Teachers Studying Other Teachers

In 28 years of teaching I have probably spent one year of my career attending faculty meetings, conferences, and workshops.  The bulk of the information dispensed varied from somewhat helpful to barely useful; little of it was illuminating.

The one staff development activity, however, that has always been worthwhile missing a day of work for is the walk-through.

In recent years, schools have been implementing the concept of having teachers walk into other teachers’ classrooms to observe the teaching and learning taking place.

While initially some teachers balked at the idea of opening their doors to their colleagues, the walk-through has now become standard practice where I work.  We have been doing it for so long now that newer teachers have no memory of when we weren’t doing it.

While teachers are given observation forms to fill out and concepts to watch for, teachers are on their own for most of the day, something that is not true with other staff development.

Teachers are put in pre-arranged teams, purposely from different departments.   Doing it this way ensures that people don’t gravitate towards those with whom they regularly interact.   Integrating teachers from different departments takes the walk-through to another dimension, becoming a “getting to know you” day.

One of the peculiarities of teaching is that it is a vocation performed by one person in individual rooms.  Dialoging with colleagues to discuss methodologies and students is an independent study venture.

Because of this solitary confinement, it is easy to overlook what a student’s whole day looks like.   Teachers focus on their curriculum often forgetting that at the secondary level these students have five other classes.

It’s not just the homework; it’s how adaptive students need to be in understanding the expectations from their other five instructors.   Yet, it is that variety of teachers and teaching styles that makes their day dynamic and not boring.   If one teacher speaks in a monotone and stays immobile in front of the class, the next period may have one teacher who constantly moves around, having students work with partners and in groups.

Another benefit of walking through other classrooms is coming away with fresh ideas: a creative way to have students write on the board, a decoration hung from the ceiling, an unusual table arrangement.

And it’s fun seeing one’s students in different settings.   One former student had a huge grin that I was watching her play the cello.  Another was making a sculpture, and after discussing the particulars of that work of art, good-naturedly debated where the best breakfast burritos can be found (he says Corner Cottage, I say Larry’s). Such conversation pays in dividends, deepening the connection between student and teacher.

As much as I enjoy the walk-throughs, each teacher does just one a year.   It would be wonderful if teacher observations and conversations were a regular part of the work day or even work week.

Another next step would be to record those teachers who are doing marvelous work as a video library for others to reference.

If a were a student that day, I would have gone to school and learned what makes people mammals, that what separates us from other mammals is our ability to show compassion, and it is that compassion that can be expressed through writing a sonnet, playing a piece of music and creating a work of art.

Not a bad way for a teenager to spend a day.   And it’s free.  What a deal.

Trump speaks like a Fifth Grader

If President Donald J. Trump was a student in my 10th grade English class, here is how I would evaluate his use of the English language as observed in last week’s press conference.

One major characteristic of Trump’s speaking is the repetition of words and phrases, often within the same sentence, revealing a limited vocabulary.

Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump:  The Art of the Deal, told MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid that Trump has a “200-word vocabulary.”

That is why in his 77-minute presser he repeated words so frequently:  really (14), great (19), very (87).

An easy way to impress people, I tell my students, is by using a varied vocabulary when speaking with prospective employers.  It also retains an audience’s attention when the speaker uses different words; using the same words over and over again, well, the message gets lost.

See if you can figure out what Trump was trying to say:

  • “It’s very important to me. I’ve been talking about that for a long time.  It’s very, very important to me.”
  • “We’re looking at them very, very, very serious.”
  • “Very, very strongly. Very, very strongly.”

Avoid saying “honestly,” “I’ll be honest” or “can I be honest with you” because more likely than not you’re not being truthful.

Just like declaring yourself to be 100 percent opposite of who you really are.

“Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.  Number two, racism, the least racist person.”

I teach my students to avoid the phrase “I think” because it diminishes the persuasiveness of one’s opinion, coming across as if only the speaker believes that way.  Yet Trump repeated it 42 times in the press conference.

In fact, he used the pronoun “I” 389 times. It goes without much analysis why he would refer to himself so often.

I instruct my students to avoid hysterical language; people are more likely to consider your opinions when spoken more judiciously.

Trump, however, washes himself in hyperbole, depicting the world as a “mess” or “disaster” or in “chaos” or “turmoil” where things are “horrible,” “terrible,” “horrendous,” or “catastrophic.”

When discussing people who please him, Trump uses “wonderful,” “tremendous,” “fantastic,” “fabulous,” “incredible,” the types of adjectives children would more often use than a 70-year-old man.

And look at the repetitive wording when talking about his daughter—“Ivanka who is a fabulous person and a fabulous, fabulous woman”—and his wife Melania who feels “very, very strongly, she’s a very, very strong advocate.”

Carnegie Mellon studied the vocabulary of presidents and concluded that Trump’s language is at a fifth-grade level.

“I inherited a mess.  It’s a mess.  At home and abroad, a mess.”

The same could be said of the way Trump talks.

Dr. Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst at George Washington University Medical Center who is writing a book called “Trump on the Couch,” told me that “not reading or not being able to read often has a lasting limiting effect” on one’s vocabulary development.  It’s widely known that Trump watches TV and does not read books—not a promising combination for thinking deeply about issues affecting the nation.

If Trump’s parents visited me at Open House this week, how would I diplomatically broach his shortcomings as an English student?  Most likely do what any politician does and redirect my response to a different subject: have Donald join my journalism class to learn about real news.

 

The Gettysburg Tweet?

Newly inaugurated U.S. presidents are often judged by the work completed in their first 100 days of office.

We can judge President Trump by the first 100 tweets of his presidency.

George Bennett of the Palm Beach Post reported that “more than half his tweets end with an exclamation point and more than one-quarter [have] at least one word in all capital letters.”

Take a look.

“Enjoy the Super Bowl and then we continue: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.  Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

“I will send in the Feds!”

“FAKE NEWS”

Words matter.   They can threaten or they can heal.

February 12 is the 208th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth whose words still endure today.

Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns made “The Address” in 2014 about the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, a small boarding school for boys with learning disabilities who each year recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a rite of passage that demonstrates their confidence to overcome their challenges.

In 272 words, it may be the best written speech by any president under two minutes.

He uses the rule of three twice, done to perfection: “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground” and the famous coda “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln was not the featured speaker when the battlefield was dedicated as a cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863.  Edward Everett, noted orator of the time, spoke for two hours first, then came Lincoln.

The photographer assumed Lincoln would speak longer allowing him more time to focus his camera on the president.  By the time he took the photograph, Lincoln had just sat down.

Little did Americans know at the time that the Civil War would continue for almost two more years.

And it wasn’t until years later that Lincoln’s words would burn an indelible mark in the American story.  In fact, before he was assassinated, many in the country disliked Lincoln.   After his murder, however, his reputation rose.

This year I had my English students learn about Lincoln and recite the speech.

After they finished, I asked them their thoughts.

“I loved presenting this speech and learning about it and the person behind it,” one student wrote.

“It inspires people and reminds us how great Lincoln was” that “he was able to bring the country together,” remarked another.

The speech showed “how much he cared about his country,” how “he cared about the American people deeply.”

He “was very intelligent and eloquent” who “showed compassion” and “loved his country;” “a good, true, honorable man.”

And one student said “funny how in the speech Lincoln says ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here’ but people still remember the speech today.”

If only our Chief Executive could word his thoughts as well as a 15-year-old high school student.

Indeed, in the turbulent times we live in where there is a pervasive dark mood, it is comforting to read the words of someone who truly led a divided nation.

When he was assassinated on April 15, 1865, he had recently turned 56 years old.   Even with an additional 14 years of life, Trump has a lot of catching up to do before his memorial ever breaks ground on the National Mall.

Over 150 years from now, will a Trump Tweet be recited by school children, examined as one of the finest collection of words coming from a president?

Take a break from all the bad news and read over the Gettysburg Address to honor Abraham Lincoln and to remind yourself that we are all Americans.

 

 

DeVos: The Anti-Education Secretary

There I was, using 20 minutes out of my 56-minute period on Jan. 20 showing my mostly non-native English speaking students democracy in action, the inauguration of a new president, when I felt slapped in the face from Donald Trump who said, “An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

As he seems to do with so many issues, Trump took the low road with a clichéd type of sentence that connects extremes—lots of money with nothing to show for it—that reflects his deprivation of knowledge about education.

It’s one thing when the public makes comments about schools without researching the facts.  It is quite another when the man holding the highest office in the nation makes such a remark, then appoints a person to head the department of education who may actually know a little less than he does about schools.

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school, never taught school, and it is doubtful that her children attended one either.

DeVos is a billionaire, Forbes estimating her family’s wealth at $5 billion.  And she and her husband, son of Amway’s co-founder, aren’t interested in making schools better, but in promoting school vouchers which takes money away from public schools and gives it to parents to spend on charter, private or religious schools.

In other words, taxpayer dollars end up funding private companies and religious organizations.   That runs counter to the separation of church and state edict of this country.

Yet Trump is entrusting her with the highest position in education to do what’s best for America’s public schools.   Does that make sense?

At her confirmation hearing, she exhibited, to borrow Trump’s language, a “deprivation of knowledge” about the federal law that funds special education which has been on the books for nearly three decades.   She also could not explain the difference between the terms “proficiency” and “growth assessment,” a distinction even an average-skilled teacher can clarify.

DeVos also argued against gun-free school zones saying that some schools like those near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming should be able to arm themselves especially “to protect from potential grizzlies.”   Thus far, there have never been reports of grizzly bears attacking school children.  Besides, most experts agree that bear repellent is more effective than firearms.

I have long felt it inherently wrong for people who lack teaching experience to hold powerful positions in education, telling teachers how to teach.  Unfortunately, DeVos has company.

Since the Department of Education was created in 1979, there have been 10 secretaries.

Only Terrel Bell, Rod Paige and John King, Jr. were public school teachers before serving their post.  That means 70 percent of the U.S. Secretaries of Education had no first-hand experience of public schools, the institution for which they were setting policy and implementing mandates.

Since Trump thrives on having the biggest, the best, the largest, he has succeeded with DeVos in appointing the most unqualified individual as education secretary.

In fact, she is the anti-education secretary.

As Stephen Henderson wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance.”

Until her nomination, she was chairman of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice advocacy group whose website refers to DeVos as a “national education reform pioneer.”

In a speech given at the South by Southwest education conference in 2015, DeVos listed “government really sucks” as an “inconvenient truth” about public education.  Nice language coming from the soon-to-be top “educator” in the land.

Some senators requested a second hearing on DeVos, but the request was turned down.

Her confirmation is expected to happen this Tuesday.  If only that were fake news.

 

 

Remembering an Educator

Don Duncan who passed away on Dec. 15 at age 82 is someone whose work in Glendale schools should be remembered.

Mr. Duncan (I can’t let go of the formal title) graduated from Hoover High School in 1952, then taught in Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) in 1957.  He became principal of his alma mater in 1974 and remained in that position until he left in Feb. 1995 to recruit students for California’s first full-time evening high school in order to ease overcrowding in Glendale schools.

By May when it became clear that was not materializing, Mr. Duncan expressed regret in a News Press interview that “if I had any feeling that it was not going to work, then I would have preferred to stay at Hoover.”

His tenure in Glendale ended without much fanfare even though he and his brother Charles combined for nearly 80 years of service to Glendale’s schools, and their father owned Duncan’s Variety Store in Kenneth Village.

I interviewed with Mr. Duncan for a teaching job when I earned my credential.   While there weren’t any openings, he kept me in mind, and when the 1989-1990 school year began (in Sept., by the way), and a position opened up, Duncan called me and asked if I was still interested.

The problem was that I had just started my first teaching job for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

It was two weeks into the school year and Don’s brother, who was in charge of Human Resources for GUSD, was able to get me out of my LAUSD contract, and in Sept., 1989, I made my debut at Hoover.

Mr. Duncan came across as paternal, always in the main office in the morning greeting teachers as they arrived, his height and gray hair adding to an “in-charge” presence without an air of intimidation.  He was even-tempered, “cool as a cucumber” according to granddaughter Nicole, never tipping off if things were going well or not.

Often not going lockstep with the district, he used to joke that we were the Hoover Unified School District.   One example of this was back in 1987 when the school newspaper wanted to publish an ad for condoms right before the prom.   And Mr. Duncan supported the publication of it.  Unfortunately, district officials heard about this and put a stop to the ad before it was published.

In my 24 years of doing the school newspaper, I have had my share of run-ins with principals about stories.  I only had one with Mr. Duncan and he supported my decision.  In fact, he loved the school newspaper.  He often would come to the journalism class and tell the students “nice job” which meant so much to the kids.

Mr. Duncan gave all teachers a generous present of a one-hour coupon for him to cover a class period anytime someone wanted to run an errand or take a walk.

He enjoyed dressing up as Santa Claus on the last school day before Christmas vacation, and would host staff Christmas parties at his house.  He also enjoyed speaking on the P.A. about historical days on the calendars so that students understood why school was closed.

City Halls memorialize councilmembers.  Schools should have a way to honor teachers, administrators, clerks, and custodians who dedicate their careers to education.

Here is a man who devoted his adult life to Hoover, the longest tenured principal in the school’s history (almost 21 years), yet his name is nowhere to be found on campus.

Before another street is named for real estate developer Rick Caruso, consideration should be given to the Duncan family in ensuring their legacy does not disappear from Glendale’s history.

Mortality: The Ultimate New Year’s Motivator

The most chilling part of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” comes near the end when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come points Ebenezer Scrooge to a tombstone with his own name on it.

It is this final vision that does its job in making Scrooge realize he better change his ways before he dies if he wants his life to have meaning.

The idea of coming to terms with one’s own mortality and using that knowledge as motivation to make the most of each day is powerful.

Scrooge declares that “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”  And just as with New Year’s resolutions, people have the best intentions to do good in the world and for themselves but often life’s daily happenings can derail them.

It takes a strong constitution and willpower to keep goals on track.

My life-changing moment wasn’t a ghost but a dead body, when at age 11, I witnessed my grandmother in a coffin. That startling image slapped me in the face with the sinking realization that life does not last forever.

I remember many times afterwards lying in bed struggling to get to sleep thinking about the eventual void in our future.

It accounts for the nervous energy I have and the impatience I display knowing that time is short and why I make lists all the time.  Lists of errands to do each day, and lists of goals to work on each year.

In a way, death drives me to get things accomplished.

Of course, the number of years a person has to live can’t be predicted, though many internet tools claim to guestimate one’s lifespan with a high level of probability.

Based on the Social Security Administration’s Life Expectancy Calculator, I can expect to live another 24 years at my current age.

According to life insurance companies Northwestern Mutual and John Hancock, I have another 32 years.

Death clock.org actually gives a projected day of death and graphically places it on a tombstone like the Dickens’ tale.  I have only 13 years left with them.

On poodwaddle.com there is even a clock that continuously countdowns one’s life.

The iconic images each December 31st of an old man representing the year that is ending and a baby representing the new year to come symbolizes the death and rebirth in all of us.

Each passing year marks a slight death for that is one year that will never come back.

However, with the utterance of “Happy New Year” comes yet another opportunity to reboot, redouble our efforts to be better people.   Even if “life happens,” there is always hope that some of what we set out to do will occur.

If each person does something positive once a day, by next year, that would amount to 365 positive actions.   That is a lot of contributions for one person.

One day a tombstone will have our name on it.   And no matter how much money we have or how healthy our eating and exercise habits are, we will die.

Abraham Lincoln once said that “in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”

Here’s hoping that in 2017 you make the most of what days we have to do good for ourselves and for others.

 

 

OMG: Not Even Charlie Brown is exempt from the war on Christmas

As I watched the 1952 film “O’Henry’s Full House” on TCM which ends with a tracking shot on the star of Bethlehem, I thought about how this type of religious symbol would never be shown in a movie today.

In fact, when is the last time you saw a major motion picture or TV program that treated religion in a non-sarcastic way?

In the past, having characters pray to God or attending religious services was considered normal, a reflection of audience’s lives back then.

A Gallup Poll asking Americans about their religious beliefs in June showed that 89 percent of Americans still do believe in God.   Such a number has held steady over the years from a high of 98 percent in the early 1960s.   What has declined is ­­­­people attending religious services.

Reporter Emma Green points out in The Atlantic article “It’s Hard to Go to Church” that “50 or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America [but now] many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.”

A litigious segment of the population that wishes to permanently abolish any religious shadings from America’s culture has resulted in what some perceive as an anti-Christian sentiment.

The word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance has been challenged several times.  Some cringe when they hear that word in public (though the initialism OMG is somehow okay).

Yet imagine how less powerful Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life” would have been if in the most gut-wrenching moment of the film when Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey begs for his life back—“please, God, let me live again”—he omitted “God.”  It is the prayer to God that charges that scene with emotion; without it, the scene would not have resonated so deeply.

Even 1990’s “Home Alone” known for its slapstick comedy has a scene in a church.  As “O Holy Night” plays in the background, Kevin, played by Macaulay Culkin, meets his neighbor, Old Man Marley.   Neither character is shown praying, but the idea that two people who don’t know one another, one a child, the other an elderly man, can share a contemplative moment in a place of worship is a scene that would never make the final cut nowadays.

Just this week a legal battle ensued concerning 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the animated classic which depicts a school nativity program and Linus quoting from the Bible, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.  That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Dedra Shannon, a nurse’s aide at a middle school in Killeen, Texas, took that quote and, along with a likeness of Linus, taped it to the door of the nurse’s office.  The school board ordered it removed.  But on Thursday a judge ordered it back on the door with the words “Ms. Shannon’s holiday message” added.

Frankly, it is amazing the show is still played on TV without being edited or a disclaimer tacked onto the opening.

We are living in a time where religion and gender are being rubbed off of human identity.   Then what is left?

Zooey Deschanel who recorded a Christmas album along with M. Ward as She & Him told the Los Angeles Times that “we tried to do ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,’ but then we realized how religious that song is.”

What specifically bothered her?

“It goes, ‘Santa knows that we’re God’s children / And that makes everything right / Hang your stockings and say your prayers…’” Deschanel then began to laugh.  “It was kind of scary.”

Pretty sad the times we live in when using the words “God” and “prayers” make people laugh or scared.