Welcome Back

Oh, that’s right I’m the one who’s been away.

Maybe when we got all enthused about the quote, “May we live in interesting times” we should have asked for a definition of “interesting”. Wishing that we might live in a time of fear, dueling expert opinions, uncertainty, and separation seems like a terrible thing to wish on anybody, especially ourselves.

So, where have I been? In the past few weeks I’ve probably started at least 4 different blogs.  I always name them by the date of the first draft and include a version number.  On several I’ve gotten as far as Version 3.2 but none seemed to earn the desired “final”.  The relevance of each seems to have been eclipsed by the “headline of the day” … some these even dealt with education.  These included thoughts that seem to have been prepared by the writers at Saturday Night Live and dealt with the day to day struggles of folks trying to implement what has euphemistically been termed “remote learning”. How can you write a helpful (I think I really mean “serious”) blog/essay about the problems caused for teachers when they can no longer give “zeros” for uncompleted work?  Or how about responding to experts suggesting that we will need to address the coming preschool gap and regression in reading skills of kindergartners?

And just as I was approaching what might have been the “final” on another piece, the governor of New York announced the formation of a partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine “ what education might looks like now that we’re accepted (or at least he has) that we might not need school buildings anymore.  Given the track record of the Gates Foundation with investments in the such initiatives as the Common Core, the portfolio approach to district organization, value added evaluations of teachers, etc. (BTW, for a complete list of the reform “successes” I’d encourage you to read Jan Resseger ‘s post from today)   Inviting Gates and other tech experts from around the country to design a new system of education seems eerily similar to expecting a real estate developer to design responses to the COVID-19 pandemic (cue the fiddle music and clips of burning buildings!).

I recall when our kids were younger and we were traveling we played a family game.  The first one who spotted and correctly identified roadkill would get a point.  We went so far as to develop a business plan for the sale of the “Dead Animal Game” (complete with reusable stickers of the most commonly seen animals) at highway rest stop stores.  Stuck here in the house I found myself wondering if we shouldn’t be thinking about a “dead society” game. Social distancing seems to be formalizing a trend that has been underway for some time now… separation.  To paraphrase Charles Eisenstein, we have been seeing, for what might be decades now, the separation of people from one another, the separation of people from our institutions, and the separation of people from our planet and its health.

So why this piece?  I want to emphasize that, as we look at our slice of the world, education, it is critical that we learn from our experience these past months.  While we have been spending large amounts of time and money on “reforming schools, we have paid far too little attention to one of the most valuable (perhaps THE most valuable) outcomes of our system to public education… CONNECTION.  One of my connections is a young man who teaches high school English. The most important thing that I can share about him is that I wish my kids had experienced him when they were in school.  He writes today about “connections”.  It would be folly for me to offer the Cliff Notes version of his post.  So, here is something I’ve never done before… here is the complete piece that he shared today as well as the link to his site. Be well.

Latest post from Write on Fight On

I’ve been trying to be optimistic and hopeful and dare I say– a little funny– to help lighten the mood. Writing to you has offered me a welcome distraction from the biblical story we’re currently starring in. And I hope reading my posts has done the same for you.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you this week marks the one year passing of one of my students. A student who sat in the second row, first seat of my literature class.

Beside their seating arrangement, general GPA in my class, and their enjoyment of school cafeteria soups (one of the few conversations I had with them)–I didn’t know much about them.

My failure to connect to them still shakes me to this day. It was only after the student’s death that I realized I had to take responsibility for my failings and do a better job connecting to my students.

So this past school year I made it a daily practice to greet every student at the door. I addressed them by name, asked them how their day was going, followed by “The Question of the Day”.

The “QOTD” ranged from: questions about what we were currently reading in class, or “would you rather” questions– would you rather lose or sight or lose your memories?, or philosophical questions–“What 3 things are needed for a rich life?”.

Like the baseball player who, after he hits a homerun, points to the sky, remembering his deceased grandmother, the question of the day was my way of remembering the student who liked soup.

And even though I’m teaching from my living room these days, I still pose “The Question of the Day” to my students.

Personal connections are the most important self-improvement tool in the human toolbox. 

Psychology is ripe with studies explaining the extraordinary benefits of human connection (lower rates of anxiety and depression, stronger immune system, higher rates of self-esteem and empathy).

The word of 2020 so far might be “essential.”

Essential workers. Essential testing. “Buy only the essentials.” Essentially, no one knows what’s going on.

No doubt we’re swimming in a scary soup, Italian Canceled Wedding or Lobster Risk, but one thing is certain– connection is essential.

As psychologist Dr. Emma Seppala explains, “the truth is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.”

Look connecting is not easy. It takes courage and the fear of rejection is real. (You may have rejected my soup jokes). And right now, in the spring time of 2020, social connection is much more difficult.

So how can we connect? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Take a free virtual class ( I’m currently taking “The Science of Well-Being” at Yale University. Yeah, that’s right I’m an Ivy Leaguer.)
  2. Zoomwith a friend or relative but do more than just talk. Play a game, watch a movie together, knit a potholder, make a soup.
  3. Drive to a relative’s or friend’s house, honk like you’re snarled in rush hour traffic until they come outside. And have a car-side conversation.

I understand, connecting is scary but we all need to connect. We are social creatures. Interconnection is how we, both physically and emotionally, survive.

This earthy communion of sharing our stories is how we lift each others spirits. And our anxiety, our lonesomeness, our sadness will continue unless we break-free of our self-imposed isolation and connect.

Connection is essential.

Connection will get us through a pandemic.

Or a literature class drier than a saltine cracker.

Be well,


PS: I’ll be thinking of you–2nd row, 1st seat, soup enthusiast–a little more this week.

PSS: I want to thank anyone who reads this blog. You’re connecting to me. Which means a lot. And though we may not be physically connecting we’re emotionally connecting. And emotional connections go a long way right now.



Oh no! Not “what if” again.


Gary Larson, The FarSide Gallery

As I wrote recently in a blog piece, Covid-19 demands a number of responses.  First among these is the expression of our admiration and gratitude to all of those folks whose selfless and often heroic efforts seek to help us survive what just a few months ago was unthinkable.  Not too far down on that list are the nation’s educators who in the space of a few short weeks (often much less) have been able to provide our kids and their families with food, emotional support and, for many, brand new ways of experiencing education.

In addition to being thankful and, as we reflect on the many stories and the growing list of resources available to bring school to our kids and their families, I see another possible response.  What if the disruption in the normal schooling routine presents us with a challenge and an opportunity?

Not too long ago, a Gallup poll revealed that as kids move through our system of schooling, there is a precipitous drop in their engagement in the process… a drop from approximately 80% engagement in 4th grade to less that 40% by 11thgrade.  Equally, and perhaps even more alarming, is the data that show that our kids are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I’ve been reflecting on these frightening statistics, I recalled a parenting response I used to hear as a kid.  Responding to one of my youthful misdeeds, my mother would suggest (often quite forcefully) … “Go to your room. Sit there and think about what you’ve done.” Might not this time of Covid-19 be calling us to so the same? What have we done?  How did we get here?  Is this where we want to be? What really matters?  What if our kids have needs that we are not meeting in our current culture and in our schools?

How did we get here?

In 1893, the National Education Association convened a group primarily composed of educators to deal with a divide in opinion about the purpose of education, which until that time, had been structured around two forms of schooling.  One was the continuation of what was considered a classical education and served primarily the wealthy, and a second form which was primarily vocational or life skill based.  The conclusion and recommendation of the group, known as the Committee of Ten, was that there should be more options and that schooling should be organized into eight years of elementary schooling and four years of high school.  Beyond that structural recommendation, the group also recommended the subjects which should be taught and in what sequence.  Most people today are surprised to learn that the organization of our system of schools and what the core learning should were determined in 1893 and have changed very little for more than a hundred years.

Russell Ackoff, in his lifetime a highly regarded political economist, offered the following: ”There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.  Trying to do things right is about efficiency.  Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.  Trying the do the wrong thing “righter” actually makes things “wronger.”

On a deep level many of us are recognizing that we have spent far too much time working on the wrong thing in our schools.  We have spent the past thirty years on a quest for greater academic achievement… achievement as envisioned by the Committee of Ten… achievement defined as standards of learning which continue to focus our attention of isolated subjects, on large scale standardized assessments, and on the false gods of efficiency and accountability.   We have spent years now and have subjected kids and their teachers to efforts to do the wrong things right.

  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Kodachrome, Paul Simon)
  • What if the way we have “done school” has been contributing to both the loss of curiosity and engagement among our kids (and sometimes our teachers) and the increase in reported cases of stress, anxiety and depression?
  • What if much of the work we are creating now is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing? What if the tragedy of Covid-19 is presenting us with the time to question the difference between schooling and learning?What if we have inadvertently demanded that parents re-create schooling in their homes?
  • What would this time of homeschooling look like if we focused on home learning enabling learning beyond the overloaded curriculum that has become a part of our children’s schooling experience?
  • What if we thought of school not as a journey with an end (graduation) but as a time when we learn how to become learners? What would the important things or skills be that we would need to become successful lifelong learners?
  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Paul Simon again)
  • What if much of the work we are creating is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what the right thing is?

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We have to provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create while they are home.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  We have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting, need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  Why wouldn’t we use this time when schools are not in session to find the time and create small teams to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

As we try, as we will inevitably do, to build a new future and adapt to the “new normal” which will evolve as the tragedy of Covid-19 morphs into the next phase of our lives,  can we remember that life begins again when we consider the possibility that there may be a different way?  Surely we can consider that the Committee of Ten, no matter how brilliant they were, did not predict the learning needs of our time.  This is a time that begs us to ask ourselves “What matters?” Could we try to ask that about learning?

Be well

A Thank You and a Challenge

For those of who don’t know me, I’m old. I mean that chronologically.  People who do know me, frequently wonder if I’ll ever grow up.

That’s some opening, Rich.  Why did you start like that?  Well, it’s my way of sharing that I’ve spent a lot of years in schools.  During that time, the vast majority of the teachers I’ve met did not have a job. They had a vocation, a calling to work with children. In some instances, and perhaps you can identify with this, the work turned into a job.  In most cases this was a temporary shift and their love of kids helped them deal better with the less pleasant aspects of their work.

In recent years, it’s become fashionable to find fault with our system of schools.  For too many teachers, this has been a tough time of unfair criticism and underappreciation.  Too often we’ve forgotten how to say “thank you” to those whose lives revolve around teaching our kids.

Consider this a “thank you” note.  Thank you for all of the hard work and continuing to try to do the best you can in spite of the uncertainty and the demand to do something we’ve never done before on anything approaching the scale of recent weeks.  The times make us question ourselves and our work.  They should not make us question our goodness or our commitment to the kids we serve.  Talking with friends around the country who are still young enough to be working in schools, or in this case, working NOT in schools, I see countless examples of selfless behaviors and incredible responses…

  • School staff and volunteers working incredible hours to be sure that all kids have something to eat. The fact that this happened almost from day one should not lead us to assume that this was easy,
  • Teachers finding ways to check in with their kids, not to check their homework but to be sure they are OK. School leaders and teachers affirming the importance of supporting connections and relationships with their students.
  • Teachers designing and sharing instructional and learning experiences using technology on a scale rarely required of them.

As we continue to work at providing valuable, meaningful learning experiences for kids… kids of all ages and abilities, kids with a range of challenges, kids whose life circumstances don’t provide them the tools that are the requirement for the successful completion of assignments… I wonder if we’ve had time to consider bigger questions… questions like “What really matters?”  What if in our haste to try to do the best we can in this time of remote learning we have created impossible situations/expectations for parents?

Please, this is not intended to suggest that we need to question our value, our commitment to kids, the desire of kids to learn.  During the past two weeks I’ve had the privilege of interacting with a number of members of the Modern Learners Community.  Once each week, Will Richardson and Missy Emler have hosted an open Zoom chat for educators both here and abroad.  There is an incredible assembly of talent “in the room”.  To a person in each session the consensus that emerges is that this is a time of great challenge and perhaps even greater opportunity.  To a person, the sense is that designing lessons and experiences for kids that more or less resemble schooling is a mistake.  Marking time until we can get back to the familiarity of schooling is an even bigger mistake.  Wait! What? You mean getting back to the routine of school might not be a good thing?  What are the options?

You might recall from earlier posts that I’ve referenced Dr. Ryan’s commencement address to the graduates of Harvard’s graduate school of education.  He built his talk around six questions.  I’ll borrow shamelessly from his talk here and ask a few of my own “what if” questions.  They are not intended to be answered as you read this.  My hope is that you will consider these as your plan experiences for kids in the coming days, weeks, maybe months.  My hope is that we may be inspired to look beyond what school has always been for us and for our kids and to use this time to test the waters.  The pandemic has given us permission.

So here goes…

What if we have inadvertently demanded that parents re-create schooling in their homes?

What would this time of homeschooling look like if we focused on home learning focused on learning beyond the overloaded curriculum that has become a part of our children’s schooling experience?

What if we thought of school not as a journey with an end (graduation) but as a time when we learn how to become learners? What would the important things or skills be that we would need to become successful lifelong learners?

What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff?  (Think Paul Simon and Kodachrome)

What if much of the work we are creating is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing?


As I was pondering a conclusion to this piece, I took a break and did a bit of reading.  I found the following in a blog post from Diane Ravitch.  She offered the words of Michael Matsuda, Superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in California.  He wondered what our kids and their grandkids might recall of this time.

Fifty years from now, when our students are old, when they have children and grandchildren of their own, they will look back and say, “Do you remember what happened?” I picture them pensively reflecting, staring silently, breathing deeply, perhaps tearing up, and then after reliving the experience to the very end, smiling, “Those were the times of amazing grace, when people came together with kindness and compassion to support each other, when they made sacrifices for complete strangers, when schools became beacons of hope for families who were food deprived, and when teachers transformed educational experiences through emotional connection, through affirming mental health, and through meaningful learning.”

It was a time like no other, when the world came together, collaborated, communicated, created, thought critically, and acted with compassion to save humankind.

I know this will be true because I see it happening right now. I see it in our Food Service workers as they prepare and pass out food for thousands of our children. I see it in our teachers as they work tirelessly creating new curriculum and a new way of virtual learning through a completely transformed system. I see it in our students who connect and help each other virtually with enthusiasm and care. I see it in our IT workers who have refurbished thousands of laptop computers for kids to use. I see it in our counselors and social workers who reach out to young people suffering from depression, isolation, and emotional starvation. I see it in our administrators who work endlessly, filling all the gaps in a topsy turvy world. And I see it in total strangers, coming out of the woodwork, volunteering time and sometimes money to pitch in and to help heal a fractured world.

…But as we face this threat today, let us go forward knowing that things will likely get worse before they get better, that stress will mount and tempers will flare, and that we may take it out on those we love most – our children.

Remember that one day, our young people will become adults, and how we respond in these most traumatic times will forever imprint on them whether it was our darkest or our finest hour. It is up to us.

It’s been said that the health of a society can be measured by the way in which it cares for its weakest and most vulnerable.  Thank you for all that you are doing to bring, in this most vulnerable of times, gentleness, hope, caring, support and direction to one another as well as to the kids and their families.   Be well.  Rich


A Reflection…

Good morning

As some of you know, some years ago my family and I belonged to a Franciscan community where I served a director of the lay community (those folks who were not members of a religious order) and director of several of our retreat programs.  The retreat programs were known as “searches” based on the notion that we are all, in some way, searching for ways to become our better selves.  Hold that thought.

By now, you may be thinking “that’s nice” but where’s this going.  Bear with me.

I’m including a link to  a blog post by Jan Resseger.  I became acquainted with Jan several years ago.  We have developed a wonderful professional and personal connection.  I value her work and would highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to make sense of the deterioration of many of our most important institutions.  She has dedicated much of her thinking and writing to issues of equity and approaches issues relating to education more from an institutional and social good context than from one focusing on teaching and learning.

In the accompanying post, Jan focuses on the ways in which a number of very wealthy folks are seeking to undo big government, including what they term “government” schools or, more accurately, the system of public education.  Their reach is extensive and their operation, formidable.  In this piece, Jan connects the dots (she is a very accomplished researcher) with a short version of Ravich’s recently released book, Slaying Goliath).

OK, hellava intro, eh?  Here’s my request.  I’ve dedicated this week to reading/listening to some pretty diverse thinkers (Charles Eisenstein , Father Richard Rohr,  Umair Haque ). I’d be lying if I said that I have connected all the dots among these very different thinkers.  But here’s my searching question at this point.  Is a system of public education, especially one which focuses so much on schooling and so reluctantly on learning, a critical public good for a healthy society?  Do our efforts to bring about a new focus (student centered, focus on learning, discovering how to be, etc.) require the continuation of a system of public education? Are there really any options?

Charles Eisenstein is a fascinating person.  I’ve shared with some of you my experience with him at what he termed “a gathering”.  It’s from him that I’ve stolen the term “Age of Separation”… a time when we are increasingly separate from one another, from our institutions, and even from our planet.  He got on the public radar with his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. We seem pretty far removed from that world at this point and the continuation of schooling as we know doesn’t seem to hold the answer. Is it legitimate to expect education to help move us in such a direction?  If so, what must we do to schooling to make that possible?

Richard Rohr offers that we have two lives… a first life in which we seek to affirm who we are and a second one in which we seek to affirm and grow to become who we wish to be.  He suggests that too many of us live in only the first half of our possible lives. I sense that our educational system is stuck in its first life and, in the absence of a clear sense of purpose, Jan points out that we are turning over the direction of the second life to the ideology of the very wealthy.

Is this a conversation worth having?  Your thoughts, reflections, comments would be helpful.

Be well.  Thanks for indulging my “search”.




Do We Need a Eulogy for Schooling?


I’ve been sitting on this for too long.

I’m watching our country slip away,

…away from the story I was taught to believe.

I’m watching rich people make decisions

…make decisions more about what good for them than what’s good for not so rich people.


I’m not a fan. I’m also not blameless.


I’ve abused the environment

I’ve discriminated against and been discriminated against

I’ve selfishly hung on to things I could have easily shared

I’ve watched violence become normal

…normal on TV, normal in the movies, normal in our lives

I’ve watched active shooter drills in schools, traumatizing too many kids to make others feel safer.


I haven’t done enough.

Enough of not doing enough!

I want to do more than I’ve done.


I believe in kids and teachers

I know about schools.

I should speak up.

Who am I to say this?

I went to school… a long time

I worked in schools… lots of them

I visited schools… big schools, small schools, native American nation schools, charter schools,  private schools, schools in America, schools in Canada, schools in Germany

People hired me to fix schools

…They made a mistake.  They wanted to fix schools.  They needed to fix “schooling”.



What if we don’t need to fix schools?

What if we need to fix learning?

What if we don’t need to teach content?

What if we need to make thinking matter more?


What if we’ve been doing the wrong thing for too long?

…spending too much time on trying to do it “righter”?

What if we’re in a hole that we don’t recognize because it seems like home?

…home where we are comfortable.


What if, a long time ago, our community leaders, long since dead, decided to educate kids in a place called school because school sounded familiar?

…There was so much to know

…There was so much to teach

…They thought they needed workers more than thinkers.

It got even harder as the population grew and there was more to teach.

They needed order.

…They created a curriculum.

…They choose to organize the content into discrete subjects.

…They chose to move kids between these subjects every 40 minutes.

…They chose to group and educate kids by age.


They ignored most of what we knew about learning


And we went to their schools.

Many of us learned in their schools.

I learned to “do” school.

In my school we read one paragraph per kid.

I learned to count the kids and paragraphs ‘til my turn.

…I read “well”

…I learned to memorize

…I learned to take tests

Some time in college I learned to think

We didn’t know as much about thinking, learning, engagement, belonging.

…We do now.

How could we/should we act now if these things matter more?


What if we stopped allowing educational reformers to make gods of data and large-scale assessments?

What if we refused to allow kids to identify their own self-worth by their test scores?

What if we made learning more important than grading?

What if we stopped allowing people with little or no experience in schools and education to determine what is wrong with teachers?

What if we stopped private and corporate greed from treating kids like commodities, markets, and profit centers?

What if we stopped allowing politicians to label schools as “failing” when they have, for generations, failed to address the poverty in the areas where these schools are located?

What if we acknowledged that, in this time of fake news, climate change denial, social media, YouTube, & Snapchat, etc. schooling as it was designed over 100 years ago and as we experienced it may be dead for an increasing number of kids?



…I hear it’s too hard to change the system

…I hear “my district won’t allow it”

…I hear it’s the state’s fault, the parents’ fault, the kids’ fault

I’ve heard this from many good, caring teachers and administrators.

I’ve heard enough about why we “can’t”

Because what I’m really hearing is “I won’t”

What if we can’t afford “I won’t” anymore?

What if we can’t continue to ignore what we know?

…that kids “buy” teachers…they don’t buy content

…that kids learn in many different ways

…that they shouldn’t “fail” if/because they don’t learn in rows, in boxes, from texts, from teachers at the same rate as their peers. This is about adult convenience and efficiency, not learning

…That they shouldn’t be suffering from anxiety and depression or committing suicide in record numbers!

What would happen if we rediscovered how kids learn and created space where this could happen… for all kids, not just those who “fit”?

What if what kids really need is not more reform, more test scores?  What if what they really need is us?  Us, not as teachers of content but us as guides, as thinkers, as learners, as risk-takers, as creators of safe spaces for curiosity and exploration?

If we were starting a new school today what “schooling” practices would we abandon?  What “learning” practices would we do more of? What if we didn’t wait for a new school?  

Be well.

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.


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.