Archive | February, 2013

Turner School of the Global Village

28 Feb

Over the weekend, I sat in my parents living room, munching on bagels and quiche, sipping a nice hot coffee, and listening to some of the most influential educators in my life discuss myriad things: ranging from mosquito nets in Africa; to who will finally copyright the photon, making solar energy a truly valuable enterprise; and the recent loss by my high school boys basketball team.  Such is the life of the son of educators. As my parents friends were preparing to leave, a very close family friend who happened to be my high school history teacher leaned over and said: “Geoff, I love your blog. But your entries…they’re too long.”  He’s right.

Two weekends ago, my parents travelled to Missoula, MT where my dad was a presenter, largely because he had recently won a contest in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The contest was to design a proposal for the ideal college/university of the 21st Century.  You can read the full text of my dad’s excellent, winning proposal here.  As an homage to both of these men, as well as another huge influence, here it is: my proposal for the ideal high school serving struggling students in the 21st century (in 500 words or less) “The Turner School of the Global Village.”

In a society where only 53% of urban teens graduate from High School, and only 71% of all students graduate, a drastic shift is called for in the way we attempt to educate those left behind by a system that neither tries, nor wants to accommodate their unconventional needs, strengths, and deficiencies.  Turner School of the Global Vilage will target students who are 15-17 < 10 credits and have been identified by their school (due to drug use, court involvement, or home environment) as being at risk to drop-out.  TSGV will utilize unit-based experiential-learning programs to immerse students in cultural engagement, learning activities, and assessment of the broad knowledge-base necessary for today’s cosmopolitan world. With the goal of equipping every graduate with the self-awareness and intellectual capacity to choose for himself the most appropriate college or career path to contribute to society, TSGV facilitates throughout three years, 8 units of group study (a 3-3-2 cycle), and two independent summer internships.  During the first cycle (“Immersion”) students will take part in three intensive study programs within the NYC area.  In the first unit students will study the history/culture of NYC (with particular focus on arts, literature, demography, and cuisine of the city); followed by a unit on the ecology of the tri-state area, and one on the economy of the tri-state area.  Within these intensives, students apply the skills learned in traditional history, literacy, math, and science courses to a broader understanding of their environs.  The first cycle culminates in presentation of cohorts portfolios to members of the school, their families, and surrounding community.

Following a summer internship within the city that the student has pursued and secured with the help of their staff advisor (all members of staff from teachers to support and admin. will act as advisors) students enter the second cycle, “The Greater Village.”  During the three interrelated but unique units of this second year, the students expand their horizons to include three diverse experiences.  The cohort spends one unit studying the inner-workings of the American Government in Washington, DC; another studying and fully participating in the development and traditions of a unique small community (such as the Amish of Pennsylvania, or fisherman villages in Maine); and a final unit ensconced within one of the school’s partner colleges auditing individual college courses while continuing their curriculum as a group.

In the final cycle, students will be part of a study abroad program, “The Global Village and Beyond.”  Students will travel each year to a new cosmopolitan area (and surrounding communities) of international intrigue and import.  Here they will explore a new, foreign culture and history, while simultaneously engaging in the community’s present concepts of learning, and research (as well as social and economic programs.)  In doing so, students will be exposed to the global realities of the 21st century world they will be asked to unify and lead in the years to come.  A unit may include staying with host families, or in small groups at schools, churches, or other community establishments.  Learning will include researching the social effects and economy of the diamond trade in an African nation, or the economic and social tumult in Greece.  The second unit of this final cycle will be dedicated to the students developing a multi-media capstone, to be presented to a large community of peers, family, and scholars at the graduation ceremony.  Students will work closely with an advisor, and a small team within the cohort, known as a Peer Review.  The capstone project will include a lengthy research dissertation, personal reflection, and letter to one’s own community, as he sees it upon graduation.

In addition to the radical shift in curriculum delivery, the greatest aspect of the socially-situated units lies in the understanding that all members of the TSGV community are also fully incorporated members of their host communities during this time.  If members of a host community are expected to take part in chores, meetings, activities, or traditions, the students of TSGV have the same expectations.

TSGV and its supporters recognize that students who struggle are often stygmatized by adults who do not understand the students’ culture and life experiences, providing curriculum and an academic approach that neither values the students’ experience, nor allows them access to material that seems increasingly detached from “the real world,” and struggling students’ needs as they develop into productive members of society.  By valuing all communities, cultures, and individual life experiences equally, the school will facilitate each student’s navigation of his needs and strengths, academically and socially.

Supported by an array of research from James Gee’s studies on experiential learning, to the concepts put forth by Sugata Mitra, and ideals regarding democratic learning communities of scholars, introduced by  Paul Goodman, the creators and education facilitators at TSGV believe students learn best when they direct their own learning and study while submerged in new environments where learning new skills and content is both necessary as a tool for survival and an inevitable byproduct of adaptation and understanding. Every student who graduates from TSGV will be equipped with the wealth of knowledge of self and society to ensure their continued success as responsible citizens of their neighborhoods, societies, and the Global Village.

Jeez, 869 words. Sorry guys. I tried!

Feel Good Friday

15 Feb

“This is why we fight/Why we lie awake/This is Why/Why we fight/

Come war/Come the infantry/Come the archers of hell/This is why/Why we fight.”  —  The Decemberists

In June, among the rolling fields of Somerset County, New Jersey, the noise is constant but welcome: a chirping of birds and buzz-croaking of insects whose names we do not know, and laughter, and the swinging open of doors and murmur of groups of young men and women bursting out into the warm.  The weeks of my graduation approaching were like the weeks before the Super Bowl, a building up to some major event, that would be epic and grand, and signify triumph at the end of many, many months of hard work…years…a lifetime.  In the world where I grew up, graduation was something immense: a moment celebrated with lavish parties stock full of shrimp cocktail and hand-served salmon cakes.  Fathers of the graduates lit big cigars, and the mothers had one too many glasses of wine, raising toasts to their little babies of whom they were all so proud, who were bound for the Bucknells and Boston Colleges, or following in dad’s footsteps to Princeton.  It was the kind of celebrations more modest men would withhold for the coming of some major miracle: winning the lottery, say…or defeating the cancer that doctors said you’d never overcome.  It was also, sadly, a celebration of the inevitable, a guarantee.  At a school where 0% of students drop out, and only one or two kids get “the boot” every year for trying to sell nickel bags, or stealing 100 dollars from an unattended backpack, a high school diploma from a well-respected school was a “birth right” of acceptance freshman year, and timely payments, thereafter.  It didn’t need to be earned so much as “waited out.”  Of course with the waiting came some work, and turmoil, and challenges and struggles.  No man’s life is perfect.  But to celebrate the way we did, to have attended the parties where young men and women were treated as royalty for having maintained a B-average and played on a soccer team for four years with little other distraction…well looking back on it, it all seems a bit gauche.

Over 30 months have gone by since I began teaching at the school where I previously taught.  Over 2.5 years.  It was a new school (in it’s second year) and–in case you have never read my blog before–served students who were 16+ and still had minimal or no H.S. credit.  As a new school we struggled as staff and students to find our identity, and trying to do this while providing a fair and decent education to the students enrolled was probably an unfair thing for all of us.  The school was not perfect, but we lived up to our mission.  For the students we could get into the building, I truly believed we provided an education on par with the average city public school, although it was no different, not radical, which played a large part in my leaving this year.  But it was certainly a guinea pig situation for all of us.  And while guinea pigs are considered pets for some (I had two: Guzzle and Scratch!) most people associate them with experiments, and indeed many experiments do not net the same result one had hoped.

Despite coming into school behind, and despite the fact that the school meant to help catch them up was imperfect, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance a couple weeks back for the graduation of 17 young men and women (including my boy Nate) whom I had taught there.  Before a back-drop with the theme of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” (one of my all-time favorite books) they spoke about their moments of pride, listened as they were congratulated for a truly great accomplishment.  Then they walked across the hall, ate a buffet, and went off into the night.  Students who had every cause to celebrate big sat quietly, sipping soda in plastic cups, and taking pictures with their proud parents.  And quietly for me, it was a great source of pride too.

After congratulating the students, I bundled up against the cold, and made for the exits.  As I was walking towards the door, a young man named Joseph, who rarely spoke to anyone the entire time I knew him (but had a great sense of humor, and would always email me hilarious jokes, even if he wouldn’t say a word to me) approached me as I was reaching the door.

“Hey, Mr. Schmidt.” I heard the quiet voice behind me and turned.

Joseph was there with his hand already held out towards me.

“Oh, hey Joseph.”

“I just wanted to say thank you.  You helped me a lot.”

I couldn’t say honestly what Joseph felt I had helped him with. But here he was speaking to me, holding out his hand.

I shook it firmly. “You should be really proud of yourself, Joseph. What’s your plan now?”

“A computer technology program.”

I told him I thought he’d be great at that, and to keep in touch.

I walked out into the cold, swallowed hard, and went around the corner to my old haunt for a private celebration.

Fear: a Journal Entry

13 Feb

Ever since I was a kid I have had an irrational, and quite frankly, debilitating fear of dying. I can recall being no more than a toddler: lying on a couch in the living room of my childhood home, literally paralyzed with fear as I would cry, my chest would tighten, and I would follow my mind down this rabbit hole. The first fear was death, other people dying, the ones who logically might, any time soon. Grandparents, older relatives and friends. Following this, I would think about the inevitable truth that everyone close to me would eventually be gone as well…maybe not in my life, but with virtual certainty, every life I knew and would come into contact with would terminate. Then my own death, the unstoppable nature of it, the fact that just like everyone else’s death, I would likely have no prediction of where, how, or when it would happen. And then, as if I hadn’t tortured myself enough, I would begin to think about the fact that even after I am gone, the world will still be here, me in the ground, for who knows how long, before–wouldn’t you know it?–even the earth would cease to be. I literally remember being like 5 years old, and curled up (usually on a Sunday evening in winter) thinking about this. What a weird kid.

These days, ironically, though each level of this spiral certainly cycles closer, I think an awful lot less about death as a simple matter. I certainly don’t get anxious to the point of immobility about it. The last time I was in a fetal position like that it was because I ate a bum tuna sandwich at a professional development. But in a very real, I suppose more mature way, I spend a lot of time wondering about the end of it all, and more than anything…”legacy.” What am I going to leave behind, and what will I have contributed that will really matter? I guess it is thoughts like these that make a lot of people turn to religion, or commit themselves to major civic undertakings, or quit their jobs and start scratching off a bucket list. I don’t know: am I too young for a midlife crisis?

I thought for almost all of my young adult life I would actually make it in this world as a writer of some import (let’s guesstimate age 14 or so until very recently, though I have been writing “stories” and “poems” since I could form a sentence.) I guess I just sort of woke up one day realizing I had completed a Masters in Education, an MFA in writing, and measuring my qualifications in each of the field: a smattering of small-time publications, a degree with no admitted financial value; vs. 5 years of teaching in a niche of urban public schools, having made some professional strides therein. I realized, I had pretty much slept-walked my way into a living aphorism: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.” Mind you, I don’t really agree with the tone or meaning of the aphorism…it is incredibly demeaning to teaching as a profession. But I certainly never “made it” as a writer, either because I wasn’t good enough, didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t want to make the sacrifices in life I would likely have to make to accomplish that particular dream. It’s hard to walk away from a decent salary and a marriage to go find some cabin in the woods in which to write…no matter how tempting the idea may have been.

It’s always the doldrums of winter–this wretched misleadingly “short” month of February that makes me feel some malaise that isn’t quite remorse or regret, but is definitely bred of curiosity, and makes me wonder if I couldn’t do better. Is there still some move to make or some “dream” to follow? Would I have what it takes if there was? Will I end up a 50+ year old teacher in a school I don’t deeply believe in? Will I just get by, and maybe, when I retire there will be great things? Will my legacy be “a darn good teacher” and if it is, is that good enough? I tell myself, “It’s only February,” but then I wonder if I just say this to placate myself, or justify my role in a system that I do not believe is fair, or decent. “If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” And do I want to wake up one morning living out that aphorism as well?

The dream of writing for me was just that–a dream. I wanted it, and would work on it in fits. But I never made enough sacrifices for that dream to come to fruition. I wasn’t diligent or disciplined enough about it. I would make schedules I was determined to keep, only to make it a couple days before some other interest or responsibility would wrest the time from my hands. I would begin stories, or outlines, or draft lines that I was certain were the perfect and beautiful beginnings of something wonderful. And then they would sit on a desk untouched for days or weeks or months, until the idea itself was gone, or seemed unimportant. They turned into literally nothing. I don’t really know that I am ashamed of that, or disappointed in myself, because often the sacrifices were for things that seem to me to be worthwhile: becoming a teacher who was proud of his contributions in the classroom; growing professionally; working in a school where I could spend extra hours helping a hard-working student complete a college application essay, or prepare for a regents test he had previously failed; joining the staff of a new charter school, as a founding teacher, where maybe, finally my voice and ideas would be heard by people with the power to change.

——

It is 11pm a week ago Monday, and I am sitting on the couch in my apartment, my beautiful new wife having fallen asleep beside me. I am contemplating going to bed because the funny part (read: the first 15 minutes) of The Daily Show is over, but then Jon Stewart announces tonight’s guest. It is Michelle Rhee. I am at the end of a long and frustrating Monday, one spent experiencing first hand the deficits in social and academic norms that are the result of this system of American schools that Rhee and I both believe is unfair and broken (though our visions of how to improve it couldn’t be more vastly different.) I am tired, and I know that it will upset me to watch, because I have heard too many times the same rant from Rhee and others of her camp (many of whom are really not bad people, and certainly more genuine in their interest in education than Rhee herself.) But I watch. I don’t know why but I do. And I sit there, as this woman, who is pitching her book (which will certainly make some good hay) talks to me in the audience about why she is ok with “being considered a radical” for doing “common sense” things like closing low-performing schools and firing ineffective teachers. I listen as Stewart’s supposedly enlightened liberal audience erupts in applause, wondering how many of them have ever heard of Rhee, or paid any attention to her career. I listen as she then dodges a question from Stewart about the ineffective methods of evaluating teacher and school “effectiveness” (essentially the now-proven meaninglessness of evaluations based on standardize testing.) She does so with the age-old “I’m-not-racist-I-have-black-friends” routine, by mentioning she LOVES teachers because her aunt and sister-in-law, and perhaps a third uncle twice removed were all teachers. I listen as she talks about a balance between testing, principal observations, and “fairness”. She talks about how she and other “reformers” want to look at a balance of test scores, grades, observations, and parent and student surveys to evaluate teacher quality. But if every “reformer” (which is really just a buzz-word for policy maker who hardly ever steps foot in a real classroom) is saying this, how exactly is she a “radical,” I wonder. I listen as John Stewart asks a very keen question about whether or not throwing around “reform” and changing expectations and practices every three years isn’t indeed detrimental to teaching and learning. Rhee responds with an anecdote that somewhat confirms Stewart’s statement, but then connects that somehow to why her idea of reform needs to be adopted….I hear: “so, yes, it is messed up that we keep throwing different spices in the pot, so we should throw the spice I am selling in the pot.” And I listen as Stewart makes another great point about the fact that schools no longer reflect the real-world. That what we are teaching and learning in schools is no longer applicable to the workforce and society; to which Rhee responds that “this is why we need great teachers” another connection that fits her argument nicely but doesn’t really respond to a damn good question. And I listen as another interview with the radical “rockstar” of education reform ends with little or no conversation about kids and learning…but a whole lot more about teachers, and the best ways to evaluate them. And I go to bed on a cold February night, looking up at the ceiling, and wondering again…why do it?

————

In the second part of the interview with Rhee, which can only be found online, Stewart closes the segment by using the word “chronic” and then joking he doesn’t mean “The Chronic like that…which is street for ‘pot.'”

Rhee responds, “I don’t know what that means.”

This leads to an incredulous Stewart asking, “You worked in DC for three years, and you don’t know what ‘the chronic’ means?”

This, believe it or not, is exactly the problem. Rhee worked in DC public schools for three years the same way David Stern has been in the NBA for almost 20 years. Which is to say, she did not. She never has and she never will.

Neither has Arne Duncan, Dennis Walcott, Mayor Bloomberg, or so very many (most) of the self-proclaimed reformers. If you don’t know what “the chronic” means (or piff, sour, loud, Molly, “soo woop”, or anything else that is culturally relevant to the students you proclaim to want to put first) then you don’t understand the complexity of the universe you are trying to ‘fix.’ It sure sounds well and good to say “Every kid deserves a great teacher” because even the cynical audience at the daily show is going to root for that. It even sounds nice in theory to say every parent should have the right to send their child to a great school, never mind that this ignores the sad reality that students who suffer in the failing schools I have seen rarely have parents whose phone lines can be reached, and have parent teacher conference attendance below 20%. “Failing schools,” by a vast majority exist in areas of social and economic disarray. They are designed, often paradoxically, to serve a population where the academic good life is not valued. In class surveys I have given at the beginning of each semester (all at schools designed to serve the population Rhee wants so badly to target) I ask a simple question: “What is one thing you want from your education?” The answers invariably run in 4 ranges.

1. The generic/heartwarming response students think an adult wants to hear: “Be the first in my family to go to college,” or “Graduate and make my mom proud.”
2. The selfish and defiant: “Just do me,” or “Make it in the NBA and stack my bills,” or “I don’t give a fuck.”
3. The scary and sad: “Make it out of my hood alive,” or “Live to be a father.”
4. No answer or “IDK

Now, I am not certain which of these is most frightening. In their own way they all are, I suppose. The bottom two reflect a hopelessness and despair that no teenager should already hold so deeply engrained that it becomes hard to believe that any teacher or any school can make a “good life” for them. The top two reflect a selfishness and commodification of ‘education’ that reflects not only skewed values but a complete corruption of what education and learning is for. But if you think about it, is the language that much different from the reformers like Rhee? What is being promoted in their language is individual success on tests, and “college” readiness. Though many strong educational minds, including the president of Harvard, remain unconvinced that the reformers methods are getting any of these students truly college ready. There is no talk of social responsibility, importance of democracy, or pursuit of community and personal intellectual growth.

The origins of education have become lost in a wilderness of test scores, evaluation, and teaching that is reflective of a type of knowledge applicable to neither students current lives and pursuits, nor the ones we should hope for them beyond HS graduation. Good teachers can persuade some impressionable minds, even in the most dire circumstances. But they cannot recreate values for every student who walks through their doors, not when schools place a premium on the kind of learning and teaching that is so irrelevant to them and to the world beyond.

We keep looking for the easy fix. Every three years as Jon Stewart claims. We point the fingers at teachers or talk about increased instruction time (let me tell you how that goes over!) or we give convolutions of the same instruction in block schedules. Rhee is right in her response that to say its unfair to the parents of kids in schools right now to say “give us five years” and it will get better. But it’s also unfair to skew numbers and make a hugely successful career talking about changing schools, while at the same time making little visible change; merely railing against the status quo by insisting your way is the only way towards change so others better get on board. But isn’t that what radicals do?

So I can hear you now Ms. Rhee: “What’s your solution, 1090?!”

Like you (I imagine) I stay up nights thinking about this. It terrorizes me the way thoughts of dying once did, the way leaving no legacy that will ever match your own often does. I spend my free hours (sparer and sparer these days) brainstorming ideas. And it comes to me that perhaps, like so many good lessons, curricula, schools, and even models for education, perhaps I needn’t rebuild the wheel.

A couple months back, during hurricane Sandy, with a few days off, my father sat down to take on a challenge. A high school teacher, administrator, and college trustee member who has worked in education longer than Ms Rhee or myself have been alive, my father wanted to respond to a call from the Chonicle of Higher Education to develop the ideal college for the 21st century. In less than 500 words. He did so. His entry was chosen by the editors as one of 5 finalists, and then by the general public as the winner. Here is my proposal in the form of a question: is an approach like this (one that allows students to inquire and learn about their own pursuits while also pursuing their role in a democratic society; a school where learning truly happens beyond a classroom and preparation for a test) an impossibility? Must every school look the same? Must we all be prepared for the same tests and why? When else in life is that really the case? Couldn’t a student and his family be given real choice? One like Ms Rhee’s ideal school where we prepare students for a test and “college readiness” at it is currently defined? One like my fathers proposal? One where a young man learns to be a small-business farmer? Is this so impossible? And why?

—————

Very near the end of Stewart’s interview of Rhee, he asks if she had the power (“draconian” he lets slip) to change any one thing about education, what would it be. “Make sure every classroom has a great teacher.”. I keep replaying this over and over. The woman whose organization is entitled “Students First” who taught for 3 years (2 of them under the guidance of a Veteran co-teacher) before fleeing to make a career in which she constantly focuses on teachers and not students or schools, has made a legacy for herself. Love her or hate her she is the woman who will have a legacy of being a “Radical.”

My father will not be on the Daily Show tonight. He will be at the University of Montana preparing for a speech he will give at a colloquium tomorrow before a few hundred students and professors.

I imagine if he ever had the chance to respond to Stewart’s question–if he ever had the audacity to imagine what one change he would make in the education system given the chance–my father’s answer, like his ideal school would revolve around the student. It would actually put the students first. Maybe something like this: “Create a community where we aren’t afraid to pursue a legacy that is less about us and more about that very community.” I don’t know for certain this is what my father would say, but I’m going to imagine it so. And if indeed it was, this is a legacy I would much rather live up to (and have my students live up to) than the one the reformers have sculpted for themselves and then imagined for my students.

Nothing short and sweet to say to sum it up. No revelations. It is another February Tuesday. After a day of more downs than ups and I am looking for an answer, and it’s not there. I should go home and just breathe. But it’s time to close the grade book, finish the “behavioral reports,” update the power standards database, and (I suppose) get a hair cut, if time allows. If time allows.