Death of the Old Story

We are living on the tail end of an old story… a story that extolled the virtues of data, metrics, analytics as tools for assessing the value of our work, our schools, and, distressingly, our students.

Such stories become stories as they are repeated and gradually accepted as truth.

Old stories die hard because of how deeply ingrained they have become through repetition and our tendency toward confirmation bias – i.e., our tendency to assign greater validity to information that confirms our beliefs.

Inaccurate tales become stories because they are unchallenged and some may even have resonance with our experiences.  They grow in acceptance due to laziness and/or ineffective challenges.

The “old story”, the story of our people, extols the virtue of hard work, doing well in school, getting into a good college, obtaining a college degree, getting a good job with the accompanying secure future. That story included the myth that such opportunity was equally open to all Americans, as well as a healthy portion of blame aimed at those whose experiences contradicted the validity of that story.

Now, not only the poor and people of color are challenged to find the validity of that story. Far more of us are confronted on a regular basis with a challenge to it.  Many have watched their children work hard, do well in school, be successful in good colleges and find no jobs.  They have watched the security of pensions disappear. They have watched the promise of progress and development rape the land and threaten our continued existence.  Many have recognized the death throes of the old story.

The story of accountability has been told and retold so frequently that it has become a part of the fabric of the old story.  A chapter in that story must be devoted to human arrogance. This arrogance is filled with irony… an irony that names the flagship legislation No Child Left Behind, while designed to leave millions of poor children behind and labeled, along with their schools, as failing.

Our old story is replete with experiences in which we found ourselves trying to “fix” a problem with a new, better idea. We have many memories of failed initiatives, new ideas, new programs… each touted as being “the answer”.  Sometimes we were on the “receiving” end of such solutions. At other times we may have been the force behind the fix.  What most of us recall is the durability of the problem and the frustration of the never-ending treadmill of solutions.  Rarely, if ever, did we explore the accuracy of the problem description/definition.  In the old story we just kept trying to do things right(er)… rarely able/willing to question if we were seeking to do the right thing.

More and more people in all walks of life, in many different professions, are growing in awareness that the old story is a fable.  Accountability, as we have seen it, doesn’t improve learning.  It damages personal connection, empathy, and relationships.  It adds to separation. It hinders connectedness. Equitable access to learning doesn’t exist for all, perhaps not even for many.

We are living in a time of “interbeing”… a time between stories… sometimes torn between the convenience and comfort of our old story and the fear of the unknown that accompanies the writing of new stories.  Writing a new story need not be a continuation of our time of the separation that was/is inherent in the old story.  Our new story can be a story of connection not separation, of sustainability not accountability, of empathy not blame, relationship building not alienation.  Our new story can be a story not so much about making a specific change happen but of creating the space where change can happen… for our students, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our families.

My thanks to Charles Eisenstein for the gift of his thinking and his language of stories.  His generosity allows for the free use of his works and his gifts.  My thanks also to Russell Ackoff whose writings highlighting the differences between “Doing things Right” and “Doing the Right Thing” continue to add clarity to my reflections and Jan Resseger whose tireless work in pursuit of equitable access to learning for all children is nothing short of inspirational.

Be well

Oh No, Not Richard III Again! or How Does Richard III Still Speak to Us?

Hi again.

 There’s been no shortage of the things to write about, just a shortage of time to do it. As I put the finishing touches on a couple of pieces that I’ve been working on (remember, one of the primary reasons I write here is to help clarify my thinking and to give voice to some reflections which might profit from wider discussion), the universe intervened. This is the first of two such “interventions”.

Recently, a long time colleague and good friend, shared with me his reflections as his career working in schools seems to be ending. Bernie Josefsberg has had a very varied and successful career.  It began with his role as an English teacher in a very prestigious and high performing high school in Chicago.  After holding a series of administrative positions (supervisor, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent) in multiple states, Bernie returned to the classroom, once again as a teacher of high school English. 

I asked if he would mind if I shared his observations and reflections here in this space.  I think Bernie has captured something very essential in the relationship between teaching and learning, something worth exploring. A growing number of us believe that we are experiencing the end of an “old story”… a story that no longer fits our reality or our needs.  As we continue to look for ways to grow learners, we recognize the need to expand student choice and student agency.  

I believe that Bernie’s reflections can help us create a space for exploration of critical how and why questions:  What is the best space for learning to occur? Can there be a  healthy blend of teacher directed, teacher guided, student self-determined learning experiences?  Is there room for a fixed curriculum? These are not theoretical questions.  They are matters of some weight.  What do Bernie’s experiences have to tell us?  Enjoy and please feel free to share your thinking.

 THE RICHARD III FILE: SOME CONCLUSIONS

Clearing out old files at the conclusion of a career, I recovered my circa ’73-’85 file on Shakespeare’s Richard III. In my memory, that cautionary tale of personal and political deformity served my high school sophomores well.  With Watergate and Contragate as contemporary scrims, it also suited the historical moment.

It included “Decent Is as Decent Does,” a NY Timesop ed piece in which Anthony Lewis savages Gerald Ford’s record on “Human Rights, Law, Secrecy, War, Arms, Amnesty, and Abortion.” He concludes:

It is indecent for those who care about sensitivity and humanity in politics to talk of the decency of Gerald Ford.

Also included: William Sloane Coffin’s “Not Yet a Good Man,” another NY Timesop ed describing the hollowed ethical core of Jeb Stuart Magruder — one of Richard Nixon’s very well educated, highly positioned, and subsequently convicted flacks.  At Williams College, he passed through   Coffin’s course on Ethics.   He concludes:

Teaching is at best a precarious business; the rational mind is no match for an irrational will that needs to place popularity and power above truth. Nevertheless, all of us who taught him, and American society as a whole, could have done better by Jeb. Now we have the opportunity to learn from him the ancient lesson that to do evil in this world you don’t have to be evil – just as nice guy, not yet a good man.

Additional items included original tests and essay assignments. For example,

Choose one of the following and discuss:

  1. Though Richard orchestrates his own rise to power, he relies upon the assistance of associates. Such figures as Buckingham, Tyrrel and Catesby willingly and directly contribute to the success of Richard’s “plots.” Others, such as Anne, the mayor of London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, are manipulated to the point where they, too, factor in his triumph. Clearly, Richard could not have “bustled” through his world with such ill-effect in the absence of both witting and unwitting support.
  2. As suggested in Richmond’s concluding speech, England has suffered grievously under Richard’s rule. In keeping with his character, he outlines a vision of England under his prospective reign that contrasts sharply with Richard’s legacy – itself a reflection of character.

Also,

Discuss the validity of each following statement:

In his opening soliloquy, Richard presents himself as a bruised soul, tortured by experience. Though he really wishes to be at peace with humanity, he turns to villainy to express his need to be loved.

Richard woos Anne by repeating his “love” for her.  As the audience, we are convinced — as finally Anne is — of Richard’s passion for her which he offers to explain his conduct at Tewkesbury. He subsequently delights in Anne’s acceptance, thereby demonstrating his respect for women and, indeed, for humanity at large.

To teach my students “how to think,” the file includes a “model thesis statement.”

Among several themes, Richard III emphasizes the discrepancy between appearance and reality by highlighting the fatal consequences of foolishly equating the one with the other. Hastings’ dire fate in Act III stems from his inability to recognize the true thrust and scope of Richard’s malevolence – an inability shared by a number of equally ill-fated characters. In disregarding Stanley’s warning that Richard will kill him should his support for Richard’s corruption wane, Hastings relies upon blind faith when survival requires acute awareness. Why “make pursuit where he mean no chase?” he asks, revealing how thoroughly Richard dupes him. Conversely, Lord Stanley chooses flight, astutely gauging Richard’s villainy.  As a result, he is able to fight Richard’s tyranny and contribute to its demise. That discerning judgment – in contrast to Hastings’ smug complacency — sets the standard of conduct needed to thwart Richard’s tyranny.

The file proves that I understood much of the play and could satisfy any teacher quality standard — from then or now – based solely upon such an understanding. It does not prove that my students learned anything:  no such evidence is included.  It seems that my teaching was Hastings-like, relying upon a blind faith in how readily my students students succumbed to my wisdom.  Too bad it is too late for any survey research into how those students voted in the last election.

Many in my generation chose teaching to perform socially righteous work, to contribute to a more just society. In the context of concluding a career at a moment when malevolence is on the move, it might be useful to re-consider Richard III against that purpose.

Richard III’s portrait of “ancient lessons,” concludes with Richmond’s restoration speech proclaiming that, at last, “civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again.” But only after “England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself.” Indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness now run deep, as they have done historically, well before 1593 — when Shakespeare staged Richard III—  a hundred years after Richard Crookback’s bustling reign.

Today, Richard IIIis rarely taught in our high schools. Instead Romeo and Julietis taught to almost everyone because, well, Romeo and Juliethas always been taught. Also, several movie versions – including Gnomeo and Juliet– are available to lay down the plot in student minds and moderate the pain they experience confronting text that, for many, might well be Sanskrit. Nonetheless, the play’s conclusion – however adulterated in presentation – offers much to open adolescent minds. “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,” enjoins Prince Escalus to those gathered around the coffins.  Do so because, “Some shall be pardoned and some punishèd.”

[A note for the future: after a civic debacle, apportioning blame is necessary. For any prospective reconciliation, how it is done is essential.] 

Concluding his tragedies and histories, Shakespeare typically sends forward a chiding accountant who draws a line down the middle of the moral ledger, with the pardoned on the one side and the punished on the other — not unlike a teacher at the conclusion of a school year weighing student grades. Or not unlike a teacher concluding a career, vocationally conditioned to distinguish vice from virtue, failure from success.

All such past accounting intend to shape future individual conduct.

But who cares whether Richard IIIor Romeo and Julietis under-learned in our high schools?  As Auden writes, “Poetry [let alone teaching poetry] makes nothing happen.”  Few would draw a straight line between under-teaching Richard IIIand current indecencies, evils, wounds scars, and madness. Whatever Allan Bloom asserted in 1987, over-viewing Gnomeo and Julietdid not cause The Closing of the American Mind.

When young, teaching well requires the mastery of craft grafted upon a duty of care. At the conclusion – after experience has “drowned innocence” – teaching well requires everything learned before plus an ongoing regard for what youth encounters in their own existential go-round.  However we teach, they will naturally have their own shot at “bustling through this world.”

Which makes more good teaching even more important.

In 1992, FedericoMayor Zaragoza addressed UNESCO’s International Conference on Education and asked, “What kind of education do we need?”

It is a kind of education that will entail our learning to live together in a world of all-encompassing complexity; having a conscious remembrance of the past, of things discovered and knowledge distilled; and laying down plans for the future. It will entail ensuring the full flowering of diversity …. Instilling attitudes that pay heed to the natural environment and to the attendant human and cultural environment represented by the ‘Other’ to whom we owe our respect …. Education should teach us … how to protect our culture by adopting an open-minded outlook instead of beating the retreat and withdrawing into the prison of our identities. It should also teach us to have the courage to rise up in permanent rebellion in favour of the rights of others and ourselves alike. Learning to be is, above all, learning to relate, learning to take up our stand at the crossing of the ways instead of remaining behind the fortress walls, as well as showing concern for others. It entails learning to conjugate the verb ‘to share’ every day of our lives, so that the future will be less one-sided. This is a Utopia that is in the realm of the possible, the reality of the morrow. Education really comes into its own when it builds bridges and pushes back horizons, for its true calling is to look to the future and inform action. The Utopia of the realm of the possible -the real utopia -appears to be a major contradiction, yet it is capable of cutting a broad swathe through the narrow alleyways of necessity.

http://collections.infocollections.org/ukedu/uk/d/Js1459e/7.4.html

No one should doubt that “indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness” are on the move.  Potentially countervailing call for “the future to inform action.”  Who more so than teachers can “go hence to have more talk of these things?”

Bernard Josefsberg

6/26/18

Is this another example of doing the wrong thing?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently about the problems caused by the lack of  agreement about the real purpose of education.  It’s been a bit like my experience with YouTube when I get lost in following the suggested clips related to my original search and then wonder how I lost an hour or so of my day.  In the next week or two you may (or may not) see the fruits of this exploration. In the meantime…

I’ve been occupying myself and my need for learning with participation in a group (ChangeLeaders Community) organized and facilitated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon, Lyn Hilt, and Missy Emler as a part of the work they do as the founders of Modern Learners. BTW. I’d recommend joining.

This week, they posted a piece written by Will that I thought should be required reading for educators.  Here it is.  I made a choice in posting this.  While Will’s links work, they do not always return you to the post here.  Rather than eliminate the links which represent a lot of learning in themselves, I decided to offer this warning about the potential clumsiness of the linking process.  My bad.  Not theirs. Be well.

EdTech is Driving Me Crazy, Too

By Will Richardson

There’s a growing sense that we’ve reached a breaking point with technologies in the classroom. France is banning all mobile devices from middle and high school next fall. Privacy concerns continue to mount around Google Classroom and other school wide “solutions” that attempt to manage the daily interactions between teachers and students. And now, as AI and VR and AR begin to attach their tentacles to education, concerns about how to marry tech and teachers are reaching new heights.

Good times.

Yet, as someone who celebrated his 17-year blogging anniversary this week, I’m still in the camp that says humans and technologies can work together in powerful ways in classroom learning contexts.

The problem, however, is that most of what ed tech is selling us isn’t really about learning; it’s about teaching. I was reminded of that once again this week when I walked up to the booth of a big name vendor at a small regional conference and asked the rep what seems to be the toughest product-related question you can ask these days: “So, since you’ve plastered the word ‘learning’ all over your booth, I’m curious, how do you define that word?” (I tend to do that a lot just for fun.) The response was typical: a few stammering sounds followed by some mumblings about “deep understanding” and “applying knowledge” and other such figuring-it-out-on-the-spot phrases. I doubt that rep had ever been asked that question before. I doubt that company every really talks about what learning really is.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 9.40.52 AM

More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

Warner calls this a part of the “Problem with Surveillance” which “discusses the encroachment of real-time data collection and tools of surveillance – such as ‘parent portals’ or apps like ClassDojo – into student spaces. These are part and parcel of the ‘problem of atmosphere’ as students are tracked and monitored throughout the entire school day. These technologies are already doing damage.” And he adds, “There is simply no evidence that real-time data collection or instant feedback is conducive to learning.” There ya go.

I’ll save you the discussion of FaceMetrics, which will no doubt leave you shaking your head in despair. And if you’re really into self-abuse, scan down this Twitter thread from Benjamin Herrold, a writer from EdWeek who has been diving into this explosion of tracking and monitoring apps. (Note: There are so many compelling links in that thread that I probably should just thank you for stopping by at this point and wish you well on your journey onward.) I know I should just put the tl;dr version of all of this at the top of this post, but if you’ve made it this far, here it is: Purveyors of ed tech are jumping whole hog on the socio-emotional learning bandwagon, and we in education seem more than happy to focus on clicking and collecting our way to cataloguing  the symptoms rather than searching for the cause.

Thing is, we know the cause. As Warner writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

And this post in Mindshift this week certainly makes that case, adding that parents pushing for “success” in the traditional school sense aren’t helping either.

I’m not saying school is 100% to blame for the mental health issues so many of our kids are experiencing these days. But if you listened to my podcast interview with David Gleason from a couple of months ago, you know that we’re not helping matters much. We’re putting tons of pressure on kids to stay on an increasingly narrow path to “success” because if they don’t, our own self worth as institutions are put at risk.

Read that again. In many ways, we’re choosing ourselves over our kids.

At that same conference I referenced earlier, I listened in on a session that was about improving the mental health of students. It was standing room only, overflow crowds in the hallways craning their necks to hear. The very well-meaning and concerned superintendent talked extensively about how to bring on board more counselors and therapists, how to increase the interventions, and how to monitor students’ mental health more closely. I don’t want to in any way suggest that he didn’t care deeply for his kids. He did. We all do.

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Who wants to build that out?

So, yeah, the current crop of ed tech “solutions” is driving me a bit mad because they’re not solutions at all. They’re masking the problem. Which unfortunately seems to be what we want. Because treating the real problem is “more than we can handle at this point.”

Five More to Read This Week:

Children, Learning, and the ‘Evaluative Gaze’ of School – A must read essay from Carol Black on the problem with assessing our kids.

Stackable Degrees Could be the Future of Higher Education, Experts Say – Keeping track of the trends in credentialing.

A Shakeup in Elite Admissions: U-Chicago Drops SAT/ACT Testing Requirement – Big news.

What Teens Really Say About Sex, Drugs, and Sadness – New research has good and bad results.

Critically Thinking About Critical Thinking – It’s not a new skill, but it’s an important skill

The Killing Fields… why not a Department of Peace?

I was in Houston last week at the time of the recent shooting in nearby Santa Fe.  In the aftermath of this event, the chief of police posted on Facebook that he had reached his point of no return… that, in spite of his upbringing and his feelings about gun ownership, he could no longer support the notion that the Second Amendment was somehow an expression of God’s permission to own a gun.  It was, in Texas, a pretty startling statement and was quickly followed by a statement by the state’s Lieutenant Governor that the problem was not guns but the lack of “hardened” schools.

Observing the aftermath of the tragedy at close quarters, having the opportunity to discuss the situation with a Texas state trooper who will soon be a member of the family, combined with a 4 hour plane ride gave me a lot of thinking time and a lot to think about.

It seems we’ve reached a point in positional thinking about guns in which each side has so refined its thinking, talking points and commitment to its deeply held beliefs, that no compromise is possible.  With each positional justification, the language gets harsher and the response by those holding the opposing position increasingly visceral. In a conclusion that will not shock regular readers of this blog, I found myself considering the Russell Ackoff theory… i.e., the difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.

What if the debate about who should own guns, which guns, and how many is a just a distraction from a much larger issue… one that may be more frightening than a school shooting? What if our inability to arrive at acceptable regulation of gun ownership is based on a faulty analysis of the problem? What if the problem is much deeper and much harder to accept? What if the problem is more related to our historical and persistent reliance on violence as a solution?

I recalled piece about the then recent Parkland shooting by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.  It was entitled “If We Want Kids to Stop Killing, the Adults Have to Stop Too”.  I decided to revisit the piece and wanted to share the basic ideas offered by Taibbi and some very serious implications for education/educators. I think you will find it equally interesting and troubling.  More important, however, are the possible conclusions and implications that we might need to consider as we help our students learn how to be in their world.

In introducing his thinking, Taibbi offers

Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old just arrested for shooting and killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, supposedly … There will be lots of hand-wringing in the coming days about gun control, and rightfully so – it’s probably easier to get a semi-automatic rifle in this country than it is to get some flavors of Pop Tarts – but with each of these shootings, we seem to talk less and less about where the rage-sickness causing these massacres comes from.

On the rare occasions when we do talk about it, the popular explanation now is that guns themselves cause gun violence. As the New York Times put itafter the Vegas massacre, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

This makes sense. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we tried real gun control as a solution (we won’tof course).

Taibbi describes the variety of explanations for the violence that lies behind these tragic events… deep seated racism, violent video games, music lyrics, movies, etc.  While each of t hese likely plays a role in the growing acceptance of violent solutions, Taibbi notes that in offering such explanations, we continue to show off “our amazing incapacity for introspection”.  The story of our land is filled with violent conflict. So deeply ingrained is this thinking that we declare “war” on problems such as poverty, drugs, illiteracy, etc.

Taibbi continues…

OK, sure. But what about the fact that we’re an institutionally violent society whose entire economy has historically been dependent upon the production of weapons?

And how about the fact that we wantonly (and probably illegally) murder civilians in numerous countries as a matter of routine? Could that maybe be more of a problem than 50 Cent’s lyrics? No? Really?

In an era of incredible division and political polarization, military killing is the most thoroughly bipartisan of all policy initiatives. Drone murders spiked tenfold under Obama, and Trump has supposedly already upped the Obama rate by a factor of eight. The new president apparently killed more civilians in his first seven months in office than Obama did overall, making use of our growing capacity for mechanized murder.

Taibbi acknowledges that his observations about the relationship between societal endorsement of military killings and societal violence among civilians might be considered “hippie-ish whining”, but when we look for why violence is so prevalent how can we not at least entertain the possibility of a deep relationship.  Our steadfast refusal to examine such a relationship is captured in the response to a proposal by Congressman Dennis Kucinich in 2001 to create a “Department of Peace”.

Although he never said we shouldn’t have a defense department … “He just happened to believe we should make nonviolent conflict resolution a organizing principle in our society”.

The corresponding Peace Department’s goals were to be aimed at transforming the way we look at the world, and would: “…promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution…”

The bill languished in “legislative purgatory” until Kucinich’s retirement in 2012.

It is here that Taibbi offers the point of entry for us as educators.

We’retrained(italics mine) to accept that early use of violence is frequently heroic and necessary…We just don’t believe in peace. We don’t believe in nonviolence. The organizing principle we’re going with instead involves using technological mastery to achieve order by killing exactly the right people.

This is despite the fact that “precision” killing turns out to be less than precisein reality, whenever anyone bothers to check. And we don’t dwell on the misses, like those millions of Indochinese men, women and children we once massacred with bombs and chemicals and evil little pellet-mines. It’s always the enemy who doesn’t value human life, who thinks “life is not important,” as General William Westmoreland – one of the early users of the term “body count” – once said about “the Oriental.”

The point of entry for us…

Do we as educators believe in violence as a problem solving strategy?  Do we believe in Kucinich’s non-violent conflict resolution as an organizing principle for our school “societies” ? What do we believe?  What policies and practices are intentional/accidental in our school cultures that reinforce our beliefs? What policies and practices should we change to focus on doing the right thing?  How might Gleason’s research on what he called “the bind”** affect our thinking, our actions?  What fears might be keeping is from creating cultures of non-violence in our schools? What experiences do our kids have in our schools that reinforce physical or emotional violence as the default response to conflict, to hurt, to disappointment?  What experiences might we provide for kids to make non-violent response their default reaction to these things?

** David Gleason’s research, based on the recent UCLA study about dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety and depression, indicates that we, as parents and educators find ourselves in “the bind” – the realization that the stories we have helped to transmit to our children no longer work but our fears cause us to continue to adhere to them and, further, to continue to transmit them to our children.

Final thoughts from Taibbi…

Gun control? I’m all for it. But this madness won’t stop until we stop believing that killing makes us strong, or that we can kill without guilt or consequence just by being “precise.” What beliefs like that actually make us is insane and damaged, and it’s no surprise that our kids, too, are beginning to become collateral damage.

A Eulogy for a Leader

img_1182-1A while back I shared what I consider to be the key components of leadership.  My reflection stemmed from a conversation I had a long time ago with Tom Sergiovanni who suggested that “leadership was the capacity to build followership”. In piecing together my own experiences in various leadership positions and the lessons learned from my work as an executive coach, I identified both what I considered the key components of leadership as well as the process by which prospective leaders moved the  “capacity to build followership” into actual followership.

The “journey” begins with honest, sometimes “fierce” conversation, builds these into deep, caring, trusting relationships and creates what Simon Sinek calls “circles of safety”… places where the presence of such caring, trusting relationships help us overcome our fears of change, of risk-taking, of ‘following’ to places that might be unfamiliar.

This week I had the opportunity to read in a local paper a tribute to a superintendent who had died suddenly in tragic circumstances.  I’ve included the link to the piece  here and I urge you to read it. It is more than the story of one very talented and highly respected educator.  It is a course description of leadership… of the skills and dispositions that resulted in a kind of “holy” followership.

The author, Rob Anthes writes…

Two years have passed since a car driven by a Robbinsville High School student struck and killed the Robbinsville Schools superintendent and his dog, Gertie, April 19, 2016. That day and the days that followed changed Robbinsville forever.

But it quickly became clear that [Steve] Mayer wouldn’t be defined by how he died. He had long been mindful of his reputation and the path he led, and the school district followed suit.

This could be applied to practical things, such as the way the school district looks for alternative revenue sources, the cultivating of the Robbinsville Extended Day program, the creation of an energy savings improvement plan and the hiring of a school resource officer.

It could be seen in the way he approached education, believing in opportunities and access for all students. He felt strongly that students needed to learn how to be citizens and to have a voice, which is why he encouraged involving students in discussions. The district continues to hold student focus groups so the education in Robbinsville Schools reflects those the district serves.

It’s seen in Robbinsville’s curriculum, which prioritizes research and communication skills thanks to Mayer’s push.

…But, on the surface, these are things every superintendent does. So why does Mayer continue to serve as a guide for the Robbinsville community?

The district’s current superintendent, Kathie Foster, explained…

“He made so many deep, abiding and personal connections,” Foster said. “That’s why we talk about him. He was such a genuine person. His heart was so big and so visible. He shared with everyone. You talk with people, and they say that he was such a close friend of theirs. You hear that from so many people. Part of that is the openness to love everyone. That’s who he was. He was not afraid to love and accept.”

This has been made apparent to every person who walks through the front doors of a Robbinsville school. In the vestibule of each of the district’s three schools, there’s a plaque. On it is Mayer with his trademark smile and the phrase, “Make someone’s day today.”

Anthes continues…

The district has worked so its students learn these attributes, the ones that made Mayer so special—empathy, compassion, resilience. The corporate world calls these “soft skills,” but people who crossed paths with Mayer know better than most there’s nothing soft about them. Foster suggested a more suitable term would be “human.” For it was with those skills, Mayer changed countless lives—merely by embracing others’ humanity. It’s also what those same people miss most about him.

Anthes concludes his piece with an excerpt from a description written by Dr. Mayer’s administrative assistant.

Steve Mayer…Boss. Friend. Seeker. Good Steward. Family Man. Scholar. Sports Fan. Nature Lover. Teacher. Leader. Champion of Justice. Inspiration.

An open minded enthusiast for children, families and the Robbinsville community, Steve had a passion for new ideas and loved the process—and the challenge—of helping people to see the world in new and different ways. He had a quick mind and was rarely at a loss for words. My friend was as smart as he was fun. He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing. I am just one of many whose lives are richer and more meaningful for having had the good fortune to have known him.

I recall a story written about Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War did not grant interviews.  He did, however, invite a reporter to spend the day with him as he went about his work.  At one point the reporter was ushered into a room in the White House which had been converted into a miniature battlefield. The reporter asked Lincoln, if he was, as Commander-in- Chief, trying to plan a victorious battle. Lincoln replied. “No. I’m trying to save lives. For if too many soldiers die in this war, it will be impossible to reunite the country.”  The reporter wrote a short article praising Lincoln and asking readers if all wouldn’t want a leader whose goal was to save lives.

When Lincoln was assassinated, in his pockets were a few dollars and a dog-eared, folded piece of paper.  People then recalled that in times of stress, Lincoln frequently pulled a small piece of folded paper from his pocket and read it.  It was a copy of the article.

In our work as leaders here are a few words to carry with us…

He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing.

 

Beating “The Bind”…

Recognizing and stopping our contribution to the rise of childhood stress, anxiety and depression.

Hello again,

I know it’s been a while.  Although some of my colleagues might dispute this, I’ve never been particularly good at writing simply to fill up space. As I’ve noted previously, this has been a time of reflection… a time to immerse myself in the thinking of others and to see where I might find connections or patterns that might be useful.

As was reflected by my last post, I’ve been touched by the increasingly persuasive data that tell us that our young people are suffering. What struck me about the situation was the description offered by psychologist Dr. David Gleason about our role as educators in the process.  He uses the word “bind” to describe the conflict facing parents and educators… We are relying on a narrative of hard work, good grades, college entrance and completion to insure our kids of a future that we quietly fear may not be as possible for them as it was for us. We know that this increases stress but know no other path.  We fear that if we take another path we might fail and fail them. So, with the help counselors, psychologists and outside resources, we do our best to identify and provide help for those in most obvious need, while at the same time we continue to resist making changes to the systems which are, at least partially, causal in the increases in stress, anxiety, and depression.

I want to call your attention to the work of Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their team in not only highlighting this problem but also offering a guide to what can be done and how. My hope is that you will find in this post, and in their work, a growing recognition of our unintentional role in contributing to the dilemma facing our kids, their parents, and their teachers and see the possibilities/steps offered by Bruce and Will as a viable alternative.

Background:

For the past few months I’ve been participating in an on-line professional growth group, Change Leaders Community, that is focused on supporting folks who are interesting in, or who working on, bringing new learning opportunities to our students and change to our system of schooling.  The group was begun and is moderated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their very talented team at Modern Learners.  Bruce and Will bring an incredible depth and range of experiences and have founded the community in recognition of the need for those involved in the change process to have access to others attempting the same work. Participants come from a variety of countries and bring a wealth of experience and experiences to our discussions.

This week’s call was focused on the sharing of a recently published eBook, 7 Strategies to Win the War on Learning, written by Bruce and Will.   This is a very practical work (I believe there is more to come) and, as a concrete sign of their commitment to change, they have generously offered it under a Creative Commons license allowing for the free sharing of the material.

Note: The link provided above will take you to a free download page which also serves as a bit of an introduction to their work.  While there is a fee attached to participating in the Change Leaders Community, this is a “no strings” download.

And so…

The book focuses on what Bruce and Will consider one of the largest areas of need for change… assessment.  There is a growing understanding of the failure of our current system of assessment and large-scale state testing to provide any kind of reliable information about the learning of our students or the effectiveness of our teachers.  Perhaps of even greater importance is the growing recognition of the role that our current assessment systems play in adding to the stress on our students. When we look seriously about how schools contribute to the rising levels of stress, anxiety and depression among youth, our system of assessments ranks as one of the top factors.  It is in recognition of these two issues, that Bruce and Will decided to focus on assessment as a critical aspect of school change.

Another Note: I’ll be looking at the issues of grading and the growing interest in mastery transcripts in my next post. 

There are three pieces of the book that struck me.

The first of these is a superbly organized (and well researched) section about the origins, development, and misuse of testing.  What I found fascinating about these chapters was the recognition of the need to help parents, students, and other educators (who have had some form of testing a part of their schooling for as long as any of us have been alive) understand that their initial distaste for tests was well founded.   Not too many of us sat there breathlessly and excitedly anticipating our next big test! Bruce and Will handle this insightfully and usefully. I consider this the “WHY” of the book.

The second piece that captured my attention was the “WHAT” section… the 7 Strategies that they identified. They entitle these: 7 Strategies to Support Assessment That Supports Learning.

  1. Beliefs must drive assessment.
  2. Challenge assumptions, biases, and orthodoxies that influence assessment practice.
  3. Communication beats compliance.
  4. Explore status-quo busting assessment solutions to provide more authentic and real-world choices.
  5. Let students learn about how they learn.
  6. Measure what matters.
  7. Invest in TRUST.

Moving people way from their long-held beliefs involves a lot of “unlearning”.  This is no less true when we think about assessment.  Note that their focus is not to eliminate assessment but to design, select and utilize assessment practices that support learning.  The strategies they describe and explore represent steps that, while they may differ in sequence and depth from school to school, are critical to the success of any change plan.

The third piece that interested me was the way in which they had formatted each section of the “7 Strategies” descriptions.  Each strategy contains an expansion of key aspects of deep explorations: Why This Matters, From Strategy to Action, Questions to Further the Conversation, and Resources.  For me this was the “HOW” of the book.  It is less a concrete action plan that a guide for engaging stakeholders in the kinds of conversations/explorations that encourage ownership of the conclusions rather than and expectation for compliance with a new orthodoxy.  Having facilitated such change processes in school as a consultant (often with mixed results), I appreciated the guidance they offer.

Your turn

I hope you’ll take the time to read 7 Strategies and share your thoughts with us.

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” –  Garrison Keillor

If We Know This Stuff Why Aren’t We Changing More?

 

Note: My thanks to Will Richardson and the team at change leaders.community for the inspiration for this post. If you’re interested in exploring and collaborating with like-minded educators about the why and how of school change, I strongly recommend checking out the change leaders community. Their work has added considerable richness to the reflections during my self-imposed retreat and leads me to a further exploration of a couple of themes that have occupied my thinking and writing, leadership, and change. 

“Dylan Bueno is buried. Did pressure from school contribute to his apparent suicide?”

This the headline from a blog post on March 14th by Bob Braun, a retired education editor/writer for a major NJ newspaper. Mr. Braun continued:

Dylan Bueno–at 14, not quite a child and still not yet a young man–was buried Wednesday by his family. Five days earlier, he apparently committed suicide not long after he learned he would not be able to participate in his eighth-grade graduation from Newark’s Ann Street School

Just hours before I read this story, I had finished listening to a podcast/interview which featured a conversation between Will Richardson and David Gleason. Gleason is a psychologist whose book,  At What Cost on the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide is generating significant questions about the role of school in this alarming trend.

It was no accident that I found my way to this podcast. A few days ago, I revisited a piece written by (here’s that name again) Will Richardson, entitled “Our Moral Imperative”. In this  article Will shared his experience meeting David Gleason and encountering his notion of “immunity to change”. More about that in a bit.  As I read and listened I heard two distinct threads. They represent what Gleason refers to as the “current bind”… the dissonance between our public and open commitments and what our behaviors reveal about less public commitments.

The first thread involves the evolution of our culture. From a cultural perspective the school children of this generation are living at a time when their parents have lost considerable faith in the likelihood that their children will have a better life than they did. Furthermore, they have accepted (and contributed to) a conventional wisdom that defines what path is most likely to present their children with the best chances for “beating the odds” – study hard, do well in school, get above average SAT, ACT scores, submit great college applications, get into the best possible college, be the first in our family to attend college, etc.

In his book, Gleason describes the bind that we find ourselves grappling with

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

Schools are seen as the primary means by which the fears of parents (transmitted very effectively to their kids) can be addressed. We, as educators, in responding to these expectations and to the pressures imposed by state and federal requirements have been complicit in the creation of a culture of high expectations, imposed at increasingly earlier grades, with the promise of dire consequences for both students and educators when expectations are not/cannot be met.

The second thread that I found in my explorations of the Richardson/Gleason resource is a part of Gleason’s work identifying why we find change so hard. Gleason’s explanation for our reluctance to change makes a comparison between the body’s systems for rejecting threats to our health (our immune systems) and the idea that we also possess an emotional defense mechanism which he terms our “immunity to change”. The system helps us reject change that might threaten our sense of self or our personal comfort. You can read about his study and the details of his interview protocol here

The thread that Gleason highlights in describing the current bind we are facing is not surprising… it is fear. As educators, while we recognize that our focus on trying to insure a successful future for our students has resulted in unhealthy pressures and is contributing to the historically high anxiety levels of students, we have done little to address this.

In October of last year, the NY Times reported on this problem as follows:

In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

“Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety”, NY Times, October 11, 2017

Here is Richardson’s description of what Gleason has learned:

“…we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more).

But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more). Nor surprisingly these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.”

In their conversation Gleason (in the podcast) and Richardson (in the article) point out it is the next step in the protocol that gets interesting. Participants are asked to identify what fears they would have if they did the opposite of their negative practices. Here are a few of the fears that Gleason got when conducting the protocol around the issues of excessive focus on college, over-emphasis on grades, homework assignments, etc. I’ve paraphrased a few of his findings from his interviews.

If the teachers didn’t continue with the current practices…

  • They would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
  • Their students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and they would eventually lose our jobs.
  • We might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
  • If they actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, they fear that they might try and fail … They do what they’re comfortable doing.
  • If they did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture… they’d have to face making adjustments in their program, which could have an impact on their jobs.

As the convergence of events and ideas continued, it struck me that my exposure to these resources during my time of “retreat” was no accident. Rounding out this I’d like to offer the following for consideration.

What Gleason has described is a real and complex bind… a combination of forces have conspired to create a condition which has significantly increased the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in our young people. Our current solution to this situation is to get better at identifying young people who are exhibiting signs of such distress and to provide support resources to heal or “fix” them. Once again, relying on the wisdom of Russell Ackoff, this is a classic example of trying to do the wrong thing better. We know what the right thing to do is… it is to fix the system that is causing the stress, the anxiety, the depression and placing the lives of too many children at risk. It is to stop over-scheduling our kids. It is to stop the overemphasis on grades and college admission. It is to stop the madness of hours of time devoted to test –prep and high stakes assessments. It is time to stop transferring our fears about the future of kids to our kids.   It is our fear that allows the bind to continue. The cost of this fear is too high. Just ask Dylan Bueno’s mom.

Be well