Dear Polk County Voter:

Billy Townsend is the only choice in the District 1 school board race who is committed to Polk County AND a better education system for all children across the state of Florida. Whether you are the parent of a student attending Polk County Public Schools, or an educator working within them, Billy will be a tireless champion of a better, more humane education system for all stakeholders.

As a fellow NPA who does not typically endorse political candidates, I admire Billy’s willingness to challenge the status quo rather than cave to political pressure from Tallahassee. Billy’s ability to consistently put people over politics, especially in his own county and community, also make his leadership a breath of fresh air in the stale political atmosphere of the Sunshine State.

Although there are many excellent pieces about Billy’s ideas on his website, this brief excerpt from an older piece clearly states his vision for the student and teacher experience within a classroom, believing in:

“…the radical idea of unshackling public schools from their stupid, soul-killing, industrial-era metrics of fact-retention. It advocates putting the classroom experience first. That’s exactly what I’ve campaigned on for six months. It’s what I’ve written about for years.

As I’ve said endlessly, I support a “private school” model for traditional public schools. Free teachers from meaningless standards. Emphasize depth of knowledge, not fact retention. Evaluate students by what they create and how they perform publicly. Develop citizenship through meaningful experience. I’m not saying that private schools do all of these things. I’m saying they can. They have the freedom to do it.” – Billy Townsend

Ending the era of “Test-and-Punish” Tallahassee style education should be the goal of every local school board member throughout the state of Florida. Billy Townsend is diligently working toward that aim, but he needs Polk County to put him back on the dais for the next four years.

A vote for Billy Townsend on August 18th, 2020, ensures he can continue this critical work on behalf of the students and educators of Polk County and beyond.

Thank you!

If you’d like to donate to Billy’s campaign, you can do so HERE.

Billy has also appeared on the Teacher Voice podcast on three different occasions, most recently immediately after January 15th’s “Rally in Tally,” which is the last on this list:

Teacher Voice – Episode 4

Teacher Voice – Episode 13 (still one of my favorite interviews). Here’s a quote: “I want people’s lives to get better. I want to grow the teaching profession. I want kids to enjoy and learn what they’re doing. That’s not happening in this corrupt model and the people who are responsible for it are owed a reckoning.”

Teacher Voice – Episode 53 (“Rally in Tally”)

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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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This letter to the HCPS School Board is written by Venus Freeman, a friend and veteran teacher colleague who, like me, teaches in high school. When I read this letter I felt it not only captured the emotional outpouring of  educators I saw online after the special called board meeting of this past Thursday, but also articulated how unconscionably thoughtless and politically driven this “decision” was. Though the board will be meeting to decide our collective fates next Thursday, August 6th, there is an upcoming regularly scheduled board meeting this coming Tuesday, July 28th–please continue to email each of them your concerns and be sure to CC them to BoardPublicComments@sdhc.k12.fl.us so that they will be included as part of the public record.

Dear Members of the Hillsborough County Schools Board,

A story from WTSP on 7/23/202 asserts “Infectious Disease Experts Believe Schools Will Be the Epicenter for the Spread of COVID-19 This Fall.” The title alone tells the tale and explains what teachers have known since we ended the 2019-2020 school year, and what we have been certain of since Florida AND OUR DISTRICT became an epicenter for this disease.  We have always understood that we did not have the resources to enact CDC guidelines for social distancing because even with unlimited funding, we do not have the teachers available to teach the increased number of classes that would be necessary to provide that social distancing.  And frankly, with infection rates where they are, we should not be bringing students back into school buildings even if we could provide social distancing.  I won’t rehearse the numbers for you, but I will remind you that Florida posted a new record for deaths both Thursday and Friday.  With the numbers we are currently experiencing, there is simply no way we should be bringing students and adults back into school buildings because it’s not safe for anyone.

Important as it is, the need to implement eLearning for the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year is not the subject of this letter.  My subject instead is how upset I am about the decision not to decide on that issue at Thursday’s meeting.  The request to wait to make a decision after consulting with experts, and every vote that validated this idea, was completely disingenuous, and every teacher who was sitting on the edge of their seat yesterday waiting for a decision knows it.  While COVID-19 is indeed a novel virus and we are still learning about it, everyone knows it is a highly infectious disease.  Only someone living under a rock does not know that a classroom, with 30 or more people jammed into a confined space for extended periods of time, is precisely the most dangerous situation for spread of this disease.  On our high school campuses, we routinely house more than 2,000 students, so every day potentially constitutes a super spreader event.  We all know that there have been infections that occurred on campuses this summer, though the district has been less than transparent about these cases, and summer is the safest time on any campus for the spread of an infectious disease because summer is the time when there are the fewest people on campus.  We already know ALL of these things, so there really was no need for experts at Thursday’s meeting, and there’s no reason why said experts could not have been consulted before the meeting or asked to attend if we wanted their comments in person.  It’s not like the Board could not have predicted the subject coming up at the meeting.

You likely wonder, though, just why teachers—and I mean just about ALL of us—would be so upset by a simple delay.  No big deal, right?  WRONG.  Firstly, many, many teachers I know have indicated that this has been the most stressful summer they have ever experienced because we have spent the entire time that we were supposed to be getting recharged for a new school year anxiously watching the news, waiting for some clear, detailed, concrete plan from our leaders, only to hear nothing for weeks and weeks and weeks, all while we watch infection rates and death rates climb.  We have spent many sleepless nights this summer wondering what, if anything, we can do to protect our families, wondering if now is the time to retire, or what other options are available to us.

As if that weren’t enough, we are also trying to think about how we will provide instruction and trying to make plans for how we present our material because the single thing that is certain is that nothing will be “normal” this year, none of our tried and true practices can be relied upon in our current situation.  But apparently, the Hillsborough County School Board is filled with people who think teaching requires no planning or preparation—apparently our school board believes teachers just walk into a building, stand up in front of children, and get started.  While it’s disheartening enough to have members of the general public assume our work requires no actual work, it’s frustrating beyond belief to have the people who make decisions that affect our personal and professional lives every day do the same.

Your simple little delay, for frankly no good reason other than politics, costs us the entire first week of our pre-planning, precious time we should be using to prepare for the actual situation we will be facing.  We CANNOT simply plan for BOTH online learning AND face-to-face instruction.  Firstly, we do not have the time and secondly, these situations are so completely different we cannot formulate comprehensive plans for both.  Training for these situations is dramatically different.  How do we train for such entirely different situations simultaneously?  Do we purchase supplies?  Most teachers begin the school year with supplies for the year already purchased.  But do we need to spend that money now?

Even more important than the vital planning and preparation time teachers lose to your delay, school guidance counselors in all of our schools, middle and high school especially, will have to go forward with changing the schedules for literally thousands of students as if face-to-face instruction is going forward.  If we switch to eLearning for all, then they have to go change all of those thousands of schedules back.  School administrators must go forward with setting their teachers up for eLearning for those who will fill those positions if face-to-face instruction goes forward and change their master schedules accordingly.  Consider all this work at every school site around the district, work you have dismissed as nothing by your very decision, as if we don’t all have other work to do, as if it’s no big deal if we spend an entire week working on these projects, possibly only to find that it is effort entirely wasted.  I don’t know how you feel about putting a week of your life into something only to have it rendered meaningless, but this is potentially the situation you are putting all these people in through your delay.  A delay that has no justification except for a lack of courage.

Here’s the thing: there is absolutely no decision you can make that will absolutely keep everyone safe other than online learning for the first nine weeks.  This virus is not going to magically disappear in the two weeks you have decided to waste.  Teachers were frankly relieved to hear that the Board had elected to delay the start of classes because WE NEED THAT TIME TO PLAN.  We’ve never taught in the middle of a pandemic before, except online at the end of last year, and if we have to do it again, we want to be better prepared to serve our students to the best of our ability.

So, essentially, you have set us up to fail yet again.  Take away our ability to plan and prepare, then express disappointment and disapproval when teachers work harder than ever before (and we are normally very hardworking people) because our product wasn’t ideal.  Well, if you want a high-quality product, you have to give us the time and the information we need to create that product.  Contrary to popular belief, we do NOT simply walk into a classroom and start talking!

We teachers have spent this summer staying at home to stay safe, watching the infection rates climb, planning where we can by getting wills and other end-of-life documents in order.  Just contemplate that reality for a moment: teachers have spent the summer getting their end-of-life documents in order as preparation to return to school!  Because if you make us go back into brick-and-mortar buildings people will die, and there’s no way to ensure that it won’t be ME.  Every teacher in this district has spent the summer with these thoughts as their constant companions.  Think about the stress and anxiety that has caused for thousands of teachers across the 7th largest district in the country.

Other places where social distancing is easy are closed: county offices are closed, and those clerks and other employees are not sitting in enclosed spaces with over 30 people for extended periods of time!  But teachers should walk back into classrooms gladly and just do their jobs.  After all, it’s what we signed up for!  No, not one single teacher I know joined this profession expecting to be told just to risk their lives every day, as if it’s a simple thing, as if our lives count for nothing.  As if our work counts for nothing, as if our daily dedication, working many hours every day, every week beyond what we are paid for count for nothing.  I wonder how you would feel if your life and the lives of your family members were treated as disposable.

Perhaps the School Board should remember that teachers are also their constituents, and we have lots of friends who are constituents, too, and we have long memories.  Make a decision and give us the time we need to put together our plans to begin instruction online for the first quarter so we can make it as good as it possibly can be.  Keep students AND teachers (ALL the adults in our buildings) and all our families safe.

Respectfully,

Venus S. Freeman, PhD

Veteran Teacher

thecoddlingoftheamericanmind
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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Pretty much that simple.

Hey, everyone.

I hope that all of you had a wonderful extended Spring Break, cultivated your curiosity, and took some time to get adjusted to the “new normal” that will be our lives for the immediate future. Now that “eLearning” is officially here and everyone is returning to “school”–albeit in a very different sense–I wanted to share a bit of advice about your academics.

Don’t worry about them too much.

I know that may sound strange coming from a teacher, but juxtapose the following two facts for a moment: 1) as a species, the current anatomic form of humanity has been around for approximately 200,000 years; 2) by comparison, compulsory education here in the United States has existed for roughly 170 years.

Clearly, human beings have made a great deal of progress without the aid of formal education.

But that’s not to say you can or should blow off what you need to get done for the International Baccalaureate diploma. Instead, it is simply to suggest you focus on your humanity first during this challenging time. As I mentioned before we left for Spring Break, one of the best things any teenager can do during this time is try to get as much sleep as possible. This is a critical window of time for brain development, and experts recommend between 9 to 9.5 hours per evening. Getting lots of sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to perform your best during the day.

Beyond sleep, the best thing you can do is organize your day by chunking out time for certain activities. Human beings are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, and establishing a schedule will help you stay positive and productive. On average, home school students spend 2-3 hours per day on “school work”; while you may need more time to accomplish what needs to be done for school, don’t spend your entire day focused on that alone.

Instead, take time for the more important matters. At the top of your list should be your family. During this trying time, do whatever you can first and foremost to help your parents/guardians in any way possible. If they need you to watch your siblings, do it; if they need you to clean up, cook dinner, do laundry or anything else to help around the house, do it. Don’t quibble about when or why, just be of service to others.

But even with these requests you will still probably have time on your hands, and this is where the real learning begins. Did you know, for instance, that much of the time Cambridge was closed due to the plague Isaac Newton developed Calculus? Or that Shakespeare composed King Lear? My point is that now is the perfect time to tackle those passion projects you didn’t feel you had time for due to the hectic IB schedule and all of its extracurricular demands. Why not use the coming days to earmark time for something you genuinely love or are curious about? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at something new or develop another skill?

This is the perfect time.

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Florida’s Education Commissioner, but as Richard Corcoran recently said in the Tampa Bay Times, “They’ll be learning every day. That’s a great thing.”

The truth is we should all be learning lessons every. single. day. Life is one giant lesson if we are lifelong students who are always willing to learn. But now the time is calling us to be human. I’m not one for labels or being reductionist, but if there is common ground we can all agree to in this moment, it is our shared humanity. When we strip away the political identities, the religious affiliations, the claims to certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we are 99.9% genetically the same. We’ve all been given this gift of life. We’ve all been blessed in ways we often do not recognize on a daily basis.

And perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.

In closing, I hope that you use this time to learn as much as you possibly can, especially about what it means to be human in trying times. Lean on one another. And never forget my favorite quote from Gandhi that you looked at every day when we met in room 824.

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Best. Quote. Ever.

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The most difficult aspect of working remotely, for me, at least, will be not seeing my students on a daily basis. I have been in communication with a number of them throughout the break, and each week we are not in school I will be writing a letter to them that will deal with “life” issues more than academic ones. I am posting them publicly in the hopes that they will also help others who are struggling through this difficult ordeal.

Hey, gang.

I realize that many of you are struggling with what is happening across the world and in our lives right now, and the first thing I wanted to you know is that this is perfectly normal. In speaking with a few former IB students over the past week, the one piece of advice I keep sharing is that “you will get through this.” For someone like me who is in my mid-forties, I have already lived through a number of large events that cause the world to pause and reassess its current cultural or economic trajectory (end of the Cold War, 9/11, Housing Collapse, etc). COVID-19, however, presents a slightly different wrinkle in that it is also forcing us to stay within our homes and keep distance from others, sometimes even those whom we love the most.

My first piece of advice is to be curious, not fearful. As Theory of Knowledge students, this is an exciting time to take the concepts studied in TOK and apply them broadly to the events of today’s world. Think about the claims being made by various entities, agencies, and individuals. Take time to consider how the various Ways of Knowing may impact how we receive and interpret emerging phenomena. While the juniors have not studied Areas of Knowledge yet, our first unit when eLearning begins will be the Natural Sciences and goes hand in hand with what is happening now; for seniors who have already completed the course, reflect on the other AOKs and how they impact our burgeoning understanding of the novel coronavirus. Ultimately, we are all witnessing the unfolding of a major event in history, which is why we should all be cultivating curiosity to stave off the fear and let it subside.

But how do we stave off fear? Fear is a natural reaction in times of great uncertainty, and I’m sure all of you remember that fear is one of the six primary emotions that have been evolutionarily hardwired into us all. But how do we turn fear–or any emotion–into curiosity? Through a simple three step process that begins with introspection, but the trick is to treat this process like a detective carefully investigating the scene of a crime.

  1. When you feel a sudden surge of emotion, recognize it but try not to react to it.
  2. With calm detachment, investigate what sensations the emotion generates in the body (e.g. tightness in the chest, lump in the throat, etc).
  3. Ponder what has allowed that emotion to rise within you–was it internal? Another thought (or cascade of thoughts) that brought up the emotion? Or was it external? The events of your day? The stress of the pandemic? Acknowledging the source itself will help the emotion subside, typically steadying the mind in the process.

Granted, this may be easier said than done for someone who has been meditating for over a decade, but this extended break from school is a timely opportunity to begin or continue to work on your own personal practice. (Can’t find the sheet on Edsby? Click Basic Mindfulness Practices here to download the PDF) Beyond the proven benefits such as increased focus, attentional stamina, and emotional regulation being extolled by neuroscience, developing a meditation practice will increase the self-awareness of one’s own mind, providing more personal freedom in the present moment because we can actively choose how to respond to our current situations.

In conjunction with further developing one’s self-awareness through introspection, the other reminder I wanted to share is from the wisdom of Stoicism. You may remember this very brief TED Ed video I shared in class that distilled the philosophy down to its central tenets and how these mental skills will prove invaluable moving forward in life.

As I’m sure you recall, Marcus Aurelius (no, that vector drawing in our classroom is not Childish Gambino) is my favorite Stoic philosopher and his Meditations is easily one of the most accessible and practical texts in all of philosophy. I would highly encourage all of you to read it during the extended break from school, as the wisdom contained therein will serve you well for the rest of your lives. As a leader who spent the last fifteen years of his governance in the midst of plague across the Roman Empire, his thoughts about how we are to face the uncertain or unknown really resonate now in our own time of outbreak.

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Daily Stoic has a great/short daily email for reflection. Click here to subscribe!

I will close this first letter by unequivocally stating that I am here for you. For the juniors, TOK will trundle onward and we will begin exploring the various Areas of Knowledge. For the seniors, I realize many of you are preparing for final exams and your pending graduation. But, at the risk of sounding like an irresponsible teacher, put your humanity and family first. Many of you have siblings to care for or other responsibilities that require your immediate attention. The current situation we face together is a far greater lesson that will truly prepare you for life, and employing the concepts you have learned or are currently learning is the real value in this moment in time.

You are ready. Cultivate curiosity. Believe in yourselves. Rise to this occasion in the same way you have risen to previous challenges. As Marcus notes above, whatever the future may bring you will be able to handle.

And always remember that each day is a blessing and gift.

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My all-time favorite Aurelius quote

P.S. – Juniors, anything I post on social media I will also share on Edsby; Seniors, I will share more frequently through Remind now that I no longer have you in class. Much of what I will be sending along is for your own personal enrichment and better prepare you for the life that lay ahead. Want a great place to start? Check out one of my favorite podcasts, The Knowledge Project. Listen to this amazing episode about the power of habits, happiness, resilience, and how much of these are dependent on the narratives we construct about ourselves and the world.

P.P.S. – Need additional positivity in your life? Check out my first blog, Letters of Encouragement to Nobody in Particular. Although any of the letters can be read as stand alone piece, many of them are thematically related to the previous or next letter. Enjoy!

 

 

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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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Another excellent guest post from friend, fellow teacher, and contributor, Michelle Hamlyn.

For the entire fifteen years I’ve lived and taught in Florida, it seems the Florida Legislature has had it in for teachers. Teachers have dealt with tenure disappearing, increased standardized testing, and new evaluation systems. We’ve lived through multiple performance pay shenanigans, including the asinine Best & Bogus, arbitrary and continually moving cut scores, and constant disrespect. We’ve watched as shady charters use funding traditional public schools desperately need, only to close amid scandal after scandal. We’ve seen voucher misuse and abuse, to the detriment of some of our neediest kids.

And we’re still here.

Because we’re actually pretty good at waiting. (After all, we’re the people who sometimes have to wait all day to use the bathroom.) We wait for our students to think before they raise their hand to answer a question. We wait for the “light bulb” moments. We wait for the college acceptance letters with our high school students. We know human growth takes time.

Those of us veteran teachers who have been around for a while also know that in education, there are cycles and arcs. We know the pendulum eventually swings back in the opposite direction. So we’ve become pretty good at waiting.

All of this is lost on the Florida Legislature. They believed that if they could just prove the narrative that public education is failing, it would be quick and easy to privatize education. And then the money would roll in for them and their cronies. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated teachers’ “wait time” abilities. Grossly underestimated them.

Because no matter how many times they’ve changed the cut scores or the iteration of the standards or the version of the test, most of us have stayed. And taught our students how to play the game. Yes, you were taught to start your essay with a question, but this year you can’t start with a question. Absolutely, you’ll get a reference sheet with formulae on it. Sorry, you’re going to have to memorize the formulae this year. It’s enough to make a person’s head spin, but we’ve persevered.

As have our students.

So now they’ve come out with what is truly ridiculous. The new standardized test administration rules. These rules should have every public school parent in the state calling or emailing their legislators . Because the rules are even more asinine than a bonus based on a test the teacher took when they were seventeen. Make no mistake, the legislature will tell you it’s in the interest of fairness and a level playing field. As if they know what one looks like.

The new test administration rules forbid the following:

  • Waking a sleeping child.
  • Verbally encouraging a student.
  • Telling a student to go back and check their answers.
  • Asking the students if they’re sure they’re done or if they’ve answered every question before submitting the test.
  • Reminding students to write down (before the test begins) a formula or mnemonic device that will help them remember something.
  • Giving out mints or water.

There is absolutely nothing about any of these things that is truly in the interest of fairness. Seriously, telling a student, “It’s okay, you got this” is unfair? Letting them get a drink of water during a two-hour window of sitting in front of a computer makes a student infinitely smarter than “little Jimmy?” What’s next? Telling them they can’t use the bathroom during that two-hour window?

Most of the teachers I’ve communicated with that know of these new rules are beyond flabbergasted. Some are disheartened; some are rebellious. But all are shaking their heads in complete and total disgust. Because we know that this is just one more ploy in a long-standing ruse that just isn’t ever going to be true.

And in the meantime, our kids are paying the price.

Want to help? This petition recently started circulating online, demanding that the FLDOE reconsider these new “rules” that have been issued to educators who will work as testing proctors this spring. Please CLICK HERE to sign and share with others today!