Thursday, March 27, 2014

Global Competence? Deeper Learning? Technical Skills? . . . For Everybody or Some? . . . Says Who?

So already, thanks to a constellation of articles in the Boston Globe earlier this week (Monday, March 24 and Tuesday, March 25), there's still more to talk about regarding who in America should be learning what, when, and for whom. Though in our democracy, we speak often and reverently of everybody--everybody has certain entitlements and responsibilities--we persist in having a terrible time talking about everybody in American education. The fact is that while every American student is entitled to an education intended to make next positive life steps possible, not every American student needs, wants, or is ready at the same prescribed moment for the same educational program or opportunity. Our policy-making efforts are hampered by the fact that the focus of our efforts--teenage children--are constantly changing because they're adolescents and still developing: we struggle to talk about and respond to students' needs and differences as present but not necessarily permanent realities. In addition, we tend to think very differently about the great abstraction of "American high school students" and the American teens we know and see daily for whom we advocate, hope, and generate creative and personalized educational solutions on an ongoing basis. For the students we don't know, we devise programs and policies to address problems and needs; with the students we do know, we carefully build relationships in the contexts of which we support, guide, confront, challenge, and encourage them as they navigate school as it is.

Our Different Perspectives May Not Be Our Biggest Challenge
Whatever our adult struggles of perception, response, and distance might be, the economic, linguistic, social, and learning differences of American students do not eradicate their common entitlement--and those differences must not rigidly dictate which educational choices and paths are open to or designed and selected for them. But several of the Globe  articles that have me writing today suggest that our different philosophies and perceptions may not be what most complicates educational dialogue and problem-solving. Our bigger problem may be a reluctance to express the values and priorities that underlie our educational proposals. One of our tactics is to provide few specifics about which students we have in mind; what exactly they need, lack, or deserve; and on the basis of what research we've concluded this. When it suits our purposes, including our desires to be perceived as citizens who care about everybody, we hide behind deliberate obscurities that mask our willingness to predispose certain students to certain futures. This vagueness leads to anger, then blame, and then--all too often--absolution of oneself and one's organization or movement from responsibility, present or future. Once again, the interests of one group of students are pitted against those of other groups in conversations from which student voices are absent. Talk stops, and the status quo persists.

So here are the articles that have gotten me thinking and writing. My apologies ahead of time to any of you who try to open the boston.com links below and are unable to. 
"Mass. schools require dramatic change, report says"
Of all the articles that are listed above, the one that's most dangerously obscure is the first one. Its first sentence does not specify if the "state's employers" are looking at high school, two-year-college, or four-year-college graduates, although the word "children" in the following sentence offers us a clue: "More than two thirds of the state’s employers report difficulty hiring employees with the appropriate skills, underscoring the need for major changes in how Massachusetts educates its children, according to a report and survey set for release Monday by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education." Furthermore, while the Business Alliance sees the creation of more charter schools as part of the solution to the problem, even though the article offers no data about the number of charter school graduates whose skills have led to their being hired for the "'good jobs, high-tech jobs'" that too often go unfilled, it also worries that an over-emphasis on standardized tests, which charter school students also must pass, is "to the detriment of . . . skills critical to success in the workforce, such as the ability to think critically, communicate, and collaborate."

The article lays out a partial list of desirable soft, non-technical "workforce success" skills that students should have, but does not offer a comparably specific list of missing technical skills, even though the absence of these is the problem the Business Alliance wants addressed*: are we talking about the competences laid out in the state vocational education frameworks, or about other skills as well? In the Rindge School of Technical Arts, the vocational school within Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), the technical and technological overlap considerably in such areas as graphic communications, graphic design, business, biotechnology, and video production. But a number of the technologies that students use in these technical fields are also used for teaching and learning in the other courses they take at CRLS.  So what technical skills are we actually talking about? Some specificity here would really help, especially in terms deciding when and where students should and could be mastering them.

While the response comments on the boston.com web site identify and question a number of the article's assumptions and offer a range of possible solutions to the employment problem, most respondents agree that the primary role of secondary schools is not to train workers--which may well put them at odds with members of the Business Alliance. No data is provided about the schools and programs in which Alliance members' own children are enrolled and whether their children are being expected to develop the technical skills needed for employment in MA businesses, which always raises an important moral question about who should dictate what kinds of schools and programs will serve "other people's children." The article speaks of the need for an educational climate and era that "'unleashes greatness." But will greatness be unleashed by increased technical skills? Personally, I think human greatness, the appreciation of it if not the aspiration toward it, matters greatly (there's that word again, this time in adverbial form); in fact human greatness has been the overarching topic explored in my AP Literature and Composition class for the last four years.  But as any of my former students would tell you, "greatness" means many different things to different people and needs to examined from different perspectives. If the concept of "greatness" is going to underlie educational policy decisions, it needs to be understood commonly, at least to some degree.

"Walsh makes push to get struggling teens summer jobs"
So are there connections between the skills deficits the Business Alliance has identified and the lack of corporate willingness to create more summer teen employment? The front page of the Boston Globe suggests that there is, offering the two stories in the same outlined rectangle, as you can see above, and entitling the entire section "Applying Pressure." According to the teen summer jobs article, "Economists say that summer and part-time jobs play an important role for teens and the broader labor market because they can provide the experiences, skills, and sense of responsibility that help teens succeed over the course of their working lives." While the article isn't specific about the kinds of skills that teens gain through summer employment, it is clear that these skills and the greater sense of responsibility that accompanies them benefit the teen employees. The article also says that a number of large Boston firms do not hire teens, or at least Boston teens, and even names several. It would be interesting to know how much overlap there is between firms that offer teen jobs and firms that belong to the Business Alliance advocating for school change for the sake of the technical sector. Are there some employers who expect to help young employees learn job skills on the job and others who do not?

"Hundreds of parents band together to oppose charter school expansion"
Meanwhile, as made clear in the Globe article about parents speaking out against the raising of the cap on the number of charter schools in Boston, not every Boston parent shares the Business Alliance's belief that more charter schools are the answer. Predictably, but still significantly, parents cite as their concerns the effect of charter funding practices on district school programs and the under-representation of English language learners and students eligible for special services in charter school student bodies. Mark Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, acknowledged that proportional representation of "the most vulnerable" students, as Mendell School parent Ellen Shattuck Pierce described them, is a work-in-progress. But having taught for a year (2001-2002) at Boston's English High School,** which had large numbers of Spanish- and Somali-speaking students who were very much in the process of learning English, and among whom there were a number who, like many of their English-speaking classmates, had special learning needs, I can't feel genuinely enthusiastic about "improvements" to which "the most vulnerable" are less likely to have access and for which they are likely to pay programmatically because of the current funding practices.  So many EHS students (not all!) were poor and marginalized, but so many of them (not all!!) wanted to learn and make something of themselves. I love what many charter schools do and achieve, but I can't forget those EHS students whom I knew by name, face, and the effort they were making in a strange, new place that didn't yet feel like home.

"In China, Michelle Obama turns her focus on education"
So what do Michelle Obama and the Great Wall of China have to do with any of this? According to the Globe, "The purpose of Obama’s weeklong visit is to promote educational exchanges between the United States and China." I loved seeing the photo of all three Obama women on the Great Wall; it reminded me that a week earlier, the CRLS winners of the second annual EF Tours Glocal Challenge had also had the opportunity to visit China--Shanghai rather than Beijing. "Over the course of . . . [only one] month [last October], CRLS students [had] worked with graduate student mentors from Harvard Business School, MIT and Hult International Business School to identify a local social problem that was important to them, research how other companies have addressed that issues on a global scale, and then develop their own innovative social enterprise business plan to implement in Cambridge," explains the feature on the CRLS web site. The two teams of students whose designs won the contest traveled free to China; most of them would not have been able to travel to China had the trip not been free. 

Like Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama, I got to walk on the Great Wall; seeing was believing, and thrilling. Two years ago, thanks to the generosity of the NEA (National Education Association Foundation and the Pearson Foundation, I visited China with a group of similarly honored teachers, each representing his/her home state. Because a major purpose of our trip was authentic educational exchange, we needed to situate what we were learning about Chinese education in the context of Chinese culture, past and present. Though my fellow educators and I completed an online course prior to our visit to China, nothing could compare with the visit itself in terms of shaping and deepening our understandings of things Chinese, our understandings of one another and ourselves, our senses of who might learn what from whom. When two months later economist Jeffrey Sachs, at a plenary conversation at the August 2012 Project Zero Future of Learning Summer Institute, insisted that the best way to understand places and the people who lived in them was to visit them, that simply reading and thinking about them wouldn't do, I couldn't have agreed more.


The following September, back at our home schools, my fellow teachers and I faced the same challenge that the CRLS Glocal Challenge winners and their mentors now face: figuring out how to share significant insights and experiences effectively, vividly, memorably with fellow students and colleagues who stayed home.  Perhaps any group seeking to share knowledge and understandings it has developed through its unique experiences and process faces a similar challenge. I began by having my students use the Right Question Institute's Question Formulation Technique, one of my favorite tools for ensuring that learning is for everybody, to generate questions about Beijing's motto, pictured on the banner in the photo. The discussions the students' questions generated over the next few days became complex fast: since--oh so fortunately!--one member of the class was from Beijing and another had parents who spoke Chinese fluently, we began by exploring the translations and connotations of the motto's words.

Teaching for Global Competence and "The changing face of citizenship"
The truth is that few American public school students will get to travel to lots of distant and different places.  But as my classroom story shows, all of them will virtually or actually encounter people, products, ideas, languages, and problems with origins in distant places about which they currently know little--such as Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, the countries of origin of a growing number of immigrants to Massachusetts, according to the last Globe article listed above. Given the certainty of such encounters, schools need to educate students not merely for interested and respectful acknowledgment of diversity and globalization, but for global competence. As this graphic sets forth, our students need to develop the skills that will allow them to investigate the world, recognize perspectives, communicate ideas, and take action. We can't just talk about others; we must be able to to talk to others. [Please note: The graphic above comes from Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World by Veronica Boix Mansilla and Anthony Jackson, which can be downloaded for free.***]

Global Competence:  For Whom, and How Soon?
So should everybody be educated to develop global competence (which, in my mind, is akin to being educated for deep understanding and even for college-and-career readiness when the Common Core is implemented creatively and not reductively)? Or should some American students be educated to become globally competent, while others are educated to become proficiently literate and technically skilled? Should only those students who encounter immigrant children be educated for global competence? Or is it children who are immigrants or the children of immigrants who should be educated for global competence? Or are these new and recent Americans the children for whom proficient literacy and technical skills are sufficient educational goals? Suddenly, I find myself feeling sinking unhappily into a 21st-century Americanized version of Brave New World.

But there are more difficult challenges. Can everybody be educated for global competence? If so, how soon? What if we can begin to educate some but not all for global competence, for reasons of funding and/or teacher preparation? Should we begin to do that as long as our plan is eventually to educate all? Even if we fear we can never afford to educate all? What if beginning to educate some has an adverse effect on the quality of what we can offer to others, even in just the very short-term? When should we feel justified in educating "some" differently than others, and for what purposes?

The pull-quote from the "changing face of citizenship" article, from a recent emigrant from Ghana, begins with the following sentence:  "'We love to be citizens of this great country.'" There's that word "great" again--and it carries with it all the possibility of the unleashing of that greatness via education and work, all the hope that's expressed by the name, provided in both English and Chinese, of a business several blocks from my home:  Promised Land Realty Group LLC.  

The Challenge of Talking Honestly Across Our Differences 
We live in difficult, contentious educational times, not all of us equally committed to equity and excellence, to democratic process, and to the "Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness" of everyone who is proud to be part of this "'great country.'" But those differences among us have always been the case. Perhaps our best hope is that those empowered to shape or make policy be forthcoming with education-related specifics and educational reports before they generate authoritative sets of recommendations and make binding decisions on the basis of them. If those specifics and reports become the basis of honest, respectful dialogue and negotiation that includes the voices of students and their parents, perhaps we really can do right by everybody. But frankly, it's the honest, respectful part that most worries me.  Who will be honest enough to admit to caring little or not at all for everybody?

* The actual report may identify these skills, though the Boston Globe article, which the general populace is more likely to see, does not.
** Mansilla, Veronica Boix., and Anthony Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society, 2011. Print.
*** Photo address: <http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l6vl7jb6rh1qajugo.gif> from "The Adventures of Sam and Caroline" blog: <http://samandcaroline.blogspot.com/2013/04/updates-from-english-high-school.html>

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Learning to Earn? Learning to Learn? Learning to What . . . and For Whom? Big Choices for Big Kids

So already, it all began about a month ago when I read Tom Keane's  February 18 Boston Globe editorial, "Is college worth it?"* Soon thereafter, I became aware of the very different ways that the four-year college educations of two college friends' daughters--both former high-achieving high school students--were culminating:  the daughter matriculating at a prestigious liberal arts college/university was putting the finishing touches on a senior honors thesis; the daughter enrolled in a college/university highly regarded for its co-op and internship programs was wrapping up an internship at a local music performance venue. Both young women are anticipating employment after graduation, one in the field of her college major through contacts made during her internship experiences, the other in a field not directly related to her college major or career goals in part to help fund future career-preparatory graduate school. Neither is confronting the need to pay off substantial college-related debt. Two academically able, responsible, savvy, financially fortunate young women; two extremely different but valuable college experiences and outcomes.

And two college success stories that suggest very different notions of the primary and secondary purposes of a college education and a college diploma--and, by extension, a high school education.

Keane contends, as the editorial's featured pull-quote highlights, that "College doesn't make you smart.  Rather, smart people go to college. And it's an important distinction."  He seems to be defining "smart" as academically "successful" enough to pass through those collegiate entrance gates in the first place--and I concur with him that many American kids continue to be systematically denied the opportunities not only to develop and demonstrate their academic eligibility to pass through those gates, but to qualify for the scholarship opportunities that make passing through them economically feasible in the long- and short-term. But why he believes that college don't make people smart--or smarter--eludes me:  thanks to the efforts of some very good college teachers and my own work, I know I got smarter in college--learned more, gained learning skills, gained enough confidence to apply my skills and knowledge in new learning situations, even learned much that I used in my long career as an English language arts teacher.

Interestingly, in the online version of Keane's editorial, the pull-quote is relegated to near invisibility by an advertisement for a TD Bank bank card.  Set below the advertisement, it sits on a plain white background that, identical to that of the column, pales next to the cash-green rectangle on which TD Bank's white, bolded letters proclaim, "Introducing the reloadable TD Go Card for your teen." But herein lies the tale. Keane's article concludes a college education's value rests almost exclusively in its yielding a college diploma: "The degree is a marker [to prospective employers], a shorthand way of saying you're smart and educated.  And this is where the college-educated do have . . . [the employment] edge" over those otherwise educated. If you choose to further your education by going to and finishing college, chances are better you're going to be able to get and reload that TD Go Card.

As I contemplate the different collegiate paths of my two friends' daughters in conjunction with Keane's ideas and the T.D. Bank advertisement, my teacher brain starts generating questions -- not only about what kids should be learning and when, but about our values and priorities as a culture. 
  • When and where should students learn the skills that will make them employable in our current economy? 
  • When and where should students explore the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences--and for what purposes?
  • What kind of learning belongs in high school and what kind in college?
  • How--and when--are different kinds of college and high school experiences valuable--and to whom?
  • Do college educations matter as investments, experiences, or both? Are they worth the economic hardships and burdens they create?
  • How much do people's answers to all of these questions reflect students' various socioeconomic situations and the economic realities/needs of the country?  
  • How much should the answers to all of these questions reflect students' various socioeconomic situations and the economic realities/needs of the country?  
  • Who is not only thinking about, but actually caring about, the day-to-day experiences of students in high school classrooms and the degree to which they are genuinely engaged in them? 
My urban public school teacher perspective takes over as I contemplate my last three questions and inequity rears its head

A few years back, while working with a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior researching the advantages and disadvantages of various student grouping practices in high schools, I was struck by the fact that educational literature that characterized the boredom and disengagement of high-achieving students as "unacceptable" seldom similarly characterized the boredom and disengagement of low-achieving students--if it mentioned their experience at all. High-achieving students were presented as sympathetic beings entitled to stimulation and meaning; low-achieving students, by virtue of their absence in the literature, were relegated to the status of nonsentient problems needing solving or managing.

In my opinion, all college students who are on track to complete four years of college as a result of purposefully fulfilling academic requirements and successfully striving for and reaching rigorous performance standards deserve to be characterized as high-achievers. But the experiences and concerns of such high achievers can be very different because of their differing economic situations. Some college students have time to learn, experiment, dabble without immediately worrying -- or worrying at all -- about how they will make a living and begin to repay their college loans (if they have them) in the near future; others, facing the imminent need to support themselves and to begin repaying their loans, struggle to balance "impractical" learning opportunities with those that will enhance their chances of finding a job in the very near future.  

So I wonder: of the different high school and college student groups I mention, whose needs and situations will ultimately shape the learning landscape for older adolescents? I fear I know the answer to that question, given our nation's tendency to pit the interests of one group of kids against the interests of another group, even though we should be--and could be--concerned with the interests of all.

Interesting that Keane's column should have appeared right when I was in the middle of reading both Time's February 24 feature article, "The School That Will Get You a Job:  A New Kind of Education Shows Why Four Years of High School Isn't Enough" by Raina Foroohar,** and Sonia Sotomayor's My Beloved World.*** To read both of these simultaneously is to be immersed in so many possible purposes of high school and college, including their very significant roles in helping students develop their personal and social identities; their pathways as students, citizens, and workers; and their senses of agency in their own lives. Economic realities play roles in both Faroohar's article and Sotomayor's autobiography, but there's no cold calculus that restricts urban students to certain pathways, decisions, and aspirations. If anything, both of these are about hope and possibility. 

In fact, I believe that My Beloved World should be required reading in every public and private high school: not only does Sotomayor detail her experiences of successfully negotiating the often painful complexities of being the Puerto Rican, female minority in a world of unexamined privilege, but she is the poster child for Carol Dweck's growth mindset concept. Completely transparent about how she learned to learn throughout high school and college, Sotomayor explains how she learned to trust in sustained effort, especially when she struggled to do high quality work; to seek mentors; to notice what seemed to work for her, and what didn't; to ask for feedback and help when she needed it. She also learned how to persist politically and institutionally.  Her efforts as a Princeton undergraduate resulted in the history department's creation of a seminar about Puerto Rican history and politics.  Sotomayor recognized that a developed sense of personal identity and selfhood, generally connected in some important way to group identity, needs more than the identification of individual passions, interests, and tendencies and a knowledge of the present; it needs backstory, historical and cultural context.

But wait:  Sotomayor's sense of the importance of her own origins is just one important indicator of the multiple ways My Beloved World is completely out of step with the priorities outlined in so many quantitative-data-centered school improvement plans and innovative education grant proposals.  Even its title is suspiciously soft, emotional, and affective in our current educational climate. Sotomayor was not just a focused, self-aware learner during her formative years; she was also a loving family member, a joyful participant in family traditions, and a loyal friend whose attachments to Nancy Drew mysteries and Perry Mason shows shaped her career aspirations. Furthermore, some of the jobs she took--for example, the data-entry job she did at Princeton as part of her scholarship package--lacked clear, direct springboard potential for someone intent on becoming a lawyer and judge.

From my point of view, it's the ways Sotomayor's book is both in step and out of step with our current priorities that argues for its inclusion in the high school curriculum. Schools need to provide students with opportunities not just to cultivate the skills associated with "college and career readiness," but to read and discuss literature in diverse groups so that they can explore their collective and differentiated humanity and love it without fear of censure or ridicule; Edutopia's recently republished column from last April, "Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools," says it far better than I can: at our own peril do we ignore literature about character, cultures, history, and civic engagement.

When I read about innovative STEM schools--schools that emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math--I often worry that backstory, culture, civics, and character will be seriously neglected. I also want to say that I recognize that when I do read about such schools, I'm often reading about them in relatively short articles published in educational journals or magazines intended for the general public--so I know that there's much about those schools that I can't know.

I did not anticipate feeling positive and hopeful when I began reading Foroohar's article about Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy****, the six-year high school in Chicago from which each graduate earns a high school diploma, an associate's degree, and "the promise of a $40,000-plus opportunity at IBM, the school's corporate partner and key developer of the curriculum" (24).  Yes, I loved that students earn associate's degrees and qualify for jobs upon graduation, but I worried about aspects of Sarah E. Goode that were not related to economics. While I understood that calling students "innovators" rather than "students" might create positive self-fulfilling prophecies, I wondered what was gained and lost by equating innovation and learning; the message seemed to be that anything NOT innovative lacked value. My biases against privatization made me suspicious of IBM's stake in the school: I wondered how much IBM was banking on Sarah E. Goode's providing it with a steady stream of qualified entry-level employees. Finally, given IBM's leading role in curriculum development, I wondered how significant a role teachers were playing in shaping teaching and learning, and how they experienced the partnership on a day-to-day basis.

Early in the article, Foroohar states that "realigning American education for the jobs of the future isn't just about the duration of school.  It's a question of what to study and how to encourage kids to see their education through" (24-5)--through and even beyond high school. There's no question in my mind that education should contribute to students' becoming economically viable and secure; and I always want kids to earn the credentials that can up their chances of taking a next meaningful step, whenever they might identify it. But that nagging question of "what to study" really bothered me. I fell in love with poetry as a junior in high school.  Could one fall in love with poetry at Sarah E. Goode, or was it absent from the IBM menu? 

Then I came across a paragraph that gave me hope that Sarah E. Goode does not exist solely for economic purposes.
Vilma Smith, a 10th-grade math star at Sarah E. Goode, who claims she started off at the school as a shy and quiet outsider, wants to go on not to IBM but to UCLA to be a screenwriter, inspired by both software-design classes and literature courses. "I want to learn how to tell stories to other people, but I also want to understand how to tell my own story better," she says. Those are dream words for educators who want kids to have multiple pathways and a multidisciplinary approach to learning and to life. They also reflect the sort of person that your typical American blue-chip company would be dying to hire. "After one year, Vilma has become a leader, someone who can reflect, articulate and self-assess," says Charlotte Johnson, a former teacher and now the IBM program manager at Sarah E. Goode. "Believe me, not everyone in a company can do that." (28)
Vilma doesn't have to go to IBM; she's interested in the screenwriter's art of storytelling, and she's clearly had curricular experiences that have helped her identify this interest and taught her that there's an professional/academic field associated with it.  If reflection, self-expression, and self-assessment are must-learn skills at Sarah E. Goode, I can feel more comfortable with its IBM-guided education. And Vilma's story, I thought, might reassure "families who didn't want their kids off the 'academic' track" (25).

There's another part of the Sarah E. Goode story that excites me: "Right now about half of the juniors--none of whom were screened for ability and many of whom will be the first in their family to graduate from high school--are already taking college-level math. It's an impressive achievement in a city where only 64.7% of kids graduate from high school" (25). College-level math requires knowledge, perseverance, and critical-thinking:  good things for any student, not just those in the school-to-IBM pipeline.

Last but not least, I liked that Foroohar did not cast IBM as an educational hero but rather as a somewhat altruistic pragmatist and capitalist: "And there are a growing number of blue chips, like IBM, that believe getting involved in education is good for both their long- and short-term business models: it simultaneously addresses their skilled-labor shortage and helps build a stronger middle class that will spend on their products in the future" (26). No need to treat IBM as if its involvement is all about civics and sacrifice; no halos needed.

But then I began having other questions.
  • How many Sarah E. Goode students who went to IBM would eventually go on to earn college diplomas? And was that important?
  • What kind of learning opportunities are available to IBM employees in general? What does IBM want from its employees besides their hard work, productivity, and active consumerism?
  • Given the article's point about the scarcity of such industry/school partnerships, due to the relatively small number of corporations who are willing and able to participate them, who gets included and left out when such partnerships can't become the national rule for reasons of money and location?
  • Exactly how and where do the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences fit into a Sarah E. Goode education? 


Meanwhile, since the above articles and My Beloved World were published, the College Board has announced its new version of the SAT.  In his column entitled "College President: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud"***** in this week's Time magazine, Botstein argues that teenage children (and their families) should not be subjected to an exam that cares about them first and foremost as a market; secondarily as future consumers and drivers of the national economy; and not at all as human beings and citizens. He views the SAT, even in its revised form, as the perpetrator of the inequitable, arbitrary, not-really-educational, and therefore unacceptable status quo: "The victim in this unholy alliance between the College Board (a profit-making business masquerading as a not-for-profit educational institution serving the public good) and our elite institutions of higher education are students and our nation’s educational standards."

To compete with the ACT, the College Board is putting on a not very good act to assure the public that its purposes are educational equity and excellence, says Botstein. Explaining how the tests aren't authentically educational, Botstein states, "First, . . . , these tests remain divorced from what is taught in high school and what ought to be taught in high school.  Second, the test taker never really finds out whether he or she got any answer right or wrong and why. . . . What purpose is served by putting young people through an ordeal from which they learn nothing?" Given that the new SAT is bound to spawn accompanying test-prep resources and services that some students will not be able to afford, "Nothing that is now proposed by the College Board breaks the fundamental role the SAT plays in perpetuating economic and therefore educational inequality."  

There's so much that students might learn, and somewhat limited time and opportunity to learn it: 21st-century college-and-career-readiness skills, SAT test-prep content and skills, Common Core content and skills within and across multiple subject areas. There are so many choices for the student thinking about what's worthwhile in both the present and future.

As civic life deteriorates, the middle class evaporates, and college diplomas continue to correlate strongly to economic and social opportunity, schools must be concerned with the ability of their graduates to seek and find employment immediately and/or soon after high school and/or college graduation. But at what peril do we make education only about the individual's and the country's economic future? I'm talking about "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"--about the joy that people--including students--feel when they identify what interests them, what piques their curiosity, what they care about, and then experience themselves as empowered and competent enough to pursue it, learn (more) about it, share it, even advocate for it. Again, my experience as a classroom teacher tells me that students revel in experiencing themselves as increasingly competent as learners, creators, and citizens/community members--as persons who can create high quality work, raise others' consciousness, and effectively advocate for change. Kids--in college and in high school--love to feel that they're smarter than they thought, that they're getting smarter, that they can actually apply their skills and knowledge in contexts and communities that matter greatly to them, and that they will eventually be able to find and do paying work that matters to them and lets them live with some degree of peace of mind.

P.S. My good friend and former CRLS colleague Donald Burroughs reminds me that I've been writing this while tenth graders across Massachusetts have been taking the long composition section of the MCAS exam!!!! That's CRLS in the last photo above.

* Keane, Tom. "Is College Worth It?" BostonGlobe.com. N.p., 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
** Foroohar, Rana. "The School That Will Get You a Job." Time. Time Inc., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
*** Sotomayor, Sonia. My Beloved World. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
****Screen shot in next paragraph from photo onhttp://media.nbcchicago.com/images/654*368/sarah-goode-stem-academy-1.jpg.
***** Botstein, Leon. "College President: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud | TIME." Time. Time, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Slow Cooking, Slow Looking: It's About Time . . .

So already, I'm finally relaxing, taking it slow.  Re-conceptualizing the first phase of my life post-Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) as a sabbatical has empowered me to stop trying to put time to use, and to begin appreciating and noticing time for its own miraculous sovereignty and flow. I've begun looking for time.  And so far, it seems that I may be hallowing time rather than wallowing in it.  Or what may be more accurate is that I'm hallowing time because I'm wallowing in it.

Interesting that "wallow" and "hallow" look so much alike -- which I only noticed while writing the above paragraph. While online etymological dictionaries don't link the two words (just checked!), not every definition of "wallow" has a negative connotation.  A few definitions suggest that wallowing can be an expression of the desire "to delight greatly," but not "to an immoderate degree," in some kind of a "medium" that isn't "defiling or unclean."*

When I set out to notice time, I found it immediately in a few places.  The first was the side streets of Beacon Hill. A predicted major snowstorm had not materialized on March 3, so a good friend's and my plans for dinner were still on. It was a bitterly cold late-afternoon/early-evening when I walked down Charles Street toward Chestnut Street. But it was March; the sunlight and the colors proclaimed earliest spring, defying the cold's brutal hold on the body and imagination. The photo at the left captures the seasonal mixed message:  at the bottom of the hill, shadows dark enough to merit headlight use; at the top of the hill, bare tree branches illuminated copper-gold by sunlight promising imminent warmth and growth.

I had just been seated at a table by the restaurant's front window, when a cellphone message alerted me that my friend was delayed and en route.  Nothing to do but alternate my gaze between the televised fire in the hearth (pretty funny, but atmospheric nonetheless) and the street's darkening shadows. Especially during the last five years, I've come to love reasonable, informed amounts of seated waiting:  on slightly delayed Amtrak trains, in comfortable waiting rooms with lots of recipe- and celebrity-filled magazines, in cozy restaurant booths with a menu and a glass of wine at hand. In these situations, time feels like a taffy rope stretching sweet and supple without the obligation of anything other than waiting itself.  "Might as well just sit back and relax," I tell myself at such moments.


After dinner, my friend and I headed to the ele- vated plat- forms of the Charles T Station. Settled on the inbound platform, I began pay- ing atten- tion to time again--with help of the electronic update signs. 

I've gotten into the habit of carrying my camera with me wherever I go, so I knew I had the perfect means of capturing time--and distracting myself from the frigid wind that was calmly rolling across the platform. (I was changing my camera's battery pack during minute #5; but was pleased to capture the arrival of the Alewife train at the 2-minute mark.) 

I've spent a lot of time watching the time change on various subway stations' electronic update
boards, but I  have generally watched those boards with a sense of impatient, beleaguered hope: when the sky was dark, they generally lay between me and getting home sooner rather than later to deal with the countless responsibilities that preceded turning in for the night and getting up the next morning to do it all over again. But on March 3, those minutes felt like magical, evanescent entities, each deserving of its own celebration and preservation.

My deliberate efforts to experience and cherish time reminded me of the passage from Camus's The Plague in which Dr. Rieux, the narrator, shares an excerpt from Jean Tarrou's diary:
 
**So after describing how the discovery of a dead rat had caused the cashier at the hotel to make a mistake in his bill, Tarrou added, . . . : 'Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist's waiting-room on an uncomfortable chair; live on one's balcony on a Sunday afternoon; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, choose the most roundabout and least convenient routes on the railway (and, naturally, travel standing up); queue at the box-office for theatres and so on and not take one's seat; etc.'
I'm no Jean Tarrou figure:  he takes it all a bit further than I am willing to go. Still, there is a sense that time has an inherent value, even though one's efforts to experience it fully can become absurd and counter-productive.

But in reading the suggested daily meditations in Rabbi Chaim Stern's Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought, I keep encountering helpful perspectives on the topic of time. For example, among his materials associated with the the P'kudei Torah portion (Exodus 38:21-40:28), Stern includes the following quotation from Arnold Bennett's How to Live on 24 Hours a Day"The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions" (155).***

That's what I'm focused on right now, the "daily miracle" of time--not experienced in short supply, as was often the case before I ended my tenure at CRLS on January 31, but experienced as full, unfolding, ample, able to be assigned and spent, at least some of the time, as I see fit. Some daily rituals are helping me with this: besides walking (almost) daily and reading and thinking about the daily meditations offered by Stern's book, I'm reading The Writer's Almanac's daily poem and watching one hour of television without doing anything while I am watching, just because I know from my students recovering from concussions that television demands less of the brain than almost anything else.  I need time to think, and time not to think; time to dig in, and time to let things flow by and over me.


It's only twenty-two degrees in Boston right now, but the sunlight that keeps finding its way between the scattered clouds, remnants of this morning's snow-storminess, is butter-warm and butter-yellow. Hard to believe the wintry view outside of my window after I spent two temperate, April-like days just earlier this week at the far end of Cape Cod.  Balmy temperatures, lots of sunshine, and the gentlest of breezes meant multiple beach walks -- and lots of opportunity to watch the tide go in and out.  What more satisfying way to notice time than by watching sunlit water inch its way up and down the coastal shelf? And what more satisfying place and time to witness the rhythms and cycles, hopefully eternal, that contribute to the shapes and meanings of our lives?

At one point, I thought to myself: "Maybe I won't do anything at all after this sabbatical.  Maybe I don't have to." Enjoying that sunlight and the gentle sound of the surf, I didn't feel guilty at all.

* Quoted phrases from various definitions offered on the following web page:  <http://www.finedictionary.com/wallow.html>
**Extract from Penguin version of Camus, Albert. The Plague. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin, 2009. Print. <http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780141045511/plague-popular-penguins/38539/extract>
***Stern, Chaim. Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On Slow Cookers and Sabbaticals: Reflections at the End of the First Month of "Retirement"

So already, it's been a full month since my last day at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS). While I really miss daily encounters with colleague-friends and students, I don't miss early mornings standing on the Wollaston Station subway platform or late nights grading at my dining room table. I love that I have time to read. My period of adjustment continues. I am having to push myself not to push myself. You see the paradox.

Wednesday morning, after a long, uninterrupted sleep, I woke up to a day with no plans and appointments -- and to an attack of the "shoulds."  They often accost me when unstructured, unclaimed time rolls out in front of me:  I should go for a walk. I should go to the grocery store. I should mail the hat. I should write my next blog post. I should vacuum.  I should . . ..

My bed was deliciously warm; the wan gray daylight edging my window blinds reminded me that snow flurries were forecast for this unseasonably cold morning. Bed was the perfect place to be. But the shoulds weren't having it: Should I walk now, or walk later? Should I go to Stop & Shop or Hannaford? Should I mail the hat from the post office or the UPS store? What order for all of this? Should I do it all today?

Somehow, this last question pierced my brain-frenzy and essentially slapped me upside the head. None of the shoulds had to happen that day. And so I pushed them away. Just like that. I breathed in. I exhaled. I made coffee. I read the newspaper. 

It's funny how easily "should" metamorphoses into "want to" when the pressure of expectations--my own? other people's?--is removed.  Liberated from the claims of productivity, enlightened purpose, and duty, I decided I wanted to begin my day with a trip to the UPS Store to mail the hat, to be followed by a visit to the Stop & Shop to buy the ingredients for the slow-cooker dish that was going to be Friday's dinner.

As I was driving to the UPS Store, I was filled with thoughts of how easy it was, now that I was no longer going to CRLS every day, to mail back to a friend the favorite hat that he'd left it in the trunk of my car several days earlier.  Had I still been working, finding the time during the work week when I could actually get to the UPS Store or the post office when it was open would have been its own feat of balancing, juggling, and re-organizing time and obligation:  such is the lot of school-based educators whose lunch less-than-hours, generally a combination of eating and dashing, seldom involve leaving the school building. Suddenly, as I weaving my way around Adams Street's ugly pothole obstacle course,* I felt so happy and so free that I wondered if there was a beracha I could say, some blessing to sanctify this moment, to give thanks for being able to take care of something that needed doing so, so easily.

Early retirement is so much about adjusting to the non-regimentation and general increase in time and choice. But because there's so much time, the most elusive commodity in a teacher's life, it's so easy to feel guilty about squandering it. The word "squandering" probably needs a connotation transformation for new retirees. Rather than signifying a lack of responsibility and a disrespect for what is precious and fleeting, it might signal a permission to experience time not as a commodity dedicated to this or that, but as a thing in of itself:  to wallow in it when it lags; to marvel at it when it races unstoppably; to note when it has vanished discreetly, surreptitiously, completely.

For me, it's about wanting to be in slow-cooker mode for a while.  My slow cooker, which does most of the work when it and I cook together, continually reminds me of the generative power of long hours and sustained low heat. Through my slow cooker's glass cover, I get to observe the visible but still mysterious process of discrete ingredients' melding over time to become a "dish." I have lots of time to spend looking, wondering, . . . and looking forward: since I generally set my crock pot on the low-temperature setting, there's an 8-10-hour period during which I can check in periodically on what's happening, and also do plenty of other things, always with the satisfying, centering knowledge that a nutritious, aromatic transformation is in process.

So what's stopping me from embracing slow-cooker mode? The answer: a highly active sense of duty that's easily stimulated.

Beyond my kitchen are many who believe that new retirees, especially those under the age of sixty-five or even seventy, should not--must not--step back, rest up, and recalculate before embarking on "whatever's next." They argue that the world is so broken and needy that those who can help to heal it must not exit the struggle, even temporarily. While I agree that skillful, committed people must respond when the world cries out in need, I also believe that there are many more and less effective ways to do so.  So, there are important, thoughtful decisions to be made. Personally, I don't want to make such decisions without taking some time to rest, recharge, reflect, and re-envision. But how to balance these simultaneous inclinations toward social and personal need? Is the solution to keep my slow-cooker aspirations, but to adopt the high- rather than low-temperature setting?

But then I confront another complication: slow cookers generally live in kitchens, the historical female domain; and since I have retired, I have read four books about uncommon women who always saw beyond the kitchen for themselves, other women, and people in general. Of the two uncommon nineteenth-century women, both of whom lacked the extended formal educations bestowed on their male relatives, only one managed to become a voice -- a public intellect and reformer. The non-fictional twenty-first-century uncommon woman, from a background that did not mark her as predestined for future national prominence, parlayed her first-rate education and exceptional personal qualities into a position of judicial leadership. Finally, the fictional twenty-first-century uncommon woman, though seemingly on the brink of self-destruction as the novel about her begins, created something magnificent and praiseworthy at an earlier point in her life. It's hard to stop laboring in a profession when having a profession was not an option for most American women not that long ago. When I contemplate what others have done to ensure women's right to participate fully in American political, economic, professional, and civic life, stepping back and slowing down even temporarily can seem like acts of ingratitude and lost possibility.

But even Margaret Fuller periodically recognized her personal need to slow down, rest, and re-evaluate. There's a fifth book that I've been reading: Rabbi Chaim Stern's Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought.  Organized around the Jewish liturgical year's cycle of Torah readings, each chapter focuses on a significant theme drawn from that week's Torah portion. During the recent week of Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20), the daily meditations were on the theme of "Work and Rest" because in the Sidra, God commands the Israelites to "have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD" (35:2)** after six days of laboring to build the Tabernacle. God decrees rest. 

Rest is important, especially after a period of intense labor. In the Torah, and often in our lives, it creates the circumstances under which work can be undertaken for its highest purposes.  Stern provides a quotation from Claude G. Montefiore for contemplation: "The Sabbath is one of the glories of our humanity. For if to labour is noble, of our own free will to pause in that labour may be nobler still"(151).*** A minister friend put it to me a different way yesterday morning: "Sometimes the work is to rest." And only one day earlier, another old friend, to whom I had described my chronic attacks of the shoulds, had said something similar: "'I should rest' would be a good kind of 'should' to have right now."


It's very comforting to me to see my own struggles with the work-and-rest relationship echoed in comments and observations from many wise persons and traditions--but especially comforting to see them echoed and explored in the sacred texts and teachings of my own religion. I am so grateful for the experience of feeling and being supported by something large, deep, wise, and deeply caring during this time of transition.  I also give thanks for finally understanding that this time that I am taking at the beginning my retirement to rest, reflect, and rejoice is a "sabbatical." As such, it promises that "There will be time," as the lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" say, for contemplating "all the works and days of hands /That lift and drop a question on your plate." There are lots of questions and answers, lots of possibilities and plans, to entertain in the months ahead, and plenty of time to wonder about them, set them aside, and wonder about them again. There are also lots of slow-cooker recipes I've thought about trying but never had the time to actually make. Slow-cooker mode, here I come!

* Screen shot of image from the following blog - and it's a good blog post, too: http://pathtowellness.com.au/should-is-a-dirty-word/
**Plaut, W. Gunther. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981. Print.
***Stern, Chaim. Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print.