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Tuesday, August 3, 2021
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Muddy Bottom Blues and Open Schools

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In “Muddy Bottom Blues,” the modern Delta Blues artist Tab Benoit describes what it’s like to get stuck in a shallow, muddy swamp, when it’s “too soft to walk, too hard to swim.”  To make it worse, swamps are full of alligators waiting for night fall, when the moonlight glints faintly in their reptilian cornea. You got the muddy bottom blues: “That gator eye on me . . . that gator eye on me . . .”  

Schools that decided to stay open this year certainly experienced a long, hard year with gators always close by. Fear and uncertainty. Conflicting science and dueling experts. Pro-maskers and anti-maskers. Changing guidelines. Kaleidoscope maps. A face full of swamp gas in every email and social media post. A constant battle between drowning or being trapped. CDC and NIH and OSDE and OSDH and OMG!  

Every public-school staff member and board member who committed to in-person learning slogged through this daily all year. But it was no easier for parents or students, either. Would we close at Labor Day or Fall Break or Christmas Break or be ready for the surge after Spring Break?  On top of this, they had the quarantines. 

Through all this, schools that stayed open felt like the exception, alone in a swamp at nightfall. Whichever news source you choose for daily affirmation, the topic of crisis schooling with kids isolated behind screens served both sides of the narrative well. Honestly, it seemed like the system incentivized schools to close and penalized schools who fought to stay open. Barely any attention was given to districts who made the other hard choice. Despite the inconvenient fact that most schools in Oklahoma were open all year or only closed temporarily, we all felt “stuck on muddy ground . . . that gator eye on me.”

Nevertheless, districts that stubbornly refused to close did not do so out of ignorance or for political reasons. On the contrary, by July of last year, the “science” was pretty clear regarding the low risks of transmission in schools as evidenced in studies of schools in Switzerland, China, New South Wales, France, and Germany. Similar studies also determined that the risk of outdoor transmission was almost nil. Despite the swamp gas, in schools that remained open, educators, parents, and our school board slogged through these issues on a local level, focused on our kids’ and communities’ needs. Our kids needed school; parents needed to work; businesses needed to open. We cussed and discussed, as Okies do, and we figured this out. Local hospitals, departments of health, and emergency management all helped.  None of us ever agreed completely on any particular detail except one: school must be open. Everyone pulled together, and somehow, by the grace of God, we all emerged from the swamp.  Seniors graduated!  You made it, so congratulations! 

And what about those muddy bottom blues?  Washed away by tears of joy. Those gator eyes?  Handbags and boots. The swamp gas of Facebook and cable television remains, however, so don’t light a match just yet!  As hard as it was, I have heard from many in districts who went virtual, and they seem to have been miserable. As tough as this was, it was worth it for communities who kept school open. We got muddy, but we definitely made the right choice. We made the decisions locally, and we made them together. We should all rejoice to be Oklahomans, where schools and our economy could reopen. 

As your local educators, however, we are most honored and blessed, for you trusted us with your children, and you crawled through this swamp, too, despite all the gators. We all put on a brave face, for courage is not the absence of fear but rather moving ahead despite the fear. Thank you for courageously making this school year possible, and for our own local versions of “The Muddy Bottom Blues” all over this Great State.  Enjoy a well-deserved summer!

Tom Deighan is a public educator and currently serves as Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Dear Class of 2021

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Last year ended with terrible uncertainty. Your junior spring was cancelled, including proms, sports, and other important events. You watched the class of 2020 lose their senior year, and you undoubtedly wondered what yours would hold. Each step from August to graduation has been tentative. Each day a guessing game. Your senior year has been hidden behind a mask, isolated in quarantine, and anonymized virtually – a year characterized by uncertainty and confusion. You endured a level of angst not seen in recent generations. 

As someone who graduated over 30 years ago, I must confess that normalcy is a myth, and you have taught me that lesson. Over the course of the last year, we have watched you make the hidden seen, connect beyond the isolation, and stubbornly refuse to disappear into the cloud. While we older folks have been somewhat paralyzed, you have navigated all of this with aplomb and maturity beyond your years. You embraced the angst of life and have emerged with a perspective unlike any other Senior Class in history. You not only survived and overcame it. I believe you have transcended it all.

Concepts like normalcy or the good old days are simply idealized myths built upon the best of intentions, but idealized versions of life often hold us back more than they help because those things were rarely as good as we remember them. Memory is like a slick Instagram account – the bad stuff has been airbrushed out. The snapshots we choose are never as perfect as they seem. Consequently, as people experience the angst of life contrasted with these myths of perfection, they often assume they are somehow abnormal. On the contrary, we all struggled to navigate it all at your age, but few of us faced the challenges you shared. Just remember, we only post the pics we want others to see. 

Your class, however, has endured this corporately on a level unseen in generations – a lifetime of angst crammed into one critical year. You can see beyond the myths because you endured it together. Faced with so many airbrushed versions of reality, you could have easily despaired, but I believe you are the men and women who have transcended the angst to emerge as the most resilient cohort in a generation. You will not be trapped in a perpetual adolescence, for you can see clearly through masks older generations cannot, and you can see the future better than we can.

After navigating so much simply to graduate, you can handle just about anything. Seniors in my district were blessed to be in a community that navigated all the insanity to keep school open their senior year, but many seniors were not so fortunate. In either case, however, you will find your fellow seniors as resilient as you. This year provided you with a good template for life: no problem is too big and no one else can define how you face adversity. Problems are meant to be solved and adversity is meant to be overcome. You have done both with grace and maturity beyond your years. Yes, aplomb.

I have written many messages to senior classes, but none as strange as this one. I might be missing it, but I think that’s the key. I cannot possibly understand what you have faced or overcome to graduate. None before you can, either, but we can nonetheless celebrate your stepping forward into adulthood as perhaps the best-equipped class in a generation for the uncertain but glorious future before us all.  Congratulations, class of 2021, and much respect. You persevered, and you did so with a style all your own. God bless you all. 

Tom Deighan is a public educator and currently serves as Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Watch out for Post-COVID Stress Disorder

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After a year of being locked up, masked up, and hyped up, things are actually looking up. Since Spring Break, COVID cases have dropped precipitously in schools and across Oklahoma. People are starting to travel and go to places like the movies for the first time since this started. Summer even looks like it might be somewhat normal; we might even have fireworks for the Fourth!  COVID-free skies certainly seem to be ahead, but that does not mean this ordeal is behind us because in addition to being locked up, masked up, and hyped up – a lot of emotions are also pent up. As a result, we are starting to see fireworks much earlier than usual as we look forward to summer.

When I worked as an EMT, I remember panicked people arriving at the hospital behind the ambulance. Fear and concern consumed each of them, and often, someone was able to relieve their fears quickly. Curiously enough, this good news did not always produce relief and joy in them. Sometimes, upon discovering that everyone was safe, the fireworks really started! Sometimes they exploded in tears and sometimes in rage over the smallest thing. I remember an otherwise rational man shattering a hospital snack machine over a stuck bag of chips. We got free snacks that night, but I also learned that we never really know how traumatic experiences will affect us, so we need to be ready for unexpected emotions as COVID ends.

After a year of helplessness, we are all starting to sense a little hope, but fuses are shorter than ever. Regardless of which side of this thing you have been on, it has been stressful. People have lived in constant fear for almost a year – fear for their health, fear for their loved ones, fear for their livelihoods, and fear for their nation. Add an unbelievably contentious Presidential election and the politicization of virtually every aspect of life, and we are all walking powder kegs. Most people quietly endured it by focusing on their families and friends, but many of us are starting feel this pent-up pressure. I think it is due to Post-Covid Stress Disorder. (Disclaimer: I am not a real doctor.)

Initially, I thought I coined this term, but I Googled it, and sure enough, it is a real thing. After this long year of stress, uncertainty, and helplessness, people are suffering the lingering effects of the COVID age. Just when things are looking up and people have some room to relax, terrible feelings start bubbling up. The interweb is replete with videos of people losing it over the smallest things in the strangest places. Road rage has been replaced by COVID rage. Sadly, these people are as surprised as the people around them, because pent-up emotions can explode at the most inconvenient times and in the strangest ways. People rarely walk away feeling better, even if you get free snacks. It can happen to anyone, so if you haven’t had a COVID moment at some point during all of this, get ready. It might just sneak up on you when you least expect it. 

Fuses are short right now, and short fuses produce quick explosions. It can happen at the drive-thru, at the grocery store, at work, or even online if we are not careful. As this school year winds down, I hope everyone can recognize all the stress we have been carrying around. Our school has managed to stay open all year, safely, but it certainly was not easy. We did not always agree, but by the grace of God it looks like we are going to make it.  Likewise, across our state, most schools were open. Most parents were able to go to work. Most businesses stayed open. As Oklahomans, we are truly blessed. 

For these remaining few days of school and the summer ahead, please be extra kind and extra patient with everyone, so we can save the fireworks for the Fourth of July. May we all continue to intentionally extend grace to each other as we finish this long journey, no matter how long it takes, so our children can learn how to finish strong, even when strong emotions so easily beset us.    

Tom Deighan is a public educator and currently serves as Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Shaving with the Troll Razor

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If you have watched The Big Bang Theory, you may remember references to Occam’s Razor. “Razors” are just general rules or assumptions, and in a nutshell, Occam’s razor proposes that the simplest explanation or solution is often the most likely reality. Big Bang Theory cites Occam’s Razor often, which is a bit ironic since the entire show is based on making everything simple as complicated as possible. 

Hanlon’s Razor is similar: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. (I love Wikipedia!)  This glib razor is actually traced back to a joke book submission (again, Wikipedia!), but an aunt might express this more compassionately: “Bless their heart, they just didn’t know any better.” Unfortunately, Hanlon’s Razor cuts both ways, for ignorance of the law of gravity won’t protect anyone from a hard landing, whether they were pushed or blindly walked off a cliff. However true Hanlon’s joke may be, it is still a very harsh and cynical way to look at people. 

I prefer an earlier version of Hanlon’s Razor attributed to Johann Wolfgang Goethe that is much more forgiving: “Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do.”  (Yup, Wikipedia.)  Goethe’s view is much more accurate in my experience, especially when it comes to human disagreements. Zealots and trolls surely exist, but miscommunication and misunderstandings are at the root of most problems between rational individuals who are open to consider both context and intent. Malice takes over when those disagreements escalate and communication deescalates, however. Unfortunately, in our social media age we can no longer extend the benefit of the doubt, only vitriol. Only the worst (and most complicated) options are considered such as malice, deceit, or stupidity. Occam’s and Hanlon’s razors have now been replaced by the Troll Razor: Attribute absolutely everything to malice and stupidity, even if it could be otherwise attributed to mere miscommunication or an innocent mistake. (Not Wikipedia.)  

How many people’s lives, careers, and reputations have been ruined due to misunderstandings, bad thumb dexterity, or being too busy to think through a click?  We no longer allow for context or intent, so misinterpreted or mistaken tweets have literally destroyed dreams. People in a hurry have “liked” a comment or photo from a friend without thinking through the sociopolitical implications of a newly defined word, misplaced comma, disordered sentence, or typo. Every email, text, or post can now drag anyone to virtual execution. Life on the edge of the Troll Razor provides no grace to anyone, whatsoever, unless they agree with us.      

Good men and women on both sides of the political aisle and from all backgrounds have suffered the slice of the Troll Razor. I personally know people who have experienced this at all levels, from private citizens to politicians, over the past year. But if you think this culture is tough on adults, we cannot even fathom the Troll Razors slashing at our children and teens. Online and virtual reality is real world for the smartphone generation, and we know kids can sometimes be vicious. We may have all faced bullies on the playground as kids, but the bullies can now follow kids home and live in their heads. 

Nevertheless, our kids handle this better than many adults. After facing it so much, they are learning to dull the Troll Razor by ignoring, deleting, and disengaging, which is quite remarkable considering how many adults around them wield the Troll Razor with impunity. After getting cut both ways, our children are learning that not every offensive post, email, or text is spawned by pure evil. They are often just misunderstandings, hurriedness, or poor thumbing. They are learning that rational people can disagree and even make mistakes.  They can even “like” the good in something without “liking” the bad, embracing people, despite their flaws . . . and their own. If our kids can extend grace in a social media age, maybe adults can, too. In fact, I am sure we all will, for eventually everyone gets cut by the Troll Razor, and we will begrudgingly follow our children’s examples. And by the grace of God, someday, rational people will put away their blades, leaving the trolls alone in their caves to slice and dice each other.  

Tom Deighan is a public educator and currently serves as Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Tap-Dancing Toddlers

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When I recently saw a YouTube video touting a tap-dancing toddler, I was intrigued. After all, toddlers can barely toddle. Unfortunately, my hopes were cruelly dashed. The kid was awesome, but he was no toddler. A quick search confirmed my suspicion that little evidence exists of real toddlers tap-dancing. The one video I found with tiny tapping tots was painfully cute, but it also proved that they need to master walking and standing first. We might as well teach them to juggle. 

No one can be an expert until they have mastered the essentials. Nevertheless, public schools have been forcing children to tap-dance and juggle long before they are developmentally ready or have sufficient time to master the fundamentals. Over the last twenty years, teaching and learning have been gradually replaced with a cultish devotion to increasingly unrealistic standardized tests. This has all been initiated at the federal level and exacerbated at the state level with broad bi-partisan support. Consequently, Uncle Sam now dictates more of a child’s school day than parents, teachers, or principals. 

States simply made it worse by adding layers upon layer to the federal requirements. Among the dozens of educational “fixes” since 2010, I cannot identify a single curriculum reform in Oklahoma that has remained unchanged for more than two years. We are not only asking our children to hunt bumblebees with bows and arrows, but they are also expected to tap dance while they are doing it — blindfolded. Even if teaching to the test worked, we would need consistency and reliability to play the game. 

Unfortunately, when a teacher knows that third graders have not yet mastered basic multiplication, they are compelled to move on to Algebra. I would love all my third graders to do Algebra (and many can), but my fourth-grade teachers really need them to multiply first, so they can master division. Just ask middle and high school teachers what they must reteach as a result. State and federal mandates force teachers to cover so much stuff that they can no longer teach the essentials to mastery. 

After 20 years of this federal culture and after over a decade of insanity in Oklahoma’s curriculum,  teachers have been reduced to implementers and children to bubblers. Education has become a conveyor belt driven by far-away bureaucratic and corporate agendas. According to such results, one may propose that Oklahoma’s children cannot learn, but that is preposterous. No, we are told that Oklahoma teachers cannot teach, so we need to add more regulation, more rigor, more mandates, and to speed up the conveyor belt. 

Not only are Oklahoma public school children capable of learning – regardless of their background – Oklahoma teachers are more than capable of teaching. Both, however, must be afforded the freedom and time to master the right things. Good coaches know that they need kids who can dribble and shoot lay-ups before teaching fade-away jump shots. Teachers and parents likewise understand that children must master certain essential skills before we expect them to juggle chainsaws and tap dance like Gregory Hines. I am a career public educator, and I have dutifully tried to follow the standardized script, but I can no longer pretend it’s reliable or valid enough to do so.  

Yes, we must still take these tests, just as we must pay taxes, but we must also recognize them primarily as political tools. They reveal little about a child’s college or career readiness or a teacher’s ability to teach. At best, they should be isolated events in the spring, so we can focus mainly on graduating students ready for the real world. Our teachers and children deserve the freedom, time, and support to master those essential grade skills that truly prepare them for college and career success. Our kids can learn and our teachers can teach, but we need to have the courage to trust them more than bureaucrats and corporations. If we do this, I believe we will have more kids tap-dancing and juggling than ever before, not because they have chased the standardized bumblebee but because they first learned to master walking and throwing and running and catching. And if you get time, search YouTube for tap-dancing toddlers to see some really cute stuff.  

Mostly Education: “Hitting the school bubbly”

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Third-graders wiggle. They fidget. They giggle and laugh for no apparent reason. Honestly, they are a little goofy. This time of year, however, they hit the bubbly for the first time, as they take their first standardized tests, and they seem to lose a bit of their own bubbliness. As kids, we penciled in bubbles, but kids now click bubbles on a screen. Never mind that 9-year-olds often lack the fine motor skills to use computers effectively, and never mind that 9-year-olds’ maximum attention spans are below 30 minutes. By federal and state decree, they must endure numerous tests that require 60 to 80 minutes of intense concentration, mouse-clicking, and keyboarding. Their answers not only decide if they enter fourth-grade but also their teacher’s employment, their school’s funding, and their community’s A-F Ratings. Those are pretty high-stakes resting on a nine-year-old’s mouse click, but a little bubbly never hurt anyone, right?

Because the stakes are so high, these tests shape every aspect of our schools. They drive our schedules and calendars, determining how and what teachers teach every day. We no longer just teach to the tests; we live and die by them. They shape our entire school culture. They impact our property values and economic development. We even mow around the tests!  Bubbly, anyone?  

Ok, the tests may monopolize our time and focus, but they least measure the right third-grade skills, right?  We have all been third-graders, so we remember critical skills like multiplication that prepared us for things like long division, algebra, geometry, and higher math courses. Logically, therefore, most parents know what skills third-graders need for success, like multiplication, yet less than half of the test focuses on Number and Operations (44-48%). Over 50% of the test measures students’ understanding of Algebraic Reasoning and Algebra (12-18%), Geometry and Measurement (26-20%), and Data and Probability(12-18%).  I wonder if a 9-year-olds’ time is well spent focusing on Algebra before they have mastered multiplication. I wonder if our teachers feel pressured to cover test specifications even when they know their students have not yet mastered essential skills. I wonder if the educational corporations or bureaucrats who produce our standardized-tests know better than our parents.

But let’s just drink the bubbly Kool-Aide and assume that these tests accurately measure what a third-grader needs to master. Let’s also assume that teaching to these tests with such high-stakes is entirely appropriate. Maybe, just maybe this makes sense if it has all at least been consistent. Unfortunately, over the lifetime of our current third-graders alone, our state curriculum has been a hot mess, changing at least four times since 2014, when we abruptly scrapped Common Core for the old PASS Curriculum (that we originally replaced with Common Core). We soon replaced PASS again with the hastily produced Oklahoma Academic Standards (that bear an uncanny resemblance to Common Core). It takes several years of consistent curriculum and reliable testing to determine validity on a statewide scale, but Oklahoma has changed course so much over the last decade that no one can keep track. And since we did not test last year due to the pandemic closure, this year’s scores are literally another start-over. Need some bubbly yet?

For most of my career I willingly drank the bubbly, but “teaching to the test” has not worked. Perhaps it is because of the inconsistency or perhaps because the tests do not measure the right thing, but we cannot rely on an unreliable system. After over 20 years following the advice of central planners and corporations, maybe we should provide parents and teachers more input on our school culture. Yes, we must take these tests, but they do not have to drive everything. We fill out our taxes this time of year and go on with our lives. Likewise, let’s take the tests but focus more on mastering what is age-appropriate and critical to their academic success, good character, and overall health. And maybe, our third graders can truly be bubbly again. 

Tom Deighan is a public educator and currently serves as Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com