Goals are helpful. Without them we can wander around aimlessly. But, how much gets missed? How many wonderful lessons get left behind and ignored due to our mission of meeting goals? I experienced this earlier in the week in a fun and silly way.
A couple of years ago I came across a group of people who posted selfie videos on Twitter. It caught my attention. The videos had some things in common. Each one was recorded directly or very soon after a workout or run. They were short. (Twitter only allows 2 minute videos.) Each tweet contained the hashtag #RunAndRant. And, there was usually a weekly theme or word that everyone “ranted” (discussed).
Most of the people who participated in this running and ranting activity had something to do with education. If the topics weren’t specifically teacher-related, many of the rants were. The videos were fun to watch, and it was awesome to connect with people through discussion in the comments under the tweets.
In addition to communicating with others, I was inspired to get out there and run, myself! I had wanted to for years, and the time had finally arrived.
The weekly topic would be decided by Monday night or Tuesday morning. Then participants (Not everyone ran; Some swam, many walked, and there were weight-lifters, too!) would make short selfies that contained whatever thoughts they came up with during their workouts. People tagged known #RunAndRant “members” and friends, and there would be a nice cachet of videos to watch and comment on within 24 hours.
I want to thank Mark Ryan for pioneering this fun activity and organizing this group. I’m not positive if he literally started this, but he was the point person, as far as I know, for initiating topics and connecting like-minded people. Thank you. This activity is why I am regularly running right now:)
Goals Gone Awry
Okay, fine, but why is this blog titled “Goals Gone Awry”? you may be wondering. Let me explain.
During my run an interesting idea popped into my mind that I wanted to share with the “Run And Rant” team. Just as I had many times before, I kicked it around in my head as I pounded the pavement. The idea grew and deepened. I was excited to share it via selfie on social media.
Here’s the thing, though: I told myself, Let’s wait until I’m at a better location to record my thoughts; a place that is quieter. When I got to that place, I found that my train of thought had jumped the rails. My rant ended up being more true to definition, a rambling mess of thoughts. I laughed at myself as I recorded it and posted it anyway. Perhaps someone could get something out of it, I thought. (This is the one shared at the top of this blog;)
A few days later I was running my favorite loop when I came to a section of road that was a little bumpy. It had been treated with “loose gravel,” a coating of tar and aggregate that preserves the roadway and provides skid-resistance (Kent County Road Commission FAQ, n.d.). This jogged my memory. I remembered my unrecorded rant.
But, then I got to thinking about WHY my thoughts had evaporated like the morning fog. My goal of waiting until I had reached a particular place on my run made me lose the lesson. If I hadn’t set that goal, if I’d recorded my original thoughts when I had them, I could have captured a more coherent idea.
This time I put my run on pause and began recording immediately. Now, I got my initial idea in the recording, plus this concept of goals potentially holding us back.
If you watch the video, you will see that there is a lot of traffic zooming by me. You can’t see it, but I’m coming to a busy intersection that I will have to cross. Smack dab in the middle of the rant my running app starts announcing my stats! Nuts! Needless to say this recording is far from ideal.
All of these details are why I had waited to rant during the previous run.
Have you ever had a goal ruin your lesson? Are there ever times when goals get in the way of progress? When is it okay to let go of a goal? Perhaps it is okay to run with a thought or lesson that didn’t have an established goal.
I’d love to hear about times goals have gone awry for you. What have you found helpful for getting the most out of life and learning?
Yesterday was the first day of school, and a common phenomenon happened. Students would put away their folders and notebooks when we weren’t quite done using them.
It was frustrating to wait for students to get their tools back out of their desks, so I thought of a way to help them understand why they ought to wait to be told, “We are NOW done. You may put away your ___.” I made up a word picture; a story.
A family’s getting ready to have dinner. The kids are given plates and silverware. They sit down at the table. Mom brings over some rolls and butter. Dad checks on the casserole in the oven.
The kids butter their rolls, eat them, and get up from the table. When they bring their dirty plates and silverware over to the sink to clean them up, Dad asks, “What are you doing? The casserole is just about done.”
“We are cleaning up our plates. We’re finished,” the kids announce.
Incredulous, the dad explains that rolls are not the meal and that they should wait at the table. “It wouldn’t make any sense to clean your plates before eating the delicious casserole!”
“Your notebooks are the plates from this story,” I told my class. Their eyes lit up with understanding.
(I had been telling the same kids to get their folders back out of their desks many times. I could see that the class was sensing my frustration. Rather than repeating what was turning into an ignorable mantra, I invented this word picture.)
“When you place your folders back in your desk, it is like those kids washing up their plates when all they ate was a roll! You should wait until I tell you that we are done with our notebooks, before you close and store them away,” I explained.
How many times are we too busy or rushed to take the time to make motions meaningful? How often do you tell students to do tasks or complete assignments with the expectation that they will just do it because you told them to? In addition to having clearly defined reasons available for your students, I challenge you to invent narratives that not only explain your motives, but deepen students’ understanding.
My quick short story instantly did what lots of complaining couldn’t touch. A couple of times I saw students preparing to close their notebooks before we were finished with a task after I had shared my story. All I had to do was jokingly ask them, “You want desert; Don’t you? You shouldn’t put your plates in the sink until the dinner is decidedly over.” They knew exactly what I was saying, even though I didn’t use the word, “notebook.”
How have you used symbols, nonverbal communication, storytelling, or other tricks of the trade to clearly communicate classroom procedures and pedagogy? Was there an instance that worked particularly well? Please share.
“Sometimes I turn the air conditioner on to lower the humidity, even more than the temperature.”
What do you do to “condition” the climate of your classroom?
I live in the North Eastern part of America, a land full of extremely different climates. When my daughter complains that it is raining, I tell her about places right in our country where it hardly ever rains. The people who live there cannot plant the gardens that we can. They don’t enjoy frequenting forest hikes, because woods are too far to visit regularly. With a couple more examples Scarlet was convinced that foregoing a pool day for some rain might be worth it.
As wet as it is around here, we are blessed with relatively high humidity. I lived in Florida for a year, so I know what humidity is. In Pennsylvania, it comes and goes, thankfully. But, there are days when you walk outside, and it feels like you are swimming to your car!
It’s my opinion that high levels of humidity are uncomfortable. I don’t enjoy feeling sticky. It can even cause objects to deteriorate faster.
The humidity makes the air feel even hotter than it actually is, too. This is because our natural air conditioning won’t work when the air is too humid. Our bodies produce sweat in order to cool off. The cooling sensation comes from the sweat from our skin evaporating. When there is already too much moisture in the air, the sweat doesn’t have anywhere to go! (Krueger, 2016)
My wife visited Big Bend National Park in Texas a few years ago. She was conducting research there, in the summer! It was well over 100 degrees, but “You don’t feel it,” she explained. “It’s a dry heat.” I have never had the privilege of experiencing “dry heat.” The dryness of the air in desert climates or areas that receive very little rain (<30% humidity) feel cooler than the actual temperature because of how quickly the sweat evaporates from your skin (LaNore, 2021). In the same way that you don’t even notice sweating because of how fast it disappears, you won’t realize just how hot the air is.
One thing that I like about living in Pennsylvania is the variety of weather. Unlike Florida, we get breaks from the humidity. But, this means that we don’t acclimate to a constant feeling of stickiness. When the humidity hits, it is extremely noticeable.
The good news is that you can “condition” the air to be less humid. I was telling a friend just the other day that there are times I’ll turn on the air conditioner and set the temperature at only a couple of degrees cooler than the actual temperature. Why would I do this? Using an air conditioner can dry up the air (Anderson, 2017).
You may be interested in “deep-diving” the science behind air conditioning, first invented by Willis Carrier in 1902 (How do air conditioners work?). Basically, air is sucked into a machine through a “compressor” that uses a cooling agent to lower the temperature of the air.
The gas then moves through an “evaporator” (central air) or over an “evaporating coil” (window units). This is when the chilled air loses its moisture. The heavy water particles are left behind, as the cool dry air exits the unit. You can actually see the water vapor leave window units on the outside of buildings. There is usually a hole where water drips out.
Okay, so now that you have journeyed with me through the annoyance of temporary high humidity levels and how to feel comfortable, it is time to readdress the initial question: What do you do to “condition” the climate within your classroom?
Have you ever walked into a space where the tension is so present that you feel it in the air? Have you ever felt your own blood boil to the point that you are heating up the room? People, including us teachers, blow their cool. We all get upset.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve witnessed student after student experiencing frustrations (technology can sometimes stimulate this;) where one kid’s attitude begins to affect another’s, until the whole room is boiling over with irritation. I’ll usually catch the mood before it gets out of control, and I’ll have everyone practice a mindfulness technique. We have to reset our soles.
There are times we have to literally, physically leave the educational space. I’ll bring everyone outside. I’ve even taken my class for a walk around the school, just to return to our room and work. They chuckle incredulously when they realize we did nothing more than roam the halls. It works, though. The “humidity” exits the room with us, and it “evaporates” off of our persons, out of our minds, when we move our feet.
When frustration is mild, or if I can anticipate potential irritation; maybe we are about to do an assessment or practice something the students don’t enjoy; I will have the class do Tai Chi. This is a very pleasant way for the kids to get out of their seats, move their bodies slowly, and practice mindful breathing. It is a great way to lower the tension (humidity) before the “temperature” rises.
How do you condition your classroom environment? How do you know when you ought to?
With schools attempting to be as safe as possible, field trips are being conducted via Zoom meetings. My students, The Polite Pirates, experienced one of these the other day.
We had the opportunity to hear a gentleman from a local historical society narrate a slideshow about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). This person made MLK come to life by sharing many details about his childhood and behind-the-scenes facts from the Civil Rights Movement. I had my students taking notes, while listening.
Part of taking notes was writing down questions. In the end, while the Zoom was still muted, I told my students to choose one open-ended question that they wished to ask the expert. They were to circle it on their papers. I walked around and looked at the questions. A few had already been answered within the presentation. Perhaps the student missed the answer and wanted clarification. Several had to do with MLK’s death.
I chose the two questions that I thought would further the understanding of what kind of person MLK had been. They were both able to ask their questions.
A girl from my class asked, “What types of texts did MLK like to read?” I loved this question because it focused on what I want my students to develop: A love of reading. Also, it focuses on MLK becoming who he was through reading.
The other question made my heart stop when I read it: “Why did MLK like to write?” I couldn’t wait for the expert to persuade my students that writing is a powerful tool that could move mountains.
Both of my students’ questions were asked and the answers were wonderful. What struck me was how many students focused on MLK’s death. They wanted to know who killed him, how old was he when he died, where did he die, what was the date, could you stay at the hotel where MLK was assassinated???? The person from the historical society, when asked one of these, did a good job honoring the questions that were asked, while bringing focus and attention back to MLK’s life and accomplishments.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of “Assassination Obsession” ever since the Zoom virtual field trip a few days ago. Some thoughts have risen to the surface. First of all, there is the never-ending news of mass shootings and gun violence in our media. I wonder how much mental space this consumes in our youth. Then, there are the video games: “Among Us” and “Fortnite” are the two biggest ones I hear about on a daily basis.
I have to confess that I haven’t played either of these games. From what I understand, “Among Us” is all about solving a murder mystery. This seems pretty classic. It appears to model the classic game of Clue. The thing is I played Clue when I was young. It was one of many board (bored) games that I enjoyed. I definitely did not talk about it with my friends, and there was no way we planned to join up at one another’s houses (today it would be Zooms and group realtime games online) to play it.
I am not one to preach against video games or poo poo all violent games or movies, but this experience of witnessing how consuming the topic of assassination was has caused me to wonder what could be done to help students grow healthy perspectives and thoughts. First of all, teachers could redirect thinking the way the expert during my class’s virtual field trip did. “Yes, MLK was assassinated, but that was a tragic, horrible end to an amazing life. Let’s explore and learn about the magnificent things MLK accomplished and inspired, instead of focusing on who or what ended it.”
What ideas do you have? Have you witnessed this obsession, also? What have you done, if anything, to combat the “Assassination Obsession”? Pointers?
I recently read an article from The Atlantic about a change in the way companies market to kids. When I was growing up, a hundred years ago, kids watched cartoons on TV. Every few minutes there would be an interruption in the program. This break from the animated story I’d been watching was filled with videos showing toys, food, and places that kids simply HAD to buy, eat, and visit! These videos are called commercials.
Commercials were made by companies that wanted to sell something. They were designed to convince kids that it was worth spending money on what they had to offer. How did they do this?
When I was around 12 years old, I bought a Pogoball. I used money that I had earned on my own, delivering newspapers, to buy this toy. Even over 30 years after this experience, I can still remember the feeling of I have to get one of those Pogoballs! I don’t think anyone would have been able to persuade me that it wasn’t a good idea. I learned a valuable lesson the day I handed my hard-earned cash over to purchase this person-propelling bounce toy: “Don’t believe everything you see on TV.”
I got the Pogoball toy home and used an air pump to blow up the ball that fitted inside a hard plastic ring. I stepped on the ring, squeezing the top of the ball with my feet. I leaned forward and jumped… The Pogoball stayed tucked between my feet. I landed, the bottom of the Pogoball squishing on my driveway, and the air pressure within the flexible plastic pushed me up… A precious-little-bit.
I was successfully bouncing, jumping, and… NOT having fun. Rather than propelling me into the air, the toy just squished and pushed. In order to get into the air, I had to jump up. The higher I jumped, the more the Pogoball squished, but it never pushed enough to be considered helpful. After a disappointing afternoon of trying many experiments on various surfaces, jumping styles, and tricks, I placed the Pogoball in the garage, never to be touched again. The money I spent on that toy was gone and hadn’t bought me anything beyond the lesson, don’t be fooled by jingles, acting, and repetition.
Jingles are catchy short songs that stick in your head. Commercials in the olden days depended on these to mesmerize people. You’d find yourself humming a jingle when riding your bike. You might mention this to a friend, and then the both of you would sing the song together, laughing at how corny it sounded. Later that same day, the both of you would be munching on whatever that jingle was advertising! It is like you were hypnotized into spending money on that product.
One of the reasons jingles get stuck in your head is that you hear them so often. Companies make sure that kids see and hear commercials many times. I remember complaining about seeing the same commercial every single commercial break when I was a kid, only to then go out and buy the very thing advertised in that annoying announcement! Did I spend money on the product in hopes to stop the commercials? If so, it didn’t work!
Commercials from long ago were recorded in studios with elaborate sets, lights, and high-paid actors. These short videos cost companies tons of money to make. But, the price was an investment, because the better the commercial, the more influential the message, the more products would be sold. In other words, although a company would spend a lot to make a commercial, if it were good enough, the business would reep a lot of sales that would produce a great deal of revenue or profit.
The actors who were featured in the Pogoball commercial had me completely fooled. When I saw the smiles on their faces and all of the many places Pogoballs could be used, I thought that this must be an amazing toy with limitless possibilities for fun. This was a lie. Once I got the Pogoball home and working, I saw that it was actually boring. The actors were paid to pretend that using a Pogoball was mind-blowing fun.
Nowadays, many families have quit cable. Kids don’t have to look at the clock to see when their favorite shows are on. They can login to Amazon, Disney Plus, and Youtube to watch their shows whenever they want. No more commercials… Right? Sort of.
According to the article, “Toy Commercials Are Being Replaced By Something More Nefarious (sneaky, evil, criminal),” the persuasive marketing to children has morphed from a jingle-ridden, actor-driven, hypnosis-inducing commercial aired during breaks in a child’s program, to the program itself (Fetters, 2020). Companies that sell stuffed animals stopped making commercials and began making whole shows. When I read this, I remembered the tons of PJ Mask toys my wife and I bought for our daughter. Scarlet didn’t see one commercial for these toys.
The article mentions one other way that kids are targeted by companies: YouTubers. How many kids nowadays say that they want to be a YouTuber when they grow up? What is this? Who is a YouTuber? One of many answers is that a YouTuber is someone who makes videos that are published on YouTube for profit. The important idea here is that the people videotaping themselves opening toys and products in their bedrooms and homes are getting paid. They are not “high-paid” celebrity actors, like in olden days, but they are actors, nonetheless. They have an incentive to persuade you to buy the product that they are pushing.
In other words, companies are convincing regular, everyday consumers to act like they are providing an honest review of a product. These Youtubers seem like they are truthfully sharing what they have personally experienced, but they don’t tell the viewer that they were paid to do this. It is a sneaky way to make commercials; Make them seem like they are not commercials at all… No more jingles, No big-name actors, No fancy sets or elaborate narratives… Just regular Joes sharing their honest opinion, right?
Don’t be fooled! Trust the advice, opinions, and stories of people you know over watching a YouTube video. Go ahead and watch your favorite shows on your convenient streaming apps, but know that these are working at getting you to buy stuffed animals, toys, apparel, and more. Commercials used to be convincing. They worked at persuading a specific audience to spend money. Today’s marketing is more covert than compelling.
One of the many cartoons that I enjoyed watching when I was a kid was “G.I. Joe.” (I’m sure that this show was geared towards helping sell the action figures by the same name… I had spent lots of money on those!) At the end of every episode there was a little lesson, teaching smart behavior to kids. After the moral was explained, a catch phrase was used: “Knowing is half the battle.”
While the new ways businesses market to people may not be criminal, it is good to at least know what is going on. Then you can make wise decisions with your funds. A show is not just a show if it is trying to get you to buy stuff. And, now that you know that, half the battle is won; The battle for your bank account. Good luck.
Something amazing happened the other day in my classroom. During our class’s online morning meeting two girls excitedly shared that they had worked on a quiz together during a Zoom meeting the previous day. Not only was I “Okay with that,” I enthusiastically celebrated–not their supposed “confession,” as you may imagine it to be–but, their tremendous success!
I teach a hybrid third grade class of 22 kids in suburban Pennsylvania. In addition to having my students only half of the time, my district shortened our school days, so I have one less hour than I normally would. This has pros and cons. One difficulty to manage is administering assessments. I only see these kids 12 hours a week! It doesn’t make sense to sit them all down and have them bubble in answers on a test during diamond-valuable instructional time!
So, I have been providing Google forms that contain comprehension questions on days that my students are not physically with me. These forms accompany texts that students read outside of school. I have struggled with what to call these questionnaires. With students taking them in who-knows-what setting with who-knows-how-much help, they aren’t true assessments.
Because I want my students to complete them, I’ve been tempted to call them “quizzes.” And, I confess that term may have left my lips once or twice.
My favorite title for these text-accompaniments is “teaching tool.” Although this is exactly how I view them, the title has far less pizzaz than “Test.” What I most commonly do is use several different terms in reference to the same assignment. I will call a Google form a quiz, but then explain that it isn’t really a quiz. It is more like an assessment. Then I suggest that I want them to go back and read the feedback that I built into the form, because more than this testing you, it is a “teaching tool.” Does all of this sound confusing? It doesn’t seem to discombobulate my pupils.
I’d like to write more and provide examples of how I put together and use these Google forms, but this blog is about students supposedlycheating!
…And, how I encourage it!
This past week, I cleared a couple of mental hurdles that I want to share with educators. The first occurred Wednesday, when a student showed me his use of Safari while taking a quiz on vocabulary words. He interrupted a guided reading lesson to show me how he had used split-screen to look up each vocabulary word, as he evaluated them to find which would best fill the blank in a sentence.
I had to make a split-second decision.
Do I point out that he ought to have worked harder to learn the meanings and uses of the vocabulary words the day before, so that he would not need Safari? Should I suggest that he didn’t do anything wrong, but ask that he not do that in the future? Can I just tell him to, “Stop interrupting me and my guided reading session,” to buy time and think about the most appropriate answer? Perhaps I should pretend I didn’t hear this news and sweep the idea under the cognitive carpet: “Where were we, students?”
This is what I did: I stood up and told that student to screen-mirror his device through our classroom Apple TV. The student’s split-screen iPad filled the screen on the wall, so every pupil could view the potential misdemeanor. I then praised the student for this ingenious way of researching answers. I pointed out that vocabulary is a wonderful tool, but when used wrongly, it can wield unfortunate results. “You definitely want to know what you are saying. I love that this student made sure that he got each word just right, when filling the blanks in these sentences!”
I suggested that everyone open the slideshow, containing the definitions of these particular vocabulary words, and have that available in split-screen mode, along with the Google form. Many words are homonyms, and it would be helpful to have the definitions that I provided to accompany your decision-making for filling blanks in sentences.
Mouths involuntarily fell open. Sighs could be heard.
I also showed the class how they could simply press and hold down a word in their Google form and a menu containing “Lookup,” among other things, would appear. This would enable them to double-check the meaning of a word, while taking a quiz.
“Wait, hold on here,” you may be thinking. “Weren’t you assessing students’ knowledge of those vocabulary words that kids are now looking up???”
“Yup,” is my answer. “And as long as I am speaking to you within this silly blog, I will explain that we, educators, MUST break out of traditional thinking!!!”
I am speaking as much to myself as anyone else. What I am sharing here are surprising realizations. They are not masterfully planned and researched pedagogies. I am sharing an idea… And, I would love to hear your thoughts about it.
As revolutionary as this seemed to me at the time and now, my students sort of shrugged the suggestion off. Some will use the split-screen to make sure that they choose the very best word to fill in blanks, and others will just guess at which ones are “right.” There will always be students who want to succeed, some who want to finish so they can bother me with, “I’m done; What do I do now?” There will be kids who need to get assignments completed as perfectly as humanly possible, and others who only care about what is for lunch or “How long ‘til recess?”
Allowing students to use the tools that they already found and craftily accessed to complete my “teaching-tool-quiz” validated that first kid’s genius and points to the development of 21st century skills. I almost titled this blog, “Another Brick in the Wall,” referencing one of my favorite songs and diatrib-ing against traditional assessment.
I know teachers who are trying to figure out ways to administer the same paper tests that are years-old to students who are wearing masks, sanitizing their hands every ten minutes, sitting 6 feet from one another in a half-full room, and have been teaching themselves through self-guided, unmonitored learning sessions at daycare centers, in bedrooms, at doctor’s offices, etc. This is not traditional. Stop trying to be traditional. Stop attempting to forge “bricks of kids” for a wall that should never be built. Factories are not the future.
Okay, I’ll get off my soap box. I still have the story of two girls sharing all of their answers over a Zoom call to discuss.
It was the same exact quiz that my in-class student had used split-screen to complete. This was a longer questionnaire, with 24 questions. In all transparency, and what makes this whole story more meaningful, I had actually planned to use the results of this Google form to measure how my students were doing. So, it was honestly a shock when two of my students excitedly shared that they had figured out a way to use split-screen to participate in a Zoom call, while simultaneously filling in answers on a quiz.
I laughed when they told me. They were so innocent. Again, do I reprimand them? Do I deflect attention from this seeming “abuse of technology?” Should I tell them that I won’t count their “scores?”
Educators, how sad are you that our students cannot “pair-share” in the classroom? My heart breaks that I cannot partner kids up to help one another and work together!
These two girls found a way around COVID-19. They snuck under the pandemic wire to escape the confines of their isolation.
Did I get an accurate measure of their ability to answer questions correctly on their own?
I cannot even put to text the negative answer to that question. My mind makes the cognitive noise of wagging a metaphorical mental tongue, pedagogical spit flying everywhere. WHO CARES?
Sure, I want to have data to see how well my kiddos are reading and understanding… but, why? What is that data good for? I would like to know what my students need to grow. Don’t they need to socialize, learn how to work together, figure out ways to problem solve???
Let me stop here. I love the fact that my students cheated on their quiz. I’m thrilled that they told me. I rejoice that they found each other. They were not friends before this year, and now they are Zooming. I am ecstatic about the possibility of my students communicating with each other about academics.
I know I said I would stop, but let me leave you with one more thought: Do NOT force yourselves or your students into regimented, controlling, synchronous instructional sessions at the peril of this kind of organic, collaborative learning opportunity. Don’t do it. Say “no” to building bricks out of kids who ought to be astronauts.
Believe it or not, this is NOT a blog about politics.
Growing up, my family was very political. More than political, it was opinionated. And, there is probably an even better word than opinionated, at that!
The dinner table found my dad discussing state representatives, and what they were and weren’t doing to help him. The governor was never doing quite enough for my mom. It seemed like every decision he made was a wrong one. My parents sympathized over spaghetti.
Not everything was negative! There were plenty of politicians who were doing things right, and there were others who were fighting for causes that my parents held dear. These men and women always belonged to my parents’ political party. In fact, the people who identified with my parents’ political party seemed to do NO wrong.
If there was ever a politician from the opposition who agreed with or helped someone from my parents’ party, that person was praised for “Seeing the light.” In the same breath, they would also be ridiculed for disloyalty to their own party.
This mentality went beyond the dinner table. When observing the behaviors of people in public, I overheard my parents suggesting certain individuals probably voted for the political party they viewed as “The Enemy.” I witnessed my parents treat people wearing clothing that supported things they disagreed with badly. Mostly, we stayed away from people who overtly promoted ideas we didn’t like.
When my parents thought that they were speaking in private, I heard them call other people names. The way they said these epithets, it felt like they hated those kind of people. Around me and my sister, nicer language was used, but the message was clear: “Those people are ruining our country.”
Would my parents get rid of “those people” if they could? The older I got, and the more I learned in school, It seemed like you ought to be able to vote bad ideas out of political power. My parents seemed to complain about voting as much as they complained about politicians.
I could go on with this analogy, but I think that is enough fuel to energize my analogy. When people populate their thoughts with slanted views, the way they see the world and its inhabitants is biased. Every action is interpreted through this mental lense.
Rather than politics, this analogy has to do with police brutality. Ijeoma Oluo titled chapter 6 of her book with the question “Is Police Brutality Really About Race?” (Oluo, 2019). The story that she wrote about in that chapter, and what I have heard from other people of color, is a pervasive bias among police officers toward Black people (Eberhardt, 2019).
Oluo (2019) tells a story about her brother being pulled over by a cop. When her brother asked, “Why am I being pulled over?” the police officer retorted with, “Is there going to be a problem, here?” There are many things to discuss in this tiny interaction, but what I want to focus on is the “other-ness” factor.
With racial tensions flooding the mainstream media for months, social media has teemed with personal anecdotes displaying similar stories to Oluo’s. I have seen people post articles and produce data that points to the idea that White people do experience brutality and even death at the hands of police officers (Thomsen, 2020).
The fact is Black people in America are 6 times more likely to be killed during an interaction with law enforcement than White people (Jagannathan, 2020). This stat varies in geography, the rate being lower in some areas and higher in others.
It is like someone took the bias of my fictitious family at the beginning of this blog and transferred it from political opposition to plain old color of skin, and then pumped it into the police force.
I’m NOT suggesting that every single police officer in America hates people of color. The politically charged family of my analogy has an aunt who does not engage in the political banter at picnics. She’d rather just stay out of it. She’ll vote, but she doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other. There is an uncle who actually disagrees with the rest of the family. When the family is frothing about some civic story, he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. He witnessed what happened to his brother, who is no longer invited to anything.
Make no mistake about it; Law enforcement is a family. There is bias toward people of color (Eberhardt, 2019). The degree of prejudice varies, but studies show that police officers are more likely to connect crime with color. This leads to pre-judging individuals. In other words people of color are not interpreted as “law abiding citizens.” This is not a blanket to cover every cop, of course.
The metaphor of bad apples has been floated a lot lately. The problem is that it has been misused (Cunningham, 2020). It was originally a proverb of warning that just one bad fruit could contaminate and ruin a whole basket.
What can be done?
Unless the family lives in a compound, each member is going to interact with unrelated people. Individuals gravitate toward like-minded people, so even outside of a compound, cops are not likely to hangout with unbiased folks.
However, there is bound to be a pool of brackish water; A place between ocean and river, where ideas mix, ideologies are less potent. Saltwater salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs.
Just suggesting that police officers have a bias might be a seed for thought that could spur self-assessment. People who are empathetic good listeners could be the mangrove trees that root in the brackish water between ocean and fresh water. These exposed roots are places where fish can seek shelter. Be the mangrove.
The reason I chose to use a family that is fired up about politics is many-fold. One is that this is where we are as a country. Most people have witnessed this behavior on both sides of the isle. Another reason is that political leaning is so ingrained and difficult to see past. It seems impossible to be open-minded to the potential that the “other side” could have any good ideas or do anything right. Lastly, and most dangerously, as each news story blows up phones, ideologues seem to double-down on their philosophies. It is trench warfare. I hope that this metaphor melts soon.
I write this text to help people understand that bias runs deep, blood-deep. We cannot expect prejudice to evaporate quickly or easily. Each person, regardless of skin color, must be seen as a human. Projecting criminality onto color is wrong. “Is there going to be a problem here?”
When I first began teaching in elementary school, I came up with a fun and exciting, dare I say classy, theme: The Polite Pirates. My students would experience adventures in learning, sucking the marrow out of lessons! But, we would also learn all about how to conduct ourselves as ladies and gentlemen.
As I explained the theme to my students, several ideas began to weave their way through my classy talks. Eventually, these tapestries fashioned a tale, and The Polite Pirate story emerged.
In Chapter One we learned about a tremendous storm that broke apart several ships, leaving all kinds of people stranded on an island. This was originally written many years ago, and I was aiming at symbolizing the new arrangement in my classroom of small pockets of pupils that had come from varying classrooms. (My school has four 2nd grade classes.) Read at the very beginning of the year, it is meant to help students feel comfortable being thrown together with new peers.
This year, however, the idea of survival is in the forefront of everyone’s mind. I had reposted Chapter One, mentioning how clearly Coronavirus symbolizes the horrible storm from the story! I look forward to sharing the rest of the tale and encourage my students to adapt to the shifting sands of a world in survival mode.
Chapter 2 is all about the captain of pirates who, like everyone else on the island, lost his ship and has to depend on limited natural resources for survival. Captain Iron Knee is unique. While everyone else is bustling about, making shelters, building fires, collecting edibles, he seems to just sit around! At first this is disconcerting to the other survivors. Not only is he a pirate captain, but a lazy one to boot!
This chapter is about prejudice. When we pre-judge people, we could very well miss out on great friendships, learning, and even survival. My recent post “Combat Prejudice by Turning Your Mind into an Entire Judicial System” was a prelude to the reading of this chapter. Before you meet Captain Iron Knee, it will do you well to possess a robust analytical interior judicial system. Chapter 3 explores some valuable character traits that will hopefully sway the jury in favor of the captain. Here, you simply see him by his actions and countenance. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Chapter 2: “The Captain”
Although no one knows exactly when or how it happened, one by one individuals and groups of people began to join the one surviving captain, a pirate captain. Was it simply because he had been a captain, or was it his strong yet sensitive, commanding yet understanding, magnetic personality? Even though his countenance was as severe as the storm they had all just survived, everyone felt comfortable around Iron Knee.
The captain with the iron knee, could not move around as well as the other survivors. He had gifts and talents that others did not have, however. This old, seasoned, world-traveler was not only a leader, but he was also a reader.
Captain Iron Knee didn’t just look at the back of cereal boxes during breakfast. He read books of all kinds, all of the time.
Due to the amount of reading the captain practiced, he was very knowledgeable about many subjects. No problem seemed to faze him.
“What do you mean there isn’t any food?” he would bellow. “Look here. This whole island is teeming with food. You just need to know what you can, and what you shouldn’t eat.” It was the knowing part that made the captain so valuable to every single survivor. He seemed to know everything.
When the survivors of the great storm initially began fending for themselves and started making shelters, looking for food, and figuring out fire, many did not like the looks of the captain. He seemed to just sit around and tell others what to do. It became apparent after the captain’s ragtag crew made a roaring fire to roast a meal in front of a well-constructed hut that the captain was not a loafer. He was a leader.
One by one the other survivors ventured over to the pirate crew and asked the captain a question or two. Each person was pleasantly surprised at how polite the pirate captain appeared.
He may have looked gruff, but his demeanor was kind and even caring. He was very helpful, albeit through knowledge as opposed to actually making a hut or fire for them.
The tremendous respect that his crew showed him impacted how the survivors viewed the captain, as well. They all but bowed whenever they approached the captain. At first, the other survivors thought that it was because the captain demanded this attitude of his crew the way other pirate captains had been known to scare their crews into submission. But, it was his kindness, how much he clearly cared for each, and his incredible wisdom that afforded him this esteem-able station as leader… First of just his crew, and then the whole island.
No person ever referred to the captain as anything other than his full and respectful name, Captain Iron Knee. They even said it differently from other names. In the same way that survivors would talk about the storm that marooned them on the island with hushed tones and awe, people spoke of the captain with honorably low voices. Everyone knew that without him they would have been doomed from day one.
People had questions for the captain, but no one ever questioned him. Although no one ever saw him get angry, everyone knew it would not be nice, to say the least. In fact, when a problem seemed to thwart the wise captain, and he could not quite figure it out, his eyebrows would furrow and eyes narrow.
It could have just been coincidence, but whenever this happened, dark, gray clouds would begin to creep over the mountain and invade a crystal clear sky. As the captain’s frustration rose, rain would fall.
The time that showed everyone’s respect most was during the evening campfires. Captain Iron Knee did not do all of the talking.
Others told stories about what they had done, either on the island or before being shipwrecked. When the captain did talk, the trees stopped swaying in the wind to listen to his wise words. Birds would flock to neighboring branches. The sea would calm and the fire would postpone its crackling. Even nature seemed to hang on the captain’s every word.
I’m a bit of a jokester. There are different kinds of jokesters. I’m not the type to play pranks or make up silly stories. My style is to never give a straight answer. My coworkers will tell you that they usually adopt the opposite of whatever I tell them when it comes to deciphering the truth on a matter. Everything I say is met with sighs… That kind of jokester.
In the classroom, I am even worse! Right before I’m able to provide some hokey response, my students complain when one of their peers dare ask me a simple question. They know I will use that inquiry as a tool to teach an entire, off the cuff, mini lesson that will share a ton of valuable, real-world-information, and they will eventually love, but might take time away from whatever task is at hand.
I teach third grade, which finds student-development at pre-abstract-thinking. This doesn’t stop me from throwing curveball answers at every swinging student. Life isn’t straight. Why pretend its answers will be? Look at this pandemic. Look at politics. Look at pedagogy. Everything is swaying and swerving and swinging.
The moment an answer closes a question, the journey of thinking is over. This is why I encourage my students to ask open-ended questions. Even when these are “answered,” there is a whole adventure of learning just beyond the horizon of the information provided. Rather than the answer closing a door, it shows you an orchard where, not only can you eat the fruit of that information, but you have a treasure trove of other interesting facts at your disposal.
This morning I noticed a classy comment in the Google classroom. A combination of my having just downed some super strong coffee and my being a jokester caused me to provide a pretty productive answer.
The question had to do with the recent requirement of reading at least 20 minutes per day. My school is operating, like many during the pandemic, in hybrid mode. This means that I don’t get to see my Polite Pirates (students) nearly as much as I would like! Now, they are going to have to deal with my jokester answers in text form! Ha!!
This student wanted to know if I was requiring any kind of proof of her reading. What will she need to “do” while she reads? What tangible things will she produce as a result of having read some text?
My answer: If you do it correctly, you will grow as a reader… As a person… As a citizen… As a Polite Pirate… As a student of life…
Lest you think I left my poor pupil hanging with nothing but a ranting reply, I’ll settle your soul with the fact that in the end, I finally gave the class a clear explanation of expectations.
Have you ever seen someone who you thought wouldn’t be nice, but once you got to know them, you were pleasantly surprised? Have you experienced the feeling of regret after realizing you’d wasted time keeping your distance from someone, only to find out they are the most friendly, helpful person you’d ever met? And, now that you got to know them, you wish you had that time back.
To pre-judge is human. It can be useful to observe information and categorize people as friendly, helpful, hardworking, and also unkind, lying, and dangerous. This notion of placing a person into a closed category can be problematic. What if the person who looks scary is actually both friendly and knowledgeable?
There are few things more classy than having an open mind. It is wise to observe the behaviors of others, judging whether their actions are friendly, intelligent, and kind. Before you completely write them off, however, do this:
Turn your brain into a courtroom.
In Chapter 2 of my classroom story, “The Polite Pirates” I introduce the idea of people being more than they outwardly seem.
The survivors of the massive storm (See Chapter One) did not feel comfortable being stuck on an island with pirates. The leader of the pirates was not only frightening looking, but also appeared to be lazy and bossy. All he did was command his few remaining friends to do things for him! Was he bossing them or instructing them, though?
I recommend that prior to judging someone’s character solely on first impressions or outward appearances (relying too heavily on prejudice), a classy person will introduce some additional thought-characters to the cognitive work of cementing opinions. You could think of them as mental lawyers and a jury.
Lawyers use the Law to forge arguments, proving and disproving cases. They interpret laws, using them as tools. A judge is like a referee. What do the jurors do? Jurors are like the audience at a baseball game. If players cheated, and a biased umpire favored the cheaters, the spectators would boo the wrong-doers right out of the stadium. Another outcome, if there was persistent cheating, could be growing disinterest and lack of support for the sport.
Jurors are common people from the populace who are purposefully un-versed in the language of complex laws (Horan, 2019). They force judges and lawyers to frame complicated ideas into simple, easy to understand concepts for everyday people to grasp.
Apply this to what you do in your head when you are judging someone. Do not trust your base instincts. Do not assume that what you observe with your eyes and ears is the whole story. How much backstory are you missing from an action you are witnessing? Try not to project your own attitudes and experiences onto other people. They didn’t grow up the way you did, where you did, with what you had!
It’s your job to interpret actions and looks for your mental jury. Even if you think a person’s motives or attitude is obvious, investigate the history behind them. Try to put this new information into understandable terms, like a courtroom lawyer would for a jury.
Lastly, do NOT condemn anyone to a negative, cognitive classification if there is ANY reasonable doubt (Kenton, 2021). Until you know the entire story behind an action, look, word, etc., a person should maintain an innocent or neutral position in your opinion. Find out their history. They could become your best and most valuable friend!