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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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

What It Means to Care

The passage below, excerpted from Possible Lives, is a reflection on the notion of “care” in teaching. Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.
I’ve been thinking again about this discussion of care in relation to today’s calls for racial justice, particularly the way justice is embodied and enacted in real time, in the moment. Consider, for example, how everyday, small interactions in teaching, many of them unplanned, some lasting less than a minute can serve larger egalitarian and emancipatory goals. I witnessed such interactions in classrooms throughout my travels for Possible Lives.
Let me set the scene for you. The events in this passage take place in Calexico, a city of 40,100 people on the California-Mexico border —the name fuses the Cal of California with the -exico of Mexico. 
The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who also is a mentor to first-year teachers at her school. Carmen Santos and Jessie Carillo are two of those new teachers. One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools. 
What I describe took place before 1998 when California passed Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that in effect eliminated bilingual education in the state. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, which restored bilingual education in California. 


When Carmen and company praised Elena’s “care,” they were referring not only to their mentor’s affection for kids —though that was part of it— but more so to Elena’s absolute regard for children, her unfaltering belief in their potential. “Caring” had as much to do with faith and cognition as with feeling. All children, no matter what their background, had the capacity to learn. And this belief brought with it a responsibility: it was the teacher’s intellectual challenge to come to understand what must be done to tap that potential. 
Every time interns watched Elena teach, they saw these beliefs in action, in even the most commonplace encounters —for it’s often in the assides, the offhand questions, the microlessons that a teacher’s most basic attitudes toward students are revealed. Carlos had written a shaggy dog story. Elena was slowly scrolling down the computer screen, praising the story as she read. Once done, about to move onto the next child, she tapped a key, taking the story back to a line at the beginning in which Carlos described the dog as a “troublemaker.” “You know, Carlos,” she reflected, “I found myself wondering what Penny did that caused so much trouble?” “She tips over garbage cans,” he said. “Good. Anything else?” Carlos giggled. “What?” she asked. “What is it?” “She makes messes!” Elena laughed. “Put that in, too, Carlos. That way your reader will really know what you mean by trouble.” Another time Elena was reading to the class in Spanish the story of a marvelous garden, and she came across a description of a beet that was six inches wide. She paused for a moment and reached across the desk for a ruler, handing it to Arely. “Mija,* show us how big that beet was.” Arely counted four, five, six on the ruler. “Whoa!” said Alex. “Big, huh?” And yet another time, Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: “No.” No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day. 
This affirmation of potential was deeply egalitarian. It did not stratify children by some assessment of their readiness or ability or by judgements based on their background or record. It assumed ability and curiosity; learning, in this belief system, became an entitlement. In Elena’s words, “You can’t deny anybody the opportunity to learn. That’s their right.” Bilingual education gained special meaning in this context. There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated. (Mexican children, one representative educator wrote in 1920, “are primarily interested in action and emotion, but grow listless under purely mental effort.”) The profound limits on the quality of education that stemmed from such practice and perception made all the more understandable the commitment of these Calexico teachers to bilingual education. Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people. It fit into a broader faith that, as Evangelina said before her Teaching of Reading class one afternoon, “all children have minds and souls and have the ability to participate fully in the society, and education is a way to achieve that.” 
On a more personal level, each teacher spoke about a teacher of her own who validated her intellectual worth, who demonstrated to her the power of having someone believe in a student’s ability. For Carmen, it was a Mrs. Self; for Jessie, a Mrs. Hems, someone “who gave me the incentive to try my best.” Also of critical importance was that Elena, Carmen, and the others shared a history and a community. They knew the families of the kids they taught, knew the streets they lived on and the cultural pathways open or closed to them. This familiarity, of course, widened their sphere of influence —as Jessie said, it’s easy to “see a kid on the street and tell him to come by” —but on a deeper level, where heart and instruction intersect, they identified with the children they taught. As Evangelina explained, “When you see that third-grader, you’re seeing yourself. You think, ‘If someone had done this for me when I was in third grade, how much better my education would have been.’” This was an identification that had significant pedagogical consequences. 
This was surely true for Elena. The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation “low achiever” or, in some cases, “slow learner.” Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. “The first two weeks, it was difficult,” she explained one noontime when we were all sitting around the Writer’s Table. “I’d put them here to write —and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say. ‘It’s your responsibility. I’m here to support you, but you have to do the work.’” It was warm that day, Elena’s sleeves rolled up… She spoke emphatically, with a nod or an exclamation or a quick laugh, her finger tapping the table, her hand slicing the air. “ I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them. But then… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.” Her room was constructed on work and opportunity. “You can’t say ‘I can’t’ in this classroom. You have to try.” And that cut both ways. 
If you believe so firmly in the potential of all your students, you have few ready explanations for their failure. The first line of scrutiny is one’s self. “What you do is not necessarily good for everyone,” Elena would say. “You have to try different things. You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I change that will work for a child who’s not learning!’” When a student was not doing well, Elena would assume she was failing and put herself through a rigorous self-assessment. “Why am I not teaching him,” she would ask, her record book open, the child’s work spread out in front of her. 
Elena’s sense of the role of teacher fit with my own, but spending time with her helped me understand the tension inherent in such a position, the power and the limits of individual force of mind. 
Roberto was a sweet, quiet boy who seemed to understand his classwork, would do it when Elena was assisting him, but would just not complete it on his own. “I don’t know what to do to get him motivated,” she said. “I tried structuring things more, and I tried letting him pursue whatever he wanted. He’s a smart boy —I’m doing something wrong. What am I missing?” One day when Elena was sitting with Roberto, encouraging him to write a little more on a story, he suddenly started crying. His mother had left home, and he was sent to stay with his grandmother. He missed his mother terribly and was afraid that his grandmother, who was ailing, would die and leave him alone. How could he concentrate, Elena thought, when his very security was threatened? This was beyond anything she could influence. It was telling, though, that Elena didn’t entirely let up. She told him he could talk to her anytime he felt sad, and that she would ease off a little —on him, I suspect, more than herself— but that “they both had a responsibility to teach and learn,” and that the best thing he could do was to learn what he could so he would someday be able to take care of himself. “We both have to try,” she said, holding him, wanting to make for him, as best she could, her classroom a place of love and learning. In Elena’s mind, the consequences for Roberto’s future of his not learning to read and write and compute were too great to ignore, even in sorrow… 
All this was what it meant to care. 

*A term of endearment, “my daughter.” 

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  1. Essential for life. This is what matters most.

  2. Another stunning post. Thank you!

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  5. Mike, I passed this essay along to my fellow teachers and staff. It's so simple, really. Great, poetic, feeling-full compression of the idea of caring in teaching. Thank you.

  6. I am very interested to your tenet of "care". Although it seems like "just good teaching," I am eager to read Possible Lives. Thank you for this post.