Listen-only-mode: A Tele-Town Hall Meeting

The other night right before Jeopardy, the phone rang–the land line that we are forced to pay for by some giant company who insists that we have to “bundle” a home phone in order to have access to the Internet. Anyone I want to talk to either calls my cell or they know better than to not call my house during the airing of Jeopardy. I loves me some Alex Trebek; it’s one of my favorite television shows. Nerdtastic, I know.

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Lately I have to answer the landline. I’m trying to sell my commuter car because I’m about to start a job where I can take public transit or ride my bike [cue the sound of unicorns galloping in sparkle-dust here].

Soon after saying hello, I expected to hear some bozo trying to talk me down on the price. Instead I hear this polite invitation to join a tele-townhall meeting on education.

Well, pray tell. What the blazes is that? I think.

Some polite woman explains the protocol of the tele-townhall and that I am indeed connected but nobody can hear me. The town hall meeting is in “listen-only mode.”

All the while, the Washington State Superintendent of Instruction Randy Dorn and another administrator give their introductions. Imagine me sitting on the couch with a dusty phone to my ear yelling “What is Punxatawney?” or “What is a Tooth?” or “What is Hungry Hungry Hippos?” Hardly the vision of civic engagement in a democratic town hall meeting, really.

My ears perked up when I heard one them reference open education resources. Hot damn. That’s when I got up and started pacing back to my office. Interesting.

Then there was a question about teachers complaining about too many standardized tests. Hot damn. I went to the fridge for another beer. Interesting.

Then there was a poll about the Common Core State Standards Iniatives. I pressed the number one. My response was recorded and put me in the majority of listeners who had heard of  the Common Core prior to this tele-town hall. Interesting. Who are the other 25% who have not heard of the Common Core? (Allow time for journalists who have been writing about this since 2007 to die a small death here).

For my readers outside of the US, the very simplistic summary of the Common Core is an effort to streamline the curriculum of our individual states via federal governmental policy. I’m not an expert to explain this beyond reading the newspaper and listening to public radio. Here’s an even more simplistic summary:

Put your hand on something really big (it may be an elephant, you don’t know). Turn out the lights. Tell me what you see. How does the part connect to the whole? It’s like that. Surely you have an equivalent of some policy confusion in your country. Maybe not.

Let me pause right here to tell you that this was not a town hall meeting in the way that I have experienced them in person in the past. My experiences with town halls involve elementary school gymnasiums, bad coffee, and outspoken self-righteous hippies or conservatives. People taking the microphone with shaky voices. Panels of politicians trying to explain policy. I’m usually in listen-mode then as well, but this was different. I could multi-task with Trebek, drink beer, and say my thoughts aloud. Rude behavior in public.

Some woman started her comment with the lead: “Since the beginning of time humans have…”

I was in “listen-only mode” so nobody could hear my very loud sigh or my disgruntled voice when I said aloud, “For the love of cats with fur, lady! Oh. My. Gawd.”

These platitudes were the exact thing I’d warn my students about when I taught writing. “In society today” or “People today” or “Since the beginning of time” or “Americans in modern society”—write that phrase if it helps, I’d advise, then cross it out and don’t use it.

It’s a waste of space on the page for your argument. Just get to it. Unless you are an anthropologist or historian, don’t talk about the beginning of time. Ever. Just get to it.

Then a mother launched into her concerns about this “new math” and how she doesn’t understand all of the steps. Why we can’t just use the same math she learned. Why do we need five steps when two will suffice. Why did we need to change what worked for others in the past. Why is it that old way of doing math works for successful people she knows now and why we can’t teach that way to our children.

When you cut through her lack of understanding of conceptual mathematics, her very real frustration of not knowing how to help her children with their homework became painfully apparent. After what sounded like a bit of rant, she asked for examples that parents could review so they could help their kids. Teachers were marking down their kids because they were helping children using the old method. Teachers are accountable for this new method so they mark the kids down for not using the process they are teaching. The mother wanted help so her kids grades wouldn’t suffer.

It was a simple request that made my heart ache a bit.

Then another woman shared an example of how she saw a presentation about the Common Core and there was little emphasis on getting the correct answer. The right answer. The process, so to speak, was way more important than the right answer.

This was appalling to my tele-townhall fellow citizen. Appalling! Is this the future we want for our kids? We, as Americans, no longer care about the right answer. I half expected her to build on some platitude about how we would have never landed on the moon if we didn’t care about the right answers. Sigh. Deep sigh. I decided to pet my dog and take a long pull off my beer. I’m sure a vein in my forehead started to pulse.

I was losing interest as I listened to Dorn and his colleague repeat themselves.

Meanwhile, I answered a few Jeopardy questions. Got right back into Trebeck-help-me-pay-off-my-sch00l-loans-study-mode. Bring it!

I’ll take Place Your “Bet” for $800, Alex.

Jeopardy answer: “Your future spouse is this word.”

What is Betrothed?

Jeopardy answer: “To hurt somebody who trusts you.”

What is Betrayal?

To his credit, Randy Dorn handled the next question about the future of our kids’ education quite well by pointing out that American children are creative. Despite the amount of standardized tests, our kids are still praised for being creative. He’s often asked by other countries to speak on ways that we encourage American children to be creative. How our kids think this way. Creatively. How Americans are creative. Interesting.

And thus, I was back in the town hall again. I’ve been arguing that standardize tests kill this very creativity while I’ve been simultaneously cashing a paycheck for grading such work. I’ve been dealing with this guilt of what was necessary and what I believe in as an educator/citizen.

Jeopardy answer: “Pair it with “between” to mean in an awkward middle position”

What is Betwixt?

A few readers have asked about those awful jobs from my last post, and it’s those testing companies again, y’all. Again, I’m not going to move to Texas. New Jersey. New York. My name, my resume, my skills as a fast reader still remain in several databases. If you know Dungeons and Dragons, suffice it to say I was a Level Five Magic User to those companies. And I’m not proud of this. Time is/was money. People who can read and score quickly, well, help those companies earn money. The more we can read and score, the fewer people they need to employ. Magic!

And let me be clear, I really liked some of my co-workers. Some of my managers. I was thankful for this work because it helped me understand the K-12 system that dropped my community college students off on my doorstop so woefully ill-prepared. I understood better how to help them become “college-ready” or “transfer-bound.” I was thankful for this paycheck. I’m not very proud of this era of my life, and I’ll get over it someday.

I am the last person on this planet to defend or explain the value of the Common Core or anything about the true benefits of the “mathematical processes employed by experts” espoused by the policy makers of the Common Core.

Listen to this video where they try to explain why the Common Core is good for students and the future. Note that Eddie, like many of us when we were kids, envision a future of robots who can help us with our lives.

My ethos as a writer, for some readers, will erode as soon as you realize I do not have children and I’m not a K-12 expert. However, I care a great deal about education and my fellow citizens, and what I learned from this tele-town hall is that people do not understand the benefits of such standards, but they care about their kids.

They want to be able to help their kids with their homework. They care about helping their kids. That was common core of parenthood.

Dorn’s colleague mentioned the value of helping teachers understand assessment as a learning tool. I don’t think he meant to belittle teachers at all; he pointed out the changing culture where the value of formative assessments is becoming a “learning tool.” How we need to help teachers understand assessments differently. Many of whom came up in a culture of teacher education where the golden prize was always on the summative assessment. The final grade. The mark on the transcript. The gold star. The GPA. The threshold of whether your students made it or they didn’t. Whether students got it or they didn’t.

Whether you win or you lose.

I’ve been on both sides of this equation and I bet you have too. The absurdity of this whole game became crystal clear to me when I completely lost my mind when I earned an A- in a graduate course a few years back. I cried like a banshee. When I showed up to my friend’s house for a dinner party, he looked at my bloodshot eyes and said, “You look awful, Alyson, what’s wrong?” I got weepy again, and shared my devastating news. I would not be a 4.0 student. Again.

He looked at me and said, “You’re working full-time between two community colleges and going to graduate school. Geez, you need a drink. Academics are so weirdly perfectionist. That’s awesome you even got an A. Minus or not. It’s still a goddamn A.”

And it’s true. I was teaching 6 composition courses and going to graduate school. Add it up. Six sections times 25 students and one little ol’ me going to graduate school trying to be brainy for a second masters degree. Still, I didn’t get that perfect A. That crushed me, and I didn’t give myself any credit for what I did well. For the love of cats with fur.

There is a lot to critique about the Common Core, but there is also something to be said about what it might be doing well in the conversation about educational policy.

Case in point: Superintendent Dorn brought up military families of which there are many in Washington. He used an example of a child moving from North Carolina or Oregon to Washington. If the Common Core works to its potential then that child won’t be so behind. Won’t be so lost in the conversation when her family has to move for economic reasons. Won’t be so behind. Won’t be so close to the A minus when she should have earned an A.

And really, Jesse Stommel’s keynote at NW eLearn helped me see the banality of the whole system of grading. Of scoring. Of evaluating. Of comparisons. Of what we do now versus what we could do as educators. Of the educational mechanism we’ve been taught is the core of our common good.

Here’s the thing.

The telephone. The 20th century mode of  technology for communication we call the land-line sent me into hours of thinking about K-12 education. The telephone connected me to other people who care about education. The telephone helped me see a potentially missed opportunity of open education in this new policy.

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The telephone brought the voices of politicians and policy makers to people who cared enough to answer the phone.

Is this a new form of democratic participation? How many others let the call go to voicemail?

Better still, who are the 25% who listened to that call and thought that K-12 education should not prepare students for college. Do they want students to go into trades? If so, do they know colleges teach those courses too? Are they pessimistic about the future? Do they see education as needless situational trivia that won’t create systemic change?

Why bother, do they think, when an education didn’t help me get a leg up in the world?

Better still, how can we help that mother feel more confident when she sits down to help her kids with homework? More importantly, how does/how could open education fit into this model of standards for a common core of American education?

I’m not sure, but I’m very much in listen-only-mode.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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