FOR THE LOVE OF LEARNING

“It is personal. That’s what an education does. It makes the world personal.”
Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited

“As often is the case with addictions, the fanciful notion of a gradual discontinuance only provided a comforting pretext for more sustained indulgence.”
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

 

 

My father was a Pennsylvania plowboy, raised on a farm outside of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He barely graduated high school and joined the army soon after he did. After his initial four years, he got out, only to rejoin the Air Force two years later. He remained an enlisted man for 24 years after that.

My mother was born in Ukraine near the beginning of World War II. Her father came from Moscow while her mother was a Black Sea German. They fled as a couple to Germany with nothing but what they could carry, settling in a castle in southern Germany. It wasn’t glamorous and my mother attended German schools run by nuns who were skilled in the use of a ruler for more than its designed purpose. A rap across the knuckles was a common occurrence.

Together they raised their children – my sister and me – to respect and value education. It was expected that we would do well and there was little tolerance for any shortcomings. If it was said once, it was said a hundred times, “You as a child in this family have but one job, go to school and get an education. Everything else is secondary.”

It must have been either 5th or 6th grade – I was struggling, much of it due to my lack of diligence – when I tried to defend my failure by claiming that it was all due to my teacher not being fond of me.

“It’s not my fault!”, I wailed, “She doesn’t like me!”

My parents entertained the defense for less than half a second, “Who cares? She’s not there to like you. She’s there to teach you and you are there to learn. You have a family to like you. Now, start doing your job.”

Those words have resonated with me and as a result, I’ve learned from both people I liked and those I didn’t. Those who liked me and those who barely tolerated me. If you had the information I wanted or needed, I found a way to get it from you. The focus has always remained squarely on the transferring of knowledge with little distraction from personal feelings.

I learned more about the food industry from a job that I lasted one day on then some that I held for 5 years. I learned the intricacies of the insurance industry from one of the smartest women I’ve ever known but was often impatient with me and always brutally honest – some times to the point I would cry in my car in frustration on the way home. I learned lifesaving and water safety skills from a man who was open and extended instruction past what we might face in a water emergency to tips on facing life’s challenges.

I had teachers that pushed me to tap into my acting talent while I despised being in their presence. There was an English teacher that wore turtle necks, smoked a pipe and was possibly the coolest guy that I ever met, and another woman who taught me a love for literature while remaining ever aloof. Let’s not forget my German teacher who made me laugh aloud and while at the same time scaring me a fair amount of the time – he had a bit of a temper.

To this day I remember that German teacher giving me a passage to translate due to my failure to complete an assignment with the threat of further punishment if I was unable to satisfactorily complete the task. I rose to the challenge and translated it perfectly. A feat which earned me the warning that echoes today, “Weber, you are very good at balancing on the fence, but someday you will fall off.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

Through 12 years of formal education, I had gifted teachers and I had loons. Teachers who made me feel special and those that made me feel at times like an intrusion. Often it was the passion for their subject matter that inspired me more than their passion for me. It was easier for me to see the value of 18th-century poets if I could see the fire it created in the instructor.

Nothing opened my eyes to the power of Byron, Keats, and Shelly like the English teacher who drew the parallel between them and Jim Morrison. How cool was it to discover the original hippies and see the connection between the past and the present?

I had a Russian teacher who inspired a life long interest in world history because of his visible passion for the country and its people. An environmental science teacher’s passion for water quality issues sparked a passion in me and the 8th-grade teacher that sparked interest in forensics because she obviously felt its importance. All played vital roles in my education.

I wasn’t an easy child either. As a military brat, we moved often – every two years. Sometime the move would come in the middle of the school year. I’d enter a school with no friends and trying to rapidly assimilate. Often I depended on what I thought was sharp wit – but was less entertaining to others – as a defense mechanism as I struggled to fit in. It was not uncommon for me to find myself in the principals office, the hall outside, or when we lived in Texas.  the receiving end of a paddle.

Sometimes my attempts at humor went over even worse with my peers than my teachers. These were the days when dodge ball and gym hockey  were sanctioned activities and we all dressed out in the locker room. To this day, I can still get changed in under 30 seconds.

The thing is, throughout my educational years, the focus never shifted onto me and what could be done to make life more palpable for me. Instead the onus always remained on me being responsible for learning as much as possible. It was instilled in me that I had an exceptional opportunity – teachers that were willing to impart their knowledge – and if I failed to take advantage of that opportunity, it was on me.

In other words, teachers taught and I learned. That’s what I was there for and everything else was secondary.

It is a lesson that served me well through life. I’ve often found myself in a position of starting a job with a decided lack of knowledge. I was able to rapidly advance because I quickly identified the knowledge I needed and found the people who could give it to me. It didn’t matter if they liked me or not, only that they had the information I needed.

The onus has always been, learning first, everything else secondary.

Unfortunately it seems that in our schools, over the past several decades that pendulum has shifted. It’s not enough to have a passion for a subject matter and desire to share that gift with kids. A teacher must also love each child and in turn instill love in them.

Furthermore, if kids aren’t learning, seldom is the case made that its because of their efforts and more frequently the failure is heaped on the shoulders of the teacher, and by de facto the school. Not only does that set a nearly impossibly high bar to attain but also a dangerous precedent.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a huge believer in the value of relationships but the foundation of those relationships need to be built on shared interests as much as personal feelings. Throughout life, we all work with people that we don’t particularly care for, few of us are afforded the opportunity to only work with people we like. As a result, we have to develop the ability to forge relationships rooted in the work and not just emotions. How do kids develop that skill if we demand that they are surrounded by nothing but people that “love” them throughout their formative years?

Not to mention that the term “love” is a subjective one. Ask 10 people what their definition of love is and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. For many, it means creating a nurturing feeling where the recipient always feels safe. For me, it means sometimes making the recipient feel discomfort and forcing them out of their comfort zone so that growth can happen. Which is more accurate?

I would also argue that by putting the onus on teachers teaching versus kids learning, we focus on short term results at the expense of the long term. The increase in reliance on standardized testing means that we are only concerned with what kids learn in the immediacy and not the long term impact.

During my schooling days, I would often come home and complain that I didn’t see the value in a lesson, declaring it a waste of my time. It was an argument quickly countered. “You may not see the value today but you will in the future.” It’s an argument that’s been borne out over the years.

Just because kids are all of a certain age does not mean they have a uniform level of IQ, EQ, or life experience. Go back to my example about 18th-century poets. Had I never discovered Jim Morrison and his music, I would never have grasped the correlation between the past and the present. It’s quite possible that I would have never appreciated the poets. Just because you don’t get it today doesn’t mean the seeds haven’t been planted for tomorrow.

There is a misconception that the classics are considered classics because they were written a long time ago. I’d argue that they are considered classics because they echo the universal human condition. The tale of Romeo and Juliet’s unrequited love is one that has been experienced throughout history by people of all races and backgrounds. Reading their tale is, in essence, sharing an experience. Shared experiences are the foundation of relationships.

In life, our experiences are limited, bound by wealth, geography, and age. Literature and the arts have the potential to unbind us.

I may never have lived in a Bombay slum, but through literacy, I can receive a sliver of an understanding of what that experience is like. If I happen to meet a person from Bombay, that sliver can provide a starting point for a relationship. Or I may never meet anyone from India, but that information about slums in India could potentially change my perspective on someone who grew up impoverished in America. Education is multifaceted and unpredictable.

I guess my point here is that we’ve allowed our educational focus to shift in a manner that is detrimental to future generations. Teaching is important, but shouldn’t trump learning. Short term results are important but shouldn’t trump long term impact. America was once referred to as the land of opportunity. Educational offerings are a big part of that opportunity and students need to be encouraged to seize that opportunity.

I understand that children come to schools without the capacity to focus on learning due to their life circumstances. It’s hard to focus on learning when hungry. It’s hard to focus on learning when your home life is dysfunctional. It’s hard to focus on learning while regularly navigating traumatic experiences. And that’s where society needs to step up and address those issues, while allowing schools to focus on learning.

Providing health care for all would lower barriers for so many. I could be the best teacher in the world and you could be the most motivated student in the world, but if you are chronically ill due to a lack of access to adequate health care – ain’t going to matter.

Prison reform would work to lower barriers for so many. In 2016, 2.2 million Americans have been incarcerated, which means for every 100,000 there are 655 that are currently inmates. Look at the states with the highest rates of incarceration – Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Arkansas. Now, look at states with the best educational systems. Causation or correlation?

This year 24 states are set to increase their minimum wage. Some argue that this will hurt workers, while there is evidence that it will decrease the number of people considered impoverished. The jury is still out on this initiative, but at the very least it’s an attempt to address a major contributor to negative student outcomes outside of the school building.

In education circles, we often talk about a mythical pendulum that swings back and forth when it comes to policy. If that’s the case, then I think it’s time that the pendulum swings away from placing all the onus on teaching and starts to share some of the responsibility for student outcomes with students and their commitment to learning.

Learning is after all dependent on a symbiotic relationship.

QUICK HITS

Questions continue to swirl around issues with the TNDOE. The latest tales come via the Daily Memphian.

Thank you to MNPS and Cigna for working on recent health coverage issues. Included in that thank you should be MNEA and specifically Katherine Green. Green saw the issues first and quickly alerted those in charge, who in turn quickly worked towards a solution. Nice job.

If you are still having issues, contact MNPS Cigna representative Carolyn McDonald at 615-244-0522 or carolyn.mcdonald@cigna.com. She is the contact person for MNPS so she is always available if you have questions/concerns.

The North Nashville Collaborative is hosting a Back to School family event Jan. 18 at Hartman Park. Students can pick up new school supplies. Special guests are MNPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Adrienne Battle & Mayor John Cooper.

If you’ve never read Jersey Jazzman than you are doing yourself a disservice, as he’s one of the best education bloggers out there. He often takes aim at deconstructing the rhetoric of education reformers as they advocate for their preferred policies. This week he looks at the rhetoric surrounding “wealth” and “choice”. He raises some very salient points.

Let me share this excellent palate cleanser. Well done Warner ES.

POLL RESULTS

One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that writing poll questions that accurately measure people’s opinions in a lot more difficult than it appears. That said, I’m not sure I got the wording right this week but the answers remain informative. For that I’m grateful. Let’s look at results.

The first question asked for what impact you thought winter break would have on teacher attrition rates. What I was trying to gauge was whether or not we’ve stabilized things. Did you think more or fewer teachers would use the break as an impetus to leave? Interestingly enough, a clear picture failed to emerge.

29% of you indicated that you personally knew of teachers leaving, while 23% of you thought that attrition would be about what it always is. 21% of you had no idea. What this indicates to me is that it is time for the school board to ask for another presentation on teacher recruitment and retention efforts.

Here are the write-in votes,

Honestly, I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t have to. 1
Especially bad at our school. Lost several of our best. 2 to Williamson Co. 1
Impact from the reality of things not the break. 1
We have 3 in our school who left.

Question 2 asked for your perception of MNPS staff’s perceived mindset. Again, I was looking for signs that we’ve begun to stabilize the district and maybe started a shift in culture. The jury is still out on both of those.

31% of you indicated that you felt the general air was on of resignation, not a positive view. But 28% answered guardedly optimistic, that’s a slight improvement. Here are the write-ins,

I don’t think teachers are optomistic. Our pay still sucks. 1
So many have already left. Cupboard bare while Bransford keeps getting richer. 1
They seem to be clueless. 1
Just so tired

The last question asked you to name a first half MVP for MNPS. These results were particularly interesting. Per usual, Amy Frogge garnered the most votes. But, right behind her were both Dr. Battle and newly elected MNEA head Amanda Kail. I think that bodes well for the future and I find it very refreshing. Here are the write-in votes.

None of the Above 1
Sonia Stewart 1
Majors on this list is laughable. He’s a total waste of taxpayer money! 1
Payroll department 1
Jeff Smith 1
Katherine Green 1
no one

That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we try to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support throughout the year. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do.

You can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

 

Festival time in Flatrock

fest-12One of the reason’s we purchased our house in the Flatrock area of Nashville was because it was important to us that our children were raised in a diverse environment. I’m not talking about “its a small world” diversity here either. I wanted them to be exposed to all aspects of different cultures. AA has a saying, “If you like every alcoholic you’ve met then you haven’t met enough alcoholics.” I think that holds true with people in general.

We’ve been here eight years now and this neighborhood has been everything we desired and more. We have met so many people from so many different backgrounds that its mind boggling. Everybody from the neighbor next door who’s been here since birth to the guys that run the corner market who hail from Yemen. Everyone of them with a unique experience to share. Experiences that I think some where missing out on. We’ve watched the neighborhood grow. Initially when we moved here there seemed to be more division.

Going back 8 years ago, I was at a community meeting and people were discussing things we could do to bring the community more together. Mary Lou Reynolds leaned over and quietly said to me, “We should do a festival.” I replied, “I’d be up for it. I got a history in event planning. You write the grant, get us some money and I’ll organize it.” I thought nothing more about it. Little did I know, Mary Lou was one of those quiet but deadly ones.

Two months later she called and told me that she’d submitted a grant to Metro Arts and would I mind accompanying her to the interview portion. Still skeptical I said sure. I’d like to say we slayed it but that wouldn’t be true. Fact is, we had an inside source that believed in us. He saw the potential and for that i’ll always be grateful to Jonathan Saad. We recieved a grant for $500.

I’ve always maintained that they gave us that grant as much to re-prove their theory that neighborhood groups don’t complete things as it was to host a festival. Whatever the reason, we now had to put on a festival and we needed more then $500. At that time, we had no idea where we would get money from or how much the local business community would support us. Luckily we live in the same neighborhood as Rick Harris and Walker Lumber.

They were the first we approached and we explained that we wanted to host a festival that used art and music to celebrate the history of the neighborhood and welcome the new residents. That was enough for them, they became our first official sponsor. It was now time to get the community involved.fest-24

We scheduled our first meeting not knowing if anybody would show up. If I remember right, we ended up with about 20 people. One of them was a long term resident who wasn’t so enamored with me but was extremely enamored with the neighborhood and doing things for the hood always came before personal feelings. Little did either of us realize that this was the beginning of a life long friendship that has enriched my life beyond description. I will always be grateful to Debbie Young for her support.

Another person at this meeting was someone I can’t remember a time of not knowing. Irene Kelley is an established artist and real estate agent who has continued to share her talents both on stage and in securing our performing artists. A tireless supporter of this neighborhood no matter how daunting it can be. The level of talent we’ve enjoyed would never have been possible without her. Few community festivals can boast of a member with the kind of ties she has, but then again you never know until you start talking.

After the meeting I remember thinking, I think we have a festival. Debbie and Irene teamed up to beat the bushes and start bringing money in. The Council Lady at the time, Anna Page, brought Vanderbilt Hospital at 100 Oaks into the fold and we started building a festival from scratch. The congregation from New Song church became an integral part. The folks at Our Lady of Guadalupe gave us a place to meet and helped us reach out to the Latino community. People joined in from all over the area. The whole idea was to build something that truly represented the neighborhood.

The meetings that year were among some of the best I’ve ever been at. We had people from the Latino community, the Kurdish community, new residents and long time residents all throwing out ideas and trying to make them happen. I tried to run these meetings as organized chaos. No ideas were outright rejected. If neighbors wanted this, we’d find a way to make it happen. I used to tell them don’t let the thought of success or failure concern you. If things all fall apart, we’ll just fix it next year.

That first year we had 6 bands and 15 artists. We had about 4 food vendors and about 700 people showed up. One of the people that showed up that year was Bill Pratt, the owner of Southeast Automotive. He enjoyed himself and his contributions over the years are too many to mention. I’ll never forget successfully walking the fire inspector through his inspection and then turning around and seeing some Mexican neighbors cooking  over an open fire under a tree or the Somalian band waylaying me about not being able to go on even though they weren’t scheduled to play.

People often say they want diversity but let me tell you diversity is hard. Language is not the only barrier. Each culture has a different way of approaching things. Time means different things to every culture. In order to really bring diversity together you have to be willing to be both flexible and patient. I think the reward is worth it though.

fest-21That day I watched diverse neighbors work together to celebrate their similarities. People showed up in the morning and just started setting up. I remember standing on the hill overlooking the grounds and just being amazed at how people just assumed tasks with no one barking orders. Through the meetings they’d gotten a sense of each person worked and communicated. At the end of the day, graduates from Glencliff in the 60’s and 70’s policed the grounds like they hadn’t been out in the hot sun all day. It was inspiring.

Equally inspiring, was the reaction in the community. Everywhere I went for the next couple of weeks people were discussing the festival. How much fun it was. How great it was to see neighbors. How much they were looking forward to next year. I got a lesson in just how much an event could mean to a community and how the simplest actions could touch peoples lives.

Every year since, about this time of year, we start to make the calls. To send the the emails. To make the face book posts. We’ve added things every year. A car show. A pet portion was added last year. We’ve built out the children’s portion. The last couple of years attendance has averaged about 3000 people. In the past we’ve just done the invocation in Spanish and English but after realizing that our neighborhood is more diverse then that, we’ve added Arabic. We’ve grown to host 50 artists. Last year we had 15 food vendors.  Our budget has grown to 9k and every year we start not sure of where its going to come from. It does though and all of this is possible through the hard work of committed community members.

Who know’s what ideas will manifest themselves this year. I look forward to the planning meetings as much as I do the festival itself. There’s always a mixture of old and new. Some have been with us since the start, some just a couple years and some just come to the meetings for fellowship. If you live in the area, I encourage you to join us. If not, think about starting your own event. You won’t be sorry. you never know what gems your neighborhood holds until you start working together.fest-3