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.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Ideal Bookshelf--The Leftovers

       In two previous posts, I created some ideal bookshelves—one for educators, and one for leaders. Each had some caveats. But now those are gone, and this bookshelf contains the leftovers—books that I believe all educators and leaders should read, but which didn’t fit neatly into the restrictions of the categories. As you’ll see, most somehow focus on big-picture cultural issues, particularly the incredible changes we are experiencing currently.
       In some ways, a book making this list is an even greater endorsement. It suggests not only the quality of the work, but also its widespread relevance.
       With acknowledgment that a shelf has only so much space in the physical world, in no particular order:

·         Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott. How collaboration is spurring innovation and growth in multiple sectors.
·         Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet by Howard Gardner, Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon. Reminds us of the importance of ethics as pace and competitiveness ramp up.
·         Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirkey. A great overview on how we’ve shifted from being media consumers to media creators.
·         Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. Incredibly insightful on both small and great levels.
·         What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. Technology as a living force that will continue to evolve. A guide to being prepared and taking full advantage of what’s coming.
·         The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Always important to hear all sides of an issue.
·         The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Be careful in choosing the objects of your desire and putting too much faith in them.
·         Moby Dick by Herman Melville. For me, no other novel has so captured all the complexities of human nature and civilization.
·         Walden by Henry David Thoreau. A great reminder about the need to take time for serious reflection about ourselves and our culture. Amazing insights into human nature.
·         Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  But one can be too introspective. Also a strong lesson about keeping our egos under control.

Were I filling these shelves at a different time, I know some of the choices would change. No doubt they are influenced by the ideas running clattering my mind more noisily than others right now. Also, I’ve tried to consider wider relevance and not just personal appeal. So I don’t include the wonderful novel I just read. Similarly, I wanted to stay away from works that have a definite theology or political perspective.
The exercise was fun, and perhaps you gained some ideas for summer reading or to add to your stack. I’d love to know what you think of the choices.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reflection after Hearing Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, and Thinking about Failure

     This past Tuesday I was fortunate to hear Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine reporter/editor and author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Character, and the Hidden Power of Character, speak at the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest heads of school conference. (Even cooler: I got to meet and introduce him!) He is a an excellent speaker, and I appreciated how he boiled the book down into 45 packed minutes of presentations (sans PowerPoint or Prezi, a nice change) without notes before taking questions.
     Because I've read the book and had reviewed my notes, his talk didn't provide much new information--except for one great point. Of course, I find it great because it helped me figure out how to articulate an idea I have been struggling to express properly.
     For those of you who may not have read the book, here is the basic premise. We have the traditional view that success comes from intelligence and basic cognitive skills. However, research and anecdote shows that success depends more on other non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control--qualities related more to character. Tough delineates the link between childhood adversity/stress--with a particular focus on poverty--and later life success. Ideally, one would have both the necessary cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
     Tough's point which really jumped out at me is that he believes in our society we have "an adversity gap." By this he means we have too many children who suffer tremendous adversity every day of their lives--poverty, homelessness, abuse and other ills--and those who experience almost none. Extremes, yes; but I began thinking about all the talk about allowing kids to experience failure in schools that is tied to calls for innovation.
     I have no problem with the philosophy underlying this notion. However, I believe, as Tough's term "adversity gap" suggests, that we need to figure out the sweet spot. To invoke Aristotle, we have to determine the virtue that lies at the middle of two vices. As is often the case, we jump to extremes and invokes points such as Edison's about not really failing 10,000 times or Ideo's "fail fast, fail often." Yet those are adults, who have established their identities and formed their characters. So much of the educational conversation these days focuses on failure and the need for it. Yet one thought keeps nagging at me: Do we really want children to experience failure very often?
     Part of my concern comes from the word failure. It's a loaded, powerful word, full of psychological barbs. Some argue that we need to soften the word, and that strikes me as a rather quixotic notion. Plus I believe we should keep the word for true failures that deserve it.
     I keep coming back to Vygotsky's notion of the Zone of Proximal Development, which allows students to work at levels which allow them to experience the right degree of success but also struggle until an adult intercedes at right moment. It strikes me that's what we want. For students to stumble, trip, fall, then get back up. When this happens while a toddler is learning to walk, we don't call it a failure. I'm not sure why we would with any form of learning.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ideal Bookshelf for School Leaders

                In my previous post, I explained how I was inspired to create some ideal bookshelves—one for educators, and one for leadership. If you didn’t see it, you can go here. Also, I’ll briefly explain the caveats (more fully done on previous post).
I believe educators and leaders should read widely and deeply. All sources can help one grow in both realms. But I’m going to limit myself to books specifically focused on the topic, albeit a bit more loosely in some cases.  Rather than go into any real depth about a book, I simply will make a general comment or two about why the book belongs on my ideal shelf. I hope that will encourage others to read it for themselves and feel the same power.
                Let’s look at the shelf for leadership in schools:

·         Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: Surviving and Thriving by Robert Evans. He knows schools and the people in them.
·         Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness by Robert Greenleaf. The greatest leadership manifests itself in serving others rather than ourselves. This also reminds us that education is a service, not a product, industry.
·         The Little Big Things by Tom Peters. A passionate reminder that much of leadership depends on one’s small, daily actions.
·         Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Education is such an intense, very human endeavor that EQ comes to the forefront all the time.
·         Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan. Rather than providing a pedantic formula, this book provides sudden insights tied to real situations.
·         Leading Change by John Kotter. Normally I dislike formulaic approaches to anything, but following the eight steps in here has served me well.
·         Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t  by Jim Collins. Perhaps a clich├ęd choice, but Collins’ work resonates loudly. Just this week I find myself drawing heavily on it for a presentation.
·         Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. In very concrete fashion, this book presents some wonderful tips for effective communication.
·         Truman by David McCullough. Truman’s story is a terrific one of persistence in the face of adversityand even contempt
·         Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Schools are full of strong-willed folks with loads of opinions. Lincoln shows how to value the dissent and use it to strengthen rather than break apart.

Thoughts? Additions?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ideal Bookshelf for Educators

                Recently, while wandering through a local Barnes and Noble, I stumbled upon a fascinating, beautiful  book. The title is My Ideal Bookshelf.[1] The editor asked various people—mainly artists of all sorts and writers of various genres—to imagine what books would comprise their ideal bookshelf. It’s also has lovely illustrations of the books, either lined up neatly or in random, sometimes jumbled stacks.[2] Of course, I began thinking about what books I would choose. Well, when it comes to books, I don’t like limits imposed upon me. We haves books all over the house; my iPad Kindle app is like a five-shelf bookcase by itself; and my wish list on Amazon keeps growing.
                Because I like to believe one can have it all, I’m not going to present my ideal single shelf here. Instead, I’m planning two posts, of which this will be the first. It’s my ideal bookshelf for educators. Next will be my ideal bookshelf on leadership. Then I might do a third post on books that have really impacted me but didn’t fit on those first two shelves.
                Before I proceed, I need to make a few caveats. I believe educators and leaders should read widely and deeply. All sources can help one grow in both realms. But I’m going to limit myself to books specifically focused on the topic, albeit a bit more loosely in some cases. Therefore, you won’t see Pink’s Drive, for example, in the post on education even though teachers could learn a great deal about motivation from it. Also, I don’t select books that deal primarily with nuts and bolts. Instead, I focus on bigger picture works. Wiggin’s Understanding By Design thus doesn’t appear. Finally, I’m not going to go into any real depth about a book. I simply will make a general comment or two about why the book belongs on my ideal shelf. I hope that will encourage others to read it for themselves and feel the same power.
                Let’s look at the shelf:

·         Experience and Education by John Dewey. It’s a seminal work, and the essential message is timeless. In some ways we’re realizing now just how on target Dewey was.
·         The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker Palmer. The best educators see their work as full of meaning and purpose, upon which they reflect quite intentionally. This work helps one understand that.
·         A Letter to Teachers: Reflections of Schooling and the Art of Teaching by Vito Perrone. An urgent call, based on his years of experience, to keep in mind what really matters about education.
·         Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer. This classic book does a very nice job of helping clarify what choices we should make when deciding what and how to teach.
·         The Passionate Teacher by Robert Fried. This is the book that inspired me to think of a class as a giant single idea rather than a bunch of discrete units. It flipped my approach in many ways.
·         The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards by Alfie Kohn. He’s polarizing in many ways, but he’s passionate and insightful and definitely worth reading, whether one agrees or not.
·         Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Essential lessons about how some of our traditional education practices can enhance or hinder how students perceive themselves. And how we see them.
·         Intellectual Character: What It Is, How to Get It, and Why It Matters by Ron Ritchhart. This book makes one think about intelligence in a new way, along with challenging the goals of a traditional education.
·         How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School by National Research Council.  An amazing amount of cutting-edge research complied into one work.
·         The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith. This simply written book contrasts two views of learning: work versus a fun/social process.
·         Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. I think this is more important to read than his work on multiple intelligences because this provides a strong vision for what students will need in the future.
·         The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. There are plenty of books on “21st century learning,” but I think Wagner’s stands out as less trendy.

I’m sure as soon as I post, I will think of some other titles I should have included. But I won’t go back and change it. What did I miss that you would want on your ideal bookshelf for educators?

[1] This experience reminded me of the wonderful serendipity of browsing through a bookstore with no particular purpose, something I no longer do as frequently since moving entirely to e-books. Clicking links just doesn’t have the same feel. I love the incredible inventory of Amazon, but I hope bricks-and-mortar bookstores never disappear.
[2] While thinking about this post, I had a sad realization. Book covers are often wonderfully designed, and the mosaic of spines on a shelf can be rather dazzling. But with e-readers, we no longer know what the spine looks like. Also, I wanted to create my own images but lacked the patience to produce either copies or originals.