Wednesday, February 29, 2012

For What Purpose?

     Recently there has been a great deal of press about the recent releasing of the ratings and/or rankings of New York City teachers. I’m sure that whoever decided to do this can articulate some very sound reasons, most of them having to do with accountability and transparency.
     But it’s a bad idea. In fact, I saw one headline that even Bill Gates, one of the loudest advocates of extensive and open teacher evaluation, disagrees with the move. I don’t know his exact reasons.
      I suspect release of this information will foment far more consternation than it will add any value. I could give you all sorts of arguments, most of which I’ve presented in more depth at other times throughout the course of this blog. So I won’t launch into an extensive manifesto about the limits of educational data, the problems with the instruments, how what truly matters can’t be measured, et cetera. These reasons are all legitimate, but I believe that the issue is something much more basic.
      I don’t believe very much consensus exists on the value and purpose of education. And I don’t know that there ever will be. In trying to force together that puzzle, we have to grapple with two difficult questions and try to reach simple answers. What is the purpose of school? What should be the purpose of school? Ideally, the answers would match. In reality…
      How would you answer those questions?

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Larger Victory

     Youth sports have the ability to bring out the worst in folks. Recently I posted about a terrible incident near Pittsburgh. At plenty of games over the years I’ve seen parents berating referees, some of them just teenagers officiating for small children.
     I have plenty of theories for why this occurs, and perhaps someday I will share them in a longer post.
      But for now, I want to thank a bunch of sixth-grade boys from Covenant School in Dallas for reminding us what youth sports really should be about. Here’s the story of how they gave up a shot at a championship to help a friend.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Anti-Grecian Formula

Shoe is on the hand that fits, there's really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit, but it's alright
Oh well a touch of gray, kinda suits you anyway,
That was all I had to say, but it's alright
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.
--from “Touch of Gray,” The Grateful Dead

                A couple of weeks ago I had my hair cut, and the gray was even more apparent than the previous time. That has become a familiar scenario. It jolted me a bit more this time, though, probably because I’d gone a bit longer between trims. And the grey doesn’t really show unless I have my hair pretty short. In what may surprise many people, that’s part of the reason I keep my hair closely cropped. Maybe it’s baggage from my childhood, but I’ve always been told I look younger than I am…and I’ve never liked it. When I showed up for my first teaching job, the admission director asked if I was there to apply. That didn’t exactly make me feel confident about classroom control.
                Anyway, I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about our culture’s obsession with looking youthful. I think it was triggered somewhat by the novel I recently finished:  India’s Summer by Therese.[1]  While it has many themes, one which stands out is how desperately everyone wants to hang on to their youth. Botox treatments and plastic surgery, wearing the same fashions as their children, their language, lying about their age—they do everything possible to remain young, fearful of becoming disposable when they can no longer maintain a certain image. Meanwhile, many of the children are out of control, and their parents cannot understand why.
                The novel is rather farcical, as it mocks the stereotypical Southern California star lifestyle. I found myself laughing at several points. Yet I also found myself feeling quite sorry for the characters. Their lives fit the classic, rather clich├ęd notion of having everything they possibly could want in a material sense, but lacking almost everything in an emotional and spiritual sense. Even what seemed the more stable relationships seemed a bit flimsy. Youthful beauty and exuberance, however superficial, becomes the gold standard of self-worth.
                Western culture has, of course, long had a fascination with youth. One of the earliest things I recall learning about in school was Ponce de Leon searching for the Fountain of Youth around 1500. (Supposedly he expected to find it in Florida, which may explain Miami.) I don’t recall the exact product, but there used to be one that had the slogan “Fight aging every step of the way.” I Googled that, trying to find the product, and received 8330 hits. Marketing studies have shown that the main reason College Hunks Hauling Junk has become so successful is because of the brand affiliation and how it brings back thoughts of the carefree, wilder days of undergraduate life.
                While some days I wish I were younger, most of the time I don’t. I look back at the process of growing up, and it was pretty hard work. I think it’s even harder now, for all sorts of reasons. The only way I’d go back would be if I could do so while keeping what I’ve already learned along the way. So when I think about the aging process, I try to reframe it.
                To begin, compare the novel and these other points to a story a friend shared with me recently. When he was in university, a couple in their forties arrived for a graduate program. They were from Ethiopia. The woman was very attractive and looked quite young. People regularly complimented her on how youthfully she looked. As the year went on, the woman became increasingly depressed. In her culture, one’s first gray hair is considered a positive event, sort of a coming of age moment when one reaches a certain point of experience and thus deserves respect.
                I’ll offer another metaphor. My knees and feet are rather messed up from years of playing soccer. Not so bad that they need surgery, but there are constant aches and pains. I don’t think I could really play anymore, not even in an over-50 league, without really hurting. Yet I can analyze the game better than ever. It also gives me a wonderful perspective about helping young players develop over the long term. I can teach soccer well. So I try to think of all those remnants of injuries not as my body failing, but as badges of honor.
                Because kids don’t need adults who don’t want to grow old. Actually, they crave the opposite. They want to see us embracing life, in all its pain and glory, and developing as human beings. They love hearing stories of our growing up, and those stories become the sort of lore that teaches values and expectations and resilience. We have to embrace our role as tribal elders, those who have the experience and perspective that manifests in wisdom.

[1] Therese is the wife of noted educational expert Sir Ken Robinson. I imagine that just about anyone who reads this blog has seen his TED talk, one of the most downloaded ever. But if you haven’t, give yourself a twenty-minute treat and click here (but only after you finish reading the post!).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Metaphor

      In our kitchen we have a small orchid. For about a year now, it has been dormant. Actually, I've assumed it was dying. Shoots have turned brown, and some leaves have shriveled. A few times I came close to throwing away the orchid. But I've dutifully kept plucking off the dead bits and keeping the soil moist.

     This morning I noticed three buds about to burst into their full beauty.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lin-Sane Rush to Judgment

                This morning I clicked over to, and there was the latest Jeremy Lin piece: a video titled “Jeremy Lin’s lessons for success.” Below the video were link to multiple other Lin videos and stories. (One was Letterman’s top-ten worst Lin puns, a part of which I’m sure my title could become, but I simply couldn’t resist.) I hear he’s been added to NBA all-star events. All this, I keep thinking, after a streak of seven excellent games. Meanwhile, I look at the book my wife pulled off the shelf last night and left in the den: Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage.
                I am fascinated by the Jeremy Lin story—not just the athletic angle, not just the overnight sensation angle. I’m intrigued by what it is revealing about so many facets of our cultural anthology. Lin embodies the quixotic notion that with hard work and perseverance, anyone can achieve his or her dreams. Plus his parents moved to California from Taiwan, so it has the immigrant angle. And that last aspect is part of what I find most compelling: at the same time, Lin both affirms and discredits commonly held stereotypes. Asian-American who graduates from Harvard? Got it; makes sense. Star point guard in the NBA from Harvard? Maybe, but unlikely. Asian-American star point guard in the NBA? You’re kidding me.
                So it’s natural that we’ve been inundated with Lin stories. They are remarkable and inspiring, and we have an obsession with athletics. It’s very similar to the Tebow-mania from a couple months back, and there have been several pieces comparing the two. Whose rise is more amazing? Whose story is more compelling? Which of the two is more likely to last? We have no way of knowing, and we even are wondering. Some are doubting. Yet at the same time we already have granted Lin some sort of mythic status.
                Watching the story unfold, I can’t help but think of certain young athletes I’ve worked with and watched through the years. I always find one oft-repeated story the saddest. I’ll share a single tale that captures the essence of the narrative. I’ll call the boy Joe. In the early grades, Joe was a soccer star. While other kids were forming a hive or doing cartwheels, he was scoring all the goals. Unusually agile, fast, and big for his age, he dominated. With it came all the accolades, particularly the predictions that later he would be a star. Certainly he would play in college, maybe even the pros. His father loved all this and encouraged it to a large degree. The problem was, Joe succeeded early on because he was physically precocious. He dominated only because of that. He did not develop skills or a real sense of the game. Even by middle school Joe was an average player. He never made the high school varsity. His confidence suffered not just in athletics, but in other areas.
                While obviously I’m talking about people at two extremes of the sports ladder, they both capture our desire—maybe even basic need—to anoint a hero. When we do that, we place unrealistic and thus unfair expectations on the emerging idol because of our own desires. For a professional athlete, particularly a superstar, that simply is part of the job. But it shouldn’t be part of the job of growing up. Doing that is hard enough, and children inevitably disappoint their parents. It’s part of how we all learn. And those are the moments when it’s probably most important that we recall and stress what really constitutes long-term success.
                Young people also see that, as quickly as we crown heroes, we will knock them down. For a while there, Tebow was the amazing story, defying all those who said he couldn’t make it as an NFL quarterback. Remember how the Broncos knocked out the Steelers and he was celebrated? Then they were crushed by the Patriots, and all the naysayers chanted, “Told you so.” It’s difficult to convince young people that setbacks and failures are all right when they see this unfold. And our criticism is illogical. I’m perpetually amazed how quick we are to lambaste professional athletes, who are the best in the world in ways many of us can’t conceive. I’ve competed against some professional soccer players, and it humbled me quite quickly. It also helps me remain grateful for the fact that, while I couldn’t reach the highest levels, I loved playing and gained massive life lessons.
                I’m rooting for Jeremy Lin. I want this to be a happily-ever-after story. We crave those. But rather than get too swept up in the Lin-sanity, let’s also use it as a reminder to keep youth athletics in perspective.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Shock and Awe--Some Thoughts on Leadership

                Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m slowly losing—perhaps even have lost—the ability to be shocked. And I don’t ever want to reach that level of pessimism and/or cynicism. But recently I learned of an incident that shocked me.
                It occurred at a high school basketball game near Pittsburgh between nearly all-white Brentwood High and Monessen High, which is predominantly African-American. No doubt you can sense where this is going. When the whistle blew for halftime, three Brentwood students raced onto their home court. They were dressed in full-body banana suits. Moving all around the Monessen players, the trio kept making monkey noises and hurling racial epithets. No one moved to stop them. In fact, the school’s director of security was seen sitting in the stands and laughing. Monessen players say they heard racial taunts through the game, which several witnesses confirm. (Here is a Yahoo! Sports piece on the incident. Some of the comments add to my distress.)
                The three boys have been identified and given some unspecified punishment. The school is “reviewing policy,” as if that really will prevent a similar incident. I’ve seen nothing about consequences for the security guard. Naturally, the school has received extensive criticism, not just for the incident but also for the way it has responded. Obviously I don’t have all the facts, but the criticism seems justified.
                This also has raised some issues for me about leadership. They are about more than the apparent failure of leadership here. I suspect heads will roll because of this, and one of them will be at the top of the school’s food chain. So I’ve been pondering this question. Suppose you are chosen as the next principal of Brentwood. How do you begin to deal with what seems a deep-seated, systemic cultural issue?
                You may argue that conclusion about Brentwood is unfair. After all, you could say that three boys don’t represent the whole. We all know that teen boys are quite capable of doing incredibly stupid things. Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere. I make this claim for a few reasons, some of them based on apparent facts of the story: the lack of anyone intervening, the players’ behavior, the security guard smiling and laughing, the vague response. I also base my claim on what I know about teen boys and teen culture. I have no doubt other students knew of the boys’ plan; in fact, some may have even helped come up with the idea and egged them on. I also suspect that the boys thought a large segment of the community would find it funny and anoint them with stardom.
                As a leader, how does one begin to deal with the Gordian knot of issues revealed in this case. Firing people, making examples of others, policy statements, public statements, special programs, curricula—any of these can help a bit, but I’m not sure they can really cleanse the sort of ugly infection that festers until bursting at the surface in such incidents. In the myth it takes a swift, decisive cut to undo the knot. In this case, I’m not sure where one would strike. I am in awe of leaders who can figure out how to respond quickly and decisively…and correctly.
                I think this also points out another major challenge for leaders right now. We seem to be living in a time of increased anger, and it manifests itself in different ways. People talk about a loss of common civility; they say others are more demanding and less patient. We also see it in what have become divisive extremes, such as how the American political process currently unfolds. Violent uprisings have rippled across the Middle East. We’ve had severe beatings at sports events. European soccer has suffered  a few ugly racial incidents.  Sometimes I think the increasing popularity of Ultimate Fighting is because it somehow captures a subconscious desire to relieve some of our frustration by beating up someone.
                Why the anger? I’m sure there are many reasons. Certainly the financial climate is one. The rate of innovation, I suspect, has accelerated in ways that not only keep producing a stream of new products but also heightening our sense of not being able to keep up.  Plus we talk about how well technology has connected us. But in multiple ways it also has lessened the depth of what should be our real human connections.
                But I remain optimistic. Fortunately, incidents like the one described above do still shock me. And each day I also see people do enough positive things I remain hopeful. Leaders may need that above all. As Dov Seidman, author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), writes, “Hope is a sustainable value that inspires us to see the world as a source of meaning and to connect with people in valuable ways. Hope is a catalyst.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Follow-Up to "On Happiness"

     A few weeks ago I published a post titled "On Happiness." In it I referenced an article by Shawn Achor, a Harvard professor who specializes in positive psychology. Today I came across a talk he gave at a TEDX event. Give yourself a 12-1/2 minute gift and watch.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

On Reading

"So many books, so little time..."
          -- t-shirt from Vassar bookstore

     During the past few days I have reconnected with a treasured friend. Reading. More specifically, reading for pleasure. Actually, that's not really specific enough, for I almost always enjoy reading. Reading for me.
     I read a great deal. Just yesterday, two incidents reminded me of just how much I read. Someone said she has stopped sending me recommendations because I seem already to have read whatever she sends me. Then I mentioned something I had read, and someone in the room said, "Don't you ever sleep?" (Probably not enough.) I have had my Kindle for about a year, and it has eight pages of titles. I don't actually download a book until i am ready to read it. Plus my wish list on Amazon keeps growing. We have overflowing bookcases in almost every room of the house; my office at school has two. In fact, I bought the Kindle to save money and space. The habit isn't limited to books. The list of blogs I try to follow in my aggregator keeps lengthening. I mainly skim those unless something really grabs me, but it still involves some reading. Then there are all the things I wish I had the time and energy to read.
     But here's the thing. For the last several years, just about everything I've read somehow has been primarily for work. Since I am passionate about my work and find it fascinating, I really don't mind this.  The reading is still quite pleasurable.
     Last Sunday, however, an article in the newspaper inspired to decide my next book would be just for me. I wanted to read it right away. It is Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.
     As a raging introvert, I am naturally drawn to reading. It's not that introverts are shy and/or anti-social, ready to run for a hermitage when an evite pings into the inbox. We actually really like engaging with people, particularly small groups in deep conversation. We even can handle big, noisy parties...for a while. Then we have to retreat. In many ways it comes down to how one draws his or her energy, and what drains it. Introverts devour ideas and reflection and solitude like Popeye downs spinach.
     Along with my innate tendencies, my parents fostered my love of reading in a perfect blend of nature and nurture. Early on I celebrated over and over the triumph of Yurtle the Turtle and craved a dish of green eggs and ham. Once I could read more than picture books, I loved a volume about great athletes, with dramatic photos and tales of record-setting feats. A trip to the New Rochelle library always was paired with time at the adjacent park. When we moved to Bedford Village, the library was a converted colonial home, full of small rooms and nooks. I slowly worked my way through the collection, and I recall my great pride when I began selecting from the adult side. Later I was delighted to discover The Remarkable Little Bookstore in Westport, which had the same sort of set-up. (Alas, it was an early victim of the invasion of the big box stores.) When I first moved to Dallas in 1990, the old flagship Half-Price Books on NW Highway, with its uneven floors and random shelves, felt like returning home. And home, besides the library trips, was where my parents modeled a love of reading. Most nights Mom had a mystery novel; Dad, a tale of espionage or a historical work of some sort. I remember how even as my father lay dying of cancer that had eaten into his brain, he kept reading. He wanted to keep learning all he could.
     My parents did many things right. Among them, helping me love reading is one for which I am particularly grateful. Now, as an educator, I consider it perhaps the most important intellectual habit parents and teacher must nurture. Think of it as follows:
     Open the cover of a book or flip on an e-reader. Voila! That easily you tap into the most elementary form of access to learning. Ideas, exposure, information, data, opposition, affirmation, expansion, connection--all this and more can happen when you really engage with the written word. I still find it utterly amazing how various combinations of 26 letters (in English) can lead to an endless variety of writing, each piece capable of taking us someplace different. Thus, while reading provides simple access, it also is remarkably complex. In fact, neurological studies have revealed that the only time the brain is more active than when we read is when we dream. That's not surprising. After all, the two are highly similar activities. Reading thus provides mental exercise, be it a series of short sprints or a grueling marathon through the world of ideas. We now know that intelligence is not fixed and that we can keep rewiring and strengthening synapses throughout our lives. 
     Reading is a party for we introverts; and, if they don't already attend, I invite any extroverts to drop by, at least for a little while. We may be at opposite ends on the Myers-Briggs scale, but it's a middle ground where we both can find plenty of what everyone needs. To those of you already in on the fun, I'd love some suggestions.