Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Quest for Meaningful Special Education" by Amy Ballin

Let me begin with unequivocal praise: Amy Ballin’s , “The Quest for Meaningful Special Education” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) is well written, robustly researched, as often heart-warming as it is heart-wrenching, and laser focused on equity and excellence in our schools—equity and excellence for all students.

The book is divided into three sections:

1)      A deep dive into the history of special education, and the attendant problems with definitions, exclusion, racism, and access. We begin to follow nine families who, through luck and privilege, are able to get their children into the Kelsey School (not the real name of a very real school), a private special education program where these children thrive.
2)      A description of the structure and culture of the Kelsey School. We meet teachers, administrators, and counselors. We come to understand how these nine children get their needs met, in ways that public schools have not yet reliably provided for such students.
3)      A realistic set of goals and practices that all schools can consider to provide a meaningful education for every child.

From the first pages, Ballin fearlessly jumps into the issue that children who are labeled as having special needs can be excluded by that label (sent from the room, sent to out-of-district placements, made to feel “other”) and included by that label into caring, well-structured school communities where they can find success.  From interviews with the nine children and their parents, Ballin extracts scores of stories and quotes that make the simultaneous exclusion and inclusion memorable. Among my favorites: Raya is in her first year at the Kelsey School, with many emotional scars from her struggles in the public setting with dyslexia. Her class is heading to the library at Kelsey, and she bursts into tears. When asked why she is crying, she sobs, “I can’t read; why would I want to go to the library.” A fellow student says to her, “What’s the problem? None of us can read. Let’s go!”

Ballin challenges us with an optimistic, ethical, and ultimately well-documented standard, one she richly describes, happening now at the Kelsey School and in similar programs around the country: all children can learn; all schools can include; all parents can be well informed and supported; all teachers can work within settings that enable them to focus on the success of every child.

Ballin is no fool—she knows that American schools have never been funded, structured, resourced, or charged to be so inclusive and successful. The Kelsey School exists because our public schools have chronically neglected, if not harmed, atypical learners. There was no national Golden Age of Education for us to look back upon, when everyone succeeded; as recently as the 1960’s 40% of students did not complete high school , and still today 20% of students do not earn a high school diploma, a disproportionate number of them labeled with special needs. Ballin’s courageous nine families, her robust research, and the Kelsey School tell us in no uncertain terms that we can do better—her book emotionally and intellectually is unequivocal in making the case for that expectation.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Personalized Learning

This post first appeared in Larry Ferlazzo's Education Week Teacher column, as part of a series of responses to the concept of personalized learning.

What does "personalized learning" mean, and what can it look like in the classroom?
Learning is an accomplishment of attention and effort that can take place in an auditorium filled with 2,000 people, or at a corner table in a library. It takes place with a teacher, or a coach, or with peers, or when you are alone. Learning is always a personal experience for the learner.
Our factory model of schooling obscures the fact that all learning is personal. We've been forcing too many children at the same time to be presented with the same stimulation in hopes they develop the same understanding. Because we are all evolutionary cousins, with similar brains that are wired from birth to find patterns in the environment, the factory approach sort of works-- if you like mediocrity, and if you think it is inevitable that only a few students reach mastery in classes.
Enough of us did pass the tests through the years for our schools to consider themselves hotbeds of learning. Schools have gotten away with this mediocre assembly-line delivery of lessons for so long that we find the notion of personalized learning to be innovative. But all each of us ever did, even in the stultifying rigidity of our most boring class, was to personally make sense of what was going on. Or we didn't learn. No one could do it for us.
Personalized learning as an educational imperative has at its root a very radical notion: almost all students can reach mastery in almost every subject. If you don't believe that, you will have no drive to change our factory system of education, which is as much about sorting students into successes and failures as it is about educating them. If you do believe that each student truly has the capacity for mastery in all subjects--in your subject! in your school!-- personalized learning asks two fundamental questions:
·         What is this child ready to learn?
·         How do I best help this child learn?
Throw out your pacing guides. Do not chain yourself to the end-of-the-chapter tests. Fill your classrooms--and I mean you in secondary school--with stuff to build and model and draw and craft. Listen to the students. Be a guide, a coach, a teacher, an inspirer, a challenger, a fellow explorer. This is not an easy path, but it will be your special path into the most interesting part of your career. Personalize your learning; no one else can do it for you.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Be Special, Educator!

I am old enough to have been there at the beginning of special education, and fortunately, I completely missed the euphemism of “special.” I knew schools were filled with students who were disengaged, abused, overwhelmed, scared, with quirky learning  difficulties that would not go away simply by avoiding the required reading and writing and math curricula. I was fooled by the person who compassionately thought to call these kids “special.” I entered the field because I was sure that we teachers were the ones who were supposed to be special—special educators.

And we were. My graduate courses were filled with energetic, passionate, and articulate teachers. This was not a group of “regular” people. We didn’t know exactly how we would take our often radical and experimental approaches into traditional schools—and there was no doubt that my peers were intent on not only helping their own students, but also on changing the rigid structures that had historically excluded far too many children from being well-served. We were excited to have a mission, both grand and rooted in a daily practice.

So it saddens me greatly to see the ways that special educators have been constrained; we pushed against those rigid structures and those structures held. In what seems to be a frenzy of mainstreaming—which as far as I can tell is being driven more by economics than by the urge for social justice—resource rooms and sub-separate programs that could robustly address the particular needs of their students are being closed down. Special educators are being reduced to glorified assistant teachers, rushing around the now over-crowded regular education classes, hoping to re-explain to a handful of confused kids exactly what “the teacher” wants them to do now. 

There are scant opportunities for the special educator, limited to supporting the mainstream teacher, to do anything really special; e.g. to develop a hands-on multi-day integrated unit designed especially for the idiosyncratic interests of the neediest students, so that they can not only hang in through the struggle to skill up, but find themselves in the world as central players; to give the kids a break from the relentless pacing guides and test preparation, when it is clear that the emotional overload of school work has reached a critical threshold; to modify the daily schedule for a particular student so that he gets an extra period with the physical education teacher; to have the authority to stop the lesson because brain research shows that we have to switch mental gears periodically.

The issue is one of professional authority. Educators have the authority to be special when they have their own classrooms, when they design the curriculum, and when they lead lessons. They need that authority in order to take the best care of the students who most need their unique skills of observation, task analysis, and modification.  The authority to be special educators has not been transferred to the mainstream, only the students.

I fully support the notion that mainstreaming means we no longer banish kids from having a rightful seat in the classroom—that’s the social justice perspective I endorse, allowing the students to work with the non-disabled peers who can model excellence. Remembering that the struggle for special education came on the heels of the struggle for civil rights legislation, let’s also make sure that the seat in the classroom for those students is not the seat at the back of the bus, that the special educator is not ushering the special students to those peripheral seats so that they won’t bother the other kids up front.

We are fighting an uphill battle again. Parents, regular education teachers, specialists, legislators and administrators have to speak up, demanding in their own voices, and in coalitions of voices, that as many of the following mainstreaming structures are in place so that this era of special education as civil rights reflects the wisdom gained from the last 40 years:

--Give each special educator no more than 2 mainstream teachers to have as partners; one partner all day is immeasurably better.

--Give abundant common planning time.

--Call the classroom, in speaking and in writing and on every form, by both teachers’ names.

--Divide the teacher responsibilities for calling parents, marking papers, seating charts, and everything else that goes into each teacher feeling ownership. This is not easy to do! We also have to take into account that the special educator will carry the large burden of handling special education paperwork and meetings. But if you don’t forcibly build joint ownership into mainstreaming, you will not get mainstreaming other than in name, and there’s little special about a teacher rushing around a class putting her finger in innumerable leaks.

--In high school, assign special educators to subjects that they know, or give them the time and training to build their capacity to teach that subject.

--In lesson planning forms, make explicit the different roles each teacher will handle—both teachers having the responsibility to lead the full class, to work with small groups, to pull students aside for one-to-one sessions.

--Both teachers refer to all the students as “ours.”

--Collect data on important markers beyond standardized test scores: the number of contributions students make to a class discussion; the different jobs students take on in group work; the variety of students each child sits with and works with. If we are mainstreaming to promote social inclusion and equity, demonstrate that it is actually happening.

I am not optimistic—except that I see enough frustrated special educators who are being asked to do a fraction of what makes them special, frustrated because they know the students could be better served. Perhaps what will make us special in this coming era of education as a civil right will be our ability to speak up and organize. That’s a task worthy of some very special educators.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Teenage Boys: How to Support Your Moms, Sisters, and Girlfriends

Teenage Boys: How to Support Your Moms, Sisters, and Girlfriends

Introduction: Co-writing credit for this article belongs to Pamela Clark. I have never met her. I read her article, "35 Practical Tools for Men to Further Feminist Revolution." I wished for there to be a parallel article that would be accessible to teenagers. I found Pamela Clark's email and told her my intentions to re-work her original text. She gave me an enthusiastic response. I did the rewrite and sent it to her. I didn't hear from her. In the ensuing months I sent her emails and tweets--with no communication  or closure and agreement on moving forward with the article. If you are reading this introduction, I still haven't heard from her--but the article needed to climb out of my files and get some air. I look forward to hearing back from Pamela.

1. “Man up” on the house work

You are old enough now to clean up after yourself when you eat, shower, play, and dress. Tell your buddies to pick up after themselves too, and not leave a mess for the women folk. Same for your brothers. You’ll see that vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and washing machines work just as well for a young man as they do for a woman. If you are not sure what you can do to help out around the house, ask. And remember, you can keep your house clean without being asked or told to do so.

2. Make the effort to put your feelings into words.

Women are often pulling for us to say what we feel. When you were a little boy, you had just a few words to say how you felt: mad, glad, sad. But now you probably feel mixtures of feelings--you can be both excited and nervous at the same time, or determined and caring. When the women in your life share their many feelings, you can match them. Better yet: you can share your feelings first.

One of the most difficult times you may face sharing your feelings respectfully with women is when you are angry. Our culture is filled with images of men yelling, threatening, and abusing women when they are angry. When you are angry with or hurt by a woman, do not resort to sexist name calling.  If you are having a disagreement with a woman, don’t use insults aimed at all women--disagree with her on the basis of her ideas.

3. Keep an eye out for women who are making a difference in the world

A lot of great and important women have been forcefully ignored throughout history, but you can make the effort to check them out. They have things to say about the world that a lot of guys have never heard. Some of the greatest writers in the world are women, and they write books guys would like.  Watch some women’s’ sports. Listen closely when a woman politician or commentator is speaking. Find out how women got the vote. Learn the history of birth control. Support women who are working to make the world better.

4. Give women space.

Many women walk around -- especially at night or while alone -- feeling on edge and unsafe, especially when there are men around whom they don’t know. If you think about it, given how many of our moms and sisters and girlfriends have been harassed or abused or bothered or intimidated by all sorts of guys, it makes sense for them to be extra careful. And there’s no way for them to know what sort of guy you are. So it’s important that you take the extra effort to help all women feel safe in public.

Examples: If a seat is available on a bus or train next to a man, take that seat rather than one next to a woman. If you are walking outside in the dark, close to a woman walking alone, cross the street so that she doesn’t have to worry someone is following her. If a woman is standing alone on a subway platform, stand some distance away from her. 

5. … and step up when women are being targeted

If one of the women in your life is looking uncomfortable as a man is speaking to her, say “hello” to her and join the conversation, so she can have a chance to get out of the situation if she wants to do that. If you see a woman you don’t know who seems upset while with a man, stand near enough that you make yourself a physical presence, monitor the situation, and be in a position to call for help if needed. Sometimes just standing in the area can make the situation safer for a woman.

Things like this can be super difficult, awkward, and complicated to know how to do, but it’s worth trying anyway. Making yourself feel momentarily uncomfortable is a fair tradeoff for making everyone’s moms, sisters, and girlfriends feel and be safe.

6. When a woman tells you something is sexist, or is making her uncomfortable, believe her.

Guys tell lots of jokes and stories that make fun of women’s bodies, or their feelings, or their work. These jokes and stories can be very insulting to the women in your life. So when your mom or sister or female friends tell you something is sexist, stop for a moment and consider things from her point of view. She may be also asking for your support. The women in our lives have a lot to tell us about the sexist things we don’t even notice.

7. When you want to be sexual, your partner has to completely agree to do so.

Every moment of physical contact has to be voluntary. From putting your hand on a girl’s body, to kissing, to any type of sexual activity, the women in our lives have the right to say “yes” and the right to say “no”—as do you. At any point, she can say “no” and that has to be as far as it goes. “Yes” to one thing does not mean yes to anything else.

8. …and you share the responsibility for birth control.

First, as noted in #7 above, all sex has to be voluntary. Once it is clear that you both want to proceed, talk about birth control with her. It can take just one sexual encounter for a woman to get pregnant, and the two of you have to discuss this risk. If your woman friend does not want to take the risk of getting pregnant, you have to have birth control in place. There are many types of birth control that you can learn about with an on-line search. If your partner prefers a particular method, let her be in charge of making that decision without questioning or complaining about it. Don’t argue about using a condom if that’s all you’ve got. You can be the one who buys them and has them available, if that’s the method you’re using. If you and your partner are using another form of birth control, share in the cost.
9. …and to get the HPV vaccine.

HPV is short for Human Papillomavirus, a common virus in both women and men. It is passed from person to person during sexual activity. HPV can cause many cancers, most commonly cervical cancer in women. Every year, there are also over 9,300 HPV-related cancers in men, including rarely cancer of the penis. Many of these cancers could be prevented by HPV vaccine. If you are a young man, get it. Women are more at risk of developing cancer from HPV, so be a responsible partner and get vaccinated.  

10. Be an equal partner when women are doing all the work

For example, if you are at a big family dinner or party, the moms and sisters and girlfriends may be doing all the cooking and cleaning, while men are socializing and relaxing. Get up and join the work team.

11. Respect and support women when they speak up and step up

When your mom or sister or girlfriend has an opinion to share, make sure you and the other guys are not drowning her out by speaking loudly and aggressively. You can say, “I’m listening,” so she can take her rightful place in any conversation. When one of the women wants to do something that is usually considered a man’s job, like working on the car, or buying equipment, or playing football, be the first to say, “That’s cool.” You might also have to tell other guys to give her space. That’s cool, too.
12. Take a stand when women are being treated badly

Challenge people who make, say, or post sexist things on the Internet, especially on social media.

13. Don’t stare at women or make comments. (Keep your comments to yourself.)

Even though a woman may be wearing a more revealing outfit than a man, don’t stare her down, or make cat calls, or other sexualizing remarks, just because you want to and can. Though you may find someone attractive, there’s a line between noticing, and being creepy and disrespectful.  Definitely don't yell comments about a woman’s appearance to her from across the street or while you're in your car.  Doing that is just as likely to make a woman feel unsafe as admired. Being respectful and quiet in those situations makes the world a safer place for everyone’s moms, sisters, and girlfriends.
The time to tell a woman you think she is attractive is when you can talk to her face-to-face as part of a normal conversation.

14. …and don’t police women’s appearance.

In most communities, there’s a lot of pressure on women to be attractive to men. A woman may choose to wear make-up and stylish clothing one day, and other days she will choose not to do that; some women never want to try to look a certain way. That’s their right. It’s not men’s job to judge how a woman chooses to do her hair or clothing, or to tell her about it. Their bodies, in all sorts of sizes and shapes, are their own to manage however they choose to.

Of course, the movies and ads are filled with women who are hired to be attractive—and almost always, those images have been altered through software. Be on the lookout for women in movies and TV and books who aren’t there only as an object for the male characters. The real women in your life don’t have to look a certain way to be important and worthwhile.

15. Give a shout-out to the women in your life.

Talk about the importance and respect you feel for your mom, sisters, and girlfriends. Suggest that they be considered for projects, jobs, and teams. Lots of guys may overlook everything about the women except for how they look. You can start to change that.

16. Speak to your friends when they are being disrespectful to women

When your friend is doing or saying things that put down women (telling sexist jokes, insulting women, staring at women, cheating on girlfriends) say something to your friend. It’s not enough to think it’s wrong; let them know you think it’s wrong. You can say, “That’s not cool. I wouldn’t want anyone talking like that about my sister.”

17. Don’t call your mom a nag when she is asking you to step up  
The same is true for your sister and girlfriend. Talk to them about what they need from you. Calling a woman a nag has been a way that guys have ignored their own responsibilities. Work it out with the women; don’t call them names.

18. Have female friends who are not your girlfriends

You may meet a girl in school or the neighborhood who shares an interest in movies or basketball or music. Or who is just a good person to talk to sometimes. You can ask her to spend time with you, “not as a date, just to hang out.”

A girl may also want to be your friend—and no more than that—for the same reasons. Even if you are a great guy, a girl might not like you romantically--she's allowed to make up her own mind about that. If you have a great time (whether or not it is a date), and she doesn't want to kiss you afterward, respect her choice. Do not force yourself on her in any fashion. She may turn out to be a great friend, but not if she has to push you away.

19. Support women who are teachers, mentors, and leaders

If you are seeking a mentor or teacher, or want to volunteer with an organization, go with a woman, or woman-led organization. Guys can learn from women in positions of authority.

20. Offer to accompany female friends if they have to walk home alone at night, or to places where they may feel unsafe.

Your company on even a short walk can make a big difference in how your friend feels, and how she is treated. If you offer and she says, “No thanks” you’ve done your job for now.

21. Don’t excuse bad behavior towards women because someone’s been drinking or under the influence of drugs.

Women are often the target of abuse and violence from drunken men. If something you do or say is not okay when you are sober, it’s not okay when you’ve been drinking or using.  You might have to step in and help a woman get safely away from a man acting poorly under the influence.

22. Be a guy who women can feel comfortable being around.

Don’t tower over a woman to show how much bigger you are—that’s scary. Don’t take up a lot of space around women by sitting with your legs wide apart. Don’t interrupt because your voice is louder. It’s not that women are weak—women have had to be very strong and courageous to hold jobs and support families. It’s just that men are usually bigger than women, and a lot of women have been physically pushed around by men. By sitting down, by listening, by saying, “I hear you,” you can be one of the guys who make the world a better place.

23. Be bold and call yourself a feminist.

Your buddies may not know what you mean! You can say, “It means I support women having equal rights. It means I don’t go around putting women down. It means I want every woman to be treated as well as I want everyone to treat my mom and my sister and my girlfriend.”

Being a guy who is a feminist also means that you want the right not to be a typically macho guy. You’ll be looking at how the world encourages men to hold in their real feelings, to be violent, and to dominate women—and you’ll be saying, “That’s not me.” 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Principals: Intentions and Questions at Staff Meetings

Principals: Intentions and Questions at Staff Meetings

Here’s an all too common scenario: a principal floats an idea at a staff meeting, unleashing a barrage of questions and critical comments. It’s an exhausting ritual. The principal may anticipate the usual critics, and on any day be surprised by the other teachers who join in this public gauntlet of analysis. Some principals shy away from sharing ideas, retreating into silence. Some develop a small and trusted inner-circle of supporters, and they hatch all the plans, further alienating the staff. Others listen with increasing dismay to the staff’s reactions and stubbornly say, “I’m doing it anyway.”

The problem is that the principal does not know if a comment or question is because the teacher hates the idea and has every intention of sabotaging it, likes the idea with some reservations, or has some very thoughtful advice to offer.  Without knowing the intention behind the speaker, it can all sound like intransigence and obstruction.  A wise principal will also understand that in any hierarchical system, one way to slow down the person with power is to raise questions and concerns. In schools, so highly dependent on language and intellectual discourse, questioning is a tool, one made sharper when it is unsheathed in the public forum of a staff meeting.

Here is one protocol to raise staff reactions to a higher level of communication. When you open the floor up for commentary and questions after airing a proposal, ask people to preface their remarks with one of these 4 options:

1)      I love this idea, and…” This opening gives permission to those who may think silence is agreement. You might as well garner the good feelings from those who appreciate your idea. As well, even your most enthusiastic supporters may see a way to improve the proposal.

2)      I am in favor of the idea, and I have a concern about a detail.” Many teachers have an attention to detail that is astounding. Once they identify a small concern, they feel a responsibility to pass it along—not as a criticism, but as a form of support. They want you to get this right. By identifying their intention, these teachers will no longer be swirled up in an undifferentiated wave of questioning. Their contributions will be clear, and now welcome.

3)      “I like the idea, but I have a significant concern, and if it is not addressed, I can’t back the proposal.” What might look like a great idea in the principal’s office can seem daunting to the teachers in their daily labors. They truly may see a fatal flaw, perhaps an implementation landmine, that needs to be attended to. These teachers too are not asking you to abandon your idea, and by identifying their intention in raising concerns, they are acting responsibly. The difficulty here is that you may not be able to address their concern in the moment. You may need to say, “Got it. I will look again at the plan to see what we can do about that. Thanks.” Always thank teachers who able to identify their intentions in the interest of a better plan.

4)      “I do not like this plan at all.” In a diverse and complex school culture, there are few plans that will meet everyone’s expectations and demands. If you find a large portion of the staff prefacing their remarks with this perspective, it is likely that you have indeed presented a deeply problematic proposal. More likely, most of the questions and comments belong to the three other categories above, and now the truly small fraction of stubborn and resistant teachers will no longer look as if they are leading the charge. They are outliers. Politically, you may still need to address their concerns and fears, but not at the larger meeting.

All protocols take a little practice and adjustment to become a norm in a given environment. Find the phrasing that works best for you and your team. More importantly, use the power of your position as principal to model, and remind staff to identify their intentions as they begin to speak. When someone fails to do so, you can honestly say, “Wait a moment.  I don’t know if you like this idea a lot, or if you are identifying a small concern, or a potential fatal flaw, or whether you truly just don’t like this plan at all. I’ll hear you better when I know where you are coming from.” And be sure to give teachers the same level of transparent intention when they come to you with proposals. The principal’s power to shape a culture of clear intentions is a small key to unlocking a culture of robust initiation.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Atheists Love the Common Core

“Why Atheists Love the Common Core”
and why we all must keep church and state separated

Atheists don’t have faith in a higher power that they cannot see. This lack of faith marks them as historical relics from three hundred years ago, when handfuls of Europeans began to want proof, proof of everything from how the planets move to how snails find mates. These renaissance people weren’t going to believe things that they couldn’t test. They risked their faith for a plunge into reason.

The Common Core is one more step along the road to a loss of faith, along the road to atheism. The Common Core urges students to read a steady diet of non-fiction texts, for the sole purpose of tearing them apart. Common Core advocates say this trains students to question the wisdom in texts that are handed to them. Common Core advocates say students should question what they read--no matter the power and glory of the authority. This questioning, and searching for proof, is advertised as a worthwhile improvement in how we teach students to think.

There is no reason to believe the Bible won’t be subjected to this level of scrutiny. When the Bible finds its way into the Common Core classroom, it will be questioned for its lack of evidence. Students will be asking for scientific and verifiable proof from reliable sources that the unbelievable, mythological, and completely unscientifically verifiable things in the Bible actually happened. How are you going to convince a student who wants direct observation and attestation that all those animals got into an ark? That the sun stood still in the sky during the Battle of Jericho? That burning bushes don’t consume the material that is burning, and that the bush can talk? That wine can turn into blood?

To believe any of that you have to have faith. You can’t come up with citations or reliable research studies about the Bible; it has no reference pages in the back. Some say, “Well, if it’s written in the Bible, that’s good enough.” That doesn’t cut it in the Common Core. Students will be trained to wonder how quoting the Bible can reliably prove anything in the Bible. They’ll compare such thinking to doing an entire research paper using only Wikipedia or one encyclopedia.  The Common Core demands the type of well-developed ideas—what is sometimes called “rational thinking”--that is not found in the scriptures. The irrational thinking that has held our religions together for centuries is now not good enough; events are supposed to make sense.

This is one of the most important reasons we must keep religion out of the public schools, why we must have a strict boundary between church and state. It is a critical way to preserve religion. Right now advocates of the Common Core are not including religious texts among their assigned readings—and if you care about faith and religion and believing things that cannot ever be rationally explained, you will want to keep it that way. Keep your bible out of the hands of school children if you cherish magical thinking. The atheists have faith that it can’t survive a close reading.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Radical Empathy

Radical Empathy

“I am standing by the shore of a swiftly flowing river and hear the cry of a drowning man. I jump into the cold waters. I fight against the strong current and force my way to the struggling man. I hold on hard and gradually pull him to shore. I lay him out on the bank and revive him with artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. I jump into the cold waters. I fight against the strong current, and swim forcefully to the struggling woman. I grab hold and gradually pull her to shore. I lift her out onto the bank beside the man and work to revive her with artificial respiration. Just when she begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. I jump into the cold waters. Fighting again against the strong current, I force my way to the struggling man. I am getting tired, so with great effort I eventually pull him to shore. I lay him out on the bank and try to revive him with artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. Near exhaustion, it occurs to me that I'm so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore, applying artificial respiration that I have no time to see who is upstream pushing them all in....” (Adapted from a story told by Irving Zola as cited in McKinlay, John B. "A case for refocusing upstream: The political economy of illness." In Conrad and Kern, 2nd edition, 1986, The Sociology of Health and Illness: Critical Perspectives. pp. 484-498.) 

My friend is a family therapist. She is intrigued by the ways all the people in a big family work together, given the innumerable conflicts in such a group. She encourages as many family members as possible to come to sessions, so she can see them in action. The more family members in the room, the more likely that they will behave in their typical fashions.

She said to me, “Each one of them wants to get through the day and safely back to bed for the night. They don’t always help themselves by how they behave, but in the end, everyone wants homeostasis, everyone wants the conflicts to end. On their own terms, they just want peace. They want to make it back to bed safely.” In that moment she experienced radical empathy, the capacity to connect with the most basic universal feelings of being a human.

Schools provide us with the opportunity every day to experience radical empathy. We often speak of our schools as “one big family”—sometimes we mean that in the good way, and sometimes in the dysfunctional way. We are interdependent in a school building, and the quality of our days is greatly influenced by the quality of our relationships. Everyone who walks into the school building in the morning wants to emerge safe, and hopefully wiser, at the end of the day.

There are many hurdles to safely clear from the morning until the school doors close behind us in the afternoon. In most cases there are just too many people crowded into the hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. The pace is unnatural. The work load is consistently over the limit of what is reasonable. The rewards are not consistently robust, and often they lie at a distant horizon. The critical judgments of peers, authorities, and society are omnipresent. It is no wonder we often push open that school house door with unease.

Students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents--we really are all in it together, just like the family members squeezing into the chairs in my friend’s family therapy sessions. I want us to recognize the shared frustrations, hopes and feelings of every person in the school. I want us to practice radical empathy.

I use the term “radical” with great care. I am not talking about an enervating feeling sorry for everyone (although I prefer that any day to anger or indifference). I am not talking about saying, “I hear you, but…” because that word “but” negates everything that came before it. “…but…” pushes away the depth of empathy that can lead to change, which can lead to new affiliations. Radical empathy means, “I hear you, and…” It means our fates are tied to one another, and we can join hands in taking action.

Radical empathy asks that you strive to see the best, and the potential best, in each person in the school building, as you would wish they would see that in you. It is a belief that each of us could do better if the conditions allowed for it.  Radical empathy is a rejection of the Iron Age mythology that there are inherently evil and bad people.

Having been a student, teacher, parent, and administrator, I experienced moments when I was sure I had it worst of all—none of the others could understand how tough it was for my peers and me. To stoke the fires of radical empathy, here’s a reminder of how hard it can be in each of these roles:

Students: Does anyone have it worse than the kids? They have no power. They have no organization. They have little to no say in how their environment is shaped. They are subjected to continual judgment and evaluation, and more and more subjected to compassionless high stakes testing. When the system makes no sense to them they can resist, complain, drop-out, or comply—but not effect change. The kids long for the teachers who understand them and who care for them deeply, and if your teacher this year isn’t a good match, you have to do all the compromising.

Teachers: Does anyone have it worse than the teachers? We are called “professionals” and then treated as if we can’t be trusted with kids, with curriculum, with evaluations. After years of hard work we are paid significantly less than a college graduate heading into business. There is never enough prep time, and even less time to plan with peers. The breadth and depth of our work is astounding: we teach every social skill, voluminous academic skills, and future employment skills, with groups of students whose ranges of need and ability make it impossible to bring each to mastery. Then we are blamed.

Parent: Does anyone have it worse than parents? Each day we drop off the most precious part of us, our children, and can only hope they are treated well—when we remember that we weren’t always treated well when we were students. We have no say over school schedules, rules, or evaluations. When we make inquiries or suggestions, we are often treated as if we are getting in the way. When we are really concerned about something important, we are often viewed as hostile. When our child is struggling, “the home” is seen as the problem. When our child suffers, we will still and always be the parent, the one who has to somehow make it work, year after year after year.

Administrators: Does anyone have it worse than administrators? Everyone knows it is an impossible job, caught between the school department, federal and state regulations, teachers’ unions, and parent associations. Our work is more and more judged by standardized tests, which barely reflect the depth and breadth of our daily tasks. We work longer hours than anyone, have shorter vacations (wasn’t that the big perk of being an educator?), and always have more people to get back to than is humanly possible. We have to mentor, support, and then, without compassion, evaluate every educator in the building, putting all our relationships at risk—were there even the time to do those evaluations well.

No one has it easy, and everyone wants it to work. Radical empathy asks that we see ourselves, or parts of ourselves, in every student, teacher, parent, and administrator. No one is rejected. Radical empathy pushes us to cross the boundaries between our roles and divisions, and say, “Me too.” More than that, radical empathy recognizes that we may not have the power in this moment to change the conditions of schools, and we can help each other. We must help each other. Helping each other across roles and divisions sets up the affiliations that lead to political and economic changes. Schools can be far far better organizations for learning and teaching. Practicing radical empathy gives us the taste of that reality, by asking us to see the best possible person in every individual.

Here are some thoughts about how to practice radical empathy:

Recognize the power you do have, especially the power over others— Radical empathy means that you treat each person, in each interaction, with exquisite respect. I worked in a school where the principal was buddy-buddy one day and then dictatorial the next. His empathy was inconsistent at best, and few of us trusted him. Teachers similarly wield their authority over students. Radical empathy demands that you use your power to support each person, and that you say, “This is what I can and can’t do to make a difference.”

Share power and authority when you can— At the beginning of each school year, I gave a message to my students in the classroom when I was a teacher, and a similar one to the teachers at a staff meeting when I was an administrator: “I sometimes will take on a job because I think I can do it efficiently, but it is a job that I should have left for you, because it was really yours to do. There will be other times when I hand off a job to you and you’ll be thinking, ‘That’s not mine. Jeffrey has the time and the power to do that task.’ I will do my best to get those decisions right.” Everyone below you in the hierarchy believes you have vast powers to do almost anything you want, but you don’t. Radical empathy recognizes that we all want the school to function well, and that the traditional lines of authority and control often impede our efforts. Be transparent about what has to get done. Be inclusive up and down the hierarchy in building strategies.

Listen—And listen for shared interests; i.e. “I want that too.” Again, this is the critical difference between, “I hear you, but…” versus “I hear you, and…” When you practice radical empathy you listen for the strains of shared hope and frustration, and seek a shared next step.

Identify short and long term needs—When a student, teacher, or parent, is complaining, or shutting down, in that moment each of them has lost access to other strategies. They want to make it work somehow--when you practice radical empathy you remember that everyone is trying to get through the day. You are not going to change someone’s entire life. You can offer support to get through the moment, and be honest about the long-term changes that you also wish for, long-term changes that are not now in anyone’s ability to create. And sharing your hope for a better future for everyone is one way we support each other along the lengthy road to that better future.

And leads to action—Radical empathy allows us to remember what it felt like when we were the ones who were angry or helpless, when we experienced our school as chaotic, irrational, under-resourced, and at times brutal. After thoroughly listening, offer to brainstorm possible next steps, everything from sitting together quietly to walking down the hall to convening a meeting. What can you offer to someone with the power you have? What would you have wanted someone to do for you? 

Friday, July 25, 2014

The General's Masseuse

The General's

A Short Story

By Jeffrey Benson


"For the love of God, of your children, and of the civilization to which
you belong, cease this madness. You have a duty not just to the
generation of the present—you have a duty to civilization's past,
which you threaten to render meaningless, and to its future, which you
threaten to render nonexistent. You are mortal men. You are capable of
error. You have no right to hold in your hands—there is no one wise or
strong enough to hold in his hands—destructive powers sufficient to put an
end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet. No one should wish to
hold such powers. Thrust them from you. The risks you might thereby assume
are not greater—could not be greater—than those which you are now
incurring for all of us."

— George F. Kennan
(Garmisch, Germany, October 1,1980),
in Sketches from a Life, Pantheon, 1989.

 I wake up at nights, thinking about the General. I light a candle by my bed and watch the shadows grow thick and fuzzy. The wind rattles my window. I pull myself into a fetal position. My thoughts run like squirrels around a tree. Somehow I might have been able to do more with the General, as much as anyone citizen. I remember to breathe deeply, and to let my thoughts stream through the night.
         I gave the General his first back massage at my studio. His secretary made the appointment. He arrived on time, wearing his uniform. He was a large-boned man of perhaps 50, maybe a young-looking 55. With a small smile his eyes searched my studio, the candles and rugs, soft piano music, burning incense. He didn't say much. I watched him unbutton his collar and his cuffs as he walked into the dressing room. I told him to put on a clean robe, and to untie it when he lay down on the massage table.
He seemed comfortable with the silence. I told him to talk only as much as he felt during the massage, to tell me if there was pain, tenderness, or pleasure, to use it as a time and place to relax, to let his muscles and his mind uncoil, to float like a rowboat on a lake.
His back was thickly muscled and tight, as most men's are. A woman's back often feels like long pulls of taffy, a man's often like concrete just before it hardens, barely flexible. I worked for a long time on the muscles of his midback, which were wound like tight shoelaces. The muscular tension was inhibiting his breathing. I ran my hands in long strokes up the ridges on either side of his spine, pulled my hands across his shoulders, and then pulled them down along his sides. His lungs expanded more fully. He made no sounds. I thought he was concentrating completely on the movements of my hands.
When I was finished, I told him to get dressed again at his own pace and that I would be in the reception room, drinking tea. He could join me there. He arrived quickly, again working on the buttons of his collar and cuffs. The General declined a drink, paid me in cash from a money clip in his pants pocket. He told me that he enjoyed the massage greatly.
"I could swing some more business your way with the other officers," he said, but turned away and added, ''I'd like to keep you to myself for now."
I didn't get up when he left, just waved from my chair. He wasn't going to keep me for himself—I had plenty of other clients. Don't worry, General, I won't ask you to hand out my business cards at the Pentagon.
The General came for a massage once a week. He seemed comfortable and coolly controlled, and he never said anything beyond simple hellos and good-byes. I like to know more about my clients, their jobs, their families, their hobbies. It helps my work. A receptionist, working under a continual barrage on interruptions, was fond of long, seemingly endless massage strokes that began at her coccyx and many luxurious moments later finished at the base of her skull with my thumbs rotating in small circles. I have a bus driver who uses his hands to grip all day, and I gently pull on his fingers and knead his palms.
The General offered no inspirational morsels on which to nourish the massage. I began to slyly question his secretary when she called to confirm his appointments: Was the General squeezing me in between meetings? Was he at the parade grounds? Did he seem particularly anxious about the movement of troops in Central America? She didn't know, I should ask him, and she wasn't really sure.
Left to my own intuition, I imagined his back to be a battlefield. Barbed wire circled his shoulder blades. Deep trenches were dug on the borders of his spine, an airstrip was being built in the small of his back. I sought to bring harmony to the conflicts among his nerves, muscles, and bones. My hands were a peacekeeping battalion, they were a USO show with Bob Hope featuring Miss America, my hands were a cease-fire. Over time I never succeeded in establishing a lasting peace, only in reducing the casualties. He was breathing from deeper in his abdomen, and the range of motion with his right arm had increased.
Then one day he was pictured in the newspaper, standing next to the president, discussing military strategy. The situation in Central America was unstable, the president said. The General was in charge of many soldiers. The president would not stand by idly while another small country flexed its muscles. Troops were being armed. Everyone was holding their breath.
I worked aggressively on the General's back. I rolled muscles like tanks over the edge of his waist, sabotaged the fortresses in his shoulders. I would level all resistance. If it were possible to delay the war by making the General too relaxed to command, it would be done here. For the first time the General moaned during the massage, and then he asked me to please be more gentle.
I felt stupid. My work was massage, and I was doing it poorly, ignoring the sensitivity my hands had developed. My hands could liberate his energy, but that was all. If I wanted to stop him from going back to work, I should stab him in the back. I considered stopping the massage. My hands were resting on his midback. They rose and fell with his tight breaths. His eyes were closed. The beating of his heart gently rumbled. He was nearly as inflexible and rigid as he had been on his first visit. I finished the massage with firm strokes that would loosen his diaphragm.
He came more often the next weeks. He was busy with war preparations. The best I could do for his back now was to maintain whatever flexibility I could. He made no significant improvements. He stored the pressure of his decisions in his back the way dogs bury bones and then forget where they are. On television his movements were rapid and disjointed. The president looked as if he had on a corset as he explained the circumstances surrounding the bombing of a school. We were a reflex action away from war. The entire population of the Western Hemisphere was in need of a massage.
A good massage was supposed to open the heart. I was up during the night. I had my hands on one of the most crucial backs during a world crisis, and the more I worked the closer we stepped toward war. The General was only breathing shallowly from his upper chest, and he had sharp pains in his shoulders. I felt incompetent.
In the morning I found out that the United States had launched an invasion. The General canceled his appointment. His secretary did not want to schedule another time.
"Not until there's more stability," she said.
I spent the afternoon with friends and family. We watched the news and drank wine. Phone calls were made to join a group of people gathering by the White House, quietly protesting the invasion. I stayed home alone, hoping for a phone call from the General that didn't come.
He had his next massage three days later. By then, more than 8,000 people had been killed, 50,000 driven from their homes, the number of wounded unknown. It was not going to be a quick war. The little country had secretly mined its harbor, and at the height of the invasion, four United States ships blew up. The backbone of our military presence was snapped. The president asked for more troops.
As always, the General was punctual. His back was as tight as any back I had ever seen, as if his muscles were the cables to a bridge, and life was a column of tanks rolling up the roadway. His shoulders heaved with every breath—I worked on opening the bottom of his torso, but it was heavily barricaded and my hands tired. I concentrated on being gentler. There was a spot at the base of his neck that was flexible, and I rotated his head slowly in my hands, stretching the muscles down into his shoulders. The General was momentarily more relaxed. I couldn't infiltrate the tension in any area below his collarbone, so I worked on his neck, his jaw, and forehead. I could see the muscles at the junction of his two lips yield, and his mouth lightly opened.
I looked at the clock—we were 30 minutes beyond the end of the appointment. I roused the General and apologized. He would be late for a meeting; perhaps I had delayed the war effort for a half hour. He thanked me for the massage, and I continued to apologize for delaying him. He shook his head, told me that he appreciated my work. His body was so stiff that when he shook his head I thought it might snap off. He was working hard to breathe as he put on his coat and scarf.
The United States launched a second invasion the next day. Planes, parachutes, PT boats, missiles. I sat at my kitchen table, listening to the radio. Reporters were not allowed to accompany the invading forces. The announcer filled the time with background information on the decision-makers in the military. Then he interrupted with a bulletin that the General had collapsed at the Pentagon late yesterday—word was just in that he had died. His lungs had become too weak to breathe, as if they had been strangled by the neighboring muscles. The announcer said he was 63 years old.
I felt numb, sad and empty. I would never massage that back again. He must have left my studio, had his meeting to launch the invasion, and then stopped breathing. I called his secretary and found out the time of the funeral. I wanted to be there.
 Except for the women dressed in black, the preacher and the gravediggers, I was the only person not in military uniform.
The General's wife cried as she was given the United States flag from the coffin. The vice president was supposed to arrive, but I never saw him. I wondered if the other generals knew about his weak lungs.
One of the women approached me.
"You must be the massage therapist. I'm the General's secretary."
We stood silently together as the coffin was lowered and prayers said. The prayers were caught in the wind and shredded on the trees above.
"He depended on your massages," the secretary told me as we walked toward our cars. "He said they made him feel peaceful. Pretty funny, huh?" she smiled but did not laugh.
"I think I gave him a massage just before he died," I said.
"He probably would have died sooner if not for you. He wasn't healthy enough to be in charge of this war. He was trying to convince the others to hold off on the invasion, but the plans were inflexible, set in concrete. You know, he tried to get some of them to go to you for massages."
"No," I said. "He said he didn't want to do that."
"Well, some of them sure could use one. That's what the General used to say. Look at them." She nodded her head at the other generals. "So stiff."
I watched them climb down into their limousines as if the cars were bomb shelters and the road paved with terrorists. They roared off to the war room.
"Do me a favor, please" I said, pulling some dog-eared business cards from my coat pocket. "Could you hand these out to them?"
She took the cards from my hand. The war was escalating.