College and Career Readiness through Blended Learning

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How to explain bad behavior to students

How to explain bad behavior to students

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

These are difficult times for teachers. With MCAS looming, budgets due (and most likely cut from last year), and antsy students counting the hours to year-end, teachers have a small mountain of things on their plate. Add the storm of controversies in pop culture (which students pay more attention to than Algebra) and the classroom can be a complex and complicated storm center. Students who grew up listening to R. Kelly are going to have many questions even before getting to the recent revelations about Michael Jackson. And now English teachers have to confront the news that Charles Dickens tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum so he could be with another woman. (Divorce was apparently too much trouble.) Throw in John Wayne’s recently rediscovered racist rants and Joe Biden’s hair fetish and your head spins like a scene from The Exorcist.

How we teachers process all this information is important, as it affects how our students will process it. It would be easy to dismiss some of these controversies as time period issues, much as history teachers explain Thomas Jefferson’s slave holdings. But that is no solution. The troubling behavior of pop icons is disturbing to young people. They may turn to adults for answers. We’d better have some handy.

Writers, statesmen, philosophers and artists have always been known to behave abnormally. Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear; Socrates committed suicide after being found guilty of “not recognizing the gods recognized by the state”; William Shakespeare and George Washington may have had affairs while away from home; John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton may have had them while at home in the White House; Edgar Allen Poe married his 12 year-old cousin, and Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13 year-old cousin. And yet, none of these “character flaws” disqualify the works and contributions of the characters themselves. No one changes the oldies station when Great Balls of Fire comes on, nor is anyone ripping up the Declaration of Independence because Jefferson owned slaves.

Is it simply the passage of time that permits us to see the works and not the person? Was it easier in the days before Twitter? (Wasn’t everything easier without Twitter!) Why do we teach the “eccentricities” of Poe and not condemn his alcoholism and opium addiction and what today would be considered child endangerment? (Never mind that she was his cousin.)

The barrage of recent eruptions called up a vivid memory from my junior year of high school. I was taking a modified philosophy class in which we had spent much of the year on the writings and teachings of Lawrence Kohlberg, a mid-century psychiatrist/philosopher who developed a six-stage theory of moral development based on Jean Piaget.

In Kohlberg’s third stage, an adolescent, and possibly an adult, realizes what societal norms are and wishes to act within those norms so as not to stand out negatively within the community. By stage six, a person’s acts are motivated not by fear of punishment, but by the realization of what is right and the desire to act accordingly. (OK, not everyone makes it to stage 6.) What makes Kohlberg’s theory stand out is that it takes into account different cultures and the changing of societal norms. As society changes, so does the development of individual morals. In other words, the development of morality is not static; it changes in the same way society changes over time.

Why is this important? Partly because it proposes that society can change, norms can change, and people can develop the sense of morality at different rates. But there is another, more important, reason that Kohlberg’s teachings came to mind.

In the middle of our term, Kohlberg committed suicide. When the news hit the papers (this was pre-Twitter), my classmates and I, ever searching for a chink in the armor of moral development, pounced on our hapless teacher. How, we demanded, could we credit the theories of a psychologist who was so irrational as to take his own life?

The teacher’s response was measured and probably meant as much for himself as for us. Just because a person had a side that was unbalanced or even immoral, he said, it did not necessarily discredit achievements that society had deemed worthy and valuable. He cited historical figures like Socrates and van Gogh whose actions were questionable but whose works are still revered. If we can separate the work from the behavior in regard to historical figures, he argued, we should make the same distinction for modern thinkers, artists or philosophers who may have exhibited questionable or even immoral behavior. Separate the work from the person, he urged.

This is what we have been doing with Poe in English classrooms for years. We dismiss his behaviors as the quirks or aberrations of genius rather than the crimes of an opium-addicted child molester who married his 12- year-old cousin when he was 27. We excuse his behavior because the writings he created are too worthy of study to dismiss. We will undoubtedly do the same with Dickens despite the new revelations of his disturbing behavior.

Still, for students and many adults, this separation of person from work is extremely difficult. The long lens of history creates separation from the individual and a sort of statute of limitations: times were different; they didn’t know any better. This statute may apply to Jefferson, Poe or even Wayne, but it can’t be invoked for Michael Jackson or R. Kelly. Yet in the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, one of Jackson’s victims states that Michael was a gifted and wonderfully creative performer, and he would never want to take anything away from that, even though he was victimized by behavior that left him shaken and scarred.

Time will be the judge for these artists. For now, at least for me, it is possible to separate the works from the troubling actions. It is legitimate to enjoy the music now if you enjoyed it before you knew these disturbing facts. Just as with musicians, writers, philosophers and artists of earlier times who are still admired and taught today, the works of our current fallen idols exist apart from the flawed persons who made them. Radio stations may boycott Kelly or Jackson, or Jerry Lee, but they all remain on my playlist.

And will I forsake Poe because of his offenses against decency? In a word, “Nevermore.”


Related posts: Words and Meanings, The teachers’ job and Language and Liability in a Sensitive Time. Words Matter! Definitions & Intent Matter!

Words and Meanings - The teachers’ job, Ask Questions

The teachers’ job

by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist

The job of the English teacher is to ensure that students can read a complex text with comprehension and formulate ideas about it orally and in writing. Teachers often walk a fine line between imparting their own views and facilitating an environment where students can formulate their own judgements based on their own knowledge, values, ethics and beliefs.

Education and Inequality, trying its level best, the “Great Equalizer” needs a lift

Education and Inequality

The “great equalizer” of education can only nudge the scales so far.

By Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

In his FY20 budget proposal, Governor Charlie Baker has waded into the discussion of fair funding for school districts in Massachusetts. He has proposed large increases for districts that have been clearly underfunded for years. While presenting the proposed changes and recognizing the fight many districts have been waging for years, some even threatening legal action against the state, Baker proclaimed the adage we have heard many times: “Education is the great equalizer.”

Words Matter, Language and liability in a sensitive time

What did he say and When did he say it? And what did he mean?

By Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

When I read recently that UMass Amherst football coach Mark Whipple had been suspended for using the word “rape” in a press conference, a burst of memory went off in my mind. I flashed back to the high school cafeteria line where a classmate blurted “I just got raped by that calculus test.” No one blinked. My first thought was not about his choice of words, but my GPA. His grades in calculus were usually higher than mine; if he had done poorly, my grade would probably be zero.

Thank you for your continued support

Dear Friend of JFYNetWorks,

You may remember a young man named Joey whom we have featured before. Joey was a pleasant, affable high school student with a winning smile and a low opinion of himself. “I want to go to college,” he said, “but I’m not sure I can do it. There’s too much to learn. How am I ever going to make it?” We have recounted how we helped Joey work his way through our College Readiness course by showing him the periodic reports that documented how much he had achieved and how much closer he was to the goal. Our blended learning specialist, Melissa, even counted the number of software modules he had to complete and checked them off as he did them. By the end of the year, he had learned enough to pass the college placement test. In the fall, he was admitted to community college without having to take any remedial courses. We’ll never forget his charmingly modest expression of triumph to Melissa: “I got this, Miss.”

Tragedy and Triumph, The Highs and Lows of Working in Schools

The Highs and Lows of Working in Schools

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The schools I work in have been back in session since the beginning of September. I was excited to get back to see teachers I have worked with for years, to meet teachers who are new to the JFYNet program, and to see all the students, new and returning. I have also gone to new schools, giving presentations on the JFYNet blended learning program. I enjoy doing these demonstrations since it gives me a chance to meet other teachers and principals and to show them a program that I know helps raise students’ skills and scores on MCAS and college placement testing.

Astronomy in the Fenway

Reading the Red Sox’ Stars

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

    “I’m amazed you can see Venus with all the lights around Boston,” my friend Tyler commented as we walked back to the car after a Red Sox win at Fenway Park.

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How teachers and coaches help students find their own success

How teachers and coaches help students find their own success

By Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

“You have a great ability to quickly develop an analysis of the topic. If we can teach you how to speak, we might have something here.”

These were my first comments to Jackson, a new student, almost three years ago after he gave a practice Impromptu speech. “Impromptu” speaking gives the student a random topic on which to speak for four minutes after ninety seconds of preparation. Thus began a journey which would culminate in a way often found in my daydreams, but never allowed to creep into conscious thoughts for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

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by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

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