Archive for the ‘Education’ Category


I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.


If I Were Queen Of Education, There Would Be Only Two Grades: Cares Or Doesn’t Care

July 1, 2010

There is, in the act of preparing, the moment when you start caring. • Winston Churchill

Whether you are a student or a teacher or an employee or a parent or a partner or any one of thousand other roles that each of us plays daily, you have to care about what you do if you want to produce good work. You have to love your work—not in the sense that every moment of your engagement with whatever it is that you have to do will bring you unbridled joy—but with an acceptance and a level of involvement that acknowledge its importance in your life.

I’m a teacher. I can tell when students hand in done-on-the-bus work, the kind of stuff that’s cobbled together at the last minute with little thought given to its creation. I’ve written about this before. It brings me no joy to receive this kind of work and even less joy to assess it. Sometimes this worth•less work even meets all the requirements and thus, my assessment can’t be too harsh. The work is likely to pass. But it still makes me sad.

I understand that there is meaning•less work distributed in classrooms all over the world. I understand that students don’t see the point of many things that they are asked to do. Sometimes there are assignments that don’t seem to have much of a point, although if you asked the teacher, there may well be a rationale. As a student, I’ve been asked to do some things that I consider hoopjumping, but I’ve also turned many of those hoops into opportunities to expand the possibilities of exploration in ways that please me and that make what might seem to be an empty exercise into something I cared about and was proud of when I finished.

You can do this too. School or work or parenting or whatever it is that you must do in life is always offering you the opportunity for authentic and enthusiastic engagement. Most teachers won’t tell you this explicitly, but they’re hoping you’ll get it. It’s the secret at the heart of lifelong learning. So your teachers create activities and assignments, design scoring guides, and try to provide helpful guidelines, but they’re also imagining that at least some of you will see beyond these things into the real purpose of education: making your life better, richer, more meaningful.

I’m teaching summer courses and in my on-campus courses everyone is completing a complex yet useful assignment as a major part of the requirements, a plan for their first five days of school. The class includes students who’ve had courses with me before and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t are nervous. What do I want? What will please me? One of the students who’s had other courses with me articulated my philosophy better than I could have. Here’s the essence of Jim Janousek’s comments to the class:

Read the assignment, get the gist of it (what’s the purpose of what you’re being asked to do?), and then produce something that you can use in your classroom (I am teaching teachers right now, but this applies to other student experiences as well—I’ve used much of my undergraduate work as the basis for my professional work). I stress: do something that you can use!

This takes away the anxiety of the assignment and makes it more fun when you’re thinking about implementing those ideas in your own classroom. (There are times when I have very specific goals for students and I am explicit about them, but often the guidelines I provide are simply meant to be helpful for those who don’t have ideas yet about how they want to proceed. I always welcome thoughtful alternatives and suggestions from students.)

What works for you, works for Zinn! (If your intentionality shines through, it’s likely that I will be delighted.)

As long as you put thought and time into your assignment, remember Zinn’s grading scale is cares or doesn’t care. (You got it, Jim!)

What do you need to care about?

We are all functioning at a small fraction of our capacity to live fully in its total meaning of loving, caring, creting, and adventuring. Consequently, the actualizing of our potential can become the most exciting adventure of our lifetime. • Herbert A. Otto


In the End Antiblack, Antifemale, and All Forms of Discrimination Are Equivalent to the Same Thing—Antihumanism.*

May 1, 2010

America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way around. Human rights invented America.
• Jimmy Carter

If discrimination based on race is constitutionally permissible when those who hold the reins can come up with “compelling” reasons to justify it, then constitutional guarantees acquire an accordionlike quality.
• William Orville Douglas, who served 36 years on the United States Supreme Court

For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person. •Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070

The recently-passed immigration law in Arizona requiring law enforcement to ask for the papers of those whom they suspect to be illegal immigrants is not a political issue. It is a human rights issue. I know that I do not understand all of the implications of this law, nor do I understand the law itself fully, but what I dislike most is the tenor of much of the discussion surrounding it

The diversity of this country is vast and is represented not only by our varied ethnic heritage and the colors of our skin, but by regional differences, by the cultural constructs with which we were raised, by religion—or its absence, by gender identification, by all the many things that bring us strength as a nation. Our very differences—and the way we embrace them and even adopt them in an ever-swirling stew—are what make this country appealing to many who come here from outside its borders.

Our differences are an integral part of the American dream because difference, however it is defined, means that whoever I am, there is possibility here for me. I can look around and see not only those with whom I identify as being like me, but an abundance of others who are not like me and are not alike, even if their physical appearance is similar.

Regardless of the imperfections of acceptance and burgeoning intolerant talk and the multiple kinds of prejudice and bigotry that still exist in this country—however much we might like to imagine that we are open and accepting—we remain hopeful that the ongoing struggle for equity will continue and benefit us even when we fail to see the irony of actions that diminish such possibility for others. We are human.

In a world where I hope teachers-in-training will learn ways to insure that all participants in the life of the classroom have a right to a voice and a perspective and to an honoring of the fullness of who they are, this legislation provokes serious concerns. I believe I have a right to say so.

I also believe that others, regardless of how I feel about what they do or say, have rights as well. And I believe that name-calling and uncivil talk accomplish very little that is productive. Hearts are hardened and people are polarized when voices go unheard or are silenced altogether. M.P. Follett noted in Creative Experience, (1924), that “what people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost import that those should not be considered the same.” Get rid of our differences and the possibilities disappear as well, for all of us.

When he was president, John F. Kennedy said that “it is not enough to lend your talents to deploring present situations. Most educated men and women on occasions prefer to discus what is wrong, rather than to suggest alternative courses of action.” This is where it is easy for educators to get themselves into trouble. We see injustice. We see political acts that concern us. We see acts that reason tells us will lead to unintended consequences. How do we express outrage or sorrow or concern without proselytizing? Is it possible to be a caring, thinking human being without expressing who one is in some way or another?

I do not want to determine the political party with which my students affiliate. I do not expect that they will share my beliefs. I find myself to be a curious blend of things anyway—liberal on some issues, conservative on some, and uncertain on a myriad of others whose complexities I am still exploring. I want my students to maintain independent and thoughtful minds and hearts, open to possibilities, willing to listen to other perspectives, yet also determined to uncover truths of living for themselves.

In the introduction to her 1995 book, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott said that “hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

I do have hope, a very stubborn hope, that I will influence my students, that from their time with me they will recognize their own unique creative idiosyncratic worth as human beings and thus come to understand that all of the people with whom they will be working are also such beings, whether they are colleagues or students or parents or members of a larger community. I hope that they will see that standardization and accountability movements are difficult to impose because of the differences among us. It is my hope that our differences will be celebrated and that each among us will be able to live within the fullness of her or his hopes.

What is your hope for the world?

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
• Martin Luther King Jr.

* Shirley Chisolm, the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress, gets credit for the title quotation.


Books Can Be Dangerous. The Best Ones Should Be Labeled “This Could Change Your Life.” *

April 11, 2010

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
• Oscar Wilde

The things that influence a person’s reading choices are another of life’s many chicken/egg questions. What comes first? Do we seek out books—or websites or magazines or other reading materials—because of what and who we are, looking for affirmation, or do the things we read influence who we become? Is there power in any kind of reading to truly change who a person is? No simple answers here.

I cannot imagine that anyone who writes for public consumption does not harbor some small hope that her or his words will make a difference for someone. Of course, writers intend to resonate with others of like mind, but there must also be some small secret dream that words can change minds.

I have long been a fan of Martin E.P. Seligman’s work. Seligman is the author of Learned Optimism (1990), a book that influenced my work with students in a dropout prevention program. His work in positive psychology also affirms my research into fun in learning. Focusing on the positive through discovery of students’ strengths and virtues and passions rather than targeting solely what they cannot do well is at the heart of my explorations into building students’ skills of interest and activating their desire to learn.

If students only learn to do adequately that which does not appeal to them, if they spend day after day doing things that they don’t enjoy or do well, if no opportunity is provided to become immersed in things that interest them, it’s not surprising that many students do not like school and that they view their experiences with teachers as largely adversarial. Teachers become people who keep smaller or younger or less experienced people from doing what they love, drowning them in a sea of “not fun.”

In 2001, my mother, a talented musician who started playing the piano by ear before she began kindergarten and a poet whose work has comforted hundreds of people, told me, “I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.” In 1988, three days before he died, my youngest brother, Greg, told me that he didn’t understand why I was hoping to become a teacher “because no one ever has any fun in school.”

I have a stack of books in my bedroom, overflow from multiple bookshelves in the room. The stack includes books I revisit and reread regularly because they remind me of important truths. Seligman’s (2002) book, Authentic Happiness, is in this pile. I remember it, oddly enough, when I am quasi-watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New York City (yes, I know this is trash, but I’m not really watching—just listening for breast quotations while I do other things).

It’s not just boobwords that tickle my antenna. I’m working on an exhibit I call The TechNObots about the human costs of technology, and when I hear Jill, one of the housewives, playing a months-old voicemail message for another housewife and a psychic, saying that she keeps it and listens to it to remind her to stay strong in her fight with the person who left the message, I hunt out Seligman’s book. Jill is wallowing in hurt feelings and determination not to forgive and her choice is not making her happy.

In Authentic Happiness, forgiveness and mercy is a category in the “signature strengths” the book helps people identify. I make myself a note to add to my TechNObot Collectory: technology makes it much easier to capture and cling to hasty or intemperate words spoken in anger and frustration. I also note a benefit of technology. If you’re looking for real life examples of psychological theory, reality television is a bonanza.

You need not buy a book to find lots of information about Seligman and his work, just Googling® his name will work. I recommend doing so if you are hoping to activate your inner relentless optimist.

Finding happiness in school takes work. You have to be determined to focus on your strengths and passions at the same time you’re working on things that interest you less or are more difficult for you to master. What are your strategies for building on your strengths and engaging your passions? What kind(s) of reading could help?

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little farther down our particular path that we have yet got ourselves.
• E.M. Forster (1951)
, Two Cheers for Democracy

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible.
• E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel,
Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

* Thanks to Helen Exley for the title quotation.


E Stands for Many Things, Including the Quickly Approaching End of My Desperately Optimistic L.I.F.E. Advice

March 30, 2010

Elephants, eggplant, egregious exaggerations, elemental enjoyment, epiphany, endlessly entertaining earthworms, eclecticism, earmuffs—the e list is practically endless, but alas, none of these things is the focus of today’s post. The e word I’m thinking of is—ta dah!—education.

If you are a student and a parent or grandparent or uncle or aunt or just a good friend to school-age children, this is one of the few times in your life when you and the children in your life will be going through the same kinds of experiences. If you aren’t a parent but plan to be one some day, you’re finally old enough to approach school mindfully and develop a few success hints of your own.

Here are some things you can do:

• Model the value of learning for its own sake; share your enthusiasm, the joy of doing a quality job, how to study, how to prioritize and organize, and other study skills. Be deliberate and vocal about your choices.

• Share your own experiences and struggles, framing them in a positive way so that younger folks with whom you share them will see your resiliency and learn about effective and proactive studenting. I learned this the hard way when I heard my own “_______ (fill in the subject here) sucks” comment that I shared privately—I thought—with my husband repeated by my son. I’m not recommending that you be inauthentic, but just that you remember that your passing comment may mean more to a younger listener that it did to you.

• Practice being proactive in your interactions with teachers and staff. Role play problem-solving. It was my oldest son who suggested that I “surrender” to a professor, complete with waving white flag, after he refused to take a TYPED (not word processed) paper with a cover sheet. I’d forgotten that he wanted NO cover sheets and that all pertinent information needed to be on the first page of the paper. These extra mandatory five lines of type would have thrown off the paper’s requisite top and bottom margins and required me to retype close to thirty pages. The surrender worked. He laughed and took the paper, cover page and all.

• Solicit the input of family and friends when you have a problem—perhaps even seek faculty advice too (she suggests a bit snarkily). Beware of awfulizing or blaming. Model clear and productive thinking. You don’t have to take advice just because you get it, so be nice too—no mockery or sarcasm or that-won’t-workery. Too much of this and you’ll lose all your allies.

Tomorrow, the end of D.O.L.I.F.E., but not the end of my advice since I have an almost Endless supply!

What are three insights you’ve had about being successful in school that you would share with someone younger than you to help guide their success?

And an E for Effort quotation: There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.
• Beverly Sills


I’ve Been Making a List of the Things They Don’t Teach You in School*

March 11, 2010

I think you should basically teach a kid to read. A little arithmetic, a little writing, but if you can read, that’s the big thing. That’s the biggest thing my education gave me.
• Christopher Walken,
Playboy, September 1997

I’ve been reading about national standards in language arts and math today and such articles always get me thinking about what schools ought to be teaching as well as where the gaps were in my own education. Here’s what Neil Gaiman, Newbery Award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, novels, graphic novels, comics, and much, much more (I love Coraline) had to say about school:

*I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away form someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.

I don’t agree with Gaiman’s final sentence. Many of us learned to read in school. We learned our math skills there. We learned to get along with other people. We learned practical skills and we learned esoteric things that enrich our lives. I do think schools teach things worth knowing. I also think there are things you can and should learn on your own. And I know that there are things that schools should teach but don’t—like self-sufficiency—as well as things they shouldn’t teach, but do. My education left me better schooled in what I don’t like and don’t do well than it did in what genuinely interested me.

Make your own lists, one of things that they don’t teach you in school and another of things you did learn in school that will be useful in your life.

School never taught me how to manage people. The first time I had to reprimand an employee was a nightmare, and then when I had to fire someone, well, I was up all night trying to figure out what to say and what to do if the person fell apart. I wish I’d learned a little bit about these things in school.
• College student response about his post-high school jobs putting himself through college, 2007


Self-Amusement—It’s Not What You Think

February 23, 2010

There’s no excuse to be bored. Sad, yes. Depressed, yes. Crazy, yes. But there’s no excuse for boredom, ever.
• Viggo Mortensen, actor, poet, musician, painter, photographer (Hmmm–no wonder he’s not bored!)

I am easily amused. I am glad that I am easily amused. When I read a headline that says “You Really Can Be Bored to Death, Researchers Say,”* I am particularly delighted that I am never bored. This is not to say that I am never doing something I don’t particularly enjoy doing or that I never have to sit through long meetings about things I don’t care about. I do work, after all, and no matter how engaging any job is, there’s likely to be some drudgery attached to it.

Still, my mind always actively seeks out ways to connect whatever it is that is not interesting to me with something that is. Just like the occasional student in the classroom, my mind wanders if I’m not interested in what’s happening. (Most of you are interested in all your classes, right? Say “of course” right now.) The difference between boredom and interest in potentially unengaging situations is that I have learned to discipline myself to pay attention to the things that matter whether or not I have a personal connection with them.

When I realize that I’ve gotten myself into something that has no relevance for me, I tune out and write poetry in the margins of my notebook or make lists of things I need to do or jot down some notes about projects I’d like to begin. If you’re a student in a class that you need to pass, whether it’s a prerequisite or part of your major or minor or just one that you need to keep in order to hang onto your financial aid, disciplining yourself to be interested in the initially-boring-to-you is a critical student success skill. Tuning out is not a wise choice. You know where it leads.

I must say that I am also aware that it’s refreshing to quiet my all-too-active mind. To sit still and let life flow around me. To empty my mind. This is not boredom, but is a deliberate rest that relaxes. It’s difficult to achieve. The seldom-bored mind does not like a void—it rushes to fill the emptiness with a deluge of swirling thoughts that must be captured and sorted. Beware the temptations of mind-emptying-nothingness. While it can certainly be beneficial for your health, this is not a skill that should be practiced in the classroom.

Cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg claimed that “the life of the creative person is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” This definitely relates to developing the skills of interest in school. As a creative human being who’s taking classes to get knowledge and skills that will help you have an interesting life, learning how to be interested even in those things that don’t at first appear to have any relevance for you is crucial.

What deliberate steps can you take to avoid boredom in school?

You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea.
• Earl Nightingale

Nobody is bored when s/he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true.
• William R. Inge

When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.
• Steven Wright, comedian, actor, and writer

*… (a post by Kelly M. Butler)