Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Thinking Through

“We are here today to honor teachers and mentors… who are upholding their responsibility not just to the young people who they teach but to our country by inspiring and educating a new generation in math and science. But we're also here because this responsibility can't be theirs alone. All of us have a role to play in building an education system that is worthy of our children and ready to help us seize the opportunities and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“And under the outstanding leadership of Arne Duncan, we've launched a $4 billion Race to the Top fund, one of the largest investments in education reform in history. Through the Race to the Top, states are competing for funding—and producing the most innovative programs in science and math will be an advantage in this competition, as will allowing scientists and statisticians and engineers to more easily become teachers. We want states and school districts to start being more creative about how they can attract more science and math teachers.”

President Barack Obama
January 6, 2010

I applaud President Obama’s focus on math and science, and I think a national debate over how we teach our children will take center stage in our discussions now that health care reform has passed, but he is shortsighted. The education siren song of the last twenty years has been “the education of the whole child.” In the relentless pursuit of an educated mind, we can never leave out reading, writing and critical thinking.

We need students who have been educated in languages, history, literature, art, culture, the sciences, math, public oratory, political science, geography, world cultures and religions, philosophy, and sociology. And that is simply the beginning.

To become a scientist or mathematician, one needs basic skills: computation, problem solving, ability to form a hypothesis, scientific methodology, and most important, the skills of reading and writing. Without the last two, the whole enterprise grinds to a halt.

Through the skills of reading and writing, we can enhance thinking—both critical and analytical—and foster problem solving, strategic planning, and organizational procedures. Everything is connected.

I had reason to think deeply about this over the last week as I considered a crisis in my own courses. In the English classroom, we are constantly trying to balance the curriculum between grammar and writing skills, and reading and vocabulary development. Some years, the work swings toward literature—broad, intense reading of all genres—and other years, we shift focus to writing—grammar, syntax, diction and rhetoric. I can never seem to find the happy medium, the sweet spot of a perfect curriculum.

This year, I have packed in more reading in my classes. But over the last week, I have felt discontented, even a vague sense of panic. My students are not getting enough grammar, specifically. They have written a lot—at least one major piece of writing every week. We draft and use the writing process. We do both timed, in class essays, and papers outside of class involving research and drafting.

But what has disturbed my sleep lately are the continuing mistakes I flag on nearly every piece of writing: subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, verb tense misuse, and errors in spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. I cover the papers in notes and comments, yet there is a disconnect between those notes and the student writer. I realized that many times the students are unfamiliar with the grammatical concept behind the error, therefore they are powerless to rectify the situation.

So I have gone back to a strategy that I have used in the past: taking mistakes from the papers, compiling them anonymously on a handout, and having students correct the errors and rewrite the sentences. When they see what is wrong—and inevitably, they recognize the mistake because it sounds incorrect—I can tell them what the technical name of the error is, and they get it. “Oh, that’s subject-verb agreement?” they say. Now we have a common vocabulary to identify problems in writing.

The downside to this is that the increased class time we take to do this moves us away from the intense reading that I have planned. We fall behind in literature as we do a better job of understanding problems in writing. Yet, when I stuck to the reading schedule, students were not improving their writing.

The conclusion is clear, and President Obama, school boards and districts, administrations and teachers should focus in on this: in all subjects, in all disciplines, we need to go back to basics. A solid education is not about new theories, data management, technology, and buzzwords. Technology, especially, is important in the classroom, but it is a tool to teach, a method of lesson delivery. The bedrock is a challenging curriculum with good, basic teaching utilizing every minute of the day in a clear, focused, intense lesson. We need to drill, teach, re-teach, and set high standards for our students. The classroom needs to be a place of discipline and order, with procedures and objectives that are rooted in what is best for the students’ learning. Unfortunately, many teachers coming out of education schools do not know basic classroom management skills like discipline and lesson structure, but they know all the theories taught to them by professors who far too often have not been in the elementary or high school classroom for very long themselves. Theories are great, but practical, basic strategies for teaching are better. How can we graduate teaching candidates who know Constructivist theory, but cannot control a class and maintain a productive, learning environment in the classroom?

Students and parents share some responsibility as well. Patience, determination, intensity, motivation, diligence—a student must have these qualities to succeed. He or she cannot wait for someone to do the learning for them. They must value what they are doing in the classroom, and therein lies the cultural connection. We in America must show more respect for teachers and learning. Parents need to support their kids, but work with teachers instead of looking for ways to excuse their children’s behavior and lack of progress.

Yes, we need a better education program: in math, science, literature, writing, history, languages, debate, art, and everything else. Most definitely, we need to focus on the critical skill of analytical thinking. Far too many students simply accept things on a superficial level. Our culture—television, movies, advertisements, politics, art, and society—teaches students to stick with the superficial instead of critically thinking and diving below the obvious. We need teachers who can counter this superficiality, diagnose a student’s deficiencies, and formulate a solid, basic plan to address weaknesses.

We need, quite simply, a revolution in education, and if President Obama thinks that reformation involves only math and science, he is not thinking things through.

And thinking in education is everything.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Paolo's Quest

“…there was no joy in his heart. Dreams came to him and restless thoughts…the vessel was not full, his mind was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not content.”
from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I was at the beginning of my teaching career, and things were not going well. My wife had been in a major car accident, totaling the second car we had purchased with the last of our meager savings. So we were carpooling to work; I dropped her off at her school near downtown Los Angeles before traveling down the 10 freeway to Santa Monica where I taught. The accident happened before school even started, and since that September, I had been hit from behind on the freeway twice, and we were constantly one step ahead of major breakdowns. Financially, we were devastated, living on credit, trying to pay off student loans.

My classes were difficult—one group was nearly impossible to control during the last period of the day. I was stressed, broke, and desperate.

Paolo was a student in my tenth grade class. He failed everything, never turned in any assignments and handed me blank tests in class. He sat in the back of the room with what I thought was a defiant look on his face. He did not seem to connect with other kids, and I saw him staring out the window when he was supposed to be writing in his journal. No parents returned my calls, and no one seemed to care. When I tried to speak with him after school, he didn’t show.

One day, during my preparation period, someone knocked on my door. Paolo. He had a greasy, stained grocery bag in his arms. He took the seat next to my desk and unrolled the bag. “Have you read these books?” he asked.

One by one, he pulled numerous volumes from his bag. Lao Tzu, Alan Watts, Sun Tzu, Shunryu Suzuki, and titles such as Buddhist Meditation, The Way of Zen, and The Wisdom of Zen Masters. He had roughly forty books in his possession covering every angle of Eastern philosophy.

“No, I haven’t read much in that area.”

“You are a teacher,” he said. “You need to read them.”

“Shouldn’t you be in class somewhere?” I asked.

“I’m not learning anything in that class. This is more important.”

I insisted that he go to class. “Leave the books with me and I will look them over.”

That night, I started reading, and I was hooked. Eastern philosophy spoke to my suffering, the futility in trying to control my life. I constantly thought of the future, anxieties, struggles with my past. In the books I learned to live in the moment.

Paolo showed up again in my classroom during my prep period. “Look,” I said to him, “you can’t keep coming here when you’re supposed to be in class.”

“Did you read them?”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Mr. Martin, don’t you think it’s incredible?”

“Paolo, why don’t you study for my class, or use some of this knowledge in your papers? You’re a smart guy.”

“I’m not interested in grammar or writing papers. I want to read more books like this,” he said, gesturing to the stack on my desk. “Can you read them so we can discuss?”

I agreed if he would come to see me only outside of class time. That was the deal. And so we began our independent study, student and teacher, teacher and student, the lines becoming blurred.

“You know what I like to do?” he said one early spring day with the afternoon sun slanting through the classroom windows. “I take my bike down to the beach and ride up the storm channels under the city.”

“Paolo, do you know how dangerous that is?”

“Hey, as long as it doesn’t rain, I’m fine. I ride up under the city, and sometimes I park my bike, turn off my flashlight, and climb up to the drains and vents and pop out. No one even notices me, and there I am—in Beverly Hills, Culver City—once I made it to downtown L.A.”

I did not know if that was possible, but it sounded like a good story. “Promise me you won’t do that again,” I said. “It’s dangerous.”

“Life is dangerous, Mr. Martin. Life is impermanent, and we all will die sometime. It’s in the books.”

Another day, I asked him about his family. “My mom and dad don’t talk.”

“To you?”

“To me or to each other. My dad’s Sicilian, a real asshole. He used to beat the crap out of me.” He noticed the look of apprehension on my face. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to call the child abuse hotline or anything. He tries anything with me, I kick his ass. Last time I knocked him pretty good. He leaves me alone now.”

We studied the books all spring. I asked him to write about how he would apply what he had read to his life. He wrote some incredible papers, and I credited his class grade for that. Mine was the only class he passed at the end of the year.

Life turns, and we cannot control it. We can only live in the moment; try to make the most of what we have, wherever we are. I turned in my resignation for a variety of reasons, none of which I disclosed to anyone. Mainly, the year had simply depleted my resources, and I needed to find a better position.

Paolo, too, decided to move on. “Where will you go?” I asked him.

“I’ll transfer to Venice High School,” he said, his features stoic and intense. I knew that it was his way not to show emotion, and those stares from the early days in my class were not ones of defiance, but of intense scrutiny.

On the last day of school, he came to my empty room to say goodbye. He simply walked up to me and offered his hand. “Aren’t you afraid about going to a new school?” I asked him, feeling my own fear and trepidation about the future.

“No. Remember, everything changes. That’s the rule. You can’t control it. You just go.”

“Good luck,” I said. He turned. “Paolo?” He stood silhouetted for a moment in the doorway of the classroom. “What made you bring me those books to read? Why did you pick me?”

“You’re the teacher,” he said. “I knew you would know what to do.”

“The way that can be spoken is not the true way,” Lao Tzu wrote at the start of the Tao Te Ching. The more I learn, the more I know that I am ignorant. But learning, like life, is a journey, and we must follow the path, through the dark tunnels of that ignorance, until we surface into the light.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Bloody Truth

Articles referenced in this essay:
“School’s Shake-Up Is Embraced by the President” The New York Times 3/6/10
“Building a Better Teacher” The New York Times Magazine 3/7/10
“Math and English Classes Could Be Standardized” Los Angeles Times 3/10/10
“Texas Approves Curriculum Revised by Conservatives” The New York Times 3/12/10“A.J. Duffy: Teachers’ Choice” Los Angeles Times 3/13/10“The Big Idea—It’s Bad Education Policy” Los Angeles Times 3/14/10“Obama Seeks To Overhaul No Child Left Behind” Los Angeles Times 3/14/10
Newsweek (the entire issue) 3/15/10

The Obama administration is intent on renewing George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, even while many of the architects of that policy rush to refute it and outright distance themselves from it. Educators like Diane Ravitch, one of the proponents of the legislation under Bush, have realized that the last eight years were a disaster for American education. Let’s examine two problem areas.

Charter schools were touted as the panacea for poorly performing public schools. But what we have learned is that these charter schools offer no better results than their public counterparts. They simply suck resources—good teachers, students, and programs—from regular public schools, leaving behind poorly performing students with disciplinary issues, weak teachers, and under-funded schools.

The rise of charter schools taken from the public system means that instead of fixing what is wrong with public education, we simply convert some public schools into charters, good students and teachers compete to work in such places, leaving the failing schools with all their inadequacies.

The second major problem with No Child is the reliance on standardized test scores to measure a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. If we set up a classroom with a teacher and students, tell that teacher that her position and salary will be based on increasing the scores on a standardized test given each year, and if her students do not show improvement, she will lose her position entirely, are we surprised when that teacher spends the year drilling students on the test? Ravitch and her crew are now quite clear that relying on these test scores to measure teachers is a colossal failure that has led to instruction limited in scope and focused solely on the material on the test in lieu of art, history, geography, civics, science and foreign language.

Teaching to a test produces short-term, easily measured results, a boon to bureaucrats and those who love to impose a business model on schools. But they are woefully inadequate to measure the development of a child into a life-long learner, one who can analyze, think critically, and be creative in the workplace. “…[M]any factors affect student scores other than their teacher,” Ravitch writes, “including students’ motivation, the schools’ curriculum, family support, poverty and distractions on testing day, such as weather or even a dog barking in the school’s parking lot.” She goes on to say that “Education is a slow, arduous process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated teachers and supportive families, as well as a coherent curriculum.”

Teachers alone cannot make education successful. Administrators, teachers, parents and students need to pull together and create a culture where wisdom and knowledge are considered of utmost value and importance. We need to show students that educating oneself is the most important priority, not how much money one makes. Difficult tasks are often the ones most worth doing, and getting an education is a challenge, but it is worth every drop of sweat in the end.

We are in a fight for our cultural life in this country. The bloody truth is that we lack the brain power, the initiative, the leadership, to steer a course for the future. President Obama has proven to be shortsighted in his views on education, and No Child Left Behind is a dismal failure inflicted upon our children, crippling their futures. We need to get back to basics: solid teaching that educates children in the broadest sense, exposing them to language, art, music, history, geography, English, literature, math, and the sciences. Forget about standardized tests and start worrying about turning kids into life-long learners. Forget President Obama, teachers’ unions, and the theories of those teaching in education schools who have limited classroom experience. We must face the hard choices and the steep challenges to create the education system we want for our country’s future.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The September Issue

I am definitely the wrong person to write about fashion, but here goes.

I went to Barnes and Noble last week and purchased the R.J. Cutler documentary on the making of the September, 2007 issue of Vogue, quite literally the bible of the fashion industry. Cutler is the award-winning director of the documentary on Bill Clinton’s race to the White House, entitled The War Room.

In this new DVD, officially titled The September Issue: Anna Wintour & The Making of Vogue, Cutler followed Wintour and her staff around for eight months, January to August 2007, while they produced, photographed, wrote, and assembled the largest issue in Vogue’s history. As Candy Pratts Price, Executive Fashion Director of says in the film, September is the real new year in fashion, the time when everything changes. Magazines devoted to fashion often have their largest issues in September when fall fashions, first previewed during Fashion Week in the spring, hit the streets of New York, Milan, London, Paris, and Los Angeles.

I will be the first to admit that I do not understand fashion, but I recognize the importance of the industry to the economy. What I like about Cutler’s film has more to do with how Anna Wintour and her staff operate, and how a major magazine is put together in the twenty-first century when traditional journalism, magazines and newspapers, seem headed for oblivion.

Surprisingly, assembling the fall issue of Vogue involves a variety of old school publishing techniques. Often in the film, we see Wintour and her art department in a small room looking at a white board with rows of mock-up magazine pages. They move them around, pull out some pages and add others. Large size pages are printed and examined, and the smaller versions are adjusted accordingly.

Meanwhile, Grace Coddington, Creative Director of the magazine, works with a number of models and photographers to capture the iconic images readers have come to expect from Vogue. As Senior Vice-President—Publishing Director Tom Florio says, Vogue is not just a magazine, but a brand. To watch Coddington create the brand is a study in art history.

One shoot in a restaurant in New York resembles a salon in Paris. She uses the photographer Brassai as an inspiration, and the pictures are nothing less than high art, featuring shadows and light and sumptuous sets that belong in a museum. Of course, she then has to stand by while Wintour rejects some of them for being “too busy.” In the end, the issue contains all of Coddington’s shoots and only one by Fashion Director Tonne Goodman, the spread featuring actress Siena Miller shot by Mario Testino. This is a testament to Coddington’s eye for color and image, as well as her creativity.

There is a moving scene in the film where Coddington tours Versailles. She reminisces about her long career, first as a model, then at British Vogue, and finally landing in her current spot at the American version. In some ways, the 69 year-old feels “left behind.” In voice over, as we pan the opulent grounds of the palace of the Louis XIV, she tells us that one cannot stay behind, but must charge forward into the future. She is someone who has had her fingers on the pulse of fashion for more than four decades, so she knows all about charging into the future.

Anna Wintour is another marvel worthy of study. Her management style is clean and crisp. Much has been made of her abrasive behavior, her arrogance, her eccentricities, but she is a no-nonsense boss who knows what she wants and is not afraid to demand it. Even the CEO of Neiman Marcus, Bert Tansky, asks for Wintour’s help in getting the designers to deliver their product on time. As Editor-In-Chief of the magazine, her hand is in every department, but she excels at the visual, and some of the most interesting scenes in the film come when she is working on how the photographs and words will lay out in the September issue.

Sally Singer, Vogue Fashion News/Features Director, talks about Wintour on “She is fantastic because she’s clear. The thing about Anna that’s so good to work for is she knows what she wants. She doesn’t need to be shown five things to get the one she wants. She’s clear from the start. It’s your job to listen, and if you have objections to the final vision—if you’re someone who can think through to the end of a project at the start—it behooves you to voice them. She listens, and you have that discussion then…There’s no tricks, deceptions or emotions. It’s just work. It’s rigorous and interesting and forward-thinking.”

Cutler also wrote about Wintour’s work in a piece on the Huffington Post. He lists four aspects of her management style that he came to admire while working on the documentary. Lesson one was to keep meetings short. “…At Vogue,” he writes, “…meetings are long if they go more than seven minutes and everyone knows to show up on time, prepared and ready to dive in.” Lesson two, trust your instincts. Wintour specializes in “knowing what she wants, making clear decisions and moving on.” Lesson three, surround yourself with great talent. “Anna Wintour knows that you’re only as good as the people who work for you,” Cutler says. Lesson four, don’t look back, a sentiment echoed by Grace Coddington as well. “Fashion’s not about looking back,” Wintour says at the end of the film. “It’s always about looking forward.”

There is a lot to be learned from The September Issue, by those interested in the world of fashion, and those who want to study an incredible manager of talent, art and people, bringing the entire collection of parts together to produce an extraordinary product. The documentary is a fascinating look at a world most people are not familiar with, and a personality in Anna Wintour that is a revelation in her own right.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More Layoffs, Bad Advice, and Ravitch's U-Turn

It has been quite a week for education in America and California. And it is only Wednesday.

On Monday, the story broke in the Los Angeles Daily News that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is prepared to layoff “nearly 4700…teachers, administrators, counselors and nurses…as they work to close a crippling $640 million budget deficit.”

These steep cuts “would virtually eliminate school nurses and librarians, increase all class sizes, including a high of up to 44 students in middle school, and boost counselor loads to 1000 students each,” according to Connie Llanos, a staff writer for the paper. Also included are “1000 janitors and maintenance workers.”

Los Angeles schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines said “some layoffs are inevitable, as are cuts to services.”

The piece goes on to state that district officials believe the layoffs and cuts “could be avoided if employee unions approve other cost-cutting plans like implementing furloughs or reducing the school year by a week.”

No matter how we slice it, there are only so many pieces in the pie. The result is always the same: the students end up hungry for a decent education. And now we are going to reduce the school year by a week when we already have one of the shortest school years among industrialized nations?!

Buried toward the end of the piece are the words of the teachers: “School-based employees…fear that these cuts will severely inhibit their ability to meet the most basic needs of students.”

A second article in The New York Times paints a bleak picture of the value of high school guidance counselors. “Most people who graduated from high school in the last dozen years believe that their guidance counselors provided little meaningful advice about college or careers.” The study was done by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization. According to those polled, “the best advice on their futures came from teachers.”

The article states that in California’s schools there is one counselor per thousand students. I do not envy the poor counselor responsible for dishing out advice about college, work, social issues, mental health issues, and personal problems to one thousand students. How could a counselor be effective with that many kids in his care?

The third article of the week, also from The New York Times, explains how education historian and supporter of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, Diane Ravitch, has reversed her course and now has done an “about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling.”

“Once outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools, Dr. Ravitch is now caustically critical,” says writer Sam Dillon. “She underwent an intellectual crisis,” he writes, “discovering that these strategies, which she now calls faddish trends, were undermining public education.”

The No Child Left Behind law is due to be renewed in the coming weeks in Congress. Although Ravitch recognizes that she once supported it, she “now says its requirements for testing in math and reading have squeezed vital subjects like history and art out of classrooms.”

This is the same person who supported the creation of state and national academic standards. The standards were created, and schools have been scrambling ever since to graduate students who can meet these standards. Teachers lost their jobs for being ineffective based on exit exams and standardized testing. Other instructors threw out curriculum and simply taught the test. This shortsighted mentality has left us with students who are not prepared for the challenges of higher education, the job market, and life beyond the classroom. But all the focus on the test did, in some cases, raise scores a few percentage points.

Now Ravitch concludes that “Testing had become not just a way to measure students learning, but an end in itself.” And for the teachers who did not focus solely on a test and attempted to educate for the future, the testing statistics became an end to a career. No child was left behind, but I am sure a number of good teachers were.

Thanks, Dr. Ravitch. It is nice to know that after all the crap you have put us through, your assessment of American education today is that “We’re on the wrong track.” And it was you who helped put us on this track.

The poor condition of American education is nothing short of cultural suicide. We have blown the collective foot off of the body of our country, and now we are bleeding to death.

When the mind life of a culture dies, and most certainly that is what’s happening in American education today, the death of the body, the downfall of the country itself, cannot be far behind.

With all the pink slips, budget cuts, shuttered libraries, wastelands of classrooms crowded with students, jettisoned programs, missing art and enrichment activities, the question must be asked: where the hell are we going? Cortines, Ravitch, and a host of other “leading educators” across the country aren’t sure. They have no money, no ideas, no vision. The system is bankrupt and broken, and students are the victims.