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, May 25, 2012

High School Reunion

            In my last post, I wrote about the current Teacher of the Year, Rebecca Mieliwocki. Ms. Mieliwocki is in the midst of her career, affecting the lives of students here and now. This week I’m writing about the influence of a teacher long past the time when that teacher’s work is done. It’s the kind of influence teachers hope to have.

            This post is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but I promise it has a punch line, maybe several.

            My high school class hasn’t been big on reunions, but it did just have one, the only one in decades. I wasn’t able to go, but if I could have, I might not have attended anyway. High school was not such a great time for me, and though by the time I graduated I had a close circle of buddies and, as well, had a few pals who were in the cool crowd, I felt pretty adrift until my senior year when I had the unbelievable luck of landing in Jack McFarland’s English class, the class that turned my life around. I remained close to those friends – though several have died – and I am still in touch with Mr. McFarland. Those connections aside, I have no desire to relive my high school days, all those feelings of anchorless yearning.

            I had heard through the grapevine about the reunion before I got the form letter announcing it. The letter was from Denny Grace, a guy who lettered in three sports and dated the homecoming queen. I knew Denny in high school –we were both in Mr. McFarland’s English class – but I doubt that we ever exchanged more than a few words in passing. Denny was a big deal, and I was, well, not on the fringes by my senior year, but certainly not in the high school groove. Once we graduated, I don’t believe I saw Denny again.

            At the bottom of that form letter, right under Denny’s signature, he wrote a sentence saying he had read one of my books and really liked it.  I stood there in my kitchen, looking at that eleven word sentence, surprised, touched, a little disoriented. I could picture Denny clearly. He sat three or four rows over from me in McFarland’s class, and the image I had was of the beginning of class, Denny in his long letterman’s sweater, laughing as he curled into his seat, big as life. And here he is now writing to me about something I wrote?! I felt like I was in a John Hughes movie.

            I remembered that Denny’s father owned a small construction company and was pretty sure that Denny worked for him. So a few days after receiving the letter, I wrote a letter back, explaining that I couldn’t come to the reunion and telling him how pleased I was that he liked the book. I mentioned the construction work and included with the letter a copy of my book on the cognition involved in a blue- collar and service work, The Mind at Work. A short time later I got a hand written letter from Denny in return commenting on the book:

I was in construction my entire life, and if you ever watched a tile setter tile a kitchen or see a finish carpenter hang a door or watch a carpenter cut roof joists, you would have a whole new outlook on what talent and smarts it takes to do those jobs.

After a billion years, Denny Grace and I, two people who led such different lives in high school, were forming a connection around reading. And here is where this digressive tale begins to set up its punch line.

Before Mr. McFarland’s class, Denny was not much of a reader, and though he certainly was an able student, he was, by his own admission, more emotionally invested in sports rather than academics. But McFarland caught his attention. The class, Denny wrote, “was the best class with the best teacher I ever had.” And the readings got him wondering about other books and authors, so, for the first time in his young life, he went to the public library and checked out a book – Tortilla Flat. The library “was a strange, new world,” and he was hooked.” I’ve have never been without a book since then. Roaming through bookstores is like being on a treasure hunt.”

I set up a phone call so that Denny could tell all this to his former teacher. They had a long and, from what I heard later, engaging conversation. As I write this, Mr. McFarland is compiling a reading list for Denny, based on the books they discussed.

I spoke with Mr. McFarland afterward, reflecting on the way a teacher’s influence plays out. For some in his class, his influence was evident in the moment – for example with the fellow who edited the student newspaper he supervised, or with someone like me, an aimless student who he pulled into his orbit. Teachers can point to such cases. But what about other varieties of influence? “When you teach so many classes,” McFarland mused, “there’s an awful lot of anonymity in the interaction. There’s people you don’t know you’re reaching – and sometimes they’re not aware at the time that something is being set in motion.”

He certainly set something in motion with me and with Denny Grace as well – and further set in motion a wonderful ongoing conversation between two former classmates who, thanks to Jack McFarland, now have a lot in common.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2012 Teacher of the Year

            Last week President Obama with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by his side honored Rebecca Mieliwocki as the 2012 Teacher of the Year. Ms. Mieliwocki, who has taught for 14 years, currently teaches 7th grade English at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, California. The President praised her for the “high expectations” she holds for her students and herself and for knowing “that school can be fun.” “When kids finish a year in Rebecca’s class,” the president continued, “they’re better readers and writers than when they started. But even more than that, they know how important they are, and they understand how bright their futures can be, and they know that if they work at it, there’s no limit to what they can achieve.” Ms. Mieliwocki is known for the creative and dynamic assignments she develops, for her use of the Socratic method to stimulate critical thinking, and for fostering connection with parents through weekly memos and by hosting family nights.
            President Obama has a lot on his plate - from Iran to Mitt Romney – so it’s no surprise that he doesn’t spend a lot of his public appearance time on education (though he does use the community college venue to give speeches on education and the economy). But when he does speak at an education- related event, he sometimes says things that do not mesh with his administration’s official education policy. The qualities he praises in Rebecca Mieliwocki are for the most part not those fostered by Race to the Top.
            It seems that when Mr. Obama has to honor a specific teacher’s work or talk about what education means to him or someone he knows, he articulates a richer vision that one built on market models and test- based accountability systems. I keep wondering how to get this very well educated, supremely learned man to consider the dissonance between his education policy and what he knows good education to be.

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