Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tinkerers, John Seely Brown, Mike Toborg

I just rewatched John Seely Brown’s short video “Tinkering As A Mode of Knowledge Production”  I recommend it. Tinker is such a good word.  A quick dictionary check found:  to fiddle with, adjust, fix, try to mend, play about with, fool with, futz with; tamper with, interfere with, mess about with, meddle with.  Ask yourself; in what classes in school did you get to tinker?  If not, literally, with things, then with ideas.  If you are a teacher, ask yourself how students get to tinker in your class.  If not, why not?  Thinking about what Brown has to say reminded me about a former student who certainly qualifies as a tinkerer.  I’ve written about him before on this blog:  Tinkers, the fixers of things, were itinerants. How can we make student tinkerers itinerants across the curriculum, beyond the curriculum, and ultimately curriculum creators?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where Will It End?

The college driven mania in New York’s private schools continues apace.  Consider this recent article from the Wall Street Journal. Then, read this about tutoring in New York City:  It’s no accident the same names pop up.  Parents aren’t complaining about the costs?  Please.  Parents put pressure on coaches to make sure a kid makes a team.  Parents will call school not only to complain about grades, but also about how quickly papers get handed back.  Positions on the editorial staff of a school paper are subject to trustee pressure.  Teachers hand back essays knowing full well they have graded the work of a tutor, or a parent, but opting not to challenge the origin of the paper.  One wonders how many stories there are about how the integrity of schools gets compromised.

How does education at this price, with this narrow point of view, prepare one to collaborate, to be open to new ideas, to create?  How does education at this price prepare one to participate in a democracy?     

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Playing The Tapes

I woke up early this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I found myself doing something I too often do.  I call it Playing The Tapes.  My anxious mind is like a cassette tape player.  I have a collection of well worn tapes.  When I come up against a problem, when life seems overwhelming, I insert a tape and let it play.  Then I pop in another one.  Some of the tapes are dreams, some are plans or schemes, what if scenarios - some leading to resurrection, some leading to doom.  Virtually none of the tapes contain any new material. Just recycled ideas, plans, hopes and fears.  Perhaps gussied up in some way, or with the playlist altered for the present occasion.  Here are some popular titles:

 See Me/See My Talent – sort of a Bluesy ballad of self-pity, a chronicle of my wait for discovery. Sometimes has an upbeat end where someone recognizes how truly gifted I really am.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town -  Someone will want to rescue me.  How do I reach out to them?  A rich uncle, a benevolent friend, someone who will surely be sympathetic to my plight and want to swoop in and save me with cash in hand.

My Boss Is/Was A Jerk – Lots of true facts on this tape. Plenty of heavy metal numbers on it.  Loud, angry, aggressive.

I Gotta Get Outta This Place – Close to some sort of rap.  Lots of repetitive themes and schemes about how I might improve my lot.

I Can Start Tomorrow – A second album by the group that made I Gotta Get Outta This Place, The Procrastinators.

I’m not psychotic.  There is basis in fact in these tapes.  Part of the “fun” of playing them is marshalling the facts to support the title.  The crazy part comes in thinking that playing them repeatedly is actually going to solve something.  Playing these popular titles over and over does nothing to make me feel any better.  In fact, they often make me feel worse, robbing me of sleep.  Then I play As Soon As I’m Rested, a promise to start soon on the way to a better future. 

My tapes are what the writer Steven Pressfield calls, The Resistance, in his book  the WAR of ART.  The Resistance is the enemy that holds us in place.  What I’m trying to learn, trying to understand, is that when I feel paralyzed with fear, tapes blaring, that this is a good sign.  As Pressfield writes:  “Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.  Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.  That’s why we feel so much Resistance.  If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

In his biography, The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff writes about being a teenage boy with a stammer, sitting in a public speaking class, waiting to be called upon.  His turn finally arrives and he plows his way through a speech he has committed to memory.  By the end of the experience he concludes he has learned something important, “Doing it is never as bad as not doing it”.  I’ve often used Wolff as a model for my students.  Sometimes it pays to listen to what we teach.  To practice what we preach.  For me that means, shut off the tapes, get out of bed, and force myself to write or to work at solving the problem that’s made me so fearful.  A hard lesson to learn.    

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Party Clean Up

I’ve been writing this blog for a little over a year now.  It’s subtitled “a blog on creativity, in our schools and in the workplace”.  My most recent post, “Party On” touches on creativity, only in the sense that one of the most creative teachers I know was recently fired. By far, however,  “Party On” has received more hits than any other post I’ve written.  There may be several reasons for this.  A) I’m getting better at letting the world know about what I’ve written and how to access it.  My learning curve creeps up the Y-axis.  B) My former colleague and I have many alumni in common.  The sad news spread quickly through this alumni network, especially given my friend’s popularity.  C) Perhaps most distressing of all, there is a great deal of interest in news about the current lack of regard for teachers in this country. Over the year, three of the most popular posts I’ve written have been about the plight of teachers:  “Party On”, “The Mailmen”, and “Demoted to Teacher”.  These posts, seeking honor for the profession, and seeking for those in the profession to honor themselves, seem to strike a nerve.  I’m curious why, and I’d be curious to hear what any readers think. 

As for my recently fired friend, here are a few of the comments from former students:

“WTF?  He was one of my favorite teachers.”

“This is just so wrong.  (He) is one of the best teachers I have ever had.  I credit my writing style and voice to him.  I can’t believe they pushed him out.  It’s a shame.  AND he is such a cool guy on top of it all.”

“He was unbelievably important to me, always encouraging my creativity.  So sorry to hear this.”

“What a shame.  He was one of the best teachers.”

“Great, so now no students will be allowed to bring coffee to morning classes (this is not a trivial point - as you know teenagers' circadian rhythms are programmed to wake up circa 10:00, and with a morning class at 8:15, I had to get up, shower and dress at 6:30 to get to the Westside from Brooklyn by 8. Students in Queens and the Bronx had it much worse. That coffee was an act of mercy.), to go to the park to write poetry reflected on overheard conversations, be read to from William Carlos Williams, played the audio recording of Lee J. Cobb performing Death of a Salesman, or introduced to the music and life of Bill Evans, all of which changed my life.”

In a recent TED talk (, Sam Chaltain, one of the most important speakers and writers on education in this country, talks about the key components of a learning environment:  It is challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, experiential.  My friend provided all of these.  More important, he allowed students to discover and express what Chaltain calls a biological urge to speak, an inherent need to express ourselves, to be seen and heard.  Good teachers do that, help others find a way to speak for themselves.

I take it as encouraging that the times when I’ve written about the frustrations and obstacles teachers face, I’ve found an interested audience.  Not, I have faith, because people enjoy the suffering of teachers. Rather, because there are teachers and learners out there who are looking for a better way, and are sympathetic toward and eager to learn from those who will help lead the way.  This blog, then, will continue to be about creativity, in a search for better answers, in support of those who lead the way.  I stick firmly by the quote from William Carlos Williams at the side of the site, “the imagination will not down…”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Party On

I went to a retirement party for a former teaching colleague of mine this week. There were lots of other teacher colleagues there to wish him well.  He’s had a long, successful career: a gifted English teacher, especially inspiring to students as a teacher of creative writing, a published poet, an award winning translator, a Guggenheim Fellow.  Not to mention his special brand of humor, his integrity, his sweetness and a warm heart.  As the school year wound down, he was justly celebrated with an invitation to speak at the Cum Laude Society’s induction ceremony, with a standing ovation from students and faculty at a closing day assembly, with another standing ovation from faculty at a closing luncheon, and, of course, myriad private best wishes.  And yet I grieve.  There was an air of defiance in the celebration.

I grieve because this man was forced out of his job.  With the party over, he will have to contend with the loneliness of being on the outside.   Jealousy, vindictive backstabbing, insecure leadership, ageism, institutional callousness, mendacity; all played a part in his undoing. Not the first time petty politics at a private school have brought someone down.   To be sure, there were those who acted in his defense, often bravely.  But ultimately the institution prevailed.  An institution with no long term memory or respect for the gifts a teacher bestowed upon it over the course of many years.  An institution blind to how it might make the best of what this man has to offer.  Teachers, not only, but especially at this school, are treated with the dignity of light bulbs, hallway carpet, or office furniture. Replaced if they are deemed to be too worn, burnt out, or out of fashion.  

Which brings me back to the farewell party.  There was lots of talk about what a shame it was my friend was leaving, how unfair, how wrong. The gathered flock was unnerved.  And yet, at the same party, I discovered (unfortunately not to my surprise) that there is difficulty filling an open position as a faculty representative.  Faculty representatives are elected by peers to negotiate with the administration, in part to develop and secure the practices and procedures that ought to have helped protect my friend.  Unless, of course, administrators feel entitled to circumvent said practices and procedures, even though they are set forth in a faculty manual. By far, the most important role of the faculty reps is to serve as an ongoing reminder of the respect good teaching and good teachers demand.  

The position pays nothing, requires time and energy, and above all means speaking truth to power.  And yet, such representation is the only means to help brake administrative fiat.  The representatives are the institutional means by which the faculty communicates with the Board of Trustees.  The torch needs to be carried. Even when carried by a brave few, it does not ensure that people such as my good friend will not be abused.  If someone does not step up to help defend what is right, this year’s partygoers can surely count on one thing.  There will be another party next year and more in the years to follow, each with a new guest of honor.  Sometime, teachers will stop pretending these parties are celebrations of a job well done and understand them for what they are, a wake for professional dignity.