It used to be my regular practice before I "retired" to head off to my local Starbucks on a Saturday morning, grab myself a vente half-calf ("no room") and sit down and offer my reflections, fueled by a combination of thinking about what had happened in my classroom the previous week as well as things that might be in the news.
Now that I am again back in the classroom, I will see if it makes sense for me to continue the practice. Except this morning I write from a room in my house, as I will not have time for Starbucks today, as I will explain anon.
I have already offered several pieces about what I am doing: in so teacherken is going back into the classroom I explained my decision to take the opportunity that had been offered to me to teach in a high-needs non-profit charter middle school where several people I greatly respect worked; then I followed up the following week with some observations from a classroom in which I describe in some detail the setting in which I now teach (this piece was picked up by Alternet for its Education newblast); finally, early this week I offered My teaching adventure continues, in which I gave a sense of where things were after a week in the classroom. This community was kind enough to give each of these a lot of attention.
So I will not talk as much about my classroom, but offer a somewhat broader reflection, to which I invite your attention below the squiggle.
I have been working so hard to get up to speed that I have not been as involved with politics and broader educational issues. it is one consequence of beginning well after the school year has started. I needed to catch up on things I would have learned in orientation as time allowed.
There is something happening in education. Or if I can revert back to music of an earlier time, there's something happening hear, what it is ain't exactly clear.
On the one hand, voters in Georgia and Washington, influenced by massive spending by those interested in privatizing public education, foolishly voted for charter expansion. On the other, we are seeing an increased pushback against the so-called "reform" agenda, with groups of parents, school boards, and now even students organizing to oppose the destruction it represents for public education. Here let me note that anyone concerned about these issues really needs to follow the blog of my friend Diane Ravitch, which you can do here I also strongly suggest you also regularly read Valerie Strauss's Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet These are probably the two best sources for information about what is really happening, as well as ways of learning about other important sources, such as Bruce Baker's School Finance 101 and the increasingly interesting Edushyster. My one regret about the new position is that I can only partially sample the riches of these sites.
Yet because I continue to reflect about public education online, perhaps I will still be able to help shape attitudes in a way that can positively influence our public discourse? My words may have more cogency because I am back in a classroom. And because this setting is very different than my previous experience, I am now in a position to offer some insight across a broader range of schools and students than I did before. That places a responsibility upon me: I must find the time to do so, even if it means foregoing some otherwise pleasurable activities, such as some watching of the boob tube, especially things like TRMS or Up with Chris Hayes. I find as much as I enjoy him I can rarely afford to stay up for The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, because I now regularly get up before 5 to prepare for my school day. Thus even on a Saturday I am out of bed by 5: the cats having gotten used to my earlier start now demand to be fed!
I see education in a broader context, which is why I am back in a classroom, albeit one that is very demanding, so much so that I will have to evaluate whether I will continue after this year: I am, after all, 66, with far less energy than when I embarked on teaching in my late 40s.
I see our society and our world very much at risk. What is happening in education is part of it. Although I am not a parent, I still try to perceive the world through the eyes of young people, since I spend so much time with them. I try to imagine what their world might be like. I want them to be able to have hope, to have their possibilities expanded beyond what they might otherwise know.
There is much that is scary, and I have to acknowledge that. The rate of global climate change scares me - it should. The world-wide concentration of economic power into ever fewer hands which simultaneously seem to find ways to move themselves beyond the control of governments and/or the rest of us is connected with the environmental threat, but it is also threatens our individual liberties as well.
If I can perceive these things, that places upon me some important responsibilities. The first is to consider how I live, the decisions I make in how I spend time and money. My friend Parker Palmer titled one of his books with the old Quaker phrase "Let Your Life Speak." It is not uncommon for Quakers to query themselves with whether their actions match their expressed values. It can be difficult to avoid conflicts. I know, I am accustomed to a certain standard of living, but how much of that do I accomplish because others are denied rights, including the right to fair compensation for their labor?
I have for much of my life been passionate about civil rights and liberties. I am delighted to see on SOME issues the nation is moving ahead - the votes in ME, MD, MN and WA on marriage equality issues are energizing. I am not directly affected, but I have friends, family and students who are. That includes the parents of several former students - the two moms may soon be able to formalize their long-term relationship legally.
Yet that delight is tempered by the kinds of rage I see in opposition, with the use of language that may lead some misquided or unstable individuals towards violence, in the belief that they are doing "God's work." I see an unwillingness of too many political leaders to speak out against the language of intolerance and hate. This applies to those who support Uganda's "kill the gays" law and to those who remain silent at the demonization of our President. It applies to those who think because someone is Muslim we should deny them rights - that is a sensitive issue to those of us of Jewish background, who have far too much of that kind of experience as part of our DNA, and those who are Catholics should remember how they were treated for too much of our history in this nation supposedly guaranteeing No Establishment and Free Exercise of religion.
Perhaps because I am older, I am more willing to simultaneously acknowledge my own failings while also being generous with my human frailty. Unless I can forgive human failure it is hard to get a person - including myself - to honestly confront what it is and the consequences it has - for myself, for others, for society.
That is also true because I work with young adolescents. They need time to learn things that have not been part of their lives to date. That requires almost infinite patience on the part of those of us who are the adults who work with them. The first step is to get them to acknowledge their mistakes. Then we are well advised to follow the Biblical advice to "hold fast" that which is good - to praise when they show improvement, to make clear that while we may reject certain words or deeds, that does not mean we reject the person who says or does those things.
Which makes me reflect about the nature of our political discourse, even among those of us on the Left. We are right to be passionate about issues. There are some for which there are no excuses. I acknowledge that. Yet I have lived long enough to realize that constant confrontation rarely moves people in the direction we might desire. Confrontation is necessary on some points. To use my classroom as an example, there are lines that have to be drawn.
On Thursday I posted a piece about how things were improving. That was in the early morning, before I headed to school, for what turned out to be my worst day so far. It was partially my fault, because my plans for the day were not as well thought out as they should have been. But when I have to have two students go to the nurse because they were struck in the eye by paper balls thrown at them, when several other students needed to be removed for striking other students, when one young lady had to be removed for a potty mouth that would serve a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, I realize that there will be good days and bad days. For my students to trust me it is not enough to draw lines, it is also necessary to acknowledge when they have a right to deserve more from me. I do not see that as a sign of weakness, and I wish in our political discourse we were mature enough that we could encourage a similar honesty about our human limitations so that we not be bound either by fear or by past mistakes.
I see many areas of crisis. I do not deny that things could get very much worse, that on some issue - climate change - we really do not have much time left.
Yet I still believe we can make changes. I remain enough of an optimist that at an age where I could rightly sit back and read and write and take things someone more casually, I am back in a very demanding setting. One of the adults whose presence in the building is in large part responsible for my decision to join this school told me that if s/he could save one child each school year that justified the commitment. Perhaps. Except I am far more greedy. I want to help save them all. I want the world opening up as a welcoming and inviting place for all them, not only so that they can learn and grow, but so we can benefit from the gifts each has.
Today a small group of us will spend six hours in training on character education. I volunteered because I have been involved with character education before. I know that even more important than teaching students how to read more accurately and how to express themselves verbally and in writing is learning how to live - including with each other. I will be paid (nominally) for this "professional development" but that is not why I am giving up most of my Saturday. We who are the adults are working on how we can better help our students. We know we have to educate the whole child, that there are things more important than their test scores.
It is another Saturday morning. I am again classroom based. As is my practice, I stop and reflect, and attempt to see what I do within a larger context. Perhaps because I am a teacher, or maybe it is just because I am insecure and seek some affirmation that what I am doing makes sense, I share my reflections. Maybe someone in response will offer me the insight I miss, the thought that has not yet arisen in my own thinking. Just maybe some of what I write will, like the message delivered in Meeting for Worship, speak in an important way to someone and I will thereby be of service, even if I could not know that in advance.
Do with this what you will.
I wrote it in large part to sort out my own thinking. That is an important part of reflection. Because I am in and of community, I share it.