Monday, August 10, 2015

Happy New (School) Years

As a new school year seems to be breathing down my neck, I cannot help but reflect on the last 12 months.  To me the real New Years is actually August, as so many families embark on new beginnings.  I try to make it a time to re-group and re-imagine what my classroom and my teaching could be.  Since last August I feel as though much has changed for me and the country. 

Let me start by saying that I heard Bob Bain speak at the Advanced Placement World History Reading in Salt Lake City, and he was excellent.  He spoke about an idea about which I was unfamiliar.  History teachers come in two varieties – truffle hunters and parachutists.  The idea comes from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  The truffle hunters are buried in the details while the parachutists are taking a big picture approach to see patterns and trends.  We need both in our disciplines – historians and teachers.  But I am beyond any doubt a parachutist.  In fact, as a student the truffle hunters drove me crazy.  I deeply believe that history needs to teach us about the world we live in and will live in, therefore we need an understanding of patterns, trends and themes.  It’s that approach that made much of this past year a challenge.

The 2014-2015 school year began with Ferguson dominating the news.  In a world history class in an elite private school in Silicon Valley how was I to discuss these issues.  Did discussion of these issues have a place in such an environment?  Could we effectively discuss Ferguson in such a way that we discussed race, authority and privilege in American history and today? Were high school freshmen and sophomores able to do that?  Would AP students stand for it with a test breathing down their necks?  In the fall I decided to avoid it all together.  I am not happy about that, nor did I feel like this teachable moment was the appropriate one for my context.  Little did I know how the next 12 months would unfold across this country.  Acquittals, beatings, murders, mass shootings inside churches and theaters, arguments over symbols and rights and challenges to how or if we can self-identify.

This summer we have seen the 2016 Presidential Race begin.  A crowd of Republicans, a few Democrats and a media circus is upon us.  Much of it has developed since school was out in early June.  The parachutist in me thinks the real story here is not the candidates at all but the way cable news, a 24-hour news cycle, for-profit news media and social media have re-shaped politics, public discourse and thought in the US and the world.  Is it possible to deeply cover issues anymore?  Is it even desirable?  Have we really become so polarized that it seems like everyone is either an Ayn Rand-inspired individualist with little regard for their fellow human or a Socialist with no regard for the realities of a global economy?  Is it possible for us to have public dialogue based upon rational thought and factual information and not emotional fear-pedaling?  

This past year also saw increased coverage of teen stress and depression, helicopter parenting, college admissions insanity, college debt and an economy that doesn’t seem to be doing any favors for our youth.  How do we prepare all our students for an uncertain future?  They will inevitably have multiple careers and will see their world change in ways we cannot imagine.  Flexible thinking, creativity, openness to diversity of all kinds, an ability to learn – all of this will be vital to their success and happiness.  How can schools best develop this?  Does an emphasis on grades and test scores really do it?  Does admission to an elite university really do it?  Does school as we have known it for the last couple centuries really do it?

Meanwhile, there’s a silver lining in all the events of this past year.  As a nation we are talking.  We are discussing historical symbols.  We are delving deeper into the history to uncover and discuss deeper truths – being better truffle hunters.  We are seeing more and more Americans acquiring the rights most Americans have always had.  We are re-evaluating ideas we have taken for granted and reconsidering the paths forward.  We have an opportunity to bring this country closer and closer to fulfilling the promises in our founding documents and founding fathers.  Do you have the courage to keep it up?

So I have some pledges for the school year ahead.  I am pledging to use those teachable moments that arise in world events.  I am pledging to teach my students how to dig into facts and research and question what authorities and the media might tell them.  I am pledging to be sure my classroom is a space where each student feels valid and safe being whoever they are and want to be.  I am pledging to make my classroom a place where we can all grapple with the challenges of the future so that my students may solve the problems that will face us. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Class Dismissed, Homeschooling Explored

Last week I had the pleasure of screening the documentary, Class Dismissed.  I didn’t know much about it, just that it explored education reform.  That was reason enough for me to call for a dinner and a movie.  Once we arrived I became a little concerned.  The theater was filled with families – not the normal documentary crowd on a weekday night. It turns out the movie is not just about education reform, but specifically about homeschooling as an answer.  It seems that the local homeschooling community is a tight-knit bunch and they showed up in force to support this film.

Taken in conjunction with Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, we have three very interesting and somewhat contrasting looks at what is wrong with American education today, but three different solutions.  Class Dismissed introduces us to a few issues that some people have with school as we know it – a focus on grades and test scores at the expense of authentic learning, an inflexibility with the variety of children and their learning styles and interests, and modes of instruction and curriculum suited for a by-gone industrial era.  The film introduces us to John Holt, a critic of mainstream education from the 1970s. Listening to old interviews with him, I found many of his complaints are the same as mine, a generation later. While I would like to see schools change, Holt’s solution was to withdraw from “schooling” and home-school.    
I am guilty of many assumptions about home schooling.  Kids will lack social skills.  Colleges will not know what to do with them, if they can even get admitted.  Instruction, if any, will lack depth and challenge.  Kids will not know how to work hard because parents will go easy and instruction will look like play time.  Parents lack the content knowledge to appropriately instruct kids at higher levels.  Class Dismissed took each of these concerns and dismantled each and every one rather convincingly. 

Following a Los Angeles family through their homeschooling process, the film introduces us to a few models for homeschooling, honestly exploring potential failures of each and acknowledging that there is no perfect model (and isn’t that just the point?).  By following one family for two years, we also get to see that some models work for a time but that as kids mature, some models become ineffective.  

In the end I must confess, I am now much more open to the possibility of home schooling.  However, it certainly is not a solution for the masses.  I continue to struggle with how most families could manage this in the current economy.  How many families can make ends meet on one income? Let’s face it, home schooling is a full time job that does not provide any income. 
Homeschooling does have something to teach the rest of us, though.  When we try to figure out individualization, learning styles, exploratory learning, constructivism and other “outside the box” ideas, we should open our minds and see what the home schooling community is up to.  They are pooling resources, experimenting, and exploring – and they have something useful to share.

If you are concerned about the state of education and looking at solutions, either as a parent or an educator, do yourself a favor and see Class Dismissed.  You will be provoked. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Last night as I drove home and listened to the Grand Jury’s decision I was struck with sadness and longing.  I am sad for our country…again.  I am longing for my 14 years teaching African-American Studies in Columbia, Missouri, 120 miles from Ferguson.  I am longing for the freedom and opportunity to tackle the teachable moment.  I am longing to sit in a room of white, black, Latino and Asian students and figure out how to make sense of all this and how to do better.

I believe in a country of laws, but I am not na├»ve.  I want to believe the Grand Jury got it right, but I am already reading strange inconsistencies and contradictions.  I know it is incredibly rare for a Grand Jury not to indict.  I know it is far more common for a Grand Jury not to indict when a police officer is involved.  I know enough about power, fear and emotions to know this entire situation is more complex than we are processing yet.  

I am frustrated with our media and ourselves.  Fires and violence make for great television, but don’t come close to telling the story.  As a white man, I cannot pretend to really understand.  However, I think my study and my experience with students, their families and many, many friends tells me a few things.  The protesters are not simply angry with the Grand Jury’s decision.  When we and the media make it that simple we are ignoring context.  We are ignoring Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till.  We are ignoring Rodney King and Fred Hampton.  We are ignoring slavery and Jim Crow.  We are ignoring declining infrastructure, low wage jobs, poor school systems, unemployment, wealth stratification, and disenfranchisement.  We must put this in the big picture if we even want to begin to understand.  We must turn off Dancing with the Stars and read.  We must turn the channel away from CNN and Fox and demand some depth.  We must delve into the nuance and the context.

Are there opportunists?  Are there those who see an opportunity for a thrill, for some free oil filters and car battery?  Are there boneheads out there figuring now is a good time to get away with something?  Of course.

But I think it is safe to say there are far, far more who are sad, angry, frustrated, exhausted, losing hope, and just plain fed up but protesting peacefully.  There are far more who want to yell, but are trying to carry on some dialogue to make a positive difference.  There are far, far more who want some healing.

But that healing will not happen until we all learn to empathize.  Can you see things from another perspective?  Can you try on another’s lens?  

Stop for a moment and consider what it might be like to have to sit with your son and teach him how to act when stopped by the police in order to save his own life.  

Stop and consider what it might be like to be confronted with a system that seems to be rigged against you from birth.  

Stop and consider what it might be like to be a 14 year old boy and learn about the murder of Emmett Till.  What if you saw that story repeated a few dozen times in your life? 

Stop and consider.  Think.  Empathize.

Put all of this in the context of the history of St. Louis’ northern suburbs.  Put this in the context of St. Louis’ and Missouri’s history.  Put this in the context of American history.  

It is no more true that all black teenage boys are thugs than it is that all cops are racist killers so let’s get past the hyperbole and ridiculousness and talk and listen to each other.

We need to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of listening deeply.  We have a world that needs some changing and it is up to us.