They never ask the right question…

The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery

IMG_3580-3As regular readers may recall I’ve recently been able to experience what the internet has long promised to be… a means of bringing people together in ways that inspire deep, caring, and nurturing relationships.  Through an odd combination of networking experiences, the “4 Friends” has become such a mini-community.  One unanticipated outcome of this coming together is the recent opportunity to move our weekly “how to save the world and one another” chats to a live radio format.  Oh, did I forget to mention that 2 of the 4 Friends reside on Canada (one in BC and one in Ottawa)? Or that the remaining two live in NJ and Chicago? 

In preparing for our initial radio broadcast, one of the Friends (Tom/Chicago) suggested that we build our chats around the wisdom around The Little Prince, his favorite book.  And so it begins.  It begins with the title of this piece and the relationship between the quality of questions and the usefulness of answers.  

In thinking about the idea of asking “the right question”, I was reminded of a letter I shared in a recent post.  I posted it on Facebook as well and have lost track of the number of times that it has been shared.  The author is Theresa Thayer Snyder, a former superintendent of schools from New York State.  Her letter is entitled, “What Shall We Do About the Children?”

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

“What Shall We Do About the Children?”… The Little Prince would be proud.

Moving from The Little Prince to the hallowed halls of Harvard and thinking of the importance of questions, I was reminded of the beautiful  commencement address  by Dr. James Ryan in 2016. At that time, he was the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. I’ve included the short version of this and hope you’ll find the time to look at it.  It’s one of the best written and best delivered commencement addresses I’ve heard (and in more than 40 years of working in schools I’ve heard a bunch).

In his address, Dr. Ryan speaks of the need to learn how to ask good questions and shares his sense of such questions.  As he concludes his talk, Dr. Ryan adds what he called “the bonus question”. It is taken from a poem by Raymond Carver titled “late Fragments”… His question… “Did you get what you wanted out of life…even so…?”

Ryan follows the revelation of this question with the following summary thoughts…

Did you get what what you wanted out of life… even so? 

The “even so” part this to me captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment. My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”

… And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel beloved on this earth

…When I read these lines it’s hard for me not to think about students. We spend a lot of time here and elsewhere thinking about we might improve student performance…yet I can’t help but think that schools and, indeed, the world would be better places if student didn’t just simply perform well but also felt beloved, beloved by their teachers and by their classmates.  

I can add little to the eloquence of the words of Theresa Thayer-Snyder or James Ryan.  What I can do is ask us to look at Ryan’s questions and to blend them with Theresa’s tenderness and ask the questions that Ryan suggests.

  • Wait! What …Wait! What do we mean by “What shall we do with the children?
  • I wonder…I wonder what would happen if we didn’t expect to finish the curriculum and prepare kids for state tests?  What would happen if we didn’t even use the curriculum?  What would happen if the experience of the pandemic became the curriculum?
  • Couldn’t we at least …Couldn’t we at least think about the things that we really don’t need to do? Couldn’t we at least abandon grades for this semester? this year?  Couldn’t we find time to talk about what matters?
  • How can I/we help …How can we help those families who are struggling? Those kids who have lost family members? Those kids who want to draw instead of doing math?
  • What really matters …What really matters?  The strength and resilience of our kids? The state test score? The completion of all assignments? That all kids feel wanted and beloved?

As I conclude this reflection, I’m reminded of an encounter I had some time ago with Tom Sergiovanni.  For those of you approaching my age, you might recall that name.  If you’re approaching my age and have been a part of an administrative preparation program, you’re almost certain to recall it. Sergiovanni wrote the text books on supervision and evaluation that most of us had to buy.  

Several friends and I had organized a professional conference for school leaders. We engaged Dr. Sergiovanni as one of the keynote speakers and took advantage of the opportunity to pick his brain by hosting him for dinner on the night before the conference.  Before we could even begin the obligatory display of gratitude for his presence, he held up his hand and said, “Before we begin I’d like to share something. If I could get all of my earlier books out of libraries throughout the country, I’d burn them. I believe now that everything I’ve written about supervision and evaluation was wrong!”

Wait!What?

“My focus in those works was on the process and mechanics of supervision/evaluation.  It is not about that. It was never about that. It’s about community and relationships.” Dinner was interesting.

In the face of the pandemic and all that we are learning about remote learning, about caring for our learners, about caring for ourselves, etc., what should happen if much of what we’ve been doing for the past 30+ years in the name of school reform and school improvement is wrong? I maintain that it is and so I’ll add three more questions from yesterday’s blog to those of Dr. Ryan and invite you to spend a bit of time with them.

  • What should we stop doing in our schools and in our classrooms,
  • What should we keep doing? and
  • What should we start doing? 

Be well.

Resources: Cover Image: The Little Prince, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

4 thoughts on “They never ask the right question…

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