PUSH writing is coming to an end

My domain registration for pushwriting.com ends April 14, 2022. I’ve decided close up shop before then. Since this may be an unwise decision, it seems appropriate for me to schedule my last post for April Fool’s day.

I, along with many other teachers, have been growing increasingly dissatisfied with the American educational system. Many of us might have held on had it not been for the Covid-19 epidemic, which exposed more problems than we wanted to acknowledge and for which we didn’t want to take the blame.

As things “get back to normal,” I’ve a gnawing feeling normal will be worse than it ever was.

Sadly, teachers who are supposed to teach writing don’t really understand that writing is a skill, just as playing an instrument is a skill. From one week to the next, writing teachers may switch from having students write poems to having them write essays about historical figures. They don’t see that what they’re asking is like the PE coach expecting to field a winning football team when they have students practice hitting a golf ball one week and practice putting a basketball through a hoop the next.

Here and there a few teachers get it.

Unfortunately, all too often good writing teachers often leave teaching for some other line of work.

I’m tired of trying to tell teachers how to teach writing so that students learn to write because I don’t think most schools actually allow teachers to teach so students do learn to write. School boards see the importance of students having band practice and football practice day after day and week after week, but the idea that writing is a skill requiring regular practice over an extended period of time would never occur to them.

The next three Fridays, I’ll try to come up with an encouraging word or two for you writing teachers who stick with the work. Meanwhile, I’m going to look for something to do that will be, as one of my college students once said, “fun and exiting.” (I’ve already got the exiting part figured out.)


Telling it like it is

Listening one night this week to Judy Woodruff’s follow up conversation with a group of Virginia voters about how they felt about President Trump a year into his presidency, I was struck again by the one comment his supporters invariably say: “He tells it like it is.”

“Telling it like it is” really means, “Somebody important else feels the way I do.”

I’ve been trying to think whether I’ve ever heard anyone make that comment about a teacher or a school administrator.

So far, I’ve not thought of one.






3 articles worth reading and debating

These three articles captured in my RSS feed reader caught my eye today. Perhaps they’ll interest you as well.

1. Is the Internet Changing Kids’ Minds?

In this excerpt from his book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, Daniel T. Willingham argues that the brain is always changing; there’s no reason to assume the Internet is damaging kids’ brains so they can’t concentrate.

What is problematic, Willingham says, is that using digital technologies of all types change users’ expectations: Users are impatient with boredom. They expect instant success with minimal effort.

That sounds like an education problem to me. What do you think?

2. In a Changing Rural America, What Can Charter Schools Offer?

I’ve seen many articles about how school choice championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos won’t help — and may hurt — rural areas. This article by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill at Education Next suggests that charters, properly done, could be an alternative to school consolidations in sparsely populated areas.

If you live in a rural area, you ought to read their short piece.

3. Why do college students have 6th-grade writing skills?

That question was the headline over an e-Campus News report on a research study by peer-to-peer learning markeplace StudySoup. StudySoup’s own headline was “At Which U.S. Colleges do Students Write at a Middle School Level?”

Educators need to take a look at the StudySoup data: It’s the sort of “research” that will grab media attention and get discussed over coffee at the local diner.

A team from the business used the Hemingway app to analyze hundreds of written documents submitted to the StudySoup . The app evaluated the samples for clarity, readability, and calculated the reading level of the writing. The average reading level score was 12th-grade level. Student work was also given a second score based on how difficult individual sentences were to read. Of the 20 schools from which writing samples were analyzed, 12 were graded “poor.”

The app doesn’t look to see whether writers have anything to say; it looks just at their individual sentences.

Notice that StudySoup assumes that the higher the reading level score the better the writing is. Actually, the higher the reading level, the smaller the audience that will be able to understand it: Here’s StudySoup’s own explanation of Hemingway which supports that interpretation:

Hemingway provides two “readability” scores for each document. The first is the “grade level” of the content, which is determined using a readability algorithm. According to Hemingway, this score determines “the lowest education needed to understand your prose”.

Teaching future-ready students: What skills should we teach?

In a previous post, I sketched how skill at learning to use digital tools for re-purposing information outlasts both the tools and the information. If you missed that post, you’ll find it here.

Today I’d like to look at what we should be teaching so that our students exit high school with skills that will last them for more than a decade.

Background of stone wall with overlaid words "Teachers aren't expected to teach everything;they're expected to teach the most important things.

Future-readiness is a historical problem

I’m a baby-boomer. Born and raised in a rural New York community not far from the site of the Woodstock Festival, I was the first in my family to go to college. My college roommate was from a rural Ohio community, the first in her family to go to college. Both of us toggled together scholarships, loans, and jobs to pay our way through college.

In the 1960’s our college said it was preparing us for the year 2000.

My roommate became a chemist whose work took her all over the Americas not only doing lab work, but helping cogeneration facilities maintain environmentally friendly practices. I became a writer/editor/teacher in the gig economy before the term was invented.

Although neither of us always had work we loved, each of us was able to move from job to job within different economic sectors with relative ease.

Our college delivered on its promise to prepare us for the year 2000.

Knowledge obsolescence overblown

Granted the speed of technological change from 1966 to 2016 was pokey compared to the speed of change in the last 25 years, but does that mean we can’t make any reasonable predictions about what skills students are going to need in 10-15 years?

Is world really changing so rapidly that anything we teach students today will be obsolete before they get to the workplace?

That suggestion prompts a pit-of-the-stomach reaction from anyone who has ever gotten a notice from a vendor saying the DuzAll software program they purchased for $29 the week before is being discontinued and replaced with DuzAllBetter (for an additional $110).

However, such visceral reactions to change don’t prove that we can’t make any predictions about tomorrow’s workplace.  If anything, they suggest there’s an ongoing need for a tool that solves the problem the original DuzAll set out to solve.

In the business world, if a problem persists, companies will continue making products to solve the problem.

Persistent problems show needed skills

We can make some reasonable guesses about the skills students are going to need in 10, 20, or 30 years by

  • looking at the problems today’s workplace tools attempt to solve
  • examining what skills enable today’s workers to use those tools efficiently and effectively

If we do that, I believe we’ll be able to identify within the general education program a fairly small set of teachable skills that we can be fairly confident will enable students to function well in their workplaces, including:

  • data storage
  • data analysis
  • process/systems analysis
  • identifying a problem that needs a solution (which may entail finding the root problem among a cluster of derivative problems)
  • communicating a nonfiction message clearly and concisely

(For Career Technical Education students, an additional set of teachable skills would need to be identified, probably on a per-program basis.)

Once we have our list, we can look at our curricula and identify obvious and not-so-obvious places where instruction and practice in our work-readiness skills fit well.

Desirable acquired workplace traits

While we’re doing our analysis of the workplace tools and skills, we will probably notice that certain attitudes, abilities, and competencies are typically associated with top performing workers, such as

  • self-management
  • time management
  • grit and determination
  • cooperating and getting along with others
  • reliability

Such competencies aren’t learned well, if at all, from instruction.

Students can, however, acquire attitudes and abilities while engaged in activities designed to help them master some more readily teachable skills in their courses. Teachers just need to make sure they regularly assign work that helps students hone desirable “soft skills” while mastering more concrete material.

Who is responsible?

Whose job is it to figure out what the essentials skills to teach are?

If nobody else in your school is doing it, it’s yours.

It’s not as hard as it sounds.

And even if you miss something or include something that turns out not to have been essential, your students are still going to be better off than if everybody hoped somebody else would take responsibility.


Mind the mindset gap

Systemic changes are hard, as the decades-long attempts by businesses to replace hierarchies with more functional organizations shows.

The stumbling blocks to systemic business changes, according to folks who have tried it are

  • Teaching new hires how to use an unfamiliar system can frustrate people when they are already stressed.
  • Teaching people how to implement changes takes time and costs money.
  • Learning a new system requires a new mindset.

The same difficulties that crop up in businesses when they attempt some sweeping change also crop up in schools when they attempt some sweeping change—whether its blended learning, Common Core State Standards, or a new bell schedule.

(Those difficulties may even crop up when you try to implement some change in your classroom: “Ms. Inky Fingers never made us do this!”)

How can we help our students, our peers, our staff or whoever is impacted by proposed systemic changes to develop a pro-change mindset?

This is a question I’m wrestling with in a couple different settings.

If you have any answers, I’d love to hear about your problem and how you worked it out.








Student involvement in superintendent search

Since my local school district has been looking for a new superintendent, I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about the process.  In the last few weeks, I’ve written several posts¹ about various facets of the process, with particular emphasis on its public relations aspects.

I deliberately avoided discussing the role of students in the process for two reasons.

First, although students are certainly impacted by the work of a superintendent, they typically don’t know much about what the superintendent does or how she does it.

Second, students probably have even less information about the laws governing hiring than adults, who typically have little.

Those two considerations render students’ input into selecting the best candidate of little value.

That said, however, students could be very useful in other ways that also provide them with genuine learning opportunities.

Learn and share: 3 potential activities

I hate having students do a project that accomplishes only one objective, so I’ll suggest three ways that students could

  1. learn some communications skills
  2. while learning some other content, and
  3. providing a community service.

First idea. Students could research facets of employment law to develop informational materials for the adult stake holders to use. Depending on their topics, the research could be in print and digital sources or it could be interviews with specialists in human resources and labor law.

Students’ findings could be presented as audio, video, infographics, blog posts, printed pages, etc.

Second  idea. Another potentially useful activity would be the development of information to help candidates get a feel for the school culture.

A 3-minute video about the music program that includes interviews with current and former students, community supporters, and parents would help candidates understand the importance of music in the district, for example.

An infographic about the district, perhaps one on its demographics or one focused on what students do after high school graduation, could be useful not only to candidates but also to a school board attempting to educate its community.

Third  idea. A third potentially useful activity would be the development of information to help newcomers get acquainted with the community. People who have lived all their lives in a community often are oblivious to the kinds of information newcomers, like a new school superintendent’s family, would find useful.

Again students would have a host of options available for presenting their information.

Each of these kinds of activities requires critical thinking, learning, and communicating on real topics for real people in the real world.

¹Other posts on hiring a school superintendent

Superintendent candidate questions

Questions from the community for candidates

Due diligence: Resources for schools hiring a superintendent

The superintendent search: A PR perspective (7-part series)

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 7)

The last public relations activities in hiring a school superintendent are announcing the results and filing the paperwork.

7. Explain your choice to stakeholders

After the school board has made its selection and the successful candidate has accepted the job offer, the board needs to explain the reasons for its choice.Failure to give reasons for choosing the successful candidate over other applicants makes the public wonder if the school board simply picked a name from a hat.

The explanation need not be lengthy, but should mention assets the candidate brings to the school. That may be experience with particular problems, such as managing a building program; personal qualities (particularly if the person who is leaving lacked them); prior knowledge of the district or readiness to move to the district.

After one superintendent search on which I served, most of the committee members turned out at the board meeting to hear why a particular candidate was chosen.  The board president gave no reason for choosing that candidate. My committee had found no reason to hire him either, but that didn’t increase our respect for the school board.

One hopes the board’s rationale should tally with the position description and also reflect the preferences of the stakeholder groups. However, the school board is not only allowed but obligated to make its own choice if its investigation reveals information that renders a particular candidate unsuitable for the job.

If a candidate who was the overwhelming choice of stakeholder groups is found to have what politicians might call “enhanced credentials,” for public relations reasons the board needs to prepare bland explanation why that person was not chosen, such as “an anomaly was noticed when checking references that made us question the candidate’s ability to work here successfully.” With some planning and a little luck, it should not be necessary to make the statement publicly.

The school board could assign a member to speak privately to an individual on each of the interview committees that supported the favored candidate who was not chosen. By keeping the comment out of the board meeting and phrasing it as an appreciation for the committee’s work and respect for their opinions, it should be possible to minimize any negative feelings toward the board without revealing an issue relative to someone who isn’t a school employee.

8. Archive the paperwork

If the school board has exercised due diligence and the candidate who is hired does a reasonably good job, there will probably never be a question about whether the process was done well.

If something goes wrong, having retrievable documentation showing what was done is insurance against a public relations tornado.

Put the paperwork away where it can be retrieved but not easily found; scanning it as PDFs stored in a zipped file, for example, would make it retrievable for the foreseeable future but not easily found.

Earlier posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews

The superintendent search from a PR perspective, (part 6)

In the previous post in this series, I talked about the need to have good records showing the board exercised due diligence in the interview process. Those records might be used to show that the board did not discriminate against candidates by, for example, asking illegal questions or asking totally different sets of questions of each candidate.

In addition to those records, the school board needs to have records showing it exercised due diligence in checking candidates’ references.

Increasingly, public bodies are being held accountable for negligent hiring if it can be shown they failed to probe deeply enough to uncover information which, if known to the board at the time, would have kept a particular candidate from being hired.

6. Check references  after interviews

Reference checking after the interviews is the most important part of the hiring process. The point of the checks is not only to verify the accuracy of information listed on the application and CV but also to see if people who have worked with the candidates view their record as they themselves do.

Whoever is responsible for checking references needs to push beyond the references listed on the application and CV. Unless candidates are totally incompetent they will not list people who will not speak well of them in general. Asking references to suggest others who might have more knowledge or a different perspective is a legitimate way to get relevant information.

Here, too, the information must be documented so its clear what was asked and what was answered.

Tomorrow: Part 7:

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 5)

Up until candidates are interviewed, most of the work of searching for a new superintendent is planning.

First, the school board develops a plan for the overall process, then it develops plans for engaging stakeholders and proactively enabling them to participate well in the process.

Those planning processes are activities that hold good opportunities for the school board to earn public relations points by showing what it is doing to make sure it is going to get the best candidate available to it.

The actual choice process, however, is almost entirely closed to any by invited participants.

Except for general information, there’s rarely a reason for what happens in the closed sessions to be made public.

The one reason the closed session information might need to be made public is when subsequent disclosures suggest the school board failed to exercise due diligence.  In such cases, public relations activities are used to limit the damage to the board’s reputation.

The best PR mechanism for controlling damage is good records showing the board did exercise due diligence.

The first protective measure is having complete records of the candidate interviews.

5. Keep good interview records

A list of initial questions a stakeholder group wants to ask each candidate should be prepared in advance and kept short enough that all the prepared questions can be asked and answered and still allow time for follow-up questions. Those initial questions lists should be submitted to the school board before the board members prepare their own interview questions.

Written records should show what topics were discussed by which stakeholder groups with each candidate—and that the same topics were discussed with each one.

The records should also show how each interviewer rated each candidate, and summarize the ratings for each stakeholder group on each candidate. (Links to sample forms in a post about resources for hiring superintendents.) Also a copy of the each groups’ questions should be kept with the stakeholder groups’ evaluation forms.

I alluded earlier in this series of posts to the need for the school board to decide early in the hiring process how much weight the various stakeholder groups opinions should carry. This weighting of input has no direct part in the hiring process, but it should have a part in determining what issues are followed up in post-interview reference checks.

For simplicity, let’s say the board has identified five stakeholder groups whose opinions are to be sought. They might decide to assign these weights to the opinions of the various groups:

  • administrative staff – 3
  • instructional staff – 4 votes
  • non-instructional staff – 1 vote
  • parents – 1 vote
  • community – 1 vote

Weighting the results would give the school board a sense of which finalists’ references need to be checked very carefully on the topics relative to the concerns of a particular group.

For example, if a particular issue is a big concern to the instructional staff, that would suggest the board needs to probe for information about how candidates handle that issue when they check references because the board decided in advance that the instructional staff’s input would be given the most weight of all the stakeholder groups.

Tomorrow: Part 6: Check references

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork