Reopening… Doing the Right Thing

The next few posts on this blog will focus on the options available to educators as the time of possible reopening of our nation’s school gets closer.  On so many levels this is a time unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Our lives, our mobility, our jobs, and our families have been disrupted by COVID-19.  On the heels of this disruption, we have been reminded of the disparities in our society and the ways in which “otherness” continues to challenge and weaken connectedness.  We are seeing a breakdown/failure of major social institutions.  We have watched our health care system become overwhelmed as the virus spread and taxed, almost beyond capacity, our health care facilities and our frontline medical workers.

In the wake of deaths of black citizens (both male and female) caused by police officers, we have watched as our system of law enforcement and public safety became so beleaguered in the face of rioting/rebellion that police stations in several cities were simply abandoned.  As I write this, officials in Seattle are seeking to “take back” a section of that city that had been yielded to protestors. Calls for the “defunding” of police departments continue to increase and  gain momentum.

Writing about education in the face of these challenges to our very existence and our way of life seemed, at first, to focus on the “small stuff”.  And yet as we have experienced the shut down of our schools, the moving of the place of learning from the school house to the family house, the impact of our forced experiment with remote learning  on learning, the loss of social connection by adults and kids alike, I come to the conclusion that this is not small stuff.

So I hope you stay with me as I explore how this “reopening of school moment in time” begs, or more accurately, demands more than just finding the right, safe mix of schooling and social distancing.  Is the system that shut down the one we wish to reopen? This is a big question and this is a time for big questions!

I want to share a bit of a “roadmap” for what I’ll be suggesting.

While I’ve decided to tackle this journey, I won’t be doing it alone.  I’ll be drawing on the work of many others who have already begun this exploration and whose work has touched many.  I encourage you to check out the links to explore in greater depth the thinking and provocations of some very special people.

As I began working on this series of posts, I came across a piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson.  He had me at the title. “Why America’s Institutions Are Failing.”

He speaks here of the theme of his article…

“Why have America’s instruments of hard and soft power failed so spectacularly in 2020? In part because they are choking on the dust of a dead century. In too many quarters of American leadership, our risk sensor is fixed to the anxieties and illusions of the 1900s.”

“The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.”

…“Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.”

 Suddenly this wasn’t an article about the failure of our health care system or our concerns about the direction of policing.  It was also unintentionally describing the failure of our system of education to move beyond the content, the structure, organization and priorities as defined by the Committee of Ten Committee of Ten in 1893!  This was about the reality that the discussions and planning that we are seeing are largely focused on how we might best recreate the schools we had prior to the pandemic when the world around us has changed more than the Committee of Ten could have ever imagined.

In a recent webinar webinar entitled “New Leadership Lenses for Reopening Schools” offered  by the newly formed Big Picture Institute, Will Richardson and co-founder Homa Tavangar provided a framework for moving beyond the return to a “new” normal… a chance to reorient ourselves and reimagine what school might be if we acted more consistently with the things we view as sacred in providing learning environments for our children.

It is an opportunity narrative and is not intended to diminish the myriad of logistical questions and issues which must be addressed to provide the safest learning environments for our children and their teachers. The connection to Thompson’s article in The Atlantic is striking. The message is clear.  If we are to reverse the trend of failing institutions caused by our propensity for looking backwards, we must acknowledge that the world has changed far more dramatically than our system for learning has responded.  We have been “marching backwards into the future”.  The context for learning is vastly different as must be the purpose of our learning.  We are now faced with the opportunity to correct that course.  We are in a time that demands the writing and telling of a new story.

I’d encourage you to spend some time with Will and Toma as they share the lenses and speak to the opportunities they have developed to help teachers and school leaders incorporate these into their planning for learner centered education.

I have often shared the thinking of Charles Eisenstein Charles Eisenstein .  Charles gained national attention with the publication of his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. In this work and in other writing Charles offers that we are living in a time which is in between stories…a time when it has become increasingly obvious that the story which prevailed when most of were growing up is no longer valid. That story told us that if went to school, worked hard, did well, we would be able to go to college, get a good paying job and have a secure retirement. For the majority of Americans if that story is not dead it is certainly dying. Charles, Will and Homa suggest it is time for us to write a new story and that story must begin with reimagining our options for education and learning.

While we are understandably nervous, perhaps even frightened, by the change in our roles and in our lives that reorienting how our children learn will involve, there is a greater than ever number of educators and families who are calling for options to simply returning to a newer version of schools designed in and for the 1890’s.

Where Do We Begin?  An Inro to Big Questions…

We Begin with Big Questions.  Thompson, in his The Atlantic article speaks to the issue of being trapped in rearview mirror planning.  I would add to that that we have also become seduced by the lure of the quick, decisive “fix”.  Leaders are valued for their decisiveness.  They are rarely asked about their problem solving or analytical skills.  We need look no further than our recent responses to societal dilemmas… the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy, the war on terrorism.  How well have these worked for us?   One doesn’t need 20/20 hindsight to see that in each case almost no attention was paid to root causes.  Deeper analysis would have gotten in the way of the valued quick, decisive action.  You might note that we continue to have problems with drugs, poverty, terrorism, etc.

When we look at the lens of our current world, we see challenges related to a world threatened by our response to the pandemic, a world struggling with the proliferation of what seem to be endless wars,.  One needn’t look too far in the future to recognize the possibility severe economic  recession/depression.  Even more likely in pour future are problems caused by the accelerating changes in our environment.  The world our children are or will be entering is not one well served by a system of education (whether public or private) designed and little changed since 1893!

Since the recommendations made by the Committee of Ten, which roughly divided education into preparation for college or preparation for work, we have witnessed the transition from an agricultural to an industrialized to an information-based, technology rich society.  And as Russell Ackoff pointed out we have focused our attention on trying to do education in this context right  – i.e., we have focused on uniformity (children grouped by age), scalability (a move away from locally contextual learning needs to national standards and assessments), efficiency computer-based “personalized” instruction, and metrics based increasingly complex and frequent large-scale assessments.  Ackoff asserts that this is far different than trying to do the right thing.

We are being confronted with/offered the opportunity to revisit this focus on doing the wrong things right.

Let me share two starting points.

What do we hold “sacred” about schooling?  What are those things that we seem to agree upon as most important.  In surveying teachers and families in the wake of the remote learning response to the COVID pandemic,  Richardson and Havagar share the following list:

Sacred Screen Shot

If these are, in fact, as widely accepted as we believe, how can we not reorient our reopened schools to own the intentional creation of policies, practices, and procedures that incorporate them in the learning experiences of our children?

The list of all-stars whose thinking and explorations have driven my own explorations and who thoughts have given moral purpose as well as the courage to offer something do different from my usual writing would be incomplete without reference to Jan Resseger.  Nothing captures who Jan is, more than the introduction to her blog…

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

I want to be clear.  Just as Jan wrote about our moral obligation to insure that all children, regardless of social class, skin color, place of birth, must have the right to a free , sound public education, I believe that we are morally obligated to insure that our system of learning offers each and every child not the opportunity to return to school that comes as close to “school as normal” as possible,  but to a reoriented and reimagined system which guarantees that each and every child is offered the opportunity to enjoy what we as professionals and parents have identified as sacred/most important.

OK, I Got It But How Do We Start?

As I wrote in the introduction to this piece, this is the first in what now appears to be a two-three part series.  Focusing on the “how” is a useless venture if there is no acceptance of the why reorientation and reimagination is needed.  I’ll close this part of the thinking with a critical acknowledgement… considering, responding to and implementing the myriad of procedures necessary for reopening schools in ways that incorporate the best medical practices and minimize the health risks to all involved, whether they be children, teachers, schools staff, and parents is a herculean task.  To illustrate the magnitude of the process, here is a  link to a piece written by a school superintendent in my home state of New Jersey.  When I first saw the title, I assumed that it was written by someone with Borowitz aspirations.  A few lines in, I was transported back to my time as a superintendent and immediately gave thanks that I was no longer occupying that chair.

Charles Eisenstein writes that we are living in what he termed an “Age of Separation” – a time when we are separated from one another, from our institutions, and even from our planet.  The way out of this separation, offered by Charles, is the cultivation of empathy… the willingness to see the world through the eyes of the other.  As we move on to the “how” of reimagining how our children and their educators experience learning I’ll be asking you to explore both in your own heart and with others who work with you exactly what it is about the education of our children that is sacred to you.  I’ll be asking whether or not the way you choose to reopen school reflects what our hearts know is/want to make possible.  We don’t have to recreate 1890 with better technology.

Right now, before, before and during “remote learning” we have a system in which our kids grow to be increasingly disengaged as they grow in it.  We have system which on some levels contributes to the dramatic increases of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and youth suicide.  We have system which sorts kids and too often narrows their opportunities based on test scores using instruments that feed our desire for accountability rather than individual growth.

As Dr. Ryan suggests. The proper response to this reality is WAIT! WHAT? Followed by WHAT IF WE DID (fill in the blank), COULDN’T WE AT LEAST TRY (fill in the blank), HOW CAN WE HELP ONE ANOTHER? And finally, WHAT REALLY MATTERS?

Part Two of this short series will focus on how we can address each of Ryan’s questions. I hope you’ll be back.

On to how…

A Stolen Piece…

This morning, while taking a break from a blog piece I’m struggling with, I encountered the piece repinted below. I found it poignant, moving and a way into a world that I’ve never experienced.  Whether we want to make America great again or great for the first time, it seems clear that  this can’t happen while separation is more pevalent that connectedness, when hatred and violence represent acceptable solutions.

This piece appeared this morning (6/23/20) on Medium under the title “Our Pain Is Not Your Classroom”.  I am hopeful that Jennifer Williams will forgive my “stealing” of her work.  

From her brief bio…”Jennifer Jennifer is an attorney and freelance writer in Charlottesville, VA. She is blissfully married with three amazing daughters. Two here, one resting.”

stopped talking one Friday afternoon when I was four years old. My mother followed me around all weekend, trying to make sense of what had happened to her loquacious girl with the light in her eyes. On Sunday evening, the levees broke. Through tears, I explained that my preschool teacher had stood me, the only child of color, on a chair in the center of my classroom. My classmates formed a circle around me and were each allowed to explore my hair. Rough hands, careless hands, curious hands in my braided hair sprinkled with shiny beads. My mother disenrolled me from that school the next day.

I can’t bring myself to watch the murder of George Floyd. But I tried once and saw my father’s face smashed into the asphalt. George Floyd looked nothing like my father. But I saw my dad’s face, clear as day. Maybe it’s because, when my father was in high school, a white teenager on a motorcycle smashed a bottle against his head and sped away. I see George Floyd. His life slipping away as the government casually kneels on his neck, hands in their pocket. I see Daddy. Bleeding and unconscious on the pavement. I can’t unsee it.

My husband, Carlin, and I love open houses. We stopped at a house with a beautiful view of the mountains a few years ago. The real estate agent showing the house asked us why we were looking at a house so grand.

“This house is for doctors and lawyers,” she said.

“Well, then we’re in the right place. That’s exactly who we are,” we replied, trying to shake off the insult.

“Good one!” she cackled. We left.

My high school boyfriend’s father was senselessly murdered by the police. In his moment of need, he was not kneed, but shot. Eleven times. His name would follow a hashtag if he had been killed today. My friend now has a beautiful family of his own. Yet, he’s navigating life and fatherhood without his father. He should have his father. His siblings, wife, and children deserve their patriarch.

My brother, Jesse, and his friend were stopped by the police not far from their college campus. Without providing a reason for the stop, the officer demanded to search the car for drugs or weapons. The cop couldn’t fathom that these young Black men would become model citizens: the founder of a mentoring organization serving more than 300 men from low-income families and a producer committed to connecting humanity through the art of powerful storytelling.

Maybe their future didn’t matter either way to that officer. Black man equals menace. The only equation he knew.

Once, my mother was admitted to a small hospital with acute pancreatitis. The physician overseeing her care took in her twisted locs and brown skin and concluded that my mother’s condition was due to alcoholism. “If you’ll just admit you’re an alcoholic, we can get you treatment,” the doctor repeated, though my mother had explained several times that she did not drink. For days, my mother was treated carelessly while she writhed in pain. Finally, another doctor took over her case and promptly determined that her illness was caused by gallstones, not alcohol abuse. Days of pointless suffering, mental and physical. Why don’t they believe us when we say we’re in pain?

Carlin, a vascular surgeon at a prestigious academic medical center, is sometimes mistaken for a patient transporter in the hospital. Long white coat. Surgical scrubs. Full suit. Doesn’t matter. Of course, he gives all of his patients the same top-notch care, whether they resemble his grandmother or come to the clinic dressed in Confederate flags. Doesn’t matter.

“I’m not racist,” said the partner at a prestigious D.C. law firm. I sat across from him in my blue suit, interviewing for a summer associate position. “I remember a Black man ran for office in my little Mississippi town once, and I voted for him. He wouldn’t win. We all knew that. But I voted for him. Because there’s not a drop of racism in me,” he continued. I nodded, hoping we could get back to my interest in health care law.

“Your parents must be so proud of you. You got out and are making something of yourself and can help the rest of the family,” the man grinned. “My success is not surprising. It’s expected,” I wanted to reply. “I come from generations of professionals.” But instead I just stared at the taxidermy head mounts covering his office walls.

“Yeah, we take a handful of Howard Law students like yourself each year. We like to give back.” The partner leaned in his chair, completely relaxed, and then inquired, “So, what does your husband do? Really? And he’s Black, too?” I chose to summer elsewhere.

On Sabbath morning, the Nazis and KKK marched in the small college town we had recently begun to call home. After closing prayer and an announcement that the National Guard had been deployed to the city, our beloved church elder made his way to the Black members huddled together in the back. “If you don’t feel safe going home, you can stay here,” he said solemnly, squeezing my shoulder. Visions of the white men in polo shirts with torches littered my mind. I sat in the pew and cried, watching my white fellow church members walk out into the light of the August sun.

One evening, when Carlin and I were newly married and he was in medical school, we ventured out for a walk. Mere steps from our home, which was practically on the university’s campus, we were blinded by the spotlight atop a police patrol car. Long — and painful — story short, at least four squad cars quickly surrounded us, lights flashing and sirens sounding. The officers ordered us to sit on the curb, hands hovering over their guns. During the nearly hour-long detention, I was separated from Carlin, lied to, and pressured to falsely accuse my husband of harming me.

The officer in charge finally let us go, saying to Carlin, “Okay, doc. I’ll let you two go ’cause if I ever need to come to the emergency room, I don’t want you to recognize me and say, ‘That’s the jerk who was messing with us.’ And, you know, this wasn’t because you all are Black. So we’re cool, right?” For days after the stop, that same officer parked outside of our home. When I would leave for work, he would make eye contact with me from inside his car and then speed away.

My mother visited us one Christmas while we lived in Washington, D.C. Carlin and I were so excited to take her to the Smithsonian. We stopped in front of the picture of “Whipped Peter” in one museum. Silent and reflective. Two white children crowded behind us and surveyed the tragic photograph. The older child said to the younger, scoffingly, “Now, don’t you feel guilty?” So much communicated with so few words. Besides the intense cold, that’s all I remember from that visit.

Three years ago, Carlin and I lost our second baby girl. I was lying in the hospital bed when a woman entered, holding a stuffed bear. She stopped in the doorway, mouth agape. “Are you Jennifer?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Oh, I thought you were white! On the phone you sound white.” This woman was the representative from the procurement organization we were working with to donate our sweet child’s organs.

The woman timidly approached my bed, her demeanor so different from the one presented on the phone when she thought I was white. She offered her condolences and then settled into a seat next to me. I laid before her in my hospital gown, belly full and heart broken. She then began a monologue about her sparse interactions with Black people, race relations, and stereotypes. A barrage of insensitivity and ignorance I could usually brush off. But that day, I was in the early stages of labor, preparing to give birth to my dead daughter.

Sometimes I regret always trying to be polite, respectable, disarming. Someone told me George Floyd called the officer “sir” as he choked the life out of him. Surely this woman from the organ procurement organization could see me as a grieving mother instead of just a person with brown skin.

Before the coronavirus, my daughter, Olivia, attended a small, sweet Montessori preschool. One afternoon, she came home silent. I wondered what happened to my loquacious girl with the light in her eyes. It took me a few hours of prodding, but that night she whispered to me that a “friend” refused to hold her hand that day because she didn’t want Olivia’s “brown” to rub off on her. A similar incident occurred the week the quarantine started. I wish I could quarantine my girls forever. I wish I didn’t have to.

Though this seems like a record of wrongs, I assure you my heart is full of love. And hope. The injustice in our country is as old as its founding, but I have seen new things. Scales beginning to fall from eyes. Many have asked what they can do to fight racism. Here are some ideas.

First, learn about the construction of “race” and the history and impact of racism in our country. Pace yourself, but start somewhere — except with your Black neighbors, co-workers, or acquaintances. Our pain is not your classroom. It’s a wake-up call. We share our experience to bring about awareness, in hopes that you will inundate yourself with the true history of the United States of America and do the work required to dismantle racism — even if you find it in your own heart. When it gets uncomfortable, persist. The refiner’s fire is painful, but it will create change.

And then, talk to your children. Talk to your children. Please talk to your children. Teach them to think critically. Analyze the words used to describe groups of people. Compare identical situations involving people of different ethnicities and their outcomes. Look for instances of injustice and name them. Listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. Pose questions that your children haven’t yet thought to ask. Why are there no Black families in our neighborhood? Why are our churches segregated? Why are people protesting? Read books featuring protagonists of color with your kids. Not just books about our struggle for equality, but also books about Black people just being people. It’s never too early to start the conversation. Maybe then my granddaughter won’t come home from preschool speechless.

Are you awake? Good. Now, go to class.

Thank you for reading this and “thank you” to Jennifer for her gift to us.  Be well.

Living Between History and Hope

If you thought the last few months have been unsettling, how about the last few days? Imagine for a few moments that you’re a 10 year old, or maybe a teenager, trying to understand or wrap your head around living through a pandemic, isolated from many of your friends, trying (or not trying) to work your way through the assignments of remote learning.  Now imagine ,on top of that, seeing hours of coverage of a black man lying in the street calling for his dead mother while someone who might look a lot like your school resource officer continues to press his knee into the man’s neck.  

How are you processing what’s been going on?  Several days ago, on the day after the first protests in Minneapolis turned violent, I heard an interview with a civil rights activist who is a member of the black community in Minneapolis.  He was asked about the prospects for justice in the investigation and prosecution of the police officer(s) involved the death of Floyd George.  His response touched me deeply. He said, “I live between History and Hope.” He explained how with each new piece of civil rights legislation he felt hope that this might be the turning point. He then recited a list of incidents in which a black person was shot and killed by the police where no charges or no convictions resulted and said, quietly, history makes hope hard to believe in.

About 10 years ago I worked with a colleague who was a highly educated black lady.  We began a friendship which continues to this day. Our offices were in an urban area which was no stranger violence.  After an event in which a black man was involved in a shooting, there was considerable discussion about the crime.  My friend and I were talking and she was visibly upset.  I asked her about her feelings and she responded… “I am a professional woman, I’m an Assistant Commissioner in the department of education, I hold a  doctorate, and when something like this happens, all I am is black.” As the drama unfolds in countless cities, she remains defined by blackness!

As I write this and reflect on what I should write/need to write, I look outside and see a neighbor, who has just returned from a fishing trip, cleaning his catch, moving back and forth between the cleaning table and his boat as if today were just another day… a day far removed from Minneapolis, from Atlanta, from St. Paul, from Oakland and more than 20 other cities in our country where violence continues to challenge our “hope” for a peaceful resolution of what for most of us continues to be a “news event”. How are we reacting to this? Do we know how the kids in our schools, the kids we teach are responding? What are we doing in this time of remote learning to help our kids make sense of the fear that has gripped our country and now the violence which is displayed? What is our responsibility to explore with one another and with our students the history and implications of racial oppression and violence? How do we engage in conversations about who we are and who we wish to be… both as individuals and as a society? 

In a piece piece that appeared in EducationPost, Kelisa Wing  shares a quote from Martin Luther King

Teachers Must Hold Themselves Accountable for Dismantling Racial Oppression

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. […] in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. […] (America) it has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. […] Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

In the battle between history and hope, history is winning. Ms Wing continues with an uncomfortable truth…

As I reflect on King’s words—social justice and progress—I am more convinced about the fact that the reason why we are at this place in our society is that racism is ingrained in the very fabric of our country. This country was built on the backs of slaves…

So what can I do…. I’ve never been an activist of any kind? 

I grew up internalizing the advice offered frequently by my parents (usually right before a large family gathering) to never talk about religion or politics,  “What ever you do, don’t get Uncle Joe started!” I saw my options as quiet activist or raging radical. Neither was a great fit.  But by default, I’ve been a “quiet activist”.  Then today the universe challenged me.  Looking for answers while In between paragraphs on this blog, the universe presented a “put up or shut up” moment. It came in the form of an article article [LINK] that was posted by a former student on Facebook and which had appeared on Medium,  “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”. With this article, Corinne Shutack has provided an incredible of mix of resources and action steps which may be taken individually or with others.  

View at

What happen if we each took inventory… spent some time with Shutack’s list and checked off things we may have done and then made a list of things we’ve never tried? What would happen if we made a “stretch” list… things that are not “us” but which we will try because the unresolved issue of race is killing us.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…

That single step doesn’t have to be taken alone. This step is so “not me”. I’d love your company.

Be well.

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.