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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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Coming Back to School: What Returning Students Can Teach Us About Learning and Development

This article was originally published in the March/April, 2014 issue of Change, a magazine dealing with contemporary issues in higher education.  In it, I draw from and build on my book Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.  This week, Back to School comes out in paperback.
            Also this week, in synch with Labor Day, the radio show On Being is rebroadcasting an interview I did on The Mind at Work.  You can access the show here.  If you’ve never listened to On Being (formerly called Speaking of Faith), you might want to check it out.  The host, Krista Tippett, is a thoughtful interviewer, and the range of topics and guests is terrific—last week’s guest was the incomparable political and social activist Grace Lee Boggs.
            Here is the article from Change. 

            “You might discover somebody you never knew you were,” Henry says with a big voice as he turns his wheelchair sideways to look at me. “That’s basically what happened to me when I started taking classes here.”
            Henry is finishing up his general education requirements for his associate of arts degree and is preparing to transfer to a university. His goal is to work in mediation and conflict resolution, particularly with teenagers, kids like he once was, who are “searching for an identity.”
            Henry is in his mid-twenties—a vibrant, self-reflective guy who was an honor-roll student and athlete in high school. Then, as he put it, he started doing “young, foolish, dumb stuff,” got caught with marijuana on campus, was expelled, returned to graduate, and then was drawn further into gang life, resulting in prison time and, soon after release, the shooting that paralyzed him.
            The year after the shooting was filled with hospitals and rehab centers and attempts to put his life back together. He returned to his parents’ house and spent long days thinking, watching television, surfing the web. Then one day, and he’s not sure exactly how, he stumbled across the website for the community college he now attends.
When Henry was on the streets, “college was the last thing on my mind,” but now the images on the screen stirred him. All kinds of thoughts went through his mind about his purpose and goals and how to turn his life around. “I don’t have the use of my legs,” he said, “but I have the use of my mind.”
            The community college Henry found that day is geared toward occupational training, and he began by studying a trade. As part of his financial-aid package, he got a work-study job as a receptionist at the campus tutoring center—and that job led to further revelations.
Being around “so many great and positive people who were in the process of transferring” to the university led Henry to discover “that I didn’t want to just get an occupational certificate and call it quits. I decided ‘I wanna take English courses. I wanna take general education courses.’ And that’s where it all started for me.”
            Henry is one of about fifty students I observed and interviewed during the two years I spent at a community college serving one of the poorest populations in Los Angeles County, in order to write Back to School. Though most of the students I got to know were not physically disabled to the degree Henry was, many lived in hardship and were going through or had gone through a period of self-discovery. They were trying to get their lives together, make something of themselves, find out why God put them on this earth—the expressions varied, but the general goal of trying to start a new phase of life was pretty much the same.
            I sat in on classes in remedial mathematics and English and in five occupational programs: welding, diesel technology, electrical construction and maintenance, nursing, and fashion design. I also interviewed students who, like Henry, were preparing to transfer. I spent hours in the tutorial center, where I got a sense of the subjects and assignments that were most challenging to students and the kinds of assistance they most needed.
During observations in the occupational programs, there was ample opportunity to talk with students while they worked on an engine or were in the middle of constructing a garment. Such talk provided a more direct entry than formal interviews did to their attitudes, motivators, habits, struggles, and successes, as well as how they were developing a sense of competence and of their identities as nurses or diesel mechanics.
            I also conducted formal and informal interviews with the teachers, tutors, and mid- and high-level administrators who were responsible for these courses and programs. The interviews with teachers provided a wealth of information about subject matter and students, confirming or qualifying those students’ own sense of how they were doing. The interviews with administrators provided the broader institutional context in which students and faculty do their work.
            Finally, I simply spent a lot of time walking around the campus, sitting in various open spaces, waiting outside of classrooms. You see and hear so much: students passing by in the middle of a conversation about problems at home (a nursing student fretting about her husband’s displeasure at the demands on her time), or a delay in financial aid that’s making it impossible to buy books, or the elements of popular culture that circulate through this student body.
This multi-layered approach enabled me to get a sense of the lives of students like Henry as they are lived out in classes and workshops, in student services and other institutional settings, and in the campus as a social world. I saw the actual process of education unfolding in real time.
            The students I got to know were certainly enrolled to improve their economic prospects, but they were there for many other reasons as well. They wanted to do something good for themselves and their families. They wanted to be better able to help their kids with school. They wanted to have another go at education and change what it meant to them. They wanted to learn new things and to gain a sense—and the certification—of competence. They wanted to redefine who they were.

I saw the intricate interconnection of the three planes of students’ existence: personal, academic, and social. I observed students who were learning all kinds of things about themselves as they confronted the tasks and problems in their curriculum—what they liked or didn’t like, how they responded to a challenge, and so forth. I saw students who thought they were stupid because of their earlier school records—particularly in subjects like math or science—begin to rethink that assessment as they found they could do math or science either in basic courses or in the context of an occupational program.
In the occupational programs I visited, students were continually interacting with each other: learning by watching a peer prepare an IV tube, or lending a hand as another student was sewing a garment, or jointly working on an electrical assembly. Students were developing trade skills but also learning how to work with others and discovering what collaboration could yield.
Because of the demographics of this campus, those working together sometimes came from racial or ethnic groups that would have made them hostile to each other on the street. But the cooperative interaction around challenging tasks frequently overrode that hostility, at times even leading to insight about the racial and ethnic dynamics in this part of the city.
A number of students I met who were preparing to transfer to a four-year college or university told stories of self-discovery similar to Henry’s. They began by taking a course or two, and as they began to experience achievement and become engaged by particular topics and readings, they also began to imagine a different, more successful future for themselves.
The cognitive momentum they’d developed through their curriculum was beginning to have a significant effect on their sense of self, which, in turn, played back into the courses they took, the effort they gave to them, and the shaping of a goal to transfer. All of this led them to new acquaintances who shared their interests and reinforced their commitment. I was reminded of Marcia Baxter Magolda’s studies of self-authorship, a notion less commonly invoked with students like these than with traditional-aged students.
To be sure, this campus had students in their late teens and early twenties, but it also had a lot of students from their mid-to-late twenties into their fifties. We tend to assume that older students are more goal-oriented and practical than traditional-aged students. The implication is that the kinds of discovery and growth experienced by traditional students is not likely happen for the older folks, who are coming back to school more fully formed, with specific employment and career goals in mind.
There is some truth to this characterization, but I also found that remarkable things can happen to older students as they make their way through college. I talked with students like Henry who—through the classes they were taking and their interactions with faculty, staff, and other students—were reassessing their abilities, discovering new interests, and gaining insight into the personal beliefs or social norms that restricted them. That nursing student whose husband was giving her trouble was typical of those returning women who were beginning to confront gender roles, and not only because of something they read in a course but also because they began to experience themselves in a new way—in classes, with peers, on campus.
Even though all the students on this campus were commuters and had obligations that kept many of them from participating in extracurricular activities, they did find important participatory spaces in tutoring centers, computer labs, workshops, and the like. These academic resources provide a hugely important service in assisting students develop academic and occupational skills, but they also serve as social spaces, with the academic work providing the occasion for social contact.
While some students came by the tutoring center only in times of crisis, others came more regularly, forging relations with tutors and experiencing the center as a hospitable place. Learning was humanized for them.
In the tutoring center, I was struck by how many students were being helped with so many different tasks and problems, from narrowing a topic for a psychology paper, to navigating the Internet, to selecting classes, to letting off steam about problems with work schedules or transportation. Some of these fell squarely within the center’s mandate, some less so, but all contributed to students’ making their way through the college.
Henry’s growing awareness that he wanted to expand his education into the liberal arts was helped along by the fact that in the center, he was surrounded by people—students and tutors alike—who looked like him and were studying, talking, and puzzling things through. Henry saw there other students with street and prison tattoos, with disabilities, with various indicators that their lives had not been easy. And they were all in the midst of this vibrant educational environment, experiencing themselves as legitimate citizens of it.

The distinction between the academic and the occupational curriculum is status laden. The assumption—sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit—is that the academic course of study is the domain of intellectual growth, of insight and imagination, and of big ideas, whereas occupational programs, though perhaps challenging, are baldly functional.
But what I saw day to day in the occupational programs I visited complicated this easy distinction. There was the continual demand to solve problems, to apply knowledge, to slow down and think something through. Students needed to not only learn to use a tool or a process but know why it worked and how.
And there was excitement about new knowledge. After a field trip to a state-of-the-art welding shop, one student said he found all the new advances “overwhelming. … There is so much more to know.” But he added quickly that the trip “motivated” him, for he “loves this stuff.”
In the technical classes I saw an ample display and refining of aesthetic sensibilities. As students got more proficient and socialized into various craft traditions, they would talk about the beauty of an assembly, how the graceful bend of conduit is “pretty.” Students would re-do perfectly functional wiring that no one would see because it was “ugly.” Aesthetic judgment motivated action, became a reason in itself to master a technique.
An ethics of practice also emerged with growing competence. There was a right and a wrong way to do things. “A bridge is only as strong as its weakest weld,” I heard an instructor tell her students. “You’re like a surgeon, but you’re working on metal. You’re taking two separate entities and making them one. So take it to heart.”
For a number of students, progress through a program brought a sense of agency and fulfillment, especially important to those who had poor school records and were casting about. Students talked about the pleasure of being about to build or repair something, of finally being able to create a beautiful garment or care for the sick.
And for some, like Henry, success in an occupational program became a kind of scholastic launching pad, showing them, sometimes to their great surprise, that they could thrive in school and wanted more of it. “You will grow in a way,” one young woman mused, “that you never in your mind would imagine.”

Not just freshmen at Yale but also returning students at the central-city or semi-rural community college can experience the intellectual surprise of discovering a new field, realize that the way they have thought about themselves is a barrier to growth, form new relationships that open up both cognitive and social worlds. These experiences might happen in quite different ways and have quite different consequences, but they happen.
We need to listen to these students and be their advocates. If policymakers are blind to them because we haven’t done an adequate job of making them visible, then the institutional conditions to foster their growth won’t be created and funded. And that would have a direct effect on the students we saw in the tutoring center, the welding shop, and the nursing program—on a future Henry trying to discover who he is and could be.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Possible Lives at 20

Here is an essay I wrote reflecting on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America.  It appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column “The Answer Sheet” on August 8, 2015 [see it here].  As Ms. Strauss put it in her introduction to the essay, we don’t find much of this kind of understanding of school as part of community, a sense of place, in current education policy and reform.


            More than anything, it was the nihilistic policy and media language about schooling that got me on the road in the early 1990s to document good public school classrooms, and from those classrooms to draw a more comprehensive language—a richer set of stories—about public education in our country.  In the back of my mind was William Least Heat-Moon’s wonderful book Blue Highways, a chronicle of his travels across the back roads of the country, which were printed in blue on old highway maps.  Heat-Moon set out to discover America and, in a way, himself.  My goal was different, but, I would later realize, not unrelated: I wanted to get us to think about schools and school reform in a different way.

            This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the book that resulted from my journey—Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America—and that fact got me to look through some of the notebooks I kept during my travels.  About mid-way through the writing of the book, the opportunity came up to drive with a friend across the U.S., and I saw the trip as a chance to view the country I had been seeing in segments in one long arc.

            I’ve pulled two scenes from the cross-country notebook: one from Tucumcari, New Mexico, the other from Rochester, New York.  In addition to the teachers and students who form the core of Possible Lives, I met countless people in restaurants, markets, small shops—and just on the street as I was finding my way around.  They were open to a stranger, and added to the richness of the journey.  I learned so much from these conversations: about local history, about changes in the economy, about regional speech and folkways, about the hopes and grievances attached to school, and about the place of school in memory.


            It is mid-August, 1993, and I’m in the El Toro Restaurant in Tucumcari, New Mexico talking with a local woman named Edda, whose parents homesteaded just outside the current border of the city.  She is with her daughter, the “baby of the family”, who will soon be going off to college in Texas, a hedge against the uncertain future in her hometown.  Tucumcari borders Texas in east-central New Mexico, and has a population of about five thousand people.  Its economy, Edda explains, is built on cotton and feed and livestock.  Tucumcari’s once vital downtown, Edda continues, suffered as corporate retailers moved into larger neighboring cities, and the recession of the early 1990’s dealt a final blow.  “There were nice shops here,” she says.  “Used to be you could buy beautiful dresses right here.”  The city is tearing down two historical buildings.

            Edda directs me to an old building that houses the Tucumcari museum.  It is not far away.

            The main floor is crammed with artifacts of Tucumcari’s livestock industry—over one-hundred varieties of barbed wire—and with stone tools, pottery, and arrowheads from local Native American tribes.  In the basement, the curators recreated a general store: A Victrola, lamp shades, hardware, dry goods, and all kinds of remedies: Chill Tonic, Hart’s Compound, and a laxative called Satanic, the devil’s arms opened wide across the label.

            By the staircase, a sign: We do not discuss politics, religion, or the Civil War.

            Up the stairs, then, to the second floor to find that about half of the space has been fashioned into an early Twentieth Century classroom.  Rows of small desks with ink wells.  A mannequin dressed as a teacher—long, green flowered dress, hair pulled back in a bun.  The alphabet.  Pictures of the presidents.  A bookshelf with old books stacked sideways: science, geography, the Spell-to-Write Spelling Book, a Universal Composition Book.  There is a globe, lunch pails, and an eighth-grade diploma: “Admission to High School.”  It turns out that this building was Tucumcari’s old schoolhouse.


            “Crazy Ronny” stands in front of a massive heap of metal, jagged sheets of aluminum, severed steel beams, copper coil, burnt vats and tanks.  Ronny supervises this recycling operation in the defunct train yard in Rochester, New York, and he is electric with pride and get-go.  The recycling plant has been running for two years, so Ronny has been with it as it’s grown.  “We’re taking it in,” he says grinning, “faster than we can get it out.”

            The railroad’s old roundhouse still stands—well, part of it…sections are sheered off to accommodate the lot’s machinery and the movement of scrap.  The pits where mechanics stood to service the undercarriages of railroad cars are filled in, and the turning track in the middle of the yard is gone, though the brick lining remains.

            Ronny is not a big man, but is wiry and powerful, with forearms that you get only from years of turning a wrench or winch.  He is handsome in a rough-hewn way, and his face is bright with confidence.  He is quick and generous with praise for his crew.  He describes the difficult task of stripping the 4” glass lining out of chemical processing vats and says he doesn’t know how his guy does it so well.  He praises his welders, their skill, their tenacity.  My guess, though, is that he’s had tough times—in school, perhaps, maybe with the law.  His tee-shirt announces Crazy Ronny, and he’s right at home in this metallic wasteland and up to the task of taming it.

            During the time of my visit in 1993, Rochester had suffered the fate of so many Eastern industrial cities: economic restructuring, empty factories, jobs lost.  Recycling plants exist in good economic cycles and bad, but I couldn’t help but see this one as both outcome and symbol of hard times.

            The remnants of closed shops are gathered together here, processed and crushed into usable material for new industries, or old ones surviving in other forms or locations.  Creative destruction in a pretty literal sense, but only a few jobs are being created out of tons of thousands lost.

            But in the midst of this post-industrial churn, Ronny found meaningful work.  In the 1990s there were some government programs being floated to retrain former industrial workers for (much lower paying) service jobs.  I couldn’t imagine a guy like Ronny sitting at a desk all day or helping people process a claim or find a better appliance.

            This job mattered to Ronny.  He supervised it and watched it grow.  He knew what he was doing, had command of untold tons of twisted steel and iron, understood the flow of work, what his crew could do, appreciated their know-how—the skills involved in removing a four-inch layer of glass lining from a vat way taller than a man.  My Uncle Joe Meraglio once said that the shop floor of General Motors was his schoolhouse.  Ronny would understand exactly what he meant.


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