Changes to the Blog

November in Colorado

Many things are changing in my life as an educator, and in my life in general. After a long hiatus, it is time to get back to blogging, but in a different vein than before. So, I have re-titled this site “Everything is Education”, pulling the focus away from Lost Apple a bit. As always, I hope to write more frequent, shorter posts. This incarnation around, however, the focus will be on my education activities, and life activities as well; for the two cannot really be separated: everything is education. There will be some tectonic changes coming to my family’s life in the coming months, and as much as these experiences can be helpful to others, especially as regards education, I will share them.

More to come soon.

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“A Bold, Socratic Examination of American Education”

Nathan Gauer, a graduate of Soka University of America and Harvard University currently resides in Asuncion, Paraguay where he works as a freelance writer. He recently published his first book, a memoir entitled Songs to Make the Desert Bear Fruit (please see my review here). His review of Lost Apple is an excellent overview of my novel, and one that gives a clear idea of my ideas and intentions.
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A Review of Lost Apple by Nathan Gauer
Reading Iain Coggins’ bold examination of the current state of American education, one can’t help but reflect on the central question at the heart of Lost Apple: what is the purpose of education?
Coggins’ narrative approach – Socratic in nature and fearless in its insistence not to hold the reader’s hand and spoon feed conclusions – asks readers to engage with the questions the book poses. Nearly halfway through, Schimmel, the billionaire who founded the eponymous Lost Apple educational park/training program, observes as follows:”Those business interests that would make our school system as profitable as our medical system, they see education merely as a commodity, while the general public sees it merely as an economic opportunity; they’re like the blind men and the elephant. Education is neither of those things. Education is a human right, as inalienable as any that Locke, Rousseau, or Jefferson ever conceived of, and it is time that society begin serving education rather than the other way around.”While one might rush to assume that this is the author speaking through Schimmel, in true Socratic fashion Schimmel’s beliefs – along with those of Lost Apple’s two main protagonists, Frank and Paul – are continuously tested, hammered, and recast in the fire of the dialogical encounters that propel the story forward.After finishing Lost Apple, one also can’t help but reflect how rare it is to encounter serious reexaminations or explorations of the purpose of education in America. Other questions – none of which can be disentangled from the book’s central question regarding the purpose of education – emerge as well. For example, will we ever be able to remedy the vast, interlocking structural realities that perpetuate social and economic inequality in America? Will we ever provide world-class humanistic education to all of our nation’s citizens, regardless of if they are rich or poor, white, black, Asian or Latino? In the skeptical eyes of many, no; perhaps these problems are intractable. To such defeatists that lack the will to wage an earnest struggle, I would remind them of Victor Frankl’s hard-earned insight that “When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as an inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.”Ultimately, Lost Apple reminds us that we ourselves must change if we are to provide America’s youth with the education that is their right by virtue of being born into this world.

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Unfashionable Hope

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Friend and fellow SGI Buddhist Nathan Gauer has put out his first book, a memoir entitled, Songs to Make the Desert Bear Fruit. To my knowledge, this is the first American foray of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism into literary non-fiction. There are plenty of books available on the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement and its president, Daisaku Ikeda, titles such as The Buddha in Your Mirror, The Reluctant Buddhist, Encountering the Dharma, and most recently Waking the Buddha. Songs, however, is not such an informational commentary, but the coming of age memoir of a youth who happens to be a practitioner.

In 1999 18 year- old Nathan Gauer leaves behind a troubled adolescence of inadequate schooling, drugs and friends lost to violence to go on a cross-country road trip with his mother. Their ultimate destination is a place well below the radar of most Americans, the impoverished Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota. Gauer poignantly captures people’s lives there, as they are, without a Euro-American guilt complex, nor a noble savage perspective. In fact, were the Lakota not reminding him that he is a white outsider, a reader might forget that the story is being told by an Anglo. On the reservation we see America in all its ugliness, beauty, sincerity and despair, from Gabrielle’s stolen wristwatch to the Rosebud residents crying around the t.v. at the news of JFK Jr.’s death: “Camelot was our story too, you know.”

Trenchant passages in the book detail his inner journey away from anger and aimlessness: “My unwillingness to take responsibility for my past was limiting my ability to envision the future.” Yet Gauer presents his personal transformation as part of a larger reflection on alienation, violence, poverty and mis-education in America. Readers may find themselves compelled to question a society that so easily provides the mire through which he must slog. There is, however, no preaching here, nor does it smack of a recovery story. Gauer simply takes a snapshot and hands over the picture. In describing some young men who are brutalizing a pit bull to ensure its viciousness in the betting ring, he writes:

Watching these sad, violent young men beat that dog every night, you found yourself looking into a mirror that, depending on your angle, reflected either everything or nothing.

As a reader I was left to decide what this meant to me, and it is this hands-off approach that lends his writing its power. Yet this isn’t to suggest that he is afraid to share an opinion. He comments in the epilogue:

Although America still prides itself on carrying the torch of its own ideals into the world, millions of American youth remain marginalized and disempowered, little more than consumers who figure abstractly in competing bottom lines.

Through such statements, Songs takes on the aspect of a generational work, in this case for Generation Y. As such, it stands in contrast to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, the book that named the preceding generation. Like Brecht’s assertion that art is a hammer rather than a mirror, Gauer does not reflect the zeitgeist, he challenges it head on:

To put it mildly, it is clear that there will be no simple answers regarding the world we, the last generation of youth to graduate from our nation’s public schools in the twentieth century, will soon inherit. However, I have hope. I have deep, abiding, unfashionable hope, for there is another inheritance that can guide us as we grow into our responsibility to create a new age. This inheritance beats at the heart of the dialogue I began with my mentor [Daisaku Ikeda] nearly 15 years ago; a dialogue that has strengthened my sense of responsibility for the links between our past, our present, and our future; a dialogue that I approach every day as a mirror; and above all, a dialogue that calls upon me to act.

Such grounded, open-eyed vision is definitely not fashionable today. In America’s present state of ever-deepening entropy, if there is one thing we still hold in common as a people, it is resignation to a future we imagine will be far worse than the present. Ours may yet become a land of self-fulfilling prophecy, but Gauer shows the courage to counter it. His is not a story of rootless youth, nor of impossible hope. It is a call to arms anchored in the “conviction that our individual and collective voices can create a new era; the belief in our innate potential to sing songs to make the desert bear fruit.”

 

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The Indomitable Dignity of the American Educator, Part II

Minnesota School, 1908

Ultimately, what I came to see about myself as a teacher is that it doesn’t really matter what is done to me by the system, or those forces trying to degrade or outright dismantle it. Or, rather, I simply can’t let my fear of what might happen control what I do. What matters is my dedication to my students.

Having said this, I can already guess the hackles that might be rising with some. What I am saying flies in the face of common sense, or worse, validates the ideologies of corporate reformers. But before low growling sets in, let me clarify that I am talking about a shift within my heart, not a shift in my awareness or my values.

The truth is that I spent my youth working jobs I wasn’t necessarily happy with, and living every day in fear, what A.S. Neill describes as “the scared little man”. The anxiety came from the sense that I did not belong in those roles and that I might somehow become trapped in them. It was an ingrained fear, so deep-set that I was barely conscious of it. It became part of my identity, and when I went into teaching it was still there.

Outwardly I validated this fear by getting on the political bandwagon against the blossoming of corporate-backed anti-public school policies in the 2000s. I have spent years filled with angst about the dumbing down of our society, about the long-term effects of the overuse, and misuse of digital media, the attendant decline of reading, the culture of violence, all compounded by an over-quantified, test-driven schooling that leaves no room for critical thought or creativity, and that in fact suppresses both. And I have also worried about my job, whether I will have a career from which I can retire, or if it will all blow away like smoke when the unions implode. I’ve worried, and worried, and worried, and I have achieved…worry.

It is not that none of these terrible things can’t or won’t happen. We may very well be at the edge of the Edupocalypse. What occurred to me, however, is that living like a rabbit beneath a hawk is no way to live. Regardless of whether I’ll have a job in five years, my rabbit mindset isn’t helping anyone, least of all myself. Fear of the near future is endemic in American society. In his collection, <i>Fates Worse Than Death</i> (1991), Kurt Vonnegut writes about the social psychology behind nuclear arms, observing that it is our fear of being enslaved, rather than our fear of death that drove the madness of the arms race (today that threat has been largely replaced by terrorism, ecological decline and global pandemics). Yet considering slavery in ours and our perceived enemies’ histories, he writes:

[T]he last time Americans were slaves, and the last time Russians were slaves, they displayed astonishing spiritual strengths and resourcefulness. They were good at loving one another. They trusted God. They discovered in the simplest, most natural satisfactions reasons to be glad to be alive. There were able to believe that better days were coming in the sweet by-and-by. And here is the fascinating statistic: They committed suicide less often than their masters did (143).

Vonnegut, the Twain of our time, has been accused of being a curmudgeon, but really he is one of the most hopeful and optimistic of our great thinkers. He is not suggesting that we make peace with some inevitable fate. He is exhorting us to get straight with ourselves about the limitless power we possess to transform our lives and the lives of others. Daisaku Ikeda writes:

Those who are facing stiff challenges are earnest. That seriousness provides the power to discipline and strengthen oneself and achieve remarkable growth. That’s why adversity can be considered “the mother of happiness” (World Tribune, 1/21/2011).

Well, that’s all very nice, but what about those corporate reformers? They’re still going to wipe out equal education for all and decimate the teaching profession, aren’t they? It doesn’t really matter whether one has strength and dignity in the face of the storm. The storm is still a matter of fact is it not? Certainly. How can I deny that it is not? Nevertheless, two things compel me: (1) I do not want to live my life in fear, and (2) I cannot possibly motivate students to win in their lives if I am not modeling victory in my own.

When I look at teachers today, I see a million volcanoes, each smoking in isolation. Yes, we must stand up to our enemies, but when we do so we must absolutely win. Moreover, we can have no doubt about our victory. I have said before that the slander and opposition we receive should be worn as a badge of honor, rather than felt as a spear in the ribs. More than our rage, it is our indomitable dignity that will win the day. We have shown society glimpses of that dignity in the teacher sacrifices at Newtown, but that is only death. As Vonnegut describes, we’re talking about something much more pertinent here: enslavement. Now, we must show that same level of commitment and dignity in our every day service. One might argue that teachers are doing so, and have always been doing so. I would agree. The challenge, though is to get mainstream society to see that we are. Let us get our internal houses in order such that we cut figures so compelling, so undeniably compassionate and dedicated to service that when billionaire philanthropists hurl volleys at us, our friends and neighbors simply laugh them into silence.

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The Indomitable Dignity of the American Educator, Part I

I entered public school instruction in 1997. For five years thereafter I taught in both California and Colorado. When I began my career I was boiling with determination to change public schooling. My own experiences as a public school student had been difficult to say the least and there was certainly a streak of bitterness in my desire to change the system. I optimistic enough that I could affect great change in public schools simply by being there and doing things differently.  In 2002 I began teaching middle school, the year that NCLB went into effect. Over the ensuing years my ability to teach freely and creatively became increasingly restrained, culminating in my school’s adoption of a mandated curriculum in 2006. From this point forward I fought deep discouragement each year, feeling that I was unable to serve my students effectively.  I felt trapped and unable to do anything but be part of the machine, and I wondered how could I have been so naïve.  My hope of bringing change from within my field faded.

And my problem was one of change from within, but not in the way I’d suspected. No Child Left Behind, and the district curriculum were peripheral antagonisms compared the real battle going on in my heart, a battle against self-limitation. Before entering teaching, I had worked at a variety of jobs, in retail, manufacturing, and as a graphics worker. In all of those roles I had also felt somewhat trapped, saying to myself: This is not my true profession. I saw the attainment of a teaching license as the doorway to the real life for which I was preparing. Once I started teaching, I imagined that I would be happy and satisfied as a matter of course, and that I would perform my work with a confidence and drive lacking in previous jobs.

This is where things get sticky, because this largely turned out to be true. I was fulfilling my calling, of that I had not doubt. Still, at barely conscious level, I was holding back and it showed in the restrictions I placed on myself in the face of the obstacles thrown at me by my working conditions. Despite my passion for teaching, I found it difficult to fully commit myself to the lives of my students. I could be warmly encouraging to a child, foster his or her growth all year, and yet something was still missing. What it was, I could not ascertain. One’s students are always a mirror, and not surprisingly, they reflected back their own inability to go the distance in their lives. That one kid whom I had devoted so much extra time and care outside the classroom, still tended to slip into old patterns and not finish the year well. This was deeply troubling to me. I had to do the internal work to get to bottom of this dilemma, for as a practicing Nichiren Buddhist, I know that what I see around me, and in others, has a direct correlation to how I see myself. After much struggle, I realized that as an engaged, caring teacher, I was still only willing to go 90% of the distance for my students; the reason being that I was only willing to go that far for myself. I had always kept myself within a carefully crafted frame of what I believed was ultimately possible for myself. And if this is how I felt about myself, how could it not translate to my kids?

I do not share this self-criticism as a result of guilt, nor as an act of penance. I relate this personal struggle to illustrate that successful teaching is not so much a matter of how a teacher works with students, as it is the teacher’s internal orientation in this profoundly human work. I wanted to show young people how they can change their lives with their own inherent power (a foundational concept of Soka Education). But how could I do so if I was reluctant to do the same myself? This was my greatest impediment as an educator. And furthermore, I realize that I would have experienced this same stultification even without the constraints of NCLB. I had tried to change how I felt about my life by changing the daily environment in which I took action. Instead, it was changing my heart that mattered in the course of crafting a greater happiness. Thinking in terms of the growth of cherry trees, Daisaku Ikeda writes:

The roots are especially important. One expert on trees says that the spread of the crown of a cherry tree is mirrored almost exactly by the spread of its roots below ground. If we water the tree only around the base of the trunk, the tree will become “lazy” and not bother to spread its roots far in search of water (“Teachers of My Childhood”, Soka Education, p. 139).

Applying this analogy to myself, I see the crown of the cherry tree as my students, and the roots as myself. Because my growth was uneven, this unevenness was reflected in them. Teaching is about being fully open to people. When I realized this, I was able to see my career with fresh eyes. It was a shift in perspective that empowered me to approach the conditions of my work fundamentally differently, the results of which have led me to change my view of my role in education.

More to come in Part II.

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The Gaze of Educators

teacherkidsdogThis past week has been a heady flight, but I am happy to report that my feathers aren’t ruffled. A few days ago I joined the nascent Badass Teachers Association. Today I left the group. On a personal level it has been the final step in my movement away from direct activism in the progressive education movement. This has been a long journey for me, but I can confidently say that my role as an education reformer is necessarily very different from that of many of my peers.

I have been both supported (mostly) and criticized for leaving the group. Critics told me that I was being premature, that the group is going through necessary growing pains. When I criticized the redundant messaging (preaching and venting) of many members, as well as the snarking, sniping and outright fighting among them, I was met with the justification that teachers have been pent up with rage for so long that they need to get this out. I find this argument weak to the point of being childish. In the group there were times when I couldn’t believe actual adults were saying these things.

Prominent voices  (I won’t say leaders because this group was the purest form of anarchy to which I have ever been a party) reassured me multiple times that it would eventually all come together. But I found myself scratching my head in puzzlement: aren’t we social animals? Don’t we naturally gravitate toward those individuals who naturally take leadership initiative? But there was no taking of such initiative. The founders of the group, as best I could see, were content to unleash a maelstrom and let it play out, only becoming anxious when it became clear that conflict was accelerating and cohesion diminishing.

I could go on, but it would sound like I’m complaining and I’m really not. In my post yesterday, I identified the problematic role of anger in the group dynamic. I would add that the essential difficulty here is not anger so much as it is the negative state of mind engendered by it. Anger can is valuable or not depending on whether one uses it to good or ill effect; or by how much one is controlled by it. Teachers are an interesting lot. I saw the same problems manifesting in the BAT forum that I see in my work as an educator: too many nice, generally passive people who store up anger for too long before explosively letting out. Too many teachers are wounded birds. They entered the profession out of the goodness of their hearts. They give and give and give. And what are they met with in mainstream society? Indifference by many and outright abuse by those who would profit from hijacking our profession. When you care so much about what you do, helping kids develop their lives, this can all be a bit much.

On the other hand, American school teachers can be very weak willed at times. Last summer I posted here on the life of Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator in the Warsaw Ghetto who walked into the gas chamber at Treblinka with all of his Jewish students, despite having been given multiple opportunities to save himself. And let’s not forget the teachers who gave their lives at Columbine and more recently, Newtown. If we can show that kind of resolve in the face of a drawn gun, why can’t we handle dialogue? Is a genocide or a school shooting easier than the process of listening, thinking, responding, listening again, re-thinking?

The truth of the matter is that teachers have always been the targets of power, for we hold the keys to the door that leads to that power. We’re the first to be rounded up in purges and pogroms, the first to be silenced by politicians in less violent times. The public can easily be turned against us, especially by business interests. And our work is generally misunderstood and undervalued. All of these drawbacks to a teaching career should fill us with pride. These impediments are our honorable legacy. Our work is so critical, and of such social importance that the most potent forces in the world want to suppress and harness us!

There have never been such challenges to education as we see today. Certainly our role is daunting, but do we believe in ourselves enough to worry less about what the outside world is throwing at us, and consider more how to strengthen our own hearts? In another recent post, I quoted from an essay by Daisaku Ikeda on the role of teachers. I offer another excerpt from the same regarding the fundamental spirit to which we must hold true:

No matter how callous and indifferent the eyes of the public may be, the gaze of educators must always shine with an unwavering belief in the worth and potential of all students. No matter how fiercely society’s winds may blow, educators must have the compassion to staunchly protect their students and open the path to a bright future for them. When students know that their teachers believe in them and would never abandon them, it can become a source of tremendous courage, enabling them to achieve immeasurable growth (World Tribune, 6/14/2013, 5)

Ultimately, is this not the only thing that really matters?

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Zhou Enlai’s “Guidelines for Myself”

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I just dug this up off of my hardrive, words from the iconic premier, and a figure whom I greatly admire. Educators, especially activist educators, as well as anyone else striving to live a goal-oriented life may benefit from Enlai’s ethos:


1. Study diligently, grasp essentials, concentrate on one subject rather than seeking superficial knowledge of many

2. Work hard and have a plan, a focus and a method.

3. Combine study with work and keep them in proper balance according to time, place and circumstances; take care to review and systemize; discover and create.

4. On the basis of principles, resolutely combat all incorrect ideology in others as well as in myself.

5. Insofar as possible, make the most of my strengths and take concrete steps to overcome my weaknesses.

6. Never become alienated from the masses; learn from them and help them. Lead a collective life, inquire into the concerns of the people around you, study their problems and abide by the rules of discipline.

7. Keep fit and lead a reasonable regular life. This is the material basis for self-improvement.

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