Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What can teachers learn from Ferguson?



As we embark upon another school year, my 22nd as a teacher, I am sitting with the usual excitement, anxiety and sense that there must still be something else to get done.  But I am also struck with a profound sadness with Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown dominating the news.  I spent 17 years teaching in Missouri, 14 of them teaching African-American Studies.  I have had dozens, if not hundreds of students that could have been Michael Brown.

I don't pretend to know what happened and I am not here to comment on the hundreds of issues this awful, devastating event raises. I am saddened by the loss of a family and community.  I am struck by my memories of so many students who may have been just like Michael.  

I read an article last week about Michael.  He was described as a good kid in the sense that he did little to bring attention to himself.  Apparently it took a lot of support to get him through school.  Parents had to really push at times.  But he stayed out of trouble.  How many students have we had that just blended in and avoided attention and were therefore defined as good kids?  How much potential went unrecognized?  How many of these kids were African-American boys?

I have had too many young, African-American men who fit this description.  The reasons are different for every kid.  Some dealt with poverty or a lack of role models.  Others came from homes struggling with abuse of all kinds.  Some came from homes with adults that didn’t value education because of their own negative experiences.  Some came from excellent homes with involved families that valued an education.  Some simply felt lost, excluded and ignored.  

However, they all had dreams, they were all capable, and they all had their own unique passions and interests.  

The results were just as varied.  Most of these young men have become successful in a myriad of ways – college students, good fathers and business and civic leaders.  Others have had different routes to and through adulthood.

But what I have seen over and over from these guys is an aching to be heard, respected and given a genuinely fair shot at being successful and safely being themselves.  Isn’t this what all of our kids want?  Why do we so often struggle giving this to our African-American boys?  

If we allow any of our students to feel disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected or hopeless we run the risk of ending up with angry, unhappy, hopeless adults – and we don’t need any more of that.


This year pledge to notice the students who blend in and avoid being noticed.  Find out what their dreams are.  Teach them something about being resilient in the face of a challenge.  Be the adult they can lean on and learn from.  Listen, respect, validate, support.
 
We’ve all heard the maxim about teaching them well because every student you have is somebody’s baby.  But what if you taught them not like they were somebody else’s baby, but like they might marry yours!    

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Other Side of Culturally Responsive Teaching

I have spent a lot of time working on achievement gaps and culturally responsive instruction.  Most often this means addressing the needs of lower quartile students.  But what if we look at these issues from another perspective?  What if we consider the needs of students at the top?  Here in Silicon Valley that often means students who are children of immigrants, often from India, China, Korea and Eastern Europe.  In the bubble of Silicon Valley, particularly in its private schools, these students often achieve at amazing levels.  They go often to Cal, the Ivy League, USC, the University of Chicago and other elite institutions.  What will they encounter?  Will their backgrounds be respected?  Will they be prepared for a different sort of diversity in Chicago, Manhattan or New Haven?  How will they react the first time someone assumes they’re Japanese or Latino or African-American?  What will these experiences mean to them?  How can we better prepare them for diversity and adversity?  Will they be prepared to appropriately interact with peoples they’ve only seen on TV?  What stereotypes do they harbor that we must address before they take the next step to adulthood? 

The I, Too, Am Harvard project highlights some of the issues students of African-American backgrounds experience when they reach Harvard.  What issues might our Silicon Valley students encounter?  How can we help them navigate the minefield of race, culture and ethnicity?


I don’t have the answers, but I am spending a lot of time thinking about it.  What thoughts do you have?   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eating with Class

Published simultaneously at It Takes A Kitchen and Let's Improve Schools Now

I spend most of my time here discussing the intersection of food and family.  But it is my career that has kept me from writing much over this past year and now brings me back.  In fact, I am coming back to write in both blogs, one single entry that bridges each topic – food and education.  Over the last four years I have had the immense pleasure of working with a group of nine high school students as they navigated high school – beginning to end, through AP classes, college apps, prom, spirit contests, assemblies, team building activities, anti-drug lectures, and even learning how to breath to relieve stress.  I firmly believe that a formal education is fundamentally a human endeavor based upon relationships and communication between people.  A deep, meaningful education cannot be replicated online or standardized.  Working with nine teens over four years’ time validates this belief. 

Furthermore, I firmly believe that relationships of all kinds are best formed over food.  Stop and think about it… Have you ever lead a group of community volunteers?  Offer food at meetings and people might show up.  Watch the conversation after church over a donut.  Think about your romantic relationships – I will bet they all included quite a bit of time over meals.  Want to get strangers talking?  Feed them something delicious.  Food brings people together and uncovers layers to relationships that will go unnoticed until sharing food. 

Over the last four years my group of students, my advisory (they call themselves Janda’s Pandas) have met weekly and food was key.  Truth be told, it was almost always junk food, but food nonetheless.  Without food, they were lethargic and bored.  Throw a gummy bear at ‘em, and it was like throwing a match into a box of dynamite.   However, in their junior and senior years we started making waffles in class.  The smell filled the building attracting the appetites of kids from other advisories.  Chocolate chips, whipped cream, and fruit all made great toppings and the leftover chips became quick snacks for them as they wandered by throughout the week.  Eating these waffles almost did as much for team building as the ropes course their sophomore year or the ocean kayaking their junior year. 

However, the culinary coup de grace for this group did not come until the end.  During their senior class trip to Laguna Beach last week we all ate at Mozambique.  Not knowing much about East African cuisine I cannot say much for the authenticity of the experience (they had pasta dishes and burgers?) but the authenticity of the meal was not at all the point.  The point was camaraderie, family.  We laughed about memories, we dreamt about college and we shared our food.  A couple kids shared a gigantic plate of seafood, working up a sweat to finish it all while the rest of us marveled.  They all left in a flash while I collected their desserts only to deliver them at the start of their class kumbaya moment.  Just a couple nights later, back home in San Jose, they all wanted to do it again after their Baccalaureate ceremony so we grabbed dinner in Santana Row.  I am left wondering if they would have liked to go out to eat every week. 
We already know that food quality is a major selling point for colleges today.  Some schools are approaching food differently (The Edible Schoolyard and Appleton, Wisconsin’s Central Alternative Charter High School are great examples) and seeing real behavioral and cognitive results.  But our efforts do not have to be so vast.  Simply sharing a meal with our students can make a difference in their level of commitment and joy in the process. 

“My kids” are now off to college – from coast to coast and from north to south – they are off to discover independence, test boundaries, live dreams, and seek wild success.  They will do phenomenal things, each in their own way.  But none of them will do it alone.  They will be supported by friends, professors, mentors and new advisors.  Bonds with these new people will be formed, often over food.  I hope they will tell me about it.  I hope when they return we will eat together again.  I miss them already.


Next year I start another four years with a new crop of freshmen.  We will eat together sooner.  We will build our bonds earlier…with waffle batter.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Does going private hurt our community?

The start of every school year sees the media filled with articles and editorials about the quality of American schools, teacher preparation and the latest in school redesigns.  This year is no different.  The first of the super-provocative articles I noticed this year had a title to grab all - If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person at Slate Magazine.  When I first saw the title I anticipated a humorous satire for no other reason than the use of the simplistic word, bad.  Any time a student of mine uses the word I circle it and write WC for “word choice.”  High school kids can find more advanced, expressive and eloquent vocabulary than that.  Then I read the article.  This really wasn’t satire.  And it wasn’t all that funny.  But it sure did make me think. 

It made me think about my love and appreciation of public schools.  They were created out of a commitment to our democracy.  A democracy depends on an educated populace.  A democracy depends on a collective commitment of all to each other.  Public schools are our greatest manifestation of our democracy – or they could be.  Sadly, we have allowed far too many public schools to sink.  Of course we can look at funding formulas and property taxes as one source of the problems, but we have too many examples of poorly funded schools in low-property value neighborhoods that do succeed.  What’s the difference?  I suggest one major determinant of a successful school is parent and community involvement.


What would happen if all the families that send their kids to private schools chose instead to send their kids to public schools?  Where would those families’ energies go?  Would those parents commit themselves to volunteering and funding the best programs available for their neighborhood schools?  Would they insist on best practices for all students?  Where would their $58 billion in tuition and fees go?  (in 2010 according to the National Center for Education Statistics there were over 5.1 million students in private schools at $8549 each and more than 2.2 million students in Catholic schools at $6018 each)  How might our public schools be transformed?  How might our communities be transformed?  How would our democracy be transformed?   


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Provocative

As we all embark on another school year, it's worth thinking about the meaning of our work as educators.  I found these two items today that I think are important and timely. 

From The Atlantic an article about college choices - or rather school choices.  I think its time to really ask kids what sort of educatio they are looking for.  And it's time we ask ourselves what sort of education we are providing.  And that leads us to...

From the Wall Street Journal an article about why many great teachers are looking at other careers but why they are exactly the ones best suited to create the change we need in our schools and communities.

A few things to ponder....

Monday, March 25, 2013

World Class Education: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students



On three occasions in recent months I have had the pleasure to see Dr. Yong Zhao speak about creativity and education.  Dr. Zhao is a professor at The University of Oregon and director of Zhao Learning and ObaWorld Global Education.  His new book is World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.   Zhao was a great speaker, filling his presentations with self-deprecating humor, gentle teasing, and incredible research on creativity and learning.   He is also delightfully charismatic.  If you have a chance to see him speak, do so.

Here are my many take-ways:
1.       We need to first consider what the purpose of an education is.  Until we can decide on that, we will be hard-pressed to change anything.  Furthermore, comparing ourselves to other countries with different purposes is to compare apples and oranges.  As Dr. Zhao put it…We are racing to the top of what?  We have a Common Core for what?
2.       We also need to define success.  By virtue of having a college-age son, he now defines educational success as that which keeps you from living in your parents’ basement.  To put it more academically, that means you know how to do something that others wish to pay you for, you’re psychologically independent, and you are socialized and nice enough to become part of a community.  Sure sounds different than a test score!
3.       There are certain “known knowns” – Human nature is diverse, curious and creative.  The economy has changed.  Information is everywhere.  The world is more globalized than ever.
4.       Schools as we know them are like sausage makers…we do our best to take diverse and disparate inputs and grind them down into a standardized product.  We take individual differences, multiple intelligences, cultural diversity, curiosity, passion, and creativity and squeeze them through schooling to spit out employable people.  We are in essence, in the business of channeling and narrowing creativity.  I am sure this sounds cynical or depressing, but seriously consider how much room we allow for individualization and celebration of unique talents, interests and skills.  To what degree are our evaluations focused on individuality?  Do we celebrate rebelliousness?
5.       At the age of 5 most kids measure in the genius levels for creativity through tests of divergent thinking.  Then we give them some formal education and these levels plummet.  They recover after people retire. 
6.       The total value of manufactured goods produced in the US has been increasing while the number of manufacturing jobs has been decreasing.
7.       We are in the midst of a re-setting of the economy, not a recession.  We are dealing with a hollowing out of the middle class, but have growth at the ends – high income and low income jobs are growing, while middle class jobs are being lost.
8.       So who will be a new middle class?  The Creative class – Entrepreneurs – Business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, Intrepreneurs, and Policy entrepreneurs.
9.       Somebody at Google or Apple apparently said, “If you want to be managed you are not employable.”  We are entering an economy demanding creativity, flexibility and fast learning.  Row with us or get off the boat.
10.   Entrepreneurs are those with creative solutions and abilities to see them through to fruition.
11.   Good entrepreneurs are confident, passionate, have global competency, have friends, are creative, unique, risk-taking, empathetic and are alert to opportunity.
12.   Schools should come with warning labels – sausage making has side-effects!  Great test scores do not equal creativity.  Consider the following…
a.       China was #1 on all three areas of the most recent PISA test
b.      60 US independent schools took the test also
c.       Arne Duncan found the results appalling.  Obama called it our Sputnik moment.
d.      These test results also gave rise to a book, Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. 
e.      But….if George Washington had used an existing international model he would have never envisioned America!
f.        The Chinese actually are not happy about these results….see below.
13.   Historically, the US is not getting worse based on achievement test scores – it has always been bad…since the 1950s.  Why?  American kids are confident and enjoy school but don’t test well, whereas Asian kids lack confidence, don’t enjoy school, test better than anyone else – and are not creative.  As one Chinese Premier apparently said, the next Steve Jobs will not be Chinese.  
14.   There is a direct negative correlation between math scores and entrepreneurialism.  The greater our focus on math and science (and their test scores), the more we are sacrificing confidence and talent – the key elements of entrepreneurialism.
15.   The new paradigm in education must be a new sausage maker – one that enhances human capacity rather than diminishing it, as our current system does.  Though it is to be pointed out, US schools clearly are not as successful as sausage-making as we continue to turn out entrepreneurs and inventors at far greater rates than the rest of the world.
16.   In other words, we are not as effective at killing creativity as other countries. 
17.   We have local control and that allows for variety, creativity, some individualization and ultimately a variety of students with wide ranging talents.  The Common Core and a growing obsession with testing is only going to stifle what we do well.
18.   58% of Apple’s revenues go to US-based employees even though the vast majority of their employees are in China.  The creative class is in the US.
19.   Pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is the wrong way to go, particularly if it is at the expense of creativity and questioning.
20.   The best education trains you to ask questions.
21.   This new Age of Abundance has finally made the right side of the brain useful.  In prior times, survival was key, therefore a limited numbers of skills.  But creativity is needed now.
22.   We must shift from training future employees to training future entrepreneurs.
23.   I really need to read a few more books, The Rise of the Creative Class, The Innovator’s Classroom and The Disruptive Classroom, and Loren Katz’s The Race Between Education and Technology.
24.   Dyslexia is not a problem, it is just different brain wiring yielding different visual perception and a great ability to be creative, artistic and to see patterns.
25.   The quicker you give kids answers the more you kill curiosity.
26.   Schools and grades discourage risk-taking.
27.   US Schools are good because we are local, decentralized and open.  We are forgiving, gender neutral, separated from church and state and publically funded.

Throw any of these ideas into conversation with teachers, administrators, human resources professionals, or parents and I assure you, you will start a conversation.  I found his points validating, inspiring and provocative.  If you do too, make it a point to grab Dr. Zhao’s book and find a place to see him speak.