Summer Blogging Assignment, Year 3

For the third summer in row, George School’s rising sophomore class will be blogging about their summer reading assignment for their English classes. The assignment has evolved over time, and this year we are keeping it simple by just doing one “track.” In the past two years, we’ve allowed students to blog synchronously or asynchronously, but the synchronous track never quite lived up to its potential, so everyone is free to post whenever they want this summer. (Students need to have five posts up by Labor Day, which gives a lot of rope to procrastinators, but I have always wanted to protect students who go away to camp for eight weeks and try to stay away from technological distractions.)

Since I was completely out of the classroom this past year, I actually expected the assignment to die, and I’m hugely grateful to my colleagues for keeping it alive. I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year, so I’m back in the saddle as a co-manager for the project. My colleagues decided that every student would read one book in common, plus they would have a choice of a second book. With the AP Language and Composition curriculum orienting us towards non-fiction, the grade-wide text that was chosen is The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. I had read the NYTimes review back when the book was published, and it intrigued me and I wanted to read it, but I never got around to it. So I’m just finishing the book now (having started a month ago; I’m a new dad — give me a break!), and it was clearly an inspired choice. The entire GS community is also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me this summer, and the two books have a lot in common. We will have some powerful discussions come September!

While the texts are important, the tech is, too. I pitched the department on this summer blogging assignment two years ago because I wanted to help the school move forward in its use of academic technology, and I learned from my #edtechchat and #engchat PLNs that English teachers everywhere were asking their students to blog. I piloted a modest blogging initiative in my own classes, but I realized that we needed to do more school-wide. The beauty of this assignment is that every sophomore begins his or her year with an academic blog that they have made for this purpose, but it can be quickly repurposed by any teacher who wants their students to do some reflective journaling, or post a portfolio online, etc. Now that we are going into Year 3, every student at GS in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade will have an academic blog that any teacher can adopt for assignments in their class. (Okay, new 11th graders won’t, but that is a small population.) We give the 9th graders a year to learn our school’s values and build community offline before asking them to intentionally build community online, and hopefully that leads to respectful digital citizenship.

In past years I’ve used my blog to post links to some great writing by our rising sophomores done specifically for this assignment. Check back in the coming days and weeks!

The Homework Gap

You’ve probably already read “Bridging the Digital Divide That Leaves Schoolchildren Behind” in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes. How then do we process Anya Kamenetz’s piece for npr.org published today, “Study in Your PJs? What a High School ‘Work From Home’ Day Looks Like.” While the Times piece (written by Celia Kang) focuses on the homework challenges faced by the 40% of students in the McAllen, TX area who live in homes that can’t afford internet access, Kamenetz’s piece talks about a public school in northern NJ (Park Ridge) that had a voluntary distance learning day in which all of students were encouraged to stay at home. According to the principal of the NJ school quoted in Kamenetz’s piece, “99 percent” of the students in that district have high-speed internet at home. Park Ridge was experimenting with a distance learning day mostly to be innovative, with some lip-service paid to college readiness and future bad-weather situations. Meanwhile in McAllen and across the country, low-income students are lucky if they live in a district that is experimenting with wifi-hotspot-enabled school buses. Otherwise, they have to sit in fast food restaurants for hours using free internet. Burger King: the ideal setting to work on your research paper about Macbeth. Compare and contrast: fast food restaurants and the blasted heath.

At the boarding school where I work, we have had tough discussions about how late at night we allow our boarders to access our (strong, omnipresent) wifi network. We care about equal opportunities to access the web for our boarders and our day students. The conversation can tie you in knots since it requires you to make generalizations about what the parents of day students allow their children to do, or what the parents of our boarders would like us to do in their stead, but we are talking about a situation in which everyone has access to the web nearly all of the time. And even when we turn off the wifi (very, very late at night), many students just stay on their devices using their own data plans.

The Times piece discusses the Lifeline program that (controversially) spends $2 billion in tax dollars to subsidize broadband for low-income households. Hopefully the FCC will re-up this program next month, but much more attention is needed to the so-called homework gap. Students at my school complain (a little melodramatically at times) that they really can’t do any homework any more without access to the web, and in truth, that’s where they look up their assignments and access relevant coursework. Lifeline is a start, but we also need much more funding at the local level for public libraries, which for many school children are the go-to setting for after school internet study time. Wouldn’t we much rather see our kids working in a library than a fast food restaurant or a school bus? How does one even do homework for hours on a school bus, especially after dark and in cold weather? This issue is beginning to sound like it is one part educational access crisis, one part public health crisis.

 

Family Vacations and School Absences

I enjoyed reading Jessica Lahey’s piece in the NYTimes’ Motherlode blog, “Skipping School for Vacation: Good for Families, Or Bad for Students?” (2.15.16) Lahey’s piece is a  response to a blog post from September by Jeanne Sager in which Sager laments that the public school district where she sends her kids labelled it “illegal” when she pulled her kids out of classes for a family vacation, even though the teachers were given advanced warning and cooperated by sending the kids off with the work they’d be missing. (To be accurate, the entire state in which she resides passed a law declaring such vacations illegal!)

Because of my work in an independent school deans’ office, I often find myself on the front lines of this sticky conflict. Schools want to support their faculty and keep the focus on academics, so they frown on parents taking their kids on vacations that don’t align with the school’s calendar. Lahey makes all of the salient points regarding the challenges these absences pose to teachers, and she provides an even-handed look at the families’ point of view, too. I would add another argument in support of parents who occasionally need to pull their kids out of school for vacation: Many of them have children at multiple schools simultaneously. If you have three kids, ages 9, 12, and 15, they might very well be at three different schools. Perhaps they are all in the same public school district with an identical calendar, but often that isn’t the case, particularly if one or more of them goes to private or parochial school.

Of course in my work I am often on the other side of the phone when a parent calls to say that they are planning a vacation when our school is in session. What administrators appreciate most from parents is honesty and a recognition that some missed work might not be easily made up, and that could affect a student’s academic progress. As Lahey’s piece points out, missing multiple days of a student’s junior year of high school is a lot different than missing those same days in third grade. Like it or not (and I don’t), high schools are put in the position of ranking and sorting students for college admissions, and in the interest of fairness, it’s a challenge for us when a family pulls their child out of school when the major essay is due, or when the huge test is administered. In the independent school world, we are truly eager to partner with parents for the good of their kids. If the family vacation is a priority, be honest about that and approach the school in a spirit of willing collaboration, and we’ll see what we can do to help the student stay on top of their work. What we don’t much like is five phone calls on five consecutive mornings claiming that your child is home with the flu when we have already heard from all of their friends that your family is on vacation in Ft. Lauderdale. (And don’t get me started about the telltale social media posts!)

Lahey also notes that digital distance learning tools are eroding the differences between actually being “in” school or participating remotely. (Here she cites Zach Galvin, an assistant principal from Natick, MA.) It must be a rather joyless experience to take your child on a vacation only to plunk them down in front of their laptop in the hotel room so that they can participate in class through a video chat. I side with the mindfulness crowd: be present where you are. If you flew to Europe to see the Alps, breathe deeply of the mountain air, and turn in the work that you were able to get done when you get back to school.

While schools and parents will continue to come into conflict over family vacations that clash with the academic calendar, both sides need to show some generosity of spirit and work together. For schools, that means not acting like we never reschedule a test or push a deadline in order to accommodate a special situation. We certainly do! Having written policies that reflect reality would be helpful. For parents, please take Lahey seriously when she talks about the challenges that teachers face when asked to package material for a student who is going to be out for a number of days. Our classes don’t just cover material in a textbook. But Jeanne Sager was entirely correct when she felt maligned by her kids’ school labeling her family vacation “illegal.” Save that kind of rhetoric for the Israel-Palestine conflict. We’re just talking about children missing a few days of school.

 

Membership Renewal Notice (seven months early)

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Dear Art Museum Member:

We are writing to remind you that your membership to the City Museum of Contemporary Art expires in May. Although that is still seven months away, we thought we’d reach out now to entice you to renew early. That way you can be extra sure that your membership won’t expire due to forgetfulness, and maybe you’ll become so confused about when your membership actually expires that in future years you’ll pay twice.

It may seem pointless for us to solicit your lousy $85 seven months early given that interest rates are close to zero and we have private equity nabobs who regularly give gifts to the museum that exceed $10 million. It’s true: we use the millions from the hedge fund guys and bio-pharma CEOs to fund acquisitions and capital projects, but we need your $85 to pay for the catering at the black-tie parties we hold for our “patron” class members. We apologize that we don’t send you those invitations.

But your membership does entitle you to some great perks! You’ll get a special invitation to the members only preview of the fall’s major one-woman show, Delilah Marquez-Steinberg: Provocations and Outrages, 2002-2013. As always, your membership card scores you a 10% discount at the museum store, which almost makes our heavily-marked-up tschotskes affordable for a schlemiel like you. Plus, we’ve added several other institutions to our reciprocal membership program this year, including the Topeka Museum of Textiles and the Wilmington Museum of Automotive History.

We’ve made it easy to renew online. All of your contact information is actually worth more to us than your cheapskate membership dues, and no matter which boxes you uncheck, you can be sure that we’ll send you irritating emails to the address you provided from now till eternity. (Including, of course, a special opportunity to renew your membership eight months early in 2016.)

Thank you for renewing your membership. We look forward to seeing you try to squeeze through the hordes of flip-flop wearing tourists jostling their way through our galleries this weekend. And of course, we’ll be calling you soon — over and over again — to solicit donations for our annual appeal.

Paternity Leave is Trending

Since I normally blog about my work as an educator, I didn’t expect to have much to write about while out on paternity leave. But it turns out that paternity leave itself is the topic du jour! About two weeks after my wife and I welcomed our firstborn into the world, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan made news with the birth of their daughter (and their plans to give away billions of dollars to charity).

Zuckerberg also made news by very publicly announcing that he is taking a two-month paternity leave; exactly the length of my leave. In today’s NYTimes, Claire Cain Miller examines how Zuckerberg’s leave might help reduce the stigma associated with men taking time off after the birth of a child. Despite the fact that my employer provides equal opportunities for fathers and mothers to take parental leave, it’s evident that the moms take leaves more often, and for longer stretches of time. I can understand why: though no one at work is putting any pressure on me to cut my leave short, I have internalized angst about how it might affect my career anyway.

The details of my leave fit with the data discussed in Miller’s article. She writes that, “Fathers of sons were twice as likely to take leave as fathers of daughters, though it is unclear why.” I am indeed taking paternity leave to welcome a son into the world, but I was planning a leave of this length regardless of the gender of the newborn, and my wife and I left that as a surprise for ourselves. (The first question everyone asks when they hear that you are having a baby: “Do you know what you are having?” Why this obsession with the gender of the child?) I believe that I’d be taking the same two-month leave either way, but since we had a son, I guess we’ll never know.

Miller also writes that, “[m]en who worked in jobs with a large share of female workers were also more likely to take leave.” Indeed, I am a faculty member at an independent school, and the entire field of K-12 education skews toward a female workforce. Were I an investment banker or a consultant or a lawyer, would I feel equally empowered to take a long paternity leave? The data seems to suggest that I would not. (Ironic, since I would presumably be in a more enviably financial position to take such a leave!)

The important reason to take a paternity leave of at least two weeks in length comes later in the article, when Miller writes “that fathers who took two or more weeks of leave were significantly more likely to do child-care tasks like diapering and feeding later on.” My leave has been motivated mostly out of a desire to be an equal partner in parenting with my wife, and it’s encouraging that the data supports that these roles, once set during an initial parental leave, persist long after the leaves are over. This makes plenty of sense; my wife and I are learning to handle diapering and comforting our son together. If I didn’t take the time away from work, there would quickly develop a powerful imbalance in terms of which partner in the marriage was skillful at these childcare tasks. I don’t want to be the dad who doesn’t know how to dress the baby, or what to do with the dirty diapers, or how to get the baby to stop crying.

Apparently Zuckerberg is publicly taking a long leave to set an example and thereby make it okay for Facebook employees to take all of the (generous) parental leave time that they have coming to them. While I am away from work, fretting over what my leave might be doing to my career, I might also be making it easier for more of my future-dad-colleagues to take a full paternity leave after their children are born. (And I am already benefiting from paternity leaves taken by some male colleagues in recent years who made it more acceptable for me.) If I reframe the issue in my mind, perhaps I can feel a sense of pride in what I am doing instead of worrying about the career consequences.

Digital Disparities — boarding school edition

Today’s NYTimes features an article by Natasha Singer entitled The Digital Disparities Facing Lower-Income Teenagers. This is a topic of concern where I work since it is increasingly taken for granted that students will be able to complete their assignments using a decent computer with a fast internet connection. As a boarding school with a very diverse population, we have to keep one eye trained on this issue as we integrate more and more technology into our lesson plans and assignments.

In the past we have supplied all of our academic buildings with carts full of laptops for students to borrow as needed, but this year we have shifted to a “bring your own laptop” policy. I would have preferred a full-on “bring your own device” policy, as has been implemented at many schools, but we took more of a baby step here. (The difference is in the mindset regarding mobile devices in the classroom, but I digress.) We still have the old laptop carts to augment what the students bring with them, and we can loan laptops to students for longer periods of time if needed. Still, we are expecting our students to be able to afford to bring a serviceable laptop to school with them. Once they get here, they will find that we have a strong wifi network that blankets the school, so our students have that advantage over many lower-income students who don’t attend boarding school.

One equity issue that we face is not the sort of thing that makes it into the NYTimes: namely, the disparity between wifi access at night for our boarders vs. day students. Our wifi network in the dorms cuts off late at night (about half an hour after “lights out” in each dorm, which is related to the age of the students in that dorm) in order to help the students resist the temptation to stay up all night staring at screens. However, some boarding students feel that this puts them at a disadvantage in relation to the day students who can stay up working on homework as late as they want with the wifi in their homes still on. This is oversimplification, of course, because many parents enforce stricter rules regarding technology in their homes than we enforce in our dorms. Also, many of our boarders use their own cellular connections to connect to the internet after the wifi cuts out. (That’s another equity issue, of course.) Speaking just for myself and not any other members of the faculty or Deans’ Office, I think that our evening wifi cutoff times are generous, and that students shouldn’t be up later than that working on homework. Is there some procrastination on the students’ part? I suspect so.

The NYTimes article also presents statistics regarding how much entertainment young people consume using their devices sorted by racial group. This data is a little perplexing; read the article and see for yourself. The author shies away from making causal arguments that explain why this group or that group might be consuming more screen-enabled entertainment per day than some other group, but that just leaves the reader to fill this lacuna with troubling stereotypes. I’d like some answers, please.

From the point of view of my work in our Deans’ Office, one repercussion of our “bring your own laptop” policy is that we need to be able to get boarding students to the Apple Store or Geek Squad when their laptops break. I was worried that this would be a major challenge this year, but it hasn’t been. Advisors may be stepping in to help their boarding advisees before they come looking for help from the deans. Or our IT department might be fixing more of the students’ hardware than I expected. Either way, it seems that our laptop policy is working and students are getting the help that they need. But we better not take our eye off the equity issues.