School Reform? Or, Re-Creation

I have always loved Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay because it is so openly contradictory.  He makes no apology for his haphazard thought process on the nature of human existence and artistic genius.  And yet, despite the fact that it defies logic, the essay is a poignant reminder that we are all individuals, united by a longing for personal identity and community.  “Insist on yourself,” writes Emerson, “never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”

As I was re-reading the essay for this post, I realized that much of what I do in my classroom has little to do with students.  I determine the curriculum…the assessments…the grades. Sure, I give some voice and choice by allowing them to pick from a menu of assessment options; but, I don’t think that that model offers enough freedom to students.  I don’t think that we can expect students to be engaged in their learning if we don’t allow them to control it.

I have to make a confession: I am a home schooling dad.  And I know what you’re thinking: How can a teacher home school their child? The answer, I think, is evident to anyone who has watched a home school child learn.

Each day, my son Oscar pursues his dream of being a professional skateboarder with the full force of his soul.  Every waking minute he is thinking about skating.  In the morning, he searches for videos on YouTube about how to do “nollie kick flips” and “front-side grinds.” In the afternoon, when the sidewalk is dry, he goes outside and tries to do the tricks he studied.  When the sidewalk is wet, he practices on his carpet board. At night, when the “public” kids get home from school, they skate on our road and my son joins them.  As he interacts with older kids, and, as they interact with him, he’s building an identity and a sense of community—his community—that is part of who he is. He is happy learner.

I don’t see the same invigoration on the faces of public school students. I see students who have vibrant interests in video games, music, art, creative writing…skateboarding, who aren’t allowed to pursue those interests during the school day because they are not part of the state’s curriculum for kids. From 8AM to 3:30PM, I see too many students who are frustrated by school.  They don’t understand why they have to be in school.  They don’t understand why there are so many rules.  They don’t see a connection between the curriculum and their lives. And who could blame them.  Despite having been part of the system for 12 or 13 years, they have little say in what goes on with regard to curriculum, assessment, or discipline. (Imagine doing the same job for 13 years and never being consulted on what you do.)  In public schools an alarming percentage of students are apathetic. An alarming percentage of students feel no connection to the school or their peers. An alarming number of students are unhappy.

Even more alarming, I think, is the way that school systems react:

  1. We are surprised that students are apathetic about their learning.
  2. We blame failure on students, teachers, or building leaders.
  3. We try to fix it by promoting best-practices, technology, literacy programs, etc.

The problem, however, is that in these reforms won’t work.  They miss the mark. The problem in schools is that the focus is all wrong.  Schools don’t need more devices, or new literacy programs, or district-wide learning objectives.  In fact, schools might be better off with less of those things because the problem with schools isn’t one of resources—although the question of equitable funding certainly couldn’t hurt—the problem is that we don’t create curriculum around what students want and need.  We build curriculum around state standards, district objectives, and BOE goals. In any other business—and education is certainly a business—ignoring your clientele would spell almost certain failure.

If we’re going to have meaningful school reforms, I think, we’re going to have to think about the process of education in a radically different way. That might mean rethinking our systems from the ground up. From mission statements to curriculum to classroom design, we need to rethink everything. And student interests need to be at the heart of that realignment.

If we do not re-align schools, I don’t think we can sustain a public school system in this country. The competition is fierce.  Unschools, home schools, charter schools, private schools are willing to look at the task of educating students in new ways, and the more that public schools deny the need for radical reform, the stronger they get.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Let’s not hold on to ineffective approaches to education for the sake of tradition; let’s design schools that students want to attend.




Poppie and DJ:Lessons on life choices

As I think back on the role models that I’ve had in my life, my grandparents were probably at the top of the list.  My grandfather, Arnold “Poppie” Schwartzmeier, used to joke that Arnold Schwarzenegger was “giving him a bad name.”  He was a meticulous person from top to bottom.  His clothes–a white or blue button-up shirt and dress pants–were starched each week by the same dry-cleaner for 20 years.  He listened to the same radio shows everyday, at the same time, on the same radio. His house was immaculate (Though, he would blame this on my grandmother.). He spent his weekends making beds and cleaning bathrooms that no one had used all week, but that he needed to clean.  Each day of his career, he drove the same route to Rochester Telephone Company, where he served as the Director of Safety Operations.   And he remains the only person I have ever known who would carry pocket-sized loan amortization tables in his chest pocket because he wanted to be prepared in case he needed to take out a loan for something.  

My grandmother was the complete opposite. Which is not to say that she was a mess, but Donna Jean (MacDonald) Schwartzmeier was a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of gal. She was the first to laugh at a joke–especially if it was inappropriate.  She once wore fishnet stockings and a boa to a bachelorette party for my sister’s wedding.  (She was 75 years old at the time.)  She was a fun-loving, caring, perfectionist who would literally work until she dropped. During the Holidays she would go to work–she was a High School Nurse for about 20 years–and then spend her entire night in the kitchen baking cookies, breads, roasts, etc. Even in her later years, she refused to have anyone live with her, or to live with anyone, until her health wouldn’t allow her to be alone.  

Their different personalities led them to make decisions in very different ways.  My grandfather believed that the best thing to do when a decision had to be made was to establish clarity.  If, for instance, he was looking for a new car, my grandfather would shop around and find the best deal, and then he would buy it.  There was a clear advantage to buying it at one place over another, and that clarity allowed him to make a decision.  In the absence of clarity, his mantra was: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.”  

Despite their 65-year marriage, this idleness drove my grandmother insane.  She made decisions in a very different manner.  She looked at everything as a series of pros and cons. If you asked her, “What college should I attend?” She’d grab her paper and respond,  “Let’s make a list of the pros and cons.”  And then, she’d look over the list and say, “Now, what are you going to do?”  The expectation, of course, was that you’d WOULD make a decision because she didn’t believe in idleness.  Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother made decisions based on the best possible evidence available.  There was no idleness and no looking back.

I’ve been thinking about these points of view a lot lately because as educators we make a lot of decisions.  (I’ve made hundreds of decisions in the process of writing this blog post!) What should I teach? How should I teach it?  How do I know if I taught it well?  Should I find a new occupation? (You know you’ve asked yourself this question!)  The list of decisions that we need to make is nearly endless.  What is less exhaustive, in my case, is the amount of attention that I give to how I make decisions.  In Smart Choices (1999), John Hammond, Ralph Keeney, and Howard Raiffa suggest that we often make decisions based on either a poorly thought-out, or non-existent process: “The result: a mediocre choice, dependent on luck for success” (p.3).  They go on to outline a decision making process based on the following steps:

  1. Work on the right decision problem
  2. Specify the objectives
  3. Create imaginative alternatives
  4. Understand the consequences
  5. Grapple with your tradeoffs
  6. Clarify your uncertainties
  7. Think hard about your risk tolerance
  8. Consider linked decisions


I don’t know that this process is any better than my grandparents’ process, but I do know that I don’t pay enough attention to the way that I make decisions.  Too often I focus on my intuition and rely on my past experiences to shape my choices–and sometimes this is effective–but I’m not sure that it passes the Parent Test. By this I mean that any decision that I make should be good enough for my child.  Would I want my child to do this assignment/test/project?  Is this policy good enough for my child?  If the answer is anything other than an informed “yes,” then I question the decision and/or the process used to make it.

If the past few years have shown us anything it is that poorly made decisions can cause upheaval and distress–I’m thinking of CCSS, Modules, APPR, etc–and I think that we owe it to our students to spend more time thinking about how we make decisions.  Not only will our outcomes be better, but we will be doing a better job of modelling good decision making practices for future generations.

Notes of Honesty: A reflection after 5 years in the classroom

For the past five years, I have been an English teacher at a rural New York high school.

Confession: I have no idea how to do my job.

There, I’ve admitted it.


Maybe.  But I don’t think so.  

If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t understand much about education. How am I supposed to educate all students?  What does it mean to grade fairly? How do I manage a classroom full of students?  And why is it that the copy machine breaks every time I’m in a hurry to make copies? The list of questions I have about teaching and learning is nearly endless.

So, I’m not kidding; I don’t know how to do my job.

And yet, not knowing is what keeps me coming back.  

Don’t get me wrong, I have my bad days.  Some mornings I have to drag myself up the front stairs of the school. These are dark days. Ironically, these are also the days when I know how to do my job better than anyone else.   I know best how to organize a lesson that will grab students’ attention. I know that students who are failing my class absolutely deserve to be failing because they haven’t done a darn thing all semester.  I know that school is without a doubt the most important thing in students’ lives.  In fact, I know so much about education that I start to feel that there is nothing left for me to do but blame everyone else.

Luckily, I don’t feel like this all the time.

Some mornings I walk to work barely touching the ground, excited to see how my students will react to my latest harebrained idea.  These are the days when I know that I’m going to make a mistake and that my new idea might fail. These are the days when I teach three totally different lessons because each time through I think of a better way of doing it.  These are the days when I celebrate the small wins (Shaking a student’s hand when they use an apostrophe correctly!) and keep my focus on the positives (At least two people did their homework!) because I understand that so much of what my students go through is beyond my control–and too often, it is beyond theirs. I can’t begin to understand what life is like for my students. I can’t imagine not having enough money to buy food for extended periods of time.  I can’t imagine not having a bed to sleep in, or a home to put a bed in.  I can’t imagine how students who live these realities could possibly take school seriously.  So, I try to make their experience in my class the best part of their day.  

Some days I fail.  

But some days I don’t.  

The difference, often, depends on my ability to admit what I don’t know.