School Mission Statements

Most school mission statements are painfully vague to the point of being interchangeable. Others are too lengthy. The best are specific, distinctive, and succinct.

• The mission of the Buckley Community School, where kids come first, is to partner with families to develop enthusiastic learners. Positives, short, specific reference to partnering with families, “enthusiastic learners” is a challenging/admirable goal. Negatives, “kids come first” way too cliche. B-.

• The mission of Vancouver Public Schools is to assure that, within a nurturing and stimulating environment, each of our diverse students and graduates achieves literacy and appropriate core competencies, and becomes a responsible and compassionate citizen. This is the type of mission statement that gets worse the more times you read it because it’s filled with vague words and phrases. And once you get four or five students together, let alone thousands, isn’t it understood the students are diverse? What the heck are “appropriate core competencies”? And how will the VPS leadership know if graduates become responsible and compassionate? What does it look like? Awful. D-.

• At Woonsocket High School, our mission is to, “educate all students in a safe, supportive, challenging environment where they can learn to be citizens of a culturally diverse society.” “Safe, supportive, challenging environment, g-e-n-e-r-i-c. And what does citizenship in a culturally diverse society entail? That’s like saying “where children learn to be adults.” WHS can say, see we did it, all our students became citizens in a culturally diverse society. Say something about the TYPE of citizenship you envision. F.

• The mission of Lakeside School is to develop in intellectually capable young people the creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits needed to contribute wisdom, compassion and leadership to a global society. We provide a rigorous, academic program through which effective educators lead students to take responsibility for learning. We are committed to sustaining a school in which individuals representing diverse cultures and experiences instruct one another in the meaning and value of community and in the joy and importance of lifelong learning. Nice. Finally some specifics, “creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits”. Granted some will understandably wonder what does an ethical spirit look like, let alone wisdom, and compassion, but we have to allow for some abstraction in mission statements. “Global society” strikes me as overreaching and a bit wordy. Last sentence could be tightened up too, especially, “individuals representing diverse cultures”. A-.

At Catherine Nichols Gunn Elementary School our mission is to challenge and support students to be the best they can be. Reads as if the authors were in a hurry. I’m partial to succinct statements, but “best they can be” leaves me scratching my head. Uninspiring. Original grade, D. Plagiarism adjusted grade, F.

Elk Grove Unified School District will provide a learning community that challenges ALL students to realize their greatest potential. I guess the difference between Catherine Nichols and Elk Grove Unified is Elk Grove doesn’t provide support? The very definition of interchangeable missions. Original grade, D. Plagiarism adjusted grade, F.

Stanford Business School—To create ideas that deepen and advance the understanding of management, and with these ideas develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world. Bravo. Well, “change the world” is cliche, but loved it up to that point. B+.

Charlotte Country Day School strives to be the benchmark of academic excellence in college preparatory education through superior teaching of a rigorous curriculum. Excellent. As a parent or student you know what you’re getting into. Don’t expect much attention to healthy bodies and ethical spirits. Specific, distinctive, succinct. A, the winner.

Dear Norway

As you know, my grandmother was born and raised in Bern, I lived in Hamar for a few months a few years ago, I loved Elling, Out Stealing Horses was brilliant, my wife drops mad kroner on lefse every Christmas, and my conservative friends think I’m a closet socialist.

I’m writing because I couldn’t help but notice Sweden kicked your ass in the 30K combined.

I’m not applying for the soon-to-be vacant x-country coaching positions, I’m writing to offer my services in the relays.

As your scouts no doubt informed you, I trained under Tore’s expert supervision at Gasbu. Granted, I’m prone to fall when descending, I have a hard time getting into and out of tracks, I’m often off-balance, and I don’t know how to skate.

On the other hand, I can get to Whistler in six-seven hours depending on the border and I may be just the spark the team needs. Car’s packed and I’m awaiting your call. Call now and I will have time to learn how to skate.

In Anticipation,

Ron

p.s. Tell the equipment and clothing peeps that I’m 188cm with a 86cm inseam. And could I get a couple extra tics to the closing ceremonies?

Taking the Call

Doesn’t Compute

In an email I recently received, my father-in-law asked me what I thought of Tiger’s performance. I’m guessing his use of the word “performance” as opposed to “statement” means he wasn’t buying what Tiger was selling.

I thought Tiger was sincere, but who knows, talk is cheap, and as he acknowledged, only time will tell. The question of whether he was sincere is not the most interesting one, nor is the question of what he does or doesn’t owe the public, nor the related one of why didn’t he allow questions.

For me there’s one interesting, actually troubling aspect of the whole Tiger melodrama, and one interesting aspect of his performance or statement.

The disconcerting aspect is the opportunity costs of our fascination with celebrities. In your circle of friends, what’s the ratio of “Tiger talk” to “education, foreign policy, health care, or economic talk”? We are a People magazine people and the quality of our democracy suffers as a result.

The interesting aspect of his statement was how pained he appeared to be, how unhappy I’m guessing he is, and his paragraph on Buddhism. We are a materialistic people. Here’s a guy that’s close to being the first billionaire athlete living a complete life of luxury and he’s unhappy. How can someone who’s the best in their field, on the way to being the best ever, with hundreds of millions of dollars, private jets, yachts, houses, Escalades, be unhappy?

Doesn’t compute.

Lots of people think if they had El Tigre money and fame they’d be much more happy than they are. To me, the Tiger story, like a lot of Old Testament ones, is a powerful reminder that money and fame are no substitute for a sense of self; a selfless spirituality; honoring your ancestors; a sense that your wife, children, and close friends respect you; a sense that you’re at least as good a person as athlete.

Adolescent Literacy

Felt nostalgic for Europe I guess and took the train to PDX for a workshop on adolescent literacy. I WANT to be a train person, but Amtrak is making it hard. It’s bad enough the train takes longer than driving. My Squeeze and I planned on eating an early dinner in the big city and then returning on the 6:15p. Workshop ended an hour early and so we decided to take the 4:20p and eat at home. Headed to the iMax at 3:40p. At the train station we learned the 4:20p was delayed about an hour.

Long story short, it never arrived, something about a tree on the track. Instead of a romantic dinner, we took a walk and then sat in front of the station reading in the setting sun eating pistachios. The 6:15p originates in PDX so it would have to leave on time. . . right? Longer story shorter, we walked off the train at 7:40p, exactly four hours after leaving the hotel for home. Something about a broken brake line they couldn’t fix. The man sitting in front of us asked if we wanted a lift home, he was bailing on the train, taking the iMax to his car in Clakamass. He had a morning business meeting in Seattle. What a life, or at least, nightsaver.

But I digress.

Stanford research prof was the main presenter. Excellent researcher I’m sure, but how can I put this nicely, his presentation skills were not as well developed. Here’s what Dr. Stanford Expert and his co-presenter, a much better teacher from The U of Utah, recommended.

1. Strengthen adolescent reading fluency, vocab, and comprehension through scientifically researched (read quasi-experimental and other quantitative studies) teaching strategies that have been proven to be effective including explicit vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion of texts.

2. Explicit instruction involves three steps: I do it (modeling). We do it (guided practice). You do it (independent practice). If teaching a complex literacy skill like summarizing, the three steps may take an entire week. Teachers inevitably rush the steps.

3. There are three elements to classroom discussion of texts: 1) efferent (the who, what, where, and why of what was read. . . what did the writer say); 2) analysis and interpretation; and 3) evaluation. . . how did you feel about it, how convincing was the argument or engaging/illuminating the narrative. Research suggests teachers slight part one which low achieving students benefit the most from. Dr. SE made it clear he had “absolutely no interest” in evaluation/students’ opinions.

It was alternatingly interesting and exasperating. Throughout the day there was no discussion of the purposes of literacy; there wasn’t a single reference to digital, electronic, or multimedia texts; nor was there a single reference to the societal curriculum. Nevermind that adolescents are in school 22-23% of the time and outside it 77-78%.

Here’s an alternative, admittedly less scientific, more sociological perspective.

Immerse children and young adults in rich literary environments for long periods of time. Surround them by interesting reading material. Unplug more and read in front of them. Talk about what you’re reading. Demonstrate a love of reading in your daily life. Repeat year after year.

Here’s a related math literacy, or “numeracy” example. One Sunday morning, when seventeen was two or three, she crawled into bed and snuggled in between mom and dad. Dad started counting. “One.” She squeaked, “two.” And thus began Sunday morning math. Overtime, we counted by twos, threes, fours, whatever we felt like. We never called it multiplication. My hunch that my daughter’s success in math is in part explained by those Sunday mornings would not impress Dr. SE one bit.

I was impressed with how candidate Obama talked eloquently about parents being their childrens’ first and most important teachers. I wonder why he’s abandoned the Bully Pulpit.

The teachers and school leaders in the workshop politely and passively accepted the “literacy and numeracy as a teacher-centered science” way of thinking as if there are no alternatives. Few probably realized with that paradigm comes a narrow emphasis on technical skills, test scores, and national economic competitiveness.

Research and what happens in school matters, but magic can happen when young people are immersed in rich literary environments where word and number play are daily activities.

E Pluribus Unum?

I’m keenly interested in how people of different political, cultural, and religious points of view relate one to another.

I first became interested in how people deal with those whose politics are radically different than their own as a high school social studies teacher leading discussions about contemporary issues. I quickly learned to play the “devil’s advocate” since some of my students were right or left-wing ideologues whose positions were highly predictable.

Also, I’ve been fortunate to have two friends whose worldviews are very different than my own. In contrast to most people who tend to keep the peace by avoiding talking about subjects related to politics, religion, race, and sexual orientation, we tackle them head-on.

In the last few years the church my family attends have added two new pastors for two that left. They’ve taken a moderate, fairly apolitical church considerably to the left in a few ways including a gay and lesbian friendly “welcoming statement” and by embracing evolution.

Here’s an excerpt from the “Clergy Letter Project” that was read Sunday. “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory’ among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. . . We ask school board members to preserve the integrity of science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.”

I like the pastors and  strongly support the stands they’re taking, but I’m intrigued by how little effort they seem to be making to retain conservative members. Attendance is down a bit, so I assume some have left. My guess is there will be liberal replacements in the months ahead. In a year’s time I expect us to have the same size church, but we’ll be much more homogeneous.

Consequently, the church may lose some of it’s distinctiveness and potential to model the Kingdom of God on earth. Given the choice, people already tend to socialize with, live next to, work with, and recreate with like-minded people. If truly committed to following Christ’s example, it seems as if the church would be a counter-cultural institution, one where people’s faith trumps political differences.

And not one where political differences are swept under the rug, but where people commit to conversation and learn how to agree to disagree when necessary about things like gay rights, the causes of global warming, and the death penalty, all in the interest of modeling “another way”.

Am I too idealistic to think this is possible? The cynic in me can’t help but notice our church, like many, has two services, one formal with hymns and a traditional liturgy, and a hymn-free, informal “contemporary” one. The nucleus divides again.

In the end, will the small corner of the world that is Olympia, Washington end up more religiously, socially, culturally, and politically fragmented?

“How To” Conundrum

A very successful blogger I read says “always write something that’s useful.” Her posts are often of the “How To” variety. A friend told me the other day a recent post was too long. “I started reading it,” he said, “and then I scrolled down, down, down.” Another requested more pictures. Obviously no point in trying to please everyone, but I thought I could experiment with writing a shortish “How To” post.

Then I wondered what the hell do I know “how to” that others may not? I came up with a few things I don’t normally screw up, but then thought, what percentage of people would care? And do I really want to even flirt with a form that could be grouped together with the self-help writing that I almost always find complete bullshit because the authors dumb down complex phenomena.

Then I worked through those dilemmas and started in on a “How To” post, but I got hung up on qualifiers or caveats.

And then I thought, since I’m more comfortable with good questions than simple answers, maybe I’m just not cut out for “How To” writing. But there’s some evidence to the contrary in the archives, some decent posts (I think) about how to create an active lifestyle, how to cycle long distances, and how to choose a college.

It will never be a natural form of writing for me, but I’ll try again, sometime soon.

Digital Nation

The title of a provocative PBS frontline documentary that I recommend. Young people spend 50 hours a week plugged in. The film-makers seem in favor of teachers integrating as much personal tech as possible. At the same time, they highlight researchers who are discovering that young adults aren’t nearly as good at multitasking as they think. For example, drivers who text are 23 times more likely to have an accident.

A few tech skeptics in the film argue that tech-happy schools inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns with respect to students’ shrinking attention spans, disinterest in reading books, deteriorating writing skills, and inability to think deeply about anything for a sustained period of time. How can teachers integrate technology—whether cell phones, wireless internet netbooks or laptops, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and related social network sites—without the negative consequences?

Most of the tech zealots in the film would argue the consequences aren’t necessarily negative because the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Times have changed, no big deal if people don’t read books or don’t write as well as they once did because they’re better prepared for the world of work and they’ve gained new, gratifying, virtual friendships. As one zealot says, “Okay, so people won’t write in as flowery a way.”

The loss of “flowery” writing isn’t my concern, it’s the loss of illuminating, insightful writing. When I read, I want to be enlightened. Help me think about something more deeply or in an entirely new way. Take me somewhere I’ve never been Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Chinua Achebe. Introduce me to new people, move me, change me.

Another question raised by the film is how is personal technology impacting young people’s writing? M.I.T. students in the film are quick to admit that the sum of their papers’ paragraphs don’t add up to more than the total. Each paragraph is okay, but they don’t build one upon another because they’re writing while instant messaging, checking email, watching YouTube videos, commenting on them, reading blogs, watching t.v., and listening to music. They have “paragraph-long” not “essay-long” attention spans. In ironic parallel structure, the filmmakers suffer from the same malady since the last-third of the film explores drone technology in what feels like a tangent definitely deserving of its own 86 minutes.

How is technology impacting my writing? Like everyone I’m suspect, I struggle with internet-based distractions including a steady stream of email, other people’s blogs, favorite websites, news headlines, sports scores, stock market swings, and on and on.

A month ago I had to cough up my university laptop for a day to get the OS updated. To quote Paul Krugman (Wednesday in response to Obama’s backpedaling on bankers’ pay), “Oh. My. God!” I culled reading material, student papers, class handouts, and other forms of clutter that had been collecting for months. Next, I read some of the reading material that survived the recycling bin. Then with notepad and pen, I made writing-related notes. At the end of the day, I felt like I accomplished more than normal and wondered why don’t I unplug regularly.

Digital fasting.

Maybe the gap between how I felt after a normal “plugged-in” day of near constant interruptions (email, websites, blogs, the phone, colleagues, students, etc.) and how I felt after my forced “unplugged day” explains why I haven’t purchased a cellphone yet. As someone once said about globalization, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” I’m not ready yet to spread more toothpaste, in the form of incessant interruptions, onto my brush.

I don’t have a good answer for why I don’t unplug on a regular basis.

Truth be told, this blog may be a form of distraction. Instead of telling a sweeping, substantive story of some sort, one that rests upon numerous ideas carefully woven together, I spend thirty to forty-five minutes a few times a week writing 400 word mini-essays that rest on one or two partially developed ideas.

Telling a sweeping, substantive story would require me to focus for several weeks, months, or years. So far at least, I haven’t been up to that.

Inspiration

J.D. Salinger thought he wanted literary fame, but after experiencing it, quickly changed his mind. In an era where so many people crave the media spotlight, and style trumps substance (see Palin, Sarah), I find his intentional turning from notoriety intriguing. Will a movie be made? Is there enough post Catcher in the Rye material? Will his survivors sell him out? If it is made, the best way to honor his life would probably be to not see it.

Salinger was extremely eccentric, but what strikes me as far more interesting is that even after withdrawing post-Catcher he allegedly continued to write for pleasure. There’s a purity, even beauty to that, which inspires me.

Previously, I’ve assailed our increasing loss of privacy, which is another reason I find Salinger intriguing and inspiring. He took control of his public persona instead of passively allowing others to shape it. More accurately, he escaped having a public persona by assiduously avoiding contact with writers, photogs, and other media types. People today don’t seem to realize that there’s no obligation to take the call, speak into the microphone, or appear on screen.

Bill Gates strikes me as a very different type of dude too, and as a result, intrigues and inspires me in equal measure. A lot of well-to-do people do charity in ways that bring attention to themselves. And they give sizable gifts that are in actuality quite small relative to their total net worth. And their gifts, which often pad Ivy League schools’ endowments, don’t seem particularly well thought through. Gates has said he intends to give nearly all of his wealth away and he’s making good on that promise. He’s given something like $30b away so far and a few weeks ago announced that he was giving $10b more than planned for child vaccines in the developing world.

Gates stands out in a world where the richer some people get the tighter grip they maintain over their wealth. He doesn’t seem to seek media attention, but I think he deserves more of it for both the amount and ways in which he’s giving.

My guess is Melinda’s behind the scenes role has been key in Bill’s selfless, socially conscious giving. I’ve seen her on television a few times, but refreshingly, she has a little Salinger in her, content to parent, figure out how best to give away billions, and leave the media to pursue other stories like what Kelly Clarkson thinks of the Taylor Swift controversy.

And then there’s Sade, one of my favorite musical groups/people. Ten years on, finally another album. Turns out, Sade Adu has a little Melinda and Salinger in her. Here’s an excerpt from a Jim Fusilli WSJ article on the new album. “I asked Mr. Hale why the band takes such a long time between albums—it was eight years between ‘Lovers Rock’ in 2000 and its predecessor ‘Love Deluxe.’ ‘This time it was about family,’ he said. ‘Sade is a mother and she wanted to be home with her family. . . . The public side of what she does is what she enjoys the least. She sort of feels she wants to wait until she has something to say.’”

Imagine that, waiting until there’s something to say. After the Catcher hoopla, Salinger respectfully declined to say anything else to the public. The Gates communicate through their exemplary philanthropy irrespective of the media spotlight. And Sade passes on record sales until she has something to say.

Thanks for the inspiration.

SuperBowl Edition

Secular holiday Sunday. I’m down with it, but for the love of all things non-material, please kill the Pro Bowl and return to the original one week between conference finals and kickoff.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a Peyton Manning essay by Stefan Fatsis on Slate.com Friday. I’ve enjoyed listening to Fatsis, a sports business analyst/writer on National Public Radio over the last few years. He also writes for the Wall Street Journal. Smart, fast-talker, good insights. He lets his hair down a little in the Manning piece.

Fatsis’ piece brought to mind lots of things including what a curse perfectionism is for those encumbered by it. Perfectionists can’t help but project their unusually high and often unrealistic expectations onto others which subjects them to perpetual frustration. Others can’t measure up.

When I finished writing my lengthy self-assessment for promotion recently, I felt a real sense of accomplishment, but not in the way you might expect. Here’s the truth of the matter. I could be a better teacher, scholar, and university citizen (the shorthand term for service). And I could be a better husband, father, son, brother, and friend. And I could be a better triathlete and blogger. And I could read more fiction, keep the gutters cleaner, and manage my time better.

My sense of accomplishment comes from fulfilling a wide range of roles as well as possible. I’m never going to win an MVP (most valuable professor) award or the Hawaii Ironman and I don’t anticipate, fourteen, seventeen, and forty-nine (yikes, did I just out the gal pal as not young, more evidence I fall short as a husband) ever teaming up on a sculpture in honor of me (my birthday is fast approaching though).

I choose to live a more balanced life than Manning, that doesn’t make me better, just different. Would I like to play in the Super Bowl*, of course, but I would not have traded the breadth of life experience I’ve enjoyed for that type of single-minded success.

At times, I wonder if I use the “balance” argument as an excuse for not pursuing excellence in a particular area for a particular time. Do I opt for success out of fear of Success? I wonder, maybe I should dedicate myself to excellence in one role, whether to write a book, race an Ironman well, or become the man my dog thinks I am—for a period of time. It’s very hard for me to accept doing some things poorly in order to do one thing especially well.

I expect the Colts to win, but I’ll be pulling for the Saints. And if the Saints pull the upset, I’ll be watching for Peyton to blow.

* I realized my football career was pointless in eighth grade when I was a bad-ass (a legend in my own mind) cornerback for the Lexington Lions. Screen pass to the other team’s stud who looked like it was his third go-round in eighth grade. Someone missed their assignment and I was unblocked. Closed the eyes, wrapped, wrapped, uh, wiffed. Started playing more golf at that point!