Lost Apple Tracks

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Having experienced the famous NPR “driveway moment” this evening, I have responded to the story about Amtrak’s new writer residency opportunity. Check it out here. I just got done applying for the program. If I end up winning Wonka’s golden ticket, I could be starting the sequel to Lost Apple on the rails, and that would be very, very cool. More to come….

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Quickwrite: Rough Thoughts for A Teachers’ Movement

I am reluctant to critique the BATs any further, having done so in two posts so far, and stirring up a fair amount of debate. To be fair, my views on this still emerging group should be tentative. Honestly, I hope the best for them, but I will work differently for the shared goal of a humanistic, child-centered and egalitarian educational system. Repeatedly I have been told that my departure from the BAT forum on Facebook is premature, but so be it. I am still around and keeping my eyes open. That being said, I will not come knocking on their door in the future if it seems they’ve changed to my liking. I am not a fair weather activist. But I digress. One of the criticisms thrown at me yesterday in a thread was that I was criticizing without putting forth any viable alternatives. So, some rough thoughts in that regard.

Generally speaking, the BATs approach to organizing makes sense: get people together online, quickly raise numbers, then establish an official website. The next stage, establishing state level forums is probably their best idea, and I hope it works out. Since the group is so widely inclusive, they need to devolve to be effective. Having once helped found an online teacher activist group myself, I know that establishing a platform, or at least clearly defined talking points early on is crucial. The BATs, by allowing such a prolonged free-for-all talking space on Facebook (a limited platform for mass one-on-one engagement), have delayed the establishment of a guiding focus for their group. They then compounded this problem by prematurely launching actions. The phone blitz on the NEA was particularly divisive since many members of the group are either union supporters, or on the fence, and so felt marginalized by this action. But here I am critiquing again!

Whatever approach an online group takes, it needs to be very intentional. Leaders need to set the group’s tone and focus from the very get-go and solicit input from the group members as comprehensively as possible. With dynamically growing groups as large as BAT, this can only be done through voting and quick devolution of the group to regional or state levels. But prior to this development, a general platform must be established and its sticking points ironed out. Again, intentionality on the part of the groups’ facilitators is crucial.

Essentially, BAT suffers from a lack of effective leadership, without which participants’ negative characteristics come to the fore and dominate. This tendency toward negativity isn’t the case with any emergent group, but it certainly is when you bring together people who feel disenfranchised and devalued by forces beyond our control (hence my use of the term wounded birds in yesterday’s post). The very idea of a teacher activist group bespeaks the need for good structure and tight focus.

Assuming such a well-organized online group can be established, what is next? As readers may have gathered, I am a proponent of engaged dialogue. Moving forward, such a group–having successfully devolved from a nationally centered forum to a network of local activists groups–should hold meet-ups to engage in discussions with one another as well as members of their local communities. For teachers, this could mean bringing in parents and talking about standardized testing, its ill effects on their children’s education and the need to opt out. Imagine countless small local discussions nationwide with public school teachers encouraging the parents they serve to opt their kids out of testing? This would bring with it a host of challenges for the teachers involved and would require a strong leadership line from group to local to regional and national levels. It would be great if the unions could support such actions, but most likely they would become opponents as much as the corporate ed reformers. Ultimately it would require a great deal of courage on the part of educators to pull this off, but with structure, focus and committed leadership it could be done.

My proposal here lacks the glamour and anonymity of blitzing Arne Duncan’s office with phone calls. It requires steady, persistent efforts on the part of educators, risking their jobs and professional reputations. It also focuses on face-to-face encounters that can transform the hearts of even adversaries and build a lasting movement. These are just some of my rough thoughts. I will elaborate in whatever comments thread may follow.

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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 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 be either good or bad depending on how 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 their 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, even though he had been given numerous 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 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 should be badges of honor we wear on our hearts every day. Just think, what we do is so critical, 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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Revolutionary Chinese Peasant Denunciations and the BATs

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During and immediately after Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), agrarian land reform was initiated by the Communist Party. It was an ugly episode in Chinese history, and one to be repeated again and again until the reforms of Deng Xiaoping after the Great Leader’s death. This policy, however, was much more than a simple matter of taking land from the rich and distributing it among the poor. According to Chang and Halliday (2005):

[L]and resdistribution was not the main aspect of Mao’s land reform. The part that really mattered was a practice called dou dizhu, “struggle against the landlords,” which in reality meant violence against the relatively better-off….The violence typically took place at rallies, which all villagers had to attend. Those designated as targets were made to stand facing large crowds, and people were pysched up and organised to come forward and pour out their grievances against them. The crowds would be led to shout slogans while brandishing fists and far tools. Village militants and thugs would then inflict physical abuse, which could range from making the victims kneel on broken tiles on their bare knees, to hanging them up by their wrists or feet, or to beating them, sometimes to death, often with farm implements. And there was often torture of even more ghastly kinds (Mao: The Unknown Story, 315).

What Chang and Halliday don’t focus on in their damning biography of the founder of modern China is the pyscho-social conditions that made his atrocities possible. I read this book several years back, but I recall being bothered by the narrow focus of the work: the authors’ intent seemed simply to condemn Mao rather than engage in a deeper investigation of his influence on Chinese society. But I digress.

My point in this post is to identify anger, and how it works in the mind of an oppressed class. Without a doubt, American school teachers are such a class, albeit far, far less oppressed than the Chinese of sixty years ago. I do not mean to draw that correlation. Rather I mean to point out that even Mao couldn’t have gotten the peasants to brutalize their neighbors if there wasn’t a torrent of rage and powerlessness coursing through their lives.  Mao was a genius manipulator of social discontent, of a caliber that makes his contemporaries, Hitler and Stalin, appear amateurish. Latent anger was the fuel. Mao was the match.

Now we have the Badass Teachers Association, its emergence a remarkable phenomenon. Rather than a catalytic proto-movement, however, I am beginning to fear it will shape up to be little more than an outpouring of denunciations by the disenfranchised. Yes, teachers in this country are terribly abused by business and governmental figures who use the media as an instrument of that abuse. On the other hand, such power has always been pitted against teachers in one manner or another throughout time.  Again, and again I read posts and comments by BATs justifying their cacophony of ranting by claiming the need to express their frustration. This state of affairs is not the makings of a mass movement, but rather the makings of mass petulance.

The founders of the BATs can congratulate themselves on bringing thousands of teachers together, but now they must steer the major conversations, focusing them into practical actions that can be long lasting. Simply asking everyone to bombard perceived enemies with phone calls will, at best, bring only temporary recognition; Warhol’s famous fifteen minutes.

So what is the correlation between the BATs and Chinese anti-landlordism? Both rely on anger, which is a short term expedient at denounce1best. Where do the two differ? The Maoists were highly organized and the whole atrocity was carefully orchestrated from above. With the BATs, so far, it is really quite anarchistic. They would do well to consider the limits and ultimate destructiveness of anger, then turn to reasoned dialogue and the search for wisdom. The enemies of public education can be teachers’ greatest allies in empowering them to bring out their better selves. Instead, too many of are caving into their lesser selves, because it is easier, and it feels right for the moment. After all, if one’s enemies are going to engage in slander, would it not be better to rebut them from a position of great inner strength and resolve, rather than going after them with the same dark impulse that compels their assault?

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How Many Teachers Really Understand Dialogue?

hickmangarrisonikeda“A Multiplicity of Dialogues” is a thought-provoking article from the Ikeda Center in regard to the explosive flurry of interactions within such online groups as the Badass Teachers Association. I have spent the past week engaging with the BATs with an odd mixture of joy and dismay. On the one hand, it is a long time coming that such bold, open and honest discussions occur between educators. On the other hand, there is much spouting of opinions, venting of frustrations and often an unwillingness to go deeper. On this latter point, however, I wonder if it isn’t an unwillingness so much as not-knowing-how to deepen and expand conversations?

In this article, Jim Garrison, Professor of Philosophy of Education at Virginia Tech University, and Larry Hickman, Director, Center for Dewey Studies, and Professor of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Carbondale spoke with students about the role of dialogue in terms of identity and the greater self. As is the focus of the Ikeda Center, both professors centered their comments on the work of Daisaku Ikeda, observing that he:

articulates an important perspective by insisting that “in striving to discover the greater self, the genuine Buddhist approach is not to try to suppress or wipe out the lesser self, but to control and direct it so as to help lift civilization to better, higher levels.” …Buddhism, Dr. Garrison added, also teaches through the doctrine of dependent co-arising that no self or phenomenon exists independent of other selves and phenomena. Thus, the movement toward a greater self must always occur in relationship. Dialogue, he said, is a form of relationship that is especially fruitful in fostering the greater self.

This is heady stuff, and I encourage a full reading. What I found particularly pertinent to teachers’ online discussions was this passage, in reference to the ideas of John Dewey (1859-1952):

Dewey insisted that we must understand our identities not just as individuals but also as members of what he called “publics,” i.e., groups that form around shared concerns. According to Hickman, Dewey believed that for these publics to thrive and contribute to society they must first develop “a clear sense of what internally the group is about.” Second they must develop “a clear idea of how that public relates to other publics.” The possible combinations of negotiations and dialogues in this framework are nearly limitless.

Clearly, groups such as BATs, Teachers Letters to Obama, and many others are such “publics”. How much progress or effectiveness such a public has, I think, depends on the dominant perceptions of the group members. Some are clearly coming to these online forums to vent. Others are genuine activists who want change in public education. In the case of BATs I see a real tug-o-war between these two streams, but genuine, transformative dialogue? I am not so sure yet. Oddly, I have seen individuals very vocally drop out of the BATs group, ironically complaining that there is too much complaining, among other things. I have felt this same frustration, but I am sticking around to see where things go. The bigger question is, can online forums such as BATs become genuinely dialogic, as Paulo Freire would have termed it, or are they by their very nature doomed to be nothing more than pressure valves for the disgruntled? A potential answer, or beginning of an answer, can be found in the latter part of the article:

To provide some more context, Professor Garrison took a few moments to talk about popular misperceptions about dialogue. First of all, we need to acknowledge that there are some situations in which dialogue is not appropriate or helpful. Resonating with Dr. Hickman’s remarks on the tasks of publics, Garrison noted that dialogue across groups, especially when power differentials are present, are often counterproductive until after dialogues have first occurred within given “affinity groups” as a means of strengthening identity and self-conception.

It may be premature to think that a Facebook forum can make real change in a social context, but perhaps building “affinity”, as messy a process as it is, will be the start. I am keeping my eyes and mind open.

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Quickwrite: Why Teachers Don’t Read

In an effort to post more frequently I am inaugurating what I will call “quickwrites”, after the popular classroom writing activity.

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La Lettura, by Achille Boschi (1852-1930)

A discussion in the car this morning brought up the question of what would make for a better professional class of teachers. My argument, based on my fifteen years of teaching experience, is that far too many teachers lack the much-touted “lifelong love of learning”. I noted that while many teachers espouse this maxim to their young proteges, they fail to practice it in their own lives, especially when it comes to reading. Time and again I’ve had colleagues sheepishly admit that they don’t read. The most common reason I am told is, “I know I should read more, but I just don’t have time.” I find this curious because I don’t have time either, and yet I read voraciously, an average of one novel every one and a half months. Now, before you scoff at my glib self-praise, let me clarify: reading isn’t any easier for me.

I understand why people don’t have time. It’s because there are so many other things one believes one could or should be doing. Not that this wasn’t always the case, and not that electronic media don’t bewitch and entice us away from books, but reading simply isn’t all that valued. Case in point, reading at home for me is quite difficult. As soon as I sit down the dishes call, or the laundry, or paperwork of one form or another. The next thing I know I’m streaming Netflix because I just need to relax for a bit. Even naps trump reading.  There is this inner voice, a channeling of the collective unconscious that is perpetually whispering in my ear: You should be using this time in the way everyone else would use this kind of time…. Put down the book! The only difference between myself and the average non-reader is that I’ve chosen to fight this voice. And isn’t that what education is about, showing children and youth how to manifest their own voice in opposition to voices (internal or external) that seek to control them?

A natural question at this point is, how do I do it. I could describe my very simple methods, but I won’t. My point is, I have made a choice to read regularly. Aside from enjoying it immensely, I avoid hypocrisy when I say to my students, “You need to be reading everyday!”

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Society Should Serve Education, Not The Other Way Around

Soka_Education_cover_200Reading through Soka Education: For The Happiness of the Individual, I return again to one of my favorite essays by Daisaku Ikeda, “Serving the Essential Needs of Education”. In it there is a passage that I find particularly relevant to my thinking about education purpose:

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Daisaku Ikeda

I would like to assert that what is most urgently needed is a paradigm shift from looking at education for society’s sake to building a society that serves the essential needs of education (Soka Education, 83).

He goes on to quote Robert Thurman, Professor of Religion at Columbia:

[H]e [Thurman] was asked how he viewed the role of education in society. He replied: “I think the question should rather be: What is the role of society in education? Because in my view education is the purpose of human life (ibid, 84).

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Robert Thurman

I wanted to read the full text of Thurman’s interview, and conveniently I found it at the Ikeda Center website. I highly encourage you to read it as well. It contains Buddhist insights into the nature of education that are really quite radical for modern Americans. I offer some of the juicier quotes below to encourage fellow educators to rethink our (I include myself in this process) understanding of education purpose. If we do not, we will never have the kind of humanistic, child-centered school system for which we are agitating.

From “Buddhism as Education: An Interview with Robert Thurman”:

It’s not that the purpose of education is to fit out humans to go and produce something. The essence of the human being is that it is a form of life that has the opportunity to evolve to a new state of being — a non-egotistical, enlightened state of being….[T]he big competitor for education in this personal transformative sense…is always militarism. The state will use militarism to shut down on this sort of educational process and turn it into an indoctrinational process where they produce units that will mindlessly obey orders and slaughter their neighbor units, or have a military state like the shogunate in Japan, or the American militaristic state of today (online, 6/27/13).

Here’s my question: How does current education policy in the U.S. correspond to the militarism that Thurman identifies? Something to really think about in light of the last decade of war, today’s drone strikes, etc. Here is the last quote from the Thurman interview that I would like to share:

An understanding of this concept of lifelong learning fosters a new estimation of the value of a university system and of education. We note that a totalitarian system anywhere first shoots all the intellectuals. Then they develop their own cadre of intellectuals who just mouth their line of indoctrination, and free thinking is discouraged. An understanding of the preciousness of learning would encourage the ability to challenge the bosses and the authorities, the merchant classes and so forth. It would also translate in government terms into support of education at every level (ibid).

As always, I invite your thoughts and encourage you to read my book on education purpose, Lost Apple.

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