…..But George Was Curious.

When I heard those words as a child, I knew that the Man in the Yellow Hat was going to have to rescue Curious George in just a few pages. The formula was clear: George got curious, George got in danger, George got rescued…usually by the Man in the Yellow Hat.  Even now, George’s antics lead me to intense questioning, like “why did the Man in the Yellow Hat think it was a good idea to leave George alone,” and “Wait–why did the Man take George from his happy existence in his native habitat to live in an urban environment?”

I didn’t, however, learn that curiosity was bad.  That is a major difference between me and almost all of my 11th and 12th grade students. In a recent class discussion, I used the word “curiosity,” and was struck by how many students seemed to assume that word had negative connotations.  I thought–hoped–that was a fluke—so I did what any English teacher would do: assign a writing prompt dealing with curiosity. I gave the students four quotes about curiosity, quotes by Walt Disney, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt–people who knew a bit about the topic. The students were to choose one quote and write about what they believed it meant and their reaction to the ideas in the quote. (That’s the short explanation of the assignment, by the way.)

I read almost 40 papers discussing those quotes. The students’ reactions were nearly unanimous. Being curious was dangerous. People who were curious were at great risk of getting hurt, getting shunned, getting punished. Several of the teen mothers and many of my students who bear a great deal of responsibility for younger siblings were graphic in their descriptions of how important it is to teach kids to stay out of things, not make messes, not bug people with questions. A few conceded that being curious could be helpful, but not generally.

These are kids who want to succeed at college, kids with dreams of being lawyers and engineers, doctors and veterinarians. These are kids whose home lives offer little support for those dreams–and with little understanding of the difference between a dream and a goal. Their parents care, but have themselves come from a culture that penalizes curiosity.  They limit themselves to what they are told to learn, told to think about–in the manner and context that they are told to, of course.

Current educational rhetoric blames teachers for all the ills of student achievements–and I will admit with no reservations that improvements in teaching are possible and needed–but when students have been taught even before they reach their first formal classroom that being curious is bad, student’s are only motivated to do the basic amount required for whatever grade they (or their parents or coach) deem acceptable. Students who are curious are a prime component in creating “excellent” schools and “effective” teachers.

I talked about Curious George with some of the students. A few remembered those stories–mainly from the short cartoons that sometimes show on PBS. Without exception, they agreed George was very bad and needed beat so he’d learn.

….and with that, I lost the curiosity that lead me to discussing the topic with them. There was nothing left to say.

Eating Knowledge

The story By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet shows a civilization that has been decimated by “eating knowledge too fast,” as John the Son of a Priest says as he explores the ruins of modern day New York City. John observes that there must be a balance between wisdom and knowledge or a civilization isn’t safe.

I could rant and point fingers about the educational reformers, creating a culture of accountability while neither employing or espousing wisdom. And some other day, I might. But this week at my school, the value of having teachers with wisdom as well as knowledge was made clear.

A young, healthy teacher died suddenly. One day, he was lecturing, badgering kids to complete assignments, interviewing to become principal, even. The next, we were explaining to his students that he died that morning as he was getting ready for school.

Testing can be mandated; work hours can be mandated. Even the content of the classes and the knowledge the teachers possess and impart can be mandated. And knowledge is important–no argument about that.

But students are not widgets or cogs in the education machine. Students are not merely “stakeholders” in the process, either. They are people, with all the weaknesses, issues, emotions, and baggage that our reality shows parade across America’s television screens daily. We can make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient and effective,  but there’s a tipping point where the educational system will become so weighted towards “knowledge” than the human element will be gone–the ability to bring school to a standstill to hold sobbing students, when needed even–and there will be no wisdom left to find in our classrooms. That’s what was most clearly illustrated this week as my school dealt with that teacher’s sudden death.

There is little wisdom in our statehouses and our leaders; our churches and holy places are too often focused on big screen projectors and growing their market share. If we do not want John the Son of a Priest’s tale to be prophetic, schools may be our last hope for finding the balance between knowledge and wisdom.

The Speech Pete and I Gave to the School Board Tonight

2020 Update: We fought the good fight and still believe all the things in this speech, but we not only lost that battle–we lost the war. Small schools have been gone from Lima for about seven years, and most of the teachers we taught with have moved on. MI was a brief, shining moment…

2011 Note: Well, we wrote it together. Pete gave it, since I still have bronchitis badly enough that I’m jealous of Kermit the Frog’s melodious tones. We are responding to the proposal to restructure the city schools; the specific issue we mention is changing the high school bell schedule so all three schools housed in it operate on the same schedule (The three “small schools” were created about eight years ago by dividing out of the “old” Lima Senior.)

Address to School Board, January 13, 2011

Lima City Schools have some challenges ahead–no doubt about that. A gale of issues is swirling, creating an epic storm we have to ride through. We acknowledge that there are many different aspects and levels of the current situation that will demand action, but we’re very troubled by specifics in the current proposal.

To people who don’t understand the culture of the small school concept, requiring the high school to return to one bell schedule seems like no big deal. The reason given for returning to one bell schedule is so teachers and students can cross schools more easily. When students and teachers cross schools, the culture and purpose of small schools is compromised. We do
not support any action that threatens to stealthy chip at the integrity and fidelity of small schools. Anytime a teacher has to divide attention between multiple schools, anytime a student straddles schools, the culture of the schools is breached and school climate takes a giant step back to the
paradigm we said didn’t work eight years ago. As long as the number of students and teachers crossing over is very low, we compensate–but we need every teacher within a small school to buy into the approach and beliefs in the vision of that school; we need every student to be invested not only in their education, but in the belief that they matter personally to their teachers and principal.

In the School of Multiple Intelligences, we have a set of belief statements that defines our culture. It was generated over many meetings, proposed and word-smithed repeatedly, until we reached consensus. One of those statements reads: “We believe in asking hard questions, having difficult conversations, and seeking truth and wisdom throughout the process.” We
have spent years–eight years, to be exact–developing a school where teachers, students, and parents have a voice. We don’t always succeed in asking the hard questions–or the right questions–but we’re committed to trying. We have these common values, and we work hard to create a learning atmosphere where the teachers and the students matter–they are not just a number, their voice is heard. One hard question we are asking now is, why were the schools not given a part in the solution-finding process, or why only one of the high schools was.

We’ve heard for years about teacher ownership and the importance of teacher opinions and voice. The process of creating this proposal does not follow what we have understood we should expect as professionals, even professionals who believe in positive deviance as a mechanism of change.Yes, there are problems and economic realities we must face, but we
should face them as one. The district needs creative thinking to deal with the issues, and a united front to present to the public to explain why those are the best courses of action. But top down dictates such as deciding the high school must be on all one bell schedule is neither creatively dealing with the deeper problems, or bringing people together to build support for the solution. We have faith that if specific concerns were brought to the high school, and teacher leadership teams invited to sit down and look for solutions, there would be innovative answers. It takes time to do it that way, but MI has proven repeatedly that the results are worth it.

We had over seventeen years experience in the old Lima Senior. We did some good things there, and we have a lot to be proud of from the old days. But as we see it, there was a part of that paradigm that people don’t admit to: for the best and brightest, we had excellent options, almost an Advanced Academy. Kids who weren’t part of that were often floundering, on their
own, a random face in the crowd. As awful as it is to admit, there was a threshold of acceptable loss. We couldn’t save them all. Small schools changed that. Many of our teachers know every kid in our school, and no kid slips through invisibly. If the school board approves the requirement that we operate on one bell schedule with the intention that teachers and students will cross schools, we may quickly pass the tipping point where small schools only exists on paper, then we’ve rendered students into nameless faces in the crowd.

Albert Einstein had a sign in his office that said “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” We could barrage you with data to help explain why we believe small schools is a success–and many of those numbers are indicative of real gains in our ability to assess what kids know and how to teach better. We could show you data about the number of in-services we’ve attended, and the number of initiatives we’ve instituted with fidelity. But at the end of the year, those numbers may not matter nearly as much as this: there are many graduates of MI who are in college that we believe wouldn’t have been there if they
had just been a face in the crowd–if they hadn’t had the entire staff of our school cheering them on, yelling at them, and believing that they personally mattered.

Making the public aware of the strengths and assets in the Lima Public schools is a challenge, one that intensifies every time a new state report card is published. But playing a shell game by restructuring and renaming doesn’t address the core problems. If major restructuring will address those issues and revitalize our schools–by all means, it is essential. But if re-branding is the major effect, all we’ve done is confuse the community–which hurts our credibility. That undercuts all the truly wonderful aspects–and people–in this district. We need to keep our schools current and marketable in a way that looks towards the future, not merely reacting to
the present. Thank you for giving us a chance to share our concerns.

Pete Badertscher and Jeannine Jordan-Squire

Down the Mississppi

Some days, I hate to admit to being a liberal. I want to put on a “I Love Ann Coulter” T shirt and blend into the crowd. Well…not really. Every flavor of crazy is still crazy. But today was one of those days when the crazies made us thoughtful liberals look as if we should sit in a corner with a dunce cap duct taped on our heads.

Today’s walk of shame? The scholars who are editing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so it doesn’t offend modern audiences. I teach high school English at an urban school. My classes are generally over 50% African-American, and usually about 70% free lunch. I teach students reading well below grade level as well as students who will succeed at college.  The issues these professors are attempting to address are ones I wrestle with on a regular basis–and I think they need Steve and Blue to sit them in the Thinking Chair until they really grasp the issues and possible solutions.

One prof laments Huck Finn falling from the grade school curriculum. I wonder how extensively he’s looked at typical grade school reading lists. Twain’s masterpiece, with long, complex sentences, flowery language, and dialogue written in dialect, is well above what is considered grade school reading level now. In fact,  the books I see even middle school students reading are much shorter, and written at a much lower reading level.

That’s without even issues like references to Huck smoking, Pap’s drinking, Huck’s alliance with con artists, and Huck’s criticism of the Widow’s religion. Grade school?  Those issues alone make the content controversial for some teens. And I’m ignoring the way test prep has overtaken elementary curriculum, too–how many novels do these professors believe elementary students have time to read? I suspect their number would be way too high.

More importantly, though, is the “inappropriate” racially charged language. I’ve used the book Huck Finn in classes about 6 different years, if I remember correctly. Most recently, about four years ago. I have it as an optional book for projects and outside reading, too. I’ve had poor kids and middle-class kids read it, black, white, mixed…and I doubt I use the book in class again.

The language isn’t the problem. It’s an easy scapegoat, and easy (although artistically questionable) to fix. There are four bigger problems. First, American culture has changed so dramatically that there is little in the book that kids who are essentially non-readers (or easily bored) can relate to. Much of the reading that is done now is “relevant” in some way–contemporary, modern, accessible. The pacing of Huck’s journey, the detailed, meandering storytelling style–getting kids into that is difficult, especially when most of them have little or no experience in nature. A surprising percentage of my students don’t swim–rafting does not catch their imagination.

Second, related to #1, most students don’t have a romantic image of running away into nature, fending for themselves on the river. There’s always concern about why social services don’t step in, who should be in charge of making sure Huck is ok–or why he’s not in juvy as a delinquent. And the assumption that Jim and Huck are sexually involved, that Jim is possibly taking advantage of Huck (rarely, vise versa)–that’s come up every time I’ve taught it.

Third, the overdrawn characters–like the Duke, and the feuding family–make no sense to the students. It’s stupid, and wastes their time. Even when explaining that the journey is the story, and how mythic journeys progress (citing works they tend to  know like National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, and others), the cultural context of the characters is lost on them, and they read the SparkNotes and figure they’ve got the idea, so it’s all good.

Fourth–and this is a big point–even if every racial epithet is removed, racism is evident in the book. Take a deep breath before yelling “No” at me–I’m not claiming Twain was racist. For students who do read the book, especially students of color, discussion of Jim’s status, of Jim’s superstitions, of the elaborate ruse Tom Sawyer uses to “free” the already freed Jim–those have to be discussed. Tom Sawyer treats Jim badly, and does so entirely because he saw Jim as just a slave. Discussing the end of the book involves discussing that, and it can lead to fascinating discussion. The Widow Douglas does the moral, modern thing, flaunting convention and freeing Jim. Huck cares about Jim. It’s possible to make the case that the book is not ultimately racist, but the conversations about the issue must occur to treat the book and the characters with intellectual honesty.

And that leads me back to the N word. Sigh. No, I don’t enjoy dealing with that type of language, and I don’t use it or understand the attitudes behind racial slurs. (Some people would suggest that’s because if I’m going to insult someone, I go much more personal; doing it based on something as obvious as race is just wrong) I saw an African-American lit book a few years ago that changed “colored” and “Negro” to “African-American,” even in speeches by Martin Luther King Jr and writings by W.E.B DuBois and Malcolm X.  When we were reading King’s I’ve Been to The Mountaintop speech a couple years ago, I mystified one class by stopping the reading part way through and sending students through my bookshelves to find another version of the letter–King’s references to race had all been changed to read African-American.

Here’s a fact: African-Americans know they are not Caucasian-Americans. It’s not a secret. We can talk about it. We should talk about it, so we can see if and when it matters. The inability to discuss the real issues of race mean we can’t discuss the real issues plaguing America.

Part of discussing race means dealing with language. It means having the hard conversation about why Twain used those words, and if using them makes him racist, no question. And it means listening and considering when some students automatically say yes, Twain had to be racist.

Then…we discuss whether Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Tupac, Kanye, Spike Lee, and a list of others are racists. What’s the difference between those people–and even white performers like Eminem–using language that would get me fired? And we consider what Bill Cosby and Obama and Oprah say about race, and why students yell words down the hall that their grandparents and greatgrandparents found demeaning and offensive.

I use Malcolm X in my classroom, and Martin Luther King, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorriane Hansberry. I sometimes even use Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline, a more racially charged book than any Twain ever wrote.  I’ve only had a couple students through my entire career who did not read a piece because they found it offensive–and I gave alternate assignments without any problem. But most of the time, the hard conversations and the difficult prep work required to have students read works like that have paid off in fascinating discussions and thoughtful essays.

The professors who think they can revive Twain by wiping some bleach over his words may need to climb down from their Ivory-white Tower for a semester and co-teach with me. It would be fun–for once, I wouldn’t be the most clueless liberal in my school!

Stone Soup

Years ago, when I was a much younger teacher, I had a conversation with my Grandma Flo that I still mull over sometimes as I do lesson plans. Grandma knew I was an English teacher, but she was curious exactly what I did. She assumed meant I taught grammar and punctuation, “things that would help kids get a good job,” as she put it.

Well, no, that isn’t emphasized in high school English, I confessed. We did lots of essay writing, but not sentence diagramming and activities like she was asking about. We didn’t even have a grammar or punctuation textbook. She was pretty incredulous at that, and couldn’t imagine what I did with my students.

“We read a lot,” I explained. “And we talk and write about the reading.” That was the simple version, but basically covered everything we did in the 80’s in English classes.

She nodded her head, agreeing that reading is important, yes. “There are lots of good stories out there. Do your students read about Corrie Ten Boom?” She was on a Corrie Ten Boom kick then. I shook my head no. “Well, there’s lots of other good stories. Do you read any of those stories by Dale Evans that you liked?” Grandma remembered when I was in elementary school and read the books by Roy Rogers’ wife that were laying on Grandma’s end table.

Again, I shook my head no. Grandma looked at me, brow furrowed. The stare went on for a long time….possibly hours, the way I remember it. She finally said something:  “Now Jeannine, you aren’t going to tell me you waste your student’s time with made up stories, are you?”

We’d been reading Hemingway. I was starting a Chekhov story the next week. I had to admit to it.

“Well, that’s just wrong. There are so many true stories out there, so many people those kids could be learning about and inspired by. You just need to look at what you do and ask yourself why you’re wasting their time with lies and made up stuff.”

I tried to counter her position: “Grandma, Jesus told stories. That’s what parables are.”

“He surely did tell stories–and they were teaching a lesson to uplift us. And you don’t know that they weren’t about real people, do you? He just didn’t use names because he wasn’t going to air somebody else’s dirty laundry in front of everybody and their neighbor.”

I could have kept trying. I can explain all sorts of literary theory about the power and universality of fiction. I can explain Bruno Bettelheim’s and Joseph Campbell’s and Jung’s defense of the need and purpose for fiction. I could have quoted C.S. Lewis and Susan Sontag.

But it would have been sound and fury; I would have been protesting too much. I knew the look on Grandma’s face. I wasn’t changing her mind on this.

I’ve told that story a couple times to other English teachers, and we chuckle and shake our heads. Of course we read “made up” stories–and find great Truth and meaning in them.  Using my Grandma story as a quirky icebreaker, though,  ignores the bigger issue, and this is an issue that plagues education reform today, but it’s a difficult, messy question: what is the purpose of education?  Why do we do what we do?

Grandma’s mission statement was crystal clear: formal education is to help people get good jobs. With that as the goal, an emphasis on fiction really doesn’t make sense.  When education reformers emphasize the need to educate a work force that can compete globally, they are rallying behind Grandma—21st century jargon as a value-added fun piece.

Or do we need to create citizens who are capable of governing a democracy wisely? Or should the goal of education be to form “educated” people in the classical sense–people who know the classics, who are well-versed in the humanities? Or to provide an underclass that will consume and keep the free market growing?

At the early elementary level, all the purposes are served by similar methods. But by middle school, it’s clear that we’re trying to do a bit of column A, a smattering of column B–it’s the stone soup approach to education. Everybody brings what they have to the pot and throws it in, hoping that it all fits together in a tasty broth.

But if Grandma were sitting down with reformers and politicians who are cooking the educational broth–I have no doubt that she’d look at them with the same furrowed brow, asking hard questions about what we are doing and why. I’d have wanted a front row seat for that!

Playing Poker in Lima

First: I am going to NOT write about school this summer….as much as possible. Although this is based on Lima student mentality, I’m even limiting how often I blog about that. I’m tired of school, of teaching, of education sucking my soul and asking that I tithe my creativity and intellect at a proportion not commiserate with my job description.

HOWEVER,….gotta write this one. The elephant in our school is the Lima Mentality, a special blend of learned helplessness, entitlement, resignation, and eensy-teensy locus of control. It’s not just the kids–it permeates the city. We’re limited by “our population” and “our situation;” we don’t name the elephant, of course–confronting the issues of underclass, acceptable loss, and racism head on. We’re in an elegant do-si-do of enabling and whining, with a soupcon of schadenfreude thrown in for the barely middle class among us.

I’ve been in multiple conversations over the last few months about this problem, with a variety of people who all deal with it (and fall victim to it) in various contexts. I could analyze and sympathize and sermonize, but I am beginning to belief that my generally warm fuzzy, empathetic encouragement is not the best way to deal with the Lima Beast, even when it shows up in myself (which I will cop to…reluctantly).

Instead of helping with problem-solving, encouraging baby-steps, holding their hands through trials and risk-taking (and some of those “risks” are amazingly small and normal, by middle-class standards), here’s what I think I’m going to adopt as my new attitude:

“Yes, you didn’t get dealt a fair hand in life. If you’re going to whine, make excuses, and be a victim, leave the table. Otherwise, play your cards as smart as you can, work harder than everyone else at the table to learn the game–and maybe the next round you won’t lose your stake. If you’re not willing to play harder and smarter than the people who were born with aces up their sleeve, don’t pretend you’re playing the game.”

There are valid reasons and situations that add a great deal of strife and complication to my students’ lives. No argument. But reasons for failure shouldn’t be excuses, they should be incentives for success. And it bugs me more than I can express that I can see that phrase on a t-shirt, turned into a damn motto for happy people to chant as the cycle of enabling and failing continues.

A, B, C, D: The Paradox I Live

I don’t believe in grades. That’s a blanket statement, and I do mean it. And yes, I did just submit names of students who will not graduate based on not passing my class, and I will be grading papers tomorrow to determine who gets an A, who gets a B and who gets to sit in my class again.

I don’t believe grades say anything significant or valid about a student’s accomplishment–except, of course, how well the student “plays school.” Kids who do all their work will get higher grades than ones who miss assignments. That’s simple math. And if a teacher factors in “participation points,” offers extra credit, or includes some other wild card, grades reward those who “play school” well even better. A student who has turned in but failed every assignment can, with those types of wild cards, pass a class. A student who gets all A’s and B’s on major projects or tests, but doesn’t do the daily stuff….it’s anyone’s guess how the grade will be tallied, and depends more on the teacher’s system than the student’s knowledge and skills.

It is possible that other content areas are easier to quantify; English is more subjective than most English teachers will admit. But consider this: there is no correlation in my school between the ACT, the Ohio Graduation Test, or the Watson-Glaser critical thinking test we’ve been giving and a student’s grade point average. While I understand the correlation wouldn’t be exact because of the purpose and formats of those tests, no correlation? That suggests something is flawed somewhere. As low as our average ACT score is (and it’s below the national average by enough to matter), over 25% of our students are on the Honor Roll.

Furthermore….even if I come up with a system of grading that gives good feedback on what a student has mastered, and what the student needs to work on–which would be a very valid type of assessment, I think–there’s another issue looming under us: what is the yardstick I’m using to measure with? Should students be assessed relatively, either against their own progress or against their peers in the class? Or is there an absolute standard that we should have as our guide?

For anyone who doesn’t deal with grading (lucky people), that’s the core issue behind “grade inflation.” Teachers don’t walk in, see poor, minority students and think, “wow, I’m going to right generations of oppression and societal marginalization by giving these students better grades than they deserve.” We grade paper after paper, and see which ones are better, which are weak, and before too long, our sense of “good” is skewed. Especially because most of us haven’t seen a wide cross-section of papers to gauge from before we get a pile of our own and a nifty red pen.

Until I went to an AP workshop with teachers from affluent districts–places where a noticeable percentage go to Ivy League colleges and most state schools are a last resort–and we spent a large amount of our time working with the very specific requirements of an AP essay, I had no clue what people in other types of schools thought an A or B paper was. My A papers would have barely gotten C’s from those schools. And I can list plenty of reasons my students shouldn’t be graded like that….which means I’m using relative grading, and there is not an absolute. Also, the underlying assumption there is that my students can’t compete with affluent kids–welcome to the perpetration of the underclass.

I watched a few episodes of “Dancing With the Stars” this season, and it was a petri dish of assessment. At the beginning, the stars get comments based on relative standards–Kate Gosselin and Nicey Nash (the non-dancer and the one with “jiggly parts”) heard about how they improved and what they needed to work on; but quickly, the star with potential–this season, Evan the Figure Skater and Nicole somebody–they got comments based on professional, experienced dancers, comments designed to push them. The judges were often boo’d by the audience, whose reaction was based on their emotional reaction instead of absolute standards. The scores, though–everyone got graded on the absolute standards. Kate Gosselin’s scores tanked; hard as she tried, she’s not a dancer, at least at this level. Even with the “curve’–the audience call in votes–the judges retain the power at the end. Their grades matter; their understanding of the absolute standard of assessment matters.

So… as I finish grading this week, I know I’m playing a game—but teachers become teachers because we “play school” well. The system needs overhauled, I know. Next time I’m ready to tilt at windmills, that’s on my list.

Leadership

I’m thinking about collaborative learning, and, because of an odd point of synchronicity–leadership. First of all, there’s a video on YouTube that is a focal point of my musing. Alex Hughes, an 11th grader from Greensboro, North Carolina, made it for a Dept of Education contest. He is obviously a student with drive, talent, and resources–all important ingredients for success. Maybe those are not the only ingredients needed for success, but kids who have those can accomplish amazing things. Add some friends to support the effort, and–violá! An award-winning video.

It’s clear that Alex Hughes understands 21st century skills. He’s used technology to engage an audience for a specific purpose in an authentic situation. He’s worked collaboratively with his peers, judging by the list of friends who helped him and who appear in the video. He apparently takes ownership of his learning and shown leadership.

A couple days after I watched this video, I attended the University of Toledo’s graduation. It was an impressive scene, with over 1000 graduates. The usual graduation hyperbole was flying with lightning speed, as was appropriate for the occassion. The keynote speaker was Dr. David Eaglesham, a vice president of First Solar, an international company on the cutting edge of green technologies. As he was exhorting the grads to go out in the world and do great things, he said something along the lines of “In the coming years, you need to all be leaders.” My ears perked up and the wheels started whirring. All 1000 plus grads needed to be leaders? Really? So….who’s going to follow? Doesn’t being a leader imply that someone is there, shoring up the rear?

Which lead me back to Alex Hughes, the embryonic Spielberg. As I consider all the various techniques for using collboration in the classroom, there’s one element that can’t be turned into a nifty protocol or check off box on a rubric: for a group to function well, it needs a leader. That doesn’t imply that we need mini-Mussilinis making all the railroads run on time, either. Alex Hughes evidently is a leader. He knows how to organize, he knows how to get people to buy-in and be productive. While leaders obviously can refine their skills, and people can learn skills to lead, many people are not suited to be leaders.

And that’s okay. Really. For a leader to be effective, people who believe in the vision and will take responsibility for helping make it come true are crucial. Ask Alex Hughes–or President Obama, whose friend Rahm Emanuel is working as Chief of Staff to make Obama’s White House effective. Or any Academy Award-winning actor, who was making the writer’s and director’s and producer’s visions come to life, following someone else’s vision to produce a film.

We need to teach students to be responsible, to be curious, to solve problems, and all those other 21st century skills that are becoming ubiquitous buzzwords–but maybe instead of pretending we can teach them to all be leaders, we need to help them learn how to carefully choose who they follow and which visions they should support. I’m still thinking this through, but I’m considering how to use collaboration in the classroom to develop not just leaders, but examplary, creative, effective followers who can challenge their teams and their leaders to achieve more than they imagined possible. That doesn’t sound as….deingrating, I guess…as it did before I thought about Alex Hughes

Letter I just sent to the Powers That Be

Note: This is very dated and specific to a situation that is long ago, but I love how deeply I felt all this at the time.

I know how deeply you care about our kids’ education, and that when you are making decisions and considering hard issues, the impact on the students is in the forefront of your mind. I don’t question that in the least, so I’ve been biting my tongue and silencing my email for a of couple years now, trusting that my personal reservations about campus wear were based on my inability to see the big picture. After two years of campus wear at the high school, I am concerned that we may have all lost sight of the cosmic picture frame.

Here’s what has prompted my finally writing to you: I have heard from several teachers—including people not in my school—as well as two students about your reaction when you walked into the music room during a senior project presentation. Exactly what the student was doing as the project is not part of the grapevine retelling, nor is how well the task was accomplished. Instead of the focus being on the student’s project, the story flying around recounts how appalled you were by the dress code violations.

Although I’m not working on senior projects this year, I am a firm supporter of them, and want the MI students to value them, be invested in them, and yes, even be nervous and concerned about how well they are completing them. We make the task demanding for a reason: so the students have truly accomplished something noteworthy if and when they pass. I’m troubled that the topic of discussion at lunch tables and hallways is not the senior project, but how people in an ancillary position relating to the project were dressed.

This incident crystallizes one of the key issues relating to the campus wear policy: the balance between focusing on “rigor, relevance and relationships,” the three R’s we have been told would revolutionize our school, and focusing on compliance. As you just demonstrated, I’m sure with the best intentions, that balance is difficult. If we as teachers are to seek rigor and relationship, to get the student’s trust as their advocate, we undercut it in many students’ minds if the first words they hear in class relate to their clothing. Regardless how gently we phrase it, in many students’ worldview that makes us enforcers first. That is not indicative of the educational atmosphere I loved teaching in when we went to the small school concept, and it’s at least one component changing the climate in our school for the worse.

There is an issue tying in with that I think underlies many of the problems with enforcing the dress code: the students have not bought in. They do not really understand why it exists, or believe that campus wear will improve anything. As Chasity Boedicker said in her speech last year when she spoke to the dress code committee, the dress code feels like punishment for low test scores and being from a poor school. “How high do our grades have to be to make this go away,” I’ve been asked. We can explain and justify all we want, but high school students aren’t stupid; they know that Shawnee, Bath, and Elida don’t have campus wear and do better on the tests—as well as having parents who will get involved if they question a policy. When I go to church, or the store, or even to family events, I hear griping not about enforcement of the policy, but the policy itself. And believe me, I’m not the one raising the topic. I’m incredibly tired of thinking about it!

The campus wear policy has done one thing well: it has polarized the adults involved in enforcing it. Some people notice clothing quickly; some people couldn’t tell you what their spouse wore at their wedding! Some are very color sensitive; some didn’t know that baby blue, sky blue and light turquoise were different colors. Some people do not mind beginning class by calling out students for untucked shirts; other people are have multiple papers, late work, make up assignments and other tasks occupying their thoughts. Until campus wear, we could embrace and applaud our quirks and differences, knowing that we are all committed to helping our students perform at the highest level possible. Now, the differences too often divide us into the people who are following the rules to the letter and the people who aren’t—all still with the best of intentions, but the difference still exists.

Out of respect for Jeff last year, and for Sue this year, I’ve kept my concerns quiet. But as I sat in a sermon during Holy Week, I felt indicted by the story of Jesus overturning the tables at the temple. If I don’t tell you what I am concerned about, I am giving you and my students less than my best effort. Our students’ needs are so overwhelming in so many ways. I have to keep asking myself if the time we spend on this issue is key to helping our students learn to navigate the 21st century, or if we are working hard to win a battle, regardless of the effect on the war? The more I think about that, the less I like my answer. Since you were in the music room, maybe you have some frame of reference for understanding how easily we can lose sight of the mission at hand as we deal with the students on an hour by hour, day by day basis.

I didn’t mean to write so much, but there are even more points I could make. However, thank you for your time and consideration–and I do hope you have a good rest of the day!