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Three Things At The Trough Got Right About Remote Learning…And One Thing It Got Wrong

In a future where schools have no teachers and no classrooms…

Does this sound familiar? My novel, At The Trough, which was published last year at NineStar Press, depicts a world where the physical school building is gone, replaced with online learning through video modules and edugames. I predicted this sort of change might occur in the next several decades, based on the troubling changes I saw in public education and in its relationship to technology and corporate power.

I did not think we would see it in 2020. But here we are.

Schools all over the country are turning to “remote learning” as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Students are connecting with their teachers through email, and through programs such as Google Classroom and Zoom. The results are mixed– it is probably the best that can be expected in the mad scramble to contain the virus, but is leaving a lot of students with a less-than-ideal education.

So what exactly did At The Trough get right? And what did it get wrong?

What was right:

  1. Someone is Making Lots of Money Off of Children

In At The Trough, the company EduForce has essentially a monopoly on all educational products and testing. They are so successful because they thoroughly mine student data and bombard students– a captive audience– with advertisements and opportunities to make in-lesson purchases. Well, the remote learning of 2020 has a lot of legal experts and parent groups very worried about the wide reach of companies to watch students, invade their privacy, and collect their information. These concerns are valid. Citizens have a right to privacy, but when a school requires that students utilize these programs, it puts families and students in a difficult position.

2) This Hurts the Poor Students. And the Bi-Lingual Students. And the Special Education Students. And the Homeless Students. And the Students Living in Abusive Homes. And the Students...

Sure, learning from home sounds efficient, and even fun!

That is, if your home is equipped with devices for all children in the home, if the wifi is reliable, if there is a concerned parent home all the time, and if the child is at or above grade level. But millions of American children are left struggling to comprehend the lessons their teachers are assigning remotely. Four children in a household may share a single laptop. Many children depend on going to school as a place of safety and nourishment that they do not have at home.

In At The Trough, one student is implied to have a learning disability. He has struggled through years of incomprehension, and only makes any progress in school through the help of his friend. Another character is implied to have undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Without the personal interaction with a teacher to raise the alarm, and without proper medication, she is in great peril.

3) Schools Are About Much More Than Book Learnin’

In At The Trough, one of the main characters, a former teacher, pontificates about how schools were once a place where hundreds of people came together for the good of the children Not just teachers. Guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, custodians, all of these people play vital roles in a child’s upbringing. A child may not connect with a teacher, but befriend the cafeteria aide or the paraprofessional who listens to them. Remote Learning severs these relationships. The hope is that this is only a temporary measure until the COVID-19 crisis abates. Which brings me to…

One Thing At The Trough Got Wrong:

The Speed of Change

When I wrote the novel, I assumed that the educational changes put in place by Eduforce would take years, would require a slow disintegration of individual rights and a gradual increase of corporate influence. It would take about a generation– the generation who right now is growing up with privacy-stealing apps and are perfectly fine with facial recognition technology– to put into place.

The shift to Remote Learning occurred in a matter of weeks.

Yes, it is temporary (or so we are told). But pause and consider America’s teachers. In mid-March, many of us were told to develop a way to engage our classes online instead of in-person, and we had mere days to do this. Personally, I had about 72 hours from being told our district initiative to putting it into place. And for the most part, it is up and running.

So is Remote Learning a temporary solution to a crisis? The beginning of a dramatic shift in education? Is it both? Feel free to comment below And if you haven’t read At The Trough, it’s available at as an ebook (discounted this month) from the publisher. Want a hard copy? Support my local bookshop. And there is always Amazon.

Stay safe! Stay informed! And for the love of God stay inside!

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I Did Not Create Coronavirus to Boost Book Sales!

However–

Many readers have pointed out one response to the pandemic is eerily similar to the premise of my novel, At the Trough. In the novel, physical school buildings no longer exist. Students work from home, at their own pace, learning from pre-recorded videos.

Sound familiar?

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the world are closing their doors and turning towards remote learning. Teachers are using a variety of online platforms to assign and collect work for students.

I can say from my own teaching experience that this models has its advantages. I can teach while wearing sweatpants! I can use the bathroom whenever I need, and not have to hold it in for 3 1/2 hours!

But the art of teaching depends upon immediate feedback from students. A good teacher can tell pretty quickly if a student does not understand. And a proactive student can raise a hand and ask a question. That doesn’t work in this model. Especially vulnerable are special education students who depend on (and are legally entitled to) additional support with a specialized teacher. Obviously, public health and safety is the highest priority right now, but most teachers I know are chafing at this imitation of teaching.

It is dehumanizing.

At The Trough did not have a pandemic as the inciting factor to dissolve the schools (in the novel, it was a collapsing global economy and escalating school violence). But the end result is pretty similar. I’m just shocked we are at this point in 2020!

Once the COVID-19 crisis has abated, I imagine we will go back to the traditional classroom. But who knows? In my next post, I will make four predictions about how the temporary shift to remote learning will result in permanent shifts in the way we teach and learn…

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“At The Trough” Available Now!

Learning is Fun! But should it be?

Introducing At The Trough, a new dystopian novel about the future of education in America.

From the publisher:

In a future where schools have no teachers and no classrooms, Jennifer Calderon is the perfect student. Every day she watches her video modules, plays her edu games, and never misses an answer. Life is comfortable in the Plex, a mile-wide apartment building. Corporations and brand names surround her and satisfy her every want and need.

Then one day, her foul-mouthed, free-spirited, 90’s-kitsch-wearing girlfriend Melody disrupts everything. She introduces her to a cynical, burned-out former teacher, who teaches them the things no longer taught in school. Poetry. Critical thinking. Human connection.

But these lessons draw the attention of EduForce, the massive corporation with a stranglehold on education. When they show how far they are willing to go keep their customers obedient, Jennifer has to decide what is most important to her and how much she is willing to sacrifice for it.

Order the novel that readers are calling “chilling,” a “page-turner” and “powerful and important.”

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Preorder At the Trough!

Don’t feel like waiting until May 13 for my debut novel? Pre-orders for At the Trough are available here.

Pre-orders are crucial for a book’s (an author’s) success. Strong pre-order sales show a publisher there is interest in a book. So…are you interested? From the publisher:

In a future where schools have no teachers and no classrooms, Jennifer Calderon is the perfect student. Every day she watches her video modules, plays her edu games, and never misses an answer. Life is comfortable in the Plex, a mile-wide apartment building. Corporations and brand names surround her and satisfy her every want and need.

Then one day, her foul-mouthed, free-spirited, 90’s-kitsch-wearing girlfriend Melody disrupts everything. She introduces her to a cynical, burned-out former teacher, who teaches them the things no longer taught in school. Poetry. Critical thinking. Human connection.

But these lessons draw the attention of EduForce, the massive corporation with a stranglehold on education. When they show how far they are willing to go keep their customers obedient, Jennifer has to decide what is most important to her and how much she is willing to sacrifice for it.

Missed that link above? Here it is again! Pre-orders available May 10.

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At The Trough Pub Date!

I am thrilled to announce that my debut novel, At The Trough, will be published on May 13! The folks at NineStar Press have done a marvelous with the novel, including the cover art. Check it out!

More details coming soon.

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Writing a Novel May Be a Marathon, but Publishing One Is Not

Full disclosure before I begin– I have not yet published a novel, so maybe I am wrong about this. But I have just run my first marathon. After several months of training, I finished the New Jersey Marathon in a respectably average 4 hours and 3 minutes. While I wasn’t thrilled with my overall time, I (A) did complete my first marathon, (B) did not stop running at any point, other than a port-a-potty stop, (C) did not get seriously injured, other than typical post-race soreness, and (D) did not throw up on the course, though I did come close at a few points. So I consider the run a success, all things considered.

When it comes to writing, the old saying about novel writing is “it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” The parallels are apt. Both take a long time. Both involve pain and inner struggle. You might throw up. Both give you justification for putting bizarre things in and on your body. Both are things that many people say they will do, fewer set out to do, and far fewer finish. So if you finish– either a novel or a marathon, or both– congratulations!

There were moments in the marathon, mostly between miles 18 and 22, when it was just a pure grind. One foot ahead of the other, feeling crappy, but refusing to let myself stop. And having completed at least two novels, I can say there are moments in writing a manuscript where the exact same feeling comes into play. You feel as if you’ve been writing (running) forever, but the end of the novel (race) is not in sight. A long, listless place where only sheer will and determination will get you to the end. This is where a lot of people stop. They set the manuscript aside, say “It’s just not working,” and move on to something else in life. It’s the part that makes or breaks the writer (runner).

But just as I wanted to run my marathon well, I don’t just want to finish a novel. I know I can do it. I’ve done it before. I want to publish a novel. And here is where the analogy falls apart. I have been querying two separate, very different novels. One is historical fiction, an account of a Holocaust survivor starting a new life in upstate New York. It is based closely on a survivor I knew. The other is a science-fiction work, a near-future dystopia about education. I have been querying agents for the first novel for over a year now, and the second one for five months. Nary a nibble on either one. I know what I must do– persist. But where is the finish line? Querying is nothing like a marathon, because in a marathon, I know that one way or another, whether I sprint or run or jog or walk or crawl, once I reach 26.2, I have met my goal. But querying is like running a race, unsure if it’s a 5k or an ultramarathon. A rare few authors find interested publishers immediately, some query a dozen agents, some thirty, some seventy-five.

Querying has been harder than writing and harder than revising. Revision, even when it’s a tiresome slog, is at least forward motion. The story is getting better, one deleted word at a time. But with querying, I’m running toward nothing. I’m running in the hope of a finish line. The race isn’t over yet, and I have no idea when it will be.

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I am now on Upwork and Fiverr

I don’t just make words! I also make other people’s words better!

I just joined two freelancing sites, Upwork and Fiverr, to increase my visibility and availability. I will help with any sort of proofreading or editing you may need, but my specialty is critiquing and revising application letters and personal statements. Students (and parents) often spend hundreds of dollars to apply to universities and prestigious schools and programs (and then thousands or tens of thousands on tuition), so a modest investment (like, the cost of going out for a lunch) is well worth it to ensure that application letter hits all the right notes.

Here are links to find me on these two sites:

Upwork

Fiverr

As always, I am working on my fiction, but I really enjoy helping people– especially young people who want to seek out the challenge of advancing their education — find their voices and present themselves with clarity and distinction.

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#NationalWalkoutDay

On Wednesday, thousands of students across America walked out of their classrooms in protest. Some acting with the sanction of their districts, some without, they abandoned classrooms at 10:00 AM and gathered for 17 minutes to recognize the 17 people killed in the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The protests are meant to speak out against the lack of legislative action to curb gun violence. These students interrupted the flow of the school day, caused logistical and safety concerns, and in some cases defied the direct commands of superintendents who told them not to protest.

Good for them. America’s future seems brighter with these young people as the next wave of voters and leaders.

I am a middle school teacher, and am fortunate that my district not only permitted students to protest, but helped them organize it. The town police were there, administrators, board members, and nearly all teachers from the middle and high schools. As a district, we spoke with unity. But many more students in other places were ordered not to protest and were threatened with suspension if they did. This is horribly oppressive and, frankly, backwards and foolish. It is a gesture doomed to make the district look bad. The protests were nonviolent and highly organized. If Americans cannot protest like that, tell me, what is a better way?

Judging from some of the vile things I’ve read online, the public’s objections come down to two things:

  1. These kids are being used as pawns of the left to push an anti-gun agenda.
  2. These kids should shut their mouths and get back to class.

Okay. First of all, the students in Florida who began the movement were working independently. Outraged that a mentally ill gunman had easily bought weapons legally, they united to stop this from ever happening again. They aren’t pawns; they’re freaking knights, leaping over the less nimble pieces and charging into the fray that they very much have a stake in.

And the “get back to class” cry? Tell me, what should they be doing in class instead? Reading a textbook? Taking notes in civics class about different forms of civic engagement? Folks, it doesn’t get more engaged that this. Participating in an actual protest about an issue they care about is a learning experience far surpassing anything they’ll learn behind a desk.

Time will tell if this protest will incite the changes our country and our schools need. These students are not going away quietly. Enough is enough, and I think if this past week is any sign, our future will be in good hands.

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If you could tell your younger self to do one thing differently…

Yes, nearly a year and a half has passed since my previous post. There are two main reasons for this. One, I am terrible at keeping this site updated. I am trying to do better, but I feel that unless have something worth posting, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time, my own included, to post emptiness. Secondly, I have been working hard on my fiction, and “add new post to website” has sat on my to-do list, gathering dust.

Have you ever wondered how your life would be different if you could tell your younger self to make one different choice? Of course you have! Everyone has! Several years ago, I took this idea and it became a short story, one I am incredibly proud of. A high school freshman has a very common assignment– to write a letter to his future self, to be read after high school graduation. But temptation gets the best of him, and he opens the letter early. To his surprise, his older self has written back! The younger and older selves write back and forth to one another, and their correspondence changes the course of both of their lives.

The story took more than five years of submission before finding a home. It was a finalist for the Arcturus Review Fall Fiction Contest. Read it for free here, and leave your comments below!

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New Story out in Enchanted Conversation!

I have a new story out, called “The Hanged Man’s Touch,” in Enchanted Conversation magazine. It’s a ghost story with a twist at the end. Please check it out (free to read)!

 

 

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