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In our country, ‘Father’s Day’ was celebrated this year on 17 June.  My son-in-law, Gregg, had traveled from Indianapolis, to North Carolina to be with his parents.  On Monday, the 18th, Gregg had a heart attack; the examination also showed that Gregg had had a previous heart attack in early April.

Gregg is still in North Carolina; he is now recovering at his parents’ home.  If all continues to go well he will be able to return to Indianapolis this weekend.  Two weeks ago Gregg and I had a conversation on the phone.

During our conversation I shared with Gregg my experience in March, 2009.  I ended up in the ER and then in the hospital for I had a ‘significant number’ of blood clots in my lungs.  I asked the specialist what ‘significant number’ meant and he replied, Significant means, I am not sure why you are alive!’  He paused and added: ‘You have been granted a second bite of the apple.  My question to you is: What are you going to do with this second bite?’ 

I reflected to Gregg that he, too, has been given a ‘second bite’ and I said that given what he was sharing with me it appeared to me that he was already thinking about this question (without framing it as I did).  My March, 2009 ‘second bite’ was not my first ‘second bite’ it was actually my fourth ‘second bite.’

My third ‘second bite’ occurred when I was 21 (Gentle Reader, you might remember my postings where I shared my story about this ‘second bite’ with you).

Gentle Reader, you might remember that I had a number of sessions with a Priest-Therapist at Notre Dame (it was February, 1965 and I was a sophomore).  Among other things, this P-T provided me with a number of what I came to call ‘Essential Life Questions.’  These are questions that I continue to ‘hold’ today.  There are some questions that are ‘essential’ and ‘life-long’ and as the great German poet Rilke noted, we ‘live these questions’ we don’t simply attempt to respond to them.  By the by, all the great spiritual, philosophic and humanistic traditions hold ‘essential life questions.’

After Gregg and I spoke, I, once again, spent more time reflecting upon them (not in order to obtain ‘definitive or even specific’ responses).  Here are my ‘Essential Life Questions’ (again, my hunch was that Gregg was already thinking about one or more of them):

  • Who are you?
  • Who are you choosing to become?
  • Why are you choosing this becoming?
  • Why are you here?
  • Where are you going?
  • Why are you choosing to go there?
  • Prior to your ‘life event’ (blood clots and heart attack) what life-path were you on? Is this the path you want to stay on?  If you choose to alter your path – or survey a new path – what will you have to let go of (give up), what will you have to retain and what will you have to ‘take on’?

 There are other questions that are crucial, if not essential.  In 1989 I was working with the owner of a company.  He was ‘evaluating’ his leadership style.  I formulated two questions for him.  Since then I have offered these questions to every leader (role-defined and situational) that I have had the privilege of helping.

I also invite other folks to substitute a word for ‘lead’ and then reflect upon the two questions.  Here are the two questions I ask leaders:

  • Does the way you lead get you what you want?
  • What do you want?

 I encourage them to respond to the second question first and then, given that response, reflect upon and respond to the first.  Here is one example.  A Senior Executive more than 30years ago responded this way: ‘I want people to be so afraid of me that either they do what I tell them to do or they leave my division.’  He then noted that: ‘The way I lead gets me what I want.’

When a one knows clearly what one wants and when one says: ‘I know what I want and the way I lead (or teach or parent or…) gets me what I want’ then the likelihood the person will change is nil.  One is open (even if the window is only slightly opened) to change IF…the one does not know what the one wants or if the one says, ‘The way I ______ does not get me what I want.’

I mentioned to Gregg that while I was in the hospital for ten days in March, 2009 I also revisited these two questions.  I framed them this way:

  • Richard, does the way you live your life get you what you want?
  • What do you want?

There are times in our lives, if we are lucky, that we experience – and survive – a ‘life-event’ (blood clots and heart attacks) and are open to engaging these essential life questions.  There are, of course, other significant ‘life events’ that will allow these and other questions to emerge into our consciousness; questions that provide us with an opportunity to take a ‘second bite.’

As I conclude this morning two quotations have emerged into my consciousness; I will end with these.

Become the change you want to see in the world. –Gandhi

 I will act as if what I do will make a difference. –William James

 

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Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and the world better than you found it. –Marian Wright Edelman

When I think about excellence in education I am not thinking about ‘standards’ or ‘tests’ or even ‘value added.’  I am not thinking about how much is learned or even how well a subject is understood.  I am thinking about how learning changes the learner [think: Learner is ‘teacher’ and ‘student’].

I am less interested about knowledge ‘out there’ to be learned than in the impact of knowledge once it gets under the soil of the skin of the learner.  I am also interested in helping the learner emerge into consciousness the potential that exists under the soil of the skin.

I continue to believe that the quality of learning is high when the learner demonstrates intellectual, emotional, ethical/moral and spirit(ual) growth [NOTE: For some, ‘spirit’ resonates and for others ‘spiritual’ resonates].   I continue to believe that teaching is excellent when it fosters such growth, when we have individuals who are willing to care – both about the ‘subjects/disciplines’ and for the learners [Again, think of ‘Learner’ as ‘teacher’ and ‘student’].

It is, of course, one thing ‘to say’ these things and another to engage them.  I continue to hold some crucial questions: What do those abstract (some would say ‘fuzzy’) words growth and care mean?  How do we know them when we see them? What principles underlie excellence?   How do we incorporate the elements of care into the design of our curricula, into our practice and into what we choose to do each day – as learners? 

As I noted earlier, when I began teaching in 1967 I quickly came to see that teaching involved a great deal more than simply asking my students questions, providing them input and asking more questions based upon the input.  Now it is true that it is necessary to acquire certain content; for me this is a given.  What I learned is that if education were to make a ‘real difference’ in their lives, students had to learn to think critically for themselves.  This ability and capacity did not necessarily come with the standard curriculum.

Once I became familiar with and embraced the idea of ‘whole person’ development I began to understand a deeper meaning of the words education, learning, growth, care and excellence.

I committed myself to looking more closely at what good teachers (educators, mentors, etc.) actually do as they guide their charges along their transformational journeys.  I was entrusted with the development of others (students).  I discerned that in order to do this I must be nurtured and sustained by a major tap root: Care.

Perhaps, Gentle Reader, I will pick up with our theme of ‘Education-The Garden’ at a later date.  But, these seven postings will have to suffice for now.  I hope that there was something that helped stimulate your own thinking and that one or more crucial questions emerged for you – questions that you will ‘hold’ and/or ‘explore.’

Education must provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; it can, at best, provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore, in his own way. –Noam Chomsky

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus Character – that is the goal of true education. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

This morning, gentle reader, I have decided to provide you with an example of what we offered our students – and parents (you might remember that each student in our ‘school’ had to have the approval of parents or guardians; without their support, commitment and involvement we would never have been as successful as we were).

We (our team of gardeners) wanted to provide our students the opportunity to hear from parents and to have parents hear from students.  We decided that all might be more open to hearing if the parents they heard from where not their own.  This proved to be a correct assumption.  We gathered ten parents from another school system; we provided each parent with list of names of our students and we indicated that if they ‘knew’ any of them that they not participate (a precaution for the chance that a parent from 30 miles away would know one of our students was slim indeed).  We found the ten parents.  We invited them to join us for a ‘conversation.’  The parents sat with two of us on the stage and our students and the remainder of our team sat in the first rows of the auditorium.

The parents were parents of high school juniors (you might remember that our students were high school juniors).  Each had agreed to speak for 3-5 minutes about the challenges and joys of being the parents of high school juniors.  Then the two ‘moderators’ posed a few questions and some of the parents then responded.

Now, we get to the plant food.  Our students were invited to come to a microphone and ask a question.  A question that for them was a ‘burning question’.  After a question the parents were given one minute to reflect and then they were invited to respond.

From the beginning the questions were stimulating and challenging.  Some were stimulating and quite humorous and provoked a great deal of laughter from all of us.  I remember that ‘Big Bill’ asked: How would you discipline your son who is 6’3’’ and who weighs 230 pounds and is an All-State Football Tackle [which, Big Bill was]?  I recalled this because of a father’s response: ‘With great care!’  The laughter that ensued was infectious.

As we concluded, another gift came to us.  The parents asked us to come to their school.  What they envisioned was 10 students on a stage with parents in the audience.  We explored the idea.  We followed through.  The students talked about the challenges they faced, as juniors in high school, and as developing human beings.  The parents asked questions.  Again, the experience was powerful and challenging.  A gift to all.  Years later, I repeated this experience in another city with different students and parents (I was consulting with the leadership team of a high school and suggested that we offer this experience).  I would do it again if the way opened.

As I re-read and edited this post I closed my eyes and once again relived and savored the two experiences.  Perhaps other students and parents have had or will have this opportunity.  I hope so.

The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change. –Carl Rogers

I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship. –Louisa May Alcott

January, 1969.  What had emerged from within me was a ‘Big Vision’ of a ‘School-Within-A-School.’  The ‘Big Vision’ became ‘Reality.’  The ‘seed’ had been sown within me in early 1967, the seed was nurtured into life, some tap roots were put down and in the spring-fall of 1968 some sprouts began to emerge.  Now it was time to nurture the sprouts into strong, deep rooted plants.  In order to do this we needed a healthy garden; this garden was a ‘School-Within-A-School’ – my ‘Big Dream.’

Because I now had ‘leverage,’ the Principal felt that he could ‘act’ and support my ‘Big Vision’ – which he did.  I needed six teachers, I had found five in the school – for almost two years these extraordinary teachers had been supportive of me and my ‘new teaching methods’.  We needed to hire one teacher; after a bit of a search we found the person we needed to complete our ‘Teaching Team.’  My task was, among other duties, to be the administrator of our ‘School.’   We spent countless hours together emerging all we needed to emerge in order to ‘open our School’ in the Fall of 1969.

We invited 100 students to join us (the support of parents was crucial and amazing).  The students came from the three classes that I taught (I had them, you might recall, as 9th Graders and as 10th Graders).  We were given two years as a ‘pilot program.’  We graduated 100 and all went on to college or university.

Following are some of the key aspects of our ‘School’ – ones that made a difference (I still believe that all, if not most, of these would need to be present today); they are listed in no particular order.

1. We did not give ‘grades’ and we had no class rank. We provided written evaluations.  We contacted 200 colleges and universities and asked them the following: If you were to receive these written evaluations and scores from National Tests BUT NOT receive ‘grades’ or GPA or class ranking would you consider a student for admission?  199 said they would.  Ironically the only one to say ‘no’ was one of our state universities who insisted on grades, a GPA, and a class rank.

2. Each student was a member of a five person ‘learning team’ and two teams comprised a ‘conversation community.’ The charge for the ‘learning team’ was to help one another learn how to learn (remember this was not ‘new’ to the students; it was new to the faculty).  The charge for the ‘conversation community’ was for the ‘CC’ to meet once every two weeks (at minimum) for 90 minutes and engage in today what I would call ‘searching conversations.’  Two faculty members would facilitate the conversations and periodically we would invite ‘guests’ to join us for our conversations.

We engaged in helping all of the participants (think: students and faculty) develop or develop more fully their ‘critical thinking’ skills.  Emerging critical questions became crucial.  Here are a few of the topics: What does it mean to be an educated person in our democracy?  What does it mean to be a ‘good citizen’ in our democracy?  What does it mean to be a person of ‘virtue’?  What obligations do we have for one another (in our ‘School’)?  We also engaged Socrates’ Six Major Questions.  We also used music, poetry, drama, and movies to help stimulate our thinking and our conversations.

3. We designed a curriculum that included subject in-put (we had the following ‘subjects’: English, Math, Science, Fine Arts, History and Civics). Some of this was accomplished via a large room that held 100 students…a tiered room.  We also designed learning experiences whereby, for example, Art-Science-Math were engaged or where, History, English Lit, and Civics were engaged.  Our goal was to provide a cross-disciplined learning experience.  We loved this adventure as did our students.

4. Although our school day began and ended the same as the ‘regular school’ did once our day began our day was radically different regarding class times, passing times, access to other support systems in the school (like the school’s learning center).

5. Our smaller classrooms all had the three-sided tables that I had used during my second year of teaching. For our students this was the ‘norm’ the real learning had to come from the teachers who had never been in classrooms like this.

6. Field Trips were crucial. We visited museums, college classrooms, and various ‘institutes’ that were located within our community (the Humanities Institute was a big hit with our students).  When our students were in their senior year they were given the opportunity to ‘team’ with a college student (a junior or senior); a gift to both our students and the college juniors and seniors.  They experienced college classrooms before graduating and this, we believed, would give them an advantage.

7. There are other aspects of our ‘School’ but these will suffice for now. By the by, we had students go to Brown, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, and other ‘prestige’ schools.  Many went to small colleges (they liked ‘small’) and a number went to junior colleges.  A number also went to ‘technical colleges.’

AN ASIDE: For 50 years I have been encouraging high school teachers to ‘follow’ students for four years…to meet them as 9th graders and then to be with them as 10th, 11th, and 12th I am still amazed at the amount of resistance to this idea.  The other thing that continues to puzzle me is why the ‘best teachers’ teach the ‘brightest’ while new teachers (I was one of these) are assigned to teach the most ‘challenged’ students.

To be continued. .  .

Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning. –William Arthur Ward

 

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. –Benjamin Franklin

December, 1967.  In Mid-December, 1967 I sat with the Principal and shared my vision.  He listened. He asked questions.  After some time he said: ‘I want you to put some flesh and muscle, and a bit of fat, on these bones.  Let’s meet next week and talk some more.’

We met the following week and explored my vision some more.  He looked at me and said, ‘You know, the folks in the English Department will not be happy with you.’  This I already knew.  He continued, ‘I can buy you a year.’  We sat in silence for a few minutes.  He then added, ‘Next year our school will be visited and evaluated by a team from the group that evaluates school performance.  If you receive an excellent evaluation you will have what is called ‘leverage’ and perhaps we can then continue with your approach.  Make a list of what you need and I will make it happen.’  I did.  He did.

My Vision.  I would move with my five classes so I would have the same students in 1968 that I had in 1967.  I would have my own classroom.  I would replace the desks with three-sided tables.  I would design my own curriculum.  I would assign the students to their ‘pods of three’ [Each ‘Pod of three’ would have a student who had demonstrated an ability to help another learn plus a student who had struggled and a student who had ‘resisted learning.’  This actually worked out well for each ‘pod’ did have at least one student who had demonstrated an ability to help another learn.]  I also broadened the definition of ‘Cheating.’

I will tell you one story.  The experience transformed our classroom and impacted all of us in powerful and positive ways.  I had broadened the definition of ‘Cheating.’  Cheating = If you have the ability to help another and don’t do so, that is cheating!  This was one of a number of ‘Learning Guidelines’ that I had emerged and put on paper.  Each student had a copy and a copy was posted in our classroom (which I renamed: ‘Our Learning Center’).  In my excitement I neglected to surface some of the unintended consequences of my new definition of ‘Cheating.’

Students are always looking for ‘loopholes’ and a few of them, including ‘Little Bill’ found a big one in my definition of ‘Cheating.’  ‘Little Bill’ and his best friend, Tom and ‘Big Bill’ – a huge football player – were in a ‘Pod of three.’  Within two weeks the following occurred.  They were taking a test.  I was walking around the room.  I was at a point that was the farthest from the Two Bills/Tom pod.  I heard Tom ask ‘Little Bill’: ‘What’s the answer to number four?’  ‘Little Bill’ told him.  I called a time-out.  I asked ‘Little Bill’ why he had so openly provided Tom with the answer.  ‘Little Bill’ smiled the smile of the knowing and quickly replied: ‘I was just following the rule about cheating.’  Great laughter followed – the laughter that only a sophomore can provide (a sophomore is defined as ‘wise-fool’).

Soon the dynamic of providing answers was occurring in each of the five classrooms.  This is not what I had intended.  I was not sure what to do.  I was not willing, at that time, to change my definition.  Six weeks later, it was mid-November, the ‘miracle’ occurred.

They were taking a test.  Tom was asking ‘Little Bill’ the answers (they were not the only ones involved in this).  All of a sudden ‘Little Bill’ turned to Tom and said, I am not going to give you the answer.  Tom laughed and said, ‘You don’t know the answer!’  ‘Little Bill’ paused and smiled, ‘Of course I know the answer; I am not going to tell you.’  He paused.  ‘What I am going to do is to teach you so you can learn the answer.’  This had been my intended consequence.

Within days each room was alive with students teaching students.  The energy was electrifying, as was the laughter and the learning.  When the evaluation team came to visit the school in January, 1969 each team member visited my classroom (‘Our Learning Center’).  After four days the team met with all of the faculty and administration and offered us a preliminary report.  Our school would be certified for another four years.  They then named four teachers that they believed were exemplary teachers – teachers they believed demonstrated excellence in teaching and learning.  I was one of the four.

The next school day I went to the Principal and said, ‘I think I have what you called leverage.’  He laughed.  I then said, let me share with you my Big Vision.  I did.  He responded, ‘Let’s do it!’  And we did.  Next time, Gentle Reader, I will share with you my ‘Big Vision’ – the one that went from seed to flowering garden in seven months.

A good teacher must be able to put himself in the place of those who find learning hard. –Eliphas Levi

 

Progress seems less compelling when it appears that it may be progress into the abyss. –Robert Bella

I concluded PART II with: Next time I will fill in some of the ‘spaces’ in what I have offered us today and begin to explore more deeply ‘the Fruit-Seed Bearing Plants.’   This morning I will begin to fill in some of the ‘spaces.’  As I do so you might notice, Gentle Reader, that a number of ‘the Fruit-Seed Bearing Plants’ began to take root and grow.  From September, 1967 through June, 1971 each of the Plants I named became healthier and provided more and more fruit and seeds – both to the students and to me and eventually to six others who were entrusted with their growth and development.

FALL, 1967.  During teacher orientation the Head of the English Department took me aside and handed me two huge binders.  He informed me that my task was to complete 80% of the lesson plans contained in each – one binder for the 9th Grade and one for the 10th Grade.  I was not to deviate from the plans.

My first major gift was given me two months later.  The gift given by a 9th grader named Bill challenged me to radically change how I was teaching.  Here is the story: Each week the 9th Graders were to have a one hundred word spelling test; the test was to be administered on Friday and corrected in class.  On the previous Monday a pre-test was given.  It was supposed to help the students know which words to concentrate on as they prepared for the Friday test.

My last class for the day was a 9th grade class; as I recall there were 40+ students in this class.  During my first two months with them I had come to know two of them, Bill and his best friend, Tom.  Bill was short and very bright; an underachiever.  Tom was tall and I was told had a ‘border-line normal IQ.  It was Friday.  The students had taken and scored their spelling test.  The bell rang, class dismissed.

I was gathering my things together and noticed Bill and Tom hanging back.  Bill was saying, ‘Come on Tom, I will do the talking.’  Tom was not looking pleased.  Bill literally drug Tom to the front of the room.  Bill, who was 5’3’’ looked up at me (I am 6’1’’).  He had the proverbial fire in his eyes.  He said, ‘You are unfair!’  I can still see him looking at me, eyes ablaze.  Bill continued.

‘On Monday we took a pre-test.  I knew 98 words and Tom knew 10 words…’ Bill paused…’Today we took the spelling test. I got 96 words right and Tom got 50 words right.’  Bill’s eyes flashed.  ‘What grade will I get?’  I replied that he, Bill, would get an ‘A’.  ‘Right! And what grade will Tom get?’ I replied that a passing grade was 70%.  ‘Right!…AND that is unfair.  I lose two words and get an ‘A’ and Tom gains 40 words and gets an ‘F’.  That is unfair!’ 

Bill grabbed Tom by the arm and they walked out of the room.

Bill was correct and I was disturbed by his ‘truth.’ Being awake and aware is often disturbing.  I woke up and I was disturbed.  That night I began to change how I taught.  By Mid-December I had a vision of how I wanted to proceed.  I went to the Principal and presented my vision.

We will pick up with my vision and how it became ‘real’ next time; but now, an ASIDE.

Sometime in December (1967) I learned why Bill, a bright young man, was an underachiever and hence why he was in my class rather than in an Honors Class.  It was a Friday afternoon.  Tom had left to go to his locker.  Bill had stayed behind.  We chatted a bit and then I said to Bill. ‘Bill you are really smart and I know you know you are smart.  Do you know why you are under-achieving?  Bill was a thoughtful young man.  He looked at me and then replied.  ‘When Tom and I were in the third grade other kids would pick on Tom.  I decided to defend Tom.  I also decided that I would always be with him.  He is my friend!’ 

Bill looked at me, smiled, and left the room.  By the by, both graduated from high school.  Tom went on to a junior college and Bill went on to an Ivy League school (how’s that!?).  Well stay tuned and perhaps I will share how that became not only possible but a reality.

…a man gets an answer to a question in accordance with his fitness to understand and his own preparation. –Sufi Saying

 

There is a time for departure, even when there’s no certain place to go. –Tennessee Williams

Good morning Gentle Reader.  I concluded PART I with a focus on one aspect of Education is a Garden metaphor; the focus was upon one of the groups of Fruit-Seed Bearing Plants and I named six such plants.  This is what I noted:

THE GARDEN:
EDUCATION
 
THE FRUIT-SEED BEARING PLANTS:
TEACHER – Instructs
EDUCATOR – Calls Forth
MENTOR – Guides
ROLE-MODEL – Demonstrates (‘My life is my message’ – Gandhi)
STEWARD – Entrusted with the Care of the Other(s)
GARDENER – Helps prepare the soil, sows the seeds & cares for the seedlings

This morning I had planned to begin to briefly explore each of these Plants (As I noted in PART I, there are other Plants in the Garden.  Think: Student, Administrator, Support Staff, Parent, Guardian, etc. These Plants are also worth exploring).  However, as is my wont, as I put finger to key this morning, another pathway presented itself.  I decided to follow this pathway for my intuition told me that it is an important contextual path.  My ‘Professional Journey Path’ transformed ‘Education’ for me and, hence, for others.

I first walked into a classroom in 1967.  I had graduated from the university with my Liberal Arts Degree in hand and my major, English Literature, imbedded in my intellect, heart and soul.  I had known when I was a sophomore in high school that I want to be a ‘teacher.’  I recall that my ‘want’ was rooted more in a set of ‘negative role models’ more than in ‘positive role models.’  I remember thinking – perhaps even saying to friends – that ‘I would never teach as…..teaches.’  On the other hand, I was not sure how I would teach.

In 1967 I was entrusted with five classes – three freshmen classes and two sophomore classes.  I had 40 students in each class.  The students were the ‘bottom’ tier – a ‘catch-all group.’  Some of them were ‘under-achievers,’ some were borderline ‘average,’ some were considered to be ‘border-line normal’ when it came to their mental capacities; most were seen as potential ‘drop-outs.’

For the first two months I acted like a ‘teacher.’  Then the incident occurred which ‘woke me up’ and which challenged me to depart the familiar and seek out a radically different way of teaching.  One of the gifts I had was provided by Tennessee Williams.  As I was struggling with what not to do and with what to do I read the Williams’ quote above.  I wrote it down and T.W. has traveled with me these past 51 years.

As I struggled through my first year of being a ‘teacher’ I spent time thinking about my role.  I was a ‘teacher’ and yet I was called to be so much more.  What this ‘so much more was’ was unclear.  Early on in the second semester I had begun to emerge a ‘vision.’  I went to the Principal.  I shared my vision.  We met several times.  He ‘bought me a year.’  And I began to put flesh and muscle on the skeleton of my vision.

With the help and support of others – and amidst the consternation and criticism of others – I developed a new territory that was the home of a new garden.  As it turned out, the path I was on the second year led me to another path which led to new territory and an expansion of what I came to believe that the Garden of Education contained.

In my third year of ‘teaching’ we (there was now a team of seven of us) introduced the school community to another new territory – the ‘School within a School.’  For the first two years of this journey, I believed that ‘this was an answer.’  Within four years I had departed that territory (not by choice) and had set off in search of another new territory.  Ever since then my life has been a search and a seeking.  There have been some ‘stops’ along the path but the journey has become my destination. 

Next time I will fill in some of the ‘spaces’ in what I have offered us today and begin to explore more deeply ‘the Fruit-Seed Bearing Plants.’

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. –John Dewey