Friday, December 11, 2015

Taming the Chaos Within

(originally published at 

“How can you make a world for people to live in until you’ve first put order in yourself?”

Thornton Wilder, The Skin of our Teeth


Early in my teaching career, my headmaster called a faculty meeting and had us watch a documentary about learning disabilities. Most of the students in our small school struggled with a disability of some kind, from mild dyslexia to almost total aphasia. Some of their parents were caring and concerned; many were frustrated and exhausted. The video, called “How Difficult can This Be?” showed us a workshop during which a facilitator conducted a variety of activities to make participants feel as though they had all sorts of learning challenges. He gave them mangled text to read or fuzzy pictures to look at and then barked at them to “look harder” at things they could not possibly see, no matter how “hard” they looked (whatever that meant). 

Even without participating directly in the workshop, we learned a great deal about what it felt like to be our students—students who had spent a lifetime being told to sit still when they were already sitting as still as they could. How heartbreaking it had to be, to be yelled at for not being able to control a twitching hand or a tapping foot. How enraging it had to be, especially by the teen years, to be scolded for not reading things that were physically unreadable. No wonder our students had been in and out of every school in town.

To many teachers, the idea of “differentiated instruction” is a ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky idea dreamed up by out-of-touch authors or professors who don’t understand how difficult it is to plan and execute a single lesson, much less several options per class. But to many students, differentiated instruction is the difference between success and failure in school. For many students, instruction that isn’t adapted to meet their needs is instruction to which they simply have no access.

Identification of learning disabilities and a well-implemented IEP or 504 plan can make all the difference for these students. But what about students whose problems do not fall into the establish categories of problems that will lead to legally-mandated accommodations? What about students for whom years of poverty, neglect, or trauma have so stressed the neural circuitry that they have not developed levels of executive function at the same pace as their peers?  When they don’t have a medical label to explain away their problems, they simply get labeled Bad and are punished rather than helped. And yet, their experience of school may be no different that the experience of students with identifiable disabilities: it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, they don’t know why, and they get yelled at for it.

This is tragic for all sorts of reasons—not least of which is the fact that, in the words of author, Eric Jensen, “Brains can change.” Neuroplasticity, the ability of a brain to adapt and change over time, even beyond childhood, means that a student’s past doesn’t have to be his future—that with careful and planful work on the part of the school, even a student with severe behavior issues can learn to control himself and succeed in the classroom.

But what does “careful and planful” mean for such students? It doesn’t mean medicating them into a stupor, and it certainly doesn’t mean threatening them with suspension if they take a wrong step. For students who can’t control their impulses or their aggression, it means providing a safe and orderly environment where they can actually, finally, learn to control their impulses and their aggression—where they can regularly practice a menu of self-control strategies and demonstrate increasing levels of self-control. At Philadelphia’s Anthony Wayne Academy, one of our SESI schools, I have seen how even the most behaviorally-challenged students can take control of their behavior and earn increasing levels of autonomy and authority. I’ve seen students who were once sent away from their schools becoming leaders: running meetings, modeling correct behavior, and acting as role models for younger or newer students. They learn how to tame the chaos within themselves, whatever the cause of that chaos may have been, and gain enough self-control to return to their schools, earn their diplomas, and pursue their dreams.

That shouldn’t have to be seen as a miracle, or even a gift. It’s simply what those students need. Yes, they need Algebra. Sure, they need World history. But if they can’t tame that inner chaos and take control of their lives, what meaning or use can Algebra or World History ever have?

No student in our country should be denied the opportunity to succeed simply because he doesn’t fit into the box we call “school.”  The school should accommodate itself to meet the needs of students, not the other way around. I believed this, way back in the 20th century, when it felt a little bit radical and strange. In this century, it should be a commonplace. Customization and personalization are simply what we expect—and demand—in most areas of our lives. In fact, I can’t think of any other area of life where we still think it’s acceptable to take a random group of 20 or 30 people (who share nothing but a birth year) and give them all exactly the same thing, delivered exactly the same way, regardless of what they might need or want.

Our democracy is built on the assumption that people can govern themselves and manage their own affairs—that we are not forever children, searching for a strong parent to obey. But not everyone is ready and able to take control of their lives—even at age 18. And a person who is unable to manage himself is a person who will eventually be managed by someone else—often the police or some other mechanism of the state.  That is not exactly a gateway to the “pursuit of happiness” that was meant to be our birthright as Americans.

We are supposed to be giving our students the tools they need to succeed in life beyond the schoolroom.  But if we can’t see the world through their eyes, how can we possibly know what tools they need?





Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Connecting the Dots: The Essential Relationship between a School’s Mission Statement and Its Day-to-Day

(originally published at

At one of Catapult Learning’s recent regional leadership conferences, I spent some time with principals and teacher-leaders from our partner schools. We talked about the importance of connecting the dots from the school’s vision and mission to its values, and then all the way down to the daily tasks that each member of the school family engages in. It’s surprising how disconnected the mission and the day-to-day can be from each other. We write beautiful mission statements and hang signs and banners up on the walls, and somehow we expect the pretty words to exert a kind of magic over us, pulling us into their orbit. Sadly, it takes a lot more work than that.

The “big picture” is made up of a thousand connected details. Little children know this, but it’s an easy thing for adults to forget. Our grown-up connect-the-dots puzzles are less obvious, and they aren’t laid out for us to solve, step by step. We choose our own dots and often don’t know what picture we’re forming when we start connecting them. We may think we’re aiming at our mission or vision statement, but our day-to-day routines may add up to a very different picture.

So, during our workshop, I asked the principals and teacher-leaders to start with the vision and mission of the school and work their way down, to see if they could connect the lofty words with the more mundane tasks that make up our days.

One of our partner schools had, as part of its mission statement, the growth of students into responsible citizens. It was a lovely sentiment, but when I asked the school team what values the adults in the school held in order to make that mission real, they were a little stymied by the question. It’s easy to say, “We believe citizenship is important,” but what does that actually mean, in practice?

At first, there was simply repetition of the words from the mission statement, but eventually, the team came up with this statement of values: “School leadership and staff respect and honor the student voice and promote student autonomy.” That’s a clear statement of a value that can, if widely held, help students understand what democratic citizenship means.

The next step is even more crucial: day to day, what does it actually mean to hold that value? What does it mean for the English teacher? What does it mean for the gym teacher? What does it mean for the bus driver? If we say we respect the student voice and want to give students real autonomy, how does each adult, in his or her own particular role, make that come to life?

One team member said, “Well, we have a student government.” I asked if the student government got to make decisions that affected the way the school was run, or if it just concerned itself with the theme of the spring dance. The question was met with some uncomfortable laughter, but it mattered. How can you promote democratic citizenship if students can’t actually cast a vote that means something?

I pushed the idea a little further: what about the cafeteria staff? Are they involved in these core values? Do students have a say in what gets served at lunch? There was more rueful laughter, but no one responded. “Are we afraid that they’d make terrible choices?” I asked, “That you’d have pizza and doughnuts every day?” People nodded and laughed. “But isn’t it our job to help them become informed voters?” I asked. “Isn’t that an important part of responsible citizenship?” Thomas Jefferson was pretty clear that a democracy required an educated and informed citizenry. So why not provide opportunities for students to learn about healthy diets—not just abstractly in their health class, but as part of their role in helping plan the lunch menu? Wouldn’t that be one real expression of how the school embodies its core value and promotes its mission?

Every aspect of a school’s mission statement should have a corresponding value that requires particular behaviors and real commitment on the part of the school staff. Every one of those core values can be expressed, somehow, in the particular day-to-day tasks of each adult working in the school—even the bus driver; even the janitor. Connecting those dots from the ground floor all the way up to the clouds is rigorous and time-consuming work, but it’s worthy and important work. It’s work that pays off, in the long run.

It’s very difficult to manage a mission or a vision. They’re abstract and amorphous and often dreamy. At the same time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the day-to-day needs of the school and feel like you’re on a treadmill of drudgery. But if you’ve taken the time to ensure that the day-to-day tasks connect, in real and meaningful ways, to the mission and purpose of the school, then you won’t have to worry about that mission anymore, and you won’t have to worry that the details are trivial. Make the small details work, and the big picture will take care of itself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New: Part II

“Behold, a sower went forth to sow…” (Matthew 13:3)

A couple of months ago, I talked about the parable of the sower and the seeds. You remember the story: a man sows seeds; some of them grow, some of them don’t. The seeds that fall on stone have no topsoil to accept the roots. The seeds that fall in the weeds are choked before they can reach the sun. The seeds that fall on fertile ground grow tall and strong.

I used the parable to talk about schools. I talked about the “garden” as the larger school community, with the adults as the “seeds” who have potential for growth and change within that community (personal, cultural, organizational)—growth that can be encouraged or stifled. The question I raised was: whose responsibility is it to make sure those seeds grow? Whose fault is it if growth and change do not happen? Is it the ground’s fault for not being hospitable, is it the seed’s fault for falling in the wrong place, or is it the sower’s fault for not tending the garden properly?

This time around, I’d like to change the focus. After all, the garden we’re talking about wasn’t built for our benefit, was it? We have an important role to play, and we need to feel inspired and fulfilled. School reform, improvement, and change depend on the work we do, every day. But those things aren’t important because of their effects on us. Schools exist so that our students can learn and grow. The garden was built for them—and in some sense, every grade we teach is a “kindergarten.”

Whose Garden Is It?

So here we are, back at our parable: this time, the students are the seeds. Some seeds fall on rocks, some fall in the weeds, and some fall on fertile soil. Some students never really “click” in school; some students start strong, but see their progress choked and strangled along the way; some students thrive. We love to say in our mission statements that “all students can learn,” but we know, sadly, that not all students do learn. Not with equal success, at any rate. Perhaps our parable can help us see some of the challenges in a different light.

Let’s start at the top. Not all of the seeds land in fertile soil. Whose responsibility is it to make sure that doesn’t happen? Is it all right for a teacher to say, “Look, I taught the lesson; if they didn’t learn it, that’s their fault?” People do say such things, especially at the college level, as this open letter to college freshmen demonstrates. And there are plenty of high school teachers who feel the same way. Maybe there are even some elementary and middle school teachers who would agree. We do our best. We bring our A-Game. We give them the good stuff. If they don’t care, or they’re too distracted, or they simply don’t have the good manners to sit still and behave, well…that’s their fault, or their parents’ fault, but it’s not ours.

It’s an easy thing to say, and it probably feels good to say it. But is it fair? Blaming the students strikes me as being unrealistic, at the very least--especially in high-poverty schools where we know many students are coming in without having had a decent meal to start the day, or a quiet place to do their homework. There are students stranded on the rocks or lost in the weeds long before we meet them to begin our work. To blame them for the life circumstances they didn’t choose is more than a little bit unfair. We have to do the best we can, with each of them, regardless of where they have fallen.

This isn’t just pretty poetry. There are real weeds growing out there, choking the life out of the seeds we try to plant. Deprivation and stress have actual, physical, neurological effects on the development of young brains. They’re not irrevocable effects, but while they’re working on the brains of young people, they can be profound. To what extent can students living with those kinds of stressors be asked to “take ownership of their learning?” We may not be able to remove the stressors from their lives, but we have to do what we can to mitigate the effects. Eric Jensen speaks extensively of this in his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, providing an array of strategies to help develop and strengthen things like executive functioning and short-term memory.
What about students who have enough to eat at home, but eat a ton of sugary garbage and either act out or pass out in our classroom? Should they be expected to own their behavior? If not, who is responsible?

What about students who live in homes of economic advantage, but who suffer from anorexia, or bulimia, or bullying, or simply some level of social awkwardness? What about the affluent student I once had, who lived at home with a maid while both of his parents traveled for work? Any of those things can get in the way of learning—and at a certain point in life, you do have to take ownership of the challenges you face, even if other people have been the causes of those challenges. Where is that dividing line—that point after which it’s no longer other people’s responsibility to “fix” you, if that’s even possible? As the letter from the college professor seems to hint, that line is getting pushed deeper and deeper into young adulthood. Should we expect middle school students, regardless of their background, to understand what healthy eating and sleeping habits are, and start developing them? What about high school students? What if we explicitly teach those habits? Are students responsible for adopting them then? What aspects of their lives should we expect them to own, and by what point? If the parents, the teachers, and the students themselves all come to the school building with different expectations, it’s going to be a pretty chaotic garden.

Designing the Garden for Growth

This is why I think it’s more important than ever to ensure that the “soil” we provide is as healthy as it can be. If we can’t predict or control where our students come from, we have to pay extra attention to one thing our students share: the culture and the environment of the school. We have to make sure that every aspect of the school supports and communicates a culture where every kids feels known as an individual, liked for who he is, and valued as a learner--a culture where learning is paramount, and where questions are more than simply tolerated. Those things have to be real and present, from the moment a student walks in the door of the building to the moment he sits in his seat in a classroom.

Environment can have a powerful effect on people. Human beings respond and react instinctively, reflexively, to their physical surroundings. I remember visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Institute, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and being amazed at the strong, visceral feelings his architecture evoked as I moved from room to room. He knew exactly how he wanted me to feel in each room, and in the transition from room to room--and everything about the structure and the furnishings was designed to create those feelings in me.

How carefully and thoughtfully do we design our classroom environments? A classroom can focus children’s attention on things that support instruction, or it can fragment and shatter their attention with too many dazzling, pretty things that are fun to look at, but can sometimes be overwhelming and headache-inducing. The walls of the room should do more than entertain and please; they should teach.

And what about the larger geography of the room? What does the layout of the classroom communicate to students? Does it tell them that learning is a formal and isolated experience, that their relationship with the teacher is meant to be one of quiet attention and obedience (they sit here, looking at you; you stand there, talking to them), and that they are meant to have no relationship at all with their peers (eyes on their own papers; no passing notes, etc.)? The room can tell them all of that, without the teacher having to say a word. Which is fine, if the main thing the teacher is after is obedience. Rooms designed like that are why students are shocked to see teachers out in the world, and aren’t quite sure how to interact with them; it’s a sign that the formal, me-here-you-there dynamic has never been altered for them.

If we want, at least some of the time, an environment that can support collaboration and exploration, discussion and reflection, the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher’s desk are probably not helping us. Can we change them? Shift them around to create different dynamics and a different energy in the classroom? I’m not saying one arrangement is 100% better than the other; teachers who arrange desks in conversational groups can get stuck in a rut, too, forgetting that one arrangement won’t serve all of their needs, all the time.

And let’s not forget that subtle changes in the outside environment can trigger changes in behavior and attitude, as well. I might feel happier in the bright, cheerful art room than I feel in the dark and dreary science lab, just because of the surroundings—and forever after, I’ll think positively about art and negatively about science. Or, conversely, I might perform much better in a calm, dimly lit room than in a room with bright, fluorescent lights. I might do poorly on a particular math test, just because it was raining that day. Or I might do better on the math test because of the rain—because usually, I get distracted by the birds in the trees and the kids playing out in the playground.

Yes, it’s complicated. One size, one approach, can’t fit every student perfectly. It can’t even fit one student perfectly, day after day. Yesterday’s “best fit” for Student X may be all wrong today, for reasons we barely understand.

Children Are Not Begonias

This is where our garden metaphor falls apart. If you’re planting begonias, you figure out what begonias need and you give it to them; end of story. But children are surprising little shape-shifters; what they need is a constantly moving target…as we learn from a pleasant, little ditty from the musical, The Fantasticks.

This doesn’t mean teachers should have to prepare 30 different lesson plans for 30 different students, and shuffle them, day after day. But it does mean that we should always have a few different ways of modeling, demonstrating, and explaining things to our students, and a few different ways for students to show us that they have learned. It does mean that we should be okay with the fact that some students “get” a new concept right away, while other students need to reflect and percolate a little bit before the light bulb clicks on. It means we have to be flexible and adaptable, willing to bend and shift—improvise, as I said a few months ago.

It’s a challenging garden we tend, and the plants that grow from the seeds we plant can be surprising and unpredictable. You think you’ve planted, fed, and tended your garden this year just like you did it last year, but you get completely different results, without ever quite knowing why. It’s what makes this particular gardening job so challenging…and so wonderful.

(originally published at

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Man--and a School--For all Seasons

(originally published at

I didn’t intend to be an educator. My parents were both teachers—my father at a law school and my mother in a fifth grade classroom--but it never occurred to me to follow in their footsteps. I was going to be an artist—a playwright, actually. I worked for my university theatre after graduating from college, and then went to graduate school to get my Masters in Fine Arts. I learned a lot and met a number of people who ended up being important in my life, including my future wife. But the one thing my advanced degree didn’t give me was a job. There were no jobs, really, in my field, unless you wanted to teach. And teaching gigs in theatre, at the time, were scarce and fiercely fought-over. So there I was, returned to Atlanta, GA, ready to ply my craft but in need of a day job.
When I told my mother that I would try to get my old bookstore job back, she…well, she didn’t exactly tear her hear out in classic, Jewish-Mother-Anguish, but she came pretty close. To keep me from this fate, she introduced me to a friend who was running a small, alternative school right across the street from my old college campus. The man’s name was Wood Smethurst, and throughout his career, he had been instrumental in founding almost every progressive alternative school in and around Atlanta. He sounded like an interesting man, and worth meeting, even if he didn’t have a job for me.

I went off to see him at his school, which turned out to be a tiny, one-story house—easy to miss and looking nothing like a school. When Wood came to the door, he looked nothing like a school headmaster. He was nearly bald, with his remaining hair wild and uncombed. He was overweight, with food stains on his shirt and his shirttail un-tucked. He looked, overall, a bit like W.C. Fields. But he had an enormous smile and a hearty laugh, and he welcomed me into his world.

On the inside, his world looked even less like a school. The rooms of the house were furnished with big, wooden tables, where students worked individually or in pairs. There were lovely bookshelves and antiques everywhere. There was a functioning kitchen, where kids could make themselves a bagel or a cup of coffee whenever they needed a pick-me-up. There was a garden out back, where students could sit and read. The adults in the building moved around from room to room, stopping and sitting whenever they needed to spend some time with a student. Everything was individualized and everything was self-paced. Everyone called the headmaster, “Doc,” and he presided over the main room of the building, sitting at the head of the biggest work table and watching over the students and teachers with a benevolent smile, usually with a cat sitting in his lap and a cup of coffee near to hand.

His school, the Benjamin Franklin Academy, was founded to catch high school students who were “falling through the cracks” and who were in danger of dropping out, or who had already dropped out (or been kicked out), but wanted to get their diploma. It was Doc’s dream school—inspired by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, but aimed at a very particular student body. It was deliberately designed not to look or feel like a traditional school, to help both students and teachers break old habits and old ways of interacting. Students had clear graduation requirements, and worked with their advisors to make monthly and weekly plans. They were free to work on whatever they wanted to work on, whenever they wanted to work on it, as long as they worked and progressed. In fact, there were only four rules governing the entire school: do your own work and let others do their work; be gentle with the house and the furniture; no fighting; and don’t let the cats out. In the four years that I taught there, I never saw the need for additional rules.

This was not an easy school. There were no Carnegie Units, there was no such thing as “seat time,” and there was no social promotion. In fact, there were no grade levels at all. You either met your graduation requirements in a year, or two, or three, or you didn’t. Some of the requirements were formal, like completing twelve, error-free papers in a variety of essay formats. Some were more informal, like being able to identify 20 nations and their capitals, selected at random by a teacher. It was competency-based learning, decades before that was a hot topic of conversation in our world.

It was a deeply human school, designed to meet the needs and lives of adolescents, rather than asking students to bend and warp themselves to fit the structure of the school. Students felt known and understood as human beings, and they knew their teachers as human beings, as well. Learning was an ongoing conversation, rather than a lecture. The school was more than a community; it was a family. In the years I spent there, we never had a truancy problem. In fact, we had more of a drop-in problem; kids felt good there, and they wanted to be there as much as they could be.
Although I never heard Doc say it, it was clear that love was his guiding principle. When hiring new teachers, he cared very little about the schools they had gone to or the certifications they held. What he wanted to know was: Did they know their subject deeply? Did they love their subject fervently? And did they like hanging around with teenagers? He wanted—and he built—a community based on passion for learning. And he led his school with absolute commitment to his students. If a family ran into financial trouble, he kept the student on for free, even in the early years when money was tight. If a student ran into legal trouble, he took collect calls from the jail every day, to talk to the student and keep his spirits up. Everything about the school said, “We are on your side, and we will not abandon you.”

It mattered. Even the most sullen, disengaged student in our school was only disengaged on the outside. After all, they had chosen to come back to school. They wanted to graduate and get on with their lives. But more importantly, they wanted something to be meaningful. They were desperate for meaning and connection and passion. They may have rolled their eyes and said sarcastic things about how nerdy their teachers were, but it mattered to them that they were surrounded by people who cared about something—or someone. That modeling—of living a passionately-committed life—was more important to them than anything in the English or math curriculum.
It is almost thirty years since I first set foot in the Benjamin Franklin Academy. If you click on the link, the school you see will look nothing like the modest little building I taught in. I was there for four of the early years, when desperate parents, surveying the scene, wondered if the headmaster was insane, and doubted if were making the right choice for their children. No one wonders about that, anymore. The school has grown impressively in size and stature. It is an Atlanta institution.

But, like all successful institutions, it will have to outlive its founder. We lost Doc on July 14th. He is the second of my education heroes to have passed, this year—but this loss is more personal and painful to me, because Doc was more than an author I admired. He was my mentor, my guide into this career. His modeling, his manner, and his careful curating of my reading list, early on, all shaped my understanding of what teaching should be and what schools could be. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that everything I have done in my professional career in education bears some trace of Wood Smethurst's beliefs and passions.

I often say that the Ben Franklin Academy ruined me for any other school. I say it only half-jokingly. Being able to see, with painful clarity, the gap between what is and what can be, is a great motivator. It keeps the fire burning, even on the bleakest, most hopeless days of my personal winters. It reminds me that we owe our students—and ourselves—so much more.
Look, we’re all grown-ups here. We’re all professionals. We know that the world demands compromises and concessions from us—sometimes daily. We make the adjustments we need to make to hold onto our jobs and to get through the day. We tell ourselves that today’s concession is pretty small, really, and it doesn’t undo or undermine all of the good we’re doing in the world. And that’s probably true. Holding onto unrealistic dreams and refusing to face reality can drive a person crazy.

But I knew a crazy dreamer once. I knew someone who decided to resist all the compromises being demanded of him, and built exactly the kind of school he had always dreamed of.  It was, and is, a beautiful school—a fitting legacy to a beautiful man. I am grateful to have known him, and to have had the chance to be part of his dream, if only for a few years.



Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Five Essential Questions

Sometimes in your journey through life, you encounter writers or artists who speak in a language that feels like it was written just for you. The things they say or show you may be brand new, but those things resonate and reverberate with you, touching something that’s already there. They wake up something inside you that feels absolutely your own, but also brand new.

Grant Wiggins was one of those people for me, and when we lost him (far too young) on May 28, it hit me hard.
I can’t remember if my introduction to Grant Wiggins was through his book, Understanding by Design, co-written with Jay McTighe, or through a presentation at an ASCD conference. Whichever it was, it happened years after I stopped being a classroom teacher, and it made me wish (as all of my subsequent encounters with his thought made me wish) that I had had access to his wisdom when I had young people in my charge.

One of the first things that Grant Wiggins introduced me to was the idea of the Essential Question—the open-ended, thought-provoking query that can frame a curriculum unit or even an entire year. In honor of that First Learning, here are five big questions that Grant Wiggins posed, either in his books, his presentations, or his blog—five questions that have rattled around in my brain for years, and have affected my thinking and my work:

1) Who taught you how to think?

This question was posed as an opening activity/icebreaker at a conference workshop, and the language was left deliberately vague. When people asked Wiggins for clarification, he refused to provide it. “I don’t know what I mean,” he said. “You tell me what I mean.” When it came time for us to share, each of us discussed what we meant by “think,” and who it was who first taught us how to do that thing. Interestingly, most of us came up with the same, basic definition; we saw “think” as the ability to reason, argue, and analyze. Many of us said that our parents had taught us to think, usually as part of dinner table conversation. It spoke powerfully to the importance of a family sharing meals and having time away from electronic devices to just…talk. I know that for me, dinner was often a time of lively conversation and sometimes fierce debate. Even when I wasn’t the focus of the argument, merely witnessing the back and forth taught me a lot about the importance of being able to communicate and defend a point of view.

2) What was a meaningful learning experience that was deliberately crafted and shaped for you?

This was another intriguing opening question and icebreaker, and Wiggins was careful in the way he phrased it. He didn’t want us thinking about life experiences that taught us valuable lessons (“…and I never stuck my finger in an electrical socket again…”), but activities or experiences that had been deliberately crafted and shaped by someone to produce learning. The language was left open to accommodate non-classroom activities, if that’s what came to mind. And, as it turned out, that is exactly what came to mind for most people in the workshop. When we shared responses, we were surprised to find that almost no one spoke of an academic classroom experience. For almost everyone, the meaningful learning experience was something that had been led by an athletic coach or a choir director—the kind of person most likely to teach through demonstration, or to set up some kind of simulation or “scrimmage” activity to reveal people’s skills and limitations. Even though we were all educators, very few of us connected our most meaningful learning experiences with academic classroom teachers. It reminded us that “teaching” takes many shapes and forms, and doesn’t live solely in the schoolhouse…and that learning can be profound and important to us, even when it’s not about math or language arts.

3) What is the job description for Classroom Teacher?

This question unleashed quite an interesting and contentious debate in a workshop. Wiggins stood in front of a crowd of teachers and “outed” himself as an addict: “I’m Grant Wiggins,” he said, “and I’m addicted to content.” We all laughed, but it was a rueful laugh of recognition. We knew what it was to be enslaved by the pacing plan.
“What’s our job, actually?” he asked us. “If our job description is simply to deliver content, then it doesn’t really matter whether the kids learn or not—that’s their job, not ours. So do we just march through the content and call it a day?”

Everyone groaned “No!”  

“Then what is it?” he asked. “If you were hiring, what kind of job description would you write?”  Step by step, he led us through an activity of clarifying exactly what the job of teaching really entailed and required. And in some places, the end result was a little surprising to us. Where we ended up—pushed in Socratic fashion by Wiggins—was something like, “the teacher shapes and directs activities and opportunities that cause learning to happen in the student.” We realized there could be quite a difference between “teaching,” as we had all traditionally defined it, and “making sure learning happens.”

4) Why are you teaching that?

One of the questions that Wiggins and McTighe forced us to grapple with in their seminal book, Understanding by Design, is this existentially frightening one: why are you teaching what you’re teaching? In other words: who needs it? Who wants it? Why should anyone care?
Imagine someone bursting into your classroom, mid-lesson, and asking questions like those. Would you have an answer at the ready for every lesson you teach? Or would there be places where you’d have to say, “It’s just what comes next?”

This is part of what Wiggins meant by being addicted to content. There’s a comfort that comes from having a textbook or a pacing plan that tells you what to do from day to day. But Understanding by Design challenged us to be more thoughtful and active in our lesson planning, starting with the end in mind and working backwards to the day-to-day. What’s the point of all of this? What’s the big idea I want my kids to understand? How will I know that they have reached that understanding? What knowledge or skills will I need to provide to help them to get to that understanding? Planning backwards ensures that you know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.

5) What is a standard?

In recent years, during the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, Wiggins spent a lot of time, especially in his “Granted, And…” blog posts, helping people understand what we mean—and should mean—by the word “standard.” It’s a topic that many of us have been arguing about—sometimes heatedly—without figuring out if we’re all using the word the same way. That’s guaranteed to lead to trouble.
Wiggins used his daughter’s experience running track—as he had often used his own, and Jay McTighe’s experiences coaching sports teams—to make powerful analogies about how we measure performance. And he offered up insightful analysis of the new standards to show us where they were helpful and where they might be lacking. As always, he challenged us to think twice or three times about things we had assumed we understood. As always, he prized conceptual understanding over factual knowledge, and was willing to dig (and push us to dig) to get to what was essential.


All of these questions have affected the way I think about teaching and learning. When I reflect on presentations I’ve given and blog posts or eBooks I’ve written, I can see how powerfully Grant Wiggins has shaped my thinking. Although I only met him a couple of times, and never spoke with him more than briefly, I have long considered him one of my gurus. And now he is gone.

It’s a sad and strange thing when your wizards and wise-men disappear. It’s another stage of growing up, I suppose—and it’s a little shocking to realize how long that process really is, how many years into  adulthood it can extend. We depend on the authority and protection of our parents when we are children, but we lean on our heroes for far longer. We turn to their wisdom, and sometimes their example, again and again. But a time comes when they leave us. Either they reveal themselves as less than heroic and they abandon us (or we abandon them), or we lose them to illness or old age. We learn that we have to stand on our own, wise enough to take the right actions and strong enough to defend our positions. We discover that others are relying on us now, to be their heroes and wizards, as frightening as that thought may be. It’s our turn, whether we like it or not. We may never stride the world like the giants we once knew, but we have to do the best we can.
There is a Wiggins-sized hole in the world of education, and it will not soon be healed. It is a loss we will feel for some time. His words are still with us, though, and his passion still burns, clear and hot, through everything he wrote, and said, and shared. What we do with that fire is up to us.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New

“Behold, a sower went forth to sow…” (Matthew 13:3)

We all know the parable: a man sows seeds; some of them grow, some of them don’t. The seeds that fall on stone have no topsoil to accept the roots. The seeds that fall in the weeds are choked before they can reach the sun. The seeds that fall on fertile ground grow tall and strong. We learn that words of wisdom and enlightenment are not heard equally by all who are within earshot. Some people are ready for the hearing and some are not. Some are in mired in environments or circumstances that simply will not allow the “seed” of wisdom to sprout and change their lives. The question I find interesting is: Whose responsibility is it to make sure the ground is ready to receive the seeds? Is it the ground’s fault for not being hospitable, or is it the sower’s fault for not tending his garden?  

When we school people use the idea of “garden” metaphorically, we’re usually talking about our children. Perhaps I’ll get to that in a separate blog post. Today, though, I want to talk about us—the adults in the building.

Most of us recognize that real and sustainable change is gradual, organic, and evolutionary, but we’re often too impatient to act on what we know. We want our change instant. We want the silver bullet. We want something that promises, “Just plug it in and it works.” We don’t want to have to deal with some pesky seeds that need careful tending over a long period of time; we want magic beans—you know, the kind that create beanstalks and lead to gold. To some extent, we are the ground on which the seed is sown, and we are often very rocky.

Let’s face it; we’re not great at long-term thinking. We’re wired to be on the lookout for the lion hiding in the grass, not the slow but steady uptick in the overall lion population in our region. And the charlatans among us, whether political or commercial, are happy to profit from our impatience and short-sightedness. Thus do we educators find ourselves in endless cycles of change—latching on to something new, plunging into the chaos and disruption of adoption,  withdrawing our commitment when we don’t see instant results, and then investing our time and money in the Next New Thing. On and on it goes—more and more seed being tossed onto sterile stone. And when we get angry at the waste, we blame each new crop of seeds for being ineffective.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that the adults in an organization are prepared for a change—that they understand and accept the need for it, that they understand the steps of the process and the expected length of the process, and that they understand their role in making the change happen? That’s obviously the job of leadership—and yet, I’ve seen so many change initiatives embarked upon with no real attempt to “prepare the ground” for the new thing being planted. There are leaders out there who feel that their authority is all anyone needs: “If I say it, it will be so.” But in practice, it is not so, is it? In many schools across the country, teachers outlast their principals and superintendents—sometimes by decades. They know how to wait until the Next New Thing passes by.

How can we make sure the seeds fall where they will sprout? Well, tending a garden is a complex occupation. It requires healthy soil and healthy seeds, enriching food and fertilizer, growing conditions that meet the needs of the different plants in the garden, and also constant vigilance to keep the weeds at bay and keep the pathway towards growth unobstructed.  Let’s take them one at a time.

Healthy soil. When we’re talking about organizational change, healthy soil means a healthy school culture—a culture where people have some level of autonomy, where dialogue is open and respectful, and where people work toward a common purpose.

Healthy seeds. Obviously, the content of the proposed change, whatever it is, should be intelligent, backed by research, well constructed, and so on.  We shouldn’t be bringing garbage into our schools. I’m not talking about programs that have a political slant that we do or don’t agree with, or that our parents do or don’t have a problem with—that’s a whole other issue. I’m simply talking about Bad Stuff—trendy new approaches that haven’t been tested or proven, with materials that are filled with factual errors. Products that talk down to students (and sometimes teachers). Curriculum that lets teachers aim for the low middle instead of giving them the tools to aim higher. That kind of thing. Now, I happen to believe that actual “bad seeds” show up pretty rarely in our world. They’re out there, but they’re rare. I think the Great Library of Dead Curriculum, up in heaven, has shelves filled with perfectly decent programs, and ideas, most of which were just implemented poorly and left to die on the vine. Our parable assumes that the seeds being sown are good, and I think that holds, in most cases, in our little school metaphor, as well.

Enriching food and fertilizer. These are two interesting items. Once the seed has been planted, what do you have to do to keep the plant growing? A young plant is tender and vulnerable. It needs careful tending to grow strong. Any new program in its infancy is similarly tender and vulnerable. Any hiccup can be devastating. Anything that looks too difficult or too challenging can threaten the viability of the whole enterprise. This is exactly the stage at which so many change initiatives or new programs are abandoned. Why bother? It’s too hard. It doesn’t work. So how can leadership nurture the program and give it a shot of vitamins along the way? Well, one way is to acknowledge—publically—that this stage is always challenging, and to help and support the team as they slog their way through the process. Another way is to celebrate—publically—whatever little successes occur along the way.

Growing conditions. Some plants need direct sunlight. Some need shade. Some need a little of both. And yet, when dealing with people, who are so much more complex, we often forget that not everyone responds in the same way to the same treatment. Some people need very little encouragement, and in fact resent it if they’re over-nurtured. Some people need a lot of ego-stroking. Some people need just a little hint or push, now and then. Do we know what the different people in our organization need? And do we respect their differences enough to honor them?

Constant vigilance. Weeds will grow to choke the growing plants. Some of them are external: the day to day administrivia that consume people’s attention; the various mandates coming down from higher authorities;  the new materials or processes that may be confusing; even snow days can wreck an implementation. Some of the weeds are internal: anger at having to learn something new; fear of failing and being humiliated; anxiety that the change requires something of people that they may not have. Tending this garden requires more than saying, “Don’t worry about that stuff.” These weeds need to get caught while they’re still small, and yanked out by the roots.

Of course, this whole metaphor is very old fashioned and out of date in educational circles. We don’t believe that leadership is solely defined as the principal as the Great Gardener of the school—our second mother or father, taking care of us and telling us what to do. We believe in distributed leadership. We believe that the actions that make up school leadership should be shared among staff, at least to some degree.

But this actually makes our parable really interesting. Because now, if the actions are not defined by set roles—if “leadership” is owned beyond the job description of “leader”--then everyone gets to participate in everything. We all have to be responsible for both “sowing” and “growing.” We all have to be the nurturing gardeners of our schools…and we are all, at the same time, the vulnerable young seedlings, requiring care and nurturing from each other.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Owning the Room: A Different Look at Teacher Preparation

(originally published at

I’ve been writing and speaking recently about an idea I’m calling, “Teaching for the Stretch,” which is all about engaging students in “conceptual play” to help them reach higher and deeper levels of understanding. Part of this approach involves asking students more open-ended, speculative questions. As I’ve been speaking with teachers and principals, I’ve heard them express some fear that truly open-ended questions will pull classroom discourse far off topic and away from the lesson as planned. In many schools, we demand that teachers write lessons according to a particular format and turn in their plans every week. How can we now tell them to ask “why,” and “how,” and “what do you think,” and “how do you know” questions that may not have a simple or single answer—much less the kinds of “what if we looked at it another way” questions that I’ve been advocating? Aren’t we just opening the door to chaos, disorder, and the Death of the Plan?
Well…possibly. But I think we can open the door a little, just to get some fresh air, without inviting chaos in for dinner. We’ve given teachers-in-training many strategies for classroom management, but I think we’ve shortchanged them on a crucial piece of the puzzle, which has to do with managing discourse.

Whether we’re talking about a traditional, direct-instruction model or something more open and inquiry-based, the teacher is the overall manager of the time and space set aside for instruction, and instruction is a living, breathing, shared experience. It’s not just a delivery of information; It’s a conversation—an exploration. In some ways, it’s a performance, and no performance, even a monologue, is purely monologue. We’re always talking to someone. Someone has been invited into the room, and someone else is there to create an experience for them. Whatever happens in that room, it’s being done for the benefit of the audience.

We often talk as if our time was the precious commodity, as if students were creating obstacles to what we were trying to accomplish. That mindset suggests (whether consciously or not) that students owe us their attention, and that when they become distracted, it’s an insult to us. But what if we thought about their time as being more important? Our students are legally mandated to attend our classes, but they can certainly absent themselves mentally if they’re not engaged. What if we acted as though their attention was a gift that we had to earn? What if we thought about classroom management the way an actor or a stand-up comic thinks about their time on stage? I’m not saying we have to entertain and amuse students every second of the day. Learning is difficult, and we shouldn’t have to pretend that it isn’t. It’s work. But the teacher still needs to “own the room,” as a performer might say—not for her own ego gratification, but to be able to shape and manage the experience for the benefit of the audience.

How do actors or other performers learn how to “own a room?” For a start, they learn how to use their voices and bodies to purpose and effect. An actor spends years getting voice and movement training to help her embody a wide range of characters and emotions. A comic learns when to stand still, when to prowl the stage, and how to use his voice and his microphone to create all sorts of vocal effects. He learns through long, hard experience that a whisper is funnier, or that a pause makes the laugh bigger. Even trial lawyers learn that during direct examination, they should stand to the side and let the witness talk to the jury, but that during cross examination, they should stand between the witness and the jury, so that their questions and commentary become the filter through which the jury hears the witness’ testimony. It’s subtle, but it matters. It shapes the audience’s experience.
Veteran teachers pick up similar techniques—when to get quiet and when to raise their voices; when to move around the room and when to stand still—but by and large, we make teachers learn these things on the job, haphazardly, and we don’t give any guarantees that they’ll learn them at all. They are not part of the curriculum; they’re just things you pick up along the way, if you’re lucky. And that’s a shame. We sometimes say that everything a child does in a classroom is data, but it works the other way around, as well. The way a teacher dresses, speaks, and moves speaks volumes to children, and all of those things can either support or undermine the academic work the teacher is trying to do.
Imagine if part of a teacher’s training included the purposeful and strategic use of voice, movement, and body language. Imagine if novice teachers learned techniques for holding their student “audience” in the palm of their hands and earning their attention and engagement. Imagine if teachers could approach a class period as a shared performance, a carefully and purposefully shaped period of time that has a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion. That’s what our best teachers do already. If the skills are similar to those learned by actors and trial lawyers, why can’t we “bottle” that stuff and teach our cadets how to do it?
There’s another crucial skill that speaks directly to the “teaching for the stretch” idea, the need to breathe air into a lesson to allow for questioning that probes and pushes a student’s learning. I’m talking about the skill of improvisation. Veteran performers know that every night holds the potential for a hundred disasters. They learn how to roll with the punches and keep the show moving. Athletes know that diagrams drawn in the locker room are lovely ideas that can be scuttled by reality in a split second. They know how important it is to be able to analyze a dynamic situation quickly and take the appropriate action. Teachers need the same set of skills, but again, we do not teach them explicitly. And we should. No matter how perfect and well-crafted a lesson plan may be, reality has a way of throwing curve balls at you, and if you can’t hit them…or duck…you’re in trouble.
How does this relate to stretch and conceptual play? I think it has to do with the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we expect. If our lesson plans set us up to ask only closed, fact-oriented questions, we can estimate lesson time fairly efficiently. We throw out the question, we hunt for who has the right answer, and we move on. But if we’re more interested in the wrong answers and what they tell us about the way students are thinking, it’s very hard to know how long that kind of exploration may take, or where a more open-ended question might take us. If you don’t know what kind of answer you’re going to get—or what kinds of questions students might ask of you—then you need to be prepared to change gears and respond. Refusing to respond (to a genuine question) just because it takes you off track betrays a lack of respect for students. It shows them that your time and your plan are more important than their needs, which I think we can all agree is a little bit backwards.
So how can we help teachers be prepared for the curve balls and know how to respond to them? This is where training in improvisation can come in handy.
A recent blog post from Mindshift talks about the power of improvisation for students, saying that “improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking…and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses.” But it’s important for teachers, too. As they say, “It also reminds teachers that listening and responding to students, and adapting to their needs, is more educational than obeying a rigid teaching plan.”
Improvisation teaches a wide variety of strategies for being in the moment and being available to respond to whatever gets thrown at you. Some of the techniques you learn include Agree and Add, which is also known as Yes, And.  We’re often trained to say No when we get thrown a curve ball—or, at most, Yes, But:  “Yes, that’s an interesting point, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.”  Improv teaches you to listen to and then accept the things that get thrown at you--and then build upon them. It gives respect to the thrower of curve balls (or, to be kinder, the student questioner) and takes seriously what they have offered. It teaches us to avoid rejecting the things we haven’t planned for, just because we didn’t plan for them—to accept them and find a way to use them in our teaching. It teaches you to be ever on the lookout for the “teachable moment,” and then make the most of it.
Improv teaches you to explore, together with your partner, whatever you’ve found—to dig into it and ask questions about it. What’s in there? How does it work? What else does it lead to? These are all terrifying questions to a teacher who is trying to re-route a student away from a tangential question and back to the main idea. But if we believe that tangential lines of thought are often where students become truly engaged—and that those tangential questions can reveal how a student is thinking (or mis-thinking) about the core lesson material—then we need to have strategies for dealing legitimately, not dismissively with them. Every one of them can be a teachable moment if we know how to make use of them—if we’re ready to change our plan and engage with the moment we’ve been given.
Every great athlete and soldier knows that all plans are provisional; that reality intrudes in surprising ways. We know it, too. So why don’t we meet the challenge head-on and help our teachers-in-training build the skills they’ll need to deal with the crazy curve-balls that will absolutely, without question, get tossed at them?
As the old Yiddish expression tells us, “Man plans; God laughs.” If we know that the universe is liable to laugh at our best planning, maybe we can learn to laugh along with it.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Can We Get There From Here? From Rhetoric to Real Discussion about the Common Core State Standards

(first published at

It seems like the Common Core State Standards have devolved into yet another opportunity for the citizens of our great nation to call each other idiots. We have one bloc of people who feel that the standards present a rare, historic chance to bring some cohesion, unity, and rigor to our country’s education system, and another bloc of people who feel that the standards present a dangerous intrusion of federal power into what should be a locally controlled effort. That’s fine; this is an important issue, and a healthy debate is a good thing. Unfortunately, we’re not having a healthy debate.
In the “pro” bloc, opponents are considered paranoid, conspiracy-drenched anti-intellectuals. In the “anti” bloc, the initiative is increasingly referred to as “ObamaCore,” and its supporters are referred to as anti-American socialists or “unaccountable corporate interests,” depending who you talk to. The fiery rhetoric takes on a life of its own, completely detached from the thing it’s referring to, a set of documents which very few of the yakkers on either side have actually read. Predictably, our elected leaders stand firmly and proudly on the banana-peel of public opinion, changing their minds as soon as they sense that their constituents have changed theirs.

I am firmly in the “pro” camp, as anyone who has read my blog posts will know. But I don’t want to be blind or blinkered about it—I want to make sure my good feelings about the standards are justified by the facts, as best I can figure them out. So I’m trying, whenever I can, to engage with opposing arguments, to understand where they come from and what merit they might have. If I wanted to be snarky, I could say that this is exactly the approach to evidence-based argumentation that the Common Core State Standards is trying to encourage. But let’s not go there.

Let’s go here instead.  Valerie Strauss, the education writer for the Washington Post, shares an open letter written to President Obama by a literacy consultant in an urban high school, complaining about the new, Common-Core-aligned tests that her daughter is taking (from which the president’s daughters, who attend a non-public school, are exempt). The woman is from Massachusetts, a state that had, pre-Common-Core, some of the toughest academic standards and strongest test results in the country. If anyone could afford to have a “who needs the Common Core?” attitude, it was the good people from Massachusetts. And yet, they adopted the new standards and are now engaged in implementing the tests.

The author of the letter to Obama has some serious reservations about the test her 7th grade daughter has had to take, especially after hearing her daughter say things like, ““These are such weird questions,” “this test is crazy,” “this is a stupid, impossible test,” and, “this question just is a stupid awful question. It makes no sense.”
Now, let’s unpack these comments a little bit. Weird and crazy? Absolutely. These tests are radically different from what we endured as students, or even what this 7th grader was used to taking. Besides being computer-driven, with many technology-enhanced questions that require things like dragging-and-dropping, clicking on objects or pieces of text, and drawing things like lines on graphs, they also include some very challenging, perhaps exhausting, multi-part questions. The author’s daughter calls her test, “really complicated, hard, and unclear,” and I’m willing to take her at her word.

The question here is: does all of that make the test stupid, awful, and impossible? Or is the test simply new and challenging? Let’s say the standards are implemented successfully and peacefully over the next few years. In five or ten years, would a 7th grader react to this test the way the author’s daughter did? Or would she be used to that level of rigor and those particular academic demands? This is a reading and writing test. The material assessed is not material students learn in a single year. These are skills that develop gradually, incrementally, through all the years of schooling. And that has not been the case, for this year’s crop of 7th graders. The expectations built into these standards are different from the expectations that were originally set for today’s middle and high school students.
So is the problem the test itself, or the fact that these students were not ready for the test—could not have been ready for the test? I think the real question, which the author does not raise, is this: is it fair to assess students on material that they have not been fully exposed to? Should we only be implementing these new tests with students who have had the full and correct preparation for them? That would mean giving the tests only to students who started Kindergarten under the new regime.

Which is fairer—to excuse older students from the assessments, or to effectively remove any sense of accountability for implementing the standards for students over the age of six…which is what excusing them from the tests will do? The standards have been with us since 2010. Many teachers and administrators chose not to think about them until the tests came on line this year. This should have been Year 5 of implementation. In too many places, it’s actually Year 1. People should rise to a new challenge without having to take a test to measure compliance and performance. Certainly. Unfortunately, we don’t live on Planet Should.
To understand the anger fueling the people opposing the standards, we need to pull a few things apart that are too often mashed together. There is a difference between the standards and the tests. You can be angry about one—and protest against it—without throwing away the other. Perhaps a more thoughtful approach to implementing the assessments could have protected the standards from being attacked. Perhaps. But there is also a difference between the standards and the way they have been rolled out and implemented. You can admire the standards—as I do—and still think the rollout has been poorly planned, poorly communicated, and poorly executed.

Frederick Hess has written a thoughtful history of the writing and implementation of the standards, and manages to separate the Thing Itself from How the Thing Was Done. He is able to show what is good and important about the standards while criticizing the top-down, condescending, and thoughtless way in which the standards were introduced into the world. Writing from a fairly conservative point of view, he is able to distance himself from the extremist fringes of the CCSS-haters while showing why those people feel the way they do, and what real things may have ignited their fear and paranoia. For those of us who support the standards and have trouble understanding the haters, it’s a sobering and important read.
As Hess points out, and former Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, drives home, education policy that is crafted and implemented with little or no participation from front-line practitioners is doomed to failure. When policy and practice don’t talk to each other—when technocrats and administrators (whether at the school level or in Washington) think they know what teachers need to do without ever consulting them—there is little chance that the policy is going to be practicable…or that the practitioners will sign on to support it.

I still support the standards, and I think their adoption—with a committed, thoughtful implementation—would be a good thing for our teachers and our students. But I don’t know if we can get there from here. I honestly don’t. I don’t know whether we’re capable of having the kinds of discussions—and arguments—we need. And it is precisely our inability to argue this issue well that makes me the saddest. To me, the heart and soul of these standards—in literacy and in mathematics—is an acknowledgement that the things of this world are complex and multifaceted, and that real analysis and critical thinking are needed to understand important issues and solve important problems. But that’s not where we seem to be, right now. We seem to be mired in a world of black and white, good vs. evil, a world where received wisdom from charismatic sources exempts us from having to analyze facts on our own.
It would be a shame to think that we’re incapable of having the rational, evidence-based discussion needed to implement these standards precisely because we weren’t raised with the skills embedded in those standards.

Yeah, I went there. I’m sorry.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Little Things Speak Loudly

It may seem churlish to criticize a children’s movie—and one coming out at Christmas, no less—for its political stance—but our cultural products do speak volumes about us and the way we see the world. I took my children to see the remake of “Annie” over the New Year’s weekend, and apart from aesthetic criticisms (of which I definitely had a few), I found its point of view about wealth and the social contract very interesting. I’m going to make reference to particular plot points below, so if you fear spoilers, leave now.

Several reviewers have already pointed out that the original Daddy Warbucks character, as envisioned by cartoonist Harold Gray, was a hardcore, free-market capitalist who often voiced his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the social policies of the New Deal. Viewers whose knowledge of Little Orphan Annie comes solely from the Broadway musical of the 1970s and the subsequent movie versions may find this surprising, as Warbucks evolved (or mutated) to have a close relationship and alliance with Roosevelt—politics and private industry working hand-in-hand to help the poor. That was definitely not Gray’s vision. His Warbucks believed that the wealthy’s responsibility to society was to simply provide jobs to people.

The newest take on the role, played by Jaime Foxx and now called William Stacks, has much more in common with the original Warbucks than with his later, more liberalized version. He is a cell phone magnate whose single interest is in growing his business. He’s running for mayor of New York City but doesn’t seem to have any platform or agenda beyond increasing his own visibility to help his company broaden its reach.  Early in the film, you might say to yourself (as I did), “What a perfect set-up for what’s coming. He’ll come in contact with Annie, learn about the suffering of others, and discover his true mission in life.” In fact, his lack of actual platform is mentioned so many times, early in the film, that it seemed clear to me that this is where the movie was headed. Add to that his discovery that Annie is illiterate, and that many children in the city fall through the cracks and get passed along in school without learning what they need to learn, and the stage is set perfectly. Stacks will start to think about his relationship and responsibility to the society around him. He’ll become the Education Candidate. He’ll make that his political mission, and that is what will lead him to electoral victory.

Except that’s not what happens. Not at all. Stacks does learn a lesson about selfishness and love, but it leads him to drop out of the race entirely, and let the diehard liberal candidate (amusingly named after the original cartoonist) take the election. Stacks does come out of the story caring about children’s literacy, and it leads him to open a children’s literacy center (although this only happens in the closing credits; up till then, his focus is solely on helping Annie). So he’s a good guy, and he uses some of his money to help others. He’s a good guy in the way the Koch brothers are good guys: if you leapfrog over how they make their money and don’t question why some people should have quite so much money while other have nothing, then you have to acknowledge that they spend some of their money philanthropically, and good for them for doing so. It’s the liberal politician’s job to deal with social policy; the rich man goes back to making money.

What’s interesting is that the underlying system is NEVER questioned, even for a second. Will Stacks is a billionaire because he works hard. He even gets a nice song about making the most of his opportunities. But Annie and the other foster kids live in abusive squalor…why? No reason is given, beyond the fact that their particular foster mother is a selfish wreck. Personal responsibility and accountability are great things to focus on, and they cross the political aisle (though conservatives like to pretend that liberals don’t care about personal responsibility), but they’re not the full story. Why is the foster care system underfunded? Why are the office bureaucrats dour and grim and unhelpful (until one of them gets to rub up against Great Wealth, after which she becomes charming)? How is a bright child like Annie allowed to move through school without learning how to read? The screenwriters go the trouble of pointing out that Annie isn’t alone—that there are many kids who suffer the same problem—but it doesn’t focus any attention on the systemic problems that lead to this result, or suggest that there are structural problems that lead to this result, or suggest that there may be other ways of structuring things. All they offer is the rich man riding in on the white horse to save the day. Thank god there’s a rich guy who can fund a literacy center to make up for our shitty schools, they say. What isn’t said, but is definitely implied, is that shitty schools are just a fact of life…for some people. The poor you will always have with you. And in a world where nothing is causative beyond personal responsibility, or its lack, the other thing that’s implied is that anyone who is poor has only themselves to blame for it. They didn’t make the most of their opportunities, like Will Stacks did.

The message throughout seems to be that society must depend on the wealthy for pretty much everything—not only for jobs, but also for whatever assistance is needed to better our lives. So thank God for the rich. They do not have any responsibility to fix the system—to make it more equitable, to make it more functional. They do not have any responsibility to limit what they take, to make sure others have what they need. Each person is a free agent, and each person is 100% responsible for his or her life circumstances. There is nothing else at play, holding people back or limiting their opportunities. Therefore, the only responsibility of the rich man is to get rich and stay rich, so that they can “save” whatever they deem worthy of saving, out of the goodness of their hearts. They are the lords and the rest of us are serfs, and you’d better thank your lucky stars you have a lord on hand to take care of things.

I don’t mean to mock. This is a real political point of view, held by many people in this country—now and in times past. I think it’s surprising how clearly and internally consistently this point of view is illustrated and defended throughout the movie, especially considering how excessively liberal Hollywood is accused of being. The DVD of the movie ought to be every conservative’s favorite stocking-stuffer, next Christmas.

However, I do think it’s important to identify the point of view and see it for what it is. It’s very easy to take the happy ending as given, and swallow the happy medicine with the spoonful of sugar it’s delivered with. But I think it’s all right to think about it, too, and question it—to have a dialogue with the movie (as with any piece of art and culture). If we happen not to agree with its point of view, I think it’s right and proper to challenge it, especially with older children who are seeing the movie with us. Every movie creates a world, and every fictional world gives us the opportunity to learn something about the real world. We should make the most of our opportunities.