Do No Harm: A Teachers’ Hippocratic Call to Action

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Teaching as a Subversive Activity

So my district is talking about “doing school different.”  Sorry, but haven’t many schools been talking (or avoiding talking) about it for long enough?  (See featured image above.)

There’s plenty of reason to stop talking about it and start doing it, and most of the reasons stem all the way back to Postman and Weingartner, if not  John Dewey himself.  But then there’s this blog post, the first lines of which are chilling:  more or less they are,  “We’re not helping kids…we’re actually imperiling them!”  If this is true, and I tend to think, given all the voices in this direction, that it is, how much time can we waste?  How much of my own children’s time is being lost to outdated, outmoded, never-more-than-compliance-seeking methods of learning?  This isn’t just about my district doing school different…this is about every school.  You can call me an evangelist…fine.  I’ll be evangelical if that’s what it takes to make sure my own children and those children I serve are provided with a thought-ful classroom.  And if that means I’m called on the carpet…then fine, because I refuse to be complicit in a thought-crime.  If my refusal paints me as crazy…then I’ll accept that.  “Here’s to the crazy ones/the misfits, the rebels/the round-pegs in the square holes/the ones who see things differently….about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

I know the following reeks of clickbait, but the article’s title is:

Traditional School Imperils Kids; They Need to Be Innovators

As well, it implies an agenda (creating business-world ready “innovators”).  But don’t make me a Cassandra.  Too many people are shouting the same prophecies.  We need to change how we are doing.  (Emerson said as much: “A foolish consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds.”)

But it’s frightening, right?  Change is frightening.  We talked about this in my 10th grade classes yesterday.  It’s frightening because it carries with it a sense of loss.  Loss of a sense of who we are and have always been.  The fear is deep; it’s existential.  At that level, we try to bury the fear, ignore it…but it doesn’t go away. It eats at us and for most of us…we just retreat further and further into what we know, seeking an ever shrinking security from a future of change that looms ever larger.  Why do we still read The Catcher in the Rye?  Because Holden’s desire to hold onto the past is what kept him from growing into a larger, more genuine and healthy sense of himself.
The same is true for institutions.  And SCHOOL is an institution.
Last year I worked with twin girls in an independent study where they sought to bring more curiosity and student inquiry into the classroom.  One of those girls, Cali, wrote a brilliant blog post this summer about how she experienced the institution of school, about how it distorted her sense of self and robbed her of her health. Sure…there is opportunity and good that comes from “doing school,”  but the results of a cursory cost-benefits analysis are clear.   If the lives of students are not reason enough for teachers to question their practice and make substantive changes, then I would unapologetically argue that those teachers are part of a system whose leaders need to be replaced, for both the leaders and the teachers who refuse to or are not actively seeking out change are imperiling the lives and livelihoods of the children in their classroom.

And sure, the Institution offers a pretense of change.  It has catch phrases, it goes through the motions of “change.”  But are enough of our institutions of schooling doing so?  And more important, are they doings so quickly enough?  I don’t see it. But the rocks are starting to roll thanks to people and organizations like Ken Robinson, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, Grant Lichtman, Education Reimagined, and countless others.

And so time ticks, and our incremental “hops and skips” of change often go nowhere.  We wind up with “change fatigue”, with teachers who “pay lip service to in-service,” but then retreat into their classrooms and do what they’ve always done, or try something new, fail, and then go back to what they’ve always done.  Such a pattern, and it’s what I’ve seen for over a decade now, is the pathway to irrelevancy.  Worse, it admits an abdication of the responsibility of the teacher to “do no harm” to those in his/her charge.

We can do better, we can be better, we must be better.

http://www.bie.org/blog/traditional_school_imperils_kids_they_need_to_be_innovators

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I’m Just Sitting Here Watching the Wheels Go Round and Round

My students just finished a unit about the forces or personal philosophies that drive us to make the choices we make in life.   In essence, we explored the Roman notion of carpe diem.
Carpe diem meaning - what does Carpe diem stand for?
Some students interpreted Horace’s words with an urgency, much as the students in Dead Poets Society did when teacher John Keating entreated them to make “[their] lives extraordinary.”   Waiting for things to happen, constantly working towards the next externally defined success?  These were not in the purview of some of my students’ essays.  They urged their readers to move forward, to take the leaps and bounds that would drive them to heights and achievements that the less courageous could only dream of.

Other authors read Horace differently, something similar to the way wake-up-and-live John Spencer describes “The Epic Life” in his ingenious video.  In this interpretation, every moment of life is extraordinary, but most of us miss it because we’re too busy looking to and working towards the future, to the futures planned by, or in some cases, for us.  (We miss it because we’re too busy, as John Lennon might say, “riding on the merry-go-round.”)  Billy Collins’ irony doused poem “Carpe Diem” offers a similar interpretation, countering the clichéd “drain the cup of life to the dregs” notion of carpe diem with a more contemplative and relaxed interpretation of life.

In the end, there’s no wrong way to seize the day.  Adrenaline junkies abound and burn brightly in the big skies of life.  At the same time, John Lennon, who gives us the title to this post, suggests something different.  An observant, patient, determined life…perhaps a “conscious life.”  Or it might be “the life of the artist,” a life in the pursuit of a happiness that doesn’t come at the expense of, to use a phrase from the 60s, “selling out.”

I link here to several of my student’s blogs and their thoughts about this notion of carpe diem.  But I also recommend this recent post by Charles Chu on Medium.  His interpretation of Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson’s path in life actually started me thinking about this post, and offers a better and deeper examination of this aesthetic.  I urge you to read that, too.

Carpe Diem:  Marked Absent  — about the lack of initiative and spark in the school system

Struggling to Synthesize the Self

Carpe Diem: Sprouting Against Conformity — daring to forge one’s own life

From Seized by the Day to Seizing the Day— (a tumblr…you might need one to read it)

Take a Chance on the Future

A Poet’s Guide to Carpe Diem— Poetry and seizing the day.

From Weaponry to Livingry: Bucky Fuller and the Future

So my history with Buckminster Fuller is a bit longer than most.  I interviewed for a job fresh out of college with the “World Game Institute,” an endeavor born of Fuller’s desire to “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

While I didn’t take the job, I was forever changed by the encounter and, in addition to taking on a Temple Professor’s claim that Fuller was a one-trick pony in an Inquirer Opinion piece in the 90s, I used Fuller as one of the “Genius of the Week” figures in a unit I developed based on Thomas Armstrong’s book, Awakening Genius in the Classroom and Apple Computer’s “Think Different” Campaign for the iMac.

Think-Different-campaign

Sometime later, working with a design educator out of Chicago, Doris Wells-Papanek, I created a design challenge that looked at Fuller’s life and character as evidence of his growth and fixed mindsets.  I ran this challenge once, in my first year in a 10th grade gifted English class.  While mildly successful, I’ll never forget what one student said in his assessment of Fuller’s mindset:  “He seems fixed on a growth mindset.”

Perhaps he was, but anyone who can argue for a world of “livingry over weaponry” is a man whose visions, while perhaps wild and futuristically utopian, were nevertheless worthy of our attention, if only because he let us know that we have the tools and the power to be better people–to eschew a world of nuclear escalation and embrace a world where we could: “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

For more on Fuller’s legacy and how to engage with his visions visit the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

 

Restoration Hardware in my Pottery Barn: update 2016

I’m sorry.  Really.  It’s not that I want to do this.  However, I’m about to recycle a blog post I wrote on an old iteration of this blog over at blogspot.com.  I wrote the post in 2007, just prior to the great recession.  The opulence and sheer size of the pieces manufactured by Restoration Hardware, even then, seemed offensive.  Post-2008 and the economic situation of the past 8 years–they’re downright ignorant.

Of course this is just my opinion.  I’m not begrudging anyone their access to Restoration Hardware’s “Kensington Collection” or any other collection named after the landed gentry.  I’d just like to know who put me on the mailing list.  This furniture would so overwhelm the rooms of my small-roomed duplex as to cause us to have to swim through and across it in order to traverse the rooms.  That is, if it could even get through my front door.

Restoration Hardware in my Pottery Barn

Ladies, I know this will come as no surprise to you, but gentlemen, make no mistake…Size does matter. Regardless of what you’ve heard, it’s quite obvious that if you are a true American, you must aspire to have really big furniture. I mean overstuffed, bloated, sofas…
Immense dressers…

And dining room tables capable of hosting an entire Viking raiding party…

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with this. Oh, I could try to connect the dots. You know…Mass mailings of catalogs from companies like those mentioned in this post’s title create a desire for the opulence and splendor of “The Wellington” or “The Turner” collection to fill bedrooms or dining rooms and thus people buy huge homes outside their means in order to accommodate the huge size of this furniture using tricky lending packages they really don’t understand and which eventually end in foreclosure creating a crisis of national proportion.No, I won’t blame that crisis on companies like those named above. Furniture doesn’t drive home sales, obviously. However, the standard of living suggested in the catalogs published by these companies is certainly not middle class, and yet, well…that’s what really gets me. I mean, how did I end up on their mailing list? One would think that with all the access to information we have these days, companies would better target their mailing of glossy, clearly expensive catalogs by accessing home sales records and mailing only to those homes of 3000 square feet or more. And yet, here I sit with over 30 catalogs a year from no less than five different companies all of whom manufacture furniture so large it wouldn’t even fit through my front door.

Of course, the size of the furniture isn’t the only thing disproportionate about these pieces. Take a look at their prices???!! $179 for a measly nightstand? Did I miss something here? I mean, these are mass-produced pieces of furniture, right?? And if it’s really big, it’s probably “Assemble it yourself” quality.

Or maybe I’m just looking at this the wrong way. Maybe the furniture isn’t bloated, immense, or obese. Maybe it’s comfy, homey, roomy, enveloping, ample…like a bosom. That’d make sense. Most of us would like to nestle our heads back there again. Maybe if they sold it to me that way I’d like it better. Instead of naming their furniture lines after the blue-blooded, landed gentry who traipsed the English heather a century or so ago, why not anthropomorphize it?

Look at this:

Now, that’s comfy looking, homey. Why not say this sofa is from the “Buxom Chest” collection and comes only in “creamy milkmaid”? That seems reasonable and certainly helps me understand why I’d buy this sofa more than “The Charleston Collection.”

Or what about this one:

In a nod to Monty Python, I’d say this couch is from the “Huge Tracts of Land” collection and comes in a beautiful “Bloody Lipstick.” Again, at least I can see that, and laugh at it as I max out my credit card.

Or it’s just me, right? It’s my problem. I’m just a miserable old curmudgeon. (Is that redundant? Doubly so?) Sure, I could be envious of those who have “Huge Tracts of Land” and “Buxom Chests”, but I truly think there’s something more here. It’s an entire American obsession with size. In our bodies, we want to be thin, trim, fit, but our appetites deny us this. The land of plenty is too much for us. We succumb to its cornucopias. Plates of food large enough for two people and then some. Cars the size of small busses. Movie theaters large enough to hold 24 screens (though said screens are barely bigger than a large screen TV). Acres of parking lots at malls the size of small townships. We have it all. But think about it. What do we do? We complain about it. “It’s too crowded.” “The food is bland.” “The blindspot is too big.” Or my favorite, spoken by an employee at a local Movie-emporium, “I hate working here.”

I guess what I’d like to suggest is the tired epiphany that, bigger isn’t better. (This post, big as it is, is an excellent example of that truism.) It doesn’t make us any happier, more satisfied, or better fed. Although, sitting here in my small sofa with my wife’s feet contending for space with this laptop…I guess a bigger sofa would make things a bit more comfy.

Only Connect: Reasserting Liberal Education.

Some people have asked, “Why did you call the blog ‘Only Connect’?”

Answer:  Because there are but two essays I would ever label as “seminal” in my development as a teacher.  The first is William James’ “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”  James’ recounting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Lantern Bearers” is a brilliant look at our capacity for and the elusive nature of “joy.”  If you would be an educator, you would do well to read that essay, at least 10 times!

But the second essay is more recent: William Cronon’s “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” I first ran across this essay in the Phi Beta Kappa publication, The Key Reporter.  Its goals are as fine a distillation of what it means to be educated as I have found anywhere.  Again, if you would be a teacher, I urge you to read this essay and commit the ten goals to memory. There is hardly a better road map to being a well-rounded, accomplished learner than this essay.  Not coincidently, there is hardly a better description of what it means to be a teacher of merit and distinction than this.

Cronon’s essay also merits attention for the way his ten goals fit so perfectly with the world of “design.”  In the work I do with students in my classroom, when we turn to design, when we allow them to move from the abstract to the concrete, when writing becomes an act of making rather than an ethereal exercise in staid, academic prose with an audience of one…when I allow students to find problems in texts or the world and go forth and design solutions to those problems, it is then that students are invariably engaged in the goals Cronon has listed.  They see both the big picture and the minutiae, and they come to better understand the interconnectedness of all people and things.

Adobe Spark (1)

Thus, “Only Connect” is the name of the blog because it names this seminal essay, because it reminds me of my role and goals in the classroom; and because it highlights the true state of all knowledge and the ends (as idealistic as they may be) of my students, and our race.  We are not only homo sapiens sapiens, we are also homo faber–man the maker:  the maker of things, the maker of families, of communities.  We are the maker of worlds.  Worlds that are admittedly imperfect, but worlds we continuously strive to make better.

For a more detailed description of how I see Design as a key point of synthesis for education in America and the world, see the paper I delivered at the Industrial Designers Society of America Education Symposium in 2012.