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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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Thank You

In this season of giving thanks and expressing gratitude, there is much I am thankful for. 

I am thankful for you, the readers of this blog, and thankful for all my readers in any medium. To have something you've written read by others is a great honor. 

I'm thankful for the expulsion from the presidency of my country a cloven-footed, grotesquely evil man. 

I'm thankful for my many friendships and deep relationships, which sustain me and give my life profound meaning. 

I'm thankful for teaching, which I fell into by dumb luck at 24. Teaching defines me and gives my life purpose, and I am fortunate beyond words that I love it as much now as I did upon discovering it. 

I am thankful to be able to write it gives me an absorbing craft and a way to be in the world.  

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Politics, Disillusionment, and Despair

This blog will not make me many friends. It is addressed to those who are so disillusioned by the 2020 election—perhaps intensified by the first Trump-Biden debate—that they might sit out this November or not cast a vote for president. And this blog is addressed to those who see no purpose whatsoever in electoral politics, for they witness no change in their lives or in their neighbors’ lives, regardless of what politician or political party is in power.

It’s not my intention here to debate these positions. I simply want to make an observation that many others have made but that is worth repeating now in a time of profound disillusionment when so much is at stake, from health care to the health of the planet.

Disillusionment and despair and all their first cousins — cynicism, ­­­disengagement, withdrawal — might be seen as a rejection of politics but in fact are freighted with political significance and are used by those in power as much as raw force to keep people subjugated and to block social change.

Fostering disillusionment with the political process has been a key strategy in Mitch McConnell’s nihilistic playbook for some time — at least since 2010 when he stated his paramount goal to make Barack Obama a one-term president. The result has been a level of legislative stonewalling and gridlock that yields an 80% disapproval rating of Congress. People throw up their hands in disgust and condemn all politicians as culpable and ineffectual. It is on this rubble of governance that McConnell and Company exercise their power, destroying the chamber they live in to control it, passing tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and loading the courts with strongly conservative judges. The stage bereft of hope and principle is set for a demagogic anti-politician.

 Enter the tawdry, braying Donald Trump who greatly outdoes McConnell in raw spectacle as we recently saw during the debate, sabotaging the event and sullying both his opponent and the moderator. Over the past four years, Trump in totalitarian master-strokes has delegitimized not only Congress, but also the press, regulatory agencies like The Food and Drug Administration, scientific bodies like The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the courts, the post office, even voting itself. God knows, these institutions have over their history violated their very purpose and principles. But they also have a history of visionaries working within them to make them more humane and truly democratic. We just lost two such people in Justice Ginsburg and Congressman Lewis. 

Social change from within institutions or outside of them does not emerge from disillusionment or despair, but from directed anger at injustice, from a sense that change is possible even against great odds, from hope. “Hope… is not calm or static,” writes essayist Erin Aubry Kaplan. “Hope is vigilance. It is also fury.” Hope is the organized fury of the march and demonstration and the quiet fury of the ballot. 

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Sunday, September 6, 2020

Some Modest Advice to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from Someone Who Has Never Run a Political Campaign … But Is Apprehensive About This One

An article in the Boston Globe written right after the end of the Republican National Convention captures the anxiety a lot of us feel who desperately want Donald Trump voted out of office. Even though Biden leads in the polls, we are “wary of a 2016 repeat.” “Trump looms like some horror movie villain,” writes journalist Jim Puzzanghera, “Who just keeps coming no matter how much is thrown at him.”
This wariness is not simply a case of free-floating political anxiety, for Trump and Company are doing everything they can to suppress the vote by crippling the postal service and spreading lies and sparking fears about voting by mail. And in some states led by Republican governors or legislators there are a host of efforts to disenfranchise potential Democratic voters and to make voting difficult.
The further concern I have is the enthusiasm gap between Trump’s base and a wide swath of likely Democratic voters. Let my offer two recent spots on NPR that reflect the extremes of this gap. What I’m doing is selective and anecdotal, I realize, but though not systematic, I think the two spots offer probes into some of the beliefs and emotions running through the 2020 presidential campaign – and voting, as endless studies demonstrate, is a highly emotional phenomenon.
The first NPR spot is an interview with three voters who are considering or are committed to backing Joe Biden. The interviewer, Mary Louise Kelly, doesn’t say how the three were selected, but does note that “they are different ages in different parts of the country, all voters of color.” Carl Day is a 35 year old African American pastor in Philadelphia (a Democratic city in a crucial swing state); Parul Kumar is a 20 year old Indian American woman in Chicago; and Adrienne Smith Walker is in Atlanta and identifies herself as “a Gen X Black woman in her 40’s.” Asked by Kelly to rate their enthusiasm for Biden on a scale of 1 to 10, their answers range from 0 to 3. The selection of Kamala Harris as a running mate did not positively affect Pastor Day’s or Ms. Kumar’s opinion, seeing the selection as a “surface level” or “pandering” move. When pressed by Kelly as to whether they would vote for Biden come November, Ms. Smith Walker was firm in her commitment to vote for him but because “if Trump wins, our democracy will fail.” Both Pastor Day and Ms. Kumar in different ways express pessimism about national-level politics making a different in the lives of common people and rather see either local politics or activism as the path to social justice. They both leave open the possibility of voting for Biden, but, as Ms. Kumar puts it, want to demand more of him first. 
The second spot is a report on Trump’s rally on September 3 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a city of about 8,000 in a deep red Trump county. According to the reporter, Scott Detrow, who has been covering Trump’s rallies since 2016, “this crowd seemed even more intense about the president…than what I saw four years ago.” Detrow interviews three attendees, a dairy farmer and his wife and an aerobics instructor. Though the farmer has taken a financial hit because of Trump’s trade polities and the aerobics instructor has been unemployed since COVID hit Western Pennsylvania, they are gushing about the president – the aerobics instructor is close to ecstatic. Pennsylvania matters hugely in this election, and these people will vote for Trump if they have to crawl over broken glass to do it.
As with all elections, turnout will be key on November 3, 2020. By all accounts, Trump’s base has not grown, but it remains solid and highly motivated. Democrats will need to execute a first-class get-out-the-vote effort – in a pandemic. And in the face of multi-pronged voter suppression.
Trump will continue to use his office in every way possible to campaign and will continue to ignore public health restrictions to hold the rallies that allow him to create himself anew and fire up his base.
Biden and Harris are trying to fashion another approach. In the last few days we’ve seen several promising examples of that approach, and I am heartened by them. And just-released huge fundraising numbers for August instill hope. In the spirit of what I see emerging and with all due respect to people who know way more than I do about this business, let me offer some suggestions to the Democratic candidates.


Dear Vice President Biden and Senator Harris:

You have to be more than the Not-Trump. You have a number of proposals that will make people’s lives better. State them and explain them in brief, memorable language.

Please do not just refer us to your website. The digital divide is as wide as ever. And even if it weren’t, we don’t want to go to yet another glowing screen – especially now. We want to hear from you. And often. 

Yes, Trump is a “threat to the soul of the nation.” But for many people that threat is an abstraction. They face more immediate threats daily, from housing and food insecurity, to limited educational opportunity and medical care, to physical danger because of the color of their skin, or their place of worship, or who they love. Tell them how you will help them.

Be the Educators-in-Chief about Trump’s policies. He has lied so often, and created such a haze of chaos and falsehood, that many people don’t realize how directly they are being harmed by this man. Start with health care.

Beware of the technocratic enchantments of the digital. You have to get out on the road from now to November 3, in whatever ways are safe. You have started to do this with visits to Pittsburgh, Kenosha, and Milwaukee. Please continue to hit the campaign trail, separately and together. Don’t follow Trump. Get out ahead of him. Out do him. You won’t be holding reckless rallies in Trump fashion, but press conferences and ceremonial events. Even if you are only videotaping campaign ads, you are doing it in Phoenix, Houston, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Manchester. It matters to people that you are setting foot on their soil.

While in these cities, shine a light on local community groups doing laudable work. You did this during your visit to Kenosha. I received an email asking for donations to the Social Development Foundation and United Migrant Opportunity Services, without a dollar going to your campaign. This is a worthwhile and laudable thing to do on its own, and it might demonstrate to younger (and not-so-young) progressive voters who are disenchanted with your candidacy that your talk about social justice is not just political-rhetoric-as-usual but is connected to vulnerable peoples’ local struggles.

You are both skilled retail politicians, a talent constrained by COVID, because, unlike Trump, you believe in the basics of public health. There is a great challenge before you, and I hope all the bright campaign people around you are focused on it: How to integrate the potency of human encounters on the campaign trail with the communication possibilities of virtual technology. Unfortunately, you have to solve this problem while the campaign is in high gear, steer the boat while building it. But if you can do it, you will make history – and reclaim what remains of our democracy.


To readers: If any of the above has merit in your eyes, would you please email or Tweet a suggestion or two to the Biden/Harris campaign?

I want to acknowledge a long, rich conversation with two of UCLA’s wonderful graduate students, Earl Edwards and Elianny Edwards, that helped me think through the issues in this blog. Of course, they cannot be faulted for any lapses in good sense, which are entirely my own.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

“It’s Not Wants That We Want, It’s Needs”

This is a lightly edited transcription of an interview with Sandy Villatoro, a hotel housekeeper from Arizona who was laid off during the pandemic. Her husband is a roofer whose income has suffered. The interview aired on August 6, 2020 on NPR, one week after the expiration of the $600.00 per week augmentation to unemployment benefits. I’ve removed most of the reporter’s introduction and framing questions because I wanted to highlight Ms. Villatoro’s comments, for she expresses in a plainspoken, heartfelt way the difficult situation so many are in and the worries that trouble their sleep. 

Within her individual story, within each expression of anxiety or determination or longing, lie the societal issues that characterize our time — present before COVID and exacerbated by it — and make life precarious for so many: economic instability, affordable health care, housing insecurity, the many manifestations of the digital divide, chaotic and inhumane immigration policy. And within Sandy Villatoro’s story, running through her sentences with the rise and fall of her voice, is an unassuming dignity, so often challenged as people seek a grip on an increasingly tattered social safety net in an increasingly unequal society. 


“Well, at first I didn’t want to apply for unemployment because, uh, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but I have DACA, and my husband is also petitioning for me. So I didn’t really want to apply for unemployment benefits. But then, I’m on a group on Facebook with a bunch of DACA recipients and they are [telling me], ‘No, uhm, unemployment has nothing to do with that. It’s paid by your employer, so you should be fine.’ So I was like, okay, maybe I should because my bills are piling up, my husband’s check wasn’t enough for all the bills that we had before I was laid off. And I had a lot of bills from when I had my daughter – still coming in from the hospital. It was all just coming so fast that I couldn’t keep up with it.” 

“Honestly it [the $600 per month] helped me pay for all the bills that I had. I actually used some of that money to pay ahead on my car. So I thought ahead, like with all the money that I was getting from the six hundred, I was paying ahead … just in case, you know.”  

“I’m going to have to work with what I can and ask them [the lender] if they can, you know, help me with a couple months where I don’t have to pay it.” 

Reporter: What are your biggest expenses?

“Mostly our house. We’re renting a house and that’s a thousand dollars a month. I had to get internet service for my son since he started going back to school, and the service we had before was the cheapest one. So we had to get another better one ‘cause the one that we had before was not working for his remote learning. So it’s not like wants that we want, it’s needs. We need a vehicle to get back and forth. We need to live under, you know, under a roof.” 

Reporter: It sounds like rent is a worry… especially with a new baby.

“Especially in this heat! (laughs) I don’t want to be having to move house to house in the heat. I don't want to be homeless in this heat. So it’s really hard. We just want someone to listen to us. We’re not lazy people. We’re hard-working people that just need a little bit of help for now.” 

“Honestly it [the possibility of being homeless] is [a big concern], it is. I’ve stayed up nights just hoping that some miracle will come, that I don’t have to resort to that. Or, you know, having to ask someone to let me stay with them for a little while while I get back on my feet. I feel so vulnerable. I hate asking for help. I hate asking for hand-outs, but it’s, you know, it’s something I need at the current moment. My kids need it. It’s so hard to even say I need it.” 

Reporter: As you’re looking ahead to the next month or two, what worries you most?

“Just losing my mind (a soft, sad laugh) and losing my house – losing everything that I worked so hard for. I mean, I want to go back to work. I worked every day for five years at the current job that I’m at. It’s so hard just… not to see myself working anymore, you know. I just want to get back to normal, is pretty much what I’m trying to say.” 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

What It Means to Care

The passage below, excerpted from Possible Lives, is a reflection on the notion of “care” in teaching. Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.
I’ve been thinking again about this discussion of care in relation to today’s calls for racial justice, particularly the way justice is embodied and enacted in real time, in the moment. Consider, for example, how everyday, small interactions in teaching, many of them unplanned, some lasting less than a minute can serve larger egalitarian and emancipatory goals. I witnessed such interactions in classrooms throughout my travels for Possible Lives.
Let me set the scene for you. The events in this passage take place in Calexico, a city of 40,100 people on the California-Mexico border —the name fuses the Cal of California with the -exico of Mexico. 
The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who also is a mentor to first-year teachers at her school. Carmen Santos and Jessie Carillo are two of those new teachers. One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools. 
What I describe took place before 1998 when California passed Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that in effect eliminated bilingual education in the state. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, which restored bilingual education in California. 


When Carmen and company praised Elena’s “care,” they were referring not only to their mentor’s affection for kids —though that was part of it— but more so to Elena’s absolute regard for children, her unfaltering belief in their potential. “Caring” had as much to do with faith and cognition as with feeling. All children, no matter what their background, had the capacity to learn. And this belief brought with it a responsibility: it was the teacher’s intellectual challenge to come to understand what must be done to tap that potential. 
Every time interns watched Elena teach, they saw these beliefs in action, in even the most commonplace encounters —for it’s often in the assides, the offhand questions, the microlessons that a teacher’s most basic attitudes toward students are revealed. Carlos had written a shaggy dog story. Elena was slowly scrolling down the computer screen, praising the story as she read. Once done, about to move onto the next child, she tapped a key, taking the story back to a line at the beginning in which Carlos described the dog as a “troublemaker.” “You know, Carlos,” she reflected, “I found myself wondering what Penny did that caused so much trouble?” “She tips over garbage cans,” he said. “Good. Anything else?” Carlos giggled. “What?” she asked. “What is it?” “She makes messes!” Elena laughed. “Put that in, too, Carlos. That way your reader will really know what you mean by trouble.” Another time Elena was reading to the class in Spanish the story of a marvelous garden, and she came across a description of a beet that was six inches wide. She paused for a moment and reached across the desk for a ruler, handing it to Arely. “Mija,* show us how big that beet was.” Arely counted four, five, six on the ruler. “Whoa!” said Alex. “Big, huh?” And yet another time, Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: “No.” No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day. 
This affirmation of potential was deeply egalitarian. It did not stratify children by some assessment of their readiness or ability or by judgements based on their background or record. It assumed ability and curiosity; learning, in this belief system, became an entitlement. In Elena’s words, “You can’t deny anybody the opportunity to learn. That’s their right.” Bilingual education gained special meaning in this context. There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated. (Mexican children, one representative educator wrote in 1920, “are primarily interested in action and emotion, but grow listless under purely mental effort.”) The profound limits on the quality of education that stemmed from such practice and perception made all the more understandable the commitment of these Calexico teachers to bilingual education. Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people. It fit into a broader faith that, as Evangelina said before her Teaching of Reading class one afternoon, “all children have minds and souls and have the ability to participate fully in the society, and education is a way to achieve that.” 
On a more personal level, each teacher spoke about a teacher of her own who validated her intellectual worth, who demonstrated to her the power of having someone believe in a student’s ability. For Carmen, it was a Mrs. Self; for Jessie, a Mrs. Hems, someone “who gave me the incentive to try my best.” Also of critical importance was that Elena, Carmen, and the others shared a history and a community. They knew the families of the kids they taught, knew the streets they lived on and the cultural pathways open or closed to them. This familiarity, of course, widened their sphere of influence —as Jessie said, it’s easy to “see a kid on the street and tell him to come by” —but on a deeper level, where heart and instruction intersect, they identified with the children they taught. As Evangelina explained, “When you see that third-grader, you’re seeing yourself. You think, ‘If someone had done this for me when I was in third grade, how much better my education would have been.’” This was an identification that had significant pedagogical consequences. 
This was surely true for Elena. The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation “low achiever” or, in some cases, “slow learner.” Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. “The first two weeks, it was difficult,” she explained one noontime when we were all sitting around the Writer’s Table. “I’d put them here to write —and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say. ‘It’s your responsibility. I’m here to support you, but you have to do the work.’” It was warm that day, Elena’s sleeves rolled up… She spoke emphatically, with a nod or an exclamation or a quick laugh, her finger tapping the table, her hand slicing the air. “ I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them. But then… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.” Her room was constructed on work and opportunity. “You can’t say ‘I can’t’ in this classroom. You have to try.” And that cut both ways. 
If you believe so firmly in the potential of all your students, you have few ready explanations for their failure. The first line of scrutiny is one’s self. “What you do is not necessarily good for everyone,” Elena would say. “You have to try different things. You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I change that will work for a child who’s not learning!’” When a student was not doing well, Elena would assume she was failing and put herself through a rigorous self-assessment. “Why am I not teaching him,” she would ask, her record book open, the child’s work spread out in front of her. 
Elena’s sense of the role of teacher fit with my own, but spending time with her helped me understand the tension inherent in such a position, the power and the limits of individual force of mind. 
Roberto was a sweet, quiet boy who seemed to understand his classwork, would do it when Elena was assisting him, but would just not complete it on his own. “I don’t know what to do to get him motivated,” she said. “I tried structuring things more, and I tried letting him pursue whatever he wanted. He’s a smart boy —I’m doing something wrong. What am I missing?” One day when Elena was sitting with Roberto, encouraging him to write a little more on a story, he suddenly started crying. His mother had left home, and he was sent to stay with his grandmother. He missed his mother terribly and was afraid that his grandmother, who was ailing, would die and leave him alone. How could he concentrate, Elena thought, when his very security was threatened? This was beyond anything she could influence. It was telling, though, that Elena didn’t entirely let up. She told him he could talk to her anytime he felt sad, and that she would ease off a little —on him, I suspect, more than herself— but that “they both had a responsibility to teach and learn,” and that the best thing he could do was to learn what he could so he would someday be able to take care of himself. “We both have to try,” she said, holding him, wanting to make for him, as best she could, her classroom a place of love and learning. In Elena’s mind, the consequences for Roberto’s future of his not learning to read and write and compute were too great to ignore, even in sorrow… 
All this was what it meant to care. 

*A term of endearment, “my daughter.” 

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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 Kimberlé 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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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Tawdry President: Donald Trump, the Public Library, and COVID 19

During the last week that has included President Trump's daily updates on COVID 19, I have been watching Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary on The New York Public Library, Ex Libris. If you’ve never seen a Wiseman film, and if you’re stuck indoors, this might be a good time to start. 
Wiseman has been making documentaries for 50 years —he was 87 when Ex Libris was released in 2017— that cover everything from an asylum for the criminally insane, to a ballet company, to a boxing gym, to the University of California at Berkeley. His films are long (Belfast, Maine runs just over four hours) and the camera lingers, sometimes for quite a while, on mostly everyday scenes, with no voice-over narration, visual cues, or musical score. There is great craft at work here; Wiseman doesn’t simply turn on a camera and leave. His films are the result of careful scene selection and editing, and his genius lies in the way he quietly renders the richness and drama of everyday human reality, often within institutions —such as a library. Though there might well be scenes that shock —in the asylum, a hospital, a public housing project— the overall pacing and feel of a Wiseman film is the slow passing of ordinary events, which, admittedly, can be in a location foreign to most of us. 
Mercifully, Donald Trump’s stints at the podium during the COVID briefings are shorter than Wiseman’s films, and they couldn’t be more different with their disjointed rush of bombast, preening, assault, and mendacity —and the lurch from a middle-school thespian’s impersonation of somber leadership to hot blasts of id. It’s all political theater, of course, to distract and grasp advantage out of chaos, but it is also a compulsive act of self-creation, a vulgar stream of advertisements for himself (he demands, for example, his signature on the federal relief checks), a creation of tinsel and needy hate. 
The New York Public Library is a vast, sprawling institution —92 locations— and it is closed. New York City is ravaged with illness. To my knowledge, the libraries in most states are closed. The virus closed them. The President has denied the virus, called it a hoax, finally acknowledged it, saying he had been handling it brilliantly all along. He effusively touts questionable drugs for it, the availability of tests for it (“Anybody who wants a test can get a test.”), the rapid production of gear to protect us from it —and predicts the imminent end of it, the economy rebounding with a “bang.” A woman speaking at a meeting filmed for Ex Libris says “Libraries are not about books… Libraries are about people who want to get knowledge.” There is barely a trace of knowledge in the President’s remarks —except the occasional fact provided by staff for his impersonation, a fact he will likely distort. 
As we linger with Wiseman in the main branch of The New York Public Library and travel to other branches in Manhattan and some of the boroughs we see public lectures ranging from Elvis Costello showing a rare clip of his father performing a kitschy song and dance routine to a scholar discussing conflict between royalty and Muslem clerics during the 18th Century African slave trade. We observe a piano recital and chamber music and a spoken-word artist riffing on Coltrane and Questlove leading to an appeal to his lover and a reflection on manhood —a baby in the audience cries intermittently as he performs. There are many children being tutored in after-school programs, selecting books, completing sentences, doing arithmetic, and in separate clips thoughtful young staff members discuss how best to reach them. At many points in Ex Libris, library administrators address the budget, community engagement, how to serve the homeless, the shift to digital books, the digital divide. In one scene a librarian is checking out mobile “hot spots” for Internet connection to a long line of patrons. There is a book club on Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and a job fair, and a visually impaired man holding a cane explaining options for housing assistance to a group of people with various disabilities. We watch as employees in a processing center sort returned books on a conveyer belt and listen in as reference librarians with headsets take calls from the public and watch as well as Wiseman’s camera scans slowly over patrons of many ages, many races and ethnicities sitting at computer terminals, searching everything from job information, to medical conditions, to esoterica of all stripes. Things people want to know. 
The President doesn’t want to know anything that doesn’t have immediate payoff for his self-regard. On April 15, Mr. Trump held conference calls with business leaders as part of his much-touted Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups initiative. What he was told was that expanded testing was necessary before Americans could safely return to work, but according to a source quoted on April 17 in The Los Angeles Times, “...the message was largely drowned out by Trump’s determination to solicit praise from the participants.” “It was a joke,” the source noted, “...a complete farce.” 
Throughout Ex Libris there are shots of reference books, encyclopedias and dictionaries, guidebooks and handbooks, rows and rows of them, still physically present but increasingly online. Rows of patrons sit before computers accessing digital words. An American Sign Language interpreter demonstrates for a hearing audience the emotion of signed words, the beautifully dramatic variation in tempo and gestural emphasis she brings to different readings. 
The President ignores words, distorts and mangles them, can’t hear them over the din of his own trumpeting voice. There are many words used to describe this president: ignorant, racist, autocratic, narcissist. A number of his former advisors have used more potent ones. The word that keeps coming to me this week as I toggle between Ex Libris and the President’s daily briefings is tawdry. Synonyms for tawdry: gaudy, brash, low, mean, base, garish, inferior, meretricious. Let’s look up meretricious: pretentious, fake, fraudulent, “…having in reality no value or integrity.” Vocabulary.com adds this: “Tawdry things often have a hint of desperation.” Last week the President falsely accused the World Health Organization of lying and neglect, deflected to them his own lying and neglect, and said he will cut their funding —an act that will contribute to the death of the world’s most vulnerable. Low, mean, base. The tawdry desperation of evil.  
The New York Public Library has its fair share of the brash and pretentious, and as Ex Libris progresses, vast social class and racial disparities among branches and events become evident. Opulent banquet rooms for board meetings or donor celebrations and small, crammed gatherings in poorer communities. And libraries as social institutions reflect the ugliness of their time and place —read Richard Wright’s account in Black Boy of the insult in trying to gain access to library books. Still, the public library is a grand ideal, and one of the virtues of Ex Libris is the way it puts so many faces on that ideal, animates and humanizes it. 
During the last hour of the film, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture —a research division of the library— affirms “the public value of what we do,” how the work of the Center is “mind-building and soul-affirming.” He is talking specifically about the Center, but what he says applies, I think, to the public library generally. To that end, he quotes Toni Morrison, “libraries are the pillars of democracy.” Lofty words, to be sure, but given the Presidential miasma of cheap and dangerous language hanging low over our infected country, we need to aspire. A man in a small branch of The New York Public Library located in The Harlem River Houses complex says that because he was taking care of his kids, he couldn’t afford to go to film school, so learned the basics through his library. In a gentle and deliberate rhythm, Ex Libris offers us image after image of what a public institution can do —and in mid-April of our plague year, that is mind-building and soul-affirming.  

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