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, June 27, 2019

Classrooms and Hope



            At the beginning of 2019, the gifted political journalist Susan Glasser wrote a column titled “Is Optimism Dead in the Trump Era?” in which she mused on the “January Effect,” the “year-opening optimism” of the stock market and, more generally “the eternal hope for a fresh start” that typically characterizes many spheres of our personal and political lives. But, she continued, given the current occupant of the White House and the resulting ugly chaos, “Washington these days is hardly a town for optimists, even of the January variety.”

            Glasser’s column got me to reflecting on optimism and hope, not just in January, and particularly in these dark times. There is a passage in the writing of Czech playwright and statesman, Vaclav Havel that is relevant here:

Hope… is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather an ability to work for something because it is good.

Even when things seem at their bleakest, Havel continues, true hope impels us forward, “gives us the strength to live and to try new things.” Social movements are driven by this kind of hope.
            Another way to think about hope is to ask what in our lives acts as a counterforce to the dulling and blunting effects of evil, helps us see the good, hold to it, and work toward it? As I was reading Glasser, reading her and interiorly talking with her, I realized that for me a longstanding source of hope, of what might be, is the classroom, or, more exactly, all that the classroom represents at its best: a sanctioned space for growth, learning, discovery, thinking and thinking together. The classroom is the site of teaching, which in my late adolescence changed my life and subsequently has given my life great meaning —teaching, so beautifully described by education scholar Eve Ewing as “moments of intense focus and commitment where trying to help someone understand seems like the most important thing in the world.”
            My last post on counting and writing might be relevant here. In that post I encourage counting and describing the small particulars of daily life: “…everyday tallies and scribbles that can lift you momentarily out of the flow of events, help you take notice and give you a tool to think about what you perceive.” This attention to commonplace detail can have moral consequence. Detail grounds us in a time and place, is a hedge against stereotypes and easy labelling. Life is vibrant before us, in the case of the classroom, the vibrancy of learning and growing, which for me becomes a source of hope and commitment.
            I’m trying to think my way into something here, and apologize for the gaps in reasoning.  Let me offer some less hazy examples from past writing of what I’m reaching for. The first comes from the introduction to Possible Lives, an account of my visits to good public school classrooms across the United States.

I.                           I had been studying schools for much of my adult life, had been trying to understand how they enhanced the lives of students or diminished them. Most of that work was located in and around the LA Basin. For all its bewildering complication, Los Angeles was familiar territory, home. These trips to Calexico, to Baltimore, to Eastern Kentucky, to a nation within a nation in northern Arizona brought forth new cultural practices, new languages, new gestures. I was fortunate to have been escorted into so many classrooms, so many homes, to have been guided into the everyday events of the communities I visited, for the invitation eased the unfamiliarity and discomfort that could have been present on all sides. What I experienced was a kind of awe at our variety, yet an intimate regard, a handshake on the corner, a sense of shared humanity. The complex interplay of difference and commonality. What began as a search for a fresh language of educational critique and invention became, as well, a search for what is best in this country — realized infrequently, threatened at every turn — but there to be summoned, possible in the public domain, there to instruct a traveler settling into a seat in the corner of a classroom.
            It was, in many ways, an odd time to be on such a journey. The country was in the grip of a nasty reactive politics, a volatile mix of anger and anxiety. And people of all political persuasions were withdrawing from engagement with the public sphere. It was the time of economic and moral cocooning. The question for me — framed in terms of public schools, our pre-eminent public institution — was how to generate a hopeful vision in a time of bitterness and lost faith, and, further, how to do that in a way that holds simultaneously to what educational philosopher David Purpel calls “the interlocking and interdependent hinges” of criticism and creativity. How to sharpen awareness of injustice and incompetence, how to maintain the skeptic’s acuity, yet nurture the ability to imagine the possible and act from hope.
            The journey was odd for me in another way, considering my own teaching history. My work in the classroom has mostly been with people whom our schools, public and private, have failed: working-class and immigrant students, students from nonmainstream linguistic and cultural backgrounds, students of all backgrounds who didn't fit a curriculum or timetable or definition of achievement and were thereby categorized in some way as different or deficient. There are, as we have seen along this journey, long-standing social and cultural reasons for this failure of our schools, tangled, disturbing histories of discrimination, skewed perception, and protection of privilege.
            And yet there were these rooms. Vital, varied, they were providing a powerful education for the children in them, many of whom were members of the very groups defined as inferior in times past and, not infrequently, in our ungenerous present. What I began to see — and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it — was that these classrooms, in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society. These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal. To be sure, this democratic impulse has been undercut and violated virtually since its first articulation. Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to the Virginia legislature for three years of free public schooling, for example, excluded the commonwealth’s significant number of enslaved Black children. But it has been advanced, realized in daily classroom life by a long history of educators working both within the mainstream and outside it, challenging it through workingmen’s organizations, women’s groups, Black schools, appropriating the ideal, often against political and economic resistance, to their own emancipatory ends.
            The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals. At a time of profound disillusionment with public institutional life, these people were, in their distinct ways, creating the conditions for children to develop lives of possibility.
-       From Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, 1995/2006, pp. 412-413

II.                         So much depends on what you look for and how you look for it. In the midst of the reform debates and culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing— in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose of the common public school. For me, that purpose is manifest in the everyday detail of classrooms, the words and gestures of a good teacher, the looks on the faces of students thinking their way through a problem.
            We have so little of such detail in our national discussion of teaching, learning, or the very notion of public education itself. It has all become a contentious abstraction. But detail gives us the sense of a place, something that can get lost in policy discussions about our schools—or, for that matter, in so much of our national discussion about ourselves. Too often, we deal in broad brushstrokes about regions, about politics and economics, about racial, linguistic, and other social characteristics. Witness the red state– blue state distinction, one that, yes, tells us something quick and consequential about averages, but misses so much about local social and political dynamics, the lived civic variability within.
            The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning. I’m thinking right now of a scene in a chemistry class in Pasadena, California, that I observed. The students had been conducting experiments to determine the polarity of various materials. Some were washing test tubes, holding them up to the windows for the glint of sunlight, checking for a bad rinse. Some were mixing salt and water to prepare one of their polar materials. Some were cautiously filling droppers with hydrochloric acid or carbon tetrachloride. And some were stirring solutions with glass rods, squinting to see the results. There was lots of chatter and lots of questions for the teacher, who walked from student to student, asking what they were doing and why, and what they were finding out.
            The students were learning about the important concept of polarity. They were also learning to be systematic and methodical. And moving through the room was the teacher, asking questions, responding, fostering a scientific cast of mind. This sort of classroom scene is not uncommon. And collectively, such moments give a palpable sense of what it means to have, distributed across a nation, available by law to all, a public educational system to provide the opportunity for such intellectual development.
-       From Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us, 2009/2014, pp. 201-203

III.                       Classrooms are powerful places. They can be the sites of numbing boredom and degradation or of growth and connection.  …I have strong feelings about classrooms. I like them, feel at home in them. I like the banter, the crayons and pencils and scratching of pens, the smell of watercolors and acrylics, the quiet of concentration, the bustle of students thinking something through. The classroom is the place of my life’s work, the long haul, layered with emotion and memory. It doesn’t take much to call forth the wisps of childhood alienation and loneliness  ̶  the pages of a worn textbook, a kid’s slumping posture, the whiff of disinfectant ̶  or sometimes, in rapid shift, feelings of delicate hope and admiration for a teacher’s or student’s courage, quickness, humanity. Some of the most significant encounters of my late adolescence and young adulthood took place in classrooms, and it was in classrooms that I appropriated powerful bodies of knowledge and methods of inquiry. As I moved from student to teacher, I came of age in these rooms, realizing things about my own abilities and limits, my talent and fragility, the interplay of understanding and uncertainty that defines teaching, the sheer hard human work of it. I have been privy to remarkable moments, spent untold hours with people ̶  from elementary school children to adults in literacy programs ̶  as they acquired knowledge and new skill, played with ideas and struggled to understand, reached tentatively across divides, felt the grounded satisfaction of achievement, raged against history and moved toward clarity and resolve. A democracy, I believe, cannot leave the conditions for such experience to chance  ̶  or, for that matter, to the vagaries of political climate and market forces, for as Walter Lippmann observed, “the market is, humanly speaking, a ruthless sovereign.” A society that defines itself as free and open is obligated to create and sustain the public space for this kind of education to occur across the full, broad sweep of its citizenry.
-       From Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, 1995/2006, pp. 6-7


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Thursday, May 30, 2019

On Counting and Writing


           For something I’m working on, I have been reading several books by the surgeon Atul Gawande. At the end of Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Gawande offers five suggestions on how to avoid being “just a white-coated cog in a machine” and make “a worthy difference” in the world. Gawande is primarily addressing other physicians and surgeons, and it would seem to many of us that they do make a difference—a big difference if we’re sick and in need. But his point is that work in medicine—well-paid and prestigious though it is—can get routine and burdensome and requires some extra effort to avoid feeling like you’re on a treadmill. Physicians I know who work in HMO settings confirm this feeling.
            Given the kinds of work most people do for way less money and status but often with a good dose of repetition and stress, it might be difficult to sympathize with Gawande, but I was interested to see that two of his five suggestions were to “count something” and to “write something.”
            On counting, Gawande writes: “It doesn’t really matter what you count… the only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you.” In Gawande’s case, counting obvious things in the operating room contributed to techniques to improve performance and avoid dangerous mistakes. “If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

             On writing, Gawande observes:

            It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a      professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.

Gawande confesses that he did not write before he became a doctor. (I assume he means for publication.) “But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write.” Writing, for him, helps him hold onto a “larger sense of purpose,” enables him to “step back and think through a problem.”
            For Atul Gawande, counting and writing have high stakes and have contributed to his considerable achievements as a surgeon and author. In this blog, I want to reflect on small-scale counting and writing, everyday tallies and scribbles that can lift you momentarily out of the flow of events, help you take notice and give you a tool to think about what you perceive. How many are there of this object I’m seeing: trees, cell phones, shopping carts, cracks and buckles in the sidewalk, books and magazines? As I go through my day, are there more in one place than in another? What about behaviors, casual ones? How often do people greet or somehow acknowledge each other? Does this behavior vary by place?
            Writing. With a pen or keypad record a line from a song or t.v. show or from something you’re reading that touches or informs you, or the surprising color on a burst of flowers, or an overheard blip of conversation (this from a guy with a sad laugh on a cellphone: “Cuz I messed up, that’s why”), or something lovely someone says to you. Especially write that last one down.
            I probably need to state what I imagine is on some readers’ minds: I’m not asking that you count or write all the time, certainly not encouraging an obsessive adding or recording. But I do like the idea of momentarily focusing on the little things of the world that peripherally catch our attention.
            What I also value is that this orientation to count and describe small, everyday objects and events becomes a potent research tool when brought to bear on what one studies—for me and a number of the readers of this blog that would be school and schooling. Bring your writing and counting together. What kind of buildings surround the school—homes, shops? How many of each? What about signage? Where and how do students enter campus? Do they come alone, in pairs or groups, are they dropped off—on foot or by car? As you walk to your destination (the administrative offices, a classroom) what do you see and hear? The flow and clustering of students and adults? Bits of conversation? What blares from the loudspeaker? Are there trees and how many? Banners, flags, signs? Anything, anything that catches your attention.
            This is just the start, of course. Counts can be reductive as can snippets of description. You have to make sense of them—and try to understand what sense the people in the school make of it all. But both modest insights and big ideas can begin with a small amplification of our attention, kicking it up a notch, and counting and scribbling down or tapping out what we might have missed before.

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