To defend his asinine statement, Jeb Bush said (emphasis mine) “…you just read the papers, and you see a child dies in a pool and drowns. And parents want to pass a law to do something, and you got to be careful that you want to solve the problem. If there’s a problem, a defect in the law, fine, then we did that all the time, but sometimes you’re imposing solutions to problems that doesn’t fix the problem and takes away people’s liberties and rights…”

There are a couple of egregious errors with Bush’s statement. First, we are well past the point where these shootings are isolated incidents that only affect a few people. He wants us to believe that cries for more gun control are just an emotional overreaction by grieving families. Bullshit. It’s a reaction from people all across the country who are sick of seeing lives needlessly ended.

Even worse than that though, is his claim that proposed solutions to these mass shootings would take away people’s liberties and rights. We have elected leaders who have decided that the right to own guns is equally as important as our children’s right to safety and life. Again, I call bullshit. Nobody’s right to own a weapon is anywhere near as important as the lives of our young people. If that’s really where our priorities are as a nation, then we have failed as a society.

Schools are supposed to be a refuge for our students. I want my classroom to be a safe place for my students, regardless of any struggles they may be dealing with outside of school. Every child is entitled to a space where they are protected and valued. By refusing to take any meaningful action against school shootings, our elected officials are telling us that they don’t value our students, that protecting them is too great a burden.

Think about how drastically our lives changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. One tragic event changed everybody’s lives forever. We’re rapidly approaching 150 school shootings in the past three years and nothing has changed. We haven’t even seen a token effort to curb the violence.

It’s well past time for one of our leaders to stand up to the ridiculous pro-gun talking points that get recycled every time there’s another school shooting. It’s past time for us as a nation to re-asses our priorities and figure out what we really value. Our leaders need to do something. Even something that just barely lowers the frequency of these shootings is a step in the right direction, and it would be a hell of a lot more than anything that’s been done in the past decade. Stop the violence, we need our young ones to be safe.

On Charter Schools

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile, and with the recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling that charters may be unconstitutional, now seemed like a perfect time.

All too often, charter schools are a tool used by education reformers to take power away from unions, and to put public money in private hands. Many charters are run by for-profit corporations with little or no educational experience. All across the country, charters under-perform when compared to their public school counterparts, despite cries to the contrary from supporters of privatization.

In my home state of Michigan, charters have been established in some areas in place of “failing” public schools, despite the fact that the failure of those schools has largely been manufactured by the government. Some charters have mysteriously closed overnight, leaving students and parents in a bind. In Ohio, the charter system is filled with corruption, mismanagement, and failure.

The failures of the charter system are readily apparent, and yet I can’t bring myself to completely condemn these schools. If you know where to look, you can find absolute brilliance among all of the failures and embarrassments. How do I know?

I’m a product of a charter, myself.

There are however a few key differences between my alma mater, and many of the disasters you read about in the press. For one, our charter is held by a public university and not a for-profit company. The school also holds true to Albert Shanker’s original vision of what a charter should be – an educational laboratory whose charter should only be renewed if the school remains successful.

If more charter operators embraced these characteristics instead of merely praying that the magic of privatization and competition improves their school, you’d see better results. Allow me to highlight a few key principles that my alma mater got right, things that set them apart from many other charters.

Teacher autonomy. The administrators trust the people they hire to do their job, it’s that simple. There was never really any micromanagement of teachers, which in turn meant the staff felt empowered to try new things.

An emphasis on the arts. By the time I graduated from high school, over two-thirds of our student body was involved in a music ensemble. The rest of the school was involved in a visual art of some kind. Even kids who needed some extra help in another core class would not be pulled out of the arts. Engagement in the arts was part of the school philosophy from day one.

Small class sizes. I think the average class size when I was a student was roughly 17-19 students. This meant each student received a lot of direct instruction, and each teacher was able to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of each student. Even today, 11 years after my high school graduation, I feel strong bonds to many of my teachers as result of the high level of interaction each day.

Embracing the Socratic method. Very few classes are ever simple lectures. I don’t recall any fully teacher-centric classrooms. At least a portion of every class revolved around discussion. Research shows that if a student has to explain their point of view, they gain a deeper understanding of the material.

Student autonomy. The end of each school year brought about something called “Project Term”, where students could pick their own educational direction for four weeks. Gone were the traditional core classes, replaced by opportunities to travel, perform plays, cook, learn photography, and many other things. For four weeks, students had the chance to practice their language skills in foreign countries, put their musical skills to the test by writing and performing a musical, and exercise their writing skills by creating short stories and novellas. It was project-based learning at its very finest.

Here’s the thing though. Many of the things that made my alma mater wonderful and unique should not be unique. Simple things like teacher and student autonomy are good ideas for any school environment, but in many cases they’ve been replaced by an emphasis on standardized testing.

If the reformers truly want to “fix” public schools, the answer is not to open more charters, to create competition between schools. The answer is to find a school that is already doing things well like mine was, and to spread those ideas around to already existing public schools.

Even though I have a deep love for my own charter school experience, one of the most important things to me is seeing each community have a strong public school district. I’d be thrilled to see the large amount of failing charters that don’t fit Shanker’s vision close down, keeping only those that are successful and willing to collaborate with other schools. Washington’s supreme court ruling is a step in the right direction, I just hope it doesn’t end up closing the door on some very high quality schools like mine.

Stop Electing Buffoons

I know I like to rip on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder a lot. And quite frankly, he deserves a lot of criticism for things like the emergency manager legislation, and the EAA. But, I have to give him credit for standing up to Jase Bolger’s terrible plan to fix Michigan’s roads. Snyder has stated several times now that he prefers a plan to fix Michigan’s roads that does not involve hurting schools or local governments (possibly because he’s already done such a great job of hurting them himself…)

Under Bolger’s plan, my district would lose roughly $2.6 million next year. This works out to about $475 per student. That’s a LOT of money, especially when you consider I don’t work in a terribly large or affluent district to begin with. A larger district like Ann Arbor Public stands to lose over $7 million under Bolger’s plan. Michigan’s schools are not in great financial shape, and have not been for quite some time. Why is further damage to the schools even on the table?

To make things even worse, Bolger has threatened to push through electoral college reform during the current lame duck session if his demands aren’t met. Congratulations, Michigan voters. You’ve elected a guy who is holding our state hostage, and demanding public school funding as ransom.