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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Monday, October 12, 2009


Here is a passage from Why School?, a portrait of a man with a disability in a community college basic skills program. I hope you like it.


Food wrappers and sheets of newspaper were blowing in the wet wind across the empty campus. It was late in the day, getting dark fast, and every once in a while I’d look outside the library – which was pretty empty too – and imagine the drizzly walk to the car, parked far away.

Anthony was sitting by me, and I was helping him read a flyer on the dangers of cocaine. He wanted to give it to his daughter. Anthony was enrolled in a basic skills program, one of several special programs at this urban community college. Anthony was in his late-thirties, had some degree of brain damage from a childhood injury, worked custodial jobs most of his life. He could barely read or write, but was an informed, articulate guy, listening to FM radio current affairs shows while he worked, watching public television at home. He had educated himself through the sources available to him, compensating for the damage done.

The librarian was about to go off shift, so we gathered up our things – Anthony carried a big backpack – and headed past her desk to the exit. The wind pushed back on the door as I pushed forward, and I remember thinking how dreary the place was, dark and cold. At that moment I wanted so much to be home.

Just then a man in a coat and tie came up quickly behind us. “Hey man,” he said to Anthony, “you look good. You lose some weight?” Anthony beamed, said that he had dropped a few pounds and that things were going o.k. The guy gave Anthony a cupping slap on the shoulder, then pulled his coat up and walked head down across the campus.

“Who was that?,” I asked, ducking with Anthony back inside the entryway to the library. He was one of the deans, Anthony said, but, well, he was once his parole officer, too. He’s seen Anthony come a long way. Anthony pulled on the straps of his backpack, settling the weight more evenly across his shoulders. “I like being here,” he said in his soft, clear voice. “I know it can’t happen by osmosis. But this is where it’s at.”

I’ve thought about this moment off and on for twenty years. I couldn’t wait to get home, and Anthony was right at home. Fresh from reading something for his daughter, feeling the clasp on his shoulder of both his past and his future, for Anthony a new life was emerging on the threshold of a chilly night on a deserted campus.

These few minutes remind me of how humbling work with human beings can be. How we’ll always miss things. How easily we get distracted – my own memories of cold urban landscapes overwhelmed the moment.

But I also hold onto this experience with Anthony for it contains so many lessons about development, about resilience and learning, about the power of hope and a second chance. It reminds us too of the importance of staying close to the ground, of finding out what people are thinking, of trying our best – flawed though it will be – to understand the world as they see it… and to be ready to revise our understanding. This often means taking another line of sight on what seems familiar, seeing things in a new light.

And if we linger with Anthony a while longer, either in the doorway or back inside at a library table, we might get the chance to reflect on the basic question of what school is for, the purpose of education. What brought Anthony back to the classroom after all those years? To help his economic prospects, certainly. Anthony wanted to trade in his mop and pail for decent pay and a few benefits. But we also get a glimpse as to why else he’s here. To be able to better guide his daughter. To be more proficient in reading about the events swirling around him – to add reading along with radio and television to his means of examining the world. To create a new life for himself, nurture this emerging sense of who he can become.


Anonymous said...

Mike, this speaks volumes to me at the moment. Our unit, which supports students in developing their academic skills, is going through a "restructuring" in the name of equity. The university is rightly concerned that more students need our support than we work with, on our limited resources, and part of the solution is going to be that we will do less one-to-one work with individuals and put more of our advice online where everyone can "access" it. I respect the effort to make our service more available, but I'm worried about the result that WE will be less available. You stress how important it is for people like us to be "on the ground"; and online is the very opposite of on the ground. So many people I have worked with have benefited, not so much from the information about language and writing that we offer, but from the experience of having somebody in the academic community ready to learn from them, to take them as seriously as they take themselves, to accompany them through the hard work they put in -- to KNOW them. In future, they will still be able to know what I know, but we won't be able to know each other, and I think this is going to make learning less, rather than more, accessible. I hope I'm wrong -- but either way, I am going to be the poorer for this rationing of working relationships.

Kate Chanock

Mary-Helen said...

I agree with Kate, so much so that I would say it WILL make learning less accessible and - to touch on something else she commented, which lines up with what you said - that we all lose out in the process because teachers learn from their students, if they're really there. What's the purpose of education? I'm glad you keep asking that question -- as a society we certainly seem to have lost track of the answer.

Gloria Askew said...

As an alternative education teacher, this excerpt touched me deeply. Thank you, Mike, for the lift. Also, as a first year teacher, I need the inspiration on how to reach our at-risk youth. My class sizes are less than sixteen, and I am afforded the opportunity to reach the children on a more personal level at a critical time in their lives.

Abby said...

Had a bit of a rough few weeks on the ground, and this section really helped put my mind (and feet) back in the right direction. Thank you for that. Thank you, especially, these parts:

"These few minutes remind me of how humbling work with human beings can be. How we’ll always miss things. How easily we get distracted . . .

It reminds us too of the importance of staying close to the ground, of finding out what people are thinking, of trying our best – flawed though it will be – to understand the world as they see it… and to be ready to revise our understanding. This often means taking another line of sight on what seems familiar, seeing things in a new light."

ChicanoAnthro said...

Man, I been trying to think what to say about this vignette for a week or so. Went digging around my mind, rummaging for the tightest words I owned. But the best I could do is say that I recognize aspects of myself, my tío, my father in what you wrote. I know that vato, I know him real well, met a hundred guys like him and each one touched my heart for the reals. It's a trip how momentous everyday things can be.

Ron Klemp said...

I am a new Community College instructor, having retired from the Los Angeles Unified School District. My previous job was to coordinate all of the Secondary Literacy Intervention for the District for grades six through ten. I have been teaching at CSUN for the past 26 years in the secondary credential program with a focus on literacy instruction for diverse classrooms. I live in two interesting worlds: beginning teachers on the one hand, new college students on the other who are just out of high school.

The students that I am teaching in the English / Reading program are students who did not qualify for English 1 and are taking anywhere from four to six classes in reading and writing. These are students who, for the most part, did not or could not "do school" in our district. They are eager to learn and willing to do what it takes, and they have a lot of catching up to do. I spend time helping them with their comprehension skills and have been focusing on teaching them to organize their writing along the lines of the five paragraph essay. My hope is that eventually they will spread their writing wings but for now, I need to have them be able to express their responses to informational text in an organized manner that will carry them through the content area demands of the curriculum that awaits them in their coming college years.

I also realize that part of my task is to have them understand how to "do school." Arriving to class on time, removing their ear buds, resisting the urge to "text" while in class, putting their hooded sweatshirts down so that I can see their faces, remaining in class throughout the whole class period, having the right supplies, stapling their papers together, using a word processor and a certain font, providing a cover sheet, checking for spelling and sentence structure, are all a part of my teaching menu. For many of them they are essentially starting over to build the capital they need to ensure that the "little" things don't make them stumble. Some of my "restructuring program" is working, but it is a "square one" proposition from which I am more than willing to begin.

Nick said...

Mike, your excerpt was definitely worth the read for those who thrive on education, such as myself and millions more. Its well written context had me thinking that education is the broad basis of structuring life that is ahead of you and is there for the better good (except for student loans, that will bite you in the ass). I think of it as the seed, or root, that will grow to something undoubtedly fruitful and something of both internal and external value. From what I can see, this Anthony guy is the kind of scholar who is ever-determined to rise to the top academically, despite his unfortunate disability. His clinginess and content of being in the campus library is something to admire. In the harsh reality, not many students can honestly say that they like being in the school library. But nonetheless, this story makes me feel enthusiastic about going to school the next day. Thanks for the inspiration Mike!

-Nick G.

Anonymous said...

Anthony is very inspiring , this article shows that no matter what situation you are in , no matter how tough life has been to you , no matter what ur learning disability may be you should never give up on ur education.you can always go back to school to educate urself or even help set a better example for ur children. it seems to me that anthony realized that he needed a better carrer aswell as to set a better example for his daughter and the only way to achieve that would be going back to school.

Alec said...

Wow! This excerpt is inspirational and touched me. This article makes me want to pursue my educational goals and dreams by bettering myself as a college student.
As an ex at-risk youth, I would take advantage of the school systems and barely passing my high school courses, but this helped me understand how important education is. Not only did it help me understand the purpose of education, but also made me realize and see education in a different perspective. We need to take advantage of the opportunities given to us and better ourselves whether we are disabled or "too old".
As Ghandi said “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Katherine Rodriguez said...

I agree. Everyone has their reason for going to school, let it be for better financial opportunities or personal growth. School can open a lot of doors. The only sad thing about this is that not too many of the "higher ups" feel this way. They're putting value on other unnecessary things instead of looking here. As a student, i see this a lot. Students are being deprived of finances because of all the cuts. But i digress...I really respect those that fight on and don't lose their drive towards education. In the end, all of that hard work will pay off.