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

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Farside Gallert – Gary Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couldn’t we at least try?

Be well.

QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

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

Some Days Our Best Was None Too Good!

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FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What If This Could Be Our Next Last Chance?

student pic blog mental health 2018-08-19 at 3.17.42 PMWow! Did this one lead me down a rabbit hole!  Recently, I’ve been drawn to an offshoot of some of my thinking/writing on leadership.  In looking at the careers of a number of school leaders (an area with which I’m more familiar than, say, state or federal government), I’ve noticed that, as a nation, we seem to have what Andrew Bacevitch called a messianic complex… a belief in the power of a single individual to solve great problems and to do so quickly and decisively.  Bacevitch describes this in his book, The Limits of Power, as a dangerous path, leading to repeated disappointment when the plans/”fixes” of our newly anointed messiah don’t seem to work.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us.  One need look no further than the theater surrounding the selection of the next Democratic candidate for the presidency to see this pattern in action.  We have grown to value quick, decisive action in our leaders more than we do their ability to thoughtfully analyze situations to uncover root causes – i.e., actually have a chance at solving the problem.

Looking for alternatives to this in my field of interest and experience, I began to look more carefully at the various “solutions” offered during the span of my working years to fix education. I realized that, for a considerable length of time, I had been looking past the blindingly obvious.  As often as I had quoted Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff, I realized that there was a good chance that I had missed the point.   You may recall their assertion from earlier posts…

“There is a difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.” 

In more than 50 years as an educator, I realized that either as a leader or follower, I have been involved in a whole series of education improvement efforts… Outcomes Based Education, Comprehensive Achievement Monitoring, gifted and talented programming for underachievers, values clarification, formative assessment, standards based instruction and grading, soft skill development and assessment, oral proficiency based assessment for world languages, etc.  I also realized that almost all of these left no lasting footprints.  They came and went with remarkable frequency.  They were great examples of trying to do things right (assessment, instruction, learning, etc.) with no attention paid to whether or not they were aimed at the right thing – i.e., they lacked clear, understandable and desirable purpose.

Now I’m standing on the precipice of a rapidly enlarging rabbit hole. Do I just make the point about the critical importance of clear and clearly understood purpose (see Simon Sinek , Dan Pink  ) or do I try to see when we lost our way as a means of finding a path back?  The rabbit hole loomed.

I couldn’t stop myself.  So I went back and explored.  I’ll spare you the details (although I can’t resist adding some references in case you can’t help yourself and have to explore a bit more). But here’s the short form.

Prior to the 1890’s the purpose of education was kind of clear… it was for the wealthy the path to maintaining privilege and power. By the late 1800 this was beginning to unravel and, in 1893, The Committee of Ten Sponsored by the NEA (who knew that the NEA even existed in the 1800’s?) developed a plan that greatly expanded education access and included 4 different curricula, greatly liberalizing education in the country.  Ironically it was almost 100 years to the month that President Reagan’s National Committee on Excellence in Education released its report on the status of education in the US, A Nation At Risk. It was scathing and got a lot of attention, not to mention that it provided the rationale for the ed reform strategies that we’ve all come to know and love, LOL. But what received little attention was the subtle acceptance of connection between education and the economy which had taken place during the hundred years since the Committee of Ten’s work.

Jumping back from the rabbit hole, we fast forward.

Here we are with a continuing litany of failed “fixes”.  And what’s still missing?  A clear, understandable and agreed upon sense of purpose.

But what if the problem isn’t that we don’t have “a” purpose but that we have too many.  We have purposes that range from custodial (so parents can work) to those  that are job skill related (soft skills, 21stcentury skills, etc.). We have purposes that teach social-emotional skills. We have purposes that are academic (get into the best schools).  We have purpose after purpose designated as such by those whose interests are best served by selling their particular definition (and often, solultion/s).

How do we know if we’re doing the right thing (vs. doing things right) if we don’t know/agree about what that is?  I don’t think we do.  What if trying to do the wrong things “righter” just gets us further away from identifying and doing the right thing?

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EnterPhoto by Hannah Gullixson on Unsplash

Why should we consider this now?  Maybe because we need to reassess what matters.  Maybe loading as many kids as possible into AP courses is not the right thing. Maybe eliminating play and recess for kids so that there is more time to “better” prepare kindergartners for the rigors of academic first grade is not the right thing. Couldn’t we at least explore why current student engagement in school learning drops from 80+% in third grade to less than 40% by grade 11?

Maybe putting kids and their parents under significant pressure to attend four years colleges, only to discover that they can find no job in their major but have amassed huge student loan debt is not the right thing.  Couldn’t we at least explore why we have increasing studies that document the dramatic rise among our adolescents in stress, anxiety, and depression? In her op ed  entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” published just last week in the New York Times, Kim Brooks offers the following:

“A 2019 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between   2009 and 2017, rates of depression rose by more than 60% among those ages 14 to 17, and 47% among those ages 12 to 13.”

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Childadvocates.net

Could we at least consider that we have had a roll in this development? I have no illusions that we will have a conversation about this at the federal level.  If we can’t get Congress to return from “summer break” to deal with issues of gun safety, climate change or health care costs, what’s the likelihood of them rushing back to discuss education?

But what if we created the space in our communities for such conversations?  What if we tied all future strategic plans to the development of a community consensus about the purpose of education and our schools?

OK, so why am I writing this here?  As educators, we blew a chance to help our kids when we were conspicuously silent as our kids were subjected to increasing hours of testing and test preparation… of having their value determined by a test score, of having things like recess, art, music, and electives scrapped, of having important portions of the school budgets cut so that the district could afford the technology required to administer the tests.  Oh sure, we eventually spoke up… when the regulations included the use of standardized test results for teacher evaluation. That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it Rich? Yup! But I’m as guilty as anyone, more guilty than many.  My offices in the Department of Education approved the standards and designed the specs for the NCLB assessments. I didn’t object.  I tried to make them “better”. Talk about the folly of trying to do things right!

But we, many of us as educational leaders, have the chance to move beyond simply doing things right. We have the chance to ask the questions about what the right thing is for our kids.  Is it to continue to feed the economy with the workers? Or might it be something greater? What would our school look like if we focused on  education as the search for self, or education as the process by which we and our kids seek the road to a good life, a life of empathy, soul, honesty, and wisdom?

What if, right now in our country, we’re looking at the consequences of continued avoidance of these questions?  Couldn’t we at least try?

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This Change Stuff Makes Sense But What Do I Do on Monday?

… A Couple of Steps Closer to How…

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Welcome back.  I’m writing this under the assumption that you’ve read Part One.  While I hadn’t intended to create a multi-part post, I realized that Cam, in his sharing, had done so for me.  I’d encourage you to read Cam’s essay.  It’s an eloquent sharing of what our search is all about. In his analysis of the ways in which he is applying Dr. Ryan’s 5 Questions Ryan’s 5 Questions to his thinking and explorations, Cam led into another question which I’m paraphrasing here…

 

What would learning look like if we acted on both our knowledge and our beliefs about it?

While not exactly Mueller-like in the level of detail he offers about how schools and learning might look, Cam shares some very concrete examples of things that he has done to close the gap between what we know and what we are currently doing in most schools.

Cam begins his reflection with some observations about the dissonance between how both kids and adults seem to learn best and what happens in schools as they are traditionally organized and configured.

And so the “guitar story”

…my 6-year-old starts guitar lessons today. He is very excited: he told me so at 5:00 am.  When my partner and I began looking for teachers we had lots of criteria.  My number one criteria is that there be no “curriculum” – how many amazing musicians never got beyond formal, conservatory based lessons and fail to see themselves as musicians later in life. I would argue far more than see themselves as musicians.  This kind of approach to learning music does little to foster lifelong learning; it’s an exercise in resiliency: if you last you get to the good stuff; if not, you stop playing.  My only measure of success for my son learning guitar will be if he still loves it on the other end.  Like Springsteen writes about his first guitar experience in ​Born to Run​, if my son quits because it’s hard, and loves it all the same, that’s success for now.  One day, who knows?

A key difference that came to mind this morning is relevant here: Contrast this to my experience of dropping him off at the bus today: you’d be hard pressed to find a more somber looking group of kids at 8 o’clock in the morning than those being transported to school.  It was a bright, sunny, relatively warm Wednesday morning and every kid in every window looked…well, not excited to be there, or, I extrapolate, not excited about where they’re headed.

“I wonder why…we’d start with schools.”

I wonder why learning organizations of any kind would turn to schools for examples of best practice before looking to the myriad examples of lifelong learning in the community.  There is a wealth of evidence of learning in what education terms ​extracurricular​, and I’m inclined to think that deeper, more life altering individual development happens here.

If one was to consult the vast opportunities for non-credentialed, adult learning that people turn to cultivate passions outside of their working day one begins to see a disconnect in learning practice from what one sees in schools.  In fact, if one looks to all the learning that children and youth do outside of school one would find similar examples.

Why, as a parent, would I scrutinize the quality of learning for my son’s guitar lessons, while blindly sending him off on the sad-bus for school?

…Maybe the better way, the more organic way, for me anyway, is to say it this way: “Would I want my children to learn this way…?” If the answer is no, then I hope there is a very quick, “Wait, what?”,followed by an “I wonder why…?” to follow.  Why are we profering learning in our schools, in our Alt. program, that we would not support for our own children?  Especially when we see a more effective alternative in their extracurriculars.

 “Couldn’t we at least…” work towards a learning organization.  A place that acknowledges the challenges our students arrive with. Couldn’t we at least strive to be something better? We are hardly scraping the surface of what we can do.  Couldn’t we at least try? “Learn like no one is watching.”  Couldn’t we strive to learn this way….Couldn’t we at least stop being afraid that our existence is contingent on being rigid.  Our existence is contingent on being awesome for students asking for all kinds of different awesome questions.  We can strive for that, can’t we?  [Ron Edmunds said it this way: “…we can, wherever and whenever we choose, successfully teach all of the children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that.  Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact we haven’t so far.”

We’ve had lots of conversations about why, when people know in their hearts that school could be something better, do we continue to “do school” as we’ve known and experienced it?   When we talk about why there is such a gap between what we know and what we do, we inevitably come to face to face with our fears.  We are inundated with “what if” questions… almost all of them are about the consequences of failure.  The list of these fears is as long as the number of people on our staff… each has their own version, their own fear(s).

These fears drive us to ask “how” questions: How will I manage giving kids choices? How will I grade them? What if they choose to do something that we don’t usually cover?  What if they screw up the state test? Etc., etc. etc.

Here’s how Cam took steps. He describes this in his response to Ryan’s “How Can I Help?” question.  He offers two experiences as something he shared with colleagues to help them see what learning might look like.

But did I ever tell you about the time (last week!) a student presented to a room full of people she invited – her family, her friends, her teachers?  The presentation was inspired by Change School; when John Clements dropped into a Coaching Session and told us about ​Back to the Future​.  I paired this concept with an idea Patrick shared with me months ago, and suggested this to a student–a brilliant young woman who writes like no one’s business–I said: “Imagine you 5 years from now.  The aspirational you.  Present about her. Then have her come back to you now and show you how to get there.”  Something like that anyway.  Her presentation was the most beautiful piece of performance art I’ve witnessed as a teacher. Stunning.  Brilliant. Poignant. That’s how I help.  I try alongside my students, as learners together. And bear witness to the trying.  And make the learning and trying visible. [italics mine]

Cam’s second experience is a bit more “beyond the walls” and responds to the question, “Couldn’t we at least…?”

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This is Jacob.  One day in February he and 24 students from the Alternate Program joined me at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – a partnership a year in the making – for a Pre-Apprenticeship training opportunity. The experience was open to anyone. Experience was unnecessary. Jacob had no experience.  He was frustrated at the outset: the instruction did not make sense to him (it was the minimum viable instruction), and he was sitting at a plywood circuit, with a circuit diagram and did not know where to start.  I checked-in: he voiced his frustration.  I suggested he ask a question and gave him some space.  Jacob worked for 4.5 hours; struggling, seeing others around him complete the circuit and move on, seeing success, not necessarily in himself.   At the end of the day, this hardened learner who revealed nothing of his emotional rollercoaster all day, stepped up to the circuit testing lab.  Everyone in the room was packing up, cleaning up, waiting at the door for taxis.  Jacob was hauling his completed circuit to the testing lab.  The instructor, George, noticed him and met him at the lab. He checked the circuit, explained what he was looking for.  Jacob revealed nothing of what was going on in his head.  George moved out of the way to give Jacob space to flip the switch.  What does learning look like? This is what learning looks like. That smirk you see, magnify it by 100 times; when that light literally and metaphorically turned on.  Jacob could not contain himself. This is what learning looks like.

“What truly matters?”What matters is that we are all inherently learners.

Somehow the machine of learning, the industrial approach to learning begins to whittle at our organic need to thrive in wonder.  I suspect the moment that we began, as a species, questioning the purpose of learning and hooking other aspirations to the purpose is the moment learning got more complicated than it needed to.  The moment that aptitude was measured, skills were evaluated, retention was challenged, comparisons were leveled, people were segmented, was the moment that we stepped away from ​learning​towards education. This is a new idea for my thinking, but it matters.

My son is sitting beside me playing with a Rubik’s Cube.  He is nothing short of enraptured by the puzzle.  He turns it, and considers.  He sits it down and twists and contorts himself and his perspective trying to see the inner logic of the toy.  This all began because he walked in on his Mom watching a video about a Rubik’s Cube savant.  He knew his sister had one. We found it.  He’s been consumed with the puzzle ever since.  He’s literally waiting for some insight without reservation.  This morning he asked if he could watch an expert video to get some ideas. He only asked once; he got sidetracked by his own discovery.

What truly matters is we didn’t invent learning.  It is not a discovery.  It is ​the​ discovery.  That we are a being that can ask questions, and look for answers, and, if we’re lucky, never really find the answers we seek. Instead, we discover more questions. [Italics, bold mine] ​

Try this on for size… 

Imagine your school, your classroom if you decided to address how you might reduce the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression for your students. Explore this with Ryan’s Five Question approach and think about sharing that with us.  Here you go…

There’s growing evidence that schools are contributing to rising levels of student stress, anxiety, and depression. Wait! What?… 

I wonder why… we grade kids in school?

I wonder if… it would be better not to grade kids (or teachers)?

Couldn’t we at least try… to reduce the use of grades as measures of learning?

How could I help… my school, my students, my colleagues adjust to such a change?

What really matters to me? In my school? In my classroom?

Be well.

Title: What’s Change Really Like… A Tale from Our Canadian Neighbors

As usual, I’ll begin this piece with a bit of context…

As many of you know I’ve been spending time working on my learning… mainly learning about learning.  As a part of this process I’ve become more of an active participant in the Modern Learners Community.  One fascinating aspect of this engagement has been the opportunity to participate in the Modern Learners’ Change School professional learning experience.

Change School is a virtual, cohort-based learning experience in which participants engage with the Modern Learners team and one another in an exploration of, and support for, the process of reimagining school in their districts.

One of the unanticipated benefits of the experience, and one I can’t stress strongly enough, has been the opportunity to meet, listen to, and learn from some wonderfully talented and committed educators from around the globe (participants In Cohort 7 are working throughout the US, Canada, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand).  This cohort (the 7thand latest) was attended primarily by new participants but also by a number of participants from earlier cohorts who returned to deepen their earlier experience, complete explorations which had been left incomplete due to the pressures of their jobs, and continue their access to the team’s support of their change school efforts, etc.

The experience was as intense as it was enjoyable (and, yes, I’d recommend joining the Modern Learners Community and a Change School cohort if at all possible).  Through weekly online “cohort meetings” supplemented by weekly scheduled group or individual coaching sessions, and the participants’ responses to team offered “provocations”, I came to know a number exceptional educators and began what I can honestly term deep, engaging connections.

In today’s post and the one that will follow, I’d like to share with you pieces of an exchange which occurred between me and a Cohort 7 educator, Cam Jones. Cam was recently assigned to an administrative role in one of his district’s alternate high schools in Canada.  But why would I suggest that you visit a bit here with Cam?  Because Cam, more and better than anyone with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, has managed to capture in his “conversation” with both me and himself the logistical and internal challenges involved in changing school.

In the first of this two-parter I’ll share Cam’s response to a question I had shared with him about applying the 5 Key Questions referred to by Dr. James Ryan in his 2016 commencement address to the graduates of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Note: In the introduction to his address, Ryan captured what I would consider to be the essence of good leadership and a seriously underutilized skill… the asking of good questions.  Ryan shared with the graduates that, as graduates of Harvard, people would expect them to have answers.  He suggested, however, that their success would depend less on giving answers and more on the quality of the questions they asked.  He offered 5 and a bonus question.

Here, once again, are Ryan’s Five Questions

  1. Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  2. I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  3. Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  4. How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  5. What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

Bonus question:  Did you get what you wanted out of life?

Cam’s writing speaks for itself.   With Cam’s permission, I’m sharing here pieces of what he wrote.  I trust you’ll find his words and his self-reflection as eloquent and moving as I have.

I begin with Cam’s response to Ryan’s questions in the context of his work at his and other alternate high schools in the district (there are six).

“How else I wonder can we do things?”

“I’ve wondered why we do things the way we do, often.  It comes down to this: in working with students marginalized by the system in a variety of ways, our program relies on a tool for learning that I don’t see the benefit of.  Further, the method of delivery is counterintuitive: we work with the most visibly disengaged students using the least engaging way of learning I can imagine–independent, read and write. So, why…why do we do that?  I think the answer falls to pressing concerns. Many, if not all, of our students are non-attenders before they arrive at our site… Our students are well behind on credits relative to their age because of disruptions to their education. They often return to our setting with deficits/gaps in their learning, executive function, and social/emotional well-being. The Alternate Program provides an alternative to the system: we exist to serve the student where they are now, first.

And this is the rub: I think the pressing concern for our programs is student well-being; it is our operational and aspirational focus. I think our “wonder why” is that we’ve never wondered why. Maybe we haven’t had to. Maybe we haven’t wanted to. And over time we’ve become comfortable with our rationale for our approach, or our not needing to provide a rationale.  Instead of talking about learning, we talk about the trauma our students arrive with, and manage daily, and glaze over the learning part of our responsibility with credit accumulation. If they’re earning, they’re learning. “

Couldn’t we at least…

“Couldn’t we at least…” come back to learning.  I think we are. I think the contemporary vision for the Alternate Program is coming back to learning.  In part out of necessity. Our student demographic doesn’t fit our narrative as it might have years ago.  In the past our structures were hard and fast, at least as the narrative recalls them. These structures are eroding and allowing different structures to surface.  Moreover, supports that were not part of the Alts are now front and centre. We’re coming back to learning.”

How can I help?

“How can I help?”  I’m learning how to help.  I’m asking questions. At times I’m letting my impatience, my frustration be known.  At other times, I’m letting my passion get ahead of me, and letting my disappointment with how we do things be visible.  In the meantime, I’ve found other ways, better ways in my mind, of doing things. I am modeling an approach where my expertise is learning, and the curriculum is a background to the collaborative work I do with students.  I’m turning my attention to awareness of my blind spots: students who engage in collaboration are thriving in my classroom; students that aren’t engaged: well, I’m working on that too.  It’s a little tougher.

In the meantime, I’m designing what I am calling alternate experiences beyond the walls of the school, with community partners, and using these examples as means to open the discussion about what learning can look like.  And I’m constantly checking myself against the idea of being a learner with the students, alongside the students, and fighting the instinct to “educate” in the ways I was “educated”.

What truly matters?

“Because, after all, “What truly matters?” in my work in the Alts (Alternate Schools) and elsewhere is that I’m striving towards a way of doing things that aligns with my beliefs, about learning, about life, about a vision for school, and how we support the students who have rejected the system and said “I’m not jumping through your hoops.”

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” 

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”  It’s funny: I ended up an English teacher, again, begrudgingly.  This was not the path I thought I’d take to the Alts. I just knew I wanted to get to the Alts.  The timing was imperfect, the context not ideal.  And yet in returning to the classroom I’ve had this amazing opportunity to be a better teacher.  I’m not sure ashamed is the right word, but I certainly wasn’t proud of my teaching experience, in hindsight.

This year I’ve moved closer to a version of myself as teacher that I’m proud of.  It’s a work in progress, but I’m energized by it.  And as someone who wants to challenge how we do things, and be part of the answer and change going forward, I can’t think of a better place to start from.”

Being the change on the ground, rather than seeing the change from on high are two very different perspectives. The ground game has more work and more risk; but when it works there’s nothing more beautiful to watch.”

When you think about changing what happens to/for kids in school, what do you wonder? How would you answer “What matters?” Does what happens in your school/district include intentional actions to support your response to the “what matters” question?

Requiem for a Dying Story

 

testing Joe Brown Stop Educating

I want to try to connect some dots.

How would you answer the question, “What is the purpose of education?”  Would your answer be different depending on your country of residence? Would the purpose change if the context changed?

How did I get so philosophical? Well, I was reading a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Jan Resseger.  Jan begins her blogs with this quote:

“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

Jan’s page banner reflects her clarity of purpose.  She writes to highlight instances where we continue to fall short of Senator Wellstone’s commitment to “…an equal right through a sound education…”. She writes to hold such instances up to the light of day. She writes to challenge us to refuse to accept the continued failure to make this right equally available to all children, regardless of race, income or zip code.

As I was reading her most  recent post in which Jan explores the purpose and impact of the recent teacher strikes, I wandered into a reflection on the notion of my first dot, clarity of purpose.  I can’t “blame” Jan exclusively for this reflection.  I’ve been participating in a virtual learning community, Modern Learners, for the past year or so.  Recently, I expanded that participation to join a cohort-based learning experience called Change School.  This experience brings together educators from around the world in weekly discussions and largely self-directed learning experiences designed to encourage and support a change away from our focus on “schooling” to one in which student and adult learning is center.

Both Jan and the Modern Learners team place a great value on the development of commonly understood meaning.  Hence my focus on purpose and what we mean by it.  Want to see how far we are from such common understanding?  Define what you mean by learning?  Better still, ask a couple of friends/colleagues to join you.  Can you recall something you’ve learned recently?  How did you go about it?

thinker-28741_1280

Credit – Whoops, another senior moment

Now spend a minute or two (or ten) and write down the purpose of education.  Is it an enlightened citizenry? Is it good citizens? Is it literate adults?   Is it caring, kind graduates? Whatever you picked, try now to define what that is.  What is “an enlightened citizenry”? What’s “a good citizen”? What does literate look like?  What is “caring”, “kind”?

In my time teaching, many of us informally and quite privately determined “our” purpose and tried to make that a reality. I changed my purpose more than once in the years I taught. Based on my observations (we never actually talked about it), so did many of my friends.  I’m tempted to thrash this into insignificance but you get the idea.

What we mostly accepted as our public and dominate purpose was to keep on doing school… to do a bit better what others had done before us.  In 20 plus years as a classroom teacher, I never had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of why we were doing what we were doing.  So my second dot…We just did what was always done.

If you recognize this as somewhat accurate, imagine now for a bit how the general public (parents, community members, politicians, etc.) see the purpose of school.  What do you think might be the major factors in how such folks reach their conclusion/definition? I suspect a fair number of these factors are a result of looking in the rearview mirror… at how they remember school, what worked for them, what the economy needed at the time, etc… a form of “marching backwards into the future”.

Continuing a growing trend,  while the majority of community members see their schools in a positive light, this same majority has accepted the notion that our schools are largely failing – i.e., not doing things as well as they remembered.  Paradoxically enough, this same majority (with the help of Grover Norquist and the Freedom Caucus) has also accepted the notion that all forms of taxation are bad… money given to the government is wasted and, therefore, money given to school is a waste… and the result?  Oakland, Los Angeles, West Virginia, the charter school and voucher movement, etc.

As I have written elsewhere, we are in a time of a story that is dying.  The story of school as the path to prosperity and security is foundering, if not already dead! A purpose for school that is based on this story, regardless of how efficient it might seem, can no longer be used as the driving force for school change.  My third dot…Doing schooling better is a terrible purpose.

What? But wait… am I  saying that we shouldn’t be sending our kids to school? No. Am I saying we should have lots of empty school buildings crumbling in disrepair while kids wander aimlessly through the community or sit comatose in front of their electronic devices? No.

What I am saying is that we need to spend some serious time looking at and deciding exactly what the purpose of our schools must be in the context of our current time… not the context that existed in the 1890’s when the current curriculum for our schools was developed. What I’m asking is that next time a district begins the seemingly never-ending process of strategic plan development, why not begin with a discussion of the purpose of school?  Why not begin with why kids should attend school? Couldn’t we at least begin with a discussion about what learning is? What we are doing to enhance the possibility of learning?  Maybe even expolore what are we doing that actually gets in the way?

Richardson conditions

This one’s easy… all presenters should be so considerate

Years ago, I encountered a book edited by Art Costa, If Minds Mattered.  The contributors asked the question, “If minds really mattered, would school like it does?”  Taking license with that notion, I wonder why we organize our schools and student learning the way we do? I wonder what our schools would look like if learningreally mattered?   Would we group our kids by age? Would we judge them and their teachers by a once a year, large-scale assessment?  Would we continue to use grades as the measure of learning?

fwbrfu4vduqvib4hrqifegSo, for now, a final dot.  What matters to us?  What would happen if we decided that a drop of student engagement from almost 80% in 3rdgrade to something less than 45% by 11thgrade mattered to us? Could we ask kids in our school if this is their experience and why?

What would happen if we recognized that the growth in student anxiety, depression, and suicide is growing dramatically as kids move through school?  Could we look at policies and practices we have in our schools that might contribute to this? What would happen if the way we and kids learn is dramatically different from how we do school?  Could we look at increasing student agency, increasing the control they have over their learning… the how when and with whom part?

What would happen if you asked two “I wonder what would happen if..?” questions?
What would happen if you asked two “Could we at least try…?” questions?

What would happen if we committed to creating a space where such questions were encouraged and valued?

Be well

 

 

Where’s Sancho Panza When We Need Him?…maybe he’s us.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-2-23-02-pmI was reading an article in The Atlantic this morning in which the author described the failure of the Republican party to reject the President’s strategy of using a national emergency as the means to circumvent the Congressional refusal to support his long standing promise of a border wall. The author described this as a “moment of extreme national cowardice.”

I was unsettled by my reaction. Is it possible that in my own field of interest/passion our failure to respond to signs of a system of education that is not adjusting to the changing needs of its students or to the increasing levels of emotional distress experienced by them is, in fact also a moment of national cowardice… cowardice not by our national legislators but cowardice by us, as educators?

 

I don’t mean the kind of self-serving cowardice that we have been witnessing by federal lawmakers. I mean a kind of cowardice which is less public and less intentional. I mean a kind of cowardice which is driven by fear of change, fear of losing what we have, fear of the consequences of acknowledging that we have spent far too long trying to do the wrong thing better, fear that in preserving our comfort with what is, we have avoided doing what should be, fear of acknowledging that the ways in which we have organized our schools and our focus on schooling have stifled, not encouraged learning.

screen-shot-2016-04-09-at-4-07-32-pmMost of us who taught or who teach now have had a minimum of 16 years as students to learn how school works.  While we may/may not have learned everything that was taught, we most certainly learned “schooling”. We learned that “stuff” was organized into discrete content areas, that each of these content areas was taught in fixed blocks of time, that we learned mostly in age-based cohorts, that teachers taught, that tests measured learning, etc. Perhaps most insidiously we learned that compliance was/is more highly valued than questioning.

And so I’m suggesting that we find ourselves confronted with a challenge of courage.  When we recognize that the system we have been a part of, the system that we have largely internalized is not meeting the needs of the very people it was charged with serving, what do we do?  Many of us seek others who have reached similar conclusions.  We seek communities of support.  Far too frequently we have to leave our schools/districts to find such kindred spirits.   We find safe harbors for our thoughts and feel secure in the knowledge that we are not nuts.

But what if being in a safe place is not enough?  What if the impact of our commitment to “schooling” is far more damaging than the parents and community members realize or understand?  Let me offer a possible analogy to this situation. Assuming we have a significant problem with boarder security, it’s safe to say that a comprehensive response to that issue has eluded us.  Not surprisingly, it’s a complex issue.  And so we develop a response which is more understandable… a wall.  Continuing… Let’s assume that we have a problem with what kids are learning/not learning in our schools.  It, too, is a complex situation.  We develop solutions… better standards and large scale assessments. They prove to be our “wall”.

Recently, a member of a virtual community of educators to which I belong, suggested that she would find it hard to believe that I would be anything but gracious in my responses to other members of the community.  I’ll dispel that “myth” with my next few sentences.  We are living at the tail end of a story that is dying. The “story” that told us that if we went to school, did well there, got good grades, went to college and graduated, we would have a good job and a secure future for our families and for our retirement… That story is dead!  Ask any parent of a recent graduate who is drowning in huge debt and depending on the “gig” economy for a job. “Schooling” isn’t working for far too many kids.  We are presiding over and working in a system that is no longer working.

Not all of us are community organizers or political activists.  Not all of us see the world in the same way or, perhaps, with the same sense of urgency.  But what if those of us who do don’t challenge it? If we really believe that a significant part of our calling is to help kids learn who they are and how they can be in the world, is there a place for “moments of cowardice”? What would happen if we added our voices to those of striking teachers… our voices about the need not only to raise teacher recognition and compensation, but also the need to revisit the purpose of education? What would happen if we added our voices to encourage an inclusion of such a discussion in the development of the Green New Deal?

What if watching the dismantling of a system of public education in the name of choice and free enterprise, if watching the largest publishing companies profit from student data and the continued sale of both the large-scale assessments and the test prep materials designed around them, if failing to examine how the policies and practices in our own or local schools is contributing to the dramatic rise in student mental health issues is actually an act of national cowardice?

Just asking.