Invisible Treasures…or why I hate ear buds

Invisible Treasures…or why I hate ear buds

Every morning, I take my two rowdy dogs on a short walk that leads into the foothills of the mountains not far from our home.  The trails there are well worn and maintained, and some are heavily trafficked during the daytime hours.  Most days, we pull off the trail occasionally to allow other hikers, bikers, and runners to pass, and most times, it’s a wonderful opportunity to smile, say “hello” or “good morning”, and wish each other a lovely time in the mountains.  These are brief encounters, but even the mountain bikers whizzing past have time to flash those pearly whites and say “good morning!”

Every once in a while, a smiling “good morning!” will be met with a stony face, intent upon the trail.  Silence.  Only then, with the greeting hanging uncomfortably unanswered in the air, will I see little earbuds stuck in the ears of the passerby.  And then I find myself thinking, “I hate earbuds.”

I face those little things every day at home in the ears of my two young adult children.  I’ll ask a question, call their attention to something, or just be informing them that I’m stepping out, to be met with that same intent face, attention averted.  Silence.  I have to yell, to whistle, to gesticulate to get their attention to take the darn things out of their ears.  I understand how the ear buds allow them to hear their favorite music or shows without disturbing the house, but I still think, “I hate earbuds.”


Perhaps it’s best expressed through an analogy to those two rowdy dogs I walk every day.  They are constantly alerted by the things around them; their ears swivel like satellite dishes as they hear things that are out of the range of my hearing.  Amazingly, they’ll walk by a little mound of earth, stop, become absolutely still, and stare intently at the ground.  If we wait long enough, eventually, a little mole, a miner below the earth, might start moving earth again.  Those dogs are so tuned in to the sounds around them that they can hear what is invisible and see beyond what their eyes can perceive.

We wear noise canceling headphones to quiet the people and sounds around us on planes and trains.  We wear ear buds to hear our music when we exercise.  My children wear them to be able to hear their own videos while not disturbing others.  I get it.  People can be annoying.  We don’t want to annoy others, and we have little patience with those around us who are annoying.

But what becomes invisible to us when we block our hearing of others?

The runner who dashes by me missing a greeting misses out on a hidden treasure of the shared trail: there is community in the action of smiling and responding.  The runner began his trail solitary and will end it that way, while those of us who interacted satisfied the human need for contact.  We shared that glorious moment on that glorious path during that glorious day with each other.

While my children spare each other the sound of their own individual taste in music, we as a family lose the collective ability to learn about each other’s interests and to interact in regards to it.  My daughter is a K-Pop fan, and while baking cookies together, she played the music out loud so we could both hear.  It gave us an opportunity to share her music, to discuss what we heard together, to help us learn about each other.  The shared sound gave us a shared experience.

Yes, the noise canceling headphones keep the flight quiet for the wearer, but what is hidden that the wearer will not hear?  People’s need to interact is strong, and often the voices that are quieted are the ones who feel a need to be heard. If we look beyond the annoying behavior and see the human, we might ask ourselves what motivates it instead.  Is it loneliness?  Is it fear? Uncertainty? Pain? Self doubt? While we plug up our ears to silence the others, we deny the others’ existence in our world.  The incessant talker is an opportunity to validate a fellow human’s presence in the world and to see the treasure that lies hidden in that person.  Disconnectedness haunts us and makes it possible for us to de-humanize others.

Why do people feel awkward in an elevator? Why do people standing in line instinctively pull out their phones and stare down at them rather than talk to each other?  We are still social animals, but we have lost our social graces.  Carrying on a conversation with the person next to you feels uncomfortable, but responding to a post by an actor you’ve never met feels perfectly natural.  Much has been written on the loss of conversational skills in contemporary society, but I think the greatest loss is in our ability to hear and our willingness to really listen for what is hidden behind their words.

I hate ear buds.  They leave a warm greeting hanging in the air uncomfortably unanswered.  They keep us from sharing experiences.  And most importantly, in their ability to limit what we hear, they have taken away our ability to listen for that mole underground, that hidden treasure.


Creed of an Independent Voter

Creed of an Independent Voter

I am a registered independent voter.

No, I will not tell you who I will be voting for.

Yes, I will be voting in the upcoming election.

Your fliers, yard signs, television spots, social media posts, e-mails, and billboards are wasted on me.

I watch debates. I review the ballot before I go to vote. I research all my options.

The more a candidate engages in ad hominem attacks, the less likely he or she will earn my vote…or my respect.

I understand that running a city, county, state, or country is a complex task.  I perceive that pulling one thread may cause other firmly placed threads to suddenly fray, and I admit that I don’t always understand how those threads are connected.  And I assert that we need candidates who can envision those connections.

Hence, I will vote for someone who is





and courageous.

I have voted for candidates whose policies I disagreed with because they were willing to discuss all sides, to turn over all potential solutions, and because they reached difficult decisions through deliberation and thoughtfulness.  They can see how the threads will fray where I am sometimes blind.

I will not vote for a party hack…of any party.

I believe that questions of public policy:

foreign policy, education, health, welfare, the elderly, homelessness, defense, crime, immigration, energy, infrastructure

are far more complicated than yes/no, good/evil, black/white,


My vote is not wasted; it is a reflection of the complexities within my own world view.

I am an independent voter.  I speak for myself, and no one else.


Time Left to Midterm Election:






It’s a thin, white binder.  A mere 12 ounces.  I’ve been carrying in my backpack with my grading and my daily lunch for three weeks.  And every day, my hand brushes against it when it reaches in to grab a grading pen, to pull out my expandable file full of student work, to retrieve my water bottle.  For some reason, Last Tuesday, my guilt got the better of me, and I pulled it out and carried it with my to my PLC meeting, knowing I wouldn’t have any time to open it…but at least I pulled it out.

I’ve promised myself for weeks that I would take a look at it “this weekend.”  Three weeks ago, I felt proud to have printed the whole of it from the National Boards website, including the NBPTS Standards for English Language Arts and the 5 Core Propositions.  I felt good because I took the time on another day to locate a binder and dividers, to hole punch it, and to mount it beautifully, ready for my highlighter and notes.  And yet.  Three weeks later, I still resisted opening it to actually begin.

Why has it been so difficult to begin at the beginning of my NBPTS renewal?  It’s not as though I’m unaware of what the process entails: this is my second renewal, and the process has changed very little.  But I have changed since my first renewal: my children are much older and more independent, and in the past years, I’ve become very active in different professional groups.  I remember finding the process inspiring last time.  This should be easier this time, right?

I think what makes it harder for me now is the knowledge that my NBPTS renewal will not focus on the activities I’ve become so involved in as of late.  Things like new teacher training, “pineapple” grass roots professional development, and learning about executive functioning in the brain, while laudable, are not going to be feathers in my cap, as this is a certification representing my ability to teach English Language Arts.

And there’s the rub…

I’ve been afraid to face the question of whether or not what I do in the classroom may be a little stale by today’s standards.  NBPTS consistently references the latest in research based educational models, the use of the latest technology, and teachers who engage in trainings.  I have to admit to myself that I’ve become very picky about trainings; I seek those trainings that offer me something new to learn, and after 24 years of teaching, those trainings have more to do with education as a whole, with the brain, and with adolescent development than they do with the specific language arts standards.  So, has my practice in the classroom grown rote, and have I stopped reflecting on my practice with the standards?

This morning, by the dark of an early Fall Saturday overcast morning, I finally sat down, armed with the innocent-looking binder, coffee, a pen in my hand, and some determination.  I confronted the 5 Core Propositions, at first just marking the key indicators that NBPTS would seek.  By the time I finished all 5, my mind was racing with what I’m doing in my classroom now that reflects these indicators.  I began listing next to each.

The morning lightened a little…

I pulled out the NBPTS Standards for English Language Arts, this time just listing activities and classroom practices that I could think of that could address each of the standards. Some were easier than others, but I found myself picking up the pace…

Finally, I confronted the “Prepare” section of the Profile of Professional Growth (PPG), again marking as I went.  When I finally got to the “rubric” section describing what my evaluators would be seeking, I started listing activities that I have been working with for years in my classes that have evolved over those years.  These were the activities that appeared again and again in my initial notes.

My four threads of professional development  from the past decade emerged in that note taking process.  I could barely contain my smile and curb my enthusiasm: I have been doing the professional work.  I have been thoughtfully and deliberately improving and adjusting my practice.

This moment…this exact moment…is what I remember finding so inspiring ten years ago.  The opportunity to reflect, to look my practice squarely in the eye, and to hold myself accountable for doing the work, is what I lack in my day to day survival as a teacher.  The NBPTS Renewal process is expensive, and sometimes it hangs over my head like a dark cloud, but it comes with its reward: the sheer recognition that I have been and still am fresh, new, and re-new-able.

Now, it’s time to start writing.


A Tale of Two Protests

A Tale of Two Protests

The morning began early as the teachers gathered in the cold air on the sidewalk.  Across from them grew a field of grain, waving a greenish-pink tinge in the early morning light as the sun peaked over the mountains to the east.  They passed posters among themselves as the took their place on the fine line of concrete that marked the very edge of public road property and public school property.

Restricted by state law from striking, the teachers had gathered this way each morning for a week, holding up posters to protest and inform passerbys about the contract negotiations that were very much stalled.  The traffic on the street increased as the hour grew closer to the first bell ringing that would signal to the teachers that their contracted work hours had begun, and therefore, the posters had to be shelved and protest ended.  As some parents drove by to drop off their children for classes, some honked, whether in appreciation or disagreement.  Others simply drove by, trying desperately to get this part of the morning chores done so they could get on with their own day.

The contracted hour grew near, and one teacher among the many began gathering the posters back up.  Staff members holding tightly to their now cooled coffee mugs picked their way across the parking lot and back into their classrooms to begin the work of the day.  In some ways, the protest action itself felt futile and hollow and toothless, but it was better than silently reporting to work, day after day, knowing that the contract would reflect yet another raise-less year.

In the classroom, this day began like all the others: bells, announcements, pledges of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, books opening, papers pulled from backpacks, and sleepy students.  There were hints of a coming storm from the students: “Miss?  Did you hear about the walk out?”  “The student government kids are going to walk out this morning to support you teachers!”

I pushed these comments from my little freshmen aside.  They were not student government kids, and there was no way I was allowing one of them to get up and just walk out of my classroom, not that I had any real plan for what I would do if one tried.  We continued working on the lesson of the day.  I had anticipated being able to finish the lesson easily by the end of the class period when, suddenly, a bell rang.  Students began packing up and putting away materials while I gave an irritated look at my watch.

“Nope.  No.  Keep your stuff out and just stay where you are.  That’s not the bell to release.”

Oh, the futility of those comments.  Students glanced uneasily at each other while pulling their papers back out.  We are all so well trained to react to bells.  It’s akin to Pavlov’s dogs: bell rings and instead of salivating, teenagers begin shifting uncomfortably in chairs, unable to focus.   Something was happening; somewhere their friends were outside waiting for them; the world was passing them by!

I firmly reiterated my statements.  “We are not leaving.  I don’t know what is happening, but until I hear an announcement asking me to release you, everyone is staying right here.”

The door opened to the hallway as other students began peeking in.  Clearly, not every teacher had taken a look at the wall clock, and some students were wandering.  Some students from my next class began walking in the door, but this time, many brought news:

“Miss!  The walkout!  The student government kids are sitting outside with posters!”  So it had begun…

I’ve never been much of a rebel myself.  I hold strong opinions, but I have always prided myself on being able to see the other side’s point and limitations.  To put on their shoes and to walk around in them, as Atticus teaches Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  If I was more of an activist, perhaps that young teacher would have encouraged her freshmen to go out to the walkout, to join in.  Instead, I reacted in my typically conservative manner.  I instructed all of the kids walking into the classroom to stay inside the classroom and to not go back out to the protest.

What was I afraid of?  Was it two thousand students who might collectively want to be heard, their hormones raging and their tempers volatile?  A walk out is a peaceful demonstration, and it sounded like the students were engaging with their silent bodies and posters, not violently.  But something that day told me to hang on to the kids and to not encourage their inner Martin Luther King’s, their Caesar Chavez’s to be practiced that day.

Another bell rang, but this time accompanied by an announcement from the office.

“Teachers, please keep your students in your classrooms.”

Not a problem, I thought.  Happily, my freshmen were fresh enough to still be ordered to sit and stay, and they sat and stayed, while students continued to trickle in with news from the outside.  Why ring the bells if you want the teachers to keep the kids in class, I thought to myself.  Clearly, as so many students were out and wandering to their next classes, when that message hadn’t been received with the first bell, so many of my colleagues had just excused their students to what they thought was passing period.  By the time of the announcement and the second bell, “Katie, bar the gate!”  The kids were already out of class and wandering—there was no way to put the genie back into the bottle.

The actual time for class to end had passed with no further bells, so the room, now full with nearly two classes of 14-year olds was full of restless energy.  They all knew things were unfolding, but blinded by a room with no windows to the hallway and well away from the quad where the purported walkout was happening, we were well insulated from the drama.

Another student walked into the room with an updated report, intending to go back out until I instructed him firmly that he would be staying in the room now.  The report was not good, and at this point, I was not going to allow any child to go outside.  Apparently, in an ill-conceived attempt to send the students back to class, the principal had first rung bells, thinking that would send the student protesters back to class.  Instead, it sent a flood of students out to see the protest, and then join it, knowing they could avoid classes that day by just sitting outside claiming to protest.

In frustration, that same principal then decided that ripping up the posters made by the students and ordering the student government students back to class would end the action.  In a school marked by low academic drive but also marked by incredible artistic talent, ripping up student work in front of the students has an incendiary effect.  In this case, it was mistakenly lighting a fuse on an entire quad of potential firecrackers.

The noise outside the classroom grew.  Loud voices began approaching the door and glass breaking echoed.  The rumble grew…and then passed.  As the sound began to fade, I opened the door to peek outside and to get the lay of the land.  As I did, I saw more of my freshmen students from later classes toward the end of a large pack of students yelling and shouting as they progressed up the hallway.  I grabbed two of the kids by the arm and yanked them into the room, locking my door behind them.

I had heard the phrase “mob mentality” before.  I had dabbled with the idea of darkness in the human psyche since my senior year in high school when we read The Heart of Darkness, and the book had resonated with me heavily then.  I had studied the adolescent brain, and I well knew how incredibly driven teenagers are by their peers.  But there was a flash I saw in those two students I grabbed from the hallway.  I could see it when they were marching with their peers—a black darkness, a blindness to consequences, a senseless anger, a loss of control.  Mob mentality is real—I saw two Honors English 9 students, straight A students, engaged in violent behavior that erased all other redeeming parts of their personalities.

Once in the classroom and back amongst their peers who sat meekly in their desks having quiet conversations with others who were wandering about, their eyes returned to consciousness.  The bodies relaxed, their shoulders un-tensed, their hands opened from the fists they had been in, and their voices lowered.  They looked at me as if they had just come out of a coma, not recognizing where they were or how they had gotten there.  One of them whispered at me, “thank you.”

We all stayed locked up in that little classroom, hearing the loud sounds passing again, up and down the hall.  I repeated my action of grabbing a couple students in from the back of the pack.  That day, I felt a little like the person in the Starfish parable: the story of the person who walks along the beach throwing starfish back in the sea.  When someone reminds him of the futility of his act, he replies, “I made a difference for that one.”  I saved those few I pulled in from themselves, from having to see, at such a young age, the capacity for evil that they had within themselves.

Eventually, the hall grew quiet, and the mob sounds from outside stopped passing through.

I have little recollection of how the rest of the day unfolded.  I’m sure the lock down that was never formally announced was lifted.  I’m sure we continued to move through the day from bell to bell, trying to teach half empty classes.  But I do well remember the story that was told to me later in the day of what had eventually unfolded outside that protected little classroom full of nervous teens:

Apparently, the students had moved several times through the campus and past classrooms, breaking windows in many of them.  (For this reason alone, I was grateful to have one of the only rooms on campus without a window—a fact that I had been disheartened by when I first was assigned the room.)  Then, the leaders of the riot had led hundreds of students to walk up that same sidewalk teachers had stood on in the early morning light and off campus to continue the damage as they went.  They turned over a police car en masse, and eventually ended up a half mile away from school at a convenience store where they caused some damage.  I was able to tune in to CNN that night and watch my school, my students, rioting and walking up the street from aerial footage shot from a helicopter above the scene.

In the days that followed, there were many staff called up for having “incited a riot.”  Because I was not privy personally to what happened, just what students told me had happened, I had to surmise from my colleagues and from what was said at meetings had supposedly unfolded.  Apparently, the staff as a whole was being blamed for the walkout to begin with.  Our protests in the cold morning air just off campus had inspired the student government students, some of the finest in the school, to join us and to lend power to our voices by standing with us.  Were we at fault for that?  Perhaps, but I don’t think there are many educators that would be ashamed to acknowledge that their actions had inspired fine students to find their own voices to speak for what they thought was right.

Then, many of my colleagues were cited for having dismissed their students at the first bell, which was clearly not the correct bell for class dismissal.  Perhaps this was the thing I did right, but I’m not willing to fault those who released their kids.  So often in the classroom, teachers get swept up by the activities unfolding that the time gets away from them—the bell is the signal of time in the school.  It speaks with authority. If the bell rang, then class must be over.  Often, by the time a teacher realizes a bell is in error, those ever so efficient students have already quickly exited the room.

Some of my colleagues were called to task for perhaps helping the student government kids organize and create the posters.  Was this true?  I know not for sure, but it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility, knowing the personalities of the staff and how many had embraced the morning demonstrations.  I had stood among them, holding my poster quietly, but I was far from a ringleader.  I’ll own this about myself: I am not a vociferous leader of the silenced voices.  I would rather protest with my written words, with networking, outside of the maddening crowd.  But I do know this: those teachers did not help students with an eye toward causing the violence our campus saw that day.  They were trying to teach students how to conduct non-violent protest, a vital form of speech in our country.

Is there blame to be had?  Of course.  There aren’t stories of whole high schools running riot, literally, on the news every day.  Something went terribly wrong that day and turned some really wonderful kids into an angry mob.  But I don’t believe that the mob was borne from the planning of a non-violent protest.  I believe, in my heart of hearts, that the mob emerged from the was that authority interacted with those non-violent protesters.

It is a lesson we must all learn from.  Young voices may be young; their experience with personal expression of opinion may be undeveloped, but we must honor their opinions and try our best, as adults, to hear them.  Their bodies are developed, adult bodies, capable of much physical power, and their emotions are volatile.  When working with them, we need to understand that under that physical prowess are strong opinions and a desire to be respected by the adults around them, the adults they are are negotiating themselves into becoming.

The act of ripping up the expression of those opinions, the public denial of them as young adults and the relegating of them to small children who can simply be urged back to class by the ringing of a school bell is what caused the angry and overwhelming emotions of that day.

As educators, we must carefully consider how we help teenagers find their voice in a noisy society.  We all should celebrate students who are civically engaged.  But we must bear the responsibility for helping them find a way to express their opinions in effective, controlled ways, for their safety and for our own.

Because of my experiences on that day, I have long shied away from encouraging students to walk out of class.  I have strong opinions about the ineffectiveness of it that I share openly with students.   Namely, walk outs have a tendency of attracting many students who do not share or even understand the opinions they are tacitly supporting when they walk out of a classroom.  Instead, they just know that they get to walk out of class and miss work for the day without penalty by pretending to hold such an opinion.  And these are the students that the press will always identify and choose to interview, which makes the walk out look like a shallow action to avoid work for the day, weakening what could be meaningful protest.

Walk outs are also uncontrollable forces, as I personally experienced that day.  People in large groups lose their individuality, the power to think for themselves, and begin acting as one group.  Should that large group begin to engage in illegal or immoral activities, it is impossible for the young organizers of such walk outs to regain control.  They may have begun the action with good intentions, but it can easily spiral out of their control and into some very dangerous places for all involved.

I have experienced a number of different student walk outs in my years since the riot.  They have not ended as dramatically, and most have done little other than be splashed across the local evening news.  Most recently, I worked with a student who was organizing a walk out with a group that was planning a larger one across the entire city, and I told her the story of this CNN-worthy riot.  We talked a lot about measures the organizers were taking to ensure that the walk out did not spiral out of control and accomplished what they hoped it would.  She took the story back to the organizers, and they made some plans.

And that particular walk out went off without a hitch.  Students gathered peacefully as school police monitored.  Students were allowed their expression and only those who understood what the protest was about (in this case: the repeal of DACA) were encouraged to participate.  The principal asked teachers to allow students who stood up to walk out to leave without confrontation.  The press showed up, and the students had organized statements and planned chants, so every student knew what he or she was doing.  And the teachers were informed, so they could tell those walking out that there would be natural penalties (no make up for work missed), but that without penalty, non-violent protest loses meaning and power.

I like to think my district and my administration learned from that riot so many years ago.  I like to think that organizers have learned how to carry off protest with young people in a way that helps them focus their energy in a positive direction.  I know for a fact that I’ve learned a lot from both protests: the ugly and the beautiful.

It is beautiful to see teens find their voice about things happening in their community.  It is beautiful to see them care enough about those things to accept a penalty in order to speak out against perceived injustice.  This is the value of true education: to teach students how to speak with power and empathy and control, not with violence and anger and hatred.

What Students Carry

What Students Carry

One of my favorite writing tasks to assign to students naturally arises during the course of reading “The Things They Carried,” a powerful novel about the experiences of being drafted to, serving in, and returning home from Vietnam.  Students are asked to mirror author Tim O’Brien’s writing style in the chapter that carries the book’s name “The Things They Carried,” but they are asked to change the subject matter to “Things Students Carry.”

It’s a  powerful writing assignment. Every time I assign it, it opens a window into my students’ home and school lives that I don’t normally  get to look through.  The assignment invites them to write about many different kinds of students they attend school with and to try to encapsulate the experiences of teen students today in a short piece of prose.  The topic inspires me as well, especially as I consider how teen life has changed since I was experiencing it.  Trying the assignment myself gives me room to reflect on the variety of student experiences I see daily in the classroom.  Here’s my most recent attempt to reflect some of the kids I see every day:

A lot of what they carried was necessity.  Cashmere carried a hearing device that weighed 3 ounces, but with it came two adult sign language intepreters that followed her through her day.  Those with AVID classes carried their large AVID notebook, loaded with organized sections for each class they had, and ready to be checked by their AVID teacher at any time.  They carried binders, paper, pens, pencils, rulers, calculators, and spiral notebooks, ready for any class at any time.  Sometimes, they would carry a poster board rolled up for a project or a textbook required for the class that day.  They packed their backpacks with handouts, packets, and project descriptions, and many were not organized enough to have these things filed in notebooks or folders.  The papers were informally “filed” in the backpack, the bottoms crushing under other items and curling, ripping, or tearing by the use.  They carried it all in back packs as their school had no lockers for storage.  Some included a lunch or snacks to eat in their bags, while others depended on the free lunch at the cafeteria or brought money to pay their friends to purchase food off campus when given the opportunity.  These items varied in weight from 5 to 20 pounds, depending on textbooks required for classes.

The things they carried varied by their interests.  Maurice carried a baseball bat to class every morning and leaned it against the wall, where he also dropped his athletic bag, full with his practice uniform, cleats, hat, and mitt, all weighing a total of 15 pounds.  Depending on the time of year, Heather would carry an extra bag of either soccer or basketball gear.  Daniel carried an art notebook with pages full of superhero images skillfully drawn out, some colored and others not.  Miranda carried a bag full of Smarties, which she would take out when her energy started flagging, cheerfully handing them out to her classmates.  Noah carried his laptop, a rare prize in this Title I school, because he preferred it to the school provided technology options.  It was a lightweight instrument, but carried the weight of responsibility and awareness to ensure it didn’t get stolen or broken.  Amy carried her trumpet, hauling it with her to class so that when the bell rang at the end of the day, she could run with it directly to catch the bus which was always trying to leave before she could arrive at the pick up spot.  They all carried smart phones that weighed less than one pound with accompanying headphones, at the ready to plug their ears and check out of the class environment and into the musical environment of their choice.

They also carried the intangibles; the immeasurable.  Rose carried the weight of repeated bouts of depression, which included the weight of having to move in with a grandfather because her mother couldn’t handle her dark moods anymore.  Many of them carried the scars of lives outside of the classroom.  Some hid the scars behind smiles while others acted out with short tempers.  And then there was the sleeper, who simply laid down his head on the desk trying to recover from a night of trying to find a place to sleep.  Carlos carried the weight of a clipping from the local newspaper which bore the obituary next to the picture of his cousin who committed suicide.  They suffered homelessness, hunger, and uncertainty about their future as they sat in classes listening to teachers talk about college, dorm life, and ACT exams..  Melena carried pain–the pain of an injury incurred during athletics–and the nervous awareness that surgery was shortly ahead.  Whitney silently carried the weight of knowing that tonight she would sleep again in the car with her father after completing her homework.    Emily carried the burden of a morning phone call from her father who had told her that he was ashamed of her and that she was no daughter of his.  These things weighed them down more heavily than anything else, but these were also the burdens they didn’t want to share.  They hid the weight because of shame and embarrassment.  Sometimes the weight became overwhelming, and a simple “Good morning!  How was your weekend?” from a teacher would cause the weight to become too much to bear. The tears would well up behind the forced smile, and a proud teen would finally confide a small portion of reality to the teacher, who might or might now understand the gravity of that small sign in the midst of preparing for a class of 30 students now walking in the door.

They carried hope.  Hope for a brighter day and a better future.  They showered, brushed, polished, and carefully selected today’s outfit before arriving at school hoping for social acceptance from their peers.  Even those who were failing classes carried a smile at passing period.  They told their Advisory teachers of their dreams to become doctors, actors, engineers, athletes, and musicians.  They carried PSAT scores that showed marked deficiencies, but continued to dream of Harvard, Yale, and MIT.  They confronted low averages in classes with fresh optimism that everything would just work out.  Some quietly carried the doubt that they could handle college after all and the resolution that the military wasn’t going to be their thing.  These students carried the weight of an uncertain future, along with the hope they’d find their way.

They carried the weight of expectation.  Some knew their parents expected them to graduate in the top 10.  Others knew their parents expected them to help take care of little brothers and sisters.  They all knew their teachers expected them to try their best, and most understood that their teachers’ reputations rested on their achievements.  Their teachers expected them to find time to complete homework on time while they balanced after school jobs and practices.

A few knew that they were expected to fail and to drop out.  They knew what their city expected of their school and its graduates, and they had heard the students at other schools reference them as “ghetto.”  They felt they had to live up or down to the grade assigned to the school by the education department.

Above all, they carried the weight of the expectations of their peers–a powerful force in the world of the teenager.  These expectations varied by the group of peers they joined: some groups expected high academic achievement and involvement in school clubs, while other groups expected missed classes to walk to the apartment across the street to share a joint while swapping phones to watch YouTube videos.  At times, the weight of expectation became too much to bear, and they succumbed to the lowest of the expectations: missing school, failing classes, dropping out.

For 180 days a year, they carried these weights with them through 6.5 hours of school, often sinking and dropping their heads onto their desks before the day was out from the sheer exhaustion of carrying the weight.  And when the day was out, many slowly exited the building, hovering around the front of school rather than going home to take on more burdens of family responsibility and social pressure.  And they all dreamed of a day when the weight would be lighter, when the future would be brighter, and when they’d be in charge of their own lives.

Aaron and the Computer Cart of Doom (A parable about why tech may not save education after all…)

Aaron and the Computer Cart of Doom (A parable about why tech may not save education after all…)

Early in the morning, as I approached the classroom, I could hear his voice.  Aaron, my school’s technology teacher, was already at school, rolling the laptop computer cart I requested into my room before I even arrived.

A few times each school year, I borrow one of our computer carts (henceforward to be called the COW–Computers on Wheels) to use for instruction. It’s important for students to get some time working with various aspects of technology, and we experiment with forms of publication.  Although my teen students have been raised with technology, it’s stunning how few understand the function of a tab key or how to double space in a Word document, much less how to adjust settings for a standardized format like MLA.  To a layperson, it may seem as though the students would be so excited about using the technology that my teaching week would be light.  Any teacher who’s actually had to work with computers in the classroom knows better:

This week, my 9th grade Honors English class is drafting their Embedded Assessment, which in my class, is akin to a midterm exam.  The current assessment requires them to compose a short story, including the narrative techniques like symbolism, irony, imagery and figurative language that we’ve studied over the past 8 weeks.  I’ve been eagerly anticipating this assignment; the students have known it was coming and have been composing story starters and developing characters as part of classroom activities for weeks.   They were excited to begin drafting, and I was optimistic that it would be a good day. I had written very clear, step by step directions for students to access their Office 365 accounts and posted defined goals for the day.  And then I opened the COW…

Happily, there were 30 computers in the COW, which meant each student would, indeed, have his or her own to work on.  However, whoever had used it prior to me had pulled all the power cords for the computers into one long group and tied them in a knot.  Not a single computer was plugged in.  Fortunately, I was on a prep period, so I quickly began untangling, rewiring, and plugging, hoping against hope that all the computers would have enough charge to survive the class period.  Prep period ended with little time to prep as the bell rang.

Students started streaming in, and a mini lesson on first lines of great short stories began a good, positive class period.  Students presented story plans to me in order to check computers off the cart, and I crossed my fingers.  At first, it went well.  About 10 students had checked off computers; others were working frantically on story plans; all was quiet.  A student lined up to get a computer with a plan in hand…and then…I looked up to see the next student in line holding a laptop and waiting patiently.   Oh no…here it comes.

“Miss, the computer won’t let me log on.”

Another voice from the front row, “Miss, I keep getting this error message.” A chorus of voices began erupting from all the corners of the room.

The line to check out computers grew, and every other kid was holding an open laptop, looking for answers.  And so flew the class period.  About half of the students were able to be productive, accessing their Word online account and typing up the beginning of their first drafts.  The other half stood in line, while I moved from computer to computer, re-booting, re-logging, testing, and finally giving up.  About 20 minutes left in the class period, and I had 12 laptops stacked up on top of the COW that were inoperable.  I had 3 other students who had to return their functional laptops because for some strange reason, they had no cursor on their Word online document and could not type anything.  Of 27 students in the class, only 12 were able to actually access and use their technology during the 60 minutes of working time.  The others went back to our tried and true technology–paper and pencil (which, I note, never fails.)–after losing over half an hour of work time.

A panicked text message from me brought the hero of our story, Aaron, back to my room.  He quickly began re-booting and trying to re-set the clocks, which had become mis-aligned with reality, and this apparently gave the whole laptop the boot from anything wi-fi-able.  Unable to work with them in the classroom, he started scooping them in groups of 4 into his arms and running them back to his office to hardwire connect and do some magic computer voodoo that fixed them all and made them happy.  (I shouldn’t neglect to mention that this same hero spent his day in a room that had suffered a water leak, desperately trying to move monitors away from the wet insulation.)  By the end of the day today, the COW had 30 operable and fixed computers.

What had happened?  The working theory now is that the last group of students to use the COW didn’t log out and shut down the computers as they should.  But that doesn’t really matter beyond the fact that the lack of such simple procedures can throw my well-oiled classroom into a tailspin.  What matters is that this particular drama plays out nearly every time I try to use computers in the classroom, whether with a mobile lab like the COW or in a classroom lab.

The lessons of this parable are many:

  1. The benefits of using technology come with a cost:  merely the set up of technology cost me all the daily prep time I have, when I normally would be using to plan class, contact parents, or review student work.  Instead of using the class time to move around the classroom, helping students actually write, I spent the time moving around making sure that computers were running.  I didn’t actually help with any composition skills today at all.
  2. Teachers not only have to be well versed in their content, but they also have to be able to trouble shoot computer-tech glitches on the fly, and there are ALWAYS computer-tech glitches when a teacher plans a lesson around technology.  The best laid plans mean nothing when those plans depend on technology that doesn’t work for 100% of the students.
  3. The more technology we put in schools, the more people we have to pay to maintain it.  Aaron is the hero of this story, but he was running all day putting out technological fires.  There aren’t enough Aaron’s in my school to keep all the software updated, to keep the labs in good shape, to fix bulbs on Promethean boards, and to save my 12 laptops.  And here’s a fun fact: he’s only paid to be a tech coordinator for 1/2 the day.  In the other half, he has to coordinate the countless standardized tests we proctor all year long: planning, organizing, collecting, distributing, and submitting.  These positions are being cut under current budget concerns, but technology keeps pouring into the school buildings.  With no one to maintain it, it will be useless.
  4. Given the choice, I would not prefer a 1 to 1 situation (where every student has technology).  I anticipate that, if my problem today was merely caused by a faulty shut down procedure, students would consistently be complaining about computer updates, crashes, breaks, and glitches as I try to run a lesson that demands they all have access to a laptop all the time.

My overall reflection here is that the move to technology is the politically popular one, but for those of us having to use it in the classroom, it’s a deal with the devil.  Yes, my students will have instant access to research; we can cut paper use; the state can boast its students have 21st century skills.

But I lost something today too.  I lost the opportunity to work on the content of the class–to help students actually write.  As we move away from textbooks, we take a risk.  Will the technology always work? What happens in the classroom if it doesn’t?  Great teachers will always find a way, but the quality of what they can provide is curtailed when we deny them access to materials that allow the focus to be on the content, not on the bells and whistles of technology.

Today, the history teacher across the hall told me his history textbooks list Bill Clinton as the latest president of the United States.  History and science departments across the state of New Mexico have been denied updated textbooks for years, under the assumption that technology will fill the gaps.  This is short sighted.  Technology has its benefits, but technology is a tool…and only a tool.  It is not the content.  If educators spend all their time having to tinker with the tool, we may lose something we don’t want to lose: what we were there to learn in the first place.