Saturday, December 10, 2011

Teaming up with Phyllis to reach beyond the choir

I asked Phyllis Bush

to write a short piece about herself, so you could see why she and I are working together. Here is what she wrote:

"After growing up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, I graduated with a degree in English from the University of Iowa. I spent the first seven years of my career teaching middle school English/language arts in Rockford, Illinois and in District 59 in the Chicago suburbs. In 1973 we moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana. After a year of subbing and working on my Masters degree, I spent the next 24 years as an English teacher/department chair at South Side High School, an inner city school with a strong sense of community, despite the fact that many of our students were economically deprived.

After many years of very happy retirement, I began to be concerned about the negative consequences of No Child Left Behind. Watching the devastating effects of both the Race to the Top and the current political hostility towards public schools and teachers, I became alarmed. While I was too busy going to school, teaching, and raising a family to have been an activist during the 60s, now that I am in my 60s, I have the time and the passion to speak out for those who are too intimidated and too fearful to speak for themselves. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!"

When we met during the events this summer in Washington DC, Phyllis and I began to talk about how to use the voting power and expertise of retired teachers and grandparents(and anyone else who wants to join us!) to change the direction the federal government and states are taking education. She told me about her experiences explaining to people (who have only heard sound bites) what is really going on. These are often people who would not go to a public screening, but might well come to a small group of friends meeting in someone’s home. The idea of using either the Mis-Education Nation video or August to June for such small group meetings, led to thinking of the people who would lead such groups as ambassadors of sorts: making the link between people with progressive ideas who are aware of what is happening in public education (but whose jobs are not threatened by their speaking out), and people of good will who might be energized by hearing more about what the situation looks like “on the ground.”

When Phyllis got back to Indiana, she and 10-15 people met with Anthony Cody and brought up the idea. She also wrote to Rita Solnet of Parents Across America. In the meantime I talked to several CA retired teachers. Ray Bacchetti, of Palo Alto, Mark Phillips of Woodacre, and Bonnie Theile and Terry Sayre of Tulare all asked to be kept in the loop. In October we posted a discussion site on my Facebook page, but Facebook did one of its unpredictable changes and my site no longer has a discussion page...a good reason to put this idea onto my faithful Blogster Blog!

It is our feeling that there needs to be a clear action we suggest when such meetings are held. We are also looking for a good title that people can refer to. I have been using 'senior ambassadors," but that may sound more like the name of a travel group! So our first step is to grow a bit bigger by creating an online community that can come up with a unified direction, outreach ideas, and a name.

Would you be interested in joining this effort?

In a separate but related move, the Indiana folks are considering using Diane Ravitch’s visit this coming March as a reason for showing several films at a local theater: Race to Nowhere, American Teacher, The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting For Superman, Lessons From The Real World, and August to June were suggested. There is also a possibility of working with Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education with the United Church of Christ (who wrote a powerful article: and arranging screenings through UCC. If Diane is coming to your area, that might be an impetus to suggest to whatever group is bringing her that they also screen AUGUST TO JUNE!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Lock-stepped in California's central valley, and looking for change

Sometimes when I repeat what teachers tell us to people who only hear about school reform in the media, the response is incredulity. Last night’s screening in Lemoore CA, put on by the Tulare/King's County Reading Council drew an audience of teachers, student-teachers and at least one school board member. Listening to the stories that seeing our film evoked, it is impossible to ignore how devastating the effects of NCLB continue to be. Most of the elementary level teachers present must spend 2 1/2 hours a day on disjointed language arts activities that are prescribed for them with little or no room for variance. Content--the stuff of curiosity that builds both knowledge and enjoyment, is almost non-existent except as little snippets attached to writing or reading paragraphs. Testing (and discussion of test results) is continual. They search for moments when they can add creativity and joy to their classrooms. It often must be done clandestinely.

The older teachers present remember working with many of the ideas they saw in our film. Schools in this area embraced the Tribes curriculum. Class council, creating classroom agreements and cross age learning were familiar to them. But NCLB erased social-emotional and project-based curricula from their classrooms. Some spoke of being demoralized. Several were considering leaving the profession, and others had retired early because what had once been their passion became unbearable to witness. What a price we are paying for this disastrous policy!

Taking a stand in these economic hard times is not easy. The risk of being fired may be real. But people at a distance from classrooms need to hear how schools have changed. I invite teachers to write (anonymously if that feels safer), to let others read concrete examples of how your students and you have been affected by the regimen placed on your classrooms. Post them here, or on our Facebook page. If you have found strategies for how to fit meaningful learning into top-down structured days, share those as well! While we work for change children are growing up, and any ways you have found to combat the tedium are welcome.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Answering Alethea

What a summer it has been. I intended that my August blog would be about the conference and demonstration we went to in Washington DC, and the energizing time we had at the Alternative Education Resource Organization Conference we attended right afterward, but then Alethea Crandell sent me an email with a great bunch of questions after she saw the film in DC at Busboys and Poets, and it became clear that answering her would lead to a meaty entry here, as well as whatever she does with it on her own blog

What follows are her questions, and my attempts to answer:

Would you say this form of education is about teaching children to self-actualize? How does the Open classroom do this?

While I don't use the term (and would have to reread Maslow to make sure I'm using it correctly) certainly one of our goals is the kind of self knowledge that might lead to self actualization. From the start of their time with us we help children reflect--asking "how do you feel right now?" and modeling using "I felt" when responding in a conflict situation, remarking on their process as they approach tasks, so that they are aware that there are many ways to do things, and that they each have their own learning style. We also encourage laughter and comfort. We are very aware of the need for children to build body awareness, and address that through a variety of physical activities. Perhaps most important is that children in our setting have time to find and pursue their own interests. They can even be bored--as sometimes that is the very thing that leads them to new discoveries.

What advice do you have for parents and educators on nurturing creativity? Nurturing curiosity? Nurturing a love of learning? Nurturing the confidence to ask questions and be engaged?

My personal experience is that listening, observing, and sharing one's own excitement without overwhelming the child is key. One offers the space for creativity to happen (this can be a physical space with materials that can be used in an open ended manner, or mental space where a child's mind is free to wander) one is there to share information when needed, and one reflects on their discoveries with warmth and curiosity, showing that their process is just as important to you as their product.

How did you come to be a teacher in this format? What are the most important skills needed to teach children holistically?

As I mention in August to June, there were many influences that led me to this format. Besides those teachers I touch upon in the film, my parents' values played an important part. I attended Antioch College, and my education course work included reading and discussing Maslow, Rogers, Neill, Bruner, Holt, Axline, Ashton-Warner, Erikson, Mearns, Betelheim...and more. All that I read confirmed a gut instinct I had about the importance of addressing the individual. When I began my teaching career I was an art teacher with an art cart moving between two inner city schools in Dayton Ohio, and seeing about 500 students a week. The following year I taught 6-8 year olds in a Summerhill-influenced independent school in Los Angeles. Each setting honed my understanding of what I had read, but frankly, just as children learn by hands-on experiences, I needed many years to meld what I believed into the way I taught. I don't know if there is one most important skill needed to teach children holistically. Certainly developing the habit of reflection and a willingness to see things from another's perspective are very important. Not being wedded to one "right way" is crucial.

How do you think American schools need to be changed to teach self-actualization? Creativity? Curiosity? Love of learning?

To teach self-actualization, creativity, curiosity, and love of learning those things need to be part of a teacher's own experience throughout his or her career. American schools need to be places where teachers are nurtured as well as students. That might include more extensive mentoring, or making time for teachers to work collegially and offer substantial support to each other to continue growing. The experiential parts of teacher training need to include experiences of these areas as well. In tandem we need to look at the separation that has developed between those studying to be education administrators and principals, and those studying to be teachers. Administrators need to value holistic approaches as much as teachers do, and develop skills that will help them model these important areas in their school communities.

How do you nurture creativity in your own life? What advice would you have for aspiring creatives?

I am lucky to have many creative outlets. I am a fiber artist, have written and illustrated children's books, and enjoy writing poetry. The movie itself has been a wonderful collaborative creative experience for my husband and me, but just as with teaching, it has been important to find ways to renew my creative juices For me my garden has been a most satisfying way to do so. I love watching plants grow as much as I love watching kids grow!

Making time for creativity seems to be one of the hardest things for many creative people. Giving oneself permission to carve out that time may be easier said than done, but it will make all the difference.

What was the process of making the film? How did you decide to make the film? How did you learn to make films? What were the day-to-day activities in making it? How did you get it distributed? How did you get it in film festivals? What was the process of promoting the film and the message it conveys?

Whew! There is a short answer to this and a very very long one! For the long one I recommend reading the archives of the blog I have kept since I retired and began working with Tom editing the film, and figuring our how to bring it to the world. We don't have a distributor other than ourselves at this point, and are still figuring out how to promote the film and its message. Tom had been a documentary film maker for many years. He had made an earlier film about the Open Classroom in the 80's called To Make A Difference, and had often wished he had time to make a more intimate film that could explore this way of teaching through the evolving and complex school lives of children. With my retirement as an incentive, he decided to bite the bullet and make filming my class his priority the last year I taught. It took a while for Tom to understand how to best accomplish his goal, and there were (not unexpectedly) many threads that he started following and then discarded. For example, he had thought he would just follow a few children, but soon saw that he needed to be more responsive to what was actually happening in the classroom. Deciding to mic individual students was a crucial turning point. Kids who wanted to would wear a radio mic for a few hours--as long as it felt comfortable, which allowed Tom to be less intrusive, and still record their conversations.

The convergence of his interest in documenting a holistic approach with the growing punitive and narrowing education trends happening nation wide gave more urgency to the project, so much so that it has taken over our lives for the past 5 years!

What advice would you have for aspiring filmmakers? What advice or knowledge do you wish you had at the start of this film?

It is easier than ever to make films, but it is at least as hard to get a film to an audience. Be ready to do your outreach homework, and start that as soon as you define your project, whether you are applying for grants, or self financing. I don't know how we would have found time, but we wish we had reviewed our footage more while we were shooting. We really didn't know what we had until the school year was over, which meant many missed opportunities.

What are your plans for retirement? What are your future plans in regards to creativity? In making a difference in things you believe in?

I think we will be working on bringing this film and its message to audiences as a full time occupation for at least another year, and probably a good deal more. In the meantime we have begun a shorter film which will be shot at Mission Hill Pilot School in Boston this year. We want to explore how the kind of meaningful education we show can be achieved in an urban setting, and are hoping that a half hour film will have a better chance of being shown on TV, and therefore reach a larger audience. I will be learning how to be Tom's sound person--hopefully there will be some creativity involved there! When I am home I will continue to be part of the school community, occasionally subbing, but also just enjoying being at school and helping out as needed once a week or so.

My garden continues to call me, and I have a ceramic mural project in my future. I have been working with a retired colleague on an original quilt design (using Japanese fabrics) that we pick back up whenever we have time! But clearly the chord the film has struck has gotten me more and more involved as an advocate for a change in our national priorities. I have met many wonderful educators and parents, and have ideas I want to pursue together with some of them. One that is rising to the top of the pile is the idea of creating a way for retired teachers and grandparents to have their voices heard.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I've been singing this song so long...just got to sing a little louder!

In May of 2009 I sent an early compilation of AUGUST TO JUNE footage to Secretary Duncan, and received a partially form-letter response from Assistant Secretary Joseph Conaty suggesting that if our district had made "significant gains in closing the achievement gap" we might want to apply for a grant. Cleaning up my files, I re-read what I wrote back to him. As we prepare to meet with educators from across the country at the SOS March and National Call To Action in DC in July, with alternative educators at AERO in August, with progressive educators at the Association for Constructivist Teaching, The Association for Experiential Education, and the Coalition of Essential Schools in October and November, it still rings true to me. Here is an excerpt:

"If your reference to achieving “at high levels” means how well our students score on standardized tests, we will not meet your measure. The parents in our programs strenuously object to that approach. After thoroughly studying the subject, over 90% of those in the Open Classroom program, and a sizable number in our other programs have chosen to opt their students out of the high stakes tests that California administers. As a result our district is labeled as needing “program improvement.”

One visit to our classrooms and it will be clear that we are the exact opposite of a failing school. Why should we be punished? Why aren’t the many measurement models that would affirm our success getting the acknowledgment they deserve, so states could incorporate them into their accepted assessments?

As you re-evaluate NCLB, and the federal government’s role in creating successful systems of public education, I urge you to support authentic assessments. These would include models based on observation, portfolios, parent/ teacher collaborations, accomplishing the goals of individual education plans, high school graduation rates (that follow individual students from elementary school through high school), and the percentage of students accepted into institutions of higher education. They would address the broad content of the education given to students, the adequacy of the facilities, the support for teachers, and the continuity and scope of services offered to students entering school at a disadvantage."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My, how you've grown!

As I have wandered the internet these past few years trying to place what we are doing in context within the world of American education, I have been amazed by the number of people and organizations I had never come in contact with who turn out to be fellow travelers. Some are individuals writing blogs, some are part of long established organizations. In some cases I find myself in total agreement with the views they express. Other times I am teasing out the thread of agreement from a complex web whose other threads don't match up so well with my thinking. Several organizations have come and gone while I perused the ether. Some (perhaps problematically more than one) are attempting to be THE umbrella group. I'm beginning to recognize familiar names cropping up as contributors to more than one organization. I find new voices every day: there is no way I can keep up with all of this, and that may be a good thing!

Some have become touchstones: Betsy L Angert of Empathy and Education combs the internet too, and often sends me articles of interest, as well as being a passionate supporter of our work, always looking for ways to bring the film and its ideas to audiences in Florida and elsewhere. Monty Neill's work at Fairtest is so important, leading me to articles I might not find on my own, validating what I sense to be true with the work of scholars and investigators. Rick Posner tickled me from our first phone conversation, mixing Yiddish aphorisms with serious conversation about how to measure the ways that unconventional schools make a difference. I admire Deb Meier tremendously, and read her and Diane Ravitch's Bridging The Differences and also John Merrow's Learning Matters for word-smithed musings that come to some different conclusions, but often enlighten. We met Mark Phillips "in real life" at the very beginning of this project, and interact on-line and off. I could name over a dozen wonderful people I have met because of the Featherstones, who continue to cheer us on.

You see what I mean?

I found Anthony Cody when he started Teacher's Letters to Obama and followed him to SOS March and National Call to Action. It is the closest thing to a really big umbrella group that I have found. The past two months we have worked together with Anthony on a series of spots for the gathering in Washington DC that this group of people (with demanding day jobs!) is attempting to organize on a shoe string budget. Anthony is a clear thinker and a pleasure to know and work with. Three of the spots are now out, and in the process of getting them to a bigger audience I have found many many more groups representing parents, counselors, teachers, educators, all wanting meaningful education for our country's children, and convinced that we can't simply test our way there.

And yes, our work is finding its place in this bigger and bigger movement.

Here are the links to the first three spots: Here's to the Teachers:
Here's to the Students:
and Here's to the Parents:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wise words to frame our story

On a lovely Sunday in April, we drove down to Palo Alto to Channing House, a large senior living complex. We were invited by Dr. Ray Bacchetti, whose long career in education included serving on a school board, being in the Stanford administration, disbursing education grants, and being designated a Scholar in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He had decided to screen 22 minutes of excerpts from AUGUST TO JUNE as a first exposure to the film, leaving plenty of time to put the film in context with his remarks and a question and answer period. We were very satisfied to see the size of the audience--my guess is there were close to 200 people. Here follows extensive excerpts from Ray's excellent opening remarks:

An Important Piece of School Reform: Teaching the Whole Child

"Welcome. I’m very pleased to be here and to see you all here too. Education is dear to my heart, especially public education—what used to be called a century ago the “free, public, common school.” Having my granddaughter, Emily Taylor, here too is a special pleasure. Emily graduated from Brown University last June and is in the Stanford Teacher Education Program. She plans to be one of the 1.7 million new teachers the nation will need over the next 5 years.

School reform is a huge topic. Today we’re going to deal with an important piece of it—teaching the whole child. That may sound to some like code. Of course you teach the whole child—it’s the whole child who comes to school every day. True enough. But one can see a whole child in a classroom and chose to ignore parts of that child. A teacher can concentrate on their minds and ignore or pay only marginal attention to their social, emotional, and ethical learning, to how they relate to each other, how they cooperate, how they feel in different situations and how those feelings help or get in the way of learning."

"...[Emily]will be entering the educational system at a time of unprecedented scrutiny from . . .

-- the federal and state governments,
-- business, especially big business,
-- foundations large enough to affect priorities in policy and practice at state and national levels,
-- reformers of many stripes,
--and many others."

"President Obama recently said that teachers are nation builders. My friend, John Merrow, the education correspondent for the NewsHour, [who by the way introduced me to Amy and her marvelous video] recently blogged that the schools are ill-equipped for nation building. But the question isn’t whether the schools are or are not building the nation. The question what kind of a nation are they building.

-- If schools don’t teach problem solving and creativity, where will future citizens turn when there are problems to solve and alternatives to create?
-- If they don’t teach the values and skills of empathy, resilience, self-confidence, honesty, and collaboration, what will take the place of those qualities in a healthy society?
-- If the value of diversity and the imperative of inclusion isn’t part of the school day, what does that say about kids’ abilities as adults to care about social justice and whether society works for everyone?

By paying insufficient attention to the recruitment and cultivation of teachers, by insisting on curriculum standards that are narrow and prescriptive about what teachers must do to meet them, by focusing on fill-in-the-bubble assessments that are easy to grade, average, and report, we are hollowing out what school can and should be.

William James once said that we can’t decide not to decide, because that in itself is a decision. We need to think about the irrevocable truth of that and keep asking—what sort of a nation are we building?

This afternoon, Emily’s and my objective is to take a look at what a rich place a classroom can be and how we’re going to get teachers to be, and to be seen to be, the nation’s partners with parents in raising up generation after generation of people who think democracy is the best thing since sliced bread and are able and willing to keep it going and getting better . . .

And who at the same time will themselves be life-long learners, potent contributors to the economy, people whose lives are enriched by diversity, and who become the sort of parents kids are entitled to have.My favorite philosopher, John Dewey, once wrote about this question of how good our schools should be. I’m very fond of his answer. He said:

'What the best and wisest parents want for their children, that must the community want for all of its children.'

I like that sentiment for several reasons. For its core message, of course. For its emphasis on wisdom. For its placing responsibility on the community. And for the implication that all children are our children in the grand scheme of our American social contract."

"Initiatives multiply like mosquitoes, reforms are everywhere, political interventions happen in the District of Columbia, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and up and down the state of California, some for better reasons than others.

The one repeating voice in all this is the centrality of the teacher. If a child has a good teacher in elementary school for three years in a row, that child’s educational outcomes are destined to be much, much better than those of a child who has three poor teachers in a row, almost regardless of what the rest of her or his educational experiences might be.

What are the qualities a teacher needs to have to be that “good” teacher? In my experience, they come under three headings:

1. Subject matter knowledge. For many of today’s critics, this is not only #1 but it’s meant to trump the others. Of course it’s vital! Teachers need to know how subject matter goes together, how we know things in math, geography, literature, social studies, and so forth. There are different ways of knowing, and subject matter is where those ways are learned. To teach for understanding, teachers must understand subject matter well.
But subject matter alone won’t do the trick.

2. Pedagogy. Teachers need to know how to teach. Teaching isn’t telling, it’s not the product of extrinsic rewards like gold stars (at least not if you want learning to last), its not a result of stern demands (at least not for everyone), and it’s not the product of children doing whatever they want. It’s not the same in different subjects nor for children in different grades. And it’s often not the same for different children—from backgrounds with low word counts in family talk, or where English is a second language, or for those who go home each day to dysfunctional families, or kids with chips on their shoulders or backpacks loaded with indifference. Pedagogical knowledge is to teachers what surgical technique is to surgeons, prosecutorial skill is to a lawyer, or a game plan and the ability to execute it is to a quarterback.

3. Child development. Understanding where children are in their cognitive, moral, physical, social, and emotional development is vital. This is the third leg of the triangle. This is where teachers know what is age-appropriate, what maturity looks like in terms of readiness for particular kinds of learning, when expectations are reasonable and when they are not.

This triangle of knowledge about subject-matter, pedagogy, and child development anchors schooling. But there’s another element that pulls them all together in the service of learning and growing up, and that is one’s philosophy of education. To oversimplify a complex subject, I can divide approaches, or philosophies, as predominately focused on basics vs. engaged in the progressive exploration of a problematic world, or as subject-matter centered vs. child centered, or as a matter of discipline vs. discovery. I can also declare without fear of contradiction what most of us have experienced—that many teachers use combinations of all of these.

But what you’re about to look at in this excerpt from the video “August to June” is a classroom exemplifying the whole-child approach without slighting basics, or subject matter, or discipline. The film is subtitled, “bringing life to school: one year in an unconventional public school classroom figuring out what really counts.” The teacher knits many elements together in a way that makes sense from a child’s perspective and takes each boy or girl from where he or she is to where they need to go on this particular stage of their journey—as students and as people. When you look at this school, note how the classroom looks, how the kids relate to one another and the teacher to them, how important resolving conflict is to keeping children open to learning, and, in the scene where parents are talking about what they want for their kids, how long and rich the list they develop."

Ray got much applause, and the clips were very well received. The hardest part of this day was listening to Emily talk about the compromises she saw in front of herself. While she clearly sees the value to whole child experiential education, a newly minted teacher finds few such schools in which to begin a career. Because she is dedicated to reaching society's most vulnerable, she will teach next year in a narrowly focused charter school in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood that is devoted to just such children. While she will put her heart, mind, and Stanford training into her teaching, I only wish young teachers were finding more places to begin their careers where the whole child in all her or his complexity and possibilities lived at the center of the classroom.

The discussion after the screening was rich, ranging from concerns about Teach For America to reminiscences of the start of what became NCLB (and how angry teachers felt about what was happening) from a woman who had taught in Texas.

Driving back home we realized that we should have brought some way for these motivated grandparents and elders to let others know their response. I'm wondering about developing either a petition or a form letter we could carry with us in the future.

Ray will be showing the entire film at Channing House on May 2. From what we saw, I think he will have a good turn out, and more lively conversation!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Democracy 101

John Merrow has a very thoughtful new blog at titled My Parent's Mixed Marriage--a catchy title to an article about political discourse, not race relations. Last night I listened to the new president of the newly resurrected Antioch College, Dr. Mark Roosevelt who is also of mixed heritage (yes he is the great-grandson of Republican Teddy and great grand-nephew of Democrats Franklyn and Eleanor). In his speech to Antioch alumni interested in how the reborn college would look, he made several points of interest to those concerned about the grandstanding that has become endemic.

He said he was not interested in drawing lines in the sand. He acknowledged that there are some historical moments where that becomes necessary, but was clear that it can not be the modus operandi. He pointed out a fascinating study that proved the oft-stated: in general people only hear what they want to hear. In this case the researchers noted that when reading, people tend to underline the portions of a text that agree with their pre-reading point of view. Roosevelt asked: why read anything new if your intent is just to find validation for your existing views? He challenged the audience to encourage students at Antioch--often characterized as a left leaning institution, to study in a more neutral way views that run counter to those leanings.

Antioch's new leader spoke to the intellectual snobbery that has emptied Democratic ranks of those who feel as disenfranchised by left wing conversation as many Republicans fleeing in disgust the extreme right of their party.

So my response to John's question of how do we get past ranting and make change, is that we need to do as Antioch is doing on a national scale. We need to re-invent our relation to "politics". That can mean creating new forums where substantive debate is encouraged, or being actively involved in honest reflection within the old ones. What I refuse to see as an answer is to walk away. There is no "away" in a world confronting the level of possible disasters that ours faces.

This of course leads me right back to the crux of our film. If we support the inquisitive nature of childhood, keep students loving school all the way through because it is a place that respects them as learners and as people, we can rebuild a democracy where ideas are debated on their merits, not on political sloganeering.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why an independent minded teacher wants to be part of a union

So engrossed have I been in
I would never have had any idea about
the best ways to address an administrator who treated me unfairly
how to understand the complications of health care coverage
how to compare what I earned with that of others in similar situations

I would be on my own to
understand how complex issues affect my classroom
my students
explain to legislators the whys and hows
they don't seem to want to consider
when it is one voice speaking

and once
I boarded a yellow school bus
and put on the same yellow tee shirt
as a thousand other teachers
and stood in front of the capital
and knew
really knew
united we stand
is more than
an historic phrase

Friday, March 18, 2011

Crime and Punishment first grade style

I have been corresponding with many teachers and parents as the film makes its way into people’s paths. Yesterday I emailed back and forth with a parent from North Carolina. She has graciously allowed me to print part of her letter:

“I understand, absolutely, that there are many "right" ways as you say for education... but I am currently facing a very uptight system. I am about to embark on a no turning back campaign to end "silent lunch" punishments in my district. Children work quietly and dutifully with little time to explore, discuss, and interact... and are now being threatened with losing their right to talk at lunch. My son has silent lunch in first grade if children talk during instruction time (desks, worksheets, more worksheets if they finish early). Insanity. INSANITY!!!

I do not blame teachers, I understand that most of them feel powerless in this system. I do not blame administrators, they want to support teachers. I am not blaming. But who is thinking about the child? Where is the child's voice? I know it is not about blame, but someone must start these conversations! Especially in my town.

I am not politically savvy, and I've never gone against a big system (David and Goliath), but I am doing my homework and reaching out to other parents right now. Our community is in desperate need of a good conversation in which everyone's voice is heard. I am trying to find ways to make that happen.”

The principal at this school thinks that silent lunch is the best disciplinary alternative open to teachers. It is seen as mild—after all no one is being suspended or hit. A teacher doesn’t have to raise her voice, just write on the board “silent lunch today” and not only will the 6 year old miscreant who was squirmy get the message, but so do all his classmates, so peer pressure will make the “bad behavior” less likely to happen again.

There are two outrages here. There is the act the child is being punished for, and the punishment itself. I understand why my letter writer is focused on the punishment. The cruelty inherent in denying children the ability to enjoy their meal goes beyond the period of time when they are being punished. It extends to their attitude around eating in general, and is a good way to start a child on the road to eating disorders…but "to prove what?" is also essential to look at.

While many may think a quiet classroom with everyone working at their desks is what learning looks like, anyone who has studied child development knows differently. Many adults would have a hard time if their work situations were that rigid, but children absolutely need to move. Movement promotes social/emotional, creative, and cognitive development. Depriving children of the ability to use their energy will inevitably lead to them…doing it anyway and “getting in trouble!!”

On Monday I watched a happy group of first graders, the same age as my correspondent’s son, moving around a classroom purposefully. They were building with blocks, drawing pictures, reading books, and working on their spelling. The room was alive with their voices, their excitement and pleasure at what they were doing was evident. Having been in this classroom many times this year, I could see the progress the little writers had made in motor control and understanding letter/sound relationships.

Their teacher has their respect because she respects them, including their need to move. There are few “discipline problems” in this class because she is working with her students needs, not trying to subvert them. If a child is disruptive the teacher reflects on what she could do to help the child, not how to punish him or her.

Alfie Kohn wrote in a 1996 essay in Education Week titled Beyond Discipline: “To "manage" students' behavior, to make them do what we say, doesn't promote community or compassion, responsibility or reflection. The only way to reach those goals is to give up some control, to facilitate the tricky, noisy, maddening, unpredictable process whereby students work together to decide what respect means or how to be fair."

I applaud this parent for taking a stand, and fervently hope she will find other parents who realize they must protect their children from being seen as objects to be managed!

Monday, March 7, 2011

We weren't really in North Dakota

The North Dakota Study Group is well known by progressive educators from the east coast, and those across the country who have been influenced by the work of Lillian Weber, Deborah Meier, Patricia Carini, Eleanor Duckworth, Joseph Featherstone, and particularly Vito Perrone, who began the gathering when he was teaching in North Dakota. The group has been meeting in the Chicago area in recent years. There were a few west coasters at the meeting I attended, but it is not well known here. I found out about it from Meier and the Featherstones. When Jay asked us to bring AUGUST TO JUNE to this year's annual meeting we were very pleased, but it was not until we started working with the meeting coordinators Esther Ohito, Sid Massey, and Ann Leiberman that we realized what a special event this would be.

This is not a large conference. There were about 125 participants. But unlike the massive trade show/lecture circuit of a large conference, this one had almost no commercialism, and even the keynotes felt intimate. People talked from their own experience. I felt a real attempt to avoid generalizations.

I was one of the "storytellers" in the first morning's panel. The others were Daniel Morales-Doyle and Lutalo McGee from Chicago's 6 year old public Social Justice High School, and Meryl Feigenberg and Jared Roebuck from Lyons Community School, a 4 year old public 6-12th grade school in Brooklyn. We had worked together via internet and phone to hone stories that spoke to the seed of our practice of democracy in the classroom. I had been asked to use footage from our year of videoing my last class. So I talked about empowering children, taking their concerns seriously,and giving them a democratic forum to bring up those concerns. I used the discussion we had around Valentine's day candy at class council. It was not a dramatic story, but the fact that children speak so honestly with each other is the small step that builds bigger ones. The other stories were more personal, and often dealt with real struggles the participants were confronted with right now. As we listened to each other the common themes of community, and the importance of bringing in those who feel themselves to be marginalized became clear, and then was magnified as the whole audience divided into smaller groups and talked about what our stories brought up for them. The conversations were vibrant. As we summarized some of the discussions, Jenerra D. Williams read us a poem she had written on the spot. That bridging of disciplines is typical of what NDSG embodies.

People loved the film, we made wonderful contacts, and even got to act up by driving to Madison to join the public unions protesting there! I hope we can return to NDSG next year, and I wish we had a similar forum for progressive teachers on the west coast.


The edge, the outside lines.
Drawn by those far from us.

Who is in the margin?
What stories are being told?
How does democracy narrow them?

How do our stories connect the lines of marginality?
Does knowing you more deeply
draw you closer to me
or me closer to your margin?

Our stories make us a community but what stories are we telling?
How much is revealed?
What truths surface and what truths sink?
Truth fosters trust fosters growth
But only if they are identified and shared.

Even the definition of margin becomes narrow.
There are as many lines of margin as there are the people who lie within them.
Question: Do I feel marginalized or do I marginalize myself?
Who puts me on the edge?

I feel invisible.
I'm in the margin.
I'm on the edge.
It's easy to disappear from here.
It's easier for me and probably easier for those who don't know what to do with me,
Who's don't understand me,
Who have not shared their truth with me, and I have not with them.

The margin is the edge,
But I have not gone over.

Jenerra D. Williams
NDSG, 2/19/11

Friday, January 28, 2011

having climbed the first mountain...

When I started writing this blog I couldn't even really imagine a day when we would sit in a theater and see the film we were formulating in our mind's eye. I wasn't even sure we were on the path to a finished product that might play in a theater. Now that day has come and gone, and we are both basking in the wonder of it all! I don't have to know where the film will take us and the educators who are walking with us. I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We are on the right path.

The Rafael Theater's main auditorium seats 339, and just about every seat was taken. I wish I had a list of all the people who were with us last night..and of the ones who waited too long to get tickets but had intended to be with us (we sold out the day before the event, though a few folks squeezed in at the last minute). There were people from the earliest days of Tom's career as a film maker, film makers he has worked with more recently, people who were pivotal to creating our school in the late 60's and early 70's, parents whose children went to school with our children, students who are now in their 40's and even 50's, 2/3rds of the students who were in the class from the film and many of their extended families, my teaching colleagues from all the periods I taught, current parents and students, people who have been following our Facebook page, San Geronimo Valley friends, and of course people who read the articles in the local papers and came with no connection to us.

A delicious dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant (arranged by former school board member Brian Dodd) started us off on the right foot, greeting friends associated with the school's early days. The past was very present. The idealism of those pioneers has been rewarded by seeing the school prosper, their children grow into creative and productive adults. I heard later that in restaurants all over San Rafael people were meeting for a bite before the movie, sometimes renewing friendships with others who had coincidentally chosen the same spot!

We stood in the lobby as people arrived, and the flood of familiar faces was overwhelming! CFI Education's John Morrison, our master of ceremonies, wisely suggested we move away from the door so as not to create a roadblock as people greeted us (and asked if we had an extra ticket for someone waiting outside without one!). People were in such good spirits, moving around the theater greeting old friends, and chatting that I wondered if we would be able to get them settled down for the film; but as soon as the curtains closed the mood became so attentive that John remarked on it when he got onstage. He mentioned that this was the first time CFI Education had taken the step of sponsoring a film in their 12 year history! That was the first time we realized what a big step John had taken when he told us he would bring AUGUST TO JUNE to the Rafael.

The curtain opened, the kids' evocative portraits that start the movie were there on the big screen, and Tom and I both melted into our seats with pleasure. This was the first time we had seen a Digi-beta tape projection of the film, and the richness of the colors, the sharpness of the image and most of all the clarity of the sound was truly a treat. I heard things I had never caught before! Whether it was because of how responsive the audience was or the sumptuousness of the Digibeta projection, both of us were caught up by the film completely--even though we have probably seen some scenes in it hundreds of times now.

When the ending credits came on we were whisked from the back of the theater and seated in comfortable easy chairs onstage with John. As the students' names came down the credits, the applause was deafening. I could see them glowing in the front rows. Truly a moment for them to realize the importance of having allowed Tom access to so much. We thanked them, thanked our community, thanked thanked thanked. Can never thank enough!

It looks to me like this won't be our last Question and Answer session, so one of the jobs still ahead of us is further honing our responses. We felt much better about how we handled this q&a compared to the one on KPIX TV news the other morning, but we warm up slowly. The first question: "What inspired you to make this film?" can be answered so many different ways, but we tend to talk about it being a golden opportunity to film my last year of teaching. As we reviewed our answers afterward we realized that is the moment to talk about our frustration with NCLB and how it had started twisting education out of shape. Wanting to "catch that golden opportunity" is because we were concerned about the direction schools were going.

This was not an audience that asked hard questions. They were there to celebrate and be inspired. Even so there were thoughtful questions sprinkled in with the praise. A Montessori trained teacher wanted to understand what the influence of Montessori was on what I was doing which gave me the opportunity to talk about the different strands of whole child education, and a bit of its history. A person involved with a public Waldorf wanted to know how we handled electronic media. Sweet words of praise came from parents and former students. One suggested we should be sending copies of the DVD to legislators, another suggested we develop a page where alumni could comment on the effect of this kind of education on their lives. Kyla spoke magnificently about how she loves to learn, and how that surprises many of her friends coming from conventional classrooms. The mike moved around the audience and in no time it was over. The kids came on stage for some photos and we made our way outside.

Barbara Den Ouden and her sister Christine were selling our DVDs like hotcakes! They sold every one we brought with us! All the free postcards we brought went, and we sold a few posters too. But I hardly noticed as we joined the students who were still there on the lobby's spiral staircase for another round of photos. Our faithful photographer Cindy De Channes was having trouble getting from the auditorium to the lobby, so there we were on the stairs waiting. It occurred to me we might sing--everyone was in such good spirits that I took the chance of asking 15 teenagers if they would sing the song they sang in 3rd & 4th grade! We sang De Colores and the people milling in the lobby cheered!

Two teachers approached me to tell me how inspired they were by the film, particularly because they were finding it harder and harder to teach creatively in the current atmosphere. One told me tearfully how last year the principal of her school told her "You don't need art to get into college, so drop it from your curriculum." All her years of training at the Exploratorium were going to waste as she can no longer conduct project-based science. I want so to help teachers like that get back to doing what they know is right for kids.

So: the bear went over the mountain, and what do you think he saw? You guessed it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

back with those frequently asked questions

We just finished a long interview with a reporter from the Marin Independent Journal in anticipation of this Thursday's premiere of AUGUST TO JUNE at the Rafael Theater. He asked many good questions. I think we did a pretty good job of answering them, too! There are a couple of themes that come up just about every time: "If you don't use standardized tests to evaluate progress, how do you know that your students are learning?" and "Could what you show happen in other settings?"

To the first we answer that there are many excellent ways to assess student learning that don't involve high stakes standardized tests. Hopefully watching AUGUST TO JUNE a viewer will see that when teaching is individualized the teacher can constantly evaluate whether the child is gaining understanding.

One of the benefits of the research I did as we edited the film was being able to create a resource page for teachers and parents. Those resources often lead to sites that have developed effective assessment tools. Some help a teacher hone his or her skills of observation so she/he can note progress and make informed judgments about what areas to address next with a given child. Others allow parents and "outsiders" to understand what a child has accomplished.

Of course the film is meant to challenge the narrowing that high stakes testing has engendered. There is no question that many teachers now teach to the test, perhaps because they have been convinced it is positive for students, but often because they have been sternly told that their employment depends on sticking to the program whether they see it as benefiting their students or not.

To the second question we respond that public schools where a broad and meaningful education is both the goal and the reality exist in a wide range of communities across the US, such as the ones we show at the end of the film. While I was amazed at the similarities I found, there were also many differences. I want to compare it to friendships. Some are loud, full of joking around, others hardly involve words. The thing that counts is that the two people gain beyond measure from each others company. I say several times in the film that there is no one right way to teach, and the schools we highlight reflect that. People looking for meaningful education are not asked to emulate our techniques, or our philosophy. They are asked to find their own ways to engage not only a child's intellect, but to respectfully help him grow socially, emotionally and creatively. In one case it will be a quiet orderly classroom, in another a bustling one, and there are as many different ways as there are creative teachers!

Our point in showing a public school going a different direction is to raise the question: Have you considered what goals you have for your students and our society beyond test scores? Is what is happening in your child's classroom meeting those goals? If not, what are the ways that fit your community to change that? If parents and teachers unite to demand those changes, they will get them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reaching out

We will be at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael California in two weeks for the World Premiere. World Premiere sounds a bit grandiose, but it will be a milestone in any case, and a treat to see the film on the big screen. Of course there are all sorts of new things to learn in this process.

For one, I have a very awkward system for notifying people, and I need to find a way to make it more fluid. If I just want to notify Facebook people who live near where the film is being viewed, I have to go through my entire "friend" list and remember who lives where, or go to their page to find out. That may change as Facebook is coming up with a new format, but I think it will still require me becoming more organized. It is even worse with people who I contact through emails. Any suggestions about simple ways to sort my email lists are welcome!

Then there is publicity material. I went through one round of this as we submitted to festivals, but print media is different. We spent hours this week looking for better quality photos that would print well in a newspaper. Reuben Raffael came to our aide once more with a wonderful poster, but then I realized I had given him the wrong dimensions for the theater's big poster, so Tom and I put to use all the mentoring both Reuben and our son Jesse had provided and (in many times the amount of time it would have taken either of them) we re-sized it! We are biting into our publicity budget, and not at all sure how much of anything we should purchase at this point, so are probably underestimating some things and overestimating others!

We have now conducted four formal phone interviews. They have not gotten easier yet! After each one we have a reflection time on what we said and what we might have said, but in the heat of the moment I tend to get very worked up and wordy about the false promise of assessing growth through standardized testing. Passion is supposed to be good--not so much proselytizing.

I got some important practice standing in front of audiences at the Lark Theater for the Q&A after screenings of Race To Nowhere, but I am still nervous about the Q&A at the Rafael. One reassuring thing is that I imagine it will be led by one of two people I have been working with through the California Film Institute, and they are both very sympathetic people to talk to. Can't make up my mind if it will be easier or harder having many friends in the audience.

I know it is a good thing that nothing is standing still while we prepare for this, but it surely is a balancing act that is unlikely to slow down for a while. I'm glad we took time off for the holidays! Guess I better go back to mailing invitations, and maybe rework the poster into a postcard? What have I forgotten??

To reserve tickets for the Rafael screening, January 27 at 7pm go to