Author Archives: mrsloomis

About mrsloomis

I am an accidental artist. I am an on-purpose teacher. I was terrible in art when I was in school. and I said more times than I can count, "I will NEVER be a teacher." God, in His divine sense of humor, has made sure I am now both artist and teacher. I teach high school literature and composition with a twist: I ignore standardized tests and teach my students to think critically from both sides of the brain. The left side analyzes the literature and composes mechanically accurate essays. The right side uses art and creative questioning to make the literature both relevant and exciting. So far, in 20 years, it seems to be working for me. My students consistently out-perform their peers in collegiate writing courses. My students also love learning, and taking ideas to a new a deeper level, which also serves them well in college and well beyond. Away from the classroom , I am passionate about my Lord, my family, my greyhounds, music, and naps. I love photography, digital art, running half marathons and just BEING. God is good, and I am blessed.

Reason, Emotion, Thinking, and Writing in School

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Yes, yes, yes!!!!  A post by Dr. Peter Smagorinsky that articulates just how I feel (pun intended).

 

Source: Reason, Emotion, Thinking, and Writing in School

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Some summer thoughts

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My summer began with preparation for and writing my comprehensive exams, a step down the Ph.D. road. For the most part, I think I represented myself well in how much I have learned about teaching literature and composition. I may have taught my advisor a couple of things about remix. And I learned I still have plenty to discover before this journey is over.

In July I tried to not think about education. I spent some time at the beach to refill my soul. As a California native, I breathe in time with the tide and extended periods away from the ocean affect me to my bone marrow. It had been a long two years since my last trip, and the moment I smelled the salt air I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Minimal computer access, limited social media, no television or radio for five days meant a true respite.

And then I came home.

The level of discord about pretty much everything seemed greater than before my hiatus. Politics, education, and even how best to get from the northern suburbs to the airport were not discussed but argued. I read more “I have a right to my opinion” in the last couple of weeks than anything else. No one was listening. A lot of people opted for the ad hominem instead of choosing discourse.

How are we to function as a society if being right is the only thing that matters? And who determines what or who is right? The loudest voice? The cleverest snarky comeback? And what about treating others as individuals rather than part of some collective liberal, progressive, conservative Borg Hive where “resistance is futile?” I certainly don’t care to be assimilated into a movement where my individuality is stripped from me and added to the collective. From where I sit, I am beginning to fear that resistance may well be futile.

Education is a prime example of what I mean. Public schools, begun to ensure that every child had access to basic skills (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic), have morphed into giant hives of busy activities about social justice, equity of outcome, high stakes testing preparation, and some-are-more-equal-than-others protests. Do these things matter? OF COURSE. With the exception of equity of outcome, society needs to be concerned with social justice (as in, treating all humans with dignity and respect according to the law) and boosting those who, for whatever reason, need extra attention in order to have equal opportunity to succeed. Frankly, equity of outcome benefits no one and is the educational equivalent to the Borg Hive. Each individual has different strengths and weaknesses; those strengths should be encouraged and the weaknesses mitigated without trying to make everyone the same. We aren’t.

Respect, opportunity, and justice can all be accomplished without sacrificing individuality and without creating villains of particular groups of people. This goes for both ends of the political spectrum. Not all conservatives think alike. There are, in fact, degrees. Not all liberals believe in lockstep harmony. Most people have opinions that cross political and social lines. The key to understanding is more knowledge, more story, more humanity, not less.

The publishing company executives that seem to rule education find quantitative data compelling. Politicians require donations from companies that are also driven by quantitative data. But, in the last 50 years, quantitative data has failed to lead to programs that make public schools more effective in any of the 3 Rs or the social initiatives attempted.  More high stakes testing and punitive teacher assessment are not going to make our students better problem-solvers, better communicators, or better collaborators. Nor will it encourage the best and the brightest among adults to choose teachings. (This is one of those dilemmas faced when equality of outcome is the goal. If every outcome is the same, why do schools want exceptional teachers?)

The boom in homeschooling, charter, and private schools is evidence that parents want individualized, differentiated, and excellent education for their children. Those who have the means (like most DC politicians) take their students out of public schools because scripted and data-driven public schools no longer meet those needs. Many school districts do try to break out of the mandates handed down from on high–and there are lots of teachers at every level who bend over backward to bring out the best in their students. But those exceptional teachers are tired. And burned out. Undervalued and underappreciated in a system that rewards sameness, these teachers are leaving. Some are headed to private or charter schools. Others try consulting or professional development– or go back to college for advanced degrees. Others leave education altogether.

Something has to give.

I believe it begins by listening. Communities must listen to the teachers explain how they may be best supported. Teachers listen to parents about the needs of students. Parents listen to teachers about how they can help their children push through challenges. Administrators and superintendents listen to the studies based on qualitative data. Everyone listens to the exceptional teachers whose students are excited about learning.  Districts focus on the teachers and students in their own classrooms rather than test scores from places too geographically and demographically different to be a fair comparison. Bring in literature from all the cultures represented by local transnational students. Showcase the unusual attributes of artists, inventors, athletes, and musicians. Give students real audiences for their accomplishments, not delayed feedback on a multiple choice exam.

Listening is a place to begin. Not listening for ideas to argue against, but deeply, truly listening to hear the point of view from another uniquely capable human being. We are not all the same, but we can treat each other as equals.

 

What do we want schools in the US to be?

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Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.

The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”  I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”

The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”

He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.

Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”

Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'”  Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.

Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.

In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?

I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options.  As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?

So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be?  We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.

An open letter to the Committee

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I am a conservative. I believe in limited government, lower taxes, and fiduciary accountability at every level of government. I am pleased and proud to see fellow Georgians Dr. Tom Price and Dr. Sonny Purdue as cabinet nominees for President Trump’s cabinet.

Having said that, as a teacher of more than 20 years with three children who have been in the public schools of both California and Georgia, I am APPALLED at the choice of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She may be smart, but she has no intimate experience with public schools at any point in her life or the life of her family. She has no education experience, no qualifications in her own education, and no connection to teachers or their students. How can this possibly be acceptable?

I have said for years that anyone with any influence in educational policy should be required to teach in a public school one day every year. Not observe. Teach. From preparing lesson plans that meet local, state, and national mandates to teaching the classes while ensuring all the administrative tasks are done correctly, balancing the individual needs of 35 students without assistance, and finding 90 seconds to eat lunch or even find the restroom. To have a Secretary of Education who has never spent any time in a public school as student, teacher, aide, cafeteria worker, or administrator tells the American people that the US government is no longer committed to the form of education promoted by our founding fathers.

Noah Webster wrote, “It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which my not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country” (On the Education of Youth in America). The current dissatisfaction with the state of the public school system has already broken that trust in “just and liberal ideas of government” especially when those with power over school policies do not trust their own system enough to be part of that school community. It is madness to think someone without any connection to the actual people in the actual public schools is in a position to drive policy.

Yes, there are serious problems in many public schools. I am currently working on a PhD in Teaching and Learning in order to find ways to improve schools both for students and their families and for teachers. Educators have ideas and answers that research demonstrates is effective both in teaching subject matter and developing character. The Secretary of Education must be someone who understands more than budgets or fundraising or donations. The Secretary of Education must understand the hearts of teachers who teach, not for money or power (for there is none), but out of a passion to teach children how to learn and how to love learning. He or she must be intimately involved with children who spend their days in closed classrooms preparing for high stakes tests, which ultimately measure nothing significant. A Secretary of Education must understand the needs of all students, from the youngest to the oldest, from the most-severely disabled to the most advanced. Our public school system must consider English Language Learners, multiple cultures, new literacies, technology, and diverse families. Wealthy, poor, working class, middle-class, and homeless students all have a place in public schools. The person best able to understand and meet those needs is someone who has lived the experiences of the public schools personally. Mrs. DeVos is not that person.

 

Please vote against her confirmation.

#DiGiWriMo – November 11

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The poem gave me chills.

might be time for a change here

Events of the day snatched my attention away from unhealthy dwelling on election post-mortem discussions.

I woke up early to do some reading (I generally go to bed around 9-ish, then get up around 2-ish to do a couple hours of reading, then back to bed until sunrise) and discovered that Leonard Cohen had passed away.  I have been a huge Leonard Cohen fan for many years, but it all started with the Roberta Flack covers of Suzanne and That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.  From there, I was a die-hard Cohen fan. Never saw him in concert, though.

I came to appreciate Cohen as a poet, as a poet would appreciate another poet and his poetry. There is a lot to say, a lot of poetry to sample, but I’ve already posted a bunch to Facebook and Twitter today, so I’ll spare you, dear blog reader. Meanwhile, here…

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