Archive for the 'Education in the news' Category

Teach·er ˈtēCHər/: 1. Instigator of Truth.  2. Agitator of Critical Thinking. 3. Provocateur of Free Thought.

By Claudia Felske

Ah, predictable me. If you’ve at all been a reader of my blog, you can probably predict my dilemma right now. These days, I suspect I am hardly alone in this quandary. I’ve written about it in the past: the push and pull between the public school teacher me and private citizen me.

SO here’s my (utterly predictable) dilemma: How does one teach in these politically-charged, complicated times when “fake news” masquerades as the truth, when “real news” is labeled “fake news,” when Orwellian terms such as “post truth” and “alternative facts” are no longer the stuff of Dystopian novels, but mainstream discourse?

fake-stampAnd to those of you who are about to call me out for bringing politics into my classroom, let me say this:  When language itself is being altered and manipulated, when knowledge itself is being distorted and undermined by the highest offices in this country, politics has clearly forced its way into our classrooms, not vice versa.  

Let’s take English class, for example. In English class, we talk about words: what they mean, what impact they have, their origins, their connotations. In English, we research and write. We teach students to be skeptical readers, to find reliable sources, to verify facts, to examine multiple sides of an issue or topic. We do this so our students become good readers and critical thinkers capable of making credible arguments and discerning reliable information in their post-secondary studies, in the workplace, and in the larger world. We do it so they become effective communicators and responsible citizens.

Enter “post-truth,” “fake news,” “alternative facts”; enter a presidential administration which openly disputes easily verifiable facts, which calls the media “the opposition party,” which maligns and berates those who question and attempt to fact-check.

If we are truly “teachers” is it not our responsibility to “teach” students to examine, to question, to discern the truth, to navigate through the complex world of politics, the media, the blogosphere, and propaganda?  

lincoln

It seems to me (I’m primarily speaking of English teachers and Social Studies teachers here) we have three options:  

  1. Do nothing. (Welcome to the path of least resistance and least responsibility).  
  2. Go for it. Lay out the evidence: let videoclips of Spicer, Conway, and Trump speak for themselves (And be prepared for the fall-out).
  3. Navigate somewhere between 1 & 2. (Provide a path for students to investigate this critical topic for themselves).   

Last week, I attempted #3.  I amended our Debate unit in Freshman English to include a few days examining Fake News and what has become the murkiness surrounding “the truth.”

Full disclosure here: Designing these lessons was cause for much anxiety and reflection. I teach in a predominantly conservative community which, like much of his country, is deeply divided and deliberately silent in public on many critical issues that matter to us all.  

Long story short, here’s what I did and why. If you feel so inclined to use any of this in your own classroom, please steal it outright:

Day 1: Students reflected on their own experience with Fake News and examined how its created.  

  1. Small groups of students discussed examples of fake news they’ve encountered on social media or elsewhere.
  2. Students shared out with the class.
  3. Assignment: Students researched the concept of “Fake News”

Day 2: Students participated in a class discussion on the making of Fake news and its impact on Democracy and “Truth.”

  1. Students shared their thoughts about From Headline to Photograph: A Fake News Masterpiece.
  2. Students reflected on (wrote and then discussed) James Madison’s quote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
  3. Students then reflected on (wrote and then discussed) Serina Taverse’s quote: Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.” – New York Times

Day 3: I took dictation in a class K-W-L (Know, Want-to-Know, Learn) exploring the terms “Post-Truth” and “Alternative Facts,” and I introduced the “Triple-Washed Facts” process.

  1. With a KWL chart on the Smart Board, I presented the terms “post-truth” and “alternative facts.” For each, I asked what we “Know.” I typed as they spoke. Then I asked what we “Want to Know” and I typed out their questions. Then, I had them use their Chromebooks to answer those questions. Finally, I typed as they told me what they “Learned.”
  2. I introduced the “Triple Wash” Process. This is the process they  would use for researching all facts used in this debate unit. 1) Check the Source: reputation, experience, respect 2) Check for “Fishiness: (use your BS detector) Is it too surprising? Is it too fantastic? Is it too convenient?  3) Verify it Elsewhere with that “elsewhere” being a separate reliable source.

15-fake-news-w190-h190-2x

Over the course of these three days, I never told  them what to think. This was very much by design. I orchestrated their own exploration and examination of Fake News and its fallout. I was pleased with the depth of their skepticism, interest, and connection-making. And I was pleased that none of their conclusions came from me.

So now, I’m requiring my students to triple-wash every fact they use in our debate unit and beyond, and I’m imploring them to employ similar rigor to the greater network of information and social media streams in which they live.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Charlie Sykes, former WISN conservative radio host, articulated the necessity of such scrutiny: “The real danger,” he asserted, “is that, inundated with ‘alternative facts,’ many…will simply shrug, asking, ‘What is truth?’ — and not wait for an answer.”

That’s where educators enter the picture. We must be instigators of truth, agitators of critical thinking, provocateurs of free thought.

We must teach students to hold everyone accountable, to relentlessly seek the truth, to look for the larger narrative.  As citizens in a democracy, it is our job and theirs to hold none above such scrutiny.

Public Education- An Endangered Endeavor?

save our tudentsBy Dhanya Nair

Education, one of the most basic services that should be made available to children and youth by society, is often the cause of much debate and controversy. Providing quality public education is challenging, even in developed nations like the United States. However, the benefits of free k-12 education are immense and are often reflected in the quality-of-life of a nation’s citizenry. Political leadership has a direct influence on public education through funding and curricula. Having grown up in a nation where public schools lack funds and quality teachers, and where warring political parties propagate their viewpoints by altering textbooks, I feel strongly about the need for citizen-participation in matters of education.

Public education is meant to provide a level-playing field for children from different racial, socioeconomic and social class backgrounds. Education should be an equalizer, not the fiefdom of a select few. If the people making decisions about public education in this country or any other are not committed to achieving its actual goals, there is cause for concern. As a mental health professional, I interact to some extent with the urban school system in this city and within the scope of my limited interaction, the disparities between urban and suburban schools are clear to me. Inequalities are meted out regularly to those children who come from minority, low socioeconomic and low social class backgrounds. Common sense dictates that the achievement gap can be narrowed largely by affording equal opportunities to children cross this nation. However, it remains to be seen if new educational policies will bow to political ideologies or the best interests of students.

She’s the Right Person for the Job if the Job is to Destroy Public Education

By Claudia Felske

This month, I’ll cut to the chase: short but not at all sweet—

Betsy DeVos is President Elect Trump’s nominee for United States Secretary of Education.

DeVos is an activist and millionaire donor in national efforts to divert public educational dollars away from public schools and toward for-profit corporations undermining the original intent of charter schools.

This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.

The charters DeVos advocates have little to no oversight as to the quality of the curriculum, credentials of the teachers, and which students they can deny enrollment. They are exempt from evaluation and monitoring requirements of public schools, many are rife with financial corruption, and many significantly underperform academically compared to their public school counterparts.

This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.

As Diane Ravitch, Department of Education appointee for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, said “If confirmed by the Senate—DeVos will become the most radical, anti-public-school education secretary since the Office of Education was established in 1867.” 

This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.  

DeVos has never attended a public school, nor have her children. She has zero experience in public education as a student, teacher, or an administrator. She has no background or experience in curriculum or pedagogy.

This is the woman set lead public education in this country.

Imagine having a new boss at work. Now imagine that this new boss has no experience in your field whatsoever and this new boss has a track record of defunding and destroying companies she leads.   Now imagine that this workplace is every public school in the country. 

This is what we’re dealing with.

So…

1. Educate yourself about Betsy DeVos:

2. Act, email, and call your Senators accordingly.

*The confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos is set to begin January 11, 2017.

Does Spelling Matter?

spelling-998350_960_720By Stephanie Nicoletti

Does spelling matter? Do children learn proper grammar? Do children learn cursive anymore? It seems lately there is this concern about how children are learning writing and spelling skills, which is valid, but the answers to these questions are YES, OF COURSE! It just probably looks different than it used to and these important questions deserve an answer.

Learning to spell is a very difficult task because children are trying to use many different skills at once. When children are so focused on spelling every word exactly correct, the writing process gets slowed down. Many teachers, especially in the early grades, and including myself, encourage inventive spelling: the child makes his or her best guess on the spelling of the word. When a student asks, “Miss Nicoletti, how do you spell ‘because’?” I simply respond, “stretch through each sound of the word.” This practice is research-driven and when children use this method, their writing becomes more fluent with richer vocabulary.

Of course, in the older grades spelling does count, but most teachers have their students engage in a writing process. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar come in the final stages of the writing process. Spelling in the older grades comes last in the writing process for the same reason as the primary grades: focusing on spelling too much early on will limit the student’s flow of ideas and quality of writing.

So, do schools still even teach spelling then? Something that our district has implemented that I am particularly proud of is the use of the Words Their Way spelling program. To sum up: students are placed in “spelling groups” based on actual spelling patterns students need help with. When they are “tested” each week, we only look at the spelling pattern that they are focusing on, not the spelling of the whole word. This is a new type of thinking for parents and even teachers, this individualized program supports the research stated above while fostering reading and writing skills.

My Not-So-Good Blogpost

Warning: This is not a good blogpost. A few days ago, I was good to go. I had this month’s blogpost in draft form, in need of a little polish, but it was done—it was timely, relevant, I felt pretty good about it—–and then I decided to chuck it.

You see, a few days ago, my life as a blogger, a teacher, a human being was different, all of our lives were different. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and Officers Lorne Abrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa have changed everything. They have me reeling. They have me recognizing the gross insufficiency of my blogpost, and so I’m chucking it to make way for my not-so-good blogpost, not so good because the right words to process this tragedy are simply unavailable, and the full-circle format so satisfying in a blogpost (problem and solution, question and answer) won’t happen this time around. No pat answers or easy solutions here.

After all, how do we even talk about this? Gun violence. Racial injustice. It’s an understatement to say that these are difficult issues to talk about. Do you dare talk about them with your extended family, your co-workers, your students? They are mired in layers of history, race, identity, and socioeconomics. I’m certain that I’m not the only one, fingers on keyboard right now, not knowing which keys to tap, what words to use. But the very fact that these subjects are so hard to broach underscores their complexity and the urgency with which they must be tackled.

So, how can we tackle them? Here’s my not-so-good attempt:

First, Get Upset

The easiest thing to do is nothing: do nothing, say nothing. News happens and life goes on. If you do nothing and say nothing, none of your Facebook friends will be offended; no one will be arguing at the dinner table; there will be no weirdness in the break room at work. But doing nothing and saying nothing is akin to accepting the horrors of last week as “the new norm” as US Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned.  Doing nothing and saying nothing is complicity.  Our membership in the human race requires more of us.

Second, Say Something, Do Something

As a wife and mother, this means taking about it at the dinner table. As a citizen, this means picking up the phone and calling my representatives to voice my concerns about gun legislation (a topic I find tragically tied to these events). As an English teacher, this means necessarily complicating my teaching of Huck FinnThings Fall ApartTo Kill a MockingbirdOthello—to include the gamut of voices on contemporary race issues (Michael Eric Dyson’s recent “Death in Black and White” and others). It means giving my students the tools and the uncomfortable but important opportunity to process these issues in a safe, rational setting (a complex task, but one sorely needed in our world of increasingly uncivil and unbalanced discourse). As an American, this means being a part of a larger conversation, a larger action. And while I’m not certain what that will look like, I’m committed to being a part of it, as difficult and uncomfortable as it’s sure to be.

As teachers, we have many moments of truth. I’m reminded of one such moment faced by a colleague of mine during our Homecoming Parade several years ago. He stepped into the road, preventing two students in a truck donning a giant confederate flag from joining the tail end of our homecoming parade. Aside from being a physical risk, it was a social and professional one. There he was out in the community in which he taught—no time to consult with the principal, superintendent or lawyers—he decided to step in front of the truck and stop a symbol of oppression and racism from being associated with our school and community.

I’m reminded of another moment of truth in recent days by Robert, a former student of mine (how frequently our students become our teachers). Reading his post on Facebook shortly after finishing my original blogpost is what prompted my rewrite. Here are his words:

“I don’t know what to say about it, and I don’t know if I’m qualified to say anything about it. But damn it, staying quiet doesn’t feel right: I am 4 times LESS likely to be killed by the cops than any random black person is. This is not an opinion, this is fact. Because I was born with pasty white pigment, I’ve always felt safe during routine traffic stops. I’ve never carried a weapon, but I’m sure if I did I would be given credit by many for “exercising my second amendment rights.” Of course in a perfect world we should all (no matter our pigment) respect and admire the police. But you do not gain respect and admiration by also being feared. There is no doubt (just look at the stats and our ugly history) black communities have good reason to FEAR the police while white communities largely don’t. Now, I’m not saying all (or even most) cops are racist. What I am saying though, is that there is a systemic problem and police killings of black people happen at a disproportionate rate. And it must stop. If you’re white and this status makes you uncomfortable, it should do more than that. We all should be in this together to demand better.”

I’m proud of his words. I’m proud that he had the courage to struggle with words and contradictions and the complexity of what we cannot allow to become the new norm.

Third: Ask Uncomfortable Questions

My building principal has a saying that I’ve always found helpful. He says that part of his job is to make people uncomfortable. To change, to improve, to grow, we must be uncomfortable with the status quo. I can think of little that’s more uncomfortable than discussing these ideas in a classroom, but the classroom is a microcosm of the world, and choosing silence means accepting the events of last week the status quo.

We have little choice, then, but to ask uncomfortable questions, and there are many:

  • What does it mean that President Obama, US District Attorney Loretta Lynch, Dallas Chief of Police David Brown are all African Americans in the highest positions of power in politics, law enforcement and justice, yet our politics and law enforcement and justice systems are mired in racial tensions and inequalities?
  • How do we come to terms with the progress we’ve made and the problems that remain?
  • What is the relationship between our gun laws and violence? Between patrons bearing arms and police violence perpetrated against them? Between police deaths and gun proliferation?
  • What is the majority opinion in America regarding background checks and the legality of assault-type weapons?  Is this voice being represented by our legislators?
  • What happens when violence escalates, but conditions don’t change? What have other countries—historically and contemporarily—done to curb gun violence?
  • What initiatives are in place to examine and improve race relations?  What role does segregation play in race relations?
  • What role/responsibility does social media play in peace-keeping, accountability, and inciting violence? What role do television and radio media play?

I want to live in a country where we ask the uncomfortable questions, where we relentlessly strive for social justice, where we respect and protect our institutions of law enforcement and justice, where we do what’s required of us as citizens in a democracy.

That’s why as a blogger, a mother, a teacher, a citizen, and a human being, I was required to write this not-so-good blogpost.

Drop Educator Effectiveness: an Exercise in Common Sense

By Claudia Felske – If you lose 50 pounds, do you buy some new clothes you’ll look great in, or walk around in saggy, baggy old ones?

If you finally pay off your car, do you spend that money elsewhere, or do you keep sending in that $500 check every month?  

If your engagement is broken off, do you move on, or do you spend the rest of your life sitting in your wedding dress in front of your uneaten wedding cake, Miss Havisham style?

If you’re driving to Disney for a family vacation, do you stop when you reach Orlando, or do you keep going because there’s still gas in the tank?  

If the federal government revokes Educator Effectiveness (an ineffective, time-consuming mandate that makes teachers feel like dogs chasing their own tails) do you revoke it at the state level as well, or do you keep it in place because, well, it’s in place?

So, here’s the thing. As you may have guessed, this last hypothetical is not a hypothetical.

In December, the United States Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act). The re-authorization includes revoking the federal mandate for the Educator Effectiveness System.  Yet, thanks to Wisconsin legislators, this highly problematic initiative remains law in the State of Wisconsin.no-nonsense

My question (and I believe the question of many Wisconsin educators) is: Why not buy new clothes, stop sending in extra car payments, take the wedding dress off, stop in Orlando, and why not bow out of a failing Educator Effectiveness System, which yields negligible results and diverts enormous amounts of time and resources that could be better spent in Wisconsin schools?  

Anything less is nonsense.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Slovak_referendum,_2015,_portable_ballot_boxBy Peggy Wuenstel – There is a piece of proposed legislation making its way through the Wisconsin state house that every free-thinking Wisconsinite should be aware of. Bill 355 seeks to put significant limits on the ways in which local school districts can ask for financial assistance from their taxpayers through referenda. It is a drastic move away from the traditional local control of schools to the state government assuming the authority to determine what kinds of schools our children attend. Why should the lack of local control of Wisconsin schools concern you?

  • There is a reason that local governing bodies that direct the policies and funding of schools are called school boards or boards of education and not boards of tax control. The charge of these bodies is to determine the needs of local students and their families and the willingness of the community to meet those needs. While some members seek office with the intent of reducing tax burdens, the majority are motivated by their desire to direct and support education within their political, social, and personal point of view. The service of these individuals is often direct democracy at its best, with these public servants attending meetings, making decisions and meeting directly with constituents in ways that far outpace other representative bodies.
  • School expenses continue to rise as costs of materials, insurance, energy, security, and staffing to meet expanding student needs grow. There are state and federal mandates which much be met. Even after exploring supplemental funding sources like grants, charitable donations, naming rights, and expanded student fees, the gaps remain between what it costs and what state and federal governments provide.
  • State funding has been slashed in Wisconsin over the last few budget cycles. With rising costs, and shrinking state support, local districts are forced to go to property owners to make up the difference. The overall cost of educating children does not go down, the responsibility just shifts from one level to another. Property taxes are often a very unfair way to apportion support for schools.
  • Wisconsin schools are diverse and proudly so. While a common set of standards drives the curriculum and content of instruction, local needs, strengths, and preferences vary widely. Areas of the state have different priorities. Some districts highlight athletic programs. Others demonstrate patronage for the arts. Agricultural programs might meet local community needs and closely bond schools, industry and community governments. The varied cultural and socio-economic needs of home districts require local control to understand, direct, and make these visions reality. Some districts are large and urban in nature serving tens of thousands of students. Some boards of education govern a single school. Wisconsin education has historically been the antithesis of one size fits all.
  • Schools are often the heart of a community, its social life, and its hope for the future. Leadership in government, civic, church, and are connected, nurtured and directed by schools and school personnel. Our buildings, staff, facilities, and initiatives are rich resources for cities, towns, and villages all over Wisconsin. They deserve, and thankfully often receive, community support.
  • The Wisconsin system for financing schools contributes to significant inequities between districts. Property rich districts are well-funded and offer superior facilities and outstanding educators due to the ability to attract and retain employees with salary, benefit, and continuing education packages that support professionals in their work with children. Rural and revenue-challenged districts face the dual challenges of smaller labor pools and limited tax bases. Providing quality education statewide should be the goal of every parent, local community leader, and school official regardless of where they live.

The current proposal before the legislature seeks to reduce how often, what time of year, and how frequently school boards ask their communities for support. It seems to be another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The ability to ask at a local level for support for education gives that say to voters, not state senators who want to centralize control of Wisconsin schools. One has to wonder if this attempt to limit “the ask” of local school boards is a reaction to a recent up-tick in positive outcomes of local referenda.  An administration that hangs its political hat on the promise of tax reduction might find it hard to convince citizens that shifting responsibility to local school boards from state tax revenues saves anything except politicians’ reputations as being tough on tax increases or as advocates for centralized, depersonalized education for Wisconsin’s children.

In my three decade career I have trained and worked in large districts and small. My own children have attended urban and rural schools. I have had the opportunity to compare per pupil spending, student to teacher ratios, course offerings and extracurricular offerings, all before the expanded school choice system. I have been employed by districts that never passed referenda, and those who have graciously supported the schools every time they were asked. I hope we continue to live in a state where the ask as well as the answer remain local decisions.


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