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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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

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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