Powerful Stories of Schooling

Movie recommendations for PressingPausers who are interested in education and enjoy independent and foreign films. And who are convinced that the pendulum has swung WAY too far towards standardized curriculum, testing, teaching methods, and schooling more generally. And who know outside-of-school factors greatly impact what teachers are able to accomplish. And who believe poetry, emotion, and the arts are at least as important as Big Data. And who like authentic and inspiring stories about the challenges and rewards of teaching.

1) The Class

2) Not One Less

3) Spellbound

Honorable mention: Hoop Dreams; School Colors; High School II; The Boys of Baraka; The American Dream at Groton; Country Boys; Young, Muslim, and French; Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.

The End of an Era

It’s always dangerous when my posse can’t make a run. Like this morning when it was just Tupac and my thoughts.

The more I thought about my best work friend of all time, Mike Hillis, leaving for another job, the more sad I became. When my dad died suddenly from a heart attack at age 69, many of his co-workers wrote beautiful letters about what they most appreciated about him. It’s unfortunate they weren’t able to communicate those things to him directly.

Depending upon the department’s leadership, faculty composition, morale, and overall vibe, I’ve enjoyed some of my 18 PLU years more than others. Throughout the roller coaster ride, my close friendship with Mike has been the only constant.

We did lots of good work together—published curricula; built a grad program; taught innumerable teachers throughout the state; and more recently, provided the department with competent and caring leadership. A treasure trove of fond memories. Like being in Oslo one winter together and teaching some summers in Yakima, WA. Our Yak routine: each morning, while Mike ironed his pants, I’d watch the Tour de France until the last minute, then a Starbucks quick hit, then a co-teaching marathon, then dinner at one of Mike’s favorite craft breweries.

Except for the pleat in his pants, his injury plagued Windows PC, his inveterate reading, his gardening and home brewing genius, we were incredibly similar—introverted, ill at ease with the academy’s self importance, family-oriented, philosophical, and sports-minded. Any day now, he will again overestimate how many games the Mariners will win this year. What an irony if they make a playoff run this season now that he’ll be surrounded by Giant/Dodger/Angel fans.

I don’t know what I’m going to miss most, maybe his sense of humor. He’s a great story teller which was especially nice when we were driving around the state. In high school he was a much better running back than he was a student and his older brothers and him nearly drove his poor mom crazy. He has Jon Stewart-like antenna for hypocrisy and is quickest to laugh at himself. I shudder to think what it’s going to be like to not hear his laugh fill our office suite anymore.

Or maybe I’ll miss his human decency the most. His love of his family, his positive regard for everyone, his modeling teaching and leadership excellence.

Or maybe it’s his humility. In part, I did this to myself because I told the search committee, “He has no ego.” What a privilege it’s been to work with someone who is more focused on doing good work than who will get the credit for that work.

Or his resilience and preternatural calm. Mike’s been passed over here for promotions and came in second elsewhere. Major props to California Lutheran University for resisting a self-promoter and instead choosing humor, human decency, and humility.

Mike couldn’t be more deserving of this opportunity and he’s going to flourish if he avoids sunburn.

Thanks Mike for your friendship, with a nod to Robert Frost, it’s made all the difference.

I’ll be okay, eventually. I hope.

Are You Crazy?

I am. Came to that conclusion the other day while mowing my lawn for the first time since late last fall when it was largely leaves.

As I criss-crossed the lawn, I wondered, what on earth am I doing? Why do we even have a lawn? Best I can tell, there’s three reasons to have a lawn. First, we have lawns to occasionally play croquet or badminton on or in Tiger’s case, to learn to chip. Second, many of us have lawns because we grew up in suburbia meaning we are captives of our childhoods. An extremely difficult to shake lawn aesthetic is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. So deeply ingrained we hardly ever question it. Third, we have lawns because the alternative, more public parks near where we live smacks of socialism.

Lawn lunacy is largely explained by nostalgia for our past coupled with an insidious individualism.

Maybe ten percent of lawns make sense. Meaning children play on them semi-regularly or people get great satisfaction from tending them. For people like us whose children are Gone Girl, lawns make zero sense. Especially when I’m thinking what I could be doing instead of pacing back and forth contributing to global warming, thus making it so I have to mow earlier and more often seemingly every year.

It’s completely whacked, by which I mean I’m whacked. As irrational as Paul McCartney’s hair as seen on SNL’s 40th ann. I felt sorry for “Sir” Paul. Not a gray hair on his 72 year old head. How sad to feel you have to maintain a youthful image that late in life. If I make it to 72, not giving a shit about my (probably amazing) appearance will be the most silver of linings. That and living somewhere without a lawn.

Make Like Steve Jobs and Narrow Your Focus

Washington State’s Faith Action Network “advocates for social justice in the halls of power”. Here’s their current agenda:

2015 Legislative Agenda

Reducing Wealth Inequality (Our Lead Issue): We will advocate for policies that address the disproportionate accumulation of wealth by a small percentage of individuals and families while others struggle to survive, with particular attention to the negative impacts on women and communities of color.

  • Wage Theft bills (Payroll Fraud/Employee Misclassification, Wage Recovery, Treble Damages, and Anti-Retaliation)
  • State Minimum Wage increase
  • Equal Pay Opportunity Act
  • Increased jobs & contracts for the African American community/businesses

Forging a Sustainable Biennial Budget: We will advocate for a sustainable budget with sufficient revenue to meet the needs of our state while protecting the safety net for those who are low-income and vulnerable.

  • Creating revenue to meet the needs of all of our state (repeal tax exemptions, enact capital gains tax, and enact carbon pollution accountability act)
  • Protect hunger, poverty, and mental health programs (WIC/Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), State Food Assistance (SFA), Emergency Feeding Assistance Program (EFAP), Breakfast After the Bell Bill, Housing & Essential Needs/Aged, Blind, & Disabled (HEN/ABD), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) grant)
  • Fully fund K-12 education (McCleary decision) while not putting at risk our state’s safety net

Dismantling the Culture of Violence: FAN will promote policies to reduce multiple forms of violence across our state that disproportionately affect communities of color and to provide opportunities for economic stability.

  • Human trafficking prevention bills
  • Criminal justice reforms (Inmate Post-Secondary Education, Legal Financial Obligations (LFO) reforms, replace the death penalty statute with life without the possibility of parole, enact “Ban the Box” legislation)
  • Reduce deportations by enacting the Family Unity bill
  • Gun violence reduction bills

Protect Housing and Prevent Homelessness: Supporting the basic human right to have safe and secure shelter by working with partners to secure more funding for and equitable access to affordable housing, helping reduce the rising numbers of those who are homeless in our state.

  • Expand Housing Trust Fund
  • Medicaid benefit for Tenancy Support Services in Permanent Supportive Housing
  • Enact Fair Tenant Screening bill

Sustaining Washington’s Environment: Addressing this vital and critical part of who we are as the Evergreen State, FAN will work with our faith partner Earth Ministry to continue the important work of restoring and preserving Washington’s fragile ecosystem.

  • Support Governor’s climate change package
  • Enact Toxic-Free Kids bill
  • Support more stringent regulations for oil and coal train

These are pressing, inter-related issues, but for FAN to create a more socially just Washington State it needs a Steve Jobs, meaning someone to help them narrow their focus. FAN should seek to answer this question: Progress on which one of these issues would in all likelihood make the others easier to resolve?

Most of us are FAN-like, accomplishing less than we might because we’re trying to do too much. We’re unclear about our purpose in life. At work, our collective purpose is murky. Consequently, we casually commit to random activities, the sum of which rarely equals more than the individual parts.

I Bought a Time Machine

It only took about ten years of the love of my life putting “inexpensive turntable” on her Christmas list for me to finally pull the trigger. Now she’s happy that this bad boy anchors the family room and nostalgia reigns. The Best of Bread. Michael Jackson. The St. Louis Jesuits. Dan Fogelberg. The Beatles. The Elements (also known as Earth, Wind, and Fire). And of course The Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon* Guards (not to be confused with dragon guards). “Eclectic” doesn’t do the collection justice.

Having to listen to entire records has been jarring and illuminating. Our turntable is a time machine. Our time machine has forced me to acknowledge that modern tech has made me more impatient than normal. I fast forward through my digital playlists all the time. All it takes to skip to the next track in my new car is a quarter inch movement of my left thumb. I often record sports events to fast forward through commercials, but often find myself watching them at slightly faster speeds. At home I sometimes speed up television shows and movies too. I constantly switch back and forth between radio programs while making dinner.

Digitized content has played havoc on my attention. It’s difficult to put toothpaste back in the tube, but maybe I’ll learn to be more patient while perfecting my Michael Jackson dance moves. In which case the turntable will prove an invaluable investment.

Of Speeding Basketballs and the Tyranny of the Urgent

In my second story home office, I look out a window at a basketball hoop, the Black Hills, and our suburban street winding downhill to the west. Today, I was watching a neighbor shoot hoops with his five year old son when the ball careened down the long semi-steep hill. It was comical when the boy gave chase because he was gradually losing ground on the ball as it gained speed skimming along the curb.

Saturday I began teaching a class on leadership for school program directors and principals-to-be. One thing I will impress upon them is they are the five year old boy because school administrators struggle mightily to get ahead of their daily “To do” lists. If they don’t learn to manage their time in ways that allow for creative thinking about the larger purposes of schooling they’ll never be inspiring or transformational leaders.

I know this because my “To do” list garners way too much of my attention. I fool myself into feeling productive when I shrink my list which ebbs and flows with the same predictability as the tides. Here’s today’s, Monday, February 8th:

• org 583 readings/desk

• finalize 563B syllabus—Lenny, 90m

• 563B sllyabus to Diana

• 2/9, Monday, Dept mtg, 9-10:30a, Search, 12:30-1p, interviews 1-2:30p and 4:30-6p

• prep 563B sessions 1 & 2

One wonders, can I get my swim workout in and get to work in time to “org 583 readings/desk” before the 9a department meeting? What a model I am for transformational leadership, my overarching goal for the day is to check off as many of the five items as possible. Instead of asking, “Did you leave the department, the teaching credential program, and/or the U in a better place?” or “Did you touch anyone’s life today?” My dinner companion tonight might ask, “How many bullet points did you manage to delete today?” Your “To do” list any shorter?

In my position, I regularly hand teary-eyed student teachers tissues and help them make peace with my faculty colleagues, their cooperating teachers, their supervisors, and their students. While helping resolve their problems I often think, “If we don’t find the time to fix the underlying flaws in our program’s design that repeatedly give rise to these crises, we’re going to be distracted in perpetuity by time consuming cases like these.”

If he made it a priority, the five year old’s father could take two or three shooting sessions with his son off to build some sort of barricade or contraption that would prevent errant balls from rocketing all the way down the street again. With more quiet, uninterrupted, big picture/program design time, I could greatly reduce the total number of student crises needing my immediate attention. Of course though, program design is a collaborative process, so I’m dependent upon all of my colleagues getting in front of the speeding basketball too

And in this era of information and sensory overload, it’s every plugged in man, woman, and child for themselves. I could be much more disciplined about regularly unplugging from the internet to be more reflective and thoughtful about what’s most important at work and in life. Maybe, as a first Bill Murray-like baby step, my leadership students and I need to follow this advice.

Quit Requiring Foreign Language Courses

If that was my view I’d have to find another place to sleep tonight. That’s the recommendation of a Washington State legislator. And not just any legislator, a progressive Democrat. The short version:

A representative in Olympia says prospective college students should have the option to skip Spanish or Chinese and take two years of computer science instead.

Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Democrat from Tumwater, says while he appreciates and respects the time students put into studying foreign languages, the money the state spends could be put to better use.

“My God, we are spending 100 million [dollars] of taxpayer money every year in our high school system to teach world languages where more than half our folks a few years later will never use it again,” Reykdal said.

More here. Imagine how short the school day would be if our criteria for what to teach was whether students use the course content a few years later. How would algebra hold up under a cost-benefit analysis? The arts? Social studies? It’s a sign of an educational apocalypse when a progressive Democrat is thinking so narrowly.

Foreign language teachers better take this as a clarion call for explaining to the legislature and the public the many reasons, both obvious and more subtle, why their courses are especially meaningful.

Heaven help us.