How Much of Your Formal Education Still Lives in You?

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.     Albert Einstein

It was a Facebook post that started the conversation—a photo, taken at the Chicago Institute of the Arts by my good friend Kirk Taylor.  Kirk and I taught together for 25+ years, and he was my children’s 8th grade English teacher. The photograph features pointillist painter Georges-Pierre Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,’ surrounded by viewers.

The post had been up less than a day, and already more than 30 of Taylor’s students—and a handful of parents and teaching colleagues– had commented, mostly things like: I love that painting! Sunday in the Park with George! Dot dot dot!

There were also heartfelt messages of thanks from these former students, now adults, for Mr. Taylor’s role in shaping their appreciation of art and music, opening doors to worlds they never considered, the impact he’s had on their lives and career choices. Taylor’s inspired, hand-crafted curriculum changed continuously over the years and included visits to the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Holocaust Memorial Center as well as student publications, dramatic productions and media analysis.

Midway down the thread, Taylor wrote this:

For those of my former students who studied and enjoyed Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” and the Sondheim musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” know that in 2018, the chances of a teacher doing that project are one trillion times zero.

Today’s curricula tend to be totally scripted with little or no room for a teacher to bring his or her appropriate interests and talents into the classroom. What I did way back when would seem a stretch to most in education—both then and now—but consider your takeaway. How much of your formal education have you forgotten, and how much still lives within you and inspires you?

That comment drew forty responses—anger, sorrow, recognition of the fact that public education has changed, radically, and not for the better. Taylor is retired, after some 40 years in the classroom. Things change. But the reverse question to educators remains, ever relevant, and especially timely at the beginning of the school year:

What things are you teaching and nurturing because they will be remembered for life, not because they’re required in the curriculum you’re assigned to teach?

Because nearly every teacher in the United States has been impacted by the Common Core, or their states’ versions of the Common Core and other disciplinary standards, it’s worth wondering about how much mandated content represents knowledge and skills that students will utilize for purposes other than measurement.

What will they need to know when they graduate? What will they need to know when they’re 40 years old? What will they remember?

The whole accountability package—standards, aligned curricular materials, measuring success by test scores—was supposed to improve public education. We would get rid of the so-called ‘incoherent cafeteria curriculum’ that was in place when Kirk and I were young teachers and replace it with ‘high and rigorous,’ tightly controlled standards of learning.

We’ve certainly had enough time—a full K-12 cycle—to see if holding people ‘accountable’ for pre-determined curricula made any difference in test scores. Not so much, it turns out.

What would happen if teachers everywhere felt as free as Kirk did to custom-fit curriculum to their students’ wide-ranging interests and passions? And what happens when teachers base curriculum on their own unique interests?

I’m thinking here about a friend who taught the Civil War battle by battle, building model ramparts and hillocks, and drawing what looked like football plays on the whiteboard—‘and then, the Rebs came streaming over the hill, here, taking the Union entirely by surprise, here…’ One day, he looked up and saw that about 20% of his class was interested (all boys) and the rest of the class had checked out until test time. As he tells the story, it was a startling moment—and made him re-think the way he taught all his History courses.

Quoting Paul Simon: When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.  What did YOU learn in school that has been useful and memorable? What was eminently forgettable? What’s the ratio of inspiring stuff to educational drivel—and has that changed?


Not Funding Schools or Paying Teachers? That’s a ‘You Problem’, Right?

In the school district next to mine—and where I live, all the schools are small and rural—there was an unpaid collective lunch debt in June. As a goodwill gesture, a local craft brewery paid off the debt, $2700, so all the students in Suttons Bay will start the year with a clean slate. There are about 525 kids, PK-12, in the district and roughly half of them meet qualifications for free or reduced lunch.

According to Realtor.Com, the median price of homes for sale in Suttons Bay is $454,000.

You can get a pretty nice house for $450K, almost anywhere in the Midwest. So why are there so many kids on free and reduced lunch in the school district? You can get a hint by noting that the young man who suggested The Mitten Brewing Company pay off students’ lunch debt is both bartender at The Mitten and substitute teacher in Suttons Bay.

There’s poverty in paradise, as Bridge Magazine revealed in a startling series of articles. There are people supporting families on three or four patched-together jobs, often in industries serving the older, wealthier residents in those gorgeous lakefront homes. Lots of those hard-working people have college degrees—the thing that was supposed to keep them ahead of the pack—and student loans.

You could see this as repellent conservative motormouth Ben Shapiro does:

Well, the fact is if you had to work more than one job to have a roof over your head or food on the table, you probably shouldn’t have taken the job that’s not paying you enough. That’d be a you problem.

Does Ben Shapiro think that teachers in Suttons Bay (where the average pay is just north of $50K) have a You problem by accepting a job where they are willing to sacrifice personal well-being in order to teach children? Since the national average pay for teachers is about $60K, and teachers in MS, WV and OK are working for much, much less—does that mean that starry-eyed public school teachers shouldn’t take these shitty jobs, period?

Reading comments on the article about The Mitten paying off the lunch debt, it’s easy to understand that our current local social milieu is not terribly compassionate when it comes to feeding kids a nutritious meal while they’re at school. While the Suttons Bay district feeds everyone, whether they have money or not, commenters seemed to feel that lunch debts were most definitely a You problem—or, rather, a Them problem, with Them being irresponsible seven-year old freeloaders sucking up hot dogs, beans and canned peaches. Not to mention milk.

Pay off their debt now, and they’ll just expect you to do it next year! And slide me another $7 craft beer, OK?

It’s confusing, sorting through the right way to think about this. There are nearby districts that give every child a free breakfast and lunch, rather than try to sort through paperwork poverty credentials or label students. Good for them. And what about teachers who essentially beg for the auxiliary supplies that will make their classrooms more homelike, fun and effective, through #clearthelist or Donors Choose?

Do we hold out until the district gives us everything we want or need? Or do we patch together three or four supplementary strategies to build an engaging teaching practice and a comfortable classroom, relying on our second job to make the car payment for the long commute, when housing in our price range is not available?

Well. I generally find that educators who righteously stand on principle—i.e., the public should pay for public education—are teaching in districts that are relatively well off, and in subjects that are tested and therefore not likely to be eliminated in the next round of budget cuts.

I spent 30 years teaching instrumental music in a suburban school. I did fund-raising every single one of those years to keep the program alive and flourishing. With the help of legions of enthusiastic parents, we bought instruments and music and sent students on out-of-state and international travel experiences. The program was threatened every time there was a budget shortfall, but it never died, because of parent support.

Should public schools pay for everything, from French toast sticks to beakers for the chemistry lab? Unequivocally. Should all public-school teachers make $60K, minimum? Absolutely.

The question is what to do until that happens—and who suffers when the charity and fund-raising end.

We know the answer to that. And we know who will take the long-term, $15/hour substitute positions in districts that can’t find enough teachers.

It’s an Us problem. All of us.


Fifty Years Ago

I graduated from high school fifty years ago. As graduation years go, it was a pretty dramatic time.

Richard Nixon was sworn in as President in January–and just as the Beatles were winding down, Led Zeppelin released their first album, forming my personal soundtrack in that summer-to-fall of 1969. She’s leaving home. Good times, bad times. Give peace a chance.

It was the first year that the tally of casualties in Viet Nam went down, rather than up—but already too late for some of my older schoolmates. The summer of 1969 was a series of stunning incidents: The Stonewall riots. The Cuyahoga River catching fire. Chappaquiddick. Hurricane Camille. The Manson slayings. Woodstock. The Apollo landing, and the moon walk.

Me? I was working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. In the space of one summer, I had a meteoric rise from dishwasher and kitchen cleaner, sluicing grease into floor drains, to salad maker, cashier and eventually shift supervisor, in three short months.

On the night of the Apollo landing, I drove to the beach with friends after work. We lay on our backs in the still-warm sand, and looked at the moon—and dreamed of a world where rivers would run clean, politicians would be honest, senseless crime and war would be eradicated, and the moon would merely be our first stop in exploring the universe.  In spite of what now seems like a tsunami of unusually bad news, there was a sense that there really would be a time when we would be free to love whomever we chose, bomber death planes would turn into butterflies, yada yada.

All we had to do was hang on, keep the faith. And—for me— get out of Dodge.

I could not wait to leave my hometown. It’s not like I was headed anyplace unique—a regional state university a couple of hours away, where I had a substantial music scholarship and a work-study. On August 15, 1969, I hitched a ride to Central Michigan University for college orientation. When I got home two days later, my mother gave me the once-over. I thought maybe you were headed to New York for that music festival with all the hippies, she said, wrinkling her nose.

The funny thing is—I was about as far from being a rebellious hippie at that point as any conventional 17-year old with a day job slinging extra-crispy chicken wings. I still wore knee socks and pleated skirts. I ironed my hair. I practiced my flute every day. It was going to be my ticket to a better life.

And that turned out to be true. Although it wasn’t in my plans fifty years ago, I became a teacher, a career I had significantly underestimated in my pre-college life. It was teaching, working in public education, meeting smart and funny colleagues and–OK, I’m just going to say it–inspiring the next generation, that made me what I am today. I’m proud to be a teacher, especially a music teacher. I’ve led a fabulous, colorful, rewarding, blessed life.

But I am saddened, when I think of all the missed opportunities, the great U-turn in what we considered possible, back in 1969. The environment, the government, science and the arts, humanity and justice—whatever happened to ‘we are stardust, we are golden—and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’?

What’s happened to public education, foundational building block of all that progress, is the most discouraging. When I went to CMU, we had to double up in the dormitories because there wasn’t room for the tidal wave of baby boomers, eager to be the first college-educated generation. Public high schools were building science labs, sports stadiums, auditoriums and language labs, funded by parents eager to give their children a good public-school education. There was a shortage of teachers, and the ones I had were newly unionized, seeking better salaries and benefits, and pursuing advanced degrees.

Everything, it seemed, was possible, fifty years ago.

So did I go to the 50 year class reunion? No.

I still work weekends, as music coordinator in a liberal church. There was nobody else to play on the Sunday morning after the reunion, and it’s my job.  Also–I still communicate, often, with the dozen or so people I was closest to in high school. The reunion was a long way to go to see folks who have probably forgotten me.

And—honestly—I was worried about someone showing up in a MAGA cap, then being unable to tamp down my anger about the aforementioned loss of opportunity, plus the kids in cages at the border, the shootings, the corruption at the highest levels of government, and so on.

I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut.

But I haven’t given up hope. There will be good nights this week to lie on the beach and watch the Perseid meteor shower, and think about being billion year-old carbon, the golden stardust of faith.


What Can We Expect Schools to Do about White Nationalism?

As the news stories about back-to-back (to-back) shootings emerged, I waited for what was surely coming.

Listening to talk radio while driving for an hour on Sunday morning, the stories from CNN, NPR, MSNBC and Bloomberg were similar: Shock and horror. Informed speculation about root causes. Serious conversation about domestic terrorism and white nationalism. Comments from Democratic presidential candidates (many of whom were moved by anger and frustration to expletives), calling for immediate Congressional action. Thoughtful remarks about gun control.

Then I turned to Fox. They were talking about… video games. And the role of the media (other media, evidently—not Fox, of course). How public schools had taken God out of the equation, leading to moral collapse and failed school policies. How the Internet and digital tools had fomented this crisis, so we all needed to put down our phones. The talk on Fox was all about mental health (another thing that public schools were lax in reporting or fixing). Thoughts and prayers a-plenty, laced with blame for public institutions.

The only thing in common: high praise for first responders.

Two distinct worldviews. Where does public education fit into this picture? If you’re patient, you’ll almost always get to hear what Joe Sixpack thinks ‘the schools’ have done wrong in shaping the next generation and how to fix these errors.

Is it fair for folks on the right to suggest that schools have absconded from their moral duty to imbue students with ethical principles? Should our first impulse be to ‘harden’ schools—or to be anti-racist role models for young children? What part can public schools and teachers play in building a more just and equitable society, reducing hate and violence?

Where do we start? Is it even our job?

First—I believe it is our job. As education thinkers and writers going back to Plato have noted, teaching is a moral calling. Dispensing information and nurturing skills are useless without a value-framed context for applying them. Any teacher who wants to step away from the certainty that what we say and do impacts kids, rippling throughout their lives, needs to think hard about going into real estate, instead.

Also–public education functions as a stage where Americans test and play out their deepest values and convictions.  You can’t escape. Someday, the shooter may come through the front doors of your school, throw the bomb through your open classroom window or threaten a Congressional Representative on your watch.  If you’re lucky, it will only be Jason from 4th hour, challenging you again over his right to paste a Confederate-flag sticker on his history book–but teachers always, always have to be thinking about what kids are taking away from their conversations and lessons.

I’m sure that some parents feel queasy about public school educators declaring their intention to teach in culturally and morally responsive ways. But the latest PDK poll indicates strong support for teaching Civics, and if introducing age-appropriate anti-racism lessons and anti-violence discussions isn’t ‘Civics,’ I don’t know what is.

There has always been confusion and dissension over the purpose of public education, but 45% of teachers view preparing students to be good citizens as public schools’ main goal. This is not an exclusive objective—we still need to be establishing basic academic and life skills; we need to send our kids down the job preparation path, at a minimum.

But it seems to me that underneath all of the things we are trying to accomplish, nurturing the qualities that make a person a good neighbor, parent, worker and community member boil down to citizenship. People who drive hundreds of miles to kill people whose skin color is different, or whose names reflect their families’ country of origin, aren’t good citizens.

How to start? There is a lovely blog (written in 2017) circulating recently, entitled How am I supposed to confront white supremacy and racism on the first day of school?  ‘From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are loved and accepted for exactly who they arethat their voices carry power, that they are part of a community.’  It’s filled with beautiful thinking that cuts across subject disciplines and age levels, and gives teachers a moral framework for action.

But I also suggest that we can be far more specific. There are books for small children that address gun violence and racism.  We can build resistance to disinformation. With older students, we can explore the science and data behind mass violence.  We can also teach our students basic American geography and history without whitewash.

And–as trusted citizens, we can pull up our socks and become part of the growing national community of resistance to what is happening, every day, in our government. We can correctly label this, every chance we get, as domestic terrorism.

I can see the hands going up right now—I don’t trust my child’s teacher to teach ‘Moby Dick,’ let alone white nationalism. I’m fearful of my kids’ teachers’ political opinions, because they don’t align with mine. I don’t want some crazy anti-gun teacher criticizing my right to hunt deer.

The problem is–for all their flaws, schools are what we have, the only existing educational infrastructure available for children. I don’t have total faith in schools to accurately illuminate and warn against white nationalism, across the board. But better to start somewhere than declare teachers and schools useless in this war we are all fighting.

I take my inspiration for this perhaps overly optimistic hope from visiting Germany–and learning about how they teach their own history, now. From my own blog:

Our guide began by telling us that the impressive, forbidding structure we were looking at across the placid lake was not a museum. Museums are for sharing cherished cultural artifacts, he said. There are plenty of those in Germany, and we encourage you to visit them. A documentation center, on the other hand, is a public record of a human failure—one for which Germany was responsible. It was Germans’ moral duty to keep the archived memory alive at the Documentation Center, in concentration camps, and courtrooms.

He spoke of regional political differences pre-War, how a country in acute financial distress could be utterly divided about causes and solutions. He talked about generational differences and how it took Germans three full generations to understand how a handful of men turned a fundamentally decent people into killers, persuading those for whom horrific prejudice was just not a deal-breaker, if Germany could be restored to greatness. 

Someone asked the obvious question: How on earth could so many rational people buy into Hitler’s psychosis?

Ah, he said. This is where people from every nation must pay attention. Hitler was a genius at using available media and technology. Crystal radios were made cheap, and the same sticky message—an alternate, economically driven message of national pride—was pumped into all homes. “News” was what the party decided.

Public rallies were enormously effective. A common enemy had been clearly identified, the future was brighter because there was a plan for everyone, not merely the political elites. The ultimate community-building success.

I asked, as a teacher, what German schoolchildren were taught about Germany’s role in World War II. It was part of their national curriculum, he told us. They began with equity and community in early childhood, accepting differences and playing together. When students were 12, they read Anne Frank. Media literacy and logic and an intense focus on preparation for good, attainable, satisfying jobs were part of the program, in addition to history, economics and the predictable disciplines. We do not avoid our history, he said.

So what do you do in America, he asked?