Tuesday, August 25, 2009


After several sometimes enjoyable, sometimes frustrating days of designing business cards for Tom and I to hand people after answering the question "What are you up to?", I just finished slicing them apart. The day is slowly approaching when I will really understand Photoshop, and remember the commands!

Both of our cards have a plush bunny as the central motif. In Tom's case, it is sitting on a shelf next to a container of writing implements and a pair of scissors: tools of the teacher's trade. In my case, the bunny is held by a pair of small hands. This bunny had an important role in the classroom, and will show up frequently in the film. He was our version of the talking stick, passed from person to person to indicate that person and only that person had the right to speak. But a soulful bunny, his big ears seeming to take in every word, was so much more appealing than a stick. In a classroom where students loved to name things--even naming the beanbags we tossed while taking roll (Mooroo, and Dumpy The Dumptruck), the bunny never was given a proper name, being referred to only as the Class Council Bunny.

Most Friday mornings started with Class Council. I borrowed the concept about 10 years before from my friend Jean Luc Bedat, a teacher at Ecole Aujourd'hui, a bilingual elementary school in Paris. Their many ways to empower children impressed me. Each week a different student picked up the class council book, checked for what anyone in the class may have written inside it as a topic needing discussion by the whole class, and led a 30-40 minute meeting. I sat next to the leader, and when needed would give them some support, but as the year went on, that was always less and less necessary,and I could participate as just another voice in the discussion. Topics ranged from the mundane ("people are not putting away their supplies...") to the complex (many issues around the concept of fairness) to the deeply moving ("if someone says 'so' after I say something, it feels like they don't care about me..."). There was the bunny, listening, nodding, looking out at the group, as the child who was speaking animated him by unconsciously squeezing his soft body.

In between meetings, the bunny sat on a shelf where he seemed to survey the action. What better symbol for this film that observes with sympathy the life of a class?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I had good initial conversations with 3 people from the world of education this week---well, two were email correspondences, and one was a real voice on the other end of the phone. Each is working on a different piece of this same puzzle---how to explain to the general public what we can do in the world of education so the next generation can have happy, productive lives. Vicki Abeles and I talked about the progress of her film, RACE TO NOWHERE. Her main focus is the unintended negative consequences of a system and culture based on competition. Her film is designed around interviews with students, teachers and parents. Our conversation was around what ways we can support each other's efforts, knowing that it will take a great deal of effort to overcome the current trends. We also sympathized about the difficulty of finding funding when there are so many societal needs going unmet. She may have use for a bit of our footage for some positive visual images.

Jodie Newdelman, a parent in our district's Montessori program, heard a radio interview with Richard Rothstein, and suggested he was right "up our alley", so I wrote to him. He teaches at Columbia, and has a book called Grading Education that sounds well worth reading, and I have added it to my list!! The book has an appendix of transcribed interviews with a dozen or so creative teachers in inner city schools, who have been forced by NCLB to abandon successful approaches.

Last, but not least, I chatted with Jerry MIntz. Jerry is the man behind AERO--the Alternative Education Resource Organization. They publish a newsletter called Education Revolution, have an online store full of resources for people looking for alternatives to status-quo education, and host a very successful conference every June in upstate New York. Jerry helped film maker Dorothy Fadiman find progressive public schools for her 1990 film WHY DO THESE CHILDREN LOVE SCHOOL?. The film is an overview of practices that make for a positive school environment, in contrast to AUGUST TO JUNE's intimate following of one class. In some ways our film is a logical extension of hers, which aired on PBS. As we talked, I realized that at this point I have at least made a dent in identifying many of the players in the world of education who are speaking and writing from perspectives similar to my own. There is still a lot for me to read!!

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Here are three quotations to think about:
"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” Albert Einstein
“Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of education.” Linda McNeil, Rice University,
“...the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” Nel Noddings, Stanford University

When we talk about assessing education, do we really know what are the important areas to measure? I'd like to see an assessment model that measures how much time each day the child is smiling. How much time does he or she spend looking alert and involved, eyes twinkling? What percentage of his or her interaction with teachers involves critical thinking skills and means of expressing oneself? When I review a day in my classroom those things are as much on my mind as what concepts I have attempted to teach, or what standards I am focusing on. Childhood is a time of lively engagement. If it doesn't look like that in the classroom, something is wrong.

Children are genetically programmed to LEARN. They really are sponges. No matter what situation you put them into they will learn. The question is not "will they learn?" but "what will they learn?" They will take in along with the math or reading everything associated with the environment they learn it in. Will they approach new situations with confidence in the future? Will they smile when they see a book or math equation? Will they be devastated by "setbacks" or see them as the natural way of things? Where will the word "school" move the dial on the emotion meter? And how will that manifest in their lifelong attraction to learning?

Alfie Kohn cites a national study of first, third, and fifth grade classrooms in more than 1,000 schools: “Children spent most of their time (91.2%) working in whole-group or individual-seatwork settings” and “the average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades” (Robert C. Pianta et al., “Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms,” Science, vol. 315, March 30, 2007, p. 1795) This is what concerns me, not how those classrooms scored on multiple choice tests or what standards those teachers thought they were teaching.

I frequently remind children who are frustrated because it is taking them longer to become fluent readers than some of their peers, that while some babies may have started to walk long before others, in the long run we can't tell which were the early walkers or the ones who got their teeth first from the ones who got them later. Comparison is the bugaboo of the classroom, even when you don't give marks, use standardized tests or expect everyone to be on the same page on the same day. It is a typical human reaction to look at your peer group and measure yourself by what you see reflected there. There are times when I accept competition as a positive motivator. Still, the concept of readiness must be remembered. Being "ready" means you have the tools to accomplish the next goal. While there may well be information and concepts we as a society want to see included in every child's education, I resent the assigning of grade levels to so called "educational standards". I see them as a continuum. Everyone will get to the important concepts and skills over time, just not in unison.

Take a look at this website: http://stopnationalstandards.org/

Monday, August 10, 2009


The front page of the Datebook section of the SF Chronicle today had a big article about anorexia. It reminded me of a film I have been reading about, RACE TO NOWHERE--
http://www.reellinkfilms.com/ and a conversation I had recently with a young parent describing the waiting lists for preschools, and the homework her child was getting in kindergarten. Why are we creating such stress in the lives of our kids and their parents? I don't have the answer, but I see causative agents all around me: from ads that glorify a certain body type, to test scores for schools published in newspapers. Our society seems to have confused happiness with a single model of success.

And while real problems of inequity in our public schools are not addressed, we impose this same level of stress on teachers and students in impoverished inner city schools. doubling the issues they face.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


You may have noticed that the catch phrase No Child Left Behind has fallen into disrepute. When Congress remakes the legislation I am sure that will not be the title. The packaging will definitely change, but will the contents be any less onerous? It seems like the new catch phrase is National Standards...innocuous, but deadly (or deadening, as the case may be). I read two good pieces today as part of the research arm of this endeavor. Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator from Utah whom I greatly admire wrote an open letter called Educating for Individuality, that reflects directly on the idea of national standards. You can read it at http://definegreat.ning.com/forum/topics/educating-for-individuality It makes me think how we are operating in a period where fear is being used to dictate much of the actions of our policy makers. Uniformity feels safe. Individuality is somehow threatening. We need to reverse not only the current policies, but the current psychology.

The other piece that impressed me came from The Forum for Education and Democracy's newsletter: Why Send My Son to Public School? by Forum National Director Sam Chaltain http://www.forumforeducation.org/blog/why-send-my-son-public-school It includes some substantive other directions that do have national significance, but would bring back into focus a broader understanding of how to measure a good education.

Every day I read pieces by thoughtful people who are adding their voices to say "enough lockstep!" One of my jobs is to make sure the people I reach know that they are not alone.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Okay, I have spent a week carefully refining the words for the website description of August To June. Each time I write about the project I get both a new appreciation for the skills involved in saying something with clarity, and a new "aha!" about what we are doing. What was important to me this time was to both emphasize the specificity of this being about one class, and also to concisely give reasons why that might matter to the larger society. First I said it was "to raise" a discussion about our educational goals and values . But the discussion has already been raised by
people as diverse as William D. Green (of the Business Roundtable), Arne Duncan, and Alfie Kohn (The Schools Our Children Deserve) to name just a few who give a feel for the spectrum. So we don't need to raise it, we need to expand the number of people thinking and talking about what they really want for their children, and how we go about getting it. And it needs to be ordinary folks, not just policy makers. And they need examples to draw from. So we can be an example. Clearly everyone won't agree with everything about the model we show, but will some basic agreement about a wider definition of what it means to educate percolate up? Hope so.