Monday, December 11, 2017

A Modest (Maybe Not So) PD Proposal

       As I was reading Whiplash, which is about MIT’s Media Lab, I came across this description of staff member Ed Boydon: “Boyden didn’t draw strict boundaries around an object of study—he didn’t have objects of study at all. Instead, he was fascinated by life itself, in all its vibrant complexity” (p 220). The line captured the approach of the Media Lab, where open and never-ending exploration of any topic is standard operating procedure. I also found myself recalling a Twitter chat about professional development, in which I remarked:

Certainly much greater PD than most of the formal events I've attended.
       I'm not interested in ticking off the reasons why so much professional development is poor. Instead, I'm thinking about how it should change to bring about some of the shifts we need to see in education. I think much of that depends on a certain outlook and accompanying mindset. To consider that notion, let's unpack some of what is suggested in that Tweet.
       First are some sweeping implications about the purpose of school and how to meet those objectives. Rather than college or career preparation, school must become life preparatory and thus continually evolve accordingly. Workshops on standard curriculum and pedagogy are therefore inadequate. Further, schools must be not only responsive to societal trends but also learn how to take advantage of them. More importantly, educators--and things always come down to people, don't they?--must broaden their perspective and consider much more than their classrooms and/or subjects. We need more generalists rather than specialists. For example, I love when a teacher sees something cool from any area and wonders, "How can I share this in a meaningful way with my students?" When teachers exhibit their own insatiable, expansive curiosity, they model the sort of joyful learning that school can muffle inside cavernous and echoing academic silos.
       I see schools moving in this direction, and I can imagine them being like "life itself, in all its vibrant complexity." But we still have so much hard work to do, individually and collectively and systematically. As we press forward, I'll feel much better to the responses I would receive to another musing Tweet I posted:

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Fine Art of Cooking

       I don't recall where I first heard the idea that giving students too detailed a rubric (or, I guess, and sort of excessive directions) is akin to simply asking them to follow a recipe.  They may produce an acceptable meal, perhaps even a tasty one. They are, however, very unlikely to ever become true chefs.
       A recent TV viewing experience affirmed the truth of this metaphor in quite literal terms. My wife and I tuned into Chopped Junior on the food network because one of her college friend's 13-year-old daughter was competing. In case, like me, you have no idea what the premise of the show is, I'll briefly explain. There is a certain food theme; in this case, it was fast food. Contestants are given a few random ingredients and told what they have to prepare within a set time. They can augment with whatever is available in the kitchen. After each round one person is eliminated by the adult judges. It's all high-paced, creative, dramatic, and surprisingly entertaining. To remove any suspense, Annabelle won. And her victory captures the larger point.
       She has seven siblings, and I believe she's one of the younger children. When she was around seven, as if life weren't hectic enough, her father lost his job. Annabelle was often told to find what was in the kitchen and figure out something to cook. She began by following basic instructions, only to soon begin branching out and later beginning to experiment in all sorts of ways. Nothing on the show flustered her.*
       Her final opponent was a young man whose two parents are chefs, and he had been training at their feet for years. While clearly talented, he seemed unable to improvise nearly as well. More than that, the pressure clearly impeded his performance.
       It's not that hard to figure out the secret sauce.

*It's also interesting, and perhaps relevant, that she is home-schooled.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Teacher's Ten First Jobs

                Jessica Lahey’s essay “Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic,’ which recounts an essay with Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), contains a great deal of inspiration.  It was first published nearly two years ago, and I recently encountered it again because of some Tweets. While I highly recommend the piece, as I do any of her writing that I’ve encountered, one line in it jarred me. It’s part of a pull quote, and I’m not sure if it comes from Lahey or Teller. It reads: “The first job of the teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.”
                I have so many problems with this statement that I’m unsure where to begin. If I try to thoroughly explain each of them, I’ll have the outline for a book. If I try to summarize, I’ll wind up with a frustrating mass of frustration. So I’ll reduce my basic argument to one rather sweeping assertion.  When our primary focus becomes teaching a subject, we create many of the other problems that plague education, because we forget an essential truth: that what we’re really teaching are young people.
                With that in mind, I’d like to propose ten other possible first jobs of a teacher, perhaps with the subject as context or even tool, although what that is really doesn’t matter.

     --Get to know and love your students.
     --Remember they are developing young people, not professors to be.
     --Tap into their innate curiosity by asking students what they believe and what they want to know.
     --Create a safe classroom culture.
     --Make learning relevant.
     --Share your own ongoing learning (not just that from the past).
     --Decide what risk you’re going to take.
     --Clarify—to them and to yourself—what the most important goals are.
     --Develop a plan for moving out of their way.
     --Shrink your ego so they can grow.

While each of these could be the first job, together they are the job. Do such work, and then a nice by-product may be that students come to love a subject.

Monday, October 23, 2017


     I discovered the word gallimaufry a couple of weeks ago, and it has stuck with me. It means a jumble or confused medley; applied to food, it's a hash. At the same time, it sounds rather elegant (gal-uh-maw-free). So the word captures what I hope this post becomes. Every once in a while I publish a piece which is simply a bunch of seeds that have been buried in my mind, but they've never sprouted into full posts, let alone full ideas. So from this point on, things may become disjointed, even jarring in the lack of transition and development. Perhaps some bits may shine a bit.

The more I think and read about grading/grades, the more I'm convinced it impedes deeper learning in all sorts of ways ..... I've asked many people in various realms what they think effect of current political climate is on young people. Already really concerned, I found this piece from CNN "What the 'Trumpification' of the presidency means to Generation Z" quite disheartening ..... We're being myopic if we don't look beyond Trump and look at larger cultural issues of which he is just extreme symbol ..... I'm encouraged by all the attention the Mastery Transcript Consortium is receiving. I haven't studied in that closely, but I must ask: How is this different than what Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools were advocating back in the 1980s? ..... So many schools now have a Picture of the Ideal Graduate. Wondering how many have a Picture of the Ideal Teacher ..... Speaking of which: What would be the three most important qualities of such? Which single one? ..... One of the things which goes against the idea of work-life balance is that, if we've found meaningful work, aren't we our genuine, passionate self in both? I know that's not really the idea, but I hope you get my gist. And if that's the case, we do better in both realms ..... The old saw claims that what gets valued, gets measured. In many cases, though, I think measuring removes potential value by limiting ..... I remain huge fan of Twitter, despite how toxic a forum it can become. But that's a human problem, not a technology problem ..... Wonder if most problems are really cultural rather than technical ..... Pre-k and K kids bopping in and out of school with oversized, nearly empty backpacks. No matter how many times I've seen it, I love it ..... Given the way handwriting was drilled into most of us as youngsters, why do we all have such distinctive, often messy, penmanship? That must be a metaphor for something ..... The idea of tattoos is growing on me, with greater appreciation for the art form. But I'm no closer to ever getting one, mainly because I can't decide what I would ..... Yesterday the rector at my church talked about the singularity in his sermon. I didn't have the heart to tell him how much closer we may be than the examples he presented ..... Aren't many of the reasons given for why schools must change actually reasons, if extended far enough, that school may not even need to exist? ..... Of course, people always will need something to do with their kids ..... I find it strange to be writing a post in this form when the past couple of months I keep feeling this strange tug to try writing a book.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Idealism vs Practicality

            One tension I feel acutely as a head of school is the constant need to balance my idealism and practicality. I know many other heads who feel the same. To be more specific, educational leaders maintain strong beliefs in what education can and should be as what many call one of the noblest professions. That last word, however, suggests the other side of the issue: that an independent school, while mission driven and non-profit, is a business. That is not to say a business cannot operate in high-minded fashion; indeed, I believe most independent schools do, and I know most people not in the upper administrative levels of education don’t think much about this part of their world. It is, though, a reality we must consider.
            The truly excellent and brave letter John Allman, head of Trinity School in Manhattan, sent to his community this summer resurrected this struggle for me. It was cited recently by the New York Times in an article on private schools and social justice. The letter reaches much further than that. I’d say it has much more to do with the commoditization of private education. One of John’s key points focuses on the loss which occurs when the relationship becomes more contract that covenant. When it does, we emphasize the transactions that occur, the products at the end, rather than the more ethereal aspects of the process. I’m oversimplifying John’s epistle, and I encourage you to read the entire piece. I imagine most school heads were nodding their heads vigorously while reading, wishing they had composed it. It sings with the voices of our highest angels.
            While this problem is not new, it has been exacerbated over the past couple of decades as our culture has become increasingly consumerist. Perhaps it is the emergence of the iCulture, with the ability to tailor more and more to our individual needs and satisfaction, the belief more and more should be personalized. Maybe it’s a heightened sense of competition. I’m not sure. But I know it’s pervasive.      
At the same time, I hope we in the independent school world also have looked at our role in the relationship. Complicity may be the right word. With our staggering annual tuition levels—in some markets well over $40,000—how could we not expect people to want a clear return on investment? What signal do the cathedral-like facilities send? What about bloated programs? It’s no wonder a hot topic right now is our economic sustainability
Thus, so many of us have engaged in marketed campaigns designed to differentiate us, to show the value-added.* For several years, first as a curriculum director and then as a head, I embarked on what I termed the quest for the golden metric(s). We all feel that pressure to prove our worth, to validate the cost. We take quite seriously that parents, as a friend of mine use to say, trust us with their two most precious possessions—their cash and their kids.
To accomplish that understandable goal, we do things such as publish matriculation and acceptance lists. We crow about high test scores and award winners. On a more micro level, we post honor rolls and confer all sorts of prizes. We use grades as carrots. We—and I readily admit my guilt as both school leader and teacher—do this because we feel we have to, like it or not.
We do so for very practical reasons. They are sometimes harsh realities. After all, we have to put food in our bellies. But what about nourishing our souls? The tension brews consternation about where any educator’s greatest idealism should aim: the impact on children. I worry that, along with other societal pressures, we’re stripping some of the joy from childhood.

*Whether they have succeeded or not is another question, particularly as to differentiation.