Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why am I doing this?

A few observations about my efforts of the past weeks to get ahead on the old Internets, increase my Twitter presence, enter into more networking on Facebook and increase the readership of this blog. Hard to say why I entered into this endeavor in the first place; I can always use the excuse that I am isolated as an education agitator here in Maine and I need to establish for myself a community who believes in the things I do, and reach out to those here in Maine who I might cultivate as allies.  But in reality, I think I just really want to crack the code of getting those 5-figure weekly hit counts on Minds of Kids.

Lisa Nielson of the Innovative Educator gave me a few key words of advice a few weeks ago. Example: focus on school boards. That helped me narrow in. Add parents to that mix. Those lay people who want to change education are a bit harder to find than teachers and school administrators with the same goals. So I used Twitter, worked it hard, made it scream for mercy. Why Twitter? I can answer that easily. Sometimes Diane Ravitch retweets my posts. Someday Dan Pink will respond to something I direct his way. Who doesn't like to hobnob with the greats? Twitter really is a great equalizer. All things seem possible.

About three weeks ago I had 100 followers on Twitter. Now I have 400. It's been a very  painstaking process, going through the follower lists of folks who are in my target audience, either by virtue of being parents, being involved in education, or living in Maine.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Independent Project

For the past three weeks or so, I have been thinking and talking about ways to introduce change to our high school without completely disrupting the existing schedule and routine there. Something that would plant seeds of possibility without having to institute system-wide change.

I heard about The Independent Project about a year ago when an article in the New York Times came out. "Kids Rule the School," it said. Well, that's it, my whole philosophy in four words. Sounded good to me.

When we were confronted with a group of teachers who wanted to start a charter in our district, I started looking for ways that the district itself could make innovative change that would affect a similar number of students. As I've said in previous posts, change that takes place outside the walls of the district buildings is change wasted, as far as its influence on the mother ship goes. I wanted the whole school to observe and be affected by the project.

It also seemed to me that a project that invests itself in the idea that kids are in charge would, naturally, involve fewer adults, less of the establishment that is busy keeping up with the demands of the traditional model.

And it would cost less. Bang for the buck, that's what I'm looking for.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Radical School Board Member

[Join the Radical School Board Member on Facebook!]

The least skillfully executed part of my life as an education activist takes place while I'm sitting at the school board table. It's the least significant and the least enjoyable. It also provides the most frustration and anger.

I've lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out why. While I have scads, just a huge ginormous surplus amount of knowledge and ideas about how to change education and what our educational goals should be, I suck as a leader. Too emotional, not able to be diplomatic.

I'm not trying to list my bad qualities in a backhanded way of making myself look better; I do not perform well as a leader. I make mistakes, I fail to listen.

Maybe I do feel that because of the extensive time I spend researching education, talking to other educators, using social media as a tool to understand the education issues that affect us all, finding new ideas and new breakthroughs in the classroom...because of all this, I deserve to be listened to, and the things I suggest, acted upon.

Forget it. Never going to happen. Nobody deserves to be listened to. Nor does anyone deserve to have their opinions negated by virtue of the other guy having spent the greater amount of time on Twitter.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

These Kids Nowadays! School Change and the New Generation Gap

(This entry will be crossed-posted on the Cooperative Catalyst)

We adults make as honest an effort as we can to imagine how school and learning can work better for our kids. But we are their worst enemies; or rather, it is our warm/fuzzy ideas of what our own childhoods were like that stand right in the way of our children.

The time had come for us to check our youthful experiences, memories and feelings at the door. It's simply not relevant, and blinds us to the differences between then, and now.

When we look at kids now, we see things that make us cringe inside and long for a trip back to the good old days. We want very much for our kids to have what we had. We don't consider that by having those wishes we are inappropriately imposing our values on our children. No: our values are universal! (Hey, baby boomers are the worst at this; we've grown up with the sense that we alone know what reality and truth is.)

How many of us look at kids attached to their phones, busily thumbing away without regard to what's going on around them and think, Oh, that poor child, missing out on the here and now?

How many of us shake our heads when we see kids grappling with enemies foreign and domestic with joysticks and controllers in their hands, headsets on their heads, shouting and grunting and ignoring the real world?

But here's the thing: these kids are living in a world we created for them. We made it. It is our generation that invented those devices and made them so irresistable. They are using it because it's as much part of their world as the television and the microwave oven, but we think it's terrible, just terrible.

We can think that our values have more merit than theirs because our culture is so frightened of the Teenager. The Adolescent. Those miniature adults with the bad instincts and poor impulse control. We have decided that teenagers cope better with structure, rigid expectations, and have rejected their hyper-communicative proclivities for their own good.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Charters, Redux

(The opinions below are my own. I don't speak for the RSU 3 school board in any way.)

I have been accused of freaking out when I hear the word charter.

"It's just the word that upsets you," people have said. "If you call it something else, you wouldn't get so exercised."

If you called it something else, it wouldn't be a charter.

I gotta cop to it. I have a particular allergy to the word. For me, it's surrounded by some seriously bad juju.

When I first heard there were people who wanted to start a charter school in my district I felt a sort've numbing of my chest and a rush of blood from my head. "No, no! Not here!"

There was a moment when I tried to ignore my gut reaction, and consider the possibility that it might be a good thing as part of the whole advancement of my district. A simple alternative, making use of the talents of two dedicated individuals who love working with kids, helping them open doors.

But, as they say, you can put lipstick on a pig but it is still a pig. It's still making educational change for some, and not all, in a way that is not benign, given its impact on a local system.

There are still those who still see it as positive for students who need very badly to get out of the traditional model NOW and into a different way of doing education. They are right about the need, but the conclusion is wrong.

Let's look at three reasons why there might be a need for charters.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Can learning be joyful?

Those of us who have either witnessed or experienced the beauty of the ideal learning experience may not have known it for what it was. It looks too much like joy.

Perhaps it isn't recognized for what it is because generally it does not take place in the school building. School is where you work and grind and focus; therefore work, grind and focus are what we think of as learning. (Sad, yes.)

Perhaps, also, we think of those joyous experiences as only in the area of art, music, dance, those learning extras. Who ever heard of the joy of the multiplication tables? [Note: I have been rightly corrected here; there are those who love numbers and love to explore what they can do. I have a couple of siblings like that, so I know it's true!]

So because joyous learning is not thought of as existing in school, or at any rate, not in academic classes, it therefore cannot take place in school or in academic classes? Or is it just learning what you most care about that creates that joy? If so, then we need to let students learn what they most care about, in school, out of school, wherever.

I have more questions, and some possible answers, but I want to record something that happened at my daughter's dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker ballet, one week ago today.

The Jesters' dance is mostly done by little kids. Michelle, our director, did that scene first so she could send those kids home. Then we began the dress rehearsal but when we came to it, we played the music from Jesters so that dancers who were changing would know how much time they had.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Twitter has been a tool for education change since long before I discovered that it's more than just a silly kids' plaything. The hashtag -- a search device that allows people to participate in discussions pertaining to a topic area -- has connected huge numbers of people who otherwise would never have known of each other. I've been fascinated with (and grateful for) this tool for almost a year -- since my sister-in-law explained to me what Twitter really is.

While there are hashtags connecting educators interested in a certain kind of education discussion, and general ones that cover many topic areas, I haven't found a hashtag devoted to parents who are interested in advocating for real education change -- as opposed to corporate education reform. There's #edchat, the most popular as far as I can see, which connects huge numbers of educators and others interested in changing education. Then there's other favorites of mine: #passiondriven, #meschools, #edtech, #mathchat all cover their own areas of interest.

I've not found a general hashtag for parent activists interested in connecting with other parents nationwide. We are critical to the fight against corporate education reform and high-stakes testing culture. Parents who advocate for a truly child-centered education for all students need a hashtag to call our own. So I'm making a try at starting a hashtag: #edparents.

Help parents who are dedicated to changing education connect and share information and ideas with each other. Promote and retweet the #edparents hashtag!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Anger, and New Orleans

There isn't enough outrage at what is happening today in the struggle to change public education. Time for anger is here; it's been here for awhile.

When someone stands in front of my school board as they did this past Monday night and talks of the New Orleans school system transformation as a reason to support charter schools, the outrage stands out all over my face; imagine the face of a child who returns to NOLA to find that she is no longer welcome to attend her neighborhood school because it has become a specialized charter, admittance is selective and favoritism is granted to children of Tulane faculty?

In the area of education reform, or "Rhee-form" as I like to call it (after the gloriously hailed former superintendent of the Washington DC school system) you have to consider the source of your information. You have to develop and stay in contact with your own selected touchstones of wisdom and clarity in order to sort truth from nonsense. These are people whose hearts and minds you have come to trust over time and after much scrutiny. I have my own sources: Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Lisa Nielson, Joe Bower, Ken Jones, Chris Lehman, Dan Pink, Ken Robinson, just to mention a very few of the people I depend upon for good sense.

Some might say this is the lazy way, a cowardly device used to maintain the us-vs.-them quality of the education debate. I should be reading and considering every possible proposal for fixing schools because it's not about partisanship -- it's all about the kids, right?

Actually, no. Well, yes, it's all about the kids, but no, I don't need to consider every point of view to figure out what I need to know about what serves them best. Life is too short, for one thing; for another, when you pay close attention to the national debate on education for long enough, you get to see quite clearly where the lines are drawn between what's good and what sucks among all the proposals and theories.

So when the words "charter school" are mentioned, red lights and sirens do go off in my head, and I go on the alert, ready to hear something that will stand dead in the way of good public education for all. In that regard, charters and their advocates never disappoint me.

Back to the guy who stood before my School Board and claimed New Orleans as a victory for the charter movement.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What is Self-Expression?

I have been chewing over a conversation I had with a friend of mine for a couple of years. We were talking about our daughters' dance experiences. Her daughter was learning modern dance, and mine was learning classical ballet. She spoke rhapsodicaly about Alexa, her daughter's dance teacher, who rarely had dance concerts but worked on bringing out the movement artistry in her students, having them learn how to create their own artistry and expression through their bodies.

"Ballet is so much about, you know, the makeup and the costumes, and a particular way to hold your body. But Alexa is a real artist."


I was troubled by this for a long time. Where does personal expression come in when you only repeat the steps of a centuries-old dance? Where, for that matter, does it come in when you are learning to play the violin, so that you can merely repeat the music Bach or Mozart or Beethoven created? That was their self-expression. Where is mine?

I'll tell you why I think my friend had only half the story. Ballet is the result of centuries of the human's desire for the beauty of movement of the body. The turn-out of the foot is not required of modern dance, but in ballet it is critical. So a dancer is not just following rules. She is mastering something that has the history of movement in its steps, it's leaps, its expression, its interpretation of music.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is Steve Bowen a friend to education?

Steve Bowen, Maine's Commissioner of Education under our dear darling Governor Paul LePage, is a smart man by all accounts. Friends in Camden say good things about him from the time he was a teacher there. We hear words coming out of his mouth that we like, that seem to be words we have been waiting to hear from an education bureaucrat for...well, forever.

But this is Education we're talking about, and in the USA in 2011, words lose their meaning. Achievement is a good word. Literacy is a nice one, too. Teacher evaluation sounds very responsible, something we should have. Accountability sounds like something taxpayers ought to ask of any government-funded system. Critical Thinking, that's a big one; that's like Polaris, the star we keep looking for so we can follow it anywhere.

The problem is that we live in a time when words about the education of young people have been co-opted. You have to be a detective to understand the intent behind them, and there are certain clues you need to know about in order to determine this.

Take a look at this, from a DOE news release dated September 28, 2011:
*We’re implementing the rigorous Common Core state standards for math and English language arts – standards that clearly lay out what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for college and careers;

*We have plans to transition to a new generation of modern, computer-based assessments that are aligned with those rigorous standards, test higher-order skills and offer teachers the chance to make assessment useful – using it as a way to identify areas where students need help and to adjust instruction accordingly;

*We’re laying the groundwork for an accountability system that recognizes our educators when they help students grow, provides them with constructive feedback when improvement is needed and allows for a wide variety of improvement strategies – rather than a one-size-fits-all approach; and

*We have schools that are devising an array of model teacher and administrator evaluations that school districts can use – evaluations that provide helpful feedback to the professionals in our schools so they can continue to grow in their jobs.
To me the above is simply bullshit. If I was a kid and I came to understand what the above meant, I would run screaming in the opposite direction. I'd think, “What does any of that have to do with me?” I know that language was not intended for kids, but you'd think that in that whole sweeping, bulleted scheme, above, there'd be something for a kid to latch on to. But there is nothing.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Assessment, Suzuki-style

When I'm seeking a pure solution to a difficult educational problem, I often turn to the Suzuki violin method. It's almost a case of "What Would Suzuki Do?" I have idealized his methods because I trust his heart. He did or said nothing that did not have love of children at its core. So when in doubt, I ask myself, WWSD?

I have the issue of the assessment of learning on my mind, and thinking about how the Suzuki method does it makes it clear what it should be.

About a year ago, at age ten, my daughter had her Suzuki Book One solo recital. It was more than just her demonstration of all she had learned about the violin since she was three. It was many things: a rite of passage, an exercise in endurance, an opportunity to build her self-respect, a day when all her hard work gave her a chance to shine (not to mention a chance for her parents to dissolve into a puddle of love and pride).

As she and I, along with her wonderful teacher, prepared for the recital, my appreciation of the process grew and grew. She had mastered all the songs in Book One, but now she was preparing them for the world. We hung a chart on the wall of all the songs, and put check-marks each time she practiced one, with a special indication when she decided that she had played it with "recital-quality."

As the weeks went by we both grew more and more aware of what she had accomplished. Best of all, she was able to put her personality into the recital, creating funny moments, opportunities for the audience to laugh with her. (She interrupted Allegro just before the final phrase by putting her bow on her head; all the Suzuki students in the audience took pencils we had distributed and put them on their heads, points to the ceiling, as they had done many times in group lesson, and the parents, bewildered, followed suit until the entire audience had pencils on their heads, waiting for Francie to finish the song.) It was her creation, and who she was came shining through.

You always hear people say how hard the violin is. It's true. The violin is very picky about what it needs in order to sound good. When playing the violin, you can't really get a pure tone if you are bowing all crooked or on the fingerboard; you can't get the ringing tones to ring if you don't have your left-hand fingers in precisely the right spot on the fingerboard. If you want to create beauty, you have to master technique.

So one song at a time, one skill at a time, Suzuki teaches technique. In the meantime, you are listening to the songs on your CD, you are attending group violin lessons, and you are tackling each song and each new baby-step of technique. If you are playing Go Tell Aunt Rhodie, Allegro seems very far away; when you get up to Allegro and you see the older students play the Minuets at group violin lesson, you think, "I'm going to play those songs someday -- but when?"

Each little song is an advancement from one technique to the next. You don't play with a complicated division of the bow of Oh Come Little Children until you have mastered the bowings of Lightly Row. But you have not forgotten Lightly Row; you review, review, review. Lightly Row sounds better and better as you advance through each song while continuing to review. And you put yourself into it more and more. (Whoever said to a beginning instrumental music student, "You can express yourself through music" has a lot to answer for. Self-expression doesn't really happen without technique. The first time a child picks up a trombone and blows into it, he thinks, "If this is self-expression, I want no truck with it!")

It is the ideal system of assessment. It grows naturally out of the process of learning. If a child is having trouble remembering to use a low second finger the first time it's called for, the process of learning it is built into the system. You take that measure and repeat, repeat, repeat until your brain is rewired to accommodate that low second finger. Then you go back to the song and repeat the phrase until your second finger knows exactly what to do. Suzuki is not afraid of the dreaded "rote learning." Rote learning, exercises, repetition, is what has to happen if you want to make beautiful music. Suzuki kids understand that.

Other techniques take longer. After her first solo recital, Francie moved very quickly into learning vibrato. It took weeks. First she practiced the muscle movements vibrato requires, without holding the violin. Then she held the violin while practicing those movements. Gradually she put it all together, and created the prettiest vibrato her proud Mom had ever seen: loose, relaxed, effective, and miles ahead of my own!

Now she is preparing for her smaller Book Two half-recital and as she goes back to the first song in the book, Chorus from Judas Maccabeus, a long-bow song that's all about beautiful, sustained, majestic tone. She practices her even vibrato through the entire length of the bow. It sings.

How do you know what a child has learned? How do you know your teaching has resulted in learning? It's hard to look at the public-school classroom through the lens of the Suzuki violin method. For all my understanding of the assessment of violin skills, assessment in the classroom remains a mystery. But my understanding of this method helps me to understand that learning is assessment, and vice-versa. Learning is the process of adding skill onto skill; you get one under your belt, and move on to the next, which requires mastery of all the skills before. When you achieve your goal, whether it is accomplishment of Suzuki Book One, the building of a boat, the completion of a short story, the rebuilding of an engine or the design of a green home, the assessment is the accomplishment.

For all my study of education, this is what I've learned about assessment. How does this view advance our thinking of what happens inside our public schools? We need to completely change how we think about it. How much of it benefits children, and how much just satisfies the need for adults to quantify something that can't be quantified? What's a good score for joyful learning? What's a measurable scale for satisfaction and development of self-respect? For more on these questions; watch this space!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #5: Kids cannot behave themselves.

The final problem solved by passion -- until I think of more -- is about discipline and behavior. As I said in my previous post, adult respect for students, their embracing of who each of them is, is the prerequisite for their learning. Showing this respect and even personal liking for every student is the most effective way to help them build on their strengths, bring out their passions and develop their self-respect. In short, if the learning that students are engaged in is their idea in the first place, supported and encouraged by peers and adults, why would they misbehave?

I can hear the scoffs and laughter from here, so go blow your noses and settle yourselves down. Discipline and behavior issues, classroom management, all these things will ever be with us, if perhaps in a very different way than today. I do require that we imagine a classroom that we may never before have seen. Consider the happiness in that room, and I challenge you to seek it out.

Misbehavior as we currently imagine it should be redefined anyway. Boredom and frustration, indifference and resentment all live within the system that is built to support not kids but bureaucracy (and a bad one at that, if you consider it as responsible for the tests that take the life out of schools). Kids talk when they shouldn't; but if they are involved in collaboration and mutual help, it works. Eating in class is OK too if kids feel they need to and clean up after themselves. Taking a break from the work to go to the restroom or even, heaven forfend, lean up against the hallway wall to talk to a friend from another class for two minutes, is that a crime? The minor misdemeanors of school are at least half kids just being who they are, and the other half because...when kids walk into class now, they leave their spirit and passion (along with their cell phones) at the door.

The scenarios described in this series of blog posts cannot and will not take place as long as we continue as stewards of the industrial model of education. It might take place even if we never get rid of high stakes testing, but it would be a whole lot easier if they went away, replaced by a model of accountability that doesn't stand directly in the way of real learning. So if you have trouble imagining this classroom, and think I am living in a dream world, you might be right -- if you also imagine that it can be overlayed on top of the traditional model of education.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What should schools be held accountable for?

We interrupt this series, "Passion Solves Problems," to bring you the following post. The final problem solved by passion, Behavior and Discipline, will be presented in the next blog post.

I have been slowly absorbing a book of essays called Democratic School Accountability, edited by Ken Jones, a professor of education at the University of Southern Maine. This has been a long time coming for me; assessments and accountability in education have been issues for which I have felt a great yawning lack of interest. Let others worry about it. I just want kids to be happy at school. Test scores, outcome numbers, educational assessments all make my eyes glaze over.

But you can't pretend to know anything about education in America if you don't devote time and attention to the issue of accountability.

These issues yield a rich motherlode of jargon. Assessments, learning outcomes, student achievement, standardized testing, high-stakes testing, test-based accountability are all in the jumble of words we use to judge the job schools are doing. I am going to do my level best, as a lay person, to use these terms appropriately but they fly around my head like houseflies. The more they are used, the less meaning they seem to have, and the more annoying they are. In the end, I hope I will have made the case for breaking through all the jargon and figuring out what we really need to know about how our kids are being educated.

Here's the scoop as I understand it: assessment is the tool we use to measure achievement; accountability is the school's responsibility to report these achievement measures to the community at large. I acknowledge the right we have as a society to know how well our tax dollars are beings spent on education. The problem is that it is nearly universally regarded that the assessments that provide the best accountability are the testing of students.

Since NCLB, accountability has had an added knife-edge: punitive measures imposed on school districts as a result of poor achievement numbers. Schools are being held accountable through these high-stakes tests, and to many, this only makes sense.

But we need to take a look at what high-stakes testing measures, and how that compares to what we as a community value for our kids. We all make judgments on schools based on test scores, even those of us who reject them, since they are the only current measure, so let's take a look at what they are telling us...and what they can't tell us.

Tests measure the most basic of outcomes: the answer to a question, which is either right or wrong. If this sort of assessment was applied to measure the narrowest possible view of education, there might be ways in which it could be made useful. But the narrow view tests give us has become the sole picture of schooling on which we base all our judgments of the system. Using those results as the measure by which we make decisions on whether the school that produced them lives or dies is positively fatal to efforts to create the conditions in which learning can happen. Something else is in the driver's seat; deny it though we might; it is the very pursuit of test-based accountability that has created the ongoing and increasing failure of public schools.

Over the last ten years, schools nationwide have narrowed and contracted the curricula and become test-prep organizations. In doing so, one might imagine test scores in the US would have risen -- but that has not happened. Test scores have stagnated. The institution, in its panic to produce these test results for their survival, have had to rid itself of the very learning experiences that would engage and enrich its students, and even, quite possibly, produced better test results (a nice paradox, is it not? Well, it's my own theory, and most experts probably disagree with me!).

In his book, Ken Jones lays out a system of accountability that would give a healthier and more robust view of how schools are doing. What does he believe schools should be held accountable for?

*The physical and emotional well-being of students;
*The learning of students, and the assessment of that learning;
*Teacher learning and evaluation;
*Equity and access to learning for all;
*The continuous improvement and renewal of the organization.

All the above categories for which our schools should be accountable are reasonable to expect from a system, Jones argues. I'd like to pay particular attention today to the first one.

At first glance it seems an achievable and obvious goal. Schools need to provide a safe place for kids. It is ongoing work that needs vigilance and proactive approaches, but the goal is clear. However, if you think of this job as creating the conditions in which learning can happen, you can see that it is a complex challenge, and one that will be different for every child.

The topic of how to create these conditions is too great for this blog post; my intention is only to show that if a system does not devote time and energy to doing this work, children will not learn, and no test, no matter how well-aligned with curriculum, scientifically designed and professionally administered, will give you a key to how a school needs to improve.

My own focus has always been on giving children the respect they need in order to learn. The respect they are accorded by their teachers turns into self-respect once students realize they are being seen and heard for who they are. I also talk a lot about devoting time and resources to the individual passions, interests, and strengths of children.

It occurs to me now that passion is a process.
Coming to an understanding of who each child is becomes a demonstration of the respect the institution has for them. It is this respect that creates the conditions in which learning can take place. Is it testable? No, it is not.

There is simply no way that an institution forced to dedicate itself only to quantifiable outcomes can create an atmosphere in a school where every child is respected for who he or she is.

Another essay in Ken Jones' book, written by Jean Whitney, professor of special education at USM, tells the story of a student named Helen, who is dedicated to becoming a nurse. Shadowing Helen throughout her school day, Whitney witnesses instances where she is very much respected and her needs honored, and instances where teachers and students alike disrespect and disregard her. Her devotion to succeeding in school and becoming a nurse despite a learning disability is very great, but if not for those few individuals who respected her needs and abilities, you can clearly imagine her spiraling downward into total disengagement.

The testing culture we live in now has meant the narrowing of the curriculum, eliminating all but what is perceived to contribute to higher test scores; and the narrowing of our incentive to figure out who these kids are. The struggle to create the conditions in which children can learn is done when it can be fitted in around those goals.

So what is a school district to do? Join the battle to eliminate high-stakes testing, for one; be aware of the damage to children that is caused by test-based accountability, for another. Don't try to deny that this has an impact on your school district. Don't deny that we are entirely focused on "teaching to the test." Acknowledge that the incentives imposed on us from the outside have had a negative impact on the institutions and children in our care. Try to minimize the damage. Figure out how to find the time and resources for each teacher to come to understand who each of his or her children are; bring out their self-respect by showing respect for them.

Show up to school-board meetings. Follow the testing debates. Insist that the focus on test-based accountability be removed. It is the only way to develop the kinds of learning institutions in which all our children can thrive.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #4: We can't trust kids to lead themselves where they need to go.

We adults are so afraid of what will happen if we let students lead themselves! If they are given the chance to follow their passions, maybe they will all make dirty bombs or numb their minds with constant World of Warcraft playing. Or listen to violent music and go shoot up a McDonalds! Who knows what awful things will result from letting kids go?

Seriously, why would the giving of respect to young people end up with them wanting to reject everything adults want for them?

And we do want a lot for them. We anxiously watch over our kids and hope they will be happy and self-sufficient. We worry about the times we live in and the world they will be entering as adults. Why would continuing the disempowerment of them as students help them be able to follow their dreams, make an impact on the world or just live happily in their corner of it?

It's lack of respect that creates rebellion, and in that case, it's rebellion that is appropriate, rebellion that we created as the folks in authority. Respect children for who they are. What's inside them, where they want to go. Respect them before they ever get a sense that who they are is not wanted or valued: that means kindergarten.

Ask kids what they want, ask kids how they want to get it, ask kids who they want to help them, ask kids what they will achieve. And then listen. And then act on it. Provide them with resources: time, space, technology, teachers, mentors. Ship them to the places most appropriate for them to learn what they need to know, because it probably isn't in the school building.

What will you have as a result? Exactly what you want. Kids who are literate, knowledgable, self-motivated, self-respecting, productive, helpful, active.

You want the world for your students? Let them grab it for themselves.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #3 Kids can't work independently!

Before I go on about how kids will work with independence and enthusiasm when they are pursuing their passions, here is a video of a young woman talking about her senior project. This video is from the What Kids Can Do: Just Listen project.

If you want kids to work independently, if you want to stop having to keep after them, if you want to see them move ahead on the momentum their work without constantly having to tell them why it's important, then let them decide what they want to study. If it's important to them to show the world this topic that they love, they will pursue it. If it's about who they are, they'll go after it. Give them the chance to study something that is part of them, and accept that topic, whatever it is.

Dennis Littkey, in The Big Picture, talks of a student who wanted to do a presentation/gallery exhibit on death. She interviewed funeral directors, toured cemeteries, examined different death rituals. Another student wanted to do a project on Tupac Shakur: his music, his life and murder, and the various posthumous sightings. The teachers didn't bat an eyelash. For their own reasons, these kids needed to study and present on these topics; each of them found that these interests led them to another, and another. They grew to respect themselves because their teachers respected their need to pursue what they did.

In another post I talk about the concept of ignition as a critical factor in learning. Pursuing mastery is difficult; it requires hard work, focus, frustration. The only thing that can really carry a student through the required work is ignition. With no ignition, no spark, learning is rote, learning is boring, learning is stupid (let's face's not even learning.)

Yet the ignition needed to pursue mastery can't be planned; it comes from within or not at all. I could never have ignited my daughter to want to put on
pointe shoes
and make her feet hurt on a bi-weekly basis! Hey, they're not my toes, they're HER toes! But she loves it, and tells me that her feet are emotionally happy, even if they are not physically happy. She practices at home as often as I let her -- and I only limit it out of concern for those poor toes and ankles. She'd practice constantly, if not for that.

Those who are skeptical of what I'm saying will (and often have) immediately jump to the conclusion that I don't think kids should learn anything unless they are passionate about it. No, it's not what I'm saying; I do think that motivation is complicated and comes from a lot of different directions for kids. They are motivated by what their friends like to do; by a teacher they admire; by a movie about a topic; and on and on. But how about this: let's bring about motivation by allowing kids to know what they are capable of. Let them get over the initial hump of difficulty because they were ignited.

I remember being told that the development of a writer is the process of finishing a piece and moving on to the next one; evaluating, judging, criticizing oneself, then starting something new. It's similar in education; in a sense, learning happens when you complete something and stand back to see what it was you were able to accomplish, take a moment to be proud, then start the next thing.

If a student is truly passionate about what she is doing, her momentum pushes her through the difficulties; in the end, she's done something to be proud of and is ready for the next thing.

If motivation is the problem, let passion be the solution.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #2: Kids don't want to learn!

2. "Kids don't want to learn. They don't put in the work. They don't fulfill their potential."

Why not?

In too many schoolchildren, we don't see the hunger to learn that we saw when they were toddlers. Toddlers seize their education with both hands, stumble and run and fall and get up, ready to learn more.

But inside our schools there are kids who don't seem to care about learning at all. Some kids care but have no confidence in their abilities; some kids stress out about homework and grades and adult approval. Few kids seem motivated, ignited, by something deep inside them, which is fulfilled by hard work and achievement of mastery which school is helping them to accomplish.

Where's the love of learning? What's been lost? How did we lose it? How can we get it back?

Too many kids in the public school system are bringing passivity about their learning to school with them, and I'm going to give very short shrift to all the particulars of why and how and whose fault it is (well, ok, here's a little more shrift: it's the fault of the system that we all have given our tacit approval to, by our inability to stand up and change it. It's not the teachers. It's not the parents. It's not the administrators. That's too easy. I place a lot of blame, but we all shoulder it, including myself.*)

Some teachers are better at it than others, this business of getting kids interested in stuff they don't care about. Lots of professional development has been devoted to it. There are whole libraries of books on the subject. How do you teach kids to love math? How do you make history come alive? How do you turn kids on to the mysteries of science? So many strategies, so many methods, while kids shrug, look out the window, fingers itching for the keypad to their phones.

We have convinced ourselves that we know, much better than children do, what they need to learn and when. The possibility of going about the business of education in an entirely different way seems impossible to contemplate.

Wouldn't it have just made sense to pay close attention to who these kids are instead of being in such an all-afire hurry to teach them stuff? I mean, not only having an "Identity Day," although I like the idea. How about an Identity Year?

If the public school system was a book, then the first page, the page that said: "First find their passions," has gone missing. Adults have been floundering about ever since, trying to find that missing page, that thing that would make kids love learning.

Start with passion and see where children will lead you. Respect what they need to learn right now, give them time and space to do what drives them, and see what doors it opens. Have faith in them. Let's stop making end-runs around the problem of motivating kids to learn, go to the source, find out what's inside kids and how we can help them make pursue their dreams of who they need to be.

Without passion, any kind of school change is just the same ol' same ol'.

*I've been a school board member for 8 years, and not much about how we do school has changed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Passion solves problems! List them here. #1: Respect

How many goals do you accomplish at once by making students' passions the first priority in the classroom, the school, the district? And what does it mean to make passion the first priority? Here's the first on my list.

1. Kids feel they are not respected. Kids need to understand from their very first day of school that what is inside them, what they value about themselves, is held to be important by grownups, so school really is a place for them.

This scenario comes from the book, The Passion-Driven Classroom, by Angele Maiers and Amy Sandvold (now available on Kindle!)
Houston is passionate about trucks, cars, and super heroes, struggles a bit with reading, and has an average I.Q. Interestingly, he barely meets minimum requirements for frst grade. He comes to school and plays the game. He sits through calendar time getting the big idea that it's about the days of the week, counting and patterns, yet the truth is he really doesn't care. He thinks, "What's the big deal? It's Wednesday. I can look at the calendar myself. The teacher-lady will tell me what day it is anyway." He goes through the motions of "sounding-out" the short vowels and reading the guided book of the week, Dan Can Fan his Tan Can. He memorizes the code, yet scores in the lower middle stanine on his developmental assessment. Next, the students are directed to follow the usual writing routine: Write your name frst, then copy and respond to the writing prompt of the day. Today's prompt reads, "The best thing ever about school is..." Houston gets excited and draws a picture of a car. He thinks it's the best writing work he's completed so far this year. He thinks, "Finally, something I'm interested in and know a lot about!" Proud of his work, he hopes to publish it in his classroom library. He writes his rendition of the prompt at the top, "The frst car I ever made." remembering that he was supposed to write his name frst, he draws an arrow from
his name to the beginning of his writing. He gets his paper back, a couple days later with the directions to do it over, this time, following the directions. Houston is confused. He did the best diagram with the best writing ever, and he didn't do it right. And this happens again and again, day after day, until his passion for learning is lost

As far back as elementary school, lack of respect for kids enters and takes hold of them. But kids don't generally take this rejection and turn it outward, where it belongs. They turn it inward, and it becomes part of them They feel separate and apart; they try to fit in better, but kids can't be other than who they are. Who can?

We need to respect kids for who they are, not who we want them to be, or who they are as long as they follow our rules. To get respect, you have to give respect. In this area, we as adults, the people in control, need to be very self-critical, all the time.

The needs and desires of kids are so completely disregarded that I give myself this thought experiment: what would happen if the feelings of kids were to be elevated above adults? Who has the more uncorrupted mind? Who is this school for, anyway?

I currently have four more items on my list of problems that the passion-driven classroom would solve. Please add yours! Without passion, any kind of school change is just the same ol' same ol'. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Vision, and Change

My mind halted when I heard it: just a quote from a character in a book, a man describing John Lennon to his young daughter, 30 years after Lennon's death. He was describing what Lennon was saying in his song, "Imagine." It stopped my thoughts dead for a moment.

The quote is, "You can change the world if you're prepared to imagine something better."

Trite, yes; overdone, probably, but it made me think about vision as a precursor to change. Change can be desperately needed, but if you can't imagine a different world, then you can't figure out how to get there.

In a way it describes why education is so hard to change. In general, people don't have a picture of what a wholly different kind of school could look like. They picture their own school experiences, add to it what they found was missing, subtracted what they didn't like. Even those of us who think and talk and try to make change have a hard time imagining it, and if we looked inside our heads, we'd all have a different vision.

My school might look more like a talent development center. Another might be an expeditionary school. I've heard a few people talk about a shopping mall of choices that the whole community can participate in, with people walking down a great wide street with options all around them. (To me, choice is critical; if we create a school where children are respected, then in a whole world of choices of what to learn and how to learn it, I don't see the need to prescribe a curriculum at all.)

Many people would probably envision a school that looks very much like our schools do now, but one that is more responsive to the needs of families and values every child. Parents can easily imagine and long for a school where every classroom has a teacher who loves their child, sees what's special in him or her, works hard to bring it out. This seems so do-able that the frustration mounts when thinking, "This does not exist, and I don't understand why not." We all want to reshape schools so that our children can be happier, but the hard part is picturing a system where all kids, with their conflicting interests, different family situations, learning styles and needs, love learning and pursue their passions with the zeal of childhood.

School districts are great bureaucracies, governed by greater state agencies, utterly dominated by Federal policy, so if a parent truly sat and tried to picture this school, it's easy to imagine giving in very quickly and trying to solve more approachable problems, and deal directly with teachers and principals, doing what they can to make sure their kids' school experiences are the best they can be, with wildly varying success.

So if two people come forward and say, "I know what this school looks like. I know how to run it. I know how to teach in it. Let me describe it to you," one might react with a sigh of relief and say, "Here's $200,000. Do what you can." Even the folks who propose the Rural Aspirations charter in RSU 3 have a vision that might be very different from other educators, parents, kids. Their vision is that of joining education and community. They have that thing called courage; they put in hours of thought and discussion beyond the hours that they put in with their regular jobs, fashioning and weaving and organizing the vision with the hope that they will save some kids from futures that lack any viable choices.

Traditional education has tried to create a one-size-fits-all model; knowing that all children are different, it is a system that cuts as wide a swath as possible down through the middle, hoping to sweep most kids along the path to a successful learning.

But there is so much evidence now that the model, in giving up on the idea of being a good fit for all, is really a good fit for none. I don't believe that this is the fault of those in the classrooms, doing the best they can within the system; the problem is systemic. In part, the problem is the difficulty in visioning a school where we can teach to the needs of every individual child. It just seems impossible.

I have to give a nod here to those who hold the very convincing view that the problem is the national education law; NCLB, high-stakes testing, the narrowing of the curriculum and the tieing of the hands of educators everywhere. The traditional system fails because of this narrowing; because of the limitations it sets on learning, because of the boxes into which it tries to fit our kids. I don't believe education can really change for all students until we put an end to the testing culture; but I can't help trying for a vision of education where not only is high-stakes testing a distant memory, but the daily routines of school, the function of teachers, the respect given the needs of kids are entirely different.

I have found recently another thought that made me stop my thoughts and focus on its meaning. This time I thought of it myself. "There is only one kind of child: the one that is different from all the other children. Let's design our schools around that child."

The closest I have seen to a vision of this system comes from a book called "Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning." The authors have made a heroic attempt to take that thought, above, and rearrange the walls of our schools around it. It's not a philosophy, it is a framework. It's an outline; a blank format in which you can place kids and shape school around them.

The problems of high-stakes testing still exist even within this framework, but as I have repeatedly said, we need to think locally and globally, and act locally and globally. It could be that when we have school districts that respect every child's need to learn, these tests will become like mosquitoes: annoying but not deadly. I know some will argue with me on this; I don't claim it to be an absolute truth. It's just a thought. Let's forget about the tests. Let's do what we know is right.

The principle of visioning change begins when we unbuild walls, tear down assumptions, question the value of our own experiences and perspectives, and build new. It's what all our children deserve.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

An American Story

I'm going to depart from my usual issues today; this story has distracted me even from the burning issues of education here in my corner of Maine.

The case of Gary Gilmore is worth opening up again. The story of the convicted murderer who declined his appeal and accepted his death sentence doesn't lose fascination and horror over time. I read Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore, Gary's youngest brother, many years ago and have reread it just recently, then The Executioner's Song, written by Norman Mailer and Larry Schiller, which I just finished today. The Executioner's Song was published just a few years after the execution; Shot in the Heart was written in the early 90s.

Why on earth are you reading that? asks the person I am married to. I try to think of the reason. I go back and forth from one book to the other, comparing notes, looking for the information left out in The Executioner's Song that is filled in with detail in Shot in the Heart. I look at the incredible detail of the weeks leading up to the murders, in The Executioner's Song, details not found in Shot in the Heart. I look at the same incidents recounted in each book with but with completely different outcomes. I know there are things that Gary withheld, even outright denied, to Larry Schiller in his extensive interviews with the author in the weeks before the execution; but Mikal Gilmore unflinchingly fills in the blanks.

It's entirely an American story. The story of the ties of family and religion, secrets and lies. The story of prisons, poverty, drugs, alcohol. The coping mechanisms of the human spirit: how much withheld parental love, how much societal rejection, how much physical and emotional abuse can one human being take, and what happens when he cannot take any more. The judicial and correctional system's horrendous failures are American. The acceptance of the decision to die by the rugged individualist who was Gary is American.

The story of the telling of the story has been made part of the story itself and is true-blue, all-American: Gary Gilmore became a commodity worth considerable money. Pieces of him were bought and sold until it was very hard to tell, in The Executioner's Song, who cared about Gary and who cared about the money. It was very much apparent that whatever the various judges involved decided, he was worth more money dead than alive. Larry Schiller grapples with this sticky point openly in his book, but he was the one wheeling and dealing over the worth of Gary. Mikal implies in his book that he felt resentment toward the family members in Utah who supported Gary's desire to die, and one has to wonder if on some level, they simply needed the money. There is no question that they were torn apart by his execution, but the money could not have played no role in how they felt in the weeks and months leading to it.

I stare at the life of Gary himself as if it was a terrible accident scene; can't tear my eyes away, can't fathom it. Abused by both his mother and his father, the Gary I see through Mikal (I'll go on first-name basis with him to distinguish him from Gary; also because he's an acquaintance of mine. We met through Echo, a NYC online community, years ago and still keep in touch through Facebook, although we have never met) is someone whose emotions are completely vulnerable -- he has no defenses, no outer core of protection. Everything that is done to him sinks in and stays there. What happens to a person's mind when he doesn't get the primal need for love fulfilled? how does it endure? I think the answer is that it doesn't. It either builds defenses or it explodes. I think Gary was completely unable to protect himself, and the only armor he was able to put on put him directly in the path of destruction (not very effective armor, for sure).

His early forays into breaking the law landed him in reform school when he was an early teenager. Instead of maturing normally, he matured in this abusive environment, then one prison after another. His considerable intelligence and emotional vulnerability combined resulted in a person of deep knowledge but a complete lack of ability to cope with the world outside prison, which in turn resulted in an unwillingness to trust that anyone knew what was best for him but he himself. The Executioner's Song tells the story of his exit from prison and the start of a new life in Utah. He meets a girl, falls in love with her, and she with him. But he has also set his heart on a white pick-up truck. It's not even a very good truck; various characters in the book agree that it was a junker, and the salesman saw Gary coming. But he is determined to have it, and what he has to do to get it plays a role in his downward spiral that ended in the two murders. His emotional maturity seems to have stopped developing in a normal way when he entered reform school for his first incarceration.

It's the life of his girlfriend Nicole that truly hit me in the gut. Imagine a girl who at 17 has been divorced three times. She has two children. She has sex with people because it's too much trouble to tell men no. Sexually molested when she was a child, her sexual life leads her on a winding path that seems to have no particular direction. She wants very much to be a good person, and a good parent, but because of poverty and motherhood, can't find her way to a healthy situation. Enter Gary Gilmore and her great romance, which was as special to her as to him. This damaged girl and this damaged boy; knowing how the story ends, it's like watching an accident in slow motion, and when the impact comes it blows up with a crash that does the most damage that it possibly could.

This story is going to stick with me for awhile. My own life, my own normal family of urban working-class New York Italians and midwestern WASPS, my upbringing, the love I received from family and extended family, has made me someone who can barely peer through the glass at this very different, even sordid, world. I don't pretend to be able to wax profound or bring any great new light to it. It's enough for me to realize: this exists. And enough to know that now, 34 years later, one does not have to do exhaustive research to know that it still does.

Mikal brings his story back in history a couple of generations on both his father and mother's side, in an attempt to give the historical perspective the story needs. Mailer and Schiller enrich their story with backgrounds and histories of almost every character with any role in the story. The result of both books seen together is a kind of aerial view of the whole drama. Seen from every direction, it is thoroughly American. We who live in the comfort of family and the security of love and money need to peer through the glass and take a look at the story of Gary Gilmore.

Friday, September 9, 2011

On the Messenger, and the Message

Passion for an issue, passion of the kind I feel for school change, is a handicap for me; a mental disorder that operates only when I'm in a room with other people. I'm really fine when sitting here blogging or researching or exchanging email; it's contact with humans that does the damage. I'm not a politician. I've said it before. Politicians always do what's right for their cause; kissing hands and shaking babies no matter what their parents believe in. Put me in a room of people and watch me implode.

Too much self-pity? OK. I know I do good work; I just have a hard time checking my ego at the door. I know I bring good information and insight to our district. I also know I get very impatient when people of different perspectives bring ideas that don't align with the conclusions I've come to. A colleague has told me that when talking about the charter school, I am "self-righteous." I would add, uncompromising.

The problem is with the messenger, not the message. I don't believe that my basic position on the proposed Rural Aspirations charter school is wrong.

While the charter might be a good cause worthy of support, it will create an administrative and financial burden that will hinder our efforts to change education for the whole district. That is the most critical objection.

If there is a way to create a model, or pilot, that doesn't damage what we're working toward for the whole district, I'd be much more open to it. I'd rather see pilot classrooms in existing schools -- some model that isn't removed from the mother ship, thereby making it seem more realistic and replicable within the district's structure.

Charters are a bad solution to a sticky problem. They are still subject to state standardized testing; in fact, the very life of a charter depends on those test scores. District schools are subject to those tests as well; when they don't do well, they go through a punitive process. Charters that don't do well simply cease to exist. You cannot say that it won't have an impact on how the education in the charter is done. You would, more or less, have to be a magician.

As I've said before, we need to think globally and locally, and act globally and locally. We need to get imaginative about how to change the culture in public schools so that passions are part of the curriculum despite the imposition of state standardized testing.

So. It's sticky. I'm open to discussion. If it's in person, I might have to have a nurse nearby and meds available. If my head explodes, don't worry. It happens.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Musical Interlude

I write a lot about the power of the brain, about deep practice, and building strong neural circuitry that leads us to mastery, but here's something for which I have no scientific explanation at all; all I know is that it works.

I credit a long-ago violin teacher with putting the thought in my head. As I worked on shifting from first position to the higher positions, I always had difficulty nailing the note. This is something I worked very hard to master 30 years later when I worked toward becoming a Suzuki violin teacher. The goal is to take a leap up the fingerboard and know exactly where you will land. If you know you'll land on the mark every time, then you've got it.

Back to my long-ago violin teacher, Kristin Lindley at the University of Maine. She told me, "If you can hear the note in your head, you'll shift to the right place." It works. Every time. I told my daughter recently, when she was doing a tricky string-change that took her from the D-string straight over to the E (the first measure of Bourree, book 2, for those who know such things). She would nearly always crash into the intervening A string on her way over.

Before you make the string change, I told her, hear the note in your head. Then just go for it. As long as she did that, we never heard the A string.

I wondered how far we could take that idea. She and I were in the car yesterday, singing, and I was thinking about how to help her nail the note she needed every time. I told her, "Sing the note in your head, then sing it out loud." We played a game where I'd sing a note, she'd hear it in her head, then sing it. NAILED IT EVERY TIME. I promised her we'd work on her singing whenever we were in the car together (which is a lot; her ballet classes are 50 minutes from our home).

Why does it work? I like to think of it as just magic, but it's more likely that a person who has good pitch but can't always get her voice to cooperate just needs a moment to focus on the note before singing. I've been singing loud and long and in good pitch (if not the most becoming voice in the world) all my life. I love to sing, harmonize, play with songs, make up songs. I've had a lot of practice nailing the notes I sing, even if I don't always nail them on the violin. It just takes practice.

I think my daughter will be nailing those notes every time after a few car rides.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Can we achieve the "Ideal School?"

I like the process of narrowing a thought to 140 characters. I tend to write long (have you noticed?) and teams of editors follow along behind, chopping up my paragraphs. This morning I worked for awhile on the following tweet:

"Start with passion and build up. How would schools look then? You'd see kids' vision, then the tchrs, then the comm'y. #edchat #meschools"

If you want to get those pesky hashtags in as well, you have to chop it down even further!

In my readings of late, emails exchanged with educators, Facebook groups on opting out of standardized testing, various other sources, I've been noticing that not everyone regards a total model change as what's needed. All we need to do is get rid of X, Y and Z, and the model would work fine!

It might be true. I have never thought about it; the idea of the current model working well enough if we only got rid of high-stakes testing and all its implications: threats from charter schools, pressure on teachers to produce test results, the general dehumanizing of education, the trend from children to numbers.

What I think more than anything else is whatever model of schooling you want to apply -- I think of it as painting a format on school buildings, as if they were empty canvases -- you have to start with the respect and nurture of the passions of children.

It's like a gauge, like measuring tire pressure. Apply to nozzle and press, and see how many children are pursuing their passions in the classroom with zeal. As the numbers go up and up, with adjustments and fine-tunings -- maybe you'll get closer to the model kids most need?

What we need to take note of is where, how, why and when the pressures of high-stakes testing interferes with the development of this ideal school. Make no mistake: it is the demands of testing that prevents passion from prevailing in our schools. Simply having those results drive our decisions is the monkey wrench that gets jammed into the works when we start to envision the passion-driven school. We don't even always realize it. Even veterans of the school-change fight argue that we can still change schools without messing with the test culture.

But the testing culture makes us blind to the real abilities of children. The testing culture is what leads us to the belief that kids won't learn what they need unless we make them. The testing culture makes a pure glass of water turn cloudy with contaminants. We've been drinking it so long, we can't even taste it anymore. Our own (that is adult) fears turn us into monsters, saying to children, "Learn this! Learn this! Learn this!" It's almost as though teaching and dead panic have turned into the same thing.

Education, in its pure form, is just something that happens when children keep doing what the best preschools are doing now: Explore. Learn. Explore. Learn.

But what we adults have been taught is to mistrust the ability of kids to keep our funding stream flowing.

Nevertheless, I really don't condemn teachers, administrators, principals, parents. As ever, I condemn the system that created the culture within which they must work.

Can we have passion-driven schools and the testing culture at the same time? I don't really believe that the two can coexist. We must fight what causes the testing culture.

Think Globally, and Locally, and Act Globally, and Locally. Global: educate and agitate to end the testing culture. Local: if we all bring an awareness of the problem to our daily work with the children in our lives, we can minimize the damage we do them.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

New school year, 2011: what's exciting/upsetting.

Another new school year of the Minds of Kids starts today. Short one: what is exciting or upsetting to me right now?


INEVITABLE: Mass Customized Learning, by Bea McGarvey and Charles Schwann. This is one of the best frameworks for an entirely new school model that I have come across. I want it, I want it bad, and I want it now.

OPT OUT of State Testing. (Also on Facebook.)It's not enough to make change locally when the factors limiting what schools can do is national. Find out about the movement to opt out of state standardized testing, and give voice to the movement against NCLB. Testing is not teaching!


A proposed charter school in my Maine district, Rural Aspirations Project. It has made me realize that running on instincts alone is not enough if you want to be an agitator for school change. No matter how good something looks on the surface, you must look from a wider lens to see what impact it will have. Take a look at my previous blog post on this or at my op-ed in the Republican Journal.

There are many more arguments even than those I have already made against authorizing this charter. So let's just change our existing schools, shall we?

The continued dialogue on closing the Monroe School is also upsetting
. While I really, really don't want to close it, I also know that what the building looks like is less important than what goes on within its walls. If we have a totally new model of education, where passion lives in the classroom, I'm all over it and I don't care where it is.

OTOH, we have to factor the distance from home into this picture. The schools are not yet the ideal places my mind hopes for, and how long will it take our kids to get there? And what impact will the distance have on their education?

I don't really buy the argument that the closing of the school will deprive Monroe of a strong community center. I don't doubt that it is true, but there are other towns in this district who don't have the benefit of a school around which their community can center. I'm not sure we can ask the other towns to finance Monroe's center, either.

OTOH, the Monroe building is in much better shape and is physically more pleasing as a center for learning than Morse is. I know that one creates school atmospheres with people, not walls and ceilings, but there is no doubt that there is a huge difference between those two buildings.

So this debate goes on, right in my own head. I wish I could sell tickets.

That's it for now. Let me know of other exciting/upsetting arguments on public education that is going on in your head!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My response to a proposed charter in RSU #3

This blog post began life as a letter to my fellow board members in an effort to explain what I could barely understand myself: why I felt so firmly opposed to a proposed charter school, The Rural Aspirations Project.

Dear Colleagues,

I can't remember ever being so deeply ambivalent about a school board issue. I know that at my core I do not want this charter to be formed, for reasons that all lie in the area of fairness; but I have thought long and hard about these reasons, and about the reasons why I SHOULD support it. In the end, I will not be the vote that prevents this charter from being created. But I wanted to go on about it for a few paragraphs so that my strong feelings here are better understood -- by you, but also by me.

The task of starting a small school, with all its excitement of possibility, newness, the joy of making 24 teens happy by providing them with the means of doing what will be real and meaningful to them...well, with all the hard work it will entail, it is a happy job. I expect this charter to succeed admirably. They had better, with 2 teachers teaching 24 kids, all the individual attention and group excitement that it will entail! In this light, the job is an easy one. Starting from the ground up, doing something new, with no old habits or traditions to have to push out of the way.

The job of changing a system is hard, and not nearly as much fun. You have to go slow, you have to be careful not to push people to change too soon, you have to build supporting walls of a new system when the old walls are still bearing's people, traditions, outside influences, habits, everything that goes into keeping a large institution running that have to be changed and it's really NOT all that fun (unless you are Heather, and thank God SHE regards it as fun!)*

What I'm saying is that the ease with which a new school is started will be seen as coming from the failure of the larger system to change. In fact, the system has had excuse after excuse to NOT change, and has succeeded in NOT changing because of all those things, above, that make a large machine keep moving down the tracks regardless of a faulty engine.

Charter schools, when looked at through a national lens, have been significant in that they allow the public school model to NOT CHANGE. And it hasn't changed. And the more we see charter schools form, the less likely it will be that it WILL change. Why do that hard work when you can do something fun? And yet, changing the large, slow-moving and intractable institution is the ONLY WAY we can look ahead to an RSU #3 that is a place where ALL kids can pursue their dreams with the energy and passion that is inside every one of them.

Maybe I'm jealous...maybe deep down I would have liked to be the one to start this charter. But I have not been that person, and the reason is that I simply do not want to change education for 24 students. It never would have occurred to me to go down that road. And, God love those folks who came out in support of Rural Aspirations last night; they are excited and energized by the idea, but where have they been when some of us have been singing the same song for a decade, in efforts to change education for EVERYONE? I know people are motivated to act for many different reasons, but I can't help being resentful. What I have needed more than anything else has been a few people from the community to help spread the word that we CAN transform public education to meet the needs of every student. There have been precious few...then, last night, look at all those faces!

Here is what I believe will happen when this school opens: In NYC, when I was in middle school, the divide between those who triumphed (gotten into Bronx Science or another "special high school") and those who did not was palpable. I have no doubt that when this school opens, there will be more than enough applicants to necessitate a lottery. My own children may very well be among them! If you don't get in then you "hafta go to Mount View" and for kids who have been hoping on something, the sense of dejection is heartbreaking.

I was one of the ones who got into Bronx Science, and when I looked into the eyes of those who did not, believe me, I relished it. I loved it. I had triumphed over them! It doesn't matter that there is no "aptitude test" governing who gets into Rural Aspirations. The idea of creating a divide of any kind is anathema to the ideals of equity that is -- or should be -- the foundation of public education. For those who get in, great! For those who do not, not so much.

I can't willingly trade the sense of equality of opportunity between students for the sense of some people getting what others do not have -- especially when the creation of this system will result in a loss of revenue to the district, thereby making our own transformation that much more difficult.

What I would prefer is that when this school opens, it will be one of many choices every student can make when they get to high school; Rural Aspirations, or a focus on engineering, or drama, or fine arts, or history, or whatever they feel personally drawn to. That we make this school fit into the scheme of teenagers' lives in this district. That we have a system in place that allows every student to pursue their learning by pursuing their dreams. That way, when a teenager doesn't go to Rural Aspirations, it will be because they chose to do something different.

I like the idea of having an "outpost" of the high school where kids can go to pursue a direction of their choosing. However, this can take place only if our own transformation into a new system with a new direction and new walls will be in place when this charter opens.

Here is what I have discovered in the writing of this post: having Rural Aspirations be a part of the general transformation of RSU #3 would make the existence of it as joyful for me as it will for those who are so wholeheartedly in support of it now.

*Superintendent Heather Perry

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Text of my talk on "the passion-driven school"

Below is the text of the presentation I gave my school board on Monday, June 13. I have the video that my son took on his Ipod, but we're having some trouble getting it up to YouTube.

Bringing Passion Into School

What I'd like to ask of you tonight is to come on a little journey of possibilities, to open our minds to new ideas about how to do school. As I continue, many things may come up in your mind, obstacles, problems, ways that you believe what I'm suggestiong would never work in the current system. Before we confront these challenges, I'd like to ask you to stay open to the journey, if just for the moment. I think it's important at least for us as a group to correctly identify the both the problems and the possibilities ahead of us. If we find that together we are asking the same questions, we will stand a chance of coming up with solutions that work for all of us.

The problem...the need

Here are some of the realities of our situation, not limited to our students but the status of students in general:

*Students are unqualified for jobs i.e. Basic reading, writing, etc.
*Students are not ready for college work
*There is a need for the skill of collaboration.
*The half-life of any skill today is very short. We have to move from being accustomed to a certain level of stability in what skills the world requires to a world of perpetual flux and change. There is a need for innovation, production, evaluation in a continuous loop.
*Corporations want workers who can do more than do as they are told; they need workers who can ask good questions. We are training students only to answer questions, and only in one way.
*In a bad job market, motivation to succeed in school plummets. We need to focus even harder on what ignites individual students and how they can use their ideas and their passions to make their way in the world.
*Any others?

There is a need for us to radically change how we do school.

We need to use the ignition that students carry inside them as a tool, a weapon against apathy, and against the detachment from who they have the potential to become that is the result of continual disengagement.. If we make their passions the lodestar that we follow we can have schools full of kids who feel connected and valued. Students will be able to lead themselves even to where we believe they need to go.

From an educator friend:
"I started school in the mid-50's and can tell you that school was awful back then. I happened to be a perfect school person - all A's - the..."right" learning styles. But it wasn't great for me either. And I remember my classmates who suffered humiliation every day and felt like failures. When we graduated from 8th grade there were several kids in my class who couldn't read and had basically failed in everything relating to school. Of course, that made them think they were failures in everything, even though I remember thinking they were so much smarter than I in science, history, and general info - they just couldn't show it in the way the teachers wanted it. I could read, write, and memorize - and that is the magic formula! No matter that the Einsteins of the world are sitting next to me being crushed."

The need for change comes from who these students are:

*Children have passions, they have expertise, things they are good at and proud of. They also have beliefs, strong feelings about right and wrong. Students need, first and foremost, to be heard, and their passions and expertise acknowledged. *Kids need to know that they matter, their ideas and passions matter, and what they believe in matters.
*Students need to have a home base of knowledge that has been generated by their own passion and makes sense to them. Littkey -- "Nothing you hand a kid to learn will be as important (to them) as what' s already inside them, and if you let them start from there, they will learn more than you could have ever taught them." (Note: "start from.")
*Students are exposed to a curriculum that is driven by the one size fits all model that we've set up for them. Testing does not set up for innovation.
*Discipline -- children are rebellious against the small rules, because they don't understand that what they are feeling comes from the frustration of not being heard. It is reasonable to not want to learn from someone who won't hear you, acknowledge who you are, what makes you special and strong in your own way.

As a result of the above, by middle school there is a free-floating kind of rebelliousness. Students can't learn in a classroom full of grudges.

Phil Schlechtly, author of Leading for Learning, Engaging Students, Working on the Work paraphrase: "Using the traditional model to teach innovation is like using the internal combustion engine to get to the moon. It's a perfectly good tool for the job it is built to do, but our needs in education now are not what they were when we developed this model, which happened 75 or 100 or 150 years ago, depending on who you are reading. The traditional model was built to educate people ENOUGH for what they had to do, and was designed for around 10% of the people in it to succeed in it, more or less."

The traditional system probably never had a goal of high scholastic achievement for everyone; it was acceptable for a long time that many kids would leave school and get a factory or farm or white-collar job. It takes a different system to educate a higher percentage of people in it. The globalization of the economy as well as the recession have made it necessary to bring out the innovator in all our students. We need to change our culture of learning; much of what we offer kids has to come from a thorough understanding of who each of them are.

We have to find ways of teaching the kids who would have ordinarily taken other routes, and the best way to do that is to tap into their passions. There are certainly kids who do well in the traditional model, but often these students have found their ignition -- maybe from their home environment, maybe by a chance connection to a caring teacher, maybe from any number of other possible influences.

We have to have the connection between a child's passions and what she learns about NOT take place due to happenstance but by intent. If we build on what kids bring with them to school, we can educate those who the traditional model left behind. If we don't, kids will continue to disconnect and detach themselves from learning, and severely limit their own futures. Or we can shift focus from teaching content to helping kids become who they are.

Generational issues

Douglas Adams:
"I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

This sets up a bit of tension between the over-thirty-fives and the 0-15s.

Why is this important? First, because of how we not only reject some uses of technology but designate them as against the natural order of things. The defining characteristic of this generation is its connectivity, which makes about as much sense to some of us as rock music did to those who were old folks in the 60s. Video games. Texting. Facebook. Twitter. The tension between the generations makes the use of these things by our children seem rebellious, even dangerous, so there is an us v. them atmosphere.

Wouldn't it be better to let kids take the lead and use technology for learning, in all the ways they can think of, even if we have to sit back bemused and a little frightened and wondering if the world is going to end? The way kids learn now may be different but it make sense on terms of their natural order.

We have to acknowledge a generation gap, and a gap in understanding between our students and ourselves. Students in school now are digital natives. (define--Web, telephony) There is a huge divide between natives and immigrants, and we need to acknowledge these differences.

The second reason Adams' rules are important is because it's not just talking about technology but how kids' minds and motivation seem to come from a very different place than when we were kids. These rules can also be applied to how schools look at how kids learn and how teachers teach. It may seem to a teacher that changing from how they teach now to what this generation requires is against their "natural order of things," but we need to adapt to them.

Digital Natives (Marc Prensky, Teaching Digital Natives)

*Do not want to be lectured to.
*Want to be respected, to be trusted, and to have their opinions valued and count.
*Want to follow their own interests and passions.
*Want to create, using the tools of their time.
*Want to work with their peers on group work and projects (and prevent slackers from getting a free ride).
*Want to make decisions and share control. (me: They need to be a part of the establishment of rules of behavior, so that each school year the rules are mutually created, agreed-upon and signed-off by every student.)
*Want to connect with their peers to express and share their opinions, in class and around the world. They want to cooperate and compete with each other.
*Want an education that is not just relevant, but real. (relevant is good, real is better.) (cite micro-lending organization, real-estate brochures)

Remember, WE created the world that these natives live in. If we don't like or understand how they relate to and interact with the world, who do we blame? We can find fault with their constant multi-tasking, seeming short attention span and lack of focus on old-fashioned ways of learning, but it is our generation that made the situation. Rather than shake our heads and ban this and ban that and worry about what video games are doing to their minds, and fret about bullying in texting, lets find how to bring interactivity into the classroom, make them happy, give us peace of mind, and strengthen their learning.

If we are frightened about what risk kids run when they engage in social media, we need to make it a learning experience and a topic for discussion. Let kids teach us how they want to use social media and work out together how to make sure it's safe. It's better than banning it from school and letting kids run these risks without scrutiny.

Teaching and learning

How do teachers need to change to make the switch to creating classrooms centered on passion and innovation?

Robert Talbot, teacher/blogger: It seems to me that we fill the spaces that our students have with all kinds of programming — more topics, more homework, more of everything — until there is no space left to fill, and then when there is time to discuss anything students want, they'd rather stay silent. The passion has been beaten out of them. Might students benefit from a little more space, a little more time to play, and a lot less time trying to get to the next topic or the next example or prepare for the next test?

What does a passion-driven classroom look like?
Nancy, teacher, from a blog comment In that space, we scatter resources and ideas for the learner. We teach them how to find information, how to verify the source, how to think critically about what is said, how to share what they are learning. We ask them what they are thinking, what they believe, what they think of opposing concepts, what they will share with someone else that day... It's about thinking, developing, becoming, changing. Not about formulating a myopic vision of a single topic.

*Teachers have to be learners. We need to make a transition from talking about teaching to talking about learning.
Will Richardson, author and consultant on educational technology:"When we say "teacher," what we are really saying is "the person in the classroom to whom students look for knowledge" or something like that. In the traditional classroom that almost all of us grew up in, the teacher was the focal point, the decision maker, the director, the assessor. Teachers, well, teach, or try to. We hire teachers based on how well they know their subject matter and how well we think they can deliver it to students. Teaching, the way most of us see it, is all about imparting knowledge in a planned, controlled way... in a world where knowledge is abundant, is that still the case? In a world where, if we have access, we can find what we need to know, doesn't a teacher's role fundamentally change? Isn't it more important that the adults we put into the rooms with our kids be learners first? Real, continual learners? Real models for the practice of learning? People who make learning transparent and really become a part of the community?"
*Teachers have to be comfortable with not being in complete control in the classroom
*Teachers have to have a reasonable number of students so that individual connections can be made
*Teachers have to become digital immigrants to better understand and guide the digital natives.
*Teachers have to model being passionate. Talk about their passions even if it's not in the subject area they teach.

How to do it

Again, we have to have the connection between a child's passions and what she learns about NOT take place due to happenstance but by intent.

Finding passion:

*Talk to their parents -- "listening conferences" at the beginning of every school year and occasionally during it; include parents in the discussion with students of who they are, what energizes and what depletes them.
*Create an atmosphere where passions are respected, and children who might not be able to identify their passion will start to consider what it might be;
*Ask good open-ended questions one-on-one -- develop teachers' active listening skills so they can home in on what energizes a student;
*Have a routine of open-ended discussions with the class and see where it goes, see what's on kids' minds and what would be a fruitful way to explore it.
*Allow them time to do what they want -- "innovation day," "Google 20% time"
*Instead of an academic fair, have an identity fair -- posters and displays where kids show who they are.
*Have teachers show what they are passionate about;
*Use existing tools and curricula designed to find kids' passions -- review of literature

Fires in the Mind
Kids participated in "The Practice Project," an examination of how to achieve mastery. (How mastery plays into the standards-based system -- does the traditional model teach for mastery? Nuh-uh)
The basics of this approach are from a Talent Code view of learning--ignition, deep practice, master coaching. The kids in the Practice Project have become experts on expertise through studying their own efforts to achieve mastery, interviewing experts on how they got there, observing one another, writing and discussing all aspects of achieving mastery.
The simple act of learning how the brain works and what's going on when you experience frustration helps kids get through tough times of learning, and their understanding of how the brain works means that all children will come to understand that they can achieve mastery, whether their talent is inborn or not.

Your Child's Strengths

Every moment you spend working with a child on what they do not do well is a moment not spent working on what they do well. The former may seem a necessary thing, but what is sacrificed is a child's passion and wonder, replacing that with depletion. What if there was a different way?
All kids have strengths whether they realize it or not, and we need to find them and focus on them, bring them out, extend their strengths to new areas of study and activity. Examples: editing, playwriting
Children area already experts at things; they come into school with knowledge and skills-- find out what children's expertise is and build on it. (examples: some may not seem relevant to school but are important to the kids, i.e. getting home safe; some are very much applicable to school such as poetry)
Jenifer Fox, Your Child's Strengths: "We must really start believing in the inherent worth of each child if we are to have any hope for their healthy future. If we could do this, school could become a journey, an exploration, rather than an evaluation that lasts eighteen years. Think about it—sixteen years of someone telling you what is right and what is wrong about you. And throughout, you've never had an ounce of input into the discussion. Imagine if this were happening to you in your workplace; imagine if you never set any of the goals or expectations, and you never had the opportunity to disagree. We could never fathom success in such a repressive environment for ourselves, so why do we think it is healthy for our children?"
Passion-Driven Classroom
"Clubhouse learning" - using individual passions to form club-like groups within one's classroom.
SEM model
"The SEM provides enriched learning experiences and higher learning standards for all children through three goals; developing talents in all children, providing a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences for all students, and providing advanced follow-up opportunities for young people based on their strengths and interests. The SEM focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences that are constructed around students' interests, learning styles, and preferred modes of expression."

Big Picture --
Littkey on rigor:
"At the Met, the activity is defined by the student's interests, and this fact alone leads to a more rigorous learning environment than you will see in most traditional high schools. When a student stays up until 2:00 a.m. reading a book that he chose and writing a paper on it that he assigned himself, that is rigor. When a student spends months studying Spanish and raising money to travel to Costa Rica to sork alongside an environmental scientist to help save the rain forest, that is rigor. When you watch how our students prepare for their exhibitions -- rehearsing process -- yhou are seeing rigor. Some people mistake not having a standardized curriculum for not having standards. But I believe we set very high standards for our students -- and most of them begin early on to set the same standards for themselves."

There is a debate in education over whether students need a good grounding up to a certain level in certain traditional subject areas, and what is necessary or unnecessary to learn. There is a feeling that by insisting on covering even the material that kids just don't want to learn no matter how real or exciting you try to make it you are doing more damage than anything else, creating a sense of failure in children that will spill over into all areas of their work.

What are the sacred cows, and where do we need to rethink the curriculum? Some insist that algebra isn't nearly as important as people say it is, and that statistics trumps algebra in terms of usefulness. I think a high school current events class that chooses events in the news to follow and connect to events in history is absolutely critical. All of us have our sacred cows, ideas on what needs to be kept in and what can be knocked out of the curriculum.

I'm not asking us to completely reinvent our curriculum according to our own ideas of what subjects are untouchable and which are expendable. I do recommend more flexibility in what we teach, according to what may most successfully connect kids to learning, what taps into teachers' passions, what can be made relevant or better still, real, to students. I think curriculum that says, cover a lot of material and dig deeply into what you love makes sense. It makes even more sense still if you enter into these curriculum areas with kids with whom you have already established a trusting relationship. I also ask you to find space and time to fit in self-directed learning, learning that respects and honors what children feel most driven to learn.


It is not my intention to recommend that we should turn our schools into models where kids learn anything they want to and not a second before they are ready. The opening of young minds to skills and concepts, books, cultures, events in history that they might not have encountered had they been left entirely to their own devices has a place in public education -- as long as children are given the freedom to learn in their own way, a way that is relevant and as close to real as possible.

What I hope to convey to you is a strong sense of hopefulness, an excitement about the prospect that our schools can brim over with the joy of learning that comes from the deepest places inside our children -- an ongoing celebration of who they are and what they can do. It may seem impossible, but I believe we shouldn't be happy until we devise a school children will want to go to on Saturdays.

We as adults need to learn to respect the richness of what lies in their hearts and minds as children. In view of the world we have created for them and what will be asked of them as they move into it, we must devise an education that honors who they are. I would urge us to make space and time to bring out their strengths, follow their passions and hone the skills that will make them the people they want to be.