Thursday, December 19, 2013

Value in the Numbers?

     Numbers are funny things. On one level they are fairly easy to define as discrete units, usually used to measure something or to indicate an amount. However, like words, they are simply a human invention, albeit an amazing one, that is part of our ongoing quest to capture and somehow make concrete and tangible oft-elusive concepts. A number is simply a symbol. They're inherently limited and limiting. Intellectually, I grasp this notion rather easily, and it's why I thoroughly enjoyed courses I've taught on linguistics and semiotics.As any regular readers know, I've used this understanding and epistemological stance in making my arguments against relying too heavily on standardized testing, school rankings, and most other educational metrics.
     But lately I've been experiencing first-hand the power of numbers. In particular, I've been reminded of how a number can stir feelings of affirmation or rejection. On some level this is rather obvious. We take comfort in acceptance to a college with high rankings; we decide where to eat or what movie to see based on number of stars. Lately--despite my knowing better--I've become a bit of a victim of numbers on social media.
     As my number of Twitter followers grows or my blog reaches a certain milestone of views, I find myself growing excited, particularly as both have gained some momentum.* And it builds: reach 40,000 views on the blog, and begin wondering when you might hit 50,000. After gaining the first 100 followers, I dared to dream of 200. Similarly, I experience a slight twinge when I lose a follower or a post doesn't gain many views. All this happens even though, when I did some Twitter workshops for employees, I tell them not to get caught up on numbers, that quality matters much more than quantity.
     Besides pointing out to me that I'm just as vulnerable to such experiences as anyone else and I need to jump off the high horse I sometimes mount, this experience has reminded me of one point and added depth to another, both related to learning.
     Three paragraphs back I wrote that "despite my knowing better" I fall into this trap. The key word is knowing. Emotions so easily can override the logical process of anything. It's why the best schools have to truly safe spaces. I don't mean that in the context of the tragic shootings of the past fifteen years. I mean psycho-social safety. Kids have to feel safe to be respected as they are, to take risks of all sorts, to feel confident in the growth process and all the messiness that implies.
     The numbers can harm that. I'm talking about grades. In what I described above, the number of followers and views becomes somewhat analogous to a grade. Someone stopped following me? What did I do wrong? I must have failed Tweeting! Teachers tell kids not to focus on the grade but on the feedback. There may be a degree of futility in such exhortations. The number, in its finality and in its symbolism, may simply have too much power. (A letter grade is essentially the same thing in different form.) To compare it to language, connotation can have more impact than denotation. When it comes to grading, a number really does capture a level of affirmation or rejection. And while it's directed at the work being evaluated, naturally it becomes highly personal. Meanwhile, some teachers use the grades as the carrot-and-stick. Then someone understandably can become reluctant to take risks, at least the sort which spur the greatest growth.
     I imagine that eliminating grades solves some, maybe even much, of the problem. Yet I think we're dealing with something intrinsically human--the deep need each of us has to feel valued...and perhaps to feel we are adding value. I hope we never try to reduce either of those to mere numbers.
*Humorous reality check: when I shared my excitement and some number with my teen daughter, she said, "That's it? Dad, I thought you were talking about a million."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why I Am a Head of School

                During a recent conversation with a trustee, he remarked, “I don’t know how or why you do what you do, but I’m glad you do.” That same afternoon my board president asked, apropos of nothing, “Do you feel we pay you enough?”  Such comments are not that uncommon. They call to mind a conversation I had with another head of school.  As usually happens, we discussed the challenges of the role and shared some war stories. Towards the end he said, “The things we do, we have to be crazy.” In such conversations people often make such off-hand comments, sort of a hybrid between self-deprecation and venting. But it draws attention to the rather ludicrous way some of us choose to put ourselves in stressful leadership positions, whether in independent schools or any field. I believe we are called rather than crazy.
                But why? It’s a very complex and demanding job. (See this recent article “A Complex Web: The New Normal for Superintendents.” Different role in different world, but similar issues.) That’s not whining. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I thrive on the myriad aspects of the role, of the unpredictability, of all the moving pieces. There’s also something ethereal about it. I believe school heads need to reflect quite regularly, and this is an essential question. However our personal stories may vary, the answers can sustain and ground us. For me, they are framed by what I call my “P Statement,” which I wrote in my letter to self at the Institute for New Heads. The abbreviated version reads, “You are at this place at a point in time for a particular purpose because of the person you are.”[i] In unpacking this a bit on a personal level, I hope something resonates and affirms your work, whatever it may be.
Sometimes I wonder how I ended up leading an independent school. I attended Catholic elementary school and then went to public schools. Throughout college I had no clear career goals, majoring in English because that meant loads of reading and writing and thinking about big ideas. Education never entered my mind…until an insightful career counselor studied my personality, interests, soccer background, coaching experience, and work with kids; and told me to consider working at an independent school.  Clueless what that meant, I felt drawn to the idea. I thought I would try it for a little while. Thirty years later, here I am.
Therein lies the real irony. Growing up, I couldn't wait to be done with school. I loved learning, but I hated school. My parents knew what was coming at all conferences and on all progress reports: some version of very-bright-but-does-not work-to-his-potential. Simply put, I was bored. I found the work rote and uninspiring, the teachers too rigid in approach and expectations. Two examples capture my frustration. In middle school I could not move ahead in math because I lost one point due to a computational error on a test despite my strong conceptual grasp. Throughout school I asked to be given alternative books to read because I already had read the assigned text, only to be told no. Occasional teachers engaged me through wonderful projects and challenging discussions or assignments, but most of the time I could race through the checklist. Only towards the end of college—during seminars, independent studies, and a thesis—did I dive into academic study.
To deepen the irony, my experience led me to education. There had to be, I believed, better ways for schools to work. Now I know there are. As the leader of an independent school, I have the incredible opportunity to leverage our freedom we to create amazing places that reveal the infinite possibilities of a meaningful education. One not determined by curricular standards, data, benchmarks, college placement, or exit exams. Instead, one about less quantifiable ideals—the soul of the matter . The connections in a caring community where diverse people are valued for what they can offer. The courage to take risks in search of understanding. The awareness of one’s potential and growing towards fulfilling it. The development of a supple mind, a healthy body, and a kind heart.  A rich atmosphere that prompts people to explore widely and to plumb the depths of themselves. The realization of a purpose beyond oneself.
I find thinking of my work this was to be both inspirational and aspirational. As head, I have the sacred responsibility of holding forth this vision towards which we keep striving. The hope is that others will see the work the same way.  Then steady, determined progress becomes the default setting. And the less savory parts of the job become more digestible.
More than anything, the work truly matters. Of course, we’re often left to wonder if we have succeeded. Then, out of the blue, we hear from an alum who is doing wonderfully. That person has become contributing positively to the world. He or she then explains how your school helped that happen. For an educator, what’s better?

[i] If you’re interested, the entire letter reads:

Dear Self,

Today, high or low, and every day, great or crummy, remember the P’s.

Point—You are at a particular point. It’s less than a millennial blink.
Place—You are at a particular place, a place you love and are meant to be right now.
Person—You are a particular person, with your unique mix of human qualities, both saintly and devilish.
Purpose—You have a particular purpose, to this place and to your person, and they are intersecting at this point in time. Serve both well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Selfie or Selfless? What Day is It?

     Recently the calendar has me confused.

  • I believe it was early last week that I first heard selfie had been selected "word of the year."
  • Thursday was Thanksgiving, when we express gratitude for our many blessings.
  • Then came Black Friday--which in many places now begins on Thursday--when people rush to buy stuff, with brawls breaking out in some places.
  • Then we had Cyber Monday to buy more stuff, this time on-line, which at least lessens the chaos and violence factor.
  • Yesterday was Giving Tuesday. We're asked to support our favorite meaningful organizations. One reason we're given is that it's a good thing to do. Another is to do it because it will make you feel good. I'm not sure if that's supposed to be a primary motivator or just a nice by-product. (Yes, pun is intended.)
See why I'm a bit confused by this rapid cycling? Do you wonder what kids may be thinking about it all?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Questions and Understanding

     Yesterday my wife and I hosted a book club at our house. We all had read Julianne McCullough's novel The Narrow Gate ( and we were fortunate enough to have Juli facilitate the discussion for us.The group also was interesting because it included several writers and some avid readers who do not write. At one point, one of the latter asked, "Why are writers so drawn to writing?" I believe it was Juli who first said, echoed by others, that she writes to understand the world. Some else mentioned having an "insatiable curiosity."
     While I don't consider myself a writer in the category of these other folks, that idea certainly holds true for me when I blog. I find myself beginning with a singular thought and then figuring it all out as I go along, trying to connect the bits flying around my mind. I don't outline, do much revising or even editing (which I sometimes regret later). The quality is not always what I want. But I know this: the desire to maintain the blog and the process itself has become a major way of both stoking my curiosity and prompting reflection.
     An insatiable curiosity that prompts one to take action in order to understand the world--isn't that really what schools mean when they talk about life-long learning? Yet so many of our practices stress reaching conclusions or giving right answers. Despite talk about the value of the process, we still assess the product more than anything else. We want students to reflect, but I'm not sure we help them learn how, which is different than teaching them how. Several years ago, I used to assign my students what I labelled metacognitive blurbs. I asked them to write not about their conclusions, but the thinking that led to their current understanding. Abstract and messy stuff, and they needed language to jump start the process. But it proved fruitful, as later work had more depth. Most of the language I gave them involved questions.
     Along with the book club, last week's Independent Schools Association of the Southwest heads meetings had spurred my recalling these papers and the larger issue. ISAS director Rhonda Durham and her team always provide a great series of events for us. This time there was common theme of questioning--from Grant Lichtman asking us to create "What if..." questions to Cathy Trower on how questions can enhance board meetings to Hal Gregerson on the importance of asking great questions. In fact during Gregerson's session I tweeted, "What if schools graded students on quality of their questions rather than expected answers?" 
     I suspect I'm on to something that resonates with thoughtful educators, as this Tweet was favorited and retweeted more than any other I've ever sent. And lately I'm becoming more and more convinced the ability to ask meaningful questions may be the most important intellectual skill we can help students develop. Similarly, we have to learn to ask better questions. And all of us must grapple with the answers. Followed by more questions. Only then can any of us keep on better understanding the world.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Not a Connected Educator?

     Irony prevails in my writing this post now, the penultimate day in Connected Educator Month. For the past couple of months, I have felt less connected, at least in the technological sense. I've been posting less frequently. I've been reading fewer blogs. I've reviewed Twitter less often, have missed some chats I wanted to participate in, and tweeted less frequently and with less discernment. My detachment has been neither intentional nor borne of laziness. In fact, I've just suddenly realized what's been happening. It's been a case of, as I often say, "Life intrudes."
     It's also ironic in that just about anyone reading this post probably already has grasped its basic message. Perhaps those folks can pass it on, use it to support the cause, maybe even convert someone.
     Because I've been so busy, I can't say that I've really missed my usual on-line activity. That would imply an awareness that didn't exist. But now that the fog is clearing, I've begun reflecting on the notion of being a connected educator. That leads me to one direct question:

Why wouldn't you be a connected educator?

     I remember my early days as a teacher during the mid-1980s. I was in Lafayette, Louisiana, and I had little contact with other independent school people. Budget and location limited professional development opportunities. Yet I was an inexperienced, hungry teacher craving a steady diet of implementable guidance beyond the general mentoring I received. My primary source of inspiration became The National Council of Teachers of English. I would devour the issues of English Journal. More than that, I looked forward to the quarterly arrival of Ideas Plus, in which teachers from all over shared ideas for lessons. I would study it carefully, making tons of notes and then writing reflective pieces. All the information would then go into my lesson plan book, which was not your typical daily planner. Instead, I had it organized by category and theme (color-coded even, with shapes and numbers that allowed for cross referencing). It helped me grow tremendously as an educator. For years that served as my pedagogical bible.
     Now we have such resources available at all times, in all different formats, accessible in multiple ways. It's really quite remarkable how this has blossomed since I began teaching thirty years ago. Sometimes we seem to take for granted the amazing nature of being so connected and the  ways in which we have benefited. For instance, even though I haven't felt as connected the past several weeks, online experiences have been helping in my work, whether by referencing ideas picked up in chats or using images someone Tweeted out to make a point in a presentation. So the surface may seem different, but the connections have become deeply rooted. That's true even with people I've never met in person. Recently another head and I exchanged some great thoughts about failure, and I bantered with a dean from MA about his love for Oreos.
     So I have to ask again: Why wouldn't you be a connected educator? Well, I suspect my first paragraph is one reason. Life can become crazy busy in unexpected ways. Teaching is intensely demanding work, and there is life outside of school. Plus the first sentence of the previous paragraph is another reason I've heard people express. There's so much that it can become overwhelming.
     I accept both of those points as realities, but I do not see them as legitimate excuses. I always have believed that a committed educator's default mode should be one of constant improvement. The work is so important that we must keep learning how to do it better. Plus it's simply good role modelling to be the lead learner. This truism seems especially apt now, when constant flux has become the norm and the ability to learn in new ways is at a premium. To be perfectly direct, I see this as a basic requirement. I ask during interviews how a candidate does this. I'm not interested in hiring anyone who doesn't take advantage of opportunities to grow. That necessitates being connected in some fashion.
     Because I believe this, I also feel a responsibility to offer some advice to those who find it too difficult and/or don't know where to start. It's probably old to many folks, but could help those afraid to dive in.

  • First, don't think of it as overwhelming. Think of the options as being like a teacher who is incredible at differentiating instruction. You don't have to tap into all the resources. I blog and love Twitter; but I've never used a Google hangout, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Try different things until you find what works for you.
  • I'm certain in your school there are people savvy at being a connected educator. Connect with them first. No doubt they want to help. Knowing you, they can help you figure out where to start, help you navigate a path, and provide concrete tips.
  • Even though many of us like to use Seth Godin's metaphor about there not being a map, I recommend you develop a plan focused on a few key objectives related to how you want to grow. That can help to determine the best path to follow.
  • Similarly, be judicious in selecting those paths. For example, when I show people how to use Twitter effectively, I talk about selective following. Before you follow someone, look at the quality and frequency of their Tweeting to help you decide on its value to you. Plus you have to decide just how many people you can follow. 
  • You also can let the tool help you. In another Twitter example, I encourage the use of columns set to search for certain hashtags. That highlights information related to what you want to learn. Another Twitter trick is, because chats can be overwhelming, to read just the archive. If you like blogs, use an aggregator such as Feedly to help you follow quality bloggers. That way you don't have to keep looking for new posts.
  • Don't try to keep up with it all. Don't read deeply all the time. Skim along the surface and then decide when to dive.
I'm not bulleting my final point because it's not really just friendly advice. If you're not a connected educator, consider it more of an admonition. Why aren't you a connected educator? Could the real reason be discomfort? Fear? Fixed mindset? Whatever the reason, would you accept it from one of your students?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thanks, Dallas Police

     Right before I began to draft this post, I did one of my quick checks of There was the breaking news banner--2 killed in shooting at a Reno, Nevada middle school. I sighed, feeling a mix of relief because such incidents still sadden me, but anger that they no longer shock me. But it's also a stark reminder of my intent in writing this piece even before seeing this news. I want to thank our security people, who are off-duty Dallas police officers.
     We actually have been using these officers for several years now. It began because of an unfortunate family situation. At first, we had an officer here only when circumstances seemed to warrant it.Now we have one here daily, and they have become a fixture on campus. Just as I expect St. John's employees to embody our mission, these officers truly protect and serve.
     They do all the things that one would expect. Patrol the campus and watch the perimeter. Keep a careful eye on students at recess, during the parade to and from chapel, and in the cafeteria. They stand outside the sanctuary when so many people are gathered for chapel. They help traffic flow at carpool. They make sure visitors have signed in.
     But they go beyond doing their mere duty. They have embraced the school and feel very connected to us. I'm sure we are a welcome relief to their regular interactions. We have benefited in some obvious ways. They keep us informed about any situations that could affect us, such as when helicopters were circling in the area a few months back and the officer let us know what precautions to take. When we had some trespassers repeatedly using our soccer field during off-hours, chasing them away was easier. One was able to do a complete security audit for us, and they do extra patrols at night. (This is also good for our neighbors.) I'm certain that in the event of a true emergency, police would respond extra quickly.
     One particular story captures their dedication. Without our prompting, a couple of the officers showed up in plain clothes at some end-of-year activities last year. They just wanted to make sure there were no problems. And they wanted to see the kids graduate!
     Like most schools, since the Newtown tragedy we've been reviewing all our security and emergency policies and procedures. We've always stressed safety--it's a regular agenda item at administrative meetings and reminders often go out to people--so in some ways it was a natural process. Still, it leads to a slippery balancing act. We want to create the safest possible environment, but we also want to maintain a warm and welcoming environment. I also see it as one of those implicit curriculum issues that can teach kids important lessons, often indirectly.
     In this case, I hope the officers' positive presence helps to shape our students' perception of the police. And I hope it's the polar opposite of mine when I was in elementary school. I was born in 1961, so I grew up often hearing police officers referred to as "pigs" amid cries against the establishment. On tv I saw protesters often in violent conflict with police. When I was just a bit older, I remember loving Peter Mass' book Serpico and assuming most cops were corrupt. I'm not sure when or why my perception shifted. Early adulthood, perhaps.
     I don't want students here to take that long to respect and value police. Without being scary, I want them to understand how these officers put themselves at risk for their community, the sacrifices they make to maintain civil order. In a way they fit right in as living exemplars of St. John's' emphasis on service. For that we are truly grateful.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Failure of Promoting Failure

     For the past few years, we've heard much talk about failure in education. Not in the usual sense that our schools are failing, but in calls for all the reasons students need to experience failure. The calls seem particularly loud in the independent school world, where so many of our students are so success driven and have experienced little but that. I know people's intentions are in the right place. They want to help young people develop grit and resiliency and character. Qualities that will hep them succeed in life. No quarrels here. Still something has bothered me about how easily and loosely some commend this idea.
     The a few evenings ago I came across a Tweet from Josie Holford, the head at Poughkeepsie (NY) Day School. It resonated with me and led to this exchange:

I've never met Josie in person, but I have great respect for what I've seen her put out in social media. (A great example of the power of connectivity in the digital era!) We ended up favoriting each other's comments, and I've decided I need to try to articulate my concerns with "this whole failure trend." So I credit her for the prompt.
     First, we need to consider the word failure itself. It's a strong word, packed with negative connotations, suggestive of catastrophe no matter how much we may chant "failure isn't fatal." Words don't lose their power very easily. Let's rethink the language a bit and consider setbacks and misfires and missed attempts...possible replacements abound. And they likely are more in line with the mindset we want to promote. Some may say I'm being much too literal in how I am looking at the word. Perhaps. But language matters.
     Once we have done that, let's dig a bit deeper. Given the implications of failure, it certainly isn't conducive to learning. After all, I'm sure we can agree that failure--however handled--creates stress. And Rule #8 in John Medina's Brain Rules is "Stressed brains don't learn the same way" (p 169). He doesn't mean for the better. Yes, some stress can help. But Medina explains how stress "hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem-solving). Those, of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business" (p 178). He adds, "Quite literally, severe stress can cause brain damage in the very tissues most likely to help your children pass their SATs" (179).
     You may be ready to dismiss my point by saying, "Yes, but he says 'severe stress.'" Sure. But don't you think children today feel stress from incredible pressure to succeed in very tangible and public ways? And we're throwing around the idea of failure as somehow good for them. I think that ramps up the stress more than it helps them deal with life's adversities.
     Plus I happen to believe that we learn better when we experience success. When we do something well, reflect on how we did it, rinse and repeat. Of course, part of that process necessitates considering what didn't work. It's much easier to do that when not sorting through what has been casually labeled a failure. The neurotransmitters most associated with the maintenance of mental health--serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine--are released ruing more positive activities. Meanwhile, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol released during stress can cause damage if the stress is chronic. More particularly, cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling the ability to learn and remember.
     Please understand that I am not advocating taking it too easy on students. I believe kids like to jump for high bars. It's about what sort of learning experiences we create for them. Medina cites studies which show that "a certain amount of uncertainty can be good for productivity, especially for bright, motivated employees. What they need is a balance between controllability and uncontrollability. Slight feelings of uncertainty may cause them to deploy unique problem solving strategies" (188). I'd argue this holds true for students as well.
     Throughout that process we must be extremely careful about our words and our actions. If we aren't, the students are not the only ones who will have experienced failure. We will have failed them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts on "Who is Our Customer?" Posts by Grant Lichtman

     At our administrative meeting this past Friday, we spent a bit of time discussing the points raised in two recent posts by Grant Lichtman on his blog The Learning Pond: "Who is Our Customer!?" and "Who is Our Customer, Pt . II." As he points out, the question is much more complicated than it appears at first glance. We have to consider it because, as Grant argues, "In order to enhance value, an organization must know their value, and have a shared vision for enhancing it." In doing that, we have to "create value pathways for each."
     In our discussion, we identified multiple customers: students, families, schools where our students matriculate, our neighborhood, our city, prospective families, future employers, beneficiaries of our service program. As you can see, we extended the notion of customer. Each is, in some way, hoping for something from St. John's, either directly or indirectly, whether they have actually "purchased" it themselves.
     That last point is where, for me, the conversation became trickier and much more provocative. Turn it into a transaction, and the focus somehow shifts. The expectations heighten on both sides, and we begin looking more and more for quantification and tangible proof of purchase. While I don't like that, I also accept it as a reality of the business of independent schools. In fact, I rather relish the challenge laid out by this notion.
     The question comes at an opportune time for us. We've been talking quite a bit about the real value of a St. John's Episcopal School education and how we tell out story. Yes, some of that has a marketing angle, tied to customer base and enrollment management and financial sustainability. But there is a more basic reason, one that I consider more important. The past few years we've worked hard at enhancing our students' learning experience and been fairly innovative in several areas. In doing so we have been quite intentional. At the same time, we want to make sure that we not lose the qualities which have made this a very special, very human and humane school which emphasizes relationships and community and character. It's why we talk about being high tech and high touch. For us it's about both value and values.
     The conversation ended with a crucial notion. Yes, particularly when there is such "an environment of increasing competition and alternatives for learning," we have to be able to create those value pathways for our customers. In doing so, we must know who we are at our core and speak to how that essence can serve our varied customers. It's about institutional integrity. Otherwise, we may find ourselves trying to be all things to all people. That doesn't really help anyone.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ethics and Athletics

     Last week I heard an interview with former major league baseball player Gabe Kapler. The subject was sign stealing and transferring certain information. He was explaining what was considered okay and what was considered cheating. Not being much of a baseball fan, I didn't completely understand his points. However, one comment has stuck with me. I don't recall the exact words, but I believe I can paraphrase correctly: that to a certain degree such behavior is just considered gamesmanship.
     This past weekend Manchester United player Ashley Young, who doesn't have the best reputation for such behavior, was castigated for diving to try to win a penalty kick. Of course, soccer players are infamous for this type of thing. However, United manager David Moyes called out Young publicly and said such things have no place in the game.
     This post is not even going to consider both sides of the argument. I'll just come right out and say that I side much more with Moyes than Kapler. As someone who has played highly-competitive soccer and also coached, I understand the drive and pressure which can lead one to seek any advantage. I certain won't claim total innocence, although I can say that my attempts to get away with anything were rare and generally ill conceived. Most of my coaches discouraged it. I've never taught players any of the tricks, let along encouraged use of them. If one of my players did something I found unsporting, I tried to make it a teaching moment.
     But I have to say that all this can be a murky area. For example, let's say a ball goes a bit out of bounds off a player's foot as she is dribbling. The assistant referee doesn't see it and fails to raise the flag. I wouldn't call it cheating or even wrong for the player to continue play. The official simply made an error. Let's extend the logic to another common scenario. Two players are chasing a ball. One tugs at another's shirt to gain an advantage and thus he wins the ball. It's one of the things that angers an opponent and is considered bad form by a purist. The referee doesn't see it, so there's no call. Cheating or gamesmanship? Again, I see both sides. Are they really that different from each other?
     As an educator, I have a concern, albeit one that doesn't really answer the question. In fact, it's based on another question. Where is the line? Perhaps professional athletes have an understanding of it. They, like Kapler, probably would claim they do. Yet Moyes' comment about his own player suggests not. Maybe I shouldn't equate sign stealing in baseball and diving in soccer. However, the principle remains the same.
In any sport, where is the line?
     This question has other implications. We try to teach children fair play, but they see professionals trying to get away with things. Try explaining gamesmanship to a ten-year-old sometime.Plus I wonder how this can disorient one's moral compass point. By that, I mean that for certain individuals the line can shift rather easily. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that the same perspective which justifies rule-breaking, per either the spirit or the letter of the law, could lead to using other means to gain an advantage, such as performance-enhancing drugs.
     I'm not naive enough to think competitive sports ever will be free of such misbehavior. The darker side of human nature can come out in competition, and I've spent enough time with elite athletes to know they will do just about anything to gain an edge. And I like to win at whatever I'm doing. But I also know all the wonderful lessons that I learned through athletics. Those are what we need to stress with our developing athletes more than anything else. Therein lies the real victory.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Killdares Concert and Education



          Last night my 16-year-old daughter and I went to GrapeFest in Grapevine, Texas, so that we could attend a concert by The Killdares. (You can hear the music!) The easiest way to describe their music is hard-driving Celtic alternative rock. It's new and fresh, but with many traditional rock and Celtic elements thrown into the mix. They also have an incredible amount of fun when they are playing. My daughter was able to meet one of the band members after they played at her school, and he said, "Where else am I going to get to play the bagpipes in a rock-and-roll band?" As you can see in the photo, they have the usual lead guitar, drums, and bass--but also a fiddle and bagpipes. (One song last night highlighted the Irish tin whistle.) Anyway, I came home nice and sweaty from bopping around.
           And during last night's concert, I saw something I'd never seen before; I don't think I'd ever even heard of it before, actually, although it makes sense. For one song the bagpiper pulled out something that looked like a giant meat thermometer.
Electronic bagpipes! When he started playing them, I couldn't discern any real difference, and I thought it was quite cool. What a great piece of innovation!
          On the ride home, my daughter asked why I thought the Killdares have not become a really giant band. We concluded that their music might be just a bit too quirky for many people, even though that's what we love about them. The Killdares combine some very traditional elements from rock and Celtic music in really creative ways to provide a very unique, truly engaging sound. They very much appeal to that primal part of us that responds to wonderful music.
         Naturally, I see all this as a metaphor/lesson for what I'm urging for schools. We can't ever cease to be, first and foremost--places about those things which make us human at our very essence. Learning, creating, growing, connecting--these are what keep us moving forward as individuals and as a species. Now we live in this amazing time that fosters us so many opportunities to relish in those activities in new ways. Keep those traditional elements that truly matter, but design experiences that grab kids and makes them want to dance.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Help Students Pop The Filter Bubble

     Recently I've begun reading what I have come to consider one of the most important books I've encountered for quite a while: Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. I'm about a third of the way through, and I see enormous implications for society and some clear directives for us to consider in education.
     I'll summarize the gist of the argument. So much of what the Internet has become, not surprisingly, is about monetization. More specifically, how much money can be made by using the incredible amounts of data that can be gathered by tracking one's clicks. As companies gather that data, they analyze it and deliver a more personalized on-line experience for each user. Think of it as Amazon's recommendations run amok. Pariser explains, "More and more, your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click" (2). At first glance, this seems harmless enough, perhaps even desirable in some ways.
     But think again. What Pariser calls "the filter bubble" is "a unique universe of information for each of us...which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information" (9). The danger is that we are subject to "a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us obvious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown" (14). Since humans love confirmation of our own schemata, we welcome such a world, sort of like listening to media which only confirms our political beliefs. And, Pariser points out, "By definition, a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there's nothing to learn" (14). 
     Furthermore, such a world essentially removes some of the basic elements that drive learning. In many ways learning is driven by our need to make sense of a degree of dissonance. It forces us to adapt, which necessitates learning. Piaget talks about our need to achieve balance in a constant process of assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation we fit everything into our sense of the world; in accommodation, we adjust our world view because of new information. Pariser cites psychologist George Lowenstein, who says "curiosity is aroused when we're presented with an 'information gap.' It's a sensation of deprivation" (90), comparable to the desire to tear open a present. Taking that idea a step further, Arthur Koestler "describes creativity as 'bisociation'--the intersection of two 'matrices' of thought" (93) in ways that "re-shuffles" already existing constructs.As we know from the work of Steven Johnson,  heavily cited in the book, creativity also depends heavily on serendipity (see How does that happen when "the filter bubble invisibly transforms the world we experience by controlling what we see and don't see" (82) and "dramatically amplif[ies] confirmation bias" (87)?
     This has large-scale consequences. Pariser writes, "Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're offered parallel but separate universes" (4). Innovation and creativity lie at the heart of economic development, yet we're removing much of what can fuel them. Our diverse world is becoming more and more interconnected and inter-reliant; yet we dwell in a world that can foster narrow-mindedness.
     With our students growing up in such a world, schools have an even greater obligation to reconsider their large-picture mission. It's about how to live a meaningful life in such a world. That means awareness and critical thinking, not mere fact accumulation. That means helping students make connections, not keeping disciplines separate. That means learning to ask the right questions, not mere bubble coloring. That means grappling with relevant problems, not made-up examples. That means collaborating with diverse groups, not working in isolation. That means learning to use powerful technology, not letting it use us. That means helping them pop the filter bubble.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Metaphor for Technology Integration

                This year we are becoming a 1:1 iPad school, a move for which we have been preparing for quite a long time. Our program, called Imagine, is about to bloom into full reality. We considered other directions but went with the iPad for various reasons, one of which I believe serves as a nice metaphor for what we want out of meaningful technology integration.
                Until last August, many of our teachers never had used an iPad. But they are quite growth minded and willing, and they took to it rather quickly. A giant part of the reason is the touch screen. As one teacher explained, in many ways the device feels like it is an extension of herself.
                That can sound rather cyborg-ian, like Kurzweil’s singularity has finally happened. However, she meant it in a more abstract pedagogical sense. Because she was using her hands, it felt more natural. She also could move around the room. There was less of a barrier between her and the students. This, in turn, made the technology less intrusive.
                Here’s the really big point. Combine the above with some of the capabilities she discovered in some of the apps she tried. Put it all together, and she felt as if she could now really teach with technology the way she always has wanted to teach! The technology and the teacher were working in harmony.
                That’s what we need when it comes to technology integration. In fact, then we really shouldn’t be talking about technology integration at all. It should just be a natural part of what humans do as learners.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reflection on Visit to Dallas Public Library

                “It’s nice to see you reading a real book.” It was vacation last week, and I was sprawled on the sofa at home, lost in the harsh South Texas of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
                If you read this blog regularly or know anything about me, you know that I read a great deal. So my wife wasn’t commenting on the fact I was reading; nor was it a jab at what I usually choose (almost always books, though not often fiction). No, she was referring to the actual presence of a physical book, rather than bits and bytes on my iPad.
                My children are away on splendid adventures, so Sallie and I were heading for three days at the glorious Inn Above Onion Creek near Wimberley, Texas. I was determined to detach as much as possible from school and had notions of not bringing my iPad rather than test my will power. That meant I needed to bring real books. I didn’t want to buy any. So for the first time in a long while I headed for the Dallas Public Library, the downtown central branch.
                The central library is massive, eight stories of various collections and workspaces, along with special exhibits.  I always prepare for such a trip by scanning my reading list, then checking the on-line catalog to see if what I want is in and where to find it. I prepare a slip of paper with my information. Only then do I head for the library and begin my search. Usually that means visiting at least three different floors and asking for help at least twice.
                I went on a Thursday afternoon, and I was struck by how packed the library was with a cross-section of the population. People filled the reading areas, the work tables, the computer stations. Some were shopping in the little used bookstore. I saw people reading newspapers, magazines, books; surfing the Internet; tapping away on laptops. Many seemed engaged in serious work, with piles of materials spread out; several had briefcases on the floor by them. Yes, I suspect many were from the ranks of the homeless, who have made the library a gathering spot for many years. But they were not the majority. Plus I like they could escape the heat in such a way, one certainly better than other possible activities. I’ve never understood the complaints or efforts to deter their presence.
                I found my books and went to check out, only to discover, much to my chagrin, that I still had an outstanding fine of $2.70 from my last visit. I enjoyed the solid heft of the books, the challenge of organizing the different-sized volumes to I could handle them easily. I’ve since made two more trips, and I know I will make more.
                But beyond my personal love of libraries, I found myself pondering something else: what a vital role a library can play in a community. Like frontier towns that used to build an opera house early on to signal their sense of culture, with its library a city signals how much it values the intellectual, individually and collectively. In some way, while being a repository for our pasts, they suggest a faith in our learning to propel us forward. There is something powerful about sharing those valuable resources. So I was sad on one of my visits to see a table set up by the library entrance, with volunteers explaining how cuts have affected the library and asking people to sign a petition.
                I also found myself wondering about schools that have eliminated their libraries or have cut them way back. What message are they sending? I haven’t formed a crystal clear vision of what role libraries need to play in a modern school, although I’m sure it aligns somewhat with what some schools are striving for by renaming (rebranding?) them as learning centers or some such label. Library works just fine for me. It’s a warm word, a cozy word; a word which connotes possibility and exploration. It’s a place to both lose oneself and to discover oneself. I wish I had a library in my home. I’ll always want one in my school.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Exemplary Educators Ask Exemplary Questions

                A few times in the past, I’ve expressed my personal doubts about Twitter as a worthwhile medium, but I’ve come around to seeing its value when utilized effectively. One big reason has been the #isedchat which occurs every Thursday evening at 9:00 ET. Even if I can’t participate live, I find myself checking out the archive.[*] It’s a great chance to connect with passionate, forward-thinking independent school educators from across the country.
                A couple of weeks ago the topic was “What do exemplary educators do differently?” Because of another commitment, I had to look at the transcript after. Plenty of ideas had flowed, and all of them resonated in some form or fashion. I was reminded once again of how complex and demanding being an educator is, particularly as we undergo cultural shifts. So I found myself thinking: “What do you consider the single most important thing?” I wanted it to be something concrete, not abstract such as “embody the school’s mission” or “exude passion,” although those matter greatly. I realized my answer hadn’t popped up during the conversation.[†] As I’ll explain at the end, this omission was ironic.
                I think exemplary educators ask more and better questions. Whether teachers or administrators, such educators always are seeking better ways, probing for the reasons behind things, striving to connect ideas, pondering the real meaning of mission, considering the implications of it all. A favorite question: What if...? Questions that arise from a compelling vision spur reflection and subsequent action. The right questions keep us on a forward track while reminding us of our values and most important objectives.[‡]
                Posing incisive questions also can prick holes in the conservative[§] bubble of many schools. Most schools change very slowly, for many reasons.[**] Only now are some seeing the true urgency for new models and practices. The time is ripe for the right questions. More and more teachers are open to rethinking the entire educational process, and guiding questions can aid in their reflection and steer them towards meaningful answers.[††] I think it also models the sort of teaching and classroom experiences that many of us want to see our students have. And learning to ask the right questions is one of the most essential skills we can help students develop.
                At this point I should provide a list of some great questions. However, they are too numerous. Plus I believe they work best when culturally specific. There are many people out there asking them. I urge you to explore and see which jab you in just the right way, that odd mix of pleasure and pain. Twitter[‡‡], and the #isedchat, is a great starting point.
                Which leads the irony of no one in the chat having brought up this notion. They’re asking all the right questions and thus revealing themselves as exemplary educators.[§§]

[*] In some ways this can be much easier, as the comments fly pretty fast and it can be hard to keep everything straight. I’m getting better at it, but still am not totally comfortable. I’m kind of in awe of the moderators!
[†] My response at the time and right now, with the caveat that at a different time I may offer something else. But it seems to be sticking.
[§] By “conservative” I mean averse to change. I’m not commenting on political or ethical position.
[**] Old joke: It can be easier to change the course of history than to change a history course in a school.
[††] Emphasis on steer. Providing the answers would defeat the purpose.
[‡‡] @GrantLichtman, he of the famous nationwide journey in search of educational innovation, just Tweeted several of them. He frequently does.
[§§] If you have stuck with me and worked through the footnotes, thanks. I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace and tried to ape his form. Could never match the elegant prose, though.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Elevator Talk? Not Yet, But I'm Working On It

                I remember the first time I heard the term “elevator talk.” It was several years ago, during a board meeting. For a few minutes I was flummoxed. Once I grasped what is meant by the term, I grew inwardly indignant. Even, I have to admit, rather self-righteous. How, I recall thinking, could one deem it possible to reduce something as vital and complex as education to an elevator talk? Why would one even want to?
                The concept still grates in certain ways, but I have become more realistic and practical about the idea. I guess I even have a bit of fascination with certain aspects of the idea: the psychology it involves, the confines it presents, the linguistic precision it demands. Similar to my ongoing investigation of metrics, I’ve toyed with a variety of versions. I mix and match elements depending on the audience. It’s been kind of fun.
                Now, though, I’m struggling with the idea. Why? Because as part of my annual review, my board has challenged me to come up with a single elevator talk that pitches my vision for the school.
                I’m glad they have. I’ve been talking about it, but haven’t completed that task for reasons that will become clear later in this post. Also, while I have introduced many ideas and started new programs, the unifying motif sometimes can become lost or assumed on my part.
                Completing this has been one of my primary tasks for the past six weeks, and I still don’t feel good about my progress. I have loads of mind maps on giant sheets of paper and on my iPad; I have dozens of aborted sentences and drafts. I’ve studied traditional models, and I’ve considered the six alternatives that Daniel Pink puts forth in To Sell is Human. I’ve “finished” three final pieces…and promptly trashed them.
                Why is this so hard? Well, it simply is. It has to unify multiple elements of an intricate enterprise, much of which involves amorphous elements and long-term, intangible outcomes. Plus it has to do so in a way that enchants and cajoles and convinces. It has to be created with words, which have the paradoxical trait of being terribly limited and profoundly loaded.
                Then add in another fact, one which serves as a reminder about education. I’m thinking about this too much, and I’m striving to find just the right answer. This wonderful two-minute video captures how that can stifle creativity:

In a way, I’ve approached this like a student might approach a typical school assignment. To some degree, I’m worried too much about the product and, yes, the grade.
                How do I shift from this mindset? More easily said than done, although I know exactly what needs to happen. I have to move from focusing on the external and allow for my internal to take over. It means stressing what I want to say because of what I believe and what is right for children and for St. John’s—not what I think someone may want to hear. Like an athlete in a match, I have to control what I can.
                I trust that my upcoming vacation will help me make that transition. I should be able to clear my head somewhat, perhaps to the point that I experience one of those magical moments of clarity. That “Aha!” moment I so often experience when working on a big project. Then I will adjust and tweak until I have something that I can use going forward not just because it does the job, but because I truly believe it. I want to be like Elisha Otis, who was so sure about his invention—the elevator brake—that in a demonstration he cut the rope to show the brakes would save him.
               Of course, I’ll plan for my elevator talk to occur in a really tall building. And there will be times that I reach for the emergency stop switch because I want to share so much.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Biggest Change in Last 30 Years of Independent Education?

                I woke up today and realized that this past year marked the completion of my 30th year in education. (It also happens to be my 19th wedding anniversary!) 30 years! That’s rather astounding since I planned to do it for just a couple of years and then move on. At times I have contemplated changing careers. Now I can’t really imagine working in any other field, and I have no dreams of retirement.
                I started wondering about a pretty basic question: What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in independent school education during your career? (I’m focusing on independent education because that is where I have spent my entire career.)
                The knee-jerk response is, of course, digital technology. That’s obviously huge, and it’s an underlying factor in some of examples I will give to support my point. But it’s not my answer.
                My answer: how much more schools are expected to do.
                In no particular order, and knowing I will forget some examples in my brain dump,  I’ll simply provide a bullet-ed list of items that provide the evidence for my case:

·         The expectations for facilities. Frequently I have had people visit independent school campuses and remark how they are so much nicer than anything they had in college. I don’t see any signs of the facilities race of the 90s slowing.
·         There are so many curricular items I’m going to use sub-bullets:
o   Offer a greater variety of world languages.
o   In English, the notion of the canon has exploded.
o   Character education programs in all their forms.
o   Programming/coding.
o   The expanding concept of literacy beyond the three R’s.
o   Courses and units that are more global and diverse.
o   Service learning.
o   More athletics, often with more pressure.
·         The demand for more frequent and more detailed communications, including a regularly updated website.
·         The profusion of digital technology.
·         Nurture diverse communities.
·         Data, data, and more data to be used in…well, just about everything.
·         A variety of travel and exchange experiences, particularly abroad.
·         More professionalization of teaching, with greater accountability.
·         Increased expectations for individualization and accommodations, particularly for learning differences.
·         Authentic assessment and results on standardized testing.
·         Project-based learning.
·         Foster creativity, innovative thinking, leadership.
·         After-school care.
·         Summer programs.
·         More contests and more awards.
·         Louder cries for proof of return on investment.

Please notice that I have offered this list without judgment. I’m simply illustrating. If pushed, I’d argue that each of them is good to some degree. But when you look at such a compilation—and I’m sure I’ve left out some things—it’s pretty staggering.
                There are many positives to such developments. For years many independent schools fit the stereotype of being stodgy institutions resistant to change. The ivy and the hedges protected them from real scrutiny and gates held the undesirables at bay. But we’ve modernized in the best sense of the word. We hold on to some of our finest traditions and human values, we better reflect the world as it currently is, and we look towards the future world in which our students will be living.
                This comes at a cost, though, even beyond the obvious financial implications.  The additions can feel more like piling on, and it can wear people out. They begin to wonder what’s next. Yesterday we were to look to Singapore; today we must emulate Finland; looks like tomorrow it will be Scotland. Smaller, less affluent schools simply can’t fulfill all the wishes. Another cost is unknown and variable, in that something must give way for the new. When so much happens so fast, I wonder how much really sticks. I wonder about depth. I wonder about cohesiveness.
                That last point speaks to a significant challenge of this last three decades. In such an environment, with so many constituents yanking and pushing in myriad directions, a school can try to be all things to all people and thus forget who it is at its core.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Why Do We Need to Know This?" Look to July 4

            In a recent post on his Practical Theory blog, Chris Lehmann wrote about “the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms”: Why do we need to know this? (Full post here.) I remember hearing that question, and sometimes my answers were better than at others. Too often teachers answer in the heat of the moment and provide a rationale designed to generate compliance rather than understanding—usually that it will be on the test. After all, they’re kids, we have a curriculum to cover, and time is a’wastin’! If we do become more philosophical, it’s often with a vague statement about knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

When this happens, though, we miss key learning opportunities for everyone engaged in the educational process. I totally agree with Chris when he writes, “Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.” Striving for answers to that very question has been a sometimes subtle, occasionally overt theme of this blog. Here comes more of the latter.

As one should expect from someone who include the word practical in the name of his blog, Chris provides some concrete examples of how taking a pedagogical approach based on questions can provide some immediate relevance for students. He adds, “Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.” Yes, that’s what we want. Along with those to become life-long habits which drive a lifetime of personal growth.
            But there’s more, which Chris also touches upon: “If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of ‘Why do we need to know this?’ becomes essential to what and why we teach.”
            While I agree completely with Chris about the goal—and I don’t know many people who, when pushed and prodded, would disagree—I also wonder how many people think about it that way in the immediate. In my experience most people think about school primarily as preparation for the next step or a necessity for attaining certain objectives. Since Chris leaves the point hanging out there as a given, I want to explore it a bit more…and then offer another reason “we need to know this.”
Since tomorrow we celebrate the 237th anniversary of The Great Signing, it’s appropriate that I look towards Thomas Jefferson. I just finished reading Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. One of the most erudite of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson cited as one of this three great accomplishments the founding of the University of Virginia. He had a long-standing belief in the power of education as vital to the strength of a republic: he wrote in a 1780 letter: “I think that by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” Interestingly, Jefferson saw happiness as a reciprocal obligation, meaning it came only in conjunction with helping bring it to others. For him, learning and the subsequent growth was part of happiness.  Note he also links freedom with happiness. Jefferson fervently believed that the better educated the populace, the stronger the republic. Such idealism was particularly important as he battled the notion that government must be based on a hereditary aristocracy. Ours, he envisioned would be a nation based on a belief in the people and their potential, which was linked to that of our nation. When establishing UVa, he wrote, “The institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson’s phrase “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” leads to my other reason. It’s an abstract one completely without any measureables or distinct action items. But in some ways I think it’s the most important one, and I seldom have heard teachers or anyone else use it to answer that dreaded question. Humans, individually and collectively, have amazing potential. Some of it always remained untapped. Yet I believe part of our responsibility is to strive to realize as much of that potential as we can. I see it as an obligation to both ourselves and to others. It’s a way of showing gratitude for all with which we have been blessed. It’s a point of honor and integrity.

School is busy and hectic, so sometimes it’s natural and easy to give insufficient answers to difficult questions. Plus time is precious, and schools are increasingly asked to do more and more, explicitly and implicitly. Yet our students benefit tremendously when we take the time to answer their dreaded question in depth and have some crucial conversations about the purpose of their education.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Response to "The Decline and Fall of the English Major"

            Since yesterday I’ve probably seen more people tweet and retweet about this article than I’ve ever noted about any other: “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” in The New York Times Sunday Review.  As an English major and former English teacher, I am disheartened by the main points in the article. (Yet the reaction it has provoked among learned people is encouraging.) I see great value in studying, though perhaps not majoring, in English at the college level. At the same time, the article made me think about some of the ways English is taught at that level and below, down into the secondary and middle school levels.
            In some ways, without even realizing it, I use things I developed as an English major every day as a school leader. Majoring in English exposed me to multiple perspectives and cultures and personalities. I became more empathetic, more aware of the complexities of human existence, more thoughtful and nuanced in my responses to the vagaries of life. I became particularly acute to semantics and tone, to that interplay between connotation and denotation; I grasp that language is a limited and powerful tool at the same time. I learned how to take messy ideas and capture them in clear, linear communication.
            These skills and outlooks remain essential. In some ways, they have grown more so in this complex and chaotic world. But when we want to measure education by how well people fill in the right bubble, they cease to hold value in our short-term outlook. It’s that limited vision that drives—or, in the case of parents, commands—students to major in whatever leads most quickly to the safest, most high-paying job right away.
            I’m fortunate in that, from what I recall, my parents put no such pressure on me. If there were any objections to my majoring in English, they were expressed so quietly that I no longer recall them. I think more than anything they wanted me to love learning. Besides, they were both avid readers, a love passed down to me; and I could think of nothing more pleasurable than reading all sorts of books and discussing ideas. I never worried about job opportunities. Some of that was my naivete; some, blind optimism; some, belief in all I’d been told about a liberal arts education and how major companies wanted people like us. I don’t know how much the latter remains true. It should.
            Still, I have to wonder about how English often is taught. I re-read much of my second paragraph, and I suspect it rings truer of possibility than of reality. Yes, the reading exposed me to those things…but I’m not sure my classes did. We didn’t really study literature as a means of examining the human condition. Instead, it became about literature for literature’s sake. About genres and movements and writers speaking to each other across generations. It fit the tweedy stereotype. My understanding is that now this remains true to some degree, but in looking at it more about the human condition, extreme politicization in the form of canon battles can overshadow the broader learning. I’ve seen this creep into lower and lower levels of teaching.
            As for the writing, we had to do plenty of it. Except for one professor, though, I don’t recall much feedback on the quality of my writing, by which I mean the prose itself. It was all about content, organization, thesis, format—stuff that matters, for sure, but doesn’t animate the work. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Academic prose is notoriously obtuse, with several contests each year to highlight the worst of it. Yet in the lower grades, most of our writing instruction is designed to prepare students for the writing they will do in college. Surely we can aspire for better. The overwhelming majority of people need to communicate with each other, not with academics.
            This last point captures part of the reason for the decline in English majors. For the most part, Americans are a practical people and, as the author admits, “the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter.” I suspect that is tied to what the author also admits, in agreement with my last two paragraphs, “the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities.”
Those are distinct points, but ones which overlap greatly. Teaching the humanities well should automatically include why they matter. Too often, though, it doesn’t. Therein lies the problem not just with the humanities, but also in much of education. Just what is it for? Part of the answer should be not just resume fodder, but relevance for our humanness and humanity.