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!