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.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

Monday, September 21, 2009

One from the Heart

This was a commentary that I published in Education Week on September 2, 2009.

One from the Heart: Helping Young People Reconnect to School
Mike Rose

It’s the real thing when the light goes on.

In the middle of his high school electronics classroom, the teacher had built the frame of a very small house. The frame is bare except for wires running across and through the beams, wires and receptacles, some wall switches, various light fixtures, and a power panel, door open. Students test their skills on this simulated residence, and on this day, two students are hooking up lights and running the wires to the power panel.

There is a group of younger students present, new boys and girls just entering the program. The teacher gets a nod from the two students that they’re ready, so he walks over to the classroom’s central power source and ceremoniously flips a switch. It works! The whole house lights up, ceiling lights, wall lights, floods. “Wow,” exclaims one of the younger students, under his breath. “Man,” he says, “that’s crazy!”

This boy was not much interested in school, but the demonstration caught him. He spoke to the teacher afterward, eager to begin.

Good teachers work hard to create such moments: some activity or object – a science experiment, a power tool, a carefully selected book – that captures the imagination of a kid who is drifting away from the classroom.

What we witness in these moments is the emergence of meaning in a young person’s school life. Whether or not that moment takes hold and leads to a student staying in school depends on a lot beyond the moment: the rest of the curriculum, continued mentoring and counseling, and the circumstances of the young person’s life outside the schoolhouse door. But without that flash of light, actual or metaphorical, the chances are that nothing much will happen.

The nation is turning its attention to young people like that boy in the group of visiting students, high school and college-aged youth – 16 to 26 is the commonly heard age range – who are “disconnected,” who are doing poorly in school, who are at risk of dropping out or have already done so, who, post-high school, can’t seem to find a viable career path. In my state of California – even during our budget meltdown – there are initiatives aimed at this population from government, educational institutions, and philanthropies.

This is good news, for this population typically is not made a top priority in public policy.

The twin driving engines of these initiatives are economic and sociological: a concern about the effect on the economy and social structure of a significant stratum of poorly educated, underemployed or unemployed young people unable to create a decent career for themselves. Therefore, the pitch to them, like the justification for the intervention itself, is an economic one: to offer a means to get young people back on academic or occupational track toward economic success.

What we miss with this appeal, however – and is missing generally from educational policy – is what that boy experienced when the lights went on. To be sure, the prospect of a good job and financial security can be hugely motivating. But it also can be a distant abstraction, something we know is good for us but doesn’t stir feeling or imagination. The economic appeal falls flat unless it connects with something of emotional significance in a student’s life: the palpable hardship of parents’ existence; a commitment to younger siblings or to one’s own new family; a burgeoning interest in some pursuit and a desire for competence in it; a sense of the future and of who one wants to become.

Because of our structural and technocratic orientation to reform, we can get the scaffold of a program in place, but neglect what is most crucial: how to create the conditions for those moments around the small house frame to arise. We don’t see words like emotion or imagination or, for that fact, identity in our educational policy. They are not the language of rigor, of education science.

But perhaps the science that drives our policy is not rigorous enough, not close enough to the real data of engagement with school. There is in the policy literature a recognition of the importance of adult mentoring in the lives of at-risk youth, but not a lot else that addresses the wider human dimension of education.

This limited focus concerns me because we have a history of conceptualizing and intervening in the school lives of disconnected students in reductive ways: solely in terms of their academic deficiencies and/or their threat to the economy and their potential economic rehabilitation. Frequently the result has been narrow academic skills and job training programs.

To avoid this trap, we will have to begin with an intellectually rich and wide-ranging definition of opportunity and occupation, offer a robust course of study, provide consistent advising and mentoring, and create institutional pathways to work and career. And to achieve these goals, we’ll need to affirm the interior as well as economic life of the students in our charge, appeal to the heart as well as to the financial calculus.


  1. A few years ago I submitted a grant application to a local funder for about $500 worth of child-size woodworking tools. My idea was to use the tools as a way to teach math as well as woodworking skills to 2nd graders. I had done this years before as an after-school class at my local JCC. It was a huge success. We built a gorgeous food donation box--sanded, painted, with all our names, and a piano hinge that didn't bend! I think it may still be there 20 years later (it may have more like 30 years ago!)

    The funder decided not to fund it. An interested parent however decided to fund it and made the $500 donation to the school. The principal never told me the money came, and I can only assume she used it for other things (the parent told me she donated the money and we both waited to see if the principal we have little faith in would fund my "toolbox". Nope!)

    I write all this a an illustration of what i think is a basic problem in public education--it's boring, shallow, and unconnected.

    My tools--hammers, screwdrivers, tape-measures, saws--would have expanded the worlds of my little 2nd graders. It would have demystified, excited, prompted dreams and/or ideas, fostered creativity, developed motor skills (fine and gross), required and subsequently fostered communication, measurement (a standard), arithmetic (a standard), and on and on. They would have been more connected to the physical world around them by being, working and engaging in it.

    I am a big fan of the trades. Some of the smartest and most creative people I know are in the trades. They are well read, grounded, and most of all, competent. And they can fix their own leaky faucet!

    Our present system is not producing competence, nor is it even fostering it; we are presently engaged in fostering and producing competent test-takers as opposed to competent people. Life is not about tests, or it shouldn't be. It should be about living in a world of things as well as ideas. Things got underrated in favor of scores. So sad.

    Anyway, I find your stories and posts some of the most important, eloquent, and even sweet attempts to illustrate what ails us.


  2. Andy says:

    So well put Mike. This post goes right to the magic of teaching, the magic of being a teacher, and the magic of being a student:the natural joy of opening to a new experience.

    As humans, we're hard-wired for this. Just watch a youngster's attention: always to something interesting, novel, or, especially with more years, attention moves to more substantial questions. We're built to be stimulated, and to understand our world, from the inside.

    How right you are to point out the absolute absence of this most important ingredient in policy discussions. Yet intrinsically, we know this magic must be there--for teachers and students to even show up. Without some of this magic, "learning" wouldn't even happen.

    Obviously we need to rethink what "rigorous" means in educational science, and with that, recognize the foundations of what engages children.

  3. Mike-

    "One from the heart" gets, well, to the heart of things. As always, thanks for pinpointing the truly important aspects of the learning process; your writing renews the energy reserves of educators like me who find themselves in institutions where the infrastructure is being gutted, wires ripped from walls and sockets while we teach. Lighting candles and bonfires on the beach with friends may keep the lights on long enough for power central to locate the flashlight.

    MK, Sonoma State University

  4. Thanks for this solid essay. What you talk about compares to what our writing center is thinking about setting up for writers--a writer's exchange, a writer's group of sorts where students can come into the writing center to write and get feedback in a non-graded and comforting environment with the help of mentors (graduate assistants who work as writing consultants). We're still working on the logistics, but this post has inspired us and confirmed that we're going in the right direction with this project.

    Tim Taylor

  5. This very much is on point:

    What we witness in these moments is the emergence of meaning in a young person’s school life. Whether or not that moment takes hold and leads to a student staying in school depends on a lot beyond the moment: the rest of the curriculum, continued mentoring and counseling, and the circumstances of the young person’s life outside the schoolhouse door. But without that flash of light, actual or metaphorical, the chances are that nothing much will happen.

    Unless and until how we evaluate teaching can account for such moments, our method of evaluation is flawed, insufficient, possibly even destructive of real education if it tends to preclude or even simply ignore such moments.