Who cut the power?

September 15, 2010

Once a month it seemed, with the coming of the full moon, contractors armed with the detailed plans of the base electrical plans would dig into the ground at LSA Anaconda, Iraq, on yet another project, and cut the power lines. The very men that we were paying to improve our base kept separating us from electricity derived from something besides the myriad generators we relied upon. In spite of our best planning, and their best intentions, this scenario repeated itself too many times to be funny. I think that public schools have this same recurring experience.

School Power

Where does the power come from for our public schools? In “Is There a Public for Public Schools”, David Mathews conveys that it used to be the public, and should be the public, but that we as an educator collective in America have excluded the public from public education. He argues that it has not been by design, but rather in response to many cultural forces over time. As the organisms of public schools have become increasingly detached from the public, they have become at the same time increasingly more bureaucratic. This further tears down the bridge between schools and the public, as any bureaucracy’s first mission is its continued survival and maintenance of its status quo. Mathews also contends that as the public has resigned itself to role of funder (and not much else) that it is easy for special interest groups to attempt to push their agendas on school boards and administrators, as there are few if any members of the public at large to counter them. This too has led to school administrators becoming more insular and protective of their domains, which further exacerbates the problem.

So how do we get the power back on?

As educators that run government (taxpayer) funded schools, I believe that we have an obligation to make them once again public. The work will be very hard, as much of state sponsored schools’ interaction with the public has been with our hand out, or in asking for token involvement to satisfy federal mandates. Much of the public is convinced that we are too complex and too far gone to be saved, and that we are too protectionist for them to truly engage with. Like I told the graduating class of Pilot Rock in 1998, you have to put yourself in good dirt (meaning healthy and nurturing surroundings) if you are a plant. Our digging needs to go deeper than the conversation of what needs fixing with schools. Mathews would say we need to engage our public in a conversation of why we have public schools, and what do we want for them to be.

Wahed wara Wahed

August 23, 2010

How do we help our public schools to become a catalyst in helping to a build stronger community, while also supporting them to  allow students to struggle with issues such as sustainability? I think it happens one teacher at a time…one by one…Wahed wara Wahed.

Are we talking the same language here?

As the Base HQ team in charge of making sure the couple of thousand Local Nationals (Iraqi citizens) who entered and left our base (LSA Anaconda) did so in a manner in which we could hope to identify and track them, we issued badges to them in exchange for their identifications. This was no problem at the start of the day, as the men were rested and on their best behavior as they wanted to be hired to do work. Fast forward ten hours of 120 degree heat, and the same couple of thousand men had earned their pay, and wanted to get home asap. Our need to follow our process, and theirs to get home immediately were at odds, until one day MSGT Arroyo and one of the locals had a communication breakthrough….our “One at a time” was their “Wahed wara Wahed (one by one). This became the mantra, and a fun verbal game at the end of each day. When  the locals understood that we really needed them to form a single file line and would not expect less, they also learned that they all could get off the base and back home sooner by doing so.

“Two out of three One out of ??? Ain’t Bad”

Meat Loaf said that Two out of Three Aint Bad…my analogy might be somewhere south of that in how far we can take it, but even the contrasts help to illustrate the point. Luckily, we (supporters of hands-on, authentic, place-based education) do not hold the power over teachers that a GI had over the local Iraqi…no guns, barbed wire, searches, etc. Instead of demanding that teachers get in line, we are asking them to step out of the line. As opposed to conformity, we are wanting for each to “un-conform” to the norms of isolated teaching within a school isolated from community and the rich learning experiences contianed therein. The key to having schools (which are nothing more than the sum of the people, and their feelings, who are related in some way to the physical structure) become more connected to their community and place is one teacher at a time. Administrators, peers, parents, students and community members can encourage and support teachers to weave their lessons in to Place, form partnerships with community, and allow for students to serve same while they learn required content. These same allies can also talk with school and district leaders in order to garner support, which is crucial to teachers’ willingness and ability to step outside of the classroom.  I have found that when teachers engage in PBE, they seem to realize a great deal of job satisfaction as they partner with peers, and other adults in the community.

While entire school or district adoption of PBE would be great, if the individual staff are not on board, it is not going to fly. Top down just does not work with this type of teaching and learning. Supporters of PBE need to help teachers – one by one (Wahed wara Wahed) to feel supported enough to give it a try.

Coffee, Dirt, or ?

August 5, 2010


courtesy of freefoto.com

Many students become disengaged from schooling starting with the fourth grade, even though they may not know it yet. Reading to learn replaces learning to read, and the summers of slow academic losses for the disadvantaged have formed a cumulative wedge between these students and academic success, while their more fortunate peers are hitting their stride. The negative feedback loop for the former, and the positive for the latter, forms two spirals moving in opposite directions. Is it possible to re-engage students for whom school has become a series of academic, emotional, and social hurts?

Coffee or nonviolent non-cooperation?

As a 4th year social studies teacher in Pilot Rock, Oregon, I had learned that relationships with my students had to come first, and then the learning could occur, as many of my students had not experienced academic success for some time.  After a particulary awful start to the school year for one of my classes (they made a rudebegah look like a lightning bolt), the  most influential of my charges approached me after class one day.

“Do you want for us to participate and to do what you want for us to do in class, Mr. Goodwin?”

“That woud be nice”, was my reply.

“You need to provide us with coffee and allow for us to bring cookies, because it is early and we need to wake up for first period. Then, I will ensure that the class is ready to play ball.”

I agreed to ask for an exception to school policy regarding drinks, but told the student that they would have to secure the coffee-maker, the coffee, and the cookies. There were to be no messes, and no distractions from learning.

The next day, coffee was brewing, cookies were being consumed, and the funniest thing happened on the way to the chalkboard…the class was in full participatory mode. The Negotiatior had given his quiet nod, and the class knew that they had become empowered. It should have come to no surprise to me that these same students that I had taught about Ghandi, taken to see Chinese Dissident Harry Wu at Whitman College, had reading the A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn, and had encouraged to seek out school and community incongruities with the bill of rights, were now using my teaching against me. I was so proud that day to be their teacher.

Almost isn’t good enough

My principal at Pilot Rock told me after one observation of my Coffee Crew that he was impressed by all of the higher order questions, and thoughtful responses, that we used in my classes. I prided myself on tying in activities to make students really think deeply, with their interests and the state content. If a particular tact was not working, I would try another, or ask the students how they wanted to learn about the next topic, and how they would like to deomnstrate their mastery of it. Students would often stay after school, or come in during lunch, just to talk. I felt as if I were an effective teacher, doing great things for kids. Almost.

Erosion Control

If public schools are like good soil, they are being eroded by the winds of educational change (parents opting for private, charter, online, and home-school choices), and the rains of increased staff costs and flat or declining budgets.

courtesy of fotosearch.com

If our grandchildren are to share the public schooling experience, we need to create windbreaks and to break up the hard-pan that has resulted from too much top-watering and commercial fertlizers. We need individual teachers, working interdependently with each other, the school and district, and their Communities.  Learning needs to be rooted in real life, tied in to the place where staff and students exist, bound to the people that currently wonder where their tax dollars go to and wonder why kids these days are so awful. We need to add a compost of “Service Learning”, allowing students to use their brains and hearts and hands to make their communities stronger and more viable, while at the same time engaging citizens in the conversation about schooling and what it should be. After 16 years in the profession, I now realize that good teaching is not enough to save our public schools. We need to be compelling for our stakeholders, and have in fact lost so much ground to NCLB. It is not that the federal government is punishing us with failing report cards, but that we have allowed for it to equate our performance on these tests to our accountability to our communities, as if we owed them nothing more than kids who are cattle-prodded to become proficient, competitive, and stressed-out test takers, which emerging research points out does not equate to long-term learning. It is time to beat cattle prods into garden tools….

A new crop….

As I look at the new (well, 3 years ago when we could still afford to hire new) teachers, and watch them tend their gradens of students

I can remember how difficult it was to take a classroom of 12th graders, with reading levels between grades 2 and 16+, family lives from abusing to ultra-coddling, and full of their own ideas and quirks, and to create an environment that was safe, challenging, and rewarding. I still feel as if we accomplished great things together, and worked very hard to do it.

The White House is not Looking into the McChrystal Ball – lessons learned from Race to The Top

June 23, 2010

As it appears that General McChrystal’s “career dissipation light” might have gone off earlier today, I cannot help but wonder why the military officer corps has been allowed to run around being candid (or at least verbally abusing their civilian leadership in Rolling Stone). What if…

NCLB (re-named ESEA in order to take the negative connotations away) is adopted by the Army (NSLB – No Soldier Left Behind)

(June 22, 2010) “The war against terror has taken a new turn. Miltray budgets have been downsized significantly, leaving commanders in the field with fewer troops, dilapidated equipment, and sinking morale. Units that fail to have all subgroups of their soldiers (based upon gender, race, ethnicity, economic status and disability) pass a rigorous annual exam will be re-constituted.

Luckily, the Secretary of the Army has also adopted the Arne Duncan system of rewards in addition to the punishments. Units that perform to standard will be eligible for “Race to the Top” funds, further dividing the successful from the not successful (it is kind of like watching Harry Potter all over again, with the Sorting Hat). Those units at the very bottom of the barrel will also recive funds, so long as they sack their commanders and fire their staffs. Those caught in between will continue to slowly fall apart. ”

Here, Boy!

If the Army would be brought to heel like the educational establishment, we would not be seeing such outrage and impudence from the commanders in the field. Under an ESEA type system, they could not afford to berate their civilian handlers too much,  or else their bid for “Race to the Top” funds may find itself conveniently misplaced during the scoring. Name a state superintendent that has spit venom at Arnd Duncan, and I will show you a state that in these economic times is either looking for a new superintendent, or considers Sarah Palin a wussy liberal. Money just talks too loudly in this age for the voice of local control of education to want to be heard.

A Kick to the Shins(eki)

For those of you keeping score at home, this is not the first army leader to be sacked by the White House. As we awaitied our deployment to Iraq, it was a real hard pill to swallow when Rumsfeld kicked then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki to the curb for insisting that there needed to be several hundred thousand troops in iraq to do thew job right. Shinseki by my accounting did so with tact and professionalism, out of a sense of duty to his fellow soldiers.  I am waiting still to hear about a state superintendent of schools (a DEMOCRAT) to go toe-to-toe with the White House over the fallacies of their approach to re-make American schooling. If George W. would have been enacting these same policies, you can bet that there would be boiling oil….maybe a spoonful of sugar (Democratis President)  makes the medicine go down easier….?

Legos by Illich

June 7, 2010

The past two weeks has seen an explosion of learning in my home. Take Legos, add computer and a few teens/pre-teens, and a program called Robot-C, and the sky is the limit.

My progeny have the gift of living in a peaceful neighborhood, with a home that is comfortable and nurturing. It has been intentionally stocked (and stacked) up with all manner of art, music, construction, problem solving, and other supplies. A broad array of experiences is provided outside of the home as well. Most of what lies about my living space has been gleaned from “pirate missions” to St. Vincent de Paul, where we seek out a number of items to combine to the synergy of our play and learning.

In his work “Deschooling Society”, Ivan Illich calls for the abolition of public schooling, and calls for a web of inter-related strands of education for citizens. I see as I read things like peer tutors, craftsman–apprentice types of training, and gatherings of skilled folk who would all share thier knowledge, and in turn be enriched by others so doing.  As I envision his vision, and reflect upon the moments of greatest learning in my own life, I must admit that public schooling was rarely the venue.

So what are we left to do about the education (as opposed to schooling) of our children? Do we abolish public schools tomorrow, in hopes that citizens will give freely of their time to instruct others based upon interest and need? Do we “Go Full Tammy Wynette” and “Stand By our Man” (school in this case) right or wrong….surely the experts with teaching and administrative licenses know more about learning than a common citizen could hope to. I want to one-up Yogi Berra, and instead of coming to a fork in the road and taking it, argue that we need to add another tine, or path.

Public schools in America are a grand experiment, and have so much good in them in spite of their many shortcomings. What if we were to engage our communities, teachers, and students, into moving toward an Illich-inspired model? I can see classrooms becoming workshops, with a blend of young and old in a mutually beneficial learning environment. The effect would be nothing shy of transformational for all involved.

As state budgets for education drop sharply, and a system already straining under its own weight approaches “institutional diabetes”, we could simply wait and do nothing, in which case private and online schools will have filled most of the void left when the last school teacher turns out the lights on the last day of American k-12. Alternately, we as citizens could help to start the dialogue about what equates to powerful learning, how it is within all of us to create and to share, and then engage school employees in how to help them to create this….

Commencement Day for Public K-12 Education

June 5, 2010

It is graduation time once again, when public schools acorss America celebrate another group of young men and women who have made it through the challenges – both in and outside – our hallowed halls. When pomp and circumstance have finished, the crowds have left, and the school custodians have cleaned up the debris, there will be somethiong left out of sorts still. That something is public schooling itself, within the context of our current economic, social, and legal systems.

Most districts across the nation are bracing for large budget cuts, as the economy has yet to rebound, and there does not appear to be another mad printing of money (backed by the full faith and credit of the People’s Republic of China that is buying up the debt we are selling) in the form of a Stimulus II from the feds. If all other components of the system were in stasis, schools might be able to trim a little fat and get on with life. The cuts will be more likely to be approaching the bone.

Health insurance costs have continued to soart every year, with a growth rate that is sinking the budgets of employers that pay for such things. The state of Oregon’s public employee insurance will go up 27% for next year. If districts have 85% of their costs in people (which most do) and a declining budget, rampantly increasing rates for health care appear, well, unhealthy.

Retirement costs have and will continue to soar as well, since the market has slumped. Rates increase for each employee, and once again compound the effect on the district budgets. Those lucky enough to make it “out alive” enjoy a well deserved and comfortable living.

If one were to chart out health and retirement growth rates, in conjunction with cost of living and district budgets, the math lesson would start to creep into psychology, sociology, and history. Simply put, if the cost per teacher goes up and up over time, and the resources to districts stays flat (or declines as is the case the last few years), then something has to give. When that something gives, it will act upon another system (our society) with second and third order effects.

Say your district is faced with a 10% budget reduction. You can either cut staff, or you can cut school days. If you cut staff, you increase class sizes, reduce much needed programs (behavior, sports, arts, etc), which has the impact of further increasing stress on the those who remain (half get out after only three years already), as well as the students (currently about 60% finish school in four years). As schools become more stressful and less appealing, parents who might have been content to keep their kids in public schools will think about becoming part of the exodus to private, charter, online, or homeschools. If 8 kids leave a district in Oregon, it is time to chop another teacher, or half of a school day.

Sounds like cutting days is the option you say….good for the short term, but not so palatable to educators who grew accustomed to 2-3% annual cost of living raises for several years. If you cut ten school days, you cut teacher pay by 5 to 6%. Even if the staff agrees to it, if this becomes the annual “fix”, the number of days will do nothing but increase as costs continue to soar, and revenues stay flat or decline. As half of teachers get out by year three, districts need to constantly recruit. Can you imagine the tag line “We pay 14% less than our competitors!” at a job fair? From the parent perspective, they do not want their students out of school in early May. Sounds like we need to cut the fat!

The “fat” of public schools resides with the administration and “support” staff and programs. This fat could be trimmed away, but we have painted ourselves into a legal corner as a society. You could cut the principal, but who else is trained in school law and is willing to risk livelihood, home, and a jail term to handle student discipline, parent complaints, and other legal stuff? You could trim away the programs for special education that have ballooned in cost and complexity over the last 25 years, but then you run up against violations of law (least restrictive environment). It just does not compute financially to do so with the consequences.

As a culture, we have been raised on the belief that as Americans, we are the best in the world, and that we are destined to have the best of everything. We expect modern schools with shiny new technology (read: computers). If one were to go back in time before computers infected our schools, one would see textbook budgets of a certain percentage of the overall school expenditures. If one is to look at most district and school budgets since the pre-computer days, you would most likely see textbook budgets increasing (as costs for Texas approved fare goes up and up) and computer budgets doing the same. I am puzzled as to why we need both…..perhaps we have a generation of students that do not respond to textbooks, and a generation of teachers that cannot imagine a class without them.

So how does the story of public school end….

On its current course, it will fight tooth and nail to save itself…in its current form (as any good bureaucracy will do.) Each year, one or two more colleagues will not return (the newer ones). Classes will get a little bigger, and more unruly. Teachers will be more stressed, administrators too. Parents who can will pull their kids out when it becomes too much for them to bare, exercising a growing list of more attractive options. Eventually the day will come when the last teacher, with a $300,000 a year health care plan and a $100,000 a year retirement plan, will check in the shiny textbooks that have not been read, turn off the 20 new laptops in the room, and close and lock the door on a failed American experiment.

As with most systems, public education needs a “significant event(s)” from outside of itself, to make changes to allow for it to not only survive, but to become something that even the wealthy want to put their kids into.

A Casual Observation of Public Schooling – All Terrain Vehicle or Tricycle with a flat?

April 26, 2010

A teacher buddy of mine relayed to me how when an item was stolen in the small rural school in which he worked, the principal stopped school, held an all-school assembly, berated the offender (unknown at the time), and then proceeded to take out their religious book and cite related passages to the audience, almost all of whom were of the same religion (my friend lied to the hiring committee when asked about his religion in the interview, or else he was convinved he would have not received the job – a safe bet, it sounds like).

In planning for operations, the US Army planning factors include a study of the Terrain in which a unit will be operating. Specific components are:

* Observation and fields of fire

* Cover and concealment

* Obstacles

* Key Terrain

* Avenues of Approach

How can we relate the planning factor of Terrain into how to approach reforming public schools? Certainly my friend mentioned above had studied the “Terrain” or layout of the “land” in the small school where he intended to gain, and keep employment.

The first component is Observation/Fields of Fire. I like to break down these two into the sub-components, and I’ll explain why later. First, Observaton.

In preparing a defense in the army, you are given a piece of terrain from higher HQ, and told to hold it. You are given a type and number of assets (human, material, etc) with which to do this. You are given an Intel report on the size and type of your enemey, plus an expected time they might come calling. As a leader, you must take stock of what you can see, and what you cannot, and from which vantage points. Are there “dead spaces” that will be outside of your visibility? How will you mitigate this danger? Can you clear away hindrances to your visibility? Who will be observing what, when, how? How will it be reported to you? In the enemy’s approach, how will you see them as they come closer to engage?

The tactical considerations for Observation alone need to be considered before looking into Fields of Fire (assigning your troops to cover portions of the perimeter with fire), or else the two can get muddied. Next post – we will translate Observation into educational terms….

Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Dysfunction?

April 22, 2010

Dynamite Imagery as seen on freedigitalphotos.net


Why is it that many of our students seem to come to school dysfunctional, and that we surmise that their families are similarly so?

From Encarta online, we get the following definition:

relating badly: characterized by an inability to function emotionally or as a social unit”

What do educators, and our society at large, really mean when they see a family or a student and say that they are dysfunctional? It seems that they are saying about the subject that “They just do not Get It”. Their behaviors, not doubt rooted in their beliefs, rooted in their values, shaped by their experiences, are maladaptive or counter-productive to what we (we being the educational establishment, which tends to have what I call a “1950’s Leave it To Beaver” value’s system) believe to be their best interest, or to the interests of society (those being in the mind of the educational establishment that students work hard, stay out of trouble, do not make trouble, do not question authority, graduate, get a high paying job, stay out of trouble, do not question authority, have kids, rinse, repeat).

Why is it that so many of the families that bring their children to school, and the children they bring, look and seem to be so very dysfunctional according to educators? Without oversimplifying this question, or the answer, it may be illuminating to ask the same of ourselves in our practices as educators as we go off to work each day.

Many people in poverty have a value set that has been arrived at through their circumstances. Ruby Payne has been a great resource in this regard ( http://www.aeispeakers.com/speakerbio.php?speakerid=1545). In short, she tells us that people in poverty live for the now, and value relationships over decorum and “getting along”.

If we examine the educator’s paradigm (simplified or boiled down from the entire industry) that students should come to us ready to become the next  fine upstanding man/woman that works a 9 to 5 job, and volunteers for the children’s fair, and borrows enough to buy a big house and a nice car, we have fallen into the trap oursleves of being dysfunctional. We are relating badly (or not at all really, as we hold the keys to approval or disapproval, promotion or retention, opportunities or lack thereof) at best to students who come from a world where they do not want to live like us. Add to this the phenomenon of anti-deppressant use amongst “succesful people” in America (a friend relayed to me how in her school most of the staff were on anti-depressants) and it appears that “Leave it to Beaver” has left us on the side of the road.

Schooling can be transformational, for staff and students, but not with a new carpet-bagger curriculum or slick instructional approach guareanteed to have all students doing rocket science by the 2nd grade. It can meet the basic human needs for belongingness and a feeling of efficacy, if it is structured as such. If so, it can help to bridge the gap between “functional” staff and “dysfunctional” students and their families. More on bridge building later!

Connect the Dots

April 21, 2010

“Why do we need to learn this?” – student

“So you can get a good job!” – teacher

“I can make more than you without knowing what you are teaching me” – student

An informal straw poll I conducted out of curiosity a few years back amongst a high school staff revealed that 90%+ of the staff told me that the purpose of an education was to allow for students to secure a good job after high school. Nothing more was offered…that was it. I really hate to admit it, but the demise of the Roman Empire, Differential Equations, Othello, and Osmosis are not key ingredients for a young person to make the big bucks, and they know it. So why is it that many of the staff in the school I queried were perceived as effective teachers?

The Human Touch

Teachers that greet students by name and ask them how they are doing today, and then listen, as they enter the room. Teachers that read student work and make real comments back to them. Teachers that tell them they are doing great when they are, and that they are being lazy when they are, and that call home in BOTH situations to talk to their parents. Teachers that have PASSION for what they are doing. The “work” of learning becomes forgotten in the moment, and students come through. The teachers have established a connection. This is good, but it could be better….

From MySpace to MyPlace

Students (and the adults they see) are connected to everybody they know and have known, through social networking sites. They belong to a large group of others who belong to ever widening circles of ever widening circles. While I will not argue that students cannot have meaningful conversations via their texting, there is something much richer, and warmer, about face-to-face human interaction, with no interruption for ring tones or anything else. It requires an emotional give and take, and often leaves both parties feeling better.

What if the same teachers who are effective with kids were to intentionally develop their lessons and learning to incorporate Place. Place being the community in which the school and the child reside. This type of education is known as Place Based Education, of which I have become aware and enlightened about through the mentorship and teaching of Greg Smith, Lewis and Clark College.

This teacher could be the math teacher taking the algebra class to the local elementary school, so that the students could tutor 3rd grade students, many of whom are desperate to be appreciated by big people. If you have never seen the power of this, you are missing out – I have, and it has such a profound impact on the older students. They belong, they are NEEDED. Take this example, and multiply it out across each class in a high school student’s day. Pretty soon absence from school does not need to be punished, or students cajoled so much to attend, as they know they are known, needed, and will be letting others they care about down if they skip or do not perform.

Connect the Dots and Close the Circle

Two of the most profound moments in my life were when I was congratulated for joining a group that I held to be in esteem.

The first was when I returned home from Iraq in 2003, and my two neighbors, both 50 something Vietnam Vets, came out into the street and welcomed me home, and talked to me, and listened intently, and told me “Welcome to the Club”. I could feel that they held me in high regard, and it made me very proud.

The second was recently after my family had attended Doshinkan Karate-Do Special Training in Spokane. We returned to our dojo, and after the training, our Shihan (instructor) and the higher ranking students stayed after class and congratulated us, and asked questions, and told us about their experiences. It was a time of being accepted in, because of something important that we had struggled through and accomplished.

Students show up to school because the law compels, their parents need to work, and that is just what we do. The magic for a diploma or a grade is just not there. If they have to struggle, really struggle, and they can make a connection to not only the teacher, but to others through the teacher’s use of craft and skill, they too will have the “Dots” of importance become connected and close in around them, like a protective and warm cloak. It is possible….to connect the dots (students being one) to society.

Who really cares about Apathy?

April 16, 2010

Why are so many of our students apathetic in public schools? What can we do about it?

First, let’s define apathy – courtesy of Wikipedia…

Apathy (also called impassivity or perfunctoriness) is a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest or concern to emotional, social, or physical life. They may also exhibit an insensibility or sluggishness. Them opposite of apathy is flow.[1]

Why are so many students apatheic to public schooling and what it has to offer?

Apathy results often from a feeling of powerlessness, or a lack of control over one’s life or the situation at hand. If we look at the chart below (Wikipedia, again), it is sandwiched right in between boredom and worry, two things that adolescent life is often times fraught with. If we look at the world of the student outside of school, it is filled with electronic entertainment and communication in real time with friends. Virtually any interest may be pursued instantly. If a young person wants to learn a new skill, they go to Youtube and watch a video, 20 times if need be, and can practice said skill in the safety of their home. They have the ultimate sense of empowerment over their entertainment and their learning, outside of school.

As children go into middle school, the once eager student who is talkative on the way to the school learns to take on a demeanor of depression and apathy, lest they stand out too much from their peers. The transformation is often instant each day, and the reverse is also true as they leave the school grounds. Part of this is just pre-teen and teen angst, older than our school system. Another part is what happens in our schools.

As students become more aware of themselves and of the adult world, they need to construct meaning of same. If they go to a class where the teacher runs a structured yet democratic experience, and they demonstrate empathy and humanity towards their charges, students will often come to life. If the teacher is strict and concerned more with rules and compliance than they are with the students as people, then students become numbers, their feelings and actions discounted. Going outward to the whole school, if students believe that the school is safe (in all ways – physically, emotionally, socially), they will come out of their shells and engage openly with each other and the adults as they mature. If the school is not safe, students deduce that they have no ownership of the school, that rules are the property of the authority in the school, and that they are cogs in an uncaring machine (a caring school would ensure their safety as people).


I cannot stress enough that all people, especially students in public schools,  need safety, first and foremeost. School administration must constantly maintain an environment that is safe for all staff and students, without exception. If they do not create this culture, staff will either hide in their classrooms during passing time (with predictable results for students), or they will somehow develop a severe case of group near-sightedness if they do stand in the hallways (“I could not tell if that was a maintenance worker testing the locker or if a small student was just shoved into it….hmmmm…oh well”) as they too come to understand that it is more desirable to keep quiet than it is to bring problems to the administration. As human beings we want to be safe, and we want for others to be safe as well. When we cannot help to provide that, we have to un-plug a part of ourselves as we cannot keep the notion of ourselves as good people with the notion that we are not doing the right thing.

Beyond Safety – The Need for Needed

Once staff and students feel safe in our schools, the enxt step is to maximize the engagement with students in their learning. So  much of what can be seen in classrooms is still very teacher centered, pre-packaged, and sanitized, in order to provide for maxmimum efficiencies of delivery and class compliance. There are a number of classrooms where this is not the case….

In order for us to take away Apathy’s will to fight, we must destroy it utterly. In order to do that, we must encourage students to care about their learning and about their schooling experience. If their learning has an Objective beyond just learning facts and skills, to the place of application of that learning to their community, they have gone from passive (and apathetic) vessels to be filled, to active producers of vauled activity. Imagine if each student was known – really known – by every teacher, and allowed to put their skills and talents to use to help others. What if they were NEEDED by the school and community for what they could do, as opposed to what they can score on a test so that the educators can keep their jobs,  and the community can avoid a black eye? 

Going back to the chart above, look directly across from Apathy, and you see Flow. If you remember a time when you were in a state of Flow (Several years ago my kids and I were assembling a robot arm in the garage, and 6 hours went by and we were in such an effective state that it was magical) you know that if we could get students into that state in regards to their learning, that school would be beyond incredible. First we need to hire and retain administration that can provide safety, and inspiration, for all. Then we need to allow for our staff to be creative and supported as they take ownership in creating the school. They in turn will be able to do the same for students, who, if we engage them in meaningful work rooted in the community, may achieve a sense of “mattering”.


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