Reflections on the Rat Race

Early morning, and the sun is rising over cars on the freeway. All of us commuters, waiting in traffic. Four lanes of cars, headed to work.

I’m sitting in my car drinking coffee. I look to the right, see a lady peering into the rear-view mirror, carefully applying makeup to her eyes. Look to the left, see a guy glancing up and down from his phone.

News blaring on my radio. They’re talking about nuclear war. They’re talking about global warming.

At work, students stream into my classroom from the hallways. They’re laughing, they’re joking, they’re running around. When the bell rings, they groan. They sit down. Four rows of students, sitting in desks.

Sit up straight. Put your phones away. Quiet.

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Ambition is a virtue in America.

Purpose, less so.

We’re all trying to get somewhere, without being entirely sure why we want to be there.

I remember one time I sat down for a meeting with a boss, it was a performance review at an old job. We talked about my role and about the future. I expressed an interest in taking more of a leadership role.

He said, that’s great. What do you want to lead? In what direction would you have us go?

I had no idea.

Ambition without purpose.

I realize that many commuters on the freeway are perhaps driven neither by “ambition” nor “purpose” but survival. Gotta put food on the table. Gotta pay those bills.

Punching the clock. Caught on the wheel, no escape in sight.

Others have managed to rise above, find a creative balance between work and hobbies and community and relationships. Some people carve a meaningful corner out of life, and live it to the fullest.

You don’t hear much about those people, because our culture celebrates different values.

Distinguished students. Award-winners. Millionaires. Celebrities.

I’m not bashing excellence. Our lives are enriched by the contributions of motivated individuals.

What corrupts the soul is striving to be perceived by others as excellent, rather than excellence being a byproduct of innate passion and goodwill.

Those lines can be blurred, no doubt. It’s hard to parse bundles within the psyche.

Everyone charts their own path. Blind ambition isn’t the only way to lose yourself. And there’s a million ways back to finding yourself anew.

Here’s hoping for courage in the difficult, but always valuable, work of self-reflection.

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Journalism in the Digital Age: Good, Bad, and Ugly

It feels like the Wild West of journalism.

The internet changed the game, then social media changed the game even more, and now we’ve got internet and social media attached to our hands.

The most basic observation I can make is that information delivery is getting unbundled.

We used to receive news in a collected package — say, a newspaper. Or a magazine.

The reputation of the bundle sold subscriptions. Sports Illustrated for sporting news and human interest sports stories. SLAM Magazine for hoops and hoops culture. Newsweek for a weekly political summary. The Economist for business-minded political summary. Daily newspapers for whatever style fits your fancy: the local paper or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

I used to love reading Rick Reilly, whose column held a physical space on the back page of Sports Illustrated. Every week, when the magazine arrived, I would first turn to the back to see what Rick Reilly had to say, before leafing through the other sports stories.

Now, an individual piece becomes it’s own commodity. Each story needs to sell itself via social media. An editor knows what sells by what clicks. On your social media page, you will see links from all corners of the web.

Half of all Americans get news on social media “often” or “sometimes.” Although Trump caused a boost in digital newspaper subscriptions last year, total circulation has gone down every year for the last 28 years. Newspaper advertisement revenue has plummeted over the last ten years.

Reducing the power of the gatekeeper can be a good thing. News can arrive directly from people who experience and share what they see. A variety of analysis happens immediately. You can “follow” people who are subjects of news, hear straight from the horse’s mouth.

The obvious flip side is the loss of perspective and reflection.

Last month, Arizona Senator John McCain gave a speech about how the Senate should return to “regular order” with both parties working together to make laws. The speech followed a procedural vote to continue debate of a bill to repeal Obamacare — a bill that had been crafted in secret by a small group of Republicans. Social media exploded with howls of hypocrisy. Arguments and counter-arguments. Articles posted all over the web. How could McCain give such a holier-than-thou speech after voting in favor of a sneaky, partisan healthcare bill?!?!!  

24 hours later, when it came time to voting on the actual bill, McCain dramatically cast the deciding No vote, killing the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare.

Internet clamor did a 180. McCain was a hero.

We could have all saved some emotional energy by waiting to see how things played out.

Because of the increased circulation of news through social media, Facebook is often scrutinized for its role in shaping public perception.

Mark Zuckerberg portrays himself as the liberator of minds thanks to his saving grace, online sharing. He thinks Facebook is positively influencing civil discourse and democracy. Any problem can be solved by more openness, more sharing.

But what about made up stories and conspiracy theories? Don’t those spread like wildfire on Facebook? Isn’t that a bad thing?

Zuckerberg to the rescue. A few months ago he launched the Facebook Journalism Project, to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry.” Facebook is going to partner with credible news outlets, and send warning alerts for fake news, and fund journalism programs, and …

BREAKING NEWS: “Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political Ads.

Whoops. That was awkward.

It gets worse. According to Politico, The Facebook Journalism Project is undermining it’s own efforts to curb fake news by refusing to share internal data with the partners enlisted to help detect and reduce dissemination of false information.

Maybe Facebook doesn’t improve civil discourse, after all.

Can you blame them, though? Is improving civil discourse their responsibility? How can you possibly regulate the quality of information shared on a ginormous social bulletin board?

Despite the fracturing and chaos on the web, news bundles still matter.

My favorite sportswriter of the digital age is Bill Simmons, who wrote a column for ESPN, and then started Grantland (within the ESPN website), which packaged sports and cultural pieces.

Two years ago Simmons started The Ringer, his own media company.

The Ringer is not just a bundle of themed content, but a bundle of multimedia options. Writing, podcasts, and video.

I don’t read The Ringer very often, but if something important happens in sports, like the recent “Kyrie Irving traded the Boston Celtics” story, I will go to their site because I trust and respect their analysis.

Bill Simmons’ vision is to sell the identity of the site, sell the writers, shape the brand. Draw the audience through solid reputation. Fund the operation through advertising partnerships.

Even though each story is pitched on social media by the writers, the operation feels like old media.

Who the heck knows how this all develops.

The moral of the story for me, as an educator, is that a super important skill of the modern era is the ability to find good information and reject crappy information.

As the old saying goes, “Don’t believe everything some random dude posts on Facebook.”

Litmus Tests for Political Rationality

Republican Democrats

On Tuesday afternoon, my fiancé and I parked downtown and walked to the Trump rally. As we approached the Convention Center we saw a mass of protestors carrying signs.

No Hate. Down with the KKK. Black Lives Matter.

Singing chants. Hey-hey, ho-ho, Donald Trump has got to go, hey-hey…

One thing I didn’t see was a Trump supporter. Because the police had completely barricaded the two sides from each other. So, even though I had tickets to the main event, and was interested in experiencing both sides, I had no idea how to cross to the Trump side. So I didn’t.

The barricades reduced the likelihood of conflict at the rally. They also symbolized the complete divide we’re experiencing in politics. We’re so far apart we can’t even see each other.

I forget where I saw this analogy, but someone said Donald Trump is like that Gold/Blue dress thing. Different people just perceive different things when they look at Trump.

Two extremes drive the conflict.

A Trump loyalist is more like a Trump propagandist — repeating the talking points of Trump’s tweets and talkshow surrogates. They do not think for themselves, so are more like parrots. They mistake Patriotism for Trumpism.

Anti-Trumpers have a parallel extreme. Some people think Trump is a demonic overlord, primed to overthrow democracy and instill himself as fascist dictator. They believe every Trump supporter is an irredeemable racist or a complete idiot.

These extremes feed off each other. The more Trump loyalists defend indefensible Trump behavior, the more Anti-Trumpers see the apocalypse. Each time an Anti-Trumper cries racism or flips out over Trump’s behavior, the loyalists see triggered leftist crybabies.

At times I have felt worried that Trump is a unique threat to democracy — that the Constitutional powers of the executive were intended to be wielded by an eminent statesmen. Due to modern flaws in the electoral process, that didn’t happen. Additionally, the powers of the president have expanded significantly over the years, making us vulnerable to a would-be tyrant.

So far, though, Trump seems willing enough to play by the rules. Even though he has trashed the court system verbally, he hasn’t attempted to violate any court decisions. He begrudgingly signed legislation that forced his hand on Russian sanctions, a limitation on his power. His attacks on the media are unsightly from a head of state, but nothing about the First Amendment is in danger of being limited. It’s not like he’s signing Sedition Acts to throw people in jail for criticizing the government.

We can use some litmus tests for detecting whether we, or someone we’re talking to, are in the extreme camp.

First. Trump’s honesty. A sure-fire way to detect an independent thinking Trump supporter is to ask them about a blatant lie, contradiction or wild assertion. A reasonable person will grant that, yes, Trump sometimes just makes shit up.

During his Phoenix speech, Trump read sections of his Charlottesville statements to show how noble they were, and to show everyone how dishonest the media was for getting mad about them. Except he didn’t read the parts that made people mad. He didn’t read the “many sides” part, or the part where he said that some people marching with the KKK were “very fine people.”

That’s not even an outright lie. But it’s dishonest. It’s even comical, because his editing job in cutting the controversial parts of his statements is exactly what he complains about when he says “the press treats me so unfairly.”

If you can’t spot the lies and misrepresentations, you need to check yourself.

Second. The media. Let’s be real. The mainstream media does indeed portray Trump in a bad light whenever possible. The other day I read this Op-Ed in the New York Times: Trump is Giving North Korea Exactly What It Wants, arguing that Trump’s direct threats against North Korea validate it’s nuclear ambition.

North Korea has been striving for nuclear weapons for decades. Sure, the purpose of their weapons program is to protect against the Big Bad Americans. But Trump inherited this problem, and whether he threatens or not, they are going to keep developing nukes.

This is a mild example.

No, it isn’t “Fake News.” Most bias emerges not by making up facts, but by how they are portrayed, and which facts are provided. No news is completely unbiased, because whatever you choose to report is automatically an editorial decision.

No, this doesn’t justify characterizing the press as the “enemy of the people.” It’s business as usual in journalism.

But if you read a liberal-leaning newspaper without a critical awareness that you are reading a liberal-leaning newspaper, you may slip into the extreme.

Another litmus test. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who just published a book, Conscience of a Conservative, blasting the Republican party for falling for a candidate who perverts true conservatism by stoking nationalist fears.

Both sides of the political aisle should be celebrating Jeff Flake’s book. Conservatives will find a call back to their core principles — free trade, free markets, limited federal power.

Liberals can applaud a Republican willing to stand ground at great political risk. Someone speaking truth to power instead of bending to emotional whims.

If you can’t say a good word about Flake’s stance, check yourself.

There’s undoubtedly more political turbulence to come. We haven’t been talking about the FBI special investigation much lately, which will continue to unfold. We will continue to see more legislative showdowns like we saw with healthcare. What’s going to happen with the budget, taxes, immigration? How are people going to react to Trump’s extension of the Afghanistan war?

We’ll see how it plays out. In the meantime, let’s stay rational and try to grant some goodwill to each other, between the extremes.

Be Cool, Phoenix

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Phoenix Billboard
Tempers are flaring across the country. Protests and counter-protests — always seeming on the brink of violence — are becoming normal.

Last week a white supremacist weaponized his car, killing one, injuring many.

Nazis and KKK members are rallying in the streets.

How do you not respond with anger? So the saying goes:

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for well-intentioned people to do nothing.”

Speak Up! Make your stance known. I unequivocally condemn the Nazis and the KKK and the white supremacists. Any demonstration of racism is evil and un-American. 

The anger is hot against Donald Trump for not uttering those words soon enough. And then going back on them in a press conference where he blamed the Left for fighting against the Right. “Both sides” were violent, he said. Why do you not call them out?

The obvious reply: One side is for white supremacism, one side is against it.

The less obvious reply not in vogue right now but needs to be confronted before more violence breaks out: These fringe right-wingers thrive on confrontation. They want to provoke anger. They want to bait a violent response.

Because a violent response = chaotic street fighting. Which strengthens their political talking points.

The Civil Rights Movement was effective because of their non-violent discipline. It was a coordinated effort. People trained for non-violent resistance, practiced in staying calm and patient when provoked with anger.

We need to think bigger picture. What’s the goal of these white supremacist folks marching in Charlottesville? According to them, it is to get attention. These groups are “counting on the media to serve as their amplifier.”

So do you ignore demonstrations of overt racism? That doesn’t make sense, either.

I have been thinking a lot about this short Twitter thread, written after the Tiki torch rally but before the car-attack, by technology writer and philosopher 

Conflicted about this, but still think it may be wise to starve for attention those whose maliciousness is fed by it.

I understand that this cannot be the only response, but it seems a useful tactic as part of a larger strategy.

Sometimes “the best I can do is to kill the message in my little corner of the network.”

Resist locally, starve them for attention digitally.

Donald Trump will be in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday. God knows what for. A campaign rally? Sheesh. To pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio? To rally his base?

At the least, this is an ill-timed political stunt. At worst, it will be cause for violent conflict in my home city.

If Donald Trump understands anything, it’s how to be provocative.

Downtown Phoenix will be a circus of Trump loyalists and protestors. The anger from Charlottesville — and Trump’s pathetic response to it — still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Trump is the circus ringmaster. Top Clown. President over the rising courage of bigoted trolls.

Like Trump, convicted criminal and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio is an attention whore. If he does get pardoned, at least we won’t see Joe all over the news, each step in the legal process.

My hope is that the “resistance” shows up committed to non-violence, in word and action. No need to curse Trump supporters. What will that accomplish other than releasing your own anger?

Be cool.

We’ve already seen active non-violent responses to the ugliness on display last week. Bipartisan political agreement that Trump equating the KKK with it’s opposition was wrong. Business leaders dropping out of the council advising Trump. Charities pulling their events out of Mar-a-Lago. White supremacists photographed at rallies being identified and ostracized. Parents of neo-Nazis condemning their children’s actions.

Non-violence can be practiced whether you attend the rally in person, or whether you stay at home and follow developments on social media. Be mindful what you post. Remember their goal is provocation. Humor can be a powerful tool.

I hope and believe we will get through this chaotic era in one piece, perhaps edified by our blunders.

The trolls want to provoke your emotional righteousness. Strategic non-violence will beat them.

On Education and Its Discontents

The education system has been cobbled together over hundreds of years, the fundamentals of which we usually take for granted. The following is an email exchange I had over the last few weeks with my brother Danny, also a classroom teacher, about ways to improve on the status quo.

Billy: Hey Danny, let’s do an email exchange on education. I’ll start with a quick hit:

If you met an education genie, and this genie granted you the power to change one thing about school, and this change would go into effect immediately in all schools, what would it be?

Danny: I would eliminate the current grading system. Of all the perverse incentives that exist in education (and there are a lot of them), I think that grades are the most powerful. Getting rid of them would have many cascading positive effects.

I see my students make terrible decisions motivated by grades. I see their parents put an insane amount of pressure on their young kids to increase their grades. I see students suffer social consequences because of their grades.

My heart breaks when students come up to me and want to know how to increase their grades. The students that do that aren’t coming up to ask me about history. To those students at that moment, I’m not a history teacher. I’m a person that gives them a grade. Even if you tell them that mastery of the material will give them the grades they want, that still means that learning is only a means to an end. It’s a means to get points.

And then, students without a mastery of the material get a 70 percent in the class and move on to more difficult things. I remember this happening to me too, particularly in math. They develop gaps in their skills and knowledge. At a certain point it becomes difficult or impossible to catch up, and students get left scrambling to be barely adequate. And all they care about is the points. I see some students get so frustrated that they stop caring about the points. But the don’t start caring about the material. They just stop caring about anything.

Getting rid of grades would have a positive effect on the students’ relationship with the material. It would have a positive effect on the students’ relationship with the teacher. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationship with their parents. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationships with the administration. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationships with themselves.

Then of course you do have some problems to face. How do you assess students’ progress? How do prospective colleges assess who they let in? How do employers know what kind of student a potential employee was?

Thing is, grades are terrible for all of those things already. I think getting rid of grades would be a positive step even if you replaced them with nothing. Leave everything else the same, just stop recording grades. Colleges and employers would find ways to screen applicants, and I think just about any way of doing that would be better than grades.

I can assess students’ learning without writing down exactly how they performed on their first or second try on a multiple choice test and making it a permanent record. Then we can work on ways to improve their areas of weakness, without an air of judgement or stress.

Do you think grades have some value that I’m missing? Do you know of any alternative systems of assessment? Also what would your change be?

Billy: Let’s think about grades as a number-based evaluation tool. Grades are almost always based on a percentage possible for whatever you do in class. Like your 70% example. Total them up across your classes, then compute your Grade Point Average.

The main purpose for a numeric valuation system is to make comparisons. I think the main purpose of grades is not so much feedback on learning, as it is a way to compare students against each other. As your examples show, students know this very well.

This year, I had two students who were best friends. They sat next to each other and both did a great job in my class. One was very detail-oriented, took notes all the time, and aced all the assignments and tests. The other was more creative in writing and projects, and also took on a strong leadership role — motivating other students and coming up with new ideas for the class.

Leadership and creativity, both extremely valuable, do not show up as line items on my gradebook. Maybe that’s a fault of my grading system? Should teachers base their numeric grades more holistically, factoring in the intangibles as much as the “mastery of the material” on their final grades?

But that’s subjective, and I think another factor driving the grade system and the testing system is a desire for objective assessment. (I would argue any tool chosen for assessing learning is subjective anyway, but that’s a different tangent.)

Who benefits from this system? Colleges get a packet of numbers: GPA and standardized test scores, which makes their selection process much easier. Colleges accept the students who best play the game, hiring managers employ the “best and the brightest” from the top programs.

And so, school becomes not so much about learning, than about competition. A competition that rewards detail-orientated compliance at the cost of arguably more valuable, more subjective qualities.

If the genie granted me one power, I think I would also eliminate grades. Prioritize learning (and the love of learning) for the benefit of the students, let colleges work harder to find good fits for their programs.

But you already eliminated grades, so I’ve been thinking about two things: the existence of standardized tests (including state-mandated tests, AP tests, and the SAT/ACT), and the school schedule (summers off, cram all these requirements into nine months of stressed out teachers and students, and the public perception that teachers have it easy by having so much time off).

Maybe you could help me out with choosing. I’m indecisive. I guess both fall under this similar theme: reduce stress, prioritize learning. Stress and learning aren’t very compatible, are they?

Danny: This is something I’ve been thinking about since I wrote that first reply. Stress management is an incredibly important skill, one that I developed over the course of my schooling (most especially in college). In fact, I did learn a lot in stressful situations, usually writing big papers on a deadline.

There are a lot of arguments I’ve heard for keeping “the game” the same, or at the very least having some element of “the game.” Stress management is one element that frequently gets brought up. Knowing how and when to follow authority is another. The problem is: we don’t actually teach those things in school.

The best teachers can weave lessons on those things into their normal curriculum. But even in the rare cases where that is done well, it’s still a side-dish, and tends to reinforce the problematic relationship with academic learning that results from the grading system. The “detail-oriented compliance” you mentioned often gets taught as the only way to succeed. The only way to manage stress is to study more, comply more. But that usually just feeds the stress.

So we have a problem. We want to students to learn important academic subjects. We want students to learn life skills like stress management and playing the game. We have a system that teaches the former, but is set up for the latter.

I think standardized tests are definitely over-done. Reducing the emphasis on those and changing the school year would definitely lead to more balance.

Maybe balance is what it’s all about. I get a little reactive when it comes to this topic, wanting to go completely in the opposite direction towards a totally stress-free school environment. But maybe that’s not a good goal either.

I’ve toyed with the idea of unconventional classes. If we want school to teach life skills, why not explicitly teach those things? You could have Managing Your Emotions classes for young kids. As you start introducing a more high-stress environment in middle school, have Managing Stress classes along with support structures. In high-school have classes on How to Play the Game, and personal finance classes every year. In fact, these classes would probably be more valuable in the long-term than a lot of content that get taught and forgotten right after the test.

Billy: I’m glad you took it in that direction, because I was going to play devil’s advocate for why grades and standardized tests matter.

The most compelling argument can be captured in two words: Rigor and Accountability.

School needs to be rigorous, push kids to work hard, hold them to high standards. Only grades can properly account for their performance, keep them on track. If they fall behind they can be pushed to work harder, do more, raise their grades.

Likewise, standardized tests hold schools and students accountable. Are schools teaching kids effectively? How does your school stack up to other schools taking the same tests? How much are students progressing from year to year?

High expectations prepare students for expectations at work, the obligations of family and society. Discipline to pay your taxes on time, balance your checkbook, etc. Prepare kids for the responsibilities of adult life.

And this gets at the heart of my own feelings about the arrogance of school. As if nothing important has ever been, or will be, learned outside the confines of these four-walled rooms where adults coerce young people into following orders for thirteen years.

Think about a time when you really wanted to learn something. For me personally, I wanted to be a great basketball player. (And I know you taught yourself guitar.) It wasn’t easy. I remember slamming the ball on the ground, getting pissed off, refusing to leave the court for hours until I got a skill just right. I’m sure you did the same thing with chords on the guitar, or with learning lines for a theatre production.

When I got interested in psychology (long after I was forced to learn anything), I would struggle through the writings of B.F. Skinner and read critiques by other psychologists, wanting to figure out the best theories on human behavior.

The most celebrated teachers in our schools have the entire year planned out, month-to-month, week-to-week, day-to-day, minute-to-minute. Under a barrage of arbitrary curriculum and deadlines, homework, threats, and high pressure multiple-choice tests, when do kids get to explore their own interests?

Maybe the question is not “stress” vs. “no stress,” but about “prescribed forced instruction” vs. “self-initiated learning.”

Danny: I think that’s a great dichotomy to think about. And those seem to be the roots of stressful or non-stressful learning. I guess a better balance of those two educational styles is what we’re really grasping at. How do you balanced prescribed instruction and self-initiated learning?

I’m not sure you can get balance with the existence of grades. I think grades lock you into the prescribed instruction style of education, and virtually eliminate the possibility of self-initiated learning (or at least make it an uphill battle).

You said “only grades can properly account for their performance,” and I’m not sure that’s true. Sometimes the real world might have something analogous to grades, but it frequently promotes perverse incentives, just like grades. One of the first things that came to mind when considering real-world examples of strict quantitative evaluation was sales goals. Look at the example of Wells Fargo. What happened when they established harsh sales goals for their employees? Those employees looked for any possible way to reach those goals with the least amount of effort. They didn’t get better at selling things, they got better at cheating or gaming the system. The same thing happens in schools.

I don’t know that we should be training students that such a system is acceptable or normal. In some of the jobs I have had, they used quantitative metrics without establishing hard and fast goals. They use those metrics for feedback, not for incentives or promotion. Any improvement I did was self-initiated, but the feedback helped direct my efforts. It was actually a similar story in the really late stages of college. I think you could apply this idea to teach kids self-initiation at younger ages.

I teach 6th grade. I see no reason why my students should be given their grades. It isn’t for colleges — they won’t look at them. The only argument I could see is that it gives me, them, their parents, and the administration an idea of how well the students are performing. But I can get an idea of that without giving them paper 5 times a year distilling a very complex process into a single letter. I could just use those metrics so that I have an idea of who needs the most help, or who isn’t ready to move on in the curriculum. I can relay that information to parents and the administration, if it is a problem. I can recommend when I don’t think it would be wise for a student to proceed, or when I think they just need help with organization, etc. But the students don’t need it.

In this world I would still have deadlines, still have assignments, still have tests. There would still be that element of learning to deal with stress and work within a system. They would still get feedback from me. But instead of being given with numbers, it would ONLY be actionable information regarding their performance. As it is right now, any of that good feedback I give is largely ignored because they are focused on the single number (despite the fact that the feedback would help them improve that!) I think this actually would better simulate real-world scenarios than grades. Students might then learn a bit more how to self-motivate, and how to really improve. This might actually promote self-initiated learning. Something that also might help is having more elective-style classes for younger students. This really comes down to a combination of freedom and more realistic feedback mechanisms.

Once they get good at that you could up the stress factor. Grades could potentially be introduced in High School, once they have actually developed the academic skill of self-initiated learning, and when it would be useful for colleges to get an idea of how students perform in an academic setting. Sophomore and Junior year could essentially be considered part of their application process, and it would be then when their GPA would be recorded.

The problem then is accountability. If I give a student a writing assignment, but they don’t have a grade riding on it, what is motivating that student to actually complete the assignment? Part of this problem might solve itself. As it is, an average student gets back an assignment with a big number telling them they are average or below average. At that point they don’t necessarily care about my feedback. The grade is in the books, and they now have a dismal view of the writing process. If I only give them feedback on what they did well and what they did wrong, there is nothing else to focus on but the comments. That student might be more inclined to complete the next assignment happily with the knowledge that their past performance doesn’t matter, and that they only have to focus on my feedback. In that sense I think students would probably develop more self-accountability.

But there will of course be students who won’t meet deadlines and won’t develop that accountability. How could you promote accountability in a system with more freedom and less quantitative feedback mechanisms? Do you think the sort of system I’m describing is even workable?

One problem I see is institutional inertia. It would be a massive coordination problem to eliminate grades, even just for middle school. I’m trying to see a way to re-work the incentives with minimal institutional change, and this is what I came up with. It still might be too drastic to be realistically implemented.

Billy: No doubt, these tweaks would increase the overall well-being of students, lead to more engagement and self-motivation. A balanced, incremental approach is definitely realistic — it would only take one administrator at one middle school to give it a shot.

I’m more of a radical. I think the problem is the institution itself. Not just grades and testing but age-based class progression, the “standards” dictated by the state, and the power dynamics in the classroom. I’m glad you brought up cheating, because cheating is rampant in all schools, from the elite-of-the-elite to those struggling to get by. Bullying is rampant, too, and I think bullying is partly a side-effect of the completely authoritarian situation we call school.

If you revolutionize the grading system, too many perverse incentives still exist. The players are too invested in the game. You’ve got state laws with required curriculum, state rating systems that rank schools by their performance on standardized tests. You’ve got testing companies making boatloads of money. You’ve got the college board. You’ve got colleges and universities making boatloads of money. You’ve got jobs that require a college degree.

Even in Arizona, in their hey-day of school choice, most charter schools simply try to become better at the game. Better test scores. More rigor. Better and more college acceptances.

That accountability piece is HUGE. How are we going to get little Jimmy to write these essays, or do these math problems, without a bunch of consequences riding on his head?

To which I would reply, little Jimmy would probably be interested in a whole bunch of meaningful things, if he weren’t systematically neutered of his own passions. No, he might not care about Algebra. So what? I was really good at Algebra, haven’t used it or thought about it in 15 years. Someone else is going to be stoked on Algebra, but not as much about reading novels. Who cares? As long as you are aren’t prevented from finding what’s out there, you should be free to chart your own path.

Right now we’ve got hundreds of pages of standards, things kids are required to learn, most of which working adults have long forgotten, or never really learned in the first place, because they didn’t care.

Take your idea of adding emotional coping skills to the school curriculum. Great idea, but what is it going to replace from the required curriculum? It’s like entitlement spending in government. These requirements are never going away.

I believe two mindsets are to blame for the rationalization of the status quo. The first I already mentioned, the arrogance of the school system. Educators who think nothing can be, or will be, learned without our sophisticated teaching strategies. It’s a myth. Everyone can think of important things they learned outside of school. Some of the most brilliant people today and across history were either self-taught, did poorly in school, or dropped out.

The second mindset is the “little kid” mindset. Underestimating the competence of young people, and so treating them like babies. Teenagers have a lot of angst. Can you blame them? Almost every aspect of their lives is dictated by the external pressures of a soul-sucking institution. I know teenagers working jobs to support their families, but in school they have to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Earlier you said if we took away grades and replaced them with nothing, school would be better. What if we took away school and replaced it with nothing? Are kids not going to learn how to read and write? Are they not going to learn how to work with numbers? Will they not know the scientific method? Could they not function in society?

Maybe not. Too radical. Of course young people should be encouraged and mentored in some way. I would like to think students would voluntary study history or government with me as their instructor. I’m not sure how much prescribed learning is necessary, only that I think blowing up the system, or doing something outside the typical structure, is the only way to enact the most authentic changes to benefit the most people.

Ok, deep breath. I can dream of radical change, you can dream of incremental change. Neither is happening on the ground level any time soon.

So let’s finish with this. What’s one thing you are going to do differently in your classes this year, within the system, to mediate a better learning experience for your students?

Danny: I think that the best thing I can do is to emphasize real feedback and improvement over grades. I also want to encourage student freedom and choice. I think it will take a lot of experimentation.

Right now I have two main ideas.

One — making grades on some assignments be malleable. For example, if a student turns in a short answer assignment with recommended changes implemented, their grade will reflect the new draft, not the old one. Also maybe letting cumulative test results override lower results on previous tests. I don’t want a student’s performance in the past to continue punishing them in the future if the make progress.

Two — as much as possible, offering choices when it comes to writing prompts and other assignments. This would be relatively low-effort for me, and I think would go a long ways towards motivation.

What about you? What changes will you make?

Billy: I’m going to steal your “malleable grade” idea for writing assignments.

Also, I want to continue something I did sporadically last year, which I found to be a difference maker.

That is to design meaningful, real world things for student to do with the information we work with in class. Rather than learning stuff to regurgitate back to me on a test, or again with the five-paragraph essay, let’s do something real.

For example, write a newspaper article, or pretend you’ve been hired by your town to create a memorial for this thing in history. Or make a campaign advertisement for one of these politicians. Or let’s conduct a mock-trial for this controversial person or event.

I want to tie the relevant skills of my subjects into real stuff people do in those fields. This will enable me to sell my students on the big picture, encourage creativity, while making sure to hit the standards required by the state.

Thanks for taking the time with these emails! Appreciated the dialogue. It challenged me to think differently and more critically about my views on education, and hopefully others will similarly benefit from reading this exercise.

Libraries are Underrated

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Burton Barr Reading Room

Burton Barr, the downtown Phoenix library, recently suffered extensive damage after a monsoon storm broke through the roof, drenching books and equipment. It has now been closed for over a week.

Upon hearing the news, I’m sure most people got sentimental. Poor library. Too bad. The news probably served as a reminder, for many, that libraries still exist.

With the world at our fingertips, who needs a physically-housed information center? These archaic institutions where people talk in whispered conversations.

But what more sacred a space exists today than a library, where people of all ages and backgrounds voluntarily show up to work and learn and socialize?

There are 225 public libraries in Arizona.

There’s even a library in Wickenburg. The Wickenburg Public Library has a livelier atmosphere — people talking on the phone, setting up job interviews, pouring over bills on the table. People clicking and tapping on desktop computers. There’s a youth section, where over the summer I saw one room of teenagers playing video games, another room of younger kids quietly studying books.

The Phoenix library system has coding classes, summer reading programs, discussion groups, and genealogy classes to help adults trace their family histories.   

Each library holds local characteristics. Burton Barr houses unique documents of Arizona’s history. I browsed the Flagstaff Public Library earlier this summer and saw several collections of Native American history specific to Northern Arizona.

Benjamin Franklin invented the community library in America. He was always wanting for books, and it was an occasion to stumble upon a new collection. In his autobiography he describes meeting people who were “lovers of books.” He would make conversation with these folks, hoping to glean something new from the books they had read. In Philadelphia, he had made acquaintances with fellow lovers of books, each holding a small collection. Franklin thought it in their best interest to rent a room to store the books, allowing individuals to borrow from others as desired.

To expand the concept, he created a subscription library, collecting money to purchase more books. Eventually, the American library system expanded, turned into a public service, where now anyone can get a library subscription for free, with access to computers and the internet, daily newspapers, magazines on any subject, the ability to check out and take home movies, music, TV shows, and, of course, books.

When we think of “public education” we almost always think about “public schooling,” yet as education writer Heather McDonald points out, these two terms are not interchangeable. She argues that we mistakenly invest too much energy into public schooling, to the detriment of public education.

Community libraries serve a vital role for an educated public. Let’s not take them for granted.

Summer Reading List 2017

Powells-City-of-Books
Powell’s Books, Portland.

On last year’s summer reading list, I admitted to not having read every book cover-to-cover (yet). I ended up regretting that strategy because I never finished the book Thinking Fast and Slow. Still haven’t. It got boring and repetitive after a while. Felt like I shouldn’t be writing quips about books I hadn’t finished.

So turning a new leaf, a new summer, another celebration of reading, each of the following books I read in full:

Teacher Man: An intimate look into the life of a teacher. This book was written by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who spent 30 years in the public school system of New York City starting in the 1950’s. I super recommend this book to any teacher or anyone interested in education. McCourt captures the thoughts and feelings of a teacher’s daily grind with a sharp, tender sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud at times during the book.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: A collection of graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut, the author of many novels including one of my favorites, Cat’s Cradle. He calls himself a humanist. Time magazine has called Vonnegut “a zany but moral mad scientist.” The speeches take on basically the same themes, so the collection is a bit repetitive, but the message was worth hammering home: The world is totally screwed up, but nothing’s stopping you from being kind to each other. The title comes from an anecdote Vonnegut repeats in every speech, about his uncle who insisted on appreciating random pleasant moments with verbal recognition. For example, right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the early morning, comfy chair, still cool outside with the sun starting to stream across the floor. If this isn’t nice, what is?

How to Write Short: This book is about writing. The subtitle is Word Craft for Fast Times. As the title indicates, it’s about writing in the digital age. I enjoyed reading this book, not only for the writing tips but for the examples of good short writing. Most of all, this book caused me to become a more critical reader of short writing. It’s everywhere. Advertisement jingles. Bumper stickers. Tweets. Food label descriptions. Word craft is all around us, and it’s kind of fun to pay attention to it.

Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four: I picked up this book at Goodwill for $3. It’s by John Feinstein, an acclaimed sports author. The book slowed down for me at times, but overall Feinstein provides a solid, in-depth look into the college basketball championship tournament. The Last Dance describes the tournament from multiple perspectives — from coaches and players, to the referees and team selection committee. It also dives into the history of the tournament, which, as always in American sports, is tied to the growth of television contracts. This book was part of my basketball summer study, which included watching several hoops related 30 for 30 documentaries on ESPN, and researching the careers of Jordan and LeBron for a blog post.

1776: By David McCullough, 1776 is a historical dive into a decisive year in American history, the opening of the Revolutionary War. I don’t generally seek out war history, but this book was fascinating. American patriots in an underdog struggle. Commander George Washington being indecisive and making crucial errors of judgement, getting second guessed by his right-hand man, but eventually delivering courageous position victories. American soldiers marching dozens of miles in the frigid Boston winter, no shoes, in the middle of the night. British parliament debating the merits of fighting the Americans. Letters written back and forth, revealing the disruption of normal life in the 18th century. A change in weather possibly making the difference between defeat and victory. Human nature put to the test under fire, both sides well-aware of the historical ramifications. Fascinating.

What have you been reading lately? Drop me a line if you have any recommendations.

Long Live Books!