Monday, May 22, 2017

If You Want Students to Be Passionate Readers, Learn from This

It is easy to forget during the season of testing just what it is about reading that lures us in. We can become hung up in test prep---exposing students to so-called "test questions" and sample passages---and in the process utterly blaspheme the joy of reading and the beauty of literature.

Looking back, I became a reader due to two educators in my life: Ms. Jackson (name changed) and Ms. Sherrill (again, name changed, in case she is still out there). Ms. Jackson was our school librarian. She was not a media specialist as they are called now. In fact, I could bet Ms, Jackson would have disdained that title. She would have seen all this hype about "computers" and "technology" as major distractions. She would not have liked the direction our school libraries have taken at all, with the removal of books and the placement of high-tech gadgets.

My fondest memories of Ms. Jackson is her reading fairy tales to us. She read them all: Hans Christian Andersen, Grimms, Native American Tales, mythology, etc. During my first and second grade, Ms. Jackson introduced me to the world of fantasy where almost anything could happen. She provided me with a ticket to my own imagination. She introduced me to books. But what Ms. Jackson did really was instill within me a insatiable flame of desire for books and reading, and she did this when she "broke the rules." Yes, she broke the rules.

In those days, the rule of the library was that you could only check out books from your assigned grade level. Such a rule makes sense on the surface. Students aren't allowed to check out books that are too difficult or are inappropriate, but rules can put out the flames of passion, and in this case, she could have just enforced the rules, and let my own passion for exploration and reading die. She didn't. She allowed me to wander everywhere and check out anything I desired, so when I had a passion for the stars and planets, I checked out every science book on the topic. When I became interested in the Civil War, I checked out books on that topic. When I stumbled on dinosaurs, as every young kid inevitably does, I read every book in the library on the topic. I literally checked out books, in some cases, way over my head, but when I got the books home, I wanted to know what they said so badly, I read, re-read, and read again, until I could understand. Ms. Jackson, by simply choosing not to enforce her library rules, created a life-long passionate reader.

 Ms. Sherrill, who was my sixth grade teacher reinforced my passion for books in her classroom. First of all, she surrounded us with books and a comfortable place to read. She had this carpeted mat sitting next to the class library, and she practically gave us free rein to spend as much time there as possible, if we got our other assignments done, of course. But that alone wasn't new. Ms. Sherrill also fostered my passion for books by reading aloud to us as well. She read Old Yeller, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist. She read with such energy and passion. I could tell she loved novels, and she infected me with the same disease.

Both these teachers remind me of these words by my favorite writer, Pat Conroy:
"Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning I've searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die." Pat Conroy, My Reading Life
Today, we aren't going to foster reading, I mean real reading by being obsessed with standardized tests. These two educators introduced me to the "great words" of writers. They also introduced me to novelists and then allowed me to "search out those writers" for myself, "who are unafraid to stir up my emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions..." Ms. Jackson gave me ability to search and fulfill my hunger to know. Ms. Sherrill infected me with a disease that means I can't walk by the new novels rack in the bookstore and not feel the passion and energy surging from them.

In this season of testing, let's remind ourselves, that the test is not everything; it never was, nor will it ever be.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Saying “I’m Doing What’s Best for Students” Isn’t the Best Rationale

One of the most common utterings you will hear from school leaders is, “I’m going to do what’s best for kids” when justifying or providing reasons for actions taken. But, is saying that justification enough?

By using the justification that actions are “what’s best for students,” the addressor, or one uttering that phrase, is staking claim to the higher moral ground. Educators, for the most part and by nature, became so because of their concern for the learning and well-being of the young. So, when one claims what one is doing is “best for students,” the immediate reaction by other educators is simply acceptance and obedience. Most times, not one asks for further explanation and proof either. But what if that action really isn’t the best for students?

As a school leader, I am so self-aware when I use that phrase and when others use it too. Sometimes it is tossed around so much, it almost loses its real power to justify anything. But when we use that phrase as school leaders, do we really know that what we’re doing or asking others to do is “best” for kids? It might very well be in our minds that it is, but the history of education is riddled with schemes and ideas that were “what’s best for kids too."

Should we not be a little hesitant to use this phrase? After all, we don’t get a grade of “A” in leadership when we were well-intentioned. I don’t get the consolation prize of knowing that, “Well, I did really mean well when I decided to trash the school’s arts program in favor of more reading instruction” because I thought it best for students to be able to read rather than play the violin or paint a landscape. Never mind that there just might have been a Mozart, or a Shakespeare in the midst of bloom in my school that was stamped out by my actions.

Perhaps we should discard the phrase “doing what’s best for students” from our leadership practice. I suspect it’s another thing of many that educational leaders have borrowed from the field of business and industry leadership. In business, there exists a true bottom-line. You need to make a profit, and to do that, you delineate the bottomline to make that happen. And, as leader, you simply make your decisions align with that.

But I don’t really think there’s a ‘bottomline’ in education. Things are not just that simple. Perhaps there’s a bottomline for every single student who walks in the hallways of our schools, and because of this, there’s absolutely, no way, we can say with 100% confidence, that what we do is in the best interest of all our students. We are fallible human beings in spite of what our college educational leadership programs tried to tell us.

One major lesson I’ve learned from educational leadership? Abolutely certainty will surely get you into trouble. I honestly think I know less about being an educational leader now than when I started. What this really means in practical terms is that I am a fallible human who can’t always say definitively that my decisions are “What’s Best for Kids!”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How to Be an Educator When Thinking Has Become Dangerous

"Thinking has become dangerous in the United States and the symptoms are everywhere." Henry Giroux, Dangerous Thinking: In the Age of the New Authoritarianism
 For all the talk and blather about teaching students to think critically and creatively, we need to face the reality that much of our political and educational establishment is actually more interested in conformity, and teaching others to think in certain privileged ways. For example, with all the talk that comes with education as the engine of the economy, also comes the worship of greed, free-market fundamentalism, and simple form of idolatry that places the "businessman" as the salvation of all that is good and wonderful. Schools are seen as the producers of workers for industry. Art and music is irrelevant and unnecessary. Education is not about thinking critically; it is about making sure our students accept and conform to a culture that pursues economic interests, and selfish individual interests at the expense of everything else, with the belief, that in the end, all will be well in such a society.

The current predicament we face in this 21st century isn't just about jobs for our students; it is whether or not the world we are leaving them will even be inhabitable. Instead of educating students how to work the machines in the factory down the road, we need to be teaching them to be problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and dare I say, teaching them to be willing to be non-conformists?

Non-conformity is not always a negative. There are plenty of examples of constructive non-conformity in our history. Had the forefathers of our country chosen the path of conformity, we certainly would not have the country we have today. I realize that is a bit of tired thinking, but I think it illustrates a simple point that should be a part of our educational philosophy for 21st century thinking. You simply sometimes can't think outside the box when conformity matters most. You can't always expect different results when you insist on playing by the rules set by others. Sometimes you need to invent new rules, or simply refuse to play by the old ones, and invent an entirely new game.

As Giroux points out, "Thinking has become dangerous" and I would agree it has especially become dangerous in the United States in our current political climate. But, if we are going to push the limits and be "dangerous educational innovators," we are going to have to engage in the unsafe. We are going to have to be critical and creative thinkers, and question the official, and dare I say even resist. Ultimately, we can by example teach our students to be "dangerous thinkers" who can disturb the present by being willing to question and even think dangerously ourselves.