Saturday, February 22, 2014

from the introduction to "Hanging In"

There is never one thing that defines a challenging student, never one cause, never one life event, never one disability. If it were one thing, the solutions would be simple. One of my own teachers confronted me with this important and demanding advice: “Keep the complexity as long as you can.” My stories in this book invite you to hang in with the complexities of our challenging students and to take action with no guarantees of immediately observable success. The only guarantee is more evidence that you can use with the next challenging student—because I can guarantee you, there will be another one who challenges your capacity to hang in.

Once, in a meeting convened to develop an intervention with a particularly idiosyncratic student, I said, “This is a lot like our work with Harry a few years back.” No sooner did I offer that bit of wisdom then hands shot up around the room with a chorus of, “No, this is not like Harry at all.” We had never shared our various conclusions about what had caused Harry to be so challenging; with the passage of time, the team was unable to reconstruct the events in Harry’s story in order to craft a shared understanding. Our stories are valuable only in as much as we collectively construct their meaning and articulate a shared wisdom. Set time aside to tell stories. The learning must be made explicit; we hang in collectively.

I have learned so much from working with our traumatized, neglected, and remarkably alive students and with their teachers. What I learn, the gift to me, is how this student and this student and this student are coming to understand this lesson in the varied and unpredictable ways the human mind can work. To be fascinated with the thinking and growth of each student is a formula for lifelong learning as an educator. Small classes are prime real estate for such adult education. The teachers in our schools who embody this accumulated education should be treasured and exalted, but too often they work without the resources and support their challenges demand. The admiration they get is often in the form of “I don’t know how you do your work,” but rarely are these teachers asked to say how they actually do their work, as if the teachers of our most challenging students are in a different profession or possess superhuman qualities. This is a loss for us all, because the accumulated stories of hanging in with our most challenging students are vital to maintaining a diverse and just society.

Schools That Work and Work and Work

Let’s agree that we are not pouring money into public education without wanting a return for our investment. We need our kids to grow up to pay taxes, enough taxes to pay the government back for their schooling, or what’s the point?  To pay taxes you need a job—the purpose of schools is to make sure our students are employable. We need to teach them to behave like good employees. And that’s where we can really start savings some big bucks on educating these kids, and get an even bigger return on our tax dollars.

To make them good employees, schools need to reflect the world of work. We live in a capitalist economy and the kids need to learn right up front that we are all about competition. They can start learning this by competing for their teacher’s attention and competing for grades. This is why we keep class sizes big—but they could be even bigger and save us more money. We could probably reduce the number of teachers if we hiked class sizes up to about 50 kids in a class—or maybe even 75, or 100. It’s said a lot that class size doesn’t matter; it’s the teacher that matters, so we can cull from the ranks of teachers the very best ones, put the best ones in the cafeteria with a lot of kids and let them go at it. Once we get class sizes over 20, we might as well face the facts that we could jack the numbers way up. Big savings right off the bat!

This is why standardized tests are so important! Once you have enough kids in a class that competing for grades and the teacher’s attention is an important skill (which is happening already in most schools), you have to use tests—you can’t expect a teacher to know what every kid can do and then evaluate that in a personal way—that’s far too costly! The tests quickly divide up the class into those who are special and those who are just going to be your run-of-the-mill employees—and we need a lot more of those types of employees than we need bosses. With standardized tests you can safely measure only what is important for most kids to be good employees, and really put an end to the illusion that many of them and their parents have that they are special. For years schools have been implicitly giving kids the message that we don’t need them all to be special, so let’s just be explicit it about it, because we don’t have the time or the money to play around. Keep it simple; keep it as big as we can; keep it uniform.

The special ones can come from the expensive private schools, which seems like great models of education—so many of their graduates go on to college and leadership roles! But those schools cost way too much to consider for every public school kid, and we don’t need every kid to be a leader. The private schools can keep churning out our leaders; we’ll save our bucks on the public schools, where we really need to stock pile our next generation of employees. It’s a good differentiated system of education—let’s keep it that way, as differentiated as we can.

Also, employees don’t read books on the job, so we can save a bunch of bucks by stopping the buying and reading of novels; the kids can do that on their own time. They should be reading manuals and instructions and guidelines, which exist by the thousands on the Internet already. This is where technology is going to really help us. With our electronic whiteboards, we can project the owner’s manual of a toaster oven for all the students to see, and save on paper and shipping costs and deterioration of the books. Along similar lines we can save money by cutting out most literature, and certainly any poetry, because poets don’t make enough money to pay taxes. And what are you going to test? Same for most of the arts, right?

The move to the Common Core presents some risks to our hopes of developing good employees. The Common Core may actually lead to a bit of analytical thinking, but luckily not critical thinking, in which students might actually be supported to be critical of their schooling. We are not going to have a stable workforce if kids learn to be critical of their conditions. Luckily, we are not letting students or teachers have any say in what is in the Common Core, and we’ll keep them all in check by tying any curriculum to our standardized tests. Don’t worry—no thinking, and certainly no acting, outside the box. Teachers will still be doing what they are told.

So this is where teachers’ unions are a big problem for getting our kids ready to compete in a global economy. The type of manufacturing jobs good employees get have gone overseas, and not to Finland, by the way—a place many people are touting as a good example for our schools, but it’s not where the jobs are going. They’re going to China, where there are no independent unions!!! That’s why the Chinese work-to-school model is so effective: their kids don’t have any illusions about organizing for their rights, because that would cost them their jobs! If we are going to compete with the Chinese for jobs, unions are a problem; our students don’t need role models of adults thinking they know better than the bosses above them—that’s not the mark of a good employee. My proposals here don’t give kids any opportunities from day one to think they should do more than follow directions. The teachers should be following the direction handed down by the companies that make the text books and standardized tests, and the kids should be following their teacher’s directions, and then we’ll have the good employees we deserve. And it will all be so much cheaper.

Friday, February 21, 2014

I Still Love Being In Schools

I love to watch Tucker when he is learning. His eyes widen, his face lights up, and he cannot contain himself, shouting out answers—no, not answers but ideas and concepts and “ah hah”s—and he often gets in trouble for being insensitive to his peers who are still struggling to do their work, for being self-centered, and there are times he is frustrated by the trouble he gets into, and other times he seems to accept it as the price he is paying for his education. He grimaces for a moment and then reinvests his energies into his school work. He is eleven years old.

 One of my first mentors believed, and so have I, that education is healing.

 When I have expressed frustration to my friend Adam that life for so many seems mean and filled with pain, when it could be filled with so much more joy and kinship, he says he admires my idealism. He is a doctor who works with the elderly poor. He says that life is that mean and painful—not that it seems so—but that it is so, which is why he marvels and takes solace that humans can achieve great moments of transcendence in the midst of our suffering as a species. He and I share the exuberant sweat-filled passion of basketball, the rock band that hits a groove and sends an entire bar into a pulsing mass, the books we are reading that are keeping us up late. My friends and I are junkies for transcendence.

 Adam is a member of a very liberal synagogue. My only religion is education. Tucker is my proof.

​ I practice my religion, education, in schools. I don’t care about prescribed academic content, and I abhor standardized tests. I abhor the industrialization of education, the ridiculous over-crowding of young people into narrow hallways, the regimentation of bells ringing, the hyper force-feeding of irrelevant textbook tasks that leads to cognitive indigestion and shut-down. Most kids shout for joy when they are released from the building.

​ I’ve observed affluent suburban high schools. The students go through their paces. They seem less distracted than kids in the city. As rarely as all students, few of them ask interesting questions and a decided minority show passion—some for art, some for physics, some for writing. Their teachers are more relaxed than their urban counter-parts. The pain of the world is less palpable. Here education evokes not religious fervor but a ritualized ennui.

​ Despite the boredom and enforced pass-fail monomania of schools, I still love being in them. I see when students experience, despite all the barriers, the moments of joy for having their minds opened and their neurons firing in unexpected patterns and, in those moments, transcendence.  I fear my friend Adam is right that those moments are exceptions to our suffering. And I hope my friend Adam is wrong that such moments are the exceptions to our suffering; I am an idealist: schools can provoke less pain; they can inspire more transcendence.