Unfiltered Fridays, Pt. 2: Textbooks and Tech in the Classroom

Unfiltered Fridays, Pt. 2: Textbooks and Tech in the Classroom

I was up and working for over 50 of the last 60 hours up till midnight last night, so this week’s “Unfiltered Fridays” comes to you on Saturday.  It’s about a subject close to my heart: textbooks, and their progressive disappearance from pre-college classrooms.

I’m the co-author of an introductory college-level textbook on meteorology, now in its fourth edition. (Its cost as a new book has been driven up so high by the publisher that I tell students to buy it used; that way I also do not derive a cent in royalties from my students, which I think is ethically responsible.)  So I have end-to-end knowledge of educational books, from their creation to their use in the classroom.

Over the years, in my experience, college students as a whole have gotten away from reading–and not just reading from old-fashioned books.  One UGA student a few years ago told me, to my astonishment, that he’d quit reading as soon as high school was over.  Since college students are customers these days, the nation’s universities have implicitly responded to the market demand for less reading.  A much-discussed book on higher education a few years ago revealed that 32 percent of undergraduate students do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week.

I think this is nuts.  When I was growing up, the phrase was “Reading Is Fundamental.”  It still is, if you want to succeed in life, or just be an informed citizen.  But do our institutions still believe this?

As electronic devices have gained market share on paper books, educational institutions have tried to keep up–and perhaps encourage more reading?–by going high-tech.  Move everything online, it’s just the same only newer and better… that’s the mantra.  And because the future is all-electronic, this isn’t just good marketing–it is being proactive and futuristic.  What’s not to like?  If you oppose it, you are a Luddite, we are told.  You’re exactly like those who opposed whiteboards or TV or lantern slides.  You. Are. Wrong.

Well, hang on.  I’m a scientist.  I do educational research, in fact, as well as research in my specialty of the physics of wind.  Did anyone do large controlled studies to see what would happen to reading comprehension with a shift from the venerable technology known as the book, to a computer screen?  Not to my knowledge.  There’s no educational equivalent of the FDA, to make sure that we don’t create the modern educational equivalent of thalidomide babies.  Educational institutions jumped in feet-first, hang the consequences.

Problem: there is now a research literature documenting the differences between reading a book and reading online.  And, more generally, there are several books by prominent authors, as well as much research literature, which outline the impact of immersion in a digital world on our brains.  In the presence of our digital devices, the indications are that we are getting more distracted, our conversations are getting shallower and rarer (especially more free-form conversations), and we are comprehending less when we do read from them.

And this is true for adults.  Imagine the impact on children, who did not have the decades of pre-electronic immersion that people my age did before the Internet hit.

So, to emphasize the main point: there are good reasons to think that the transition from book-reading to electronic media is a major shift with major educational consequences that are not all good.  I can list several advantages for the e-book movement myself (faster updates; ability to incorporate moving images, etc.), but I have not been a first adopter of these technologies in my classroom at UGA for a simple reason: my students themselves aren’t big fans of tech in education.  Now, some are; you’ll see a few students who maximize the possibilities and minimize the downsides.  But the others?  They know that a lot of the software is junk created by corporations to make money.  Some of them realize that they really aren’t paying attention as well online… they get distracted too easily.  They didn’t come to school to stare at a screen and not learn from the person, the teacher, in front of them.  When the tech breaks down, they see me using a marker instead of an animation, and it makes more sense to them.  And when they read and make notes in the margins and write things out in class instead of typing notes furiously into a laptop, they find that they learn better.

So, at the college level in 2016 I still use hard-copy textbooks and I promote face-to-face communication as a means of learning, and carefully manage my use of tech for those instances where it is clearly superior to older forms of delivery.  That’s not being a Luddite.  That’s adopting what I call a “highest and best use” strategy of technology stemming from experience, feedback and the research literature, instead of swallowing the marketing hype of the corporations.  Perhaps If I have done a disservice to my students in this way, they aren’t saying so to the college, university, state and national organizations that have given me awards.  And some of my former students have done quite well, in meteorology and in other pursuits.

This brings us back to the Clarke County School District. Since 2014 our district has been committed to a “one-to-one” program, putting a computer in the hands of each student starting in the third grade.  Millions of dollars are being spent on obtaining, repairing, “refreshing,” etc. etc. the computers.

I’ve seen first-hand how effective this technology can be in the hands of a self-motivated, older student–my high-school mentee, the meteorology whiz.  He’s visualizing and learning weather concepts in ninth grade that I didn’t know about until at least college.  Awesome.

But then there are all the other stories I am hearing as I talk to educators, mentors, students, and parents in CCSD.  Stories of how the tech has taken over the classroom.  Teachers ‘teaching’ to entire classes of middle schoolers who are “tuned out,” surfing the Web and disappearing into chatrooms they have no business being in.  And electronic devices are addictive like drugs: there is a reason that the phrase “Crackberry” became popular well over a decade ago to describe early adopters of tech who could not break away from it.  Here are the concerns of a noted educational innovator that echo our community’s concerns.

I’m troubled by this. I personally know many of the top educators in my discipline at the college level, and we generally don’t go all-in for tech.  Even with college students.  If you asked us, “Would you do it with third graders or sixth graders with limited supervision and easily breached firewalls?” you would get incredulous laughter.  Many of us have gotten rid of laptops in our own college classrooms, because of the documented negative effects of laptop use on comprehension.

This is not a popular view.  I don’t care.  Maybe it takes an award-winning teacher to stand up to the power of large corporations, to contest the knee-jerk belief that tech is our savior, and to resist the lure of sexy-sounding initiatives to say something obvious.  And what is that obvious statement?  That humans learn best from each other, and worst from remote automation designed to turn a profit.

Maybe my hunch is wrong, but I would sure like to see an independent study of the impact of tech in our local classrooms.  After the investment of so many millions of dollars, aren’t the taxpayers (including parents) owed an analysis of how well this experiment is going?  Will we get that kind of transparency out of CCSD?  Will we find out that the money could have been better spent on more teachers and parapros–especially parapros at the earlier grades?  Has our all-in on tech risked the creation of the educational equivalent of thalidomide babies, students who will emerge from our schools with deformities caused by years lost on the Web and chatrooms while the teachers taught in vain?  If so, it won’t show up until ‘birth,’ after these students depart CCSD.  They will have been in the classroom, showing up, getting grades, getting promoted, the works.  But will they be educated?  If so, wonderful.  If not, it’s trouble for our community.

I’m a scientist and a teacher.  I ask questions and seek answers, especially when what I see is at odds with what I know from decades in the classroom.  This is what I would do on the Clarke County Board of Education.

Thanks to retired educator Tommie Farmer of the Athens NAACP for inspiring this blog post with her own penetrating questions on this general subject.


Image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/rapgenius/1355769755_disadvantages-of-computer-addiction.jpg







Mr. Muldrow’s Opus

Mr. Muldrow’s Opus

This blog so far is mostly about what’s good in CCSD, and especially District 8.  And there’s been nothing better in all of CCSD during the past nine years than the miracle-working of Cedar Shoals High School band director Dion Muldrow.

I’ve known brilliant teachers.  I’ve been taught by them, and I aspire to be one myself.  I’m even the chair of a national committee to select the best teacher in the United States in my discipline.  But I’ve never seen anything quite like the magic Mr. Muldrow works.

Cedar Shoals is in the news for lack of discipline, for example.  But in Mr. Muldrow’s band, there’s more discipline–self-enforced discipline–than I ever saw before in students.  He walks into the room, and 200 kids go dead silent without so much as a “listen up.”  I don’t get that in my college classes.

My wife Pam and I were chaperones on a CSHS band trip to the Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans, a few years ago.  Lord help us–teenagers in Sin City at New Year’s!  But Pam and I had nothing to do.  Those band kids, hundreds of miles from home, some on their first trips out of Athens, were so well-behaved that Pam and I were like the Maytag repairman of old.  My high-school math team 35 years ago got into more mischief on trips than the “Classic City Sound,” as the Cedar band is known, sought out in New Orleans on New Year’s.

So if you’re reading about Cedar Shoals and getting the idea that all the kids are wilding in the hallways, then you don’t know the rest of the story.

Why do these kids fall into line, literally?  An iron fist?  Threats?  No.  They love Dion Muldrow like a father.  Heck, he is a surrogate father to many of the single-parent members of the band.  He’s a second father to so many others.  They completely buy in to his vision of excellence, and they know that discipline is that means to an end.  And they want his vision, their vision, to be real, so badly, that they learn new levels of self-control.  And group camaraderie that obliterates boundaries.

This is exactly the model of teaching that I aspire to, and Mr. Muldrow’s got what I wish I had with the mostly affluent, suburban students at UGA.  Mr. Muldrow has done this at a school that is 60% African-American and had about a 75% reduced/free school-lunch-program population (until the district said, this is silly, let’s make it available to everyone).  Stereotypes, meet explosion.

And his vision has become reality.  When Mr. Muldrow arrived in 2007, there weren’t many kids at Cedar who were in the band at all.  Now, there are kids in District 8 who have grown up saying, “When I’m a little older I’ll be in the Classic City Sound.”  Middle-school children have clamored to be in the high-school band, and have gotten up to six years of the Muldrow Experience.  The bands play classical music; they play funk; they play jazz; and they connect with music in ways that I haven’t seen elsewhere.  And they play with such proficiency that all four CSHS bands won “superior” ratings this spring: Concert Band; Symphonic Band; Wind Symphony; and Wind Ensemble.  Most of these bands did not even exist at Cedar Shoals when Mr. Muldrow arrived.

I could go on, but the bottom line is this: it’s a miracle, the real thing.  Not some PR version, with carefully chosen statistics and artfully crafted words.  I’ve watched it happen for most of Mr. Muldrow’s nine years, been in the band room, at the concerts, in the stands at the football games, on the Sugar Bowl trip, in conversation with band alums, and–it’s real, one maturing child and one blossoming band after another.

And the proof was last night, at the CSHS spring concert.  Mr. Muldrow is leaving Cedar Shoals after nine glorious years, moving on to Apalachee High School.  You could hear the packed room sniffling and crying as the band performed “Auld Lang Syne,” with the parents of the senior Wind Ensemble members on-stage… a Muldrow tradition, another why-didn’t-I-think-of-that, just-right thing he does.  Afterward, one band member after another came up and gave Mr. Muldrow those hugs-of-a-lifetime.

You had to be there to get the full impact.  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Our son Evan, busy as UGA finals draw near, wouldn’t miss it for the world either.  When Evan was chosen as the whole county’s STAR Student of the Year in 2014, he chose Mr. Muldrow as his STAR Teacher.  What, the band director?  You might expect an “academic” teacher, say, an English professor, or math.  And Cedar has great, great teachers in those areas as well.  But Evan’s life was touched in a powerful way by Mr. Muldrow; leadership qualities and desires I’d never been able to inculcate in my own son, Dion Muldrow brought out.

Last night was a powerful moment.  I wanted to give Mr. Muldrow a standing ovation the whole night.  I flashed back to that moment in To Kill A Mockingbird when Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom and the black community rises in respect for someone who took on long odds because it was the right thing to do: “stand up, your father’s passin’.”  But Mr. Muldrow is even more; a teacher, not a lawyer, and the musical magic he worked was on the inside as well as the outside.  And, he won.

So the appropriate image is “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”  Mr. Muldrow is leaving us, and even though the administrators and the media weren’t with us in the auditorium last night, it was a moment all of us won’t soon forget.  Like Mr. Holland, Mr. Muldrow’s opus is within us, and is us.

Thank you, Dion Muldrow, and Rachel and the girls, for sharing your lives with us, with our school, our children, the eastside, and the Clarke County School District.  Godspeed on your way, and we will be always be there for you, because you were always there for us.  We won’t see your likes again, but the Clarke County School District better try its absolute best to make sure that your legacy at Cedar Shoals is honored and continued and even somehow expanded in the coming years.

Unfiltered Fridays, Pt. 1: Standardized Tests

Unfiltered Fridays, Pt. 1: Standardized Tests

While talking to people around the district lately, I’ve come across the implicit assumption that all candidates are equal.  That sounds nice and patriotic.  But while maybe candidates were created equal way back when they were born, the content of candidates’ characters, lives, and campaigns may lead to very different outcomes.  We’re not all the same, or at least we don’t have to be.

That’s a reason why one of my favorite movies is Bulworth, the Warren Beatty film with the great Halle Berry and my friend and fellow Presidential Scholar Wendell Pierce in a smaller role.  At the beginning of Bulworth, we see evidence that Senator Bulworth was different, and said and did the right thing; then we see and hear him being like every other politician.  But something snaps in him, in a good way, and candidate Bulworth ditches the script and starts telling truths so unfiltered that the dialogue crackles with honesty almost 20 years later.

How good is that film?  Even President Obama is said to have longed to “go Bulworth.”

But, of course, that could never happen in real life, right?

What if it could?  What if you had a candidate who actually ran for all the right reasons, and wasn’t obsessed with climbing the political ladder, wasn’t terrified of offending anyone in power, and somehow had the security (both inner and professional) to “go Bulworth” and shoot straight without fear of consequences?

Would all candidates be the same then?  If you still say “yes,” would that be true–or would it just be your cynicism talking, making false equivalencies so that you didn’t have to think and compare, so that you didn’t get your hopes up (again)?

Let’s explore this idea.  You’ve heard of Manic Mondays (good-night, sweet Prince) and Taco Tuesdays and Throwback Thursdays and even that oldie moldie Casual Fridays.  I’m christening this blog and its successors Unfiltered Fridays.  Because not all candidates are equal, and because when it needs to be said, I’m That Candidate who knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t need a filter to protect his “political viability” or his financial underwriters.  I’m a teacher, my supporters are individuals who know me, and they’ll tell you that what I say here in public is the same thing I’ve been saying in private and on social media… for years.  I’m not some business that can’t take a stand without fear of lost revenues; if there’s one thing that tenure is good for, it is honest-to-goodness academic and intellectual freedom, and I’ve got it at UGA.  Filter disengaged.

Today’s subject is standardized tests.  I was asked yesterday by the very useful website Ballotpedia to fill out a questionnaire, just as tens of thousands of school board candidates were asked at the same time.  If candidates were all the same, then the responses would all read about as dreary and platitudinous as a thousand essays on Silas Marner in high school.  And maybe most of them do.  But only one school board candidate in the whole nation could say what I said.  Here’s what I said to Ballotpedia:

Are standardized tests an accurate metric of student achievement?
No. If you had “hell no” as a choice, I’d check that. I’m a professor at the University of Georgia, and I can confirm statistically (after having taught over 5,000 students in my intro classes at UGA over 15 years) that SAT scores can go up 100 points without any appreciable improvement in actual academic performance. Many of my colleagues feel the same way about the GRE at the graduate level, as well. In short, I don’t believe standardized tests tell us much about 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds. So I’m definitely not going to change my mind about them when you are testing children as young as eight years old.

I do believe that standardized tests are a fairly accurate metric of how similar your socioeconomic background is to the people who wrote the test. So, in other words, we are testing for upper-middle-class whiteness.

To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, I hate standardized tests. Hate hate hate hate hate standardized tests. Hate them. Hate every simpering stupid vacant student-insulting moment of standardized tests. Hate the sensibility that thought anyone should take standardized tests seriously. Hated the implied insult to the students by the belief that anyone could be measured by them.

You’re thinking: now, now John, don’t hold back, tell us what you really believe.

I’ve got a lot more I could say about standardized testing, with the data to back me up, but that’s not the ultimate point in this blog.  The ultimate point is that I give absolutely zero Philadelphia filters what the powers-that-be think of this stand of mine.  I know this subject; I’ve lived it as a teacher, education researcher, parent, educational organization board president, and, back in the 1980s, as a student myself.  I’ve read long books on this subject for background.  And when I know the essential truth of a situation, after decades as a teacher and board member, I do not hold back and equivocate and agree with everyone else and conventional wisdom.  As much as a good Presbyterian pastor’s son can, I “go Bulworth.”  That sound you hear is the rush of fresh air blowing into the boardroom.

I’m not like every other candidate.  I’m not like any other candidate you’re likely to meet or hear.  I’m just me.  Please vote based on the content of my campaign, and on the content of my character.  Check me out online, on my website, on Ballotpedia, and in person.  Let’s talk; I want to know what you know, too.




Mentoring It Forward, From Hudson to The Future

Mentoring It Forward, From Hudson to The Future

In my blog so far, I’ve talked about the good in CCSD and especially in District 8–where, I was told just today by a resident, “All you ever hear about is the band and JROTC.”  I’ve tried to expand our knowledge of the good in District 8, including our graduates who have gone on to top schools, actors who are in the news–and yes, JROTC too.

Now I want to talk about the Clarke County Mentor Program, or CCMP (http://clarkecountymentorprogram.org/), which I am a part of.  This is another of the many good aspects of CCSD, in conjunction with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.  CCMP matches people in the community with students in the Clarke County schools.  It’s safe, regulated, and gives kids someone outside of their family and school that they can talk to and look up to.  Begun in 1991, the CCMP stats for 2014-15 sound pretty good:

  • 306 new mentors were trained
  • 583 mentors visited their mentees
  • Over 7,000 mentor/mentee visits took place
  • 20 Clarke County schools supported mentors and mentees

But I’m told that the east-side schools have fewer mentors, and that there’s a real need for people from the community to mentor, i.e. not just UGA students.

I’d love for some of the energy we saw at the Cedar Shoals PTO meeting in February to be channeled into mentoring our own district’s kids.  Get mad, yes, but also get involved.

I’m a CCMP mentor to a student named Kilik who, just like me some 35 years ago, wants to be a meteorologist.  But rather than talk about him in the middle of a campaign, which I think is intrusive, I want to talk for once about myself and my own mentoring experience.

Let me introduce you to my mentor, Hudson Myers.

Hudson was the significant other of my college honors director Ada Long at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).  As such, he played an integral role in the creation of that program, and in its spirit.  And what a spirit!  That honors program was, and still is I believe, the only one of its kind without any minimum standardized test score requirement.  Yes, you read correctly.  We admitted people who caught fire in interviews when they heard what we were doing at UAB: interdisciplinary classes, real ideas, real community, life-changing experiences.  Low ACT score?  Who cares!  We rejected some really boring pre-med types and admitted some super, indefinable types who made college a joy for their teachers and for us classmates, too.  Hudson, a lawyer by training, was a rascal that no standardized test could ever assess.

Hudson changed my life.  I think he took me on as a bit of a project.  I’d grown up in Birmingham as a pastor’s son, raised to know the evils of racism and to do better.  But, I’d also gone to high school with Bull Connor’s grandson and was taught by Bull’s daughter.  So, do-gooder liberal that I was, I still had growing to do.  And Hudson chose to provide a boost in that regard.

Because, you see, Hudson Myers had grown up in Birmingham, too–but on the other side of the racial divide.  When Martin Luther King came to Birmingham in 1963, shortly before my dad accepted his call at a church on the east side of that same city, Hudson was in high school.  When James Bevel of SNCC came up with the controversial “children’s crusade” plan to mobilize no-job-to-lose kids in marches in Birmingham, Hudson was out there, on the streets.  Much later Hudson made laminated images of a photo of him on the streets of Birmingham in 1963–although no one, not even Hudson’s own family, can decide which one is Hudson!

I kind of like that; as at the end of Spike Lee’s magnificent “Malcolm X,” when everyone is Malcolm, in this photo, any of the kids are Hudson.  And maybe we can see ourselves in that photo, too, even if we are a white kid from the white suburbs of Birmingham, like I was.

Hudson took me that next step in my journey on issues of race and justice, from sympathy to empathy.  And he did it in a unique manner.  The closest character I can think of to Hudson is Amiri Baraka’s rastaman in Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth,” pronouncing truths in a kind of streetwise, streetside hit-and-run manner.  On a rainy day in Birmingham, I once waved to Hudson with my umbrella–and got a stern lecture about how whites did that with their shotguns to blacks and how I best not do that again.  Or I’d get a quick history of what “shotgun houses” were and why they were constructed that way.  I’d get praised for writing a letter to my college’s vice president about a top-down decision that was made without student input.  (I later learned that Hudson would write inscrutably prophetic letters to elected officials, one of which brought the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the honors program office at UAB!  He spoke truth to power, although it’s probably a good thing his truths were inscrutable.)  He even complimented me on my beard, when my own mom was viscerally opposed to facial hair.  We never had long conversations; Hudson dispensed truths, made connections that were foreign to me, and moved on.  Later I realized that, word for word, Hudson Myers was changing my life more than anyone else.  I hadn’t sought him out; he’d found me, thought I could go to another level, and pushed and cajoled and nudged me there.

That’s the definition of a mentor, isn’t it?

I stayed in touch with Hudson over the decades, and at Thanksgiving in 2012 we all got together for breakfast–Hudson, my wife Pam, and my son Evan, nearly 30 years after I’d first met him.  (The photo above is from our grand breakfast.)  Hudson wasted no time in telling his stories and dispensing his wisdom to Evan, a second generation of Knoxes he mentored.  The 1963 laminated Birmingham photo was mailed to Evan, not me, with a note to Evan on the back.

Not long thereafter, Hudson died.  I drove 450 miles to the funeral and back, and would have driven twice as far.

So that’s why, when Evan’s former principal Ray Clark contacted me in late 2014 about a student at Hilsman who would benefit from some meteorological mentoring, I was all over it.  I’ll gladly pay forward–mentor forward, no money involved–what I gained from Hudson, transform it, and give it to Kilik.  Hudson opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t known; I can do that for Kilik, too, in a complementary way.

Lots of us can do this for CCSD students.  The Mentor Program is easy to join, and is a very tangible way for you to get involved in our schools.  Once you’re there, our schools won’t seem like foreign, scary turf far away anymore, they’ll be like home–and that’s what we need for our schools in so many ways.

If you had a mentor like I did, mentor it forward in the Clarke County Schools.

Again, that URL is: http://clarkecountymentorprogram.org/

Tell them Hudson Myers sent you, just like he sent me.  Somewhere up in heaven, Hudson will have a good laugh at that.



JROTC at Cedar Shoals, and its fallen leader

JROTC at Cedar Shoals, and its fallen leader

Anyone familiar with Cedar Shoals High School knows about the high quality of its JROTC program.  For those not familiar with JROTC, it was established by the U.S. Congress in 1916 and, according to Cedar Shoals’s JROTC website, is “an elective high school course taught by retired military personnel at selected private and public high schools in the United States and its territories.”  Its curriculum including communication skills, leadership, physical fitness, first aid and drug abuse prevention, technology awareness, and other areas.  The stated intent is to “motivate and develop young people,” not to recruit for the military.

Cedar Shoals’s JROTC program is often referred to as one of the best in the nation, and its thousands of cadets have participated in countless local, state, and national competitions.  Perhaps the biggest event was in 2014, when the 30 CSHS JROTC cadets and seven chaperones flew to France to represent the state of Georgia in 70th anniversary ceremonies commemorating D-Day.  The group spent over a year raising $90,000 in order to attend; for some it was their very first time to be away from home.  What an experience!  Congratulations to Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Eric Cleveland, 1SG (Ret) Antoine Clark or SFC (Ret) Michael Bradford for their leadership of this program, one of the gems at Cedar Shoals and throughout the Clarke County School District.

But Cedar’s JROTC program wasn’t always so highly regarded.  In fact, way back in 1979, its JROTC program was on probation.  But that’s when Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Joseph Byrd, after a remarkable career in the Army (top of his Officer Candidate School class; three Vietnam tours, over 700 combat missions; the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars, and much more), arrived at Cedar Shoals to turn things around.  He had retired from the Army at Fort Gordon just the previous day, but on August 1, 1979 LTC Byrd began his work as Senior Army Instructor at Cedar Shoals.  He held that position for 23 years, by which point the CSHS JROTC had the reputation it enjoys to this day.  In 2009, his name was placed on the Cedar Shoals JROTC Facility, honoring his accomplishments in his second career.

Joseph Byrd passed away last Thursday, and the funeral service is Monday at 11 am at Green Acres Baptist Church.  Many people whose lives were changed by him will be there, a testament to the ability of educators in our local public schools to make a real difference.  Thank you, Colonel Byrd!