EduCon 2017: Simulations (or: The Good Parts Version)

Posted January 29, 2017 By Dave Thomer

I’ll be making my presentation on simulation activities at EduCon shortly.

Here are a few links that may be useful.


A Moment Missed, At Last Recovered

Posted July 30, 2016 By Dave Thomer

When I was in high school I had the opportunity to spend a week in Washington, DC as part of a program called Presidential Classroom. We toured the city, participated in workshops, and listened to speakers talk about different aspects of the government. It was a great week, intense and draining. It also was the source of a missed opportunity that I did not realize I had missed until years later, and did not have a chance to get over until this week.

One of the sessions that I had most anticipated was our visit to the floor of the House of Representatives, where we would meet with a member of the House. I was then, as I am now, a political junkie, so I was eager to hear something about how someone got elected to Congress and worked to pass laws. Instead, as I remember it, the speaker spent much of the time talking about his work in the civil rights movement. And as I remember it, 16-year-old, tired Dave tuned out a lot of the discussion. Plenty of people had worked in the civil rights movement, I thought. It was over 20 years in the past, I thought. It wasn’t relevant now, I thought.

If you want to direct a few choice words at 16-year-old me, go ahead. I’ve done the same. But by that point, my junior year of high school, I don’t remember doing much serious study of the civil rights movement. My American history classes tended to run out before getting to the late twentieth century, and rarely dug deeper than a few anecdotes about Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had never heard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and I had never heard of John Lewis, one of the six civil rights leaders to speak at the March on Washington.

That started to change when I was in graduate school. I had decided that I wanted to be a social studies teacher, and so I started taking graduate history courses so that I would have the depth of knowledge I needed. I started seeing references not just to Parks and King but to Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC. I was intrigued by the struggles within the movement, the constant tension of trying to figure out how hard to push, which tactics to use, which allies to accept. I decided to study the civil rights movement as a case study of democratic reform.

Although I focused on King and the SCLC, I found SNCC extremely compelling. Here was a group of student organizers committed to direct action, working with but sometimes at odds with the famous names and organizations I had learned as a kid. And one of the leaders of that organization was John Lewis. I honestly don’t remember when it clicked in my head. “Wait . . . this John Lewis . . . isn’t that the guy I saw in high school?” But shortly after it clicked I went to my bookcase and pulled out the book from the Presidential Classroom program where I took notes on each speaker. I found the page where I had notes on Rep. Lewis.

It was practically blank.

I have wanted to kick myself for my high school ignorance ever since. I have no idea what I think would have concretely changed if I had had a little more energy, a little more knowledge, a little more concentration. Lewis’ impact comes much more from the power of his example than that of his storytelling. But if I had really understood the importance and magnitude of Selma, if I had appreciated the sacrifice and commitment Lewis had shown for his ideals, if I had truly grasped how far our nation has had to travel on the road to civil rights and how much farther we still have to go, then that day in Washington could have been an opportunity to connect to that past beyond the pages of a book. It could have been an opportunity to say “Thank you.”

But because I didn’t know any better, I squandered that opportunity.

In its way, that missed opportunity has been a blessing. It’s helped remind me to listen more, to try to be aware of what I don’t know, and to think more deeply about how to do the work of building a more just society. It’s helped motivate me to make sure that my students hear a variety of voices and understand the workings of the American system so that they can leverage that system and make it better. It’s kept me humble and reminded me not to assume that I’ve got it all figured out.

It still bugged me.

And then last week my wife sent me a text that Lewis would visit Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. He and Andrew Aydin, one of his aides, have co-written a series of graphic novels called March, drawn by Nate Powell, about his work with the civil rights movement. The third and final volume comes out next month, but they wanted to launch it during the Democratic National Convention at Amalgam, which is owned by an African-American woman named Ariell Johnson. I had bought and read the first two volumes, with the third already pre-ordered. As I fumbled with my phone trying to get to the Eventbrite site to get tickets, Pattie told me she had gotten two, one for me and one for our daughter.

I started sobbing. Now, this is something that members of my family do at significant family occasions, Harry Potter movies, and random vistas, so you need to take that into account. But this really was overwhelming, because at that moment I had a chance to reach back to 16-year-old me and say, OK, I’m gonna take care of this.

We got to the store about an hour early on Wednesday, where around a dozen people who didn’t have tickets were waiting outside. (They did eventually get in.) My daughter and I were allowed in and we started browsing around. There was quite a crowd, some of whom appeared to be regular customers and others who seemed very unfamiliar with comics. I spent too long browsing and wound up buying my copy of Volume 3 as the signing line had already formed, so by the time Lewis and Aydin arrived I was toward the back. I listened as Lewis talked about the supply of peanuts and Coke products he had in his congressional office as a representative from Atlanta, and as Aydin talked about he hoped to use comics and sequential storytelling to help educate today’s kids about the civil rights movement and social justice.

And then we reached the front of the line. We handed our books over to be signed and shook the authors’ hands. I said, “Thank you, Congressman,” and then my daughter and I had our picture taken with the authors.
Lewis at Amalgam 1
We all build stories to tell ourselves who we are; we take moments and magnify their importance because of what they say to us or about us. Out of those individual stories we build the story of our society. I feel grateful today that a week that has featured so many amazing moments for our national story gave me a chance to recast one of the moments of mine.


EduCon 2.8 Presentation: Back(ground) to Front

Posted January 30, 2016 By Dave Thomer

I’m currently attending EduCon at Science Leadership Academy. I’ll be hosting a conversation shortly on the importance of background knowledge to doing research.

Here’s the page for the conversation at the EduCon website.

Here’s the Google Slides presentation I’ll be using.

And here’s the Google Doc where I hope a bunch of really great educators are going to share some really great ideas.


Why I Just Voted for Jim Kenney and Helen Gym

Posted May 19, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I just got home from voting in the Philadelphia Democratic primary. I cast votes in a handful of races, but the two I’m most excited about – and will have me most anxious while checking results tonight – were my votes for Jim Kenney for mayor and Helen Gym for City Council at Large.

Now, you could be saying, “Dave, aren’t you a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers? And didn’t the PFT endorse those two candidates? Isn’t telling us that you voted for them an entry in the Blatantly Obvious?”

Well, thanks for asking. The answer to the first two questions is definitely yes, and the third is a definite maybe. But what’s important is why I voted for these two candidates so enthusiastically, and in fact donated to both of them. In both cases, the candidates’ personalities and history sealed the deal even before the PFT made its endorsements.


A lot of the biographical coverage of Jim Kenney has mentioned his Jesuit education. I had 16 years of Catholic education – 19 if you count preschool – culminating in four years at Fordham University. As an adult, I have been conflicted about that part of my education. I had great teachers, and many of them impressed upon me the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice. But my Catholic education also didn’t expose me to many other viewpoints, and I think it gave me some baggage in terms of backwards views on gender equality and LGBT equality that I had to overcome. The Jesuits were my idea of a tolerant, questioning Catholicism that served the community, and even they weren’t perfect. Kenney has taken the Jesuits’ example and run with it in order to make a lot of progressive change in Philadelphia, from LGBT equality to marijuana decriminalization to a more humane policy on immigration and law enforcement. I admire that greatly.

I also admire his instincts. I think he could do a lot to capitalize on Philadelphia’s potential right now. He has put together a terrific campaign and built a bandwagon with plenty of room. And how can I not love a candidate who would send this message to George Takei after the controversy regarding Indiana’s “religious freedom” law?


If you have followed the education battles in Philadelphia over the last few years, you know Helen Gym. As an activist she has worked hard to bring people together and call attention to the poor decisions made by Pennsylvania state government and the School Reform Commission, among other groups. I actually first noticed Helen during the fight over casino licenses in Philadelphia, when she worked just as hard to bring people together and preserve Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods from casino development. So I already knew the passion that she brings to a cause, and I’ve been glad to see her deploy it on an issue that means so much to me personally and professionally.

But look at that phrase: bringing people together. That’s an important part of how Helen sees the world, and it’s something that I think people miss. When she entered the race, I made a joke on Twitter about her relationship with then-SRC chair Bill Green.

Green replied to me:

And a small Twitter argument ensued. But here’s the thing. Look at that Philadelphia magazine exchange that Green tried to point to as evidence that Gym had “no solutions.” Helen kept saying that she wanted to see parents and communities more involved in making the decisions and shaping the vision of the schools. Green kept asking her for her specific proposal to replace Superintendent Hite’s Action Plan proposal. My reading of that conversation is that the solution that Helen advocates is getting the community involved to make decisions – a more deliberative view of democracy than I think Green has.

Now, if that more deliberative model is just a different way to argue about which essential services to cut because the schools don’t have enough resources, then it’s not necessarily going to be much of an improvement. But if the school district had all its funding dreams come true tomorrow, there would still be a substantial disagreement about how to spend those funds. And I think Helen’s model is the better approach, and one that can be brought to many issues beyond education. I hope that she has the chance to try in Council next year.


Learning to Translate from Wonk

Posted April 6, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I mentioned earlier that I am teaching a class of 12th graders the AP US Government course.

On one level, I am in my element. All the minutiae of government and politics that I have absorbed since I checked out a book about American presidents from the library in third grade can finally be put to use!

On another level, this is dangerous. I’m trying to package 30 years of reading and experience in a way that high school students who aren’t as fascinated by the government as I am will find relevant and interesting enough to absorb.

I also have mixed feelings about a class that is so expressly focused on performing well on a standardized test. It’s a standardized test that can result in my students getting college credit, which can be a huge academic and financial reward, so it certainly helps with the motivation. But it’s an external motivation.

I try to do the best I can to provide resources and assistance with the material. It’s only my first year, so now that I have taught the course once I think I can do a lot better next year and improve the materials I developed. For example, we’re doing case studies this month to stud how the government has operated in specific cases, and I’d really like to curate a set of readings and have them available on the web early on. Right now I’m doing the initial searching and photocopying a small number of the readings so that I don’t throw too much material out at once. Give me the summer and the chance to hit the ground running and I think we’ll be on to something.

Work in progress that it is, I think the course has been a success this year. I’ve heard students say that they understand what they’re hearing on the news, and talking about how voting in midterm elections is important. (I probably could have flown home under my own power that day.) Most of the credit belongs to the students, who have brought their questions to bear on some fairly dry topics at times. That is, when they don’t steer us completely off topic. But then some of those times have been some of the best conversations of the year.)


Evening Walk Musical Interlude

Posted April 5, 2015 By Dave Thomer

Had a great time at Easter brunch with my family. There was a lot of bacon.

This evening I took a walk around the corner to get something for Pattie, so I took the opportunity to listen to Neil Finn’s “Flying in the Face of Love,” from his recent album Dizzy Heights. It’s nice to hear that man still has his fastball so far into his career. (Can I use a baseball analogy with a musician from New Zealand?) If this track doesn’t put some pep in your step, you probably shouldn’t take any musical recommendations from me.


Too Old for This Sort of Thing

Posted April 4, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I’ll be turning 40 this year, which my mother has told me I am not allowed to mention around her.

Meanwhile, my daughter will turn 13.

Not sure if the universe is trying to tell me something there.

At the moment, the biggest thing about the round number is that I won’t have to pause for a second to do the math when someone asks me how old I am. I don’t feel a midlife crisis coming on yet, but I should probably go back and reread that post about exercise and go back to watching what Ieat. I’ve been trying to cut back my beef consumption to once or twice a week. But cheeseburgers are still tasty, so we’ll see how that goes.


Hoping That Doing It Myself Isn’t DIM

Posted April 3, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I’ve already remarked that I have not had as much time or energy for writing as I would like. In part this is because my teaching assignment changed considerably this year. After teaching 9th graders world history for my first five years as a high school teacher, I have been teaching 12th graders civics and economics, including one section of AP US Government. I also introduced a new elective class in American Studies that I originally hoped to combine recent American history with a study of current American culture but has wound up leaning a lot more toward the former.

In some ways, this has been a very enjoyable challenge. It is absolutely the case that what I am teaching now lines up much more with my prior academic training and outside readings and interest. Teaching 12th graders, many of whom have questions about college and beyond, is an exciting opportunity. (I also like teaching 9th graders who are just getting introduced to high school; it’s interesting to see the start and the conclusion of many students’ high school journey.)

It has also been a great deal of work. I haven’t been satisfied that the textbooks we have on hand are a good fit for our students’ needs or timely enough to be relevant to today’s challenges. So I have spent a lot of time gathering and editing articles from the web or writing my own. I think this has been a worthwhile investment of my time. The danger is that I have replaced a hardcover collection of material my students find impenetrable and irrelevant with a daily anthology of readings with similar issues, but I trust my knowledge of our students enough that I believe I am a doing a better job for them than a textbook writer aiming for a more generic high school audience. If I teach the same classes to my students next year, I hope I will be able to refine and improve the materials over the summer and have more time and energy to focus on helping the students use the material as a springboard to their own inquiry.

To put these materials together I use a laptop that my school provides for me. It’s several years old at this point and it’s starting to show the strain of trying to keep up with the times. Loading web pages and editing Word documents takes a lot longer than it does on my desktop PC. I mutter in frustration at this sometimes, but I have to think about how lucky I am. Were I teaching back in the days when I was in high school, I would not have nearly as many resources open to me from almost any location with only a few minutes’ wait.

Doesn’t stop me from staring with envy at the new laptops when I walk into an Apple Store, but it does help give some perspective.


Not Always a Good Fit

Posted April 2, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I didn’t exercise today.

I had a bunch of excuses. I was tired. My stomach was bothering me. I had errands to run. I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way in the living room.

But they’re only excuses. I could have made it happen, if it had been a higher priority for me.

But it wasn’t. Even though I know it is important. Even though I know that putting physical exercise at the bottom of my priority list day after day has short term and long term consequences that I would prefer to avoid.

Is it rational? Almost certainly not.

Am I hamstrung by a lack of resources? Nope. I have plenty of information, people have shared strategies and techniques with me, and I have even been able to obtain some equipment to help me. My wife and daughter are both more committed to exercising than I have been lately, so I can’t even say I don’t have any role models or examples.

If I’m not as healthy as I could be, if I don’t have the success I want to have in the long run, I can’t put the responsibility on anyone else; I just chose to spend my time doing other things.

I think about this sometimes when I think about the times I struggle to help some of my students actively participate in their education. It gives me some empathy to think that some of them feel about academic work the way I feel about physical exercise. It lets me forgive myself a little bit for not inspiring a hundred high school seniors to become policy wonks.

But it also inspires me to keep trying to find ways to support them, to find the questions that they do have about the world and help them develop the skills to find answers. And it reminds me that sometimes what we need to do has to trump what we want to do.

So tomorrow I will head to the gym, and then I will crack the books. And maybe I’ll take another step closer to being the person I want to be.


Never the Same Dave Twice

Posted April 1, 2015 By Dave Thomer

It’s been almost nine years since I finished my dissertation; a little more than six since I finished getting my teaching certification. I spent most of my 20s as a grad student and yet that part of my life is rapidly moving into my proverbial rear-view mirror. I talk about it with my students sometimes, often in the context of encouraging them to avoid student debt. But that life, with its intense focus on academic reading and writing, feel disconnected with who I am now.

I started thinking about this when I thought about how long it’s been since I wrote on this blog. I started it as a website in 2000, and it was meant to be a forum to talk about all the things I cared about at the time. Now I think about those sections and wonder if they still apply to my life in 2015. Am I still a philosopher if I haven’t read a journal article or written a philosophical essay in years? My reading and thinking about Dewey still influences the way I try to teach. Is that being a philosopher, or an educator, or both? I’m not sure.

I don’t know how much I can call myself a comics fan these days; I have a small pile of trade paperbacks to read, but since I stopped buying monthly comics and both major superhero companies did assorted revamps to their lines and continuity, I can’t say I’m heavily invested in the medium. I know a couple of creators whose work I like have independent projects, but even there I don’t race to the store (or to an e-commerce site) to grab copies. I still follow some of the news, go to a convention once in a while, and wear plenty of superhero shirts. Am I still a fan? I don’t know.

And then I come to the big question: Am I still a writer? I write material for my classes. I write short anecdotes to share with my friends and family on Facebook, and one-liners to share with folks on Twitter. But essays? Interviews? Deeper exploration of a topic? Putting one sentence in front of another until you have a paragraph, and then doing it again and again until you have a completed piece? I feel so rusty there, and so often I feel too tired to do the work of organizing my thoughts. There are things I want to write, and plenty of things I want to have written. But am I a writer?

I’m not sure. I think it’s time to find out.