Friday, May 25, 2007

Random Facts

I've been "tagged," which apparently means I have to share seven random facts about myself. I'm also supposed to tag a bunch of other bloggers I know. Unfortunately, I don't know any bloggers other than the ones The Wife listed on her blog.

So here goes:

1. At various points in my life, I have lived in New York (four locations within NYC and two in the suburbs), Atlanta, Los Angeles, The Republic of Slovakia, and Tucson. I have also spent a lot of very happy hours in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

2. I am so desperately near-sighted that if my vision were to get any worse, I would be able to see behind myself.

3. For several years in New York, I ran a small, not-for-profit theatre company that produced original plays I had written (among other things).

4. The one time I ever tried LSD, I expected to be tormented by hideous visual manifestations of my dark and tortured soul--starving artist that I was, and all. Instead, I found myself romping around very happily in a colorful, Dr.-Seuess-ian landscape.

5. I weigh 170 pounds, should weigh 155 pounds, and have been determined to lose weight and get in better shape for about 20 years.

6. I hate parties.

7. While I present a modest and self-effacing exterior to the world, I am, deep down, surprisingly arrogant and rigidly sure of myself. Except when it's the other way around.

Great Ideas in Public Education

If you were going to build a school system from scratch, how many of the following ideas and beliefs would you embrace?

  1. All children of a certain age are equally ready to learn certain concepts and attain certain skills.
  2. All children should be expected to progress through their learning at the same rate and master concepts and skills at the same time.
  3. The best way to learn is to read from a book or to listen to a lecturer, and then to write down answers to a lot of questions.
  4. The best way to learn is to shift focus from one topic to another every 40-50 minutes.
  5. Teachers should be judged by what they cover more than by what their students learn.
  6. Individual teachers should have complete autonomy in deciding what students should learn, when they should learn it, and how they should demonstrate their learning.
  7. Teacher salaries and incentives should be based entirely on how many years they have spent in the profession.
  8. Student progress and graduation should be based entirely on how many years they have spent in a classroom.
  9. While virtually everything in our culture and society has changed in the last 100 years, the way in which we organize our schools and teach our children is perfect and need never change.
  10. Because virtually everything in our culture and society has changed in the last 100 years, the history and values of the past have nothing to teach our children, and need not be given much attention in school. (Specifically, if certain things that motivated people and drove history are things we no longer believe in or find palatable, we should never talk about them in school. Ever.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It Was The ___st of Times

They All Suck


  • For passing spineless, compromised legislation that helps no one
  • For watering down standards to make their states look good
  • For knuckling under to the so-called grown-ups rather than advocating for the kids


  • For having their heads permanently shoved up their asses
  • For publishing esoteric essays and books that help no one
  • For advocating new approaches and new programs without a shred of anything that anyone outside of Education would call scientific data
  • For constructing teacher education programs that do not give teachers any of the skills or knowledge they need to teach children


  • For sniffing around starving schools and districts for just one more dollar
  • For publishing politically-correct pabulum instead of the often unpleasant truth
  • For jamming textbooks with too many colors, sidebars, boxes, and pictures, exacerbating our attention-span problem even further
  • For bullying teachers into thinking that textbooks are curriculum


  • For knowing nothing
  • For doing nothing
  • For supporting no one
  • For presiding over petty fiefdoms and police states instead of communities of learners


  • For not knowing their content
  • For not knowing how to teach
  • For obsessing over coverage
  • For obsessing over their union contract
  • For resisiting change
  • For believing themselves unaccountable to anyone beyond themselves
  • For thinking they always know best


  • For thinking that education is something that just happens to them
  • For blithely assuming everything will be fine, regardless of what they do or don't learn
  • For refusing to do their work
  • For making it impossible for anyone else do their work

They're All Saints


  • For trying to find ways to create accountability where none has ever existed
  • For trying to make change in a political environment in which they are constantly compromised


  • For refusing to accept that "what was good enough for your father and me" has any pedagogical validity
  • For showing us how brains really work and how people really learn
  • For being models of the kinds of restless and inquisitive minds we hope to cultivate in our students


  • For bringing tremendous amounts of talent and resources to the task of helping students
  • For always trying to do things better
  • For giving us options


  • For being willing to run the asylum
  • For trying to create environments conducive to learning
  • For putting themselves in the crosshairs every day
  • For mediating among teacher unions, custodian unions, parents, politicians, and lunatic children


  • For doing the job
  • For doing their best
  • For spending their days with our children
  • For grasping at teachable moments, whenever they appear
  • For struggling on against all odds


  • For trusting that it matters
  • For giving it a good try, even when they have doubts
  • For shrugging off the idiots and staying focused on what's important
  • For navigating an increasingly carnivorous culture and trying, somehow, to grow up sane

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Wife was at some Knitting & Spinning Event, Boy 1 was at a movie with his grandmother, and Boy 2 was asleep. I grabbed my depressing novel and a bottle of water and headed outside to enjoy the respite and bathe in the sun. I read for 10 or 15 minutes, then gave up, closed my eyes, and put my head back to enjoy the blistering but dry heat.

Beneath the chair, in the shade of a towel, my BlackBerry hummed. I picked it up to read the email that had come through, in case it was something dire from The Wife, and discovered that an acquaintance from my office had died last night, in an accident. No other information was forthcoming.

I had been back in the New York office only a few days earlier, and had passed this young man (he was 29) in the hallway, as you do when you're at work. Or at the mall. Or on the street. Or...anywhere. We didn't say hello to each other--both of us were busy and heading to some Desperately Important meeting or something.

I didn't really know him, but he seemed like a nice enough guy. We didn't work together, but we ended up in meetings together on occasion. He was a former marine, though he didn't look the part. But he had that calm stoicism, that centeredness.

And now, apparently, he is gone. I don't know why, or how.

I went immediately to the trite response of, "If only I had said hello to him in the hallway," as if I had some primal instinct for inanity and kitsch. If only I had...? Then what? Nothing.

People pass in and out of our lives for all sorts of reasons, and rarely with an announcement beforehand. What sends the chill up our spines isn't that we've lost someone so close, but that we barely knew the person at all--that we missed the opportunity to know that person, and now that opportunity is lost to us. And it is lost to us. And one hello in a hallway a week earlier wouldn't have changed that.

Obviously, you can't grab every casual acquaintance as they pass you by and say, "HEY. Let's go get some coffee. Tell me what's been going on lately. Tell me about YOU." Because a) who has time? and b) you'd be locked up by nightfall.

But I wonder...does that mean you have to let them all pass by?

Mandalas, Haikus, and Starbucks: The New Judaism

We went to Friday night services last night--the first time in a long time that we've gone simply as grown-ups, without children in tow. Once a month they honor recent birthdays, and The Wife had been alerted that she was on the list for this month. So we went.

It was a special service in another way, as well: the honoring and blessing of the confirmands.

I never had a confirmation as a Youth. I barely made it to Bar Mitzvah, dropping out of our local synagogue at 12 as I did. The place was a Bar Mitzvah mill, processing kids three at a time with all attention focused on the party and none on the allegedly important religious service. I hated it, and told my parents so. They hauled me up in front of the rabbi and said, "He says this place is a Bar Mitzvah mill." To which the rabbi said, "He's right."

So I dropped out and got coaching from one of my father's law students, who was Orthodox. And we had a make-shift service at a country club, presided over by a colleague of my father's, who also happened to be a Chasidic rabbi. It was an amazing event, and very meaningful to me, but there was nothing organized anymore for me to continue with, and I was an easy-to-distract 13-year-old, so...there it ended.

Anyway. The service began last night, and the four confirmands sat there--three girls and one boy. I didn't know any of them--I haven't had the time to really get to know anyone in this congregration. But they looked like nice kids.

Each of them had a chance to speak during the service. The first girl spoke about how she had wanted to express her feelings about religion through art. A friend held up a painting she had done recently--a wonderfully colorful and swirling mandala, with the Hebrew word for love at its center.

Another girl spoke of her "Ashke-phardic" background and how important it was to her. The third recited 10 haikus about her confirmation. Each of them spoke about their relationship with the rabbi, the conversations and disucssions they had had throughout the year, often over coffee at Starbucks.

What struck me throughout the service was how small and intimate and loving everything about the service was. While there was ritual and recitation and all the things that make up a religious service, there was also such a strong sense of family, and love, and...ease, I guess. Nothing rigid or imposing. It was an extended family, raising and celebrating its children.

And the four kids felt such a strong connection to their religious culture--not because of indoctrination or having to tow any particular line--but because of how it both challenged and accomodated them--asked them what they thought and felt about important issues and challenged them to think deeply, consider other points of view, and connect their own feelings and thoughts to the history and tradition to which they belong. There is room for me here, they seemed to be saying, and also, I am needed here.

Those aren't messages I ever got, as a 16-year-old. So maybe there's hope.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pot Calls Kettle Black

A retelling of an old German parable on herd-mindedness, put at the service, somehow, of conservatives and against though the right side of aisle didn't mindlessly repeat whatever they were told to believe.

It's a nice parable and a good warning, regardless of who is retelling it. But let's be honest (for once). No one is exempt. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Memo to Harry Reid

Harry, Harry, Harry...I know you're getting beaten up for saying "the war is lost" out loud and in public. According to the wingnut part of the blogosphere, the lesson to be learned is that the war is not lost, and even if it is, we can't say it out loud and in public because it will (let's say it together) embolden the enemy. According to the moonbat side of the blogosphere, the lesson to be learned is that the war is lost, America is decrepit, and we have to keep saying these things out loud and in public, because that is truth-telling and moral bravery.

A plague on both your houses.

The problem, Harry, is that by saying the war is lost, you're implying that it could, under other circumstances, be won. You're also accepting that what we're in the middle of is a war.

I think both ideas are mistaken. A war (definitionally, it seems to me) has to have a winnable objective: topple a leader, conquer a country, repel an invader...something like that. Say what you will about Iraq and whether we should have been there or not, but our original incursion did have such an objective--to topple Saddam. And that mission was accomplished.

From that day to this, though, what has our objective been? The president changes it from time to time, but lately what I hear is "establish a stable, free, democratic Iraq that does not pose a threat to its neighbors." Is that a war objective? Is that a thing that soldiers can make happen? And if so, how will we know that the objective has been achieved? How can we ever know that this "war" has been won? Not pose a threat to its neighbors? What's our benchmark for that? Stability? What does that actually look like, and how many days of it are required to know we're done?

The fact is, there is no way of knowing, because there is no tangible objective to be achieved. We're in the middle of an insurgency against occupation + a civil war + general anarchy. We can't end the insurgency because we won't leave and we won't really conquer the country. We can't end the civil war because we can't or won't take sides in it. And we can't end the general anarchy because our presence created it.

So, Harry, the war isn't lost--because there is no war, and whatever it is we're doing, there's no way to "win" it. All we can do is preside over hell until we decide not to.

Say that, why don't you?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Who Owns Reality?

(The following was written for a Vanity Fair essay contest. It lost--apparently for not being young enough, hip enough, or, I don't know, reflexively anti-American enough)

America has had a slippery relationship with reality for as long has there has been an America. The continent was a metaphor for the European mind from the very first—a blank slate, a virgin territory, a new world. For a people biblically trained to view their relationship to the natural world as one of dominion, this newly discovered place, untrammeled by the footsteps of their ancestors, was too enticing not to touch, to trammel, to dominate. After all, the world they had inherited was an old one, with patterns of human behavior so deeply rooted that behaving in a different way or building a different world must have seemed contrary to nature itself. For those who were already resisting the old patterns and trying to create new ones, the prospect of virgin territory must have offered the only real chance of success they could imagine. Those willing to imagine—and to stake their life on that vision—came here. They still come.

From day one, then, “the Americans” has been a long-term selective breeding program. The people who make their lives here are defined not only by what they come searching for, but also by what they endure in order to get it. The crossing is not for everyone; the land is not for everyone; and those who survive pass on some gene for unsettled-ness to their children.

Empires create their own reality through force, but America was an empire of ideas long before the nation had any force. It is easy to be cynical about the expressions of freedom set down in the Declaration of Independence—easy to snicker about how limited an audience our founders imagined for their rights. But ideas create their own realities, far beyond the intentions of the people who express them. Even if we view our nation’s founders with as jaundiced an eye as possible, as ruthless, privileged, elitist, sexist, racist, capitalist land-grabbers, the ideas they sent out into the world took hold, and people acted upon them.

Once “all men are created equal” has been said, it cannot be unsaid. It becomes more than a thought; it becomes a Standard. And it has been our standard for more than 200 years—the standard by which we have measured ourselves. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Jefferson and company intended their words to apply to African Americans, women, homosexuals, Jews, Catholics, or the poor. History has taken them at their word, not their intention, and the nation has—slowly—tried to make that word Real. Let us acknowledge that much, at least: it was manifestly untrue in the world they inherited; they tried to make it true (for themselves) in the world they bequeathed to us; and we, through our actions, add or subtract to their legacy.

Were the promises of endless frontier and personal liberty sometimes a sham, or at least an exaggeration? Certainly, But it doesn’t matter; the people who believed bet their lives on those ideas, set out into the unknown, and made those ideas into reality. Did they destroy a reality that already existed in order to accomplish their ends? They absolutely did—often brutally. The land may not have been empty and waiting for them, but they certainly did their best to empty it. They shaped the reality to fit their vision.

This is the harsh, unsentimental truth: there has never been a blank slate from which to work. Not since Eden. You may be able, by sheer power of will, or will to power, to make the world new—but you can do so only by devastating the old world that was there before you.

Do we have the right to do that? Earlier generations viewed this kind of “creative destruction” as acceptable because we were Us and they were Them. We were white, or Christian, or civilized, and that made the violence, while perhaps regrettable, entirely justified. More recent generations have viewed the destruction as appalling, because all cultures have merit and value, and we are no greater than any They simply because we are We.

But perhaps the question of morality clouds the issue. It is, after all, subjective. There is no objective moral standard that exists apart and outside of us. You can say, if you like, that there is something like “God’s law” that supersedes our own—but unfortunately, on this particular planet, we have a lot of “God’s laws,” and they don’t always agree with each other. Winning does, sometimes horribly, confer morality upon the winner—at least until the winner loses and people see his actions through a different moral lens. The power of goodness needs power in order to triumph. It cannot triumph through goodness alone. Do we really imagine that there was nothing forceful standing behind the words and the ideas of people like Gandhi or King? Do we think that they succeeded simply because they were right, or moral, or good? Power does not acquiesce to goodness; it acquiesces to power.

So what is real, and where is power, in this America we have inherited? To many people, it feels as though reality has been hijacked. We look upon a world we did not create and have no power to change. It seems as though, to quote Yeats at his bleakest, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

And yet, isn’t there a touch of self-pity in this thought? If we truly feel that we are being out-gunned and out-played by the “worst,” is that their fault, or ours? If we feel that we, or at least our ideas, are the best—or even just better—then shouldn’t we be willing to bet our lives on them? Shouldn’t we have just a little bit of that passionate intensity about our own ideas, rather than sitting at home, lamenting the fact that no one is listening? After all, what good is an idea that no one is willing to force into reality? Who needs it? It is barely even an idea. It is, at most, a daydream.

We scoff at those who claim to create their own reality—as though their statement reveals a brutishness about them, an uncivilized, ignorant, loutish strain. We pretend that there is a separate, purely objective, Platonic reality just waiting out there for those who are enlightened enough to see it. But there is not. While we sit at home, lamenting, reality is being made by those willing to make it. And sooner or later, it will be forced upon us.

People in other ages have always known this. People in other countries know this. You can be ripped from your safe, suburban home and tortured in a bleak, dark room. You can, so easily, in so many places on this earth. Even here, even now. Do not tell me, then, that reality has not changed for that person, or that it is objective, or Platonic, or separate from human experience. When you are in that new, horrible room, that room is reality, and your old room no longer exists.

The glory and the horror of America has always been its willingness—its need—to destroy-so-as-to-create, whether the thing on the chopping block has been personal history, political structures, or culture. The cycle of destruction and creation is in our nation’s DNA—it is inextricable. You are not going to get rid of that—certainly not by wishing. But what we choose to destroy and create can change—and the way we go about destroying and creating can change. When one frontier closes, we choose another. We are not fated to walk blindly down one path.

So if you are dissatisfied with what you see around you, put out a better idea. Risk your life, or at least your reputation, on the idea you would like to see made real. If you are not full of passionate intensity yourself, then stand with someone who is. If you can’t do even that much—if you merely sit in the safety of your room, thinking that everyone is a fool—then I’m sorry, but you are not “the best.” Yeats was wrong. By definition, the best cannot lack all conviction. Without conviction, the best ideas are just talk.

Reality is ours to shape. If you cannot define it in any way that is deeper than a video game, or more meaningful than the stimulation of your nervous system, that is certainly your right. If entertainment is the whole of the reality you want to build for yourself, then good luck and godspeed. Just don’t complain when your neighbor has a slightly more ambitious vision in mind, and the determination to pursue it to its end. Because he will pursue it, and you won’t like it, and it will be too late.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Prior Service

We were sitting at the hotel bar after a long day of product and sales training when the man limped in and sat a few stools away from us. He was older--in his sixties most likely--trim and fit, with a bit of grey hair left on his head and a well-kept goatee. He listened to us yammer on for a while and then, clearly lonely and looking for some conversation, he asked us where we were headed. My companions were native Angelenos, but I was on my way home to Tucson. He was from Nogales, and he decided that this was reason enough to strike up a conversation.

He yakked for a while about this and that, and we nodded politely and offered up just enough of a response to avoid being rude. Then the man mentioned something about Amsterdam, which prompted my colleage, Charles, to chime in with his own memories of that city. After the man had dropped a few more place names, Charles said, "you must be prior service." The man nodded and said he had been in the air force back in 1968. He had served in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Charles smiled and gave his own service history, and they proceeded to trade stories of the places they had been and the things they had seen. Interestingly, their anecdotes all centered on fun times and fun places--where they had gone on leave, where they had gone on vacation, times they had gotten in trouble (the kind of trouble you look back fondly upon). They did not say a word about what had brought them to those distant places in the world.

I knew a little of Charles' history. I knew he served during Desert Storm--in Desert Storm, in fact. But he doesn't talk about it much. Our new friend had obviously been involved in the Vietnam War, and while he did bring up the subject and did want to reach out and connect to a fellow veteran, the wars in which they fought remained a large elephant in the room.

Darrell and I looked on and occasionally nodded as they spoke. We had nothing to add.

After half an hour or so, Charles raised his beer glass and said, "Hey. Thank you for your service." The man nodded and raised his own glass. It was over. We retreated back to our inane conversation, and the stranger found a new conversation partner at the bar.

Sometimes you have access to conversations and people to whom you never had access before, and it makes you remember that the real world is neither a Hollywood movie nor a political pundit show on CNN. It makes you remember that people are very complicated--annoyingly complicated, perhaps--very hard to pin down, categorize, and therefore...dismiss. Sometimes you get to discover words like prior service--words that mean a whole world to some people, and nothing to you. You don't exactly get to break the code, but you do get to have a glimpse into someone else's universe. You get to remember that the people around you are not just extras in the movie of your life, but are real people, each one a main character in his or her own right, each one on a difficult journey that you will only ever get glimpses of.

It's an important and humbling thing to reminder.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Love is Not Love

....It is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.....

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Last Saturday was my wife's 40th birthday. She was expecting some kind of big party or event after having thrown me a wonderful surprise party for my own 40th birthday, four years ago. Obviously, I had to launch a campaign of disinformation and distraction to keep her off the trail. I told her all sorts of rot about how I couldn't do much for her, given time and money and so on. I don't think she believed any of it, but it kept her on her toes.

In the end, I whisked her off to New York City with no more than a few hours' notice for a weekend of food, fun, and friends she hadn't seen in almost a year. It was a great weekend, and she gave a good impression of someone who was truly surprised.

With all of the flights and train rides and cab rides, we found ourselves with more time alone --just the two of us--than we had had in almost seven years, since our older son was born. It ended up being one of the nicest parts of the trip.

At some point during one of those flights or rides, we fell into talking about LOVE and relationships and marriage and all that stuff: why it seems not to work so much of the time, for so many people, why it seemed to be working for us, why it hadn't worked for us way back when we first dated, back in the late 80s when she was in college and I was in grad school.

It's something I had given a lot of thought to, years ago when we first got back together, a mere three years after my divorce. I was loathe to rush into anything just then, and terrified of making all the same mistakes.

Here is what I figured out back then, and what I have tried to live by, ever since:

As a culture, we put way too much emphasis on Love, the noun. All we care about is the thing--whether we feel it for someone, whether the other person feels it for us--whether we're falling into it our out of it--oh, when is it going to happen to me? What's wrong with me? I just don't feel it.

What has gotten short shrift, I think, is Love, the verb. Love is action; it doesn't happen to you--you make it happen. Love isn't what you feel; love is what you do. Or don't do.

Viewed this way, it's much more empowering--and also puts a greater burden of responsibility on you. Because you can't just sit around waiting for it to magically happen to you...or moon about because it's suddenly, magically gone. If love is gone out of your relationship, it's because one of you has stopped loving. Actively loving. It didn't just "go.' One of you stopped.

After all, who can truly judge what any other person feels in his or her heart? And ultimately, who cares? It's really none of my business how my wife feels about me on any given day. How she feels about anything can change so often, it's crazy to try to keep track of it. And anyway, she's entitled to her the privacy of her feelings, as am I (this is why men are always driven crazy by girlfriends demanding to know WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? HOW ARE YOU FEELING?).

What matters is what we do for--or to--each other. Love is what I do in the relationship, from little things like buying her a coffee on my way home from dropping a kid off at school (instead of just getting one for myself), to big things like planning birthday parties, to huge things like changing careers to help provide for a family.

(So those guys who say, "you know I love you, baby" right after they've slugged their wives or girlfriends in the jaw...fuck them. No, they don't.)

Love is a choice you make, not a destiny that happens to you. You choose to love someone--really love them, over all others--and you act accordingly, regardless of how you might feel on any given day. Instead of sitting around wondering, "Is she the one?" you make her the one through your actions.

And that's where the magic is--not in the passive waiting for Something To Happen, but in the active making of something. You endow that other person with the Special One-ness that you're seeking, and she becomes the person worthy of that endowment. That other person--some fabulous, mysterious other--decides to love you--and that love--that active, day-to-day loving of you--changes you--makes you the one worthy of her love.

That's why we make wedding vows--and that's why wedding vows are different from saying, "hey, let's move in together." It's why folks on the conservative end of the political spectrum are often queasy about no-fault divorce laws--because choices like that are supposed to be serious choices, weighty choices, not so easy to dismiss or walk away from.

But that's a whole other discussion for...well, someone else's blog, probably.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Listen To What I Mean, Not What I Say

If I were more blog-savvy, I'd find the screen shot I want from last night's American Idol and post it here for you. But I'm not, and I can't, so I haven't.

What I wanted to post was a shot of an audience member proudly waving a sign that said something like:

"Blake, your #1."

Perhaps it said, "the best" instead of "#1," but it definitely, and without a doubt, said "your" instead of "you're." I rewound it and paused on it to be sure that there wasn't something hidden on the bottom of the sign, like the word "fan" or something. There wasn't.

It used to be that if you noticed and pointed out an error like that, you were considered a normally educated and reasonably literate person, and perhaps even a concerned citizen. These days, you're considered a pedant, an elitist, and, perhaps, an asshole.

I remember walking into a McDonald's near my apartment back in Brooklyn. There was a big banner on the wall with an egregious misspelling. I can't remember what it was. It may have been as bad as "Frys" instead of "Fries." At any rate, I pointed it out to someone who worked there--pleasantly, I thought. I said, "I know you guys don't make these things, but we're right next to a middle school, and it's terrible to have misspellings and bad grammar right where the kids are going to see it (every single day of their lives) and believe the mistake is correct."

I assumed I'd receive one of the following responses:

1. Thank you, sir. We'll fix that right away. (unlikely)
2. I'm calling Corporate right this second. This is an outrage! (highly unlikely)
3. Yeah, that's really embarrassing, but there's nothing I can do about it. We have to have it up on the wall or we get in trouble. (most likely)

Here's the response I received:

4. Fuck you.

I find the fuck you response really interesting. I'm pretty sure there was a time when store owners or employees would have been at least mildly embarrassed to discover a mistake in their signage. It looks bad. It makes you look bad. Nobody wants to look bad. But that time is gone. I think the dynamic has changed pretty dramatically. Being grammatically correct is now no longer a virtue--it's an actual vice. It smacks of effeteness, of elitism, of over-education. And anyone who actually cares about such things gets dismissed with a contemptuous Fuck You, if not pushed down a flight of stairs and called names.

I exaggerate. But not much. I've been in schools where teachers have posted on their bulletin boards examples of student work that are rife with errors. Uncorrected errors. I have conflicted feelings about that. Part of me feels that only error-free work should be displayed, and that students should be encouraged to keep working on something until it is right, rather than accepting less-than-right and a bad grade. In other words, everyone should be on the road to an A--the only differentiation is how long it takes to get there. The other part of me suspects this is unreasonable, and knows that students need to see their good work displayed, even if it isn't perfect. But why must that work be displayed as though it were perfect? Do we really want a classroom that is decorated with uncorrected errors? It's not shameful to have good-not-great work up on the board, with marks showing what you got wrong. I wouldn't want a D or F paper up there, but where's the shame in posting my A- or B work, with a few red marks on it? I can still be proud of that.

But no. The rules of self-esteem seem to demand that I be praised indiscriminately and without qualification, regardless of the quality of my work.

Has anyone stopped to think about how difficult this makes the teacher's job, when she tries to get kids to work harder, to revise and improve their work?

I hear people rant similarly about invented and cutesy spelling in text messages. I couldn't care less about text messages, and I have no problem with cutesy abbreviations. And I have no problem with kids talking or even writing using slang or street talk. But everyone should know when it's appropriate to switch over to standard English, and have the tools to do so. Not to have those tools and that knowledge is instantly to be denied access to certain parts of the world. It's fine for that McDonald's manager to say Fuck You to me--but that's why he's a McDonald's manager and won't get far beyond that world. Which is fine, if that's what he wants. But not so fine if he aspires to something different.

Being ignorant is no crime. Learning is an endless process, and everyone has some areas of ignorance. That's why being corrected shouldn't be embarrassing--it just helps you learn something new. But being wilfully and arrogantly ignorant....that seems to be me to be the New Bad Thing in the world.

Or maybe it's a very old bad thing.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Professionals

When I was a public school teacher, I bitched and complained just as much--and in all the same ways--as the school teachers I now have to deal with as a consultant. Every teacher who screams at me (though it's never really at me: "I don't mean to get angry at you--you're a nice guy--you seem to be a nice guy--but you don't understand what we have to deal with here...") could easily have been me...though I like to imagine I would have been more polite and diplomatic than most of the people I encounter.

The dissatisfactions and youjustdon'tunderstands that I hear aren't about pay, or working conditions, or things like that. They're almost always about how teachers feel that their autonomy and creativity are being taken away from them--that they are not being treated like professionals.

Well, that's interesting. I wasn't aware that autonomy and creativity were prerequisites for being a professional. Doctors and lawyers do have a certain amount of autonomy, I suppose, but I think they'd agree that they are expected to operate within very clear, definite, and universally accepted boundaries of Professional Behavior. They are held very accountable for what they do--to clients, to their professional organizations, and to the law. In fact, the professions they practice are so well defined that there is such a thing as malpractice, and they can be sued for it.

Imagine trying to sue a teacher for malpractice. Imagine finding a group of 10 teachers who could agree on a definition of what would constitute malpractice. They couldn't. Someone would always say, "But that's just the way I do it."

And that, right there, is the problem. To be a real profession, practitioners have to cede a certain amount of autonomy to their larger group to set clear boundaries for acceptable Professional Behavior. What are the protocols for how we do our job? What does right practice entail? How do we teach our future generations of practitioners, and then hold them accountable for their performance?

Well, we don't. There are no norms in teaching. Everything is up for debate (well...perhaps not beating the children. Perhaps), every position or point of view has advocacy somewhere, and no one is held accountable for anything. Every law school in this country teaches The Law. They may have their individual quirks, but they all teach The Law, their students all take The Bar (in whatever state they're in), and they can all practice law and be understood and accepted by graduates of any other law school in the country. Same thing in medicine. Once doctors are doctors, they are doctors. They've all learned their medicine; they've all taken their boards; they've all done their internships. You can mix and match them and do just fine. No one ever says, "Well, this is how I like to remove an appendix. Nurse, hand me that Xacto knife."

Try that with teachers. Take some Teacher's College or Bank Street graduates, mix them with graduates from some ed school in the Midwest, or maybe the South, and...well, who knows what might happen? They might agree; they might not. They might be able to teach together; they might not. You can't ever tell. And here's the thing: if they disagree--on any point in education or pedagogy (short of beating the children)--there is no independent authority who can arbitrate the disagreement. There is no answer. Everything is accepted by someone, so everything has to be treated as acceptable. This is why teachers can get away with saying, "You can't tell me what to teach," and "You can't tell me how to teach." You can't tell them anything. They are accountable to no one except themselves. Because it's personal, see?

And I was one of them. I know it. I just know that if I walked into a school today and had to deal with Younger Me, that little punk would say exactly the same thing. "No one can tell me what to teach!"

I'm sure I must have said it to someone, at some point. And it never occurred to me how idiotic it was--how insane. No one? No one can tell me what to do in my job? I alone--different from all other grown-ups with jobs in America--am beholden to no one? Accountable to no one? Free to do just whatever the hell I feel like doing? To other people's children? And all because I'm a teacher?

It's lunacy. It's abject lunacy. And the people who continue to spout it have no idea that they are the reason why No Child Left Behind happened--why it had to happen. They are the reason for state standards. Because teachers should be held accountable for what they teach and how they teach it--as much as lawyers or doctors, if not more. And when they have been held accountable, and are considered proficient practitioners in good standing, then fine--go be creative. Fight for some flexibility and autonomy. Because you've proved that you deserve it, and will handle it responsibly, and will not use it to the detriment of anyone's education. First pass the bar exam; then you can get away with making outrageous opening statements.

Accountability first. Then we'll talk.