Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Empathy and Revolution

Several things intersected for me this past two weeks ago. David Brooks wrote an op-ed on the “Limits of Empathy” NYTimes 9/29/2011, I took my mother to see the “Rembrandt and the Faces of Christ” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I worked with several faculty at my school on what our students need from their education in the 21st century.  The David Brook’s piece was happen stance, I was catching up on the op ed section of the paper over breakfast the morning of my museum trip. Brooks seemed to be tilting at windmills in a way. What educator or even parent would assume that empathy alone is enough to create moral action? Brooks takes issue with what he considers a lopsided embrace of the whole idea of “Walking a mile in another’s shoe” and then points to the myriad research showing how sad people are when they do really horrible things to others. As if to suggest, that empathy –the sense of feeling with someone other—precludes moral judgment. Or even that moral judgment and moral action can and perhaps should operate separate from empathy. John Howard Griffin, certainly had a strong moral code growing out of his Catholic faith but he didn’t have any understanding of how to act in relation to his black neighbors until he assumed a black identity and then wrote about his experiences in the Jim Crow South in his book Black Like Me.  I suspect it was unfair to Brooks to have him in my mind as I went to an exhibit that was all about a search for empathy and a desire by Rembrandt and his students to act and create based upon that newfound empathy.

In this exhibit the process of Rembrandt’s work is what is being depicted, displayed and celebrated. While there are major paintings in the exhibit they are a part of a process not unitary, stand alone works of unique inspiration. The heart of the exhibit is seven paintings –portraits of Christ-- completed by Rembrandt and his students between 1643 and 1655. Each of these paintings is small and each is meant as a study to be used in the studio, not a finished major work of art. Rembrandt wanted to break with the tradition of depicting Christ as a perfect, god in human form who just happened to also have very Roman features. He asked Jewish neighbors to sit for him in his studio as he imagined different moments in Christ’s life—breaking bread with his friends, teaching and preaching, contemplating his death in Gethsemene,  the moments before the horrors of his crucifixion. How would these moments be expressed by a human Christ? In choosing Jewish models, Rembrandt seems to want to assert the otherness—not fair haired, not blue eyed-- of Christ. In choosing his Jewish neighbors, this different looking Christ remains familiar. In choosing human models Rembrandt connects Christ in a much more intimate way with the viewers of the art—his humanness breaks down the divide the divinity in earlier depictions creates. Rembrandt and his students seek to understand Christ’s feelings and translate them through oil paint for the artists’ contemporary audience. In this search for fellow feeling, Rembrandt transforms for all time the way that Jesus is understood.[1]

A second theme in the exhibit is his approach to working with his students. Many of the paintings and sketches in the exhibit are those of his students. Typically, masters had their students create copies, Rembrandt encouraged his students to extend his originals and add their own understanding. This fascinated me as I compared Rembrandt’s work with that of his students. There are numerous sketches of Christ’s appearance on the road to Emmaus. In all of them Rembrandt is exploring all the possible ways for revelation to occur and for the disciples to react. Towards the end of the exhibit is a major painting by one of Rembrandt’s students on this subject. In this painting the light is behind one of the disciples and actually best illuminates the faces of the two servants who are oblivious to what is happening. Jesus has no special glow, no halo. In his hands, he has bread he is in the process of tearing with a very quiet motion, almost absent mindedly. One disciple, with his back mostly to us has his hand to his face as if to say, “This man reminds me of Jesus”. The back lit disciple is more active and his understanding more immediate but still quiet and without alarm.

This continuous exploration, reinterpretation and flat out invention are at the heart of good education. This was our process the last two weeks in my World History class. Students had begun with building basic information on the ways in which human geographers study and understand human interactions with their environment. We asked questions such as “What is Asia?” and "Why were the Thule Inuit successful in settling Greenland while the Scandinavians were not?” We extended our study of the past with readings on famine, hunger and population in the 21st century. Our resident Earth Literacy teacher joined us to push students to consider their own definitions of success in civilizational terms and whether or not agricultural choices have any meaning for us today. These were wide ranging discussions requiring students to examine their own assumptions about human geography and the choices humans make. They weren’t being asked to act upon their ideas, to make hard moral choices but rather to consider the choices made by others –to limit family size, to have another child in the face of horrible poverty, to bring cattle into an environment never intended for them, to choose agriculture, to interpret history as progress, to devote Muslim scholarship to creating a garden of North Africa.  While there were wrong answers to some of the questions my students asked of each other, there were few single right ones. This first grappling with ambiguity, with dichotomous and opposed “right answers” was unsettling. I suppose Rembrandt’s students and patrons found his new depictions of Christ troubling. (Certainly, one of Rembrandt’s students was censured for breaking with the iconic portrayal of Christ for a portrait not unlike that of several of Rembrandt’s).

Later in the year my students will translate their thought experiments, their analysis and even their empathy seeking into action. Having a better understanding of the forms of expression and thought and having had practice taking those forms and extending them, my students  will make moral choices, but these choices will be shaped by a better understanding of the assumptions and premises upon which their decisions and actions stand. Just as John Howard Griffin knew how to act upon his values because of his experience of empathy, so too will my students.

[1] All of the above is a very brief summary or what I learned from the exhibit and the many explanations the exhibit provided for the works on display.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Director of Teaching and Learning -- Week One

What do you call a new position that when you describe it to your mother appears overwhelming, daunting, impossible, and uncontainable.  And yet, the challenge is exciting, the goals in line with my own vision of education and adult professional learning, my colleagues are ready for the direction this new position signifies, all of the elements are creatively related, and the opportunity is a good fit for me even as it will bring into high relief my own shortcomings?

Today I wrote a short description for a go to guide we are writing to help faculty navigate technology questions. My piece of this guide is just one part of a larger whole including our two Ed Tech Coordinators, our Director of Technology and our Director of Library Services. I am waiting to see what the others write and how they add too and edit what I have written. I expect there will be overlap between us, but our hope is to provide a structure that will enable the high fliers, adventurers, and early adopters; support the folks who are experimenting and following where others have gone before; and shorten the tail--that is get the  ostriches heads out of the sand.

Even as I work on this structure piece, I am very conscious of wanting to chart a course that will create opportunities for organic exploration and personal growth. Teachers can no longer wait for someone else to come along and tell them... do this. I am quite clear that this year we will not have in-service days filled with a single speaker talking at us. Indeed, I am hoping to offer a variation of the un-conference for our winter in-service. What a great concept, folks come together in the morning, generate a list of topics they want to explore or learn about, self divide and work together to answer their questions and/or learn new tools. The working assumption here is that professional teachers will act professionally when given the opportunity to shape their own learning.

Finally, a good practice I will need to remember to do when necessary--apologize quickly.  In rolling out last week’s opening of school meeting schedule, I forgot to communicate with one group in a targeted manner about who should facilitate the discussion. I need to make amends. This oversight was also an aha moment. Other groups meeting at the same time with similar tasks already had folks who assumed they were the facilitators. When I reached out to them to facilitate, they assured me they had already prepared for the meeting! So after I apologize I will need to work with this group to develop their own sense of ownership and realization that at any moment each of them could/should be ready to facilitate.

PS send me your descriptors for the question I posed at the beginning!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Every spring my youngest daughter and I plant sunflower seeds in the garden by our deck. Sarah loves that these tiny seeds will grow into 12-14 foot plants with bright yellow petals and hundreds of new seeds for next year. Normally, sunflowers track the sun. If planted in an unobstructed field the yellow flowers will point towards the east in the morning and by late afternoon they will face west.  Our sunflowers are planted on the side of our house that faces west. They get no morning light. They face the house in a generally southern direction. Even as the sun comes over the house and heads west through the afternoon, our sunflowers refuse to turn. And yet they grow and thrive and I get to look right at the flowers, covered with bumble bees from the kitchen window while I do the dishes. Sarah says the sunflowers are confused and think the bright light reflecting off our house and deck is the sun. I would say, the seed planters have set the sunflower up to point in the wrong direction.

I have been thinking about our sunflowers as I do the dishes and contemplate structures that will support the direction and vision we have for Westtown School. One of my projects this summer has been to develop structures that will continue the process of preK-12 curricular cohesion and integration—work we have been involved in for a decade.  I have been talking with peers at other independent schools about their structures and processes for curricular review, program innovation and implementation, and faculty development and evaluation. Each school has different structures and like us many are in the process of making adjustments or complete over halls of existing systems. There are intriguing and impressive elements in each school’s effort to insure their program makes sense as children progress through the grades and that the program supports the school’s mission.

Each school began with questions to answer and in some cases problems to address. I have come to believe we have three questions. One of the questions we want to answer grows out of our current curricular review process. Faculty engage with the process and finish the year long review asking for a regular means of supporting ongoing cross divisional discussions. Faculty members within the review process have gotten to know and appreciate their colleagues in other divisions. Valuable conversations were begun and promising directions for program were identified. Ten years ago teachers in different divisions would not have said that meeting across divisions was of any value. Indeed, one of the goals of the program area curricular review process was that faculty would come to know and learn from colleagues in other divisions.

Another question has to do with the vision we have articulated for our students to be engaged in collaborative learning and ethical leadership in a connected world: Quaker Education at Westtown School. This vision—the actualization of our school’s mission—requires a highly motivated faculty actively engaged with each other across divisions and across disciplines. How do we break down program area silos and enable creative collaboration among faculty and students?

The third question has to do with professional development. How do we empower faculty to innovate, to experiment, to learn, even to fail from time to time in order to realize our vision within their classes and interactions with our students? 

As I think about these questions, our answers will not come from replicating the system of one of our peer schools. Indeed, we need to start with our three questions, turn them into statements and design backwards from there. Our own school culture and context will require its own system, something different from what we have now. To get there we will have to be willing to ask additional and divergent questions (what ifs and why nots) and be willing to explore unsettling answers to those questions. In the end we want our systems to point us in the direction we have chosen for ourselves.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

How did I do?

Last year I set two goals for myself: close my computer when students or colleagues came into my office to speak with me and to regularly visit classes across the school.

Of the first goal I give myself an above average assessment. I did almost always shut my laptop. I noticed rather quickly that I still got everything done, my email still was answered  and I was more or less prepared for each class. More importantly, I realized that I was remembering the conversations! This helped me as well as I didn't have to re-ask questions as frequently. Also, I would like to think that when someone was looking for help, advice, an answer or just someone to explore an idea with what they received from me and my undivided attention was better...it certainly felt better from my end. This shutting my laptop has become almost second nature -- not quite as automatic as buckling my safety belt but almost.

Visiting classes has been harder to make habitual. The first goal occasionally got in the way of the second goal. Shutting my laptop invited longer conversations. I allowed meetings to be scheduled in the times I had set aside to visit classes. I also allowed peer diffidence over having a colleague drop in for 10-15 minutes of their class to observe slow me down. But what I learned about our PreK-12 from the visits I did make was invaluable in my own growth as a teacher and in my greater understanding of our entire program and the way students' experience their education.

This year I will have "visiting classes" as my number one goal and enter periods for visiting into my calendar so that no one schedules over the top of these times. This will put me in more classes. Once I am in them, my next goal will be to share with them what I see, hear, learn and think.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What a day

Last Friday we woke up in the Laurels section of Pennsylvania in the tiny town of Confluence, PA. We had gone there to spend the weekend with dear friends. Before getting out of bed, we turned on the Today Show, (just as we do every morning) and learned that there had been an earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan. Our son is studying this year at University of Tokyo. We were to say the least concerned. While he hadn't sent us an email he had posted on Facebook what his experience of the quake was in Tokyo. Being the twenty-one year old male that his is and at the time not realizing the extent of the damage north of him he didn't bother to email us until 12 hours later. Needless to say once we expressed our concern and he had heard from his friends that their parents were also concerned, he has stayed in contact since then.

After breakfast we decided to visit the Johnstown Flood National Park. On the way, we saw signs for the Flight 93 memorial and went to take a look. Right now phase one of the memorial construction is underway. The current viewing area is on top of a hill, an old strip mined surface in fact. As the day was cloudy and snowy, we could just make out the flag marking the crater from the crash. In an old corrugated and cold building on the site are displays describing the events and providing pictures. Probably most powerful for me were the notebooks containing pictures and short biographies of the 40 crew and passengers on the flight. These were ordinary people who had gotten up in the morning, proceeded with their daily routines, boarded a plane and expected to get off after an uneventful flight across the country.

The Johnstown Flood National Park visitor center tells another tale of people getting up, greeting neighbors, opening shops and looking forward to an ordinary day in a bustling city. The visitor center has an excellent movie that captures this sense of unknown foreboding as the day proceeds. Then in slow motion, black and white film the devastating flood is re-enacted and the power of water is apparent. This lake behind a dam where the rich from Pittsburgh came to recreate and relax became an unfeeling force for destruction. The death toll was 2209 and is the third highest civilian death toll behind the Galvestan Hurricane and 9/11. 2209 people didn't come home, thousands others lost everything and had no homes to return to.

Last Friday, the people of the Tohoku Region of Japan were well into their day when the 9.0 earthquake hit. Within all too short a time the quake was followed by the tsunami. As everyone who has seen the images knows, the waves were implacable and powerful. You were either on high enough ground or you weren't. And now hundreds of thousands are without homes, thousands are missing and thousands are dead.

We finished our day (having spoken with our son via email) thinking about the things each of these events have in common and the ways in which we take for granted that when we wake up, we will return at the end of the day to our homes, our families, our beds. How much of who we are depends on that routine.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

21st Century Education or service learning in Washington DC

I spent last week at the William Penn House in Washington, DC. My job was to chaperone ten high school seniors involved in a two week experiential learning project combining service and urban living. William Penn House staff had arranged for us to work at Street Church, DC Central Kitchen, Food and Friends, and meet with a representative from Friends Committee on National Legislation. Along with learning to navigate a complex public transportation system, find restaurants that were good and kept within our per diem food allowance, and get along with each other, we did real work for the organizations we went to. My colleague Whitney is with the students the second week.

Seven hours after saying goodbye to the students,  I sat down with my family and we watched the movie " The Social Network". I wonder if my strong reaction to the movie wasn't heightened by my experience in DC the previous week. By the end of the movie, I was sure there were no heroes or even anti-heroes in the entire film. Instead, the best and brightest at our top universities were depicted as cheats, vapid partyers, amoral people out for cheap thrills or scads of easily acquired money. Apparently, young women in these colleges are there to provide young men with willing participants in table dancing, strip poker and to proivde warm bellies for snorting coke.  The adults in the movie were no better, they were largely absent, only showing up as a paranoid svengali type, lawyers and removed academics. Is this the best we have to hope for?

I would like to think the young people I traveled with last week are better than the characters in the movie. Certainly, the past week they have had experiences working alongside men and women whose lifes' journeys are very different from their own. At Street Church one of the their fellow workers was a homeless man, a schizophrenic who had managed to stay on his medication for sixth months and was looking to transition into a half way house. At DC Central Kitchen our supervisor was an imposing women who had worked her way through DCCK's job training program to the point that she was now responsible for breakfast preparation for several thousand meals a day. When we visited with the FCNL representative two of my students shared with the group their vision for serving their communities through creating their own businesses and thus creating jobs. Two other students shared their own sense of satisfaction in the work we had been doing and connecting its necessity with their own academic aspirations. These are ambitious kids, with high academic and professional goals for themselves as future entrepreneurs, marine biologists, economists, public health workers. They have their eye on the prize so to speak. One of the other aha moments may have come when the aspiring marine biologist wondered aloud if learning to lobby Congress wasn't going to be important to his long term career aspirations.

I would like to believe that after these students have experienced the empty, pointless, gross partying that goes on at every college campus, they will fall back on their own well developed skills of better entertainment and relaxation. While here in DC in their free time they chose to go to Arlington Cemetary, play cards with each other, visit the homes of friends, attend basketball games, explore sections of the city we hadn't yet gone to. They were never bored. AND I hope they will remain focused on the purpose filled lives they have each described in some detail that they aspire to living.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who did you vote for in 2008- a different kind of barrier

I was given Rebecca Traister's Big Girl's Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women  as a Christmas gift. Traister traces the election from the months leading up to the Iowa Caucuses through to the actual election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. I am only half way through and am finding a whole side to the election I seem to have missed. Who did I vote for in the primary? I live in Pennsylvania where the primary is in April. Normally, the primary races have been sorted out by the time April roles around. Not in 2008 and I found myself having to choose. I didn't want to choose. And according to Traister I was not alone. I liked Obama, he was my age. Like me he came of age after Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Roe v. Wade and the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. I had read his books and found his written desire to reach across party lines to work for the national good spoke to my own way of approaching problems and controversies. But Hilary was a woman, albeit older then me by 14 years, and other than some of her recent votes in the Senate she had spent her life working for things I believed in. I was thrilled by the prospect that the Oval Office might look more like me either in gender or in age.

According to Traister, the election brought to the fore a great deal of latent sexism and racism. At one point, one African American woman writer shared with Traister her frustration with being asked by white male journalists if she were going to vote for Obama because he was African American or Clinton because she was female and wanting to turn the question on its head and ask her interrogator if he were going to vote for Obama because he was male or Clinton because she was Caucasian! But what Traister focuses on in her book is the degree to which Clinton seemed to stir really violent reactions not just from conservatives of both genders but male liberals, which led Traister to ask, were men and women ready for a woman president?

In reading this book, I am struck by how much of her strength/herself Hilary had to temper in order to get to where she got to in the Senate and in the Primary. Hilary was pilloried for allegedly crying in New Hampshire, showing cleavage, wearing mannish clothes, sounding shrill in a debate; to be taken seriously her campaign leadership elided her femininity, her sense of humor, her caring for friends and family. When she was strong and decisive and knowledgeable her legion critics called her a harpy, know it all, and worse; when she was more overtly feminine it proved to those same critics that she was incapable of making the tough Presidential decisions. Are we ready for women to be themselves and to be leaders at the highest levels?

Given the treatment Clinton and Palin received in the hands of the press and the pundits, just for being women--regardless of their political views and platforms (or for that matter how Nancy Pelosi was depicted in comparison to Newt Gingrich in 2010), I wonder what I need to do to best prepare my young female students for the continued resistance they will undoubtedly experience (quiet and polite or overt and ugly). What skills do these young women need? The twenty-first century educational emphasis on collaboration, team work, and shared strengths seems to play to women's natural tendencies as social beings. But at the top of each and every ladder leaders need to be articulate, exude strength and confidence and be willing to be themselves-including being women. How do we as educators draw out from this collaborative focus our female student's strength and willingness to take charge when necessary. How do we give them the tools to counter the criticisms they will face for assuming that they can lead women and men? Our school's mission states that our students will be "stewards and leaders of a better world". How do we equip our young women to lead a world not yet sure its ready for women leaders?

I will be exploring these questions in my approaches to working with my students and the ways in which we approach material and projects in the months to come and would appreciate comments or thoughts from others.