Take a Moment…

I’m going to connect a couple of pretty disparate events.  The connection seems pretty clear to me.  So does a response.  I hope that it will be for you as well.

I’ll begin with part of what Jan Resseger shared last week in her blog post, ” Why We Should Talk About Opportunity Gaps Instead of Acjievement Gaps”

Last week, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) devoted its  newsletter to exploring the meaning of the words we use to describe and compare educational attainment. NEPC reports that according to a web search, “use of the phrase ‘achievement gap’ has been trending downward in the past decade and a half.  However, searches of ‘opportunity gap’ have shown only a slight uptick.” NEPC’s newsletter wonders: “Will 2020 be the year of acknowledging opportunity gaps?”

What is the difference between “achievement gap” and “opportunity gap?” Does it matter what words we use to describe educational inequality?

Researchers at the National Education Policy Center believe it matters because the words we use expose how we think, and reflexively the words we use also shape how we think: “When educators, policymakers, and parents emphasize the ‘achievement gap,’ they’re focusing on results like disparate dropout rates and test scores, without specifying the causes. They are, often unintentionally, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the children themselves. Listeners adopt the toxic presumption that root causes lie with the children and their families (and I would add “teachers). In truth, outcome gaps are driven by input gaps—opportunity gaps—that are linked to our societal neglect of poverty, concentrated poverty, and racism.”

NEPC’s newsletter emphasizes how the focus on achievement gaps has affected the thinking of teachers and why this needs to change: “(P)lacing blame on children and families is pervasive.”

NOTE:  I would add that current focus on achievement has also included teachers in the toxic presumption of root causes.

My second experience involves Chinese buffets (yup, really).  I’m a big fan.  I have a pretty set routine when I go there.  I work my way through my favorite dishes and usually finish the meal with a final trip for ice cream.  My usual dining partner loves fortune cookies so I’m in the habit leaving mine to her … never breaking open the packaging or the cookie to read what ever nonsense the fortune cookie writer (there’s a career for you) thought might alter the course of my life.  This week, however, my usual dining partner was unavailable but, craving comfort food, I stopped in.  After my usual march through sushi, salt and pepper squid, green beans, etc., I decided to pass on the ice cream.  Waiting for my waitress to return with my change, I found myself drawn to the lone fortune cookie.  What the heck? Why Not? I could use a laugh.

I got a laugh.  So did the customers seated around me wondering what the heck was going on with the old guy with white hair, laughing there all by himself.

Screen Shot 2020-02-02 at 4.17.38 PM

Susan Scott (in her book, Fierce Conversations) wrote about her elementary school daughter’s excitement when she shared that she had had an ‘apostrophe’ at school that day… really meaning ‘epiphany’.

My epiphany was equally exciting.  I realized that when Russell Ackoff and the fortune cookie writers are on the same page, you’d better pay attention!

The Connection

The right thing isn’t Achievement Gaps.  We don’t need more data from mandated assessments to tell us that some kids are “learning” and some aren’t (and the ones who do come from wealthier homes). The right thing is Opportunity Gaps.  But it’s not just Opportunity Gaps that exist in impoverished neighborhoods and schools struggling to continue their programs in art, music, extra-curriculars, etc.

It’s also the gaps we create ourselves.

Wait? What?  That we create? What gaps do we create?

OK, this is where it gets challenging.  What if we, in “doing school” as we have for years as students and more years as teachers, administrators, etc., are actually limiting opportunities? And what if we don’t have to become sign carrying activists that seek to publicly engage folks in changing local, state, or federal policies to insure greater opportunities for more kids? What if we can begin to address the issue of opportunity gaps right in our own school?

Ken Robinson, in one of his highly acclaimed and frequently viewed TED Talks, shares how schools as most of us experience(d) them were designed around the factory model – i.e., they were designed to accomplish their goals with efficiency.  One of the ways in which that efficiency could be accomplished was by grouping kids by age or, as Robinson so eloquently phrased it, by their date of manufacture.  But we know that in any class of age grouped kids, there is significant variance in readiness… readiness to play well together, readiness to get along with peers, readiness to read, etc.  They persist in being different from one another.  It’s precisely in these differences and our response to them that we can engage in closing the opportunity gap.

A few Examples

A second grader is struggling to read.  OMG, what will happen if he/she gets to third grade and still can’t read well enough?  How will they read the books that we use for social studies, math, and geography?  Let’s get them some extra help.  Oh but wait, that extra help has to happen during a non-academic class… so we’ll just use the art or music periods.  Opportunity missed.

An 8th grader is great in math.  We’ll start her in Algebra.  Her friend seems to find math a struggle so we’ll keep him in regular math.  Too bad he can’t be in the advanced math track in high school now. Opportunity missed.

Parents are concerned that their pre-schooler doesn’t seem to be understanding her letters as fast as her sister did.  Good thing we have pre-school screening.  We’ll get her some extra help right away.  Maybe we can get her some additional support if we classify her with a minor learning challenge.  Oops, very few kids ever get de-classified once in the program AND the gap between that child and his/her peers actually widens! Lots of opportunities missed.

We want out kids to have 21st Century skills.  We want them to be inquisitive. We want them to be good questioners. We want them to be able to discern truth from falsehoods. We want then to independent learners. We want them to develop good social emotional dispositions. But wait, our most recent state assessment results were lower than last year’s.  We need a new reading program to help fix that.  That’s right just followed the scripted lesson plans.  “Wish I had time to answer your question, young lady. But I’ve got this stuff to cover before the supervisor stops by.”  Opportunity missed.

You get the idea.  We are depriving kids on a daily basis of opportunities to make choices, to choose how to learn, to explore with caring adults how they want to be… how they should be.  We’re creating opportunity gaps unconsciously.  We are doing this with rich kids, middle class kids and poor kids alike.

If opportunity matters, what policies, practices, procedures are in place in your school that are counterproductive?  When’s the last time that you and your colleagues talked about this?  When’s the last time that you and your colleagues asked if, based on things that are supported or not supported, you really value being intentional about providing opportunities and closing the opportunity gaps that exist in your school?

Zhao expanding funnel 2

Modified from Jung Zhao…

Shouldn’t we each take a moment to consider the opportunities we offer to kids… to one another?    Shouldn’t we take a moment and ask ourselves what opportunities were important to us?  Shouldn’t we take a moment to consider what opportunities are important to our kids and what our kids need?

Why don’t we do this more?  What would happen if we did? If you did?  If opportunity matters shouldn’t we at least try harder?

Maybe we should all read more fortune cookies!

Be well.

What risk taking looks like…

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 years ago, Eric left the world of business to take a job teaching primary school children.  After distinguishing himself as a truly talented educator, he encountered a district leader who could have served as the poster child for cluelessness.  Thus began the next phase of the young man’s journey along with a chance to prove to himself (and others) that cluelessness and educational leadership did not have to be synonymous.

Fast forward another decade or so and this educator (now a principal and no longer young) lives what Charles Eisenstein describes as the essence of leadership… the commitment to create spaces where change and growth can occur… spaces that are places of trust and safety, places where risk taking and discussions about what matters have become embedded in the culture.

Just recently, Eric was asked to share with his administrative colleagues an administrative innovation that had been implemented in his school.  His presentation focused on the work completed by the school’s faculty to address concerns about improving student reading.  This school regularly outperforms other schools in the district in spite of facing socio-economic challenges greater than any of the comparable schools.

Eric didn’t end his presentation with strategies and commitments made by the members of the school’s community.  Instead, he ended with the following:

****************

While we are on the topic of reporting instructional innovations that lead to greater student achievement, I have some closing thoughts.

My Professional Struggles

Over the last 4 years and I have been struggling with a growing battle within my conscience regarding my professional obligation to our students and my effectiveness as an educator.

The struggle revolves around being forced to do things right, based on NJDOE and Federal DOE requirements, rather than doing the right things for kids.

This has nothing to do with the XXX School District and everything to do with the state of public education in New Jersey and nationally.

Case in Point – A study of my children’s K-12 experience plus 23 years as an elementary educator.

K- 12 Case Study

I watched my kids become increasingly disengaged with their learning in school with every passing grade beginning in 4th grade and extending to 12th. (Gallup 18)

I listened to growing complaints of why are we learning this ridiculous and irrelevant content that has no application to the real world?

 Why aren’t we learning how to learn? Why aren’t we learning how to BE and how to DO in the real world. How come we don’t get to explore what we want to learn at school like we do when we are learning things outside of school. Why do we have to take these tests that make us feel stupid and inept as students and learners?  Tests that turn us off to learning and damage our self-confidence. Why doesn’t school spark our natural desire to learn about our world and how to be confident and productive members socially, emotionally, and academically?

Who would send their children to schools that turn children off to learning?… …Schools that squash students’ natural desire to learn and create an environment of growing disengagement with each passing year?

It is time for us to reimagine our outdated and largely unchanged education system that has been in place for the last 100+ years into a system that provides our students with the following educational conditions for learning:

A safe, positive, environment where every child feels a strong sense of belonging.

Curriculum and programs that are relevant to their lives, have real-world application and provide students choice in learning what they are interested in learning with the purpose of  preparing students how to be and how to do in our world.

 Teachers serving as mentors, K-12, creating challenging, fun, and social learning environments were no student goes unnoticed or unknown as a person.

A place where students naturally become invested and passionate about learning through real-world hands-on lessons that provide student agency in the content they want to explore.

An education with developmentally appropriate expectations, not dictated by politicians or big business textbook companies. A place where students learn to read, write, speak, and explore mathematics, K through 12, at their own pace through cross-curricular project-based learning as opposed to in isolation.

And lets weave human psychology into the curriculum K-12:

So we know how we work psychologically as human beings and can:

  • Better assess who we are deep down, work on our weaknesses, and capitalize on our strengths. 
  • Improve our relationships.
  • Raise our children well, applying what we learn K-12 about a healthy human psyche.
  • Better deal with the growing anxiety problem we face as a society based on the growing feelings of isolationism we are experiencing especially among our youth. (New York Times)
  • Recognize dispositions at an early age for mental illness and addiction to get help early.
  • Provide healthy outlets for ADD and ADHD instead of medication.

And don’t worry about College/University entrance requirements!

For those who have gone through the college/university search process as parents, it is obvious they are just big businesses that will adjust to the redesign of our public school system in America for their own survival.

James Ryan, the former Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, charged graduates with exploring the following  essential questions  as they venture into their careers as educators. 

  • Wait! – What? 
  • I wonder what would happen if we …?   I wonder why…?
  • Couldn’t we at least try?
  • How can I help?
  • What matters?
  • Bonus Question…And did you get what you wanted out of life…even so?  

 These questions can help start engaging stakeholders in exploring a shift in our educational system.  If we truly care about our students, change is not an option.

America’s youth deserves to be prepared to live healthy, happy, and prosperous lives taking full advantage of all the amazing opportunities our competitive 21st century America has to offer!

Thank you for providing me a therapeutic opportunity to share the internal ethical battle I face. Having to work at doing things right, instead of doing the right things for our students has become a daily struggle.

Some of the most brilliant, creative people I know did not do well at school. Many of them didn’t really discover what they could do—and who they really were—until they’d left school and recovered from their education. Sir Ken Robinson

  • Will Richardson, Educator,  Author, Founder of Modern Learners
  • Sir Ken Robinson, Professor and Author
  • James Ryan, President UVA
  • Simon Sinek – Leadership Professor and Consultant, Columbia University
  • Rich Ten Eyck, Educator, Professor, Leadership Consultant, Founder of Rethinking Learning
  • Gallup Education
  • Institute of Progressive Education and Learning
  • Peter Drucker, Educator and Author / Russell Ackoff, Professor
  • New York Times
  • Tech and Learning

Full disclosure: When I was but a lad in our local parish elementary school, we were regularly encouraged to consider the possibility that we may have been called to serve.  This was referred to as a “vocation” or calling.  In 6th grade I could spell the word but had no real idea of what it meant.  Later in life I grew to understand that people are “called” to different things.  Many of them understood that their calling meant that they really couldn’t do anything else… they were driven by that call. As a school/district leader I realized that many of the people with whom I worked were genuinely “called” to work with children.  They didn’t have jobs.  They had vocations.

I had the good fortune to work with Eric.  I hope that by allowing me to share his words (he hasn’t seen this disclosure), Eric’s kindness, courage, and commitment will reinforce you in your calling.

Closing thoughts

We began this century with a flood of articles, discussions, initiatives, etc. about 21st Century Skills.  If we look at the data detailing the frightening increase in kids reporting their struggles with anxiety, stress, and depression, it appears we either misidentified the necessary skills or bungled their delivery.

What if we’ve overlooked the learning that was/is most necessary for our children to cope with 21st Century Challenges… the challenges of their increased separation in spite of huge increases in social media participation, the challenges of preparing for jobs that change almost daily and, most critically, the challenges of defining who they want to be?

What if the skills that are needed are not more stringent/challenging standards in American Literature or Honors Biology or Algebra II?

What if the skill that’s needed is not a 21st Century Skill at all, but one that’s been necessary for as long as we have inhabited the planet?

What if the critical skill is simply learning how to be? What if that’s what matters?

I wonder what the education of our kids would look like and be like if we built our policies, practices and procedures around Eric’s thinking and doing the right thing.

What would happen if we tried?

How can we help one another?

Be well.

“Almost 5 years later I learned…

that becoming a better person is more important than becoming a better writer”

– Jason Armstrong, WriteOnFightOn

I hope each of you and your families enjoyed a peace-filled and joyous Christmas and holiday season. What would a new year be like if I didn’t add to your already full schedules with some suggested readings?

Recently, I received an email from Charles Eisenstein. (No it wasn’t a personal email… Charles and I haven’t reached that stage in our relationship as of yet.) In his email, however, Charles shared a list of pieces he had written or podcasts he has created that he wished more people had seen.  Wait. Don’t leave. I’m not going to give you a list of the favorite pieces that I’ve written.  That would be a cruel way to begin the new year.  But what I did take away from Charles’ list is that many of us come across pieces of writing, many from very disparate sources, that touch us. They beg to be shared.

I decided to do my own version of Charles’ sharing.  I’m sharing these because I feel that each passes the “What Matters” test that James Ryan shared in his commencement address and that each, in its own way, deserves to be shared. I’m adding the YouTube video of Dr. Ryan’s talk as a closing in case you’ve missed it.

My Invitation

Take some time in the next few weeks to visit each of the pieces I’ve included here.  Consider this a warning… and a hint… get an adult beverage or two before diving in. 

While I have found each of these really special, none of the pieces included here is short.  I also don’t think they’re meant to be read without discussion.  And just so you don’t get part way through a piece and wonder, “why the heck did he suggest I read this”, I’ve included a bit of an intro to each.  It was tempting to make the intro a kind of summary; however, my first attempt at using that format was a disaster and, more importantly, failed to do justice to the work of the authors.

The first piece,  “How Kids Learn Resilience”, is an article that appeared in The Atlantic. It was adapted by Paul Tough in 2016 from his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which spent more than a year on the NY Times best-seller lists.

“The Miseducation of the American Boy” by Peggy Orenstein appeared in The Atlantic, January-February 2020.  The author spent two years interviewing high school and college students and draws a disappointing, sad, frightening (pick your word) picture of the process and experiences through which young males learn to become men. My question for you… who do you think should read this?

A few posts ago, I shared some data and related thoughts about the alarming increase in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression.  The next piece appeared in this morning’s NY Times.   In it, the author extends the issues facing our young people to the alarming increase in depression in our adult populations.  To me this appears to be an invitation to look more deeply the surprisingly unexplored connections between the daily positive reports on the health of the nation’s economy, the daily rise in stock values, the low unemployment figures, etc. and the very different reality faced by growing numbers of Americans … increasing disparities in wealth, startling figures about homelessness, loss of retirement security, etc.

What would a suggested readings list be without a link to Charles? The linked piece is listed in the post from Charles referenced above. Charles frequently uses the metaphor of stories or narratives.  His thinking addresses what he would consider the reality that the story with which many of us have grown up is dead or dying. We live in a time between stories and have the opportunity to write a new narrative/story, one that is built on peace rather than on violence and conflict.  This thinking is reflected in one of his early books, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.

The last piece I’ll offer is a blog post by Jason Armstrong.  I’ve referred to Jay in earlier posts.  I’ll share his own words as an intro to Jay and his work.

In 2013, I was diagnosed with Cerebellar Degeneration, an unpredictable, untreatable condition with no known cure. Then in 2015, tested positive for a treatable but chronic auto-immune disorder that causes bodily inflammation known as Sarcoidosis.  By all accounts the two disorders are not related. I’m just lucky.

When I was diagnosed with Cerebellar Degeneration, the doctors scratched their heads and suggested I get my affairs in order. I was 33 years old.

Scared out of my skull I thought a lot about not just the prospect of death but dying without ever doing the thing I really loved…writing. The thought of dying with so many untold stories nestled inside me was– well– killing me. So at some point I decided that if I was going out, I would make sure my stories weren’t going with me. Then something funny happened… I didn’t die. In fact, after two years of physical and emotional beatings…Ironically, it was those beatings that brought me back to life.

Having a rare disease is lonely business. Writing is lonely business. Hell, living is lonely business. I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that your story doesn’t just exist…your story matters. And I hope this site gives you the courage to tell your story, to preserve your story.

Ok, I lied. Here is one more link .  I can’t take the chance that someone hasn’t had the opportunity to see this commencement address given by Dr. James Ryan who was, at the time if the address, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.   Enjoy.  Think what matters.

Looking at my readership stats, I note that followership is small but quite diverse.  I hope you’ll take a few minutes and share the richness of your reactions, thoughts, insights to the pieces here that might speak to you.  Again, wishing you a healthy, loving, peace-filled new year.

Be well.

PS Some of you may be wondering about the absence of cartoons from recent posts.  Some time ago, I attempted to make contact with Gary Larson to get permission to use his work.  I received no response and assumed that, in his retirement, he was not terribly concerned with my use of his work.  For Far Side fans, there is great news.  Larson has unretired.  Great news but it seemed unfair to make use of his work without permission now that he was active again.  No more Gary here. (:  Poor me.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Right before Christmas I had an apostrophe.  You may remember that Susan Scott in her book, Fierce Conversations, recounted a time when her elementary school daughter came home and shared that she had an ‘apostrophe’ at school that day.  After a couple of puzzled moments and some clarifying questions, she realized that her daughter had meant an ‘epiphany’.  So this morning I had one of those.

I was diligently reading my daily Medium suggestions which, as usual, contained an essay by Umair Haque.  I’m going to take a break from my own thoughts here and share a few snippets from Haque’s piece.  You may like (I hesitate to use the word “enjoy”) to read his entire piece (a 4 minute read according to Medium’s editors). You can access it here.

Imagine for a moment that you lived in a country with falling life expectancy. Where the young would never retire — and the elderly were often abandoned. Where kids overdosed en masse on drugs, to epidemic proportions — when they weren’t busy shooting each other at school. Where people died for a lack of basic medicine that costs pennies to produce — like insulin — because monopolies have jacked up the price to unaffordability. Where the economy, the social contract, the way of life, had turned predatory — and making a buck off the suffering and misery of your neighbour was not just acceptable, but the necessary price of survival.

You don’t have to imagine very hard. That country is of course America. And yet, almost never do you or I see these issues discussed — in any serious, thoughtful, or considered way. What does “serious, thoughtful, and considered” mean? Take the example. How about a conversation like this?

“Well, the Swiss model of healthcare is a mixture of private and public. People buy insurance on markets — but those markets are carefully regulated, in terms of what insurers must offer, and how much profit they can earn. And people get a subsidy the poorer they are to buy insurance from society. It’s a good system, objectively speaking — people are healthy, happy, and prosperous.”

“Wow. Why don’t we try that here? It seems like an intelligent compromise between private and public — an organizational model that’s been proven in the real world.”

But I have never seen the above discussion once in my adult life. Not anything vaguely resembling it. Thoughtful, considered, serious. Discussions rich in history. Informed by global comparison. Sharpened with pragmatism. Ready to take on the great challenges of a profoundly broken society.”

Regardless of your reaction to the dire descriptions that Haque offers, it’s hard to dispute his assertion that the conversations he suggests are rarely a part of our discourse.  As many of us experienced the gatherings of families during this holiday season, I imagine not a few of us recall being told (or even suggested ourselves) that we should avoid any discussions of religion or politics.  Don’t even think about asking Uncle Bill what he thinks about impeachment!

What if our current poverty of meaningful discourse and growing levels of polarization stem directly from our lack of skill, practice, experience or willingness needed to deal somewhat comfortably with critical issues?  How many of us recall any instances in our school experiences in which we were encouraged or coached to discuss things that really mattered to us?   I can personally recall numerous attempts by fellow students (not me of course) to try to distract a teacher from the day’s lesson only to be told… “There’s not time for that now. We’re working on quadratic equations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, conjugating German verbs, etc.”

And here’s a question I’ll come back to in a moment.  How many of us recall succumbing to the annual epidemic of “senioritis”?

Something in our hearts told us there was something more… something of greater importance than the fourth year of math, than of one more year of trudging through the anthology of American Lit, of weighing advanced physics versus another study hall.

What if we abandoned senior year as we know it? What if we organized senior year around the question “What Matters?”  Not what matters in Advanced Physics or American Lit but what matters when you have to function as an “almost adult”?

What if we dedicated senior year to the transition to adulthood?  What if we dedicated senior year to learning how to have difficult conversations? What if we dedicated senior year to exploring how change takes place? What if we dedicated senior year to learning how to move from an age of separation to an age of empathy?   Or why society seems to be characterized more by anger than kindness? Or why we aren’t sure that graduating from college with loads of debt matters any more? Or why we have a Department of Defense but not one of peace? Or why in the richest country in the world, there are homeless people in our community? Or why insulin now costs $500 per dose?

What if senior year became the culmination of 12 years of learning, of testing beliefs, of forming new beliefs?

Couldn’t we/shouldn’t we at least try?

Be well.

The New Normal is not Normal/Healthy/Safe for our Children… A parent’s guide to raising healthy, curious learners

 Recent studies reveal that our young people in their pre-adolescent through college years are self-reporting dramatic increases in stress, anxiety and depression.  The incidence of suicides among young people in this age range has never been higher. Some months ago, Susan Clayton and I, separated by an international border and 3 times zones, decided to collaborate on a response to this increasingly alarming trend.  While not the only cause of such emotional stress, we decided to write for parents and focus on what we knew best… schools, schooling and learning.  Midway through our project, Susan’s husband was diagnosed with advanced cancer.  He died this past week. 

This piece is dedicated to Robert and Susan Clayton.  Throughout Robert’s treatment Susan remained steadfast in her love and support for both her husband and her children.  Her commitment and her concern for helping parents understand how they might positively support their children during this critical age remained  unchanged.  This piece reflects our combined thinking. The good thoughts come from Susan.  The mistakes in writing are solely mine.  

This is a long piece.  Readers familiar with my efforts here in this blog space will know that I try very hard not to waste yourt time.  My writings on leadership and my rants on the folly of the decades of misguided education reform pale in comparison with the importance of the challenges to the mental, social and emotional health of our children.  I hope you’ll hang in there. Thank you.

 What’s Lost When We Rush Kids Through Childhood”, Emily Kaplan – Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, September 4, 2019

We Have Ruined Childhood” – “For youngsters these days, an hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert. Of course they’re miserable.”- Kim Brooks, NY Times Sunday Review, August 17, 2019

“Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright”, Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, November 2019.

Unfortunately, many parents see such headlines and are not surprised.  Far too many parents are living each day with the concerns reflected in this sampling of headlines.  Too many parents see their children floundering emotionally, socially and academically. They are feeling overwhelmed and are often at a loss about what they can do to help their children regain their emotional, social and academic balance.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  We, both as educators and as parents, cannot continue to sacrifice the mental, social and emotional health of our children for a future that does not require intense test preparation for large scale assessments, an underdeveloped appreciation for the arts and little or no experience with unstructured play . The studies listed above and the research currently being explored are sending us signals that are both loud and clear. We’ve unintentionally allowed schooling to become something that was never intended. While this may have been understandable in the early 1900’s, given our current advances in brain research and learning, there is only one excuse for its continuation… our unwillingness to change what we’re used to, coupled with our acceptance of the notion that purpose of education is not learning , but primarily to serve the economy with qualified workers.

Our goal in writing this is to help us as adults, as parents, as educators respond to this change in the way our kids experience the world.  Our goal is both to sound an alarm and to offer concrete suggestions for actions.  We simply cannot continue to sacrifice the physical, social and emotional health of our children.

We decided in this work to focus on one part of each child’s life: time spent in school. This is not an attack on the educators, the people who care about and for your children. It’s what we know best and school-related issues surface regularly in discussions with young people as a major source of their emotional stress.

Context

The data about the alarming growth of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression frighten us.  We’ve all experienced school.  But most of us have experienced school in a very different way than the way our kids are now living it. This is an invitation for parents to re-think what has become of schooling and the purpose of schooling in children’s lives… a purpose that does not rob them of their childhood and push them towards depression and anxiety. Although there is general agreement that school is about learning and preparation for life, there is surprisingly little agreement about what learning actually is, how it occurs and the best ways for it to happen.  Based on our own learning experiences we’d like to invite you to treat this work as an interactive process, one which will both inform you and guide you to action-based responses.

You might consider reading the entire piece and then returning to do a little “homework” or you may just dive right in.  Your call.  How you chose to do this may tell you something about the way you feel you learn best.

We’ve considered this approach carefully. First we’ll start with the easy question… “What is learning?”  Wait! What? Everybody knows what learning is.  OK. So write down what you think.  For most of us, this just got a lot harder.  So many possibilities.

Here’s a suggestion. Take a few minutes to consider what you have learned or are currently learning; select 1-2 things. Think about how you came to know or are coming to know these things and if these things are useful, meaningful for your life? Now, answer the “what is learning”  question based on your personal learning. Write your response down and be aware of how your thinking likes coming out of your brain and onto paper – or word processor.  You may discover that, like me, you find the thinking part easier than the writing part.

The second question is equally big… “Is school the only place where learning occurs between the ages of 5 and 18? Well, that answer is kind of obvious, so maybe a better question might be “What’s the purpose of school?”

Try this: think of a time when you learned a skill or about an idea outside of school: (ride a bike, learn about worms while helping a parent garden, swim, make a blade of grass sing between your hands….) – how did you do that without the support of school? What were some of the conditions that helped you learn? Were you rushed into learning the skill or idea; who helped you? What did your mistakes tell you?  How did you feel when you realized you figured out worms, rode the bike a block without wobbling…realized that a 10 cent piece was smaller than a 5 cent piece but worth more…?

Now think of a time when you were in school and you were struggling or felt  overwhelmed – maybe the idea or skill was unfamiliar; maybe too many instructions coming all at once; maybe the teacher moved through the lesson too fast? Did you learn what you thought you were supposed to learn? If not, how did you feel?

What kids say…

I recently interviewed some high school students about what their learning experiences in school looked like. The kids were a cross section of the school’s enrollment…there were two kids enrolled in special needs programming, a couple of honor roll students, a couple of what I’ll affectionately describe as “ne’er-do-wells” – kids who spent a fair amount of time with the principal negotiating reductions in disciplinary reactions to their behaviors. The remaining 6 considered themselves “average”. After explaining that I was there to learn about their school, I asked them to pretend that they were the only people I would speak to in order to get a picture of their school and asked them to tell what it was important that I know.  I also told them that I would be sharing their descriptions with their teachers the following day (without identifying them, of course).

What did I hear from these consumers of schooling?  One of the special needs students began by sharing that she appreciated how good her teachers were about adjusting instruction to her needs, watching to see if she was “getting it” and offering more time/support if needed.  A young lady excitedly raised her hand and said, “You’re lucky! My teachers spend so much time getting us ready to take the big tests that they apologize for not having more time for our questions.”  Lots of head nodding followed by another young lady who shared how embarrassed she felt when she didn’t know an answer and how she was reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming stupid. More head nodding and no objections.  After a few seconds of silence a young man raised his hand and asked, “Why do we have to learn stuff that we just going to forget?”

My takeaway from this conversation… kids have only a limited sense of what Martin Luther King called “someoneness”” or sense of belonging.  They feel pressured by adult concerns. Beyond their circle of friends they feel isolated. They feel pressured to do well, while not having access to the conditions (safety, freedom to ask questions, choice in learning) to perform as expected.

On a personal level, do your children have these experiences like this in school? How does it make them feel? What if these feelings have become a part of their daily school experience? What if the feelings that some of us had as students some of time have become a constant in the lives of our children? What if the pressures that have accompanied our need not to be identified as “failing” have had a number of unintended consequences…an increase in pressure to perform on large scale assessments, an increase in the time spent on test preparation, a loss of experiences in the arts, an earlier introduction of “academic” focus at the expense of playtime, recess creating, inventing, solving problems etc.?

 The articles shared, as well as numerous others, make a clear connection between the practices identified above (that are responses to increased academic pressures) and the deterioration of the mental and emotional health of our children?  In spite of this growing awareness, we hang on to what we know, we feel most comfortable with the familiar.

But what if holding on to “the familiar” – i.e., school as we knew it – will just continue to place our kids at increasing risk of stress, anxiety, depression, etc.?  Is our fear of change, of venturing into the unfamiliar, greater than our concern for the well-being of our kids?  What percentage of kids experiencing anxiety and depression is sufficient to act? 60%, 70%, 80%?

Note that the Times article cites a study which revealed that 70% of teenagers characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem”. Is that enough?

 Doing the wrong thing “righter”

 We do not need to heap the kinds of pressures described here on our kids.  For the broadest view of this issue, I’ll begin with Russell Ackoff.  Prior to his death in 2009, Ackoff was a Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  He has offered a starting point for what we might consider in response to the threats impacting the emotional and social health of our children.  Ackoff is well-known for making the following distinction… There is a difference between ‘doing things right’ and ‘doing the right thing.’  Doing things right is about efficiency – i.e., how do we manage lots of kids in a school building safely and efficiently. We do this through the establishment of uniformity. We group kids by age not because they are similar but because it is convenient. We organize instruction by subject, not because the world is neatly organized by subject but because it is convenient (and because someone in 1893 decided we should). Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.

Our current system of education here in the U.S. is replete with stories of attempts to doing things right, school consolidation, common core standards, large-scale “accountability” assessments, etc.  As Ackoff points out, it should surprise no one that these efforts have born little fruit.  In his own words, Ackoff notes that focusing on doing things right just makes the situation “wronger”. After 30+ years of doing school right NAEP schools remain flat, ACT scores are falling, achievement gaps continue and instances of childhood stress, anxiety, and depression have reach nearly epidemic proportions!

But what is the right thing?

Here we’ll turn to Clark Aldrich who has suggested that there are three purposes for education… to help kids learn how to learn, to help kids learn how to do, and to help kids learn how to be.  These three things constitute Ackoff’s definition of doing the right thing.  In the context of our focus here, think ‘helping kids learn how to be.’  Obviously, given the current incidence of student and physician reported stress, anxiety and depression we need a shift in focus away from the ever increasing focus on higher academic achievement to the “how to be”.  In his film Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s title character describes her dilemma as follows… “I feel like I’m rebuilding a parachute while I’m falling. I’m one person when I sit with my friends at lunch in school, another when I’m in the car with my dad, another when I’m at a party with my friends, and even another when I’m on Facebook.”

Note: See Clark Aldrich, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education.

For more background on the issue of stress, anxiety, depression in our kids and how school contributes, you might find Dr. David Gleason’s book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools, useful.

For an interesting piece written by parents (Adam Grant, Allison Sweet Grant), you might be interested in Stop Trying to Raise Successful KidsAnd start raising kind ones.

While not specifically about stress and anxiety, the authors note that kids take their cues about what matters by watching what adults seem to value… most frequently identifying achievement as the most desirable accomplishment. They are particularly interested in the development of caring, kindness and empathy in what has been termed our “Age of Separation”.  The connection between their thinking and our focus on how we, as adults whether parent or educator, contribute to the rise of stress in their lives of our kids seems obvious.

But what can I do as a parent to insure that my child’s school is willing to explore the ways in which their policies, practices, and procedures may be unintentionally increasing the levels on stress and anxiety in students?

Leveraging Parental Concerns to Change Schooling – The “How To” section

In a time of increasing complexity, crammed schedules, split families, our own issues of separation, belonging and work pressures, we have been more than willing to turn over the 5-6 hours our kids are in school to the people who are charged by law with acting as their parents for that time.  By law, our schools are required to act “in loco parentis”… in the place of parents.  In trying to do things right, too many schools are doing things/creating environments that as parents, we would never do.  They continue to focus on test scores, orderly buildings, convenient practices, etc. while largely ignoring the impact these practices are having on our children.

Their pressures and schedules are frequently no less crammed and stressful than ours. As parents we need to begin the conversations needed to help us identify the right thing/move away from our preoccupation with doing things right to a focus on doing the right thing.  How do we do that?

Recognize that schools are part of a system and that change in systems grows increasingly more difficult the longer the system is in place.

Peter Senge in his best selling book, The Fifth Discipline, focuses on the process of changing systems. Senge notes that systems can be depicted as circles, the walls of which become thicker as the system ages.  He suggests that the thicker the walls of the system become, the harder it is to make.

As many of us can attest, trying to crash through the walls of a mature system results in a lot of bumps and bruises but very little change.  Senge offers a solution. He suggests that the walls of most systems are not uniformly thick… that in each system there exists a weakness in the wall that may allow the opportunity for leveraging that weakness into change or moving the system in a new direction.  Your concerns, your interest, your involvement are that weakness.  It’s hard for most schools to ignore concerned, well-informed, and well-intentioned parents.

Successful change efforts rely on finding ways to circumvent the natural response – i.e., to defend one’s position and to the reinforce such positions.  Research in this area reveals that the reliance on fact-based speeches rarely changes deeply held beliefs.  Successful change efforts have relied primarily on the creation of emotion-based experiences.  What is more emotional than the reality that our kids are suffering and experiencing stress, anxiety and depression in record numbers?

What Can I do?

Emotion-based responses in school systems are more effective when they make more use of numbers of people than the eloquent words of a single, well-informed parent.

Step 1: Explore the concerns about social/emotional health with friends. Enlist the interest/support of the local parent organization. Consider the benefits of a social media presence/exploration.

Step 2: Build a group of people who are willing to address these concerns with school leaders in a focused conversation or, finding little or no receptivity from the school/district leaders, move this conversation to the level of the board of education at a public meeting by requesting time, in advance, to address the members of the board.

Step 3: Ask questions!  Here are some critical sample questions that you might consider.

  • What are the outcomes, attributes, dispositions we seek to develop in our students?
  • Why do we have grades? – They are a largely meaningless convention, statistically invalid and unreliable.  Why don’t we use narratives instead?
  • What do we use as measures of success/achievement? Do we have a school-wide/district-wide consensus on the meaning of these terms?
  • What is the basis for grades in our school?
  • We know that kids develop at different rates and in different ways. Why do we group kids by age? –
  • What options are available for my child to obtain official recognition for learning done outside of school?
  • How many opportunities for self-directed learning are available in the school day?
  • Look at your school’s/district’s mission statement and ask what are the intentional practices aimed at the accomplishment of these goals? How is success measured?
  • What intentional responses have been developed to combat increasing stress, anxiety and depression in our students? What practices, policies, procedures have we eliminated or modified?

End Thoughts

While it seems clear to us that big changes are needed, not everyone is ready to just jump in. Dr. James Ryan in a commencement address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2016) offered a guide for exploring difficult/complex ideas.  He offered guidance for when we are faced with very disturbing information and seeking to engage others in discussion.

He notes that an expected response to what we have offered in this essay might be…”What? Wait!You mean that 70% of kids surveyed characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem!”  He suggests that productive discussions begin more often with questions than statements.  Here are his suggestions for your consideration and use.

I wonder what we are doing in our families, in our schools, in our society that is causing this dramatic rise among our youth. I wonder if my kids feel like they belong at their school? I wonder what school policies/practices my kids find stressful?

I wonder what we could do differently in our families, in our schools, in our society that could make a difference. I wonder why we still have grades, age grouped classes, separate subjects? I wonder what would happen if, like some schools, we tried to eliminate them?

Couldn’t we at least try? Should we just keep doing what we are doing even though we know it’s making kids anxious?

How can we help one another?

What really matters? If the mental, social, emtotional health of our kids really matter shouldn’t we be able to see intentional policies, practices, and procedures in our schools that mirror that importance?  

Thank you and be well.

A Time to Consider the Common Good…

One of the real joys (and I use that word advisedly) of writing a blog is the opportunity to come into contact with other writers.  The most inspirational of these for me is Jan Resseger. I have cited Jan’s work a number of times in my writing.  Her blog is a window into her soul and her commitment to addressing issues of equity.  Rather than take a chance on losing even a couple of readers by requiring them to click on a link, I asked Jan if I might publish a recent piece in its entirety.  She graciously consented. As always, I’d love to “hear” your reflections on her work.  Here’s the message that Jan includes with each post.

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

Be well.  Enjoy

Embracing Public Schools As the Very Definition of the Common Good

— Jan Resseger

The 2019-2020 school year is now underway, and in an ironic twist, in a business journal, the academic dean of the college of education at the for-profit University of Phoenix has penned a beautiful reflection on the meaning of public education. Dean Pam Roggeman understands the meaning for families and for communities of their public schools.

Roggeman writes: “This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who…  send their kids to school for the first time. Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated. We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.”

Roggeman defines the reason public schools are one of our society’s best opportunities for establishing systemic justice for children: public schools are required by law to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children: “(T)here is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious.”

Reading Roggeman’s reflection on public education as an essential civic institution caused me to dig out a Resolution for the Common Good, passed by the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ more than a decade ago, when I was working in the justice ministries of that mainline Protestant denomination. The resolution was passed unanimously in 2005, in the midst of a decade when an ethos of individualism was accelerating.

The values defined in the introduction to the resolution mesh with Roggeman’s consideration of public schools as the essence of community: “The Twenty-fifth General Synod calls upon all settings of the United Church of Christ to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States, rejects the notion that government is more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions, and reaffirms the obligation of citizens to share through taxes the financial responsibility for public services that benefit all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, to work for more equitable public institutions, and to support regulations that protect society and the environment.”

The introduction of the resolution continues: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance. Our nation has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been an abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the importance of government for providing public services on behalf of the community… The church must speak today about the public space where political processes are the way that we organize our common life, allocate our resources, and tackle our shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the dollars we allocate, and the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order and peace.”

Recognizing “significant on-going efforts to privatize education, health care, and natural resources, and to reduce revenues collected through taxes as a strategy for reducing dependency on government services,” the delegates resolved “that the United Church of Christ in all its settings will work to make our culture reflect the following values:

  • that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens;
  • that government policy and services are central to serving the common good;
  • that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good;
  • that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses;
  • that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means; (and)
  • that the integrity of creation and the health and sustainability of ecological systems is the necessary foundation for the well-being of all people and all living things for all time.”

Since that resolution passed in 2005, we have watched an explosion of economic inequality, the defunding and privatization of public institutions including K-12 public education, the defunding of social programs; the growth of privatized and unregulated charter schools, the abuse of power by those who have been amassing the profits, and the abandonment of policies to protect the environment.

A just and good society balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. I believe that the majority of Americans embrace these values.  I wonder how we have allowed our society stray so far.

Yea! We’ve Made It. Hatred Is Now Nonpartisan

geese larson (1)

Farside Gallert – Gary Larson

Sometimes I write for me.  Sometimes I write in the hopes that someone will read it. Right now I’m trying to find a healthy place between the dystopian writings of Umair Haque and the more uplifting challenges of  Charles Eisenstein.  I like Eisenstein but fear Haque.  I want Eisenstein’s world, but I see Haque’s. Haque writes daily of the problems caused by the way in which capitalism has evolved here in the US and in countries that have sought to model their economies after ours.  He terms this “predatory capitalism” and describes the consequences that follow when the quest for profit overrides our commitment to the value of one another, of our societies and of our planet.  Headlines such as ““Why We Need an Economics of Well-Being”, April 10, 2018 or “Why the Future of Leadership Isn’t About (More) Patriarchy, Capitalism, and Supremacy”, Sept 4, 2019 are not unusual. In contrast, Eisenstein writes and urges us to consider the world of the possible. The title of one of his books says it all, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. His essay, “The Age of We Need Each Other” seems like a flash of the blindingly obvious.

In the midst of my existential pondering, someone called my attention to an interview about the impossible cost of a college education.  The article was actually a transcript of an interview conducted by Chris Hayes (of MSNBC fame) with Christine Zaloom, the author of the book, Indebted.  As a part of his introduction, Hayes described the (then) recent events surrounding the college admission scandal.  Here’s an excerpt…

One thing that was interesting about this story, it was one of those rare stories, the Jeffrey Epstein story is another one, where Americans of all political persuasions rejoiced. It united Americans across the ideological spectrum in their contempt for the people that had done this. The right hates elite academia and Hollywood. And this brought them together. The left hates the insane culture of inequality and corruption that’s represented by this, right?

So it’s like there was someone for everyone to hate….

Although Hayes seems to have had a lot of trouble in using words like fascism, concentration camps, liar, etc. to describe the ongoing descent of American politics, he seemed to have no trouble making sure that we knew how great it was that “hate” was now a nonpartisan reaction/motivation.

I see hate and fear as responses inhabiting the same space. The relationship reminds me of a vignette in which one man expresses his fear of falling behind as follows…. “My neighbor has a cow and I don’t. I want his to die.”

Haque’s picture of where we currently are on our journey both as a nation and as a species is painted in the “cow” terms of zero sum thinking, of scarcity, of competition, of separation and, yes, of hatred, vilification, and tribalism.  Eisenstein acknowledges both the presence and the dominance of this perspective.  More hopefully, however, he  focuses on the opportunity to write a new story… a story based on connectedness and empathy.

Being focused (and as one dimensional) as I am  of looking at things through the lens of education, I immediately turned this into an educational question.  What are the causes of hatred in our schools?  Maybe you object to the use of the term “hatred” being applied to our schools? I would. But would you also object to the acknowledgement of presence of zero sum thinking (when someone wins, someone else loses), scarcity (grades have to be distributed with a limited number of “A’s”), competition (one valedictorian), tribalism  (jocks, nerds, stoners, etc.), separation (alternate schools, remedial classes, college prep, AP, etc.)  What do we do in schools to intentionally offer kids alternatives to these things? What do we do unintentionally to reinforce fear, separation, vilification (i.e., seeds of hatred) as an acceptable emotional response?  Are there practices which subtly reinforce these among our colleagues, among our kids?  Do we wish to “own” the responsibility for helping kids klearn “how to be”? If I were still teaching, would I thank Chris Hayes for giving me a “lesson” to share with my kids?

I’ll end this with a questionnaire created by Wendell Berry that was recently shared with me.  Maybe you could make up a “What would happen if…” question about Berry’s work. One of mine is… What would happen if we reframed these questions around our work with kids – i.e., “For the sake of test scores, how many bad practices/mandates am I willing to implement?  Name them.” or “In the name of high AP test results, how many kids am I willing to allow to be stressed, anxiouss, depressed? Name them.”

Berry’s questions are painful.  I want to deny them.  I want to deny that they apply to me.  I want to deny them as much as I want to believe that it is possible to write the story that Charles describes as the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. I don’t want to believe that hatred is now acceptable because it has become “nonpartisan”.  But what if the more beautiful world is only possible if we are willing to ask Berry’s questions?

Couldn’t we at least try?

Be well.

QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

  1. How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the free market and global trade? Please name your preferred poisons.
  2. For the sake of goodness, how much evil are you willing to do? Fill in the following blanks with the names of your favorite evils and acts of hatred.
  3. What sacrifices are you prepared to make for culture and civilization? Please list the monuments, shrines, and works of art you would most willingly destroy.
  4. In the name of patriotism and the flag, how much of our beloved land are you willing to desecrate? List in the following spaces… the mountains, rivers, towns, farms you could most readily do without.
  5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security, for which you would kill a child. Name, please, the children whom
    you would be willing to kill.