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.

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.

Where (a lot of) Feminists Go Wrong

Where I knowingly commit the unforgivable act of “mansplaining“.

Where do many feminists, like Eldest Daughter (ED), who I love dearly even when she repeatedly makes fun of me, go wrong? They think women’s equality rests on assertive demonstrations of personal attributes most often associated with males. This is understandable because traditional notions of femininity are extremely limiting, the problem though is the masculine characteristics Millennial feminists want to appropriate—such as physical and sexual aggression and promiscuity, profane/vulgar behavior, and insatiability more generally—aren’t socially redeeming. Of course they’re free to emulate the worst of male behavior, but we’re worse off for it.

My daughters and their friends celebrated the 2011 film Bridesmaids as groundbreaking and watched it until they could cite the dialogue. In essence they were saying, “Because Animal House has nothing on us, men have nothing on us.” Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars of out 4, and opined that Bridesmaids “seems to be a more or less deliberate attempt to cross the Chick Flick with the Raunch Comedy. It definitely proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity. . . .”

Before ED fires off an exasperated, impassioned reply to this post, let me tell you what she’s thinking right now. This is a rare skill of mine, knowing what the members of my family are going to say before they say it. It may be a uniquely male skill some describe as “arrogance”, but I like to think of it as foresight. ED would say, “Debauchery aside father, the fact that you’re writing about Bridesmaids and Animal House together means we’re breaking down the historic, sexist notion that women aren’t as funny as men! So what if vulgarity helps create long overdue opportunities for women in the comedy world! The end justifies the means!” And of course she’d attach a funny gif for good measure because that’s how she rolls.

Wikipedia lists gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity as traditionally feminine traits.

Given these traditional feminine traits, better that young men be more feminine, than young women more masculine. Ideally, overtime, these more socially redeeming traits would come to be seen as gender neutral. Better that all of us be more gentle, empathetic, and sensitive.

This “We can be hella masculine” approach to gender equity is painfully evident on television shows like Comedy Central’s Broad City (BC). When it comes to sleeping around, swearing, and doing drugs, the two female stars are up to any male duo’s challenge. Again, ED would say, “No surprise, but you’re missing the point again father! There’s one more show on television starring two female comedians than there was three years ago!” Always with the exclamation marks.

ED’s frustration has now reached a breaking point, so she’s stopped reading, meaning I can write even more freely about one of her favorite television shows. I admit, despite BC’s vacuous foundation, it is among the most funny shows on television—subjectively based upon how many times I laugh aloud during an episode. Also worth noting, my critique of it as a cultural artifact that allegedly symbolizes New Feminism extends well beyond my negative view of its “we’re every bit as masculine as you” dead-end.

In actuality, because I said she wasn’t, ED is still reading. Here’s what she’s thinking now. “How did I end up with the most Puritan of fathers in the whole U S of A?!” But dearest ED, my critique isn’t based on morality. Abbie’s and Ilana’s embrace of mindless masculinity almost always translates into victimless crimes. So what if they get high or have random sex. The problem with the show is its nihilism, meaning it never raises interesting questions or addresses big ideas about how we should live. Put differently, it leaves no mark on my intellect or soul. ED, “Isn’t it enough just to be laugh out loud funny?! That’s no small feat!” Yes it is if all they’re motivated by is what they can charge advertisers for commercial breaks.

Wikipedia on BC:

The Wall Street Journal referred to the show as “Sneak Attack Feminism.” Critic Megan Angelo quotes Abbi Jacobson, main star of Comedy Central’s Broad City; “If you watch one of our episodes, there’s not a big message, but if you watch all of them, I think, they’re empowering to women.”

By which Jacobson means, “Good news my young feminist sistas, now you can act a male fool too.”

As this insightful analysis from Lili Loofbourow (LL) suggests (thanks ED), television is improving because of women’s increasingly influential contributions. LL convincingly argues that more and more female writers and producers are infusing shows with distinctive, intelligent sensibilities, thus demonstrating the limits of “we’re as masculine” programming.

One example of improved programming is the incredibly creative and hilarious comedy Portlandia which contrasts nicely with BC. Portlandia’s setting and cast are every bit as urban, diverse, and edgy as BC’s, but a typical two or three-minute skit on Portlandia pokes more fun at our modern selves and raises more interesting questions about the limits of materialism, the superficiality of popular trends, and the idiosyncrasies of modern life than several twenty-two minute episodes of BC.

Wrapping up, want to laugh, watch BC; want to think and laugh, watch Portlandia. Either way raise children—female, male, something in between—to be equally gentle, empathetic, and sensitive.

Postscript—Broad City interviews Sleater-Kinney.

Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening

The false promise of ed tech, part two. Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening.

It’s day two of my university’s four-day-long orientation for entering students. Two steps at a time I hurriedly climb the bleachers of our large auditorium to an empty seat in the very back. Six hundred students have gathered for their first academic experience, a faculty panel discussion of a common reading, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014). First, however, the Associate Provost gives a talk on academic behaviors important for college success; advising students to “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged . . . be open to constructive criticism.”

A long ways from the closest students, a moderator stands at a podium. The students in the back and I look up at a large audio-visual projection of two formally dressed professors sitting at a table across from the moderator. The conversation begins. Question one, “How did your respective disciplines—Psychology and English Literature—help you better understand the novel?” The professors intelligently deconstruct the text. The second question begins similarly, “Again, looking through your disciplinary lenses. . . .” More thoughtfully expressed insights follow. Despite the professors’ expert analysis, something is amiss. Within ten minutes, the students in front of me start to stir, smart phones materialize out of thin air, a few laptops open, two students exchange backrubs. As ten minutes turn to forty, nearly everyone tunes out.

Seymour Sarason offered an apt metaphor for education reform in The Predictable Failure of Education Reform (1993). It is, he explained, like an ocean storm. During an ocean storm, the surface is markedly changed as the result of 100 mile per knot winds, darkening skies, mountainous waves, and incessant lightening strikes. Yet as one descends to the ocean floor, the water chemistry, darkness, and animal life remain completely unchanged. Too often, the modern university classroom, or in this case auditorium, is the ocean floor. Despite the fact that most “always on” young adults text continuously throughout the day, whether they’re in their cars or our classrooms, classroom teaching remains largely unchanged—professors mostly talk and students pretend to listen.

There should be a corollary to the admonition, “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged,” such as “Faculty will resist talking at you. Instead they will capitalize on your energy for learning by developing personalized learning environments characterized by meaningful interaction.” The teaching disconnect so powerfully illustrated by the common reading panel discussion provides faculty the opportunity to model the other highlighted academic behavior, “Be open to criticism.”

Deborah Meier argues in The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly telling” (1995, p. xi). Likewise, Decker Walker contends inFundamentals of Curriculum, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them” (1990, p. 479). University faculty rarely apply these aphorisms because they think of themselves first and foremost as mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists who also happen to teach. Consequently, scant time is spent thinking about whether conventional teaching methods are working. Even less time is spent crafting alternative ones; as a result, a talking at students status quo prevails.

This lack of introspection means faculty rarely engage in thoughtful conversation about their teaching strengths, styles, and struggles. That’s why the common reading panel discussion was implemented nearly identically the previous two years. No one on the First Year Program Committee has dared to state the obvious—if the goal is to engage students, it’s not working.

There are several reasons why the common reading panel discussion is not engaging students, but to understand the most salient causes, it’s important to know that Fowler’s novel is a riveting and sometimes emotional story that prompts lots of thinking about human-animal relations. One reason the students tuned out the two distant faculty members sitting on the stage is that they both read their rehearsed responses to questions they had received a few months earlier. Their conscientious preparation and obvious insight was not enough to compensate for the impersonal space coupled with a complete lack of eye contact.

Most importantly though, the wording of the questions, and the highlighting of their academic disciplines, meant they spent almost all of their time deconstructing the text as English and Psychology scholars when the story begged a human response. The professors’ intelligence was evident, but not their humanity. That’s why so many students turned to social media. Parker Palmer, inThe Courage to Teach, illuminates why the reading panel went poorly by detailing a typology of teachers’ questions:

• The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question—what subjects shall we teach?

• When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question—what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

• Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question—for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

• But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question—who is the teacher? How does the quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I related to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? (1998, p. 4)

Conventional wisdom seems to be that educational technology is the key to engaging the “always on” generation. In contrast, I believe the best way forward is to pay more attention to the self that teaches. Based upon the wording of the questions, the First Year Committee thought of the faculty panelists exclusively as scholars. Students would have responded much more positively if the panelists had first talked more spontaneously and authentically about how the story affected them as human beings—vulnerability being a key factor in learning.

This seeming reticence to explore the self that teaches takes me back to a few years ago when I participated in a faculty seminar with colleagues from across our liberal arts campus. During the seminar I enjoyed getting to know Kai, a young English professor, whom I learned was a talented and accomplished poet. At the time, we were both teaching first year writing. Before the start of one of our meetings, I told Kai about a successful class activity that was based upon an essay I had published a few years earlier. Dumbfounded, he said, “You share your writing with your students?!” “Yes,” I replied, “usually a few times each semester.” The thought had never entered his mind. The more Kai and I embrace Parker’s idea of the self that teaches and reveal something of our humanity, the better our odds of truly connecting with our “always on” students.

Embracing the self that teaches in order to reveal one’s humanity is admittedly abstract advice. How might that concept inform a new and improved first academic experience for any university’s entering students? The answer lies in the second half of my university’s common reading experience—small, writing seminar–based discussion groups of sixteen students. My group was relieved when I noted, “That could’ve gone better.” Then I began our discussion by reminding them that people have markedly different feelings about animals. Next, I explained the evolution of my thinking about animals and how that impacted the way I read the novel. The students were interested in how fearful I was of dogs as a child and were amused by my foolhardy attempts to outrun a few. Then, I confessed that as a middle-aged adult I didn’t understand how a few of my close friends thought of their dogs almost as children until my family pressed me to get one of our own. “Now, after nine fun-filled years with our amazing labradoodle,” I said, “I completely understood their special bond.”

I used my story as a springboard for talking about the importance of being open-minded in college to different ways of thinking and being. I also asked them about their relationship with animals and whether they liked the book or not. Forgetting their phones, they engaged one another. We should eliminate the large group faculty panel discussion altogether, in favor of the smaller, more personal discussion groups. And if we can get the faculty small group leaders to reveal something of their humanity, we may engage the “always on” generation in ways that revitalize the university classroom.

References

Fowler, K. J. (2014). We are all completely beside ourselves: A Novel. New York: Plume.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Sarason, S. B. (1993). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, D. (1990). Fundamentals of curriculum. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.