Sunday, July 29, 2007

Walking Tour

I'm in New York for most of the coming week, training some new hires at our overstressed and understaffed company. Such is the state of things at the Home Office that they have to fly me in from Arizona to teach new folks what it is we do.

Here in New York, it's a cool and drizzly Sunday evening. I arrived at the hotel in Soho at about 6:00, though my body thought it was much earlier. After checking in and checking email, I set out for a stroll to find some dinner. The streets were filled with Bright Young Things from here and elsewhere--shopping, dining, chatting. Boys in their T-shirts, girls in their summer dresses, and all of them, everyone on the street, somehow, no more than 25 years old.

Every five minutes of my stroll, I passed something that brought a shock of memory to mind--a restaurant where I had lunch once with Dave, a secluded bar where I had martinis once with Mandy, a street where there was once (and perhaps still is) a wonderfully scummy diner in a converted trailer, where I had meatloaf once with Mike...back when they were all no more than 25.

I was never 25 in this city--I got here just as I was about to turn 30--but everyone I spent time with, and made theatre with, and suffered with--they were all around 25, and I got to pretend I was one of them for a time, even though I knew, always knew, deep down, that I wasn't really--partly because they were all Performers and I was the Writer, always hanging off to the side and watching.

And as I walked through the familiar, humid, redolent-of-summer-garbage streets, it wasn't just places that seemed familiar again--it was the people. Because hidden among the boys in their T-shirts and girls in their summer dresses were carbon copies of all of us, fourteen years ago--all the poets and artists and musicians and strivers we were back then, talking too loud and too fast, dreaming too big and too recklessly, flirting with each other and with the city, and sure that everything was going to turn out all right.

And it has turned out all right, hasn't it? It just hasn't turned out as expected.

Heading North on Lafayette and still not having found dinner, I decided to go to the Time Cafe, up above Houston. It was a place I used to go to with my grandmother, whenever we saw a play at the Public Theatre. More memories. But as I approached the familiar red umbrellas over the outside tables--deserted in the rain--I saw that the name of the restaurant, as etched in the windows, was different. It took me a while to read the new name, blind man that I am. When I got close, I realized that it was, in fact, no longer the Time Cafe. It was a Chinese barbecue place. I walked past it for a moment, then gave up and went inside. The decor was entirely different, but the basic architecture of the restaurant was the same, and I could see, in my mind's eye, the old Time Cafe as a shadow behind this new place.

The food was good, but the service was appallingly inept. For a moment, I smiled at the thought of calling my grandmother in Seattle and telling her what had become of our place. But then I remembered that she, too, was gone, and that I really was this city that used to be mine.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


If you have not watched the video in the post below, from Taylor Mali, watch it now before reading this piece. Go on—I’ll wait. Good. Now reflect on that last line of his, about teaching our children not only to question authority, but also to speak with it. What does that mean—to speak with authority? I know a lot of people who speak with conviction—even passion. But what does it mean to speak with authority? And a corrollary, since I was an English teacher: What does it mean to write with authority? I don’t mean to write with correct grammar or good sentence structure—though maybe I do, maybe that’s part of it. But what else is it? Do we know? Have we seen it recently enough to even recognize it?

Am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood and stained with pollution is wrong? No - I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply….What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. (Frederick Douglass)

Author is in the word authority. And there’s something about ownership in there, in the word—owning your mind, owning your opinion, being the complete and sole author of what you think and what you say. And to get to that point—to own those things to the extent that you have authority—firm enough legs to stand on that you actually have standing—requires something else: rigor. Rigor. One thinks of…what? Rigor mortis, perhaps? Of course, those of us in the education biz have immediate associations with the word rigor, and they’re usually unpleasant, as the word is most often used—or rather, its absence or apparent lack is most often used—as a criticism and attack on our practice. I was at a meeting in the great city of Chicago, Illinois, last year, when a district leader talked about how the public school system’s new curriculum was going to be rigorous. There were groans, sighs, and occasional howls of derision. And then one brave soul stood up and yelled, “What do you mean, rigorous? What does that even mean? Rigorous is the most over-used word in education. Nobody knows what it means!” One thing you can say about the world of public education: there are no boundaries when it comes to professional behavior. Anyone, at any level of the system, can say anything, in any tone of voice, to anyone else at any other level of the system. And they usually do. But back to rigor. What does it mean? Let’s move away from rigor mortis to another association—one that I think will yield some insight. When one thinks of the word rigorous in the context of Everyday Life, one might come up with the phrase “a rigorous workout.” We’ve all heard that, or said it. (I’ve found, over the past few years, that in order to understand a lot of issues in education, I have to leave that world entirely and come at the issue from an entirely different context. This is one of those times.) Now, we all have a pretty good sense of what we mean by a rigorous workout, and how it’s different from a non-rigorous workout. You might say, “a rigorous workout is intense,” or, “a rigorous workout makes you sweat.” And those are on the right path. Let’s extend it a bit. Make it more than a single event. What is a rigorous workout regimen? I would suggest that the sign of a rigorous course or plan of exercise is that your health and your body are clearly and unmistakably altered. A rigorous workout regimen changes you. And a course of exercise that is less than rigorous leaves you more or less the same. It does not tax you; it does not challenge you. It may make you sweat, from time to time, but it will not make you different. Now, any gym rat will tell you that there are different types of physical training. There is strength training, which builds muscle and does visibly change your body. And there is flexibility training, which may not build muscle mass, but builds ability inside your body—ability to use and manage and control your muscles in a variety of ways. A good workout regimen requires the building of both strength and flexibility. Is the development of the mind any different, really? When we educate our children—when we do it well—don’t we aim for both strength of mind (deep and broad knowledge) and flexibility of mind (the ability to deploy that knowledge in a variety of contexts, for a variety of purposes)? Isn’t this combination exactly what we want to equip our children with when we send them out into the world—in the hopes that when these two areas of mental discipline are applied to Experience—or, perhaps, when Experience smashes itself up against their minds—the result, eventually, will be Wisdom? Have we, as educators, grimaced at and shied away from words like rigor precisely because they carry with them this association of training? I remember a teacher friend of mine recoiling when I said something about my then 2-year-old son and used the word “training.” He thought that I was treating my child like a dog. Animals are trained; children are…well, I wasn’t sure what word he would have preferred. Loved, perhaps. And yes, of course. God knows I loved my son. But part of the way I showed my love—and exercised my responsibility as a parent—was to prepare my son for the world…step by step, bit by bit. And the T-word isn’t always verboten—children can be potty-trained without anyone getting snooty. But they can’t be life-trained? Who are we kidding? When I lived in Brooklyn, I trained my son not to run out into the street. I didn’t suggest it to him rationally, or…I don’t know…love him into it. I trained him to stay on the sidewalk, and to stop at the red light. You better believe I did. His life depended on it. Why can’t Johnny read? Well, maybe it’s because we’ve tried to love him into reading instead of training him to read. It is, after all, a discipline. A discipline requires training—rigorous training. It simply does. Why has our thinking in education become so mushy, so rainbows-and-puppy-dogs? Learning isn’t always rainbows and puppy dogs. Sometimes it’s hard. Maybe some children are failing at it because we’re not being honest about what it truly takes to succeed at it. My son, now 7, is taking Karate classes. Karate is very disciplined, and requires patient and regular training. The mind and body must learn the moves and then be able to stop thinking about the moves—to simply own them, and use them in the split second in which they are needed. Little by little, I see my little boy gaining confidence as he gains ability and as he gains control. The knowledge of what to do and the ability to do it well are combining to give him a completely different kind of strength—a knowledge that he possesses something of power and importance, and is in full control of it. This strength of ownership, I think, is what we call authority. Don’t get me wrong—he’s still a silly, funny, wonderful goofball of a 7-year-old, and I wouldn’t have him any other way. But this growing sense of authority, of self-control, is an important thing. It is what may allow him, as a teen and as an adult, to feel that he is living his life, rather than having his life live him. We talk about freedom pretty recklessly in this country, thinking that it’s the same thing as license, or abandon, when it is actually quite the opposite. The person living a life of reckless abandon is a slave to passion and appetite, and a slave is never free. To be truly free means to have mastered all the forces, internal and external, that seek to exert mastery over you. Until you have that measure of self-control, you can never be free. And a man who is not in control of himself may be reckless and dangerous, but he is no real threat to Power. To speak with authority, then, is much more than speaking with conviction. After all, it’s easy to have convictions, lots of convictions, poorly considered and unearned, sometimes even contradictory. We are thin reeds, swayed this way and that way by strong opinions that convince us of things we do not understand, but feel passionately about. We live in an age where facts are fungible and feelings rule—where leadership is demonstrated by conviction and swagger, while actually knowing things, or having skills that required rigor and discipline to attain, is mocked. To speak with authority is to be the great oak, not the thin reed. And yes, the great oak cracks in the wind, because a lot of hot air is marshalled against great oaks. We tear them down as fast as we can because they are a rebuke to those of us who blow in the wind—and a threat to those who want to control the weather. To be passionately convinced is to serve your ideas, to be owned by them. To have authority is to be served by your ideas—to put them to use for yourself and your people—to own them. You don’t have to be afraid to follow someone who speaks with authority, worried that they’re going to lead you down a dark path into trouble—because the person with real authority has already been down that path, and has come back to report what lies ahead. The person who only has conviction believes he knows what’s on the path ahead without ever having been there. The person with conviction says “Trust me!” When someone speaks with real authority, he doesn’t much care whether you trust him or not. He’s not in the business of convincing, or swaying, or winning you over. He is simply sharing what he knows. He says, “I have the right to say this, because I Know. I have wondered, become convinced, tested those convictions, doubted those convictions, revised and reshaped them, burned them in the crucible of logic and reality, perhaps been burned or humiliated, and now I can say Yes, I know.” When you were little, perhaps you felt this way about a parent. And then, in your teens or twenties, the idol turned out to have feet of clay. Daddy was flawed; Mommy was wrong. They weren’t perfect, so they never really had anything to tell us. Authority was a trick. It was bullshit. Never trust anyone over thirty. And so on. But when I think of authority, I think of the later relationship, when you get over your feelings of betrayal and come to know your parents as people, rather than figures, and can read in their eyes and in their voices the long years of experience, of trial and error, of mistakes and regrets. And it’s then, I think, that you can come to treasure them as people who speak with authority, people who have been down the road you still have yet to walk. It’s then that they become your tribal elders. And I’m afraid all of this ends with a sputter here—with a whimper instead of a bang. Because what I’m left with, after spooling out this long thread of thought, is just this: Who speaks with authority now?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Johnny Won't Read

From the USA Today:

NEW YORK (AP) — The reading of books is on the decline in America, despite Harry Potter and the best efforts of Oprah Winfrey.

A report released Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts says the number of non-reading adults increased by more than 17 million between 1992 and 2002.

Only 47% of American adults read "literature" (poems, plays, narrative fiction) in 2002, a drop of 7 points from a decade earlier. Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57%, down from 61%.

NEA chairman Dana Gioia, himself a poet, called the findings shocking and a reason for grave concern. "We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers," Gioia said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This isn't a case of 'Johnny Can't Read,' but 'Johnny Won't Read.'"

Well, and why should they? Who has ever made the case to them, past the age of 10, that reading literature is important? Reading email, sure. Reading USA Today, maybe. Reading US Weekly, absolutely. But literature?

As long as language arts teachers are teaching books instead of concepts, teaching literature qua literature ("I teach this book because I love it, and therefore you will love it too") instead of literature as a lens through which to see the world, grapple with its Big Questions, and figure out who you are and what you believe, then students will continue to drop literature as soon as they're done with school, picking up a novel as adults only if it's in paperback, only if it's drenched in sex and violence, and only if they need something to occupy themselves on an airplane or at the beach (once they're done with US Weekly, of course).

Instead of blaming our citizenry for not valuing the Right Things, as we are wont to do, perhaps we should be blaming ourselves, as educators and parents--and consumers of popular culture--for not caring enough about those supposedly Right Things to teach them to our children and value them ourselves.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


What does accountability mean in teaching, and why are so many teachers afraid of it?

I have a feeling that what teachers are afraid of--what they fight against with whatever limited powers they have--is what passes for accountability in the schools, not what real accountability would look like. Real accountability pushes everyone in a system to work their hardest and do their best, rewarding people who do so and removing people who don't.

Here's how I'm held accountable in the business world: I have a manager who assigns work to me. If I don't do that work, or do it in a way the manager considers sub-standard, or ignore his assignment and do what I feel like doing instead, I get fired. Plain and simple. Oh, sure, it might take a while--he might need to establish a paper trail, a history of lousy performance, just to make the HR department feel safe about the firing. But it doesn't have to take years.

How do I know this? Because I've had to do it, myself, for people working under me. And why would I be so vicious and cruel? Because my performance for my managers depends on my staff's performance for me. And my managers are in the same position with their managers, all the way up to the chairman of the parent company.

And it doesn't go only in one direction. With those kinds of stakes attached to accountability, I can't just roll my eyes and close my office door if I have a lousy or incompetent manager. A bad manager threatens everyone up and down the chain. If I'm not getting what I need, I have to challenge that person (in a professional manner, of course) to give me what I need, so that I can give him what he needs.

Does that happen in schools? Far from it. Where principals view themselves as building managers more than instructional leaders, teachers are left alone to do whatever they think is right. For years--generations, really--teachers have known that, when push comes to shove, they can always close their doors and be Free. And they've come to view that as their birthright, not seeing how damaging and isolating it ultimately is. Their opinions about their practice are never tested, never challenged, never compared to anyone else's. If their practice leads to great student performance, they aren't rewarded. If their practice leads to lousy student performance, they aren't punished, warned, or helped to improve. The only way for one teacher to make more money than any other teacher to is to outlast her. Seniority uber alles.

Some principals do get involved in instruction. But what tools do they have to hold teachers accountable for following whatever plan they put in place? Very few. It's nearly impossible to fire a public school teacher. It takes years, and tons of paperwork, and most principals prefer to give them satisfactory evaluations and move them into non-threatening positions in the school. And if those teachers decide to transfer elsewhere, principals often have little or no control over who may come in to take their place. They can't build their own team, and they can barely manage their own team. Their hands are tied a hundred different ways.

In many cases, principals can't even mandate that teachers attend professional development sessions. I've worked in one district where the teacher's contract stipulated that they would get paid double-time for any sessions labeled mandatory. "You can train me, but it's gonna cost you double." Nice.

And who are principals accountable to? Their superintendent. In what ways? Generally, through end-of-year test scores. That means that the supe can judge a school once, come summertime. Along the way, of course, there are all sorts of anecdotal ways of seeing what's going on--behavior problems and police incidents, maybe a science fair or art festival. But unless there is real student performance data tied to the curriculum, available at regular intervals throughout the year, it's hard for any supe to really see what's going on in terms of teaching and learning.

And, of course, if there is no district-wide curriculum, there's no way in hell that a supe can know what's going on in his 50-60-plus schools. Even if he can dig up some data, every school is a completely different place, and every teacher is an independent contractor. The data is meaningless.

Who is the superintendent accountable to? The school board--often elected--usually made up of parents, business people, and other non-education-professionals. They may or may not understand the educational and pedagogical issues at hand. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don't. Sometimes they invest their supe with real authority; sometimes they don't. One way or another, by quitting or being thrown out, superintendents across the country tend not to stay in a position for more than 3-5 years.

So to what extent is a principal or teacher going to feel compelled to change what they do, when they know they're going to outlast the superintendent?

And who is the board accountable to? The public that votes for them--which includes the teachers and the parents.

So to what extent is a board going to go out on a limb to radically change what's going on, when the very people they need to hold to account--against their will--are the ones who can vote them out of office?

In no meaningful or effective way can any of us hold any of the rest of us accountable for what we're doing for--or to--students.

Which is a large part of the reason why nothing ever changes.


By Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Public Schools will drop "public" from its name and adopt a new, standardized way of referring to its schools as part of a campaign to brighten and strengthen the district's image.

For example, Schenley High School will be called Pittsburgh Schenley.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's staff unveiled the policy at a school board Education Committee meeting last night.

Under the policy, the district simply will call itself the "Pittsburgh Schools." The district's logo -- a pattern of circles, triangles and squares -- will still be used.

But the district also will begin using "Excellence for All," the name of its sweeping academic-improvement plan, on all stationery and other written materials. "Excellence for All" has its own logo with a gold swirl and star.

Think about the money that's going to have to be spent on changing signs in schools, changing letterhead on stationery, changing the district website, and so on. And all for...what, exactly? To remove the eeeevil word Public? To force all schools to identify themselves as part of the city, because they now have Pittsburgh in their name?

Talk about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Birthday not for several months, yet. But The Wife has "tagged" me with this birthday thing, so I'm complying by providing info here. But I'm not tagging others, because, frankly, I don't know any other bloggers personally, beyond The Wife and Her Sister.

Two memorable events taking place on October 10:
680 - Battle of Karbala: Shia Imam Husayn bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was decapitated by forces under Caliph Yazid I. This is commemorated by Shi'a Muslims as Aashurah.
1966 - Simon and Garfunkel release the album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

And three birthdays, besides mine:
1930 - Harold Pinter, English playwright, Nobel laureate
1946 - Ben Vereen, American actor
1963 - Daniel Pearl, American journalist (d. 2002)

How Underwear Led to Literacy

From Steve Higgins at OmniBrain:

Everyone thinks the printing press led to increased literacy among the average man in the middle ages, but that just might not be the case. Dr Marco Mostert a historian from Utrecht University is instead suggesting that the availability of cheap paper was the main reason more reading material became available. While this isn't surprising the source of the new cheap paper is. It seems that, according to Dr. Mostert,

"These rags came from discarded clothes, which cost much less than the very expensive parchment which was previously used for books. In the 13th century, so it is thought, as more people moved into urban centres, the use of underwear increased --which caused an increase in the number of rags available for paper-making."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Shocked, Shocked!

What's all this breast-beating and rending-of-clothes about the Scooter Libby commutation? I don't get it. All of sudden, seven years in, people are sonorously intoning about how this is a "nation of laws, not of men." Says who? What did George Bush do this week that he hasn't been doing, pretty consistently, his whole life?

He didn't want to go to war? Fine--he used his Special Privilege to get in the national guard.
He didn't like the national guard? Fine--he used his Special Privilege to Not Show Up.
He couldn't find a job? Fine--he used his Special Privilege to get an oil company.
He couldn't handle that job? Fine--he used his Special Privilege to unload it and buy a baseball team.

On and on it goes, stumbling Candide-like though a life cushioned and protected nearly as much as Prince Charles'. Every event of his biography seems to teach him the same lesson: You Are Not Like Them. The Rules Were Not Made For You. Whatever you want to do, Georgie-boy, you just go ahead and do it. You and your special friends. The world is your playground. The help can clean up after you; that's what they're there for.

In the original debates with Al Gore, he made it clear that he judged his life and his morality not by his actions, but by his feelings about himself: I'm a good man because I think I am.

And by extension, of course: my hideous charnel-house of a "war" is justified because I believe in it.

His family, his home state of Texas, and now his whole country has let him get away with this crap for 50-odd years. And all of a sudden, now, we're going to notice and get upset?