Friday, November 2, 2012

Election Day: Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Originally published by Catapult Learning, LLC, at:

Then tell me, O Critias, how will a man choose the ruler that shall rule over him? Will he not choose a man who has first established order in himself, knowing that any decision that has its spring from anger or pride or vanity can be multiplied a thousand fold in its effects upon the citizens?

Plato, Critias

Whenever Election Day comes around, I try to step back from the partisan craziness for a second and think about the strange legacy that has been bequeathed to us. Nothing about the system we now take for granted was a sure thing when the Founders put the pieces in place. When John Adams handed power to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 without violence or incident, it was as remarkable an event in the history of self-rule as the American Revolution had been. The people voted one party out and another party in, and the rulers complied peaceably. The blueprint turned out to be more than clever; it worked.

Of course, not everybody got to vote back then. Only men were deemed knowledgeable and responsible enough to participate in the democratic experiment. Men over 21, that is. White men over 21…who owned property. John Adams, who fought so passionately to liberate the colonies from British rule, felt that women, children, and the poor were too dependent on others for their food, shelter, and other essentials to be able to cast a responsible vote. His friend, Benjamin Franklin, disagreed. He imagined a man who owned nothing but a jackass and was therefore entitled to vote, but who lost his voting rights when the animal eventually died. The man had lost his property but had gained in knowledge and experience over the years. According to the law, it didn’t matter. “In whom is the right of suffrage?” Franklin asked. “In the man or in the jackass?”

But times have changed. We no longer believe that a person has to be wise, wealthy, or well-educated in order to cast a vote. And everybody approaches their civic duty differently. Some of us read newspapers obsessively, trying to be well-informed on the issues; some of us respond to candidates more viscerally, looking for a leader who possesses the personal and moral virtues needed to guide us through difficult times; some of us just vote a party ticket; and some of us don’t vote at all. All of us are susceptible to lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations. It’s very difficult to know enough to cast a perfectly wise vote. Perhaps all we can do is know what kinds of questions to ask, and how to evaluate the answers we get back.

I say “all we can do,” but it’s an awful lot to ask. How can we know what kinds of questions to ask in order to learn the things that will truly reveal a candidate to us—especially when candidates are trained to avoid saying anything too revealing? A social studies teacher might tell you that you need to have a deep and thorough understanding of American history and the structure of American government—to know where we have been and how we got here. A math teacher might tell you that you need to understand statistics thoroughly and comfortably in order to pose the right questions about data claims being made by campaigns. An English teacher might tell you to examine what a candidate says and how he says it—to question the rhetoric and evaluate the arguments. A science teacher might tell you that no promise a candidate makes can be taken as valid without it first being tested methodically.

Asking questions—the right questions—lies at the heart of learning, but we don’t talk nearly enough in our schools about the importance of questioning. We talk about the need to wait more than three seconds for a student to answer a question, but we don’t spend much time talking about the quality of the questions we’re asking, or what we do with the responses. And we don’t spend much time training students to ask better questions themselves…or encouraging them to want to.

At a recent conference on online learning, a speaker and author named Chic Thompson talked about the importance of asking great questions in school and in life. He pointed out that we tend to ask fewer and fewer questions as our life progresses, moving from a childhood defined by question-marks to an adulthood defined by periods. We take things for granted. We say, “It is what it is.” We shrug.

But can we afford that shrug? It is Election Day, after all—decision day—a day to make a choice. I know it’s easy to feel as though the choice one is asked to make is small, or futile, or unimportant. But it’s still a choice, and if we choose not to choose, we allow others to dictate our life to us. Which is not exactly what the Founders had it mind.

I wonder, sometimes, what possessed Thomas Jefferson to change John Locke’s formulation of “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when listing our most valuable and essential rights in the Declaration of Independence. It’s such a strange formulation: the pursuit of happiness. What on earth did he mean by it? He didn’t say, “Life, liberty, and happiness.” He wasn’t saying we were promised or guaranteed happiness itself. No. He said we had a right to the pursuit—a right to the chase—a right no government should be permitted to remove or repress.

Jefferson probably didn’t think of happiness the way we so often do, in fleeting and transitory terms. The leaves change color and the weather gets cooler, so I’m happy. Or: I wanted ice cream and I got ice cream, so I’m happy. That’s a very appetitive, maybe even animalistic way of thinking of happiness: I get what I want in the moment that I want it. I scratch an itch. That’s the way advertising has taught us to think of happiness, but there is something more to the word, especially as a classically educated man of the 18th century would have thought of it. To Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, the word happiness meant something more like the fulfillment of one’s life-work and the realization of one’s potential. Seen this way, “the pursuit of happiness” is not about getting the ice cream cone on a hot day; it’s about following your passion, chasing your dream, and becoming the person you want to be instead of the person your social class, gender, or economic background has told you you’re allowed to be.

Jefferson understood that it wasn’t enough simply to possess rights. He knew that without an understanding and an appreciation of those rights, people would eventually lose them. They would satisfy immediate appetites instead of delaying gratification and planning towards long-range goals. They would lose sight of the value of their liberty and sell it too cheaply. And he understood that the best protection against this fate was education. In his plans for the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson laid out a remarkably succinct list of “Goals for Public Education,” including (at the primary level):

 to give every citizen the information he needs to transact his business…
 to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas…
 to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either…
 to know his rights…
 to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth…
 to form [our youth] to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, 1818

It’s clear from the list that Jefferson felt education had to be about more than simply fulfilling personal goals or storing up academic knowledge. Jefferson talked about raising young people to be “examples of virtue to others” as well as “happiness within themselves,” and while both things are important, we have decided that public education is not the place to discuss things like “virtue,” or “duties to neighbors and country.” Those things are best taught at home, or as part of religious studies. In the separation of church and state, we have removed ideas like virtue and duty from schooling.

And yet, the things we do teach in school—the story of our quest for freedom; the stories of our search for knowledge and know-how; the various real and imagined stories we’ve told ourselves through the centuries—none of this is devoid of values, virtues, or a sense of public duty, whether rightly or wrongly understood. The things we have decided are worthy of study are not just dry facts—they are visceral parts of human history, tied to our passions, our dreams, and our fears. That is what makes them worthy of study. That is what makes them matter.

HENRY: I’m not going to be a part of any peacetime of yours. I’m going a long way from here and make my own world that’s fit for a man to live in. Where a man can be free, and have a chance, and do what he wants to do in his own way.
ANTROBUS: How can you make a world for people to live in, unless you’ve first put order in yourself? Mark my words: I shall continue fighting you until my last breath as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself. You and I want the same thing; but until you think of it as something that everyone has a right to, you are my deadly enemy and I will destroy you.
Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth

I think about this Thornton Wilder quote and Mr. Antrobus’s challenge to his wild, out-of-control son: “I shall continue fighting you until my last breath as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself.” There is a difference between liberty and license, and it’s not one we talk about nearly enough with our young people. Liberty comes loaded down with obligations. You buy your personal freedom with civilized behavior that makes an un-oppressive, unrestricted public space possible. A school, town, or nation that becomes nothing more than a bunch of people “hogging everything” is a group of people living completely out of control—a group of people that will soon be at each other’s throats. It will not take long before they turn to some strongman, some king, in order to restore order and protect themselves from their own limitless and barbarous appetites.

And what is it that protects us from this “state of nature,” as Hobbes called it, and allows us think about things beyond saving our skin? What is it that balances our appetites with a sense of civic obligation and helps us see a horizon beyond our own hunger? What is it that makes the pursuit of happiness possible? For Hobbes, it was a supreme and all-powerful ruler. For Jefferson, it was a different kind of social contract, bound by law and made possible by education. It was, as it turns out, all that stuff in our books.

At the end of Wilder’s play, amidst the ruins of war, Mr. Antrobus, the eternal survivor and world-builder, takes his books out of hiding and listens again to the wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, and the Book of Genesis. He takes heart and takes hope, and he starts repairing his broken world. He makes a choice not to give up.

We make choices every day—hundreds of times every day. What are they informed by? What voices whisper in our ears and help us decide what to do? Do the choices we make add to or detract from our personal and civic happiness? These are important questions, and ones that our world-weary and cynical shrugs stop us from asking. We do damage to our children by letting them see us shrug or hear us say, “It is what it is.” We have an obligation to say, “What it is?” and “Why is it?” and “How could it be different?” We need to ask those questions and we need to teach our students to ask them, and to keep on asking them until they’re satisfied with the answers we give them…even if it pulls us away from our lesson plans. Because the pursuit of happiness was our first common core standard, and it will always be our most important one.

Happy Election Day.

Monday, October 8, 2012

If You Build It, They Will Come: The Importance of School Structure

This post was originally published on the Catapult Learning site, at:

"There are several ways," Dr. Breed said to me, "in which certain liquids can crystallize--can freeze--several ways in which their atoms can stack and lock in an orderly, rigid way." That old man with spotted hands invited me to think of the several ways in which cannonballs might be stacked on a courthouse lawn, of the several ways in which oranges might be packed into a crate. "So it is with atoms in crystals, too; and two different crystals of the same substance can have quite different physical properties…."

"Now think about cannonballs on a courthouse lawn or about oranges in a crate again," he suggested. And he helped me to see that the pattern of the bottom layers of cannonballs or of oranges determined how each subsequent layer would stack and lock. "The bottom layer is the seed of how every cannonball or every orange that comes after is going to behave, even to an infinite number of cannonballs or oranges."
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

My teaching career began in a small high school for students who had dropped out or been kicked out of a variety of public and private schools. Some of the students had severe learning disabilities. Some of the students were grappling with drug addiction. Some of them had been in trouble with the law. We had ”rednecks,” “preppies,” “stoners,” “Goths,” and less-easily defined outcasts. The only thing the students had in common was the fact that traditional schooling had not worked for them.

The building looked nothing like a school. It was a small, tastefully decorated house near a college campus with big work tables in every room. Students arrived in the morning, met with their advisors, and made a plan for the day based on monthly and semester-long plans that had been created earlier. There was no such thing as “seat time” at this school; there was a list of graduation requirements, and students worked their way through them in their own way, at their own pace. Students were free to work wherever they liked, including outside in the garden. They were free to go into the kitchen and get a bagel or a cup of coffee when they were hungry.

The school ran on a handful of rules, including “no fighting” and “don’t let the cats outside.” Given the track records of the students, one would have assumed that fighting, vandalism, and other bad behavior would be serious issues, at least among the newer students. But in the four years I taught there, this was never the case. There was never any fighting. There was never any vandalism. Not one incident, ever. Whatever bad behavior these students had exhibited in other schools, it never manifested itself within our walls. The students did not require an adjustment period. They adapted themselves to their new environment in the blink of an eye. Apparently, once they no longer needed to lash out a world that didn’t fit them, they stopped lashing out.

I have no doubt that if we had taken one of those students back to his old school, he would have reverted back to his old ways just as quickly, and with just as little thought. We humans are an amazingly adaptable species. We have migrated to every corner of the globe and have adapted ourselves to every conceivable type of environment, from mountains to plains, from tundra to desert. And we have not simply managed to survive in different environments; we have thrived in them.

There seems to be something within us—something deep, in an ancient place in our brains—that helps us understand new environments and adapt to them quickly. It seems to be something deeper and more primal than reason or logic. It just happens. We see new opportunities and new challenges, and we act upon them. It may be what we do best.

When I think about my old school and I let my mind spin out crazy thoughts about the human race, it makes me wonder if setting higher academic standards for students and new professional expectations for teachers are enough to make real change occur. If we are hard-wired to fit ourselves into whatever environment we find ourselves in and do whatever is necessary to succeed and, then new ideas grafted onto old structures may be doomed to failure. The structure of our environment may be the “seed” that determines the structure and behavior of everything that “stacks and locks” on top of it, from the way students act to the way teachers behave.

Our schools were not designed randomly or arbitrarily. The structure of American public schooling was thoughtful and deliberate. Its original goal, back in the 1800s, was the homogenization of an increasingly diverse population of immigrants, so that young adults would be employable, manageable, and able to fit reasonably comfortably into the larger, white, and Protestant society. We can decry the fact that we “batch process” children in our schools (to use Sir Ken Robinson’s phrase), but it is no accident that we do so. The machine was built with a particular end in mind, and it is an excellent and productive machine… as long as you want what it produces.

In industry, it would seem obvious that an engineer cannot demand or expect a different end product unless he first retools the machine that produces the product. And yet, our expectations of American schools change radically from decade to decade without most of us feeling the need to “retool” those machines from the inside out. We may tinker around the edges, but the guts of the machine remain essentially unchanged.

This may explain, at least to some degree, why sustaining educational reforms is so difficult. Using Mr. Vonnegut’s imagery instead of my factory metaphor, imagine trying to stack oranges in a different pattern half-way through a crate. A pattern has already been established. Several layers of oranges are sitting there in the crate. But you want all the new levels to be stacked differently. Can you do it? Of course you can do it—you can do anything through brute force. But the minute you take your hands off those top layers, what’s going to happen? All of the top-level oranges will slide back into the original pattern.

Early this morning, I went with my wife to our local middle school to meet with my son’s counselor and academic team. School has been in session for about five weeks, and my son, new to the world of junior high school, has been having some trouble. His core teachers sat around a table with us and shared anecdotes about his performance in class, and we strategized together about how best to help him. I was surprised and pleased to see how well they worked together, how well each of them knew my son, and how “on the same page” they were. I was surprised and pleased by the whole event, and it struck me that nothing like this had ever happened when I was in junior high school. Nor had it happened in any of the schools I taught in… except for my first school.

Looking around the office, I noticed a large whiteboard listing the schedules of all of the school’s teachers, and I saw that discrete teams of teachers taught discrete groups or “houses” of students, and that teachers had quite a lot of individual planning time built into their schedules, as well as time to meet together as professional learning communities. The structure of their day was very different from the structure of the days I spent as a classroom teacher, and the structure within which they worked facilitated the expectations that were being set by the school leaders. The teachers knew their students well. They knew each other well. They worked—all day long—as a team, focused on a particular group of students. And they did so not because they happened to be nice people, or dedicated people, or even wise people. They did so because it was built in.

Every machine is perfect. Every machine delivers exactly what it was built to deliver. If we do not like what we’re seeing at the end of the production process, we can certainly yell at the machine (if it makes us feel any better). We can harass and insult the engineers (who were hired to build and maintain exactly what is sitting in front of them). But neither of those things will change what comes down the assembly line, year after year. The pattern has been set.

The mad scientist in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel was right. If you want a different stack of oranges, you have to start at the ground level and change the pattern in which they’ve been arranged. If we want a different set of schools, or teachers, or students, we may have to do the same thing and work from the ground up. Change the “seed” and you change the pattern. Change the pattern and you change everything.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Transitioning and Teaching: The Common Core State Standards and Math

This post was originally published on the Catapult Learning site, at

The meeting room was generic. The hotel could have been anywhere. I had to wonder how many people had cycled in and out of that room over the years, staring at PowerPoint slides that someone had thought would change the world. Thousands, probably. I had certainly been one of those people—drinking bad coffee, sucking on hard candies, wondering when lunch was going to be served. Today, though, I was the presenter… and lunch had long since come and gone.

I looked out at the sea of faces in front of me. Eyes were shifting back and forth between me and the math problem on the screen. It was a sample test item prepared by one of the two consortia developing assessments for the Common Core State Standards, and as the eyes shifted back to me I could see alarm and confusion in them.

“The first part of the problem you can do through brute force, right?” I said. “Just basic computation. But then where are you? What do you do with this second part?” I pointed to the bottom of the screen.

The second part of the problem asked students to decide whether or not the equation in the question could yield more than one correct answer. If students thought there might be a second answer, they could click on a button and be given a place to enter that answer. If they thought there was no second possible answer, they could click a different button and proceed to the next question. There were no clues for the student as to which button they should click. The choice was entirely theirs to make.

“See, they don’t just want you to solve the problem,” I said. “They’re trying to find ways to make you show that you understand it…how it works, what makes it tick, and what you can do with it.”

It’s always funny when I have to talk about math, because I was always bad at math. It was something I just accepted about myself, and no one ever challenged the idea—not teachers, not parents, and certainly not me. No one ever said, “We can’t allow you to be bad at math any more than we can allow you to be bad at reading.” And no one ever tried to figure out what, exactly, I was bad at. I learned the procedures and formulas, I plugged in the numbers as best I could, and sometimes things worked. I never really understood why some questions came out right and some didn’t. At some level I knew what to do, but at a deeper level I had no idea what I was doing.

When I look at the way the Common Core State Standards in math have been written and the “instructional shifts” that lie at the heart of the transition to these new standards, I feel as though they have been written with my old student self in mind. Someone out there wants children to understand math at a conceptual level and to be comfortable speaking it like a language. Someone out there wants children to be able to see patterns, draw conclusions, make generalizations, and transfer academic content knowledge out of the textbook and into the messy, unpredictable world around them. Someone wants students to be able to lift the hood, peer down into the engine, and know what it is they’re looking at.

Of course, these aren’t new ideas. Lynn Erikson wrote about concept-based curriculum and instruction back in 2002. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote about teaching for understanding back in 2005. And they are far from alone. Many people have sat in hotel conference rooms, looking at PowerPoint slides and listening to presentations about these issues. We go to conferences, we read books, and we return to our classrooms, often finding it challenging just to teach the most basic skills to our students. There is so little time available. There are so many students to be served. There are so many different needs to be met.

The transition to the new standards is meant to be gradual and it has to be gradual, because changing a standard doesn’t automatically mean that someone can meet it. A high jumper doesn’t become a better athlete just because the coach raises the bar. It’s fine to change our expectations, but we need to talk about what it takes to meet those expectations and then put a plan in place for getting there. What will the athlete need to do differently in order to jump higher? What will the coach need to do differently in order to train the athlete to do those things? How long will it take, under a reasonable training regimen, to get there?

And there’s another question the coach must ask when it feels as though an athlete can’t push through to the next level of performance: is it her or is it me? Is she truly performing at the outer limit of her capacity, or could she go further with the right kind of help? Am I the one who is limited? Could I be doing more? These are very uncomfortable questions to ask, but real change and growth are impossible without them.

If student performance is what we care about, we have to ask ourselves those questions. Wiggins and McTighe talked about backwards planning—starting with the goal in mind—when designing curriculum, but it’s clear we need to think about backwards planning when it comes to our pedagogy and instructional practice as well. A standards crosswalk can help us pinpoint gaps and challenges in what we have been teaching. But we also need a crosswalk focused on how we teach. Given the new standards and the instructional shifts required to meet them, where are our current approaches sufficient? Where will they need to change? What help will we need to bridge the gaps we might be facing?

This is not something that can be mandated by administrators or purchased in pre-packaged sets. This is work that academic departments and professional learning communities need to undertake together, working in honest, authentic (and safe) dialogue.

We cannot ask our students to change, grow, and excel if we, as their coaches, are complacent about our own performance. This is the best modeling we can do for our students. We need to show them, in the way we live out our practice, that we can all do better, that we can all use some help, and that learning never ends.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Back to School: The End of the Silly Season

(originally published at

In Washington, where I live, the summer months are often called the “silly season,” the time when logic flies out the window and the news media focus (more than they usually do) on the frivolous and the outrageous. During a presidential election year, the silly season becomes a time of alarmist rhetoric, full of dire warnings and exaggerated accusations. Candidates and their surrogates say horrendous things about their opponents. It would all qualify as silly if so many people weren’t willing to accept and believe the absolute worst about those with whom they disagree.

This is not just a political issue. In many aspects of our lives, we tend to favor information that confirms what we already believe or suspect to be true. This is called a confirmation bias, and it affects our ability to weigh new information objectively and make rational decisions based on data. There is an old saying that you are entitled to your own opinions but you’re not entitled to your own facts, but this turns out not to be true. Increasingly in our fragmented culture, we do have our own facts. It becomes easier and easier to avoid seeing or hearing anything that would challenge our preconceived notions.

It would be nice to believe that this kind of thinking does not affect us in our professional lives as educators—that we are able to embrace “data-driven instruction” when it comes to our students and “life-long learning” when it comes to our own practice. But I suspect the confirmation bias plays its role with us as well. Are we too easily certain that the instructional decisions we make are the soundest and wisest ones—that the strategies we employ are the most effective, and that the activities in which we engage our students are the most productive? How strongly do we believe in own expertise, even though it is shielded from outside view and tested rarely, if ever, against outside metrics? How often do we allow ourselves to say, “I need to learn a different way?”

In a recent research study on differentiated instruction, I discovered that isolation can breed not only stagnation, but also complacency. The teachers I interviewed who liked the isolation of the classroom tended not to question or challenge their own practice. They resisted or scorned professional development. They found classroom observations to be a waste of time. They knew what they knew, and they did what they did, and it was all Good Enough. They deliberately avoided seeing or hearing anything that might challenge their comfortable vision of themselves as proficient practitioners.

On the other hand, those teachers who reached out to collaborate with peers or participate in informal classroom observations proved much more flexible and adaptable in their practice—much more willing to experiment with new techniques. They were more self-reflective and more self-critical. They were more willing to accept the fact that there were areas of their practice where they could grow and improve. They were more willing to say, “Show me how you do it.”

These teachers often had to defy the structural isolation in which they worked in order to observe or work with peers. Nothing in their school culture was encouraging them to leave their rooms or seek out new learning. They brought a culture of collaboration into the school with them from previous careers or other life experiences.

Are we willing to see data that challenges what we think about ourselves? Are we willing to open the door that might allow us to learn something new? In a recent OpEd piece in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman described what Andreas Schleicher and his team at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the people responsible for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test) have been doing to make their data more visible and accessible to people around the world. They are trying to design ways for educators and parents to compare not only national performance on the world stage (how does the United States compare with Finland?) but also individual school performance (how does my son’s school compare with a socioeconomically similar school in Finland?)

“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”

What would a superintendent say in response to a challenge like this, when most of them don’t know what goes on in individual classrooms across the district, or how one teacher’s techniques and approaches compare, in effectiveness, with any other’s? They may know which schools are doing well or doing poorly, getting better or getting worse based on some metric or other. But would they know why?

Are we willing to talk about what we do, and let people see what we do? Are we willing to investigate what actually works, and why it works? Are we willing to learn from each other?

Inevitably, in politics and in our larger life, the silly season gives way to the more melancholy realities of autumn. We go back to school. We get back to work. We bear down and get ready for winter. If we truly believe in life-long learning, then every day must be back-to-school-day for us. We need to ask ourselves the same questions we ask when we look at our children: What new things will you learn this year? What new things will you explore? In what ways will you grow?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Learning on Demand

The world of education does a marvelous job of ignoring and resisting modern fads and trends, serving up instruction in more-or-less unchanged ways for over a hundred years. It will be interesting to see if we can hold out against the trend of "on-demand" that has affected so many other areas of modern life.

We've already seen the authority of the gatekeeper erode in face of on-demand publishing, whether in print or online. Anyone who has something to say can now get heard...if anyone cares to listen. We've seem the authority of the editor erode in the face of ITunes, Netflix, and other methods of getting entertainment in self-selected, bite-sized chunks.

Now we're starting to see some early attacks on gatekeeper/editor authority in schooling. We have the many videos of the Khan Academy; now we have modular college courses. Get what you want, when you want it, at the level you want it. Test out of it if you can prove you know it.

In a world where 8-year-olds already know how to reach out into the cosmos and grab information whenever they're curious about something, does "sit-and-get" classroom education really have a future? Will children even think of schools and teachers as unique repositories of information and learning anymore? Or will schools need to transform into places where kids can work together to play with, manipulate, and analyze the information they've gotten elsewhere, learning from teachers how to use what they're learning in exciting and meaningful ways?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Soup-Kitchen Schooling

Remember those old movies where homeless men dragged their ragged bodies into Salvation Army shelters for some soup and perhaps a bed, and had to sit through some kind of religious service as their "payment" for the room and board?

This appears to be Louisiana's new model of education reform:

Louisiana is embarking on the nation's boldest experiment in privatizing public education, with the state preparing to shift tens of millions in tax dollars out of the public schools to pay private industry, businesses owners and church pastors to educate children.

Yes, it's vouchers on steroids in the Big Easy. First for low-income families, and eventually for everyone, including mini-vouchers for families over a certain income level. Use them for supplemental services like tutoring, or use them to move your kids to a private school.

Of course, the government-supplied vouchers won't pay 100% of private school tuition, but then, it's not like the government paid for 100% of kids' schooling before, right?

Oh, right. They did. Well, never mind.

The great thing about this system is that anyone who wants to get into the Ed Biz and take care of some of the state's huddled masses is welcome to set up shop.  And I have no problem with that, philosophically. I think school choice can be a good thing, and can enforce a certain competitive accountability that schooling has lacked, over the years.

(Of course, if we recruited better, trained better, paid better, and supported better, we might not need to go to such lengths on teacher effectiveness and accountability, but that's another story.)

One of the state's more prestigious private schools is willing to take in as many as four voucher students per year as part of this program, so don't count on them to solve the problem. But they've already got a healthy population of families to serve, and nobody should expect them to have to change their mission just because the state doesn't want to be in the education business anymore.

But don't worry: there's a whole new breed of schools opening up to get in on this competitive new market and serve the children of the poor:

The school willing to accept the most voucher students -- 314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.
Don't get me wrong; I have no problems with religious schooling. I sent my son to a Hebrew Day School for two years. The whole point of choice is that you get to choose. If you think a church-run school or a religiously-inflected school will educate your kids better, or instill values you find lacking in the larger world, go for it. And if those schools can find a way to do the job for the amount provided by the state, and are willing to take in the kids...great.

However. You've got to admit there's something a little creepy about the image of kids in a bare room watching instructional DVDs all day...all of which (apparently), mix religious instruction with core academics.
Here's another example:
At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.

"We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children," Carrier said.

You know, in the old soup kitchens, at least you got real soup after having Bible verses read at you. Here, you don't seem to get your religion before your book-learning, or even as a break from it; you have religion infused into every waking moment of your education.

Which, again, if that's what you want for your children, great--you ought to have the right to get it.

But what if these intensely religious and apparently cut-rate solutions are the only options available to kids whose parents can't supplement the vouchers?  Is it it put parents in an economic position where their only choices are to leave kids in increasingly falling-apart public schools or send them to places where academics are filtered through the lens of what religious authorities deem to be true and worthy--or where they watch TV (sacred or secular) all day?

But hey--I guess if they had wanted better options for their children, they shouldn't have allowed themselves to be poor.

Or live in Louisiana.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Breakfast with Boys

One of the nicest things about my day is that I get to have breakfast with my two boys before going to work. I read the paper while the boys read the comics. Sometimes we talk about news stories. Sometimes we talk about what's going on in school. Sometimes we talk about whatever is on their minds. It's a nice, low-key time of day.

This morning, I read them a story from the Washington Post about a 13-year old boy who had gone swimming and gotten pulled by a strong current over a 10-foot waterfall. He had managed to get himself out of the water onto a rock before going over the next waterfall, which as a drop of over 200 feet. But he was stranded there for over 8 hours. Thing 2, who is finishing up 2nd grade, cut the story out after breakfast, to bring it to school and share with his class.

For some reason (because he is the king of non-sequiturs), Thing 1 (age 12) asked me if I thought evolution would ever fix lower back pain. This launched us into a talk, while I was clearing dishes, about evolution vs. technology, and whether we had interfered with the process of natural selection, and so on.

This could have gone on all day, if I hadn't had to go to work, and he hadn't had to go to school. He's had a hard time finding kids at school who think like he does and enjoy talking about the things he likes to talk about. It was a new school for him, and a new town, and it's taken almost till the end of the school year for him to find His People.

It's been a similar struggle for Thing 2, who started off the year reading the Harry Potter books to himself at bedtime, and has finished the year reading "Danny and the Dinosaur," because that's the level of book they're reading in his class. It's been painful.

So I wonder, as I sit here at my desk, how the waterfall story is being received in his classroom. Has the teacher allowed him to share the story at all? Has she praised him for bringing it in? Has it opened up conversation and dialogue? Or has it been shut down--and has he been shut down--because it (and he) didn't fit into the Daily Plan?

What's the point of teaching children skills if the process kills the heart and spirit needed to apply those skills?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Sodomy is Not a Civil Right"

So says some cretin in my home state of Virginia, who unfortunately has the power to derail the appointment of a gay judge, and was able to get his ugly face on television to spout off about it.

How about "being left the hell alone?" Isn't that a civil right?

How did a country founded by people running away from religious intolerance and political oppression mutate into this nation of think-skinned, self-righteous, know-it-all busybodies intent on making their personal preferences, habits, and obsessions into Law?

You really believe in limited government? Then back off and shut up and let people be.

Could we please learn to accept the fact that very, very little about another person is any of our business?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What We Owe Each Other

The human is a social animal. It always has been, and it always will be. To abandon that essential fact about us is to destroy us. Live together or die alone. A human who rejects society and goes off to live entirely alone has always--everywhere--been regarded as a saint or a mystic or a madman. Everywhere.

We have a myth, in this country, that we are rugged individualists, and that we need no one outside of our immediate family. To accept help from outside the family is to be weak. To accept help from some government entity is to be beyond weak. Of course, the fact that the people in this country who hold this position (loudly, publically) are also the people most likely to be taking aid and support from the government doesn't stop any of us from holding onto this opinion. We do not let facts mess up our stories.

The idea that the best way to solve the economic problems of the many is to line the pocketbooks of the few is not a new one. Franklin Roosevelt attacked it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention of 1932. But that doesn't stop us from raising the idea from the dead, again and again, as though it's revolutionary and new.

Government is not a separate entity, utterly foreign and alien to us. It is us. The laws it passes are the laws we request...or at least allow. The services it provides are the services we demand. And no one running for president, now or lately, seems capable of offering an explanation of how those services will be delivered if we continue to decimate our civil institutions and reduce our infrastructure spending. If we think taxes are evil, then who is going to pay for the police? Or fire fighters? Or snow plow operators? Who is going to repair the bridges when they collapse? Is everything really going to be fee for service? If you have a fire, hire a private fire department if you can afford them....or burn? If you use a particular bridge, pay the toll every day; if you don't, it's not your problem?

Here is an incisive and well-written--and horrifying--account of what happens when we indulge in our deepest cynicism and selfishness, and withdraw our support--monetary and otherwise--from our civic institutions. This is what happens when we decide that we are not social animals, that we do not owe anything to each other--not money, not care, not even a casual thought. It is what happens when we decide to look out for ourselves only, and let the rest of the world burn. It is called "In Nothing We Trust," and it's worth a read.

Tell me you don't breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it, when one, lone institution comes through and helps the man who is in trouble.

Maintaining every American's right to become exceedingly wealthy (however ridiculous and unattainable that dream may actually be) shouldn't have to require allowing every American to die alone in the street if he fails to get there.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Vision Thing

There is a puritanical streak in this country's DNA that relishes punishing people for their shortcomings and failures, and sneers at reaching out a helping hand to support people who are less able and less strong...especially when that hand is funded by tax dollars. Private charity is fine; religious-based charity is fine. We can be amazingly generous there, when it's a matter of personal choice. But governmental support? That's just evil, because the money goes to people we don't get to choose. Them.

People supported public schools when there was a tracking system that separated the stronger students from the weaker ones. As long as there was a caste system within the school, we were happy to pretend that all children were created equal, and send them to the same school.

Once tracking was de-legitimized, though, and we moved to heterogeneous classes, parents started getting itchy. Combine that with racial de-segregation, and people got hives. Now the public school really was a melting pot, and children of all kinds (other than the rich kids who were already in private schools) were expected to mingle and befriend each other. So we started working against that. We fled to the suburbs, and when that didn't work well enough, we started finding ways to create magnet schools, charter schools...anything to re-track and re-homogenize.

Deep down, we don't want our schools to be indiscriminate. We want to discriminate among schools, and we want our schools to discriminate among long as our kids are in the winning group, of course.

We say we want all children to succeed. We say we want all young people to have an equal shot at success, and play the game of life on a level playing field. But we don't really believe those things. We don't take actions to make those things happen. What we really want is for our children to succeed.

Perhaps I've just gotten cynical, but what follows is the world I fear we're heading towards. Maybe we're already there--I don't know. 

The rich will send their children to private schools, because they will be able to afford them. At these schools, children will attain social capital and learn the skills they will need to take positions as part of the ruling class.

The middle class will send their children to the better charter schools, because they will know how to pull political strings and levers, and because they will be literate enough and mission-driven enough to research which schools are the best. At these schools, children will learn the basic skills they will need to continue their education and become successful professionals. They will then strive to send their own children to private schools.

The lower classes will send their children to crappy charter schools or traditional public schools, because that all that will be left for them. At these schools, children will learn how to sit still, obey orders, and fulfill tasks with minimum skills proficiency. These children will then go out to make French fries for the rest of us, until robots can be built to take on those jobs.

We (the rich and the middle class) will say to ourselves that any child can get into one of the better charter schools, because they are open to anyone. We will say to ourselves that any parents who do not work hard to identify the good schools and get their children into them deserve to have their children under-educated, because they clearly do not care for them. We will not want to do away with public schools completely, though, because it will be important for our world-view to have some “traps” for children to fall into, as proof of their lack of commitment to education. “See?” we will say. “They could have gotten out of their zoned schools, but they chose not to. So they get what they deserve.”

We will not worry about the fact that these schools are preparing children for jobs that no longer exist, and that millions of young people will be spat out into the world, year after year, with limited prospects for employment. We will decide that this, somehow, is somebody else’s problem. And when necessary, we will build walls around our neighborhoods.

We will not call any of this “survival of the fittest,” but secretly, deep down, that’s how we’ll think about it.

We say we believe in equality of opportunity and unlimited private property. But we can't believe in both of those things perfectly and completely. Either one, taken to its extreme, will destroy the other. For them to fit together in any kind of rational world view, compromises must be made--on one side, or the other, or both sides together.

But good luck finding anyone running for public office to say so.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

And in the center ring...

Can we be done now, finally, with the whole "sage on the stage vs. guide on the side" argument in teaching? Please? I'm willing to beg. The phrase was insipid the first time I heard it, and it's now reached nails-on-the-chalkboard levels of annoyance (nails on a SMART board just isn't the same, is it?).

Plus, it's wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Proven wrong. Direct instruction works. It works better than most other things. It has worked for years. There's nothing wrong with all those other kinds of instruction. I'm fine with performance assessments and mastery learning and guided inquiry and reciprocal teaching, etc., etc. But direct instruction still just works. I'm not saying you should lecture for 45 minutes, uninterrupted. That's just crappy teaching. But as a method of instruction, it works. Read John Hattie's Visible Learning. The evidence is in. So stop. Please.

Why do I care about this so particularly today? Because I happened upon a blog post on teaching that raised these issues again.

Under discussion in this blog post is the question of The Teacher As Performer: does a classroom teacher need to be a good performer? My experience as a student and as a teacher makes me answer a resounding YES. The author says NO.

First, the author claims that the performance skills learned and perfected by an actor are "personal, internal, more 'inside' for lack of a better explanation." This is something that "performance art educators know."

Really? I've been an arts educator, and I don't know that. In fact, I'd argue that actors who remain internal, personal, and inside are bad actors. They may be good "be-ers," able to impersonate a character from the inside out, but they're lousy "act-ors."  Maybe that's OKfor film; I don't know. But it's lousy on stage, where there is an actual audience (which is the analogy this author is trying to make). You are not up on stage for yourself; you are up there for them. You are not simply having an experience ; you are beaming that experience out to them, so that they can feel something. The point is not for you to laugh, or cry; it's for them to do so.

So, there's that.

Then there's this whole "sage on the stage" nonsense. Teachers shouldn't be performers because teachers shouldn't be in the spotlight. Yes, I agree, most teachers could do less of the direct stuff and make students do more on their own. There are far too many teachers who hog the spotlight and drone on an on for the whole class period.

But. That said, the teacher IS the key performer of the class, the shaper of the experience; the molder of the time. The "audience" of students must be captured, enraptured, engaged, sometimes befuddled. Left to their own devices, they'd go elsewhere. They're kids. Don't pretend that a more student-centered classroom will attract kids like flies. There are a hundred things they'd rather be doing. And no matter how "real world" or "relevant" we make the work, it's still school. It can be a great school, a dynamic school, even an unschooling kind of school. But learning is not always the same thing as playing, and learning is often difficult. Sometimes it even hurts.

The teacher is the one who has to make the case, sell the show, convince them that what they're here to learn is worth their attention and their sweat. Even if the work of the day is entirely student-centered, it is still the teacher who is shaping and managing that day, and creating an environment in which students can do their work. The teacher is, and remains, the ringmaster, and the ringmaster needs performance skills, even if all he's doing is directing your attention to the center ring of the circus.

The teacher is not only a ringmaster; she is also a role model. I can't tell you much of the discrete content I learned in any high school class I took, but I can definitely remember the habits of mind I learned from the teachers I admired. Like any good apprentice, I learned not only the technical skills needed for the job, but also some important ways-of-being-in-the-world. I learned how educated people behaved--how they talked to each other and what they talked about; how they followed a line of inquiry; how they solved a puzzle; how they found joy in their chosen field. I watched them like a hawk to learn that, just as I saw my own students watching me and my colleagues, years later. They were learning much more than language arts or history content; they were learning what it meant to be an adult...from every adult with whom they came in contact. And yes, to some extent I did "perform" that role, trying to be deliberate and careful about what I modeled in front of them.

There is a role for teacher-as-coach. A large role, I'd argue. We need more coaching and less lecturing, for certain. We need more mentoring and tutoring, more real, authentic relationships with young people. But this wholesale, "do this always and that never" approach is ridiculous. Our students still need to be taught--both the written curriculum of facts and skills and the hidden curriculum of how educated people behave. There are things we need to show them. There are things we need to say. There are discussions we need to shape and lead with them. There are things they need to see us do. We cannot simply sit back and say, "You do the work; I'll advise you from the side."

That's not teaching; that's abdication.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Against Evil

If we did a decent job of teaching media literacy in this country, our citizenry would know not to trust pundits who use words like "evil" to describe...well, anything short of Nazi-style genocide, really. And yet, in the current phase of education reform debates, the word is getting tossed around with wild abandon--either directly, or by suggestion.

Diane Ravitch and her acolytes call the "Billionaire Boys Club" of charter school operators evil. Alfie Kohn calls standardized testing evil. Conservatives call teacher unions evil. ENOUGH.

And these actors aren't just evil--they're all mired in evil conspiracies. Rich people are conspiring to turn America's youth into mindless worker-drones by destroying the public school system. Teacher unions are conspiring to undermine and destroy all efforts at reform to protect their jobs and their tenure.

The problem with all of this nonsense is that it keeps people from seeing the ugly facts that lie at the heart of this issue. If we could lower the heat and calm down a little--if we could talk with each other from a place of good faith, and assume that almost all the players in this arena are in the arena to do good (at least as they see it), we might understand things a little better.

Let's take the so-called Billionaire Boys Club first. The idea that Bill Gates and others are meddling in public education because they are satanic evil-doers intent on destroying our youth is idiotic. They are in this game because they want to do good...AND because, being businessmen, they think they can do well at the same time. These are not contradictory ideas to them, and just because most of us in the education business have no real understanding of business doesn't make it untrue. They see a need; they think they can help to meet that need; and they think they can make money doing it. That is business. They are not creating a need from a vaccuum. And they are not forcing people who don't want or need their help to accept it (most of them, anyway). They didn't wake up one day and say, "let's destroy public education." They woke up and saw a system in ruins, a system where the needs of children were routinely being ignored in favor of the needs or desires of the adults--a system where evidence is routinely ignored in favor of pedagogical ideology (see my previous post). And they thought they could do better.

Whether they can or they can't remains to be seen. But they didn't knock down the walls of happy, effective schools and demand to be let in. We let the walls fall down; we created the opportunity for them. And maybe even the need. The fact that some of them are proceding a little unscrupulously and ham-fistedly is unfortunate, but it's not all that surprising. They're businessmen, not saints. This is how they operate. They see opportunities and they seize them. If we were doing our jobs better, there wouldn't have been any opportunity for them to seize.

Teacher unions aren't evil, either. If they go to extremes to secure good working conditions for their members and protect them from evaluation and accountability to a ludicrous extent, none of that happened out of the blue. It happened in reaction to decades of bad faith and no trust, decades of abuse by petty, stupid, tyrannical administrators who routinely rewarded their toadies and punished anyone who got in their way. We have a school system that does everything in its power to chase away decent leaders and attract small-minded despots. The fact that we have any good principals and superintendents out there is a testament to the strong sense of mission that so many of our educators have. Because, by all rights, we should have none.

All of these actions and attitudes have grown in response to real conditions, real facts on the ground. We may not like the attitudes and we may disagree with the actions, but we need to acknowledge why they exist.

But we don't. Instead, we pass judgment--often blind judgment--on what is happening today, without understanding why it is happening or where it came from. We come up with nasty names for the people we disagree with, and ascribe the worst possible motives for them. We say, "There's nothing wrong with our schools or our teachers. Nothing. So anyone trying to start a charter school must be evil." And it's a lie. We should know better. We say, "These teachers are afraid of being held accountable and refuse to put in a full day's work. They just don't want to help those kids." And it's a lie. We should know better.

Blame is easy. Understanding is hard. Understanding requires empathy, and empathy requires shutting our piehole for two seconds--shutting down our judgment for two seconds--and listening to other people. It requires walking a mile in someone else's shoes. 

I wonder if we're capable of it. I wonder if we're even interested.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Things That Make You Go, "Gah!"

From John Hattie's Visible Learning, page 258:

Perhaps the most famous example of policy makers not using or being convinced by evidence was Project Follow Through, which started in the late 1960s. It was conducted over 10 years, involved over 72,000 students, and had more than 22 sponsors who worked in more than 180 sites to find the most effective education innovations to break the cycle of poverty through enhancing student learning. The innovations included Direct Instruction, whole language, open education, and developmentally appropriate practices (see Carmine, 2000; House, Glass, McLean, & Walker, 178 for a history). The students in these programs were compared to control students (Stebbins, 1976; Stebbins, St. Pierre, Proper, Anderson, & Cerva, 1977). All but one program had close to zero effects (some had negative effects). Only Direct Instruction had positive effects on basic skills, on deeper comprehension measures, on social measures, and on affective measures. Meyer (1984) followed these students through to the end of their schooling, and those in the Direct instruction compared to peers not in this program were twice as likely to graduate from high school.....The outcome of this study, however, was not to support more implementation of Direct Instruction but to spend more resources on the methods that did not work but were preferred by educators. As Carmine (2000) commented, the romantic view of students discovering learning was more powerful than a method invented by a teacher that actually made a difference; a method that required an attention to detail, to deliberately changing behavior, and to teaching specific skills. The rejection of Direct Instruction in favor of Rousseian inspired methods "is a clear case of an immature profession, one that lacks a solid scientific base and has less respect for evidence than for opinion and ideology" (p.12).
I'd weep or scream, but I'm not even all that surprised.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The One Who Rakes Alone

Susan Cain is my new TED-crush. Her talk on "The Power of Introverts" hit me very powerfully, and spoke to some worries I've had recently about the mania we've made of collaboration in school and in the workplace. Collaboration is touted as a "21st century skill." Kids who do not learn how to collaborate in school are told that they will fail in the modern workplace. And they probably will. In my current job, I've had many--far too many--moments where individual, solitary thought and creativity has been denigrated and dismissed--held suspect, somehow, as though anything not put through the meat-grinder of group brainstorming cannot possibly be good.

I have no problem working in teams, but I need to know that it is "I" who is part of the team--that I am contributing something of myself, from myself, and that this individual contribution is important. When leaders act as though the group has one mind, and that individuals should subsume themselves to that mind--that the group is always smarter than the individual--well...I find that kind of scary. That's not 21st century thinking; in fact, it's very dangerously 20th century thinking, as seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

As Susan Cain points out, the great works of art and insights of science have come from solitary thinkers. The great revelations of religion and philosophy have come from solitary thinkers. The world needs time enough and space enough and quiet enough for us to go off in the woods, sometimes, and dive deep down into our own minds, to wrestle with our ideas in solitude and follow a line of thought wherever it might lead.

Bruce Chatwin wrote memorably about the power of walking, in aiding thought and creativity, in The Songlines. You could certainly walk and work with a partner, but most often, it's a solitary thing--you, setting off into the world, getting lost in the woods while lost in thought.

I am, at heart, an introvert, so I suppose it's just a bias of mine, but I truly believe that a group of people sitting around a table, yapping at each other incessantly and jockeying to be heard, can only (or if not only, then often) result in thinking that is superficial, that is brightly colored and clearly delineated--easy to see and appreciate--but that is not terribly profound or original. That's my bias, and I'm sticking with it.

Which is not to say that collaboration is bad. Bringing together a group of people who have had time to think and ponder alone, and letting them bounce ideas off each other, is definitely of use. Sending them away from the table again and letting them continue their work alone--that also has value. When I worked in a theatre company, I did my play writing alone, but then I brought my work to the group, and the collaboration within the group definitely improved my original contribution. I loved that collaboration. But I would have hated having to create the play in the harsh light of the group. In today's way of thinking, that seems to seen increasingly as hanging on to outmoded models of authorship and ownership: selfish; greedy. But I don't see it that way.

Life should be an ebb and flow--never one thing, incessantly. But we love to pounce on the Next Big Thing and work it to death, to the exclusion of all else. And nothing really works that way. There is a place for collaboration, and there is a place for quiet, individual thought.

Again--I'm basically an introvert, so of course I'm going to feel this way. When Susan Cain recites the "camp spirit" cheer she was forced to participate in as a child ("R-O-W-D-I-E!), I cringe. I remember moments like that, and I hated all of them. I never had camp spirit, or school spirit, and I hated chanting with a crowd. Like Cain, I've had too many moments where I've put my suitcase of books under a chair and gone out to big, loud parties. More often than not, I've stood with my back against some wall, feeling more isolated and alone than I would have felt in the solitude of my room. A loud, raucous table at a bar, somewhere, with a small group of friends? Love it. A loud, raucous dance club filled with strangers? My season in hell.

These things are with us from birth. Either we acknowledge them and honor them, or we spend our lives fighting them, feeling like the world is right and we are wrong. When I was 10 or 11, I had to help rake our yard. We lived in suburban New York, and the fall was filled with dead leaves--more and more every week. We had shrubs planted along every wall of the house, so raking involved not only the front and back lawns, but also required scrabbling through the underbrush to get at the leaves trapped there. Every weekend. And I noticed something pretty quickly. When my dad and my brother were outside with me, raking was a chore. But somehow, on the weekends that I had to do it all by myself, it wasn't. Somehow, being alone with the job--knowing it was mine to do and mine to own--that mattered to me, and made it something worth doing. Someone else could easily have felt the opposite--lonely and bored when working alone; happier when the family was pitching in. We're all wired differently.

Internet and Web 2.0 technology and tools have made collaboration across time and distance easy, affordable, and fun. I have no problem with it, and, in fact, I make use of it constantly. But we are not the Borg, and we are not ants in a colony. We are not undifferentiated neurons in a vast brain that is Humanity. We are human beings. Maybe it is an old fashioned view of things, and maybe I am old and outdated. But I do believe in the mystery and the sanctity of the individual human mind. I believe that each mind is a world unto itself, and holds within it a unique gift (or curse) for the world.

The world already has more R-O-W-D-I-E than it needs.  God bless the girl with the suitcase of books.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Arizona: Bringing the Crazy Since 1925

My former state of residence has added its own piece of chipotle-flavored gristle to the national stew of gynophobia with this proposed legislation, forcing women of "religious" employers to submit evidence from a doctor that any prescription contraceptive for which they want insurance coverage is being used for reasons other than birth control. Because God hates birth control, but he's willing to give women a pass if they need the pill to ease cramps, or whatever.

The blog post linked to, above, is not partisan hysteria. Here's a summary of the legislation, straight from the Arizona House of Representatives. It is what it is.

Look, I'm all for religious freedom. I'm all for freedom of conscience. People who truly believe that abortion is repellent shouldn't have to pay for other people to have it. People who believe in sin, and believe that contraception qualifies as a sin, shoulnd't have to provide it as an employment benefit.

But why is that the extent of the discussion, these days?  Why is it all about the choice between A) Force employers to pay for procedures and drugs they find morally offensive vs. B) Force women to pay for expensive drugs and procedures without the help of insurance? The real question is: why are we putting women and their employers in this position in the first place?

Why should it be any business of an employer how or to what extent a woman engages in family planning? Why should women have to go to their bosses, hat in hand, to beg for some kind of coverage. The whole thing is evil, and it doesn't seve either side of the equation well. I'm amazed that religious employers aren't pointing out that they shouldn't be put in this position at all.

The real problem here is our country's Fear of National Health Care. Employers should not be in the business of making medical decisions on behalf of their employees, but they shoudln't have to be in the business of covering their health care at all. It's none of their business, and it's an enormous expense and pain in the ass for them. Take it off their plates. Especially in this day and age when people change jobs and careers multiple times, why should a person's access to health care have change over and over again, purely dependent on what job she has. It's absurd on its face.

Why won't any of our Brave Leader and Statesmen talk about that?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New Formats!

Cool for Cats is now availabe in all e-Book formats, right here. So if you have a Nook, or a Kobo, or some other non-paper device for reading's your chance to get to know Jordan, Susannah, Oticha, Porkchop, and all the rest of the gang.

Monday, March 5, 2012

National Read an E-Book Week

Yeah,'s always National Something Week. But this week (March 4-10) just happens to be National Read an E-Book Week...or so say these folks.

So listen. If you haven't yet read my jazzy, breezy, more-than-occasionally funny mystery novel, Cool for Cats, (see blush-inducing reader reviews here), isn't this a perfect opportunity to do so? Not only will you get to read an entertaining new novel--you'll also get to support adeeply important pseudo-cause and participate in a national--perhaps even international non-event.

How can you say no to that?

You can't. So use the links on the left-hand side of this page, or just go here and snap up a copy. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

School as LEGO-land

Seth Godin rants eloquently and importantly on the question of “What is school for?” The Big Essay (or mini-book) is free and available for printing, reading on screen, or for download to your e-reader. It’s worth a read, and he wants feedback and commentary. Here is mine.

Godin takes a fairly extremist view that schooling, as we currently do it, can do nothing but kill dreams, squelch creativity, and teach kids to be obedient sheep. It’s an argument I first encountered in Jonathan Kozol’s early book, The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home. That book was written in the wake of the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, and Kozol’s thesis was that a few weeks of basic training could not have turned the perpetrators of that horror into mindless followers of orders; it could only have been done by years of public schooling. Like Godin’s manifesto, the book was impassioned and well-meaning, but a bit extreme. In fact, when the book was reissued in the ‘90s, Kozol annotated it to provide context and to tamp down some of (but not all of) the rhetoric.

As it happens, I am more in agreement with these two authors than not. I spent years in New York City telling my friends that the only kind of school reform I could see being effective was dynamite and a bulldozer. But that kind of extremist position makes it easy for doubters and critics to dismiss what may be valid and important in the argument. Godin seems to suggest that the creative and innovative people who have made this country dynamic and strong have prospered either outside of or in spite of school. All of them. And while we know this has been true of many influential, creative people, we know it’s not true of all of them. Many people come through our school systems with their creativity and drive intact, and they do so because they are lucky enough to have the right parents, the right teachers and the right schools. It can happen…it just doesn’t happen nearly enough.

When Godin attacks the way we do schooling, he seems to include all of our educators in his attack, as though there is a mass conspiracy afoot in our school system to destroy the humanity of our children in order to produce compliant workers and citizens. This is just not so. There are thousands upon thousands of well-meaning, well-intentioned educators out there in our schools, trying to do their best to teach creative and critical thinking skills. They do not believe their mission is to force compliance or to create a generation of sheep or automatons. They really don’t. The problem is that the mechanics of the system in which they work do want that, which means they are working against the very structure of their schools. When the work you do creates friction with the system, it’s more likely that you get worn down than that the system does. The machine endures, and the people who want to do something the machine wasn’t built to do, well, they burn out and walk away.

Godin is dead-right when he says that the problem lies in what Ken Robinson calls “batch processing” of children, the old factory model. That model was created to churn out compliant factory workers. The problem we face today is that our educational mission and vision has changed, but the machine we use to get there has not.  Go to any professional development workshop or sit in on any Masters class on instruction or curriculum design, and you'll hear all the right things. The problem is that we’re trying to broadcast TV shows over a radio. We’re trying to get from New York to Atlanta in a day, riding a horse. The medium we’re using cannot handle the message we intend. In fact, in many ways, it works against the message we intend.

Oh, you can teach against the model all you like, and try to differentiate, individualize, and personalize your instruction. Teachers do it every day. But the system isn’t set up to encourage or even accommodate that approach, especially in middle and high school. The system was built for mass-instruction: get them in, give them a lecture, give them a worksheet, move them along to the next station. That’s what it does best. If you work that way, the machine hums along very nicely.

The question for us is not whether we want to create compliant sheep. Most of us—the vast, overwhelming majority of us, do not. The question is whether we are brave enough to do something radically, structually different.

In business, there is always a tension between the innovators who want to try something different and the stalwarts who want to rely on what has worked in the past. There is no universally correct side to the argument; it all depends on what works. If the innovation saves money or makes money, the innovator wins, and a whole industry may begin to shift. If the innovation wastes money or destroys a company’s reputation, the status quo ante is reinforced as having been correct, and the company becomes more conservative. And who are we to tell them they were wrong?

The problem is that in education, there is no incentive to innovate, no reward beyond doing what you feel is right. A public school that does things differently and produces inventors, scholars, artists, or brilliant professionals gets no more money than a public school that churns out dropouts and fast-food workers. No one at the “winning” school gets a bonus or a raise, and no one gets to expand or franchise the school to serve more students. And the crappy school is rarely ever shut down. The incentives to innovate are all—100%--intrinsic: you do it because you know, deep down, it’s the right thing to do. And as I said, plenty of teachers act on those impulses every day.

But it’s so, so, so much easier not to. It’s so much easier to do things the way they’ve always been done, to go with the flow, to swim with the current. Not because these educators are bad people, but because they are people, and while there is a deep impulse to create, there is also a deep impulse to be safe. I agree with Godin that our schools can and should do a better job of liberating and nurturing the creative impulse in people, in teaching young people how to think, question, analyze, and create in unique and dynamic ways. But I don’t think for a minute, that our nation—or any nation—will ever get to a point where dynamic, creative, innovative free-thinkers are the majority or the totality of the population. Maybe I’m just cynical, but I think human nature has a deeply conservative, cautious strain that cannot be educated out. I would love to envision a world in which each person marches to the beat of a different drum. But I can’t. There is something in us that likes the regular beat and the steady march; there is something in us that likes knowing in what time we should all be stepping. Most of us are not simply conformists or non-conformists. We are not one thing or another. We live forever in the dynamic tension between the desire to be unique and creative, and the desire to be safe and protected—the desire to stand apart and the desire to hide within the herd.

This is where Godin’s LEGO analogy misses a crucial step. Yes, when LEGO started out, it sold bricks without any instructions. That’s what I played with as a child, and it’s what I loved. And yes, they moved away from that product and started selling nothing but pre-determined kits, which I hated, but which made the company far more profitable. And yes, that does speak to our innate fear of freedom and plan-less-ness. But that is not the end of the story. Today, you can buy both sets and mixed blocks, and when you go to one of their stores, you can root through enormous bins to create your own custom collections. Both kinds of customers are served. And the two types are not so clearly separated; there are many kids who take the kits and change them, adding new pieces from other kits. There are kids who use computer programs to design their own kits. There are kids who buy individual pieces in bulk from online wholesalers, to get just the pieces they need. There are public forums where kids bring enormous, insane, and wildly unique creations to display and share.

If given the freedom to play, we are improvisers at heart—people who like to tinker, adapt, and jerry-rig. We are jazz musicians. It’s in our national DNA—maybe even our human DNA. The people who create something new from scratch, ob ovo, may be rare in this world. But the people who play, who tinker, and who adapt—that’s all of us. A school system that remembered this and made room for it--for the kids and for the adults who work there--would go a long way toward liberating our creative impulses and honoring our dreams. 

PS: one minor correction for Mr. Godin. According to Snopes, Harvard never offered a professorship to Galileo. During Galileo’s lifetime, Harvard was nine students and a single teacher. And Galileo was under house arrest in Florence.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Lesson of the One Way

The herd will not have it. The herd hates outliers. It’s nothing personal; it’s just for protection. If you stray from the herd, you get eaten. It’s as simple as that. It’s natural selection. So stick together.

But nobody’s trying to eat us, so why can’t we get over our herd mentality? Why can’t we relax and let people be? Why do we even care?

You would think there would be strength—and comfort—in numbers. You would think that if 95% of the women you know are wearing Fashion X this year, they wouldn’t need to tease or sneer at the 5% who wear something different. You would think that if 95% of the men you know prefer drinking beer and watching football to drinking wine and watching opera, they wouldn’t feel the need to call the 5% fags. Who cares what the other 5% do, or like, or wear, or think?

But we do care. We’re a herd. And we care a lot. We can’t be “us” unless we’re all us. One weirdo makes us question our us-ness, our whole group. And we don’t like that. So we’d better bring the outliers back into line. It doesn’t have to be through violence or coercion—it can just be gentle mockery. We’re teasing. Don’t take everything so seriously. Don’t take it all to heart. Just take it.

If you’re lucky, as an adult, you find a place or make a place where this kind of nonsense doesn’t occur, where people are genuinely tolerant of difference—or, better, indifferent about it. Indifferent about difference. I don’t want you to tolerate what I am; I want you to not give a shit, one way or the other. I want you to accept the fact that who I am is none of your goddamned business, and live accordingly.

Ah, how much of American political discourse would vanish overnight if we could just apply this one, simple rule: About that which is none of your business, shut up.

Of course, in far too many places, people think that everything is their business. In far too many places, the message is clear: it’s not that we want you to be exactly like us; we need you to be exactly like us. We can have no bell curve here; the outliers must be brought into the fold. We must be one flat line, stretching across the horizon forever. It is an absolutist, totalitarian impulse buried deep in our heart of darkness, and the insecurity and fear it reveals is troubling.

And surprising. I mean, who knew a head cheerleader’s sense of self could be so precarious?

One of the hardest and most heartbreaking lessons to learn, as a child, is the Lesson of the One Way. Whether you’re a boy or a girl, you learn that, if you want to be accepted, if you want to live comfortably among your peers, there is One Way to be. For everything that happens during the day, there is One Way to do it correctly. You can obey the One Way and be accepted, or you can fight the One Way and be called names. Whatever choice you make, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Because we keep telling our children that they are special, and unique, and wonderful just the way they are, and then they hit school and find out that it’s all a lie.

Some kids learn the lesson in elementary school; others manage to escape it until middle school. But good luck getting through adolescence without being subjected to the Khmer-Rouge-like intensity of that scrutiny and judgment. “Live and let live” is not any Junior High School’s motto.

But we survive it, somehow. Most of us do. Of course, there are always a few kids who can’t take it, and kill themselves. But it's just a few. Probably. Whatever.

My son is in sixth grade this year. He is officially a “tween,” a category that didn’t exist when I was a kid. All of a sudden, the rules about who you can be friends with have changed. It used to be okay to be friendly with girls. Now it means you have a crush. Now it means you’re in loooooove. And you must be teased mercilessly for that. You must be punished…whether or not it’s true. And somehow, everyone else got the memo before him. He got left behind. And now they’re making fun of him.

It always feels that way, doesn’t it? It always feels like everyone else has gotten the memo, and you’re the only one who didn’t know. Why is that? Where does the memo come from? Who is the first one in the classroom to figure it out? There must be someone who either decides or discovers that girls now have cooties, or khaki pants are stupid, or Pokemon is for babies. Then, suddenly, everyone knows and everyone is in agreement. The herd has moved, and you have to catch up.

My son is confused. He doesn’t have a crush on this girl. He’s not in loooooove. But she has been a friend, and he has had precious few of those this year. He doesn’t understand why the One Way is telling him he has to stop, now. My son is hyper-rational; he has never known how to handle the insane, the inexplicable, and the irrational (in other words: children). When kids around him do things that, to him, make no sense, he is left bewildered and unsure what to do.

So now he has a friend that the One Way tells him he’s not allowed to have. They can’t hang out anymore. They shouldn’t talk to each other. They’re not supposed to. So the girl tells him, “We need to pretend we were going out, but now we’re broken up. Then they’ll leave us alone.” In other words, she tells him they have to lie to be left alone. The have to hide some small part of who they are.

But it’s no big deal, right? It’s a small thing. Sixth grade drama, for Christ’s sake. I should just tell my son: “Say what you’ve got to say, do what you’ve got to do, and move on. It’s not that important.” I should give him the counsel that will give him comfort.

Except that this is how it all starts. You stop wearing those pants. You stop watching that show. You stop playing that game. It’s no big deal—it’s just the stuff you liked. If the other kids say it’s stupid, give it up. Be who they want you to be—it’s easier that way. And then, once you’ve learned the Lesson of the One Way, you can move on to the next level: stop hanging out with the black kid/the gay kid/the Jewish kid. Chug this. Smoke that. Hate them. Carry the flag.

And I’m sure there are people—many, many people—who will roll their eyes at all of this and think I’m making mountains out of things that don’t even qualify as molehills. It's just sixth fucking grade. And they are entitled to their opinions. We are all entitled to our opinions.

This is mine: I will not sell out my son and tell him to join the herd. I will not tell him to go along just because it’s easier. Because there is a better way. Not an easier way--not the One Way--but it’s his own way. I can see him doing it already--carving out a sense of self, identifying the things that vibrate at the same frequency as his soul. I can see him collecting the kinds of people and things and ideas that make him feel good—that make him feel at home in the world. I can see him slowly building the home he’ll move into when he leaves his childhood—a unique and special home of self, where he can live happily and at peace. And I would not do anything to endanger that precious and fragile construction.

What he’ll have to do over the next few years to protect what he’s building, God only knows. It’s going to be a long, hard slog. Harder than what he's facing right now, for certain. But I’m in his corner, today and tomorrow, for whatever it’s worth.