The Birth of Remote Learning

As I write these words I am completing the first week of teaching in a completely new way—without students.

Over the coming weeks I will share with you my successes and pitfalls teaching in a virtual classroom.  Right now, my head is still throbbing with how quickly the world has changed in just a few short weeks.

Recall that old Chicago song, “Does Anybody Really Knows What Time it is?”  That’s how life feels like:  is it morning or afternoon, Wednesday or Thursday, and does the word “weekend” mean anything anymore.

Have you noticed how quiet it is in your neighborhood lately?  Eerily quiet.  Cars are parked in front of houses but there are no people, reminiscent of the first Twilight Zone episode, “Where is Everybody?”

Social distancing hits older folks harder.  Those under 25 have been practicing social distancing most of their lives through texting and apps like Skype and Face Time.  In fact, they are more comfortable not speaking over the phone or seeing each other in person.  Can you imagine how people would have dealt with social distancing just 20 years ago?

Never before has the use of technology been so vital than during this shutdown of America.  Parents who used to shudder at the number of hours their children spent on their devices now view those electronic menaces as lifelines, especially as they scramble how to do their jobs at home.

However, no workers have had to revolutionize their occupations on such a grand scale as have teachers.

Welcome to the birth of remote (or distance) learning which has kicked off all across America this week.

Teachers, students, parents, and school officials are all experimenting with a brand new form of learning all at the same time.  It must be what astronauts felt like when first going into outer space.

Imagine doing a job you have been performing for several years and being told you have one week to do the same job in a completely new way.  It is a humongous undertaking.  New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza described it well, telling the New York Times that “we are literally flying the plane as we’re building the plane.”

One of the negative aspects of the teaching profession that I have addressed frequently is the lack of trust school officials have in allowing teachers to determine how best to serve their clientele, the students.  Too often top-down education trends are forced down the throats of educators with little input.  Teachers are supposed to behave like good soldiers, following the orders of their superiors.

Since this online revolution came out of nowhere so suddenly, education officials were clueless how to proceed.

Credit goes to Glendale Unified School District for stepping out of the way and allowing teachers to decide how to teach remotely.

The district provided teachers with a panoply of webinars and other resources from which an educator could pick and choose which ones to use.  For those with an advanced case of technophobia, the district gave teachers the option of handing out printed materials even though that meant figuring out how and when to deliver them to students.

Never before in all my 31 years have I been so entrusted to make professional decisions on what is best for me in reaching out to my students.

Well, teachers, I hope you are paying attention.  Take advantage of a situation which may never come your way again.   Everyone—students, parents, even principals and superintendents—are counting on you to teach kids in a way that has never been done before.

Once this health crisis is over, and school officials see how heroic teachers met this challenge, hopefully teachers’ stature will rise.

Let’s show everyone what we can do.  Make the country proud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living through a Pandemic

Incredible how our lives teeming with jobs, errands and recreation can be instantaneously wiped clean, filtered down to only one concern:  “Do we have enough toilet paper to get us through the week?”

Going to work and school, eating out, attending movies and concerts, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, observing religious traditions—all halted.  Freeze frame life as we know it.

And the places that remain open such as grocery stores are scenes from a bad end-of-the-world Netflix show.

My son and I have traveled to market to market to cobble together meat, eggs, and peanut butter, standing in lines, standing apart.  We drove by two gun stores in Burbank, each with a line of people outside.  Just what kind of world are we living in?

One where terms like coronavirus, COVID-19 and social distancing have been added to our existence.

It is dizzying to think how much has transpired in the past week.  Gov. Newsom said on Tuesday that schools are unlikely to reopen this academic year.

Funny how the last school day was Friday the 13th.  At that time, it was clear that schools would not resume soon after spring break.  As my students left, I joked to them “Happy Fourth of July!” not knowing how prescient that was.

State testing has been cancelled, the College Board plans on administering Advanced Placement tests online, and graduation ceremonies—well, who knows?

Never before will so many people have to rely on technology to keep them connected to their work and their loved ones.

Glendale Unified teachers scheduled to return to work on March 23 most likely will remain at home, watching webinars on how to design online lessons to salvage the remaining weeks of the spring semester.

A life without doing whatever we want is unchartered territory for all but those old enough to have lived through World War II and the Great Depression.   They remember rationing of tires and sugar, meatless meals and gasless days.  It was not uncommon to ask Americans to sacrifice for the greater good.

The closest most people alive today can relate to any kind of sacrifice would have been the rationing of gas during the oil crisis of 1973 when drivers were only allowed to buy gas based on the odd/even last number on their license plate.

So the idea of giving something up even temporarily is a habit alien to most.  That partially explains why some people, mainly young ones, are not heeding the advice of government officials to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

While we want to believe that during a crisis people’s better parts rise to the occasion, toilet paper hoarding proves otherwise.  How many 24-packs of toilet paper do people need?  Thinking of other people is an ancient practice it seems.

There is a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the stock market crashes and people run into the Bailey Building and Loan to take their money out.  George pleads with his customers not to drain the limited bank’s money supply, but to only ask for small amounts to get them by in the short-term.  While some take all of their money, others think about George and other customers by limiting their withdrawals.

That’s the kind of neighborly attitude we need right now.

If we are to get through what possibly may be the worst pandemic since 1918 when over 675,000 Americans died out of 103 million, we all have to sacrifice for the greater good.

As I tell my students, the one comforting aspect when studying disasters in history is that we know when they ended.   Yes, the Civil War was horrible, but it was only 4 years long.  But those alive in the 1860s had no idea how long that tragedy would last.

Not knowing how long the current health crisis will last creates anxiety in us.  We don’t know what the coming months will bring.

The one constant that has helped my family cope with this health crisis has been our dog Noble.  He doesn’t care about COVID-19, only that his bowl has food, he has a walk, goes for a car ride, and plays with rope toys.   How delightful to be blissfully ignorant of the dramatic changes we are all enduring.

 

 

Foul-mouthed Teens Pollute Learning Environment

Where I work, teachers are encouraged to stand outside their classroom doors to greet students every day, every period.   While I usually do this, more recently I end up inside my classroom with the door shut, shielding myself from the barrage of vulgarities vomiting from high school students.

Just the other day as I stood outside my door, a couple of students were shouting the s-word repeatedly.

As the boys walked past me, I asked them to watch their language.  So what did they do when rounding the corner?   Shouted the expletive even louder.

Welcome to high school 2020, where incalcitrant students run amuck and the adults have lost control of the school campus.

With the erosion of school discipline comes the rise of student misbehavior; neither fear nor shame of consequences or punishments inhibits it.  There isn’t a hair of a hesitation in some students saying whatever they want whenever they want.

I have mentioned before, the environment on public school campuses will only get worse once Gov. Newsom’s new bill kicks in on July 1 when defying a teacher will barely register a disciplinary action.

Each new law limiting schools doling out suspensions is emboldening hooligans to wreak havoc in and out of the classroom.

Smart teachers know not to engage with students who are not their own.  If a teacher chooses to interact with students misbehaving, the situation quickly devolves into a high blood pressure scenario where confrontation and defiance is the rule, and thuggery thrives.  The bad kids go unpunished while the attentive teachers who try to hold students accountable go unsupported.

Students who don’t even know me, see a man as old as their uncle or grandfather, dressed formally in a sports jacket and a tie, who clearly is either a teacher or an administrator, yet my appearance does not matter.  Respecting one’s elders or authority figures is not a behavior practiced in the home or elsewhere.

These foul-mouthed teens don’t care about the feelings of their peers who may not want to hear f-this and f-that all day long at their school.  Oddly, there is a small patch of greenery on campus called the Peace Garden.  And it is there where one will find some of the raunchiest language on a daily basis.  So much for the peace.

It doesn’t help that we have a president who is foul-mouthed, saying “bull—” on live television without concern that children will hear his words.

Schools have cracked down on bullying and sexual harassment, but need to ensure that all disrespectful language is intolerable.

During my conference period recently, I noticed two male students walking ahead of me, brazenly walking past the open gate to the staff parking lot and exiting the campus.

Not one but two security guards were there.  One of the students said “have a nice day” as they exited the campus.

I asked one of the guards if those students just cut class.

He said, “Oh, yes.  They do it all the time.  But our hands are tied.  We are told not to approach them.”

If schools don’t hold the high standard that their campuses are safe havens for non-threatening words and actions, similar to places of worship, then schools fail.  Often it is the one place where they will learn how to be decent and empathetic and kind.  Foul language pollutes the atmosphere of learning which all schools should aspire to.

Once they graduate high school, the opportunity to teach young people how to behave civilly will have vanished, and they will march into society at large, less humane than earlier generations.

 

 

GUSD Supers Not So Super

Ask any student to name the most influential person in their education experience and most likely the student would name a teacher.   Rarely a principal.  Never a superintendent.

Which is why when GUSD announced that Dr. Winfred B. Roberson, Jr. would no longer be in charge of the district, the news generated more of a ripple than a tsunami.

Roberson now joins the ranks of recent GUSD supers who seem intent on not staying very long.

Since I began my career in GUSD, there have been 9 superintendents including 4 interim appointees.  That averages out to a new one every 3 years.

Looking at the past three decades, each successive superintendent leaves Glendale earlier than his predecessor.

Robert A. Sanchis’s term ran 14 years, James R. Brown lasted 8, Michael F. Escalante 6, Richard M. Sheehan 5, and Roberson 3.  It is getting to the point where whoever becomes the next superintendent might as well hold the title of “interim.”

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that the average tenure of a superintendent is between three and four years, concluding that “hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.”

With changes in superintendents comes shake-ups in other upper management positions.  The instability is alarming.  If a school had as many teachers coming and going, the education of children would be negatively impacted.

This begs the question:  how important is a superintendent, the highest paid employee in the district at a quarter of a million dollars?

New superintendents tend to establish their authority via some new cockamamie education program that is mandated for implementation in all classrooms without teacher input.  Veteran teachers know to ride such fads out and don’t get too riled up about it because it will last as long as the superintendent remains in office.

When Sheehan was here, he persuaded GUSD to sign a five-year contract worth $3.4 million with Massachusetts-based Curriculum Associates to use their i-Ready diagnostic testing program.  The edict:  evaluate each kindergartner through 12th grader three times a year. One year later, Sheehan left.  Not soon thereafter, the massive endeavor was quickly downsized.

In its hunt for the next super, GUSD has a list of seven employee search firms expected to submit proposals.  Often the cost is around $25,000.  One of those is McPherson & Jacobson, hired by GUSD in 2016 who found Roberson.  Since he did not work out, why is this firm even in the running?

And with the high turnover rate, one wonders if it might dissuade a quality candidate from coming here.

I understand the importance of hiring an experienced superintendent, but since the recent ones came outside of the district and didn’t have a prior stake in the community, the school board should consider hiring a fresh face from those who currently work at district headquarters, especially those who taught in Glendale schools.  They would be less likely to leave thus offering stability, something this district desperately needs.

Meanwhile, the portraits of GUSD’s superintendents keep decorating the wall in the Board Room.  Roberson, Sheehan, Escalante and company (including the 10-month legacy of 1937’s Norman B. Whytock) will forever remain memorialized, while the faces of teachers who have devoted 25, 35, 45 years of service are nowhere around.

But here’s the thing—despite the maneuvers of the school board and the high turnover rate of upper management, Glendale students still receive a quality free education.  Unfortunately, the people responsible for it remain invisible in the halls of district headquarters.

Old Grades, New Parades

One benefit of having winter break in the middle of the school year is that it provides an opportunity for fresh starts.   And those of us who work at Hoover High School sure could use a cleansing of last semester’s turmoil that slammed our campus like a tornado:  the student brawl, the walkout, the negative press.  A feeling of unfinished business hung over us like a fog for a good part of the fall.

With this in mind, I began the first day back by passing out neon red squares of paper to my students and having them write last semester’s grades along with a short reflection.  I told them this would not be shared with anyone including me.

Once students finished, I had them fold the paper in half twice into tiny squares.

“We are locking away the past forever and . . .” I said, as trash cans were distributed down each row, “. . . throwing the grades and any negative feelings out.  Not the lessons learned just the grade itself.  It’s a new year and a new semester, time for a new beginning.”

I dimmed the lights.

“First, let’s get reacquainted with Room 11202.  Did you miss this room during the break?  It’s been a while, so in your new seat, place your hands in front of you on the table to have a physical connection to the environment, close your eyes, and think positive thoughts.  In order to give you ideas on what to think about, I will share mine.”

“Dear Room 11202.  Thank you for being here for my students and I.  For being a sanctuary of learning.  We look forward to wonderful memories the rest of the way.”

“Now I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for at least one minute.  You may begin.”

I played meditative music at low volume.

Once most students’ eyes had opened, I passed out pastel blue squares of paper.

“Write down a favorite memory you have from winter break that brought you joy.  It could be a gift, a song, a text, a sunset.  Write down what the memory is and why it brought joy to you.”

“Fold it once and put it inside a safe place in your binder.  Now you have something that makes you feel good each and every day.  Some of the approaching days will be pleasant ones, but some will not.  For that darkest day that may surface, when it seems everything has gone wrong, open up your binder and look at this piece of paper and be reminded of what gives you joy.”

By happenstance, principal Jennifer Earl walked into my classroom right at the time I was beginning this lesson.  Usually she stays for a few minutes then continues on to other rooms in making her rounds.

This time I asked her to stay for the entire lesson because I wanted her to experience this for herself.  She even threw away her own red piece of paper with great enthusiasm.

Well, she was so inspired by what she saw, she asked me to do the lesson with the entire staff at that afternoon’s faculty meeting.

When I demonstrated the activity with my peers, I sensed a calmness in the room.  Reconnecting with our workplace felt like the right thing to do coming back after the break.  We all needed closure. How serendipitous that Dr. Earl walked into my room when she did as if it was meant to be.

And all of this happened in just the first day.  I can’t wait to see what will unfold the rest of the year.

 

 

Power of the Students

Through the Great Depression, World War Two, Korean and Vietnam wars, and 9/11, one thing was for certain:  that in the fall each year Glendale and Hoover High Schools would meet for the final football game of the season.

That tradition ended last week.

Hours before game time, “out of an abundance of caution” Glendale Unified School District cancelled it “due to increased rumors of possible disruptions . . . that put student, employee, and spectator safety at risk” as stated in a prepared statement.

Fallout from the Oct. 3 fight at Hoover ultimately led to GUSD’s decision.

The 88-straight game streak was broken as were the hearts of students and alumni and anyone else who has a link to the city’s storied history.  Even the homecoming dances were postponed.

It wasn’t just a football game that never happened.  For the Hoover senior football players, it meant a chance at history by beating Glendale all four years of their high school career, a feat never before accomplished.

Much preparation goes into this one event each year whose purpose is to instill school spirit, the major sporting event no matter the football team’s season record, with an early morning ceremonial poster drop from three floors up and a school-wide assembly of skits performed by each grade level.  All of this work done by a small group of dedicated students, all leading up to the game, the game that was not to be.

If there was a serious threat of violence, then cancelling the game was the right move.  However, if the cancellation was based on rumors, something the district admonished everyone after the fight at Hoover not to fall prey to, then questions should be asked.

After all, when a rumor on social media spread following the fight caused a huge amount of absences, school was not cancelled “out of an abundance of caution” so why would the game not happen?

If you are trying to make things go back to normal, the last thing you want to do is to end a positive, long-standing tradition between the two oldest high schools in the city.   Not having the football game is abnormal.

Then, guess what happened?   Just when the TV news minivans stopped parking in front of Hoover, they returned on Monday.

Students organized a walkout to protest the district’s cancellation.  Well over 100 students walked two miles to district headquarters wanting their voices to be heard.

“What really happened on Oct. 3?  Why was the game cancelled?” were questions never fully addressed.

Three days later, GUSD attempted to answer these questions in their first press conference on the matter four weeks after the initial incident.

The district is moving forward to facilitate communication with all members of the school community.  Let’s hope such efforts succeed.

Give credit to the district for doing this.  However, even more credit goes to the persistence of students who felt that questions remained unanswered and issues unresolved.

Would there have been a press conference if there was no walkout?

The motto at Hoover is “be responsible, respectful, and engaged.”  The students who organized the peaceful demonstration embodied that standard, and adults should embrace these young people for speaking their mind and reminding all that this is their school.

 

 

Meet tomorrow’s inspirational young people

With so much ugly human nature saturating our senses these days, I wanted to give my students a different life experience.

At the start of spring semester in January, I created an assignment allowing them to explore the goodness that is within themselves.

Called the Decency Project, the months-long endeavor gave them an opportunity to pursue charitable work in any area of their choosing.  Students could decide to work alone or with up to two other people from any of my four English classes.

During the semester, students turned in progress reports.  Their projects covered a wide spectrum, from working with disabled children and the elderly to feeding the homeless and caring for cancer patients.

Since I have never done this before, I was not sure how I was going to evaluate their work in terms of a grade.  That is why I asked them to answer this question at the end:  How would you feel if I told you that after all your work on this, I decided not to award any points for it?

I was so impressed with their responses that I shared several of them with all my classes so that the students could see how the decency project impacted their peers.  And I listened to them—no grades were given.

It was one of the most powerful moments in my 29 years as a teacher.

While a few students wrote that they would be very disappointed if they did not receive points for this project, over 95 percent of the 135 students said they would be fine without.  Here’s what they said:

“If this project was graded, it would defeat the whole purpose of being a decent person.”

“Soon after beginning my work, I began to not really think of this so much as a school assignment, but an incredible opportunity for me to give back to my community and grow as a responsible, hard-working citizen.”

“Rewarding someone for doing something diminishes the values behind volunteering, turning what should be a selfless act into a selfish one.”

“I would feel very proud and glad if you decided not to reward any points.  Kindness should not be rewarded.”

“It was more of a life lesson than a project.”

The last question students answered in their final report was this:  Looking back over your efforts, was it worth it?

Here are their responses:

“It was absolutely worth it, and I am willing to do it again.”

“This project was an eye-opener as we wouldn’t have normally aided others in such an impactful way.”

“It helped me to become focused on others rather than self-focused, which is a thing we all need to do.”

“We have seen how those that are less fortunate than us live, and we are able to see the world through their eyes now.”

“I felt like I actually put my time, dedication, and hard work on something that became useful at the end.”

“Since the people we were helping were cancer patients, it was quite sobering and it made our complaints of homework seem irrelevant.”

“I am thankful that this project was assigned because of how much freedom was granted.  Students do not get many opportunities to be so creative and self-dependent in projects.”

“Nowadays, there isn’t a lot of kindness going around in the world.  I hope this project motivates other students to do this.”

“This project has shaped me into a humanitarian.”

“I feel more humbled as a person.”

“I have become a better person.”

What a breath of fresh air in today’s times.  I learned how lucky a teacher I am to work with such inspirational students who will be leaders in our society one day.  I am proud of their accomplishments, and I hope the public is, too.