Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.


The Teacher Appreciation Deficit

Thursday night, as I settled into my seat at Olympia High School’s end-of-the-year orchestra concert, my thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day when my thirty-four Masters Teaching Certification candidates discussed whether, as year-long interns, they felt sufficiently appreciated.

No surprise that most of them did not. Instead of partnering with them, they lamented that too many of their students’ parents ceded seemingly total responsibility for their  children’s education. I suggested that tough economic times seem to be bringing out the worse in an increasing number of people who seemingly view teachers—with their relative job security, solid health care benefits and retirement plans, and shorter than average work year—with antipathy and derision.

My doctoral dissertation was the story of a Global Studies high school in Southern California. Before putting pen to paper, I sat in on four classrooms for a few months. One dark fall morning, while I was interviewing one of the Global Studies teachers whose classroom I studied, he stopped me cold and said, “You’re the first person in twenty-three years who truly understands what I do.”

Most teachers do exceptionally good work in near total obscurity. Often, their administrators and colleagues don’t even have a feel for what they accomplish on a daily basis, let alone students’ parents or the public more generally. Ignorance breeds contempt.

Coaches, theater educators, and music educators are exceptions to the rule because their students sporadically perform in public. Typically, afterwards, the public praises their performances and applauds, sometimes as in the case of the Olympia High School end-of-the-year orchestra concert, lustily.

Absent audio tracks from their concert, there’s no way I can convey the brilliance of Olympia High’s orchestra program. It probably helps that I’m not a connoisseur of classical music, but at every concert I marvel anew at the excellence. Excellence that rests on parents like the GalPal who decided early on that our daughters were going to have every opportunity to excel at the violin, a network of outstanding private instructors, and Chip Freakin’ Schooler, the best orchestra teacher and conductor in at least this galaxy.

Of course privilege comes into play, but what better use of financial resources than artistic excellence? In fact, increasingly I wonder if beautiful music, dance, literature, design, painting, photography and related art forms are all that matter. Maybe we have it exactly backwards, cutting arts education in the interest of economic utilitarianism and consumerism.

CFS deserves his own post, but for now, suffice to say he embodies a critical ingredient to reforming education and improving teaching—off the charts subject matter expertise. A couple of tweaks to his life journey and I suspect he’d be conducting a major U.S. symphony right now.

Instead, he’s working tirelessly with fourth and fifth graders and middle schoolers at several different schools preparing them for the high school orchestras. His work ethic rivals his musicality, so much so it takes most of the summer at his family’s Lake Cour d’ Alene cabin to decompress.

I feel deeply indebted to CFS for the educational experience he’s provided Fifteen and Eighteen. At the end of the concert, each senior gave him a bag of chips, then took turns reading a touching poem to him, then gave him flowers, then new rosin rags, then a special tuning fork set to 2011 megahertz. Craziness, teenagers being touching.

CFS balanced appreciation for his students’ affection with selfless and pragmatic attention to wrapping up the concert. Pride in the students’ accomplishments, without the personal ego one might expect.

It’s the end of the school year. Tell a Chip Schooler in your community why you appreciate them.