Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Acorns and oak trees and Arne Duncan

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. In 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, a bill in which Congress wanted to assure the "fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women …."

While scientists were busy developing phenomenal ideas that questioned pretty much everything (which is what scientists have always done, and often gets them in trouble), the Federal government confounded science with technology and took control on how certain monies were spent in education. (It threw in a loyalty oath for good measure.)

The division between science/technology and the other arts continues to dominate schooling. Lumping science and technology together reflects our pedagogical confusion and drives the science curriculum. I am required to "teach" kids who cannot connect an acorn to an oak tree how DNA technology works.

When I was in school, teachers cautioned me against anthropomorphizing. I would make an observation--"my dog smiles"--and get back a declaration--"that's anthropomorphizing, it's not really smiling." So I learned to change my language for the same observation.

"My dog pulls back its lips in a way that resembles human smiling." Only humans could feel, well, human.

I still say my dog smiled. Turns out I may have been right all along. Even mice recognize pain in other mice, and it influences their response to pain. It's even more pronounced if the mouse knows the other mouse experiencing the pain.

Don't call it empathy, call it "emotional contagion."

Two ways to take this--either humans are not as special as we thought, or maybe more things are special than just our branch of primates.

Meanwhile, I teach about DNA technology in class while the lunch ladies two stories below me lovingly slap slabs of mammal meat on bread made from the least nutritious part of wheat to serve to the same kids that don't know an acorn from an oak tree.

I recognize that knowing an acorn from an oak tree won't help my kids compete in the global market. I suspect it will help them lead happier lives.

What to do, what to do....

Two years ago I made a loaf of bread mixing a few wheat berries grown by the kids on a windowsill with the wheat berries I keep at home.

The bread was delicious, and most of my lambs enjoyed it. A few, however, were put off by the idea that their breath had anything to do with the bread they were now asked to share.

Communion took on a whole new angle.

Communion is an old word, and comes from communio--mutual participation. Communion is about sharing.

The lunch ladies love their charges. Josephine calls me Pumpkin, and I may even be a little bit in love with her.

Josephine does not know where the meat comes from. I don't expect that she should. She serves it with love, I eat it.

I know better, but I do it anyway.

Mr. Arne Duncan, our United States Secretary of Education, believes that we must prepare our children for a global economy. He speaks in tongues.

Yesterday he said:
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago working and living with young children of color. These kids were threatened every day. They lacked role models to protect them and guide them to a safe place where learning was valued and rewarded."

I get nervous with the "these kids" crowd. I get nervous with people who wave contact with people of color as some sort of credential. I get nervous about a lot of things.He didn't mention where he went to high school.

I especially got nervous about this:

Finally, I am very excited about a $15 billion "Race to the Top" fund approved by the House. The Senate version is somewhat smaller but it is still significant.

The President is deeply committed to this program because it will enable us to spur reform on a national scale—driving school systems to adopt college and career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards.

It will incent them to put in place state of the art data collection systems, assessments and curricula to meet these higher standards.

I am going to go on record here stating I do not believe internationally benchmarked standards are a good idea. We need locally benched standards (such as distinguishing an acorn from an oak tree) before throwing the rest of the universe in. I will gladly throw in eucalyptus trees once my lambs have a handle on acorns.

And please dear God please tell me he did not say "incent."

We don't need a race to the top. We need collaboration and cooperation and (dare I say it?) love.

(It doesn't help that Mr. Duncan chose to make these comments at my neices' high school--thankfully they are both thoughtful, independent thinkers, neither of whom use the word "incent." Hi Karlyn, Hi Claire!)


Arne Duncan was a professional basketball player. A bright (but not as bright as he thinks he is) athlete who never taught.

I never taught in public schools, either, before 2005. I have almost three more years teaching than Mr. Duncan. I have not taught enough to be any kind of administer in education (and for the record, have absolutely no interest in ever becoming administer), but I have taught more than the current Secretary of Education.

So here's the quandary. I want to teach our children about acorns and oak trees. I want them to know about the Second and Third Rivers in Bloomfield. (We, inexplicably, do not have a First River.)

I want my lambs to know that the beef they eat in the cafeteria has been expediently raised in circumstances less than stellar, and that there is a real possibility they sense things recently attributed to humans only.

I want my students to connect their breath to bread, to life, and back to bread again (because their breath is connected to bread and to life).

I want my Secretary of Education to use real words.

And he wants me to start using international standards.

You cannot know what matters until you know what is happening under your nose. Give me a year with my kids and they will at least know that much.

Give me a year teaching international standards before my kids know an acorn from an oak tree, however, and they will know nothing. No matter how employable they may be (should there be any jobs left for them to find).

The bread was made by Jessica Pierce--I owe her (yet) another horseshoe crab. She likes naughty words even more than I do, so click at your own risk.

DDE is public domain.


Anonymous said...

Michael - where do I start.
First, I take a huge cannonball to the chest - I teach at one of the big three independent (private) schools in Chicago - not the one Mr. Duncan and the Obama girls attended - but one of its north side competitors for the tuition dollar. Yes, I have had (until recently - we are in full endowment freak-out) all the resources in the world compared to what most schools in the country have. Parents spend a huge amount of money to have the privilege of the education we provide. But, in the words of a colleague who has taught years more than I have, children of privilege are some of the most impoverished children in other ways. I am not apologizing for where I teach.

But, I don't need every toy and tool in the world to teach. I need books and I need ideas. I don't need international benchmarking standards; I need students to know how to read and write and think. And with God as my witness I have never and will never use incent as a verb nor its hideous cousin incentivize. I used to work in advertising before I turned my energy to teaching and then the ad biz word that made my skin crawl was impactfulness.

Read so that you are not fooled and can find out for yourself, write so that people can understand what you mean, and think for yourself. I tell my students (whether they are 13 or 18 years old) that the most subversive and the most patriotic thing that they can do is to read and think for themselves.

Duncan does not appear to get it. Education is in full freak-out. But then some of the parents of my students don't get it. The daily measure of success is the A. The final benchmark is the acceptance Early Decision to an Ivy, a Claremont College, or other 'name' school.

You and I are idealists. We need to stay that way. So for me, I'm retreating. I am returning to teach seventh grade next year - stepping back from the college admissions pressure to a place where it's okay to just learn.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Sorry about the cannonball--it's not my intention to take down decent schools. My concern is what we do about the kids who are not blessed.

None of us needs bells and whistles--we need paper and ink. Or at least sand and a stick. It's not what we are using to present to the students--I suspect that matters less than we pretend--it's what the students carry with the, beyond school.

A fancy kid in a fancy school will probably do well in a less-than-fancy school. What do we do with the less-than-fancy kid in the less-than-fancy school. (For the record, I believe and will until evidence shows otherwise, that kids with limited brains/school/SES/whatever will not fare as well in any condition as a child more blessed.)

I'm not sure I'm an idealist--I'm OK with someone getting an 8th grade education as long as its accompanied with a bucketful of curiosity (which is often killed by school) and a decent sense of logical thinking. 8th grade is as far as my grandfather got--not something to aspire to, but he was as wise a man as any. No sense pretending schooling as it is designed today would have improved him any.

Duncan doesn't get it, and given his background, it's unlikely that he ever will.

7th grade sounds wonderful--I need to finish the paperwork so I can get back to middle school) I've passed the PRAXIS, etc.). Not sure I'll ever end up there, but would welcome the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

And this to you - the cannonball was mine to catch. I do feel guilty often, and - full disclosure - I don't want my school for my own girls.
My children are not fancy kids in a fancy school, in fact my daughter's high school is a failing school according to NCLB - but they have found committed teachers, and that's important.
One of my grandfathers had an 8th grade education, the other was a pharmacist at a time when you made your own pills. Both were smart, thoughtful men. And by idealist I mean I want my students to have a personal connection to the work that we do. Good night - tomorrow will be here soon.

Charlie Roy said...

@ Doyle
It is rather tragic that schools seem to kill curiosity. My boys are about to turn 8 and the drone of worksheets and scripted lessons seems to be taking its toll. They go to a good school with a loving talented teacher and an administrator who is great. We too often seem to accept instructional practices that border on watching paint dry.

International benchmarks are usually fear driven. Why do we care so much if some kid in China has a bigger pile of plastic toys than our own cherubs here in the States? Amazing how our success has to come at the expense of someone's failure. Maybe we can all do well.

We are thinking of making a sarcastic video with students highlighting dull practice and its ineffectiveness. We are thinking of something catchy like a camera panning to a high school kid as she says, "I remember this worksheet in econ that changed my life" or "I remember memorizing facts I can reference and how it made me want to change the world".

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes! Charlie - my daughters can help make that video! "I remember the 1/4" thick packet about that one book that SO made me want to read it over and over again." and "I remember the one inch pile of worksheets that came home in my Friday Folder every week about stuff that I can't even remember." Sweet!

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

I think the diorama epitomizes the fruitlessness of elementary public education.

I had not thought about the fear factor, but it makes sense. Meanwhile, a lot of capable people keep calling for international standards without, I think, knowing enough about their own local ones. It doesn't help that obtaining real power in this country requires moving about as one advances in a career.

The universe exists in my backyard.

I would love to see what you would do with that video--I'll step back and let the conversation between you and Kate continue.

Charlie Roy said...

@ Kate
I actually discovered last week that one of our teachers is assigning word searches. Keep in mind not a crossword puzzle that might have some tie in to learning vocabulary terms but actually asking juniors in high school to find words in a random pile of letters arranged in rows. The worst part is because they used a free web site to generate the word search it counts as integrating technology. Some people don't get it.

I think the video could help make it clear. Casting call next week and we'll see what we can do with it. Should be mightily entertaining.

@ Doyle
I can't wait for my sons first diarama. We will have fun with that one. I need to be careful what I say around them though. I've caught them repeating my line to their teachers that their is no research that homework increases achievement.

Anonymous said...

@Charlie - you already know how I feel about the diorama - and if you are looking for some additional faces for that video, I've got two sixth graders and a freshman who could add to your project. I'm sure I can get the files to you.

We played archetype/trope bingo in class on Tuesday - match the metaphor to the character, place, or event in the novel. I made the cards on-line. Does that count as tech integration, too?

Unknown said...

I think it's a combination of fear and good intentions. In the past it was, "Well the Russians got Sputnik up there, so we better engage in the space race so that, by God, we can win the pissing contest." So we developed schools based upon Skinnerean ideals until the kids became the lab rats.

But it also happened with good intentions. Students need some sense of standards, some vague loose, ideas of what they should learn. But the standards became standardization, the fundamentals morphed into fundamentalism and we confused efficiency for effectiveness.

Ultimately, the one who knows the student best is the student, followed by the teacher (or perhaps even the peers), followed by the local school, the school district, the state and then the federal government. It seems that we have it entirely backwards.

Unknown said...

One more thought (on the drive for success):

Our school has a slogan, "Reach for the stars." We're the Borman Astros, so it seems to fit (albeit a little cliche)

I told my kids to think about this. What would happen if they really reached for the stars. They came up with the following possibilities:

1. Jump high and fall harder and then realize that life is best spent on the ground.

2. Jump even higher and reach the atmosphere, where they will hover around in loneliness as a forgotten satellite.

3. Jump even further and reach the nearest star, on the world's loneliest journey, only to blow up in a self-destructive mess.

I love when my students can combine science with an ironic poetic twist.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I hope you got a chance to see my latest response at your blog (a wonderful blog everyone should read--A Billion Blogs of Solitude), a response to your post on regionalism. I don't know when parochialism became a bad word, but I think a lack of it has done much to harm education.

Your kids came up with a wickedly wise (and healthy) philosophy--I double dawg dare you to put it on a poster--perhaps with an inspirational photo or picture. It could go viral.