A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Building Learning Communities 2018 conference in Boston, founded by Alan November and emphasizing the importance of good teaching. Videographer, Bob Greenberg captured us presenters for his Brainwaves Video Anthology. In this first video, he asked me to talk about the teacher who made a difference in my life:
The “School Reform” movement is characterized by a top-down, disruptive administrative process bent on privatizing public education. It includes charter schools (start-up schools using public funds with little or no financial oversight thus becoming ripe for corruption and other forms of failure) and voucher programs (where public funding is siphoned off so that students can go to private schools). It has had a great deal of criticism from Diane Ravitch, who aggregates reports of successes and failures in support of public education, a necessary institution for our democracy.
Last week I attended a conference sponsored by November Learning (BLC2018) which is focused on children and how to help them learn effectively. Jonathan P. Raymond was one of the speakers. His new book Wildflowers: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America got my attention. As an author, I don’t know much about school administration. Raymond followed Rudy Crew as the superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) in August of 2009 to December of 2013 with 46,000 students of which 75% had family incomes below the federal poverty line and spoke more than forty different languages. It was also the period where the State of California was in its sixth straight year of budget cuts to school districts.
Raymond moved to Sacramento with his family and entered his three children in the public schools. Then he spent the first hundred days visiting every school in his district, sometimes as many as three a day. He came armed with a vision of educating the Whole Child— “head, heart, and hands”—a philosophy that looks at children as individuals and addresses issues of readiness to learn (like good nutrition), and reaches out to the parents and community as partners in this vision. He identified the six worst schools and decided to make them a priority. He hired insiders, with proven value, to become part of his team. He is anti-standardized testing and is profoundly influenced by John Dewey and the contemporary formidable educator Linda Darling-Hammond. All of these things made me sympathetic to his journey.
There was one aspect of Jonathan P. Raymond’s preparation for this job, however, that gave me pause. Raymond briefly summed up his early career as a lawyer and politician who became a Broad Fellow at the Broad Academy for ten months in preparation for an administrative job in education. Diane Ravitch offers this post on some of what the Broad Academy has done and what it stands for. His belief in educating the Whole Child and his experience of the Waldorf school progressive education overrides some of what he learned from Broad. Here’s what Raymond says about “school reform” and teachers:
“It’s no secret that some people in the so-called “school reform” movement are at war with teachers’ unions, and whether they intend it or not, are perceived as being at war with teachers themselves. What I learned in Sacramento and keep learning as I move forward personally and professionally, is that no effort to transform a school or a district can succeed without recognizing the dignity and worth of teachers [italics, his] through appropriate compensation, opportunities for professional development and positive collaborative working conditions.”
He also said:
“The Broad Academy did me no favors with it came to union relations. ‘People who come from outside education are more used to working in performance culture versus entitlement culture,’ Broad’s director told The Sacramento Bee when my appointment was first announced. Disparaging hard-working educators by calling them ‘entitled’ is not how I would have set the table. “
His last chapter, “Solutions: Five Keys to Reimagine Schools,” puts leadership in the center with input from students, teachers, and community resulting in compromise in which all factions have buy-in. He is at odds with the entrenched top-down organization that is a tradition in most districts.
Jonathan P. Raymond’s title Wildflowers is a metaphor for the potential of all children to find a way to bloom when they encounter the proper nurturing environment for the special idiosyncratic germ within them. This is a passionate, thoughtful book that can bring vision and hope to our public schools.
I don’t write political opinions. I try to stick to subjects on which I’m well informed. I watch news and opinion shows from people who have done their homework. And I live in a political bubble in the Northeast, where I find agreement with my horror at the behavior of the current occupant of the White House from strangers on the line for movie tickets. We all marvel at the blindness of his “base” and the spinelessness of the Republican members of congress. What can I say that will shed some new light on this phenomenon?
As a scientist, I like to simplify a situation. Instead of trying to figure out why Trump’s base is so steadfast and loyal to someone who is clearly mendacious, manipulative and just plain mean, let’s look at the one-on-one relationship between an abusive spouse and his target.
The behavior of the abuser is well documented. Check out the 21 Warning Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship. How many of these behaviors does the president exhibit towards the press, his wives, our allies? What do all the abused have in common so that they enable this behavior to continue?
Abusers and bullies are often quite charming when they want to be. That’s why unsuspecting potential victims fall in love. They are seduced by courtship behavior, which validates them and gives voice to their own frustrations and inadequacies. It makes them feel special. Trump throws them red meat and keeps up the courtship in his campaign-style rallies. This emotional connection stands up to all sorts of transgressions. A dairy farmer in Nevada, who sells milk to a local cheese manufacturer who sells to European clients, sees bankruptcy on the horizon as her buyer’s market is shutting down because of tariffs. The empty promise of a wall goes unfulfilled. Children are torn from their parents. Yet they stick with him. It’s hard to admit that you’ve been blind-sided (gas-lit) by love.
Abusive relationships have a way of wearing down the abused so they can’t or won’t see a way out. As the abuse gets incrementally worse and more obvious day by day, the abused double down on the excuses that keep them in the relationship. I was once in such a relationship. I had been a competent, kind and generous person who was reduced to hand-trembling when putting a plastic liner into a garbage can because my abuser had told me I didn’t know how to do it correctly. That was the point at which I suddenly had a moment of clarity: this situation was ludicrous. I looked at all my accomplishments and thought, “Who cares how I put the liner in a garbage can!” Full stop. I knew I had to get out of my situation and I knew I needed help to do so. Extricating myself to start a new life was the hardest thing I ever did. It was also the making of me.
There are many good people who voted for Trump who don’t see their Fuhrer clearly. He has seduced them into believing that he “alone” can save them and they are blind to the hole he is digging to bury them. The beauty of a democracy is that we the people have our own salvation in hand. It’s called the vote. It’s called civil discourse. It’s called the greater good.
Trump followers ignore their wake-up-America-call at our peril. It can’t come soon enough. But Trump has unlimited inventiveness to show us his hollowness. You can see it in Melania’s eyes. And she’s still there.
Dr. Pam Davis is a friend of mine and a consummate teacher. I asked her if she created magic in the classroom and in her blunt straightforward manner she said, "Not really. I just capture the magic that's there!" So I asked her how that happens and her responses are the basis for this blog.
Is magic in the classroom the norm or not? "I think magic in the classroom is overlooked and when it's harnessed that's the exception."
How often do you experience magic in your classroom? "To me teaching and learning are both magical so I experience magic quite often?"
What do you do to make this magic happen? "First, I prepare by deciding how to share myself through the material. For example, I have a natural sense of humor and I love to read and listen to music. If I can find a way to share any of my passions with my students through the mandated content, that's the first step in inviting them into a safe learning space. So when I teach social studies to 6th grade, the kids need to learn about the term, the "golden age." I introduce them to Jill Scott who wrote a song called "Living Life Like It's Golden," which I believe represents a golden age in popular music. Then I invite them to debate the properties of a golden age in history by comparing my generation's music to theirs. This leads to discussions all kinds of golden ages and gives the students ownership of the term."
What do you look for in the material you use to connect to your students? "I have to look for outside material to supplement the mediocre required texts, which gives kids facts but doesn't inspire interest. I can say honestly, that in order to connect to my students and have them connect to each other and eventually connect to the material, I have to be some kind of voice--an author's voice, a musician's voice, an artist's voice that transcends diversities and keys into common humanity."
How have you used the Nonfiction Minute? "When we were learning about the Medieval Period in history, I used the Nonfiction Minute called "Gong Farmers." I then posted the link on my class page with the warning, "Read at your own risk. This is disgusting. I don't want to talk about it."Of course, most of them read it but then I had them lead a small group discussion about some of the pros and cons of the feudal system from the peasants' perspective. And several children brought up the idea of a gong-farmer and explicitly explained what the job entailed while I barely contained my composure."
Pam, you are an exemplar of what I call the "artist teacher." How do you get away with it? "I get criticized by administrators and sometimes other teachers. But parents and students give me consistently high ratings, so I persevere. I get some encouragement from my work outside the classroom. I teach teachers. I evaluate content and even provide really fun robotics to kids facing family trauma. I've never seen teaching as anything but an opportunity to share magic.”
If you are a teacher who has never experienced magic in the classroom, you must first know yourself and be fully and confidently self-expressed. Next you must be constantly on the lookout for excellent content material created by others who are also fully and confidently secure in their form of self-expression. Shared humanity is at the heart of it all.
In the late 1990s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defined the psycological state of "flow," also published a model illustrating the skill level and challenge level required in order to achieve flow state for any given activity. The perceived skill level and challenge level both have to be high to achieve a state of flow. Thus the teacher must find an activity for students that they know they can do and are up to the challenge. Not an easy task.
Here’s a question for every student and teacher: Are you having fun in your classroom? By fun I mean the experience that psychologists call “flow”. It’s a mental state where you are completely absorbed in what you are doing; your sense of time disappears. It can be achieved in a variety of ways but it must include personal participation in an activity. Here are the criteria to reach it as defined by the article in the link above:
When all six of these experiences are combined, then one is said to have achieved a state of flow. Flow can be motivation for learning.
I believe that flow can be achieved when there is an engaging conversation going on in a classroom that leads to some kind of productive activity on the part of students. I experienced it when I was a teacher—some kind of magic happened in a few of my classes. The bell rang way too soon.
We trust that the Nonfiction Minute can create flow. I know that the authors of the Minutes experienced it when they wrote them. If we have flow when we write, will you have flow when you read it and when you teach it? Can it inspire flow in follow-up activities when your students discuss it with each other, use it do research and write their own thoughts about it? Long ago, when I first started writing, I figured that If I were bored and uninterested in the material when I wrote it, my reader would be bored and uninterested when forced to read it.
We have just opened up our Nonfiction Minute Charter Membership Club. We are doing this because we cannot sustain new production of Minutes, their continued publication, and their Transfer-to-Teaching pages without funding. You can learn more about it here. One of our new Charter Members, Anna MacLaughlin wrote us:
“I have already scheduled Nonfiction Minute in my Afternoon Literacy for Middle School Daily Schedule! We start next Wednesday 📚and I will be introducing Paper Airplanes ✈️ as our Introduction!
“Thanks again for creating such a wonderful CCSS-aligned Nonfiction idea for students! I teach at a Special Ed Behavior School for physically aggressive and flight risk kids in K-11th and I am one of the Middle School Teachers with 8 students in my classroom so I will let you know how it goes in a few weeks!”
Anna must create flow (motivation aka “magic”) in her classroom if she is going to reach students with severe emotional issues. I’m thrilled that she chose our material as the vehicle for her challenges. Please join our community of authors, educators and students with the mission of creating the joy of learning in classrooms for all.
*Award-winning author of more than 90 nonfiction books for children, mostly in science.