Learning history in the present


Women marched peacefully on Saturday to demonstrate pride and autonomy — and to let President Trump know they won’t stand for any rollback of women’s rights.

Or, women marched and destroyed property Saturday to whine about losing the election.

Or, women marched Saturday as dupes of outside forces, including radical Islam.

Which version do you believe?

I believe #1. Most of my friends were at marches Saturday — in St. Paul, in Washington, D.C., in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in Wichita, in New York — and I trust their perspective. I would have joined them if I hadn’t been sick all week, because I’m concerned about women’s rights (and human rights) under the new regime.

Like many women, I was appalled by the video last fall, revealing how Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women, and I don’t like that he wishes Time’s “Person of the Year” was still “Man of the Year.” Like many women, I’m also worried about serious policy issues like women’s health care and access to contraceptives.

But I know people who genuinely believe versions 2 and 3, based on their personal views, their news sources, and their interpretation of current events. I was, frankly, startled to read their perspectives on Facebook.

I have a completely different viewpoint, which is why this event strikes me as a perfect opportunity for a history lesson.

Last fall, at the NCSS conference, I attended a great session on how eyewitness experiences become history. Whose story gets told? Why is that story told? And what is lost?

In the session, the instructor asked us to write down on paper what we had done that morning, word for word. What we ate, where we went, who we talked to, what we had learned in other sessions.

Then he proceeded to destroy most of our stories, telling us ¼ were destroyed in a flood, ¼ were destroyed by an invasion, another ¼ were suppressed by a new government. On and on, until one or two perspectives on the day remained for posterity.

It was a fascinating way to think about history. How do we know what living through the Plague was really like? Or slavery? Or the Civil War? Or the Vietnam War? Only by the accounts of those who were there (and lived to tell). For most events in human history, very few accounts survive.

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Why best practices don’t prevail

Bad news last week. My district’s school board has decided to delay implementation of later start times for high school students – a change that was scheduled for fall 2017.

No reason was given, but I imagine it involved pushback by parents and teachers of elementary school kids, who don’t like the idea of their schools starting earlier.

I understand that there are arguments and personal preferences on both sides (and that change is hard), but there’s no denying the benefits of letting teenagers get more sleep in the morning.

Thanks to extensive research by the University of Minnesota (and others), we know that when high school starts later, student performance improves; teen depression and anxiety levels fall; car accident rates fall; and truancy and behavioral referrals fall.

My high school starts at 7:25 a.m., meaning many kids are up at 6 and waiting at the bus stop at 6:30 a.m., more than an hour before winter sunrise — a fact that astounds my colleagues in other states.

Read this research report, and then tell me how this is still defensible.

Continue reading “Why best practices don’t prevail”

Racism isn’t debatable; it’s wrong

I generally try to avoid politics in my blog. When it comes to education issues, I do not fully agree with either the Democrats or Republicans (or the Libertarians, Socialists or any other party).

To say that unions are good or bad or that Common Core is good or bad or that charter schools are good or bad oversimplifies complex issues and blocks real progress.

Most people on both sides of education policy debates want us to do a better job preparing our children for school, work and civic life, and none of us has figured out how. So we are stuck debating, trying to craft the right incentives, trying to figure out how to teach all kids the right stuff.

One issue is not open for debate, though, and that is the need to make sure all of our children feel safe and welcome in our public schools. So the aftermath of last week’s election obligates me to post something political.

Racist messages at schools like Maple Grove Senior High — where racist graffiti tying President-elect Trump’s name with #whiteamerica (and worse) appeared in bathroom stalls — and DeWitt Junior High in Michigan — where white students formed a wall to block minority students Wednesday morning — are unacceptable. And those are just the beginning. Black students at UPenn were added to a racist out-of-state group chat. Racist slurs were written on the sidewalk at the University of St. Thomas.

Donald Trump’s campaign messages about building a wall with Mexico, deporting illegal immigrants and banning immigration by Muslims have clearly empowered some young people to brazenly express racism toward their peers.

We must act together to put a stop to it.

Those who support Trump’s ideas need to recognize that while many thoughtful adults can take a stand against immigration and still treat actual immigrants (or anyone nonwhite) with respect, teenagers and young adults (and some older adults) cannot manage this distinction. They process in black and white, and if immigration is bad, they rationalize, then immigrants are bad, and then it’s OK to hurt them.

Students today — especially middle school and high school kids — already bully each other on social media and at school over appearance, relationships, friendships at alarming rates. We cannot give them more reasons to torment each other.

Mr. Trump said on 60 Minutes last night that he does not support these racist attacks. That message needs to be reiterated by him and by leaders in every level of government until our kids understand. No matter how you feel about immigration policy, every person is a human being and deserves respect. Every student in our schools deserves to feel valued and protected, and they deserve the chance to learn.

Take responsibility and denounce racism. Then we can talk about how to move forward as one nation.

83% get a diploma, but what is it worth?

What should a high school diploma mean? What should 12 years of public education add up to?

In my view, it should mean you are ready for a job or for general postsecondary training. It should mean we have given you the appropriate skills for your next academic step.

Not every graduate needs to be prepared for coursework at an elite college or even a public four-year university, but a high school diploma should mean you are ready to perform at community college level.

So it’s discouraging when last week’s news that we are graduating 83% of American high school students is followed up by this week’s news — that so many of them require remediation that we need to design new 12th grade classes to help.

“Fed up with long rosters of college freshmen who can’t handle college-level courses, states are increasingly turning to 12th grade transition classes,” Education Week reported Oct. 26.

The article reveals that two-thirds of high school graduates who enroll in community college require remediation; so do 40 percent of those who attend public four-year institutions.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of 12th grade transition classes — except that this is what already should be happening in 12th grade. Why are we graduating so many high school seniors who can’t do this level of work?

Continue reading “83% get a diploma, but what is it worth?”

Survival tips for first-year teachers

It’s fun to see colleagues around the country sharing their “teacher stats” as this school year kicks off. Here are a few of mine:

  • 23rd year of teaching – 20th at Mounds View HS
  • 3 schools: Wilbur Middle School, The Independent School and Mounds View HS
  • Grades taught: 8-12
  • Favorite grade ever taught: 12
  • Subjects taught: Journalism, Economics, Language Arts, Civil Liberties, U.S. History, Government, Psychology
  • Students taught: 7500+

Frankly, I’m surprised I made it this far. When I think back to my 27-year-old self, heading off to my first day of teaching at Wilbur in 1994, I shudder to think how naive, inexperienced and idealistic I was.

I thought my lessons would be so great that every student would like me. I thought I was going to assign essays every week and grade them all. I thought I could impact even the most hard-to-reach students, not watch some of them slip away out of reach.

I didn’t think at all about some of the stupid things that would reduce me to tears, like a colleague blaming me for a broken VCR or a computer malfunction the day grades were due.

We’ve all heard the dismal teacher stats — the flipside to our longevity brag sheets, the numbers of teachers who found that the bad outweighed the good.  Only about half of new teachers even make it past five years, many driven out by frustration, poor school leadership, low pay, unrealistic expectations and the overwhelming nature of the job.

Is there a secret sauce that enables some teachers to stick it out for 20+ years? What kinds of traits and skills prepare you to last? Can we arm new teachers with tools that will make them effective — and willing to make it a career? Or is it more situational, based on school circumstances?

Continue reading “Survival tips for first-year teachers”