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?

Conclusion…

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

 

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”.

 

So…

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?

 

But

…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.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kids say…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Doing the wrong thing “righter”

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

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

But what is the right thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can I do?

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

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

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

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

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

End Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

How can we help one another?

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

Thank you and be well.

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

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Farside Gallert – Gary Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couldn’t we at least try?

Be well.

QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

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

Some Days Our Best Was None Too Good!

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FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

This is the month of unusual responses. Earlier this month I had posted a piece, “Why Are We So Angry?”. It dealt with beliefs and when reposted by a follower, a commenter suggested that the writer (me) was a jerk. Apparently, the family member (extended) who shared that observation either failed to notice the source of the piece or had been harboring long-festering disenchantment with my arrival in the family.   The second unusual response came earlier today when I had posted a comment on our Modern Learners site about the current topic… grading.  No. Will Richardson didn’t comment on my level of “jerkiness.”  Rather, he became the first reader of my reflections to see them sufficiently valuable to suggest that I post the comment on my blog. (BTW, I just learned that, if you’re one row off when typing, “blog” can become “blob”).  So here goes…

Time for an adult beverage…  I want to add a point for consideration to our discussion of grading.  It’s an economic one.  One that reaches beyond the concerns raised about the high costs of the test and punish reform culture which so captured the hearts of the reformers. I’ll attempt this by sharing several anecdotes. While these may be unique to my experience, I am certain that each of us could recite variations.  I’ll save the punch line to the end.  Enjoy your beverage. Spoiler alert:  If the prospect of wading through the context to get to the end is as exciting as crawling hoe over glass, you can skip to the last sentence where I accuse us all of fiscal malpractice.

When I first began teaching it was in a private boys’ high school.  Fresh out of college with a degree that included nothing about teaching, what I “knew” about teaching I had learned by sitting at a desk in the same type of school where I was now seated on the other side of a larger desk.  I was given the texts I was to use (5 preps) and a green grade book.

Having no idea what to do with the little green book that had lots of little squares in it, I asked an” experienced” colleague (he had started teaching the year before) what I should do with this grading thing.  I asked this in what passed for a faculty room and one of the older, much wiser, teachers responded quickly.  “Fill it with numbers.. The more numbers you have the less likely it will be that a parent challenges your grades.”  This proved to be sage advice as a couple of months later at parent night, I watched a colleague be challenged by a parent who asked in a fairly hostile manner, “How come my kid got a ‘D’?  Brandishing his grade book, my colleague quickly responded, “Look here at his grades.  You can see he wasn’t quite bad enough to get an ‘F’.”

Some years later, working in a rural public high school (by this time I had been to grad school and “learned about teaching”.  Sadly, this experience could have easily taken place in the faculty room of my first school.  Being pretty comfortable with kids, I soon became a sounding board for their complaints about schooling as well as their assessments of their various teachers.  Not surprising to any of today, the majority of the kids were not fans of what they considered the arbitrariness of their grades. Doing a little investigative work, I discovered neither I nor most of my colleagues knew how grades were given in other classes…even those in rooms right next door.

Fast forward a lot of years and I’m now the “traveling s.o.b. with slides” helping schools and districts with their school improvement efforts (tempting to add quotes around ‘helping’ and ‘improvement’).  At a district in Nevada, while working with an assistant superintendent for instruction, I noted that he had multiple screens hooked up to his computer… screens filled with numbers and spreadsheets.  I asked him what he was working on.  He shared with me an “exploration” he was pursuing after having a dinner table chat with his son who was a senior, wondering why his son was so adamant about getting a specific teacher for senior English. 

Since the district had an in-house data system, he was able to look at the grading practices of the various teachers.  All teachers were required to use a point based system for grading.  The areas eligible for assessment were home work, class participation, projects, test grades. Nothing terribly unusual… until he looked at the point distribution in various classes… in this case the sections of the same class (English 4) taught by different teachers… Parallel sections, common outcomes, district syllabus.  Here’s a quick summary of his findings… teacher #1 had a total of 1800 possible points roughly evenly distributed among the 4 areas of evaluation.  Teacher #2, 1100 points for projects, no points for homework, 500 for participation, 200 for tests.  Teacher #3, 1200 points for test grades, 300 for homework, 300 for participation, nothing for projects.

Getting to the punch line. Assuming most of us have attended more than our share of graduation ceremonies, we’ve heard a number of dramatic readings of the accumulated scholarship money earned by the graduating seniors.  Unless she/he has done the unthinkable and bitten the hand that feeds them, the valedictorian is honored with the title, the opportunity to share a talk (usually pre-approved) and has enjoyed more scholarship money for having earned the distinction of having secured the top spot in the class.

So here it comes… What if none of the calculations used to determine class rank, scholarship eligibility, community awards, etc. even approach statistical validity or reliability?  What if the class rank depends more on the ability to game the system than on the learning demonstrated by those honored? What if annually we proudly announce the award of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars with the caveat that, in addition to being a sham, the system of grading is actually preventing learning.

We need to say loud and clear that the process of awarding/assigning grades is inequitable. It is not only keeping our kids from learning, it is also budgetary malpractice!