Archive for December, 2011

A Decent Education

Dec 27 2011 Published by under anarchism,borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

The role of poverty in what have come to be known as “school outcomes” (or more precisely, test scores) has been getting a fair bit of attention lately at Schools Matter, and elsewhere. Rightly so. At my own school we’ve even been given a reading assignment for our winter holiday, and have been invited to read Ruby Payne’s “Framework for Understanding Poverty” (summary here). This is to prepare us for the indoctrination session to follow upon our return from our break. I’m going to read the book since I opened my mouth at a staff meeting and said that many people disagree with Ruby Payne, and “Would we have a chance to air dissenting points of view?” Take Paul Gorski’s Savage Unrealities or Randy Bomer’s Miseducating Teachers about the Poor, for example. These authors tell us that Payne claims, without any real evidence, that the poor are trapped in a “culture of poverty” and need to be explicitly taught the “hidden rules” of being middle class. I don’t especially look forward to reading this, but I want to be prepared for the meeting, which is part of our school improvement plan after too many of our low-income students did not meet the standardized testing targets last spring.

Servicing the poor is actually a growth industry in our present economy, and it’s been a magnet for school reformers like Ruby Payne and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America. Kopp’s organization was the subject of a critical piece by Andrew Hartman, who contextualizes the whole mess by pointing out:

The organs of middlebrow centrist opinion"”Time Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic"”glorify TFA at every opportunity. The Washington Post heralds the nation"™s education reform movement as the "œTFA insurgency""”a perplexing linguistic choice given so-called "œinsurgency" methods have informed national education policies from Reagan to Obama. TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it"™s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.

It’s exhausting, being on the lookout for all of the Trojan horses that are being wheeled into our schoolrooms these days. My response has been to try to maintain my focus on the kids, and try to ignore as much of the outside noise as I can. But occasionally, one does need to pay attention to it. I was grateful that Hartman closed his article with a reference to Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation. Goodman prefaces this short collection of essays by telling us that in his criticisms he does not choose to be generous or fair, since modern life has delivered us into an unprecedented set of conditions which have caused much confusion and resulted in the rigid application of old methods which is “grossly wasteful of wealth and effort and does positive damage to the young.” Hartman summarizes Goodman:

In Compulsory Mis-Education, Goodman extended this general critique of the "œorganized society" to a more specific attack on its socialization method: compulsory schooling. Schooling as socialization, which he described as "œ"˜vocational guidance"™ to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system," troubled Goodman in means and ends. He both loathed the practice of adjusting children to society and despised the social regime in which children were being adjusted to"”"œour highly organized system of machine production and its corresponding social relations." For Goodman, compulsory schooling thus prepared "œkids to take some part in a democratic society that does not need them."

Goodman published Compulsory Miseducation in 1964. His criticisms are still strikingly, and disturbingly, apt. I would like to close here with just this one, more general recommendation – one which echoes a model of educational change outlined today by P.L. Thomas, Social Context Reform: Where to Start. It should concern us all that we are still trying to articulate a framework for progressive education reform, and I offer Goodman’s recommendation as a kind of mission statement for the era of the Occupy movement.

Fundamentally, there is no right education except growing up into a worthwhile world. Indeed, our excessive concern with problems of education at present simply means that the grown-ups do not have such a world. The poor youth of America will not become equal by rising through the middle class, going to middle-class schools. By plain social justice, the Negroes, and other societies have the right to, and must get, equal opportunity for schooling with the rest, but the exaggerated expectation from the schooling is a chimera — and, I fear, will be shockingly disappointing. But also the middle-class youth will not escape their increasing exploitation and anomie in such schools. A decent education aims at, prepares for, a more worthwhile future, with a different community spirit, different occupations, and more real utility than attaining status and salary.

We need to make this happen.

5 responses so far

Hitting the Wall

Dec 18 2011 Published by under borderland

Saulich trail snowscape

I enjoyed the brief period of daylight we had today out on the trails near my home, running. It was 10 below zero, and the trail was firm and fast. It felt great. After many years going through this solstice season in the subarctic, I’ve learned to get out of the house and make use of the daylight as often as possible. Today’s excursion was a snowshoe run. I ski sometimes, too, but the snowshoes are simpler.

This is just the second season that I’ve done any snowshoe running. What got me started with winter trail running was Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. It triggered a long chain of decisions which eventually lead to what might be called a “learning experience” this past September when I ran the Equinox Marathon.

The book tells a story about how McDougall learned about a tribe of Indians living in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who were able to run great distances. Even senior members of the tribe had the ability to go on long runs of up to 50 and even 100 miles. He marveled at the grace with which they moved, and noted that they did not wear running shoes, but instead wore simple sandals. He was amazed that they could run such long distances without sustaining the high rate of injuries so common among runners who wear highly engineered, commercially manufactured running shoes. He hypothesized that perhaps the cushioned shoes encouraged people to run with poor form, and were actually contributing to runners’ injuries. This eventually sparked a trend toward what is being called barefoot, or minimalist running in the running community.

McDougall’s inquiry lead him to look at the history of running, and he learned that there is a body of research suggesting that humans are natural-born runners, evolutionarily speaking. Our ability to sweat allows us to run great distances at a moderate pace, whereas other animal species – many of which humans like to eat – need to stop and pant to cool down. This would have enabled humans to engage in what is called persistence hunting, and to kill prey animals at close range. All in all, it was an intriguing book, and it made me wonder if I could ever get into good enough shape to tackle some long runs.

My wife remarked that if I was interested, I had the time and enough of a training base to train for the marathon in the fall, and so I started seriously thinking about it. I worked out at the gym every day, and ran every weekend for the rest of the winter. I ran several days a week throughout the summer, putting in 40+ mile training weeks. I went out on several long runs in excess of two hours, and I ran competitively in a series of longish trail runs put on by the local running club. I didn’t know if I was ready for the marathon, but I did know that the the only way to find out was to try it.

One of the unique features of the Equinox Marathon is that there is a 2000 foot climb up to the top of Ester Dome in the middle section of the race. It’s kind of a gonzo marathon, not one that anyone who wanted a good time would do. I’m pretty good at running hills, so I wasn’t concerned about the climb. That was probably a mistake. I went out a little too briskly, I think, given the amount of training I’d done. By the time I got to the top of the dome, at 12 miles, I was starting to feel some worrisome aches in my hips, and my legs weren’t as snappy as they’d been. But hey, I’d made it to the top. The hard part was over, I thought. Hah! By the time I started heading back down, at 17 miles, the aches had gotten much worse, and I was walking the steeper sections. Going down an exceptionally steep place, known as The Chute, my knees wanted to buckle, and I began having a hard time even walking. And I still had 9 miles to go!

Getting to the finish line was agony. I limped and walked most of the last 9 miles. Other runners streamed by me. I remember being passed by a little 8 year-old kid at one point. I was utterly destroyed. My own mental state became a focus point for me, though. I suppose that was because my physical condition was so beyond repair. I began to watch my expectations gradually get scaled back. I’d gone from hoping to finish in 4 hours to hoping I could just make it to the next set of mailboxes or the next telephone pole. When I got near the finish line I met my daughter running the course in reverse looking for me, and she paced me in, urging me to keep running, which I did. But it wasn’t without a fair bit of whining near the very end. The muscles in my hips, knees and calves were completely played out. All that was left was pain and determination.

I wasn’t proud when I crossed the finish line. Just done. I was disappointed because I’d wanted my finish to be more graceful, more under control, instead of the desperate slog it turned into. But what it was, was all I had. It took me several weeks of hearing congratulations from various people to see it as the achievement that it actually was. I’d run a marathon at age 58. I’d finished in the middle of my age-group, and I’d begun planning for next time.

If somebody had offered me money (as in merit pay), or somehow tried to “motivate” me do this, I wouldn’t have done it. Reaching beyond my capacity is something I would only do for personal reasons, beyond the realm of ordinary motivation, and tests like this have to be undertaken voluntarily. Tests, in and of themselves, don’t call people to their best efforts. Real teaching has to begin with the intentions of the learner, not the teacher, and certainly not the administrator or the policy maker. The more I work in the shadow of the standards movement, the less I want to listen to anyone but the kids, themselves, for guidance about what they really need to learn. What good is an education if, in the bargain, we all lose sight of who and what we really are?

The barefoot running movement is a reaction to corporate involvement in running, which in reality is something that any healthy person can do without special equipment. Running shoes represent a form of standardized “curriculum” for our feet and a marketing opportunity for corporate interests. And now there’s a question about whether they may actually be responsible for some of the many injuries that runners suffer each year. Corporate control of school reform, curriculum, and teacher education, coupled with mandatory high stakes testing will do the same to education as it has to running, and we’ll inherit an overbuilt, inhumane institution that accomplishes nothing that it isn’t already doing – except create more losers. Already, schools are becoming pressure cookers in which there are expectations that anyone who works hard can be a winner. Win what? Really, anyone? Ahh, well …..

The days will soon be getting longer. Nothing to do but take care of each other and watch the changes unfold.

7 responses so far

Winter Light

Dec 16 2011 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

Long nights and dark days in the far north this time of year open a window to some magnificent light shows. From Finland’s travel and tourism site: “Aurora is a natural light display in the sky, particularly in the polar regions, caused by the collision of charged particles directed by the Earth’s magnetic field.”

You might want to watch this one full screen.

(via Alaska Dispatch and Eye on the Arctic)

Comments Off

A Good Day

I hate all the wasted motion in the classroom these days, doing things that are not particularly productive or rewarding for the sake of jumping through regulatory hoops. Jeff Bryant blames it on what he calls the Edu-Bubble, which seems right on target:

Then education reform advocates — either unwittingly or intentionally (does it matter?) –gave the venture crowd a huge gift by decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools — operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money — could be related to a test score output.

This in effect turned student learning — and by extension, the students themselves — into a commodity that could be speculated on. Now that edu-venturists had something they could put on the other side of the balance sheet, they could now “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups — from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools — could be rationalized on the basis of test scores. (via TFT.)

So my focus in the classroom has lately shifted from teaching practice to thinking about more interesting things, like human consciousness (my own, mainly) as I ask myself all day long, day after day, What the hell am I doing now? And why? This is not really such a bad thing. The upside of it is that I spend way less energy worrying about curriculum and method, and more time watching my own interactions with the kids, trying to be as helpful and even-handed as I can be. It occurs to me that if a person was looking for a working model of resistance to reform, they really ought to spend a few weeks managing a sixth-grade classroom. It’s a test. Every day.

I was touched by the message in this video which begins, “You think this is just another day in your life,” narrated by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is also a social and environmental justice advocate. He calls upon us, as teachers, to become more child-like ourselves, and to be open to the meaning in our lives which gets overshadowed by our preoccupation with purposefulness. What are we here for, really?

This video says it all, quite eloquently, I think.

You think this is just another day in your life. It"™s not just another day; it"™s the one day that is given to you today. It"™s given to you. It"™s a gift. It"™s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day of your life, and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.
"“ Brother David Steindl-Rast

4 responses so far

One Love – Playing for Change

Dec 10 2011 Published by under commonplaces

We had our school Christmas concert yesterday, featuring each grade-level singing something in the spirit of the season. My students performed One Love, originally recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The kids had a ukulele section and a pair of solo vocalists for accompaniment, and they did a fine job with it. Curious to see if there was a recording online, I found this version produced by the inspirational Playing for Change organization.

Believing that music is a universal language with the power to bring people from around the world together, the production crew travels with a mobile recording studio to wherever the music takes them. Pure genius.

3 responses so far