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, May 27, 2008

The Personal is Cognitive: The Human Side of Learning

A few weeks back, I asked readers what positive things about their schooling stand out in memory. I’ve also been asking friends and acquaintances. It’s interesting how often a particular teacher is mentioned, even a particular moment with a particular teacher.

I just read a study on dropping out, in which the researchers interviewed mostly Latino ninth graders in five California high schools. http://www.lmri.ucsb.edu/dropouts/pubs_reports.htm
The interviews selected both students who were at risk for dropping out and those who were not and asked them what they saw as “the factors … motivating them toward or alienating them from finishing high school.” Most of the students in both categories reported being engaged with school – which, in itself, counters one stereotype about Latino adolescents. They listed a desire for relevant coursework, for interventions when they’re in trouble, for school resources, for school safety, for networks of friends. And one factor that loomed large was caring relationships with adults, with teachers, counselors, coaches.

A lot of educators have written eloquently about the importance of care in schooling; Debbie Meier and Nel Noddings are two who come quickly to mind. I’d like to underscore an aspect of care, of meaningful relationships with adults, that, I think, warrants attention: The intimate relation between these relationships and learning, good ol’ hard-nosed cognitive outcomes.

I have a personal take on this issue, for it was one teacher, my senior high-school English teacher, Jack McFarland, who turned my life around. He had a no-nonsense demeanor, and he had the most demanding curriculum I faced in four years of high school. But we students knew he gave a damn, that he worked us because he believed in use, and he demanded more of himself – in terms of hours spent closely reading our papers – than he did of us. After awhile, hungry for adult connection, I wanted to connect with him.

In Lives on the Boundary, I reflect on this interweaving of human relation and learning. Six or seven years after Mr. McFarland’s class, I found myself working with children, trying to make my own sense of teaching:

Teaching, I was coming to understand, was a kind of romance. You didn’t just work with words or a chronicle of dates or facts about the suspension of protein in milk. You wooed kids with these things, invited a relationship of sorts, the terms of connection being the narrative, the historical event, the balance of casein and water. Maybe nothing was “intrinsically interesting.” Knowledge gained its meaning, at least initially, through a touch on the shoulder, through a conversation of the kind Jack McFarland … used to have with his students. My first enthusiasm about writing came because I wanted a teacher to like me.

Years later, I read John Dewey and came across this passage in Democracy and Education:

The more the educator knows of music, [he writes, using one area of study as an example] the more he can perceive the possibilities of the inchoate musical impulses of a child … [T]he various studies represent working resources, available capital … [yet] the teacher should be occupied not with subject matter in itself but in its interaction with the pupils’ present needs and capacities. (pp. 182-183)

I bring all this up because we have a tendency in our culture to separate head from heart, particularly where education policy is concerned. Our reigning discourse – as many have noted on this blog – is a language of economic competitiveness and test scores. No hint of care lingo there. Unfortunately, the oppositional language to this mainstream discourse sometimes lapses into a wariness about intellectual discipline and a romanticizing of young people’s experience.

I think of the extraordinary teachers I observed when traveling around the country for Possible Lives. I think of the care and concern they had for their students – a kind of love, really – and the way that care had such a powerful intellectual dimension to it, from Stephanie Terry’s sophisticated science lessons in her first-grade Baltimore classroom to Steve Gilbert’s analytic push of his Chicago twelfth graders into As I Lay Dying.

It’s this inextricable blend of heart and head that defines the best teaching, the touch on the shoulder that encourages another human being to take on intellectual risk.


  1. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, "The good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge" ....and education, I've always believed, is at the heart of what it means to live "a good life". My questions are:

    a)Why is it that policy makers dismiss this sort of outlook as though it were totally irrelevant?

    and (I can't be brief on this next one!) :)

    b)Why isn't caring and the interpersonal relationship between educators and students more explicitly addressed in teacher training programs? Of course, everyone assumes if you're a student-teacher, you're in the profession because you "care"...it's almost taboo to question that. But how is "caring" made part of the pedagogical philosophy and toolkit that new teachers bring to the classroom? What kind of professional development exists out there to promote caring for teachers who face all kinds of challenges that wear away at their "caring batteries"? Just as there are good teachers, we know too, that tragically, there are also disastrous teachers...who DON'T give a damn...and who are often culpable when it comes to figuring out why so many students are disenchanted with and disengaged from school...I can tell you for a fact that schools in poor neighborhoods often have a lion's share of these teachers...some because they come with their own prejudices, some because they are unappreciated and helpless to counter all the ills inside and outside school that fight against their efforts to help students.

    ...and finally, I often wonder too where the roots of a caring person--let alone a caring teacher, come from? It's a fundamentally humanistic principle...but maybe this is a topic for a broader, more philosophical chat... :)

    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post Mike.

  2. Of course, I come away inspired as usual as you stretch my thinking more about the purpose of schooling and what kind of teaching matters.

    Here's a question. When we do prepare our students with the best ideas and ideals about critical pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching (part of which I would say, and Gloria Ladson-Billings, is an ethic of care),how do we also strengthen them to resist the deficit discourse embedded in the culture of testing?

    I hope to prepare teachers to teach this way, but I also know from my experiences with my own son that the system is fairly inflexible. How do we network and share ideas so that we are not beaten down when we do care?

  3. The thoughts that popped into my mind while reading Mikes blog and having a quick cup of coffee.
    The first teachers of life are our parents. Our survival is completely dependent on our parent (s) for food, warmth and necessary emotional feedback. So then, wouldn’t it seem natural to associate emotion with learning? And why then have many teachers become somewhat autonomic, if the act of teaching starts with an emotional basis?
    What is the point of teaching? Teaching to me is a way to propel human advancement without losing human connection. Emotions seem to be the glue that bonds humans together; although it is true we have segregated ourselves to the brink of self destruction i.e. through religion, ethnicity, language, geography, social and economic positions; the fact still remains we are all regardless of our segregation, human. Teaching through the heart as opposed to the brain has been lost on many, mainly due to our social and political agendas to produce and/or manufacture, thinking machines; this is in and of itself an act of segregation. Testing our students to specific standards weeds out the assembly line misfits and focuses on the refinement of the cookie cutter student; how can a [teacher] emotionally reach out to a student who is falling behind the standard when it could mean risking the scores and or standard of the “perfect” students? Whose fault is it?
    When it comes to teachers the blame can be placed on good old fashioned “human nature”. The [human] teachers [fundamentally human] desire to “please” results in teachers who strive for acknowledgement from administrators with excellent “majority” test results in their classrooms; in addition , the drive to protect the teachers own family through financial incentive [higher test scores], or perhaps maybe, it is draining for a person to teach emotionally and feel a sense of let down when they give an emotional part of themselves to a student who seems to “not” care; in a sense throwing it back in “their” face; rejection or feeling that one’s emotional effort is being taken advantage of, forms an invisible wall that protects one’s emotions. All these probabilities on why a teacher may or may not teach emotionally can in a sense be part of human nature. Based on my experience teachers, on the whole, start out on their teaching adventure because they care, because they want to make a difference in a student’s life; however, somewhere down the line the bureaucracy and frustration of teaching numbs some teachers and allows for the cookie cutting to begin.
    I have had the opportunity to experience a teacher who was not” easy”. The experience of being taught by a teacher who expects the best out of her student, and is not afraid to reach out and embrace their individuality, in the hopes of allowing her students to use their individuality, as a tool, rather than a crutch in their academic and social careers, this was to me an academic marvel. The setting however, was in a college class, where there is more freedom to expand one’s mind, from the confines of indoctrination. Regardless of the learning platform [college] I was inspired, I believed in myself and the abilities inherent in my own psyche. It takes only one such teacher to move a student from self doubt to self realization. Just one teacher can set into motion a person’s entire future. Professor Sharyn Nelson did that for me; and her teachings will live on through me forever. Denise

  4. I know it very ignorant not to be able to attribute a quotation, but I heard this when I was in school, so I'm not sure who said it, but it forms the core of my approach to education. "Democracy requires an educated populace. That is why the United States provides free, public education." When education fails, as I can see it doing over and over, it may be because we do not realize how essential it is that the kid from the undocumented alien family be genuinely included in and involved in learning American culture along with his/her own, that the kid from Beverly Hills understand the value of the library. By the way, the cultures of our various immigrant cultures are American culture as much as White, middle class culture is. The point I am making is that our failure to involve all children in learning has and will continue to have serious consequences for our country. We are not training people to "succeed" in some capitalist, "support our troops" American ideology but to genuinely participate in the adventure that is the American experience.
    This is relevant to Mike's post because "one size fits all," "everyone receives the same lesson on the same day" education cannot help but alienate and fail the people who elect presidents, decide fads, and determine where we are and will go as a people as well as their teacher. We need to love our children; we need to make loving the actual students part of the curriculum, and we need to listen when our children tell us a teacher is emotionally abusive. We think about the welfare of the people we love. I didn't care what my own children did as long they were genuinely happy, but I love books, and I respect the other. The greatest success of my life is the emotional and intellectual health of my own children, and the second is that the children I teach look forward to school and experiencing the world with pleasure. The touch on the arm, the genuine concern with our students' pain and joy, the thinking all day about what is the best thing for Charlie this week are big demands. We cannot afford to have education be the last resort for the world's incompetents. Too much is on the line.mary jimenez

  5. To Ms. And Anonymous.

    I will try to respond to your good questions in a future comment or post. I haven’t forgotten, just got sidetracked with another issue.

  6. From Kate Chanock:
    Your insistence on the role of relationships in learning is exactly right. Only one of my four daughters had any sort of relationship with
    teachers in primary school; like me at their age, the others didn't know it was lacking because they didn't know it was possible, but for them, school was just where you had to go each day before you were allowed to come home. Two of them ignited in high school, where not only were there individual teachers who engaged with them, but there was an ethos -- a norm -- of intellectual partnership between teachers and students, so that the girls spoke of doing work with, rather than for, a teacher. This produced another kind of partnership that was in the long run more important, as it carried them through university study where, oddly,
    that intellectual working-with was harder to come
    by: while at school, they formed working relationships also with their school friends, and would meet in the public library after school, or
    talk on the phone or visit, to work on assignments, debates, the school anthology ... And talk about their teachers as people. One of these schools was private, and the teachers were at least paid for the extra time and attention they put into creating such a space, but the other was a public school in which, improbably, the cool group to belong to was the one that enjoyed studying.

    Although university study is not conducive to forming those working relationships with teachers, I believe they are no less important when they happen at this level of study. I work individually with students who bring their assignments to me for feedback and suggestions, so I have the luxury of knowing some of them for years, and in some cases, remaining friends with them long after they have graduated. Even if it's only for a few visits, though, it can make a real difference to a student to have one person at the university who knows who they are, what they are trying to do, and a bit about their situation (I can't claim to know much -- but a bit goes a long way). It can make the difference between being enrolled in an institution, and being engaged in a project. At the same time, they talk to me about their professors, some of whom they feel they are working with, and they really appreciate
    this relationship. There are always some whose requirements they are just trying to figure out, so they can fulfil them; but that is quite a different thing from the few whom they feel they can meet to talk about how they can do what they want to do.

  7. Mike: I just arrived at your site today, via a small schools yahoo group message that directed me to a Meier/Radvitch Ed Week blog entry where it was mentioned. Unlike what I am deducing about most of your readers, I am not a professional or academic in education. Rather, I am parent of children who have attended Oakland public schools for the past 15 years. I have ended up becoming fascinated with these issues.

    The message that you have touched upon in this piece jumped out at me. Along the same strand, I’ve been thinking about “nurturing” and how much schools, and the people in them, benefit by being nurtured. I am also aware of how much they suffer when they are not, as is the case at most of the public schools I know.

    Anyway, my perspective weaves into what you are saying here. It’s different, but I think it is definitely complimentary to yours. If you are curious, read my June 2nd essay “On nurturing.”

    Sharon @ The Perimeter Primate

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  9. Nearly 36 weeks had blown by in my second year of teaching at a local high school. Although this was my second year teaching, this was my first year teaching self contained students with moderately intellectual disabilities. Each day was a new beginning often re-teaching what I had the day before. Each day I grew closer and closer to my students as well as the paraprofessionals. As the days passed the students became my extended family. Through continuous reflection I made mental notes of what I planned to change for the next year.
    Working on a functional curriculum with the students I implemented various strategies in order to learn basic reading skills, math calculation, geographic information, and most importantly, living skills. Ultimately, hands on activities were the most influential for the students as well as myself. During this time my class of 11 students and two paraprofessionals became one, a large family. As I taught each lesson I brought the real world into the classroom. The students realized that I cared about what they learned and that they could learn. By tapping in to the real world each student was able to apply life skills. Although they are mentally challenged I raised the expectations for all students.
    There seemed to be no pressure except for the notorious paperwork that comes with special education. However, there were more challenges to come. After arriving to school one morning my world was forever changed. I was informed that due to certification rules and regulations from the state I was being moved to study skills the following day. Devastated and numb, I made my way back to my room. My students knew immediately something was wrong. The pressure was on! My eyes filled with tears! My heart ached!
    After regaining composure I simply told my students and the paraprofessionals that I worked with, that the principal needed me to teach another classroom. I did my best to reassure my students and colleagues that the new teacher would be a great teacher. A positive point was that the students would remain on my caseload. So, I would continue to have contact with my students and their parents.
    Although I hated leaving my students, I was sure they would be capable of maintaining a structured routine since I had implemented the same procedures for 36 weeks. I had experienced limited behavioral issues while in this setting. Therefore, it would be a walk in the park for the teacher stepping in to my nurturing classroom.
    Upon the next morning we made the abrupt change. As she entered my peaceful classroom of students that were eager to learn and strived to please, I opened my new classroom door and realized I had walked into a room that had no structure or routine for the past 36 weeks. I had entered the gates of hell!
    Starting over during the last 9 weeks would be a challenge. On the first day I took the time to make mental notes and mainly observe what had been going on for more than half the year. It became very obvious within the first few minutes of class they were in control. One particular student in a wheelchair would run his wheelchair wide open round and round in the classroom while another student rode on the back. For the most part the majority of the students were unruly. They did what they wanted, when they wanted! For those that did have work to work on, they moved to the back of the room and poured themselves into their books like shields to block themselves from the chaos.
    It was up to me to make a change quickly in routine and procedures in order to gain control of these rowdy students.
    My second day of teaching I had displayed basic procedures on the board and discussed them with each class. I introduced vocabulary words each day in order to expand their knowledge of words. I invited them to write in journals daily. I posted journal entries each day on the board which I thought seemed enticing to my new students. As I read each one I learned more and more about my new students and the world which they live in each day. Sometimes I would verbally make comments to a student in reverence to particular entries. Some students would make the comment, “you actually read what we write?” I was blown away! I said, “of course I read what you write”, “I care about what you have to say”. From that moment I realized I had to help my students realize that I cared about what they had to say as well as what they did in my classroom and other academic settings.
    Four weeks have passed now. After many stressful days I can honestly say I had established a bond with my new students. Although it has been very stressful and challenging I know that I have made a difference in these students’ lives and academic status. By taking the time to read and listen to what my students had to say I learned critical information about each student. I learned that what matters to one student may not matter to the other student. I learned that sometimes we have to take the time to listen about personal issues such as teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, and domestic violence.
    Ultimately, this group of students is much more challenging. However, after taking the time to show that I care about their academics and well being, I have once more established a nurturing classroom environment. As of today, I have students that at one time did nothing in the classroom but sleep or display disruptive behaviors. However, now these same students come to class wanting to make up work and complete various projects. They even have friends that come from other classrooms to see if they can stay in my room to work on assignments. Of course, I welcome them in each time!
    We as educators have a great power. We have the power to make or break students. I choose to continue to make a positive difference in students that I encounter. I strive to help them find the spark within themselves to excel in academics as well as social skills. Furthermore, I chose to teach them all by implementing differentiated lessons using various modalities.

  10. I too have a personal take on this issue, since the hardest teacher I ever learned from was also the most caring,available, down-to-earth (I could go on with this) and so, I feel the same way.
    Reading this post affirmed so many of my own feelings about teaching and learning. As a future teacher, I want to make sure my students know that I like them, and that I care about their learning, or, in other words, that I ' give a damn.' Teaching really is a kind of romance, especially for me since I looked up to my teachers so much, and even expected them to care about me.

    In teaching pedagogy and education classes, we become aware of this separation of head and heart. I'm not super involved with what educators are saying about teaching, but over the years ( and having a mom as a teacher) I've picked up on the discourse of test-scores and economic competitiveness. I think I was letting it get away with me, scaring me away from the profession. But, I know that learning cannot take place outside of a safe environment. Being the person that I am, I know I couldn't have learned anything without my teachers being real with me and caring about my life outside of school. And so, I can't stop my pursuit. I too remember how much I just wanted my teachers to like me and appreciate what I could do well.

    A quick note on the study on dropping out of school-
    I tutor at a public charter school during an after-school program for students who are failing one or more of their classes. The school is mostly Latino, and the kids I work with one might assign to the ' drop-out' category. It is true they are somewhat unmotivated, but when I come in and ask how they are feeling about what they do in class and offer my help enthusiastically, the result is always positive- even if I have to joke with them about it for 5 minutes. During my last tutoring session, I took out my own homework to do with them. I needed to get some things done, but mostly I wanted them to see that I too don't do everything right, and that learning never really ends. I think it relates since what I really want them to feel was that they can be safe with me, that I care about my learning and therefore about theirs.

  11. Dear Mike Rose,

    I'm a junior at Midwestern State University in a small town in Texas.
    In my Theories of Composition class, my professor told us at the beginning of the year that we would be doing presentations on a few key scholars in English.
    I looked through the list and began to realize that I didn't know who any of these people were.
    I mean, who was Lev Vygotsky, and how in the world did you pronounce his name? And this bell hooks woman; why was her name not capitalized?
    Honestly, I got nervous. I had only an hour or so to get back with my professor and notify her on which scholar I would be doing my presentation on.
    I decided to pick Mike Rose because, for one, I could pronounce your name, and two, the due date for that presentation wasn't for a month and a half. That way, I figured I would have time to research you and change my mind before it was too late.
    And, I'm glad I didn't.
    I read about you from various articles and quickly found out how genial you were. I immediately decided to purchase your book: Lives on the Boundary and had it read within the first day I received it in the mail.
    I was one of those students. I was considered "at-risk" because I didn't go to a public school until 6th grade and I (along with my teachers) felt like I was behind.
    I could grasp anything English you threw my way and even History because most of it was memorizing. I was a cracker-jack at remembering things; it's just that I mostly would remember things that I didn't really need to recollect. Math gave me the worst headache of my life. I couldn't understand any of it. In class I would just act like I was jotting down notes, when in reality, my mind was elsewhere. I would tell myself that I would get it later, and would put it off until the test. I would cram the night before, and remember how to do everything.. except when it got to exam day. I had terrible test anxiety and would get to the point where I couldn't pass anything, even though I knew the material. I would get into geometry class the day of the test and I would look down at the test handed to me and sit there and convince myself that I didn't know how to do any of it - that no matter how hard I studied the night before, I would never pass it. And I wouldn't. It was a miracle I didn't get retained, but I had teachers who actually cared and would help in any way possible.
    I grew up wanting to be a teacher for High School English. I've had people tell me along the way that I shouldn't do it, and that High School is the worst age to teach, and that I should switch my major while I have the chance. But, I don't want to. I want to empower students and ignite learning in them. I want to help students like the teachers who once helped me.

    I know this reply is long, and I don't even know if you're going to get the chance to read it, but that's all right with me.
    I just wanted to let you know that you have been an inspiration for me. The amount of passion you have for students just amazes me. I'm glad I picked you for my presentation; I want more people to know about you and all the work you have done for those who are considered "at-risk" and under prepared. Hopefully people will be inspired by you, just as I have been. Thank You.

  12. Good night, Dr. Rose. Have been working on a research project on sponsors of literacy for a seminar course. One of the areas I'm studying is the different types of sponsors. There are caring sponsors and corporate sponsors. Caring sponsors make a huge difference in the lives of students and can set them on a path they never dreamed of - it certainly happened for me, and for you as well. I will look into ' and Meier's work. Are there other studies I should read? I am examining the experiences of Phillis Wheatley, Booker T Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, Bill Cosby, Richard Rodriguez, Maria Laurino, and you. I am looking for common threads of sponsorship and loss. Any suggestions you would care to make would be appreciated. Thank you.

    Cathy Fraser

  13. For some reason Noddings was cut out of my previous comment. Sorry about that.