About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Teaching As a Way of Seeing

             “The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,” says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, “is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.” What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.
            Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.
            A student in a Licensed Practical Nursing Program praises an instructor she would go to when she felt overwhelmed. The instructor told her that “she could see it in me that I was meant to do this,” and encouraged her to not only complete the LPN program but to continue toward a Registered Nurse’s degree, which she did.
            “I was a strange kid,” a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, “but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.”
            A middle school teacher starts talking to a boy serving detention and senses a “hunger” that leads her to invite him onto the school’s fledgling debate team. When I ask how she senses that hunger, she says, “by talking to someone and answering their questions. You can see it in their eyes.”
            A high school Spanish teacher raises the issue of college to a junior whose energies are more invested in soccer than academics, but who has a way with people and exhibits a certain savvy as he navigates eleventh grade. The teacher follows his instincts and connects the young man to a college bridge program. Looking back on it, our soccer player, now a graduate student, says of that teacher, “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
            These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or through some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks. These are important issues to be sure, but they have crowded out so much else that makes teaching a richly humanistic intellectual pursuit.
            One last thought. To repurpose a phrase of Walt Whitman’s, education contains multitudes. There are endless treasures of human experience to be found within the classroom, so we could fruitfully continue the present discussion inside the schoolhouse alone. But given our moment in history, it’s not much of a stretch to think of how the kind of affirming perception I’ve been discussing resonates beyond education with current social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, movements challenging perceptions that dehumanize rather than affirm. Also relevant is the portrayal of refugees and immigrants promulgated by the Trump administration, converting demonizing perception into heartless public policy. In times like these, perception attuned to ability along with a commitment to foster that ability becomes not only an educational endeavor but a civic and moral one as well.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Words Matter


            It was a brief spot, just under 90 seconds, on National Public Radio’s mid-day news program, “All Things Considered.” A post-script to a longer story. You would miss it if you walked momentarily to another room. So I want to dwell on it here, for it was simply, calmly powerful.
            The NPR reporters had been covering the awful events at the U.S.-Mexico border, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ narrowing of the criteria for seeking asylum and the separating of children from their parents. These actions have been defended by various members of the Trump administration and by President Trump himself with their typical word salad of denials, deflections, counter punches, and lies. One element in this linguistic barrage is the clam that child-separation is not an administration policy, but the result of regrettable laws established under previous administrations. We are a country built on laws, they claim, and we have to follow the laws. This is unfortunate for the families, but we have no choice. No matter that over the last few months, key administration actors, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, said on the record that family separation is in fact being used as a deterrent to migrants. No, insisted Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, on June 17, 2018 “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period.” So here we are with the all-too-familiar Trump fare of contradictions, reversals, and edicts—all delivered with propulsive finality.
            Now to that brief spot on NPR. Host Mary Louise Kelly quoted Secretary Nielsen’s statement and then examined it. Her line of inquiry is worth quoting in full. If you’d like to hear it, click [here].

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here’s what Secretary Nielsen told NPR’s John Burnett when he interviewed her on May 10 and asked about family separation.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution.

KELLY: Nielsen went on—if you're an adult with a family and you break the law, you'll be prosecuted. And then she said...

NIELSEN: Operationally, what that means is we will have to separate your family.

KELLY: We will have to separate your family. Previous administrations looked at the same law, though, and decided not to separate families. What the administration argues is that when an adult is prosecuted, they go into federal custody. And any children in tow can't be detained in a federal lockup. So the separation is the result of the new zero tolerance policy, not a policy in and of itself.

Well, we looked it up. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines policy as a course or method of action selected from among alternatives. The Trump administration has selected and is now defending a course of action—in other words, a policy. You can call it semantics, splitting hairs over which word applies. But words matter, which is why NPR is referring to the Trump administration policy of separating families at the U.S. border.

            Political language, as George Orwell reminded us in the middle of the last century, is heavy in distortion and double-speak. The Trump administration does not simply indulge in these linguistic sins; it is built on them. Thankfully, the news media are increasingly calling the administration on their lies and denials. What struck me about this NPR broadcast was that Ms. Kelly also provided listeners with a short course on semantics and logic. Our country needs much more of this, methodologies to help us think and talk clearly in the face of the violent incoherence transmitted daily from the White House.


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