Thanks for giving again

Thanksgiving has always seemed to me, more than any other holiday, like a time to take stock and show appreciation.  Today’s post was first published a year ago.

It’s Thanksgiving week and many schools are closed until next Monday.  It is good to take a break from the rhythm of work, and Thanksgiving offers the opportunity to be immersed in the love of a supportive family.

For many students, school is not just a place for work, it is the center of their social universe.  It is the place where they learn how effort and diligence translates into rewards and satisfaction.  Everyone complains about school (just as everyone complains about the weekends being too short, or the weather being too wet) but the truth is that for many students, school is a place of promise and opportunity.  Behind the complaints next Monday will be optimism and a refreshed spirit ready to return to school.

But for others, school is a place of frustration and discomfort.  Instead of imparting the message of empowerment through learning, the institution seems to throw up walls that a child cannot cross.  Rather than being a place for positive reinforcement, school is a daily reminder that the student does not measure up.  For these children, Thanksgiving break is a desperately needed escape from an oppressive and debilitating environment.

Why the difference?  There are differences between schools, to be sure.  But why do some students thrive in a particular setting while others in the same school flounder?  School environment is not the only factor.

Part of the answer is the vast difference in talent that exists within the human race.  Some people are simply better at the tasks that schools require.  Other individuals who may be capable of brilliance in other spheres are stymied by the narrow constraints of formal education.  Schools should do a better job of cultivating human potential, and adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of the young people they serve.

But a large part of the answer lies at home.  The biggest determinant of a child’s success in school is whether he or she brings an attitude of success from home.  It is more than believing in oneself – it is taking joy in new experiences, seeing the connection between effort and reward, accepting setbacks as opportunities for learning and not as defeats.  A child’s attitude towards life is largely determined by the attitudes of the people he or she looks to for inspiration and support.

This Thanksgiving week, I want to thank the many people – especially my parents – who gave me the support and inspired in me the confidence I have felt throughout my life in meeting the challenges and embracing the opportunities I have known.  Thanks for giving me the love and support that have sustained me and allowed me to believe in myself.  Every child deserves such love.


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Trusting what they tell us

There is a fundamental mistrust of children in our society.  We don’t like to admit it.  We do mean well.  But we don’t listen to what they are telling us, no matter how clear the message is.

We expect young people to mature into capable, independent adults.  When they are young, we hold them tightly.  We guide them and teach them how to conduct themselves in groups.  We instruct them about authority and expertise, and show them how to work with both.  We give them the tools for operating as an individual in a society.  We should then loosen our grasp and let them practice these skills as they explore and discover the kinds of adults they are going to be.  Discovery is empowering, and natural consequences for successes and mistakes are the most meaningful paths to learning.

But too often we do not loosen our grasp, we do not impart a sense of empowerment.  Too many children approach adulthood with a sense that they are outsiders – outmatched by the game they are forced to play.

In an age when information surrounds us and access to it is literally in the palm of our hands, we do not share the tools to understand it, or assess it.  We do not encourage students to explore it or expand upon it.  Instead, we spoon feed the specific parts of it we plan to test on a multiple-choice exam.  Nothing else is deemed relevant because nothing else is measured.  Intellectual curiosity is less important than memory, and the kids who can memorize without being distracted by the need to understand what they are learning will do well.  Everyone else does not make the grade.

In an age of innovation and choices, when workplaces are mobile and “casual Fridays” are a quaint concept from a suit-and-tie past, we run schools like factories.  We reward compliance more generously than we recognize quality performance.  We assign dozens of students to an overcrowded room and then wonder why keeping order becomes an issue.  So our solution is to tighten our grip and demand obedience.  Practicing self-control is meaningless in an environment in which external control is a perpetual threat.

And young people do want to control their own lives.  They do want to learn and achieve mastery of the things that will allow them to be competent and independent adults.  Human beings are rational as well as social.  We all want to be successful, and we depend upon others to show us the way to success, but ultimately we need to succeed on our own terms.  So why do we offer in schools such a narrow definition of success?

There is a clear relationship between academic success and classroom behavior, and it is not the obvious one.  The obvious case is the student with failing grades who won’t sit still and can’t seem to keep quiet.  His method of dealing with frustration is to “act out.”  But his classmate who is also failing and frustrated deals with it by withdrawing – not a behavior problem, but still a student in crisis.  Their teacher may only address the symptoms of noise and motion, doing nothing to help with the underlying academic problems, while the quiet student slips unnoticed below the surface of the water.

At the same time, a student who is full of restless energy may apply plenty of that power to school work, but still has enough left over to be an agitator in a crowded classroom.  The teacher may step in to address the noncompliant behavior while failing to recognize that restless energy is the fuel both for this student’s academic success as well as his out-of-place social style.

We need to listen to what children are telling us, and trust that whether or not they can articulate the message in words, whether or not their behavior seems nonproductive or even self-destructive, their goal is one to which we would all aspire.  We want to be successful on our own terms.  If we truly want to help a child become the best adult he or she can be, we need to pay attention to the only true expert on the subject – the child.

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Authority versus power

The image of a South Carolina high school student being flipped out of her desk and dragged across the floor by a Richland County deputy sheriff has stirred up a national discussion about cell phones, classroom discipline, police action, and race. The video images of the incident are shocking, but do not tell the whole story.

What actions by the student could have prompted this kind of treatment? Surely it did not have to come to this. But perhaps in the rush of public attention, we can gain a little insight. Sometimes, departing from accepted standards can provide an unexpected teachable moment.

When we think of schools, with their crowded classrooms, rigid bell schedules, lines and rules, we tend to forget one important fact of life. Learning is an individual experience. And yet we expect young people to learn in groups, with their behavior highly restricted in a manner that is geared more towards maintaining tranquility in the school building than it is towards actual learning. At times, the need for crowd control constricts the opportunities for the very activity schools were created to encourage – education.

There is an irresolvable tension between competing and equally important values. The nature of schools is to provide guidance, and a structured environment in which progress towards learning can take place with few distractions. But the process of learning – the internal structure of learning, if you will – differs for every student. An environment that is conducive for one student may be disruptive for another. Classroom management is an art, not a science, and teachers must be able to make constant adjustments in their approach to accommodate the needs of the individuals under their care.

That being said, the art of managing behavior in a classroom is not pure improvisation. Rules and clearly understood expectations are a crucial part of the picture. And learning how to cooperate with others in a structured environment is one of the most important lessons one learns in school.

I once spent a large portion of a day observing a kindergarten class. What struck me the most was the enormous amount of time the teacher invested in teaching social behavior: stand in line, wait your turn, no touching, ask permission to speak. It was perhaps 90% education on how to behave in a school setting, 10% instruction on content, with social behavior lessons infused liberally into the lessons on letters and numbers.

As a veteran high school teacher, I was struck, but not really surprised by this ratio. It is completely age-appropriate to devote class time to teaching 5-year-olds proper behavior for the classroom.

But it is completely inappropriate in a high school setting to allow a 15-year-old’s misbehavior to take class time away from other students. In most cases, there is no confusion about rules or expectations; the student just has different ideas about how he or she wants to spend time in class. A wise teacher will deal with behavioral issues quickly and quietly, and if they can’t be resolved that way in the classroom, they must be dealt with elsewhere. As with any matter of classroom behavior, a teacher relies on the support of the school’s administration.

Let’s keep things in perspective here. Most of the times I have had students using cell phones in my class, they were not being disruptive to others. Their “crime” was letting their attention wander from the subject of the lesson. This is not a 21st century problem. Kids have been spacing out in class as long as kids have sat in classrooms. The best solution is to redirect their attention without disrupting the flow of the lesson. The teacher circulates around the room, a quiet word or perhaps even a simple rap on the desktop of a student whose attention has gone out for a walk.

Cell phones are actually easier to deal with than wandering attentions. They are visible. If there is a classroom rule against having cell phones outside of pockets during class, a student who violates the rule is in effect announcing to anyone who notices that he or she is off task.

Rules about cell phones and other behavioral issues must be communicated to students at the beginning of the school year, along with the consequences for infractions. Let’s assume that the penalty for having a phone visible is after-school detention. A teacher can have a supply of printed notices handy. When a cell phone is spotted, the teacher strolls by the student’s desk and places a notice there. The student does not need to have the rule explained, and the consequence is spelled out – time and date – on the notice. If the student wants to plead mitigating circumstances (a parent texted about a family emergency, for instance) that can be done after class. If the student wants to argue and disrupt the class, that’s a different infraction with different consequences.

But making an issue of behavior in a high school classroom is a waste of time. And for a teacher to demand that a student show deference to the teacher’s authority is not only a waste of valuable instructional time, it puts that very authority into question. A teacher should never engage in a power struggle with a student. Ever. A student’s good behavior should never be dependent on the teacher’s ability to force students to behave. It should be a given – the result of learning that goes back to kindergarten. If those lessons were never learned, they can’t be taught here and now. It is not fair to the other students in the class, and it is not fair to the teacher.

What happened in that South Carolina classroom should never have occurred. I don’t know exactly how it developed, but my guess is that it began with a student who was minding her own business instead of paying attention in class. She was called out by her teacher, then the principal, and finally a man in a uniform. Did she respond to all of this attention disrespectfully? Perhaps. But is it even possible that the student’s actions were more disruptive to the class than were the efforts by school officials and ultimately by a law enforcement officer to bring her into line? I doubt it.

I don’t mean to diminish the difficulties, or the stakes. Managing a classroom is not as simple as passing out detention slips. The individuals in that classroom have different abilities, styles, struggles, and methods for coping. Teachers must exercise a great deal of sensitivity and judgment. Sometimes even then, things prove difficult. But a wise teacher knows not to take frustrating situations personally, and understands that confrontation and coercion have no place in a healthy learning environment.


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Phones and authority

Many years ago, before I became a teacher, a co-worker bemoaned to me that her son had gotten into trouble in school for reading a magazine in class.

“What’s the big deal?” she asked, “It’s just a magazine.”

Even in my pre-educator mindset, I could not let the obvious answer to that question pass. “It’s a big deal because the teacher is trying to educate your son, and not only is he giving up an opportunity to learn, he is showing disrespect to the teacher’s efforts to help him.”

Her reaction was one of surprise that I would stand up for an officious teacher instead of her dear child who wasn’t bothering anyone. She didn’t give any hint that she thought he was missing anything important by burying his nose in a magazine.

I think back to the many times as a teacher that I have called students on their off-task behavior. Typically, students would cry no foul. “But we weren’t doing anything in class, so what’s the difference?” In a patient mode, I would explain that time devoted to working on their own was not time off. Just because I wasn’t engaging them directly didn’t mean they shouldn’t be engaged in their assignment. Class time was for schoolwork.

Only in recent years has the form of off-task behavior shifted from the classics – dozing off, talking, reading or writing something unrelated to the class – to a newer electronic form of distraction. The cell phone.

Cell phones, and especially smart phones, have changed the way we interact with the world. And we seem to love it. They are addictive. Who hasn’t felt a sense of disproportionate panic when a phone has been misplaced? Who hasn’t pulled out a phone at a traffic light only to feel an ill-advised urge to continue texting, continue surfing, when the light turned green?

I did just fine without a cell phone for most of my life, but I bought one when my first son was born 14 years ago. I can feel the pull of cell phone addiction even though I know perfectly well that life is good – and in many ways better – without that electronic tether. My son grew up in a world in which “everyone” had one. He got his last year when he was in eight grade. My younger son got one this year as a seventh-grader. Both of them know classmates who carried phones in elementary school.

A cell phone is a natural place of refuge for a bored kid.

Last week, I was in a meeting for 9th and 10th graders and their parents on the topic of preparing for college. The facilitator asked, what is the biggest challenge among the steps a student needs to take to get ready for life after high school?

I said, “The hardest thing for 9th graders to do is to imagine that there is life after high school. I taught 11th graders for years, and they were just starting to grasp that reality. Until that switch is flipped inside of them, parents are going to have to carry most of the weight.”

The father sitting across from me nodded and said, “That’s true. We went to visit a college campus and my son wouldn’t even get out of the car.”

Meanwhile his son, knowing that all eyes in the room were on him, continued to attend to his cell phone. I watched him. He was interacting exclusively with the phone for almost the entire remaining hour of the meeting.

I thought about the conversation years ago with my former co-worker. In her story the teacher had snatched the magazine out of her son’s hands. You can’t do that with cell phones. They are too expensive and liability issues make it unfeasible.

I thought about the recent case in South Carolina in which a uniformed officer dragged a student forcefully from her chair after she refused to put away her phone.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen commented on the case to reporters for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Why is an officer called to the classroom when a kid doesn’t give up their cell phone? To me, that’s not an officer issue. It’s a classroom management issue. … It’s about do we have relationships with kids.” [1]

I agree that conflicts in classroom management are better resolved when teachers have good relationships with their students. But I wonder if sometimes, students feel a stronger relationship with their phones than they do with any of the authority figures in their lives.

How would you have handled the situation if you were a teacher and a student in your class refused to put away his or her phone?


[1] Stirgus, E., & Bloom, M. (2015, November 1). Finding right role for campus police. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, p. A1, A10-11.

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A revolution at our fingertips

The new film about Steve Jobs is a mini- history lesson on the evolution of personal computers, and a reminder of how far we have gone beyond the revolution that these devices have brought about.

To be fair, the film is primarily a portrait of a troubled visionary told in three acts with sparkling dialogue and characters designed to highlight the human flaws and struggles of the central figure. I went to see it primarily because I am a fan of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and not because of any need to revel in the legacy of Steve Jobs. Sorkin delivered, with the kind of memorable lines that have marked his work since A Few Good Men (“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”). The cinematography and direction were brilliant, I thought, and crucial to the artistic success of a film heavy on dialogue but with little action or changes in setting.

In other words, as art, the film worked for me.

But it also reminded me of an era not so long ago in which the world was a very different place.

The film begins with the product launch in 1984 of the Macintosh computer, a tiny screen mounted on the front of the box that contained the system unit, with a separate keyboard and mouse. It was simple in appearance and simple to operate. It was a pleasure to use for visually-oriented people like me, and had the first (I believe) desktop display that allowed for moving objects around like on a real desktop, and for opening windows with a click of a mouse.

I am not the most tech-savvy person, and it would be another 12 years after I first used the Macintosh before I actually owned a computer. But this device was designed for people just like me, uncomfortable with unfamiliar technology, but able to learn and enjoy it if my interaction with it felt somewhat natural and intuitive.

And that was the brilliance of Apple for many years, and particularly of Jobs’ creative contributions. It was more intuitive, and more user-friendly, than any high tech device most of us had ever seen. Combined with Apple’s efforts to make their computers the tools of choice in schools across the country, the ease with which one could learn to use a Mac converted many Americans into computer devotees.

The final act of the film revolves around the 1998 launch of the iMac, the brightly colored desktop computer marketed for its ease in accessing the internet. The barrier of comfort with the new technology had largely been overcome by this time. Macs were still on the cutting edge of user-friendliness, but the new frontier was the not what was in the box, but what was on the web.

The end of the age of desktop personal computers is foretold in one scene of the last act in which Jobs remarks on his daughter’s clunky portable cassette tape player and promises to create the device we now know as the ipod. Within a few years, hand-held devices that could serve up not just music, but various forms of communication with other users, and of course access to the internet, were everywhere. Younger people today interact with their handheld devices with a level of comfort and expertise that is sometimes staggering to those of us who had a few decades head start with using computers.

Today I have a smart phone, a tablet, and a desktop computer with a large screen. I still like to open windows and shuffle things around on the display as if they were papers on a desk. I am fairly competent in using each of these devices, although I know that each has capabilities I do not yet use or even understand. When I get stuck, I ask my teenaged son for technical advice.

The age of personal computers changed the way we organize our lives, access information, conduct business as well as pleasure, buy and sell, even the way we interact with each other face to face. For those of us whose lives have spanned the revolution, and who look around at the incredible differences in the way we live, it is hard not to wonder what will come next.

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The real victims

Last Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on its front page that the victims of the notorious cheating scandal that resulted in plea bargains and prison sentences for a number of former educators employed by Atlanta Public Schools were still waiting for help.

The district attorney who had prosecuted the teachers and administrators involved in the conspiracy to change students’ answers on standardized tests promised reporters last Spring that the affected students would be offered remedial assistance. According to Thursday’s paper, this promise has not been kept.


It’s not good that students who need extra help to be successful in life haven’t had that opportunity. But it’s about time that we recognize that treating the students whose answers were changed like a special class of victims isn’t helping to solve a serious, and much broader problem.

The crisis in public education – the challenges faced by all children who struggle in school – didn’t start with a No. 2 pencil and eraser on an answer sheet.

And the danger in providing remediation to certain students based on something that happened behind their backs six years ago, is that is some people will undoubtedly claim that the problem has been solved – the status quo restored.

We need to do a better job of identifying all children who need assistance to be successful in school. We need to give them the kind of help that will enable them to be successful in life. And we need to drop the misguided notion that the ability to guess the correct answer on a multiple-choice test is an indicator of real learning.

Our children – all of our children – deserve better than this.


For more thoughts on the APS cheating scandal, see the earlier post, Harming children in Atlanta Public Schools

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Discovering America


Who really discovered America?

Why does it matter?

On this federal holiday created in commemoration of an Italian sailor serving a Spanish king, we in the United States might take a few minutes to reflect on the reasons we remember – and the questions that remembering reveals.

If Columbus was the first to discover America, what are we to make of the people he and his crew encountered when they arrived?  Does the title discoverer exclude non-Europeans?  Does it exclude non-Christians?  Does it exclude the illiterate?  Are we to ignore archeological evidence of prior human habitation?  Should we make nothing of the fact that Columbus himself described the native people who lived on the islands where his ships landed?

Clearly, there is some bias at work in the traditional designation of Columbus as the man who “discovered” America.  And it is obvious why Columbus Day is regularly singled out by Native American groups as a day marking the beginning of a disaster.  Ignoring Native Americans in history is just the mildest symptom of the destruction of the indigenous people and cultures of the Western Hemisphere that began in force after the arrival of Columbus.

History is written.  Historical evidence is found in the records that are left behind.  In a highly literate society, we tend to take for granted that records will be kept.  In our current highly technological society, it even seems a safe assumption that if we go out in public, someone somewhere may be making a video recording of our actions.

But until quite recently, most of the human race had neither the skill in reading and writing nor the time to document their lives.  Historical researchers are limited to the relatively few scattered records that remain, and some archeological clues, to piece together a story of the past.

There is evidence that America was “discovered” by Vikings blown off course, by Chinese traders, by the wayfaring Marco Polo, by Muslim sailors, by migrating Polynesians.  Why do we single out Columbus?

The parts of history that we hold dear and pass along to our children are selected for a reason.  Columbus was an entrepreneur, and left a record of his voyages that was intended to promote his stature and enhance his role in the coming campaign of exploration and commercial exploitation of the Americas.  He was a man of the newly-capitalist, nationalistic, and expansionist Western Europe.  To put it bluntly – in the struggle to define the character of the “New World” – his side won.  Thus Columbus becomes a hero not because he “discovered” anything, but because he set into motion something that most Americans of European descent today hold dear.

Are there alternative versions of the story?  Of course there are.  But here are the real questions for us today:

Should we teach children in school more that one account, more than one point of view?  Should we question the reasons we hold some figures from the past as heroes? Should we even select figures from the past to hold up as heroes – do we really need heroes to tell our story?


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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