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.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sitting at the Kitchen Table: One More Round on “Why Go to School”

Again, I have to say that I’m humbled by the thoughtfulness of the readers’ responses.
In writing about the impediments to robust, humane schooling, readers mention the ill-effects of high-stakes assessment and narrow notions of achievement; centralized, top-down administrative control; the size of schools; and a hyper-competitive culture that turns education into a mad scramble for advantage. Though alluded to in several posts, I would add and underscore the continued presence of discrimination (often evidenced in beliefs about the ability of children from particular backgrounds) and the effects of poverty and intensified economic inequality.
Most of these issues are addressed in an important new report from The Forum for Education and Democracy entitled “Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education”. (The title plays off the earlier report “A Nation at Risk” published twenty-five years ago.) I highly recommend it, and maybe in future posts we can discuss it.
(By the way, “Ms.” asks about school size, and I’d recommend reading Deborah Meier– one of the contributors to the “Democracy at Risk” report–on that topic, if you haven’t encountered her yet. You’ll find a kindred spirit.)
One thing that a position paper like “Democracy at Risk” can’t do, or can’t do well, given the nature of the format, is provide the lived particulars of experience, the deeply felt reasons people have for sending their kids to school, what they want for their children. What I appreciate about so many of my readers’ posts over the past few months is the fact that they draw on those particulars, drawn from a parent’s desire or a teacher’s life in the classroom.
At the beginning of The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama describes traveling house to house, county to county as he was running for office in Illinois. Whether or not you support Obama, the description rings true, and, I think, is familiar to any politician of any persuasion who willingly or not has to spend time at kitchen tables, at local diners, at small churches, at civic clubs, at school boards. This is where, over time, you hear what’s on people’s minds, their fears and hopes. I had my own version of this experience as I traveled across the country to write Possible Lives, and it was unforgettable.
In my case, we spoke mostly about education, for that was the purpose of my journey. But, of course, all the things that affect schooling–from local economy to local youth culture–came into the mix as well.
Parents and teachers time after time, community after community wanted young people to be prepared for work, and usually work that was more secure and less physically demanding than the work of their parents. This goal is in line with current policy discourse about preparing a better educated work-force. But parents wanted so much more: for their children to be valued, their talents encouraged, their limitations addressed. Parents wanted their children to learn how to get along, how to be fair and respectful of others. Parents wanted their kids to know things, to get involved in subjects and learn how to learn. Parents wanted their children to apply what they learn, make good judgments. And so it went.
All this was specific, grounded, referring to an individual child in an individual place. It was real and immediate. But when I heard it in home after home, town after town, I couldn’t miss how widespread it was. Measurable achievement and economic security are absolutely at the center of parents’ concerns. But there is much more that they want from school or, maybe a better way to say it is that economics and accountability are webbed in a number of other deeply felt concerns.
The politician who can understand and express in policy those concerns will tap into something powerful in the country. I hope that such talk emerges as we move further down this year’s campaign trail.

A personal note and tribute. We write a lot in this blog about promise and possibility. I’d like to raise an imaginary glass in memory of a friend whose promise was cut terribly short in an automobile accident two weeks shy of her 34th birthday. Here’s to Polly Mae Tolonen, a sharp, sassy woman with a big laugh and a good heart.