We The People
The famous preamble from our most sacred civic document, the U.S. Constitution, famously begins with We the People establishes five objectives for our government, one of which is “promote the general Welfare.”

Rather than unnecessarily expose myself to risk by addressing the board again, I decided to pen this open letter to the HCPS board members and submit it as my public comment for the record of the special called school board meeting taking place on Thursday, August 6th. Not only is this letter a plea for the board to unanimously vote to do the right thing, it is also a lament about how politically polarized we’ve become as a nation, which is both deeply distressing and disheartening.

Prefer to listen to the open letter? Click play:

Honorable Hillsborough County School Board Members:

We live in trying times and today you must make an important decision that will affect us all, regardless of our individual needs, desires and, yes, even choices. As elected leaders, you have been granted the consent of “We the People” to carefully consider the common good, balancing that ideal with our cherished individual liberty. The tension that teeters on the fulcrum between these two concepts has always existed and should be in balance, but our polarized political ecology as of late has clearly tipped the scale so far over that our county, country, and culture all suffer from the corrosive nature of hyper-individualism. Now, more than ever before, we must seek to unite again. Today, let Hillsborough County put people over politics so that we may move forward together.

Our second most sacred American historical document, The Declaration of Independence, contains the famous line concerning certain inalienable rights, and “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice the order in which those three fundamental rights are listed. Does liberty come before life? Absolutely not. Life must come before liberty because it is a prerequisite for autonomy itself. This simple idea underscores how perplexed I and many of my fellow Americans have been about these claims regarding the use of masks, social distancing, and why we must offer enlightened individuals a choice to send their children to schools in the midst of a public health crisis. But if preservation of life is the highest good, the ultimate aim of what a democratic government is to provide to its citizens, why must some continue to elevate the idol of free choice over the lives of our children, our educators and their families?

Please do not misconstrue what is being said. As Americans, our liberty is dear to us all. But I hope to offer a brief lesson in ethics through two philosophical giants, one of whom is a champion of individual liberty and the author of one of my favorite essays, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Although this tract looms large in the minds of many disciples of freedom, Mill is also the philosopher who perfected an ethical approach known as Utilitarianism, which fundamentally argues in favor of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The other thinker is Immanuel Kant, arguably the most famous moral philosopher of the entire Enlightenment period, the very same fertile grounds on which our cherished ideals took root before being transported here by our Founding Fathers.

J.S. Mill is unambiguous in his assertions that individual liberty is the paramount good and that in all matters of one’s own body and mind, “the individual is sovereign.” He is the classic liberal who puts freedom above all else, except, like Thomas Jefferson, when it comes to potentially harming or killing others. In the introduction to On Liberty he states, “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Furthermore, in the concluding chapter regarding the limits of authority of society over the individual, he lucidly claims “there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons beside himself.” Clearly, the conduct of those who are politically pressing to open during a pandemic undoubtedly affects others by threatening the health and lives of our broader community, meaning a vote for liberty over life is a moral failure.

Make no mistake, those who continue to tout their individual liberty over the common good and public health are wrong, ethically speaking, especially in light of how our foundational American ideals and values were firmly established on these same philosophical principles.

Beyond the utilitarian argument of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and lone moral prohibition of harming others in the utilitarian way of reasoning, we should also consider another ethical approach, Kant’s deontology. Also known as “duty ethics,” to comprehend the complex Kantian perspective it is perhaps best to think of a coin; the obverse being our “rights” and the reverse of the same coin being our “duties,” both of which are inextricably linked. For instance, if we have a right to property, others have an ethical duty to not steal that property from us. If we have a right to truth and transparency from our government and its elected leaders, then it has a duty to not lie or deceive the people. And perhaps most critically above all else, if we have a right to life, others have a duty to not kill or otherwise deprive any individual of his or her life.

On both of these ethical points I rest my argument with regard to keeping our schools closed for at least the first nine weeks. I will go so far as to state that anything short of a unanimous vote in favor of keeping our schools closed in order to maximize the preservation of life—especially in light of overwhelming evidence and the urging of our local medical community, the only group who has the knowledge and expertise to guide us through this challenging time—is a dereliction of your duty as a constitutional officer of Florida. Your supreme concern should be the safety of our students, staff, and remaining citizens of Hillsborough County. Any vote that dissents against common sense and the common good sends a strong signal that you, as an individual board member, will continue to put politics over people. A vote of dissent will also be an abject moral failure on your part, and I will never let you live it down.

Now more than ever our county, country, and culture need UNITY. We are supposedly the United States of America, but the reality says we are the Divisive Political Tribes of America. As an NPA who is a fiercely, independently minded moderate, I only want what is currently best for everyone. Unfortunately, this also means shared sacrifice for all, as we must temporarily put aside our individualism and freedom of choice for the common good and public health. Life precedes liberty; by voting to preserve the former, you guarantee the latter for our futures.

Gratefully,

Ryan Haczynski

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Below is a simple template email that you can copy, paste, and send to your principal. Feel free to make any necessary edits, but try to keep the email short and direct. Though they may not remain when copied and pasted, I have linked a few key pieces of information. Please see below the email for additional details or to download the Word Doc version of this email.

Dear Principal ______________,

I hope this brief message finds you and your family well during this unprecedented time. I cannot begin to imagine what has been asked of you by our district. Planning and scheduling two different options within one week must be an impossible task.

Due to the current CDC guidelines meeting the criteria for a high transmission area, I will be attending work remotely beginning tomorrow, (enter date). I am concerned for my health, as well as that of my family, neighbors, and the broader public. I hope you understand and respect this decision.

Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have both made assurances that educators who do not feel comfortable returning to the brick and mortar setting can engage in distance learning. I have made my request for an eLearning position, yet have not received confirmation. If you can confirm that I have received an eLearning position, please let me know at your earliest convenience; if you cannot confirm at this time, I will await my appointment. In the meantime, I will continue my own learning through professional development, focusing specifically on our new platforms to serve our students online.

I look forward to when the virus subsides and it is safe for all to return to our school.

Gratefully,

___________________________

P.S. – Feel free to edit how you see fit for your district.

Downloadable Word Doc: Email Template

P.P.S. – Here are a few key excerpts from the CDC guidelines regarding why our schools should remain closed until our COVID rates decline. Many continue to simply say “the CDC said…” yet have not read the specifics in the updated guidelines.

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For the last four years I have taught the capstone course of the International Baccalaureate Program, Theory of Knowledge. To be surrounded by amazingly talented and incredibly intelligent young people on a daily basis has fostered so much personal and professional growth, most especially in my own epistemic humility. On any given day I am bound to be asked questions that will be met with what what appears to be an uncommon answer in today’s day and age: “I don’t know.”

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began, armchair infectious disease specialists, backyard barbecue virologists, and yard sale epidemiologists have come crawling out of the web’s woodwork. Apparently all it takes is reading a few articles about herd immunity to become a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, and then SHOUTING DOWN opponents in all caps to demonstrate why one’s opinion is more valid than the other’s.

Here’s a tip: don’t have an opinion on something that is well outside one’s “circle of competence”. But if an opinion must be held and declared, perhaps put an asterisk on it if there is no expertise to back it up.

Over the last four months, I’ve read about 25 books. All of them have taught me one thing: I am far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Like Socrates, the longer I live the more confident I become in my ignorance–my intellectual humility–not my knowledge. Considering the nature of the pandemic and the pronouncements I continue to see on social media and the web, here are two incredibly powerful pieces of knowledge that can help any person cultivate epistemic humility.

Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets is an excellent read on decision-making when all the pertinent information is unavailable. The key takeaway I will share is this:  human beings are evolutionally hardwired to believe what we hear. As Duke states it, we cannot afford a “false negative,” so for thousands of years when we heard a rustle in the bushes we looked, believing a predator was behind us. Most of the time we get “false positives”, just as our ancestors figured out it was wind-rustling the reeds and not the feared saber-toothed tiger.

But now think about what that fact means in relation to how crazy coronavirus conspiracies are spread by word of mouth before becoming manifest on the internet and proliferating wildly from there.

Not. Good.

The other book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile (the author himself recommends this as a standalone, but I would encourage all to read the entire Incerto series). One of his most interesting ideas is akin the logical fallacy known as argument ad ignorantiam, but much better sounding when Taleb pronounces “the mother of all mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence.” Although he is specifically discussing iatrogenics in this context, we can see it in the flawed thinking of others. For instance, consider COVID naysayers in the world who claim the virus is a hoax because no one they know (absence of evidence) has gotten sick from it, equating this as “proof” (evidence of absence) for why the coronavirus is not real.

When taken together, these two ideas should make us very cautious to claim to know anything about what is going on with the pandemic. Annie Duke specifically offers a wonderful technique about how to challenge one’s own beliefs, which often go unstated: “Wanna bet?” When our family and friends casually say this phrase after we make a claim, it typically unnerves us and makes us think about how we came to believe what we said aloud in the first place. This mental pause is enough to make us reassess the belief and perhaps give it a quantitative ranking; the lower the percentage, the less likely the person is to be certain the belief is correct–and certainty is a massive cognitive challenge in and of itself (the “I’m Not Sure” above is a nod to Duke herself).

So when you hear our elected leaders or even next-door neighbors claim that they will send their child to school despite the coronavirus, “knowing” that transmission rates are low among kids because they’ve read an article or two, ask them (if possible): “Wanna bet?” (the central question that drives inquiry in Theory of Knowledge is “How do you know?”) When thinking about whether or not to send Florida’s children to a brick and mortar setting, parents must make the ultimate bet because the wager is the lives of their children or their own lives if the kids bring the virus home to them.

I’m not willing to make or take that bet. Are you?

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Do you think it is safe to return to schools based on this data?

In the end, what we claim to “know”–especially regarding all things related to the coronavirus–should be suspect and constantly re-evaluated, both in light of new findings and an awareness of our inability to truly understand them beyond the literacy required to read the words on the page. Every single one of us is far more ignorant than knowledgable about what is happening, and perhaps that epistemic humility will have us all saying my favorite three words a whole lot more…

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P.S. – If you are even remotely curious about Nassim Taleb, please read this wonderful recent profile from The New Yorker. He is the ultimate contrarian and made me realize that I am far more conservative/risk-averse than I ever imagined possible. Back in late January, he and a few other mathematicians were growing concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in China, and published a paper in a journal effectively stating that we should shut down the country, begin social-distancing, minimize movement, and wear masks to slow/stop the transmission and save our economy. As he now laments, “we could have spent pennies and now we’ve spent trillions.” Like me, he is no fan of all this debt, which we will ultimately have to pay for now that the “skin in the game” of corporations has been transferred from Wall Street to Main Street.

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Read this book!

It has been a long time since I’ve read a book that I believe everyone should read, but after blazing through Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure in the last few days, I immediately knew I would have to share this with as many education stakeholders as possible.

What began as a conversation between the two authors in 2014 evolved into a jointly published article in The Atlantic under the same name in 2015; if you’d like to get a taste for the book, the article can be accessed here, but it is a mere primer compared to the six explanatory threads that they review in the course of the book itself.

The book is largely focused on a number of emergent phenomena in our culture over the last 20-25 years and how these are intertwined in ways that helped produce these outcomes despite our best intentions in creating them. In essence, the shift in our parenting strategies beginning in the mid-1990s, combined with a number of other factors such as screen time / social media usage, “concept creep” within what the authors have dubbed “a culture of safetyism”, increasing political polarization, and other detrimental forces have led to an exponential rise in mood disorders (depression and anxiety in particular) among iGen (or Generation Z) and a number of other challenges arising out of an over-structured childhood.

Although the entire book is riveting for a host of reasons, the chapters on education were particularly alarming and yet wholly unsurprising for any teacher who has been in the classroom over the last decade (the first iGen students turned 18 around 2013) and could see the difference first hand between the later Millennials and the kids who started showing up on high school campuses circa 2010 or so. Here are three subheadings for sections in one chapter alone that will resonate with any teacher or parent who has been raising a child during the last 20 years, all of which the authors argue have been incredibly detrimental to our students and their abilities when it comes to thinking, settling disagreements with one another, etc, etc, etc.

Loss of Unstructured Free Play

In essence, the average American born before 1985 had parents that allowed them to go outside on their own at roughly 6.5 years of age, give or take one year. This builds independence and autonomy in the child. Moreover, “kid societies” based on the democratic concept of free association was quite common, and children who played together engaged in creativity when coming up with novel games or learned about fairness through adjudicating their own disagreements. Virtually all iGen children grew up with a heavily structured childhood without these features, which has bred a lack of resilience and self-advocacy in many young people.

Childhood as Test Prep

The teachers who read that line alone need to look no further. We have known how much all the testing is pointing us in the wrong direction and doesn’t produce meaningful outcomes, which the authors review ad nauseam. Far worse than our kids not actually learning anything of value, the focus on testing actively erodes creativity and curiosity, dampens the desire to learn in general (because the incessant burden of studying for meaningless tests only stresses students out, creating a feedback loop), and leaves far too many of our future citizens feeling worthless because of a single–and BAD–measure.

Childhood as Academic Resume Building

For my fellow high school teachers, this is where it comes full circle. Due to the nature of the over-structured childhood, parents feel the need to push or plug their child into any and all extra-curricular activities that may help the student “succeed” by getting into the best colleges/universities. In effect, it is a laundry list of activities that typically give students no physical rest and only adds to the mental anguish of trying to keep up with everything.

* * * * *

In the end, there are a number of actionable steps we can take to address these challenges, but it will take every education stakeholder to read this book and encourage others to do so. As someone who has been teaching students about mindfulness meditation to help decrease stress, improve attentional stamina, and better regulate one’s emotional responses, I know first hand that these techniques work and would be beneficial to introduce at a young age before getting too deep into school and life. The authors actually list this as their second suggestion, with the first being to teach all students the basics of CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. There are a number of very real and incredibly practical steps that we could take to help our kids moving forward, but the first thing you or anyone can do is read this book, think seriously about its implications, and then share these ideas with others, especially policymakers who could implement these ideas as we begin to re-imagine what education could and should be for the future.

P.S. – If you’re not a book reader, I would highly encourage you at least listen to this episode of The Knowledge Project, which is perhaps my favorite podcast of all time. Although Greg is not part of the interview, Jonathan (the other co-author) covers the highlights of their research in this riveting 75 minute interview. Just click this link below:

Jonathan Haidt: “When Good Intentions Go Bad” – The Knowledge Project, Episode 61

 

 

 

Choose Wisely

Hey, everyone.

Now that we’ve all survived our first week of “eLearning” together, the most salient feature that stands out in contrast from virtually everything else right now is the power of choice. Never underestimate this super power every single of one of us has, especially when it comes to shaping the direction and outcomes of our future.

Although the senior class is in a different position compared to the juniors, both groups can harness the power of choice, first and foremost, by deciding how you choose to see life in this current moment: will the pandemic and subsequent quarantine lead to tremendous personal growth because you have framed these challenges as an opportunity? Or will you choose to see yourself as a helpless victim of circumstance who is powerless?

No one can deny that there is much that is currently beyond our control at this point. We must contend with the situation as it continues to emerge. But there is a freedom that comes in exercising how we choose to react to the events of our days, beginning with choosing a cheerful attitude at the outset to help stabilize our minds for whatever may arise later on.

Personally, I start off with a brief gratitude ritual that I have been saying to myself upon waking for many years now. With each breath, I recite part of a mantra that begins with “I am grateful for this life,” and continues with “I am grateful for this new day”; “I am grateful to wake up once again next to Erin”; “I am grateful for this breath”; culminating with “I am grateful for all the bounty and blessings this day will contain.”

By actively choosing to internally recite these words to myself, I establish the attitude I want to have with me as I go about the day. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, I walk around with a smile strapped to my face most of the time because I am grateful to simply have another day in this life. Even in the midst of the pandemic, my spirits have not dampened precisely because I have continued to choose how I see the world and recognize that, even in times of great uncertainty, every day is still another opportunity to grow and improve as a human being.

As we all move forward this week, take some time to think about the choices you’ve been making, especially in how you frame your current experience(s). In speaking with dozens of you across last week, I know that this time has been a struggle for many. But I also believe in you and your ability to thrive despite the current circumstances, and by choosing to believe in yourselves you will be setting yourselves up for further future success.

On a final note, I will continue to encourage all of you–or anyone, for that matter–to choose their humanity first. It seems as if there are so many demands put upon us to ensure some semblance of normalcy, but you must put caring for yourself first so that you can be your best for your family members when they need you. Lean on each other and take the time to learn from this interesting moment in human history.

Wishing you and yours good health and safety.

– H.

P.S. – In my discussion with a number of seniors, we talked a great deal about choices and personal development. As luck would have it, the most recent episode of The Knowledge Project featured John Maxwell, the famous leadership coach and consultant. This is an engaging discussion for anyone who is interested in developing one’s leadership capacity by developing four key traits, one of which is “attitude”:

“Attitude gives you no advantage during good times because, during good times, everybody has a good attitude. When things are going my way, my attitude is fine. But it’s when the adversity comes and the challenges come, that’s when my attitude becomes what I call the difference-maker.” – John Maxwell

 

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Today is the tenth anniversary of my first foray into education advocacy. At the time I wondered if I was a teacher or a scapegoat because, in the midst of the Great Recession, it seemed as if educators were getting the blame for every single thing. Against this backdrop, the first merit pay/accountabaloney bill, SB6, was moving through the legislature and during lunch I scrawled these words on an Office Depot memo pad out of frustration the very same day I had proctored the FCAT.

Now that we stand on the precipice of another economic recession, and with COVID-19 forcing all of us online in a grand experiment that may fundamentally disrupt our education model forever, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds. As always, I am ever the optimist and a curious lifelong learner who sees a number of positive possibilities for what this pandemic can teach us all–most critically, the need for all stakeholders to lean on one another to help all of Florida’s children succeed.

The complete op-ed text is below. I wrote it as a “letter to the editor” and had no idea it would make the front page of the Opinion section in the Sunday edition of the now defunct Tampa Tribune. Only when my phone started ringing that morning did I realize it had been published. The picture above is the lone copy I saved and now hangs in 824.

Am I a teacher or a scapegoat?

I’ve been wondering about that a great deal lately. It seems that every society has them, usually commencing with the recognition of some societal ill.

In the past decade, that malady has become education–in particular, teachers. Apparently, we’re solely to blame.

The phrases “professional development,” “teacher effectiveness” and “teacher accountability” are harped on by pundits and politicians outside the profession.

In what other public-servant sector do we demand such accountability? Do we blame police officers for arriving at the scene of a crime too late? A firefighter for not saving a home from the flames?

Certainly, these public servants do their best. We don’t single them out as the lone variable when life goes awry.

Or how about accountability for our politicians who kowtow not to the demands of their constituents but to the dollars of lobbyists and special interests who truly run this “democracy”?

State Senator John Thrasher, sponsor of Senate Bill 6, is seeking to pile even more accountability on our shoulders while basing our performance as teachers on nothing more than statistics.  Well, I have an interesting statistic of my own: 1.7 percent. As individual teachers (speaking of high school and one 50 minute class period), our students spend 1.7 percent of their time with each of us in one calendar year. If one were to include only waking hours, the number becomes 2.6 percent.

Taken from a collective standpoint, students spend 14 percent of their time in one year with the classroom (again, the number rises to 18 percent if we consider sleep).

Whether it is crime, dropouts, graduation, FCAT, reading proficiency or any other rate or percentage being pinned on our profession, the truth is we take 100 percent of the blame though we comprise only 14 percent of each student’s time.

It is time for accountability to be spread out evenly.

As teachers, we cannot control the 86 percent of the time our students are not within our classrooms or any other of the variables (COVID-19?). Accountability should begin with the student and be buttressed by the parent. It should continue with the teachers, guidance counselors and administrators while in school.

In a perfect world, accountability should be part of a continuum — an unbroken chain in which we all play a part. It is foolish and delusional for politicians and parents to believe we are a panacea for these social ills.

Real progress will begin when our society stops blaming and starts helping. Only through cooperation of all parties involved in the academic progress will it be possible to right the ship of education in the United States.

Senate Bill 6 is progressing in the Senate. I am urging all of you who care enough about our educational system, our collective dignity as professional educators and, most importantly, our students, to engage in your civic duty by writing or calling your state legislators and voicing your concerns about the bill becoming law.

Not much has changed in the decade since this was written. Educators have been put through the ringer in any number of ways, and taking our learning online will be a challenge for many for various reasons. The most essential thing to put at the forefront of our minds during this crisis, however, is our shared humanity. We are all human beings facing an exigent and existential threat, and if we are going to help our children succeed it will require the “continuum” I mentioned above, even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional confines of a classroom.

Stay safe and be healthy, everyone.

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Ever the consummate gentleman, Wali Shabazz showed up with this rose on my doorstep

“[He’s] a saint, even though you can’t see his halo.” – Marina Pilcher, former chief of Hillsborough’s juvenile probation program.

My next door neighbor and friend, Wali Shabazz, has been advocating on behalf of the African American community–and young males in particular–here in Tampa for over 30 years. Though he readily admits that he has no control over the color of his own skin, he has “all the control over my excellence as a human being, and that needs to be more of our focus in the 21st century.” During this wide-ranging conversation about his advocacy work, we discuss the cultural changes that have shaped the African-American community since the 1960’s; how his program scaled up with a $1.2 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation; as well as the work he has done here in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

If you’d like to learn more about Wali and his work, below is list of articles that have profiled him and his work over the years. Wali specializes in Cultural Integrity Training for teens and adults, Group Sensitivity Training for educators, as well as individual coaching. He can be reached directly by email at wsshabazz1@aol.com or calling him on his cell phone (he also provides this in the podcast) at 813-363-6385.

Thanks for listening, everyone. Please be sure to share with others who may be interested!

Los Angeles Times: “Tampa Experiment: Black Crime: Taking a Look Inward”

Tampa Bay Times: “Program Tries to Give Black Male Students a Foundation”

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Dr. Kim Moore (L), Charity Franks (C), and Wali Shabazz (R)

 

Function of Education

For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.

Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.

Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.

Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.

But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.

We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.

 

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Seneca, pondering Stoic ideals

For roughly two weeks I have taken a social media sabbatical. The swirling madness that is constant (and quite often, negative) interactions via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc can be so toxic and draining, and I needed to just shut it all down and retreat into reading and reflection.

In the first nine days, I managed to: 1) read 3 complete books (Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson are both excellent and highly recommended) and start on a current fourth; 2) journal nearly every day; 3) sit still–in addition to my daily meditation practice–to really reflect on what was accomplished during 2019; 4) and, most importantly, gave my undivided attention and wholehearted presence to those with whom I interacted during those days, especially my beautiful best friend and wife, Erin.

What I really pondered the most is how much effort I expended during 2019, with the latter half of the year feeling like a whirlwind that brought few moments of peace. Only when I truly slowed down and took the time to review my advocacy efforts did it really hit me that I am not my best when I stray too far from center. I was constantly overextending myself. The closing months of 2019 saw me sleeping little, people constantly asking me “Are you okay?”, and generally feeling like I was behind in all that I was trying to accomplish with each day. I did my best, but by the time the winter break arrived I was ready to just pull the plug on my public education advocacy altogether.

Everything in life has a cost, and I now realize that I must take a significant step back in my advocacy efforts moving forward. I need to do this to better balance my time among my students in the classroom, my own learning, and my home life, all of which were diminished in some sense by my seemingly overzealous defense of our students and profession.

The focus in 2020 will be “The Year of the Advocate.” In an effort to lighten my load, I am hoping that this is the year that Teacher Voice, as originally envisioned, will become a platform for other voices and not simply my own. There were some wonderful guest contributions in 2019, and I hope to get those more regularly moving forward. Although I may write posts occasionally, I will probably save what little I will have to say in 2020 for the Florida newspapers that are willing to publish my pieces as op-eds. When it comes to podcasts, however, they will resume monthly in a couple of weeks, and they will alternate between public education advocates who already hold and/or are seeking elected office, whether at the local or statewide level, and parent advocates in the broader community who represent groups or issues involving public education here in the Sunshine State.

Thank you to all who have supported me since I started this project two and half years ago. Although this is not the end of Teacher Voice, the prolific posting on the blog will no longer be the norm unless many guest posts start rolling in (ideally, I would like to publish pieces bi-weekly–any takers?). Podcasts will be published roughly in the middle of each month, and I can be contacted through this website or directly at 1teachervoice@gmail.com if you’d like to submit an article. Hopefully, the better balance between my personal and professional lives and activities will allow me to be the best advocate possible for all of Florida’s children and my fellow educators.

P.S. – FLFIRE will continue in 2020. Although it never took off the way I had envisioned it would (failing = learning), we are hoping to re-launch officially on 1/14/20 and use the momentum of the new legislative session to continue to build our grassroots network for future actions.

Testing Anxiety
An all-too-common sight for teachers looking out at students taking high stakes tests/exams.

Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Here and I’m Angry are highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…

As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.

It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.

How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)

What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?

More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?

With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.

I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.

I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.

But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.

And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.

Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”