Thank you, Mrs. Bauer

I hated taking the bus to school during first grade. I was a sensitive kid, and walking to the bus stop was no easy task. My parents meant well having me trek down the street every morning–I think the attempt toward cultivating a little more resilience was noble–but there was an issue that eventually threw a wrench in my parents’ plan for carpool-less mornings and afternoons: The morning bus was always late.

Most kids could care less that the bus dropped them off late at school. The tardiness wasn’t their fault, nor their parents’. The culprit was the bus, so most kids didn’t bat an eye when strolling into class 10-15 minutes late.

I was not one of those kids. If the bus didn’t show up at the stop on time, I cried. When the bus did eventually arrive, I’d cry on the way to school. And when the bus finally arrived, I’d cry while walking off the bus and into class.

I’m not proud of these tear-soaked episodes. I wish I could talk sense to six-year-old Steve. “Don’t worry about the bus,” I want to say. “It’s not a big deal. All you’re missing is attendance and the morning announcement. Maybe you’re missing the pre-spelling test if it’s Monday, but again, not a big deal.”

In my memory, the bus was late a lot. Maybe I’m exaggerating this lateness. Even if I am, I have plenty other reasons why the bus was bad news for me. I remember stepping in dog poop before boarding the bus one afternoon. It didn’t take long for everyone to smell it and begin making fun of me. I also recall a pimply bus attendant who introduced me to Freddy Krueger. I remember the first time he told us first graders about a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street... it was the part when the heroine is in the bath tub closing her eyes and Freddy’s claw emerges from the soapy water near her feet. I couldn’t take a bubble bath for weeks.

The terror of the tardy bus culminated one morning in a way I’ll never forget. My mom walked me outside, gave me a kiss, and waved goodbye from our driveway. It was a cold morning, and as I made my way to the bus stop I could see my breath, so I pretended to be a locomotive for a while. I was about halfway to the bus stop when I shifted by backpack and noticed it was a little light. I slipped one of the straps off my shoulder, unzipped the bag, and peered inside. My lunch box was missing.

At that moment, the bus made its turn far up the street and began to slow toward the bus stop. It was finally early on a morning I forgot my lunch! With my backpack in hand, I made a dash toward the bus. The bus stopped and two or three students boarded. Then the doors closed and the bus lurched forward. The driver eventually saw me out the window, so he stopped, the door opened, and I jumped inside.

Unfortunately, as I was running my nose started bleeding, so I sniffed back the blood the best I could. Most of the kids probably just assumed I was crying–they obviously had strong prior evidence to believe this was the case. Eventually, they were correct, because I did begin crying. I had an empty backpack with no lunch. I was frustrated about the bus coming early on the day I forgot my lunch. I was embarrassed about getting on the bus late. And my nose was bleeding. I was a hot mess.

Because of the bus’s promptness, no other students were around when my bus mates and I stepped on campus. I walked to my first grade classroom, sat outside on a nearby bench, and continued sobbing.

A first grade mind is like another planet for adults. Too quickly we forget what it’s like to be young. The lens with which we view the world is drastically different now than it was then. Life experiences, cognitive development, and common sense all help us control our emotions and put things in a healthy perspective–at least most of the time. 6-year-old Steve, with a bloody nose and no lunch box, had a lot of developing and learning to do. I think that’s why I was crying, and it’s also probably why my crying eventually caught the attention of my first grade teacher.

I remember Mrs. Bauer opening the door. She stepped out, helped me to my feet, and walked me inside. Her room was warm, and she had on the classical music she sometimes played while we worked. It smelled like coffee, which I liked. She sat me down and brought over a box of tissues. She gently rubbed my back as I pinched my nose. She told me everything was OK.

She helped me wash by face when the tears and blood stopped flowing. Then she called my mom to let her know I needed a lunch.

The amount of relief and peace I felt in Mrs. Bauer’s classroom that morning is something I’ll never forget. She calmed me down, helped stop my bloody nose, washed my face, and ensured my lunch would arrive. As the other students began whooping and hollering outside upon their arrival, Mrs. Bauer let me stay inside and eat a snack. She smiled and spoke softly. It may have been cold outside, but her classroom was filled with so much warm light.

Teachers do this on a daily basis. They help students who had bad mornings or terrible nights. They leave indelible impressions so girls and boys can grow into strong and empathetic women and men. Educators help students again and again and again–all the while teaching standards, creating engaging lesson plans, formatively assessing, intervening, attending meetings, and much more.

I wish I could say thank you to Mrs. Bauer. I wish I could tell her I still feel the warmth of that morning in her room. I’d like her to know I eventually did become more resilient–that through good and bad years I grew into a man who now has two of his own children whom he loves dearly.

So thank you, Mrs. Bauer. And thank you to all teachers who care for our most precious resources by showing love and compassion on a daily basis.

Yoda Strong

The 1:1 deployment is the least of your worries, Steve. There’s a human infrastructure fraught with God knows how many messy human problems that must be fixed. You have an educational vision that runs through your fingers like sand when you attempt to describe it. There’s the lack of belief in your own ability to lead, which is added to the understanding that there are more questions than you have answers. You want to play your part in enhancing student learning, but what is you part? Can you be effective?

These thoughts plague me as I ascend the stairs from the underground parking lot and enter Skywalker Ranch’s lobby. I cross the foyer and open one of the double doors to the courtyard. It’s warm in the sun and refreshing in the shade. I walk to my right where the morning light shines through the leaves and dapples an elegant water fountain. I sit on the fountain’s ledge.

Deep breaths. There’s a lot to process. The stakes are high when the learning of young people hangs in the balance. The complexity is daunting, and the correct path is unclear.

I look at the courtyard. Japanese maples and manicured shrubs grace the space. The trickling fountain adds to the effect. Water aside, all I can hear is nothing. This is startling. I fight the urge to dive my hand into my pocket and pull out my phone. Instead, I take off my backpack and lay it beside me. I could grab my laptop–it’s easily accessible in the bag. The WiFi must reach the courtyard.

In the middle of the space stands a statue of Yoda. A circular bush and lavender flowers wrap around the circumference of his podium. His three-fingered hands rest upon a walking stick. His implacable stare is directed toward stairs that lead to the roundabout that greets ranch visitors. I remember the selfie I already took with Yoda; this tempts me to once again reach for my phone.

I resist and lie on the ledge, rest my head on the bag, and close my eyes. The thoughts return… the complexity of how students learn best. The demands of myself and others.

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes. The noise violation is startling in the stillness of this sanctuary. I’m ready to shoot an annoyed glance at someone, but I’m alone. The tapping sounded close. No matter. I shut my eyes and continue thinking.

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes once again. I’m still alone. I’m about to close my eyes when I notice something strange: Yoda’s head is turned toward me. I sit up straight and look around. Is someone playing a joke? Am I being filmed? That’s got to be it–I’m going to be on a television show of people trying to sleep in the courtyard at Skywalker Ranch.

Tap, tap, tap.

Yoda is doing it–he’s tapping his metal walking stick on the metal podium and his stare is leveled at me. He then breaks his feet off the podium and cuts through the circular bush and flowers. The metal “tink” of his stick and three-toed feet on the pavers echos throughout the courtyard until he scurries up the ledge and sits to my left. He rests his walking stick beside him and folds his hands.

“Know me you do,” he says.

“Know you, um… yes. Am I being filmed right now?”

“Filmed?” He lets out a short guffaw. “And why would anyone want to film you?”

He has a point. I shake my head and then place my face in my hands. “This isn’t happening,” I say. “I must be dreaming.”

“Troubled you are,” Yoda says, a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Well, yes,” I say. “I’m talking to a statue. I’m worried this is a hoax or I’m crazy.”

Yoda lets out another laugh. “Worried you were before I came alive.”

He’s right. There’s a lot of concern–I guess you can say it’s worry. I look at Yoda. His face is kind. Childhood memories rush back. Against my better judgement, I decide to bite.

“There are many paths to take for helping students learn,” I say, “and I’m not always certain which one is best.”

“Fearful you should not be. Many paths there are, but take the fork you must and not look back.”

I nod. “I’ve tried this, it’s difficult to not look back.”

“Try?” Yoda says. “Try this you have? Take the path and then done it is. Do or do not. There is no try.”

“OK, I’ll just do. Does that take care of the fear?”

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear. Success? The highest test scores? A Jedi craves not these things. More important things there are. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

“Sure, but tests are important,” I say.

Yoda’s sigh shakes me more than his words. “That is why you fail. Tests there will always be. Ever present are homework, Accelerated Reader, and grades. Easily these forces flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the path of these things, forever will they dominate your destiny, consume you they will. A teacher’s strength flows from the students. What makes them curious? What makes them engaged? Set your mind on these things you must.”

The significance of what he just said is slow to come; that’s why I keep pushing back. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. It just seems even though things are always changing in education, nothing changes.”

“Patience you must have.”

“But school districts have taken so long to get things right. I feel like they’re finally on the cusp of something great, and it’s important we make the right decisions as soon as possible. We’re ready for change.”

“Ready you are? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is ready. Do not look to the future–to the horizon. Never your mind is on where you are. Hmm? What you are doing? Hmph. A dark place you find yourself if the future you seek. Only seek knowledge, light your way it will.”

He’s right. Thinking about everything that must be accomplished in the future is only leading me to grief. I realize my thinking isn’t helping.

“So what should I do?”

“Awww, a question you finally ask,” Yoda says. “The beginning of the path this is. Get you started I will.” Yoda closes his eyes and breathes the Marin County air. “Programs. Interventions. Theories. A Jedi minds not these things. Curiosity in the student you must build. The right technical tools for the job you must discover. Then the fork you must take.”

Build curiosity in students. Use the right tools. Take the fork. I think about these things. “I can try this.”

Yoda is looking at me with one eyebrow raised. “Action you must take. You must do. Or do not. There is no try.”

“Yes, I will take action. How do I take this back to my school district? What if people don’t listen?”

“Truths to which we cling depend on our point of view. People’s minds you may change–but many you will not. Always pass on what you have learned, but focus on the perception of others you must not. A person will find only what he or she brings into a staff meeting. Do you think Yoda stops teaching just because an adult doesn’t want to hear? A teacher Yoda is. The students Yoda cares for. Not the opinions of adults.” Yoda shakes his head.

“Your words make sense, Yoda.” I believe this, even though I’m not certain I’ve grasped everything he’s shared. “No matter the size of the obstacle, I will build curiosity in students, use the right tools, and take the fork.”

“Yes, remember, size of the obstacle matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size? Hmm? And well you should not. For my ally is student engagement, and a powerful ally it is.”

“Yoda, thank you.”

“Strong are the naysayers in education. Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.”

I lie my head on my backpack once again and fall asleep. I awake to the noise of people entering the courtyard with lunches in hand. Yoda is once again a statue, standing on his podium and gazing at the stairs leading to the roundabout.

I grab my backpack and walk up the stairs. The golden grass of the Marin hills dances briefly in the wind. Those hills go on and on…

I look just ahead of me. It’s time to get to work.

The paradox of choice in the classroom

In The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the case is made that while we may champion autonomy, too many options often lead to dissatisfaction.

“Choice” and “autonomy” are popular buzzwords in education. The philosophy of letting students do what they want and allowing them to guide their own instruction is almost sacred, with some individuals purporting that teachers are an encumbrance more than anything else. We all want students to be empowered, but what does “empowered” mean? Does it mean they gain knowledge (and knowledge is power)? Does it mean they control the classroom regarding how information is presented? Does it mean they are the leaders, and the teacher is a facilitator? Can both students and teachers be empowered? If so, how does this play out?

Many would say that autonomy is involved in the answers to all of the above questions–but is this necessary true?

Schwartz makes many interesting points in his book; one of the main takeaways is how choice can lead to paralysis. There’s a lot of information students can learn–especially in a classroom with 1:1 devices where our collective knowledge is just a click away. There are many ways teachers can structure how students learn. This means there’s a lot of autonomy flying around. Is this a good thing, or will teachers and students drown in a sea of choices?

I haven’t read all of The Paradox of Choice yet, so I’m going to hold off on writing too much–maybe I’ll write a 1,000+ word post in the near future. At any rate, here are some ideas that will be gestating as I finish the book:

  • Teachers need to grow in their skill sets so they can in turn teach those skills to students. Autonomy comes into play when teachers can choose which skills they want to use (and teach) in the classroom.
  • Autonomy is not necessarily good or bad. It’s all in how you use it. A limited number of choices seems to be a good balance of empowerment verses feeling overwhelmed.
  • Autonomy could be considered a cop out for those who train teachers. For example, when I go to the doctor, I want the doctor to choose the best course of action based on his or her research and experience. I definitely don’t want the doctor to ask me what should be done. (Unfortunately, this happens a lot.) PD presenters need to provide a curated list of tools for teachers to use, then they must show how the best practices can be implemented.
  • Similar to the above bullet-point, teachers who give students ample free time in class may believe every child will benefit, but this could be misguided based upon research put forth in Schwartz’s book. There’s a percentage of students who want direction–need direction–and giving them too much say in what will be accomplished every day will lead to wasted instructional time.

David Farragut

While rereading John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction, I was reminded of David Farragut. Farragut was 12-years-old when during the War of 1812 he took command of a captured British ship and sailed it to Boston.

Let that sink in. Farragut fought in the War of 1812 and successfully brought a captured ship safely to port at the age of 12.

Over the last 100 years, most young people haven’t been given the ability to make decisions based upon what and how they’ll learn. Of course rows, rules, procedures, and routines have played their parts in treating students less maturely, but there are other forces at play that have hindered young people’s potential. Instead of adventure outside, there are immersive video games inside. Instead of paper routes, apprenticeships, and imagining ways to earn money, kids are expected to consume and spend their parents’ money. When I was young, most kids wanted to grow up and experience independence. I’m not sure how strongly this desire is felt by young people in 2015. Why would I want to be an adult? Ugh. 

Say what you will about technology (of course it’s not all good), it’s opened doors and allowed students to take the reins of their own educations. If Farragut can capture a ship and sail it to Boston when he was 12, young students can be given a large measure of responsibility during a school day. Further still, kids will act and think maturely if we expect them to do so. 1:1 deployments are seen in a whole different light with this perspective. Incessant assessment of students for nothing more than a grade might also be viewed differently.

There are probably many ways a school day would positively change if students in grades 4-12 were treated more like adults and less like children.

Thirty universes

You’re an astronomer whose job it is to observe celestial bodies, galaxies, black holes–in short, everything that can be perceived in the universe. It goes without saying this is a complicated task. There’s so much to study, and there’s so much we don’t know. A scientist could spend his or her lifetime observing the universe and not even begin to exhaust its complexities.

Imagine if there were thirty universes with completely different laws. 

You’re a physician who deals with various bodily afflictions. Of course, every person’s health is different, but fortunately you have a strong understanding of the human body: bones, veins, blood, lungs… the body is complicated, but it’s measurable and possible to study.

Imagine if there were thirty alien bodies with completely different physical structures. 

You’re a top athlete who’s mastered how to play basketball. You’re a pro at dunks, assists, three-pointers, and free throws. You just helped your team beat an opponent.

Imagine tomorrow night you have to play with a different sized ball every thirty seconds. Would this affect your shooting and ball handling? 

Teachers deal with approximately thirty students. That’s thirty different universes. Thirty different bodies. Thirty different basketballs. Each one different. Each one with his or her own learning modality.

What does schooling do? It treats each universe the same. It says that these standards are good enough for everyone. It says that this test is sufficient for assessing mastery. It says that bell schedules, five-day weeks, grades, and compliance are one-size-fits-all constructions. Educators do the best they can to teach children who have:

  1. Different backgrounds

  2. Different experiences

  3. Different cognitive developments

  4. Different values

  5. Different interests

  6. Different learning modalities

  7. Different desires

  8. Different emotions

  9. Different abilities

  10. Different ways they started the day

Thirty universes whose complexities are impossible to comprehend, let alone study sufficiently. It’s impossible to learn how each student best learns in 9.5 months. As soon as a teacher gets an inkling of how individual students can learn successfully, the kids have summer break before staring over with new teachers.

Imagine the skin in the game if teachers had students for multiple years. What would happen if we understood the thirty intricate universes just a little better? 

It’s safe to say that Dumbing Us Down has me thinking.

Dumbing Us Down

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. –Mark Twain

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down is a lit match in a dry thicket. It’s a feverish dream before the beginning of a long school year. It’s a wet blanket draped over the positive ideas to which you may cling concerning the effectiveness of Systems. It’s every reservation you’ve held about public education, packaged in an economical 94 pages.

The interesting thing about books is the nature of their relevance. Sometimes a book catches like wildfire and then gradually loses its power. In other instances, a book is released to crickets only later to scorch the world with its ideas.

John Taylor Gatto’s book is a slow and steady burn tailor-made for thoughtful educators concerned with the effectiveness of the public school system. Dumbing us Down was originally published in 1992, and although it isn’t the most widely read book on education out there, it definitely has a strong following. I read another book of Gatto’s years ago entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction, and it posits a truth about public education I’d never fully realized. Dumbing us Down has accomplished the same feat.

I recommend you stop reading this post, open another tab in your web browser, go to Amazon, and purchase the book right now. If you’re not ready to add another book to your Amazon Cart, or you’d like more information about Dumbing Us Down, feel free to venture forward.

The main idea sewn throughout the book is that tinkering with schools to make them better is a lost cause–we have to re-imagine what school should be. Public education was an invention of industrialism, and the main subject schools have concerned themselves with is compliance. To this end, schooling has been extremely successful. Gatto even goes so far as to divide the first chapter into seven sections that represent what he taught as a New York public school teacher for 30 years:

  1. Confusion

  2. Class Position

  3. Indifference

  4. Emotional Dependency

  5. Intellectual Dependency

  6. Provisional Self-Esteem

  7. One Can’t Hide

You’ll have to read the book to find out how these items are taught. If you do so, you’ll either be cheering for Gatto’s gumption or think he’s crazy. There’s not much middle ground in Dumbing Us Down. In fact, on page 12 and again on 61, he makes a statement with which you may or may not agree:

…the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn (Gatto 12).

He goes on to say that each content area can be easily self-taught; all it takes is the right timing, and if there’s one thing public school does not concern itself with, it’s timing.

Gatto paints a beautiful picture, but don’t let the romantic ideas fool you: Putting his thoughts into action would drastically change society. Consider the following excerpt:

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone (Gatto 16).

Does this mean he would do away with credentialed teachers altogether? It’s difficult to say. What is explicit throughout the text is his insistence that school has replaced more important community institutions such as family and church. Gatto makes a clear delineation between communities and networks. Essentially, communities are groups in which people give and receive empathy. The members have skin in the game, which leads to a healthy sense of love, perseverance, and self-reliance. Networks, on the other hand, are places of sympathy. They have no skin in the game. Even though people may feel badly for one another in a network, there’s no sustaining bond.

According to Gatto, schools are networks–soulless places that make students obey a bell (under all circumstances) and force them to another teacher every year (in most circumstances). If you’re a teacher, I challenge you to calculate the percentage of former students who hold meaningful places in your life. It’s low, right? It’s because we’re all a small part of the System.

Dumbing Us Down was written in the early ’90s, so (web based) social networks weren’t yet created. I’d really like to know what Gatto thinks about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. It seems to me social networks exemplify the same traits Gatto gives to “traditional” networks in the book. Facebook provides a feeling that we’re surrounded by people who have skin in the game, but we know this is false. Empathetic relationships are forged within community via closeness of proximity and investment of time–things which social media cannot replace. I think Gatto would lump schools into the same category as social media, which is to say that school is well meaning infrastructure that produces an illusion of belonging.

Twitter, the network of choice for teachers, has spread great teaching ideas while at the same time disseminated educational junk and empty platitudes. It has also propagated the idea of the importance of a PLN, which for most teachers is nothing but smoke and mirrors on Twitter. Consider the following:

When the integration of life that comes from being part of a family in a community is unattainable, the only alternative, apart from accepting a life in isolation, is to search for an artificial integration into one of the many expressions of network currently available. But it’s a bad trade! Artificial integration within the realm of human association–think of those college dorms or fraternities–appears strong but is actually quite weak; seems close-knit but in reality has only loose bonds; suggests durability but is usually transient. And it is most often badly adjusted to what people need although it masquerades as being exactly what they need (65 and 66–emphasis mine).

Am I wrong in saying this describes the false sense of “community” we’re experiencing online?

If you read Dumbing us Down, you’ll have to choose for yourself whether you agree with the following beliefs: 1) School is causing addictive and dependent personalities. 2) School is promoting a life of “accumulation as a philosophy”. 3) “Only self-teaching has lasting value” (31). 4) The theory of teaching isn’t ever discussed in classrooms and lounges. 5) “…we shouldn’t be thinking of more school, but of less.” (47).

Conclusion

Gatto argues that less school, not more, is a move in the right direction. It’s a bold statement and totally antithetical to what’s tossed about in the media, district offices, and school sites. Nevertheless, it’s a discussion worth having, and reading Dumbing Us Down is the perfect place to start. The book is remarkably quotable. I’ve actually had to restrain from posting a lot of excerpts, but I’d like to leave you with some last words written by Gatto:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live life and how to die (67 and 68).

Be like Jon Stewart

As educational technology continues its evolution across the world, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Building people’s capacity is an important–maybe the most important–professional task.

For too long the field of education has been a lonely place in which to work. Classrooms have traditionally been islands, and districts rarely partner with neighboring districts. Fortunately, the tides have begun to turn regarding this traditional lack of communication and support. I’ve seen more teacher to teacher and district to district collaboration this year than I have in the last ten years. Part of this is because technology makes communication easier (ex: Google Hangouts, Skype, LMSs, etc.). A potentially bigger reason is that the only way to learn all the new technology being developed is to band together and use collective expertise to thrive.

This is why building the capacity of others is so important. We’ve always lived in a world where people develop certain skills, and those skills benefited the whole community. Farmer, blacksmith, merchant, cobbler, seamstress, doctor… individual skills have always been valuable for the good of the whole.

Today you need a lot of skills in order to bring value. A teacher needs to understand not just his or her subject area, instructional practices, and curriculum, but also must possess a myriad of tech skills. This also goes for administrators. That’s why it’s so important to focus on making others better at what they do. Too often we’re focused on how “I” can get better, and we forget about ensuring the advancement of those around us. An educational community in which everyone is helping others (not just students) will reap better results.

Enter Jon Stewart–current host of The Daily Show. Stewart is a talented individual when it comes to comedy, but he’s also been adept at nurturing the talent in others. Stephen Colbert. Steve Carell. Ed Helms. John Oliver. Noah Trevor. All of these people have honed their crafts at The Daily Show. When Stewart took a hiatus from the show to direct a film, he allowed John Oliver to take the helm, which eventually led to a gig for Oliver at HBO. Many stars wouldn’t have given Oliver this opportunity–or they would have done it begrudgingly. Stewart saw it as a win-win situation: Oliver gets some exposure, and I get to make my movie.

Stewart didn’t care that the audience would laugh at Oliver instead of him, or even–heaven forbid–like Oliver better. As Stewart did before for other comedians, he wanted to help build Oliver’s capacity so he could leave The Daily Show and continue a thriving career elsewhere.

We can learn so much from this mentality. Unfortunately, many people hold their cards close to the vest. They provide little information, keep communication vague, and compartmentalize others within job titles. This is bureaucracy, and unfortunately education sometimes fits this mold. In the cases where it doesn’t–where teachers and administrators actively pursue the advancement of others’ knowledge–the transformation is inspiring. Students deserve adults in their lives who have everyone’s best intentions at heart.

Be like Jon.