“Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools—with yesterday’s concepts.”
― The Medium is the Massage
“There comes a time when time itself is ready for a change.”
― My Life, My Love, My Legacy
It’s roughly 6:30 AM in the morning and I’m on the couch trying to grab an extra 10 minutes of sleep. I’d come out here around 4, with the intent of starting the day’s writing, but instead, here I am, grasping for a few winks.
At some point, my boy has come out. He turns 10 next month and he’s still an early riser. I hear him rustling around on the chair across the room.
“What are you doing?”, I ask.
“That second unit of Florida Virtual School I have to have done by today.”
I cringe a little, Yesterday he’d tackled the first one and ended up scoring a 56 on the attached quiz. A score that had set off tears and frustration. He’d never scored that low on schoolwork before and was unsure how to process it. We’d decided to hold off tackling the second unit till today. After all the beauty of asynchronous work is its inherent flexibility.
Virtual learning has been a challenge for families. With a wife who is a school teacher and two middle school kids, adapting has taken a lot of bandwidth on a lot of levels. It’s kind of a mini-miracle that a computer hasn’t sailed through a window at our house. This morning my 6th-grade daughter had a come apart over adjusting to percussion instruction on line. But things are improving.
On synchronous days, the kids hustle off to class in their individual rooms, while the wife retreats to our room were she’s turned a corner into a virtual classroom. Early on, I thought I would be forced into helping the kids more, but after 4 weeks, they are pretty adept at logging themselves in and navigating class on their own. Occasionally I get a holler from them, “Dad! I just got kicked off! What do I do!”
Any more I barely look up when I answer, “Email your teacher!”
It’s amazing how good they’ve gotten at self-advocating and troubleshooting. I’d like to take credit for their skills, unfortunately that would be inaccurate. Much of the credit lies with their elementary school computer teacher, the rest with inborn child ingenuity.
Later in the morning, I’ll ask, “Did you get back on?”
Sometimes the answer is, “yea, she emailed me back detailed instructions and I was able to get back on”, but sometimes they weren’t able to rejoin the classes. When that happens, they usually look for other work to do – there’s plenty of it in their folders – or in some cases just do other stuff until their next class. They’ve come to realize that I, like themselves, have work that must be done, so they can’t constantly interrupt. Right now we are probably running at about a 60% success rate with that expectation, but it is up from 20% two weeks ago, so I’ll put it in the win column.
Our asynchronous days kick off at 9 because I’m still clinging to an old rigidity, but the expectation is that they know what needs doing and the onus is on them to get it done. My message to them has always been one of taking care of your business and I’ll stay out of your business. If I have to get into your business, none of us will be happy. So they do their best to keep me out of their business. Yea, it’s doubtful I’ll be winning any parenting awards any time soon.
Last year my daughter struggled with the transition to middle school. As a result, her first quarter grades failed to meet expectations. We gave her a quarter to correct the issue or we would step in. When schools closed in March she was at a pace to make all “A”s. The fact that she had recognized a problem and taken corrective action on her own, meant more to me than the grades themselves.
In navigating the new education landscape we’ve had to accept a few basic tenets. That rejection started with resisting the urge to create a virtual environment that mirrored the bricks and mortar environment that currently doesn’t exist. That wasn’t easy, but we soon realized, there are benefits and detriments to both, forcing one to mirror the other just negates the benefits while amplifying the detriments.
One thing that I needed to let go of was what an actual school day looked like. The kids were quicker at grasping the options than I. On our asynchronous days they often come to me and say, “Hey I’ve finished the work for two of my classes, do you think we could go to the pool and I could finish my work at 4?” or they’ll ask to visit a neighborhood friends house for an hour or so and then do another assignment.
At first, I was resistant to such overtures. The phrase, “it’s a school day” sprung too quickly to my lips with the expectation that they should be focused solely on schooling from 9 – 4, Monday to Friday, right in tow. But now I realize, we are in a different world and as long as they are doing their work, what does it matter? Asynchronous learning is forcing me to create a better work/life balance. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important when the kids are off in one building, and I’m off in another. Having them in a shared space makes offers new options and forces me to re-evaluate priorities.
As a result of their proximity, my answer has become, “Let me see if I get my work done or I can get to a place where I can stop.” Sometimes I can’t stop, and I can go do what they want to do, but that doesn’t mean they have to keep their noses to the grindstone. Asynchronous instruction is the perfect vehicle for them to practice self-motivation and time management. Both are essential to being college and career ready, yet neither is measured by TNReady.
I don’t expect that in these opening months they’ll be very adept at either. As a result, I’m sure that they will miss assignments or score poorly on tests as a result of being ill-prepared. With those shortcomings will come consequences, hopefully, consequences that will hurt enough for them to adjust their behavior. At the least, an opportunity will be provided for us to assess and grow, together.
I’ve also had to accept that all of this is brand-spanking new. There have been some past overtures in digital learning for older kids, but never on the scale, MNPS is attempting for younger kids. Like all new undertakings, it’s going to be painful and disruptive. Some of the work is going to seem overwhelming. Kids won’t score the same high scores as they have in the past. Technology is going to break down, and there will some functions where we find current technology is inadequate. In other words, it’s going to suck.
What’s transpiring now is not dissimilar to when the first automobiles rolled off the assembly lines. They didn’t always start, they were hard to control, the ride was more uncomfortable than a wagon. People probably questioned why the need for such a machine, when a horse and carriage were perfectly sufficient and twice as reliable. But improvements were quickly made, and the vehicles of today – other than riding on 4 wheels – bare little resemblance to those first vehicles. I think it’s a safe bet that few of us would currently advocate for a return to the horse-drawn carriage. I suspect by the end of the decade, distance learning will hold a similar position.
We need to take time and let the adjustments take root. Take grades with a grain of salt. If the work is too much, do what you can and let your teacher know, adjustments will be made. If the technology fails, let the district know and bare with it, improvements will come. Maybe never fast enough for us, but they will come.
A door is opening right now and with it a wave of opportunities. The only limits are those we impose on ourselves. Opportunities will come that were unavailable in the past.
For example, a number of years ago Hume-Fogg HS had a great German language class. Those who enrolled benefited greatly, often earning college credits and scholarships. Unfortunately, there was not enough interest in the class to justify the expenditure. The class was discontinued. In the future it is possible that the course could be offered virtually, enabling not just Hume-Fogg students to benefit, but also students enrolled at other district High Schools.
I’m well aware that my life circumstances make for an easier adjustment than many others. But that’s where it’s imperative that local non-profits, businesses, and government entities recognize the need to increase their input. I’ve long argued that we’ve shifted too many social responsibilities unto to the backs of schools and professional educators. We measure schools and teachers on student educational outcomes but we force them to address hunger, childcare, mental health, physical health issues, and more while trying to teach kids. It’s time for some of that to be shifted off of the shoulders of teachers.
Much has been made of the rush to create pods and micro-schools by those with the means to do so. But the possibility exists for all children and families to mimic the affluent. I am sure that there are plenty of businesses that would be willing to supply the seed money in order to establish learning centers for the children of employees or other children in need. In my mind, there is a huge opportunity for non-profits to create a space where children of lesser means can get the individualized attention that they’ve needed for years. Local governments, and the state for that matter, could make available grants in order to fund micro-schools and learning centers. It’s not like the need for this individualized instruction will suddenly disappear when schools re-open for face to face instruction. These equity needs could be met while strengthening the public education net.
The current crisis presents both a challenge and an opportunity. An opportunity to address many of the inequities that were intentionally, or unintentionally, baked into the original public education mode, while strengthening commitment and ties to citizens. Rarely does such an opportunity come along.
But what are we doing?
We are doing what we always do. We identify the problems and then demand that teachers and schools fix those problems, sans sufficient resources. And right now, I’m not drawing distinctions between charter schools and traditional schools, because the reality is both are currently facing the same issues and both will lose students and families if they fail to adjust to the new reality.
I wish that the conversations going on in the conference rooms of local businesses, non-profits, and government buildings, more closely mirrored those going on among teachers every day, all day. Being a spouse of a teacher has made me privy to an endless stream of discussion over the past 4 weeks between Nashville’s public educators. It’s no exaggeration when I say they start in the early morning and are near-continuous until late in the night.
While some of that conversation consists of concerns about the untenable position they’ve been placed in, the vast majority is centered around how to improve the delivery of educational services for kids. I overhear snippets as my wife moves through the house, engaged in conversation, while throwing clothes in the dryer, fixing dinner, or even working the stair machine. The conversations are about both long term and short term solutions, aligning best practices and philosophies, whole classes, and individual situations. The depth of inquiry and attention to detail is staggering.
Nobody recognizes the shortcomings of the current educational model better than teachers, but none of them are waiting around for someone else to come along and solve the problem. They are actively seeking solutions. Not ones that’ll preserve their job, or secure them victory in the next election cycle, but rather ones that’ll benefit kids. I gotta admit, I’m inspired.
The pain of schooling is not going to recede any time soon. Some may think restarting face to face instruction is a simple task and that by doing so, we could simply turn back the clock to an easier time. Far from it. Navigating in-person instruction is going to present an equal amount of challenges. Not to mention the challenge of aligning both in-person and distance learning. We might as well accept that we are on the first leg of a long journey. One who’s destination is still to be determined.
Like any long journey, it’s imperative that we accept that there is no turning back. We need to settle in and try to find joy in the trip. There will be moments of frustration, optimism, joy, and misery. There will be moments when we will feel as if the trip will never end, we will wonder if we have the fortitude to continue – it will, we do and we will.
Unlike some districts, Dr. Battle and MNPS have recognized the need to establish a consistent plan. We left on our trip before many other districts even looked at the map. We’ve made a consistent trajectory while others have veered all over the place. It hasn’t been perfect, but at its core, there seems to be a sense of purpose. For that, we should be grateful.
Back in my living room, I still try to grab those last z’s while my son is still hard at work. He suddenly rouses me with a shout of, “All right I got an 80.”
“I got an 80 daddy, on the second Florida Virtual School assignment.” he exclaims excitedly, before some despair creeps in, “that’s still a “C” isn’t it?”
“Depends on how you look at it. Some people would call it a “B”. Doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s an improvement over yesterday, right? That’s what we are looking for son, improvement.”
That’s what we are all looking for.
MNPS High School coaches are scheduled to meet with district officials today in order to salvage some kind of season. I’m hopeful they’ll find a solution. Not playing the season could have a huge impact on enrollments, which affects the overall budget, not to mention on the kids who depend on athletic scholarships as a ticket to higher education. This is one of the reasons I’ve been advocating for a director position whose focus is squarely on not just sports, but all outside activities in an effort to shore up the district’s relationships with families. Sports, band, drama, forensics, these are all things that are difficult to recreate in the virtual space. The district needs to reassure families that they can meet those needs before others convince them to explore other options. We’ll keep a close eye on this one while praying for a positive outcome.
Yesterday you might have seen my post on Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. It seems like I’m not the only one with questions. Over at Chalkbeat TN, Marta Aldritch is reporting that Tennessee Legislators are looking for some answers themselves. They were scheduled to ask their questions this week, but as he’s done in the past, on at least 3 separate occasions, Governor Lee has run interference. The disappointment in the air is palpable. The next opportunity arrives in September, let’s see how the Governor plays that one.
Much has been made of TNDOE employees still working from home. The assumption is that this is a result of the ongoing COVID crisis. However, there seems to be a little more to the story. Initially, employees were sent home because of employee health concerns, but it’s my understanding that due to Tennessee’s loss in revenue over the last several months, departments had to immediately cut at least 12% of their budgets. So where previously the DOE occupied four floors of Andrew Johnson Tower, going forward they will only have two floors in an effort to reduce the operational footprint. That means that most employees won’t have an assigned workspace. Rather they will work from home a few days a week and go to the office on specifically assigned days due to a need to share cubicles across multiple teams. No one will have their own desk. This is part of AWS – Alternative Workspace Solutions – and was implemented by the previous Governor, Bill Haslam. Many state agencies were already operating this way but TDOE had previously been slow to get on board. Employees may have been sent home due to safety concerns, but they are still there due to budget cuts. Maybe that’s part of the explanation for why new department employees are not being required to be state residents.
Nashville has a new voice when it comes to educational issues. Morgan Barth, a former school administrator, last week penned an editorial to the Tennessean demanding that schools either open or parents be given a tax rebate. Barth was previously a regional superintendent for some Achievement First schools in Connecticut and also worked for the state Department of Education. During his tenure at Elm City College Prep Elementary, the school was ranked first for African-American student achievement in the state, according to the school’s website. He also led AF Bridgeport Academy Middle to become the fastest improving school in the state during his two-year tenure. He apparently relocated to Tennessee after being forced to resign due to a video that showed him shoving a student. Barth got his start in education as a 4th-grade teacher in Arkansas with Teach For America.
A hearty welcome to Emily Masters and Abigail Tylor, who was sworn in this week to serve on the Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education. Ms. Masters represents District 3 and Ms. Tylor represents District 9. Two great additions to the board.
Earlier in the week, the board passed a resolution to call on the state of Tennessee to suspend standardized testing this year, or at the very least hold educators and schools harmless. The motion passed 7-2 with only board members Dr. Sharon Gentry and Gini Pupo-Walker in opposition.
I’m still baffled as to why Pupo-Walker did not recuse herself from the vote. As the Executive Director of Education Trust, she’s actively promoted the organization’s well-publicized position of being pro-testing. Per their statement,
We believe it is premature to call for a cancellation of testing for next spring and encourage policymakers and education leaders to stay the course while providing support to districts as we move into the coming school year
Pupo-Walker’s seat on the board not only gives her 1 vote out of 9 but it also provides access to other board members not enjoyed by Nashville’s parents and community members. Access in which to push her organization’s agenda.
For those unfamiliar, the Education Trust is a nonprofit organization that promotes closing opportunity gaps by expanding excellence and equity in education for students of color and those from low-income families from pre-kindergarten through college. Through research and advocacy, the organization builds and engages diverse communities that care about education equity, increases political and public will to act on equity issues, and increases college access and completion for historically underserved students. They are a $20 million organization that according to 2018 tax filings paid its CEO – former Secretary of Education John King jr – an annual salary of $533K. I really need to rethink my career choices.
That’s it for now.
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 deliver 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.
August first marks the beginning of an annual funding drive for the blog, as hosting fees are due on September 1. Any bit you can do to help would be greatly appreciated. Now more than ever your support is essential. So I’m shamelessly rattling my virtual tin cup.
If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. I also have a paypal account, thomaswebber1. 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. Not begging, just saying.
Pupo-walker continues to show she has too many conflicting interests to serve on the board.