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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Friday, June 12, 2020

To Say A Name


Each of the chants rising up from the demonstrations for racial justice burst with significance: Black Lives Matter, No Justice, No Peace, the various calls to defund police departments. Though only a few words in length, each has a consequential political history. Each speaks volumes. I want to reflect here on one of the chants – Say His Name, George Floyd – because of the many ways it affirms Mr. Floyd’s humanity, a humanity denied him in the last minutes of his life. 
Though I focus here on George Floyd, and therefore the call to “say his name,” the following applies equally to Black women and the violence they face at the hands of the police – which is underreported. For a powerful illustration see critical legal scholar KimberlĂ© Crenshaw’s 12/7/2016 TED Talk on intersectionality. See also the SayHerName campaign of The African American Policy Forum. 
Speaking the name of someone who has died is an act of remembering. We read the names on memorials, alone or with others: The Vietnam Memorial Wall, The September 11th Memorial, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. We are keeping a person present in our memory and in public memory. 
Speaking the name of someone is an affirmation not only of the person’s presence on earth, but of life history and identity. To lack a name, or worse, having your name removed or torn away, is to erase your life story. 
Speaking a name asserts a person’s dignity. If you come from a faith tradition or are non-sectarian, you might believe in different ultimate sources of this dignity, but to say a person’s name in chant or softly in reverence is to assert the person matters philosophically, spiritually in the grand scheme of things. 
When a person’s name is spoken to protest a crime against that person, in this case an unspeakably casual murder of an incapacitated Black man by a police officer, then the name gains legal and civic meaning, becomes a call for judgment and justice. 
And when that crime is not isolated, is not an individual act of violence but floods out across centuries of countless Black lives, many of whom have been robbed of their names, then the name of this one person, George Floyd, becomes the name of multitudes, their humanity ripped from them, but, in one way, reclaimed in the voices rising in cities around the world. Speaking the name becomes a collective political and historical act. 


***
Before my mother got too sick, she would cook a full pot of pasta or stew and carry it two blocks to the back lot of her neighborhood shopping center where some homeless men were living. When I found out what she was doing, I tried to get her to stop, for she was already frail and failing. “No,” she said firmly, “those men are somebody’s sons.” It was that simple and that profound. She was proclaiming the men’s humanity and in a way that connected their lives to hers. 
As George Floyd was drawing his last breaths, he called out for his deceased mother – the woman who brought him into this world and named him. 
Whether we intend it or not, no matter how renowned or common a person we are, our lives make a moral imprint on the world. A person’s life is more than the sum of its parts. George Floyd’s life carries a moral claim, becomes an embodied argument for racial and economic justice. Say his name. 


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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Teaching Over the Long Haul


NOTE TO READERS.  I have been working on this blog for a while, trying to meet my end-of-May deadline, but now I am hesitant to post it, given the urgent anguish that surrounds us. I have tried to write about this moment, but I am a slow writer and was unable to produce for you anything that has not already been written, and written with more knowledge and wisdom than I have about the thick layers of pain radiating from the murder of George Floyd and so many before him.
I finally decided to go ahead and post the blog and leave it up to my readers if and when the time is right to read it. I hope it reflects, in its way, the human regard being called for by those raising their voices for equality and justice. 

 Here is the blog for May.


***

There is a lot of talk these days about teaching. Continually, it seems, someone on broadcast media, or via an internet platform, or informally through Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, someone is expressing with appreciative surprise how difficult teaching is. The terrible COVID-19 pandemic has brought the demands – but only some of the demands – of the classroom into countless parents’ homes. I’m not seeing the cliched pop-culture portrayals of the teacher as unsympathetically uptight or clueless, and thankfully not hearing riffs on the tiresome adage claiming that those who can’t do, teach. 

It’s nice to have the pause button pushed on this stuff, for teaching is extraordinary work. Since my earliest days as an intern in Vi Christian’s wonderful kindergarten classroom (when I actually was pretty clueless) to the present, teaching has been a source of intellectual challenge, endless learning, humor, and self-discovery. And it is the kind of work that leads to reflection. 

I try to capture one small plane of my development as a teacher in the following, written for “Practitioner to Practitioner,” the journal of The National Organization of Student Success. I hope you enjoy it, and, if you teach, that it rings true to you. 

***

When I was a young teacher starting out many moons ago, I would hear older teachers at conferences or professional development sessions talk about all they learn from their students. I didn’t buy it. I mean, come on, after studying mathematics or literature for four years in college and then in graduate school, you’re telling me that a middle schooler or tenth grader or college freshman can enlighten you about solving for unknowns in algebra or how metaphor works? That sounded like happy talk to me. 
But as I explained and illustrated metaphor with different groups of students, in reference to different poems, I found myself going back to my college notes, to reference books, to other, more experienced teachers. I began to be more articulate in my explanations and more supple in my responses to questions—in fact, was starting to anticipate questions, which led to reading more poetry, looking for just the right examples. And then there were those times when the meaning of a metaphor in a given poem—let’s say an abandoned house, or a clock, or a storm forming in the distance—was well established by critics. We know what the metaphor means and how it functions—and then a student comes up with a credible different take on the poem. Maybe its meaning isn’t so settled after all. I’ll be damned if I wasn’t learning something about metaphor, though not in the way I had naively imagined when I was beginning my career—not simply acquiring more factual information. I was learning about metaphor through interacting with others, trying to help them understanding how literature works and, in the process, coming to better understand and appreciate literature myself, literature as a living thing. Teaching was affording me a dynamic way of knowing.
The longer I do this work, the more I’ve come to appreciate the range of what teaching enables us to know, the wide scope of human experience it opens up to us. Think of all those times in classrooms or student conferences or even in a casual encounter on campus when something revelatory happens: A student has an insight, makes a connection, thinks her or his way into and through a problem, confronts a limitation, discovers something new about a subject, discovers something about him or herself. These experiences are so much a part of the work we do that we might not pay much attention to them in the moment, and semester by semester they likely fade from memory. But the fact is we are witnesses to something remarkable that our teaching helped foster. I can say now with a little more humility but, paradoxically, a little more wisdom than I had at the beginning of my career that, yes, we do learn from our students… and learn about them, learn about each other and learn about ourselves. Our work gives us a line of sight into what makes us human: exploration, challenge, courage, and growth. 

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