Oooh! Scary! What Would Happen if Pennsylvania Passed the Wolf Budget?

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Gather round the campfire, children, and hear a story to chill the very marrow in your bones!

Let me turn off the lights and point this yellow flashlight beam on my face as I share a tale of terror straight from the Pennsylvania legislature!

Imagine – if you will – a Commonwealth that has invested in public education.

The schools are pristine palaces to learning and self-actualization.

Class sizes are down. We’ve rehired the 25,000 teachers we sacked four years ago to balance the books. All children get arts, music, science labs, foreign languages, sports and extra-curricular activities. Even amenities like school nurses and guidance counselors have been restored.

Children from all walks of life enter those hallowed halls and no matter their family background, parental education, income, race or social class, they leave fully functioning adult citizens ready to lead our state into a brighter future.

But!

Oh the horrendous but!

No one can afford toilet paper!

I know, children! It’s enough to shrink your sphincter with dread!

We’d pay for this educational utopia with an anal Armageddon!

Even the name of our fair state would have to change to Poopsylvania!

Educated urchins would roam the streets hunting for any scrap of angel softness. It would be bathroom chaos from the City of Phila-dookie-ah to the streets of Shittsburgh!

Because… TAXES!

Such is the horror story being told by Pennsylvania Republicans about Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal.

They softly intone the words, “tax hike,” while squeezing the Charmin tightly to their chests.

Fortunately, they’re just talking out of their butts.

Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget WOULD increase education funding. In fact, it would heal the $1 billion in annual education cuts made by the previous administration.

To do so, the freshman governor has proposed an ambitious new tax plan.

Much income would be generated from a proposed severance tax on natural gas extraction, closing tax loopholes and other cost savings. However, the sticking point for fiscal conservatives is a plan to reduce local property taxes while increasing income and sales taxes.

“Tax hike!” they scream tearing out fistfuls of grey hair. But if you’re raising taxes on one thing and reducing them on something else, at the end of the day are you really raising taxes?

It depends.

In short, homeowner’s property tax bills will go down, but grocery bills will go up.

Some consumer analysts are projecting toilet paper, for example, to go up a whole six cents on the dollar!

This is where conservatives offer us a Sophie’s Choice: will your kids learn how to read and write or will you get to wipe your butt?

Apparently there is no middle ground.

But this isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a simple question of math. Would most people save enough from the property tax reduction to come out ahead of the increased sales and income taxes?

The answer? According to the Wolf administration, the poor and middle class will end up paying less, while the rich will end up paying more. The average family would receive a net tax decrease of about 13%.

Tax savings would depend on several factors – income, whether you own or rent your home, which school district you live in, and how much you spend on taxable items each year.

If this seems too complex to you, far right think tanks have simplified the matter to a pure “The Sky is Falling” scenario.

The Heritage Foundation estimates Wolf’s budget would cost families an additional $1,400 a year. However, this estimate is highly contested. No one seems to be able to show where it comes from, how it was calculated or to prove that it truly takes into account the cost savings from reduced property taxes.

It’s an amorphous number, floated in obscurity in great need of being flushed away.

More over, these gloom and doom calculations are clearly politically motivated. A few years ago, Republicans proposed a similar plan, themselves!

That’s right! Conservatives had no problem offsetting property taxes with increased sales taxes when it was the GOP proposing it! However, when almost-the-same-plan comes out of the mouths of Democrats, it’s suddenly a three-ply catastrophe!

Property tax relief has been a major issue for both Democrats and Republicans in the Commonwealth for decades.

Pennsylvania has one of the worst tax codes in the country. Currently, the less income you bring home, the higher percent you pay in taxes.

This is true for taxpayers nationwide, but in the Keystone state we take it to a whole new level.

This is largely due to unequal property taxes. The Commonwealth’s poorest households pay nearly 4% of their total income on their homes, while the wealthiest pay just 1.6%. This is a much larger difference than in most states. Wolf’s new tax plan would address this inequality directly making for a fairer distribution of costs for the average resident.

The problem is even worse for our public schools that are forced to rely far too heavily on property taxes. The Commonwealth only pays 36.1% of the cost of education. This is far below the national average of 45.5%, and ranks 45th in the nation. Wolf’s budget would bring state spending up to 50% – more in line with what the rest of the country invests in its children.

Add to this a funding formula that would ensure poorer schools get a fair distribution of the pie, and you get a whole mess of education equity. A whole mess that Republicans want to wipe away.

It is a sad commentary on our right-leaning legislators that they’re pissing and moaning about putting back the funds this year that they had no problem stripping away four years ago.

After one term of a Republican governor, Pennsylvania is the laughing stock of the country in terms of education. We spend less on our poor students compared to our rich ones than ANY OTHER STATE!

That’s right! When it comes to cheating impoverished kids out of an education, we’re number one!

Nationwide, rich schools already spend on average 15.6% more than high poverty schools. But in Pennsylvania, the difference is 33%!

We are systematically short-changing our neediest children year-after-year, and there are actually people out there who can look at you with a straight face and complain about toilet paper!?

But you know what? Let’s entertain this criticism for a moment.

Let’s say that the Commonwealth Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and a host of other far right think tanks are correct. Wolf’s budget taxes things it shouldn’t.

Does that mean you scrap the whole education funding plan? Or does it mean you find the money elsewhere?

Do we just shrug, clutch the bathroom tissue to our chests and walk away? Or do we make education a statewide priority?

Even Wolf’s budget reduces taxes for corporations and big business. Perhaps we could generate some revenue there instead of in the toiletry aisle.

It’s funny how you never hear that offered as a solution.

The reason? They don’t give a shit about poor kids. Even if they had reams of toilet paper!

So the next time you hear someone try to sell you on this bogus bathroom Catch 22 – turn up your nose.

It’s not a question of toilet paper or education.

It’s not a question of the butt or the brain.

It’s a question of conscience.


NOTE: This article also appeared in the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl from Toxic Testing

FATHERS-AND-DAUGHTERS

I’ll admit it – I was scared.

I’m a nationally board certified teacher with a masters degree in education. I’ve taught public school for over a dozen years. But I’ve only been a daddy for half that time.

Would making this call get my little girl in trouble?

I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer because her old man is making a fuss. I didn’t want her teachers and principal giving her a hard time because of something I did.

But I couldn’t deny what I know.

Standardized testing is destroying public education. It’s stressing kids out by demanding they perform at levels they aren’t developmentally ready to reach. And its using these false measures of proficiency to “prove” how bad public schools are so they can be replaced by for-profit charters that will reduce the quality of kids’ educations to generate profits.

No. There was no doubt about it. I had to make this phone call.

I used my most professional voice on the line with the principal.

“Hi, Mr. Smith. This is Steven Singer. I’m Amy’s father. I know she’s just in kindergarten but it’s come to my attention she’s taking standardized tests, and I’d like to opt her out.”

Before my little girl started school, I hadn’t even realized there were standardized tests in kindergarten. She takes both the DIBELS and the GRADE test.

He seemed surprised, even a bit fearful, but he quickly suggested a meeting with me, my daughter’s teacher, the councilor and a few others to get it done.

It was my turn to be surprised. I had expected to be asked to review the tests before writing a formal letter citing my “religious” reason for refusal. But I guess things are different before students reach third grade. Without legislation mandating a formal process, we needed to meet and discuss like adults.

And a few weeks later, here I was waiting for that meeting to begin.

It wasn’t long before my daughter’s teacher arrived. We chatted briefly about a fire drill and how my sweetheart hadn’t been afraid. Then the councilor, principal and others came in and ushered us into the conference room.

Most of the space was taken up by a long rectangular table surrounded by black leather chairs on wheels. It looked like the kind of place where important decisions are made – a bit imposing really.

We sat down and Mr. Smith introduced me to the team and told them I had some concerns about standardized testing.

He paused letting me know it was my turn to speak. I took out my little notebook, swallowed and began.

“Let me start by saying I think the education my daughter is receiving here is top notch,” I said.

“Her teacher is fabulous, the support staff do a wonderful job, and I could not be happier with the services she’s receiving here.

“My ONLY concern is standardized tests. In general, I’m against them. I have no problem with teacher-created tests, just not the standardized ones.

“It’s come to my attention that my daughter takes the DIBELS and GRADE test. Is that correct?”

They nodded.

“As you know, I teach at the secondary level and proctor the GRADE test to my own students. I’m sure the version given to elementary children is somewhat different, but I know first hand how flawed this assessment is.

“Put simply, it’s not a good test. It doesn’t assess academic learning. It has no research behind it to prove its effectiveness and it’s a huge waste of time where kids could be learning.”

I paused to see them all nodding in agreement.

In many ways, the GRADE is your typical standardized test. Vocabulary, sentence completion, passage comprehension – fill-in-the-bubble nonsense.

Mr. Smith blushed in agreement. He admitted that he probably shouldn’t be so candid but the district probably wouldn’t give the GRADE test if it didn’t receive a Keystone to Opportunity Grant for doing so. When and if the grant runs out, the district probably would stop giving the test, he said.

It’s an old story – the same as at my own district. Two school systems serving high poverty populations bribed with extra money if they spend a large chunk of it on Pearson testing and remediation.

“As to the DIBELS,” I went on, “I had to really do some research. As something that’s only given at the elementary level, it’s not something I knew much about.

“However, after reading numerous scholarly articles on the subject, I decided it wasn’t good for my daughter either.”

When taking the DIBELS, the teacher meets with a student one-on-one while the child reads aloud and is timed with a stopwatch. Some of the words the child is asked to read make sense. Some are just nonsense words. The test is graded by how many words the child pronounces correctly in a given time period.

“My concern is that the test doesn’t assess comprehension,” I said. “It rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.

“Moreover, there is a political side to the test since it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch. Cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.

“Finally, focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help my daughter become a better reader.”

I closed my notebook and looked around the table.

Silence.

I thought that maybe I hadn’t done enough research. I had been too quick and simple.

But the team quickly agreed with me. And when Mr. Smith saw that, I noticed his cheeks darkening.

He stuttered a few words before giving up. “I’ve never had a parent ask to opt out of the DIBELS before,” he said.

He said the DIBELS is a piece of the data teachers use to make academic decisions about their students. Without it, how would they know if their children could read, were hitting certain benchmarks?

“I know I teach secondary and that’s different than elementary,” I said, “but there is not a single standardized test that I give my kids that returns any useful information.

“I don’t need a test to tell me if my students can read. I don’t need a test to know if they can write or spell. I know just by interacting with them in the classroom.”

The fear was still in his eyes. He turned to my daughter’s teacher. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot here, but what do you think? Does the DIBELS provide you with useful information?” he asked.

The look on her face was priceless. It was like someone had finally asked her a question she had been waiting years to answer.

“No,” she said. “I don’t need the DIBELS to know if my kids can read.”

It was all down hill from there.

I agreed to revisit the situation if a problem arose but teacher recommendation will take the place of the DIBELS in the meantime.

Conversation quickly turned to hilarious anecdotes of my daughter’s school antics. What she said to get in trouble last week. How she tries to get adults to put on her coat when she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself.

I left the building feeling really good. This is the way it’s supposed to be.

Before we signed up my little girl for school, I had been nervous about her attending my home district. I wasn’t sure it was good enough for her. The papers said it was a failing school. I wanted so much to ensure my baby would have the best of everything – the best I could provide.

My district may not have the most up-to-date facilities. It may not have the smallest classes. But it has a team of dedicated educators and administrators who are committed to meeting the needs of their students.

Even Mr. Smith’s hesitancy is understandable. I don’t blame him one bit. He probably thinks DIBELS scores make an elementary principal like him look good. Kids starting from scratch only can go up. The scores can only improve.

Moreover, he sat down with me and heard me out. He may not have entirely agreed with me – in fact at times he looked at me like I had a third arm growing out of my forehead – but he respected my parental rights.

It wasn’t until then that I realized the power parents truly have. Mr. Smith might have refused a TEACHER who brought up all of the concerns I had. He’s their boss. He trusts his own judgment.

But I don’t work for him. In fact, he works for me. And – to his credit – he knows that.

I know everyone isn’t as lucky as me. Some people live in districts that aren’t as receptive. But if parents rose up en masse and spoke out against toxic testing, it would end tomorrow.

If regular everyday Dads and Moms stood up for their children and asked questions, there would be no more Race to the Top, Common Core or annual standardized testing.

Because while teachers have years of experience, knowledge and love – parents have the power.

Imagine if we all worked together! What a world we could build for our children!


NOTE: Small details may have been changed to protect the innocent.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: This article also was published in the Washington Post, Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Teach for America – What a Stupid Idea! (Or is it?)

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Welcome to the Hall of Stupid Ideas!

I’ll be your guide through this section of the museum.

Moving past the hall of phrenology, past the flat earth wing and the newly renovated rotunda of climate change denial, we come to one of my favorite displays – Teach for America or TFA.

This really is a very dumb idea.

Imagine, if you will, a country besieged by an education crisis! In this case, a shortage of teachers.

To meet the needs of this deficiency, we hire a slew of poorly trained college grads to fill-in the gaps.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Young go-getters ready to take a stand and help the country by devoting themselves to our little children.

Yet it’s just so much bullshit.

You see the problem is real. We DO need more teachers – especially at our poorest schools. However, the same people who are promoting TFA are the ones who caused this shortage in the first place.

As public school budgets are slashed at both the state and federal level, local districts are forced to furlough more-and-more educators. Students are stuffed into larger classes and forced to do without the arts, foreign languages, technology courses, anything that isn’t on our federally mandated standardized tests.

So there IS a real shortage of teachers in the classroom, but there is NO shortage of unemployed teachers.

More than 300,000 teachers are out of work. These are people with at least a bachelors degree in education – many of whom have even more experience in the classroom actually teaching kids.

You might think that we could just allocate funding and hire them! Right!?

Wouldn’t that be better?

We could fill our public schools with dedicated education professionals instead of lightly trained temps.

Because this is what Teach for America is providing. TFA recruits get 5 weeks training and only have to sign on for a two-year commitment.

So those advocating for TFA insist it’s somehow better to give a child an instructor who has a few weeks training versus someone with a 4-or-5-year degree and who has real life experience on the job!

It’s staggering isn’t it?

Now this would never fly in most neighborhoods. Imagine trying to convince the rich that their children would be best served by this kind of scheme. They’d riot!

But this scam is almost exclusively perpetrated in poor neighborhoods because that’s where our state and federal governments cut funding. In rich neighborhoods, they can just raise local property taxes to give their children all the best that money can buy. In poor neighborhoods, this isn’t an option. They rely on state and federal tax dollars to give their kids a fair start in life so they can equally compete in the job market.

Well, the joke’s on you, poor people!

Rich folks are selling you substandard teachers and pretending like it’s philanthropy!

You’d think this scheme would be laughed out of existence but many national news sources praise it to the sky! They even make excuses when research proves how ineffective the whole scheme is!

Take this report from March 2015 concluding that students taught by TFA recruits score no better on standardized tests than those of traditional teachers.

Time Magazine – yes, THAT Time Magazinepublished an article claiming that this proved TFA was a success!

Look! It’s just as effective as bachelor-degree-holding-teachers!

However, all it really shows is that judging an instructor – whether TFA or not – based on student test scores is ridiculous!

(Yes,Value-Added Measures are coming up later in the tour. But I’m getting ahead of myself!)

Standardized test scores have been shown time-and-again to measure the student’s parental income – not academic abilities.

So you would expect poor students to have lower test scores than rich students – no matter how well-trained their instructors are!

Which leaves us with motivation. Why would anyone still advocate for TFA?

Answer: because it’s actually not a dumb idea at all!

It’s an evil one!

The whole point of this sham is to serve the needs of the privatization movement.

Investors want to change public education into a cash cow. They want to alter the rules so that corporations running districts can cut services for children and use the extra cash for profits.

And that starts with teachers.

If we allow privatizers to replace well-prepared and trained teachers with lightly trained temps, we can reduce the salaries we pay instructors. We delegitimize the profession. We redefine the job “teacher.” It’s no longer a highly-trained professional. It’s something anyone can do from off the street – thus we can pay poverty wages.

And the savings from cutting salaries can all go into our corporate pockets!

This kind of flim-flam would never be allowed with our present crop of highly trained professionals because many of them belong to labor unions. We have to give them the boot so we can exterminate their unions and thus provide easy pickings for the profiteers.

There’s no question that this scheme is bad for children.

But that’s not the point for TFA advocates. It’s all about money.

I guess this is as good a time as any to reveal the name of the wing we’ve just entered – Corporate Education Reform!

Here we’ll see many more exhibits displaying ideas that appear just as stupid as TFA but are really as intelligent as they are immoral.

What’s that, little boy? Who’s that man pictured above the archway? That’s Bill Gates.

Step right this way to the Common Core display…


Movie Extra:

-This article also appeared in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

It’s a Badass Film Festival! Closeup on Corporate School Reform!

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I blog.

I write.

I look at the devastation, the hopes and promise of our public school system, and I report it to the world.

It seems a futile pursuit some days. Does anyone actually read this stuff? Or am I just talking to myself?

The hit counter tells me that, yes, indeed, there are people out there clicking on my humble little gadflyonthewallblog. Comments appear under my Facebook posts. My tweets get retweeted. Followers and friends multiply.

But I wonder sometimes about all the sets of eyes that see a block of text under my name and just keep on scrolling.

Would the minds connected to those eyes have understood? Would they have been spurred to action? Might they have been just the people we need to turn the tide and take back our education system?

And I answer: maybe.

So today’s entry is an attempt to get those roving, impatient orbs to stop, look and see.

Because today I bring not just words but pictures. Movies, in fact.

But first some background.

This whole enterprise began by accident. My school district received a $360,000 donation from Apple and Bill Campbell so every student could have an iPad for use in class.

The program will be rolled out next year, but teachers have already been given devices and some minimal training.

We were encouraged to play around with the devices to find applications for our students next year. One such app we were told to explore was iMovie.

I made a brief preview trailer for S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” – one of the novels my students read. I thought it might make a good lesson on theme for next year’s kids.

However, in doing the assignment, I wondered what it might look like if I made a similar short movie about corporate education reform. After all, I spend a lot of my off hours writing about it. Why not try another medium?

Let me be clear. I did NOT use school equipment. I have my own personal iPad at home. It’s not nearly as nice as the ones the students will be using. In fact, I had to pay for a few upgrades to get it up to similar specs.

But once I did, it was a simple matter to make the “OPT OUT OF STANDARDIZED TESTING” movie you see here:

The newest version of the program provides several short preview templates in various movie genres. All you have to do is insert pictures or video and change the text to suit your purposes. In some cases, I had to extend the templates so they’d fit the topic I was tackling.

I was kind of tickled by the result so I shared it with my fellows at the Badass Teachers Association. I serve on the Leadership Team. And in a moment of whimsy I had designated my film a production of “Badass Films.”

They seemed really taken with it. They loved the idea of having our own film studio – even if it was just a hand-held Apple device.

With the power of an organization representing more than 54,000 people, they promoted my first little film on their YouTube channel. They pushed it out on twitter and facebook. Even Education Historian Diane Ravich gave it a push and a very kind review.

They asked me to make more. I did.

My fellow BATS helped me decide on topics, made suggestions for revisions, helped provide photos and even made a kick ass mock movie poster for each film!

And every day they’d send out into the ether a reminder that Badass Films is coming soon!

I hope you enjoy them.

Without further ado, here are the remaining 12 Badass Films:


COMMON CORE

On YouTube


CHARTER SCHOOL TREASURE HUNT

On YouTube


V.A.M. SHAM

On YouTube


SCHOOL TO PRISON PIPELINE

On YouTube


SOCIAL JUSTICE

On YouTube


TEACH FOR AMERICA

On YouTube


TEACHERS UNIONS

On YouTube


TEACHER TENURE

On YouTube


PENSION THEFT

On YouTube


SCHOOL “CHOICE”?

On YouTube


BADASS TEACHERS ASSOCIATION

On YouTube


G.E.R.M. – Global Education Reform Movement

On YouTube


So there you have it. Badass Films.

I’m hoping these short videos can serve as a primer for our fight against the standardization and privatization movement.

People who wouldn’t sit to read an entire blog entry might stop long enough to watch a less than 2 minute film. And – hey – videos are like potato chips – you can’t stop at just one!

Some might criticize this project as being shallow. How can you really explain a topic like the School to Prison Pipeline or even Common Core in such a short span?

Well, you can’t. But these are meant to be attention-getters. I only hope they’ll spark interest. There are so many sources for more information – many of them previous articles published on this very blog!

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How did I do? Are these films successful? Will they help the fight against factory schools?

Feel free to leave a comment and certainly to share this blog or any of the individual videos.

Special thanks to all the BATS who helped bring this project to completion. You earn the name “Badass” every day!

As for me? I will continue to write.

To blog.

And – when possible – make movies.


This article was also published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Coming Soon – Badass Films!

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Quick! Somebody microwave Bill Gates a bag of popcorn!

Fluff up Arne Duncan’s favorite pillow!

Get Chris Christie some Sour Patch Kids!

A lot of Sour Patch Kids!

Because the show is about to begin!

Coming Friday, March 6, I’ll be launching Badass Films.

This new venture is a division of the Badass Teachers Association (BATs). Your humble blogger is a member of the leadership team.

I’ve made 12 very short films about corporate school reform and the grassroots movement that fights against it.

They’re nothing fancy – just something I whipped up with imovie. But I hope they’ll help spread the message and get people up to speed on the damage being done to our school system by standardization and privatization. I also hope to shine a light on some of the amazing people out there – parents, teachers, students, and people of conscience – who are fighting against factory schools with all their might.

I already released this film called “Opt Out of Standardized testing:

Friday I’ll release the remaining 11.

Here are the working titles and a few mock movie posters made by our incredible BAT Meme Team:

COMMON CORE

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(Meme by Lisa Smith)

CHARTER SCHOOL TREASURE HUNT

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(Meme by Deb Escobar)

V.A.M. SHAM

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(Meme by Lisa Smith)

SCHOOL TO PRISON PIPELINE

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(Meme by Lisa Smith)

SOCIAL JUSTICE

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(Meme by Lisa Smith)

TEACH FOR AMERICA

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(Meme by Deb Escobar)

TEACHERS UNIONS

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(Meme by Deb Escobar)

TEACHER TENURE

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(Meme by Deb Escobar)

PENSION THEFT

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(Meme by Deb Escobar)

SCHOOL “CHOICE!?”

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(Meme by Lisa Smith)

BADASS TEACHERS ASSOCIATION

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(Meme by Lisa Smith)

I hope you’re as excited as I am! I always wanted to be in the movies! Move over, Orson Welles! Here comes a BAT with an ipad!

See you Friday at the movies! ^O^


This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.