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.