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I just found out this morning that a former student of mine has passed away. This news was met with an unexpected flow of emotion and so this post is a chance for me to sort through those thoughts. My emotional response was somewhat surprising. The student graduated early in my career, but he was a part of my media program for more than one academic year. Also, as with any community, he stayed in the area, married another former student and our paths would cross from time to time. This got me thinking about the connection.

Connection….that’s really the perfect word now that I think about it. From those classroom days to the days beyond, the connection was there. As teachers, we form these connections whether intentional or not. These connections do not disappear after the class time ends. That’s a part of the beauty of the profession, but also what makes it emotionally challenging as well. There is a finite amount of emotional currency in a lifetime…or is there? This is not the first time the emotional weight of teaching has pushed me to reflect on my role in people’s lives and the importance of compassion.

This flood of emotion also feels selfish as I reflect on the death of a student who left my room a decade ago. His absence will bear more weight on those closest to him, including his young children. I was honored to have known and worked with this young man. I took joy in seeing him grow and mature, eventually making a life with another former student…connection. As I struggle with that connection being prematurely severed, it leaves me thinking about the other connections I have and the connections I have yet to make.

It’s important to make the most of those connections in the time we spend together. Remember the best of those connections and share the love of those connections as we continue on this journey.

Promoting pain for profit

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You can tell a lot about people from their social media presence. Lisa Taddeo’s Twitter account started in 2016 and in 111 tweets/retweets, 90 percent are dedicated to promoting her current book, “Three Women.” Here are two of her most recent promotional tweets as of this publication date:


(Author’s note: Within minutes of posting about factual inaccuracies in her upcoming book, she blocked me from her Twitter account) The marketing machine is in full swing for this novel, which publishers dangerously promote as “nonfiction” and “journalistic” despite glaring examples to the contrary.

As more promotional messages are thrust upon consumers, it becomes blatantly obvious Taddeo’s sole purpose for embellishing provably false facts – money.

In public, Taddeo is attempting to walk the fine line of promoting this story without mentioning specifics that could incriminate the book’s questionable authenticity. In an NPR interview with Sarah McCammon (@sarahmccammon), Taddeo says the accuser had “an entire community, not believe – not only not believe her, just not listen.” This interview was edited multiple times- the final edit removed McCammon using the term “statutory rape” with no attempt to clarify from either party.

Even after all the edits NPR executed to sidestep around the truth and keep the promotional bandwagon moving forward, the interviewer is still left saying, “you tell the story of her relationship, she again is an underage high school student, she has a relationship with her teacher who’s in his late thirties.” At no point does Taddeo correct this false claim or McCammon use the term “allege.”

Her flowery language in the book is also a clear attempt to sensationalize false facts for profit. It has come into question, such as this NY Times review by Parul Sehgal, where the writer points out “the language of the book is so inconsistent, full of odd homilies — an assembly line of truly terrible metaphors.” Taddeo’s language usage only reinforces her purpose of sensationalizing a false narrative with no interest in providing a window to the truth. (Note: Sehgal’s review has also not been shared or acknowledged by Taddeo, probably due to its critical nature.)

It’s a shame, really. The false accusations and incomplete investigation would have been a compelling story without the assistance of Taddeo’s fictional storytelling. Taddeo needed to embellish false facts to try to push book sales. She even explains her fictional narrative further in this Wall Street Journal Q&A with Maris Kreizman:

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Now I would assume Kreizman is probably not a journalist (it’s obvious that Taddeo isn’t) because any real journalist would ask the following, “Why on earth would there be details left out of a trial where a person is charged with five felonies?” Mindful readers should immediately question the reason for relevant details to be omitted from an investigation and trial that spanned two years, only to be revealed by Taddeo in her book years later.

This tidbit from Taddeo herself should be all people need to know, and yet she still contradicts herself with regard to her true intent. The following image is from Taddeo’s own Washington Post promotional piece published July 3, 2019 (left) and a review from The Guardian published June 23, 2019 (right):

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It’s not difficult to identify the discrepancies in her “interest” in this story. She softens her language in her self-authored Post article due to the obvious fictitious nature of her book.

Taddeo is not an author or journalist; she’s an opportunist. Much like a lawyer chasing an ambulance, she is only taking advantage of a story that garnered more clicks than any other in the region. It’s a story with a limited original audience so she wants to bring it to larger markets while pocketing the profit. It probably would have happened eventually due to the salacious content and courtroom drama, but Taddeo was just the first to sell out.

Stay tuned for:  “A sad attempt to appeal to the masses.”

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 13-year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jeremypmurphy@yahoo.com

Sensationalism still sells

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I remember first hearing about a possible book years ago. I might have even received an email from the author, but disregarded it with the same naivety that accompanied my first responses to questions from an investigator. It would be preposterous for any self-respecting writer to further embellish encounters already proven inaccurate by authorities, or so I thought. I sometimes choose to forget the old adage “sex sells” and in doing so, believe people are earnestly chasing truth – not dollar signs.

This ideal has been tossed aside once again as author Lisa Taddeo prepares for the release of “Three Women”, a book being advertised as narrative nonfiction despite the glaring inaccuracies with one of the stories. It should be noted that this is only a critique of this singular recounting in the book, not Taddeo’s work as a whole. I can only speak from experience. However, it’s easy to assume if there exists inaccuracies in one story, there could easily be inconsistencies elsewhere. (Also, the book releases in two weeks so I am limited to online excerpts, interviews and reviews. This will be updated as more information becomes available. The online content is enough to reveal Taddeo’s true intent.)

The book’s promotion hails “eight years” of interviews and research by this so-called journalist as some sort of credential of authenticity. In reality, the lengthy time period for collecting information only further solidifies the author’s true purpose. No credible author or journalist would blatantly disregard truth. In this case, the author latched onto a top story in the region because there was the possibility of a paycheck. Honestly, I can’t fault Taddeo for chasing money, but her unethical methods are disheartening as a teacher, journalist, and father.

As a Teacher

It goes without saying that it is always crucial for all parties to take any accusations seriously and thoroughly consider all evidence. As with any service profession, the risk of unfounded accusations makes teaching even more treacherous. However rare it might be, there are instances where accusations are untrue. Once accusations are shown to be false, it becomes difficult to address them without being labeled as victim-shaming.

Taddeo’s book infinitely compounds this concern. Her six-figure book deal once again shows there is money to be made in promoting the fictional as fact and in doing so sensationalize teacher-student relationships. Many early reviews discuss the unbelievable scenarios she details in the book.

…another reviewer

…yet, another reviewer

There’s a reason people can’t believe it’s nonfiction, because at least one story is a figment of a young girl’s imagination. In publishing a woman’s fantasies and claiming it is nonfiction, Taddeo creates an environment where hearsay can be considered fact and then embellishes those false facts to the extreme. In that scenario, no teacher can be considered safe from false accusations becoming published as “nonfiction”.

The new details she reveals in the accuser’s story make it even easier to prove the inaccuracies, which Taddeo would have discovered if she had been acting as an actual journalist.

As a Journalist

It’s unclear if Taddeo read the court documents. If she did and disregarded the facts of the case for storytelling purposes, that’s journalistic malpractice. If Taddeo had reviewed the court documents, she would have noticed obvious discrepancies between the facts and her fiction.

Johanna Thomas-Corr from the Evening Standard had the same, incorrect, assumption:

A journalist’s job is to seek truth and minimize harm. If she truly wants to call herself a journalist, Taddeo misses on both fronts. The Guardian printed a book excerpt that involves specifics about a lesson in school, a vehicle and a purchase at a local book store, all of which are not based in reality.

Excerpts via The Guardian:

The new details included in this recounting were not included in the actual investigation or trial. It’s not hard to imagine why. Details, such as a class lesson, credit card purchase, car type and book title are easily verifiable. The movie lesson would be easily found in the school’s digital lesson plan archives and other digital time stamped files. The credit card swipe described by Taddeo offers a specific time and location, which makes it easy to review statements and show no such purchase took place. Additionally, the high school owned class sets of the book so a teacher would not purchase another copy. The vehicle is also verifiable. For actual journalists, vehicle records are accessible and a quick search shows that a vehicle by that description was never owned by the teacher or his family.

A New Statesman review by Megan Nolan says the text also refers to the accuser’s description of the teacher’s house.

Again, research would prove that during the trial her description of the layout was proven wrong. She described the house based on how it was staged for sale from online images, not the actual layout and decor from the time period in question.

This is only a small section of Taddeo’s text. If these details are any indication, there should be serious factual concerns about the book. It could be argued that one or two details might blur the line of reality as time passes, but the culmination of numerous false facts should disqualify this book from being categorized as “nonfiction”.

Taddeo attempts to explain this retelling is “seen through her eyes”, maybe in an effort to distance herself from responsibility to the truth. She also discredits the judicial process in this excerpt:

She claims there is another “version” of this story in much the same way KellyAnne Conway argues for “alternative facts.” A real journalist does not report versions, a real journalist reports truths.

The art of journalism is already under fire in today’s political climate. Using the term “reporting” when discussing this book to justify the inaccurate sensationalism only furthers people’s distrust in the field. Not only will the public see this as journalistically shallow, but it also does more harm than good to actual victims, which saddens me as a father.

As a Father

I have three young daughters. It would be difficult for me to list the daily concerns I have for them as they grow. Helping them to become independent, honest and hard-working women is my ultimate goal. It frightens me to consider some of the possible scenarios where they could be treated as anything less than the strong young ladies they are today. When someone props up individuals who are making provably false claims, as Taddeo does in her book, it further contributes to a culture where actual victims struggle to be heard.

In an interview in Marie Claire with Kimberly Cutter, Taddeo references the #metoo movement and acknowledges that this story should be associated with it.

Unfortunately, individuals who dive a little deeper into the details of this specific story will discover it is actually detrimental to the #metoo agenda. In the same way journalistic errors are used to attack the credibility of the press, naysayers will find it easy to use Taddeo’s inaccurate narrative to diminish the #metoo message. Promoting a false scenario as fact will make it even more difficult for actual victims to come forward.

The fact that Taddeo, knowingly or not, provided this ammunition for individuals who want to invalidate actual abuse sickens me. Heaven forbid my daughters experience any type of physical trauma in their lifetime. It’s people like Taddeo who create unimaginable suffering for victims by seeking profit before principles.

Even with the book, there will be no changing of opinions with regards to the outcome of this ordeal. Whether people research the facts, or like Taddeo simply embellish the lies, public opinion will remain entrenched just like everything in the public sphere. This book only proves there is still profit to be made on other’s pain.

Stay tuned for:  “Promoting pain for profit. 

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 13-year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jeremypmurphy@yahoo.com

Boulders in the stream

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The only word I have left to sum it up is…”defeated”. It’s been three years in the making, so let me explain:

In 2014, I reevaluated my role as a traditional English teacher. In the text “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era”, authors Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith discuss the history of our current educational framework. “In 1893, Charles Eliot of Harvard and the Committee of Ten partitioned the world into five distinct subject areas: math, science, English, history, and foreign languages. Over the last century, the meager changes we’ve made in pedagogy have revolved around refining these five departments into subclumps (e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics), and assigning subclumps to grade levels. It’s shocking that the typical student day in 2015 is eerily similar to what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.” That would be 123 years since the path to college preparedness had been created.

Since that time, all categories have been broken into subgroups, including in the West Fargo Public School District. Well, all except for English. Since the creation of my school district, students have had one path through English/Language Arts (ELA) toward graduation. That path is English I, English II, English III and English IV. It might be time for a change.

With the thought that post-secondary student success is the most important factor, English teachers at WFHS began to evaluate the possible options in 2015. (The following timeline reveals actual emails from WFHS English teachers and WFPS district officials, but names have been redacted.)

With the help of some colleagues, we proposed a diverse approach for students to gain standardized skills through various ELA courses. Since our state standards moved to a more skills-based format that focused on essential skills for post-secondary success, it made sense to reevaluate our English curriculum approach.

This conversation began prior to our April 1, 2015 PLC meeting date. The agenda for that meeting looked like this:

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After the meeting, an email was sent to colleagues regarding the final proposal for input on a more inclusive English curriculum that provided more options for students (sent April 2 2015):

April 2 2015

Since we are dealing with a large educational institution, it’s understandable that curriculum decisions would take time. In fact, our own superintendent quoted a text this past fall, “Inevitable” by Charles Schwann, which states “Public education is difficult to change.” The conversation died for an entire year, until it was brought up again in April 2016 (email sent April 20, 2016).

April 20 2016 edited.jpg


After many emails back and forth within our department, it resulted in a decision pushed to the next fall. (May 17 2016)

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After that Sept. meeting and prior to the Nov. 1 meeting, an agenda was sent that limited the options available to discuss.

Nov 1 2016

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It was after this meeting that the initial purpose behind this proposal became disoriented. Instead of focusing on curricular options for upperclassmen, officials leaned toward teachers to provide more literature options for students. This was considered despite the fact that the text Dr. Flowers cited from Schwartz this fall states, “Teacher preferences are important, but schools do not exist for adults, they exist for learners and learning.” 

Nov. 14 2016

Nov 14 2016

Since changes need to be proposed a year ahead of time, this would push the course change back another year to 2018-2019. The conversation stagnated after this, until I brought it up again this fall. However, after inquiring about possible ELA pathways for upperclassmen, the response was slightly simpler after another meeting.

Oct. 17 2017

oct 17 2017

So, in essence, I am defeated. It has been more than two years and nothing has changed. The only path to graduation for ELA students at WFPS will be English I, English II, English III, English IV Comp/English IV Lit. (For what it’s worth, this was the same path when I graduated high school almost 20 years ago.)

We still only allow students one path through ELA to graduation and that won’t change anytime soon in my school district. As Sir Ken Robinson states in his book “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education”: “In principle, the curriculum should shape the schedule. In practice, it often works the other way around.” Unfortunately, that has yet to happen where I work.

This image, which has appeared on numerous posts and blogs about education, pretty much sums it up:


We should all avoid categorizing students for clicks

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After reflecting on the reporting process of a local reporter regarding a story of a teacher’s social media comments, I am still uneasy.

I still have a hard time comprehending the rationale for publishing this story about a teacher’s tweets. The reporter provided a few possible reasons in his previous responses on social media: 1. to get her account shut down, 2. to appease an upset parent or 3. because she deserved it. By the way, none of these pass the journalistic integrity test. Seemingly as a response to my previous post, the Valley News Live reporter who covered the issue, Cornelius Hocker, had no problem explaining his rationale on his blog. Even though he declines to address his disregard for ethical, journalistic practices, it seems he has no problem sharing his feelings about me.

There is a lot of information to unpack in Mr. Hocker’s rationale, but the scariest fact is that he is using other, anonymous individuals on his public blog to attack the character of a public school teacher. Mr. Hocker admits that these are comments he received after publishing a poorly researched and one-sided “story.” This argument makes it difficult to use as justification for publishing in the first place, without conducting proper research.

Again, let me remind readers, I do not know the teacher in the news story even though we work in the same district. I am also not commenting on the actual messages. Instead, I’m evaluating the obvious omission of clear, journalistic integrity.

My primary concern about the disregard for ethical journalism practices is the precedent Mr. Hocker sets. This sets an example for all aggravated individuals who want vindication against a public educator or coach. In my career as a public school teacher, coach, adviser, etc., I’m sure there are people who have disagreed with my practices, misinterpreted my verbal or nonverbal responses or simply did not like me. Actually, I know there were – it’s one reason I was fired. I like to think I’m not that different from other teachers in this regard, but I could be wrong. When a “news” report can be published with simple hearsay from anonymous individuals, we have a major issue that makes public educators everywhere more vulnerable.

I am not licensed as a special needs teacher, but I work with a wide variety of special education and regular education students each day, similar to almost all teachers in a public school setting. As we always strive for inclusiveness in education, it is important to avoid differentiating between students with needs and regular education students. Mr. Hocker has made it clear on several occasions that this teacher’s area of instruction is a primary focus of the story.

The fact that Mr. Hocker uses the special education categorization to garner more attention to his story is disheartening.

Note: Mr. Hocker also uses an interesting choice of words with “busted” and “caught”. This should not be the approach when evaluating a private individual who is the subject of a news story stemming from anonymous sources.

In my opinion, if a person believes the teacher’s comments are not appropriate, they should be considered inappropriate for all students. Differentiating based on educational status is as dishonorable as publishing material received in an anonymous envelope without vetting that information.

If the comments are deserving of a news story, the fact she works with special needs students should not be the determining factor for making the tweets offensive. The reporter uses the special needs angle to increase clicks, not out of concern for any specific student. Actually, instead of referring to students, Mr. Hocker used appeasing a parent as rationale.

Using the special needs angle and connecting it to a single parent’s criticism of a special education teacher to make this more “clickable” reveals that he is operating outside the ethical boundaries for professional journalism.

I question whether the reaction would be the same without the emphasis on the instructional specialty. You’ve probably seen some of these memes posted on social media. There is an entire site dedicated to teacher memes. These memes are extremely popular and frequently shared. These memes express a light-hearted perspective on the daily struggles public school teachers face.

The issue then becomes a question of subjective interpretation. Without considering the instructional area of the teacher, are these memes any different than the comments made by the teacher? There are memes that address overbearing parents, annoying student habits, and other common struggles educators face. If a person considered the special education teacher’s comments inappropriate, it would be interesting to see how that same person would react to these memes.

As teachers, we strive for inclusion and equality within the classroom environment. It should be no different in the public sphere. If comments or observations are offensive to an individual because they refer to a specific grouping of individuals, it is a direct contradiction to the basic moral argument that person would make. All students should be considered equal in and out of the classroom. Promoting any group as superior or inferior, especially for the sole purpose of earning “clicks”, does a disservice to those who work so hard to defend the inclusive standard.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11-year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

Time for higher standards in local reporting

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Disclaimer: This post evaluates a local media professional’s reporting practices with regard to a story on an area teacher. The teacher who is the subject of the reporting works in the same school district as me; however, I have never met this teacher. This is more a reflection on the disappointing reporting approach and should not be mistaken for my opinion on the teacher’s online comments.

My role as a teacher and media adviser provides me with a unique perspective as local and national media outlets cover educational issues or controversies. This week provided one of those opportunities.

A reporter, Cornelius Hocker, at Valley News Live “broke” a story that a special needs teacher published questionable, vague tweets about students without any discernible identifying factors. I put “broke” in quotes because Mr. Hocker was notified via an anonymous parent complaint, which is an entirely separate, but no less concerning of an issue.

The online public comments for this story (and the reporter’s comments directly to me) are disconcerting. Let me be clear, I’m not taking a position on the morality of the teacher’s social media comments. I take issue with the journalistic approach to this story and what it means for teachers everywhere.

First, let’s examine the journalistic approach. The reporter selected only tweets that fit the narrative for his story. He did not review the district policy or the teacher’s personnel file before publishing the story. (NOTE: He told me later that the policy was added to the online version of the story – incidentally after I linked it in the comments section online) He makes no mention in the story of trying to reach out to the teacher or even if the district has a comment. He simply says that “We reached out to WFPS; We made them aware of the situation.”

We all know that social media comments are public, even with private accounts. However, if comments are pulled out of context it could place a more negative light on the subject. Were there any posts that praised students?  The four published tweets Mr. Hocker focused on were published within a six month time period. For instance, this is another social media post from that same teacher:

Failure to provide context for the published tweets seems like an almost intentional attempt to shed as negative a light as possible on this individual. In fact, the reporter uses the fact that the teacher shut down the account as justification for the story.


This contradicts all ethical considerations for professional journalists. The most important guideline, especially when dealing with private individuals, is the concept that journalists should minimize harm. This concept focuses on the idea that journalists should treat subjects, sources, colleagues and the public as people deserving of respect. It’s clear in the lack of research and context provided here, the reporter chose to sidestep this ethical standard. This single tweet from Mr. Hocker harshly critiquing the subject of his story shows his inability to meet this standard.


As a former media professional and current adviser to incoming journalists, I would hope community members would hold our media professionals to a higher standard.

In fact, if we take Mr. Hocker’s reporting approach and apply it to his own social media presence, we may find his official VNL (Valley News Live) Twitter account may violate his own company’s policy. Valley News Live is owned by Gray Television. In their handbook, they explain the importance of remaining objective with regard to partisan politics. It states:

“Gray’s image as a neutral and objective news organization is an indispensable journalistic attribute. The Company therefore expects that all employees will keep their personal political interests and affiliation separate and distinct from their employment with Gray and its affiliated stations. In addition, everyone involved in the production of news or editorial content must avoid situations that might be seen as compromising the integrity and impartiality that the employee, the employee’s news team, Gray’s stations, and Gray must maintain.”

For background, Mr. Hocker’s own blog, which appears to be from college, sheds some light on his political affiliation. Regarding a Fox news commentary program he states “I will never watch Fox News again.” Regarding the 2012 debates and former President Barack Obama he states, “My candidate, and President, misspoke on a few topics, but there is a difference between mixing up facts and completely changing your platform. I’m happy with how my President handled himself and I’m looking forward to the upcoming debates”

As a private blog from prior to his employment with Gray Television, these comments would not necessarily fall under the handbook guidelines. However, looking at Mr. Hocker’s official VNL Twitter timeline, partisan politics seems to appear


Mr. Hocker’s political allegiance is pretty clear through these messages from his professional VNL account. Whether it violates the Gray Television policy is not for me to decide, but a professional reporter overtly providing partisan opinions from a professional account should be concerning.

This apparent bias is especially concerning in the situation involving a public school employee. It is difficult to see this reporting as anything other than commentary when considering the reporter’s professional bias and lack of journalistic decency. This becomes even more disheartening considering the reporting stemmed from a single, anonymous, parent complaint.

As a public school teacher who interacts with hundreds of students each year and who has dealt with my share of parental concerns, I would hope professional media members would dig a little deeper before shedding a negative light on another professional. At a time when society is reevaluating effective reporting and public schools are under attack, there needs to be a higher ethical standard for which we all strive to achieve.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The art of balancing expression

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Given my history, readers can assume I am a strong believer in free speech and expression. In order to achieve growth and progress in education, there needs to be a balance between professional responsibility among teachers and educational policy. Unfortunately, in my district it seems as though the scales are increasingly becoming tipped toward personnel policy management.

This past summer, my district passed a new employee speech policy. The policy went into effect without much fanfare or publicity, which is another disappointing lack of transparency. The first line of the policy states “Speech made as a school district employee is not constitutionally protected.” The policy also includes “Speech made by staff in their official capacity as school district employees shall furthermore be in keeping with the district’s mission statement.” Incidentally, my district mission statement is “Educating today’s learners for tomorrow’s world.” Guidelines and policies governing employee speech are a necessity in today’s reality; however, these restrictions seem to not only be legally questionable, but also an effort to suppress employee expression to protect district liability.

The legality of the first statement in the policy is concerning. Supreme Court cases Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) reveal that this statement is inaccurate. In fact, the Tinker majority decision states “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door.” Overreaching statements stating employees are “not constitutionally protected”(and the last statement of the student publications policy) cause unnecessary self-censorship and result in an educational learning experience that fails to meet the district mission.

To complicate the speech restrictions, district officials also implemented a social media policy where it explains “… all West Fargo Public Schools social media accounts are a voice for the school district.” The social media requirements include creating the account with a district email and sharing the password with district officials. In addition to the security red flags, this system of communication is neither authentic nor meant to continue a conversation about improving the academic environment. If employees feel they can’t share their opinions openly and honestly in a public forum, any organization will struggle to improve.

In his book Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros encourages administrators and leaders to “create the conditions where innovation in education flourishes.” He adds “Our job as educators and leaders is not to control others but to bring out the best in them.” It’s important to remember that a “pile on” of restrictive policies can hurt teacher retention and prohibit innovative thinking from both students and teachers. Just as strict Internet filters limit a student’s ability to stretch his/her thinking via limiting resources, strict policies on employee speech prevent a free flow of ideas to assist with improvement of the overall educational experience.

My advocacy for student expression is directly related to my philosophy that students need to operate in an environment that will help them sharpen their citizenship skills and prepare them to be productive members of their future communities. In this same way, district administrators should foster expression among staff members to encourage fresh ideas and innovative changes. If staff members are leery of expressing their challenges on the status quo, creating a digital footprint or using controversial current events for class discussion, it only serves to weaken this citizenship standard and short-change our students.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.






Value in transparency 

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I have always been a firm believer in transparency. That’s probably what drew me to journalism early in my career. I believe in the role of the press to keep public entities accountable and always respected those organizations that operated with true transparency.

This is why scholastic journalism plays such an important role in today’s schools. Students are telling stories that some might consider controversial. These stories lead to a bigger dialogue on the issue covered. Last year, a student published a story about a student who had been bullied and sought freedom by transferring schools. Obviously, not terrific PR for the district, but an important issue to discuss. A local media outlet picked up the story and other students started stepping forward, feeling more courageous after seeing this young man’s bravery. It all began with the student press.

In August of 2015, North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act went into effect. It protects student journalists from being prevented from telling these stories. It also requires all school districts create a policy outlining their students’ press freedoms. Ironically, in 2008, before being terminated as newspaper adviser, I asked my district to create such a policy in order to provide transparent direction and guidelines. The legal counsel for the school board informed me that the district would prefer to not have a policy because they like the “flexibility” they currently have. That was disappointing to hear at the time, but made more sense after being removed. Transparency obviously was not valued at that time.

In late August of 2015, I offered to assist in the creation of the policy, figuring my years of experience and certifications in the area might help. I was informed the district is seeking input from its legal counsel (that’s right, same legal counsel from 2009) and the North Dakota School Board Association. A spokesperson told me they would seek input from district media advisers soon. A meeting was set with advisers and administrators for the end of October. We met and I voiced my concerns about the final line of the policy “The superintendent’s decision is binding.” I explained this seemed a little undemocratic and, while we currently have a superintendent who would remain objective, that might not always be the case. Afterall, the former superintendent was the primary factor in my removal in 2009. I was told these concerns would be discussed with the current superintendent. Unfortunately, I discovered that the student publications policy was officially adopted Sept. 29th, a month before we met. This was far from transparent.

I understand the district schedules meetings and evaluates policies based on a predetermined timeline. The disappointing factor in this scenario is the lack of clarity on what had already been accomplished. Failing to provide a clear picture of their policy direction should not be surpising for a district that has seven policies governing general public relations and only one policy governing organizational communication. If district leaders truly value professional input and advocate for teachers, they would reconsider the current organizational communication method.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The reality of transition

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Yesterday I was visiting with my wife, an instructional coach in the same district, about the difficult days leading up to the school year. Our three daughters are adjusting to different schedules, we are trying to prepare professionally all while trying to soak up the last summer days together. My wife, Tamara, eloquently calls it “the reality of transition.”

It reminded me of this:


This transition is made more difficult due to a documented lack of engagement in the profession. A “Fast Company” article by Brandon Busteed references a Gallup poll stating that 69 percent of educators are engaged in their work and “teachers are dead last among all professions Gallup studied in saying their ‘opinions count’ at work and their ‘supervisors create an open and trusting environment.'” With these numbers, it’s no wonder that almost three quarters of teachers dread the coming school year.

Teachers are not alone in the tumult of transition. This same Gallup poll found engagement drops dramatically among students as they progress through school. In elementary school, 76 percent of students feel engaged, while only 44 percent of high school students feel engaged. The lack of engagement among both teachers and students should alarm all educational professionals. It is hard to quantify the countless hours I spent modifying curriculum requirements to attempt a more engaging approach with students. Now I’m beginning to think we need to start reimagining the process, rather than enhancing the existing strategies.

In his TedX video “The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools”, Will Richardson quotes author Seymour Sarason when describing the learning process. Sarason wrote “Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.” The term “productive learning” resonated with me. In my career, I have struggled to instrinsically motivate students to engage with my curriculum. I used to joke, “if I could solve student motivation issues, I would be rich.” I even went before ND English teachers and presented various tools to help students engage with curriculum. I now think I was searching for solutions within the prescribed curricular box.

While reading George Couros book “Innovator’s Mindset” he discussed the topic of engagement. He writes “Engagement is a good thing, but I’ve since learned that we must also empower students and equip them with the skills to learn. It is imperative that we teach learners how to be self-directed and guide their own learning, rather than rely on others to simply engage them.” He uses this graphic from Bill Ferriter to clarify his message. 

Transitioning into the upcoming school year, I do not consider myself in the 69 percent of unengaged teachers (although that may have been true in the past). This is primarily because I’m in the process of reimagining my classroom. I’m hoping students will be surprised when they discover their student-centered English course is unlike anything they have experienced before. This will involve a student-centered approach where they will be managers of their own learning experience. It will involve professional community mentors to help students bridge that gap to their next steps. And it will involve authentic products for authentic, real-world audiences.

Late summer has a new feel in my household. My wife, in her new role as a coach, is excited to assist new teachers in their quest to provide the best possible instruction for their students. It is also the first time in years where I have been excited to get back into the classroom. I’m always searching for new strategies and philosophies to provide my students an advantage upon graduation. Offering opportunities for “productive learning” will provide the transforming transition I need, but more importantly my students deserve.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The antsy time of year

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We are two-thirds of the way through our school year. Usually, this is the time period in which students start to get antsy. Winter is dragging on, gray skies remain consistent and school breaks are rare. While that may be the case again this year, I also find myself becoming increasingly unsettled as the year progresses.

My uneasiness this year is a culmination of years of reflection on my classroom mission. My district has taken on new initiatives the past few years (as all districts do) to solve the well-documented, disconnected nature between high school graduates and work place preparedness. One emphasis has been allowing teachers to communicate with business professionals in the area, discussing the skills they most want to see in potential employees and focusing on the four C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication). Another emphasis is more data-driven and focused on curriculum continuity and viability. We have aligned ELA curriculum to the ND Common Core State Standards and redesigned units to address possible gaps. We have created common unit assessments, focusing on what we believe to be the most important standards, and we are required to meet and discuss assessment results to evaluate our teaching effectiveness. The implementation of these two areas no doubt costs money and time. However, these initiatives are becoming increasingly  contradictory.

The research and literature discussing skill-building for today’s work force mostly addresses the same concept: schools are missing the most important factors for encouraging future success. In his book Why School?, Will Richardson argues that schools are becoming obsolete. He says we are still operating under an “old world” system when teachers and information were scarce, instead of the current abundance of information that is reality. He says we should be focusing on “preparing students to be learners, above all, who can successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips. It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up.” Instead of creating “learners”, it feels like we are putting an emphasis on the most assessable skills, not the most important.

Earlier this year my team created a learning goal for students for the purpose of evaluating our own professional growth. Of course, like many districts across the country, it needed to fit the parameters of a SMART goal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). We were told to look at the skills we value most at our grade level and attempt to build student growth. Here’s the problem, as a freshmen English team, we struggled to find ways to measure the most valuable skills we wanted students to attain. This struggle was multi-faceted: 1) the goal window consisted of 60 school days, or one-third of the year 2) we needed the assessment to be uniform and 3) it had to be an important skill set. As the graph below represents, the most important skills are the most difficult to assess, especially given the time parameters set forth by a SMART goal.




As a team, we settled on improving students’ comma usage to meet 80 percent proficiency according to a uniform scoring rubric. I can barely type it without getting bored. Ironically enough, an administrator rejected it and explained that “comma usage did not seem like something we have a passion for.” That is 100 percent correct. Unfortunately, all the areas we are passionate about are difficult to assess given the SMART goal parameters: critical thinking, resiliency, empathy, curiosity, creativity, etc. To appease the process, we broadened the goal and focused more on student growth than students reaching proficiency. It was still a “basic skill” on the “less important” side of the scale, but definitely easier to provide a uniform, viable assessment.

The process reminded me of a post from a couple of years ago by Dean Shareski (@shareski). He says I’m not anti-measurement. I’m anti- simple. It’s the same reason I hated SMART goals. When the concept was first introduced to me as a teacher it seemed to make sense.  You can’t improve what you can’t measure I was told. However, in all the years I was subjected to that idea, I don’t think I ever wrote one that I cared about. The moment I tried created a goal I realized it would be hard to measure. So instead I focused on writing goals that were easy to measure just to be able to say I had a SMART goal.” Like Shareski, I believe in accountability and student growth, but it should be more flexible to meet the needs of today’s learners. 

We need to align our purpose. We can’t continue to restrict student assessments to a simplified, out-dated system and expect to prepare them for an ever-changing employment environment of complexity and “abundance.” In his book, Richardson refers to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) definition of 21st Century Literacies. He argues that the majority of students today are graduating “illiterate” by these standards. It is hard to disagree when we are required to narrow our focus to meet a restricting criteria.

It won’t be as simple or cut and dry, but we should look at systems that evaluate today’s 21st Century literacies. This also means examining a self-directed professional development approach and a longer, messier process to measure professional effectiveness. In the end, it will allow us to evaluate whether we are really developing “learners”.  It will provide more meaningful results that will have an impact on student learning for years to come.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

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