Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Trending? Or Timeless?

            In the section on journalism in his World Without Mind,Franklin Foer argues the primary force now is “trending.” Even more than clicks and views and likes and reposts, journalists worry about what’s trending and react accordingly. It almost seems the reverse of the time-honored notion of the scoop. This, in turn, drastically affects one’s perceptions and even larger understandings. I’ve been wondering if the same focus isn’t part of what’s been haunting independent education.
            If you know me, whether personally or through this blog and my Twitter stream, you know I believe strongly in progressive, innovative movement in education. For years I’ve preached, “Evolve or die.” While rather dramatic, it also strikes me as too patient. Somewhere is that sweet spot at which we move forward with due haste…and with due thoughtfulness.
            Many schools are doing some extraordinary work, keeping their DNA while still significantly adapting programs and practices to meet student’s needs right now and in the future. For example, many schools have “academic excellence” as part of their mission statements. Just what does that mean, especially in 2018? What are the implications of our conclusions? What should change? How far are we willing to go? How honestly are we answering these questions?
            It often seems that school are, like those journalists, reacting to trends. In some ways it’s a form of silver bullet, latest and greatest thinking born of a desire to improve. That’s been a long-term practice in education. (Should I have said trend?) Recall when television and filmstrips were the greatest? Individualized reading packets with leveled comprehension tests? More current examples are makerspaces and mindfulness. So many schools have rushed to create specific makerspaces and to incorporate mindfulness. Both have value, but we need to think very deeply about these ideas big picture. For example, if a school believes in the principles of a maker space—and they are exciting—they should not be limited to a space if the rest of the program remains much the same. Instead, it should flow throughout the school. (I’ve written more extensively about this idea here.) As for mindfulness, given the increased rates of anxiety among our students, I’m glad we’re doing something. But there is a very pressing, further reaching question: what is our role in creating the need for mindfulness programs and what do we do to change that?
I wonder, just as media grabs onto what’s trending to gain an audience, whether schools sometime do the same because of legitimate fears of financial sustainability. It certainly explains some other current, perhaps unhealthy, things occurring in many schools. They are primarily part of how we operate as businesses. For example, I hear more references to our customers. I see it in some of the ways we brand and market ourselves. I’m not opposed to these things; and while hopelessly romantic idealist in some ways, I fully accept that independent schools are businesses. The question lies in how we do that business. How have we, as one head wrote, moved to such a contractual relationship in our communities? Meanwhile, are we plumbing our souls? Baring them? Or selling them?
I don’t think it’s the latter. At least not very much. Quality educators remain committed to mission and ideals and kids. But I’m not sure we have enough of the first two. After all, we scream, there isn’t time for all that reflection. Perhaps that is because we’re so busy grabbing on to the next best thing, whatever is trending at the time. Ironically, and this is where I draw the significant hope, at this point in time, so much of what’s trending harkens to the timeless, most precious elements of human learning.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

My Election Day 2018 Message

The following is the note I shared with employees at St. John's Episcopal School today. People's responses prompt me to post it here.

                Yesterday at the ISAS Heads of School meeting, I was talking with a friend about the state of our nation right now. We shared a fear: that no matter the results of today’s election, no one wins. We see the potential for (perhaps the likelihood of) wider division, increased vitriol, and more aggressive lashing out.
                I think, individually and collectively, our nation is tired. Bone tired. Our souls are pleading for rest and healing. Psychic and spiritual health suffers when we are battered with negative energy jolts that drive us to fear and fret rather than aspire and hope. We thrive on love, yet the air feels filled with hate.
                Hatred comes out in humans in a unique fashion. In other species hatred arises out of a survival instinct. In humans, while there is some of that, hatred often spews out of a desire to express supremacy. In current times both notions seem applicable. Whatever the cause, hatred in any form directly contradicts one of the main tenets we preach at St. John’s, which beseeches us to be a community where we respect the dignity of every human being. One of the things I most appreciate about our school is that we strive to do this.
                Always keep that ideal in mind. Do so especially on days like today and tomorrow, when people will be feeling the gamut of emotions. Some may feel nothing. You may, as I do feel particularly vulnerable at such times, when it feels as if any encounter could spin out of control. Whatever you may feel, such times challenge us to suppress our primal instincts and to invoke our higher angels.
                When you find that difficult, think of this. We are among the lucky ones. Our calling as educators empowers us to positively influence the next generation, helping them grow into the type of leaders we need, mainly by demanding and modeling the right behavior. Speaking to the heads this morning, Brene Brown pointed out that education is the most important inflection point for meaningful change on a large scale. It’s where leadership matters most. That’s truly awesome—as in great and as in awe inspiring.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The "Important" Versus the Important

     One aspect of education that makes it particularly challenging work is that everything potentially has greater gravity than it may seem at the moment. For example, every interaction with another person, whether a colleague or especially a student, holds amazing potential energy, either positive or negative. Each class can turn off or turn on one or more learners. I don't recall the exact number, but I remember reading somewhere how educators make an incredible number of potentially impactful decisions each day--many more so than most people.That's quite awesome. It's also both invigorating and exhausting.
     It's also why I think we need to reflect on another real challenge tied to this first one: discerning the "important" from the important. The former are those things that we tend to hold out as crucial, even vital, far beyond their real value. The latter are what truly matters.
     For example, let's consider a typical English curriculum and ask some big questions. What is the purpose? Is it to study literature, meaning the general canon and genres and literary elements and how authors speak to each other across generations? In other words, it is to study literature (pronounced with suitably snooty tone)? Or is it for us to consider aspects of the human condition as they play out in myriad ways across cultures? Or, even simpler, is it supposed to keep alive--spark?--a love of reading deeply? Why is it so heavily focused on literature? Why is the overwhelming majority of writing based on formulaic essays and standard literary criticism? Why do we even have English classes rather than Communications classes?
     One can raise similar questions, of course, about other disciplines. In chemistry classes students struggle to memorize elements of the periodic table. But does that really help them to understand how that table works or the relationships between elements? Currently some healthy debate is raging about algebra. Why is that the one almost universally-required math course when it seems to be the one that turns many kids off from math? I don't have definite answers to these questions, but I certainly have opinions. And I do know we need to be considering such notions.
     However one answers these questions, we put misplaced faith in curricula, imparting upon it unjustified importance. Despite what I have to see as the  bald marketing attempts in the use of this label, there is no teacher-proof curriculum. Conversely, a great teacher can bring a terrible curriculum alive. Similarly, we place too much faith in assessment, whether standardized or teacher-generated. That naturally then leads to grades, perhaps the currency whose value we have most inflated.
     I could keep going. Any thoughtful reader can add to the list. A list can help us keep focus on the right issues--and deem what is truly important.
     We also must ask another key question: Why do so many of us become so overwrought about the "important"?
     One reason is a positive one. It's that we have many passionate, caring, dedicated people concerned about education. That can also be a challenge in that sometimes our lizard brain, despite being primitive and small, overwhelms the cerebral cortex. In less scientific terms, we react emotionally to the immediate. Further, as humans we prefer the tangible, the measurable; they are easier for us to grasp, to manage, even to manipulate. We become more vulnerable to the traps of fast thinking. Our vision can become myopic, monochromatic, one-dimensional. Rigid even. The sort of outlook that promotes pure rigor. Which often means just more of the same.
     Learning at its best, though, is scintillating, imaginative, speculative, kaleidoscopic. It revels in the process, both in the here and now and wherever it may be going, knowing it never really arrives at a certain destination. But hoping. It's that insatiable curiosity innate in us at birth, optimally raging for the rest of our lives.
     We assign much of what we deem "important" that status because of short-term thinking.But as one of my mentors regularly encouraged, we need to "take the long view--the longest view possible." At the risk of seeming melodramatic, perhaps we should consider education in the same way David Brooks encouraged to consider living our lives for building a resume or a eulogy. To capture that notion, I'll defer to one of my former students, who graduated high school in 1988. In a comment on a blog post I wrote in 2012 after a beloved educator passed away, he wrote:

ESA was never about the location. It is a sugar cane field in between Lafayette and New Iberia. The population of Cade, LA doubles every morning and halves every night. It was always about the teachers. Coach Rhoades, Madame Garboushian, Ms. Dobkins, Mr. Olverson, Dr. White, Mr. Tutwiler and, yes, you, Mr. Crotty, taught us more about what the journey we had in front of us than any of the lessons and tests we had to pass. Prep school for once meant more than learning what we needed to know to succeed in college. It also prepared us for the challenges we faced outside the classroom. I remember very little of the books that I read back then (enjoyed Watership Down, couldn't summarize it for you if I tried). I do not remember a specific PE class Coach Rhoades taught. I do remember many of the conversations we had over 24 years ago --- conversations that stay with me and continually educate me to this day. May Coach Rhoades rest in peace with the knowledge that his lessons were always destined to outlive him --- and us.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Hope at Start of School Year...and Beyond

     The beginning of a new year is special because of how it captures such a sense of hope and possibility. The adults sense it in each student, and the kids trust in us to help them discover all the ways their innate sense of it can turn into startling realities. When it works right, it stokes that joyful sense of learning.Then you have students wanting to return to school.
     Of course, those who've never been harbor some trepidation, no matter what they've been told. It's why one of my favorite scenes during the opening couple of weeks is at morning carpool. A pre-K or K child will be reluctant, barely inching along the sidewalk, eyes bulging and sometimes a bit moist. Then an older child--usually a sibling, sometimes a family friend, sometimes just an empathetic upper elementary or middle schooler--will clasp the small child's hand or drape an arm around their shoulders, smile and whisper some encouragement, and walk them in. A small but giant kindness.
     When I see such scenes, ones that children re-create in myriad ways without really thinking, I feel hopeful. They are why why we see them, to be cliched, as the hope for the future. At the same time, it reminds us that at our core people are basically kind and helpful, something we can forget as we suffer what feel like daily blizzards of vitriol in these turbulent, divisive times.
     Last week I had a five-day period during which I had quite a bit of travel, pinging around different time zones. Between travel and appointments, I decided to observe and reflect on random human behavior, particularly how we treat strangers. Other than one guy yelling over the phone at a service agent about a flight situation, I saw nothing I would describe as rude. Instead, I saw general niceness. Here's just a partial list of incidents which stand out: 

  • People helping others stow and take down carry-on luggage on an airplane.
  • My son's college roommate waiting for him to arrive before setting anything up so they could decide how to arrange things together.
  • The lady who helped a struggling mom fold up a stroller as her toddler screamed.
  • Drivers letting each other in during a rush hour traffic jam.
  • The hotel clerk who had our room cleaned in a tight time frame as we requested.
  • A teen helping an older couple figure out how to check in at the airport.
  • Incredible patience by many with a person who kept getting buzzed in the metal detector.
  • The clerk who helped with my luggage when I returned my rental car and double-checked to make sure I knew the way to the terminal.
  • The man who told his aisle-mate on the plan, "You got stuck in the middle. Take the arm rest."
  • The stranger who complimented my t-shirt.
  • The gate agent who smiled broadly and thanked every person boarding my early Sunday morning flight.
  • The person who helped me figure out the card system on my hotel's elevator.

I could add several others, many directed at me and my family. It was an encouraging and affirming. They reminded me of those opening of school scenes.
    In the current political climate, many from both ends of the spectrum are putting all their hope in the mid-term elections. Yes, they matter greatly. But the more I experience and learn, the more I believe solutions and meaningful, positive won't be found in elected leaders or systems, though they can help. Not just in politics, but in any complex human endeavor, including schools. Instead, it's up to each individual and the multiple choices we make each day. We have it in us. As in so many other things, we can lead the children lead us. They embody hope.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Powerful Reminder(s) in a Phone Call

     The last couple of days,  I've come to school kind of grumpy. It's fatigue, physical and mental, more than anything. In-service is always an invigorating time, but also draining for all the reasons imaginable. Plus plenty going on away from school, including my older child entering her senior year in college and my younger about to start his first. The prospect of empty nesthood is exciting, but comes with a tinge of sadness.
     Today, though, the funk began to lift. I had one of those moments that educators dream about. It brought with it inspiration in the form of key reminders.
     Yesterday I'd had a voice mail from a student I taught back in the late 80s. We'd had no contact since then, and she said she wasn't sure I would remember her but she wanted to speak with me for a few minutes. I did recall her quite well. She'd been a very bright, lively kid who I really liked. She just never seemed to get her stuff together. Soon after I left, she flunked out of the school. I had no idea what had become of her.
     This morning I called her back. She told me she had been talking with her daughter, who asked her about teachers who mattered. That inspired her to call me. She said she couldn't remember anything from my classes, but she remembered my kindness to her, my belief in her, and everything I did to try to help her, especially having her call me in the evenings to hold her accountable for doing her work. I knew her home life was a wreck, but I learned just how bad on this call.
     The beauty is that now she's doing great: married for twenty years, three great kids, has a graduate degree. So perhaps not only great, but better than most, despite how things started. Plus, for me the best of all--and here's where you may get the goose bumps I felt--she's a middle school English teacher. She chooses to work with underprivileged kids. She tells them if they take nothing else away from her class, she wants them to know she loves them.
     Thirty years ago I was trying to save this young woman. Now she's become one of my heroes. Of course, heroic tales always come with morals. As we begin another school year, the story reminds us about what we're really teaching. Impressionable young people, ones who may be carrying things they are simply not equipped to handle. Sensitive, trusting souls who make themselves vulnerable to us. It's why no matter how skilled we become in pedagogy or well-versed in curricula, the most powerful thing we can do with any student is forge a relationship. We never know what the lasting lesson may be. Indeed, we may wonder if it really matters. Most of the time, educators do not get to revel in the long-term successes of their students. When we do, it's amazing. Today was one of the most amazing. I wish such an experience for every educator. But even if you don't have one quite so awesome, know your impact.