Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Category: Soapbox (Page 2 of 3)

How can we make this inauguration a teachable moment?

It’s no surprise that teachers at my school have been working on ways to talk about the upcoming inauguration constructively. If chasing after ambitious teaching moments were an Olympic sport, we’d be in medal contention every year. With our focus on external learning and project learning, it is a regular practice to squeeze learning out of the most unlikely of places. After our uniquely toxic election, this inauguration looks to be a tremendous teachable moment, and also one with a  high degree of difficulty.

Illuminating the democratic process  for students is valuable for a number of reasons. For teenagers entering the world, this may be the first time they have had a chance to see an inauguration, and perhaps the last time they will be in a school setting to discuss what it means. Participation in a structured activity around this pivotal moment in our political process could help them become more engaged citizens. Without a structured activity, students could be more susceptible to what they see in the swirling, fake-news vortex that has become social media, or worse, kids could disengage with our political process altogether.

An inauguration lesson has a lot of benefits, but it also poses many problems. Sitting down and watching any inauguration is going to be low on the entertainment scale. It will begin with a lot of nameless political figures shaking hands and sitting in the cold while TV broadcasters drone on about whatever. People will then give speeches whose eagerness to depict the future of America and there will be a music or poetry performance or two. There will be the oath, followed by a presidential speech. Watching this live with squirmy teenagers packed into a classroom, or an auditorium (shudder), sounds like a management challenge. Telling kids that we need to stop classes, stop what’s normal and safe for them, in order to watch this live is something that is instantly educationally valuable. Students may want to protest a live viewing, and I’d probably agree with them.

There are lots of ways that an inauguration watching alone could lead to a missed opportunity. The key to watching any historic event comes from how you make sense of it. Helping students making sense of this is something that will take place through open conversation about the inauguration, not silent observation of the proceedings.

How do we help students make sense of this inauguration?

Teachers at our school are progressing towards a plan that will involve workshops in our advisories ahead of time. These can help the students make sense of the events, ask questions, and learn ways to take action ahead of the event. Teachers could also be empowered to make lead these discussion with some presentation notes that could be prepared ahead of time, instead of having to react to the days events in real time. During the event we could allow for optional inauguration coverage, or we could try to have someone create an edited version of the video for the school that can be aired a few periods later. We can also have additional spaces for conversation after school in cooperation with the student government.

How are your schools thinking about teaching around this inauguration? How best can we take advantage of this teachable moment?

On Making America Great.

I am writing this as the votes are being counted in favor of Donald Trump for President of the United States. Newspapers across a surprising number of states are now preparing to run a headline with some version of Trump’s campaign pledge: Make America Great Again. Like much of what he says, this pledge is brief, with coded language towards members of his base, and written with elementary-level vocabulary. Yet he is going to win the presidency. As the outcome of this race begins to lean towards the inevitable, I want to dissect this phrase.


Make could mean to create, or pull together to form something new. It could also mean to compel, to force, or to dictate. I believe we should pursue the former. The Trump campaign’s rhetoric seems to describe the latter. Campaign messages and T-shirts alluded to ‘compelling’ or ‘forcing’ America to return to a past that exists in his supporters minds. This differs from my thinking of ‘make’ as create, making something new. An opportunity to form something new where there was nothing before. To forge a new path through hard work and effort. Personally I align with the idea of making as creating. I want to live in a country where we are all working together to create a new way through the problems we face. To be honest, I can’t really say I’ve been doing much of my version of ‘making.’ I didn’t vote in midterm elections or primaries. I didn’t financially support causes I believe in, even when I had the means. I didn’t talk about electoral issues with my students, even when they were interested and my administration was supportive. I became comfortable to let others do the ‘making.’ Indulging in that comfort is no longer an option. I need to make the ‘making’ of America as much of my daily life as any thing else.


The America of Trump’s priviliged past probably ignores the concerns of most of the country. If he is unaware of realities facing women and minorities now, then he certainly has a tilted view of the past he romanticizes. As we apparently seem to be headed backwards, we can actually be encouraged by the past that we might return to. Our nation’s future could resemble the civil unrest and social change of the 60s instead of the widespread segregation, social witch hunts, and conservatism of the 50s.
The 50s and the 60s are pretty relevant contrasts to our current moment. After America defeated the Axis powers, our social contract from the 50s didn’t make sense. Efforts were made to restrain women and minorities back in to newly outdated social roles. These efforts did not work. Ultimately the 60s erupted into a time of action and social change. Today’s America lacks the drama of having WWII as a backdrop. The Obama adminstration successfully navigated the Great Recession, assassinated Osama Bin Laden and changed what people thought about the presidency. However today’s America is currently full of as much of a combustive mix of problems and issues as it did after WWII. Women and minorities still face inequalities, rights of LGBT citizens are threatened, and the need to address climate change and other problems are becoming obvious to more and more. Attempts to return the country to social norms of 10 years ago, or even to the 50s, should only serve to catalyze an eruption of social change. We may be in line for changes to the country that will rival the 60s in scope and scale. In this election there look to be dramatic changes to marijuana legisation, gun control and minimum wage. The ebbs and flows of social change certainly point to a large social change coming soon, and not necessarily the one being imagined at the New York Hilton tonight.


Greatness in America doesn’t need much explanation. We need to constantly answer who well are we doing the things for which we wrote the constitution:
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Justice. Tranquility. Welfare. Defence. Liberty. These things are great, but are a constant struggle and demand America takes risks. Anything great accomplished in our 200+ years began with us launch head first into an uncertain future to support the things on that list. We screw up when we rest on our laurels because we want things to be easy or good for our pockets. Throughout this campaign there has been constant mention of how bad things are now. Trump romanticizes about how good it was just a short while ago. Thise backwards focus ignores the forward thinking language of the “more perfect union” we’ve been charged with creating. There will never be a time where we are actually going to reach all of our ideals, as we are always pursuing them. The constitution charges us to continuously work to make this country work for everyone. Likewise, if this administration plans to move backwards to enact policies that aren’t working for everyone, it is our constitutional job to do something about it. If we ever wonder what we can do, we can always start utilizing the first amendment.
In all honesty, much of America’s concerns about the country are valid. The perennially blue state where I grew up will now become red and I’m not exactly surprised. The lack of jobs have Michiganians resorting to extremes as their world is literally disappearing around them.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, of which voting for Trump is an ironically bad measure. Obama couldn’t stop the industrial age from unravelling, and Trump probably can’t either. When you’ve run out of options, you try anything, so it’s not fair to imagine Michigan and others as places of pure irrational hatred. The country we are always working on will have to involve people from everywhere. Attempts to turn this country against each other are certainly going to intensify these are not just inhumane, but they are also bad for progress. We need to hear voices from other parts of the country so lets not shut them out right now because of despair. Instead let’s use the internet to communicate and organize regardless of what color our state is tonight, or what they will be tomorrow.


The word ‘again’ is not something that we have the luxury to rally around. The world that we knew from earlier this week is now just as inaccessible as the privileged world of Trumps memories. The past was great, but if we stick together, and we keep working, the future will certainly be much better. We stopped working. Trump won with fewer votes than Romney received. The polling agencies saw their models rendered ineffective, in part from “lower-than-expected turnout.” This means America didn’t really change and America didn’t really revert. America hid. We got comfortable and thought other people would do the work necessary to secure Democratic victory yet again. Never again. We need to find a way to persist despite whatever the country’s new leadership has in store.
Certainly we can and should look back to the past for inspiration. As these results started coming in and I began to think of civil rights heroes like my Dad. Let me tell a briefly summarize my Dad’s life in the 50s. He went to school and then college. Not the most amazing story, perhaps ordinary. But think about. A black man, born in Mississippi, moved to a segregated Indiana, then began his degree before JFK uttered the phrase “Affirmative action.” He later graduated and went on to be a pioneer at almost every job worked. He endured in a period where doing what you were called to do and not bending to social pressure was heroic. That is the kind of era we are entering now. By persisting, by not giving up hope or giving in to apathy, and by demanding we live up to our constitution’s demands, we all become heroes.
When live out the constitution’s ideals there will be certain social change and we will move in the direction of that perfect union.  This will require us doing the ‘making’ and not waiting for someone else to ‘make’ America for us. We need to not give up on the social causes that we would have wanted if these numbers were going our way. Instead take them up with renewed effort and the fervor that the social change agents of our past once had. We have to do the making, we can’t forget that it’s our America too, and we have to remember that when people try to take our country backwards, we will resist and that’s what makes this country great.
Note: I began writing this during the election and edited a day later, so it has a mix of in-the-moment thoughts, and after-the-fact reflection.

Who lost the debate? Schools.

In Sunday night’s debate the word ‘school’ was said a total of three times, all by Hillary Clinton. Two of those refered to her past, as she described how she helped out in ‘schools’ when she finished law ‘school’. The word ‘education’ was used only 5 times. Donald Trump used it twice, both to say that the inner-city education is a ‘disaster’. Hillary used it once to shame Trump not paying his taxes, and again in describing work done through her 30 year career.

I combed through the debate transcript to find all of the remaining discussion about the future of our schools from the entire debate. It was this sentence from Hillary Clinton’s opening response:

I’ve set forth some big goals, getting the economy to work for everyone, not just those at the top, making sure that we have the best education system from preschool through college and making it affordable, and so much else.

This was actually miles better than the transcript from the first debate, which is similarly disappointing. The words ‘education’ and ‘school’ are mentioned 6 times combined, and only as the candidates are on the way to making a point about something else. The debates so far have offered little chance for America to see the candidates discuss education, which seems like an issue that all Americans must have a stance on.

The debates have not seen a moderator bring up either ‘education’ or ‘school’ in the transcripts from the first two debates. Perhaps Sunday’s first question from Anderson Cooper acknowledges that schools exist, but avoides education related issues, to talk instead about the campaign’s tone:

Knowing that educators assign viewing the presidential debates as students’ homework, do you feel you’re modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?

This question really had nothing to do with education or schools, it really had to do with the negative nature of this campaign. With all of the theatrics around this campaign season, schools are getting pushed out of the picture. The future of America’s schools can’t seem to compete the crossfire around that day’s theatrics and rumors. The responses in these debates quickly turn to the kind of personal attacks typically reserved for the Real Housewives, and the real issues are being left to the wayside.

In the last debate I hope we can get one question to the candidates about an education issue. Maybe it could be how they perceive the success of the Common Core State Standards, maybe it could be about the need for federally funded Universal Pre-K, or whether education spending is a priority in their budgets. There’s loads of questions in the higher-ed world as well. The rising cost of college is important, as is the need to produce more teachers and also the role of the federal government in supporting education research. Seeing the candidates talk about these issues would do well to illustrate how our children will benefit from their presidency.

The headlines around this race have been full of insults and character assault. While the media is getting pulled into these kind of stories, the issues that matter to a lot of people are getting left out of the discussion. The hunt for the next “October Surprise” means issues like education get drowned out and means undecided voters then must base their decision whose campaign most successfully torpedoed the other. Let’s hope the third debate will be a chance to talk about issues that are real instead another episode of what’s becoming a sad reality show.

My Administrative Philosophy as Told By Unifix Cubes

So I was playing with these unifix cubes and it made me think about my work as a teacher and an administrator.


I imagined that each cubes represented one unit of productivity. So maybe this block represented one worksheet that I created, or a game that kids can play. For now let’s just say that this is instructional productivity, and not other things like discipline our data analysis.

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About The Soapbox

This blog is about math, and math teaching.  That said, it is on the internet, and is therefore a little soapbox for me to spout my thoughts about whatever. If I can’t sit quietly about something, I’ll post it here.

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