It is Sunday and I spent the morning reading. The morning began bright and sunny and became cold and dark. In some ways, so too this post.
The first article I read this morning was about how Teller (the quiet, or rather silent half of Penn & Teller) approached teaching when he taught Latin at Lawrence High School in New Jersey before going on to, well, frankly as our society would have it, much greater tings. I enjoyed the article for a variety of reasons – some of which will come up in a later version of The Change Chronicles dealing with whether or not one remains a teacher…
The primary take away from the article for many, I assume, is that for education to be successful it must be performative – entertaining! – and that the “first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.” Although in myriad ways I disagree with this take, I continued reading. I am glad I did, it was an engaging and thought-provoking article. My second favorite line was the reference to Alfred North Whitehead‘s premise that learning occurs in three stages: romance, precision, generalization. This articulation of what I like to believe has been the way I teach, made me feel validated and inspired. Yes! Impress them with the potential, the drama, the pathos-laden aspects of the subject. Then wow them with specifics – oh, how those superlatives, extremes, and data points resonate with the developing human brain! Finally, demonstrate how the knowledge of a specific allows for the understanding of all those things beyond one’s immediate ken.
Way back when I was trained to teach we called this activating and/or creating schema: what prior information is in that head of yours – ours – that we can connect to in order to makes sense out of this unknown situation/material/question? I love thinking about things like this and it always takes me back to one of my favorite articles that I have been using in my classroom – at every grade level – for a decade, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. I do not explicitly teach science, although it’s unavoidable the social sciences, but this article forms a basis for how I teach… the part where kids, and really everyone in the world these days, must get comfortable with the not knowing. Which Teller poetically gets to in his recollection of teaching, and is my favorite line in the article, and most significant takeaway from the piece:
When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.
Sadly, I fear the aspect of the article that will be the one people hold fast to is the emphasis on the teacher to engender love of the subject in the student. This depresses me for various reasons, but my fundamental problem with it is that it is not love of the subject that matters – it is the love of learning – figuring things out, seeing connections, and understanding nuance and context that matters more.
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
After more than 20 years of sharing history, literature, civics, geography, and economic theory in more classrooms than I can count, it is not a love of the specific subject I have ever sought from my students (though, admittedly a tremendous added bonus) but it has been the possibility of showing kids that thinking about things – any things, though perhaps especially the things they do not see as valuable (after all they will pursue that which holds value to them on their own), gives them power. I am not so audacious to use that age old expression of teaching someone how to think (thank you DFW for indelibly imprinting the silliness of that expression) but certainly have aspired to show kids how cool it is to be able to think, and to direct that thinking, and then – like having your own super power – to make meaning from it.
I sat with the disappointment of the lead to the Atlantic piece for a bit, and was then came across this article, reviewing Sara Zaske’s book Achtung Baby. Because I have a very good friend raising two amazing daughters in Germany, and I know a fair number of American parents, I read on. I laughed at the anecdotes and even without children of my own thought this might be a great read. At the end, I sat and said aloud (apparently to my cats): Huh. Growing up in Germany sounds like being raised Northern California in the 1970s.
Contemporary German parents give their children a great deal of freedom—to do dangerous stuff; to go places alone; to make their own mistakes, most of which involve nudity, fire, or both. This freedom makes those kids better, happier, and ultimately less prone to turn into miserable sociopaths. “The biggest lesson I learned in Germany,” she writes, “is that my children are not really mine. They belong first and foremost to themselves. I already knew this intellectually, but when I saw parents in Germany put this value into practice, I saw how differently I was acting.”
Granted, I am (now) acutely aware of the fuckery of the 70s (and even more so the 80s), one thing I have noticed about the kids who grew up the way I did in the 70s – broken homes, bad television, inappropriate exposure to adult themes, an absence of hand sanitizer, limited parental surveillance, bouncing in the back of pick-ups, and all the rest: we are largely functional, healthy (robust even), adults. Yeah, some of us have weird (okay, completely messed up) attitudes about relationships, politics, and economics… our general attitude seems alright: Just 4 percent [of us] reported a “great deal of unhappiness” with their lives as they approached middle age. I think this comes from the reality that we are the last Americans to have the old-time childhood. It was coherent, hands-on, dirty, and fun.
I thought about how the way American kids are being raised now with all of these tangible fears – fear of dirt, of bugs, of foods, of people, of independence, of doing – and then thought about how it manifests in my profession, where kids have become absolutely terrified. They are so afraid to fail at anything that they are afraid to try anything: afraid that a wrong answer might lead to a bad grade, which of course means they are, and will always be, a failure at life. Which is super strange considering these are the same kids who are getting rewards and trophies for all the things, are feted with celebrations – formal graduations from preschool on up, and are told that any of their failings are because they have bad coaches, bad teachers, or because they are not appreciated for who they are. Being perfect has become more important than ever for a group of people who are more afraid than ever to try to be their best selves.
What a freaking conundrum.
Full disclosure – I was not a kid (adult?) who enjoyed being new at things or not knowing how to do things. I was not comfortable in my own space of the unknown. What was different for me is that I was surrounded by people, a veritable – literal – village who constantly reminded me I was so much more than my personal successes and failures. People who were not afraid I would wilt if they told me I did something wrong (some in fact seemed to take great pleasure in reminding me of my screw ups as a way to show me my growth – I am looking right at you Coach Johnson.) People who showed me that they were still going to be there if I made choices they disagreed with or knew (how did they always know?) were going to end badly. People who made me sit in the discomfort. It was (is!) a life’s work to get comfortable with the ambiguous, the unknown… The Change.
Because it is always there. Lurking.
I am grateful Amy has her girls in Germany. I am grateful I grew up with dirty hands – no TV – super weird parents. I am grateful I did not fall in love with subjects because of teachers, or teachers because of subjects (the agenda of another in either case) but that I can explicitly remember the moments I learned things that would forever change my life (that respecting the opinions of others did not mean I had to agree, Mr. Cefalu, ca. 1977; that boasting would rarely lead to actuality and often to embarrassment, Mr Fore, ca. 1980; that algebra was possible and awesome even if I got it wrong the first time and regardless of a hideous 8th grade math teacher, Terry, ca. 1981-4; that I didn’t need to know how to play basketball to try out for the team – that was sort of the point of joining the team, mom, ca. 1984; that knowing what mattered to me was more important than what mattered to my friends, Coach J, ca. 1984-8; that my choice to teach was not going to make my life easy, but it would make it something special, Dr. Bloom, ca. 1994; that there was beauty, reality, and meaning in the patterns we see around us, Dr. Starrs, ca. 2000). All these people have seen me flounder and fail repeatedly, while showing me those were the precise spaces in which I would learn and grow the most.
Then this news item came across my screen somehow. A couple of weeks ago, a 16 year old boy, seemingly with all the advantages in the world, took his own life as a response to the pressures he felt.
In the letters he left behind he speaks to his school experience specifically. Directly stating that his parents put no pressure on him and that his coaches were amazing, still this young man felt neither of those things were enough in the face of the academic pressures and mean/bad teachers he had to face. I sat with this one for a while. Lots of it made little sense to me – but then suicide rarely does and that hardly renders it a nonissue. There are aspects of these letters that make me want to roll my eyes or say, “snap out of it!” which is wholly inappropriate considering the context. This student did not feel inspired by teachers, he felt afraid. He did not feel challenged by hard material, he felt un-taught. He did not think that the support he received from parents, coaches, and friends would be enough to buoy what must have been academic shortcomings (in his mind). I love that he still included a reminder to be kind.
A principal from a neighboring school responded to the news of the suicide (I hear that CDMHS was silent on the matter for 10 days) and his entire response bears repeating, but I will call out this excerpt:
It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a “C”, applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5% as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, “it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts.”
We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.
These three articles from my Sunday morning are deeply connected in my mind; all speaking to the lack of clarity over who holds responsibility for our successes and failures, our adventures and discoveries, our disappointments and inspirations… as children/students/parents/people. This year I found myself repeating – on a loop that seemed infinite – in parent teacher conferences that the students needed to have some faith – trust that they could take the uncomfortable intellectual risks that are necessary for learning, for growth, for everything in the great beyond, and if it didn’t work out, so be it. We go from there. It is obviously a joint effort, perhaps more than that because it might really take much more than a village to get this all right, for the kids – and for us.