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The art of discussion

voltaire-quotes-fools-chainsBack in the early mid-80’s I went to a little school in Central Pennsylvania called Penn State. You might of heard of it. Then, like now, I loved nothing more then a healthy debate. My father used to say I would take the opposite position on anything just to argue. There is probably quite a bit of truth in that statement. At Penn State I found a wonderful debate partner.

Penn State Alumni are quite familiar with the Willard preacher. Gary has been berating people with his version of fire and brimstone for probably 30 years. There is no shortage of people turned off by the Willard preacher, but for me he was the perfect foil. If you engaged him, he would happily engage you all night long and many nights I would take advantage of this willingness.

I spent hours going point/counter point with him. The beautiful thing was he knew his stuff, so he made you learn your stuff and be able to defend it. Some folks may disagree, but with me his rebuttals rarely became personal. If they did, I would call him on it and he did the same to me. See it was all about the argument and the ideas contained within it. He made me think harder and research better and for that I will always consider him a major component  of my secondary education.

After college I gravitated to tending bar for a living. People used to tell me, there’s two things you never discuss at a bar, religion and politics. I broke that rule every shift I worked. It was not uncommon to come in for a happy hour and find one corner of the bar discussing the Old Testament while another debated the effects of minimum wage. The only rule was that you had to argue the argument not the person. What a novel concept huh?

That’s a concept we seem to have lost sight of. Anymore the counter argument always seems to be about the personality instead of the position. Take for example the Common Core argument. . Side A takes the position that it will take education deeper instead of wider. Side B counters with questions about it being developmentally inappropriate. Side A counters with the argument that anyone who doesn’t support Common Core is ill informed and paranoid. Side B comes back with, all Common Core supporters are trying to do is make money off of our kids and then things escalate.

Where does this leave us? We still don’t know if CC will indeed take instruction deeper. It is still not clear if it is developmentally inappropriate. Yet we hold on to our theories as if we’ve actually proven something and the best part is we don’t even have to do any more research because why would we stoop to arguing with nuts and crooks? We can safely hold on to our position without having to waste any more time on the subject. After all, we are all much to busy to really concern ourselves with nuances.

debate-picThe problem with not concerning ourselves with the nuances, involves a lack of self evaluation. Learning can’t take place without self evaluation. When we self evaluate effectively we compare the tenets that we’ve accepted, with the tenets being presented and either accept or discard one. Whatever the result we are left with a stronger conviction. Without this component we are just building a house based on sand.

That discarding of previous “facts” can be the most painful part of a debate but how else do you grow if you don’t slough off old skin and take on new skin. Loving the art of learning eases this pain because it doesn’t focus on the “being wrong” part, but rather the process itself. I’ve always loved this process and to be honest with you, if you can prove your arguments superior I’ll readily embrace your argument. Now remember though you have to prove your arguments to me not yourself.

I used to stress to my step-daughter the importance of having people in your life that held beliefs counter to your own. The best way to know if your beliefs are truly worthy of being held is to be forced to defend them against a counter argument. If you can’t effectively describe and defend these beliefs, perhaps they shouldn’t be your beliefs. That is the point of discussion, to arrive at beliefs that are based on a thorough vetting. Sadly, this has become a lost art.

It is an art I would encourage people to rediscover. Listen to people’s arguments. Think about them. If necessary counter their arguments. Listen to their counter. Attack the idea if necessary but not the author. Give them the benefit of considering that they may have spent as much time crafting their argument as you have crafting yours. It’s all so simple but so rarely practiced. That’s why we live in the cacophony that we now find ourselves in.

I always find it interesting to hear people say, “Why don’t we just all get along.” “If everyone would just compromise.” I disagree. I think we need to debate more, but let’s make it real discourse. Let’s listen to counter arguments, and if they truly are not stronger then yours, fight for your convictions like a mother would for her child, but if they are, modify. Its the only way we can truly arrive at best practice. Whether presented by a nut, a kook, a racist, a conspiracy theorist or any of the other slanders we like to throw around, a good concept is a good concept. It doesn’t care who voices it. By the same token, a bad idea can be countered by a strong idea, it doesn’t need to attack the presenter.

th9WFVUNYCThis is a concept I try to practice in my daily life. I’ve gone to lunch or interacted with just about any education reformer who will accept my invitation. There’s been very little common ground discovered but I can say all the experiences were enjoyable. I can also say that the discussions have lead to a deeper understanding of my beliefs. Hopefully some of them will continue to meet with me and some will bring arguments I haven’t considered. Because in the end, for me, its all about the conversation.

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Are Achievement Districts and Charters really the answer?

thAnybody who knows me knows that I’ll pretty much talk to anybody, anytime, about anything. It doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not; I just like dialog and am fascinated at how people arrive at their positions. Therefore, when Superintendent Chris Barbic invited me to tour one of the charter schools that is part of the Achievement District, I said sure. I also asked Rep. Gloria Johnson and MNPS PAC chair Chelle Baldwin to join me. 

The Achievement District, if you’re not familiar, is the brainchild of the state of Tennessee where the state will take over the bottom 5% of schools in TN and over 5 years move them into the top 25%. It’s a very noble endeavor, and of course involves all kinds of bold, new ideas with engaged classroom rockstars guiding the children. The state can’t do this alone so some of the schools get turned over to charter schools. Which means more bold ideas and more superstars of the classroom.

As a disclaimer, I’m sure you’ve picked up on it by now, I’m not a fan of charters or the particular idea of an achievement district. Tennessee’s ASD is modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Someday, if you have a couple of weeks, we’ll discuss the failings of the RSD. Though I must admit that it has been very successful in generating lawsuits. One other thing I should point out is that achievement districts are now popping up all over the country, Kansas and Michigan being the latest. Chief benefit seems to be the ability to by pass locally elected school boards.

All that said, I was very interested in seeing this experiment with my own eyes. I prepared myself to be wowed. After all I’ve read the testimonials and watched the uplifting Hollywood movies about the transformational power of Charter schools. My biggest argument has always been they may be good for some children but were they good for all children? What about the populations they traditionally underserved? I’ve never argued against their quality. So I was sure that I would witness some transformative classroom performances.th-1

Upon entering the building I was immediately impressed with the curtesy and friendliness I was greeted with. I’ve heard political opponents mumble Chris’s name under their breath but I found him to be very open and engaging. Truth is, I like most of the people that I’ve met on the reform side. If we were just going to a BBQ I’d be quite happy to spend an afternoon with them. It’s only when they start talking diversity, best practices, failure of the public school system, teachers,… that I have to start taking exception.

To get a better understanding of the underlining principles and practices of the ASD and LEAD schools we sat down with Chris and LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds. They were very informative and, for the most part, quite transparent. Things got a little murky around test results and answering to locally elected officials, but, in their defense, talk to any schools administrator about test results and things get a little murky. I appreciated their candor and taking the time to help us understand better. To be honest though, some of their defenses and counter arguments sounded familiarly like my wife’s experiences in a traditional school.

Yes, children from a lower economic class move around more often. They do tend to start from a lower  baseline. There is no magic bullet. Getting them up to grade level in a reasonable time is extremely difficult. None of this should deter these folks though. They were…CHARTER SCHOOL operators. I’ve seen “Waiting for Superman.” All this was just filler until we saw the jaw dropping results, right? Maybe this wasn’t Hollywood. 

After about 40 minutes of talking, we decided to go see the rhetoric in action. We were allowed to observe actual classrooms. This is were I was hoping to see Michelle Pfeiffer. Alas, it was not to be. To be honest, what I observed was not at all what I expected.  What I saw was a typical middle school in action, not that different from any other middle school I’ve been in.

I watched teachers conduct classes in rooms filled with students of varying degrees of engagement. There were some good lessons but I didn’t hear anything transformational. Truthfully some of it was fairly pedestrian. It was obvious that all the adults in the school cared deeply for the children, but then again every school I’ve ever been in has been populated by adults who cared deeply about kids. Kind of goes with the territory. You don’t go into the restaurant business if you dont like food.

I did get a pleasant reminder about the nature of children. The practice of “eye tracking” is something I’ve always found particularly abhorrent. Of course like many I was underestimating children and pictured it consisting of a classroom of children’s eyes locked on the instructor in zombie like fashion. I should have known better. Middle school children by nature never buy into anything that fully.

The reality is, the teacher calls for eye tracking and a few students instantly comply, a few sort of comply and some ignore. The teacher repeats her request and a few more comply. Those who initially ignored, bring about their eyes partially. The teacher once again repeats the request, and then moves on. Accepting the response she gets. Nothing Orwellian about it, but some good old fashion teenage rebellion and a lesson on remembering that children are more then just caricatures and sometimes subvert the best laid plans of adults.th-2

After observing the class rooms, I asked point blank, “Whats the difference?” I received a response involving greater intensity, better parent buy in, extra hours, increased teacher accessibility, but all that is rhetoric for the most part. Teacher’s in traditional schools are just as accessible. Lesson plans can be just as intense. Depending on the school and parents capabilities, you can find parents just as engaged.  Look at the incredible Dad’s group at Dan Mills.

It was also pointed out that school leadership was especially strong. Well, nobody has ever argued that strong leadership is not essential. Traditional schools with strong leadership do better then those with out. It’s interesting that so much focus has been placed on the effect of a quality teacher, while a disproportionate amount is focused on the leadership. Leadership is probably the single most important ingredient in creating the culture of a school.

My biggest take away from the whole experience was, why all the energy focused on a model that is already in existence? Instead of attempting to break down public education, why are charter school advocates not putting that energy, focus and experience into strengthening our traditional schools? Am I supposed to believe that no one would hire Chris Barbic, Chris Reynolds, Ravi Grupa or Todd Dickson as superintendents? I find that hard to believe.

Now they may have to spend some additional time climbing the ladder so to speak. They may have to put some extra time into “hands on in the school hallways” work before being elevated to these positions, but would that be a bad thing? These are extremely bright dedicated young men. When I think of the impact they could have if they were to use those gifts to strengthen our public institutions, it makes me sad to realize that they choose to work in systems that limit their scope.

Maybe I’m supposed to believe that traditional schools wouldn’t give them the avenues to practice their particular skill set. I don’t buy it. I can think of very few educators that wouldn’t relish the opportunity to apply their abilities to our most difficult schools. Again, if they went that route, they might not be courted by the mayors office or have their picture in the paper. They might not have the autonomy they now are afforded. However, they would be working to preserve a greater good.

When I think of the amount of resources and energy focused on creating a similar system outside an existing system, it infuriates me. Look at the state Race to the Top scope of work and see how much money KIPP has raised and received through state grants and you’ll be shocked. They are expected to raise 1 million dollars by June 1. Name me one other school in MNPS that would have that capability and then receive 600k from the state. There is even a plan currently being pitched in Nashville to give charter operators start up money if they go into South Nashville. Maybe our kids wouldn’t have been cold during the last cold snap if our local schools had that kind of resources. 

This is where I start to think about motivations and question why the need for charter schools? What is the real reason supporters are pushing so hard to create even more charter schools? What is the end game? If we keep adding charters and closing traditional schools, what our educational system of the future look like? We only have to look at New Orleans to get a glimpse of a system were the vast majority attend a charter school. A system where a parents has to go to the state level to get any redress because they have no locally elected official.

Perhaps we need to step back and evaluate the whole system, instead of focusing just on select schools. Perhaps we need to more closely examine why we educate our children? Is it for democratic or capitalistic purposes? Is there not room under the current system to foster more of the innovation that transpires daily? Instead of getting Race to the Top dollars to refurnish old Malls, why couldn’t we be useing that money to repair damage in our existing schools? Instead of picking sides and calling each other “Charter Zealots” and “Defenders of the Status Quo” couldn’t that energy be better focused on strengthening our public school system?

IMG_2100Let’s never underestimate the importance of that system. Advocates for education reform often like to say that it is all public education and that it should not matter what form a school takes, just that its a good school. That’s not necessarily true. While it’s may be true that individual schools can have a different look, what the system itself looks like is critical.

Our education system is a pillar of our democratic society. It is overseen by locally elected officials who are charged with ensuring that it produces graduates who are not just employable, but capable stewards of the world we’ve created. A separate system that answers to board members or state officials while by-passing locally elected officials does not uphold that pillar. 

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Try again

IMG_0429When my daughter was about 18 months old we were at the playground. She’s been a child challenging her boundaries since birth, so she was climbing and running everywhere. I was sitting and watching and truthfully checking my twitter feed on the phone. As she attempted to go up a ladder she fell. It was a hard fall and obviously painful.

I went to her and picked her up in my arms as she bawled. Doing my best to soothe her as she cried, I tried explaining to her that when pushing yourself sometimes you’ll have falls. Then without really thinking about it, I said, “You know you’re going to have to get up and try again.” She continued to cry with no acknowledgement of what I’d said, but two minutes later she shook off my arms, marched silently back over to the ladder and proceeded to climb it.

To say I was proud is putting it mildly. I was over the moon. My child had some grit. You couldn’t keep her down. She fell, she got right back up and did it again. A Weber family mantra was born. “I’m going to try it again Daddy. Because thats what we do. Thats what you always say.” Her brother, 14 months younger, was quickly indoctrinated as well.

I must admit I was pretty proud of myself. My kids understood that you couldn’t let failure keep you down, They were getting back on the proverbial horse and marching forward. This parenting thing was easy I would tell myself. Just ingrain these truism’s early and then sit back and watch them march to success. But then I learned a lesson.

As they got older they started creating more complex challenges. Predictably they would fail at some of theses challenges and predictably I would hear, “I’m going to try it again Daddy, Because thats what we do. Thats what you always say.” My words would come back to me and I would cringe. Obviously some of these tasks didn’t need to be attempted again, but how do you explain that to little minds that aren’t developed enough to make that differentiation?

509The lesson I learned is that children aren’t just vessels you fill with information. They bring their own interpretations to the table. Every lesson has a flip side. There is no clear good message and no clear bad message. Education like life itself is made up of a lot a grays and we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about these grays.

Read just about any education article and you’ll find children painted as these one dimensional creatures starving and open for knowledge every day. They don’t have time for anything but the learning of reading and math. Anybody who’s been around children knows that this is just not true. While generally inquisitive, its not always about the things we’d like them to be about. Nor is it always at the level we would demand. Sometimes its all about the cute boy in 1st period or who wins in a fight between Thor and Hulk. Somedays its about nothing.

Think about it though, are you always at 100% job? What about those moments you sneak a peek on the internet at the Oscar dresses when you should be finishing up a presentation. Maybe you spent an hour today, when you should have been working, filling out your fantasy football squad. Lets not forget those days when you tell the boss your feeling under the weather and then slip off to an afternoon movie. Obviously we as adults are not 100% rigorous, why should we expect children to be any different?

Still we send a message that the secret to better education is more rigor. More drill time. More testing. Less time for the unimportant stuff like art, music or play. Then when children embrace this out of necessity we clap ourselves on the back and say what great educators we are. We are making kids college and career ready. But do we ever consider the flip side.

By increasing this rigor and discipline and getting kids to buy into it, what are we sacrificing? Are we producing adults that understand their role in a democratic society? Are we producing creative adults that understand that sometimes the best ideas come when you’re just goofing off? Are we producing adults that understand that learning isn’t a competition but as essential to life as breathing? Will future generations know when to put rigor aside and concentrate on family? I wonder.

summer 2010 peter's arrival 046When my daughter was born, I held her in my arms and swore that their would be no princesses in her life. They send the wrong message and my daughter was going to grow up understanding that she could be whomever she wanted and that princesses just reinforced old stereotypes. Well despite my best intentions, my daughter fell in love with princesses and I came to the realization that by fighting against the princesses I was also limiting who she could become. So I capitulated.

Recently I found a Princess book of math problems. Even though it was meant for older children I got it. Well the Princess’s instantly drew her attention. It wasn’t long till we were spending time after dinner working math problems. She was hooked. One night on the way home a little voice in the back asked, “Daddy, when we get home, can we do math.” I smiled and said, “Yes my dear, we can do math.”

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Are we heading toward an even more segregated society through our schools?

There is something that I’ve been turning around in my head. I want to throw it out there and let you maybe turn it around in your head. Let me be perfectly clear here, this post doesn’t include any acquisitions and it may not even contain any facts. Its just thoughts that have been rolling around in my and I’d like to bring them out for you to consider.

We’ll start off with a bunch of under performing schools. Schools say that are in the lower 5% of all schools. Everybody knows something has to be done. The state is supposed to do what the local municipalities can not, so its the perfect opportunity to encourage the state to take action. The state in turn creates a special school district, you can call it the Recovery district but Achievement district sounds much better. This achievement district doesn’t want to depend on the same folks that have been “failing”, they call in the Charter Schools.

Now Charter Schools know you can’t do the same old same old and expect to get different results. They implement stricter disciplinary codes. Teachers implement eye tracking policies. Kids stand in line going from room to room. Parents sign contracts that they will adhere to certain guidelines and meet certain obligations. Longer school days are instituted and increased pressure on teachers. Its also known that nothing good happens unless people know about it. The PR machine is engaged.

Let’s now add another wrinkle to the process. People argue all the time about the role of poverty in education, but I think its safe to say that these lower performing schools are made up of lower income and minority students. Charter school advocates have gone on record as saying Charter Schools shouldn’t be responsible for creating diverse populations. They are after all just reflections of society. So, I think it probably a safe assumption that the demographics of these schools stay primarily minority and lower income students.

There are some very good educators involved in the Charter school movement and some excellent PR people. That means that some of these students will thrive and the schools will be portrayed as successes. Those that don’t, well they can always be advised that they would probably be better served in another school. After all, every school is not for every kid and by not encouraging a child to pursue other opportunities better suited for them would be detrimental to the child.

Meanwhile, the parents at the schools in the higher income primarily white districts are scratching their heads. Why do their children have to go to either private school or crappy public schools when all this special focus is being placed on lower income and minority students. That doesn’t sound fair at all.Their children deserve the same amount of attention as the at risk kids.

Luckily there are some charter schools that are willing to take these students. Now since creating a diverse population is not the obligation of  charter schools, most of these schools are made up of white and upper income students. It’s not their fault that our neighborhoods are already segregated. Schools should be able to draw from their neighborhood.

However, higher income parents as a rule don’t go in for all that rigid discipline. No eye tracking for their offspring and if you expect them to sign a contract, well they may sign it but odds are, they are already involved enough with their child. Their children have different needs. They need to be challenged and develop problem solving skills, not develop discipline and learn to close read so they can better follow instructions.

The public schools that are left behind become more and more devoted to special education and English learners. The rest of the population further splinters off into other segregated avenues. The charters on both sides of the gap keep an eye open to recruit any children that might fit their prescribed demographic. The teachers are either forced out or gravitate to one or the other of the charter groups, further limiting the traditional schools.

So the questions I have are how does this scenario differ from our situation pre-Brown vs the Board of Education? Another question would be the implications for our society as a whole. It seems we are creating two trajectories. One group will go on to become the workers utilizing the discipline and ability to follow orders to better serve the creative management types who have the ability to think outside of the box.

Another question I have would be is this a intentional widening of the opportunity gap or is it a by product of thinking solely as education being about the child? Should we not recognize the important role that education plays in the foundation of our society? Are there more important things then being college and career ready? What obligations do we have to be good stewards of both our children and our democratic institutions?

Again this is just me thinking aloud and applying the things I hear people say. It could be that if we take care of the child they will take care of the society. It could be that some have decided that if you rig the game you can control the winners. It could be either, neither or a combination of both.

I do know that the supporters of segregation never accepted the rulings of Brown vs Board of Education. I do know that they initially attempted to create separate “splinter” districts to circumvent the courts ruling until that too was deemed illegal. (Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia; United States v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education) I do know that Virginia closed its public schools in the aftermath of the ruling. White students went to private academies while black students didn’t return to schools until 1963. 

Truth is our society has become more segregated over the years. Therefore our schools themselves have become more segregated. Segregation hasn’t just grown by color of skin but also by wealth. There is more income disparity now then at any time in our history.  I don’t believe that this is something we should just accept. Perhaps now is the time to be more diligent instead of more laissez faire. After all, are schools not  but a microcosm of our society? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves.

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Raising a Reader

Dr. Suess picMy parents were not college graduates. My mother grew up in Germany as a WWII refugee, while my father was the son of a Pennsylvania bootlegger and jack of all trades. He graduated from high school and went immediately to the military. She went to school in a reconstructed Germany. Thats where they met and he brought her back to the states as his wife. They were not academics but had a deep understanding of the power of education and the desire to instill that in their children.

I began reading at an early age, 3 if I’m telling the story but actually probably 4 and a half. There wasn’t a super high tech well researched plan to get me reading. It was simple actually. Surround me with lots of books, read to me and encourage me to start on these adventures myself. They also led by example. While my father was never much of a reader, it was not uncommon to see my mother curled up with book. I remember books laying around that she would pick up whenever she got the rare extra minute.

It was my father though who not only created one of my fondest childhood memories but also set the hook for reading. I must have been about 5 or 6 and like probably most little boys waited excitedly for my Dad to arrive home from work. Often when he came through the door he brought a surprise with him. He would bring me one of those paperback Dennis the Menace books or occasionally a Peanuts book. In a lot peoples eyes those books would be considered junk, but in my eyes they were pure gold. They set the root for reading.

You see my parents didn’t hold a lot of concern into what you were reading, as long as you were reading. (Now I should put a disclaimer her, I wasn’t allowed to read chapter 7 of Jaws until I was 18 but thats another story.) They just tried to make books intricately part of our lives. So I would take those books and excitedly scamper off to my room to read and chortle for hours. I didn’t get all the jokes but the ones I did were hilarious. Written on those pages were the passageways to another world and nobody was a bigger hero in my eyes then my father for bringing me the keys to unlock them.

As I got older I discovered comic books. Keep in mind, this was not a time like today where there was a superhero on every corner. Comics were subversive. Only juvenile delinquents read comic books. They would put bad ideas in an impressionable mind. My parents paid no heed and I read everything from Ghost Rider to SGT Rock, Xmen to the Guardians of the Galaxy. Through those books my vocabulary grew as well as my ability to recognize a good narrative. The themes in those books sent me searching for information elsewhere. I can still remember the day I discovered that the Morlocks from the Xmen were all named for characters from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Made me want to read Shakespeare all the more.

These books set a foundation for reading that’s lasted a life time. From the funny books and comic books I progressed into the Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the 3 Investigators, Young American books, and upward into basically anything I could get my hands on. I even went through a phase of reading teen romances. Along the way I discovered the classics as well. Catcher in Rye and The Last of the Mohicans rank among my favorites of all time. I’ve read non-fiction as well, The Blank Slate and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee changed the way I viewed the world. Its safe to say a book is never far from my reach.

To get me to fall in love with reading my parents attended no educational focus groups. They consulted no data wall in a school. There were no rigorous reading assignments in the house. Reading was not done with purpose. The only purpose for reading was the act of reading itself. We often went to the library and the only expectation was that you were to check out books. Now my memories not the greatest, but I don’t remember my parents ever steering us toward a certain book. Just as long as we were choosing books. (Probably why I don’t like suggestions from well meaning reading friends today.) The goal was never how good you were at reading but rather how much you participated.

My nose wasn’t always buried in a book either.  I played all kinds of sports and probably watched way too much TV but books were always an unescapable presence. It’s safe to say that I’ve had a life long love affair with them. Disclaimer here, I’m not one of those people who discount electronic reading devices. They are one more opportunity to steal away into a narrative. Anything that makes people explore the written word is all right by me.

My wife is a literacy coach, and knows far more about teaching reading then I ever will, so I’m slow to offer advice about creating life line readers. However, if my experiences tell me anything, its that if you want better readers have them read more. Surround them with books and make time for them to discover the beauty. Read to them and listen to them read to you. Discuss what they read. Its why the Dolly Parton initiative is so important. It gets books in the hands of children who might not have access. There should be a monument to Dolly for starting this program.

In my opinion, testing kids on reading to see what level they are at doesn’t make better readers. Deciding some books are good and others are not, doesn’t make better readers. Arguing over phonetics vs whole word does not make better readers. Reading makes better readers. Now granted, tests can be a measure of what children are struggling with, but they should be used as a diagnostic tool and not a destination. I always chuckle when I hear someone proudly say, “My 4th grader is reading on an 8th Grade level.” I guess as a 48 year old man I should be reading on a 60 year old man level.

I hope that at some point the din involving excessive testing and unrealistic benchmarks calms down and we can get back to teaching kids why reading is important. Its enjoyable. It increases your vocabulary. It exposes you to different ways of thinking. It allows you to travel the world while never leaving your chair. Its not about scoring in the upper percentile. Its not about being college and career ready. Its about growing and unlocking all ones potential. I’m still trying to unlock a few doors but I do want to pause and say, Thank you Mom and Dad. Of all the great things you gave me, the greatest was the love of reading. I can’t imagine how black and white my world would be without that gift. I wonder if they still carry those Dennis the Menace books at the drug store.

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I know some Jr high kids that could bring some excitement to J Crew

brother sisterThe other day I was in J Crew buying my Teach For America T-shirt. As the sales rep was going through the motions of ringing me up I detected a lack of enthusiasm. Being someone that always has a better idea, I said to him, “You don’t seem very enthusiastic about your job today.”

He replied, “oh you know, its the holidays. Been working 12 hour days and its all just non-stop.”

“Well”, I said, “If you were a little bit more enthusiastic I bet you could sell a lot more of these t-shirts and then a lot more children could be guaranteed a quality teacher in every room.”

“Yea, well I’ve got more to sell then just those shirts. A lot of people come here with a lot of different needs. Taking care of them is a full time job. People trying to fit into styles that don’t fit them. People trying to get quality clothes without paying what their worth. Trying to keep my teammates engaged. There’s a lot going on around here.”

“You know what?”, I told him, “I’ve got a great idea. I’ve got some Jr High students that would be perfect for here. They’re super smart and they’d be so excited to help out.  They’d have everybody so pepped up around here, these shirts would be flying off the shelves.”

“I don’t think thats such a great idea. I already told you there’s more to this this job then just those shirts. I mean these kids wouldn’t be trained or anything. They don’t know our customers. We’ve already got sales people fighting for hours.”

Pointing at a tired looking fellow stocking shelves I incredulously replied, “Who him? He’s like 35. Not smiling. I don’t think he’s sold a shirt since I been here.My kids would run circles around that stick in the mud. He’s hurting your customers you know. They deserve a high quality experience every time they walk in this store.”

“Sam’s one of our best salesman. He’s won national sales awards. Been with us for 10 years. He’s a little extra tired today because he was up last night with a sick child, but he’s J Crew to the core. We’re not replacing him with some kids.” he replied starting to get irritated.

“Pshaw. He’s cheating your customers by not bringing his A game every time he walks through the door. Just think about how many people are walking away not getting the full J Crew treatment because he’s a little distracted.” My voice rising as I warmed to the subject. “Best part of the whole deal? You only have to pay me $20 a year to hirer my Junior High kids.”

With that he completed my sale, handed me my receipt and with an insincere smile said, “Thank you sir. Here’s your shirt. Have a wonderful day.”

Conversation sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it? However, that is the conversation that is going on all over America today. In fact just today, Metro Nashville Public School District chose to renew their contract with Teach For America for the next three years. A school district that has been sounding the alarm on a 23 million dollar budget deficit next year has agreed to spent 750K a year to utilize a temp agency. The head of Human Capital says that TFA recruits and trains new teachers at a level that the district can’t match and nobody says why? The mayor says they’re better then the teachers that our three local teacher colleges put out and the local union heads say ok. I’d bet they’d have an issue if the mayor was out waiving apprentice requirements for out of town pipefitters to come take local jobs though.

I come at this subject with a little skin in the game. My wife is from a family of teachers. She is a teacher. She arrived at the decision to pursue teaching as a profession after graduating from Vanderbilt University. That’s right, one of those exclusive schools that TFA recruits from. After deciding to become a teacher she enrolled at TSU. Probably should have just called the TFA recruiter.

At the time she decided to pursue a degree in education, we’d just gotten married. I was managing a bar while she worked at Chili’s. The next 3 years were spent by her scraping money together for tuition and her taking classes and working 40 hour weeks. It wasn’t easy but she had to much respect for the proffession to try and take shortcuts. My wife understands and has made me understand that teaching is not just something you do for a couple years and then move on to your real life’s work. To truly be a profession, those who wish to practice must be willing to dedicate and sacrifice.

We made it through those years but it often wasn’t easy. There were times when we argued over money or we wanted to do something that we couldn’t because of lack of time and money. My wife has been teaching now for 6 years and I couldn’t be prouder. I’m probably a bit of a groupie to be honest. The journey to this degree also made my wife a better teacher. The year of student teaching helped make her an exceptional teacher.

What I’ve come to learn is that her story is not unique. All across this state, and country are individuals who found a way to dedicate the prescribed amount of years to do what is required to enter the profession. They realized the dedication and sacrifice that was needed and made it. These are people that felt a real calling to educate our children and realized that it takes some prep work to do it right. Being smart and enthusiastic isn’t enough.

TFA and policy makers apparently don’t think thats necessary. By their actions they suggest that the job be left to the smart and enthusiastic. Now they do make one concession to corp members. The state kicks in 9k while the district ponies up 5k so that they can use our kids to learn the profession that others have used their time and resources to master. My wife and her peers, they get nothing but a salary. What about if that 14K was used to hire the interested as teacher’s aides with that first year countable towards student teaching credits for a degree if they decided teaching was for them.

What we are subtly doing now is changing the face of the teaching profession. By trumpeting the perceived value of TFA we are turning teaching into something you do for a couple years and then you get on with your life. At a time when we are telling children how important education is we are sending a message that you can get what you want without putting the time in. Kids aren’t stupid. They are very capable of reading between the lines. Anybody who has worked with them knows that its when you think they are not watching that they pick up the most on what you do.

So as I read about another contract being renewed or about what a great job recruiting and training TFA does, all I can think about is the clerk at the J Crew store. I think about how you would react at your job if I showed up and proceeded to claim that I could do it as well as you, without any of your training. I think about all the teachers that have amassed degrees and experiences only to be told, you’re kind of a stick in the mud. The only thing I can do is smile and say, “Here’s your shirt. I hope you have a wonderful day.

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What kind of foundation are we laying?

photo (80)The other day my daughter and I were at the park. We were chatting while her brother was running around being the crazed superhero that he can be.

“Daddy”, she said, ” I don’t want to grow up.”

“Well, 4 and a half is a pretty good age.” I replied.

“Can I tell you something Daddy?”

“Sure.”

“I’m a little scared about kindergarden.”

“That’s understandable. It can be a little scary.”

“I like pre-school. I don’t think I’ll like kindergarten.”

“I think you’ll end up liking it a whole lot. What’s daddy tell you when you are scared about something?”

“Stay calm and work through it.”

Even though our conversation ended there, my thoughts didn’t. In another 6 months my daughter was about to embark on a very exciting chapter of her life, she was about to become a public school student. In our family this is big cause for celebration. My wife, a public school teacher, and I are huge supporters of public schools. No offense to anyone, but I believe it plays an integral part in shaping who we become as adults. This is something we try our best to convey to our children.

I’m also not one of those people that think schools exist just to fill children with knowledge they can use to secure future employment. To me it goes much deeper. School is where we learn to navigate the corridors of society. We learn how to deal with people of different beliefs and agendas. A place to learn the rules of society and what it means to be a participatory citizen. Its a safe haven to potentially discover our passions, where we can risk failure and learn how to deal with its ramifications. School is a place to discover the joys of learning and the practices we can use to apply that curiosity to create a fuller existence  as life long learners.

Its safe to say that I’m very excited for her to begin this adventure. However, I have some trepidation about where she is going to kick off this journey. We have become a nation obsessed with testing, measuring and ranking. Everything is a competition. Within two weeks of admission to kindergarten children are facing their first standardized tests. They are facing the pressure of measuring up to some arbitrary standards while trying to establish their touchstones. Measurements are being taken while they are still taking the measure of their new surroundings.  We are applying pressure before trust is even earned. Is this really the foundation we want to be laying?

Any builder will tell you that in order to have a strong structure you have to have a strong foundation. So shouldn’t we be laying a foundation of joy, curiosity, amazement and anticipation? I’ll be honest, if had my druthers, my children would be greeted by marching bands, circus artists, and magicians everyday for the first couple of years. It would be impressed upon them that school is a place of everyday amazement and wonder inhabited by wonderful people that would guide you on amazing discoveries. You don’t want to miss a day because you might miss a miracle.

Now I know that’s not realistic. School is a place where you have to also learn the hard lessons. Lessons like hard work, diligence, attentiveness and sometimes doing things you don’t want to do, but do we have to jump right into the hard stuff? Can we not ease into those lessons after we’ve built a level of trust and buy in? Small children develop at such a rapid rate, do we really need to test them and risk categorizing them at an age when everything may change in a month? Do we really want to build a foundation on the impression that learning is a competition or something you do just so you can pass a test?

I watched as my daughter ran across the playground to join her brother. The joy she emanated was palpable. I want her to always embrace life with that joy. So as I watched them play I silently prayed. Hold on to that joy. Hold on to that courage. Hold on to that curiosity. Don’t ever let them tell you that you are not good enough or that you are just the sum of your data points. You are so much more then just the measurable. Fall in love with learning because it will serve you well for the rest of your life. I say that prayer not just for my children, but all children.

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Lessons from my 3 year old

It’s amazing what we can learn if we just stop listen and observe, if we don’t rush to fill a self perceived void. I’ve got a three-year old son who i480s an amazing skateboarder. I’d go as far to say that he’s a prodigy. We go to the skate park on a regular basis and he handles all the ramps, and even does a number of other tricks. He’s come by these skills pretty much on his own. In fact, I’ve tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. See, the thing is, I want it to be “his thing”, something that always gives him pride and joy. I want him to have ownership.

Now, just because I say that doesn’t mean I’ve always adhered to it. Truth is, I take a great deal of pride in his skills and at times I find myself pushing him to places he’s not ready to go. After all I say, everybody needs to be pushed to reach their potential. I’m just trying to be a good parent by helping him excel, not to mention that if he’s successful then somehow it’s a reflection on me as a parent. Fortunately, my son is stubborn and not afraid to show me the error of my ways.

Case in point: he actually started skating when he was two. He would hop up on the board and was quickly able to go down the sidewalk. Soon he was contemplating hills. He conquered a couple small ones. So, I started taking him to the skate park. There he would eye the big ones, but wouldn’t go down them. Of course I started pushing. “Come on”, I’d say, “You can do this no problem. You do the small ones all the time.” Still he would resist. This would cause me to get frustrated and aggravated. He had a talent. He needed to use it. The more I pushed, the more he resisted.

In fact, not only would he resist but he’d start to goof off. He’d sit at the top of the hill and just let the skateboard roll down the hill. Of course this would just set me off. “Quit fooling around.” I’d say. ‘If you’re just going to goof off we’re going home.” Still he went about things at his own pace. Then one day I stopped looking at things through my eyes.

I realized that what I thought was goofing off was actually careful calculation on his part. He was sending the board down the hill to get an idea of what would happen. He was testing things and processing them. About a week later, he went down the big hill by himself. We danced and celebrated like he’d won the Olympics. Inspired by this success, he tackled several other hills. Again we danced and celebrated. None of this would have happened without his “goof off” times. Low and behold, I’d also learned something.

These days he’s at a bit of a plateau. He’s mastered all the hills, but he’s a little scared of the super steep ones. There are also tricks he’d like to attempt, but physically he’s not ready yet. Truth is, he’s a little bored with it all. This time though I’m not interjecting myself into the conversation. I’m just going to be supportive and put him in an environment that is conducive to progression. I’ll give him the tools he needs and then I’m going to have faith and trust him to find his way to the next level.

My role as parent and mentor is to provide him with tools and situations where he can develop his talents. My role is to celebrate his success and help him develop the tools to deal with his shortcomings. If I want this to be a life long endeavor for him, I have to let him own it. Owning it means not enforcing my learning styles on him. Truth is, since I don’t live in his head I don’t know when he’s learning or not learning. I need to recognize that there will be times that he seems to be making great progress and times when it seems he’s making none. Neither is probably a true reflection.

Will he be a gold medalist at the X-games someday? Is he the next Tony Hawk? Who knows and does it truly matter? Isn’t it more important that he develop a life long passion? Something that he’ll find joy and solace in for the rest of his life? Something that he actively pursues throughout life? Who would have ever thought I was learning something about education while taking my three-year old to the skatepark.

Adults are always trying to develop methods for children to learn while forgetting that they are not just vessels to be filled with knowledge we deem important. We hear children are bored and suddenly feel the need to create new programs to engage them, never stopping for a moment to consider that these times of boredom could be as educational as our rigorous classroom exercises. We try to use our measurements on when children are learning without ever listening to the people who spend the majority of the day with them or recognizing that there will be times in their lives were circumstances will supersede what we deem a priority.

Perhaps we need to focus just as much on the environment we are creating for children as we do on the test scores they are creating. Maybe we need to recognize that the immeasurable is just as important as the measurable. Instead of creating undue pressure on children through increased testing we should create opportunities to risk failure without censure. Our goal should be to create life long learners who understand that learning isn’t just about passing a test but a means to enhance quality of life.

Unstructured play provides a means for children to develop into those life long learners. It is through play that children learn those valuable soft skills – leadership, collaboration, compromise, – that lead to greater success in life. I’m not alone in recognizing the value of play in children’s development.

In the 1980’s in the wake of No Child Left behind schools started to decrease the amount of play in children’s school day. Has that lack of play resulted in increased test scores? Absolutely not.

Children need to be given time to explore and find their own solutions. They need to have time to explore and develop their own interests. Play is essential to both of those needs. I’m slowly recognizing this fact and how it relates to my children.

Too often we impose our own timelines and deadlines on children. We impose benchmarks and learning strategies on our children because it makes us less worried, but is it good for them? Are we allowing them to develop in a manner that is natural for them or are we just trying to make carbon copies of ourselves?

It’s all very difficult and some days I thing I have all the patience in the world. Other days, I feel patience slipping away as I wonder why can’t he just do it this way? I know he feels it too and at times will push back at me, “Dad why are you yelling at me! You are taking all the fun out of it.”

That’s when I have to step back and realize that it’s not all about my expectations. He brings his own set of expectations, fears, and goals to the process. Sometimes I need to just sit back and let them develop. It is not easy, but it is essential.

I’m going to continue to watch my sons development on the skateboard. It’s one of the most fascinating endeavors I’ve ever been involved with. Today he attempted to “drop in”. It’s an advanced trick and one that he’s been afraid to try. He pushed the skateboard into place on his own and looked at me and said, “Should I try?” “Sure”, I replied “If you think you’re ready.” He did and he wasn’t. We celebrated the effort like it was a success. I’m pretty sure the success is in the future.

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Climbing on board

Well it’s about time for me to climb into the pool. I’ve toyed with the idea of blogging before but never felt I had that much to say. Well, actually I did, I was just to lazy to write it down. However, with the ongoing battles in Public Education I can no longer stand silent on the sideline. I’ve used my twitter account as effectively as I can, so lets see where this can take us. Should be an interesting ride. Oh yea, if you’re a grammar Nazi you’re probably going to find plenty of fault with me, but thats how it goes.