The Next Step

08/22/2012

Tomorrow I’ll be driving my child to college for the start of what I still call his freshman year. His college calls him a ‘first year,’ very Harry Potter-ish.
An event like this causes me to look back over the high and low notes of his schooling and I realize that his experience encompasses some of the he best and some of the worst in American education.

His public school life started in an unusually public way. His class was the class filmed for the HBO serial documentary Kindergarten. It can still be seen,12 years later, mornings on the HBO Family channel. He’s the really tall, very articulate kid, but if you watch the show, pay attention to the teacher. Ms. Johnson, now a middle school English teacher, was the first of a string of incredible teachers Jonas had through elementary school.

His first grade teacher, Ms. Pakaln, made home visits. When we had her over for dinner she remained focused on her student despite parental efforts to engage her in adult conversation. That waited until the boy went to bed.

Mrs. Schwartz, his second grade teacher, really got him. Jonas was much taller, far more verbal, and almost totally uninterested in sports, Pokemon or any of the other things the boys favored and, as a result, he had very few friends. He would regularly get teased by the 4th and 5th graders in the playground who thought he was their age and in 2nd grade because he was a slow learner. Mrs. Schwartz engaged Jonas in conversations and assured us that his social life would blossom in high school when he found others like himself. She was absolutely right.

During the year Jonas was in second grade I started substitute teaching in his district to see if I really wanted to become a teacher. I loved substituting for Mrs. Schwartz even though it embarrassed Jonas, but I especially enjoyed subbing in the second grade inclusion class in one of the other district schools. The next year, when those special ed students moved to Jonas’ school my wife and I arranged for Jonas to be in the inclusion class.

It was inclusion done the way it should be done; two of the best teachers in the school, Mrs. King and Mrs. Greenwald, both certified in general and special education, teaching all the students. When one was teaching the other was at a big table in the back where any student could go for extra help, and both general ed and special ed students took advantage of the assistance. Jonas befriended most of the special ed students, explaining that they were as different as he was, only in a different way. Smart kid.

In fourth grade Jonas had his first male teacher, Joe Galantich, a magnificent teacher, especially of social studies which became Jonas’ favorite subject. Joe also got Jonas who, by this time, was reading at the high school level. They would discuss books, especially the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which seemed to obsess Jonas.

Fifth grade was the first disappointment. His second male teacher was a rookie and much more of a jock. I strongly suspected that Jonas had already read more books than his teacher had.

Middle school was even more of a disappointment via the 7th grade social studies teacher who taught the most exciting period in American history, the Revolution and founding of the nation, through textbook readings and worksheets. That was offset by the wise-cracking Mr. Wisner, the 8th grade history teacher (“I teach history, [bleeping] social studies is for [bleep, bleep] wimps”) who somehow never bought his teacher lounge profanity into the classroom but still made the kids feel like they were being let in on some adult-world secrets.

Ms. McGillicuty, the exceptionally skilled 6th grade math teacher, helped Jonas overcome his prior struggles so he could earn his first A in the subject. It would also be his last as the following year he returned to his more usual low Bs and high Cs in math.

Our district is known for its very strong arts program and the middle school art teacher stood out as one the best of those three years. Ms. Mahan’s streaked hair, feathered earrings and tattoos taught him and us that great teachers come in all kinds of packages.

It’s funny how I remember the names of all of Jonas’ elementary school teachers but only the names of the few good ones from his middle school experience.

High school proved 2nd grade Mrs. Schwartz right, Jonas’ social life blossomed. He had too many good teachers to name them all but two or three stand out.

It took a school trip to France for Madame Pence to get Jonas who, at one point, exasperated us even more than his low grade had by proclaiming, “of course I don’t do well in French, I don’t speak the language.” pointing to his excellent English marks as proof of his contention. On that trip, Mrs. Pence and Jonas were equally astounded that he emerged as the main translator for his classmates as they wandered independently in Paris. His functional French was far better than what he was able to show in the class quizzes and exams. His confidence rose so much that he has chosen to continue studying French as part of his college program.

Jonas’ high school English experience started off with a teacher who gave his honors class the following homework assignment: “Make a list of all the characters in Hamlet.” That’s it. A list. No thinking required. To his credit, Jonas refused to do the assignment, pointing out to his teacher, probably more politely than I would have at his age, that Hamlet, like every other play, had a cast list at the beginning. The rest of the year did not get much better.

Fortunately, that was the worst of it. His other English teachers stoked the intellectual fire somehow still burning in him.

Simona Moldovan was Jonas’ 11th grade English teacher as well as staff advisor to the drama club in which Jonas became very active. She engaged him in high-level conversations that thrilled him but frequently left the rest of the class far behind. She is particularly responsible for my son’s professional ambition; in a parent-teacher meeting she told my wife and I that his becoming an English teacher “would be the greatest repayment I could make to my profession.”

The other especially positive English teacher was the one he had this past year. Thomas Burns, arranged to have Jonas teach all the 12th grade sections a lesson his and Jonas jointly prepared. When the hoped-for discussion failed to materialize as anticipated during its first iteration, Mr. Burns said “welcome to your first first-period class, Jonas. If you want to be a teacher you’ll need to get used to this.” Mr. Burns also helped steer Jonas to his alma mater, SUNY New Paltz.

SUNY New Paltz

Jonas starts there tomorrow and I haven’t seen him as jazzed about school since the first day of kindergarten.

A big thank you to all of Jonas’ teachers. Whether remarkably good or remarkably mediocre, you helped him become the confident, articulate, socially conscious and well-rounded person he is.

I can let him go tomorrow knowing he’ll make some mistakes, screw up at times, and be better for the experience because despite occasional struggles and the few inept teachers, his love of learning is intact and he will soak up knowledge everywhere and from everyone.

A chip off the old block, he is.


How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You

08/02/2012

I recently spoke at the #140edu Conference in NYC on the topic in the title. This is what I said.

How many of you here graduated from high school?

#140edu stage - via digital camera

#140edu stage – via digital camera (Photo credit: NJ Tech Teacher)

How many of you liked high school?

Just as I thought. Despite the laws mandating it, despite the ominous predictions of what will happen if you leave it, not everyone should go to high school.

Let me say it again, not everyone should go to high school.

This sounds like heresy, especially coming from a teacher.

But even in a time when it seems like you need a college degree to be an auto mechanic, not everyone should go to high school.

When I dropped out of high school for the first time, yes — I’ve done it twice — dropping out was considered a sure path to economic and social failure.

Not much has changed since 1968. Dropping out of high school is still labeled a sure path to ruin. That there are students dropping out of school is still called a crisis.

It is not a crisis. It is a message.

Thinking of drop outs as a crisis leads to solutions that focus on compliance– things like raising the age at which one can leave school, or more truant officers to track down the education fugitives.

But if we look at students dropping out of schools as a message, drop outs tell us is that school sucks, that it is not reaching them, or that they feel they have no hope for success, in high school or beyond it.

They tell us that they are not being challenged enough, or not being allowed to follow their interests, or just that school doesn’t fit them: it is too big, too small, too cliquey or too dangerous.

The reasons students leave school are as differentiated as the lessons we teachers are being told to teach them.

You have heard, and will continue to hear today and tomorrow, about ways to make school better, more enticing, more encouraging, more engaging and more effective.

All that is good, but it is almost impossible for any modern high school to meet the needs of all students.

This is not for lack of intent or lack of effort. It is a result of an increasingly centrally-mandated standardized world. Now we’re all supposed to hone our lessons to the common core. Really? Does anyone really want to be common?

Instead of focusing on how to make school better or teaching better, I’m going to talk about how to make learning better.

My idea of the perfect school is one in which you can  learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and how you want to learn it.

I say, do what teachers have been telling you to do for so long, take charge of your education and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

I dropped out of high school twice, and college once, because attending was interfering with my learning. I got tired of teachers calling my questions and observations distracting and disruptive. I got tired of being told what to learn and when to learn it.

I figured out that knowledge doesn’t come in neat little packages called math, science, English Language Arts or social studies. Art is not a subject, neither is music, or health.

Knowledge is a massive, ever growing, completely interconnected all enveloping mass. It is the butterfly effect writ large, where everything we learn, every insight we gain, every understanding we come to, changes EVERYTHING.

So I left.

My parents were not happy about any of it, but I had the biggest, most cultured and most diverse city in the world to explore.

I still got a great education because I asked questions, followed tangents and never stopped being curious.

The real key to making dropping out — or opting out if you prefer– is to do it soon enough. Don’t wait until you’re beaten down by the system and have lost interest and hope. Leave school while you still have curiosity, a hunger to know something, to know anything or everything, and before you have to support yourself financially. It may be after 10th grade or it may be after 8th. You will know when it is right for you.

Now you can sleep a little later, but don’t spend the day in bed, or watching cartoons or talk shows. There is a world to explore.

Today it doesn’t matter if you live in Manhattan, like I did, or in East Nowhere, the whole world is available to you.

Think of the tools you have now that didn’t exist when I dropped out. Computers, the internet, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and more are all there to help you access the world and learn anything you want.

You don’t need a curriculum, a road map or a plan at all.

Just ask a question and seek an answer.

Then ask another question.

Listen to the answers you get. Follow tangents. Focus like a laser or wander aimlessly. Tinker. Play.

All knowledge is connected and things will all start to make sense as you note commonalities, wonder about discrepancies, make connections and develop insights.

Are you in love with baseball? Study it. You’ll learn about statistics – figuring pitcher’s earned run averages takes complex mathematics — develop strategies, learn the science of the curveball, learn about the history of race relations in America, and more. You’ll learn about why the Dominican Republic produces so many major league shortstops and why Japan doesn’t, but produces pitchers. Follow baseball as far as it will take you…then ask another question.

Do you like to knit? Study it. Learn about different kinds of wool, how they differ and where they come from, how they become shocking chartreuse or majestic magenta. Learn math as you figure out how much you’ll need to make that sweater, the physics of tensile strength.

Into dolls, dogs, drumming or debate? Are you passionate about golf, gardening, guitar, grapes or Greta Garbo? It doesn’t matter what. Take the paths   your interests and passions give you.

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander B...

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander Binder (for Atelier Binder) made the portrait during the filming. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while you’ll become an expert, an authority. You’ll wander off one path and discover another one, perhaps the secret of life, the universe and everything.

Just keep asking one more question and you will find many more answers. Each of which will lead to more questions.

Joyce Valenza calls it “a never ending search.”

Here are some things you are likely to discover:

People are eager to talk about what they do and what they know, to someone who is interested in learning.

People are eager to tell you their stories, what they think, what they feel, to someone willing to listen.

Your bullshit meter will develop and become more accurate.

You will find the joy of learning again, the joy of teaching what you learn, and you’ll rediscover the excitement of wondering.

You will learn that all answers lead to more questions, better questions, deeper questions.

Keep asking.

Keep learning.

Do all the things school doesn’t leave you the time to do and you will get a better education than any institution can give you.

Don’t worry about getting into college. Getting into a good college requires standing out from the crowd, somehow distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of thousand other high school seniors.

So while all those other kids are all taking the same classes, cramming for exams and spending every extra minute doing every imaginable community service and extra credit assignment, you’ll be having different experiences.

While they’re being told what to learn, you’ll be deciding what to learn. Their learning will be limited by the curriculum, your learning will be free-range, going as far as your curiosity takes you.

Just think of the application essay you’ll be able to write.

And somewhere in the process of writing that essay, you might begin to wonder whether you really need to go to college.
Once you start becoming a free-range learner it is almost impossible to stop. And that is the best part of it all.


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