Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Teacher's Ten First Jobs

                Jessica Lahey’s essay “Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic,’ which recounts an essay with Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), contains a great deal of inspiration.  It was first published nearly two years ago, and I recently encountered it again because of some Tweets. While I highly recommend the piece, one line in it jarred me. It’s part of a pull quote, and I’m not sure if it comes from Lahey or Teller. it, as I do any of her writing that I’ve encountered. It reads: “The first job of the teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.”
                I have so many problems with this statement that I’m unsure where to begin. If I try to thoroughly explain each of them, I’ll have the outline for a book. If I try to summarize, I’ll wind up with a frustrating mass of frustration. So I’ll reduce my basic argument to one rather sweeping assertion.  When our primary focus becomes teaching a subject, we create many of the other problems that plague education, because we forget an essential truth: that what we’re really teaching are young people.
                With that in mind, I’d like to propose ten other possible first jobs of a teacher, perhaps with the subject as context or even tool, although what that is really doesn’t matter.

     --Get to know and love your students.
     --Remember they are developing young people, not professors to be.
     --Tap into their innate curiosity by asking students what they believe and what they want to know.
     --Create a safe classroom culture.
     --Make learning relevant.
     --Share your own ongoing learning (not just that from the past).
     --Decide what risk you’re going to take.
     --Clarify—to them and to yourself—what the most important goals are.
     --Develop a plan for moving out of their way.
     --Shrink your ego so they can grow.

While each of these could be the first job, together they are the job. Do such work, and then a nice by-product may be that students come to love a subject.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Gallimaufry

     I discovered the word gallimaufry a couple of weeks ago, and it has stuck with me. It means a jumble or confused medley; applied to food, it's a hash. At the same time, it sounds rather elegant (gal-uh-maw-free). So the word captures what I hope this post becomes. Every once in a while I publish a piece which is simply a bunch of seeds that have been buried in my mind, but they've never sprouted into full posts, let alone full ideas. So from this point on, things may become disjointed, even jarring in the lack of transition and development. Perhaps some bits may shine a bit.

The more I think and read about grading/grades, the more I'm convinced it impedes deeper learning in all sorts of ways ..... I've asked many people in various realms what they think effect of current political climate is on young people. Already really concerned, I found this piece from CNN "What the 'Trumpification' of the presidency means to Generation Z" quite disheartening ..... We're being myopic if we don't look beyond Trump and look at larger cultural issues of which he is just extreme symbol ..... I'm encouraged by all the attention the Mastery Transcript Consortium is receiving. I haven't studied in that closely, but I must ask: How is this different than what Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools were advocating back in the 1980s? ..... So many schools now have a Picture of the Ideal Graduate. Wondering how many have a Picture of the Ideal Teacher ..... Speaking of which: What would be the three most important qualities of such? Which single one? ..... One of the things which goes against the idea of work-life balance is that, if we've found meaningful work, aren't we our genuine, passionate self in both? I know that's not really the idea, but I hope you get my gist. And if that's the case, we do better in both realms ..... The old saw claims that what gets valued, gets measured. In many cases, though, I think measuring removes potential value by limiting ..... I remain huge fan of Twitter, despite how toxic a forum it can become. But that's a human problem, not a technology problem ..... Wonder if most problems are really cultural rather than technical ..... Pre-k and K kids bopping in and out of school with oversized, nearly empty backpacks. No matter how many times I've seen it, I love it ..... Given the way handwriting was drilled into most of us as youngsters, why do we all have such distinctive, often messy, penmanship? That must be a metaphor for something ..... The idea of tattoos is growing on me, with greater appreciation for the art form. But I'm no closer to ever getting one, mainly because I can't decide what I would ..... Yesterday the rector at my church talked about the singularity in his sermon. I didn't have the heart to tell him how much closer we may be than the examples he presented ..... Aren't many of the reasons given for why schools must change actually reasons, if extended far enough, that school may not even need to exist? ..... Of course, people always will need something to do with their kids ..... I find it strange to be writing a post in this form when the past couple of months I keep feeling this strange tug to try writing a book.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Idealism vs Practicality

            One tension I feel acutely as a head of school is the constant need to balance my idealism and practicality. I know many other heads who feel the same. To be more specific, educational leaders maintain strong beliefs in what education can and should be as what many call one of the noblest professions. That last word, however, suggests the other side of the issue: that an independent school, while mission driven and non-profit, is a business. That is not to say a business cannot operate in high-minded fashion; indeed, I believe most independent schools do, and I know most people not in the upper administrative levels of education don’t think much about this part of their world. It is, though, a reality we must consider.
            The truly excellent and brave letter John Allman, head of Trinity School in Manhattan, sent to his community this summer resurrected this struggle for me. It was cited recently by the New York Times in an article on private schools and social justice. The letter reaches much further than that. I’d say it has much more to do with the commoditization of private education. One of John’s key points focuses on the loss which occurs when the relationship becomes more contract that covenant. When it does, we emphasize the transactions that occur, the products at the end, rather than the more ethereal aspects of the process. I’m oversimplifying John’s epistle, and I encourage you to read the entire piece. I imagine most school heads were nodding their heads vigorously while reading, wishing they had composed it. It sings with the voices of our highest angels.
            While this problem is not new, it has been exacerbated over the past couple of decades as our culture has become increasingly consumerist. Perhaps it is the emergence of the iCulture, with the ability to tailor more and more to our individual needs and satisfaction, the belief more and more should be personalized. Maybe it’s a heightened sense of competition. I’m not sure. But I know it’s pervasive.      
At the same time, I hope we in the independent school world also have looked at our role in the relationship. Complicity may be the right word. With our staggering annual tuition levels—in some markets well over $40,000—how could we not expect people to want a clear return on investment? What signal do the cathedral-like facilities send? What about bloated programs? It’s no wonder a hot topic right now is our economic sustainability
Thus, so many of us have engaged in marketed campaigns designed to differentiate us, to show the value-added.* For several years, first as a curriculum director and then as a head, I embarked on what I termed the quest for the golden metric(s). We all feel that pressure to prove our worth, to validate the cost. We take quite seriously that parents, as a friend of mine use to say, trust us with their two most precious possessions—their cash and their kids.
To accomplish that understandable goal, we do things such as publish matriculation and acceptance lists. We crow about high test scores and award winners. On a more micro level, we post honor rolls and confer all sorts of prizes. We use grades as carrots. We—and I readily admit my guilt as both school leader and teacher—do this because we feel we have to, like it or not.
We do so for very practical reasons. They are sometimes harsh realities. After all, we have to put food in our bellies. But what about nourishing our souls? The tension brews consternation about where any educator’s greatest idealism should aim: the impact on children. I worry that, along with other societal pressures, we’re stripping some of the joy from childhood.


*Whether they have succeeded or not is another question, particularly as to differentiation.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Timely vs Timeless: A Thought on Mission Statements

     I can't find the Tweet now, and I can't remember who said it; so I'm probably going to misquote it. It went something like "Just adding innovative to your mission statement doesn't mean you really are." I found myself nodding and thinking about all the other trendy words have been added to countless mission statements over the past decade or so: leadership, diverse, mindful, 21st centuryresilient (or grit), global...please complete the list with your own favorites.
     As I've been reflecting on our own mission statement and asking others to do so as well, I've heard and read a great deal about what makes one effective. And, just as importantly, why most lack a certain something. We all know the reasons for each. But this Tweet crystallized for me a notion that I think is worth pondering, mainly because it points beyond mission to a larger challenge.
     When we add such words to our mission, we fall into what I guess is a human trap of grasping hopefully onto the timely. How many times can you think of education having latched onto something and proclaiming it as the silver bullet? Recall that even television was once seen as such. We do the same thing with more abstract concepts such as leadership. When it becomes a buzzword, often school even incorporate it into our mission statements. Our mission can then become like too much of our curricula--wider and wider with perhaps less depth.
     If schools really are re-imagining themselves and their mission statements, rather than take on the timely, they should consider the timeless. Don't just gaze into the supposed future. Instead, plumb the depths of what makes us human, those eternal qualities which have enabled us to innovate for thousands of years.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Charge to St. John's Employees Aug '17

The following is my charge to St. John’s employees during our in-service week. I usually work from notes alone, but I’ve drafted a prose version since some people asked for a copy. So the language is not quite the same as when I speak. It also definitely loses something without the slides, so maybe you can imagine them. And while you’re doing that, maybe you can conjure a sense of my delivering the remarks with an Obama-level rhetorical flair.

The picture you see is Inspiration Point in Yosemite. That seems appropriate given point of a charge. Plus, if we are going to think about the big picture, this puts it in perspective. That waterfall you can barely make out is actually just over 2400 feet tall.
Yes, normally I give you my charge the day before we start; but I decided to do it today for very particular reasons. You know we have our board retreat tomorrow, and heads of school know each of us is just one bad board meeting away. Plus I may still be in jail come Tuesday. No, not the drunk tank; I’m attending the political rally downtown on Saturday evening, and you never know what could happen.  Just as a priest often keeps politics out of the pulpit, I try to keep them from this podium. But there are times one shouldn’t keep silent. That’s tied to why I switched to today. Maybe it’s my own needs right now, and something about this feels a bit self-indulgent. But I know that some of you feeling the same yin-yang of this week as I am. We have the exuberance, energy, optimism as we launch into the new school year. Yet we can’t ignore the larger context of cultural malaise (only way I can describe it). Inspiration, indeed, is needed; and what I humbly will try to provide. I’ll do so by talking about why a St. John’s matters so, so much, especially now.
I’d like to begin by talking about this guy. Anyone know who he is? I doubt it, but if you do, don’t say. Let me give you some hints. He was born in 1976 in Arlington, and he later went to went to St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Austin (a fellow ISAS school), where he was a near-classmate of my sister-in-law. He then attended SMU, where he became an entrepreneur, starting the EZ Laundry dry-cleaning service on campus. He moved to Nashville and started a media company selling billboards for country music, which was bought by Clear Channel. Off to Los Angeles to start the cable network Reality Central. All of this by age 30. Obviously a total slacker.. Then came his second biggest claim to fame—he and sister finished second on The Amazing Race. Do you know yet? You certainly will by Blake Mycoskie’s greatest feat: founding Tom’s Shoes.
In case any of you don’t know Toms, it works this way: you buy a pair, and a pair goes to a needy child somewhere in the world. It started when Mycoskie was visiting Argentina in 2006, and he met a woman providing shoes for children. He learned of and saw the effects of being shoeless—blisters, sores, infections, long-term consequences. Very quickly he decided to start this shoe company, first called Shoes for a Better Tomorrow; shortened to Toms. He began with very limited resources, and was quickly overwhelmed by demand after a media story. By 2013, Tom’s had donated over 10 million pairs. He expanded beyond shoes. In 2011 Tom’s partnered with Seva Foundation to focus on eyeglasses. Each pair bought led to glasses, medical treatment, even optical surgery for someone. Then in 2016 Tom’s Roasters coffee started, with each bag purchased led to week of safe water.
Tom’s has influenced several others. Schools had Tom’s shoe events for their proms. The students would get their fancy duds, then buy Tom’s and decorate them to wear to prom. The Falling Whistles program involved selling whistles to combat civil war in Congo—a program that became part of the first 8th grade service learning capstone here at St. John’s. Warby Parker, which is a 1:1 eyeglass program. Method eco-friendly cleaning products gives part of their profits for environmental clean-up efforts. Veev, which features acai berries in beverages, donates a dollar for every bottle sold to rain forest preservation. Feed reusable grocery shopping bags provide free school lunches needy students. So the ripple effect has been tremendous.
This summer read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something That Matters. At first I was plagued with all sorts of liberal guilt. Yes, I work in education, which certainly matters. But I thought about the privileged circumstances in which I’ve always done so. And it’s crucial for me to feel real purpose and meaning in my life. Meanwhile, the really big takeaway for me was that if you’re going to do something that matters, need three things. You have to care deeply. You have to imagine the possibility of better. You have to muster up the courage to act.
One I stopped wallowing in that liberal guilt, I started thinking hard about why what we do here at St. John’s matter. Maybe it’s rationalization, but we’re working with kids who will be in positions to make a real difference in the world. And that certainly matters.
The ripple effect of Mycoskie’s makes me think of the rice-chessboard story. The inventor of chess was asked by emperor what he wanted for his reward. The inventor asked that the emperor put one grain of sand on first square, and double it on each successive square. The Emperor quickly agreed, thinking he was getting off easy. Well, you can see what happened. Halfway through there were 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, and at the end there were 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.
Here’s the point—take this an analogy. And just as rice was so valuable back then, what you provide now is priceless. If you have a truly positive impact on 10 kids this year; then at some point they have positive impact on 10; then each of those ten… Very quickly you have somehow positively touched 1000 people. It’s not long until that hits a million. And that’s just one year’s worth of work. Plus—and this is truly awesome--any moment can be the one which makes that difference.
Why does that happen here so often at St. John’s? There are many, many reasons; I’ve synthesized them to three.
First, our values. Service, respect, gratitude, connectedness, civility, empathy—we bring those to the forefront and keep them there. They are our values as an Episcopal school. We don’t just talk about them; we put them into action. It’s education with a larger purpose. It’s learning what it means to lead a noble life. It’s how you foster that; how you model that.
Second, our approach to school—more particularly, our approach to learning. We see everything as a chance to learn, and to do so joyfully, and to grow through the process. We recognize that deeper learning involves a double loop. On the surface, one learns to solve a particular problem. But one is also, probably more importantly, learning the habits of learning. It’s also inherent in what we realize meaningful learning is and isn’t. It’s not just knowing answers; not just study or training. It’s more a cast of mind, an outlook, an approach to life. It’s not automatic. It requires energy, thought, even bravery. That’s because real learning is not just finding out what others already know. It’s discovering for ourselves by questioning, thinking, testing something it becomes our own.
Third, our approach puts us on the right side of history. You’ve heard me say many times we have to educate not for our past or present, but for kids’ futures, the world in which they will be living. To do so, have to accept we live in time of discontinuous change. Discontinuous, not continuous, as it can often feel because of numerous small changes. But really significant change happens through what I call the Slinky effect. Forces gather slowly, then burst forth. This pattern tends to prompt progress more than steady change does because it demands more extreme questioning, rethinking, and adaptation. Those are things one can do only if one knows how to learn, and to do it well.
We also are right side of history because of what we do. Think of it this way. If we were to look back at the 20th century and think about the most significant events and figures, a logical selection would be World War II. This would lead us to think of people such as Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt. But, as important as they were, I could argue they are not really the most significant. Instead, I’d hold forth people such as Einstein, Freud, Margaret Mead, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr. Why? They changed the way the world thinks! They caused us to re-imagine possibilities. And isn’t that what you do for kids each and every day?
More contemporarily, we live in a time of intense culture wars. We can assign plenty of blame to all points of the political spectrum and elsewhere, and we’re masters of finger-pointing. The issues are festering, heightening, gaping. There is no telling the effect on kids, now and in the long-term. Remember times like this have happened before and likely will happen again. When they do, it moves far beyond the political. It becomes ethical, spiritual, existential. While cultural, it becomes very personal. Right now, it’s gnawing at me that I taught a founder and now major leader of the alt-right. I wonder how that gangly, goofy kid became a face of evil. How does that happen?
If we look at our nation’s history, this is not something new. It has manifested itself in different ways. During one of our first presidential elections, Jefferson was scorned for owning a Koran. At different times we have feared Mormons and Catholics. We’ve spewed anger at various immigrant groups, including those from which many of us are descended. There’s been both overt and unspoken racism against Latinos, Asians, Blacks; and phobia directed towards members of the LGBQT+ community and other marginalized groups. Some of this we have forgotten. What we remember, we can’t believe we engaged in. Some of it lingers, sometimes in the form of painful scars.
But when we look at that history of our nation, we also should draw hope. We move forward, individually and collectively. The history of America, for all its dark moments, is one of gradually greater acceptance and inclusion. That is how it should be. That is why it’s so crucial that at St. John’ we stress intellectual analysis, civil discourse, character, and service. Our national history is one of gradually learning the principles we already know here, capture in our fifth tenet of Episcopal education, straight from baptismal covenant: respect the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we respond to hatred,  to what and whom we cannot understand with a Christian type of love. We strive to gain that understanding, some sort of clarity. We continue that ongoing quest to heal ourselves and the world
Ours is the type of education that will help answer the real question. It’s not how do we make America great again, but: How do we make America grateful again? Actually, it goes beyond that. The entire world needs the type of education that St. John’s aspires to provide. Because all those things I’ve talked about, those and more, they ultimately do perhaps the most important thing that people need: it’s an education that plants and nurtures seeds of love and hope.

















Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tale of Two Students

       Lately two former students from long ago--the late 1980s, early 1990s--keep popping into my mind. I know exactly why. I'm trying to fit them into the points made in my last post: "The Real Secret to Independent School Success." My doing so initially was prompted by seeing one Tweet several times about the other, although they went to different schools and likely never have met. And that's because of the role each has come to play in current events.
       I need to give you some background about each. For various reasons, I don't want to use their real names. I'll call them J and R.

  • J grew up poor in a very small town in the Deep South. I don't know all the circumstances, but a generous benefactor arranged for him to attend the fairly traditional school where I worked. There he excelled as both a student and community member, eventually becoming a Presidential Scholar.
  • R grew up well-off in a major city in the Southwest. I taught him when he attended a diverse, progressive middle school, and then he went to another top school. 
  • J attended a prestigious university, the first person in his family to attend college.
  • R also attended prestigious universities, nearly completing a doctorate.
  • J is an award-winning journalist who now runs the journalism department at a major university in the Northeast.
  • R didn't follow any particular career path I know of.
  • J explores and comments on how various key topics are being portrayed in the media, often from a liberal perspective. 
  • R has been in the media a great deal lately. He is a founder and a leader of the alt-right movement.
     Since I saw one of J's Tweets and then messaged him about my having taught R, a question has gnawed at me off and on: How did this happen? If you go strictly by expectations based on cultural stereotypes, if anyone was going to become a face of neo-Nazism, it would have been J. Not that I would have ever even thought of the idea. But I never would have predicted it for R, either. I recall a gangly, goofy, friendly kid.
     Even though I lost all contact with R after sixth grade, imagine what it feels like to see one of your former students having become this way. It knocks you off balance, makes you wonder. What happened?  What could have led to different outcomes? If you believe in the power of meaningful independent school education to help people create better selves and lives...well, then, I guess not always.
     I'm not saying that R's education/schools failed him. Yet something and/or someone did. I don't believe anyone is born inherently evil or even hateful. Plus, while it's not exactly guilt, passionate educators are plagued--sometimes irrationally--by memories of the ones we fear we didn't serve well. One or two of them can eclipse the success stories, particularly at times such as that our nation is enduring right now.
     Therein lies the beauty in this weird juxtaposition that is the plot of this tale of two students. For all the angst the story of R might inject into our pedagogical veins, there the story of J, one of hope and promise fulfilled. I'm sure he would tell you an educational opportunity took his life down a wonderful path early circumstances would not have predicted. J likely would have found a way, but the right school truly mattered. There's the moral, the inspiration, the mission, for a new school year.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Real Secret to Independent School Success

       On August 1, 2017, Education Week posted an article by Dr. Stephanie Hull titled "Six Secrets to Private Schools' Success, and How Public Schools Can Steal Them." A former head of an independent school, Dr. Hull highlights six key practices that are fairly common in that world (actually a subset of private school in general). We could debate their effectiveness. As with most things, that depends on implementation and the people involved. I also suspect that private schools could learn quite a bit from public schools. Or, more specifically, I suspect all educators could learn something from quality educators no matter the sector in which they work. Yet I'm digressing a bit, and my point is not to pick a fight with Dr. Hull, as she presents strong suggestions.
       I must wonder, though, whether public schools really can steal them given the politicking and bureaucracy--often being mandated by government officials with no real background in education--that rules that system. Furthermore, the emphasis on standardization and objective testing puts forth the wrong goals. Plus the issue is more than certain policies and programs.
       The real secret to great independent schools' success is not really a secret. It's right there in the name: our independence. That status allows us to focus on our missions. On the ideals of education and what it can accomplish.
       An exceptional independent school helps each student steadily become a grander version of his or her unique, best possible self.
       Ultimately, meaningful education cannot not determined by data, benchmarks, college placement, or exit exams. Instead, it’s about less quantifiable ideals—the soul of the matter. Connections in a caring community. The courage to take risks in search of understanding. Discovery of one’s talents and growing to fulfill them. Development of a supple mind, a healthy body, and a kind heart. The realization of a purpose beyond oneself.
       Each independent school should exercise its freedom to create a unique culture with such an ethos. The richness of the atmosphere prompts people to explore and to plumb the depths of themselves. Diverse experiences and perspectives provoke the deep reflection integral to true learning. Meanwhile, the teachers truly care if they have succeeded, but often do not know for sure. Then, out of the blue, we hear from an alum who is doing wonderfully. Ideally, that person is contributing positively to the world.
       The opportunities and hard work—the rewards and the joys—lie in fostering such an environment. It includes dynamic tensions that challenge our values. For example, how does one balance individuality and community? Do we encourage specialization or generalism? How can teachers cover material yet prod students into thinking as deeply as possible? In a society that stresses quick tangible success, how do we foster perseverance and intrinsic rewards? Schools should struggle continually with such questions, which should drive more immediate decisions such as schedule, policy, and program.
       Similarly, several years ago I participated in an exercise called The Picture of the Graduate. Since then I have led many others through it. Small groups brainstorm the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes they wish to see in their graduates, eventually paring the list to the three most desired items. No one picks any particular area of knowledge. Instead, every group—school leaders, teachers, students, parents—selects certain attitudes and skills as the most desirable qualities. Synthesized, they reflect the traits of life-long learners; of good citizens; and of well-rounded, balanced individuals.
       Ultimately, education should be about how we live together—about reaffirming a social compact in which we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities. When Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness as an individual right in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim entailing a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.  It’s like the paradoxical benefit of being on a successful team.  As an individual adjusts to the group, the result can be a stronger sense of self
       The best independent schools thus are places where great lives begin. It should be true for all schools.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mission and the Inner Muse

       I love those moments in life when two things merge in my thinking in a way that causes me to rethink something. In preparation for part of our August board retreat, I have been thinking even more than usual about the notion of mission. Also, for whatever reason, I've been seeing loads of references to muses lately, whether in the book I recently finished or the NYT crossword or in various conversations. Whether coincidence or serendipity, when these connections occur, I pay attention.
       At the retreat we're going to do a mission-review exercise. Like most independent schools (most non-profit organizations, I guess) we emphasize that we are mission driven. Everything we do should advance that mission. It's the beacon.
       That is simple in theory, but the challenges are complex. Consider, first, that most schools have the same basic elements and similar words. Yet language is inherently limited, with commonly precise meaning elusive. Just what is, for example, "academic excellence"? It varies by community, and by the members within a community. Another issue is that we most often look for signs that we can declare mission accomplished through affirmation from external sources. It's a natural human impulse, and it makes business sense. It certainly can fuel motivation.
       Throughout the history of creativity, we see artists invoking the muse. At the start of The Odyssey Homer cries, "Sing to me, Oh Muse!"; and Picasso had six women he called his muses. I suspect all of us, when seeking ideas but feeling stuck, pray for some spark of inspiration, whether divine or not. Another natural human impulse.
       I wonder if, in seeking to fulfill our missions, schools seek to inspire students with the wrong sort of muses. When a teacher warns, "You'll need to know this because it'll be on the test" (or even a more subtle variation thereof), don't we conjure up the grade as a form of muse? I'm sure you can think of other analogies. The carrot-and-stick approach works in the moment and can be sustained for a long time. But as Daniel Pink's Drive made clear, it doesn't really sustain human's craving for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
       And the need for those is just as naturally human as those impulses mentioned above. Indeed, it may be even stronger. Living without it can lead to a lack of fulfillment and even depression. It certainly doesn't inspire. So I'm musing on a new way of thinking about mission. What if our mission became about helping each student discover their own inner muse?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

End-of-Year, Heading-into-Summer Charge to St. John's Episcopal Employees

What follows is the text of my end-of-year, heading-into-summer charge to St. John's Episcopal employees. They lost something without the slides, but you'll get the gist.

            I always find these end-of-year remarks a big challenge. It’s a crazy-busy time, and we’re all running on fumes. But it’s more than that. In reality, a large part of me has been in 17-18 and beyond mode for quite a while. It’s part of my job. Plus I’m just always thinking “What’s next?”, my mind racing in an educationally nerdy mania. I can’t seem to stop imagining what’s possible. Also, I must admit part of me is already hiking around Tahoe and Yosemite. I’m hoping for that combination of relaxation, exertion, and inspiration I enjoyed last year in the Tetons. But the biggest challenge is trying to grab and hold your attention on the first day of June.
We’ve had another wildly successful year by multiple measures. You saw, I hope, the email which went to families and captured many of them in broad strokes. I encourage you to take time to celebrate your own particular successes. Share them with each other and with people who need to know about St. John’s.  This year has provided further compelling evidence of how we continue to become better and better at creating the type of modern education students need in the emerging world. Yes, it’s really hard work. But it’s also vitally important work. It’s thus really fulfilling work.
            Of course, we still have more to do. The pace of summer is different, but those who talk about educators having the summers off just don’t get it. Whether doing tangible work or not, the best educators seldom let school drift far from their thoughts. Summer is when we have the time to do some of the most important work—the sort of reflection and musing so essential to progress. My objective today is to prod you with a question I hope you will ponder at different points during the lulls of your summer. If not often, at least during the summer reading of Launch.  It’s a sneaky question, one which in its ideal form would be rhetorical, the answer so patently obvious we would need to think about it as often as we think about our hearts beating. But I believe it’s an essential one for us to grapple with if we are to keep evolving as a school.
            Here’s why. Like Snoopy, when it comes to big, hairy questions—and there are plenty of them--too often the education world in general avoids them. At St. John’s, I’m glad to say, we don’t. We understand how important they are. So we think about them. We keep them and our mission and ideals in mind, at least subconsciously. But we must admit we sometimes lose sight of them in our busyness. We have to avoid that as much as we can. We also have to be honest in how we answer them. Both easier said than done.
            I know what you’re thinking: okay, Mark, so what’s the question? I’m getting to it. Just one more tiny preamble. In priming you to think about it, I’m going to talk about education in very general terms, with many sweeping statements, as I did a moment ago. You need to think about how it applies to us as a school and to you as individuals.
            Now that the suspense is killing you… The question is: Who owns the learning?
            I most recently began thinking about this question when I came across Alan November’s book Who Owns the Learning?  I haven’t read it, but I know it focuses on empowering students through digital technology. I love that premise, but we’re being professionally and intellectually lazy if we don’t think beyond that. It’s too easy, and even irresponsible, to provide the quick and obvious “right” answer, one perhaps sprung from wishful thinking as much as reality. As we formulate our own answers, we must think about the goals of the learning. Those determine in large part who should own the learning.
            Yes, the students, of course. But do they? Can they? Do adults—teachers and parents—allow them to? Do we do so as much as we could? As much as we could? What if we allowed for them to own it more? What could school be like? I find myself thinking of Mark Twain’s famous quotation, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Recently Sir Ken Robinson updated this when he said, “Children love to learn; they just don’t like to be educated.”
            For all of us—from a newborn to a senior citizen—learning seems to peak when it’s natural, joyful; when we become caught up in those flow experiences. Most often that happens when learning is self-driven, or at least set up in a way that taps into our natural curiosity and motivation. Maslow sees such learning as essential in the hierarchy of human needs.
            I wonder how often school allows this to happen. More importantly, I wonder how much schools do that actually counters this. Sometimes we become what one person calls “tourist teachers.” Rather than letting students explore, we give them all sorts of maps, literal and metaphorical, to direct their paths. Perhaps that’s because for so long schools have been the gatekeepers to knowledge, as if we were protecting something sacred to which students need a secret access code. Accumulate enough baubles, the shinier the better—think high grades and AP courses, for just two examples—and you could be declared educated. But that’s not really the same as being learned, or knowing how to learn. And I’m not sure we’ve thought enough about actual, genuine learning. Instead, think about the demands that school and life piles on young people nowadays. It’s no wonder that mindfulness has become a hot topic. I’m glad the issue is being addressed. But maybe we should be asking why we’re driving kids crazy in the first place. I think it has something to do with how our society mistakenly has associated quality learning with more, faster, harder—what we label greater rigor. Meanwhile, we want to control it all in the name of high standards. But a standardized education serves neither anyone nor our culture well.
            The digital revolution, like other things before, was supposed to change all this. I wonder. Yes, there are myriad positives. In particular, digital technology makes the ability to learn anything ubiquitous and easy. We can make extensive connections. It truly is awesome. But digitalization in and of itself does not necessarily mean better. In fact, it can simply exacerbate the focus on efficiency and uniformity which has driven education for so long. Bad practice is bad practice, whether real or virtual. Clicking through stuff as you navigate the shallows is not ownership, and it is far too easy to create one’s own echo chamber, deafening any dissent that could lead to learning. And I would argue right now this is one of our nation’s worst afflictions.
            Why is owning the learning so important? It keeps us curious. It fuels a growth mindset. It emboldens us to take on challenges. Studies show the best leaders are voracious learners. Nowadays we all must learn constantly to keep up with the rate of change. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson delineates how for most of the 20th century, innovation followed the 10/10 rule: ten years to build a platform, 10 years for it to gain acceptance. Now, with technology and the internet, innovation follows the 1/1 rule.
            In some ways, innovation is synonymous with learning. As Johnson delineates, innovation does not come in a sudden flash, that proverbial light bulb moment. Instead, it comes through a connection of existing parts and ideas in new ways. So we’re better served by connecting ideas rather than protecting them because if you want more new ideas, scatter more stuff on the table. Learning opens new paths to explore—without a clear map—novel ways of combining parts. It creates what Johnson calls a “sense of the adjacent possible.”
            That concept makes me think we should flip one way of thinking about learning. We should not think about it as measured by an exit ticket. Perhaps we should evoke a sense of learning as an entry ticket into the adjacent possible.  Of what learning can be and where it can lead. Or what it can mean for students and their potential. All of our human, cultural, and global potential.
            That desire, I think, is the whole impetus driving the maker movement, which led into other associated ideas such as project-based learning and design thinking. I believe it’s a clear attempt to take ownership of creating and learning. It’s not just about making things. It’s about the making of a self. This process and outlook should not be restricted to a makerspace or certain units. It should infuse our entire approach throughout the school.

            That doesn’t mean we succumb to some sort of curricular or pedagogical anarchy. When I think about who owns the learning, I believe we all should. After all, young folks need our guidance…but only to a certain degree. We know what they need—emphasis on need—to learn to become the Portrait of our Graduate. At the same time, we have to keep exploring ourselves, seeking that sweet spot between guidance and autonomy, between control and freedom.  So to me the real question—the one I hope you spend some time wrestling with this summer—becomes: How do we help students own more and more of the learning?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cynics Need Not Apply

       On May 11, 2017, Seth Godin published a short post titled "Possibility." I immediately Tweeted this:
While Godin, as usual, nails an essential concept, he also neglects to mention another enemy of possibility, one which may prove more destructive than anything else. In its least dangerous form, it's a fixation on the negative. Unfettered, it becomes cynicism.
       Sadly, such an outlook dominates a great deal of what's written about education. I'm not talking about outside critics, many of whom have never worked in schools or really understand education. Education, for many of them, is an easy target. I'm more concerned with people recognized as thought leaders in the field, the luminaries who are supposed to be prompting us to design better schools. However, I find they often are great at pointing out problems and asserting issues and voicing extreme skepticism, often with a requisite degree of snark. Yet they nearly as often fail to present concrete solutions.
       Yes, I know such people exist throughout all walks of life. Yet my focus here is on education and why such a world view is particularly vexing there, particularly given the large followings and visible platforms these people have.
        Before I explain the larger problem, I want to clarify that I agree with these people's viewpoints. There is plenty of urgent work to be done throughout education. We can't ignore the problems. At the same time, however, there are many people striving to enact positive changes big and small in all sorts of exciting ways. We need more celebration of those. They can prove inspiring. They make us wonder what's possible.
       Ultimately, that's what learning should be about--an ever-growing sense of and wonder about what is possible. About the world. About each other. About ourselves. Humans are not perfectible, and our warts are part of what make us such fascinating critters. But our millennia of progress has been propelled by optimistic exploration, often in the face of naysayers and doom-criers.
       As young people develop their sense of self, the last thing they need is to be taught by cynical people. I think we already see the effects of this on teens. Many people see them as cynical as part of their natural development. I disagree. I think they are quite idealistic, but they are often disappointed by adult behavior. Somewhat similarly, those teachers experimenting with new pedagogy and curricula can feel defeated when lumped in with general condemnation. The issue is exacerbated in this era of widespread societal fear and loathing that is playing out on social media and all levels of politics.
     Like most things, this boils down to a human issue. What do we want to stand for? How do we want to lead? To follow? I want to believe all of us who truly care about creating the best education can tap into our best selves and the best of humanity. I retain that hope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Product or Person? Yes.

     My previous post, which began with a reference to Frank Bruni's Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be and then juxtaposed its premise to the Colleges Change Lives consortium, ended this way: "The question is: Do our schools--does our school--lead to a product or a person?" I promised to tackle that question in this subsequent post. I don't know that I'll answer in any definitive fashion, but I hope to pose some important points for consideration.
     Schools are caught in a bit of a trap here. For so long, going well back in the tradition of independent schools being bastions of privilege, part of their cachet has, like certain colleges, been in producing a certain type of graduate. It would not be uncommon to hear someone referred to as "a ___ man" or " a ____ woman," almost to the point of stereotype or caricature. Still, schools took a certain delight in this and it made for rather easy marketing. It also provides a certain comfort, a sort of tangible proof that the mission has indeed been accomplished. Even now, when our campuses our not quite so cloistered, we still associate certain types of people with certain schools. Some of this is due to the self-selecting process of choosing schools and the by-product of cultural immersion, as each school has its own ethos. Therein lies the real answer...and the real challenge.
     Let's consider the topic of diversity (or multiculturalism, or equity and inclusion; for the sake of this example, I'll use diversity). Independent schools are, thank goodness, no longer such exclusive WASP enclaves. Over time many have become, at least by the numbers, more reflective of larger society. (Let's go ahead and acknowledge that extensive elements of privilege remain, however.) Let's consider two hypothetical schools; we'll call them A and B. They have very similar demographics, including a very diverse population. School A is known for producing a certain, very clear type of graduate. School B is as well, but much less clearly defined. My immediate, although perhaps unfair, conclusion would be that School A takes a diverse population and funnels those kids along a clear path towards definite goals. As for School B, I may conclude they allow the diversity to play out in more various ways.
       I realize I'm oversimplifying and ignoring myriad nuances, particularly about a complex topic. But I think the question it raises is fair, even crucial. And it could be applied in many areas in various ways. We have to dig very deep, probing far beyond the verbiage in our mission statements and philosophies. It's a heavy question.
      Just what is an education for?
      If it's a means to an end, then the emphasis becomes product. Even if it's about the development of a person, but with some preset measure of success, the person by default becomes somewhat secondary to the product. Inevitably, because of how institutions function, there is going to be some of this. The question is one of degree.
     If it's about self-discovery, then the emphasis becomes person. More particularly, about a person realizing potential and discovering possibilities. But it's not individualism careening towards egocentricity. It occurs within community norms and values, albeit sometimes pushing against them.
      While I tend to consider the latter ultimately more meaningful, I also appreciate the tension here. The best schools don't necessarily answer in one way or the other. Instead, they grapple with the issue, struggling for a balance that allows for both product and person.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Product or Person?

      I've recommended Frank Bruni's book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania to many people, and I've twice referred to it in previous posts ( a tiny bit here and more extensively here), I agree completely with his basic premise: that on'es college experience and life thereafter is not about a school's name brand, but about how one embraces the available opportunities. Bruni cites myriad anecdotes and extensive, varied data to support his contention. I've also read other similar studies.
       Of course, much of this depends on what and how one decides to measure whatever qualities one is emphasizing. Usually, it comes down to things such as job placement, money earned versus the costs, graduate degrees, et cetera. They are all valid, especially as one considers the excessives costs of higher education. When one looks beyond economics, there are the schools which tout "softer" payoffs, such as the institutions which belong to the Colleges that Change Lives consortium.
       I trust you see the contradiction. Or, perhaps more accurately, the dilemma. Does college determine who you become or not? Maybe not at most places, but yes at certain schools. Maybe at all places if you make it happen? Is it about the college or about free will or some mix of the two?
       My current reflecting on this issue was prompted by a conversation with my wife this past weekend. She had posted something on Facebook, and she was touched by how many of her independent high school classmates had responded kindly, including some with whom she had not had much contact through the years. (Also, some of her best friends are from high school.) She believes quite strongly that the culture of her school greatly influenced how these people responded and more generally shaped them.
       On some level, this is obvious. After all, given the amount of time and young people spend immersed in their schools, how can they not be shaped to some degree? This holds particularly true in the more formative years. To some degree, college may be a bit late. After all, a student chooses a college based largely on how they already have become. But in those younger years? That's where independent schools can have dramatic impact on who students become.
      In saying that, I'm not making a blanket condemnation of public and parochial schools. Many of them do strong work, and students who want--similar to Bruni's point--can gain good enough, sometimes exceptional, educations there. But in many ways it's a standardized education, epitomized by bubble-test mania, especially the exit exam. I don't think that serves anyone as well as education could, especially in the current and future world.
       And here's where independent schools--with the freedom to teach what and how they believe best within very intentional cultures--can perform magic. To repeat, the reality is that school at any level is going to affect who someone becomes. It's inevitable. After all, we spend extensive time there, and those relationships usually extend into non-school hours. So I think we have to answer a very clear but vexing question. Most will answer quickly, and it sounds like a relatively easy thing. But then we get into yogi's reminder about theory and practice.
      The question is: Do our schools--does our school--lead to a product or a person?*

*Right now I'll just let readers think about this. My next post will elaborate. Feels a bit like I'm in the classroom again.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Death of My Blog?

                A bit over two years ago, I published the post “Death of the Blog?” In it I mused on the state of blogging, particularly what I felt was its gradual demise. One main point compared blogging to tweeting, the conclusion being that I believe there is both the room and the need for both as they operate in ways that serve our divergent modes of thought.  In it I also linked to a slightly earlier post, in which I lamented the death of an individual blog, whether because the author never really developed a groove, simply ran out of fresh ideas, or gave up. No matter the cause, a dying/dead blog reeks of unfulfilled promise.
                Now, I wonder, is my own blog is approaching its inevitable demise after seven years and 282 posts? Recently I noticed I had not posted since early March, and that was prompted by the annual National Association of independent Schools conference.  Before then, over the past I was posting less frequently, despite promises to resume regular writing. If I look longer term, the rate has steadily slowed since I started at a healthy post-a-week clip. Sometimes I’ve had to force myself to post, really out of self-imposed guilt. On some level I know I’m only maintaining it at all out of some sense of obligation. Exactly to whom, I’m not sure.
                When we are fully honest, blogging is a rather egocentric activity. Any form of publication is based on the foundational belief that one has something important to share. We all do, but actually putting it out there ups the ante. And while one hopes the work serves an audience, human nature dictates that we pray we’re even getting an audience. Lack of readers may be a primary reason—the feeling you are a tree falling in an endless forest. Many also may expect all sorts of reader feedback. In some ways, many of us have bought into the idea that the internet allows anyone to have a loud voice. That appeal slams into the wall of reality. I say that as someone whose views—while not staggering at an average of around 350 a day—are beyond anything I ever expected. I’m proud and honored…but I also no longer get that little dopamine rush from positive data.
The ego also demands that we are initially entertaining ourselves. Comic strip artist Stefan Pastis recently said he figures a joke works if he makes himself laugh. For whatever reason, lately blogging has not brought me the usual satisfaction. Friends have counseled not to worry about repeating myself or thinking every post has to be profound.  I understand that thinking, and I don’t worry about becoming self-derivative in a reader’s eyes (mainly because I doubt they would notice except in some sweeping, thematic fashion).  I need the process to be a bit more primal, perhaps even narcissistic. It has to feed me. Perhaps not surprisingly, my pieces I like most are process posts, when I’m figuring something out as I write and begin unsure of how I will end.
Ironically, given that last point, developments in our larger culture over the past few years have me feeling even more of a need to struggle to figure things out. I think many feel the same sort of discombobulation. Of course, I’m talking about national and geo-politics. Those are obvious. But I sense people feel angst and uncertainty in other parts of their lives. In education, while so many preach about what we need to do to prepare kids for their futures—and we speak with a certain assumed authority—it’s all speculation given the rate and breadth of change.  As an educational leader, in some ways I feel more certain about what needs to happen; and in others, even more confused. To extend the irony, in such situations, people often react in one of two ways. They may resort to quick bits of bombast, rushes to judgment, such as a spontaneous Tweet or snarky comment on social media. Or, on the other hand, like me, they may be leery of treading into certain areas for fear of detonating a landmine. It could reach a sense of futility.
Those last points may actually be the most crucial reasons to keep a blog going (or find other fora). We need deeply thoughtful discourse more than ever, and the root of that lies in ongoing reflection. Ideally, then, a blog serves the needs of both its author and its audience. As I decide whether to pull the plug, to maintain basic life support, or to resume regular care, I’ll have to think hard about that balance. Right now the focus is probably too much on me. Whatever I decide, I hope I’ve contributed something along the way.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

No Time to Waste: Post-#NAISAC 2017 Reflection

       I enjoyed the 20017 National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference...but I didn't love it. I went into it with perhaps unrealistic high hopes. There certainly were some great moments within the experience. I met people in person with whom I previously had a close but only virtual relationship, in a couple of cases even leading to an embrace. I bumped into some folks I hoped to. I caught up with some folks I don't see often enough while enjoying good meals.A couple of keynotes, especially Brene Brown's, enthralled me. I hit paydirt about half the time on the workshop roulette wheel. In general, the typical large conference experience.
       One thing that was different--and should encourage all of us--is that more people, whether through conversation, blog posts, or tweets, seem to feel that some real innovation is starting to occur. Apparently more places have moved from realization to theory to ideation to implementation. And evidently they've done so in some very intriguing ways. I'm very excited by that sense.
       At the same time, though, I wonder. That's why a careful reader may have noticed the words seem, apparently, and evidently in the previous paragraphs. It's not that I'm cynical or skeptical. In fact, I'm quite hopeful. But my caution arises from my sense during the entire conference that I was, in the words of the great philosopher Yogi, experiencing "deja vu all over again."
       One of the biggest waves of that feeling came during Sir Ken Robinson's keynote. I love his work. I have since 2006, when his famous TED talk went viral. Therein lies the point. That was 11 years ago, and some of us were preaching this message even further back than that. I hope we've all caught on by now...indeed, well before now. Another such wave inundated me with all the buzz about the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Admittedly, I know little about it and haven't done much further research. But a colleague who has asked me, "Isn't that what we saw when we visited that coalition school back around 2000?"
       Of course, better late than never. But is a new transcript a "game changer" or "silver bullet"? Maybe. We've thought that about other things. We'll likely think it about new things in the future. That suggests how we know things need to change.
       They will if we take ownership of our role as the real game changers. Whether a transcript or some new app, inquiry-based curricula or project-based pedagogy, none of it really matters unless we engage in really deep reflection and then bold action. Ultimately, we are responsible for what happens in our schools. We design and play the games.
       We know all this. We've known all this. So perhaps my deja vu is really rooted in an impatience that grows as I age. I see and hear of progress--at my school, at other schools--and I see amazing people doing truly inspiring work. It makes me want more and more and more. But I also know how much traditional and bad practice occurs. Sometimes we overlook it because it receives a fresh coat of paint or window dressing that suggests innovation.
       Yes, meaningful change requires doggedness and patience, Yet we also have to build on all this momentum, and our students don't have time to waste. As Grant Lichtman wrote after the conference, the introduction to his new book challenges, "Let's roll!" Josie Holford urged, "Make it happen!" Not wanting to be stuck in deja vu all over again, I add, "If not now, when?"
     

Monday, February 27, 2017

High Hopes for #NAISAC 2017

       Surely you've heard, likely even felt or uttered, the idea that leaving a conference with one great takeaway makes the experience worthwhile. I'm guilty of that. I say "guilty" because that attitude, which creeps towards cynicism, accepts a rather low placement of the bar. We should expect more. With the 2017 National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference beginning in two days, I've been thinking about words that capture my high hopes for the experience:

  • Dynamism. Some schools finally are changing in significant, far-reaching ways. even shattering some traditional models. I want to sense an upsurge in that sort of energy. It has to propel us to create a system in which we constantly are re-thinking, re-designing, re-birthing ourselves.
  • Courage. Whether in the development of truly innovative programs (as suggested above) or in creating safe havens for people who feel threatened, I crave stories that embolden us. I want new heroes to venerate.
  • Vulnerability. Tied to courage, I want to know the struggles, the failures, the fears. Risk, if it's worthwhile, entails amenability. Too often in sharing our triumphs we gloss over this. But it's in staring it down and proceeding that we grow stronger.
  • Serendipity. If we remain open to possibilities, the chances of serendipity increase. Where and when might you hear some amazing idea? What old friend might you meet up with? What new connection might you make?
  • Gasp-worthy. At least once I want to be truly awed, to feel that visceral "Wow!". That would be the gem, each facet radiant with the previous four bullets.
       Ultimately, all these point to what we all want to find every year at annual conference: an injection of inspiration, right into an artery through which it surges to the very tips of our fingers and toes and neurons. Inspiration which nourishes us with those essential vitamins and minerals of school leadership, oft-depleted at this time of year. Yet one of the most amazing things about this conference is that while it pulls together hundreds of folks who need this inspiration, they manage at the same time to provide so much of it.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Reliving My Childhood: Reflection on The State of Our Nation

       I was born in 1961, one of the final baby boomers, in New Rochelle, NY, a classic suburb memorialized in The Dick Van Dyke Show. When I was in 5th grade, we moved to Bedford Village, an idyllic hamlet in Upper Westchester County, with a village green and beautiful buildings from the Revolutionary period, one of which was a backdrop for the opening of Peyton Place. For the most part, I enjoyed was a very easy, non-traumatic childhood, full of sports and play and adventures. It was, however, set within the context of a tumultuous historical period, one that shaped me in many ways. Now, at 55, I feel as if I'm reliving parts of that childhood vicariously, wondering about our children's sense of what's happening in our nation.
       Growing up in the 1960s and early 70s, I witnessed the great division in the United States, whether about the war or civil rights or any other issue. We lived right across the street from a large high school, so I saw a daily parade of flower children. One day someone torched the school in an act of protest. Suddenly the demonstrations and riots that juxtaposed the battle scenes and body counts presented by Walter Cronkite seemed more real. My grandfather, whom I adored, groused about the "yo-yos" as my hair grew longer, my clothes wilder. Even at that age I embraced the movement, regularly flashing the peace sign at people. While I didn't understand all the issues, I knew what I felt and believed, as passionately as I loved the Grateful Dead (and still do). I recall cheering in front of the television when Nixon resigned. (I imagined it being that way when LBJ announced he was not running for re-election, but that was a bit before my social-political consciousness awakened.) To my friends and me, he represented everything wrong with the system. Nixon made us believe all politicians were, despite his claim, crooks, just as police were pigs and soldiers baby-killers.
       Now, with experience and maturity, while I still lean heavily towards the left, I see things with more tones of nuances and paint with a much finer brush. For instance, I value and respect police and military, knowing there are the good and the bad there as in any enterprise. I recognize and even revel in the complexities of our lives, particularly within a democracy which continues to be an ongoing experiment not just in government but also in the vicissitudes of human nature. But my gaining that perspective took a long, long time. Actually, the process continues.
       I'm very grateful that I grew up during a time that essentially forced awareness on me. In fact, as an educator and parent, I've worried about how for so long our society has been largely apolitical, perhaps even apathetic. I believe in an education that promotes engagement with the world, leading to active and contributing citizens, all of us committed to a social compact for our individual and collective betterment. We saw some of that start to change during the first Obama campaign, as young people flocked to that movement driven by hope. Whatever one may believe politically, I think their involvement is a positive. Better an active citizenry than a passive one.
       Now, once again circumstances demand our attention. I worry about what our young people are seeing, thinking, feeling, learning. What is their sense of our nation and its government as they watch the extreme political jockeying that seems absent of basic morality? Their assessment of human respect when refugees become  denigrated in the same way during the Vietnam War some called all Asians "gooks" because they all were the enemy? Who is showing them how to act selflessly and ethically and courageously? I could pose many similar questions. All of them add up to one larger, more vexing one: What are the long-term effects of what young people are experiencing right now? Don't make the mistake of thinking all this isn't touching the, either directly or indirectly.
       As it does, I pray what influences them more than anything are those scenes most evocative of my youth--those of people gathering in peaceful, optimistic protest. I like to think of it as communal affirmation of principles. It's rooted in the belief that each of us is responsible to some degree for whether or not we honor our values and potential as a nation. It's a hope which became a determination symbolized by another enduring moment from my childhood--putting humans on the moon, a moment that confirmed with the right spirit we can achieve what had been seen as unachievable and perhaps even miraculous.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Innovation Dilemma

       For a while now, innovation has been the latest buzzword in education. At least, I think it has been. The words seems to come more quickly now, especially on social media, so it can be hard to keep up. That leads to an inevitable question: How do we encourage more innovation in schools?
       My using the term "buzzword" suggests a dismissive attitude, and perhaps there is a tinge of that, mainly because I fear I've developed a bit of the long-time educator's skepticism about the latest and currently shiniest silver bullet. But in reality, as anyone familiar with my thinking knows, I'm not dismissive of it at all. We need to become more innovative in schools. Or, perhaps better stated, all our approaches to school need to become more innovative. I hope that an ongoing theme of this blog portrays that sense. What I'm musing on in this process post, is the how and why this has been so hard. Doing so tests my empathy, because I'm someone who loves regular change and would love to see it occur faster.
       Part of the problem is the word innovate itself, and the issues compound when it becomes a buzzword. The literal definition is simple enough: "something new or different introduced." But it connotes something grander, something vast and earth-shaking. We talk about paradigm shifts and denting the universe, with Steve Jobs held up as the exemplar. Sometimes it can feel as if someone is expected to come up with the iPhone of pedagogy. While I clearly exaggerate for effect, I imagine the constant calls for innovation can be intimidating.
       To complicate, often these cries for innovation (and all that they imply) often call for it to occur while so many of the same sort of frameworks remain intact. Curriculum, schedules, classrooms, measurements--unless these things change in a systemic fashion, I'm not sure much real innovation occurs in wider, more meaningful ways. It's all entwined. The larger culture has certain expectations and beliefs about education, largely rooted in past practices. Plus, in schools truly busting up those schema, it can ultimately exhausting. In a recent conversation with someone at a school where many new and interesting things are going on, he talked about people feeling "initiation fatigue." Education is draining work, as is innovating.
       Yet this innovation is work that has to happen. Thoughtful people who've been paying attention know that. So the question remains: How do we get there? Can we resolve the dilemma? I think part of the solution lies in how we exercise our leadership. Primarily in the language we use and our expectations. Ironically, given what I've laid out above (and there could have been more), if we want more innovation, perhaps we should stop using that word, at least with those moving more slowly.
       I often talk about trying to do at least a bit better each day. Rather than talk about innovation, which has such vast implications, perhaps that is the way to think and about--and suggest--moving forward. People can try something new, sometimes out of desire, sometimes out of necessity. It might work; it might not. When it does, celebrates victories great and small. When it doesn't, rather than reject immediately, reflect and consider amendments and/or alternatives. Then try another new thing.
       Eventually, flywheel effect kicks in. (Or you might think of the virtuous cycle.) That wheel starts spinning, the momentum builds, it begins to propel itself, and then more enduring and meaningful change happens. In fact, it's how real innovation actually happens.
     

Friday, January 27, 2017

How Educators Can Help Turn Back the Doomsday Clock

                So the doomsday clock has been moved closer to midnight, primarily in response to the election, inauguration, and first week of Donald Trump as president. Depending on one’s views on the situation, one may think it’s ticking faster than ever or one may think that’s an over-reaction prompted by a liberal media. I’m not going to take a position on that, and while I am going to become a bit more political than I like to in this blog, I’m trying to express this with the voice of an objective educator.
                Before I begin, however, I have to acknowledge doing so is becoming harder. Personally, sometimes I can lean so far left that I could tip over at any time. However, I try hard not to let that seep too much into my work other than how I treat people. I don’t see a school’s job as dictating what someone should think about a particular topic. But we should be teaching the right way to approach topics and how to engage individually and collectively in a search for understanding that improves us.
                That is why when I consider all the things which have so many people upset and anxious and angry and scared, I see a certain irony in the doomsday clock being moved forward when it comes to our children and their education. Yes, there are the oft-expressed concerns about what children may be learning and feeling. But I’m looking at this in more practical terms. It’s not just about the nomination of a person who seems amazingly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. It goes right to one primary purpose of education—preparing our children for the future and the world they will be entering.
                That is where the irony comes in…although irony may not really be the right word. Right now it seems as if President Trump and his people want to “Make America Great Again” by turning back to clock to an earlier time. And it’s a notion which I don’t believe can happen except to America’s detriment. Like it or not, with remarkable acceleration the world has become a highly-interconnected, highly-interdependent single system, except for some notable outliers who choose to practice isolationism and suffer for it. The issue is more than an economic one. Thriving in such a world requires an empathetic openness to other cultures and people, one that leads to a sense of “we” rather than “us and them.” Countless studies have shown how cultures benefit from the intermingling of diverse perspectives. The moves we’ve seen thus far smack of a hubris which seems to assume the trajectory of the world will change because the United States wants it to.

                But, despite whatever remains of our prominence, it won’t. History, short- and long-term, shows us that. Empires crumble; revolutions happen. Throughout the ages there have been doom criers. Yet the world continues to progress. Despite what we often think and feel, the reality is that it is less violent and moreaccepting place than ever. But recently we should be feeling true urgency. Perhaps now more so than ever, as educators we need to be thinking about how we help our students be a meaningful part of that forward march. Without engaging in extremism or proselytizing, we have to model the ideals and have the important conversations. Our students can be the ones who get that doomsday clock turned back. And that isn’t about liberalism or conservatism, Democrat or Republican, internationalism or jingoism. It’s about what should drive educators at any time: an optimistic belief in humanity.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Not Knowing and Leadership

       While I believe it's inherently wrong, perhaps even harmful, to reduce education to a single overarching objective, I'm going to do so here for the sake of my argument, albeit with a caveat. That is, the objective I'm going to assert can play out in endless ways. It's the notion that a meaningful, purposeful education prepares one to lead. To lead by being who one is in whatever roles one plays. And just as we rethink what it means to be a leader, we need to rethink what it means to be educated and ready for that role.
       Last month I sent out the following Tweet:
When I saw it, I found myself recalling The idea of level 5 Leadership from Jim Collins' work in Good to Great, particularly the notions of modesty, looking out the window to apportion credit, and setting up successors for even greater success. Then a couple of days ago, I ran across a Fast Company blog post titled "Why Real Leaders Have Strong Egos and That's a Good Thing." The author, S. Chris Edmonds, writes, "In practice, 'having an ego' simply means understanding the worldview through which you act--in order to get your own needs met as well as the needs of others. And that, of course, is in every leader's job description." He contends this "takes discovering how you--uniquely--can support both yourself and other people to go through the same process, to 'self-actualize' in reaction to all the messiness of business and life."
       It's not the time-honored definition of a leader. I also suspect it's not one overtly taught in most schools, although we talk about developing leaders. I think that's because of what our culture--and, by extension, schools--defines as being educated. We use terms such as smart and knowledgeable, as if there is a clear and easily defined threshold, and one must present it with surety and gusto, even bravado. Many people draw a certain security from that, wanting to believe our leaders know just where we are going and how to get us there.
       But in such volatile times--the age of accelerations, as Friedman calls it--is that really what we need? Just as Edmonds points out many of misunderstand the concept of the ego and should reconsider its role in healthy human development, let's reconsider knowledge/education and its link to leadership. The second most important knowledge may be the continual realization of just what we don't know, individually or collectively. And the leaders we need may have the first most important--a sense of how to help us all figure things out together.