Thursday, February 16, 2017

Reliving My Childhood: Reflection on The State of Our Nation

       I was born in 1961, one of the final baby boomers, in New Rochelle, NY, a classic suburb memorialized in The Dick Van Dyke Show. When I was in 5th grade, we moved to Bedford Village, an idyllic hamlet in Upper Westchester County, with a village green and beautiful buildings from the Revolutionary period, one of which was a backdrop for the opening of Peyton Place. For the most part, I enjoyed was a very easy, non-traumatic childhood, full of sports and play and adventures. It was, however, set within the context of a tumultuous historical period, one that shaped me in many ways. Now, at 55, I feel as if I'm reliving parts of that childhood vicariously, wondering about our children's sense of what's happening in our nation.
       Growing up in the 1960s and early 70s, I witnessed the great division in the United States, whether about the war or civil rights or any other issue. We lived right across the street from a large high school, so I saw a daily parade of flower children. One day someone torched the school in an act of protest. Suddenly the demonstrations and riots that juxtaposed the battle scenes and body counts presented by Walter Cronkite seemed more real. My grandfather, whom I adored, groused about the "yo-yos" as my hair grew longer, my clothes wilder. Even at that age I embraced the movement, regularly flashing the peace sign at people. While I didn't understand all the issues, I knew what I felt and believed, as passionately as I loved the Grateful Dead (and still do). I recall cheering in front of the television when Nixon resigned. (I imagined it being that way when LBJ announced he was not running for re-election, but that was a bit before my social-political consciousness awakened.) To my friends and me, he represented everything wrong with the system. Nixon made us believe all politicians were, despite his claim, crooks, just as police were pigs and soldiers baby-killers.
       Now, with experience and maturity, while I still lean heavily towards the left, I see things with more tones of nuances and paint with a much finer brush. For instance, I value and respect police and military, knowing there are the good and the bad there as in any enterprise. I recognize and even revel in the complexities of our lives, particularly within a democracy which continues to be an ongoing experiment not just in government but also in the vicissitudes of human nature. But my gaining that perspective took a long, long time. Actually, the process continues.
       I'm very grateful that I grew up during a time that essentially forced awareness on me. In fact, as an educator and parent, I've worried about how for so long our society has been largely apolitical, perhaps even apathetic. I believe in an education that promotes engagement with the world, leading to active and contributing citizens, all of us committed to a social compact for our individual and collective betterment. We saw some of that start to change during the first Obama campaign, as young people flocked to that movement driven by hope. Whatever one may believe politically, I think their involvement is a positive. Better an active citizenry than a passive one.
       Now, once again circumstances demand our attention. I worry about what our young people are seeing, thinking, feeling, learning. What is their sense of our nation and its government as they watch the extreme political jockeying that seems absent of basic morality? Their assessment of human respect when refugees become  denigrated in the same way during the Vietnam War some called all Asians "gooks" because they all were the enemy? Who is showing them how to act selflessly and ethically and courageously? I could pose many similar questions. All of them add up to one larger, more vexing one: What are the long-term effects of what young people are experiencing right now? Don't make the mistake of thinking all this isn't touching the, either directly or indirectly.
       As it does, I pray what influences them more than anything are those scenes most evocative of my youth--those of people gathering in peaceful, optimistic protest. I like to think of it as communal affirmation of principles. It's rooted in the belief that each of us is responsible to some degree for whether or not we honor our values and potential as a nation. It's a hope which became a determination symbolized by another enduring moment from my childhood--putting humans on the moon, a moment that confirmed with the right spirit we can achieve what had been seen as unachievable and perhaps even miraculous.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Innovation Dilemma

       For a while now, innovation has been the latest buzzword in education. At least, I think it has been. The words seems to come more quickly now, especially on social media, so it can be hard to keep up. That leads to an inevitable question: How do we encourage more innovation in schools?
       My using the term "buzzword" suggests a dismissive attitude, and perhaps there is a tinge of that, mainly because I fear I've developed a bit of the long-time educator's skepticism about the latest and currently shiniest silver bullet. But in reality, as anyone familiar with my thinking knows, I'm not dismissive of it at all. We need to become more innovative in schools. Or, perhaps better stated, all our approaches to school need to become more innovative. I hope that an ongoing theme of this blog portrays that sense. What I'm musing on in this process post, is the how and why this has been so hard. Doing so tests my empathy, because I'm someone who loves regular change and would love to see it occur faster.
       Part of the problem is the word innovate itself, and the issues compound when it becomes a buzzword. The literal definition is simple enough: "something new or different introduced." But it connotes something grander, something vast and earth-shaking. We talk about paradigm shifts and denting the universe, with Steve Jobs held up as the exemplar. Sometimes it can feel as if someone is expected to come up with the iPhone of pedagogy. While I clearly exaggerate for effect, I imagine the constant calls for innovation can be intimidating.
       To complicate, often these cries for innovation (and all that they imply) often call for it to occur while so many of the same sort of frameworks remain intact. Curriculum, schedules, classrooms, measurements--unless these things change in a systemic fashion, I'm not sure much real innovation occurs in wider, more meaningful ways. It's all entwined. The larger culture has certain expectations and beliefs about education, largely rooted in past practices. Plus, in schools truly busting up those schema, it can ultimately exhausting. In a recent conversation with someone at a school where many new and interesting things are going on, he talked about people feeling "initiation fatigue." Education is draining work, as is innovating.
       Yet this innovation is work that has to happen. Thoughtful people who've been paying attention know that. So the question remains: How do we get there? Can we resolve the dilemma? I think part of the solution lies in how we exercise our leadership. Primarily in the language we use and our expectations. Ironically, given what I've laid out above (and there could have been more), if we want more innovation, perhaps we should stop using that word, at least with those moving more slowly.
       I often talk about trying to do at least a bit better each day. Rather than talk about innovation, which has such vast implications, perhaps that is the way to think and about--and suggest--moving forward. People can try something new, sometimes out of desire, sometimes out of necessity. It might work; it might not. When it does, celebrates victories great and small. When it doesn't, rather than reject immediately, reflect and consider amendments and/or alternatives. Then try another new thing.
       Eventually, flywheel effect kicks in. (Or you might think of the virtuous cycle.) That wheel starts spinning, the momentum builds, it begins to propel itself, and then more enduring and meaningful change happens. In fact, it's how real innovation actually happens.
     

Friday, January 27, 2017

How Educators Can Help Turn Back the Doomsday Clock

                So the doomsday clock has been moved closer to midnight, primarily in response to the election, inauguration, and first week of Donald Trump as president. Depending on one’s views on the situation, one may think it’s ticking faster than ever or one may think that’s an over-reaction prompted by a liberal media. I’m not going to take a position on that, and while I am going to become a bit more political than I like to in this blog, I’m trying to express this with the voice of an objective educator.
                Before I begin, however, I have to acknowledge doing so is becoming harder. Personally, sometimes I can lean so far left that I could tip over at any time. However, I try hard not to let that seep too much into my work other than how I treat people. I don’t see a school’s job as dictating what someone should think about a particular topic. But we should be teaching the right way to approach topics and how to engage individually and collectively in a search for understanding that improves us.
                That is why when I consider all the things which have so many people upset and anxious and angry and scared, I see a certain irony in the doomsday clock being moved forward when it comes to our children and their education. Yes, there are the oft-expressed concerns about what children may be learning and feeling. But I’m looking at this in more practical terms. It’s not just about the nomination of a person who seems amazingly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. It goes right to one primary purpose of education—preparing our children for the future and the world they will be entering.
                That is where the irony comes in…although irony may not really be the right word. Right now it seems as if President Trump and his people want to “Make America Great Again” by turning back to clock to an earlier time. And it’s a notion which I don’t believe can happen except to America’s detriment. Like it or not, with remarkable acceleration the world has become a highly-interconnected, highly-interdependent single system, except for some notable outliers who choose to practice isolationism and suffer for it. The issue is more than an economic one. Thriving in such a world requires an empathetic openness to other cultures and people, one that leads to a sense of “we” rather than “us and them.” Countless studies have shown how cultures benefit from the intermingling of diverse perspectives. The moves we’ve seen thus far smack of a hubris which seems to assume the trajectory of the world will change because the United States wants it to.

                But, despite whatever remains of our prominence, it won’t. History, short- and long-term, shows us that. Empires crumble; revolutions happen. Throughout the ages there have been doom criers. Yet the world continues to progress. Despite what we often think and feel, the reality is that it is less violent and moreaccepting place than ever. But recently we should be feeling true urgency. Perhaps now more so than ever, as educators we need to be thinking about how we help our students be a meaningful part of that forward march. Without engaging in extremism or proselytizing, we have to model the ideals and have the important conversations. Our students can be the ones who get that doomsday clock turned back. And that isn’t about liberalism or conservatism, Democrat or Republican, internationalism or jingoism. It’s about what should drive educators at any time: an optimistic belief in humanity.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Not Knowing and Leadership

       While I believe it's inherently wrong, perhaps even harmful, to reduce education to a single overarching objective, I'm going to do so here for the sake of my argument, albeit with a caveat. That is, the objective I'm going to assert can play out in endless ways. It's the notion that a meaningful, purposeful education prepares one to lead. To lead by being who one is in whatever roles one plays. And just as we rethink what it means to be a leader, we need to rethink what it means to be educated and ready for that role.
       Last month I sent out the following Tweet:
When I saw it, I found myself recalling The idea of level 5 Leadership from Jim Collins' work in Good to Great, particularly the notions of modesty, looking out the window to apportion credit, and setting up successors for even greater success. Then a couple of days ago, I ran across a Fast Company blog post titled "Why Real Leaders Have Strong Egos and That's a Good Thing." The author, S. Chris Edmonds, writes, "In practice, 'having an ego' simply means understanding the worldview through which you act--in order to get your own needs met as well as the needs of others. And that, of course, is in every leader's job description." He contends this "takes discovering how you--uniquely--can support both yourself and other people to go through the same process, to 'self-actualize' in reaction to all the messiness of business and life."
       It's not the time-honored definition of a leader. I also suspect it's not one overtly taught in most schools, although we talk about developing leaders. I think that's because of what our culture--and, by extension, schools--defines as being educated. We use terms such as smart and knowledgeable, as if there is a clear and easily defined threshold, and one must present it with surety and gusto, even bravado. Many people draw a certain security from that, wanting to believe our leaders know just where we are going and how to get us there.
       But in such volatile times--the age of accelerations, as Friedman calls it--is that really what we need? Just as Edmonds points out many of misunderstand the concept of the ego and should reconsider its role in healthy human development, let's reconsider knowledge/education and its link to leadership. The second most important knowledge may be the continual realization of just what we don't know, individually or collectively. And the leaders we need may have the first most important--a sense of how to help us all figure things out together.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Re-Evolution as a Biped

       Since I tore my Achilles tendon on October 1, I have gone through a series of methods of mobility: two crutches, knee scooter, walking boot with two crutches, walking boot with one crutch, walking boot by itself. Sometimes I switch between modes depending on how far I have to go and how sore my ankle is. This past Sunday I showed up at church with just my boot, prompting a friend to gush, "You've re-evolved as a biped!"
       Yes, I have been very grateful to be back on my own two feet, even in limited fashion. The injury has been as brutal as I've always heard. Beyond the physical part, it's also been hard to know how much of a burden this has placed on other people and their generosity. Plus I can be a pretty self-absorbed patient. I am truly grateful for their kindness. And at moments I'm tempted to keep crutches with me because of the sympathy they can provoke. But I hope I'm never on them again, for the sake of myself and others.
       Currently I am learning how to walk again without any bracing or support. I mean that literally. I really didn't expect this part to come so slowly, although it makes sense given the nature of the injury and length of total bracing. I have to think about each step and stride, making sure I go heel-toe, aiming for equal paces, trying not to have any hitches or leg-drags. Forwards and backwards. On a treadmill and across the floor. I draw inspiration from recalling when my children learned to walk, how they were very tentative until it all clicked and they took off.
       Recently the experience has me considering teachers and some of what I suspect many of them have been feeling during this time of rapid change and the implications for schools. I suspect many feel as if they are having to learn to walk all over again. But while I'm striving to regain my normal and natural stride, in many ways they are being asked to develop entirely new gaits. Think about trying to rewire years of muscle memory and feeling as if you had to perform new motions flawlessly after just a few tries, if not sooner. While I still advocate change and want to see it occur faster, perhaps I have more empathy now.
       Of course, as with most things--and I may become dreadfully platitudinous here--conquering any challenge depends on our attitudes. At my physical therapy appointments, sometimes I see a guy who looks to be around twenty years old. He's lost his right arm, and he seems to be training other parts of his body to compensate. I've never spoken with him, and his eyes are distant. But he goes through his exercises with solid determination. It's trite to say this, but...yes, my injury has been a complete drag; yet I still have a complete right leg. I have the chance to rehab my injury and come back perhaps even stronger.
       As teachers and school learn to wend their ways through all the pathways of this emerging world, we have to embrace all the possibilities. Naturally some of those trigger fear. Look beyond that shroud, though, and it's gloriously exciting. After all, how many true chances do we ever have to re-evolve?