William Mathis: What Standardized Tests Measure and What They Can’t Tell Us

I’ve referred frequently to Jan’s work. I decided to post the entire piece that she posted this morning for those of you who might be looking for backup support as you work to bring about change and relief from the test/punish reform process.

janresseger

Since 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, American public schools, and later their teachers, have been evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students.  States have been required to punish the schools with the lowest scores—firing their principals or some of their teachers, closing the schools, or turning them over to charter schools.  But the idea that we can judge schools and judge teachers by metrics—by the aggregate test scores of their students—evolved long before the passage of No Child Left Behind—even prior to the publication in 1983 of the A Nation At Risk report that is said to have begun the wave of standards-based school reform. Perhaps it has been part of growing enchantment with our society’s advancing capacity to collect and analyze data.

Today it is becoming widely acknowledged, however, that the strategy of test-and-punish didn’t improve public schools, didn’t…

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Death of the Old Story

We are living on the tail end of an old story… a story that extolled the virtues of data, metrics, analytics as tools for assessing the value of our work, our schools, and, distressingly, our students.

Such stories become stories as they are repeated and gradually accepted as truth.

Old stories die hard because of how deeply ingrained they have become through repetition and our tendency toward confirmation bias – i.e., our tendency to assign greater validity to information that confirms our beliefs.

Inaccurate tales become stories because they are unchallenged and some may even have resonance with our experiences.  They grow in acceptance due to laziness and/or ineffective challenges.

The “old story”, the story of our people, extols the virtue of hard work, doing well in school, getting into a good college, obtaining a college degree, getting a good job with the accompanying secure future. That story included the myth that such opportunity was equally open to all Americans, as well as a healthy portion of blame aimed at those whose experiences contradicted the validity of that story.

Now, not only the poor and people of color are challenged to find the validity of that story. Far more of us are confronted on a regular basis with a challenge to it.  Many have watched their children work hard, do well in school, be successful in good colleges and find no jobs.  They have watched the security of pensions disappear. They have watched the promise of progress and development rape the land and threaten our continued existence.  Many have recognized the death throes of the old story.

The story of accountability has been told and retold so frequently that it has become a part of the fabric of the old story.  A chapter in that story must be devoted to human arrogance. This arrogance is filled with irony… an irony that names the flagship legislation No Child Left Behind, while designed to leave millions of poor children behind and labeled, along with their schools, as failing.

Our old story is replete with experiences in which we found ourselves trying to “fix” a problem with a new, better idea. We have many memories of failed initiatives, new ideas, new programs… each touted as being “the answer”.  Sometimes we were on the “receiving” end of such solutions. At other times we may have been the force behind the fix.  What most of us recall is the durability of the problem and the frustration of the never-ending treadmill of solutions.  Rarely, if ever, did we explore the accuracy of the problem description/definition.  In the old story we just kept trying to do things right(er)… rarely able/willing to question if we were seeking to do the right thing.

More and more people in all walks of life, in many different professions, are growing in awareness that the old story is a fable.  Accountability, as we have seen it, doesn’t improve learning.  It damages personal connection, empathy, and relationships.  It adds to separation. It hinders connectedness. Equitable access to learning doesn’t exist for all, perhaps not even for many.

We are living in a time of “interbeing”… a time between stories… sometimes torn between the convenience and comfort of our old story and the fear of the unknown that accompanies the writing of new stories.  Writing a new story need not be a continuation of our time of the separation that was/is inherent in the old story.  Our new story can be a story of connection not separation, of sustainability not accountability, of empathy not blame, relationship building not alienation.  Our new story can be a story not so much about making a specific change happen but of creating the space where change can happen… for our students, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our families.

My thanks to Charles Eisenstein for the gift of his thinking and his language of stories.  His generosity allows for the free use of his works and his gifts.  My thanks also to Russell Ackoff whose writings highlighting the differences between “Doing things Right” and “Doing the Right Thing” continue to add clarity to my reflections and Jan Resseger whose tireless work in pursuit of equitable access to learning for all children is nothing short of inspirational.

Be well

If We Know This Stuff Why Aren’t We Changing More?

 

Note: My thanks to Will Richardson and the team at change leaders.community for the inspiration for this post. If you’re interested in exploring and collaborating with like-minded educators about the why and how of school change, I strongly recommend checking out the change leaders community. Their work has added considerable richness to the reflections during my self-imposed retreat and leads me to a further exploration of a couple of themes that have occupied my thinking and writing, leadership, and change. 

“Dylan Bueno is buried. Did pressure from school contribute to his apparent suicide?”

This the headline from a blog post on March 14th by Bob Braun, a retired education editor/writer for a major NJ newspaper. Mr. Braun continued:

Dylan Bueno–at 14, not quite a child and still not yet a young man–was buried Wednesday by his family. Five days earlier, he apparently committed suicide not long after he learned he would not be able to participate in his eighth-grade graduation from Newark’s Ann Street School

Just hours before I read this story, I had finished listening to a podcast/interview which featured a conversation between Will Richardson and David Gleason. Gleason is a psychologist whose book,  At What Cost on the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide is generating significant questions about the role of school in this alarming trend.

It was no accident that I found my way to this podcast. A few days ago, I revisited a piece written by (here’s that name again) Will Richardson, entitled “Our Moral Imperative”. In this  article Will shared his experience meeting David Gleason and encountering his notion of “immunity to change”. More about that in a bit.  As I read and listened I heard two distinct threads. They represent what Gleason refers to as the “current bind”… the dissonance between our public and open commitments and what our behaviors reveal about less public commitments.

The first thread involves the evolution of our culture. From a cultural perspective the school children of this generation are living at a time when their parents have lost considerable faith in the likelihood that their children will have a better life than they did. Furthermore, they have accepted (and contributed to) a conventional wisdom that defines what path is most likely to present their children with the best chances for “beating the odds” – study hard, do well in school, get above average SAT, ACT scores, submit great college applications, get into the best possible college, be the first in our family to attend college, etc.

In his book, Gleason describes the bind that we find ourselves grappling with

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

Schools are seen as the primary means by which the fears of parents (transmitted very effectively to their kids) can be addressed. We, as educators, in responding to these expectations and to the pressures imposed by state and federal requirements have been complicit in the creation of a culture of high expectations, imposed at increasingly earlier grades, with the promise of dire consequences for both students and educators when expectations are not/cannot be met.

The second thread that I found in my explorations of the Richardson/Gleason resource is a part of Gleason’s work identifying why we find change so hard. Gleason’s explanation for our reluctance to change makes a comparison between the body’s systems for rejecting threats to our health (our immune systems) and the idea that we also possess an emotional defense mechanism which he terms our “immunity to change”. The system helps us reject change that might threaten our sense of self or our personal comfort. You can read about his study and the details of his interview protocol here

The thread that Gleason highlights in describing the current bind we are facing is not surprising… it is fear. As educators, while we recognize that our focus on trying to insure a successful future for our students has resulted in unhealthy pressures and is contributing to the historically high anxiety levels of students, we have done little to address this.

In October of last year, the NY Times reported on this problem as follows:

In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

“Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety”, NY Times, October 11, 2017

Here is Richardson’s description of what Gleason has learned:

“…we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more).

But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more). Nor surprisingly these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.”

In their conversation Gleason (in the podcast) and Richardson (in the article) point out it is the next step in the protocol that gets interesting. Participants are asked to identify what fears they would have if they did the opposite of their negative practices. Here are a few of the fears that Gleason got when conducting the protocol around the issues of excessive focus on college, over-emphasis on grades, homework assignments, etc. I’ve paraphrased a few of his findings from his interviews.

If the teachers didn’t continue with the current practices…

  • They would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
  • Their students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and they would eventually lose our jobs.
  • We might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
  • If they actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, they fear that they might try and fail … They do what they’re comfortable doing.
  • If they did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture… they’d have to face making adjustments in their program, which could have an impact on their jobs.

As the convergence of events and ideas continued, it struck me that my exposure to these resources during my time of “retreat” was no accident. Rounding out this I’d like to offer the following for consideration.

What Gleason has described is a real and complex bind… a combination of forces have conspired to create a condition which has significantly increased the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in our young people. Our current solution to this situation is to get better at identifying young people who are exhibiting signs of such distress and to provide support resources to heal or “fix” them. Once again, relying on the wisdom of Russell Ackoff, this is a classic example of trying to do the wrong thing better. We know what the right thing to do is… it is to fix the system that is causing the stress, the anxiety, the depression and placing the lives of too many children at risk. It is to stop over-scheduling our kids. It is to stop the overemphasis on grades and college admission. It is to stop the madness of hours of time devoted to test –prep and high stakes assessments. It is time to stop transferring our fears about the future of kids to our kids.   It is our fear that allows the bind to continue. The cost of this fear is too high. Just ask Dylan Bueno’s mom.

Be well

 

 

 

 

 

The Beginning of a New Year’s Resolution

 

geese swans IMG_1984

Hanging together in tough times – a backyard reflection

Since my “retirement” from active consulting/coaching, I’ve been grappling with the relationship between leadership (and what this means) and culture. I find myself surrounding this relationship, with details gradually becoming clearer while the big picture continues to be fuzzier than I’d like.

As I was working on a draft of a post in which I continue to explore the dissonance between what learning should look like and what I see most kids and adults experiencing in schools, three threads keep surfacing: (1) We seem to be much better at developing solutions than we are at deeply analyzing and defining problems; (2) Our systems have grown in complexity beyond our capacity to lead and manage them; and (3) We seem driven by an arrogance that does not allow us to recognize and/or acknowledge this limitation.

In reading a number of recent articles* about the impact of Eva Moskowitz (founder and CEO of the Success Academy Charter Schools Network), I was reminded of a book by Andrew Bacevich entitled The Limits of Power, in which he describes a national tendency to resolve complex social, economic, governance, educational, etc. problems by seeking and investing in what he terms Messianic solutions – i.e., the identification and acceptance of “leaders” promising to do great things and bring the answers to complex problems.

I don’t find this a hard trend to recognize and had no trouble naming a handful of such “Messiah’s” in a variety of fields. What I took away from this reflection was that there is a direct connection between our unwillingness/inability to deeply analyze complex situations/problems and Druckers’ thinking about confusing dong things rights with doing the right thing.

NOTE: For 2 recent articles providing a kind of “bookend” look at the Moskowitz story, take a look at a piece by Elizabeth Green that appeared recently in The Atlantic and a recent blog by Jan Resseger who critiques the Atlantic piece and adds a number of excellent references for further exploration.

I know. I know. That’s a long-winded intro to the first piece of the New Year. But hang on. As I’ve shared before, I (and a number of others) see this as a critical time for our system of education. I want to restate several observations I’ve shared over the course of my blogging “career” and then suggest a homework assignment.

We are at a time when we must decide what kind of “schools”, what kind of education, we want for our kids. We have been through more than 40 years of the fixes designed largely by non-educators.

Results…

We have unacceptably high levels of student disengagement in school-based learning. We have exceptional rates of teacher attrition accompanied by very low rates of enrollment in teacher preparation programs. And we are on the cusp of the latest educational revolution – personalized learning… an idea not developed by the reformers of the past three federal improvement initiatives, but by the largest corporations in the world developing algorithmically driven “programs” designed to “guide” students in the acquisition of knowledge and skills that only partially reflect the needs of our students and our society.

We need to demonstrate a capacity that should be in the fabric of our education system. We need to demonstrate and model what it means to be a learning organization. We need to begin the process of deep analysis and reject both the Messianic sirens and quick fixes.

In the spirit of “flipped” experiences, I’d like to suggest that you take a few minutes and follow this link to another recent post by Jan Resseger. In it, she references the value of applying the idea of New Year’s Resolutions to the concept of public education.

As a guide for this exercise, I’ll draw on some words Jan offers from John Dewey . For the purposes of this exploration, I’m summarizing four tenets shared by Jan taken from Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed”.

I’m hoping that you will treat his words as belief statements and take the time, first of all to jot down your level of agreement with each and, secondly, for those with which you find resonance, to jot down a few descriptions of what you might do to bring your school/district in line with such beliefs.

 

Tenet #1 – All learning comes from within the learner and, therefore, school must be child- or student-centered. Dewey offers: “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe they represent dawning capacities… I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observations of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life.”

Comment: In previous posts, I’ve explored how we tend to fit student-centeredness inside of a need for efficiency and adult comfort. Recently we’ve added a new version of this “centeredness” discussion. But it seems that our current preoccupation with the term “personalization” creates a child – or student-centered culture in name only. In Dewey’s words, “Education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Tenet #2 – “I believe that much present education fails because it neglects the fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives of school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are learned, or where certain habits are formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future… With the advent of democracy modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him control of himself.”

Comment: This is a challenging concept as we have grown increasingly less community- and more individually-centered in our culture.

Tenet #3 – “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life… The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

Comment: This seems to indicate that we must become more intentional about the ways in which we support a child’s metacognitive look at her/his decisions and actions.

Tenet #4 – “I believe that education is the regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness. This process begins unconsciously at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeding in getting together… The most formal intellectual and technological education in the world cannot safely depart form this process.”

What Next?

Imagine for a bit what school/education/learning might look like if we had elected to follow Dewey’s beliefs. But we didn’t, you say. Right we didn’t. But we are now at a place where we are faced with the possibility that our current system will not survive without significant change. I don’t mean change defined as more charter schools and greater choice. While I’m certain that the Eva Moskowitz’s of the world would love to see this as the solution, it would be a continuation of our tendency to rely on simple solutions to complex problems. These schools are not schools of the future. They are schools created to resemble schools of the past as they are remembered by those who thrived in them. It is an approach which has been described (accurately, I think) as “marching backwards into the future.”

Your turn. Can you find a resolution or two in here? Happy New Year!

Recovering From the “M” Word

Hello again. A writer that I follow describes his newsletter as appearing with “fanatical irregularity”. It appears that I’ve joined his scheduling pattern. I’ve never asked why he publishes so randomly but I can easily explain how this has happened for me. Have you ever moved?

moving 1 IMG_0374Two weeks ago we finished a whirlwind process that saw us complete the purchase of a new home and the sale of our previous home of more than a decade. It was an exciting time.

Things moved along very smoothly with only small doses of stress. But then it was time for the “M” word… moving. Now, 10 days after “the move” our conversations almost all include sentences like, “Do you remember packing xxx”; “What box what it in?”; “Where is that box?”; “How did we get so much stuff?”; and, “Why the hell did we bring it?”

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ease my way back into some kind of writing routine by relying on a couple of pieces that I read this past week between collapsing into whatever chair was at hand and falling into a sleep filled with dreams of packing boxes.

Will Parker writes a blog entitled, Principal Matters. He has been a teacher, the Oklahoma Assistant Principal of the Year in 2012 and is currently the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association for Secondary and Middle Level Principals. He’s ‘been there, done that’. As we have been exploring the issues surrounding the concept and reality of school leadership, I wanted to share his recent blog.

Will entitled the piece “Managing Demands, Dealing with Difficult People and Promoting Positive Morale.” It struck me as valuable because it dealt with practical matters in day-to-day leadership and culture creation. Note: Will’s blogs are also available in podcast version.

This is a “how to” piece and Will has organized each section with a short contextual intro followed by his suggestions for dealing with each. I’ve reprinted his sections and, as usual when I reference someone else’s work, I urge you to read the entire piece entire piece and to become acquainted with his work.

Note: After each of Will’s sections I’ve added some of my own thoughts/comments.  These are not intended to critique Will’s observations. Rather they’re intended to tie his work to concepts and thinking previously explored here in Rethinking Learning.

Part 1: Managing Demands

As you walk through a school, you will find teachers, students, and staff rely on you for more than just supervision or observation. People are looking for problem-solvers. In my first year as an administrator, I carried a notepad with me and tried to write down notes on every conversation I was having for follow-up.

I soon discovered I was spending more time do follow-up than I was helping others find their own solutions. In some ways, I was fishing for them rather than teaching them to fish. With that in mind, here are four takeaways to keep in mind when managing questions or demands:

  1. Give up your “Savior” complex.(It takes a team to lead a school.)
  2. Share follow-up.(If it’s important, have them write it down.)
  3. Teach others to find solutions.(Learn to “shift the monkey” as Todd Whitaker teaches.)
  4. Set timers for time consuming tasks.(Your value does not equal an empty inbox. Sometimes mundane tasks like emails or reports can go faster as timed tasks.)

You cannot lead alone. And the sooner you realize you need a team, the better. It is easy for leaders to fall into the trap of believing their job is to save the day. That kind of mentality will lead to burnout. Instead, shift your mindset so that you approach the complex problems of your school with the idea that it will take everyone on your team to find solutions, create strong environments, and reach new goals.

Comment:  It is assumed that, in order to be a good leader, one must be a good problem solver.  There is no question that problem solving is an essential part of the leadership role; however, too frequently this expectation leads to two unanticipated and undesirable consequences: (1) we become better at ‘problem solving’ than at problem analysis (leading to solutions that seem, not surprisingly, do not solve the problem) and (2) we reinforce a hierarchical structure in which only the “one at the top” solves the problems – i.e., we create dependence among our colleagues rather than building the kind of ownership that follows engagement in broader problem analysis and solving.

Part 2: Dealing with Difficult People

It’s easy to remember hard conversations—especially ones where people lose it emotionally. No one ever learns to perfectly manage difficult conversation(s). But there are some ways you can shift your mindset so you learn to better manage them. Here are six tips to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you’re not the difficult one.
  2. Seek to understand before being understood
  3. Be firm but friendly.
  4. Change your posture and use humor when appropriate.
  5. Agree to disagree
  6. Consider bringing parties to the table.

Keep in mind that others want to be heard and understood. Sometimes the goal is not finding complete agreement as it is being a sounding board and helping find solutions together. Simple things go a long way in deescalating emotional conversations: like keeping your hands open when you talk, taking notes to show you are listening well, and repeating back what you hear someone saying. At the end of the day, you want to know you’ve given others the courtesy you would want if the tables were turned.

Comment: My experience in working with school leaders has taught me that there is little or no intentionality in leadership preparation programs in the area of productive conflict resolution or the development of confidence in what Susan Scott refers to as “Fierce Conversations”. I would add the intentional development of this skill to Will’s suggestions.

Note: See Susan Scotts two books entitled, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership

Part 3: Showing Appreciation and Maintaining Morale

It is easy to lose sight of the culture and morale of your team members when you’re focused on managing demands or difficult moments. I talk to a lot of principals who ask what they can do to keep their team members encouraged. Here are eight suggestions on ways to embed appreciation into your routines:

  1. “Kudos” emails(These are quick summaries of great things you see happening when you do a walkthrough of your building.)
  2. Video shares(Use your smart-phone to capture great learning moments and share via email, social media or link in a newsletter.)
  3. Hand-written notes or cards (All of us enjoy the thoughtfulness of a handwritten thought or word. I once had a 25-year veteran teacher who told me she had never received a hand-written note of encouragement from an admin till I gave her one.)
  4. Monthly awards(Use your faculty or team meetings to highlight great team players once a month and publish it out to others.)
  5. Newsletter/website publicity(Have a frequent, consistent summary of communication for parents and community members; use it as a way to brag on your teachers, students, and staff.)
  6. Face-to-face(Take advantage of observation follow-ups to look a teacher in the eyes and tell them something specific you appreciate about what they do with students.)
  7. Food, food, and more food(Maybe it’s because I love to eat, but I always feel encouraged and loved when someone adds food to a meeting.)
  8. Social media shares(Never before have we had access to so many free, accesibile ways to share and brag about our teachers and schools. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LindedIn, or Voxer: find ways to celebrate and encourage others.)

Comment:  Think of each of the suggestions that Will has include above as ways in which relationships (whether they be with students, colleagues, parents and/or community members) are strengthened.  I connect this to the conversations, relationships, trust, followership model previous shared in some of my earlier posts.

Will ends his piece with the following thought:

As school leaders, we are directly involved in the kind of environment where learning can happen. How we manage demands, deal with difficulties, and encourage positive moments will lend to the outcomes others have in our learning environments. Don’t think you will ever do this with perfection. By sharing tasks with teammates, learning to navigate tough conversations, and highlighting successes of others, you will find yourself cultivating the soil for positive outcomes for your teachers and students.

As always, your comments and thoughts help each of us grow,  Be well.

Kindness Can’t Be Random

It’s been a while.

I began this blog in the hopes of clarifying my own thinking and, perhaps, contributing perspectives that may not have gotten (in my mind) sufficient attention. Every now and then I realize that I need some distance.  Some time for reflection. And, as usual, the universe lays a trap and there goes the plan.

The trap this time was a video clip that I saw earlier this week on Facebook. Take a look (spoiler alert… tissues are almost mandatory). It’s a clip from a Garth Brooks concert. . I recall seeing it before but had blissfully forgotten the ambush. In the clip, Garth Brooks is performing and sees a lady who is holding a sign that catches his attention and changes the evening for him, for her, and for the audience.

As I replayed this clip in my head over the next couple of days, what emerged were two words… kindness and compassion. Two words that I hadn’t included in my posts about the components of leadership but should have. I thought of all of the kids I taught who may have been holding up signs that I missed. I thought of all of the teachers and staff members who were holding up signs that I should have seen but didn’t. I thought of kids I didn’t reach with my teaching, adults I didn’t reach with my leadership. And the words echoed… kindness and compassion and I realized that they are two critical elements in the process of building caring, trusting relationships and the culture of safety that makes risk-taking possible.

I thought of how easy it would be to ask kids in our classes, adults in our care, “What is the most important thing you’d like to say right now? What’s the most important thing you’d like someone to hear?” How easy would it be to train ourselves to look for “the signs”? To move beyond kindness weeks?

I’ll close this with a quick anecdote and a few questions. (I’m also working on brevity)

A couple of days ago we were meeting with an elder care attorney. I shared the name of the attorney who had recommended her to us. She never hesitated and replied, “He’s a good attorney… and a kind man.” What an eloquent tribute.

How many of us would be proud to know that people consider us kind? That we had a role in the growth of our students towards kindness? What could we do intentionally to insure that this happens? What might we be doing that incidentally gets in the way? Is kindness a value in your school? Is compassion? How can we grow a culture of kindness and compassion in our school community? What have you done? What can you do?

A change of Pace…

Jay Armstrong GradIt’s that time of year here in NJ… the time for graduations and, naturally, graduation speeches. Having attended, by my rough count, approximately 35 I’ve become a bit jaded. This week, in the district where my wife works, a remarkable young teacher shook me. In the tradition of the district, Jay Armstrong had the opportunity to share his thoughts as a result of his award as Teacher of the Year last year. He is a teacher and a writer. For more pieces of his writing and additional insight into his approach to teaching, I highly recommend that you visit his web site.

I realize that each of us is touched by different things… things rooted in our life experiences. Jay’s words touched me and I wanted to give him the chance to speak to you as well. I’ve reprinted the transcript here.

Note: In the event you’d like to listen to Jay’s talk, here is a link to access the audio file.

Transcript – graduation address, Robbinsville HS

Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)

First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.

Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.

It has not been proofread.

And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.

I’d also like to thank…

Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration,  the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.

I appreciate it. I really do.

But I have a ask to question…

What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?

It’s the predicament I’m in right now.

Understand, I’m honored to be here.

But I know my role.

I am your impediment.

The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.

My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…

“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”

I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.

How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.

How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”

In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.

So… the question remains…what do you say?

Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.

My wife.  Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.

My mom is here.

My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.

And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.

(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)

And that’s about it.

4 people.

In the whole stadium.

My wife. My mom.

Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.

And one of the 87 Twamleys.

Let’s breakdown my situation even further…

What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?

Seriously. You do.

If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.

That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.

So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…

And then there’s everybody else.

To most people here I’m a stranger.

And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.

So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?

I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.

Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.

Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.

Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.

The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.

A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.

And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.

So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?

I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.

Two stories that have made me the person I am today.

One from high school, one from adulthood.

Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.

Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” (high five)

Do you realize what I just did there?

Do you?

That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.

 The First Story

The first story goes like this…

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.

My teacher, Ms. Baker, is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.

As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.

Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.

She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.

Right then in freshman English class I submitted.

Right then I began to distrust myself.

If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.

For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.

I listened too closely to opinions.

Don’t listen.

I bought the fabrications the world was selling.

Don’t buy them.

 The Second Story

The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.

On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.

A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.

This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.

Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail”  available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.

To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)

Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.

All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).

No, Joe Natalie*…

(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… if I was God.)

I am not God…

I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)

Senior English…

Representing…

What… What…

The second story goes like this…

It’s March 2010.

I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.

After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.

I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.

At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.

I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.

For 90 minutes  author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.

Then it was over.

I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.

I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.

When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.

I stop.

I turn toward him.

I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.

I step forward.

29 feet.

Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.

28 feet.

I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

27 feet.

It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.

I take a step back.

28 feet.

What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?

29 feet.

The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me?  What if he told me to shut up and go home?

I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.

Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.

Scoring your dream job.

Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.

And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.

But those chapters are often short.

The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.

They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.

My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.

Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.

For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.

A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.

You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.

But what will you do now?

Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.  

Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.

But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…

What will be the subject of your next chapter?

Will you be a minor character in your own life?

Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?

It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.

Don’t do it.

It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.

Don’t believe it.

Before I go…

I challenge you…

To relax.

Trust yourself.

Avoid cliches.

Be authentic.

And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.

Finally, I have a last request…

To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…

If you had one shot, one opportunity to

seize a picture  with the class of 2017

would you capture it or just let it slip?”

 

Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…

It’s been an honor and privilege…

Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.