NOTES FROM THE FRONT LINE

“I don’t like to see Shakespeare in a theater. I like to see Shakespeare in the park.”
― Neil Simon, 45 Seconds from Broadway

“Perhaps the choice was neither right nor wrong. It only existed.”
Ashley Gardner, Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries Volume One

 

I hope y’all are dealing with this new “normal” better than I because it’s seriously starting to get under my skin.

Please don’t take this as an argument to lift present health strategies – I think that we are at least a couple of weeks away from that being appropriate. What I’m talking about is all you gleeful education “disruptors” that seem to be more adept at disrupting my life than at replicating a classroom. No offense, to any teachers either – I get it.

In the mad dash to install digital learning platforms, I don’t think anybody thought about what that would actually look like in practice as opposed to what a fantastic idea it was. And I’m not talking about the equity or feasibility here, I’m talking day to day impact on families’ lives.

There are four of us in my household, and we’ve kind of taken on a fifth during this pandemic. About a year ago, we dropped cable and upped the speed of our internet in order to have significant streaming capabilities. What we’ve since discovered is that 5 different devices simultaneously tapping into the stream, quickly depletes it. Someone’s internet either becomes painfully slow or worse yet, they are given the boot.

My wife is a teacher and I already work at home selling insurance. The kids were in 4th and 5th grade. With the launch of a more formalized distance learning policy by MNPS, my life has become one big telemeeting dodge. Yesterday, the wife had a morning meeting, which translates to certain cautions being put in place. I never thought I’d hear the warning of, ‘I’ve got a Zoom meeting in 15 minutes, so if you want to get a shower…now’s the time.” Warning heeded.

Let’s not also forget, as all you teachers can testify, that when she’s not on Zoom, TEAM, or Schoology, she’s calling students, designing lesson plans, or on good old fashion text streams with other teachers trying to plan for next school year while learning technology skills on the fly. In other words, for a significant part of the day, significant portions of the house are off-limits.

Meanwhile, at 10, the eldest has some kind of teleconference, with the youngest’s being scheduled for early afternoon. Mid-afternoon brings a webinar for me and late afternoon brings online Jui-Jitsu class for the boy. Not to mention scattered intermittently through the day are scheduled and ad hoc Zoom meetings for the wife. Somewhere in between all these conferences, I have to find time to make calls in order to try and sell a little insurance. At one point yesterday I found myself on the curb in front of the house making calls, because every place in the house potentially disturbed some video conference or other.

But wait, it doesn’t stop there, none of these conferences are as simple as logging on and proceeding.

Invariably there are password problems, internet glitches, or dropped feeds that need to be reestablished. Trying to work on a project and the kid’s Zoom class fails to adequately connect means dropping project work and trying to address kid’s issues. I’m thinking that concierge IT man, may become more prevalent than concierge doctors.

Throw all these moving parts into an environment where anxiety is already high due to a PANDEMIC, and needless to say nerves tend to get a little fried.

Now I freely recognize that some of what I describe, for me, falls into the category of first world problems. But for many of MNPS’s families, that’s not the case. They may have double the number of family members with half the internet speed. Parents may be less internet-savvy, then in my household. Work at home demands for parents maybe a whole lot more inflexible than mine. Some parents may be consumed with meeting the demanding needs of applying for and collecting loss of work insurance.

If you’ve never collected unemployment insurance before, you have no idea about the hoops a claimant is required to jump through to collect a pittance of their former income – it ain’t no “Hollar and collect” kind of endeavor.

To make a long story short, lost learning time is not the only thing going on in a household in the middle of a PANDEMIC. In rushing to reinvent normalcy, we need to realize that some homes are experiencing a little more disruption than others. Any plan to address loss schooling needs to take into account the wide-scale differences in student home lives. Care needs to be given that an unintended consequence isn’t an increase in family stress.

That’s why any good plan needs to start with a complete inventory. Do you have a computer? Do you have a device? Do you have access to the internet? Do you have access to food? These questions may be a good starting point, but in order to really have an adequate plan, you have to go much deeper?

What level of internet access do you have?

What kind of computer do you have?

How many people are in your household?

How many of them are working remotely? What kind of hours does their job require?

What’s the level of tech-savvy that exists in your household?

That’s just a few more questions that need asking before throwing a plan up against the wall and seeing what sticks.

I applaud MNPS for its initiative. Even more, I applaud the teachers for their willingness to play canary in a coal mine during these unprecedented times. But let’s keep in mind the old adage, “your failure to adequately plan should not result in a crisis for me.”

There also should be an emphasis on reassuring parents that learning is still going on despite schools being closed. Education writer and former teacher Nancy Flanigan tells the story of missing several months of formal schooling as a young child due to the mumps.

And nobody, as far as I can tell, was stressed about how far behind I may have fallen. Kids got sick, they came back to school, teachers tried to catch them up. Sometimes they zoomed forward. Other times, not. Because that’s what learning was like—sometimes fast, sometimes slower. No big deal.

In my own home, my son has spent hours on the internet. Initially I assumed he was just wasting time on mindless YouTube videos. In reality, he has immersed himself in the upcoming NFL draft. Studying players and their stats – teams, and their needs – supplementing online information with magazines I bought him. He’s in the process of putting together his own mock draft. In compiling his draft, he has gone as far as anticipating possible trades and incorporates potential implications.

On the surface, this doesn’t resemble anything he would learn in the classroom. But it utilizes several transferable skills – statistics, comparative thinking, analysis of opinion, crafting unique thought. He may not be learning what adults thinking he should learn, but he’s definitely learning and learning skills that will serve him as an adult.

My daughter, for her part, has focussed on her love of dance and ballet. She’s spent time choreographing several dances and learning existing dances for her favorite Kpop tunes. This time away from school has not been misspent.

Both of their pursuits have also served to help them mentally and emotionally navigate the ongoing health crisis. By having the ability to gravitate towards their interests, they’ve managed to mitigate some of the anxiety and concern that comes with this shift in normalcy. Letting students discover and explore their own interests during this time period shouldn’t be dismissed in our pusuit of remaking our normalcy. Regardless of what the future brings, we have to trust a little bit that the kids will be all right if we give them room to breathe and don’t thrust our own anxieties on them.

One thing parenting has taught me is just how much baggage I can carry around and how quickly I’m willing to thrust on my children. Often, I have to divorce myself from the belief that how I felt something and how it impacted me, is going to do the same for them. I rush to view challenges through my lens, rather than stepping back and allowing them to share their lens uncompromised by mine. Sometimes their view is similar but often times its completely different from mine, unencumbered by my experiences.

I am often challenged in allowing my children to fully experience their emotions without my dictates. My son often yells, at me, “Why can’t you just let me be mad for a bit?” or “Can’t you understand I’m disappointed and just let me be sad for a bit.” It’s in those moments that I realize that I’m trying to dictate to them how they should approach the world, and not allowing them to navigate it on their terms. I’m crossing the void, of being a dictator as opposed to a guide. I have to stop and force my self to consider that their needs and agenda may not be the same. In those moments, I need to inventory and adjust.

Hopefully, that is something that school leaders will also dp as they attempt to reconstruct a formalized learning environment. Again I applaud the effort, let’s just apply more empathy and more thoughtful planning to the equation.

ADD ONE MORE TO THE LIST

Yesterday Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray announced that he had hired Amity Schuyler, the state official who is overseeing the rollout of Tennessee’s new school voucher program, to join his cabinet. That is what we like to call…a big deal.

Schuyler had been placed in charge of getting the state’s controversial program off of the ground because she was viewed as someone with intimate knowledge about how a voucher program should be run. Being from Florida, a state rife with voucher programs, she was seen as someone who could not only get Governor Lee’s vision up and running in a competent manner but could do it on an accelerated timeline. Governor Lee has long thought vouchers were the secret to increasing educational outcomes for students in Tennessee’s urban districts.  Unfortunately, those districts, disgreed with his vision.

Earlier in the year, Memphis and Nashville joined together to file a lawsuit against the state aimed at halting the pending program. The judge overseeing the lawsuit has promised to expidite proceedings. Summary judgments are slated to be delivered in the next couple of weeks, and voucher opponents are feeling pretty good about their chances.

In this light, Schuyler’s departure at this juncture is comparable to OJ Simpson’s lead counsel Robert Shapiro taking a job with the Los Angelos prosecuters office right before the jury delivered their verdict. Obviously that didn’t happen but imagine the message it would have sent had it did. That’s the message that was resonating throughout the Tennessee education world yesterday after seeing a tweet sent out by Memphis superintendent Joris Ray. A sentiment only acerbated by the response from the Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Schwinn’s lack of support for the governor’s signature education plan has long been one of the worst kept secrets in the state. Some have gone as far as raising the accusation that she has been purposely undermining implementation from the start. Schwinn’s actions here would seem to add fuel to those accusations. Nothing says team player quite like congratulating the opposition on stealing your starting quarterback on the night before the Super Bowl.

Further cause for raised eyebrows comes from who the ChalkbeatTN article quotes to give reassurances that the voucher program is still on track. Not the state’s education commissioner, but rather the head of outside special interest group,

“While the TDOE is losing a very capable leader in Amity, I think the pieces are in place to ensure the ESA rollout is unaffected,” said Shaka Mitchell, state director of the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group that has worked closely with Lee’s administration on the program. “Amity did a good job of working on the rules and procedures and now the department, along with other stakeholders like AFC, are in full implementation mode.”

It’s statements like this one that leads me to envision the offices of the current TNDOE being set up as such. The first floor is made up of the dedicated department employees that are valiantly trying to keep the ship afloat in the midst of a leadership void. Too often they get thrown in with criticism of the leadership and we lose sight of their herculean efforts to keep things functioning. We shouldn’t.

The second floor in my mind is laid out in this manner. The commissioner’s office is in one corner. That’s where the ping pong table, snack machines, and photo booth are all housed. One corner houses the laboratories of Knowledge Matters along with representatives of Wit and Wisdom, CKLA, The New Teacher Project, and other like-minded entities. Another corner houses the offices of TNCan and Mitchell’s group the American Federation for Children. The last corner is dedicated for the offices of SCORE, and it’s where all the efforts of the other four corner suites are coordinated. The primary focus being sucking as much of the public dollar into the private sector as possible.

I may be exagerating a bit, but evidence continues to mount that I may not be far off the mark with my vision either.

While the sexy narrative around Schuyler’s departure relates to her role in voucher legislation, there is another aspect. By all accounts, she was deeply unhappy throughout her time with the TNDOE, unhappiness fueled by her disdain for Commissioner Schwinn. Reportedly, despite Schwinn’s public fawning over Schuyler, the two’s relationship behind the scenes was not so warm. As has become custom as of late with the departure of a high ranking DOE official, tongues are wagging that Schuyler is estatic with her new position in the Memphis school system and has plenty to say about Schwinn’s leadership style. If that’s true, I have no doubt that there will plenty of legislators interested in hearing what she has to say.

I’d wish her luck in Memphis, but to do so would be disingenuous. Let’s face it. Her actions in establishing the basis for the state’s voucher law have potentially done a great deal of harm to kids. Personally. I’d prefer that she went back to Florida. About the best I got is, I’m glad it’s Memphis and not Nashville. Sorry, I should be a better person, but unfortunately, I’m not.

We’ll see how this all plays out over the next several weeks. Time will tell if Governor Lee continues to allow Ms. Schwinn to make a cuckold of him or if he’s ready to actually support the families and students of Tennessee’s public education system.

That’s it for now, we’ll back with more tomorrow. If you’re looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

 



Categories: Education

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