Things I Know 342 of 365: I’d assign these books to inspire thinking about philanthropy in education

My theme for philanthropy is the same approach I used with technology: to find a need and fill it.

– An Wang

A few years ago, before actually reading Paul Tough’s profile of Goeffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, I read a blurb on the dusk jacket from Ira Glass contending that the book had taught him more about poverty than any other text.

I had a similar experience.

I recommend Tough’s Whatever It Takes. Were I designing an ED school unit around non-traditional philanthropic interventions in urban education, I’d assign it and three other texts as well.

The first is a recent series from the Washington Post profiling this history and legacy of the Dreamers, a group of Seat Pleasant, MD students adopted by two D.C.-area businessmen who pledged to pay the students’ college tuition two decades ago.

The 3-part series and it’s ancillary coverage do well to paint a picture of the program and its place within other Dreamer initiatives across the country connected to the “I Have A Dream” Foundation.

I’d also assign The Boys of Baraka, a documentary about 12 at-risk Baltimore, MD boys sent to live and attend school in Kenya as part of an experimental program. It’s as worthy of the descriptor “compelling” as anything I’ve ever watched.

The third text is Ruth Wright Hayre and Alexis Moore’s (auto)biographical book Tell Them We Are Rising. Hayre and Moore provide a historical perspective of one African American family’s experiences with schooling across 3 generations and Hayre’s legacy when she promised college tuition to 116 sixth graders from Philadelphia. For me, the book provided a portrait of the history of Philadelphia schools few people had the time or memory to bring up. I understood where I was teaching because I understood how schools changed in Philadelphia.

While these four texts don’t provide a comprehensive list, they do provide much food for thought on the roles and possibilities for third-party stakeholders in education.


Things I Know 341 of 365: We are not doctors or lawyers

Life is filigree work. What is written clearly is not worth much, it’s the transparency that counts.

– Louis-Ferdinand Celine

When people hear “teacher” two things happen, they think of the teachers they’ve had and they think of all teachers. If they are parents, these people also think of the teachers their children have or have had in class.

Teacher pulls in images of the specifically personal and the generally vague.

Often, teachers find themselves working to elevate the prestige of the profession to the level of doctors, lawyers and other similarly regarded careers. I understand the comparison and the temptation to make it.

Teachers aren’t doctors or lawyers. They do not enjoy the same social distance as those professions.

The regard given medical and legal practitioners comes from the foreign nature of what they do. Though average Americans might know and be related to a doctor or lawyer, they do not spend the first 13-17 years of their lives in courtrooms or operating rooms. They know enough to understand the role of each profession in society, but not enough to feel as though they understand the minutia. If forced, the average person would likely feel comfortable running a classroom. They wouldn’t, I’d wager, feel the same sense of comfort if forced to defend or prosecute someone on trial or perform a surgery.

Thanks to television, they would have the jargon, but not the level of comfort appropriate to the moment.

Teaching is familiar. It is accessible through our memories.

We have spent hundreds of hours watching teachers. We’ll just do what we saw them do. What we did not see, we cannot know to do.

The familiarity of teaching keeps it from aligning with other practices similarly dedicated to the furthering and preservation of society. Teaching is visible, participatory and engrained in the lives of citizens. This works against the profession as it attempted to elevate itself.

Teaching must become wholly and completely familiar rather than working away from public access.

I received this horrendous email from today about a mother who arrived at her son’s school to find him tied inside a bag meant as therapy for his autism. What the teacher did was unconscionable. It is also what the public of Mercer County and anyone who hears the story will know of Mercer schools. This will be the practice of Mercer teachers when they come up in conversation. Few will know or speak of the thousands of moments of kindness, care, professionalism, and wisdom that happened the same day and every day that follows at Mercer schools.

The gross familiarity with schooling has long been the handicap in elevating the profession. Let us then reverse that. Make all of teaching and schooling public. Make transparent the pieces children and parents did not see as students. Show the complexity of practice inherent in moving a diverse classroom of students toward learning, and esteem and regard will accrue. Respect for the work of teachers lies not in the further drawing of the curtain, but in the opening of it.

Things I Know 315 of 365: Spencer is one of us

When I say I want my students to be successful, I mean I want them to blow adequacy out of the water.

– Spencer Nissly

Last Spring, SLA had the pleasure of hosting a group of pre-service teachers from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. They were part of a larger contingent visiting Philly schools and classrooms.

In my room was Spencer Nissly who will be starting his student teaching next semester. I’m eager to read about his experiences on his blog and twitter feed. He’s going to be a fantastic teacher. I know this because he loves to learn and has as many questions as possible answers.

While I’ll be offering any help and encouragement I can as Spencer gets his teaching legs under him, I want to do what I can to make sure he’s surrounded by a larger network of support as well. I asked him today if he’d mind answering a few questions as a way of introducing him to, well, anyone who might read this.

If teaching is to improve as a practice and a community, then we must support and foster one another’s growth – especially that of our newest teachers. Spencer and I are not likely to ever work with one another in the same school or district, but I education will be better because he is a teacher.

Q. Who are you?
A. On the surface my life is pretty much that of a normal 21 year old male. I love movies, music and sports. I like finding cool pubs that I can talk with my friends over a beer. On a deeper level I love literature and writing. For me this is where I can express myself and connect with other people. Reading is the way I make sense of life; it shows me that I’m not alone, that my feelings are apart of being human. At my core I am my relationships. The relationships I have with my friends, family, role models, God and even myself, exemplify the values most fundamental to who I am, and who I want to be. Those values being faith, trust, community, communication and compassion. It is through my relationships that I am reminded time and time again of these values and present a platform for personal reflection.

Q. Why Teaching?
A. Education is the most important thing for any person. It provides the means for social mobility, self-realization and personal growth. Essentially, education sets people on the path for them to pursue their passions. I am passionate about English, and education allows me to translate the passion in a way that others could appreciate it. On a deeper level though, teaching gives me the opportunity to model my own core values to kids. By doing this I can help them grow by recognizing what values they hold most important to their own identity. To translate their own passions into goals and help them achieve their goals. It took me awhile to find myself; to find my passions and live up to my potential. For me teaching is a way to fulfill my passion, and help others find theirs.

Q. Where do you do your learning?

A. I try to look for opportunities to learn all around me. Primarily I learn from reading; I am constantly reading all kinds of books. But I also find that I learn most from the interactions and relationships that I have. Through talking with people I trust and sharing personal experiences, I find that I am able to process learning on a meaningful level. Also by listening to their ideas and stories I am able to gain a deeper understanding that sometimes challenges my original beliefs. In engaging in this sort of exchange I’m often able to get past my ignorance and see things in a new way.

Q. What are your Goals for your Students?
A. My main goal for my students is success. Not success by achieving “adequacy” on some state standardized test. For me being “adequate,” is nothing I want for my students. When I say I want my students to be successful, I mean I want them to blow adequacy out of the water. I think this success will come in different ways for different students. For some kids that might be thinking outside the box and being creative. For other kids it might be participating in class, or just keeping their head up. I think success is something that needs to be pursued daily. Kids need to have personal goals and be constantly pursuing them, never being satisfied with where they are at. Another goal I have is to establish a legitimate classroom community. I believe this is paramount for learning to happen. My students need to feel safe and valued in my classroom. There needs to be a place for everyone’s ideas, stories, questions,passions and identities. Within this community there needs to be ample time for discussion and communication, as there is for personal reflection. I want this community to value the individual as much as the group. I think its my job to facilitate that community by providing an environment that makes it possible.

Q. What support do you need?
A. I think I would benefit most from a mentor. Someone who is willing to listen and give advice on a consistent basis. Who can relate to things I’m going through and help me find solutions to problems. Someone I can bounce ideas off of and complain to and will encourage me. I have a lot of meaningful relationships in my life and they are huge for me, but I don’t have someone who can fulfill that capacity. I have professor that I meet with but they feel like professional relationships not like a friendship.

Q. What are you reading?
A. Currently I am reading Sutree by Cormac McCarthy and The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. I am also going through two textbooks that I have used in the past but feel like I just scratched the surface in. One is called Bridging English  and is all about strategies for teaching all aspects of English. The second is a textbook with basic ed theory: Dewey, Adler, Freire etc.  – stuff that I was definitely not ready for as a sophomore. I also asked for a ton of books for Christmas so I definitely have my work cut out for me.

Q. What was the last thing you learned?
A. I was just reading in my Parker Palmer book before doing this survey about the paradoxes that are necessary in teaching. Such as how we need to value silence and speech. Meaning we need to encourage kids to share and make them feel comfortable sharing, but we also need to value silence in the classroom. We need to resist the urge to break the silence when we ask a question and no one speaks. Palmer further explains these paradoxes by showing how an analysis of your own personal teaching will show that your best and worst moments teaching can be attributed to the same personal qualities. The book is really good and it has me constantly examining myself and my goals and talking to my peers about their goals.

Q. When is the last time you changed your mind?
A. I changed my mind earlier today about a professor. He’s sort of a cocky guy and not very patient and all semester he’s just been making me feel like he doesn’t have time for us. So I’ve joined my classmates in complaining about him the entire semester. But the entire time, I knew there was more to him. He has a legitimate passion and ability to convey that passion to others. So I stayed after for a little today and talked to him abut some stuff going on in my field placement, and, again, I felt like he cut me off and rushed me. But when I got past that and listened, I realized he gave me some good advice. So I changed my mind about him and what I can learn from him if I just look past some of his downfalls and focus on his strengths. Which is something I hope people do for me and something I hope to do for each student I come in contact with.

Things I Know 255 of 365: Schools need to examine their Educational Complexity Indices

In other words, the amount of embedded knowledge that a country has is expressed in its productive diversity, or the number of distinct products that it makes. Second, products that demand large volumes of knowledge are feasible only in the few places where all the requisite knowledge is available.

The Atlas of Economic Complexity

Since finding it a few days ago, I’ve been obsessed with The Atlas of Economic Complexity published last month by researchers at Harvard and MIT. This is for a number of reasons (not a few of which are centered around the tremendous visualizations).

In estimating the Economic Complexity Index for each of the countries in the atlas, the authors took into consideration two main factors – diversity and ubiquity.

They examined the products of each country and determined the global ubiquity of those products as well as the diversity of products from each country.

The authors offer a few examples:

Take medical imaging devices. These machines are made in few places, but the countries that are able to make them, such as the United States or Germany, also export a large number of other products. We can infer that medical imaging devices are complex because few countries make them, and those that do tend to be diverse. By contrast, wood logs are exported by most countries, indicating that many countries have the knowledge required to export them. Now consider the case of raw diamonds.

These products are extracted in very few places, making their ubiquity quite low. But is this a reflection of the high knowledge-intensity of raw diamonds? Of course not. If raw diamonds were complex, the countries that would extract diamonds should also be able to make many other things. Since Sierra Leone and Botswana are not very diversified, this indicates that something other than large volumes of knowledge is what makes diamonds rare…

I’ve started applying similar measures to classrooms. Consider the Educational Complexity Index of the tasks many classrooms require of their students.

Take reading as an example. Many classrooms across the world ask their students to engage in reading. At some point in the last century reading was not nearly as ubiquitous task (in the U.S.) as it has become. Sesame Street, Blue and her clues, and Dora have all increased the ubiquity of reading tasks that were often the domain of schools. Still, the reading tasks exported by television were not as complex as those required by classrooms. As such, the market was altered, but not greatly.

This was so until the entrance of the Internet into the Education Union. Intellectual trade shifted greatly with the advent of the Internet and its educational exports. Not only did it flood global education markets with reading tasks, increasing the ubiquity of such tasks, it allowed for increased complexity of those tasks as well.

Such is the case of many other educational exports such as mathematics, music, history, etc. Schools, which spent more than a century enjoying great security in the relatively low ubiquity of their exports have felt tremors in the last few decades indicating an erosion of that security as other providers have made these exports more ubiquitous.

Also working against the favor of schools have been their repeated moves to pare down the diversity of educational products they bring to the market. With the exception of boutique programs, many schools that once offered a broad range of offerings from the arts to after-school extra-curricular activities have eliminated those programs. In many cases, these programs have been eliminated to offer students more intense versions of those same educational products mentioned above with a total disregard for the modern ubiquity and competitive complexity of those same products offered by other educational providers.

Still, something can be done, but it will require schools to develop a heretofore absent understanding of educational markets, taking into consideration the ubiquity and diversity of those product offered by other educational providers. One way for schools to increase their relevance, other than re-diversifying their offerings, is to design learning tasks that are more complex and bring to bear the full resources available within schools. Such tasks would call on students to put into play their understandings across several disciplines such as science, English and history. Ideally, they would also ask students to integrate their learning from other market providers as well – creating greater educational synergy.

Schools have long been the only superpower of learning in the educational economy and have thereby been resistant to take note of or take seriously the new producers of educational experiences. If schools hope to maintain this position they must shift practice and consider what can be done to inspire greater educational complexity within their walls.

Things I Know 227 of 365: You can’t sell accountability, we already own it

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.

– Jacques Barzun

In 2006, then-chancellor of NYC schools Joel Klein delivered some remarks tot he Academy of Management in Atlanta, GA outlining the changes Klein and Mayor Bloomberg set in motion in New York.

Klein claimed the aim of the changes was to accomplish “three fundamental cultural shifts”:

  1. To move from a culture of excuses to a culture of accountability.
  2. To move from a culture of compliance to a culture of performance.
  3. To move from a culture of uniformity to a culture of differentiation.

Ignoring for a moment the semantic argument to be made that compliance and performance are not mutually exclusive ideas, I’m interested in Klein’s case that he was moving to true accountability through his policies.

“These principals,” Klein said in reference to the principals who signed documents against their union’s advice, “accepted the challenge and signed performance agreements, explicitly taking responsibility for student performance outcomes.”

The agreement “also specifically spells out the ways we will leave them alone to do their work.”

Klein went on to say the principals had put their “tails on the line” with the agreements, committing to their accountability to student learning.

They bought in to Klein’s accountability measures and they’d signed contracts to that effect in the same way they would have agreed to a car loan or mortgage.

And in the same way as either of those examples, the principals didn’t really own what they’d signed on for.

It was closer than most efforts had likely come to giving principals ownership of their schools, but it wasn’t the same thing.

When Klein stepped down in late 2010, I wonder how many of the principals pulled their contracts out of their filing cabinets to see if they were still accountable for their students’ learning.

My guess would be none.

My guess would be that the principals who signed on to Klein’s initiatives held themselves just as accountable for learning in their schools as they did before Klein took over the chancellorship.

They already owned that responsibility. They showed up everyday to live it and it probably consumed their thoughts before they drifted off to sleep at night.

What Klein was selling wasn’t acceptability for learning. You can’t sell someone what they already own.

He was attempting to sell principals on changing the way schools, principals and teachers go about helping students learn.

That’s an impossible sell.

To make it work, to get Klein’s initiatives off the ground, they couldn’t be his.

The only way to move, to make change, is to share the ownership, not sell it.

Things I Know 218 of 365: ‘College- and career-ready’ is backwards thinking

I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.

– Carl Sagan

I mentioned a few days ago that I took issue with a couple of the questions asked at our new-student orientation. Not took issue in the torches and pitchforks, storm the castle, sense, but issue just the same.

One of the facts shared with us was the percent of students in the new class who are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree (16%).

To set that in perspective, we were then told that only 27.2% of people in the United States of have a bachelor’s degree. To this, there was an audible “hmmmm.”

When we started discussing things at my table, I was interested in how readily we accepted the notion that a bachelor’s was to be expected, the mark of success or making it or acceptance.

I wondered who else in the tent wondered at the idea that what was likely expected for somewhere near 84% of us was out of reach, had slipped through the fingers or was uninteresting to 72.8% of those in the country.

It started me thinking on where I stand regarding college education.

I read Will’s post to his kids his acceptance of their choices later in life if they choose not to go to college, and I remember thinking how much care his words contained.

It didn’t get me going as to whether or not I would write a similar post if I had kids.

But of course I have had kids. For only 180-days at a time, but they were in my charge just the same.

And it’s interesting how what I wanted for that first class at Sarasota Middle shifted by the time I saw my last classes at SLA.

I hadn’t known enough kids when I started teaching to realize that college wasn’t the path for everyone.

I only knew me and knew that it had always been my path.

With that limited understanding, I applied my logic to my students through my teaching practice. I taught them as though the preparation of school could and should only be geared toward preparing students for college.

In doing so, I underserved and under appreciated those students who were learning and growing into remarkable adults, but who weren’t on a trajectory that would lead them to a bachelor’s degree.

Somehow, they and I were failing. I couldn’t see the flaw in my logic because I didn’t know what I was doing.

By the time I was helping to counsel my last group of kids at SLA, I knew better (though not nearly completely) how to see my students and listen to understand where they were interested in heading.

Yes, the vast majority were on their way to 4-year colleges, and many of them will secure degrees beyond whatever paper I finally settle with as a the terminus for my education.

For those who needed something different, whose paths called for what was other than dorm living, ENG 101 and lecture hall classes, I’d started hearing them and realizing they were heading to lives by way of roads I’d never seen.

That was tough.

Still is.

Yes, I know the financial impact a college degree can have on a person’s lifelong earning potential.

I’ve also seen the emotional and financial impact a degree earned out of obligation and not desire can have on a person’s lifelong living potential.

Much attention is being paid as of late to whether or not our students are college and career ready by the time they graduate from high school.

It seems to me, that perhaps we should be paying attention to making more and more diverse colleges and careers so that they have at least a possible shot of being student ready.

Things I Know 210 of 365: I’m an intellectual hoarder

To understand how hoarders can end up in such dire straits, you need to understand how the process starts, and that begins with understanding one central concept: To hoarders, none of that stuff is trash.

– TLC Network Website

George Siemens wrote a thoroughly interesting post about meeting up with Alan Levine and being introduced to Levine’s Piratebox/Storybox.

The post and the box – be it of the pirate or story variety – are both incredibly interesting and should be read and pondered.

The piece that stuck me in Siemens’s post had everything to do with his thinking around the potential uses of the box. Actually, it was his thinking on his thinking:

I’m not sure how to apply this to teaching/learning (why is that always the measure of an idea? “Hmm, how can I use this with students”? Why can’t things just be sometimes?). Something like a learning box? I’m grasping here.

The question of why things can’t just be scuttles around in my brain constantly.

Movie, book, song or conversation…anything entering my field of thinking is primarily analyzed for education.

No matter its origin or intended purpose, I find myself questioning how the object or idea can make teaching and learning better.

It’s a sickness.

Oddly enough, it’s a sickness I once pitied in others.

In college, as a member of the campus improv troupe, I was close friends with many theatre students. It was a whole other world from the close reading, critically theoretical, OED-loving one I knew as an English major.

Fortunately, all my theatre friends were tremendously talented and consistently found themselves cast in some production or another.

Dutiful friend that I was, I often found myself in the audience.

After a few shows, I noticed something.

While I was sitting in the audience submersed in the world of the play, whichever theatre friend was sitting next to me was seeing a different show altogether.

They saw colleagues on the stage practicing their art.

Where I saw story, they knew the backstory of how an actor moves from part to character to production. The knew and saw the pieces.

After the show, my basis for judgement was how much I’d lost myself in the world of the performance. Their bases for judgement were a million subtle metrics I would never understand.

The closest thing I have for comparison is where my mind goes when watching Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds or even Matilda.

This is also where my mind goes when it finds something novel, new, interesting or important.

I hear Siemens’s question, “Hmm, how can I use this with students?” or some variation of it.

Everything strikes me as an avenue for building conduits of understanding. If I need to use Lady Gaga to show what it means to look deeply at a text, so be it. If I need to compare allowance and birthday money as a means for explaining gross mismanagement of educational funds, superb.

Different from Siemens, my brain doesn’t limit itself to students, but asks how anything can be used to build understanding for others. Even if an immediate use can’t be found, I’ll squirrel the new bobble away like an intellectual hoarder.

Every once in a while, I’ll hit a moment of frustration.

“Why does everything have to be about learning?” I hear from somewhere in my mind, “Why can’t things just be sometimes?”

In these moments, I hear a chuckle from somewhere else in my mind, “You’re cute,” a voice says, “Now, back to thinking.”