American Road Trip

I was invited, along with two colleagues, to join 60 teachers in Denver, Colorado, for a National Writing Project professional retreat last week.  Even though we live in Kentucky, we decided to drive instead of fly. We wanted to see the country and knew we could get a lot of the preliminary work done on our project in the car during the 1200 mile jaunt.

We arrived on Monday evening at a lovely Hilton resort, which was to be our home for the next five days. The first night we met other teachers who had been invited to do similar work:  developing instructional resources, from teaching argument writing in the science classroom to sponsoring school-wide family literacy nights.

As educators, we shared many of the same concerns about our students and the future of the country.  It didn’t matter where the conversations started around the buffet tables, they ended up political.  Jennifer from Mississippi told me about segregation academies, private schools in the South established by white parents in response to desegregation in public schools.  Nicole from California talked about “dog whistle” words, coded messages that are only heard and understood by a particular segment of the population.  Victoria from Oklahoma filled us in on the nearly criminal cuts in their state’s education budget.  

One night after dinner, we watched a seven-minute trailer for a documentary featuring a cross-section of Americans talking about their conception of America’s “creed.”  The trailer was slick and well-done, featuring veterans and authors and teachers, different races, different ages. Words like “freedom” and “diversity” were featured equally. I was crying by the end of it.

I may have been crying because of the relentless nature of the week’s work or because I hadn’t been sleeping well due to Denver’s altitude.  Or it may have been because I desperately want to believe what the film was tilting toward:  that even though Americans are deeply divided, there are basic values we all hold dear–family, safety, education, freedom, equality.  

I want to believe this, but I’m also fairly cynical.  Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and the equality of one group is a threat to another. I know many people in my home community who would see the film as left-wing brainwashing, an attempt to force political correctness and West Coast liberalism down their throats.

After the viewing, we discussed how we might use it in our classrooms to start a conversation, but even the term “start a conversation” seemed vexing to me for its coded progressive intentions.  The only people who ever want to start a conversation are those who think they know better than you:  teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pampered Chef consultants.  

Finally, a teacher from Montana remarked on the enduring complexity of humanity, and we nodded sagely and shuffled off to our individual hotel rooms.  

At the end of the week, my Kentucky team struck out for home on I-70. The scenery through Colorado and Kansas was crushingly, achingly beautiful. The deep blue skies, white clouds layered over golden prairies. We passed combine convoys headed toward the summer wheat fields, and we passed fields of soybeans, corn, and pasture land, dotted with white-faced cows.

Somewhere we stopped at a Pilot Travel Center to fuel the car and get a sandwich. The Travel Center was packed with families of every color, class, and age, all of them hungry and tired, cautiously herding their children into the bathrooms, waiting in line for a burger. A Little League baseball team came in.  An elderly couple dressed head to toe in black. A middle aged woman in a pink tank top with a pistol strapped to her waist. SeaHawks, Broncos, and Steelers fans.  

We spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express in Topeka, Kansas, ten miles away from the national historic site of Brown vs. Board of Education.  In the lobby, there was a man in the corner reading a Hebrew Bible. In a circle of chairs, a self-help group gave each other hugs and offered words of encouragement.  In the elevator, we met some little girls who were staying at the hotel because their mom was in a powerlifting competition.  The next morning we had breakfast with bikers, a church choir, and an elderly couple on their way to see a new grandbaby.

I understand public policy is not made at Pilot Travel Centers and midwestern Holiday Inns, but in many ways, we’re all just dads and moms, sons and daughters trying to get home from a long trip. I’m disheartened we are so polarized by politics.  Most of us can agree with each other on a basic human level, but when we approach each other with buzzwords and ideology, the humanity falls away, and the labels become both a target and a launch pad.  We may be unwittingly creating our own segregation academies, dog whistling unconsciously.  Maybe if we could avoid talking about America as a grand ideological subject, and instead talk about ourselves and others in small, specific frames, we might discover a common moment, a shared feeling, a sensible creed.

New Teacher Series/ Question 2: Should I create a website?

Absolutely.  This isn’t the dark ages of 2010, after all.  Creating a positive and professional web presence says to the world:   I’m a 21st century educator, and my teacher game is strong.  However, there are a lot of options out there in the virtual world, and the key, like buying a good pencil skirt, is choosing one that both flatters and fits.

School directory page:  Many school districts host teacher directory pages that are linked from the main page by school, then grade/department, then teacher.  This is a great place to provide basic information:   a brief professional bio with a current (and/or ironic, depending on how you roll) picture, your class schedule, your email address, a supplies or book list, your school phone number and the best times of day to call, and also links to your blog, larger classroom website, Twitter feed, or any other social media tool you might use.  If your district has this page, definitely occupy it even if it’s a simple profile without much appeal. It’s most likely the first place a parent or student will look for you.

Classroom website: Some teachers choose to create websites through popular platforms like  Edmodo  which do not require knowledge of coding or programming to set up.  WordPress and Weebly also offer web templates so easy you can whip up a nice-looking site in less than an hour.   Another website building favorite is Google, which provides teachers with Google Sites, Google Classroom, and other Google Apps for Education (GAFE). A well-maintained and up-to-date website can be a great way to make announcements, post newsletters, and update calendars for parents.  Posting homework assignments, test info, vocab/spelling words, and supplemental instructional web links can also reduce paper copies while providing additional resources to students.

Classroom blog: While you might not have time during your first year of teaching to launch a  teacher blog, allowing your students to create their own blogs is a great collaborative publishing tool.  Blogger, which is Google’s blog option, is free and easy to use and manage. Kidblog and Edublogs, powered by WordPress, both offer a safe space for students to publish their work while offering options for secure teacher management of discussion, comments, and content.

Social media:  Some teachers elect to create a teacher fan page or a classroom page on Facebook or maintain a class page on Twitter.  Social media outlets are great for club sponsors, coaches, and parent-teacher organizations to make announcements, post reminders, and alert students to schedule or location changes for games or meets.  By creating a classroom or teacher fan page, you can also avoid the awkwardness of parents and students friend requesting your personal page.

Online classroom:  Online learning management systems (LMS) which are free and easy-to-use are also an option.  These systems have embedded facilities that can transform your site into an online classroom.  If you’ve just recently graduated from college, you most likely took an online course managed by a popular LMS, like Canvas or Blackboard, which now offers a free K-12 system called CourseSites.  Others like Moodle, Schoology, and Weebly provide a private and secure location for teacher assignment pages, homework submissions, chat rooms with threaded discussions and time stamps, collaborative group pages, and embedded gradebooks.  Even though LMS are great for online instruction, systems can become clunky or impossible if the application does not play well with your school district’s student information system (SIS) or pass your district’s privacy standards.   Shoot an email to your school or district technology director for the 411 on what is kosher within your district.

Whether you decide to create a website, Facebook page, blog, or launch an online class, here are a few digital cautions to observe:

  • Diamonds can get lost or stolen, but the Internet is forever. Never, ever, ever post anything online that you would not want Sam Dick to read on Channel 27 at 6:00.
  • Know your district and your school’s social media policy. Never post a student’s picture, class work, or name unless you have permission or a release form from their parents to do so.
  • Before you invest a lot of time in designing an online classroom, check with your district/school’s technology director to find out which systems work best with your district’s SIS.
  • Understand how to protect the privacy of your students while giving parents access.
  • Avoid private Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter communication with students.
  • Make sure website page titles, headings, and sub-headings are well-organized and logically sequenced.
  • With online content, prefer quality over quantity. Do not make parents endure twenty inspirational cat memes when they just want your classroom calendar. Post information that is relevant and useful for school or classroom business, instruction, intervention, or enrichment.
  • Just as you would with parent letters, hand-outs, homework assignments, or PowerPoints, make sure your online content is free of grammatical and spelling errors, no matter what you teach. Hook up with another webby teacher and proofread each other’s posts/pages before you publish them online.

One last thing:  while all the above information is about professional online use, you should also be judicious about anything you personally post or are tagged in online, regardless of your privacy settings.  Districts use Google to vet potential teachers.  If Insta’ing your drunken beer-pong victory feels vital to your existence, teaching might not be the right place for you at the moment.

Below are three links to help you on your virtual conquest.  Good luck!!

Create an Impressive Class Website in Under an Hour

Ten Excellent Platforms to Create Your Classroom Website

Online Resources for Teachers