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Hunger Games a Lesson in Culture and Politics

There are lots of reasons to love The Hunger Games movie – the acting, the fast pace, the special effects, the story.  It is essentially true to the book and depicts the various layers of controversy and complexity. It’s all just as I imagined it.

The-Hunger-Games-Katniss-Archer-Still-Jenna-LawrenceThere is one aspect of the novel*, however, that resonates more vividly in the movie than in the book – the political and cultural setting.  In the book(s), we are immersed in the story itself and in the characters.  We know that the capital holds the games to keep the districts in submission by reminding them of its power.  We know that the games are represented as reality television.  We know that nearly everyone watches the games intensely, the capital folks for general amusement and the district folks for the tiny hope that their respective representative might be the victor. The games are horrifying enough in the books, but the visual representation of them as reality TV with all its inane conversation and the trivialization of children’s deaths is simply chilling.

I used to think that Anil Kapoor in Slum Dog Millionaire was the sleaziest game show host I’ve ever seen, but he’s a standup guy compared to Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the TV host of the games.  His “sincere” interest and enthusiasm for the games, his booming laugh, and his chivalrous gestures belong to an Olympic event, not one in which children kill children.  He embodies every game show host or local news anchor you’ve ever seen – handsome, charming, and vain, manufacturing interest, enthusiasm, or outrage as the story demands.

It’s all spectacle for the masses, the dystopian bread and circuses for a future society.   Underlying it all is creepy President Snow’s admonition that the most important thing about the games is that it gives the people hope, and hope – just a little bit, not a lot – is what keeps them from rebelling.  When hope is gone, there is real reason to overturn the government. 

All good theatre makes us examining, for a moment, the human condition.  It’s a mirror to our thoughts and behaviors. I’m hoping that English and social studies teachers will ignore the impending state tests for a few days and talk to their students about the book and the movie. It’s what we used to call a “teachable moment,” and they may even to better on tests with a better understanding of the role of government.  At any rate, may the odds be forever in your favor.

*Published by Scholastic


Do Teachers Want to Be Evaluated?

Tingley-021 color-1I once took a job as an administrator in a district in which some teachers hadn’t had a formal evaluation in years.  New teachers received at least one classroom visit their first year, but once tenured, it was unlikely that they would ever again be evaluated.

One of my first acts was to set up a supervision and evaluation schedule and inform teachers that they would be receiving classroom visits from me and the assistant principal.  Untenured teachers would have at least three yearly evaluations; tenured teachers would have at least one.  Classroom visits would start about the third week of school, and would be finished by February.  I never saw the benefit of observing a teacher for the first time in April.

I expected push-back from the veterans, but to my surprised they were very positive about the new plan.  It turned out that they wanted their administrators to visit their classrooms and to see what was going on.  Many were proud of their work, and they wanted some positive feedback.  Of course, not everyone got positive feedback (not entirely, anyway), but even those who didn’t still preferred to have regularly scheduled observations and the follow-up conversations with their administrators.  I’ve often wondered if the teachers’ response in this district was an anomaly. Teacher-Medium

Not so, according to this year’s Primary Sources:  America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession, a survey administered to 10,000 teachers by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The survey found that teachers in general would like a more comprehensive evaluation of their work as a means to improve their skills.   Of particular interest is that teachers overwhelmingly agree that student growth over the course of the year is the most important criteria, but that growth should be measured in myriad ways, not just by standardized tests. 

What I found particularly striking, however, is that 82% of teachers said that principal observation and review should contribute a great deal/moderate amount to evaluation.  We’ve all heard national union leaders suggest that principals may not be adequately trained to evaluate teachers or that they may not be objective in their evaluations.  Yet 82% of teachers surveyed appeared to have no problem with this traditional form of evaluation.  By contrast, only 70% thought that self-evaluation should contribute a great deal/moderate amount to evaluation, and only 64% opted for teacher/peer observation and review.

Teachers were far less enthusiastic about student surveys and parent reviews as part of their evaluation.  I always gave student surveys to my classes when I taught and I think it gave me useful feedback and generally made me feel good about what I was doing.  Would I have wanted it to be part of my formal evaluation?  No.  Having to share student feedback with an administrator would have changed the open nature of the survey.

As for parent evaluation – frankly, in most cases, parents think what their students tell them.  And in my experience as an administrator for many years, parents often confused popularity with competence.

The survey has lots of interesting data and as a companion piece to the recent MetLife survey, offers several different perspectives.  In general, the picture of teachers’ current attitudes towards the profession appears more positive in the Scholastic survey (to me anyway), but both are worth a look.


Nonfiction Is Supposed to Be True

In the preface to his biography of Lincoln, Pulitzer Prize biographer David Herbert Donald recalls meeting with President John F. Kennedy in 1962.  Kennedy was unhappy about scholars’ attempts to rank presidents, arguing that “no one has the right to grade a President … who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

Donald’s biography of Lincoln is based on the spirit of Kennedy’s remarks.  “I have asked at every stage of his career what he knew when he had to take critical actions, how he evaluated the evidence before him, and why he reached his decisions,” Donald writes.  “It is, then, a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him then.”  Donald uses only Fact.checkLincoln’s own words and original sources, and makes no attempt to invent thoughts, conversations, or actions to explain Lincoln’s decisions.

Enter John D’Agata, whose new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, reveals an interpretation of nonfiction far different from Donald’s. The book chronicles the long and ugly fight between the author and the fact checker assigned to him before his article is published in The Believer. The article purports to describe the circumstances of the suicide of Levi Presley, a young man who jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.  The book is co-authored by fact checker Jim Fingal and is composed of his line-by-line textual questions.

Fingal found D’Agata’s article to be rife with inaccuracies, discrepancies, and downright fibs.  There were name changes, actions presented on the same day that were weeks apart, and actions that never happened.  D’Agata’s increasingly annoyed responses to Fingal’s concerns include this one: “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts.’ The work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational.”  He adds, according to Jennifer B. McDonald in her book review, that his duty is to truth, not to facts.  In short, it’s “truthiness,” not accuracy that he’s after. 

Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes in his article about the book in the Sunday Times Magazine that D’Agata, a professor of writing at the University of Iowa, believes that we should give up the idea of nonfiction and instead embrace the essay.  Let readers decide for themselves what’s true and what’s not, he says.  When nonfiction becomes art, the writer (and the reader) can interpret or change facts as necessary to get to the heart of the matter.

The problem, of course, isn’t with nonfiction, nor is it with essays; both serve a valuable intellectual role.  The problem arises when an author tries to pass off essay as nonfiction. And nonfiction does become art not when the facts are manipulated, but when they are presented with accuracy and clarity.  One could argue that Donald’s work, for example, is art, not because he interprets the facts for us, but because he creates a vibrant, living story that actually happened.

The discussion about what constitutes nonfiction is particularly timely, given the new Core Curriculum requirements for students to read more “informational text” (nonfiction) along with fiction. The concern expressed by some teachers is that fiction might be phased out (it won’t) or that they won’t know how to teach nonfiction (they do).  Since most students’ textbooks require a close read and don’t have a beginning, middle, and end, it isn’t as if students have never read any nonfiction.  What worries me, however, is the selection of materials and whether those who select them and teach them can distinguish between the Donalds and the D’Agatas.  If we teach kids that “informational text” is true, it better be.


When March Madness Is Local

Tingley-021 color-1Heading back north after a long southern road trip is like running the reel backwards, watching the trees become more faintly leaved along I-95 and the ground become more brown than green.  T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but not if you’re a school administrator, and not if you’re in the northern half of the country.  Then, without doubt, it’s not April, but March with its long, muddy slog towards spring, dragging itself first through budget season.

The mild spring weather in the north this year is unusual; the budget problems are not.  Many administrators still don’t have a clear picture of what state and federal aid they’ll have to work with next year.  Some have begun notifying teachers on the bubble that they may not have jobs next year.  Some are trying to figure out where else they can cut costs.  Some are defending their budget choices to parents who are unhappy about the loss of music or art or electives.  No question:  March is the least favorite month for school people.  If it weren’t for basketball, I don’t know how we’d survive it.

I was listening to college basketball on the way home, and because it was March I started thinking about one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make as a school administrator – selecting the new boys’ basketball coach. If you’ve never worked in a small rural school, you Basketball2may not recognize how important basketball is during the long, serious winter.  The boys’ team was always competitive.  The retiring coach had built the program from the ground up, making basketball players out of boys who would never have made the cut in other high schools.  He was a strong role model, and he was never reluctant to bench even the best player who found himself in academic or behavioral trouble.  His would be big shoes to fill, and while he never won the state title, he came close. So it was a hard call for me, especially since I knew that a bad choice could affect a budget vote in the spring.

The teachers’ union, of course, thought I should base the appointment not on skills or potential, but on longevity, and they pressed hard for me to name a guy with plenty of experience but with modest success as a coach in the district.  My board heard from their constituents, and someone even wrote them an anonymous letter pointing out what an idiot I was for not naming the teachers’ choice immediately. The board made no attempt to influence the decision, however, and I finally chose a young man who had once been a local basketball star himself and was now back teaching elementary school.

The boys’ team won the state title in their division last weekend. Like every administrator, I’ve made some good calls and some not so good calls.  Savoring this one.


Weighing the Cattle Again

 My father-in-law, a farmer, used to say, “You don’t fatten the cattle by weighing them.” I used this idea once as a metaphor in an article about what we were doing to kids under the No Child Left Behind act. Weighing kids became a lot more important than feeding them in our schools. Of course, my father-in-law was right about both cattle and kids. It would be hard to prove that kids thrived under the perpetual testing of NCLB. In addition, imagine the educational feeding kids might have gotten had the money given to test developers been used for staff development or teacher salaries.

Luckily, we learned a lot from that debacle. Ha ha, just a little joke. Instead, since constantly testing kids didn’t work, we now turn our attention to their teachers. Maybe perpetually evaluating them by the test scores that didn’t improve as a result of NCLB is the way to go. Of course, we can only imagine the educational feeding teachers would have gotten had the time and money devoted to developing Byzantine processes for teacher evaluation been applied to staff development or teacher salaries. Cattle_grain_feed

But just like old guys driving sports cars or not having a promo code at check-out time, some things are both unavoidable and regrettable. We will most likely find that weighing the teachers will have the same effect as weighing the kids. Or weighing the cattle. Attempts to improve education continue to be random and expensive, based on the feelings du jour rather than any real research. It’s ironic that in education, of all things, we ignore research and instead opt for one quick fix after another. If my father-in-law had run the farm the way we run education, he would have gone under. Instead, he studied feeds and feeding, kept current on recent developments, and adjusted accordingly. Farming is, after all, a business. Making a profit or even breaking even was hard work. He could not afford to randomly try whatever untested idea came down the pike.

Farmers in the Midwest, where I grew up, got a lot of their innovative ideas from the Agricultural Extension offices, which were tied to the state’s land grant colleges. The colleges’ ag departments were all about research and development as they prepared generations of farmers, extension agents, or individuals to work in the business of agriculture. The departments ran their own farms and experimented with methods of farming before passing new ideas along to farmers in the state. Sort of like university schools on campus for K-12 education. Oh, wait, we closed a lot of those for lack of funds. Improving education is about research and development.

We do a better job improving what we feed cattle than we do with what we feed our kids.

When Teacher Evaluation Goes Bad

Tingley-021 colorAbandoning research and common sense, state legislatures and school districts around the country have implemented new teacher evaluation systems that include student test scores.  The fact that test scores are included isn’t the problem. It’s that the scores can count as much as 30-50% of a teacher’s evaluation and in many cases are inaccurate.

For the life of me I can’t figure out what the big rush to judgment is all about.  Why not implement a plan that includes test scores as maybe 5-10% of a teacher’s evaluation at first to make sure that scores are used accurately?  Why not use a three-year average?  Why not pilot the idea for a year or two before going full-bore ahead?  Why not assure teachers that no jobs would be lost because of test scores for the first, say, three years until all the bugs had been worked out?  And given the huge variables that impact test scores, why not limit their use to no more than 20% of a teacher’s final evaluation?

Using test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation is not in itself a bad idea.  The idea of being measured
against some objective criteria is not unreasonable; results do matter.  But test scores are just one result, and we all know that they are not as “objective” as some might think.  While elementary competencies are Test_scores_t670 reasonably well defined, no secondary subject area teacher can guess with 100% accuracy which topics will appear on a state test in any given year.  And every year the cut-off points and the way in which tests are graded are adjusted.

So what’s the fall-out from this rush to judgment of our teachers? Well, we could start with cheating scandals.  Then there are the teachers at the bottom percentile one year and the top percentile the next despite doing the same thing with the same kinds of kids.  Good teachers get fired.  The annual MetLife survey reports that teacher satisfaction has dropped 10 points while the numbers of teachers who say they’ll leave the profession in the next 5 years increased.  And Florida teachers brought suite against the state for lumping groups of teachers’ scores together and assigning them to everyone (could an idea be more stupid?).

So after all this turmoil, have we seen a great uptick in student scores?  Has teaching drastically improved?  Is everyone happier with the current situation?  Of course not.

So where do we go from here?  Is there a way to review and revise decisions that have already been made and implemented?  Or are teachers now stuck for years with a good idea run amok by people who failed to think about the consequences of poor planning?





Why Teachers Take Kids on Field Trips (Hint: It Is Not for Extra Pay)

Last weekend took me to the capital again to visit the botanical gardens and the Library of Congress. I also wanted to see a couple of new exhibits at the Smithsonian.

Every venue was filled with large and small groups of kids and their teachers.  The boys were nudging and poking one another; the girls were rolling their eyes and surreptitiously checking their cell phones while teachers and guides worked hard to interest them in learning something.  The adults tried humor, story telling, and whatever else they could think of to engage kids’ minds.  The kids shuffled along Washington
looking bored.  The chaperones prodded stragglers and reminded everyone to be on their best behavior and for heaven’s sake be quiet!  It was hard to tell if the kids were actually learning anything or if they were just waiting to get back to the hotel and go swimming.  Probably both.

At the Library of Congress all groups had to stay together and listen to the adult in charge explain the façade of the building and the meanings of various sculptures.  Everything echoes off the marble in that building, so it was a little like Grand Central Station despite the kids’ attempts to talk quietly. But at the history museum, teachers gave kids freedom to explore on their own, and many of them meandered through the exhibits talking to one another about the cool things they were seeing.  The girls loved the First Ladies’ dress exhibit; the boys loved the stuffed horse.  They were kids being kids, learning in their own way.

Taking kids on extended field trips is hard work for teachers.  Not only are you with them 24/7 for several days, but you’re responsible for all the planning and perhaps fundraising beforehand.  You meet with parents to explain the cost, the itinerary, and the disciplinary procedures you hope you won’t have to implement.  You give up your own personal time and you don’t get paid anything extra.  I know.  I’ve done it.  It’s exhausting.

So why do teachers do it?

Because showing kids something important for the first time is an awesome experience.  Because kids generally rise to the occasion, especially if you tell them what the expectations are.  Because some kids would never get to see this stuff unless they went with their teachers. Because you want to give them something to aspire to.  Because that’s what teaching is all about.

Teenagers running around public institutions are exuberant, silly, and not always charming.  In fact, some folks were visibly annoyed.  But the  teachers in charge deserve a pat on the back for extending the kids’ horizons.  Even if it’s not immediately evident, the kids will never forget what they gave them.


Chardon, Ohio

Tingley-021 colorI grew up outside of Cleveland and still have dear friends in Geauga County, where the Chardon schools are located.  Chardon is not, as frequently reported, a “suburb” of Cleveland, but a small rural town of its own.  It’s located in beautiful Ohio country where you still pass Amish buggies on the road.  And it’s pronounced Shar-don, not Char – don.

Of course, this lovely little town will now be forever linked with the tragic shootings that occurred last week when a teenaged boy walked into the school cafeteria and randomly shot and killed three classmates, wounding two others.  I suppose the name of the town will always evoke that tragedy, but my hope is that the place will also be known for the way in which the school and town handled the situation – with competence, grace, support, and compassion.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, superintendent Joseph Bergant II said, “Chardon isn’t any place; it’s every place.” If something like this could happen in rural Chardon, it could indeed happen anywhere.  But a few days later, noting the outpouring of support from the community and the surrounding communities, the superintendent added, “In our community; you’re never alone … not here in Chardon. You need only to ask for help.”

ChardonYou’ve seen all the pictures and heard all the details of the tragedy.  How kids from rival schools wore Chardon t-shirts and applauded when the Chardon kids returned to school after only a few days.  How the coach who chased the shooter out of the cafeteria insisted he’s no hero, just a regular guy.  How the mother of one of the kids who died says that she has forgiven the shooter, noting that she wants to keep in her heart the love of her son, not the hatred of his killer.  How the faculty and staff were well trained for a situation they hoped would never happen and carried out their jobs effectively and efficiently. How the superintendent calmly and compassionately handled the media.

As many people have already noted, you send your kids to school in the morning and expect them to come back in the late afternoon, backpacks full of books and homework, looking for something to eat, maybe texting with friends.  Yes, in a very real sense, Chardon could have been any place, and a stone rolls across every parent’s heart when a tragedy like this happens. But the way in which the school and community have responded to the tragedy deserves our admiration and our respect.








Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.