Learning as We Go

When I mentioned yesterday that I’d been doing affair piece of thinking recently about the tricky ground of enjoying problematic bits of artistic/cultural expression, it actually wasn’t because I’m a particularly huge fan of Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, or Taylor Swift. Yes, I have a single or two in the iTunes library, but that’s about as far as it goes. The timeliness of yesterday’s VMAs provided an irresistible springboard to broach the subject in a post, but that was an after-the-fact exploration of the topic, not the inspiration for this line of internal study.

One piece that has the topic on my mind is that I purchased Roxane Gay’s book of essays Bad Feminist, and am eagerly waiting for the day I clear my reading decks enough to start seeing an absorbing what she has to say about these matters.

Henry_Rollins_TA_2More pressingly, I’ve been trying to figure out since last Thursday what to say about Henry Rollins.

Rollins writes a regular blog for the LA Weekly, and last Thursday, he wrote a provocatively titled essay* where he expressed his anger and confusion about Robin Williams’ suicide. The post is actually a fascinating exercise in internal contradiction, because Rollins acknowledges the impossibility of understanding another person’s pain in the grips of depression — speaking explicitly of friends and roommates who have struggled with the same, but also, to my perception, with a strong undercurrent of Rollins having had his own personal experiences with depression. And yet, for all that evident level of understanding — and even for the explicit admission that “I get it, but maybe I don’t,” Rollin’s essay lands on this position:

I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.

How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? . . . I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life.

[. . . ] Almost 40,000 people a year kill themselves in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In my opinion, that is 40,000 people who blew it.

Now, whatever my level of benign mostly-indifference is for Miley, Nicki and Taylor, I am unabashedly a fan of Henry Rollins — especially his spoken-word performances. (Stand-up? Storytelling? I never quite know what to call it.) In all my years in Philly, the only time I ever went down to Atlantic City was one night when Mr. Mezzo and I got tickets to see a Rollins spoken-word show there.**

Yet, however much I enjoy his spoken-word stuff, the level of impatience and humorously channeled rage those spoken-word pieces often reveal have always had me wondering about the level of Rollins’ impatience with human fallibility and weakness. I know “weakness” is such a charged word, but that’s really how it always played to my system.

Rollins would speak with such disdain about the mental/ethical weaknesses of prejudice, and would talk in such detail about the ind of discipline he used in his own life — the whole ascetic “straight-edge” thing, eschewing drugs and alcohol, dedicated to weights and fitness, and minimizing his possessions. I enjoyed going to his shows and listening to the recordings, but I always assumed if I were ever to meet Rollins, he’d have little but disdain for my life, with my weight, my occasional drinking, and my addictions to shopping and hoarding and physical possessions.

So I was disappointed to see last Thursday’s column, but I won’t say I was especially surprised. With the sorts of bright-line divisions I imagined him drawing between “strength” and “weakness,” I could imagine how his thought process would have led him to classifying suicide as an act of weakness. (Just so we’re clear: not at all a perspective I agree with. But I could halfway imagine the thought chain that took him there.)

Thus began a more intense meditation on “being a fan of problematic things.” For there I was, caught between the place of deeply — DEEPLY — disagreeing with Rollins’ essay, and yet knowing the equally deep affection I have for his past work.

And then things took a turn.*** Saturday morning, I got word that a brief apology had been posted on Rollins’ own website:

The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt. This is perhaps one of the bigger understatements of all time. I read all the letters. Some of them were very long and the disappointment, resentment and ringing clarity was jarring.

That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result.

I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not.

In this post, Rollins promised a longer follow-up essay in the LA Weekly today. In it, he does a damn solid apology. Doesn’t take the “that’s not what I intended!”  road, or any of the derailment bingo plays that so often crop up in these hard conversations.

After reading carefully and responding as best I could, it was obvious that I had some work to do in order to educate myself further on this very complex and painful issue. I am quite thick-headed, but not so much that things don’t occasionally permeate.

In the piece, I said there are some things I obviously don’t get. So I would like to thank you for taking the time to let me know where you’re coming from. None of it was lost upon me. [. . .]

I understand it is my task to learn about this. It might take a while, but I will get on it. It is my belief about an ingrained sense of duty that will make this challenging, but I am always up for improvement.

What I most appreciated here — especially in the light of the ways I am in ongoing study of my own limitations (limitations of perspective, of compassion, of blind privilege…) — is Rollins’ acknowledgement that he has a lot to learn, and that he’s still struggling with his conflicting feelings about this issue. He doesn’t offer defensive justifications, but he doesn’t pretend to have it all magically worked out in the distance between Thursday and Monday.

Instead, there’s self-reflection, self-awareness, an owning of the rigid beliefs that led to the initial conclusions. And a commitment to continued learning, continued study, continued growth.

I’m up for that.

* Call me censor, call me chicken-shit, but here’s where I draw my own small moral line in the sand. I’ll include the accurate title in the hyperlink, and you can go read the essay for yourself, but I am not reproducing that particular sentiment here in my own digital living room.

** Train down, played the slots enough to pay for dinner, watched the show, then took the train back home. Do we know how to party, or do we know how to party?

*** Every now and then, my limited capacity to only do one post a day actually helps rather than hinders.


Image credit: Jonathan Klinger, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Rollins_TA_2.jpg )

Teaching, Trust and Testing

The aspirational arithmetic behind that whole “study an hour a day to become an international expert in your field” thing goes something like this:

  1. Studying/reading an hour a day adds up to you reading/absorbing about a book a week;
  2. Which adds up to about 50 books over the year;
  3. Which adds up to a whole lot of learning.

Now, obviously, by setting more moderate goals about how much “ed-reading” I’m trying to do each day, I have ensured that my own personal arithmetic will be adding up a bit more modestly. Still, I’m pleased to say I’ve finished the first book I started when I set this plan for myself. Two-and-a-half weeks ain’t so bad, all things considered.

SchoolsWeTrustCoverEven though it’s a complete non-sequiteur, the first thing I noticed about Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust was that it was published by Beacon Press. I know of Beacon as the UUA‘s publishing house, but I’d not noticed till today what a vast array of non-UU books is in Beacon’s catalog. Upon reflection, this only makes sense, or else I fear Beacon might have what they call an “unsustainable business model.” Still, I hadn’t even remotely thought of Beacon as publishing education books till I picked this one up. Now I might as well export their entire catalog over to my reading wish list as I continue my ed-reading self-study project.

But on to more substantive matters…

Meier’s book is subtitled Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, and although it was published in 2002, it still senses, to my readerly eyes, as speaking to the current state of schools and schooling. After all, who could read the following passage —

[S]ocial distrust plays itself out in education in the form of draconian attempts to “restore accountability” through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.

The tragedy of this approach is that it undermines what I think is the best way to make schools trustworthy and raise standards. Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust thy are aimed to cure. Even more tragically, standardization and bureaucratization undermine the possibilities for the kind of education we all claim is sorely lacking. (2)

— and not feel its contemporaneousness?

In case you’re interested, here’s a few other reviews:

Meier arranges her book into three sections. Part One discusses different aspects of building a culture of trust within schools: teacher collaboration, parent engagement, being aware of the powerful impacts and implications of race and class differences within the members of a school community (teachers, children, educators). Meier also discusses the importance of creating an environment where children feel safe taking learning risks:

Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much that they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something dumb. Learning works best, in fact, when the very idea that it’s risky hasn’t even occurred to kids. . . . No one is sorting or ranking us. . . . We’re in the company of people who are most firmly on our side, no matter what. (18)

Throughout these chapters, Meier offers concrete suggestions drawn from her own experience founding small, innovative public schools in NYC and Boston. Meier outlines 7 key qualities for such schools on pages 20-22. To paraphrase:

  1. Safety, both physical safety from violence and also safety from ridicule and safety to learn and make mistakes.
  2. A supportive “expert-to-learner” ratio, achieved by understanding that school communities can draw on other adults and older peers to create a more vibrant & effective learning community.
  3. Opportunities for students to show their own expertise and passion for a topic/subject.
  4. Flexibility in how learners can experience, explore and assimilate new content knowledge.
  5. Setting aside rigid timetables to allow “time for ideas to grow” (21).
  6. Learning that is engaging and enjoyable.
  7. A commitment to connecting school/curricular content to students’  authentic, lived experiences.

Part Three of the book addresses some customary fallacies and misconceptions about the small-school movement, arguing against the common belief that small, successful urban schools are so rare, the products of such exceptional circumstances (a superstar principal, a deep-pocketed foundation, etc.) that their  models of success could never be replicated to serve all the U.S. children in need of better, safer, more engaging schools. In fact, Meier argues, the “failures” often seen in attempts to scale up successful small schools are most often caused by city and state bureaucracies making choices that impose standardization at the cost of standards — at the cost of actual success in teaching and learning.

There’s no way to guarantee that any particular system will work, or will work forever, or will not need endless revising. But until we get over the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to schools, above all for schools that are trustworthy enough to do the job well, we won’t allow ourselves to do the difficult long-term work of redesigning the system, not just the schools. What we need is a new kind of system whose central task is to protect the public space needed for innovation. We need a lean, mean system, with a limited but critical accountability function, to be the guardian of our common public interest, but one that respects the fact that schools must be first and foremost responsive to their own constituents — the members of their community — not to the system. That’s the rub. (172-3, emphasis added)


You may have notched I skipped passed Part Two of Meier’s book. I did so because its contents — a devastating critique of standardized testing and its primacy in the U.S. educational system — seemed to me not-entirely connected to the book-ended discussion in Parts One and Three about what successful school models could look like and how to achieve them.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Meier’s critique of big testing is powerfully on point. When I called it a “devastating critique,” up above, that was not empty praise on my part.

Quite frankly, I’m afraid to start a more detailed summary with pull-quotes, for fear I will instead try to type out all 70 pages of this verbatim. And I just don’t have that kind of time.* Suffice to say, for the moment, that Meier has added immensely to the depth of my understanding of standardized testing, as well as to the depth of my contempt for its current use in schools. Even if you’re not interested in Meier’s thoughts about school design, Part Two of her book is eminently worth reading as its own little “capsule volume.”

So, a valuable first book in my new Earl-Nightengale-inspired ed-reading project. With any luck, I’ll finish book #2 at a similar fortnightly pace and circle back here.

Now all I need to do is figure out if there’s any sort of note-taking system I want to use to capture what I’m learning and any connections I start to make. Are these “21st century book reports” enough for that purpose, or is there something else that’s worth the doing?

* Or that level of disregard for copyright and the limits of “fair use” conventions.


Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Schools_We_Trust

Step by Step, Across the Galaxy

norman-rockwell-facebookOne or two days ago, I did that thing you’re never supposed to do: I shared an infographic on my Facebook wall without actually double-checking the sources and the veracity of the information.

You can read all about it here. About the infographic, I mean, not the Facebook part of things. The Facebook faux pas is a tale as old as time, as the sages say.

At the very bottom of the post is a copy of the original infographic with what turned out to be incorrect (or at least, unverifiable) stats about the cultural decline of reading. Once he found that the original stats — which were really super shocking (80% of households haven’t bought a book in the last year, stuff like that) — were unverified, the infographic creator did a v.2 that brought in some different statistics that could be verified.

The funny-ironic thing, as far as I was concerned, is the way I would have been equally happy to post the v.2 “corrected” info graphic rather than the more dramatic/problematic v.1. Because what had most caught my eye was a quote that stayed intact between v.1 and v.2, in large part because it was so obviously aspirational rather than scientific: “If you read one hour per day in your chosen field, you will be an international expert in 7 years.”

The concept is attributed to motivational speaker Earl Nightingale on personal development/coaching to success sites like here, or most clearly presented by author and success coach Brian Tracy here:

Earl Nightingale said many years ago that one hour per day of study in your chosen field was all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.

I’ve been chewing over that notion ever since I saw the quote.

I talk now and again about the fields of public education and educational reform. It’s the field I’ve been working in for a few years now, but I still only feel as if I know the tiniest bit about it. So the quote on the infographic started me thinking: what could I accomplish if I followed through on my often-stated desire to become more of an expert in my field? If I made a more serious commitment to reading/learning more about education? Could I make the time for regular self-study, and, if so, how might that benefit my work and my life?

Now, the truth is that I already have lots of daily practices going on. The morning journal-writing. Blogging here on JALC. Coursera classes. Regular commitment to ongoing household responsibilities like dishes and laundry and such. So I found myself of two minds as I considered this new daily practice. On the one hand, I found it a little bit intimidating. Can I really take another thing on?

journey-beginsOn the other hand, I find Nightingale’s concept really inspiring in its reminder that small, sustained effort can add up in really significant ways. Yes, in many ways, this is a familiar and often-stated concept. After all, isn’t there a proverb about the thousand-mile journey beginning with one small step? But sometimes it is really impactful for me when a new phrasing or formulation allows me to see a familiar-ish concept in a new way. Like when I read a book, some years ago, spring-boarding off the proverb to point out that the author’s small steps had, without her really noticing, carried her across the universe.* The Nightingale quote now, like de Grandis some years ago, helps shift my attention away from the sense of a slow, endless slog — 1,000 miles times 5,280 feet/mile, divided by 2.5 feet/step** — towards the reminder of what can be accomplished with sustained effort.

And yeah, I have a fair number of daily practices already. But I also spend enough time doing the TV/Facebook zombie thing that the hours could almost add up to being their own part-time job. Besides, the activities in question here (reading and thinking) are things that come to me as naturally as breathing. And even if an hour each day feels a bit like a stretch, I know that smaller pieces of effort can also add up:

As I’ve said before, we overestimate what we can do in a week, and underestimate what we can do in a year. But if you spend 15 minutes a week reading your industry journal and it takes you four weeks to read it, is that a bad thing? Of course not- it probably only comes once a month anyway!

So, in concert with this fellow, I’ve started spending 15 minutes each night reading a bit about education, starting with another book I borrowed from the company “library.”

As with so much else in my life, I imagine this to be a “progress, not perfection” kind of movement. I imagine there will be times when my daily practices need to be triaged and weighed against one another. Last night, for example, after our drive up to the lake, I found myself prioritizing education reading and early bedtime over JALC post. (Heck, we have baseball tickets and I won’t be able to post tonight, either, so a midday Saturday post kinda works better anyhow.)

Some nights I can imagine prioritizing JALC over ed-reading,and some nights I can imagine prioritizing both of those activities over sleep. Day by day, I’ll work it out. Heck, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to stick with JALC when I resurrected it, and yet here we are 5 months later. (Which is, by the way, 4 months longer than JALC’s first-phase lifespan. Go figure.)

Step by enjoyable step, around the world and back again.

* The book in question is currently not available to me, so I can’t confirm the precise quote. (After the Facebook error, I feel as if I should be extra-aware about such things as the accuracy of my citations and the credibility of those sources I quote.)

** Why doesn’t my keyboard have a division sign? Ah, the indignities of aging, when one’s native symbol set slowly gets displaced by the new generation’s symbology…


Image credits:

Norman Rockwell: http://mote-historie.tumblr.com/post/76317464830/now-son-do-you-know-what-you-did-wrong-yes-sir

The journey begins: http://www.suitcasesandsippycups.com/2012/01/a-journey-of-a-thousand-miles-blah-blah-blah.html