Monday, December 20, 2010

Thanks Google


In September I wrote a piece on this blog called, “It’s Scary” about the apprehension we, particularly older people, feel about keeping up with technology.  Can we learn quickly enough to keep pace?  Will we ever be able to learn it all?  The piece also appeared in the Washington Post education blog edited by Valerie Strauss, http://wapo.st/bBZNuE .  I don’t know if the people at Google read it, but they’ve provided a Christmas present for children to give to their tech-challenged parents, like me.  Now your kids can send you a personalized Tech Support Care Package.  It includes all sorts of tech support videos. If you’re antsy and want something to do on Christmas Eve, go here: http://www.teachparentstech.org/  Learn at your own speed and have fun doing it!

VOICES IN THE ROOM

In his article, In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm, in The New York Times Magazine, David Segal writes about ways in which Corporate America is seeking help to come up with new ideas.  bit.ly/gNlVLr  Successful managers are being defined not by their mastery of data, but by their leadership, creativity and vision.  Companies are seeking ways to nurture those qualities.

Segal writes about Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.  Govindarajan “presents companies with what he calls the three-box framework.  In Box 1, he puts everything a company now does to manage and improve performance.  Box 2 is labeled ‘selectively forgetting the past,’ his way of urging clients to avoid fighting competitors and following trends that are no longer relevant.  Box 3 is strategic thinking about the future.  ‘Companies spend all of their time in Box 1, and think they are doing strategy,’ he says.  ‘But strategy is really about Box 2 and 3 – the challenge to create the future that will exist in 2020.’  He recommends to clients what he calls the 30-30 rule: 30 percent of the people who make strategic decisions should be 30 years old or younger.  ‘The executives who’ve been there a long time, they grew up in Box 1’, he says.  ‘You need voices in the room that aren’t vested in the past.’

I suggest that while schools may talk about preparing students for the future (while going about business as usual), they spend very little time thinking and planning for the future.  What significant change has today’s high school, for example, undergone since you were a high school student?  It is pretty much people going about doing the same things in the same predictable way.

The people who run schools are Box 1 types.  They grew up in Box 1.  They may want to spruce the box up a bit, but at the end of the day, Box 1 leaders beget more of Box 1.   

Box 2 school thinking is called, “How does what we do compare with other schools?” “Excellence” gets defined by what everyone else is doing.  The standardized testing consuming schools today is done for the purposes of comparison. Look at the similarity of curriculum in schools across the country.  What gets taught and when. Everyone is watching their neighbor.  The result is school as a place where, as Seth Godin says, “the curious are punished.”

How much time do schools truly devote to Box 3?  Either thinking about the future or focusing on the communication, collaboration, and creativity skills the future will require?  How many schools that do engage in any sort of strategic planning employ anything near the 30-30 rule?  Much less using the 30-30 rule for decision-making. How many schools, or school systems ask current consumers, i.e. students, to participate in strategic planning?

Schools are, by and large, “boxed in”.  Run by people who grew up in Box 1, confer with people in Box 1, and evaluate their success by comparing themselves with other schools.  In one school I worked in those people were most aptly titled, the Senior Staff.  Real change in schools will come about not through the managers, not through senior staffs, but through the people on the shop floor, those teachers brave enough to anticipate the future and willing to create and share new ways of teaching for it.  Some, alas, will end up teaching outside schools as the price of their courage.  That may ultimately be a very good thing.  That may be where real learning can flourish.        



  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

NETSCHOOL

A month ago, one of our most important thinkers on education in this country, Sam Chaltain, wrote a piece asking, Is public education really facing its own "Blockbuster moment"?   I encourage you to read it.  More recently, Sam has asked for responses to his piece.  Herewith mine:

The Blockbuster/Netflix analogy is a good one.  We are approaching, or perhaps already in, “Netschool”, without realizing it.  With Blockbuster a customer had to go to a particular location. Yes, there were scores of Blockbusters across the landscape, but they were all pretty much alike and they all needed the customer to walk through the door.  Once there, customers were limited to the titles in the store, when they happened to be available in the store.  Blockbuster controlled the titles available, the quantity of titles available, and when or how long a customer got to watch them.  If you kept a title too long you paid a penalty.  Much like school systems controlling what gets taught, how it gets taught, and when in a student’s life it gets taught.  Students who need more time with the “product” are often penalized (either by grades or promotion or being treated as “special needs”).  Students who can't get a product they might enjoy are out of luck.  

Blockbuster is store driven.  They sell what they think will sell.  Netflix is customer driven. They sell what customers ask for.  They do it by offering a broader ranger of titles, easier access to the titles, and do a better job of delivering them when you want them. You keep them until you’re done with them. You can use them in convenient locations.

“Netschool” is also customer driven.  This is the important difference.  Learning heretofore has always been institution based.  The government/church/school has controlled and established what it thinks is important and proper for individuals to learn.  (Not that long ago much knowledge was only offered in Latin – like some old-time VHS/Beta debate. Students spent a long time learning Latin, an increasingly obscure code, before getting around to getting information in Latin, much less useful contemporary information.)  Later, the factory model of schooling limited access to learning to particular places, times of day, and particular periods in an individual’s lifespan.  Like Blockbuster, a learner had to be onsite at the store.  They then had to pick from the store’s available choices.  (Yes, the analogy fails in one way.  Schools tend to stay stocked on reliable, long running classics, without many “new releases”.  Blockbuster tends to rely on the popularity of new releases.)  One’s ability to learn was evaluated on how one fit the institutional time coordinates.  Both your day and your learning career were/are scheduled.  Failure to adhere to the schedule was seen as a problem with the learner, not the schedule, or the content in the store.  Blockbuster runs out of stock from time to time.  So do schools.  Physical education, music, dance, visual arts, drama, among others,  all seem to be off the shelves at the moment.   

“Netschool” frees learners from the restrictions of space and time. It allows the learner to determine what they wish to learn and to learn it in a time frame that is convenient for them.  In “Netschool” the learner does not have to report to a particular location. One can roam to find not only subject matter of interest, but fellow learners and teachers of interest. In fact, rather than having to be quiet in school, so everyone can hear the teacher, “Netschool” allows the possibility of dialogue and networked discussion between teacher(s) and students(s).  The opportunity for discourse around a particular topic multiplies. “Netschool” also allows access to some of the very best curriculum and teachers.  It has the potential to provide the widest variety of learning opportunities, taught by the very best teachers.   

Teachers who are adept and can provide useful services will thrive.  There won’t be a need for unions to help support inept teachers on “Netschool”.  No one will go to them.  Khan Academy  http://www.khanacademy.org/  is a good example,  One good teacher reaches many thousands of students daily. 

Where all this goes is hardly clear.  My experience at a recent Edcamp conference leads me to believe that there are already a number of talented, tech-savvy teachers ready to aid their students on a different path. These teachers will spend more time helping their students learn how to learn, on their own, and less time teaching a particular subject.

What will happen to all the real estate Blockbuster occupies/occupied?  What will happen to all the real estate now devoted to schooling?  “Netschool” and time may tell.  We can’t “stay tuned” to find out.  That’s an outmoded broadcast model.  We’d best get online to discover the future.

And yes, PLEASE, let me hear your responses to Sam and to me.  Thanks.        

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Edcamp NYC


I went to a conference yesterday, or rather an unconference. Edcamp NYC.  You can learn more about Edcamp(s) by going here: http://bit.ly/i7SZgE.  I was fortunate enough to discover Edcamp NYC through Twitter.  I registered, and took a quick twelve-block walk from my home to The School at Columbia University where the event was held.  I was lucky to have this event in my back yard.  Aside from meeting and sharing ideas with interesting, talented, dedicated and inspiring educators (There is nothing gratuitous in that statement.), three things about the day stood out for me.

First, though it ought not have surprised me, was the overall level of technical sophistication of the group. I say it ought not have surprised me, because my introduction/invitation to the event came via Twitter.  This group of teachers was self-selected, in part because these are people comfortable with social media, and, it turns out, lots of other technology.   There were almost forty different presentations one could attend.  Many of them were about using technology to help teach, both in the classroom and as a way to extend the classroom.  Laptops abounded and the presenters I saw showed dexterity and sophistication both in the preparation of their offerings and in their moment-to-moment presentation that was stunning.  Schools and teachers that content themselves with their proclaimed excellence and believe they can continue to live on their reputation while shunning the advantages technology can offer are in for a rude awakening.

Second, was the heartening discovery of good things happening in schools.  There has been such a hue and cry about what is wrong with school systems, schools, and teachers – how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket – it was exciting and comforting to witness evidence to the contrary.  The work of  Mike Ritzius, Frank Williams, and Nicolae Borota to implement and execute an exciting program that places so much responsibility for learning in the hands of students at the Camden County Technical School in New Jersey is a sign of a promising future that will not, blessedly, depend upon teaching to a test.  Their work shows so much respect for students.  They are courageous, inventive and leaders to watch.  Check them out on Twitter:   @mritzius, @fronk2000, @nborota.

More good news from New Jersey, this time from Edison.  Chuck Poole and Christine Spiezio teach at the Herbert Hoover Middle School.  Their work teaching English, getting middle schoolers trained in both the etiquette and the nuts and bolts of blogging is most impressive.  The kids respond to the notion that what they write is being read by other people.  They have an authentic audience, not just a teacher. Chuck and Christine have got kids excited about writing.  I can guarantee they’ve also got kids using technology with a facility their parents, or many in their parents’ generation lack.  True, the emphasis on standardized tests is on computation and reading ability.  Nonetheless, the drive their students show to write, to communicate at a more sophisticated level, makes it clear that these kids won’t be left behind.  Find Chuck and Christine on Twitter at:  @cspiezio and @cpoole27.

Or you could check out the work Meenoo Rami has done with her high school students at the Franklin Learning Center in Philadelphia.  What impressed me about Meenoo’s work is her fearlessness and willingness to push ahead, to create something new.  She too, has students creating blogs as part of their work in English, putting their writing out there for the world to see.  And the world does see it.  Find Meenoo on Twitter at:  @mrami2.

And finally, consultants like David Ginsburg - http://www.ginsburgcoaching.com/ and Miriam Bhimani at Teaching Matters  www.teachingmatters.org with compassion and wisdom.  People who understand that a teaching career means a career of adapting, learning and continually refining a craft. 

These happen to be a few of the people I encountered.  What strikes me is the quality of the small sample I happened across.  I have no idea how many other terrific people I did not have the opportunity to encounter.  To me, Edcamp is an example of how education in this country will ultimately right itself.  For all their press, for all the bluster, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Cathy Black, Arne Duncan and the like will have little effect on lasting change.  Teaching is artistry.  Good teachers learn through apprenticeship, through connecting with one another.  The craft advances one to one.  Grassroots.  Small steps.  A place like Edcamp sets the stage.  Teachers show up, work, share and learn together, and take what they’ve got back to their classroom and their students.  It reminds me of a song lyric:  “Light one candle, one small flame.  Don’t just stand there cursing the darkness, waiting for the light of dawn.  Light one candle, one small flame, and the darkness will be gone. “   I left Edcamp at the end of the day with renewed hope that teacher to teacher, we will make a difference.  The real leaders in education are hard at work remodeling, reshaping and recreating and extending their classrooms. We may not know their names, but they are out there, and they will make a difference.  At the end of the day call me a happy camper.    
 

 




Monday, October 11, 2010

Food for Thought



Just the other day I received a very kind thank you note from another teacher. I’d sent him a piece I’d written comparing teaching to gardening.  He’d found it helpful in solving a classroom problem he’d run into.  We both teach theater.  I’d written, in part, “There is not much difference between a basket of seeds, a roomful of students at the beginning of a school year or a group of kids waiting to audition for a play.  Hope, possibility, potential.  Another row to hoe.  The threat of slugs, vermin, plagues and pestilence rising to confront you.  Nothing seems more important than to win them over to theater.”  I was delighted to learn that a notion of mine had led him to devise an ingenious solution for his classroom.   

Sunday I picked up the Food Issue of The New York Times Magazine.  My thoughts returned to gardening, food, teaching and sharing.  Several articles caught my attention.  In one, April Bunt, a recent high school graduate who works picking crabmeat with her mother and grandmother on Deer Island, Maine, is asked about her college plans.  Her response, “Going to take courses online.”  The online courses allow her to keep her job, avoid paying rent on an apartment off island, and make payments on her car.  It’s easy to forget that the online option is relatively new.  It’s a choice her mother and grandmother never had.  It opens up the world for April at the same time that it allows her to stay close to her island community and a family business.

Another article in the Food Issue, Growing Together by Christine Muhlke, describes the networks of people who have come together based on shared interests in food:  “…from the grain supplier to the bakery apprentice to the farmers’ marketers and restaurateurs who order the loaves. It’s the schoolteacher who buys bread every week who eventually asks the baker if he’ll teach her students how to make pizza dough.  It’s the cheese maker who trades for baguettes.  It’s the sous-chef who receives the daily delivery and becomes a drinking buddy.”   What these people have in common is their desire to move away from the standardized food found in fast food restaurants, large chain stores, and even in school cafeterias.  For many the move is one of choice.  A “third place” of food, if you will.  But not always.  The move can be one of necessity.  Muhlke writes:  “The strongest example of a food community I’ve seen was in Detroit, where a vibrant farming scene has sprung up literally from the ashes.  In a neighborhood that is a true food desert – there are no national chain grocery stores within city limits; more than 90 percent of food providers are places like convenience and liquor stores – I watched young men and old women socialize while picking collard greens in abandoned lots brought back to life by the Urban Farming organization.  There was no fence, no supervision, no charge.”   A sidebar to the article indicates that urban farmers worldwide produce $500 million worth of fruit and vegetables.  This trend in smaller farms and food artisans is relatively new.  Only in 2007 did the Oxford University Press recognize the word “locavore” in its American dictionary.

Muhlke concludes: “Since these skills are decreasingly passed on by elders, Americans of all ages have been signing up for classes, apprenticing with experts, chatting up farmers and heading online to share their findings.  Friendships are made, networks are formed, and delicious things are shared.”

A third article, Recipe Redux:  The Community Cookbook  is by Amanda Hesser, a regular Times columnist.  Hesser describes how a simple request to readers for their favorite recipes from the Times led to the discovery of a community she wasn’t completely aware of, both in its size and in its enthusiasm.  A community that changed her career.  She quotes Andrew Rasiej, a futurist who told her, “Newspapers think they’re just in the information business, but they’re really in the business of community building as well.”  Hesser developed a new appreciation for a network she’d not totally recognized.  “I began to see that readers had always been integral to the Times food pages…the shape of our food culture, I saw for the first time, did not live in the hands of chefs or the media.  It lived in the hands of regular people -- home cooks, foodies, whatever label you want to give them – who decide what sticks.  It’s not a planet and moons but a large asteroid belt.” Home cooks were of greater importance than she had realized. 

Hesser goes on to describe the convergence of the food movement and technology in the past decade.  A proliferation of food bloggers became food communities.  Hesser and a colleague became curators with their own website, food52. Followers of the site could enter recipes in a contest to select winners around announced themes.  Hesser and her colleague would name finalists and then anyone could vote.  The goal was to take a year and then wind up with about 140 selected recipes, more or less the size of a standard cookbook, a crowd-sourced cookbook.  By the end of the year there were 100,000 or so regulars contributing to the site.  The site continues to evolve. 

Hesser’s article, though typically replete with a recipe, is less about food than about how technology has aided, influenced and shaped a food community.  Hesser finishes her article saying, “Merrill and I have gone from careers of broadcasting our work to collaborating with strangers…we are now total converts to the power of crowd-sourcing.  We trust the crowd.”

What do crabmeat, fresh collards, and veal chops beau sejour have to do with education?  I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that education in this country is on a path similar to that of these food communities.  Individuals are now able to determine for themselves how, when, and where they choose to learn.  The number and quality of university level courses available to April Bunt on Deer Island, Maine will continue to increase.  Availability and affordability will continue to work in April’s favor.  Even on remote Deer Island, April is able to be an active part of a larger community.  One cannot help but wonder how much crabmeat she would have to pick to pay for four years at Harvard or the University of Maine under what we consider a “normal” four-year college experience.  The opportunity to learn is available and abundant in ways it has never been before. 

In recent TED talks, Jamie Oliver and Sir Ken Robinson criticize standardization in our culture.  Oliver in terms of agribusiness, large chain stores, and fast food dominating our food culture and ruining our health.  Robinson discusses how we are in thrall to linearity and conformity in our education system, a system that moves students in lockstep, resulting in “impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”  As part of the revolution, yes that’s the word he uses, the revolution we need to change education in this country, Robinson proposes an agricultural model.  “Human flourishing,” he says, “is an organic process.”  We need an education system that personalizes to the people we are actually teaching, so that,  “People develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalized curriculum.”  It sounds an awful lot like a community garden as opposed to a factory farm.  Each of the articles in the Food Issue speaks to and about community.  We don’t need a school system, any more than we need a few large corporations to grow and force-feed us corn in ways we don’t need or even suspect.  We need smaller operations that meet the needs of a particular community.  Schools that help build and sustain a community.  Schools where people of all ages can go to learn and to help each other to learn. Think of Geoffrey Canada as an urban farmer, building a sustainable soil, planting seeds, and nurturing crops to maturity.  The movement is beginning.  It will grow because the days of institution based learning, where the institution decides what will be taught, to whom, and when, are waning.  People want to assume responsibility for their own learning just as they decided to grow their own food. 

The change in learning will also mean a change in the role of the teacher.  Teachers, like journalists, will no longer broadcast what they have to offer.  Teachers, like food enthusiasts, will build a network that connects to both learners and to other teachers.  It is already underway.  A place like Twitter is alive with teacher-to-teacher comments, observations and recommendations.  Favorite lessons and favorite strategies, like favorite recipes, will fill the blogosphere.  Curators are already stepping up to lead and to organize the discussion. 

The Food Issue of the Times is titled, Eating Together.  The word “community” appears over and over in the issue.  Food bringing people together, collaborating on growing, preparing and eating food. I look forward to a Times Magazine issue in the not too distant future entitled Learning Together.  The word “community” will appear over and over again.  Learning will bring people together as they collaborate, create, share and savor knowledge and ideas.         



Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"It's Scary."


I just went to a workshop where the discussion turned to the ever-increasing presence of technology in how we learn.  Conversation moved quickly from Facebook to Twitter to SCVNGR to foursquare, then extrapolated into the future.  Finally feeling overwhelmed, one of the participants said, “It’s scary.”  Curious, I asked why she was afraid (not that she shouldn’t be).  Her response had to do with how much there was to learn.  There was a sense of apprehension that she might not be able to do it.   

The fact is that we live in a rapidly changing world, which requires us to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis.  Having been nudged, dragged, prompted and coached on my own path from Luddite to a tech competent and tech curious Baby Boomer, I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is that scares us and inhibits us about mastering the various new technologies we encounter. 

I have a hunch that we drag old school wounds and scars along with us in ways that unnecessarily complicate our current learning.  Or worse, block us from even trying to learn.  Our attitude toward learning is as outdated as the classrooms we were taught in and the information we learned.  Kirsten Olson discusses this problem in her book, Wounded by School – Recapturing the Joy In learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture.  Even in something as mundane as learning how to program a DVD, we get anxious, out of sorts, and frustrated.  Then ask our kids to show us how to do it.  We adults assume we’ve got to learn it right away, worry about looking bad while we do it, and agonize as if we were going to fail some imaginary test on DVD recording.  We act as if we’re going to get graded, sorted, judged and valued by how we learn.  As if a failure in DVD manipulation might be recorded on our permanent transcript. 

My twenty-one-year-old son and I recently got new cell phones together. They are exactly the same model.  I went immediately to the instruction manual to figure out how to operate my phone.  My son flipped his phone open and started playing around with it.  That’s been his way of learning about such things ever since he was a little boy messing around with computers and playing computer games.  Essentially it’s a push all the buttons and see what happens style of learning.  Playing with the device.  Play being a key word.  My son and I continue to compare notes on how to operate our new phones.  There remains something to be said for consulting the directions.  There is plenty to be said for exploring confidently, not being afraid to make mistakes, adopting a “game mentality” of incremental mastery that is dependent on no one’s timetable but one’s own.  And plenty to be said for collaborating, so that we can learn from each other. 

My son and I will never have a cell phone final exam.  We’ll never sit in a room with a proctor looming to make sure our work is our own.  But too often, I think, we older learners handle the future by going backwards.  We consign ourselves to the anxiety of some exam room from the past whenever we’re confronted with something new to learn, or at least something we feel we have to learn.  An “assignment”, to dredge up another old school term.  We create a present fiction based on past wounds in order to cope with the future.


For older learners our fear of failure is sometimes so acute, we don’t allow ourselves to fail during any step of the process.  At least when it comes to technology, younger learners seem to have an ease about failing early and often on their path to mastery.  It would probably serve us older folks well to remember the following:
   
We don’t have to learn it all at once.
We can learn it at our own pace. It’s not a race.
We can learn something together with other people.
We can make as many mistakes as we need to until we master what we want to know.

Maybe we older folks could even relax enough not to force some of our old school values on today’s children.  Do we really need to use school to test and to grade and to sort and to rank quite so much?  Is learning a race?  How will our children ever win a race to the top if they learn to fear getting started?            

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Put The Summer In The School


With the school year well underway, and the leaves turning on the trees outside my window, it is easy to yearn again for summer.  That is exactly what my wife did as we took a late afternoon walk down to the garden to check on our pumpkins.  In that same wistful vein, I’m reminded of some summer reading I’ve been pondering for a while.  At the beginning of August Time Magazine ran a cover feature, “The Case Against Summer Vacation”, written by David Von Drehle.


 It began by noting what happens to kids, most especially children from low-income families, during our traditional extended summer break from school.  Von Drehle describes this summer break we’ve been comfortable with for so long “as a luxury we can no longer afford.”   

     “Dull summers take a steep toll, as researchers have been documenting for more than a century.  Deprived of healthy stimulation, millions of low-income kids lose a significant amount of what they learn during the school year.  Call it “summer learning loss,” as the academics do, or “the summer slide,” but by any name summer vacation is among the most pernicious – if least acknowledged – causes of achievement gaps in America’s schools.  Children with access to high-quality experiences keep exercising their minds and bodies at sleepaway camp, on family vacations, in museums and libraries and enrichment classes.  Meanwhile children without resources languish on street corners or in front of glowing screens.  By the time the bell rings on a new school year, the poorer kids have fallen weeks, if not months, behind.  And even well-off American students may be falling behind their peers around the world.”

Von Drehle goes on to describe antidotes to this problem, describing a number of summer enrichment programs especially for low-income kids, and some of the people who make the programs work.

      “As our modern-day reformers strive to civilize summer as an educational resource, the trick is to seize the opportunity without destroying what’s best about the season:  the possibility of fun and freedom and play.”

Von Drehle describes an all-day program in Indianapolis where elementary school kids are “exploring foods and landmarks and cultural traditions…unwittingly doing math as they measure ingredients and learning science as they raise vegetable gardens with plants native to each land.  Fridays are for field trips; to study Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the kids rode buses to the aquarium in Chicago.”  He writes about programs in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, and a very successful program in the Appalachian town of Corbin, Kentucky, led by Karen West. 

     “The entire community of Corbin pitches in.  Restaurants serve hot meals at which students can practice etiquette.  The swimming pool invites kids each Wednesday.  Baptist Regional Medical Center organizes the Long Day of Play to promote health and fitness.  The department of fish and wildlife leads a session on conservation – then takes all the students fishing.  As the kids weigh and measure their catch, they think they’re just trying to win first prize, but West notes that they are also doing a day’s worth of math.  Summer educators like to call this sort of thing “stealth learning.”

     “We have over 30 partners,” West says, and their in-kind contributions nearly match her annual budget of $60,000. “When everyone gives a little, we can do miracles.”  The proof:  students in the Corbin program not only don’t fall behind through the summer; they move ahead.  More than half of the participants improve by a full letter grade or more in both reading and math.”

It seems to me the “trick” in all this is to give up trying to distinguish between the “fun stuff” and the “educational”.  Maybe we should realize that all the physical activity kids get in a summer program is a good thing, that less focus on a rigid curriculum is a good thing, that “fun and freedom and play” needn’t be segregated from learning, but rather incorporated into learning all year round, school or no school.  We compartmentalize learning in so many ways, not the least of which is that somehow “summer learning” must be different from “school-year learning.”   The issue isn’t what kids learn in summer programs that can help them in schools, it is what schools can learn from summer programs to help teach more effectively and efficiently.  Toward the end of his article Von Drehle writes:

“In the best summer-only programs, bureaucracy is lean and change is easy.  There’s an informality to the summer culture – maybe it’s those bare feet and damp swimsuits and homemade lanyards – that fosters easy innovation and rapid improvement.  As Terry Ogle, a former middle-school principal who runs the Indianapolis Algebra Project, told me, things happen more quickly outside school systems:  “A few years ago, we were teaching kids at two summer sites.  Now we’re in 29.”

Von Drehle then describes a very successful summer program called Summer Advantage.  “The curriculum ranges from math, reading and writing to cooking, dance and music – but the consistent element is strong teachers working in small groups with excited students.”   Reading and math scores improve after just the summer.   Then comes the key question.

     “…if summer enrichment is the innovative, cost-effective answer to one of the nation’s thorniest problems – the failure to educate many of our neediest kids – how do we address so large a problem without creating another stultifying version of the failed status quo?  How do we increase participation and raise standards without crushing creativity and imposing bureaucracy?  Can we really entrust something so important to a haphazard network of camp counselors, volunteers and entrepreneurs?”

Can we trust school bureaucracies, teachers unions, politicians, and business people turned educators to do any better?   Are we racing to the top or chasing our tail?  A hard look at what makes these summer programs succeed might be useful.  Some seem to be having success during the summer that schools have trouble replicating during the school year.  Maybe we won’t work quite so hard trying to turn learning into schooling.  I wonder how many kids are sitting in school now wishing their school day could be more like their summer.    


Watch a video showing how much of the achievement gap can be attributed to lack of stimulation during the summer, Two Steps Forward. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEkIkdHwvso
      


            

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sam Chaltain and the Beautiful Game


Soccer has always been an important, joyful part of my life. On my personal calendar, the arrival of fall means soccer.  Since 1960 I have enjoyed a portion of each fall either as a player, a coach, or a referee. I currently referee high school games. 

In the summer of 1966 I worked for a mining company in the Harz Mountains in Germany.  I followed the World Cup that summer from black and white television sets in the bars and restaurants of the small town where I lived and worked. I celebrated Germany’s last minute comeback in the final against England to take the game to overtime, and agonized with everyone in the dining room of the small family restaurant where I watched the final, as an “Englisher Tor” became the goal that sent Germany to defeat.  I remember the negativity and brutal fouls in that tournament that put Pele on the sideline, and the individual brilliance of Portugal’s Eusebio.  Every four years since I’ve faithfully kept my appointment with the Cup, following it from the cramped radio room of a ship on the Mediterranean to a big screen in Madison Square Garden, to best of all, in person in 1994 and 1998.

This past summer I happened to come across a piece by the gifted and important education observer, Sam Chaltain, written a day after Landon Donovan’s thrilling game winning goal against Algeria.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-chaltain/dear-mr-president-just-go_b_624407.html  Chaltain wrote about the changing environment in some successful American businesses and the lack of similar change in our schools.
“If you've been watching the action in South Africa, you see why soccer is known around the world as the "beautiful game." It's a game of improvisation, and real-time adjustments, and unquantifiable synchronization between individuals. Broadcasters reflect this in the language they use to describe the players, using such elusive terms as "pace," "rhythm," and "flow."
“These are unfamiliar words to the average American sports fan, but they're the proper words for a World Cup match because the action unfolding is both planned and unplanned -- it is the result of years of skill development, discipline, and preparation -- and the precise way it unfolds in the flow of the game cannot be linearly predicted, planned, and directed.
“Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) gets this. He realizes the worst thing you can do, in an organizational context, is constrain people by micromanaging their activities. In the same way a soccer manager would look ridiculous by attempting to control the game from the sidelines -- his work is largely done by the time the game starts, and the rest is up to the players -- a business CEO must know what shared structures, and what individual freedoms, are essential.
“At Zappos, this structure comes from the company's core values -- all 10 of which guide and inform every aspect of the company, from hiring to evaluations to interactions with customers. Because of this clarity, employees are largely free to determine how their day unfolds -- and the company's call-center employees don't operate off scripts; they are trusted to represent the Zappos way in a fashion that also incorporates their own unique voice and method of self-expression.
“Why is such simple, powerful wisdom so absent from our current conversations about public education? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that the learning process is, like a soccer match, more dependent on simple structures, improvisation, and freedom than it is on complex structures, standardization, and fear? And why do we think the best way to improve school cultures is by incentivizing behavior with financial rewards, when scores of leading voices in the business world know that such a strategy is fool's gold?
“I don't know if President Obama is watching the World Cup. But if he is I wish he would heed some simple advice: when it comes to improving our schools, abandon the command-and-control mentality of the past, invest in freedom, not fear - and just go with the flow.”

The “command-and-control mentality” Chaltain laments remains an overwhelming feature of our schools, public, private and charter.  I recently watched a video clip from a charter school’s website.  It is a proud demonstration of the school’s “culture”.  The teacher is shown at the front of the room training kids in how to pass out and pass back papers.  You can see adult observers sitting at the back of the room watching how smoothly this is all being accomplished.  It is a horror, unless you admire efficiency in paper passing, which will doubtless make these students efficient and compliant paper passers later in life.  If paper passing is so important, at the very least let the kids try to devise a system. This school may close the “achievement gap” as it intends, though I doubt it.  I fear it will only create or sustain an “initiative gap”, training them, not teaching them for work where such compliance is valued.  Where one gets a job as a paper passer I do not know.  

Back to soccer.  Critics of our national team ask where is the individual flair that characterizes a powerhouse like Brazil, for example. The answer may be that nearly all children in this country play the game in organized, structured leagues.  No kid ever organized those leagues.  From age five forward soccer moms drive kids to regular soccer practice so they can be ready for their adult managed game on the weekend.  You don’t find the pickup games, kids playing by themselves, little kids fighting their way to play with and against big kids, makeshift games with no adults around. Among other things, soccer involves endless experiments and calculations about time and space.  In this country there is far too little play at soccer to discover and learn from failure and repetition.  Though well meaning, there is too much adult directed practice, practice which shortcuts discovery and subtlety or not so subtlety leads toward player compliance.  Practice “tested” by games in leagues with scores, standings, and measurable results.  Kids don’t get to develop through hours and hours of pure play at soccer, taking delight in the trickery and skills they learn, building confidence in their ability and a desire to assert themselves individually in the course of a game. Even the “beautiful game” is not immune from the “command and control” virus.  Soccer in this country, like schools and businesses, has to find its way beyond compliance dictated by extrinsic forces and allow extrinsic commitment to come to the fore. 

This is not just a problem with soccer here in the United States.  Europeans are questioning how the over-managed development of youth players inhibits the individual style and imagination that contributes to the beauty of the game.  Nor is this a problem akin to just soccer in this country.  We can find Little League champions from around the world on network television in late August.  You have to look harder to find pickup baseball games in parks and sandlots, places where kids play for the sheer fun of it.  I recently heard radio announcers conjecture that the reason the NFL players have never been able to go on strike successfully is because they’ve spent their lives in a sport that is so hierarchical in nature, so dependent upon submitting to the will of authoritarian figures, that the players cannot muster the necessary independent collective will to negotiate successfully on their own behalf. They don’t know how to operate outside an imposed structure.  Our youth sports world suffers in the same way our schools do, from adults who don’t know how to step back, or refuse to step back.  Winning games now, today, becomes more important than player development.

True, commentators used “pace”, “rhythm” and “flow” to describe the games this summer.  At least in terms of the U.S. team, if one listened and read carefully, you could also discern the word “test”.  Could the U.S. pass the test of getting to or through the next round?  Talented teams would surely test our defense.  The development of the game in this country was being given a “litmus test” in the World Cup.  Unfortunately we “failed” our last test against Ghana.                
       

Chaltain’s questions remain paramount.  How do we go about creating school environments, business environments, play environments based upon freedom, not fear?  Why do adults fear creating such environments?  Does everything we do have to be tested?  Do we have to reform our schools with a race?  How about a process?  How about balance?  We don’t need to take over and teach the game to our children.  We need to let them play more on their own and discover for themselves the inherent beauty it offers.     

   

     

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Some Unlearning To Do


I follow Jack Uldrich on his blog, The Chief Unlearner  http://twitter.com/ChiefUnlearner  and on his website  http://www.unlearning101.com/.  Mr. Uldrich wears many hats:  scholar, author, speaker.  Primarily he is a futurist, using the tools of science to help predict the future.  As the title of his blog suggests, he believes strongly that much information we now believe as true and important will be outdated, useless, and even detrimental to us in the future.  Our ability to adapt and move forward depends upon our ability to question, test, and abandon ideas.

In schools, especially in what sometimes get called the “best” schools (simply because they turn out a lot of students who go to the “best” colleges – another essay for another time), students are invested in exhibiting what they know, on demand, not in asking questions.  With SSAT’s, PSAT’s, SAT’s, AP’s, ACT’s and the rest of the evaluative alphabet thrown at them, not to mention the quizzes, tests and exams that are part of their daily school life, the message is pretty clear.  You’ll get sorted and ranked and rated by what you can show you know.  On your mark, get set, know.  One can see students in tears after only getting a 90 on a Latin test, or absolutely distraught about their future following a C on a Physics test.  Such stress, such scenes, are unfortunately predictable.  It’s a wonder students have any intellectual curiosity left.  Who can blame them? 

Unfortunately this emphasis on being able to display what you know leads to another handicap, pretending you know, or hiding the fact that you don’t know.  Ignorance is a stigma.  Pretending you know and hoping you aren’t found out is a safe tactic, a chance to save face.  I’ve seen this over and over with new ninth graders.  I give them a passage to read. We read it out loud in class.  I ask “Any questions?”  Quick glances around and silence.  I know from experience that there are at least ten vocabulary words in the passage that  many of them are unfamiliar with.  I know that there are connections to their own lives that make the passage much more meaningful when they understand the vocabulary.  I know the writer’s point relates to our work ahead during the semester together.  Granted, they are fourteen, just starting high school and acutely self-conscious.  Time to play it safe.  Silence. 

I up the ante. I announce a quiz.  They dutifully produce paper and pens.  Ten vocabulary words from what we just read and a short answer on why I gave them the piece to read in the first place.  Afterward I tell them, the short answer question is worth 50 points.  Each vocabulary word is worth 5 points.  However, I deduct double the value of the question for each answer that is a guess or just plain BS.  I then offer them a chance to surrender.  All they have to do is draw a white flag on their quiz and they’ll get a 50.  Nearly all surrender.  After all the anxiety, all the 50’s, all the hooting and hollering at the BS answers, we work our way around to discovering what the words mean, the author’s intent in the passage, and how it relates to them.  And finally, we discuss why no one asked questions in the first place.  And yes, the quiz is bogus; I don’t give quizzes for a course in public speaking, and IT WON’T COUNT ON THEIR GRADE. 

Students are far too willing to wait a teacher out.  Rather than embarrass themselves in a show of ignorance, individually and collectively, they’ll “go dumb” in the hope that sooner or later the teacher will rise up and display the golden egg of an answer she’s been sitting on.  And often as teachers, we do.  We succumb to the silence, the dead air, the passivity in the room and surrender the answer to our own question. So, if you are a student, why ask questions when you can avoid looking stupid, being made fun of, and the teacher will tell you anyway?  If you are a teacher, why ask questions if you’re going to  answer them yourself anyway.  These are  habits worth unlearning!   

    




Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 16th - Time and Space

I began my day as I usually do, reading The New York Times, checking e-mail, taking a look at my Twitter account.  The Times had a feature story by Matt Richtel smack dab on the front page about five neuroscientists who spent a week this past May camping and rafting on the San Juan River in a remote part of southern Utah. The goal of the trip:  “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”


Later in the day I came across a blog, “Mind Hacks”, written by Vaughan Bell.
http://mindhacksblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/scientists-go-rafting/ Mr. Bell criticizes the “science” in the trip described in the Times.  “Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.”  True, the scientists are the subjects of their own study and there are too many variables to sort out whether simply being outdoors alters our relationship with technology.

It does seem clear, however, that the trip provided these scientists, their guide and the reporter and photographer accompanying them, time and space away from the everyday.  Time to relax.  Time to think.  Time to share ideas.  Todd Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University participating in the trip noted, “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you”…He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys, “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

Shortly after reading the Times piece, I discovered through Twitter a talk by John Cleese on creativity. http://simbeckhampson.amplify.com/2010/08/16/creativity-according-to-john-cleese-truly-brilliant-ht-jasonfalls/ In it, Mr. Cleese reminds us that being in a cluttered environment of lists, phone calls, multitasking, is not what creativity needs.  He recommends creating an oasis for creativity to flourish.  That means boundaries of space where there are no interruptions and a defined period of time dedicated solely to the creative task.

Finally, I came across a Wall Street Journal blog by John Edwards III, “Creativity Is On the Decline – And Why It Matters”. http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2010/08/16/creativity-is-on-the-decline-and-why-it-matters/ There has been a flood of articles on this subject recently, appropriately so in my opinion, as we battle antiquated curriculum and greater insistence on testing in our schools.  Mr. Edwards concludes his blog with these questions: “Readers, how important do you think creativity is to your children’s development and to your own workplace and career?  Is creativity encouraged in your workplace or your family’s school? Are there things you’ve done or plan to do to encourage greater creative thinking on both fronts?  Any fun creativity-boosters you recommend for kids or adults?”  

Having begun my day with my typical media bath, I nonetheless found some time and space away from family distractions, bill paying, job hunting, and all the other tasks that interfere with my own creativity to think on my own a bit.

It would be simple and easy if our schools could help reverse the decline in creativity.  Alas, not enough schools, not enough brave teachers, are able to pose problems to their students that require reflective solutions.  We aren’t asking enough, or even any, questions in school that prompt creative endeavor.  Creativity is problem solving, finding unrecognized connections.  Time and space to solve a problem need not be mandated as Mr. Cleese suggests, but clearly ample time and space are helpful.  Even based on the “unscientific” evidence provided by five vacationing scientists.  As wonderful as it might be, however, there is no way to send every classroom on a trip down the San Juan River.  Where in school, in the school day, do students have time and space to reflect, to dream, to relax enough to think creatively?  Can we ask the questions and make the space for solutions?  Why do we limit the possibilities for creativity to school and work?  What about at home?  Turn off a few devices and dream.  Play in the backyard.  As for me, I wrote this in the morning before anyone else in the family was awake.  Now for a shower, and perchance, some more time to dream.    

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Common Sense From The Trenches

Where have I been?  Why have I not heard of Marion Brady before?  Thanks to Google Reader I came across this piece in the Washington Post.  Someone commented that Mr. Brady should assume Arne Duncan's position.  Not a bad idea, though I suspect Mr. Brady is MUCH more effective in a classroom somewhere.  Here's the link to the Post piece.  http://bit.ly/a4wzLA

And here's a link to a YouTube video on Mr. Brady's site:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1XQMqcuPYo

Let me know what you think about what he has to say.  In the meantime, I'll put my thinking cap on and try to come up with more active lessons for learners.  Suggestions anybody?  Real change in education will come from teachers, the way we teach.  That means lessons that engage and promote an active response.  A problem worth finding solutions for.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Time To Get Moving


A recent article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Newsweek examines what works in fostering creativity. Right at the top of the list is movement.  “Almost every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The type of exercise doesn’t matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward. However, there’s a catch: this is the case only for the physically fit. For those who rarely exercise, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term benefits.”  The entire article can be found here: http://bit.ly/acsCPW

Reading the Newsweek article sent me back to Dr. Stuart Brown’s excellent book Play – How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.  In the last chapter of the book Brown makes the bold statement that “nations may well rise or fall on the basis of their ability to honor our evolutionary prerogative to play.”  One of his concluding bits of advice is Be Active.  He writes:  “One of the quickest ways to jump-start play is to do something physical.  Just move.  Take a walk, do jumping jacks, throw a ball for the dog (a double pay boost).  Motion is perhaps the most basic form of play.  We are designed to start moving when we are in the womb.  (The underlining is mine.) …We are alive when we are physically moving.

“Neuroscience research is showing that the fundamentals of perception, cognition, and movement are very closely connected, and that the circuits for higher functions such as planning and recognizing the consequences of future actions require movement.”

Gregg Fraley, creativity and innovation expert, consultant and writer wrote in his blog  (http://www.greggfraley.com/blog/) recently about the need for movement activities in the one and two day brainstorming/ideation workshops he leads for corporate clients.

“Resist the urge to cut these activities.  In fact, add more.  These games and energizers are exactly what the brain needs to get into, and stay in, imaginative mode.  According to Pierce J. Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual For The Brain, physical exercise is highly effective in improving the speed of recall, and much research points to an effect on the quality of mental function and the amount of recall.  It releases endorphins, the neurotransmitters that relax us into a state of cortical alertness.  Humor works as well.  Tests of problem-solving ability yield better results when they are preceded by laughter.
Many of the games/exercises used for energizing were originally designed for the theater.  The intent is to bring the actor into the present moment, enabling him or her to respond to stimulus authentically.  These exercises are time tested and they work well to bring people’s minds into the room – instead of cranking away on other problems and challenges in their lives.  Once a state of “presence” is achieved you will have more effective ideation.  This state is hard to maintain, however, and that’s why about once an hour you need to refresh.  You want people to play with ideas, and these games help establish the environment of playfulness that allows those magic ideas to pop up and be heard by the conscious mind.  If you want the magic bullet, play with the magic ball.”

Will our nation get a move on?  Or will we continue to sit anchored at desks in schools, boxed in cubicles at work, glued to a screen at home?  I don’t believe we can teach creativity.  I do believe we can practice it.  The challenge is how to incorporate that practice, including the movement that encourages creativity, into our lives.  One hopes that in years to come, a creativity consultant such as Gregg Fraley will not be necessary.  People will have learned long before, especially in schools, the value of activities and practices that heighten our creative potential. 

Or we can be like our ancestor, the sea squirt.  Stuart Brown tells us that young sea squirts use their primitive brain to navigate their environment and find food.  Then they attach themselves to a rock or a piling and spend the rest of their life there.  That  “life” includes digesting their own brain.  Firmly rooted to one spot for the rest of its life, the creature derives sustenance from consuming its own cerebral ganglia!  Can’t be much sustenance from such a little brain.  Nonetheless, will our nation get a move on?  At the very least, we must help our “squirts” cherish the value of movement and play.







Saturday, July 17, 2010

DEMOTED to teacher

DEMOTED to teacher

The tragic death of a 12-year-old pupil on a field trip with The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in Harlem to a beach last month has now been investigated and punishments have been meted out.  The first year teacher who was on the scene and allowed students to go into the water despite signs indicating there was no lifeguard on duty has been fired.  That’s not surprising and may well be appropriate, though news reports suggest the teacher’s colleagues feel she has been made a scapegoat. 

However, as written in The New York Times, the principal and assistant principal, while disciplined for failing to obtain required permission slips and not planning the trip properly, still have jobs.  The principal faces probation.  The assistant principal was demoted from his administrative role….TO TEACHER!

Demoted to teacher.  Both the Times and the New York Post used the word demoted in their reporting. Where does this language come from?  Does anybody realize what they are saying?  Guess we know what people really think about teachers, despite empty rhetoric to the contrary.  Sounds like the military.  Cut the stripes off and return the offender to the lowest possible rank, in this case teacher.  Certainly lets teachers know where we stand.

Wonder which lucky kids will have this embarrassed, resentful ex-administrator teaching them next year.  He loved teaching so much he became an administrator?  What an inspiring message this sends to teachers and students alike.  What a fine way to help attract, nurture, and retain outstanding teachers. 

Do we now change the old adage to, “Those who can’t administrate, teach?  “     

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Teach For America

http://bit.ly/avTME3  This piece by Sam Chaltain raises some good questions about Teach For America.  I'm not quite sure where I stand, though it sure is nice to have talented people attracted to the profession. I know a few who have stayed on as teachers/leaders.  We're lucky to have them.     I'd like to hear what people think.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Arts for the Economists

"...get them to use the entire body and not just words to express themselves."  This in an article in The New York Times about a week-long theater workshop for 50 World Economic Forum fellows.  Play used to help  train world leaders. Who's next?  Business leaders?  Teachers?  School administrators?  Baby boomers?
Read the article.  http://nyti.ms/ajN3lS   Then contact me at www.billwilliamsfortheater.com  and set up YOUR workshop.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sam Chaltain

I just discovered this man yesterday, when I read this piece http://tinyurl.com/37asthm.  Saw it in a Tweet from Sir Ken Robinson.  One of those, "Where have I been?" moments. Check out his website too.
http://www.samchaltain.com/ 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

40 Years and Growing

It's hard to believe, but forty years ago, along with my teaching colleague, Peg Sawyer, we started Andy's Summer Playhouse.  Andy's is a summer theater for children, children performing for children and adults.  It was named in memory of children's author and illustrator, C.W. Anderson - who lived in Mason, N.H., where the theater began.  "Andy" died in the winter prior to our first season, and the theater was named in his honor.  Here is a newspaper article from the Monadnock Ledger Transcript about the theater.  The picture is from our second season, a production of Alice In Wonderland.  There were no great dreams when we started the theater.  Something to do for a summer.  And then it became next summer, and the next, ...pass the baton, and here we are forty years down the line.  Little did I know at the time that theater would become what I teach, that I'd meet my wife in acting class, that my daughter would be an actress and that theater would become an important part in the lives of Andy's alumni and the students I've taught elsewhere.  Here's the link to the article:  http://bit.ly/9HwEQv

Monday, July 5, 2010

Charles Leadbeater on TED

Listen to this new TED talk by Charles Leadbeater on education.  One of the most important, encouraging talks I've heard in a long while.   Tell me what you think. http://bit.ly/9KiKP5     

Interesting Curriculum Thoughts

Found this post on Twitter, posted by Gerald Aungst, a school administrator.  Happy to read these thoughts from an administrator.  Check out his blog.

http://bit.ly/ag5N9A

Monday, June 28, 2010

Education Innovation in the Slums

Listen to this new TED talk by Charles Leadbeater on education.  One of the most important, encouraging talks I've heard in a long while.   Tell me what you think. http://bit.ly/9KiKP5     

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Pink Minute


The message can’t get much shorter or much more succinct.  Now, how do we get it into schools?  Or spread it outside schools as we currently know them?  What are your thoughts about this?   Check out this short video  by Kevin Brookhouser for Google Teacher Academy.   Let me know what you think.  Let me hear from you. 


Encountering The Big Shaggy



Having been without full time work for two years now, I found reading Bob Herbert’s New York Times
June 8th column, ‘A Very Deep Hole’, depressing.  Herbert maintains,  “…the No. 1 problem facing the U.S. continues to fester, and that problem is unemployment.”   No argument here.  It is small comfort to learn that I am but one of 15 million Americans out of work, that many of my fellow unemployed have been jobless for six months or more, and that recent college graduates are taking on jobs requiring only a high school education.  Finally, for me, a career teacher, the coup de grace.  “Teachers are facing the worst employment market since the Depression.”   In short, things are bleak.  Knowing that the knot in my stomach is somehow tied to 15 million other Americans only serves to heighten my anxiety.

On the same day, on the other side of the page (Herbert appropriately the column on the left of the page and David Brooks the column on the right) Brooks began his column, History for Dollars, with “When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting.”  He goes on to describe the decline in the study of humanities in our colleges and universities.  His column is, however, a defense of the liberal arts.  Brooks writes:  “Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior; economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology.  These systems are useful in many circumstances.  But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling.  They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.”  Brooks goes on to describe The Big Shaggy at work in the hubris of politicians who succumb to romantic indulgence, or “when self-destructive overconfidence overtakes oil engineers in the gulf, when go-go enthusiasm intoxicates bankers or when bone-chilling distrust grips politics.”  There is also a tender side to this beast, Brooks points out, that can bring out the best in us: determination, grace, courage, selflessness, to name a few.  Technical knowledge, says Brooks, stops at the outer edge and remains insufficient to fully comprehend and explain The Big Shaggy. 

Brooks concludes, “But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech.  These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

“It’s probably dangerous to enter exclusively into this realm and risk being caught in a cloister, removed from the market and its accountability.  But doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages – learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?”

In the most basic way, as a theater teacher and director, I’ve made my living as a storyteller.  I delight in being told, dreaming about, reshaping and retelling the tales that make our culture; tales that outlive their tellers, tales that wrestle with The Bit Shaggy.  I’ve spent much of my time helping adolescents learn to decode, compose, illuminate and narrate these tales.  Trying to get my students to see in different ways. 

I kept a quote from Peter Brook on the wall of my office and shared it with my students:  “In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction, in the theatre ‘if’ is an experiment.  In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion, in the theater ‘if’ is the truth.  When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one.  This is a high aim.  It sounds like hard work.  To play needs much work.  But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more.  A play is play.”

In an Opinion Online piece for The New York Times Stuart Brown wrote:  “...play reinvigorates not because it is down time, but because it gets us in touch with our core selves and the joy of life. 

“The differences in levels of playfulness when adulthood arrives validates this importance.  Play-deprived adults are often rigid, humorless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options.  Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances.”   Brown’s book, PLAY, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul might be thought of as a kind of guide to encountering The Big Shaggy.

 I feel as if I’m one of 15 million out of work Americans trying to compose something for the middle of the page, smack between Herbert’s and Brooks’ columns.  Trying to create the next work in our lives.  In my case, devoted to encounters with the Big Shaggy, and tenaciously faithful to the notion that when the going gets tough, the tough get to playing.