Government and Human Nature

Cover of "The Federalist (Barnes & Noble ...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve explored James Madison’s exposition on a democratic republic and the regulation of faction through the mechanism of representation in Federalist #10. I’d like to now move on to some interesting insight provided by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15 on the use of power and sanction by government, and on the self-interest of human nature:

Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.

One thing this passage demonstrates is that our founding fathers did not have the rose-tinted glasses that many of us moderns seem to possess when we consider the role of government. Stating the role of government in such stark terms probably rubs our politically-correct sensibilities the wrong way. Recall that Hamilton is referring explicitly to the context of political and economic disarray due to the Articles of Confederation. He knew what it looks like when governance is weak and based on mutual promises of goodwill and intent, rather than backed by an authoritative power to enforce laws.

There is an interesting parallel here in the manner that many people today view public schools. They seem to think that if we simply create a nurturing and caring environment, student behavior will take care of itself (just a quick note: I do believe that environments can be created that will do much to address misbehavior. See my other blog for more on this). This is patently ridiculous to anyone who has taught children. Children naturally take advantage of any opportunity to gain attention and status amongst their peers. Without the ability to enforce transparent and fair codes of expected behavior, a teacher and a school’s administration are toothless. Children know when there are no consequences.

That doesn’t mean a suspension for every child who steps out of line. A consequence may just mean a long conversation with the child and their parent, with a contract drawn up or some other such embarrassing formalized thing. But there must be clear and fair penalties given. Children expect and demand this, and lose all respect for an adult when no such actions are taken (watch and observe children with their parents out in public for further demonstrations of this principle).

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals?

What’s interesting here is the somewhat cynical but pragmatic view that Hamilton displays on human nature. Optimists may disagree, believing that without government, mankind will better self-govern through community-based efforts and individual self-interest. Such optimists are also known as “anarchists.” On the other side of this, however, we can also see that authoritative constraint can produce its own set of dysfunction when it is not implemented in a manner that gains the trust and respect of those so constrained. Americans are renowned for their distrust of their own government. Some of this distrust is well-earned, while some is steeped in provincial conspiracy and superstition. /Begin tangent. Currently, the discovery that the NSA has untrammeled access to almost all corners of our online communications has made many otherwise complacent Estadounidenses awaken to the reality that a healthy mistrust of their government can be warranted, especially when that government has demonstrated that it is fomenting dastardly plans in secret. If our government was more transparent about its surveillance methods and the purposes for that surveillance, I don’t think people would be so taken aback. After all, we willingly hand over wads of our personal information to retailers, credit card companies, and other organizations on a daily basis. /End tangent.

. . .in every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate or inferior orbs, by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common centre. This tendency is not difficult to be accounted for. It has its origin in the love of power. Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged.

Hamilton is making it clear here that this natural tendency for subordinate states to desire greater power requires the execution of federal power through law.

In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. . . .The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the States have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand. . . 

Hmmm. Our federal government brought to an “awful stand” because of extremism. . . Sure sounds painfully familiar. McDonnell, anybody?

The greater deficiencies of some States furnished the pretext of example and the temptation of interest to the complying, or to the least delinquent States. Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden? These were suggestions which human selfishness could not withstand. . . Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.

Again, Hamilton’s pessimistic view of human nature is demonstrated here. It is the selfishness intrinsic to mankind that explains the behavior of the states. Yet this very selfishness is what we see demonstrated when we come up against the greatest challenges to our nation and to our species, such as the depletion of fish from our oceans, the degradation of top soils and water sources, and general environmental volatility across the world. Nations, just like states, just like individuals, act in accordance with self-interest. It is only via the mechanisms of constraint through legislation and justice that this self-interest can be managed for the greater and equitable interest of a collective.

The Federalist Papers: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using Vocabulary.com to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.

The World, it is a Changin’

Head on view of a Rotary Phone

Head on view of a Rotary Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to argue about the impact that technology and the internet have had on our society. “Revolutionized” is one word that springs to mind. That word may seem radical, but consider this: in order to make a phonecall, we used to have to turn a rotary dial with our fingers and wait for it to spin around with each and every single digit! Unbelievable! Imagine all that time we wasted standing there waiting for that dial to turn back around, when we could have been tweeting. . .

In recognition of this rapid and momentous change in our lives, there has been an increasing effort to bring the contemporary technologically driven world down into the bolted-down-desk backwaters of our schools. After all, our children are digital natives. I’m not quite sure what this term means, other than that our kids are consummate consumers and know how to touch a screen to download porn or a new game. But it seems to imply that if we don’t keep them entertained and attached to the drip feed of a lit screen, we may be losing oodles of minutes to ever constant brain stimulus.

Teachers, also, have been a-clamoring for access to laptops and netbooks and what not. Not simply because they can play games, but because their administrators keep haranguing them to input numbers into spreadsheets. The old gradebook just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore in today’s “data-driven” world. It’s much more efficient to crunch numbers on the computer — you can make charts and stuff, which helps principals out a lot because they like seeing things visualized (hint: use lots of color). These charts then can be foisted onto visitors to the building, along with printouts of the state standards, demonstrating how student growth is aligned to AYP targets. See, didn’t that sound good? Come on over here and look at this nice, colorful bulletin board!

Anyway, let me just say this: technology is cool. It’s going to revolutionize education. Everything is going to be personalized, differentiated, and individualized for each and every single learner. It’s going to be amazing! Wake me when we get there. . .

The MLK Memorial and Me

In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me since I hadn’t been there before (update: wait, I have been there before, once as a young ‘un long ago, and another time for a brief few hours for a meeting. Forgive me, I have a really bad memory!), and we wanted to take the opportunity to explore. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.

As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts Martin Luther King with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (“Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope”). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a sense of tragedy. The somewhat unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.

We took our obligatory picture of his statue, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall. “It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which read

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”

I asked her why it made her think of me. She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard every day aligned with that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however, and told her so. I realized I seemed brusque, but I couldn’t think of a reason at that moment to explain why. This post is my explanation.

A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work everyday:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with many niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, in a little niche that reached out to me. In fact, it linked together in theme with the earlier quotation from MLK that had spoken to me:

“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a passion for human rights, but when I read the quotation she linked to me, there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with a sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and challenge, that I can’t quite identify with.

An almost messianic passion, in fact, is a trait of many that enter into teaching as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a sort of “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by some higher purpose. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have entered into a sainthood, and given the respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you kind of attitude.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a job. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I went into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place, but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself. I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a few childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. This is important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the system within which I work impacts our nation’s future greatly, and that I can learn how to work together with others to change the world by altering components of the system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively will change the world. We must learn to look beyond our individual selves and work towards a common, global purpose.

This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can effect great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.

Differentiating Professional and Personal Streams

I had the honor of being selected to attend a recent conference on becoming a better blogger, hosted in Washington D.C. by Bellwether Education. This was a great opportunity for me to meet influential professionals engaged in promoting their voice and perspectives on education online, and to learn from them how to better promote and develop my own classroom-based perspectives.

I’d been struggling for a while now with how to develop my professional voice in conjunction with my personal voice. I’ve been blogging for a number of years now, but solely for a literary and/or personal reflection purpose (writing for me has always been a necessary therapy). While I’ve been interested in gaining greater readership, I haven’t actively sought for this through this blog, recognizing that my style of writing (which is decidedly eclectic in nature and topic) doesn’t exactly have mass appeal.

I had already begun differentiating some of my education specific content intended for larger audiences by publishing on GothamSchools’ Community page, which has been a great way to get involved in the online education community and advocate for my perspectives.

But this conference helped to clarify a difficulty that I had not really confronted head-on, which is that this blog, Manderson’s Bubble — which has heretofore catalogued and characterized my internal narratives — was not the proper avenue for me to continue to cultivate my professional voice. I needed to fully differentiate those divergent streams of my writing.

Realizing this, I got in touch with a great fellow educator, Will Johnson, who also writes amazing pieces for GothamSchools Community, and who I had been collaborating with in developing the concept of public schools as ecosystems. We began a collaborative blog specifically for our advocacy of this model, and to develop our online professional voices as special education teachers. (BTW, please check out our introductory collaborative post on the concept of schools as ecosystems and how it relates to current education reform perspectives.)

Our blog is called Schools as Ecosystems, and we have the ambitious goal of putting up a post daily in order to build readership and establish our voices online. If you are interested in education, please follow, bookmark, and share this blog!

I will continue to post here on the Bubble, but posts here will remain personal or literary in nature, rather than pertaining to my professional perspectives.

I’m excited about what Will and I have put up so far and believe that our model is rich enough to continue to explore indefinitely.

In other news, I just had a project on DonorsChoose.org for e-Readers for my students suddenly completely funded! Totally unexpected and awesome! Thanks dad, Jennica, MarieElaina, and The Hagedorn Fund! I’ve had quite the amazing year, aside from my school environment turning ridiculously negative (more on that later).

Content is at the Heart of Teaching

Finding the main idea is a frequently taught strategy in classrooms across this nation, as are other skills such as inferencing, summarizing, and so on. It’s sad that so often these strategies are taught in general isolation from any kind of deep and enriching content. What’s the point in finding the main idea unless the main idea is worth contemplating?

Now, I work with students who are learning English as their second language and with students with exceptional learning needs. It’s fairly well established that students facing these challenges with language and learning benefit from explicit strategies. I am therefore not opposed to teaching strategy use by any means.

But as a newer teacher, I’ve struggled with getting my students to progress. I’ve taught these strategies and re-taught them, in a classroom devoid of rich and engaging books at their reading levels. So I’ve printed out and made copies of anything I can find at their level. Guess what type of content this stuff is? Short passages on isolated concepts, such as is found on state assessments. The students I had in my last two years of teaching, furthermore, were reading at a pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade level. They were doubly frustrated not only by their difficulty with fluency, but also by lame material.

Without rich, deep content, strategies are irrelevant. Pedagogy, even, is largely irrelevant. This is why I’m excited by the Common Core Standards which have been adopted by almost every state. Finally, the focus in literacy is back on content, in the form of non-fiction and complex texts.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve begun reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students. This stuff is deep. His language is powerful, the history comes alive, and best of all, the kids are into it. They are engaged by it, and not turned off by the profusion of antiquated and confusing words. This has made me thirsty to engage them in more of this sort of deep content, the primary documents that ground our history and our knowledge.

The Common Core is on the right path. We need to steep our children in rich, foundational texts and let them struggle and become immersed in the language even as we guide them through it to the deep meaning embedded therein. We’ve been relying too much on watered down drivel processed by publishing companies. What’s the point in knowing that Frederick Douglass was a great writer and orator without reading his own words? What’s the point in discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy if we don’t read or listen to his own words? Too much of our historical understanding is based on second-hand descriptions and accounts.

This might seem like a “no duh” sort of thing when I put it to you like this, but let me set the scene of what it’s like in schools for you. We are taught that we must focus on kids’ deficiencies, by analyzing their results on exams. Oh, we say, these children can’t make inferences. Let’s teach them how to infer. Let’s put up charts on inferences. And so on. And we are furthermore taught that children must only read at their assessed reading levels, and that we must “differentiate” all our material so they can access it. So Barney gets a 2nd grade level text, while Lakshmi gets the higher level passage. And this is what we get beat over the head with, in all our professional development sessions and in all the consultants that come into our school to tell us how to teach.

What gets lost in all of that superficial and money intensive blather, of course, is that none of that means anything without rich content. So we’re teaching inferencing with test prep books, and we’re differentiating texts with worksheets. And that’s all fine with the textbook publishing industry, and that’s all fine with the educational consultants. But it’s not fine for the kids.

So I’m refocusing myself back on the idea of core knowledge, which E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has been calling for for decades and most people have been ignoring. The Common Core is here, and with folks like David Coleman speaking bluntly and passionately about the necessity for engaging children directly in rich and deep texts, teachers are finally getting the chance to throw off the shackles of bullshit and focus on what matters. I’m going to write another post soon about Coleman’s message, and also about some other great tidbits of wisdom I was excited to glean from a recent conference on What Works in Urban Education. To be continued . . .

Growing Awareness of History

Public school door knob

I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!

We weren’t able to find much on-line. I hadn’t realized how complex and difficult finding out the history of any given building in NYC was. So I then expanded the scope of our research to our neighborhood.

The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.

Richman (Echo) Park

It opened up history for me as well.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,

Tremont Baptist Church

California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.

Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.

Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.

There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.

I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.

Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.

The Great Bathroom Debate

Recently Newt Gingrich made some remarks about poor children learning the value of hard work through janitorial duties that has generated some commentary in the Twitterverse and on blogs.

My first thought in reaction to this, aside from a general distate for Gingrich’s firebrandism in general, was that he’s got it completely backwards: it’s in fact the rich kids who must be taught the value of hard work. These are the kids who will most likely never have to really struggle, and that have been raised with the expectation that the world caters to their needs and whims. Though poor kids may struggle with developing a strong work ethic in the menial jobs that many of them are unfortunately slated to endure (more on that below) — they hold no illusions that the world centers around them.

But after hastily posting something to this effect on my Twitter, which I botched since I was using a junky old phone, I rethought the classism inherent in both of these positions.

The fact is, as Andy Rotherham points to in his take on Newt’s statements, ALL kids need to be “systematically taught life-skills.” This doesn’t have to be a poor vs. rich kid conundrum. But the issue it does raise is whether in our frantic push to get all kids “college ready,” we are neglecting those character building experiences that help children to learn the value in hard work. We have a tendency in the United States to demean the challenge and value of technical skills and craftsmanship. Recently, I watched the Kings of Pastry, and was inspired by French President Sarkozy’s speech, in which he wisely advises not to consider “manual knowledge to be less noble than academic knowledge, less capable to create wealth and well being.” This is advice we should learn to heed here in the United States.

I personally learned the value of hard work by cleaning bathrooms. I cleaned a lot of them over the 5 years that I worked at a camp and conference center in South Lake Tahoe, and trained others in how to clean them as well. And I believe that cleaning a bathroom truly shows the nature of one’s character.

To clean a bathroom well, you have to be committed to the personal experience of a complete stranger, whom will most likely not even appreciate, let alone notice, your work. You have to struggle to pick all the hairs out of the crevices of the tile, stuck to the edges of the tub, caught in the base of the toilet. You have to get down on your knees to scrub the grime out of the shower curtain, and the soap residue caked onto the soap dish. Not to get too in depth here, but you sometimes have to witness and clean up the extremely unpleasant aftermaths of a stranger’s digestive issues. That’s a deep commitment to the service of your fellow man.

I don’t think it’s such a terrible idea to suggest that all children should learn to serve others, not merely themselves. Perhaps cleaning bathrooms is a bit too unsavory to expect them to have to perform*, but certainly engaging them in tasks that better their school or community environment, such as cleaning their classrooms, or collecting recycling, or picking up garbage in their local park, or planting gardens around their school, should be considered an essential part of their public school experience.

But let’s remove the prejudice that only certain children need to be taught the value of hard work. And in this recognition, let’s further recognize that we must stop demeaning the value of vocational education and technical skills. We all need to learn to value and appreciate those who serve us, every single day, stocking our supermarkets and convenience stores with produce and products, cleaning our bathrooms and hotels, serving our food and maintaining our cars. There is nothing wrong or undignified with being a plumber, a car mechanic, a janitor, an electrician, or a housekeeper. My grandmother came from Sweden and worked her way around the country, as a single mother, cleaning houses and serving families. In my personal work experiences, I have cleaned bathrooms, made beds, stocked shelves, and served customers in both retail and hospitality industries, and now as a teacher, I serve children and their families. And I value this work I have done and am proud of it, because working hard and serving others is the foundation of our economy.

Until we learn to stop demeaning such work, most children will naturally never learn to see the value in working hard to serve others or to take pride in working their way up through a trade or industry. Especially when it’s perceived as menial labor with no positive outcomes. And while some of our children will be “college ready,” until we teach them concrete skills and the values they will need to succeed, most children will not be “life ready.”

* One of the things Rotherham points to in his article in Time is that cleaning bathrooms is too dangerous for children to perform due to the chemicals that are used. Having cleaned many bathrooms using chemicals, I am acutely aware of this danger, and so as housekeeping manager, I researched and developed my own non-toxic cleaning solutions to protect the safety and health of myself and my employees. These solutions are cheap to make, just as effective in cleaning as the chemicals we unnecessarily invest in, and scalable for larger operations. Please visit my website, Environmentally Sound Solutions, for the specific solutions I used.

Pushing the Walls Away

It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.

Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.

But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.

Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.

It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.

Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.

My 3rd Year in Teaching Special Education Commences

A new school year hath begun. Thankfully, this year portends to be dramatically different then my last 2 years of 5th grade special education teaching in the S. Bronx have been. This difference is largely attributable to a change in setting: I’ve been shifted from a self-contained classroom to an inclusion classroom. On top of this, I have more experience now — even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it — and I have a co-teacher to help alleviate the burden. I am also no longer taking Master’s classes during the week. All of this has converged to provide an experience that is substantially less stressful and emotionally/physically devastating.

Realizing just how big a difference in challenge the change in special education setting really is, it makes me all the more appalled that we send our most inexperienced educators into classrooms with the students with the greatest needs. It’s a disservice to new teachers, but more importantly, it’s a disservice to our students.

But such is the crash course into the dire reality that exists at the core of a loosely run and obesely large educational system. I’ve gained a newfound depth of respect for the public educators and social service workers who are out there in the trenches everyday doing their best to carve out spaces of safety and sanity for children with exceptional learning needs. And I’ve gained a newfound respect for the families and children that live under conditions that test their strength of character and resolve in ways unfathomable to those who have not struggled with the chronic and acute stress of poverty combined with learning challenges. I’ve learned that we have to be simultaneously systematic and radical in our approaches to working within these conditions. Rigorous and flexible. Unwavering, yet relaxed. Loving, and firm. In short — tight-wire balanced. Kind of like running barefoot.

My goals this year for my school:

  • Push for democratically appointed grade level team leaders who will act as a liason between the team and the administration (distributed leadership)
  • Leverage grade level teams to develop curriculum collaboratively on the Google Docs infrastructure I set up last year
I’m leaving it at that this year, because I’ve realized that less is more when it comes to trying to implement change within a school. The marathon battle begins.

That D-Day on the Event Horizon

Scared child

Image via Wikipedia

As a public school student, I recall dreading the first day back after the summer vacation long before that fateful day arrived. Its shadow loomed large and ever increasingly ominous over the last few weeks, tainting my prolonged nocturnal fiction book reading marathons. The sight of back-to-school sales were enough to make my stomach recoil. I imagine that this is how soldiers preparing to storm a certain beach in Normandy would have felt, readying themselves to plunge into an uncertain future that contained at the most death, and at the least, certain horror — though I suppose mixed in there is that unique elated excitement born from the headlong rush into a danger that you know will change you irrevocably.

As a public school teacher, the feeling as the first day of school draws nigh is disturbingly similar. It’s different, of course, because now I am an adult, and I am the teacher, and I am much more in control of certain variables of myself and my situation than I was as a hormonally charged and overly sensitive adolescent desperately scrounging for social and emotional currency. So there’s a bit more of a positive edge to this adrenaline coursed pulsing of nausea that edges and nips at my stomach as I think ahead to that swiftly approaching D-Day, but otherwise it feels more or less the same. It’s not exactly something I relish, as you can probably tell.

It seems to me that there is something odd about some of the traditions and rituals that we cling to in our society. One of them being this prolonged summer vacation between different grades (another being our adherence to daylight savings time). Most of us are aware that disadvantaged students lose a significant portion of their academic gains in learning over the summer. The students that I have been working with, whom are not only disadvantaged socio-economically speaking, but furthermore cognitively speaking, lose nearly all of their learning if they are not practicing their acquired skills during the summer. Which was pretty far back (2-4 grade levels behind) to begin with.

This has been the first summer since I began teaching that I’ve fully enjoyed, as the last two I’ve spent most of taking trainings, exams and classes. And therefore I can state that having extended vacations — during which I am still getting paid — is a very nice thing indeed. But I can also say that I think it’s just a tad overlong. Since coming back from my honeymoon, I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things: waking up early, staying on top of my Twitter and news feeds, responding to emails, putting together to-do lists and checking off items. But it’s really bloody hard when you’ve just completely gone off the whole map of what it means to be in a structured schedule and environment.

I’m not whining. I’m bringing this up to make the point that I don’t think having prolonged summer breaks is good for either students nor adults. Both students and adults may say that we enjoy 2-3 month long summer breaks on principle, but the fact is that even students — except for those sent away to posh summer camps — begin to flounder in the over abundance of free time and get just a little bit, well, bored. Or perhaps just a bit directionless. We all need to have some kind of structure in our lives to help keep us developing and healthy. During the long summer, that structure, unless maintained by strict parenting (on the part of students) or self-discipline (on the part of teachers), tends to fall to the wayside. And much that had been built during the school year is therefore left to fester.

I would much prefer to have more plentiful but shorter vacations, as Kathleen Porter-Magee suggests in this Room for Debate post from a while back. Something on the scale of 2 weeks, as opposed to 2 months. Just long enough to really enjoy it and ease up the pace and tension, but not so long that I’ve forgotten what it means to work entirely. But more importantly, this would much reduce the severity of that adrenaline inducing sense of nausea that the first day of school brings after an overlong summer vacation.

Part of the reason for the fear and nervousness that accompanies the first day of school is not only that summer is ending — it is because you know that you are about to be plunged head-first into a long and seemingly never-ending tunnel of frenzied efforts to stay on top of a pile of emotionally and cognitively and physically demanding tasks during 70 hour work-weeks that never stops piling up in front of you, with only the occasional 3-day weekend or stray “winter recess” or “spring break” to keep you functionally sane and from developing scurvy. If we had more vacations in lieu of a long summer break, these could help keep both the students and adults capable of functioning in a somewhat rational and civilized manner and from developing strange growths in their necks and holes in their stomach linings.

Sigh. Well, yes, I’ve rather been enjoying this summer. Lots of beer (and subsequent belly distending, which I attempt to counterbalance with running) and wine, hanging out with beautiful and wonderful friends and family, savoring fresh pineapple, papaya and coconut. Learning how to cook again. Reveling in my new marriage and amazing catch of a wife. I’ve even been reading fiction books! That have nothing to do with education! Just for the fun of it! (Can you tell that I feel vaguely guilty?)

And as that first day draws ever nearer, I attempt to fight back the eddying fear of the unknown by beginning to prepare in whatever way I can. But here’s the thing, folks. In the world of public education, you can never be fully prepared. So you are just left with that nauseous, sinking, fluttery feeling every morning until suddenly you wake up several weeks after the school year has hit you, and you’ve become fully immersed in your professional self once again . . .

Reflections On My 2nd Year Teaching Special Education

My students graduated from elementary school on Friday. I’m not one prone to getting emotional from formal ceremonies, but I do admit to feeling a touch of pride mixed with sadness that they were leaving me. I felt as if I had demanded a lot from my students over the year, and they had tried their best within the limitations of their own learning challenges and often stressful personal lives.

As I think back over the year, it’s hard to think that I have had much of an academic impact on my students. I think this is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching in a self-contained special education setting: you don’t typically see substantial academic growth. You most likely will not propel student performance on standardized state tests from Level 1s to Level 2s. When all the other teachers get their students’ preliminary test results in June (merely outlined as Met the promotional criteria or Did not meet) and celebrate their successes and mourn the few students who must now attend summer school, I’ve thus far in my teaching experience just sat glumly with a list of mainly ‘D’s (did not meet the promotional criteria). And even as I know that my students have met their own Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and thus have met their modified promotional criteria, it can still sting bitterly. As a teacher who holds myself accountable for my students’ performance, despite the substantial challenges of their learning disabilities and environmental conditions, I know that I am failing my students. I can be a better teacher. I can be more knowledgeable and fluent in all content areas and use more systematic and effective pedagogical practices. I can be more empathetic and understanding of their cultural differences and better build a home-school connection. I should be able to reach through to that one completely unmotivated and aggressively defiant student who I wasn’t able to reach.

Knowing this, I have only one option: to learn from my mistakes and shortcomings and work to become a better teacher.

The successes I can with certainty and pride point to this year might not seem to be very impressive to someone who doesn’t know my students and the challenges they face in their personal lives. This is what I am most proud of accomplishing this year:

  • Pressuring the parents of 2 my children to finally (after years of inaction) obtain glasses for them.
  • Understanding that one of my students was experiencing severe anxiety when around too many people, and getting his mother to seek counseling for him
  • Working with a sometimes defiant grandparent and a medical treatment center to obtain needed medication and therapy for one of my most behaviorally challenging but cognitively capable students
These may seem small victories, but they were substantial in the lives of my students and their families. I feel like I have learned how to better reach out to community agencies to assist my students. I’ve learned that the parents of my students often suffer from the same challenges that their own children face, such as dsylexia, anger management issues, or difficulty navigating formal society.
Overall, this year was substantially different from last year — my first year. These students (except for that one, highly challenging student) actually liked me, which makes a pretty big difference in the way it feels to head down the stairs every morning to pick them up. Instead of being greeted with “I hate you,” or “I want to punch you in your face,” and running away from me down the hallways, I was greeted with students who ran to line up in front of me and shake my hand. Most of these students were incredibly sweet and caring, and I enjoyed seeing them help each other in class. I only had 2 students who exhibited consistently challenging and aggressive behaviors this year (cursing me out, threatening me), as opposed to a class full of them last year. And yes, those 2 were pretty challenging alright: I had a desk and a trash can thrown at me this year (thankfully, the desk missed me — only the trash can connected), and by the end of the year, one student could no longer sit in my class all day, as he would become so disruptive and aggressive that I was unable to work with the other students.
I really enjoyed this group of students and despite the sense of having failed them as a teacher, I know that they mostly enjoyed being with me as well. As part of my end of the year reflection, I administered a student survey to my students that I made on Google Forms based off of a student survey (go to pages 12 and 13 in this report to see the survey) created by Ron Ferguson’s Tripod Project. My students rated me highly in all areas (such as creating a caring environment and in challenging them), except classroom control (not surprising, given the behaviors aforementioned), and as I reviewed the feedback, I selected a few simple and achievable points for my focus in the next school year:
  • Making it always clear that I really care about my students
  • Keeping them busy at all times
  • Not allowing students to disrupt each other’s learning
  • Ensuring students learn from mistakes
  • Making schoolwork more enjoyable
  • Asking questions to make sure students are following along
  • Posting and explaining clear objectives for each and every lesson
Next year will be a new and exciting school year for me. I will be changing from a self-contained to an integrated co-teaching setting, which means that I will be working in the same classroom with a general education teacher, and thus I will have a mix of higher functioning general education students and special education students. The teacher I am slated to work with (you never know at this school when things will change) is from the Bronx and understands her students’ lives in ways that I am unable to–she will help me create a much more culturally responsive and therapeutic environment for students. Plus, simply having another teacher in the classroom ensures that I will have support in lesson planning and curriculum development, as well as other administrative classroom tasks. I’m also excited to get the chance to teach students who will show greater evidence of academic growth. And I will have a brand new SMART Board in the classroom I am moving to! The SMART Board I have been using is an old jerryrigged one that only worked half the time.
So that bittersweet feeling I felt as I watched my students sitting on stage and singing a pop song to the future accurately matches my feelings on the year as a whole: I loved my students, but know that I can become a better teacher.
Now that I have graduated from my own schoolwork, I am looking forward to a summer spent loosening up and enjoying my life a bit more — something I have not often been able to do since moving to NYC. Of course I’m still going to be working on some projects and hopefully a little bit of curriculum, but my main aim is to allow my head, heart, and body to get re-centered (oh, and to get married!).

Progress Towards Goals

In November, I posted some of the efforts and goals I was targeting within my school for the year. As promised, I will now review how I’ve done. I had a wide range of goals and they were kinda lofty. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned more about the challenges that are faced in the actual implementation of systemic changes. Some of the targets I originally began with have shifted as my school’s priorities have changed, as well as my own priorities and interests. Some goals I dropped not because I didn’t believe they were important, but because I saw that I’d be fighting a losing battle. I attempted to focus my efforts in areas where I knew I could make some headway or that I had earned enough political capital to advocate for.

As a review, here were some of the goals I’d outlined in November:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

I’ve encountered substantial frustrations in working towards my goals. These hurdles have taught me that for real change to occur, you have to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on the most basic foundations that will sustain that change. For example, one of the systems we were working to put into place in our school was structured grade level team meetings, held according to a consistent protocol. We envisioned these teams successfully performing inquiry into student work and collaboratively designing instructional units, interventions, and assessments together. And some teams did achieve this to a degree that was quite substantive in comparison to the past. However, the reality is that sustaining a focus amongst a group of teachers over the course of a school year requires some fundamental components in place that was all too often lacking. It requires a strong facilitator, consistent and frequent meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings, well established roles and responsibilities, an administration willing to hold teachers accountable for their meetings, and open channels of communication. When these components are scattered or missing, running meetings that are productive can be highly difficult. It’s also difficult when the majority of teachers view the meetings as an encroachment on their time instead of as a useful opportunity to collaborate as professionals.

Despite these challenges, however, progress was made. Some goals we’ve made substantial headway on, such as introducing the Common Core Standards and making the process of inquiry more authentic. Others, we’ve only begun to lay down the groundwork for. For example, thanks to the help of our network STOPP team, we now have an in-school team established for behavior referrals, and we have an official behavioral referral form. The fact that the groundwork has been laid is in and of itself noteworthy, because now there is a basis for renewed effort towards achieving real progress in the next year.

One of the biggest challenges I now am aware of that we face is that of the specters of external accountability, in the form of state testing and reviews of the school. In both circumstances, shit hits the fan. The administration freaks out and runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this induces the teachers and their students to assume an unhealthy dose of stress as well. I am not opposed to standardized testing nor to school quality reviews or state audits, but I think that the high stakes attached to them are blown far out of proportion to their actual value. All of the hard work our teams had been making fell to the wayside once we began gearing up for testing and an audit was being performed on our school (we hadn’t made AYP for some student populations). Teachers spent their time drilling in test taking skills and making sure that they had student portfolios neatly accessible for adult visitors. The administration spent its time making sure the halls were decorated and bulletin boards looked pretty. These things are perhaps a necessary evil, but I don’t think that long-term sustained efforts such as team meetings should be allowed to fizzle due to these external pressures. I am beginning to see why teachers become jaded and lambast the systems of accountability that produce this kind of short-term hysteria and frenzy, which is ultimately detrimental to real learning and progress.

One goal which I have expanded upon is the idea of making the process of inquiry more authentic. As it was rolled out to us by the DOE, inquiry was all about these rather dry and academic methods of looking at student data. Which I think can be extremely valuable–but it requires a foundation of professional teams with an established protocol, a culture of professionalism and collaboration. And building that foundation in a public school, as I mentioned above, is significantly harder than it sounds. It also requires that the school has a process of curriculum mapping in place, or at least an acknowledged and shared curriculum map in general. When this isn’t really there, inquiry work becomes hollow and useless, because here we are, looking at our students’ deficits and targeting those deficits, but we don’t have any guide to refer back to when we acknowledge that we need to collectively bolster our instruction in certain areas. Once I realized this, I focused most of my efforts towards the end of the year on building a foundation for curriculum development in our school.

I’ve written at length already about my views on the importance of curriculum, so it should be obvious that I place extreme value on it. I also place a lot of weight on the value of professional learning communities. I believe that curriculum must be developed within the forum of professional learning communities. So I focused my main efforts during the school year on promoting the structures for a professional learning community to develop and in developing the technological resources for curriculum development to occur.

Over the course of this year, we’ve been encouraging teachers to begin actively using our school’s Google account to share documents, record meeting minutes, and communicate and collaborate. Even simply getting teachers to log on has proven to be a significant hurdle, and I don’t say this merely to criticize non-technologically savvy teachers. Most of our computers are clunky and old, running Internet Explorer, which does not operate well with Google Doc functions. It makes it pretty hard for folks not accustomed to troubleshooting on computers to get a handle on. These obstacles to merely gaining access to the online resources are significant, because it reduces the efficiency of being able to simply email all the staff and know that people will respond online. Instead, in order to organize things, we’ve had to rely on a combination of word-of-mouth, printing out memos to place in mailboxes, and email. And since I and other teachers have extremely limited time, this greatly decreases the likelihood of us collaborating outside of the venue of scheduled meetings.

Anyway, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this all day, but it’s probably pretty boring stuff to an outsider. So let me just wrap this up by stating the things that we did accomplish:

  • The Special Education Team met at least 14 times over the course of the year, and discussed issues critical to special educators in NYC, such as implementing the new IEP system (SESIS), understanding Response to Intervention, understanding Phase I special education reform, issues of compliance with state law, building communication amongst all special education service providers, and conducting Functional Behavioral Analysis
  • The Inquiry Team and corollary grade level teams met fairly regularly until state testing rolled around, and began the process of establishing a more consistent protocol
  • I introduced the concept of core domain knowledge to the school, as well as the concept of developing a structured and systematic approach to developing curriculum within the forum of a professional learning community
  • Technology was utilized more widely and some basic issues of access were addressed

Only The Best Every Day

I finished my last graduate courses on Tuesday. As I walked to the train talking with a colleague who had begun the Fellows program at the same time as me, he remarked on how different we had become since that first summer during our initial training before entering the classroom. How innocent we were then! Teaching changes you, indelibly. I remember how on top of the world I felt at that time, even as I knew the challenges that awaited me. I had been a manager at a demanding and innovative grocery retailer and was physically fit, accustomed to breaking down pallets of heavy groceries, dealing with crazy customers, and working on one full meal a day with 4-6 hours of sleep and a 1 1/2 hour to 2 hour commute each way on what was generally a middle of the night series of subway trains. Yes! I finally had adapted to NYC after a recent move from Lake Tahoe and felt I was ready to tackle anything. Phew. Folks. What hubris, what folly.

See, the thing is that teaching takes much more than simple ambition, physical drive, stamina, and dedication. It takes deep internal spiritual and emotional wellsprings to maintain composure and constancy. Every facet of your being will be challenged, every hidden assumption, every underlying prejudice, every underdeveloped part of your psyche and soul, every trigger of anger or annoyance will be released and exposed and prodded and overturned. You will be scraped hollow. You will be on the verge of mental breakdowns–or actually have them, depending on your level of mental stability. You will nearly break into tears–or actually break into tears, depending on your level of stoicism–in front of other adults or students. Oh yes. Teaching changes you.

And there will be days when you wonder, given how close to the breaking point you can come, just at what point a human mind becomes broken and can no longer be made whole again. And at the verge of this question is a rift of despair and anguish so deep that you can’t really quite go there–you have to wall off the reality of the lives of your students from your own life in order to protect your own emotional and mental well-being. Your students. Some of them living lives so unfathomable that you have to build a wall of professionalism in order to protect yourself. Or risk craziness, despair. Breaking down into tears at the mere mention of their name. Because it’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s always about them. And even during the most challenging moments of confrontation, even during the worst days of acting out behavior, you know that this is all about serving them. About becoming a better person so that you can better serve them. Becoming a better teacher so that you can negotiate the land mine pathways of the heart and mind and guide them there by proxy.

Anyone who thinks that they can step into the midst of this situation and create a revolution will not survive. Idealism has little place in the day-to-day marathon battle of seeking to transform the very soil that these children are rooted within, confined within. Only steady, patient, nurturing, every day, constant, consistent, repeated love–love–love. Tough love. Real love. Love that does not accept mediocrity. Love that does not accept falsehood. Love that does not accept anything except the best from your beloved. Because you know that’s what they really are. The best. No matter what they tell themselves. No matter how much they try to show you the worst in them (and they will–it’s a child’s way of testing your commitment). Every day. The best. Only the best. The best in you. The best in them. Even when neither of you have it in you. You come the next day to try again.

Until one day, there is a moment when you look around you, into their eyes, into their hearts, and you feel it. You can feel it. Again, you almost begin crying, but this time, for another reason. It’s love. It’s real. And it is changing you. And if it is changing you, it must be, it must be changing your students, too. This is what you came here to do. And that is the only thing that can keep you going. That hope. That wish. That love.

Dialogue: Love, Faith, & Humility

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed–even in part–the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. . .

Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection. . .

If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity. . . .

Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. . . Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and the dialogue itself. . . . Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation. . . If I do not love the world–if I do not love life–if I do not love people–I cannot enter into dialogue.

On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility. . . Men and women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Someone who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.

Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). . .

Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence. . . False love, false humility, and feeble faith in others cannot create trust. Trust is contigent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true, concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Risk an Act of Love

Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture. . . The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor–when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.

–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed


Dimensions of Totality

One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action which is almost never perceived by the dedicated but naive professionals who are involved is the emphasis on a focalized view of problems rather than on seeing them as dimensions of a totality. In “community development” projects the more a region or area is broken down into “local communities,” without the study of these communities as totalities in themselves and as parts of another totality . . . the more alienation is intensified.

–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Curriculum

An Introduction and Discursive Rambling On Why I’m Writing This

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while, ever since the EWA conference where I met some great fellow educators and education reporters. At dinner after the conference, I was speaking with David Ginsburg, Samuel Reed, and Michael Hicks about the concept of equity and a level playing field in schools and how this critical need so often gets shoveled under the rug in current public discussions of education, and I brought up one of the concepts I’d come up with after my first year of teaching, which is the idea of what I called an “invisible curriculum.” Michael Hicks informed me that this concept has been around for a while and was entitled the “hidden curriculum.”

This was a critical concept to me, so at the behest of Mr. Hicks, I did some “research” (Google questing) and found that the Wikipedia article (BTW, why do people always debunk Wikipedia as a viable source of information? There’s some really well written articles on that sucker!) provides some fairly good background on the subject, tracing the concept of “presumptive teaching” back to Dewey, up through Philip Jackson, Benson Snyder, Paulo Friere, and more recently to John Taylor Gatto. Now that I had a trail, I was determined to do some deeper investigation.

Not to make excuses, but I don’t have allocated time for research, and I’ve thus far been stymied by the craziness of a public school right before state testing, writing graduate school papers, creating IEPs, wedding planning, and other assorted tasks that keep pushing this research aside. I’m currently reading Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (good stuff—he doesn’t even hesitate to discuss love in pedagogy!), but that’s about as far as any of my own research has progressed.

Rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time to gain deeper theoretical background knowledge on the subject, I am electing to post what my thoughts are so far on the subject, and I will elaborate on it further as I learn more.

Curriculum and Equity

There’s a few strands which I will be pulling together around the concept of a curriculum. The first strand I will examine is the concept of a hidden curriculum. The second strand is the concept of a unified core curriculum. The third strand, which I have explored somewhat already, is the concept of open source curriculum development.

These strands are unified under the idea that if we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education— or the concept of education as a civil rights issue—then we had better take curriculum seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require to succeed in an extremely polarized and socially and economically sick nation.

Hidden Curriculum

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the notion of a hidden curriculum. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, as in the biases of a dominant culture are propagated through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules, thus perpetuating inequity. Another is from the perspective of socialization, in which there is an assumption of implicit understanding, as in the “unwritten social rules and behavior that we all seem to know, but were never taught.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the oppressor, who enforces their dominant perspectives either blindly or coercively. In the second, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules.

I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of hidden curriculum, in that in either case, it is the responsibility and duty of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making tangible what is abstract, dredging up the invisible conceptual and procedural foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of school for their child. If we are going to be addressing social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained.

We fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, James Heckman makes the case for the dire need for recognition of character development in education.

While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills . . . Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.

I believe that children and families in disadvantaged communities desperately want to understand these rules. They want to become empowered through knowledge. We oppress them when we pretend they already understand or that they should implicitly understand class rules and values. And all of the terrible behavior that you will witness in inner city schools–the fighting, the cursing, the bullying—are calls for understanding. Students need to be taught what these unwritten class expectations and rules are. They already understand the rules of poverty, of the street. They already know how to speak that language. Some educators throw up their hands and say, “But they don’t want to learn! They aren’t motivated! They don’t value education!” That’s not true. It’s just that we aren’t being clear enough about what that learning will do for them. We assume that they understand the implicit value in formal education. We assume that they know how to sit in a chair and behave appropriately in a formal setting and respect formal authority figures. We need to stop making these assumptions. We need to assume, rather, that when a child enters our schools they need to be taught everything about how to succeed in a democratic and capitalistic society. And I mean that just as much for the child in the wealthy suburban enclave as the child in the ghetto. The child who sits in a wealthy classroom is just as much in need of understanding implicit societal rules and values, such that they don’t take their luxury and status for granted, and live a sheltered life unexamined. Inequality is perpetuated most fundamentally by ignorance, not by willful avarice.

Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for employees with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with each other in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach—as many educators have been saying over and over again—the whole child.

Core Curriculum

Not only does our society fail to acknowledge the hidden curriculum, but we furthermore fail to acknowledge the foundations of any curriculum. We have politicized content, such that it has become an issue of nationalizing required content, as opposed to rationalizing the foundations of learning. Anyone who has been a teacher—most especially anyone who has been a teacher of children with exceptional learning needs—knows that all academic concepts have underlying foundations that must be clearly and explicitly taught for students to master the content. Let’s take one mathematical skill as an example: rounding. Rounding is easy, right? All you have to do is round a number up, or round a number down, and bingo! Right?

Wrong. If you think that’s true, then you’ve never tried teaching it. My students struggle with mathematical concepts, especially with procedures that require multiple steps, and most especially with concepts that require any level of abstraction. Let’s break rounding down into the steps required to perform it: 1) You have to decide what place value you are rounding to; 2) starting at that place value, you then must look at the number to the right; 3) you must ask yourself “do I round that number up or down?; 4) you must remember the rounding rule, perhaps taught to you via a rhyme such as “5 or more, let it soar; 4 or less, let it rest”; and 5) finally, you must move back to the original place value you are attempting to round to, then alter it accordingly (add one, or let it remain the same, and change the remaining place values to the right of it to zero).

Those are the steps, which we could easily add more to, as it could be argued that I condensed some mental steps into one. Now think about the foundational concepts needed to perform this operation. First, you must understand your place value and be able to locate the given place value of any number. If you don’t, you can forget about rounding, because you are lacking in the necessary understanding to simply begin the operation independently. Next, you must understand the rather abstract concept that when you round that place value, all the remaining place values after that are changed to zero. Also, they must understand and be clear about the idea that when you rounding “down,” you are not subtracting one from that number, you are simply “letting it rest.”

Try explaining that to a child who struggles with basic numeracy. Suddenly, what was such an easy concept, implicitly, has become an extremely complicated concept when you attempt to render it explicit.

But the point is here that there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target exactly where a student is struggling based on the evidence or discussion of their work. Different teachers will have different ways of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations are there.

Why would we pretend that the foundations underlying concepts don’t exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations to learning?

I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.

Another concept aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch‘s notion of cultural literacy. I remember buying Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when I was a kid! I was fascinated by the idea of having a tome that would teach me the secrets to my society. It turned out to be kind of boring, but I thought some of the quotes in it were interesting. I still have the book, and now as a newer teacher, I have discovered that Hirsch’s concepts were developed into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for download.

I can understand the criticism of Hirsch’s concept as an attempt to simply indoctrinate all students with the dominant culture, and the concern that having a unified curriculum would be an impediment to true learning. I share the criticism of the Core Knowledge Sequence from the perspective of it being fixed, in the same way that I would criticize any set of fixed standards by grade level. I teach students with disabilities, and I am angered by how they are made to feel stupid because they are 2-4 years behind grade specific benchmarks. Benchmarks should be based on individual student capability, not by this antiquated concept of grade level (/end diatribe).

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a tool to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected to hear some of the critiques I just offered above. But on the contrary, teachers were overwhelmingly thrilled by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! Teachers, just like students, are desperate for guidance.

At some point, we have to come to an agreement about what knowledge is important to the content that we elect to teach. And at some point, we have to come to an agreement about the benchmarks that students must reach to acquire knowledge at the level that will best enable them success in an academic or career setting, whether we elect to do so by grade level or other tracking method. In terms of indoctrinating students with the dominant culture, I will refer you back to the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” It’s not about protecting students from the dominant culture. It’s about handing the keys to that kingdom over to them. And that requires not only academic content knowledge, as I argued earlier, but knowledge of social skills and the self-knowledge that comes from self-control.

And I think that simply because content is “fixed” to some degree does not necessitate that it is dead. No teacher comes into a classroom (at least, not in a self-contained classroom; I would welcome someone who thinks they can fly by the seat of their pants coming into my classroom every day and trying to perform free jazz pedagogy; in a classroom, you have to be able to perform jazz on top of a classical foundation) and begins to conjure the content they are to teach out of thin air. What a good teacher does is to conjure critical thinking and dialogue around the essential content of a subject. The content may be given, but not how we approach it and develop it as a class, with students and teacher exploring the concepts together to recreate them anew. Curriculum must be able to adapt to these explorations and to the creation of new knowledge, but that does not mean that we should not come to a consensus as to what content should be taught. In other words, a unified curriculum does not necessarily mean a dead one, and I think we have move beyond such polarizing notions; I will explore this idea more in the next section on open source curriculum development.

Currently, there is a movement, spearheaded by the Shanker Institute, to reintroduce the idea of a core curriculum of content, which has been cosigned by many different leaders in the education field. Of course, this is making people who are politically right leaning shiver in their boots, because the idea of anything being nationalized gives them nightmares of socialism. But this is a perfect example of how the political grandstanding and petty oversimplication of adults operates to the detriment to children. Knowledge cannot be nationalized—but the underlying concepts necessary to achieve mastery can be outlined and unified.

The process of establishing any sort of national consensus on matters of education, such as through the current establishment of the Common Core Standards, is ridiculously contentious (read Diane Ravitch’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement) . But that should not stop us from having those conversations. Adopting a voluntary, common set of national standards was a great first step. But in comparison to the actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is in the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what content will be focused upon within each grade. In ELA, social studies, and science, however, the standards are intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.

We need to stop being cowards and hold the essential public discussion over core content. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ knowledge and ability to the wolves?

Open Source Curriculum

Reflect for a minute on the last image I just concluded the prior section with: a teacher sitting alone at their desk, planning lessons for their students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may or may not be a content expert in the lesson that they are crafting, given that most teachers are treated like widgets (as described well in the policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and are thrown into different grades and different subject areas every year. Why is that teacher alone? Why does that teacher not have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide their task analysis? Why is that teacher not sitting with other teachers during a scheduled, paid time of their day?

That image is of a dedicated teacher, a teacher who knows that they must reflect and ponder the underlying foundations of content in order to teach effectively. Other teachers are downloading lesson plans of questionable value from the internet, or simply turning to the next lesson in the curriculum that is provided by their district, which was purchased from a contractor who makes a lot of money supplying flashy, colorful textbooks to schools. Meanwhile, people are arguing against providing these teachers with any sort of direction or guidance on content whatsoever. Are you kidding me? When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I was supposed to be teaching my students (http://gothamschools.org/2011/04/01/persistence-through-failure/). I would have loved a sequenced guide to the underlying foundations of the concepts I was expected to teach and that my students were expected to learn.

Now wouldn’t it be better if that teacher was sitting at a table with colleagues, discussing the content of the lesson, performing task analysis through the process of dialogue with other knowledgeable experts of pedagogy and content? In some schools, this sort of collaborative lesson planning does occur. In all too many, however, it doesn’t. In either case, imagine extending that table to include teachers from all sorts of different settings, with all sorts of different students. They can discuss how they alter the delivery of the content to challenge their gifted students, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students with exceptional learning needs, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students learning English.

This is what we can do with technology. Why wait for one of the big curriculum companies to develop our curriculum for us? In fact, this is the very problem: how we’ve been developing anything in public education, whether policy or content: everything is developed from the top down, then handed to the teacher. But we need to stop this never-ending cycle of dissociation. A unified core curriculum incorporating social skills and character development should not be developed by some group of distant “experts” and think tanks.

I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since I learned more about open source software development. One of my friends is involved in the open source software industry (yes, people other than Microsoft are making money by developing open source software! Who woulda thunk?), and in conversations with him, I began to think about how the process could be applied to education. He recommended a book for me to read to learn more about the history of open source and how it works, and the more I learned, the more I grew excited about the potential for transferring the fundamental concept of open sourcing into curriculum development.

The revolutionary transformation of open source in software development in the computing industry was that it turned the concept of intellectual property on its head. Intellectual property, under the GNU license, shifted from the right of exclusion to the right of distribution. This allowed software code to be developed outside of a proprietary license and outside of hierarchical business models not always conducive to creativity and collaboration.

This is what the development of curriculum requires. Curriculum development is creative and challenging work, and teachers shouldn’t be doing it by themselves. We should be doing it together, via collaborative networks, not via conventional, hierarchical pathways remote from our classroom work.

I’ve started the process in my school by first creating a file structure within our school Google Docs to store and share our curriculum mapping. Then, I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence, as described earlier, as a resource to be used in the mapping process. Next, I created a unit plan template, based on a format provided by ASCD, within Google Docs to guide and standardize the development of unit plans across grade levels. Finally, I will create a spreadsheet to synthesize all the unit plans as they develop school-wide, so that different grade levels can examine each other’s work.

My next plan is to open this process to teachers on a national level. I’ve created a wiki for this purpose, but swiftly realized that I had to create an underlying structure to guide the process. So this summer I will be working on building an underlying structure based on those effective in software development.

It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be challenging. But I firmly believe that teachers can create a viable and unified curriculum that will be far superior to anything that will be published by giant textbook corporations. And the best thing about doing it via the open source method will be that it can be a living, breathing curriculum that will adapt to new input and feedback by teachers.

A Summation and Wrap Up of the 3 Strands of Curriculum

In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable disadvantaged students to gain access to the middle and upper class tiers of our society, we must address these factors:

  • Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
  • Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
  • Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GPL style license

If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:

  1. Go to www.ashankerinst.org/curriculum.html and sign to support the concept of a core curriculum
  2. Notify your local representative about the necessity for a core curriculum that incorporates the concept of character development or write a letter to your newspaper
  3. Go to my website and keep up to date about my progress in developing an open source project for curriculum development, or start your own and let me know!