Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Credo for Success (for Teachers and Teacher Educators)

My father, Walter Senkowski, was a very successful business executive who, like many of today's corporate-minded school reformers believed in results.  The results he was after were profits in the heavy construction equipment business and he had faith in his own ability to generate profits for his shareholders, so much so that he tied his own compensation almost completely to the profitability of his company and he encouraged his sales force to think about compensation in the same way.  But he never tried to tie the compensation of his union member service workers to individual performance because he understood that this kind of direct tie to work outputs just couldn't be made with any integrity.  And also important, he always knew that taking care of his employees, financially and personally, was critical to the bottom line with respect to profits and reputation.

I've been thinking about my father as I've been pondering selection criteria (with particular reference to "dispositions") for those entering the teaching profession.  Throughout a career in management and in motivational speaking, Dad articulated what he called a "Credo for Success,"  and these were the dispositions that could get you there:

  • A true sense of urgency
  • A demand for excellence in yourself and others
  • A compelling curiosity to know the things you don't yet understand
  • A driving desire to do the best you know how TODAY
  • A healthy disregard for the way things have been done in the past
My dad expected this of himself and of his employees (and, unquestionably, of his children!) no matter how they were compensated -- and he coached all of us toward this expectation in part by modeling what it looked like and in part by creating the conditions in which these dispositions could be enacted.

I'm not sure that most paths to the teaching profession are marked by these commitments and expectations, by this sense of energy at work, and I suggest that they should be.   One that does captures this tone is Teach for America, the organization that asks its novices to set big goals, invest in kids and families, plan purposefully, execute effectively, continuously increase effectiveness and work relentlessly.   I quite like this about TFA, but I have one biggish caution.  My relentlessly working father (who passed that trait on to his daughter) was careful to teach his employees how to do what needed to be done intelligently (he always reminded me that he was as much a teacher as I was) even as he was asking them to do what they did better.  In university-based (and research-based) teacher education, we are teaching candidates to work better and smarter but, I fear, without a "true sense of urgency" or even "a compelling curiously."  In Teach For America, we are tapping the "demand for excellence" already woven into the character of the candidates selected, but neglecting the coaching and the context-creation that makes the most of the energy generated.

There is a great deal of talk about how effective some TFA teachers are and I don't dispute that.  It's a testimony to what big talent, enormous energy and the habit of holding yourself to high expectations can accomplish.   But imagine how much better they might be if they actually knew what they were doing ... and imagine how much more effective even modestly talented well-prepared teachers might be if they could marshal a sense of urgency, a compelling curiosity, a demand for excellence, a desire to do their best (whatever that is), and especially, a healthy disregard for the way things have been done in the past.  This, as much as teaching high leverage practices and encouraging reflection, is central to the project of teacher education.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Take responsibility not tests!

(Cross-posted at Social Issues)

Lots happening in teaching today and I'll comment on three:

1) Bill Gates and Charlotte Danielson agree with teachers that bubble tests are not the answer to whatever the educational question happens to be. Nonetheless, nobody suggests getting rid of them altogether; just use them sanely (don't, e.g. release teachers' scores to the public) AND keep trying to construct assessments that are both authentic and do-able. Check out http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2012/03/20/gates.html?tkn=YYOFvJReWV7OELHkPh1bCubdpGAVRhUGbVE%2F&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1.

So if the big money (Gates) and the big expertise (Danielson) on the side of angels, why aren't those angels pushing back big time and mounting resistance to the continued foregrounding of standardized tests in educational policy decisions. Barack and Arne, get a grip!

2) Kids in blended schools (on-line plus face to face) like the individualization and autonomy BUT criticize the blended format because they have to take more responsibility for their own learning. YES! I am laughing myself silly and I think Dewey might be chuckling too. Apparently in at least some places blended settings are getting it right and developing kids who are both smart and good (even if they are a little resistant to it at first). But I have to say that I doubt it's "blended learning" per se that is making the difference but an educational approach using digital tools combined with that focus on autonomy and responsibility. And that's been happening in some kinds of alternative schools for a long time. (I'll haul out my oft-used example of Central Park East High School in the early 90s -- but we could go back much further than that).

3) Emily Douglas who was talked out of being a teacher by her teachers who told her they weren't paid enough and they were not respected found her way back to education with Batelle for Kids after a career in human resources. But she's paying attention to the buzz of teachers now and is worried that we are heading for a teacher shortage. And a recent Met Life survey supports that buzz, suggesting that good folks are getting fed up, losing their heart for this critical work, becoming literally "de-moralized" as my friend Doris Santoro points out.

The second story looks to me to be very good news, that in some places at least, technology is being used in just the educational ways we want and need. But the first and third stories are looking like potential opportunities missed unless educators -- and parents -- everywhere stand up and speak differently. Current policy that leads with weak and indefensible forms of standardized testing resulting in high stakes decisions is driving teachers away and we know it doesn't represent the goals that anybody has for any real kids. Forget parent-trigger laws (another of today's stories) and advocate for and help to create educational spaces where the only thing kids can complain about is that they have to take responsibility for their own learning! I love it ....

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Value of College

From an article in the NY Times two weeks ago (June 26, 2011, SR3) ....

If you have a college degree, you make more money no matter what job you end up in, even if that job does not seem to require a college education. College educated dishwashers make $34K compared to high school grads at $19K. College educated hairdressers make $32K versus those with high school diplomas at $19K. (Interestingly, that $19K figure came up a lot as the likely income level for someone who had a high school diploma).

In some fields (e.g., child care worker, dental hygienist), you made a lot more if you had a college degree. In other fields, you made a bit more (e.g. firefighter, social worker). But in some fields, you made about the same amount of money whether you had a college degree or not: cook, secretary, clergy, casino worker and electrician.

I've been wondering what that is about, especially since I am an educator and am surrounded by folks who believe that a college degree is the "ticket to ride."

We have to ask ourselves whether the learning college affords makes a difference or whether the degree functions the way a letter of introduction worked in the 18th century affirming one's goodness or whether the kind of person who goes to college is the kind of person that employers prefer no matter what the qualifications needed. Of course, maybe it's some combination of factors, the answer I'm inclined toward.

I went to college and I learned a lot -- about life, about other people, about myself, about ideas, but I also missed a lot in the college bubble. So when I came out, I had more and different stuff to learn. And I clearly wasn't qualified for any job. ... except maybe any job that required attention to people, to detail and to communication and to take responsibility for what caught my attention.

I'm trying to remember if I was that way when I went in to college and, despite the years, I think the answer is yes. But college was a gift: time to mature, to let the me I was taught to be all along settle in and settle down. And there's no question that a degree from Bucknell University carried with it a certain cachet (but not as much as a degree from Harvard or Stanford would :-). Is this a system that is fair? that maximizes the potential of each and every young person? I'm not so sure.

So here's my (somewhat im-) modest proposal for today given the current high cost of college:
1) make high schools places where kids are coached to pay attention and take responsibility,
2) offer all students a place to mature for a few years -- mandatory community or military service perhaps? -- and ensure that those places/placements offer some kind of useful skills training as well as increasing social responsibility,
3) recommit to the Emersonian view that we Americans (and all citizens of the world) are morally equal, morally entitled to develop our own unique potential so that our contribution to this world is not lost.
4) revitalize democracy as "associated living" (a la Dewey) and encourage public forums (discussion groups, book clubs, etc.) that are broadly educative.

It would be interesting to see how liberal arts learning and vocational training would sort itself out if all four elements mentioned above were in place.

KIPP and Career Building

The Hess interview came on the heels of Feinberg’s announcement that his role in KIPP Houston would change. As KIPP continues to go “Turbo” (with a goal to enroll 10 percent of all the students in Houston), Feinberg will shift from operations to fundraising, advocacy and external relations. His new role smacks a bit of “empire-building” though Feinberg describes it differently.

Using FedEx and the USPS as an analogy, Feinberg argues that once KIPP claims a 10% market share, the schools in Houston will reach a tipping point and have to become more like KIPP. His theory is that folks in Houston will become more vocal and demand better schools as they get left out of the KIPP lottery. And that once the public demands better, the public schools will find a way to improve graduation rates, etc. (The implication of course, is that they could do better now; they just don’t because ….?)

Feinberg notes that KIPP schools in Houston turn down 80 % of those who want to come. He seems to think that this is indicative of near universal dissatisfaction with the public schools but his numbers don’t match up. He says that “winning the lottery to come to KIPP is literally winning the lottery.” The undermeaning seems to be one’s life chances are severely diminished if one doesn’t get KIPPed.

I don’t dispute Feinberg’s figures, but I do wonder if those figures say what he thinks they do. If things are so bad and KIPP is so good, why don’t the other 170,000+ parents in Houston want their kids in KIPP schools? I can think of two reasons: 1) parents are generally happy with their child’s education, or 2) KIPP has already tapped the activist get-the-edge-for-my-kid parent population and will stop before they encounter the reality that public school educators know only too well – that too many parents are too busy or too scared or too unprepared to take an active, constructive role in their child’s education.

Of course, Feinberg’s job shift reveals something very important about these publicly funded private schools. They rely not only on state charter subsidies but also governmental grants (“advocacy”) and private donations (“fundraising” and “external relations”) from folks who support the breakdown of the public school system. In an age of decreased governmental spending, Feinberg’s new job is to take a larger piece of the pie away from public schools.

[This is one not so secret secret of Teach for America’s success as well (besides skimming off the cream from the top of the academic jug). Funding from private sources and federal grants has enabled TFA to offer candidates intensive coaching, something that all teachers need but most graduates of traditional programs don’t get.]

So we are left to follow KIPP’s progress toward 10% enrollment and Feinberg’s progress toward his vision of educational success. I wish him well in finding the “right people” to lead and staff his schools. I agree with him that the key to strong schools is inspired leadership and inspirational teachers. But after 30 years in the business, I know how hard it is to find and identify those people. And I am not yet ready to cede the fate of the Houston public schools to his empire. I wish him well as he pursues his career path, but I see no reason to shift public money away from the other 90% of school students to make his dream for himself come true.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Alisha Coleman-Kiner on LOVE

Please take the time to read this Ed Week commentary by the Principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, TN. BTW was named the "Race to the Top" high school, an honor that earned them a commencement address by President Obama. Principal Alisha Coleman-Kiner explains her "secret" for educational success. Policymakers, attend!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Can "public" survive a (R)epublican attack?

(Reposted from Social Issues)

Every day now there is a news story about education that jerks me to attention. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the new governor announced a budget proposal that cut state funding for higher education by 52%. Funding for local public schools is projected to be significantly lower than last year, a move that will certainly prompt increases in local property taxes even as districts cut teaching positions. Other cost-saving measures are long past scraping flesh off bone. (And cuts for public schools are being proposed at the same time that a new voucher proposal is in the state legislature, a proposal that will further drain public school funding while enabling students to opt out of public schools in favor of parochial schools at taxpayer expense.)

I’ve already figured out what this is about, even as I work against the defunding of public educational opportunities. However, here’s a story I can’t quite figure out -- or maybe I just don’t believe it. The state legislature in Utah has passed a bill that requires schools to teach students that the United States is a compound constitutional republic. This is true and leads me to wonder what they have been teaching.

Apparently, the need for this legislative action is tied to fears (whose?) about indoctrination with respect to pure democracy and socialism. (We apparently have no fears about indoctrination with respect to free market mania or corporate control, both of which seem to me to be more immediate (and more concerning) dangers than either pure democracy or socialism.

As I understand a republican form of government, it can be captured as “majority rule, minority rights” administered by representatives of the people. While I suppose we might quibble about what it really is, I would argue it’s ultimately not a definition to be stipulated but a political stance to be negotiated. Yes, we have a compound constitutional republic, but what does that amount to? We elect representatives following constitutionally-framed procedures and those representatives decide what the majority wants and which minority rights must be honored. And that too is a constantly renegotiated political stance.

While the Founding Fathers (and what about those Founding Mothers anyway?) were pragmatic in their specification of a form of government that was not purely democratic (in both representation and attention to minority concerns), they clearly had democratic aspirations of the kind John Dewey articulated throughout his career. That is, they aspired to a “mode of associated living” marked by communicative competence. While I think it is ducky that students will learn that they live in a constitutional republic, I think it a shame – and an intellectual error -- that they will learn about democracy only as a threat to the American way of life, rather than as a vision that, while admittedly dangerous*, animated the American Revolution and much of American history since that time. (And do I need to mention that socialist and free market economies can exist in constitutional republics, and that more often, as in our case, a nation’s economy is mixed for pragmatic reasons?)

I have the sinking feeling that the defunding of public schools in Pennsylvania at the hands of one of a slew of newly-elected Republican governors is actually very much tied to this legislation in Utah. Both are part of an orchestrated plan to drive a stake through the very concept of “public,” to stipulate what should be negotiated anew with each new political season. Their private interests, their minority rights, are being written into the fabric of governmental and educational possibilities. This should command our attention.

* A nod to Winston Churchill who noted that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others that had been tried. He appreciated the dangers of “mob rule,” but also the vitality of political structures in which all had a stake.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Free speech, flabby thinking and multiculturalism

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the odious Westboro Baptist Church members may disturb military funerals in the name of free speech and folks in Orange County are screaming indignities, obscenities and blasphemies at Muslim American citizens as they enter a fundraiser for a women’s center. (Thanks to Salon for this video.) I have always considered myself a near-radical free speecher (believing that open discourse, even if testy, is better than hidden resentment –- and anyway “Sticks and stones …”) , but maybe I’m just not. Or maybe there are once unthinkable lines that have now been crossed.

Either way, I am rendered speechless. I have no idea what to say about this issue, these actions.

But I am not speechless about a claim made by Ed Royce, one of the (Republican) local politicians who spoke at the Orange County rally before the protest. In fact, I share his worry though not his view of the cause and implications of it.

Royce said that kids in American schools are being taught that “every idea is right, that no one should criticize any other position no matter how odious” and this, I fear, has a ring of truth to it. It is a stance I encounter among the highly intelligent, accomplished and caring undergraduate students at my prestigious university; it is a stance that l too often hear articulated by the teachers with whom I work; it is a stance I see in evidence among students in the local public schools I visit.

Royce blames it on “multiculturalism.” I think he and we have conflated flabby thinking and multiculturalism (or at least Royce and others have), making the oh-too-common error of confusing correlation with causality. Yes, we have multiculturalism (a good thing in that it simply is a human reality and also good in that it provides the difference that is the prompt for new thinking). And yes, there is flabby thinking. Flabby thinking is a failure to interrogate (freely but with respect) any other position until (so that) the community (of knowers and actors) can move toward an assessment of which claims are defensible (and therefore warranted) and which are not. There may be more than one position that we can live with, but this does not mean that “anything goes.”

Mr. Royce’s brand of flabby thinking can be detected in his automatic dichotomizing (my way or the highway, right or wrong, Christian or Muslim).

Educators should be about rooting out flabby thinking of all kinds. And, it seems, rooting out flabby thinking might also be the route to clarifying the value of multiculturalism. And maybe too, the demise of flabby thinking might replace the fear that underlay screaming at funerals and fundraisers with the kind of thoughtful confidence that makes dialogue possible and fruitful.

Fomenting a revolution? Who is?

Update on the situation at McCaskey East High School:

A few weeks ago, I commented on an effort at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, PA to create supportive homerooms (basically advisory groups) for students of color -- and segregated by gender as well. Somehow the effort in this small Pennsylvania city found its way to CNN. (You may also remember Lancaster, PA as the place where surveillance cameras on the streets surrounding Franklin and Marshall College raised a bit of a national fuss.) You know the formula: CNN = big fuss = noisy school board meeting with "outraged" citizens = school board fails to support a thoughtful experiment on the part of the school administration and faculty. As CNN has later reported "School Scraps Race Specific Mentoring Program."

Typically, the reality is a little more complicated than CNN (or any other news outlet) reports. Based on conversations with folks in and out of the school, it appears that the mentoring opportunities were not "scrapped" so much as they were made open or optional.

What is worth noting is what is behind some of the opposition to this effort. Specifically, some white citizens reported worries about whether a segregated mentoring program might foment a "black power" vibe. I found myself wondering why exactly that would be bad and for whom? It reminded me of the time several women faculty at my previous institution were standing on a street corner on campus, talking as male members of the administration walked to lunch at the student center. It was pretty clear we were making them nervous just by being "huddled" together -- as they commented while walking by.

I suspect we were only talking about our children or our workload or perhaps (horrors!) the next women's studies faculty development meeting. But after seeing their reactions, we immediately started joking about “fomenting a revolution." So let's keep an eye on who's worried about who is gathering and for what purpose. It may be the worriers who are fomenting something.

(An excellent example of this phenomenon can be found on the mashup of Fox New video clips put together by TPM. These collected clips of the supposed “violence” of the Wisconsin protestors point clearly to the source of any violence being done. Check it out!)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Way to take a shot, McCaskey East!

Cross posted from Social Issues:

In a big high school (so big there are two large buildings located across campus from one another) in a not-very-big city that happens to be my hometown, something is happening that caught the attention of CNN … and then, of course, a host of on-air commentators and bloggers. As one headline put it, “Pennsylvania high school mentoring program resorts to segregation.” LancasterOnline says that Fox News’ Sean Hannity called the program “antiquated, offensive and completely irrational.” Darn, I missed it …

At McCaskey East High School (the newer of the two buildings I mentioned above), faculty and administration made a decision to implement a mentoring program for students of color in the face of a clear and continuing achievement gap between black and white students. After intensive instructional efforts and more than a decade of educational experiments failed to shrink the gap, these educators turned to affiliation and relationship as possible pathways to higher achievement.

The “segregation” is limited to junior class homerooms. For six minutes a day and twenty additional minutes every other week, African American teachers and students gather for a moment of . . . . Well, more on that in a minute.

Buried in the headlines is the fact that this experiment involves homerooms voluntarily divided by race, gender and linguistic diversity, with a homeroom teacher/mentor who is one of them. This is not an unusual experience for white students in most schools around the country, but it is often an unusual experience for students of color and language minorities in a country where the vast majority of teachers -- even in urban areas -- are white and do not speak a second language.

A couple things strike me immediately: first, this is an effort to make homeroom actually about mentoring and not just a place to stand for the pledge of allegiance or a place to sit for morning announcements. Debbie Meier and Central Park East High School (and lots of lesser known efforts around the country) taught us twenty years ago the power of an academic advisor who actually advises, who comes to know students as persons with aspirations too often hidden.

Second, this move comes after significant attention over time to the achievement gap that goes back to the days of Superintendent Vicki Phillips (now the Education Officer with the Gates Foundation) and has continued non-stop since then. A wide variety (maybe too wide, but that’s another post) of well-thought out instructional, curricular and structural efforts (including for example the creation of small learning communities around which the McCaskey East building was constructed) has not made a dent in the test score differences. Perhaps the problem is not only about heads but also about hearts, and about what we do and don’t do when are heads and hearts are not beating together. (None of this is in the news reports of course. I know this because, until this year, I was a resident of Lancaster, PA and a teacher educator who worked with School District of Lancaster staff.)

Third, this program is voluntary. Young men and women who identify as black can choose to be assigned to these homerooms. (It is not clear whether the ELL students are exercising a similar choice). Thus, the school is at least partly bypassing questions around race as a fluid category. In fact, my criticism might be that this option is not available for students who identify as brown or yellow or red – or gay. (Look at the next point to see why this might matter.)

Fourth, adolescents have affiliation needs. Duh! African American developmental psychologist Beverly Tatum, in an engaging book aptly titled, explains Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Of course, the white kids are all sitting together too, but nobody writes a book about that.) With respect to gender, feminist social scientists have made a strong case for the power of all-female environments in developing leadership and efficacy in young women and I don’t know a single guy who went to an all-male school who doesn’t think it was good for him academically. And Lyn Okagaki, Commissioner of Education Research at IES, has found that students’ ethnic identity is positively correlated with school achievement.

My guess is that the folks at McCaskey East wisely figured out that if these homogeneous groups had power for shaping kids’ self-understanding and identity, putting a similarly-identified adult into that group might create a pathway or pipeline for messages that cast academic achievement in a positive light. And remember, this is for homeroom. It is not about segregating kids for instructional purposes.

Now, I am not suggesting this isn’t dangerous. CNN trotted out NYU’s Pedro Noguera who acknowledged that these educators were “well-intentioned” but fretted that they might be inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes by providing students with “support” in race-based groups (no mention of the gender factor or the idea that this homeroom plan applied to everyone). And frankly, the longer Pedro spoke, the more I realized he didn’t know the specifics of this case; he clearly thought that the purpose of this “segregation” was instructional support. But it’s not. It’s about growing into an identity of oneself as a thinker, as a learner, as an academic achiever. Now that can’t be done wholly outside of the process of instruction; initial success is the key to the grounded self-confidence that feeds more risk-taking and more growth and achievement. But there is good reason to think that this kind of relational intervention can help kids of color (as well as young men and young women) frame a place to stand as a person with a mind and a heart and a future.

Of course this is dangerous. Everything is. Education is tricky business with attendant risks at every turn. But as my basketball commentator sister, Mimi Griffin, is fond of saying, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. (She stole that from either Wayne Gretsky or Michael Jordan, depending on whom you believe.)

The folks at McCaskey East are taking a shot. If their shot goes astray, I trust them to figure that out and adjust the next shot. You should too.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tiger Mother Meets Oprah?

Cross-posted from Social Issues:

I’m guessing Amy Chua isn’t gonna show up on the Oprah Winfrey Network?? Or is she?

Is anybody watching OWN? I’m not because I don’t have cable or satellite dish (I moved to a new state several months ago and decided to live without it for a while). I’m not a huge TV watcher so I can’t say that I really miss anything, but I’ve been curious about this new network that sprang into life with the new year. Is it possible to create and inhabit what a New York Times media critic called a “no cynicism zone”?

I’ve been trying to think about Amy Chua in an Oprah-like way, sans “mean-spiritedness” (the same mean-spiritedness that Oprah has banned from the new network and from her programming in general). But it isn’t Oprah that’s really helped me. It’s a mental habit borrowed from rhetorician Peter Elbow described (and prescribed) in a book called Embracing Contraries. Elbow considers the wisdom of practicing “methodological belief” (interpretation through the assumption that the person speaking has good reasons, good motivations and good intentions for what s/he is saying) before employing “methodological doubt” (the Descartes-inspired critical stance that the contents of consciousness -– my own and any other’s intuition and claims -- must be subject to scrutiny). These two habits of mind, practiced together and in the recommended sequence, yield a richness of understanding that just isn’t available with either belief or doubt.

But my colleague Amy Shuffleton, talking about Amy Chua in an earlier post on Social Issues, reminded me that in practice it’s not belief before doubt; it’s belief and doubt and belief and doubt and belief and doubt … practiced in a complementary rhythm. The trick is not to get stuck in belief or doubt.

It seems to me that the Oprah Network could get caught in a broken record of belief, the mirror image of the MSNBC/Fox differently-directed revolving doors of doubt. If Amy Chua’s makes it to OWN, it will be a signal that Oprah and her network team realize that mean-spiritedness and cynicism are not the same thing as doubt. And that doubt and belief can walk hand in hand. Richness of understanding is the result.

I’ll have to get my satellite dish hooked up to watch it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teachers, grief and growth

(Cross-posted from Social Issues Blog)

When Jared Loughner killed Christina Green in Arizona last Saturday, he disturbed the lives of other children across the country as well, raising questions about the world “out there.” But the children at Mesa Verde Elementary School, the ones who will not see Christina again, are more than disturbed (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/us/11schools.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha23). Their parents and their teachers face the nearly insurmountable challenge of helping them to make sense out of this event, and to reconstruct their world as safe enough to move about, sleep at night, trust the other, and think about something other than the possibility that someone might shoot them.

A new rhetorical battle royale has broken out between the adults who think that nasty political rhetoric framed this attack and those who think that Jared was mentally deranged and unaffected by that rhetoric. They are both right and both wrong – as is so often the case in life’s interesting moments. Jared Loughner is mentally ill; his asocial and antisocial behavior is definitive of mental illness. And the use of targets and gun metaphors by political and media figures makes certain things imaginable, especially to the mentally ill.

But the teachers at Mesa Verde and elsewhere are dealing with a different issue. What is the right emotional tone in the classroom now? What does one say – and not say? How can I comfort this child without alarming that one? Where do we draw the line on self-absorption, encouraging students to live through their pain and their questions?

As a mother of now grown children, I appreciated both facets of President Obama’s address at the memorial service at the University of Arizona: healing eloquence and choking silence. He framed a vision for bringing us together with his words and made us feel the unspeakability of it all with one long telling minute near the end of the speech when he simply could not continue.

As a teacher educator, I’m left wondering how we ready our aspirants for moments like this. How do we teach future teachers to value both words and silence? How do we enable and encourage them to be present to tragedy in the lives of their students without being felled by it? How do future teachers learn to respond – always as educators – so that their students grow in mind and heart and action?

Today I have ideas but no concrete answers to these questions -- except to say this: teacher education must always remain education. Technical training, though necessary, is not a sufficient basis for becoming an educator. The Mesa Verde teachers responding to Christina Green’s friends and schoolmates this week will draw on more than “professional development.” They will do with their students just what President Obama called on all Americans to do: “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” This is growth; this is education.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Keep stretching ...

I am breathing slowly and deeply this morning, puzzled and saddened by something I heard yesterday on NPR. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery pulled part of the art exhibition “Hide and Seek” on Thursday under pressure from, among others, the Catholic League. Removed from view was a 4 minute video exploring death by AIDS and depicting Jesus on the cross being eaten by large black ants. However, my concern here is not the piece, nor the protest nor even the pronouncement that the Smithsonian would remove David Wojnarowicz‘s representation of his lover’s death, “A Fire in My Belly.”

(Others have had interesting things to say on both sides of this issue if you want to pursue it:



I am most distressed today as an American educator by the post-game comments of Bill Donovan, the President of the Catholic League. Donovan, reveling in his triumph, is now working to undercut any and all taxpayer supported arts in the United States. What would this do to educational possibility in our present cultural and economic position? What do we lose if we fail to support the images and ideas that stretch us?

Donovan’s case goes something like this. Because there is no taxpayer support for that which “working people” appreciate, specifically the World Wrestling Federation, then there should be no taxpayer support for any other kinds of arts and entertainment. Hmmmm.

[Sidenote here: The government of Abu Dhabi has initiated a revitalization of their economy by importing branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre – a decidedly different take on what impacts a people toward productivity.]

Now there’s a lot of art I don’t understand and a lot I don’t appreciate (including WWF), but even the stuff I don’t understand (sometimes especially that stuff) stretches me (including WWF). And that stretching is part of my ongoing education. Because WWF is widely supported by both people who work and people who don’t, it is available to me. I can be – and very occasionally am – stretched by it. But other arts not commercially viable are nonetheless valuable. Sometimes that which we most need to enhance our collective sensibilities, to expand our abilities to respond to each other with understanding and appreciation, is that which we avoid, resisting enhancement or expansion, because it is uncomfortable. We don’t want to be stretched.

WWF may be one way of exploring the human condition, but it is not the only way. The visual and performing arts have this exploration as their raison d’etre. Videos like “A Fire in my Belly “ are such an exploration, an invitation to feel, to think, to act with integrity in the world.

Now here’s the part that’s tricky. That which is shocking can either prompt or impede educational stretching. Shock is, by definition, experience marked by strong feelings. Such feelings can open us up to educational possibility, but they can also harden into fear (flight, fight and/or paralysis) before reason or reflection can connect those feelings to possibilities for new understanding or action. Mr. Donovan is afraid. Something has scared him. It’s not this particular video (a Christian who has pondered “The Passion of the Christ” has already dealt with images more shocking than these), but there is something that has prompted the members of the Catholic League to flee deeper understanding, to fight those who seek it for themselves, to freeze in the track of past experience rather than renewed possibility. As an educator, I have to name this as fear and resist it – and resist as well any effort to shrink the artistic world or narrow the aesthetic sensibility that is available to me.

Government-supported funding of the arts serves precisely this purpose: to keep in play just those representations and explorations of that human (American) experience that we do not necessarily seek out, that we don’t readily pay to support. It is never time to cut the budget for what educates all of us.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Poems, Picture Study and Beginning Again

I have long thought that the very best gifts are not those that are most expensive or exclusive or even those you most want in advance; the best gifts are those that demonstrate somehow that the giver knows you. I received many lovely Christmas presents this year and all represented, in one way or another, this spirit of "best gifts." But one stands out: Poem a Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. It's a collection of 366 poems (including one for February 29th) organized by date, one for each day of the year.

The book cover says, "In times past, Americans with a love of poetry routinely learned by heart dozens of poems ..." and I was driven backward to memories of my Catholic grade school days in Philadelphia, to an occasional subject called "Poems and Picture Study." This was not a "special." We didn't leave our regular classroom (I and my 70 or 80 classmates never left the regular classroom :-). It was simply a weekly exercise in which each of us learned to recognize some famous work of art (Jean Francois Millet's The Gleaners comes immediately to consciousness) or to recite from memory some well-known bit of poetry (for example, "O young Lochivar is come out of the west ..." by Sir Walter Scott). These exercises in memorization and cultural appreciation seem, from my vantage point half a century later, to have been important. We knew then that they were important because there was a final exam at the end of the year in this study, just as there were cumulative exams in all of the subjects we studied.

Ironically, it is examinations (of the NCLB variety) that are partially responsible for chasing this kind of study out of the curriculum. But it is not only the NCLB mentality that impoverishes the studies our children take up. We are impoverished by attitudes that allow the legitimate need for "relevance" to trump the just-as-important need for perspective, for appreciation for the best that has been said and done. E.D. Hirsch was right about the latter, the Progressives were right about the former -- and John Dewey was even "righter" when he insisted that the two were not mutually exclusive.

Some will say that it is silly nostalgia on my part that causes me to bemoan the lack of poems and picture study in the curriculum. Some will say that both are there but in other forms in regular language arts and visual arts classes. Some will argue that we have no time for this nonsense in an age when literacy is lagging. Some will note that the pedagogies of memorization and site recognition are limited. And I will nod and agree. But even if all that is true, I think today's young children would be better off recognizing and reciting at least some of these kinds of expressive and aesthetic achievements. In such works, there is both intelligence and goodness.

As for me, I spent just a few minutes this New Years morning memorizing the selection for January 1st, "New Every Morning" by 19th century poet Susan Coolidge:

Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seen, Encouraged and Challenged

It’s been a long fall with lots to do and not much to say. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve had lots to say to lots of graduate and undergraduate students who come to my classes, appear at my door, call on the phone and, of course, email – with questions that run the gamut from “what do you want on this [project, paper, presentation]?” to “what should I do when I grow up?” to “how can I handle this [breakup, challenge, death in the family]?”

There are many more students than in the past. A state budget crunch and a shortsighted political ethos re higher education has resulted in rapidly growing class sizes and many more advisees. In the face of this, I’ve been crunching the faculty/student ratio numbers. I’m pretty convinced by William Ouchi’s claim that any teacher’s “total student load” cannot exceed 80 if that teacher is to be an effective educator. And “effective” includes nurturing the relationships with students that make it possible for kids of any age to grow into smart and good people. My student load this semester is about 150. I’m way past Ouchi’s limit – and I’m not feeling very effective despite steady effort and many constructive discussions and interactions with lots of students.

Total student load is a topic that deserves more of my attention here. But for now, let me make an observation about what kids – and all of us -- need if they are to know much about and do good in the world.

Put bluntly, humans need to be seen, encouraged and challenged. Teachers who are able to do this for and with their students – and who have the time to do this – will have students who flourish.

What does this mean?

To be seen is to be recognized as the person I am, want to be and can be. To be encouraged is to be supported through the myriad fears that often block the effort to learn, to be invited to act with courage despite the sometimes painful and always uncomfortable feelings that accompany real change in one’s worldview and capabilities. To be challenged is to be moved beyond old habits of thinking and doing and understanding by the lure of interest or by the push of personal, intellectual or institutional pressure.

It makes intuitive sense that we would want to be seen first, encouraged second and challenged third, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, I’d say (admittedly stereotypically) that females tend to want to be encouraged prior to being challenged and males respond better to challenge prior to encouragement. What’s important is that all are encouraged and challenged and that each is encouraged and challenged in the order that prompts the richest, most generative response. The latter can only occur when students are known, when their teacher sees them.

I work hard to know and to see each of my students. It’s demanding and there are always a few who slip through because they seek anonymity, I just miss them due to lack of time or personal oversight or some combination of both. My sense is that more are slipping through – in part because there are more of them. I hope that someone else is catching those who slip through my net, that someone else is seeing, encouraging and challenging the kids I’m missing. But my colleagues too have many more than the 80 students Ouchi identifies as the research-based cut-off for effective teaching.

This isn’t directly about class size or even teaching quality. It’s about relationships and their importance to the very possibility of education. We need to see this clearly at every level.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Think you can't trust the President?? At least trust the kids!

Cross-posted from Social Issues (the John Dewey Society Blog)  http://deweycsi.blogspot.com

I was greeted early yesterday morning by a local newspaper article noting that some folks (specifically, "conservatives,"  but it's hard to know who that refers to) are angry that President Obama plans to give a speech at a public school urging young people to stay in school and take advantage of the education being offered them. Throughout the day yesterday -- and this morning -- I encountered this "developing story" ... on CNN, in The New York Times, and elsewhere.  

What are we to make of this?

The Obama folks clearly made one mistake in the run-up to the event.   They posted lesson plans that teachers could use in preparation for and after listening to the President's speech (offered live in one school but available for broadcast in any school).   One part of that included a question to be posed to the students:  "What can you do to help the President?"    In context, the question was clearly about supporting the good of the nation, but I can (if I really stretch Peter Elbow's "methodological belief") see why those who do not agree with the "President's ideology" would be concerned.  And it seems the President's folks were listening and focused on making this a non-partisan event. That question in the lesson plan was changed to ask how a student could achieve his or her educational goals.

I am struck by the concern with the "President's ideology," because the complaint incorporates the assumption that ONLY the President has an ideology, that the one complaining is speaking the non-biased truth.   Of course, the President has views on how to deal with the issues of our time, as do we all.    And we don't all agree with each other.   But it seems we have lost even the notion that we share one common goal:  a desire to educate children to be good Americans (even when we are not in agreement about what that means.)  Each of us -- especially the duly elected President of the country -- deserves that benefit of the doubt no matter how hard we fight in the arena of ideas and policies.

We have apparently moved into an era when even the clear election winner, a father of two young daughters, will not be trusted to speak to school children.  Have we so little confidence in our children's ability to listen critically and form and frame their own minds that we fear the influence of Barack Obama?   If that's so, then I fear no education is possible, certainly not the real education that requires openness to people who don't look and think like we do.  

Children who would become democratic citizens need to experience the play of democratic functioning.  I remember well my 6th grade Catholic school playground days during the Nixon/Kennedy elections.   My teachers and most of my classmates were Kennedy supporters (the result of religioius "ideology"? )   My parents -- and I -- were Nixon supporters (the result of my business executive father's socio-economic status?)  I and the few other Nixon supports held our ground when everybody else challenged us;   for the most part, we enjoyed it.  Whether or not we can trust our President in this case (and I obviously think we can),  I am quite certain we can trust our children.   Bring the President into every classroom;  it will do us good.