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.