Grace. Now…and For all(ways).

grace-hands-whelan-iv

My principal has been posting some moving items on her Facebook page about the upcoming year.  I am grateful for them, for they speak to the affective afflictions that all people in school systems–from admins to students to staff to teachers–are going through.  Today she posted one that resonated with me for the single word it points to, “Grace.” For decades it has been one of my favorite words because of the gift it denotes–a gift we must offer ourselves and others but which, especially in times of crisis, strife, or political infighting, we forget.

This summer I’ve been musing on Grace even more.  Certainly the pandemic has had something to do with that.  As has the revolution in thought and culture stemming from the murder of George Floyd.  And my belief in civil civic discourse having taken such a hit in these past 4 years…Grace there, too, is key.

More than any other thing that has moved me to contemplate grace, however,  is Gilead, 51gwphyskl._sx316_bo1204203200_Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant “wisdom novel” about an aging Congregationalist Reverend, his family, and the things we must learn to forgive through the granting of grace.  No book in decades has so shaken me.  The shift in how I see myself, my role as father and husband, and even as teacher was tectonic.  It is a book as quiet and comforting as a Quaker meeting, and in whose silences and stories we find such grace.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Anyway, my principal, posted this article.  Please read it. Regardless of whether you are a teacher, administrator, or whomever…read it. As you’ll note in my reply to her today (quoted below), it’s as good a recipe for being human as any I’ve seen.

“[C…], you’ve been in my classroom many times. You might recall the way my blackboard looked and the fact that I use a set of “values” to guide the students in my classes (see image). This summer I read a magnificent book, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. So much of it revolves around grace and forgiveness. It moved me in a way no other book has done in decades. Between that and all the thoughts and posts and other readings I’ve done this summer, I resolved to add another word to that board. It is not a value. Instead, it is a virtue, and while we’ll be virtual for some time, the word will play a huge role in the way the class community grows.
That word is “grace.” We all need more of it, for so many reasons this year (and always)–many of those reasons are in this article you posted. (Which, by the way, is as good a “menu” for how to be a decent human being as any I’ve seen in a while.)
Without granting grace to others (and ourselves!) and practicing it as a class virtue, we will not develop the courage we will need to evolve, as teachers, administrators, and learners this year. And we need to evolve. Because without grace, many of us will be unable to imagine how things can/need to be different.
My Classroom with Grace
The greatest tool in Chaos/Crisis is imagination. Teachers, administrators, Students, all the staff…we will never feel comfortable enough to employ our imaginations if grace is not at the foundation of our culture. Permission to research, prototype, and try out new ways of doing things requires grace, because we will, inevitably, fail in some of our attempts. But as the by-now clichéd usage notes, we will be “failing forward,” always in search of the better–the better system, the better teacher, the better school, the better self.
We need grace for that evolution to happen.”

(Cover image by Birgit Whelan)

The Privilege of Teaching

IMG_2667I woke up this morning, as I do many mornings, full of doubt about what I do in the classroom.  As a teacher who is trying to shift the narrative of teaching, to improve the cultures of learning, to accelerate change and improvement in my classroom and also my school, I often assume a Sysiphean mindset.  I often feel like I’m not getting anywhere, so why keep trying?  (Of course, this is all while I’m teaching gifted and honors level students. I’ve little reason to complain.)

And, as I often do at 4:30 in the morning, I shared my micro crisis with my wife.

Before I go into the answer she gave me, a bit of context:  My wife was a full-time teacher in Philadelphia until 2004. Before that, she taught in Yuma, Arizona, and New Jersey.   She stayed home for the next 10 years to help raise our three children.  For the past 4 years she has worked as a reading intervention strategist for our local school district, building new skills and relationships with some of the youngest learners in the district (K–3rd grade).  While she has taught students from K–8th grade in her career, she readily admits that in her heart, she is a Kindergarten teacher.

And so, last week, when she found out the district was interviewing for full-time Kindergarten teachers, she was elated to find her resume had been chosen for an interview.  With the help of a family friend and some quick research, she’d soon boned up on her interviewing skills, the state standards for just about everything Kindergarten, and the basic structure for our districts roll out of this new, full-day Kindergarten program.

The interview was yesterday, and to hear her tell it, she nailed every question…every question except one.  She found herself rambling in her answer and couldn’t bring herself back to a central point.  And so, while successful in most ways, and possessed of several years working with Kindergarten students in the district, she felt defeated.

It was with this experience so fresh in her heart that my wife crafted a response to my early-morning lament that so much of my professional life seems like trial and error.

“You know, it is a privilege to be able to teach that way, to enter the classroom with a community ready to try something, and to be able to fail together and learn from the experience.”  She paused.  “But most teachers are filled with the pressures to meet adequate yearly progress or some other state standard, or they don’t have their own classrooms at all.  And these are good teachers, teachers who love children and believe they can make a difference.  So don’t you go getting all ‘down’ on me with your worries about ‘trial and error.’  It is a privilege for you.”

….!!

…!!!!

And she’s right.  I am privileged.  Oh, I worked for it.  I was great at the game of school, but I don’t play that game anymore because the world is different.  So as I drove into school today, thinking about this conversation, I turned to the work of my Twitter friend, @montesyrie.  Each morning he writes a message to his students.  Something from the heart, something about gratitude, the honest outcomes of doing good works together.  I vowed to start the same for my students.  Below is my first message.  I thank you, @montesyrie, for your huge heart and the audacity with which you live your professional and (now that you’re climbing trees) your personal life.

But mostly, I thank my wife for helping me, as she always does, to see beyond myself, and my own opinions to the larger and more important truths about what it means to teach, to be a teacher, and to recognize the great responsibility that comes with the privilege I have.

Photo on 2-7-19 at 11.44 AM

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?

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:  “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./Because they change things.”

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

“Traditional School Imperils Kids; They Need to Be Innovators”

As well, the title 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 the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and others) about who we are for so long.  The fear is deep, existential; 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 ever-shrinking security from a future of change that looms ever larger.
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 catchphrases, it goes through the motions of “change.”  But are enough of our institutions of schooling doing so?  And more important, are they doing 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,certainly Don Wettrick (see the Twitter Thread below) and countless others.

 

We can do better, we can be better, we must be better.  Otherwise, we, as individuals and institutions, become like Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye— stagnant, depressed (and depressing) creatures trying so desperately to hold on to our past that we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow into larger, more genuine and healthy senses of ourselves.

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

 

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.