Friday, September 23, 2011

Your/My Challenge: School as a _____

                Recently I read Peter Gow’s What is a School? A Philosophical and Practical Guide for Independent School Leaders, Trustees, and Friends. Peter is very well known in independent school circles, for both his prolific work and his sharp thinking. (I learned of the book when I discovered Peter’s wonderful blog: Not Your Father’s School.)
                The book presents a “series of meditations,” each of which considers the qualities of a successful school by considering school as a ___. Some of his topics include: a name, a utopia, a laboratory of human experience. I won’t list them all because I hope Peter sells more books; and I don’t want to limit you as, hopefully, you take my challenge here.
                Please add a comment and fill in the blank for me. Be as literal or as creative and funky as you desire. But just give me the word or phrase—nothing more than that. Then I’ll choose the most intriguing one and expand on the idea. I’ve challenged you. Now make it challenging for me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

No App for That

When I first saw this cartoon by Hugh MacLeod (follow his wonderful work at, I found myself recalling the recent story about an Israeli couple who named their baby daughter Like.  Yes, after the Facebook feature.
For me, angels symbolize our higher natures. I see them as somehow having transcended human limitations and having achieved a perspective most of us lack. They embody (is that really the right word?) ideals to which we should aspire. I see them as particularly discerning.  In that regard, the humor becomes rather obvious and ludicrous. Like many humorous pieces, however, this one points to a more serious issue.
Clearly the Israeli couple has a penchant for unusual names. Their first two children are Honey and Pie. They had a clear reason for naming the girl Like:
When they chose the name Like, the sound was at least as important as the meaning, explained Lior.
Like had a nice and [sic] international ring to it, he said, and Facebook had become the icon of today's generation.
"If once people gave Biblical names and that was the icon, then today this is one of the most famous icons in the world," he said, joking that the name could be seen as a modern version of the traditional Jewish name Ahuva, which means "beloved."

Still, while I’m trying not to be judgmental, this strikes me as implusive for many reasons. But this is not a post about parenting decisions. However, because the like button represents “the icon of today’s generation,” this naming story hits at what struck me about the cartoon.
                The combination of our hectic lifestyles and the technological ease of social media has made some things too easy. Have an opinion on something on-line? Simply click if you like it or not. I understand the thinking behind this: that if your “friends” like it, and enough of them click on it, then you’ll probably like it also, etc. It’s the collective wisdom of crowds notion. The feature has become so ubiquitous that this effect has become weakened. Meanwhile, what about the rationale? What about paying attention to nuance? Yes, people can provide comments. Most that I’ve seen aren’t much deeper than the button and often resort to vitriol.
                Similarly, being connected all the time, particularly with smartphones, sometimes leads us to do things rather impulsively—fire off that angry e-mail, leave an accusatory message—before we have all the information. I almost did just this the other evening, when I heard something that really ticked me off. Luckily I was in a place where it would have been totally inappropriate for me to be tapping away. By the time I left the event, I had calmed down enough to know that I needed to gather more information before making any conclusions. I have other strategies I use at various times. For instance, I often draft e-mail in Word so I don’t send something off before I’m ready; sometimes I write the response I’d like to send in the heat of the moment but know I shouldn’t. Still, I make mistakes. And, no, I’m not going to share any examples of how I learned my lesson the hard way.
                Like the angels in the cartoon, we risk giving away some of our key human qualities. We need to think quite carefully about our relationship with technology—and how it’s affecting our relationships with others. Human identity and interaction is too complex for reduction to binary code.
                That’s why great schools remain vital. They are about so much more than the transmission of information and quick, over-simplified analysis. Yes, a student can study something and say he likes it. But he also has to be able to articulate why in a stylish and graceful fashion, to connect it to other understandings, to consider it from multiple perspectives, and to see why it all this matters. Plus so much of what happens in those schools comes down to meaningful human relationships. When I send my children to school, certainly I worry about their academics. But I also pay my tuition because of the people with whom I want my kids spending time as they form their identities.
Ultimately, no matter what advances are made in artificial intelligence, I don’t foresee a day we can simply download an app for wisdom. We have to keep channeling our inner angels.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Difference a Letter Can Make

                Last Thursday Dr. Kristen Ohlenforst [i]presented “Helping the Racing Child” at our first Parents’ Association speaker event for the year. We asked Dr. Ohlenforst to come as a follow up to our screening last spring of Race to Nowhere, an event she facilitated.  (You can read prior posts on RtN: this one, that one, another one.) She made a great number of wonderful points and gave sage advice with concrete suggestions.

                Immediately Dr. Ohlenforst stressed an important reality—that no one is going to change the complex socio-cultural system which has produced the issues captured in RtN. It comes down to family choices based on values, beliefs, wishes, et cetera. Another key factor is how we talk to our children about these issues. The questions we ask, the attention we heed to certain particulars, the feelings we expose, the words we use—kids pick up on these things immediately.

                Similarly, certain aspects of school are not going to change. There are going to be assessments and homework; there are going to be areas in which students shine and areas in which they struggle. As in anything else, for a young person to progress and thrive, he or she is going to have to work hard. A student should no be allowed to see that as optional. School is inherently going to bring with it a certain degree of stress. That can be okay. As Dr. Ohlenforst pointed out, the right level of stress actually serves as a motivator. The problems arise when the stress grows too great, even if it’s just a bit too much over a long period of time.

                Since Dr. Ohlenforst emphasized points about the language we use, I began thinking about one of the most popular words used to describe curricula: rigorous. It’s hard to argue against rigor; certainly we want students pushed and prodded. But let’s consider what that word really means: “rigidly severe or harsh…severely exact or accurate.” When applied to weather or climate, it means uncomfortably severe or harsh; extremely inclement.  The very Latin root of the word refers to “stiffness.” Think rigor mortis. I’m reminded of Dr. Ohlenforst telling us that too much stress beginning at a young age can actually cause someone’s full brain growth to be smaller.

We need to change just one letter for a better word to describe what we should want student experiences to be.

            Think about the meanings of vigorous: “full of or characterized by vigor… strong; active; robust…energetic; forceful…powerful in action or effect.” Vigorous plants and animals grow well. The root refers to energy and and has ties to thrive. Other words that come to mind are vibrant, vivacious, and invigorate. They all suggest life and joy. No undergrown brains there.[ii]

That little single-letter change holds massive implications. After all, other than our actions, language is our most powerful tool in educating our children. The conversations we have with them are crucial. Yet they often can prove troublesome in obvious and hidden ways. Richard Weissbourd explores this idea in his wonderful book The Parents We Mean to Be, and he provides many talking points and strategies for conversations with children, teachers, coaches, and other parents. I highly recommend it as a follow-up to Dr. Ohlenforst’s presentation. To Dr. Weissbourd, all of this is a moral calling, one operating in “the deepest forms of love” (Kindle edition, loc 3095). I find that truly invigorating.

[i] She also is a very talented artist. See
[ii] All dictionary information taken from

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thanks to My Two Best Teachers

                Recently New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow wrote “In Honor of Teachers” because he believes too many educators are unfairly maligned. A few days later, the paper’s education blog had a post “What Teacher Would You Like to Thank?” Serendipity strikes again, I mused, since I recently had written about my concerns that our culture is losing a sense of gratitude. I also found myself trying to answer the question.
                The late Fred Frank, my advisor at Allegheny College, tops the list. I decided to become an English major while taking one of his intro level courses, and three years later he sponsored my thesis. During my junior year, I took Prof. Frank’s seminar on Gothic Literature. I had no real interest in the topic…but he was the professor. The first day he showed up as a headless spirit, which captures why I loved him as a teacher: the incredible passion for his subject and how that infused his teaching. My thesis topic ended up growing out of a small piece of that course, but in a way that followed my own interest in more contemporary literature. During my thesis, Prof. Frank allowed—actually encouraged—me to dive head-first into any rabbit hole I discovered. Some worked and some didn’t. What stuck more than anything was the faith he showed in my emerging intellectualism.  During the thesis time he also asked me to teach his seminar one day, the first time I ever really taught a class. But the real highlight of my relationship with Prof. Frank came right after I passed my oral defense. For the first time, he called me not Crotty, but Mark. I felt I had graduated.
                In high school my sophomore English teacher was Brendan Loonam. We were a motley crew: grinds, nerds, jocks, druggies, loners…and a teacher unlike any I’d ever experienced before or since. I’m not sure exactly how Mr. Loonam did it, but he created a dynamic in that classroom which made us all practically pant in anticipation of what we might think about on any given day. He prodded and poked; he asked giant questions; he was contradictory and contrary; he told us things maybe he shouldn’t have. More than anything he made it matter. In his class I discovered Shakespeare and Springsteen, and I learned to think about how and why both speak to us on multiple levels. My friend Rick and I used to look forward to the days Mr. Loonam had hall duty at lunch. We’d sneak past the other proctors, who would have insisted on seeing our non-existent hall passes, so we could visit with him.
                I feel very fortunate to have had two teachers like this in my life. However, it also saddens me a bit that I feel there is a wide gulf between these two and what I recall about the rest of my educational experience. Much of that is simply because I was the type of kid for whom school didn’t work very well, although I did fine and wasn’t any sort of problem. It’s not that I had many bad teachers; in fact, several were quite good in many ways. I don’t question their dedication. I truly am grateful for what they gave me in terms of basic skills and knowledge. But they weren’t passionate and inspiring; they gave me no sense of wanting to be like them in certain ways.  Prof. Frank and Mr. Loonam did that. More importantly, they helped me begin to envision a better version of myself.
                I know I never properly thanked Mr. Loonam. Sadly, he left the school at the end of that year. No one knew if he resigned or was fired; we all had our romantic versions of what happened. I like to imagine him standing up for some noble reason. know he ended up tending bar after that, and I hope he eventually went back to teaching. (I Googled his name and saw a link to a Facebook page for a teacher in New Jersey.) If he’s still alive, perhaps he’ll get on-line someday, do a little ego surfing, and stumble upon this blog post.  I draw some solace from my often mentioning him when I give presentations on different educational topics.
                I’m proud to say that a couple years into my teaching career, I wrote Prof. Frank a long letter in which I tried to articulate his influence on me. I probably failed miserably, in that it was still too soon. I know I talked about my teaching and things I had picked up from him in that arena. At that time, however, I could have no idea how the larger lessons would resonate almost thirty years later. Still, I know he appreciated the effort. I had signed the letter “Crotty.” His reply began with “Dear Mark.”
                What teacher would you thank? What would you say?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

If Buildings Could Speak: A Final Flood Lesson

                Almost two weeks into the school year, and the flood has receded (pun fully intended) into an increasingly distant memory. Five hundred kids bustling through the building each day helps one focus on more immediate issues. At the same time, the flood recovery holds important lessons about working with those kids.
                When the flood first occurred on August 5, I figured there was no way we would be able to open on the 23rd. I put on a brave face and spouted confidence, but now I can admit to serious doubts. Adding to my frustration was this coming after we’d had to open late last year because of construction. Then we had numerous weather-related interruptions, beginning the second day of school and culminating in two closures because of ice—one of them unprecedented in Dallas. So the thought of a delayed opening had my nerves churning.
                I found myself desperate hoping, willing, praying the recovery would go faster. I begged for constant updates. I kept asking what else could be done. How were the workers going to make sure we opened on time?
                In reality, they were doing everything they could. The damage recovery people had all the machines going and were adjusting them accordingly per multiple measures. The carpentry folks had to adjust depending on the rest of the progress. For example, they couldn’t really do anything about millwork until sheetrock had been repaired and or deemed sufficiently dry. Once the crew could work on things, they put in some amazing hours.
                But I kept wanting the progress to be faster. Thank goodness I couldn’t control things and we had experts guiding us. If we had rushed things, we could have ended up with damage that emerged weeks, months, even years down the road. Rotten wood and sheetrock, warped millwork, mold and mildew, insects—who knows what else? Call it Hurried Building syndrome (apologies to David Elkind, but appropriate for the metaphor).
                We had to create the proper environment and then be patient, allowing the process to develop per its own unique, complex characteristics. Had we not been able to open on August 23, things would have continued to improve until we were ready. And we could have trusted that we would open at the appropriate time.
I’ve said many times that at a great school every nock and cranny has potential as a powerful learning space. In this case, the school building itself has held out some powerful wisdom.