A personal challenge, a shared responsibility

Thinking and writing about education, synthesizing personal experiences as a student and as a teacher with the many brilliant insights I have read or heard about from others, has led me to an inescapable conclusion. We are doing something terribly important very badly.

The challenge is to find way to educate kids that is both a significant improvement on the status quo and at the same time practical. I believe that we need to rethink on a fundamental level the purposes of education, and reconcile our practices with those goals.

This is a daunting task. Consider the entrenched bureaucracies of schools, the political gamesmanship that steers educational policy, the vast sums of money involved and the powerful actors that will step up to protect their financial interests even at the expense of the people most directly affected by school policies – the children.

But the situation is not all dire. The daunting aspect is the institutional entropy, if not active resistance to any meaningful reform. The aspect that is encouraging is that nearly everyone agrees that some changes need to happen. There are brilliant ideas being generated every day by classroom teachers, college professors, researchers and policymakers, as well as by parents and the students themselves. To be sure, not everyone is on the same page, but this is not an entirely bad thing. It is possible to make meaningful progress on a small scale – as an individual, within one’s own classroom, with one new lesson that breaks the mold, by changing priorities within your own family, by generating discussion within your own community.

My own process for tackling this problem includes not just drawing from the vast resources developed by others over the years, but also a considerable amount of introspection and reflection on two decades of working in schools. Over the course of that time, my basic assumptions as well as some of the most important things I “knew” about education have changed. In some cases this was because of new information I acquired through learning what worked in the classroom, reading, and sharing with other educators. In some cases it was because real world experience overpowered some part of the conventional wisdom about schooling, and allowed human nature to show that it will always defeat institutional constraints.

I began as a teacher the way many educators do, with a fairly insightful understanding of how I learn, and a few good ideas about how to teach kids whose learning style matched my own. Over the years, experience brought both wisdom and humility. Everyone is different, and no one person will ever be able to create a system that is effective in teaching everyone. This has to be a collaborative process.

I am nearing completion of writing a book that offers one way to improve the quality of education. It proposes a different approach to teaching United States History, a course that I taught for over 12 years at four different schools and with which I am the most familiar among the classes I am certified to teach. But the core concept of the book is transferable to other subjects as well.

The personal challenge for me is to share my ideas with people who are receptive to them, and share my enthusiasm for reform with people who are willing to stand up and demand change. I hope to provide some wisdom and some guidance from the perspective of one who has lived and worked with these issues for years, but I know that I can’t provide all the energy that is needed.

Ultimately, this is a shared responsibility. I don’t have all the answers, but fortunately the answers are within the collective wisdom of everyone who cares and is willing to speak up. The future belongs to those who create it.


As of today, I will be posting on this blog every week on Mondays, but no longer on Thursdays. As much as I have enjoyed writing these essays, and as much as I hope you have found them thought-provoking, entertaining, and perhaps even useful, there are only so many hours in every week, and I need to spend a few more of them on other projects – including one I have deferred far too many times for too many good reasons – finishing the book mentioned above.

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Telling the stories of our own lives

The process of learning and the practice of narrating one’s own story came to an intersection for me at an early age. Please bear with me while I recall some fond and significant memories from long ago. I will, trust me, connect the story I am about to tell with the theme explored in the last two posts of narrating one’s own life.

I always liked stories, and I had a creative bent. From an early age I enjoyed making up characters and the imaginary worlds in which they lived. I also enjoyed drawing, and many of the sketch books of my youth are filled with scenes and actors from these stories.

I was drawn to comic books, and eventually to the related genres of comic strips and the early versions of graphic novels. I was intrigued enough by this peculiar narrative form – this hybrid of pictures and words – that I began to research the origins and history of the comics.

By age 12, I was beginning a collection of books on the subject: Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, which included sentimental memories of growing up with the comics as well as reprints of the origin stories of Superman, Batman, Captain America and others; A History of the Comic Strip by Pierre Couperie and Maurice Horn, an account of the development of graphic storytelling that included stunningly beautiful examples of graphic design that had appeared originally in newspaper strips; Comix by Les Daniels, which included the stories of underground comics as well as the usual canon of titles more likely to be approved by parents; and the wonderfully titled All In Color For a Dime, a collection of well-researched and fondly crafted essays edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson.

I also acquired collections of reprints of old comic strips – big books on Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, and Bringing Up Father. I was a sponge for information about the art of making comics, regardless of the subject, and I became fascinated with the cultural context that shaped them. Through these particular books I learned about attitudes towards organized crime during Prohibition, the 20th century fascination with the possibilities of technology, economic and social conservatism during the era of the New Deal, and American attitudes towards immigration and social class.

As my social consciousness matured, I discovered that a similar development was occurring in the comics themselves. Green Lantern and Green Arrow grappled with issues like corporate greed and drug addiction. Spider-Man coped with the death of a loved one. And on the newspaper comic strip page, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury appeared.

Doonesbury was the first mainstream comic strip that dealt directly with contemporary social and political issues. Characters in the strip struggled with changing sexual mores, used recreational drugs, took stands for or against the war in Vietnam. As the strip became more established, it began to include characters from the real world and more pointed commentary on specific people and events. When one of the fictional Doonesbury characters declared in May of 1973 that the very real Attorney General of the United States, then embroiled in the Watergate scandal was, “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” newspapers across the country yanked Doonesbury from the comics page and began running it on the editorial page. Comics could be not merely the reflection of their times, but also actual participants in the events.

In 1975, the first anthology collection of Doonesbury reprints in book form went on sale. I eagerly purchased it and therein discovered something that, initially at least, did not interest me at all – an introduction by the journalist, historian, and author Garry Wills. I read and re-read the entire collection of strips at least twice before I turned my attention to the six pages of text written by someone I had never heard of at the front of my new favorite book.

But when I did read Wills’ introduction I discovered something I think I had known for a long time, but had never been able to express in words. He pointed out that the Doonesbury characters tend to narrate their own lives. Indeed, the very first words of the strip’s long run are, “Well, here I sit at college awaiting my new roommate. I know he’ll be cool since he’s computer selected.” The obvious joke set up by this line appears two panels later, but the point Wills was making, and the revelation that occurred to me, was that we all do this. We all “create a running commentary on our own lives.” I had been doing it for years without a trace of self-consciousness and I suddenly realized that everyone else must do it too.

I believe this was the first time I ever really considered the idea that the concept of self exists in our minds in the form of a story line. And so I return today (finally – and I appreciate your indulgence) to the theme of the last two posts – that we narrate our own lives with ourselves as the hero of the story. It is important to our sense of self and to our ability to engage the world in a productive manner that we think of ourselves as successful and ultimately victorious. In a school setting, it is counterproductive to learning and personal growth if we pose so many obstacles, and so many opportunities for failure, that young people stop trying to find a way to win in school, and begin to play another game altogether – one in which their hero has a fighting chance.

And I return to this theme in this peculiar and rather personal context in order to weave into the discussion another concept important to learning.

Beginning at about age 12, I turned myself into an expert on the history of the American comic strip and comic book. No one asked me to do this, assigned me to do it, graded me on it, or put anything on my transcript acknowledging it. I don’t think I ever even mentioned to any of my teachers during the years that this was my obsession that I was doing this independent research project. I did it because the subject intrigued me and it gave me pleasure to know a lot about something I enjoyed.

I was not unique by any means. Nearly everybody has some interest that they enjoy enough to have gained some special knowledge about, if not impressive expertise in. I was fortunate enough to be able to pursue this interest in the context of a family that valued education and persistence, that was reasonably nonjudgmental about my choices, and that gave me encouragement even if they didn’t necessarily enjoy the long explanations I gave them about the differences between the Green Lantern of the 1940s and the rebooted version that appeared in the 1960s. I came out of this experience with a life-long belief that I have the ability to make myself an expert on any subject I choose. It is a good thing. I have had to use this ability a number of times.

But not everyone has this kind of support.

There are some obvious ways to give students an opportunity to succeed as scholars. This is an easy one. Encourage them to pursue their own interests. Allow them to choose topics that may not be in the standard curriculum, but that have some personal resonance for the student. Let the motivation to learn be internal rather than the usual fear of a failing grade.

Students want to learn – about a range of subjects far beyond what their teachers can imagine. Students want to succeed, and narrate a story of their own unique accomplishments.   Let’s be part of the audience that cheers them on.


The notorious Doonesbury strip mentioned above was scheduled to run May 29, 1973. Here is a link to a story about how and why it finally appeared in the Washington Post 41 years later.


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Turning the narrative

We have no control over the way our story begins. We spend our entire lives trying to affect the way it ends.

The blessing and the curse of being rational creatures who have the ability to find meaning in our lives is that we seem to be under a compulsion to find that meaning, and spin a narrative that serves the higher purpose we see for ourselves.

We are each the hero of our own narrative. For some, the story is triumphant, with setbacks that are merely temporary inconveniences. Perhaps they are even part of the march towards victory because they provide character-building experiences, or because they count as challenges met and overcome.

For some, the hero of our story has the cards stacked against him. Victory will be impossible, so any triumph will be short-term, small in scale, and possibly even accomplished in opposition to the rules of society.

But the rules of society are an important element of the story. They may define the terms of victory. They also may provide the conflict.

For children young enough to be in school, the task of constructing a narrative takes place while they are still learning the rules. We teach them how to stand in lines, play with each other without hitting each other, and take turns. When they get older, we teach them about governments and laws and sources of authority. We teach them that success in school consists of learning certain things and performing tasks in a certain way. We teach them that success in life is also measured by how they meet certain expectations.

For a number of reasons, many people believe that they cannot meet these expectations. Perhaps it is conditions of birth, or of upbringing, or the consequences of decisions that create obstacles going forward. Those who believe they cannot succeed by meeting society’s expectations find a way to make their narrative palatable, or at least bearable. But in spinning their stories that way, they not only explain their shortcomings, but also defy social expectations – either passively through underachieving, or actively through rule-breaking or criminality.

The rules of society, whatever their other essential qualities, are a device for dividing our people into winners and losers. The reasons that individuals fall into each of these categories can vary greatly. The level of credit or blame we assign to individuals for their status can vary greatly as well.

But each individual writes his or her own narrative, and whatever society’s judgment may be, we are each the hero of our own story.

Why can’t we all feel triumphant – or at least more of us? We all want to feel this way. Society’s best interests are served if more of us are contributing to commonly accepted goals. What can we do to reorder society to increase the opportunities for success?

This may seem like a philosophical question – a tad too abstract and removed from the real world experience of public schooling that is the basis of most of the posts on this blog. But the question is an essential one, and its answer can only be demonstrated in the real world of public policy. Schools are intended to serve the interests of society. Schools in fact touch each of our lives. Perhaps more than any other single institution, schools may be the tool we can use to bring about positive social change.

So again, what can we do to increase the opportunities for success?

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Controlling the narrative

Students learn. Whether or not we make them learn, whether or not it’s part of a curriculum, students are going to learn. It is human nature. It is a matter of survival. Human beings are not so strong or so quick that we can do without our intelligence and our ability to figure out how things work.

We are rational creatures. Not only do we learn from our experiences, but we also want to understand what is going on in our lives. We all construct a narrative in which the lead character and hero is ourselves. And we naturally want the hero to win.

Human beings need to be in control of our circumstances. We can learn and solve problems. We are the hero in our own narrative. We need to be able to play the role of a triumphant hero … and sometimes that is a problem.

For young people who are just discovering who they are and how to use the power of their own intellect, it is easy to make mistakes. It is even easier to allow their narrative to be written by someone else. When this happens, learning doesn’t stop, but sometimes the lessons they learn are not the most helpful kind.

We hope that the personal development that occurs in childhood and adolescence will produce well-adjusted, contributing members of society. But all of us know that the experience of growing up also produces unhappy, frustrated individuals who are convinced of their own inability to learn. How did these people turn out this way? How did the heroes in their stories become such outcasts?

For a great many of them, the answer is that they learned it in school.

A large part of the culture of schools is the practice of telling students that what they are doing is not the right thing. Whether it is grammar, math, or social behavior, the style of instruction employed by most schools is based on penalizing students for getting it wrong.   We give negative attention to students who make mistakes, do not give nearly as much positive attention to students who correctly follow instructions, and hardly ever encourage students to discover how to learn on their own.

In recent years, there have been some positive moves towards empowering students in how they learn. Constructivist, student-centered, project-based learning models can be very useful in allowing young people to feel they have some control over a part of their own narrative. But state-mandated curriculums and required learning outcomes narrow the opportunities for students to learn.

Students who do not feel successful in school will rewrite their narratives. Instead of the hero being a brilliant scholar, he or she is brilliant at evading responsibility. The hero who can’t succeed within the narrow expectations of the school structure prevails by finding a way to succeed outside of the rules.

Students learn, and if they believe they cannot learn what school has to offer, they will learn how to construct a useful alternative. It defies human nature to think of oneself as a failure. It is good to keep this in mind when we look at the story told in our report cards.  There may be a far more compelling alternative narrative written elsewhere.

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Show your work

On Labor Day in Georgia, a state with 7.8% unemployment, in a nation where 90% of our children attend public schools, it is worth pausing to ask whether we are doing the best we can to prepare our kids for the lives they will lead in the 21st century.

We need to reexamine the underlying assumptions in our system of public education, and be willing to make a major overhaul of principles and practices.

We need to recognize that our preoccupation with standardized testing has damaged our educational system. What was meant to measure progress has crippled innovation and stifled meaningful learning.

We need to acknowledge the fact that, whatever creative adaptations have been made in education over the years, the institution of public education itself is based on an obsolete idea. The economic realities of the 21st century are different from those of the 20th.

It was once possible to imagine life as segregated into distinct phases – an early one in which people progress through an education system that was both authoritarian and nurturing, and a later phase in which people are on their own in a work environment where they are responsible for their own success.

In the 20th century it was quite reasonable to expect a high school graduate to land a job in a factory and have stable employment for the next 40 years. It was reasonable to expect the possessor of a bachelor’s degree to land a secure job in the offices of a big company, and for a person with a master’s or professional degree to enter a profession without ever having to add significantly to their educational credentials.

But that is no longer the case. The world in which we live and work is no longer so stable. Learning is a life-long endeavor, and people must be prepared to adapt and innovate their own solutions to unanticipated challenges.

Do public schools really prepare young people for the lives they will lead?

It’s Labor Day. It’s good to take a day off, and reflect on how much work we have to do.


Statistics are from http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm and http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_105.20.asp

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Putting the kids in charge

In my last post, I pointed out that students have far more at stake in the quality of the classroom environment than adults do. After all, for adults the classroom is just a workplace – albeit one which most teachers approach with passion and dedication. But for students it is not only that, but also the place where their future success can be shaped as they acquire the skills and knowledge they will need throughout their lives.

I posed the question:

What would be wrong with empowering students to make and enforce their own rules governing behavior in class, and allowing teachers simply to teach?

And simply by phrasing the question that way, I acknowledged one of the major roadblocks to this approach. Classroom management has traditionally been in the hands of the teachers. Adults are not only the source of knowledge and the model of behavior, but also the enforcers of rules. This paradigm is so ingrained that it is almost unimaginable to suggest that we do things differently. We can’t simply say, “Let’s try it a new way.” Instead we proceed on the premise that the current paradigm works – that things are fundamentally right with having adults in charge – and we ask, “What would be wrong with changing things a bit?”

But it is important that we put that premise aside. We can hold on to the idea that adults are the ones responsible for making knowledge accessible to students, and keep adults in their role as models of behavior. But let’s imagine a scenario in which adults have no role in making or enforcing rules. And let’s ask not what’s wrong with this idea, but instead let’s ask how to make this idea work?

Gentle readers, I am truly improvising an answer here. There are in classrooms across the country lots of lessons in self-government and circumstances in which students have some authority to make rules under adult supervision, but I do not know of any model in which students authentically run the classroom environment without adult oversight. We are in the realm of theory informed by common sense as well as imagination. I would like very much to have the benefit of your ideas.

But here is what I have so far ….

First, students must feel that they are truly in charge of their environment. It will only work if they take their responsibilities seriously, and they will never do so if they believe an adult will come along and overrule their decisions.

Second, students must create any rewards or punishments to be administered by their peer group, not by adults. In other words, there should not be a situation in which an adult is called upon to step outside his or her role as the conduit of knowledge and model of behavior to become disciplinarian.

One caveat to this principle is the real world consideration that adults have legal responsibilities to the children in their care. In certain extreme situations, they will have to step in. But what this means in our new paradigm is that the circumstances that require adult intervention should be clearly understood by everyone involved, and students must feel confident that adults will not step in unless absolutely necessary.

Third and perhaps most importantly, students must be motivated to create an environment that is conducive to learning. Learning is, after all, the primary purpose of school. In order for students to do this on their own, they must believe in the rewards of learning. Without this core value, the environment that students create may be agreeable to them in many ways, but it will fail in providing the very thing they need the most.

What do you think? What are your ideas about how to make this work?

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Who’s in charge here?

No one has a greater interest in the quality of life in the classroom than the students. Think about it. Not only is it a matter of having the kind of day-to-day environment that is uplifting and inviting – students and teachers alike have a vested interest in that goal. But for the students it is also the forum in which they will gain knowledge and experience that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

For adults the stakes are not nearly as high. True, they share the desire for a pleasant, productive work environment. But for adults who are paid to be in the classroom, part of the job is to endure whatever unpleasant aspects of the environment need to be endured in order to accomplish the greater goal of educating the kids. The classroom should not be organized for the teacher’s convenience or pleasure. The classroom should be designed in such a way that students have the best possible opportunity to learn. The teacher’s pleasure in the environment should be an ancillary outcome, not the primary goal.

Students know better than anyone what kind of environment is conducive for their own learning. And students know what external factors act as distractions. Despite our best intentions and years of experience with our own learning, adults can only make assumptions about what will work for students. It is the students themselves who are the experts.

So let’s put that expertise to work. Let’s put students in charge of creating the classroom environment. Let’s allow those who have the most at stake to make the most important decisions about schedules and social behavior in the classroom. Let’s allow the students the freedom to learn on their own terms.

Is it possible this could work? It certainly is a nontraditional approach

But schools have traditionally been organized in a way that maximizes administrative efficiency at the expense of learning. Why not turn that formula around?

This is a serious question, and it calls for serious discussion. I want to know what you think.

What would be wrong with empowering students to make and enforce their own rules governing behavior in class, and allowing teachers simply to teach?

Am I crazy or is this the obvious solution to many of the problems with schools today?

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