What If…

…What if we didn’t allow politicians to make the educational decisions we should be making?

 It is astonishing and, of course, discouraging, to see economics now elevated to the position of ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life, and competition enshrined as the sovereign principle and ideal of economics… It is impossible not to notice how little the proponents of the ideal of competition have to say about honesty, which is the fundamental economic virtue, and how very little they have to say about community, compassion, and mutual help…For human beings, affection is the ultimate motive, because the force that powers us , as John Ruskin (1819-1900) also said, is not “steam, magnetism, or gravitation”, “but a Soul”…

Wendell Barry

Some time ago, in a previous post, I shared my sense that we were approaching a battle for the soul of our country. Would we continue to behave according to the gospel of Ayn Rand and explain/excuse the ever-widening disparity of wealth and well-being through the concept of social Darwinism or would we rededicate ourselves to the commitments of New Deal thinking that sought to measure our progress by the health, opportunities, and well-being available to the weakest and neediest among us?

Little did I imagine at that time that this question might involve the health, opportunities, and wellbeing of our children.  Little did any of us imagine that the health and very lives of our children might become pawns in the new politics of our era.  It’s against this backdrop that I offer what may be the longest post I’ve ever published.  Most of the words, and certainly the most eloquent, come from a parent who posted what I’ve reprinted here on Facebook.

Several weeks ago, I began to collect articles from various news outlets, publications, etc. about the reopening of schools.  Initially, the majority of these articles focused on the various options being considered by school leaders and/or state government agencies.  Many of the articles reported on the pros and cons of various forms of blended learning – i.e., scheduling options which combined alternating in-person instruction schemes with the continuations of some form of remote instruction. As we learned of the continued growth and spread of “hot spots” throughout parts of the nation, a growing number of articles offered solutions involving some form home schooling and even the emergence of home schooling co-ops for parents.  Always in the background was the constant drumbeat of the importance of having kids back in school in order for the economy to grow. More radical voices went to far as to offer calculations of what might be an “acceptable” number of child deaths.  Against this backdrop the President publicly called for the return to school as normal and, exceeding what most think to be the limits of his power, threatened to withhold federal aid to those schools which did not comply with his “order”.

It’s against that backdrop that I offer the following piece.  It appeared recently on Facebook, not my usual source for material.

Note: From intro by Facebook poster…”Written by a parent of two children in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia….  This is the type of dialogue that is productive, whether you agree or disagree with his point of view.  It’s probably too long for many of you.”

From Joe Morice, daughters in 8th & 10th grade in Fairfax County Public Schools’ Centreville Pyramid:

To our fellow FCPS families—this is it gang: 5 days until the 2 days in school vs. 100% virtual decision. Let’s talk it out, in my traditional mammoth TL/DR form.

Like all of you, I’ve seen my feed become a flood of anxiety and faux expertise. You’ll get no presumption of expertise here. This is how I am looking at and considering this issue and the positions people have taken in my feed and in the hundred or so FCPS discussion groups that have popped up. The lead comments in quotes are taken directly from my feed and those boards. Sometimes I try to rationalize them. Sometimes I’m just punching back at the void.

Full disclosure, we initially chose the 2 days option and are now having serious reservations. As I consider the positions and arguments I see in my feed, these are where my mind goes. Of note, when I started working on this piece at 12:19 PM today the COVID death tally in the United States stood at 133,420.

“My kids want to go back to school.”

I challenge that position. I believe what the kids desire is more abstract. I believe what they want is a return to normalcy. They want their idea of yesterday. And yesterday isn’t on the menu.

“I want my child in school so they can socialize.”

This was the principle reason for our 2 days decision. As I think more on it though, what do we think ‘social’ will look like? There aren’t going to be any lunch table groups, any lockers, any recess games, any study halls, any sitting next to friends, any talking to people in the hallway, any dances. All of that is off the menu. So, when we say that we want the kids to benefit from the social experience, what are we deluding ourselves into thinking in-building socialization will actually look like in the Fall?

“My kid is going to be left behind.”

Left behind who? The entire country is grappling with the same issue, leaving all children in the same quagmire. Who exactly would they be behind? I believe the rhetorical answer to that is “They’ll be behind where they should be,” to which I’ll counter that “where they should be” is a fictional goal post that we as a society have taken as gospel because it maps to standardized tests which are used to grade schools and counties as they chase funding.

“Classrooms are safe.”

At the current distancing guidelines from FCPS middle and high schools would have no more than 12 people (teachers + students) in a classroom (I acknowledge this number may change as FCPS considers the Commonwealth’s 3 ft with a mask vs. 6 ft position, noting that FCPS is all mask regardless of the distance). For the purpose of this discussion we’ll say classes run 45 minutes.

I posed the following question to 40 people today, representing professional and management roles in corporations, government agencies, and military commands: “Would your company or command have a 12 person, 45 minute meeting in a conference room?”

100% of them said no, they would not. These are some of their answers:

“No. Until further notice we are on Zoom.”

“(Our company) doesn’t allow us in (company space).”

“Oh hell no.”

“No absolutely not.”

“Is there a percentage lower than zero?”

“Something of that size would be virtual.”

We do not even consider putting our office employees into the same situation we are contemplating putting our children into. And let’s drive this point home: there are instances here when commanding officers will not put soldiers, ACTUAL SOLDIERS, into the kind of indoor environment we’re contemplating for our children. For me this is as close to a ‘kill shot’ argument as there is in this entire debate. How do we work from home because buildings with recycled air are not safe, because we don’t trust other people to not spread the virus, and then with the same breath send our children into buildings?

“Children only die .0016 of the time.”

First, conceding we’re an increasingly morally bankrupt society, but when did we start talking about children’s lives, or anyone’s lives, like this? This how the villain in movies talks about mortality, usually 10-15 minutes before the good guy kills him.

If you’re in this camp, and I acknowledge that many, many people are, I’m asking you to consider that number from a slightly different angle.

FCPS has 189,000 children. .0016 of that is 302. 302 dead children are the Calvary Hill you’re erecting your argument on. So, let’s agree to do this: stop presenting this as a data point. If this is your argument, I challenge you to have courage equal to your conviction. Go ahead, plant a flag on the internet and say, “Only 302 children will die.” No one will. That’s the kind action on social media that gets you fired from your job. And I trust our social media enclave isn’t so careless and irresponsible with life that it would even, for even a millisecond, enter any of your minds to make such an argument.

Considered another way: You’re presented with a bag with 189,000 $1 bills. You’re told that in the bag are 302 random bills, they look and feel just like all the others, but each one of those bills will kill you. Do you take the money out of the bag?

Same argument, applied to the 12,487 teachers in FCPS (per Wikipedia), using the ‘children’s multiplier’ of .0016 (all of us understanding the adult mortality rate is higher). That’s 20 teachers. That’s the number you’re talking about. It’s very easy to sit behind a keyboard and diminish and dismiss the risk you’re advocating other people assume. Take a breath and think about that.

If you want to advocate for 2 days a week, look, I’m looking for someone to convince me. But please, for the love of God, drop things like this from your argument. Because the people I know who’ve said things like this, I know they’re better people than this. They’re good people under incredible stress who let things slip out as their frustration boils over. So, please do the right thing and move on from this, because one potential outcome is that one day, you’re going to have to stand in front of St. Peter and answer for this, and that’s not going to be conversation you enjoy.

“Hardly any kids get COVID.”

(Deep sigh) Yes, that is statistically true as of this writing. But it is a cherry-picked argument because you’re leaving out an important piece.

One can reasonably argue that, due to the school closures in March, children have had the least EXPOSURE to COVID. In other words, closing schools was the one pandemic mitigation action we took that worked. There can be no discussion of the rate of diagnosis within children without also acknowledging they were among our fastest and most quarantined people. Put another way, you cannot cite the effect without acknowledging the cause.

“The flu kills more people every year.”

(Deep sigh). First of all, no, it doesn’t. Per the CDC, United States flu deaths average 20,000 annually. COVID, when I start writing here today, has killed 133,420 in six months.

And when you mention the flu, do you mean the disease that, if you’re suspected of having it, everyone, literally everyone in the country tells you stay the f- away from other people? You mean the one where parents are pretty sure their kids have it but send them to school anyway because they have a meeting that day, the one that every year causes massive f-ing outbreaks in schools because schools are petri dishes and it causes kids to miss weeks of school and leaves them out of sports and band for a month? That one? Because you’re right – the flu kills people every year. It does, but you’re ignoring the why. It’s because there are people who are a–holes who don’t care about infecting other people. In that regard it’s a perfect comparison to COVID.

“Almost everyone recovers.”

You’re confusing “release from the hospital” and “no longer infected” with “recovered.” I’m fortunate to only know two people who have had COVID. One my age and one my dad’s age. The one my age described it as “absolute hell” and although no longer infected cannot breathe right. The one my dad’s age was in the hospital for 13 weeks, had to have a trach ring put in because she could no longer be on a ventilator, and upon finally getting home and being faced with incalculable time in rehab told my mother, “I wish I had died.”

While I’m making every effort to reach objectivity, on this particular point, you don’t know what the f- you’re talking about.

“If people get sick, they get sick.”

First, you mistyped. What you intended to say was “If OTHER people get sick, they get sick.” And shame on you.

“I’m not going to live my life in fear.”

You already live your life in fear. For your health, your family’s health, your job, your retirement, terrorists, extremists, one political party or the other being in power, the new neighbors, an unexpected home repair, the next sunrise. What you meant to say was, “I’m not prepared to add ANOTHER fear,” and I’ve got news for you: that ship has sailed. It’s too late. There are two kinds of people, and only two: those that admit they’re afraid, and those that are lying to themselves about it.

As to the fear argument, fear is the reason you wait up when your kids stay out late, it’s the reason you tell your kids not to dive in the shallow water, to look both ways before crossing the road. Fear is the respect for the wide world that we teach our children. Except in this instance, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me yet.

“FCPS leadership sucks.”

I will summarize my view of the School Board thusly: if the 12 of you aren’t getting into a room together because it represents a risk, don’t tell me it’s OK for our kids. I understand your arguments, that we need the 2 days option for parents who can’t work from home, kids who don’t have internet or computer access, kids who needs meals from the school system, kids who need extra support to learn, and most tragically for kids who are at greater risk of abuse by being home. All very serious, all very real issues, all heartbreaking. No argument.

But you must first lead by example. Because you’re failing when it comes to optics. All your meetings are online. What our children see is all of you on a Zoom telling them it’s OK for them to be exactly where you aren’t. I understand you’re not PR people, but you really should think about hiring some.

“I talked it over with my kids.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the concept of adults effectively deferring this decision to children, the same children who will continue to stuff things into a full trash can rather than change it out. Yes, those hygienic children.

Listen, my 15 year old daughter wants a sport car, which she’s not getting next year because it would be dangerous to her and to others. Those kinds of decisions are our job. We step in and decide as parents, we don’t let them expose themselves to risks because their still developing and screen addicted brains narrow their understanding of cause and effect.

We as parents and adults serve to make difficult decisions. Sometimes those are in the form of lessons, where we try to steer kids towards the right answer and are willing to let them make a mistake in the hopes of teaching better decision making the next time around. This is not one of those moments. The stakes are too high for that. This is a “the adults are talking” moment. Kids are not mature enough for this moment. That is not an attack on your child. It is a broad statement about all children. It is true of your children and it was true when we were children. We need to be doing that thinking here, and “Johnny wants to see Bobby at school” cannot be the prevailing element in the equation.

“The teachers need to do their job.”

How is it that the same society which abruptly shifted to virtual students only three months ago, and offered glowing endorsements of teachers stating, “we finally understand how difficult your job is,” has now shifted to “screw you, do your job.” There are myriad problems with that position but for the purposes of this piece let’s simply go with, “You’re not looking for a teacher, you’re looking for the babysitter you feel your property tax payment entitles you to.”

“Teachers have a greater chance to being killed by a car than they do of dying from COVID.”

(Eye roll) Per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the U.S. see approximately 36,000 auto fatalities a year. Again, there have been 133,420 COVID deaths in the United States through 12:09 July 10, 2020. So no, they do not have a great chance of being killed in a car accident.

And, if you want to take the actual environment into consideration, the odds of a teacher being killed in a car accident in their classroom, you know, the environment we’re actually talking about, that’s right around 0%.

“If the grocery store workers can be onsite what are the teachers afraid of?”

(Deep breath) A grocery store worker, who absolutely risks exposure, has either six feet of space or a plexiglass shield between them and individual adult customers who can grasp their own mortality whose transactions can be completed in moments, in a 40,000 SF space.

A teacher is with 11 ‘customers’ who have not an inkling what mortality is, for 45 minutes, in a 675 SF space, six times a day.

Just stop.

“Teachers are choosing remote because they don’t want to work.”

(Deep breaths) Many teachers are opting to be remote. That is not a vacation. They’re requesting to do their job at a safer site. Just like many, many people who work in buildings with recycled air have done. And likely the building you’re not going into has a newer and better serviced air system than our schools.

Of greater interest to me is the number of teachers choosing the 100% virtual option for their children. The people who spend the most time in the buildings are the same ones electing not to send their children into those buildings. That’s something I pay attention to.

“I wasn’t prepared to be a parent 24/7” and “I just need a break.”

I truly, deeply respect that honesty. Truth be told, both arguments have crossed my mind. Pre COVID, I routinely worked from home 1 – 2 days a week. The solace was nice. When I was in the office, I had an actual office, a room with a door I could close, where I could focus. During the quarantine that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been frustrated, I’ve been short, I’ve gone to just take a drive and get the hell away for a moment and been disgusted when one of the kids sees me and asks me to come for a ride, robbing me of those minutes of silence. You want to hear silence. I get it. I really, really do.

Here’s another version of that, admittedly extreme. What if one of our kids becomes one of the 302? What’s that silence going to sound like? What if you have one of those matted frames where you add the kid’s school picture every year? What if you don’t get to finish the pictures?

“What does your gut tell you to do?”

Shawn and I have talked ad infinitum about all of these and other points. Two days ago, at mid-discussion I said, “Stop, right now, gut answer, what is it,” and we both said, “virtual.”

A lot of the arguments I hear people making for the 2 days sound like we’re trying to talk ourselves into ignoring our instincts, they are almost exclusively, “We’re doing 2 days, but…”. There’s a fantastic book by Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, which I’ll minimize for you thusly: your gut instinct is a hardwired part of your brain and you should listen to it. In the introduction he talks about elevators, and how, of all living things, humans are the only ones that would voluntarily get into a soundproof steel box with a potential predator just so they could skip a flight of stairs.

I keep thinking that the 2 days option is the soundproof steel box. I welcome, damn, beg, anyone to convince me otherwise.

At the time  I started writing at 12:09 PM, 133,420 Americans had died from COVID. Upon completing this draft at 7:04 PM, that number rose to 133,940.

520 Americans died of COVID while I was working on this. In seven hours.

My Hope…

Thank you for reading.  My hope is that you will share the thoughts and concerns of the parent, Mr. Morice, with your friends and colleagues.  His thoughts and research have great potential to serve as the basis for needed “big question” discussions.  What would happen if we added the following question to those discussions? Why are we in such a rush to recreate a system which has so little appeal to its “customers”? Are we so bound by tradition and our own memories of school that we continue to focus our thinking on looking backwards for our solutions?  Why wouldn’t we consider revisiting a purpose of school that looks beyond the restoration of a system designed more than a century ago? 

Be well…

Shouldn’t We At Least Try?

Note:  Please understand that my thoughts as expressed here are increasingly focused on what is becoming a reality here in the US.  As the data from the COVID-19 grows increasingly alarming, we are faced with an emerging forced choice situation… our lives or our jobs.  Thrust squarely into the forefront is the reality that right smack in the middle of all that is pressure to get our kids back in school.

In discussions of this dilemma, we are hearing with increasing frequency that we cannot resuscitate the economy without re-opening the childcare function of our schools.  If we are able to put risking the lives of kids and educators aside in service to the economy, we are then confronted with the reality that, despite almost heroic efforts by educators (with little or no preparation or experience) to create and manage remote instruction, our experiences with remote instruction did more to highlight problems equitable access than they did to create opportunities for effective learning. The basic premise of this short series of posts is that there will be no return to “normal”.

I have found no clear roadmap for navigating a course though these unprecedented times.  Nor do I pretend that my words provide a definitive answer. I write because I believe that we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity.  I believe that we are living in a time of increasing separation that has been growing for some time.  I believe that our schools and legions of hard working educators have been victimized by several decades of “reform” that has left our kids tested, sorted, and disengaged.  More importantly, there is increasing data that reveals a frightening increase in the incidence of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression. I believe the areas of focus that I’ve included in this post offer us the opportunity to organize experiences for our children less around what we know, in our hearts matters most for the development of healthy, caring, curious, and connected learners. I believe that we have sacrificed the opportunity for our kids to learn how to learn, to learn how to do and to learn how to be to the false idols of efficiency.  My fondest hope is that something in these words touches your soul and offers the encouragement to create a whole new normal.  Be well.

As I was reflecting on an introduction to this follow-up post to last week’s “Reopening… Doing the Right Thing”, EdWeek came through with a gift… “Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year”. This was the second in a series entitled, “How We Go Back To School”. Here is the EdWeek description of the series… “These times are unprecedented. Through these eight installments, we will explore the steps administrators need to take to ensure the safety of students and faculty.” This (the second) installment begins with the following…

Five days a week, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. That traditional school day—so coveted now for its normalcy and essential contribution to how our families, communities, and economy function—probably won’t make a full comeback this fall.

Some school communities will forge ahead with a return to the typical school calendar, but that carries large risks. If there’s an outbreak of the coronavirus, they’ll have to shut down abruptly. But in many school districts, the sheer numbers of students and staff members will make a traditional day impossible under social distancing protocols that public health officials say are necessary as the pandemic persists. The math just doesn’t work when students must stay six feet apart from one another and their teachers.

That’s why a mash up of online schooling and in-person instruction—what we’re calling hybrid scheduling models—is likely to be prevalent this fall.

There are multiple variations of these schedules, and they provide the most flexibility to schools. They also present some of the most challenging logistics and may be especially taxing for teachers who must prepare lessons and instruction for two modes: virtual and in-person.

The authors then moved on to describe a number of school schedules that might be possible and offer analyses of the pros and cons of each option.  To save you some time, most of the article focuses on the mechanical/physical aspects of getting kids and adults back into buildings (and out of their homes).  Given the problems involved with social distancing, transportation, delivery (in-person or remote) of a fixed curriculum, the focus is understandable.  The ways in which various proposed schedules impact learning (whether positively or negatively) get little attention.

But What If…

What if the editors of EdWeek had begun with a different focus?  What if they began the series with the question, “What is the purpose of school in the context of the changing world?”  What if they looked at the purpose through the lens of the people who have lived through the various iterations of remote learning?  What if they looked at how the much coveted normalcy of the school day actualy did or didn’t support the development of the things that parents and educators have identified as “sacred”?  Remember these from my last post?

Sacred Screen Shot

From Big Question Institute Webinar – Will Richardson, Homa Tavangar

In that initial post I suggested that we would be visiting the ‘How” of reopening school from this perspective.  If you find that you are committed to reopening school as true to the model we have used for the past hundred years, the EdWeek series is a good starting point.  However, if you are seeing the need to reorient and reimagine the ways in which learning takes place for both our kids and ourselves, here goes…

Begin with Unlearning

Most of us who have made our way through a variety of schools and levels of education have developed explanations for the way our world works.  Jean Piaget is credited with offering a starting point for us.  Piaget suggested that, by the time a child enters school, he/she has developed explanation for about 90% of how the world works… and that the majority of these explanations are most frequently WRONG.  When we’ve encountered kids in school who seem to be struggling to learn something new Piaget suggests that they are NOT having trouble learning.  They are having trouble Unlearning – i.e., discarding the explanations that they brought with them.

When someone suggests that in reimagining the way learning can/should occur in schools, they often suggest we should be offering our students more agency – i.e., more opportunities to select what and how they wish to learn – or, maybe,  we should do  away with grades, or make failure a non-option, etc.,etc.    But our experience in schools and with schooling tells us that this can’t work… that kids aren’t capable of using such agency wisely.  They need grades for motivation.  But why is that?  What if it’s not because they aren’t capable but because schooling as they and we have experienced it, has trained them to be just who they are.

Wait! What?  You mean they are capable?  You mean our explanations for their lack of engagement, their lack of independent thought, their lack of motivation and responsibility are wrong?  That’s exactly what I mean and exactly where we must begin if we want learning to be something other than what it was pre-pandemic.

We have to recognize that grouping kids by age, telling them what they MUST learn, telling them they’re good or not so good based on test scores, teaching them that learning occurs in specific blocks of time focused on separate content areas might be great for adult convenience, but it creates the complaints that too many of us have heard in the faculty room and that we approach.

If we don’t begin with a willingness to unlearn, there is no reason to begin.

Spoiler Alert #1 – This is about changing schooling.

Spoiler Alert #2 – If you choose to continue, you’ll be entering a world where you’ll be doing more work than I will… Take another look at the “What Everybody Says” list. We’ll work with this for a bit as a starter.

Spoiler Alert #3 – This is not intended to the “THE” approach.  I believe there is no “THE” approach.  This is “AN” approach for those who resonate both with the notion that is time to change schooling and to seriously ask the “what if” questions.

Why this and why a starter?

Exploring the ways in which we can/should change schools and schooling will demand that we think in terms of and answer some Big Questions.  How we’re going to route the buses to accommodate a split rotation of classes when we open is NOT a “Big Question”. It complicated.  It’s important but it’s not BIG.  Why we should have school? What is the purpose of school? These are BIG questions.

To be able to explore such questions, we’ll need to (1) acknowledge that this may be necessary and (2) provide the emotional space for people to share openly some things that they may never have questioned or, at least, not recently questioned.  The “What Everybody Says” list provides the starting point for some big questions. It’s up to us to ensure that we provide the safe space. The process also provides another key aspect of safety, the honest invitation for professional educators and members of the school community to explore.  Simon Sinek calls this zone, the “Circle of Safety”.  This is not a “top down” exercise.

The process (quick summary)This is not a one month process.  It is not a “quick fix”.  It is a question about who we want to be, who we want to become.  It’s a time for “what if?” questions. It’s a time for “couldn’t we at least try?” questions.  It a time for “how can I help?” questions. It a time for “What matters?” questions.  We begin with “Why?”

To get started, begin with “the list” and then identify your own list of sacred climate issues – i.e., your own version of the “What Everybody Says” list.  Then, with this revised list, make a list of what actions in your school demonstrate that such an item is important. Then review your list of actions, policies, procedures, etc. to see what you could be doing but you’re not.  (Be careful here… very frequently discussions about such lists devolve into “if only the state, if only the district, if only the board, etc. would allow us, permit us, etc.”).  This is not about what “others” could/should be doing.  It’s about what you can do in your district, your school, your classroom (even if it’s a bit subversive) to prove that relationships, that equity, that diversity, that social emotional health matter.  Finally, make a list of practices, policies, procedures, etc. that may actually be counterproductive.

Suggested Steps…

The first stepestablish a framework for discussion.  Look at the “What Everybody Says?” slide… do you agree? Do you think your colleagues agree? This is best done individually to start.

The second step (ideally done in small groups or with small steering working group as a starter) … Validation – i.e., do you agree or disagree with the items on the list? From your perspective, there may be some thing(s) missing.  Feel free to add any that you feel should have made the list.  This will reveal what matters to you.  Product of this work will be a consensus on new list. If consensus is not possible on some items, out them on a “parking lot” list that you may revisit.

The next stepInterrogation – i.e., what if we began our “what should learning look like” process with an interrogation of our beliefs about schooling, learning and purpose? In the validation step we looked at the list of the “sacred” and asked ourselves if we would agree with any or all?  In the Interrogation Step, what we are looking at is not just how important we believe these things are in the big universe but how important they are in the culture of our school and what are the actions that validate our rating.

Example: How important is the development and nurturing of relationships in our students?  Give it a rating from 1-10. Do this for each of the items listed.  If you’re like most of the respondents, you would have mostly 8-10’s.  Now the fun part – Take one that you’ve ranked highly.  Write down the intentional things that your school does to promote/support that item.  Then write down a list of things that your school does either intentionally or unintentionally that hinder the development of that item.  Work your way through the list.

Next stepSummary – i.e., What conclusions can you draw from your interrogation?  Have you identified topics that you feel are very important but where there may be few, if any, actions which demonstrate that importance? Suppose you rated the development and nurturing of relationships very highly but noted teachers know very little about the outside interests of their students?

Big Question… What would your school, your classroom look like if your actions matched your intent?

Key take-aways from this process —

  • What’s important to you as an educator, to your school community? – i.e., What Matters?

o Is how you spend your time, energy, resources consistent with What Matters?

o Is this importance visible?

o What could you be doing more of/doing better?

  • How does remote instruction help/hinder these important areas of focus?

o What have we learned about helping remote instructional experiences and blended schedules advance these important areas of focus?

  • Are there institutional (policies, practices, procedures) blocks to these “sacred” items

We are faced with choices, perhaps even the chances of a lifetime.  When I was in grad school, I recall an exchange between a fellow grad student and our instructor who happened to be the dean of the graduate school of education.  In response to a particularly insulting question from the young student, the dean paused and then offered the following, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.

Our system of schooling that has been largely unchanged since it was designed in 1893. It doesn’t work for many in 2020.  It hasn’t worked for some time.   It leaves far too many children disengaged.  It contributes to increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression.  It too frequently reduces student learning to test scores on instruments whose value and accuracy is increasingly under attack.  Most importantly, it has not responded to the change in our world.  It seeks to improve by looking backwards at what many of us working in education remember fondly.  We continue to define our purpose as passing increasing amounts of information from one container (the minds of teachers) to another container… the brains of the students.  Our purpose must be greater than that.  Learning is now taking place in a context far removed from the needs of the industrial age and not yet in concert with today’s context.

Young people throughout the world are telling us that schooling as we have experienced it is not how they learn.  They are learning beyond the walls of the school and within them as well.  As we prepare for the return to school, what would happen if we acknowledged that we have been given an opportunity… an opportunity to question why we would continue to group our students by age, treating those whose progress is slower as failures often ineligible for the very experiences that excite them, to question why we teach a rigid curriculum of content disconnected from real world relevance, to question why we bring all students to school in the morning and send them home in the afternoon.

Here’s the message.  We fear the status quo.  Change threatens that status quo and our emotions tell us to resist, to not abandon the familiar.  The truth is that in many aspects of our lives, the status quo has been shattered for us… shattered by the COVID pandemic. For months now, school has not been the same for us, for our students, for our parents. We can see already that our schools will not return to the status quo when we reopen them.

To paraphrase my grad school professor, “We’ve seen the future.  It will be different!”  We have the opportunity to define “different”.  We’ve seen firsthand what happens when we allow politicians to make decisions about medical/health issues.  We’ve also seen firsthand what happens when we give legislators the power to define learning.  The “how to” steps I’ve shared here are not the only steps that educators can take to define and design for what matters.  They may not be the best steps.  They are the first steps.

What Next?

I am a member of a small team of educators who are committed to the need to support change in schooling and learning.  We are fans of the concept of “little bets” – an approach based on our experience that not everyone is ready at the same time and for the same degree of change.  We are not a business.  If you have moved beyond “why change” to “how do I/we” change, we are looking to support you.  Working with kids and schools both nationally and internationally has enriched our hearts for many years.  We are part of the gift economy and accept no payment for our support.  For more information, please contact me at Richard.teneyckkean@gmail.com

 

Be well

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…

Oh no! Not “what if” again.

As I wrote recently, 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 efforts 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 divided into 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 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.

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We have to provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create.  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 to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

  • 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 is the right thing?

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We should 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.  And we should recognize that 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 recognize that more math, more language arts, more chemistry, etc. regardless of the delivery method, is not what our kids need right now.  They need us… us as creators of circles of safety… us as empathizers, us as connectors, us as caring adults who are here for them. And we need one another. As we minister to the needs of our children, we must be intentional about finding support for one another and, perhaps equally important, for ourselves.

Answering the questions

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? 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.  What would happen if we use this time when schools are not in session to invite and support small teams to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

What would happen if school/district leaders assembled through invitation working groups to develop and answer their own set of “what if” questions?   In most schools and districts that I have visited, it was not hard to identify educators who would be honored by this opportunity. What if the starting point for such groups was the development of a “what matters” statement…  in each school and in each district?  What would our schools look like and be like for kids and adults if providing opportunities for kids to learn “how to be” was more important than test scores and seat time? What would schools and learning look like if, in addition to providing a place that met the social needs of kids to interact with caring adults and one another, there were also multiple opportunities for learning beyond the walls of the building that counted for credit and transcripts? What would schools look like if zip code or district boundaries didn’t limit the access to advanced courses, experiential learning, performance-based credit, etc.?

It’s not often that the universe dumps such an incredible opportunity in our laps.  In a way infinitely more painful than any of us could have imagined just a few months ago we are being given the opportunity to move beyond the thinking of The Committee of Ten, beyond the thinking of the 1890’s. We are being given the opportunity to bring kids back, whenever that occurs, not to schooling but to learning…not to what mattered in the 1890’s, the 1950’s… not to what mattered to the writers of A Nation at Risk… not to the designers of the test and punish reforms of NCLB but to what matters in 2020 and beyond.

Shouldn’t we/couldn’t we at least try? How can we help one another?

Oh no! Not “what if” again.

moat-img_1356-1

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?

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.