Happy Memorial Day

Remembering the past is essential to a very human need to understand life’s meaning.

To be sure, not all memory is deliberate, or makes us feel like we are closer to any kind of understanding. Some memories force themselves upon us. Traumatic events, sentimental moments, even random curiosities come back to us without will or reason.

But often, we construct a home for memories that we wish to preserve – in books, in the form of monuments in pubic places, by designating days on which certain memories are honored. We honor even the memories of great horrors, collective tragedies, the methodical destruction of human lives through war.

Memorial Day came about after the Civil War as a way to make sense of that traumatic and defining moment of our young nation’s life. It was a war that tore the country apart and forced it together again in a new form. Never again would states be able to claim their rights superseded the will of the nation. Never again would the most basic of human rights – freedom – be subject to another person’s property rights. But it was a conflict that cost more American lives than any other war before or since.

What was purchased at such a tremendous cost? What did it all mean?

It would take years of political and economic negotiations for the outcome of the War Between the States to become clear. Through Reconstruction, Redemption, the creation of multi-state corporations and a national market for goods, the development of federal authority over traditionally local issues, the new formula for the relationships between the United States and its constituents emerged.

But before the war had even ended, commemoration of the fallen had begun. It wasn’t necessary to understand the full impact of their efforts in order to appreciate their sacrifice.

It began with the decorating of graves, perhaps as early as June of 1861. The dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 was the most widely known precedent event. The first widely-publicized post-war observance was on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, organized by former slaves in honor of Union soldiers buried at the site of a wartime prisoner of war camp.

In 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia passed a resolution that led to the institution of Confederate Memorial Day. It would be celebrated on April 26, the anniversary of the surrender of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to Union General William T. Sherman – to many in the South, the official end of the war. Over the years, the theme of the commemoration would emphasize not just respect for the fallen soldiers, but also for the Southern Lost Cause itself.

In 1868, an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic promoted a nationwide “Decoration Day” to be celebrated on May 30. The holiday quickly caught on, and became an event in small towns across the country, often featuring parades and distinguished speakers.

Over time, the name of the holiday shifted from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” which became its official designation under federal law in 1967. In 1968, its date was shifted from May 30 to the last Monday in May, to create a three-day weekend.

Today, the holiday is widely observed by many as the official start of the summer vacation season. There is some public recognition of its historic purpose – somewhat greater recognition during periods of war, or when American troops are deployed in war zones (a distinction that would have made no sense to the public or to politicians in the era of the Civil War). But the need to rationalize the loss of life in war has been drowned out by the need to promote Memorial Day Sales on patio furniture and sun tan lotion. Memorial Day is a placeholder – a relic that is used to mark the transition not from wartime to peacetime, but from Spring to Summer.

Remembering the past is essential to a very human need to understand life’s meaning.

What does it say about the American people that we no longer seem to need to understand the Civil War, or for that matter the human cost of war itself? Is this a good thing, or a troubling development?

Happy Memorial Day.

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The problem with history, morality, and the law

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

I will never forget the feeling of astonishment I experienced when I first read that quote many years ago. Was it possible that a man who was arguably the greatest villain of the bloody 20th century had acted in complete accordance with the laws of his country? Then I realized that Dr. King’s point was not really about Germany at all, but about the United States.

Slavery, arguably the greatest evil committed by Americans, was perfectly legal under federal and state statutes and was sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution. Thousands of other injustices have been committed by Americans against Americans under the authority of law. Our system is not only not perfect, it has been the active servant of some terrible wrongdoers.

We know this, and yet Americans overwhelmingly hold to a belief in the rule of law, and the justice that can ultimately be found in the laws of a democratic society.

Dr. King also said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Whether or not it is true, we want it to be true. We have the power under our representative form of government to create our own rules, and so we expect there to be a kind of equivalence between morality and legality. And the way we talk about right and wrong, legal and criminal, triggers these core beliefs. There is a reason that opposing sides in the debate on immigration reform choose to use either the term “undocumented” or “illegal.” The former carries the connotation of forgotten paperwork – a mistake anyone can make. The latter is a label that carries with it judgment and consequences – a condemnation for not just technical violation of some rule, but also actual wrongdoing. A criminal is a bad person.

Except when that is not actually the case. There are times when the law does not reflect morality, but instead protects acts that are immoral, oppressive, dismissive of, even harmful to human rights. Most of us can find examples of such laws around us today. It is even easier to find examples of such laws in the past.

And it is not just that laws permitted great evils like Nazism and slavery; laws have also prohibited opposition to these injustices. It was once illegal in the American south even to publish an essay supporting the abolition of slavery.

So how do we reconcile a belief in the rule of law – a belief in the inevitability of justice under the laws of a democratic society – with the reality that laws sometimes simply do not work that way?

How do we fairly assess the past when we know that both prevailing values and laws change over time?

History is tricky. It is a record of past events, but it is not a complete record, or one that is told from an objective point of view, or one that is always on morally solid ground. History is made up of records from the past compiled by human beings who are just as guilty of bias and subjectivity as any of us.

This should not come as a surprise. But we tend to think of history as more authoritative than it really is. Just as we expect (optimistically) that our laws reflect our morality, we expect (idealistically) that our history is factual, objective and complete.

The truth is that history often protects wrongdoers – especially if they acted under the color of law. We virtually give a pass to the founding fathers who signed a document stating that all men are created equal while owning some men as property. History may also celebrate people who acted on morally sound principles (such as Rosa Parks), whose actions were in violation of the laws – if the unjust laws they violated have since been repudiated and repealed.

Teaching history can be extremely problematic. How can we teach respect for the rule of law when many of our heroes made their mark in the world by violating the law? How can we understand the past when the moral code of previous generations may differ so dramatically from our own?

As a history teacher for many years, these questions have fascinated me. I have recently completed writing a book on the teaching of history. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Storytelling about learning

My children have been working on their storytelling skills. They have to – in order to move ahead in school.

My two sons are this year attending a charter middle school, one that approaches learning a little differently from the methods that have become conventional in many traditional schools. While every charter school is subject to the same testing regimen as other public schools, this one deliberately avoids making preparation for tests the organizing principle for its instruction. Instead, teachers and administrators take the position that their goal is to provide the best learning experience possible for their students. They have found that if they do so, the test scores will take care of themselves.

Instructional units are organized around projects, aligned with the relevant state-mandated standards. Students are given explanations of the goals of the projects, but are not given step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish these goals. It is up to them to figure things out and learn what they need to learn along the way. The grades they are given reflect the reality that learning is an ongoing process – JB (just beginning), AS (approaching the standard), MS (meeting the standard), and ES (exceeding the standard) – and students are given teacher feedback and opportunities to revise and improve their work.

The school year’s cumulative project is one that requires students to reflect on their own learning experience. They must present a portfolio of their best work, and give a presentation in front of a group of classmates and adults, supporting the claim that they are ready to move on to the next grade.

My older son struggled this year to adapt to this new style of learning. He had spent two years in a traditional middle school where, as he put it, “We took notes off the board, answered questions in the book, and at the end of the week we took a quiz.” The idea that learning is a process, and not a series of discrete tasks, was certainly not new to him. In fact, everyday life experience in the course of growing up had awakened him to the fact that learning is ongoing, and without clear boundaries. But until this year, his most recent experiences in school had told him that formal education was a series of checkboxes. You tick something off, get a number or a letter, and you never look back.

In his presentation last week, he relayed the story of his struggle, and his efforts to cast off his indoctrination that success in school was measured only in percentages of correct answers, and that getting a good grade was a matter of following instructions.

The story that he told was of an internal struggle to master a new environment, and the personal growth he experienced as a result. It was compelling, had a clearly defined conflict, and was delivered to a very receptive audience who heard affirmation of the value of their school’s method of instruction. So it was successful.

But as his father, I was more impressed by the success he had found in becoming a more self-directed learner, and by the insights he was able to identify by putting his experiences in the form of a narrative.

I believe in the power of reflection to focus our energies and identify our strengths and weaknesses. I believe in the power of narrative to provide a framework for learning. I have recently completed writing a book on storytelling as an instructional methodology, which should be published soon.

But the more immediate future holds a different storytelling opportunity. My younger son will be giving his presentation this week.

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Let teachers teach

Let’s not forget the simple solutions to complex problems ….

Time … gravity … a little rain … market forces … letting nature take its course ….

We are nature’s creatures, and yet part of human nature is to conquer our environment. We feel a sense of accomplishment when we alter the status quo. We feel frustration when we realize that parts of our environment are outside of our control. Sometimes we panic. Sometimes in our panic, we make exactly the wrong move. But because it feels good to do something rather than sit back and do nothing, we achieve a sense of satisfaction. We tell ourselves that everything will work out better now that we have made our mark.

As sentient animals, we are subject to one great, and sometimes tragic weakness. We trust our ideas more than we trust our instincts. Sometimes nature provides much better answers than we can concoct on our own.

Our nature makes us social creatures; our problem-solving powers have built complex societies. Nature gives us diverse interests and talents; ingenuity devises specialization of labor and a structure for the exercise of power. Nature grants us all a desire for happiness and a safe, fulfilling life; political theory establishes the basis for equal treatment under a system of laws and the means to enforce those laws.

But what happens when our systems fail?

How are we serving our own interests when the complex societies we create are so complex that they frustrate our social instincts instead of satisfying them – when we find ourselves interacting more with institutions and machines than with each other?

What happens when our system of power structure disenfranchises many members of our society, underutilizes our talents, and in extreme cases even threatens the health and safety of our fellow human beings?

How does it further the cause of equal rights when the concept of “equality” is perverted to mean that we must treat everyone the same – regardless of our individual abilities and needs?

In two decades of working with students, teachers, school administrators and policy-makers, I have found that, to an overwhelming degree, the people who are drawn to the teaching profession are there because of the call of nature.

These are people who care about children and youths, who respect and value knowledge for its own sake and because of the way it can enhance one’s quality of life, who understand that talent must be cultivated and ability must be refined. These are people who have an intuitive grasp of the beautiful interplay between the needs of a complex society and the dignity as well as the possibilities of human individuality.

The people who are drawn to the teaching profession are exactly the people we would want to be teachers – when we let nature take its course.

But in our panic over the quality of education, we have decided not to focus on empowering the great human resource already in place. We have devised a system in which teachers are put on the defensive. We have made exactly the wrong move.

We saddle educators with endless paperwork. We require them to jump through hoops to prove their worth by checklisting what they do in the classroom without considering the effect on their students. We force them to teach the diversely talented individuals in their classrooms to pass the same standardized test – even though teachers know what nearly everyone else who has experienced life as an adult knows – success on standardized tests has very little to do with success in life.

We have created a culture in which we value test scores because they show us outcomes for our efforts. We feel we have improved education because we have made our mark. But we don’t care so much whether the outcomes we see have any true value.

We do need to apply our intellect and our creative abilities for solving problems to the improvement of education. But we should not ignore human nature – either in recognizing the dedication and skills of our teachers, or in seeing the vast potential and diversity of our students. The innovations we need are not going to come from the top down. They are going to come from the dedicated professionals already in the classrooms.

We need to allow the individuals whose natural talents draw them towards the problems and the possibilities in education to find those solutions and explore those possibilities. We need to calm the panic … and prepare to be amazed. We need to let teachers teach.

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The Cult of Measurement

We live in a data-driven age. Information technology and advancements in statistical analysis have delivered us into era in which we have access to insights and detailed information about all manner of subjects. Modern life may be inherently a game of risk, but with so much information about the playing field at our disposal, we can have the confidence to commit to a course of action that is sure to lead to success. How are we sure? The numbers tell us.

Data is seductive. Data is reassuring. Data is overwhelming, but we have experts and computers to synthesize the information into the kind of digestible chunks we need to feel that we can see beneath the surface and know what is really going on.

But what if the numbers aren’t telling us what we think they are?

For all the advancements in the production of data, we remain subject to one cold reality. We don’t get the answers we need if we don’t ask the right questions.

Yet in spite of this rather glaring shortcoming, we have developed a tendency to trust numbers over instinct, and increasingly we act based on new insights gained from data rather than from the wisdom of experience.

Numbers may give us an answer, but will never give us more than part of the picture. The seductive promise of a definitive statement that can sort out life’s untidy messes draws us towards the data-driven course of action. We forget the limitations. Numbers can be used to organize information, but they can also be used to frame the view that we see. The picture inside the frame draws our attention, while outside the frame is a panorama that we confidently ignore.

One of the great untidy messes of modern life is our system of public education. Historically a function of local government, subject to vast differences in access and funding, public schools have only in the last half century become the target of federal regulation and standardization. And as the country has embraced data as the source of answers to life’s problems, so has education policy gravitated more and more towards data-driven mandates.

And to be fair, some of the developments from this approach have been quite positive.

But we are in danger of forgetting that data has its limits. What if we are not asking the right questions? What about the part of the picture that lies outside of the frame?

More troubling still is the fact that schools are now devoting enormous amounts of their time and resources to preparing for and administering standardized tests. Is assessment really that much more important than instruction? Is performing as well as or better than other students on the same test really more important than achieving success as an individual – doing the best that he or she can do?

We have created a cult of measurement in 21st century America – one in which the need to gather data on how we are doing has taken precedence over common sense.

We must take a close look at the purposes of education and let meaningful and useful learning be the standard of excellence. We must accept the fact that differences in performance on an identical task is not a sign of failure – on the part of students or on the part of schools. It is, however, evidence of the wonderful diversity of talent within the human race. We need to take a realistic look at what we are doing in public education to enhance this talent, to prepare children for life as adults … and we need to ask the right questions.

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Harming children in Atlanta Public Schools

The biggest news story in Atlanta for the last two weeks has been the conviction of 11 public school teachers and administrators on racketeering charges for falsifying answers on standardized tests. The judge in the case has sentenced several of the educators to lengthy prison terms, citing the harm done to the children.

But what harm was done, and was it actually the result of the actions of these school officials?

The test cheating scandal that embroiled Atlanta Public Schools began to come to light six years ago, the trial lasted from September 2014 until April 2015, media coverage of the revelations and developments in the case saturated the community and gained national attention. It was impossible for someone living in metropolitan Atlanta to be unaware of the case. I had a personal and professional interest in the ongoing news, but I can’t say that that I read every line or watched every report. I certainly did not follow every step of the six month long trial. So I might have missed something. But I don’t recall hearing any evidence that children were harmed as a direct result of the actions of the convicted educators.

Conventional wisdom and some anecdotal evidence suggest that falsified test results masked real achievement deficits on the part of many students. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story about a girl with a learning disability whose artificially inflated test scores led to her being invited to apply for the gifted program at her school.

But I would be willing to bet that none of the teachers of that student or the many others whose scores were inflated had any false illusions about their students’ abilities – or their potential.

Problems arose when decision-makers who had no personal experience with the children involved – who interacted not with students, but with columns of figures on a page – enacted policies designed to herd large numbers of kids into one category or another.

The harm resulted from treating children like producers of data, and not like the individual learners that they are.

Teachers do not enter the profession with dreams of improving productivity. They do not work long hours, sacrifice time with their own families, forsake career paths with greater promise of remuneration and social status, because they want their school’s aggregate scores this year to exceed last year’s scores. Teachers care about their students, and they want them to learn.

Over reliance on high stakes test scores diverts attention from the important work of teaching. It distracts us from the truth that learning is a complex and ongoing human experience. Any snapshot of academic achievement is going to highlight an image in a narrow frame, while discounting the panoramic view of an active, growing intellect.

Have children been harmed as a result of standardized test scores? Absolutely. But the convicted educators in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal had very little to do with that harm.

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Creative empowerment

The environment in which we live and work matters greatly. This is especially true for young people whose days are dominated by the hours they spend in school. The physical surroundings, the quality of the materials and resources that are available – these are unspoken messages to impressionable students about the value that is accorded them by the institution.

Teachers can make a great difference. Are their expectations high, or do they act as enablers for low performance? Do they promote the lie that passing a standardized test constitutes academic excellence?

Certainly, the messages that students get from their peers can make or break an educational experience. Is school a place for learning and self-improvement, or is it something we must endure until the last bell of the day signals our release into freedom?

The quality of the experience can be impacted by material circumstances – crumbling buildings, out-of date textbooks, long bus rides to distant schools. The era of Jim Crow schools and the bumpy period of desegregation provide many stories of unequal treatment of students. Even today, the quality of resources can vary greatly between schools in wealthy areas and schools in economically depressed areas. And the situation is not confined to this narrow socioeconomic variable. Last year I taught in a large and relatively affluent school district, in a beautiful new building which was drastically overcrowded, and there was no money available to purchase textbooks for the students in my classes.

One of the issues I encountered time and again in my research on school desegregation was the burden placed on young children by having them ride buses every day to distant schools. So when I encountered recently a young woman who had experienced this burden, I had to ask her about it. She was transported from her home in the southeastern corner of the county to an arts magnet program located in the center of the county – an hour or more on a bus every day for four years. I asked her, “Was it worth it?”

She replied emphatically that it was. “I knew that I was going to a much better place than my neighborhood school.”

She wasn’t talking about the physical environment of the school building. She may have been making assumptions about the relative quality of the faculty. But she was definitely responding to the culture of the school and the attitude of the students towards their education.

The program in which she was enrolled required an application, a portfolio of work, and an interview in order to be considered for admission. Students who applied had to demonstrate their desire and ability to develop their artistic talents, in part at least by showing how they had already begun this work on their own. In other words, every student admitted to the program had to have not only a body of work, but also a belief in their own unique talent. They carried with them a confidence that they possessed a special quality that was worthy of development and the attitude necessary to take the effort that was necessary to reach their goals.

I knew of this program mostly through my work in high school mock trial. I had been impressed for years at how accomplished and competitive this school of the arts was in a contest that was so highly geared towards analytical thinking and rules. But it makes perfect sense. The attitude towards self-improvement, the fundamental belief in themselves these students possessed was not limited to the study of painting, or violin, or theater, it affected everything they did in life.

My young acquaintance had gone to school in an environment in which all of her peers were empowered by a belief in their own worth as individuals and the knowledge that working to develop their potential was well worth the effort – in fact it was the only natural course of action.

What if every school could foster such an attitude towards life? Surely it does not take some special artistic talent. Everyone has unique abilities. Everyone can be a better, more fully actualized person, if they work to develop their own potential. The physical environment in which students attend school matters, but what matters most is having a social environment that encourages a positive attitude towards learning and towards life.

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