Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Making Change

A colleague recently asked me how to make things change at school. We were having lunch and I shared with her my thoughts on how change works at a 200 plus year old institution. I have been thinking about our conversation since then and refined what I would say were we to have the conversation again.

First, I would say the change can’t be all about you. There are always things we don’t like about out jobs. Is the change you want to make simply something you don’t enjoy or something that doesn’t play to a strength of yours? If this is the case, you can negotiate all you want, but it will be hard to alter. And, there are things that we just have to do. I don’t enjoy telling girls that their skirts are too short or that their bra straps are showing, its just part of the job of working at a school full of adolescents. We have agreed as a community to a certain dress standard, as members of the community we have to hold the members of the community to the standard. If it depends on an area of personal weakness (and we all have them and need to know how to lean into them), then looking for support or practice with a mentor or peer coach may be a way to better handle this task.

Second, and this is where change can actually happen, look around at roles (not people) in the community. Is there a reason someone else with a different role could do the task better. In the case of my colleague, she works primarily with Upper School students. She has one piece of her job that puts her with Middle School students. This is her only contact with them. The students don’t know her and she doesn’t know them and yet she is expected to supervise them and teach them in the fifteen minutes of contact she has with them. In this case, she could make a very convincing argument that this part of the program and the students involved would be much better served by an adult with whom they have an ongoing, well-established student teacher relationship.

This brings us to the third element of successful change, proposing a workable solution. By suggesting the solution, busy administrators are given a way forward without having to spend time coming up with a solution themselves. The solution might not work, but it might also suggest to the administrator another way forward. In some cases, the change might not involve administrative approval. I think the more we are empowered to make adjustments in the way things are done so that they are done better is all to the good.  At our school, the change needs to be cost neutral. Also, to shift a responsibility from one job description to another means someone else has something added. The solution needs to address both of these constraints.

Any change needs to put the student in the center and be for her benefit. This is a school and our whole purpose is to educate young people to the best of our ability. Independent schools for all their independence are often quite averse to change. There are things we do because THAT IS THE WAY WE HAVE ALWAYS DONE IT (TTWADI). Creative examination sometimes shows that some of these sacred cows are no longer in our student’s interests. Now my friend’s actual responsibility within her job is not a sacred cow of her job. Until recently, it was done by a Middle School teacher. In my friend’s situation, I think she has a case for suggesting that the Middle School students are not getting all they can out of this key element of our program as she does not know them. When proposed changes benefit our students, it’s much easier to find a way forward.

Finally, if possible tie the change to a strategic initiative. Not all changes fit with strategic initiatives. Some are just better ways of doing what needs to be done. Switching from typing terms comments in triplicate to using a word processor and requiring that the whole faculty learn to do this is one of those non-strategic types of changes. But some are the small changes that help schools achieve strategic initiatives. One such apparently small change happened at our school a few years back with linking individual faculty goal setting (something we had been doing for a few years previous to this) to a three year cycle which coincides with faculty reviews.   Five years ago, professional development was something a few individuals did just because and most goals written in September were forgotten by October; now there is a school culture of adult learning tied to our many roles as coaches, dorm parents, classroom teachers, and administrators. Those not participating or only going through the motions are a definite and increasingly noticeable minority. What’s interesting about this sort of change is that it feels small at first, but over time the effect is transformative.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scaring the Children Two: A Halloween Tale of Conquests and Barbarians

One of the great thrills of teaching World History is sharing with my students the history of the Mongols. In past years, I gave an introductory lecture and then over several days we discussed a variety of readings exploring different historians' views of Genghis Khan and the Pax Mongolia. Students then wrote an analytical essay assessing the role of the Mongols in shaping the 13th century. This year I threw the old plan out. This year students were going to chart their own course with the Mongols. I assigned three short readings by Jack Weatherford, David Morgan, and Gregory Guzman. We spent two days comparing approaches and interpretations to the topic, though not much actual history.

Then I introduced the project.

One student asked me if we were doing the project before we studied the unit. I said yes. This worried them. A second student asked how they would know what to research. I suggested we brainstorm their existing knowledge and from there they should discuss with their neighbor what they thought they wanted to learn. They didn't think they knew very much -- and they were correct!

The homework over the weekend was to post on our class wiki the topic they wanted to explore, the questions they hoped to answer through their research, how they intended to demonstrate what they had learned to me and their classmates, their plan and timetable for completing their work, and the rubric they wanted me to use in assessing their work. They were welcome to work with a partner, though no group could have more than three members. The proposals were to be posted in the class wiki. They were all expected to comment on and make suggestions on each others proposals. I commented on their proposals and in most cases asked for greater specificity in their rubrics. For instance, how was I to recognize quality in their report? Or what did it mean to have clear visuals? Ten days later our class ended up with a film on Mongol food and the steppe environment, a wiki examining the social structure and culture of 13th century Mongols, a Prezi examining the conquests of the Mongols after Genghis Khan died, a film examining the life of Genghis Khan up to his election as Great Khan, and a multimedia presentation on the conquests of Genghis Khan after his election (complete with poster, Prezi, and demonstration with models of Mongol battle formations).

Throughout the research process students shared in our wiki what they were learning, lifted up questions they were having and offered help and advice to others in the class based on what they were learning in their own research. I also weighed in with my advice and suggestions.  In the end, I know that students have learned much more about the Mongols then they ever have before. They have worked intensely to pursue knowledge as completely as their sources would allow (they don't read Mongolian, they couldn't hold the arrows in their hands, they have never been to the Asian Steppe, and most have never ridden a horse!). My weakest students were authoritative and thorough.  They might have rebalanced with a bit more over arching thesis versus detail, but I was impressed (as were their peers) with the accuracy and curiosity they brought to their work. My strongest students were empowered to construct their own meaning and understanding of the Mongols. While no one worked on exactly the same topic, taken together, the class (including myself) has learned more about the Mongols than any previous class.

There were a few bumps along the way, they all used a source from with an author that appeared credible based on her credentials, but when tested against the big names in Mongol History, her facts didn't exactly jibe. I commented on this in their wiki updates and finally had to announce to the class the flaw. But this source issue actually allowed us to have a conversation about the importance of knowing who the important scholars are whenever you do research. The second bump had to do with book sources. I had showed them copies of several books on the Mongols. These were available in our classroom for them to consult.  The two groups working on different phases of conquest, complained that they weren't finding lots of details. I suggested they refine their search terms, consult Google scholar, and J-Stor and asked them if they had consulted the books on reserve. They were still coming up empty. So I opened the books to the sections on various conquests and showed them where to start looking. Sheepishly, the students in question admitted that in this case the books had what they needed. Another great teachable moment about the need to continue to use old tools.

Along the way, two students learned to use film editing software, one learned how to watch herself on film without dying of mortification, three learned to work around image problems with moodle wiki, four students learned to use Prezi (now if only I could!), and one student learned how to film boiling oil without getting burned! Their research skills were stretched and refined making them ready for our major research project in the winter term--three weeks in the library on a topic of their choosing (as long as it falls between 1000CE and 1920CE).

They were scared at the beginning. One student confided in me that it felt daunting to be responsible for determining what needed to be learned. On Monday, All Saints Day, we will debrief the whole project and process. I am willing to bet, that given their druthers they will choose project first (project instead of) over our other approaches to topics in World History.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Scaring The Children

Right before the mid-term, in my 10th grade Advanced US History class I had 5 students come to me with drop add forms to switch to regular US History. Four of them were in over their heads but the fifth was one of my best students. Then right after grades came out two more of my stronger students asked about their grades on a test I had yet to return. I had intended to scare off the weaker ones, but not the stronger ones.

Last Monday I went into class and we had a heart to heart. I offered that I knew what we were doing was difficult. When was the last time you had to read all of Tom Paine's Common Sense or Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? I asked them to explain what felt the most challenging and we distilled it down to three things: its hard to take notes in a discussion based class, we don't go over everything in every reading and we don't go over everything in wiki study guide for our text, the reading at night takes lots of time. Drilling down further, they felt I was asking too much for any one person to do. I agreed with them (which really worried a few). "Of course Advanced US feels intimidating and overwhelming, you are trying to do it all on your own! You want me to provide the solution by telling you what to know."

Then I asked what seemed to be working for them, some found the Moodle forum helpful, by posting questions before class it helped to make sure a question got answered (they also found it helpful when a peer answered a question within the forum). The collaborative class wiki study guides had helped some get ready for the previous test, others hadn't thought to look at it. A few were regular contributors to the study guides, most were willing to make the bare minimum required contribution and take their own notes. None of them looked through it before reading our textbook to see what I thought they should know and by not mentioning something in the study guide imply they could skim over it.

I promised to work with them by backing off a bit in the reading (but we are still going to the source more often than not). Then I asked them if they had seen the movie "Legally Blonde" and why they thought Elle so wanted to/needed to get into a study group (besides wanting to sit next to her slimy ex boyfriend). After a few minutes discussion I commanded them to form study groups, gave them five minutes to form a group of three and commit to meeting once a week for 30-45 minutes to go over things they were struggling with. We then discussed ways for them to meet when they couldn't manage a face to face. One group allowed that if nothing else they would chat on Facebook at a set time. Another is going to try out Skype. We agreed to check in next week to see how the first study session had gone.

Then I looked around the room and asked why no one had their computers with them? On three different
occasions I had encouraged them to bring a laptop if they owned one. I asked for a show of hands for anyone who had access to a laptop they could bring to class. I noted who had raised their hands and ordered them to bring their laptop from that day forward. (They dutifully did the next day, but the day after that two had left their machines at home as they didn't really think I meant EVERYDAY). Then I introduced Google docs. We have had two discussion classes since then --two rounds of Google doc collaborative note taking. The first day I had only one topic to cover, Shay's rebellion. It was a short period and I wanted to give my note takers time to get the hang of things. Later that evening I checked the notes and then posted them to our class Moodle site. Yesterday we slogged through a close reading of the complete texts of the Virginia, New Jersey and New York plans for a new federal government. The notes were better. I have posted the link to  them to the class site and noted that they have been improved since their posting. Next week we have more "Resolveds" to explore, this time on slavery and taxation. But, at least now, two days into "forced collaboration" they are feeling better and they are not going it alone!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Shostakovich and one of the five minds for the future

Last week we went to the symphony. Andre Watts, my favorite pianist was playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He played Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16". I first heard Andre Watts when my mother and I were in Chicago in 1981 for the interview portion of the Truman Scholarship competition. Not a classical music fan at the time, I was totally mesmirized by this man at the piano. Since then, every opportunity I have I go to hear him. I wasn't disappointed. The Grieg is familiar and yet he played it with amazing emotion and precision. I almost always respond to his playing by wanting to rise out of my seat (if only I could actually escape gravity). There are very few times when my mind is as focused as it is when I am in the audience listening to him perform.

The rest of last night's program was totally unknown to me. I had never heard anything by Dimitri Shostakovich. This symphony was so unlike the Grieg, so unlike anything I have experienced (I do not claim to be any other than an amateur and peripetetic appreciator of classical music). How do you as a composer decide you need nine French Horns or 7 percussionists (two tympaniests). How many orchestral works feature themes played by solo bass clarinet. The lead bassonist (one of three) got a special round of applause at the end. One of the flutist looked as though he was going to leap from his chair during his carrying of the main theme. Closing my eyes I listened as the music bounced from one section to the next. Looking down from our seats we could see the scores of the violins, the harps and the piccolos. The complexity of each individual muscian's score spoke to the intensive creativity at work within Shostakovich's mind.

The historian in me was fascinated to read the program notes concerning Symphony #4. Apparently, he wrote an opera called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin attended a performance of this opera in 1936 and did not like it. The piece was criticized in Pravda, Shostakovich fell out of favor and the Fourth Symphony, due to be performed later in the year was pulled from production. The Fourth was premiered some 25 years after it was written.

I am trained as a historian. My mind tends to run towards cause and effect, towards understanding historical context, towards weighing evidence and forumlating a thesis based on that evidence. Howard Gardner in his book Five Minds for the Future describes the disciplined mind as one of the necessary attributes we need to give our students. While I am not presuming to put myself in the same category as Shostakovich or Andre Watts, we do all share a common grounding in our respective disciplines. Watts can play the way that he does because of his hours of practice, his study of the composers and his years of work as a young man with the best teachers and mentors available to him. His work is energized by taking on new pieces to master and now teaching his own students. Shostakovich studied music almost exclusively, entering the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13. (Wikipedia). Both men pursued what we might call passion based learning. Not for them the moving from subject to subject in secondary school, though no doubt they did learn the math, reading and writing they would need as successful adults. There may well be what we as whole child educators would consider significant gaps in their education. Extensive study in molecular biology or mechanical physics, probably not. Shostokovich may well have read all those great and long Russian novels but I suspect he did not spend six years learning to write the analytical essay.

Most of us were not child progidies with early demonstrable talents in music or sculpture or mathmatics. Most of us were children with interests and passions. So, at what age does the exposure to all disciplines give way to immersion within one? Or put it another way, when do we give children time to immerse themselves so completely within a field that they might discover their vocation? (I mean vocation in the Calvinist sense of a calling). Just at that moment when a student is having a breakthrough with a science experiment and experiencing the wonder that comes with asking a question and through trial and error having it answered, the bell rings, its time to clean up and move on to the next class, the moment passes and a future Marie Curie is lost. When do we give students the time to so fully engage with an interest that after a period of time, they realize this is an interesting topic but not a life's calling? This is an equally important lesson.

Each child is different but I would suggest that every child sometime (or times) from 7th-12th grades has an inkling of where she wants to focus her energies or unconsciously demonstrates to aware adults her affinity for something. The structures of our schools frustrate rather than nurture her exploration and immersion. Some of our students will leave our independent schools for specialized public academies or preprofessional schools. Others will opt for homeschooling, taking advantage of all the online resources for the basics of a secondary education while organizing their days and weeks to emphasize the area of interest.

I would argue that developing the disciplined mind calls for us to re-examine the generalist priorities we give to our schools and the generalist, undisciplined students we tend to graduate. The disciplined mind is not equally versed in all the disciplines. The disciplined mind may be only barely conversant in other areas. And yet, this doesn't mean we have failed as educators. Our students will still be engaged citizens if we lift up the other minds Gardner identifies, the synthesizing mind, the creative mind, the respectful mind, the ethical mind.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


The F4 key, what a simple concept. I watched my techie husband repeat the same action several times and he explained to me that in Microsoft applications the F4 key will repeat the action over and over. I learned a new thing. Several years ago at two separate conferences, Ian Jukes and Alan November challenged participants to learn some new widget or command or application or tool within our existing set of technologies every week. I think I have forgotten as much as I have learned! Perhaps a running list of what I have learned would help me remember?.?.?.

F4-repeating the same action is a good metaphor for achieving the goals I set for myself as Department Chair and Curriculum Coordinator. So far I have been fairly consistent in shutting my computer when someone stops in to speak with me. And I have started visiting colleagues classes. Last week I listened to international students (Vietnam, Korea, China, Taiwan, Germany) stand before their classmates and try and convince them to come and settle in their region of the British colonies. In another class I found students using a Wiki to explain to their peers the late 19th and early 20th century context for understanding the Holocaust. Students made presentations on the Enlightenment, eugenics, Cecil Rhodes and the German occupation of present day Namibia. All apparently unrelated to the Holocaust and yet all connected by the students. Having a non-class member in the class adds a different sense of audience. Following up with students in their class forum after the discussion lets them know that their ideas were heard and taken seriously by someone not responsible for their grade or depending upon them to prepare for an assessment. Speaking with my colleague about what I have observed, gives them feedback and allows them to see their class from another side of the room (so to speak).

Repeating this process in two to three different classes a week seems a modest goal and yet over time I find this is a form of collaboration and participation in a PLN every bit as powerful as Ning discussions, following Twitter threads and reading the lastest great article shared on Delicious. I suspect that for independent school teachers being in and out of each other's classes in an intentional and purposeful manner is as revolutionary as anything else within the 21st century lexicon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Breaking Down Walls: Thanks to some of my teachers

Breaking Down Walls: Thanks to some of my teachers: "I always think about my own teachers when the school year begins. I had some amazing men and women to whom I owe a huge debt and I still rem..."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thanks to some of my teachers

I always think about my own teachers when the school year begins. I had some amazing men and women to whom I owe a huge debt and I still remember their names (I have forgotten the names of others from whom I no doubt learned stuff but what I learned doesn’t still resonate with a particular teacher). When I look back at what they gave me, they are the kinds of skills and knowledge we now call the hallmarks of good 21st century education.
1st grade: Mrs Concedine taught me to read and write and enjoy the reading part. I don’t hold my hand writing against her.
2nd grade: Mrs. Bird taught me that not all teachers pay attention. I had other kids doing my work. My mother caught this one and pulled me from public school.
3rd grade: Miss Hunt revealed dinosaurs and the joys of spending time in the library
5th grade: Mrs. Spencer proved that many teachers do pay attention. She knew exactly why I was failing math. I was reading for fun during math (I told her it was too hard). She also demonstrated how teachers and parents could be allies by enlisting my father in her campaign to improve my math--no reading at home until my math grade improved two letter grades. Yes it had gotten that bad.
There was an art teacher in there who suggested I wasn’t creative-his name I have blocked.
But we had this amazing shop teacher, Fred Lorenz, who taught us that our hands were capable of amazing work. I don’t think he and the art teacher shared notes.
In 8th and 9th grades Jane Kelso rekindled my love of math in Algebra I and Geometry (my children find this hard to believe)
8th grade: Miss Thompson did not teach me to love US History, but she did teach me that history was more than memorizing dates, a lesson I have hung onto all my life.
9th grade: Missy Cummins taught us everything (French, English, etymology, Western Civilization). We read Dickens, Plato, The Outermost House, we learned to appreciate Greek architecture and see it all around us in the public buildings in Indianapolis (and we learned what polis meant). I don’t think any of us ever had recess as we were forever being called up to her desk to discuss yet another problem in the latest rewrite in our attempt to write in the style of the Outermost House. To her I owe my sense of myself as a student, as a learner, as a human.

In high school I had many more teachers, a few were standouts.
10th grade: Mrs Kulp took away my confidence in asking questions and my sense of self as a capable math student. As teachers we have incredible power for good and for bad.
10 grade: Fortunately Mr. Doney so loved teaching Asian History that his sheer joy and energy sustained me (with help from Mr. Carey) through an otherwise challenging and uninspiring year.
10th grade-12th grade Mr. Carey was my choir director. He loved music and he loved taking our different voices and creating something greater than we were capable of individually. This is my only distinct memory of collaborative work in three years of high school.
11th-12th grades I had Mr. Doney again and Mr. Moore who helped me see my future in history.
10th-12th Mr. Goucher was only my French teacher in 11th grade but he was a presence in my life, sent me on two exchanges, and helped continue my appreciation of the beauty of this language I managed to mangle every time I opened my mouth.
12th grade Miss Benbow was shorter than me and stern to the point of frightening. She took my sloppy, loose and scattered writing and showed me how to edit and improve and write as process not as a single effort. I knew she saw more in me than I had shown her. She never knew Missy Cummins but they were sisters in spirit.

Who are your teachers?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Off line in the summer!?!

Today the New York Times ran a story called Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain. The article chronicles the experiences of five neuroscientists, a reporter, a photographer and a guide rafting the San Juan River in Utah. The men were part of their own experiment to see what would happen if they completely unplugged for a week, no cell-phone, no email, no laptops. “The trip’s organizer, David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science.” Three days into the trip all the men notice that the ideas are flowing, that wide ranging conversations on all sorts of science are happening as they row, paddle and concentrate on not going over in the rapids.

My own summer, while not quite that unplugged did include days where we had no wifi and no cell phone bars. Unless I was going to do some writing, my laptop stayed closed. Instead, I read 1-2 books ever two or three days, explored the Door County Peninsula with my husband, visited with people we met along the way, watched a lot of sunsets or noticed how different the water color is on the Michigan coast of Lake Michigan versus the Wisconsin coast(1). When we were with our family we played card games--lots of poker, spite and malice and Michigan Rummy. We swam in the lake, sat around the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables and relaxed on the dock (after we cleaned off the duck poop). We were less distracted, more focused on the task before us. Usually that task included a meal, a person, a book—one at a time.

At the same time, the projects I had set for myself this summer, increasing my online footprint, rethinking my World History class away from weight lifting text books and towards more online resources, and preparing for the curricular reviews I will help to steer remained on the back burner – percolating or fermenting without any real effort on my part. The books I read were all chosen with these school year tasks as a secondary reason in mind, but they were primarily chosen just because they looked like good reads.

Now I am home, I’ve got three weeks to the school year. I am fully plugged in and spent a week feeling very distracted by car troubles and the prospect of a new car—do you know how many different choices there on the Mini-Cooper build you Mini website or how few for the Jetta TDI? I haven’t read an entire book in over 8 days, though I have made real inroads into King Leopold’s Ghost. I will sit down to write and think of an email I need to send or a report I need to look up or the phone will ring and my daughter will call to visit and I get distracted by something she said and will start looking for famer’s markets in Boston while she is talking to me about having watched “Food Inc”. One of the Heath brothers in his book Switch talks about how he writes on an old laptop in which he has disabled the wifi so that he is not tempted to check his email or twitter or Facebook.

So what’s a curriculum coordinator to do? I think I will set two practical goals for myself this year. First when someone calls or stops by my desk to talk, I will close my computer. It just hibernates, it will all still be there waiting for me. Second, each second period I have free –about twice a week I will set aside to visit my colleagues’ classes. These are small doable changes with easy triggers—the presence of a person and a clock. More immediately, in order to complete my preparation work I will also continue to walk. If I could I would regularly escape (every Saturday sounds good to me) to northern Michigan, the North Channel, the Georgian Bay, Door County Peninsula. I don't own a private jet so walking will have to do. While I do enjoy going to the gym and find yoga really focusing –hopefully on my breathing and stretching—walking around the Westtown School farm, my own neighborhood or a nearby park allow me to really concentrate, focus on an idea. I think it’s the combination of being outdoors and the rhythm of walking (I am not a neuroscientist). I think it’s also that I am unplugged, uninterrupted, not tempted by interruption by choice.

Concentration and focus are important skills for us to impart to our students so is intelligent multi-tasking. Being a little bored is ok too, so don’t reach for the internet every time you find yourself at loose ends, go outside (in almost any weather), take a walk(2), listen and look at your surroundings, let your mind wander too.

(1)The water color in Wisconsin has to do with the Niagara Escarpment
(2) I know some of us are runners, bikers, tennis players, kayakers, rock climbers, but these things don’t happen so easily by just walking out of the average person’s home or office door.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Inoculations for viral internet stories

Earlier this week my brother who finds all things outrageous amusing sent me a forward that had been making the rounds purporting to prove that President Obama and his cabinet had the worst collective resumes in terms of private sector experience since FDR’s administration. I thanked him for the forward as I am always looking for something current to use in the information literacy activities I do with my students. And then the Shirley Sherrod story hit the news. I think I will stick with the forward I received but the Sherrod story makes it all that much clearer why our students must learn to assess their information, know how to track it to its source and then in the case of Sherrod, how to find the full text or in the case of the Obama Cabinet, how to test the information. Our students need to learn to think, analyze, research and then react. This is a lesson Secretary Vilsack should have had as well.

What follows is my reply to my brother.

Thanks for the forward. I will probably use it as one of my information literacy activities with my students this fall. I used to give them this email that circulated a few years back which purported to prove that there were more military deaths under Jimmy Carter than under George W. Bush. Fox news originally ran the story and misquoted the DOD/CRS numbers. This story then went viral on the email forwards with someone from a very conservative group actually changing the numbers and choosing to leave off the entire discussion of the numbers of non-fatal causalities during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It looks like your chart first was presented by Glen Beck. It then got circulated by a whole lot of groups including one called niggermania (I hope that's not where you got the story). The Volovkh Conspiracy a group of lawyer bloggers originally passed on the chart but has sense decided after discussing the underlying research and term definitions used by the creator, to remove the chart from its website. In explaining their decision The Volokh Conspiracy used as an example Eisenhower who apparently never had a private sector job even though he and his cabinet earn a 51% for private sector experience."This chart, in its original setting, has a number of qualifications that, among other things, make it clear that while there is a serious point at issue, it is also a bit of whimsy, and constructed as such".

I will probably have my students do their own research and actually figure out comparatively speaking how much private sector experience President Obama and President George W. Bush (in his first term) and their Cabinets had.

President Obama - He graduate from law school and worked at University of Chicago Law school as a Professor of Constitutional Law. Then he worked as a Civil Rights Lawyer with the private firm, Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Not a small or large business but certainly private sector (unless you don't count U of Chicago).
President Bush - He created Arbusto Energy and then "when oil prices failed" the company merged with Harken Oil where he remained as a member of the board. He worked for his father's presidential campaign and then of course was managing director of the Texas Rangers.

Secretary of the Treasury
Hillary Clinton -- She worked as a lawyer for the Rose Law Firm from 1977-1992 when she became First Lady.
Colin Powell -- Career Military!

Secretary of the Treasury
Timothy Geitner--He started his career working for Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm started by Henry Kissinger, then among other things he worked in the Treasury Department during George Bush Sr's administration, for the embassy in Tokyo, Council on Foreign Relations and the IMF before becoming the youngest ever President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Paul O'Neil (the first of GWB's three Secretaries of the Treasury)--He wins the business credentials end of things as he was Chairman and CEO of Alcoa and of the Rand Corporation. But he quarreled with Bush and apparently vice president Cheney so he only lasted a year and was replaced by John Snow who before his appointment was Chairman and CEO of CSX. He got into CSX from his connections while working as a younger man for the Federal Department of Transportation. Snow was replaced by Henry Paulson.

I am going to leave the rest of the cabinet seats to my poor students. With the exception of Powell everyone I looked up in Wikipedia has some sort of private sector experience. I know college professors and lawyers aren’t small or large business owners. I doubt though that the concerns of an O'Neil or Snow are the same as those of the owner at your Prudential Office in Sarasota. And I had read in one of the more virulent sharers of your chart that working for AT&T didn't count. If it doesn't count then neither I suspect should Alcoa.

Anyway, what every happened to respect for genuine public service? I continue to admire Dick Lugar; when did he last have a private sector job? Our own PA Governor Rendall is a career politician who took Philadelphia from the trash heap and helped turn it around. While he and the state assembly continually fail to pass a budget on time that has a lot more to say about PA and the weird politics of this liberal on the ends conservative in the middle state (except conservative democrats tend to win in the central areas too as long as they are Pro-Life and Pro-gun rights.) I think Rendall loves all of the perks of his office but having followed his career now for 20 some years, I think he also has a keen sense of himself as a public servant.

Thanks for the forward and giving me something new with which to torture my students!


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer Reading Two

Hurray Nikki Giovanni, even when her poetry is angry or trying to provide comfort and meaning after the Virginia Tech shooting, she is still life affirming.

Perhaps the biggest stretch in my summer reading in some ways comes from Patel and Zakaria. Interestingly enough both are immigrants to the US and both have roots in India, Patel was born in England to first generation Indian immigrants and Zakaria was born in India and came to the US for his university education. Both love what the US has to offer but I wonder what a dinner party with the two men would be like? What each of them love about what the US has to offer are so very different. Zakaria looks to the vibrancy of American entrepreneurship, education, and the opportunity to both succeed and fail as the great strengths that will continue to serve the US well into the 21st century. He writes about the rise of other countries and how this will not so much diminish the US as bring the rest up to a degree of greater parity. He compares the emerging role for the US as that of chairman of the board, no longer able to dictate, but still in charge of the agenda and running the meeting. These he feels are all good things. He isn’t all rose colored glasses though, quite rightly he points to the fear mongering going on by the likes of Lou Dobbs and Glen Beck and members of both political parties though he sees it more on the right than the left and he points to the paralyzing partisanship that prevents Washington from choosing the delayed greater good for the immediate points scored at someone else’s expense. His focus is on Washington though, when he does discuss government.

Patel doesn’t denigrate the market place though he has no faith in corporate America. For him, the corporations’ fiduciary responsibility to turn a profit each quarter means that these legal fictional persons will always choose profit over the greater good. And that they will never value the externalities that they can avoid. What are the externalities, pollution comes to mind. Oil companies like working in places like Nigeria because the regulations are less. Its not he writes that Nigerian’s value clean air and water less than their American counterparts, but they have less power and money to pay for these things via their government’s regulations. All corporations have gotten too big and too powerful and have bought the governments so that corporate interests come before citizen interests. But Patel isn’t all doom and gloom, and interestingly, here is where he and Zakarria seem to come together. Patel argues for people taking back their right to govern, to come together as direct democracies, to discuss problems, and issues, and work together towards solutions. He has some great examples in Vermont and Brazil to name just two. While I was reading Patel, Illinois’ impending bankruptcy, the legislatures continuing inability to address the problem and the state comptroller’s inability to pay the state’s bill’s made me consider writing my cousins in Illinois and suggest that they begin a movement to take back control over the state finances. Have the comptroller send each community a dollar amount on what the state can afford to spend in their community and then let each community decide how to spend the money. Do they want pot hole free streets great, but is that more important than services for the elderly? Clearly, their elected officials are failing. Why not let the people decide. They certainly can’t do any worse.

This idea of participatory democracy rather than simply the privilege of voting every four years resonates with me. This is one of the ideas I hope to share with my students. And from Zakaria I will have them explore, the idea that solutions to the problems facing local communities, regions, and the international community will not all come from governments, even the US government, but from diffuse actors, NGOs, research universities, activist groups of citizens just like themselves.

So what remains to be read (barring those books I pick up at books stores along the way?) I have set aside Glück. I have just started Mira Kamdar’s Planet India. I have read Kamdar, Zakaria, and Patel in reverse order of publication which is causing some cognitive dissonance on its own. Kamdar was writing at the height of the Bush presidency--American unilaterialism and heavy-handed pushing of the “Washington Consensus”--, Zakaria was writing in the early stages of the 2008 election and Patel in 2010. Kamdar clearly thinks India will replace America and that its model of excessive consumerism and unbridled greed is a failed one (I am only in the first chapter!). I have Jack Weatherford’s new book The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, The Concubine’s Daughter, Tanehaus’ Death of Conservatism, and King Leopold’s Ghost.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer Reading

Every spring I begin building a pile of books for my summer reading. Some of these are books related to my teaching, others are books I read about, others are recommended by friends, and still others come from books I have selected while browsing at my favorite book stores. Invariably, about half way through the summer, this mish-mash of biography, fiction, poetry, current events comes together around a few themes that emerge as though the books had been selected with a degree of intentionality. By the end of the summer I have built up a wealth of ideas, knowledge and material upon which to draw throughout the school year, in my work and at home. Like Leo Lionni’s character, Frederick I am laying up stores for the long winter ahead.

So far this summer the randomness of my pile remains intact. After all, what could Thief of Time(Pratchett), Switch (Heath and Heath), Shadows on the Rock (Cather) , Except the Queen (Yolen), The Value of Nothing (Patel), The Post American World (Zakaria), A Village Life:Poems (Louise Glück), and The Vintage Caper (Mayle) have in common? Yolen and Pratchett explore what it means to be human even when you are not and both authors bend time all out of shape though with very different effects. The Catholics in Cather’s 18th century Quebec do appreciate the wine that comes from France, one of the characters in the novel remarks that God put the wine in the grapes for man’s enjoyment and Peter’s Mayles’ Caper is paean to all French wine. But in truth, I am embarrassed to even mention Mayle in the same sentence with Cather. The first is really sparkling white wine (I once read a reviewer who called one of his earlier books the froth on Champagne) from Lelanau, Michigan, while Shadows is one of those vintage French wines that lingers and continues to reveal more of its richness with each rereading. As for the two fantasy books I need to abandon the wine metaphor altogether or I will end up with my all too tired rant about the artificiality of separating out fantasy as a separate genre.

Cather, Yolen, Pratchett and Patel all speak to the importance of community and valuing those things for which our modern market has no value—friendship, true opportunity, clean air, the exchange of goods and services among friends and neighbors, the messiness of life. Cather’s Quebec is life affirming even in the deaths she describes while Louise Glück’s cycle of poems set in an unnamed village hint at death and decay even in a poem about childhood friends on a picnic. I think I will be hard pressed to finish her poetry. Gluck’s poetry is replete with beautiful images, clear renderings of people and places but depression and dissolution linger in each poem. As I write I am sitting in our boat in Leland, Michigan. We are here an extra day due to small craft advisories. By the numbers Lake Michigan is massive: 307 miles long, 1640 miles of coast line, maximum depth 923 feet, 1180 cubic miles of water (volume) . When we are cruising, Tom will often remark, that’s a whole lot of water out there. The sky is endless and the dunes along the coast line are massive. All of this geography does make me feel small, finite and totally at the mercy of the wind and weather, but I don’t feel diminished; I am affirmed as a part of a bigger world. I am present in this moment, the characters in Gluck’s poetry always seem to be worrying about what is coming next or regretting what has past. Perhaps that is what I dislike, the sameness of the tone. The poets I love, Hughes, Frost, Millay, Giovanni, Levertov, Heaney, cover a range of emotions, tones, ideas, states of being and modes even within a slim volume of poetry. I will give Glück one more evening and then I may well abandon her , I have a Nikki Giovanni with me and Robert Frost.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Change at Independent Schools

This is a "reblog". I originally shared it with The Association of Deleware Valley Independent Schools, Powerful Learning Project Cohort in March 2010.

This past winter I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and I recently finished Dan and Chip Heath's Switch. Both books have provided me with a lot to think about in terms of how change happens. From Gladwell, I take heart in how connected we all are and how much of what we do and succeed at comes from taking a close look at who we are and the assets (or encumbrances) we carry with us each and every day. We may not all have access to super computers at an early age as did Bill Gates, but we are surrounded by people and opportunities who provide us with the tools we need in exchange for our hard work and personal investment. (10,000 hours is now my aspiring rock star daughter's mantra. According to Gladwell this is what separates the amazing athletes, writers, and musicians from the ordinary).

And now I have a caveat. One of the complaints I hear at my school (and I can only assume at other schools) is that groups are charged with tasks, they do a lot of research, engage others in conversation, debate possible outcomes and then generate recommendations which get passed onto administrators who are always busy. Sometimes one or two of the recommendations are implemented while the rest of the report gathers dust. Over time, faculty become jaded and wonder what all the effort is for. I recently had an administrator tell me that the reason most recommendations don't get implemented is that they are bad. But that is short sighted, bad or good, the correct response to the hard work a group of people was asked to take on is a response—a complete consideration of the entirety of their report. That doesn’t mean all or perhaps any of the recommendations are implemented. It seems so simple; people want their work (and time) acknowledged. This is where this caveat connects with personal investment! Change happens when a faculty is empowered to work on a challenge or idea, work through the possible answers and solutions and then tasked with implementing their ideas within the fiscal constraints that exist.

Heath and Heath make change seem possible, even at 200 year old schools steeped in tradition. One of the most interesting pieces of their book is the way that many of their examples of transformation begin with an initial solution that is small (all out of proportion) in comparison to the problem, but the solution is easily articulated and implemented, it involves changes in behavior (rather than attitude), it quickly builds energy and community, and shows results. Heath and Heath call some of this creating a path and I think that this is where independent schools most fall down. Many Heads of School start the year with a short list of projects for themselves and for the staff. Divisional heads have their own divisional goals and faculty are asked to write individual goals. All laudable in themselves but in the aggregate they end up being diffuse and perhaps overwhelming. And how are we to measure success? Retention? Yield on applicants, college admission results? The increase in the annual fund? The decrease in annual expenditures? What are our metrics?

Thinking about 21st century education or education in the 21st century can feel so overwhelming, so many programs, so many shifts, so many tools and cool lesson plans, so much to change in our current schedules, texts, assessments, that paralysis or TTWADI or entropy win out. The antidote seems to be a clear, specific path that focuses on shifting a very few behaviors. Each school will have its own particular path and I could imagine that each could easily choose to change very idiosyncratic things. Our Middle School has been involved in a multi-year re-envisioning process. Two years ago they implemented one change, one of the very few that was possible at the time--they created grade level teams and these teams started meeting weekly. These meetings have had tangible results in both jump starting program review, increasing collaboration and better attention to individual student strengths and challenges.

Now what small shift would it take to rethink our school year. . . . . ?