In Chicago

Hi all — I’m in Chicago attending an education writers conference. Good stuff here. I’ll fill you all in on Monday.

I’m only here, because of the support of Steve and extended family. Ian had a seizure on Tuesday night. Until we figure out what’s going on and (possibly) medicate him, he can’t be left alone. So, my support system rushed in to cover the after school hours, and to help me as I adjust to the new normal.

We’ve circled the wagons and are giving our boy extra hugs and kisses.

Until I get back home, please continue chatting (and fighting) in the comment section. I’m reading all your comments on my cellphone here. Curious what you guys think about the impeachment hearings. Tell me.

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This essay by Deirdre McCloskey as she reflects on the last 20 years of life after she transitioned in early 50’s, is so beautiful and sad. How could her children walk away from her? Best thing I read today.

I just downloaded Robert Pondiscio’s How the Other Half Learns. I’ll read it on Thursday during the flight to Chicago for my education conference.

Get ready to hear more and more about trade school. Why? Because a whole lotta students aren’t making it in college.

Post Malone is all over my running Spotify play list at the moment.

The Indignities of Age

Yesterday, I migrated my digital photos from one organizer to another, when Adobe upgraded their Lightroom program to a subscription model. Instead of paying one price for a system that would last for four or five years, Adobe wanted me to pay $120 a year to use their system. Nah. So, I moved everything to iPhotos, which is free with my Mac computer.

As I pushed folders around, the images of the last ten years flew across my screen. There were Easter pictures with the boys, who were still boys, on the front porch of our old home. Selfies of myself in outfits before I went out to teach at the college. Steve shoveling out the driveway after a heavy snowstorm. It was sweet and painful to see my life fly past me. Like those flashbacks before death.

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It was funny to see pictures of Steve before he went on his massive diet two years ago and the boys before puberty hit and rearranged their facial features. And there was the slow decay of my own body. It hurt, a lot, to see how much I’ve changed.

Menopause, and all its little steps before and after, take a huge toll on women. Perimenopause, those few years as fertility sputters out, was rough on me. It’s this terrible time in a woman’s life, as her body frantically looks for estrogen in all the wrong places and, in the process, freaks out the whole system.

I went from being one of those people who sleeps like the dead to one who would sleep in two hour chunks. I developed that habit of reading bad novels at 4am on iPad next to my bed.

I gained weight. For the first time in life, I suddenly had to think about calories. My beloved glass of wine in the evening became something to fear. No more chicken wings and beer on a Friday night.

While my body has now come to terms with the changes and is letting me sleep again, I am still struggling to remain strong and healthy. Meal times require more thought — rice for Ian tonight and quinoa for me. I don’t dare miss my 9:30 spin class this morning. I’ve swapped my glass of wine for a Corona Light. I am typing this blog post right now using my new standing desk, because the chiropractor said that sitting at a desk for too long was wrecking my spine.

I know that there’s no turning the clock back. I’m never going to fit into those size 3/4 pants again. The lines on my neck are permanent. I’m reading articles about the correlation between Alzheimer’s Disease and menopause with fear and trepidation.

But I’m also a lot smarter than the stranger in those pictures on my computer. I am a lot less stressed out about managing family and work. I’m more comfortable with myself. I’m making more manageable goals for myself for work and life. I’ve (mostly) accepted both the good and the bad things that have happened in my life, rather than being pissed off at the world.

I decided to get a job in retail for a few months, while I figure out my next steps. I need to make some changes, readjust the types of things that I write, set some new goals. I want to try something new, while I figure things out. So, yesterday I filled out an application for the big box book chain. Today, I’ll apply to more places.

Girlie Friday

I’m chugging through a long list of work and personal chores today. All good stuff, but super busy. So, let me just throw up some links to things that have caught my eye lately.

I bopped into IKEA to pick up some pre-holiday entertaining supplies. We spent some time checking out their new SONOS speakers. Ian might get one for Christmas.

We no longer watch television one show per week. We watch them in massive chunks at one time, thanks to the magic of streaming video. In the past couple of months, we’ve watched several seasons of Working Moms and Derry Girls. We finished the Deuce. Now, we’re somewhere in the third season of Schitt’s Creek. All four shows are way better than any crappy sitcom from the past.

If you’re a fan of UK TV, Derry Girls are going to do an episode of the Great British Bake Off.

I’ve got a conference in Chicago next week. Here’s one outfit — blouse, jacket, shoes, pants.

I got this book, as part of a lot that I won in an auction for $1. I almost put it in the garbage, because it’s in rough shape, but then I checked out the title page. It’s a Hebrew bible that was printed in Berlin in 1908. I would love to find out how it ended up in a doctor’s condo in Hackensack, NJ.

Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

Back when I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, I read a lot. I would have a stack of books on my side table and read several simultaneously. If I really loved a book — The Boxcar Children, The Wolves of Willougby Chase, Anything by Laura Ingalls or Louisa May Alcott, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, All of a Kind Family – I would read the book seven or eight times.

Because I loved reading and did it a lot, I got pretty good at it. I was several grades ahead of my peers by third grade. So, that meant that I was bored in regular class. I had already learned that kids hate you if you know all the answers, so I would pretend to not know answers to the teachers’ questions. Pretending to be dumb became such a habit that I was in college before I stopped doing that. Weirdly enough, I had to learn to act dumb again when I moved to the suburbs, but that’s another topic.

What kept me sane in English class was the beloved SRA kit. A quick google search for the “SRA Kit” brings up tons of nostalgic blog posts. In a nutshell, the box contained color coded, short reading passages and questions. If you answered the questions correctly, you moved up to the next level. Every kid worked at his or her own level. So, I could go as fast as I wanted and didn’t have to be publicly shamed for being smart.

Today, this is called individualized learning. With the rise of technology, the proliferation of low-cost chrome books, the popularity of Khan Academy, schools are increasingly looking at how they can leverage technology to supplement regular instruction. In a traditional classroom model, all 30 kids have to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers can’t reach the very smart or the learning disabled. With limited time and resources, they have to teach for the largest group of kids — the typical ones.

The advantages of moving towards the individualized learning model is that everyone is served and can learn at their own particular speed. The disadvantage is that it is heavily reliant on technology, and some kids are bored by machines. There really needs to be a teacher in the room providing feedback, support, and all that.

The more advanced form of individualized learning has a few different names — mastery-based or competence-based learning are most commonly used. This model goes back to the SRA kit. You can’t progress from yellow cards to the orange cards, until you have provided evidence that you really know the yellow cards. So, as Sal Khan explained to me, students can’t move onto do algebraic equations until they know fractions. Right now, in most schools, they do. Schools need kids to move from subject to subject, from grade to grade, as a cohort. But in his new private school and others like his, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not about seat time, they said. It’s about showing mastery of a topic.

That system of showing proficiencies in a range of topics is not theoretical. It’s the system in many schools in New England and in many of the top private schools in the country. Our very vanilla school district in New Jersey is considering implementing a system like this here. It’s coming.

Now, many of you might wonder how a kid like Ian, a non-traditional learner, would fare in a school that didn’t ring the bell to change classes every 50 minutes.

Ian already has a version of this individualized learning model within a traditional school and after traditional school. He is in a special ed reading class, but he doesn’t get much out of it, because his learning differences are totally different from the other kids in the classroom. So, in study hall, the school district bought him a reading program — IXL. He plugs through the different assignments. And then I supplement all that with a real teacher after school. He’s made a lot of progress in the past year. I think he’s up two reading levels.

And then some school geniuses put him in the lowest level math class in fifth grade, where he learned absolutely nothing. He was stuck in that level for all of middle school, because his teachers weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. So, I took matters into my own hands and signed him up for Kumon, where he learned at his own pace, completing worksheets. And guess what? He’s out of special ed and getting an A in his class.

Because of his differences, he is in the resource room class for science and social studies, where he watches a whole lot of videos on the computer about particular topics. It works for him. He has a better grasp of American history than many of my students did when I taught at CUNY.

I don’t even have time to talk about how community colleges are increasingly taking over the job of high school education. The college model of one lecture and lots self-directed reading/research is basically this individualized education model.

So, it’s happening, people. It’s happening, because it does work for some kids. It’s happening, because we’re slowly working towards a system with fewer teachers or a system with lower expectations for teachers. It’s happening, because people don’t want to pay for traditional schools.

So, with changing notions of education comes a changing needs in school structures.

School Buildings Matter

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I spent nearly two months, off and on, researching the state of our schools for an article that The 74 published last week. When I dove into stories in local newspapers, I was shocked at what I found.

There were stories about students and teachers suffering in overheated classroom, mold on the walls, administrators begging local taxpayers to pass local bonds, boilers on their last legs. Everyone that I spoke to on the phone used words like “crisis” and “desperate” and “unthinkable.”

Local newspapers were full of these stories. It’s probably one of the biggest concerns of local school districts, along with costs of special education and healthcare costs for teachers. But there has been very little written in the national press on this topic. I think that Warren is the only candidate who addresses this problem with a proposal for additional federal spending on schools.

It’s a tragedy that isn’t getting nearly enough attention by the national press or by politicians. Students are missing school and having their instruction interrupted, because the buildings are already falling down. In another five years, the situation will be worse. And people who know about schools know this.

Why don’t people care? Well, maybe because the teachers unions haven’t taken a strong enough stand on it. They want money to go to the teachers first, which isn’t totally crazy. Maybe it’s because the public thinks that this is an urban-only problem and won’t affect them, which is wrong. A. Suburban schools are falling down, too. And B. Ugh.

But the fact that schools are all falling down at the same time does offer some opportunities. Opportunities to rebuild and create new learning centers that reflect modern educational needs.

One guy told me that schools should look like modern workplaces. If students are going to work in a modern workplace some day, they should be ready for it. What does that mean?

When Steve got his first job at a big named Wall Street firm, I remember stepping out of the elevation with the kids in the stroller to meet him for lunch one day. As someone who had spent most of my life in university classrooms, I was shocked.

His office building which took up nearly one whole block of Manhattan was a big open space. A football field with long desks and computers. Something like this.

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Modern schools should look like this, at least at the high school level.

Each kid would have their own desk, their permanent space. They then would go into small conference rooms in the interior of the building where they work with teachers and other students in small groups to work collaboratively on projects or to get mini-lectures on Descartes or Napoleon or The Civil War. Rooms would be filled with natural light from full length windows.

The school day wouldn’t be broken up into 8 modules made up of 50-minute classes. Instead, students would have various learning goals that they would have to master at their own pace. Some students could plug through Algebra 2 in six months; others might need two years.

There is a strong movement to ditch the old system of year-long classes and instead work towards mastery of particular topics. Oh, look I wrote about this movement a couple of years ago for Edutopia.

I talked about this concept with my brother-in-law, who is the director a major architecture company. He said that their firm does a lot with higher education, because colleges have all the money, but not with K-12 schools. He said he would hollow out existing buildings and then rebuild the floor plans to look like this.

If rebuilding schools happened simultaneously, using common plans, with well-vetted construction companies, with federal dollars, it could happen. It might even bring costs down, if buildings were constructed using green technology and modern methods of insulation.

Neglected school buildings, and their coming demise, might be an opportunity to rebuild better and more efficiently.

Trump, Biden, and Warren

I’m increasingly stressed out about the presidential election next year.

Polls show that Trump has an edge in the battleground states — MI, PA, AZ, FL, WI, and NC — when matched up against Sanders and Warren. Against, Biden, Trump loses.

I don’t think anybody is excited about Biden, but those numbers are very concerning.

The rest of the Democratic candidates are looking at those numbers and regretting setting themselves up to be the next AOC. Watch them all move a step to the right during this week’s debates. The Twitter Democrats may have sunk the next election.

I do like Warren. I’ve been talking about here on this blog, since 2004. But she makes a lot of people nervous. Her healthcare plan got very mixed reviews this weekend.