Decompress on Entrance Exams

Last week when I was teaching the first session of a class to prepare 8th graders to take the SSAT private high school entrance exam, my student Jessica raised her hand and asked anxiously “What if I fail?” She feared being excluded from the San Francisco private high school network and exiled to some remote second rate school she’d likely never seen. Kids as young as 4th grade in the Bay Area and nationally are taking entrance exams this fall and filling out lengthy applications, facing a high pressure culture that transmits the message that even if students devote extensive hours beyond the school day to vocabulary flash cards and geometry formulas they might not be smart enough to earn a coveted seat. Although public school students in San Francisco face a parallel stress as their families navigate the school district’s torturous school selection process, they at least are spared the strain of competitive entrance exams.

I acknowledge my own complicity in this culture, working with students across the city to prepare for entrance exams that include the SSAT for high school and the SAT and ACT for college. I am personally torn between a desire to help young people access outstanding schools and a distressing sense that I am reinforcing a burdensome and competitive system. I have parents ask me to work with their children for as many as 30 hours during the fall on exams and application essays. One parent of a student from a prestigious private San Francisco high school had already sent her son to a professional ACT boot camp 20 hours a week for four weeks in the summer. She asked me to do an additional intensive with him. When I questioned how I could possibly make a further difference, she said that hopefully I could generate the additional two points on his composite score that would get him into Stanford. People joke about the caricature of the overwrought parent jockeying to get a child into the best kindergarten in 2015 to ensure an Ivy League admission in 2028, but the image reflects an underlying truth. Such an urban myth illustrates a mentality of scarcity born from the anxiety of our culturally and economically tentative era.

Ideally I favor the outright elimination of all standardized entrance exams, but since the exam regime, bolstered by an industry of test prep companies, is not about to relent anytime soon, educators and parents have to find achievable ways to counter students’ deficit perception that they’re statistically set against their peers. A number of sensitive school college counselors I know are setting some helpful boundaries, actively dissuading students from preparing for standardized tests anytime before mid-junior year. Many parents I work with carefully defuse the climate of anxiety by downplaying the exams, openly acknowledging their potential for harm and assuring their children that future material success and personal fulfillment hardly depend on a percentile rank made at age 11 or 18.

In my own work I attempt to reframe the meaning of entrance tests for young people. At the outset of classes like Jessica’s, before dealing with variables or word roots, I offer the simple metaphor of an open doorway students are passing through. An entrance test only swings the door forward or back a little more. But the door is always open.
I find I can be most reassuring through the reflective one on one conversation. When I first sit down in September or October with a student such as Jessica, I ask her to imagine where she might be in a year. We acknowledge that neither of us can know for sure, but regardless of scores, we affirm that she can feel right walking across her new campus. Maybe it will even feel like home.

The Muffling of Eliana Lopez

It was perfect timing last night when I ran into San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarimi on the corner of 24th and Valencia. I was feeling particular sympathy for him at that moment. Not ten minutes before I had gotten out of his wife’s Spanish bilingual one woman performance What is the Scandal? an intimate depiction of her relationship with Mirkarimi and the events surrounding his conviction for domestic violence in 2012. There was a media field day following the incident in which Mirkarimi forcefully grabbed Lopez’ arm inside a car, leaving a bruise that she documented on video the next day. In the show Lopez defends her husband, not downplaying the severity of his behavior, but defining it as an isolated outburst hardly worthy of being labeled a violent crime.

On the street Mirkarimi seemed rushed. I had time only to tell him I had just seen the show before he walked on. I think he felt bad about cutting me short because he turned around several steps later and asked “Well, what did you think?” I said it was heartwrenching and that it made me realize things weren’t what I’d thought.

I don’t know the true circumstances of what happened in his jeep on New Year’s Eve 2011 or in the relationship before that night, but what is clear to me is that City Hall, the police and the media subjugated the narrative. But the issue goes much deeper than that. It raises questions that resonate under current political and social conditions about how seriously the voice of an immigrant Latina is taken, about the definition of domestic violence, and about who should have the right to invoke the law against someone else.

In What is the Scandal? Lopez opens a space to tell her side of the story. Speaking primarily in Spanish with English subtitles, she frames the story around the development of her relationship with Mirkarimi, from the time of their initial courtship when she was still living in her native Venezuela, through his campaign for sheriff, to their reuniting seven months after a court-ordered separation. Lopez doesn’t minimize the quarrel that led to the bruising, and gives a detailed account of filming the video with her neighbor that documented the injury. Her focus, though, is that when the neighbor turns the video over to the police, Lopez loses control of her own identity. She did not choose to seek police protection. Rather than empowering her to fight back against a crime, the law compelled her choices and broke up her family. Suddenly she became a public media victim of domestic violence. And the portrayal is tinged with racism, the belief that her defense of Mirkarimi stems from a background growing up in Venezuela, land of Hugo Chavez machismo, where consciousness about gender relations lags far behind an enlightened United States that confronts domestic abuse as an intolerable crime. Apparently she can’t even see abuse when her own body reads it. I admit my own complicity in supporting this image. I had been contemptuous of Lopez as events unfolded, seeing her as another woman who condones abuse by internalizing the messages of the perpetrator. I assumed Mirkarimi was guilty.

He was guilty. But of what? I don’t defend grabbing another person’s body against their will, but what is legally punishable domestic violence? Anyone who thinks such a definition is clear cut fails to acknowledge the profound complexity of how intimate relationship plays out on the physical level. Our culture is struggling mightily with this issue. Perhaps the most volatile manifestation is on college campuses where schools are trying to define codes for what constitutes consensual sexual contact. It is work that has to be done, but objective enumeration is ultimately crude. I have for 30 years had what I like to believe is a pro-feminist perspective, but I also believe with perhaps political incorrectness that in this realm there is an unfortunate zone of murkiness we must acknowledge if justice is to be served.

The most moving moments in Lopez’ show come in her description of a couples therapy session when Mirkarimi describes how he was separated from his father at age 12. He tells his childhood story to explain why he reacted so forcefully that New Year’s night to Lopez’ decision to visit Venezuela for four days with their son Theo. Mirkarimi had left his native Chicago on a vacation with his mother. He never saw his father again and feared that if Lopez left for Venezuela he might never see his son again. It’s a difficult moment in the show because it creates a conflict between repulsion at his abusive behavior and sympathy for his wounded self. In those moments and throughout the show Lopez offers something beyond politics. She situates what became a highly sensationalized act in an intimate context. And in that way she goes to a deeper reality previously untouched in the public sphere.

Where GPS Can’t Take You

Ravenna, June 21
I can’t worry about how bad the first inevitably shitty incident will be. I can only remind myself that it will make a good story in a Veronese bar a week later. My last night in Venice I came home from Marika’s, turned the key in the lock, opened the door and saw sitting on the desk a baise straw hat, the kind you see sold in the Rialto market. I don’t own a straw hat. I looked around and saw a collection of neatly arranged accoutrements: a sweater vest, wheeled suitcase, Ruth Rendell novel on the night table. None of these things were mine. I thought maybe I was on the wrong floor. But my key worked in the lock. The truth immediately hit me. I had mistakenly thought I had another night reserved at the guest house. When they saw my things after the morning checkout time, they removed them from the room. I had been evicted. The trouble was this guest house is run remotely. No one is on duty except the maid in the morning. I went downstairs. There was no posted phone number, which wouldn’t have helped anyway since I didn’t have a cell phone. So I did what any reasonable person would do in that situation. I began banging on doors calling “Maria,” the host who had booked the room with me through Air BnB. God knew where she was. I was sure she had sent me an e-mail warning I was about to be expelled, which also didn’t help much considering they had confiscated my laptop. I began opening every door I could and ultimately in a basement bathroom I found my things. I went through the printed checklist in my binder. Yes, everything was there including my sleeveless vest, medication and copy of Malcolm X’s biography. I got the fuck out of there. I went out into the streets filled with Saturday evening crowds. I was confident I could find a hotel, which I did easily enough. When I finally sat down in my new room I realized how disturbing it is to have your 53 items taken from you. Because when traveling alone those 53 items are all you have, you feel that somehow your identity has itself been momentarily stolen. The lesson is calm down and realize you are someone whole even without your physical belongings, even in a country where you are not sure how to say “What the hell is going on?”

Today has gone much better, though every day has its mishaps. I arrived at the Ravenna youth hostel to find it closed for the next two hours. But I saw there was a spacious park nearby so I changed into my running clothes in an alcove and took off for a series of loops. Space and time are uncertain commodities when traveling. I get lost a lot. Today after biking somewhere off the crude map I carried I asked a guy on the street where the hostel was. I asked him if he spoke English. He said no, but some French, which allowed us to talk more easily. Even with our bilingual effort I couldn’t quite get the directions. He was on a bicycle too and finally he waved his hand and said I’ll take you there. When he dropped me off I said “Grazie, Merci, Thank you.” It was the second time I had to speak French today. My taxi driver from the train station was Tunisian. I’ve had the chance here to cobble together various combinations of tongues. After trying badly to talk to Marika’s kitchen assistant in Italian, I found out she was Cuban and then we had no problem.

I am going to be a little judgmental for a moment here. I know this is arrogant of me, but I am really annoyed by the English speakers who don’t even try to speak Italian. I mean they don’t even say scusi when they bump into you on the train or buon giorno when they see you at breakfast. It’s not just the inaccurate presumption that everyone here speaks English and that English is and should be the default global language, it is the tourist consciousness where people aren’t really interested in the deeper culture of the place where they are invitees. Of course no one is obliged to behave in any particular way in the place they visit, but it also seems like some of the pleasure is lost. Don’t you want to hear Italian coming from your lips and connect with the guy at the newspaper kiosk? To me the language is the most exciting thing. Not to engage it is almost like eating only American style products from the supermarket instead of sampling authentic Italian food. I realize this is all going to sound bad to a lot of people, but I am trying to be transparent in my blog.

What got me to Ravenna was page 127 in an undergraduate art history book. I work with students at a certain high school on art history and music. It’s a survey course, which means they spend about 20 minutes on the 6th century. On page 127 we look at the 6th century Byzantine mosaics in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Year after year I talk to them about Justinian as embodying the Eastern Roman Empire fusion of church and state through the intricate green, blue, gold and shining sapphire tile images that cover the walls and ceiling of San Vitale. I had seen page 127 about ten years in a row. So now I took the train to Bologna and transferred to Ravenna to see what page 127 looks like when it’s not a page anymore. I discovered that in addition to San Vitale, Ravenna has several other structures with brilliant Byzantine mosaics with images of 26 virgins in a row, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. The churches, bapistries, and mausoleums are right in the center of town. When I had visited the sites, appending Dante’s tomb to conclude, I took my broken down one speed bicycle and pedaled around the cobblestone streets, making sure not to wear a helmet, because in Italy people don’t wear bike helmets when riding casually. It seemed in keeping with the general level of risk that this trip so far demands.

Siena, June 23
I made my first joke in Italian yesterday. It was with Diana at the rental car agency in Ravenna. Diana was showing me how to use the GPS. She said let me do this for you in English. I thought to myself good. Don’t even think about Italian. I can barely get things like GPS in English. When she was done I said I understood. Then I switched over to Italian. “I think maybe I must not use,” I said. She looked at me puzzled. “Sono uomo. No vorrei no masculino.” (I am a man. I would not like am not masculine). She laughed and I felt really good. You know you are starting to get a language when you can make someone laugh. So, I headed out from the car rental office and the GPS was not initially working. You could see the map on the screen but there was no voice. I went back to Diana. She came out to the car. After playing with the touch screens she said I should just use the visual map on the screen. She held the screen up with her right hand. You just follow this while you drive. Easy to read. I couldn’t believe it. I switched back to Italian. “Diana, sei prazzo? Soy Americano. No ando no avere vita in tierra italiana.” (Are you crazy? I’m an American. I am not going not have life on Italian soil.) We fixed it. I am going to call her today and tell her I made it.

GPS is a black angel of technology. I really do have that masculine thing going on. GPS? Hell no. I have geographic skills and anyway doesn’t it take the joy out of exploring? But GPS saved me yesterday. Without it I would have had to stop countless times to ask for directions. I probably would not have made it to Siena in less than 14 hours and I was coming from Ravenna, about 150 miles away. But GPS is scary. It makes you a slave to its dictates. My GPS had a placid voice but underneath was a quiet sadist. I naively decided it would be nice to go a side route to Siena. Someone showed me a route on the map and said here you can go through the mountains. When I took off from Ravenna GPS started taking me on all these small roads at seemingly random roundabouts. And then it led me into the mountains where I had to drive on sinuous tiny roads with barely enough space for two cars to pass. I guess this is what they talk about when they extol the beauty of Tuscany. I wanted to turn back but I knew I would be forever lost, so I just submitted to the totalitarian voice finally saying after 47 straight silent kilometers on a mountain road “in 400 yards, turn right.”

I’m being light about the day’s adventure, but truthfully by the time I had taken the two buses to the car rental agency in Ravenna, driven through the Tuscan mountains and arrived nine hours later in Siena, my spirit felt like it was starting to break. It wasn’t just the drive. I’d been increasingly burdened in the 48 hours since being evicted in Venice. The Ravenna hostel was disappointing. I had wanted to meet people there. Hostels tend to be lively places. There was almost no one there and the place was in the middle of nowhere. I have also faced an unending series of momentary crises, any one of which might be individually quaint, but collectively have been quite stressful. For example, yesterday I came to my exit on the superstrada toll road. I had to get in a lane to pay. There was traffic behind me and I had to decide quickly. I got in a lane for those who have automatic pay cards and I saw to the left three lanes over you could pay cash. I started panicking, envisioning myself stuck at the toll kiosk with Italians behind me honking their horns in an opera. Then I would have to drive through the wooden barrier. I got out of the car and put my ticket in the slot. Then I noticed a red button if you need help. I pushed it and a voice came on I couldn’t possibly understand. I couldn’t tell if it was a live voice or a recording so I said do you speak English? There was no response. Then I noticed a credit card payment slot. I put my card in. It came back out in about two seconds. Shit. But then the barrier magically lifted. Could the machine have read my card in two seconds? Or maybe the Italian voice from the red button was real and she was granting me mercy. I didn’t know, but I drove through and on to Siena. Deliverance feels good, but it does not dispel the residual anxiety of the event and I had about ten such events in the previous two days. Once in Siena I began to look ahead anxiously to the bike trip I was planning another two days further on and I was troubled by the logistical pains that for this Italy trip I had already underestimated. Just getting the bike alone would be stressful as the shop was on the outskirts of town in a location hard to get to. Although I was looking forward to getting out on S222 road, which is Italy’s Chianti version of the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley, navigating out to the road from the city center would be difficult and more fundamentally, you know the bike shop would probably give me some rustic machine that would inevitably snap a cable, leaving me in Monte who knows where trying to hitch a ride back to Siena in the heat. I was struggling with this as I was crossing the beautiful Piazza del Campo, the spiritual center of Siena, and it occurred to me that ease is a critical commodity and I realized I would not go on the bike trip at all and walking across the piazza in the early evening I cried. And then I was on vacation again because actually for two days I hadn’t been. And suddenly I wanted a gelato. And you might think wanting a gelato is a little thing, but it isn’t. I hadn’t had any gelato because I don’t allow myself gratuitous sugar, because I do the seemingly good thing. I can be that way. I have a lot to learn. And so now I am sitting on my terrace in the old city. I just listened to U2’s ‘Ordinary Love.’ Maybe it was a little bit too loud because the old woman across the terra cotta roof closed her window. But that is okay. You have to claim space for a better story.

Feeling much better after my first evening in Siena, I was ready to go to one of the key attractions on my itinerary, an Italian shoe store, and I was talking with the sales clerk (in 70% Italian, 30% English) about the Italian shoe industry. “How many these, Italian,” I asked. “In America very few shoes domestic.” She put her arm in mine and strolled me around the men’s section. “Look at these,” she said. “These are all Italian-made.” She pointed to a photograph on the wall behind a desk of a guy working on the sole of a shoe. “He makes only ten of these a day.” Then she brought me over to a shoe, picked it up and showed me the brand. I recognized Ecco from back home. She turned back the tongue and said with a hint of shame in her voice “made in China. We should not sell these.” Then I walked across to the women’s section and she said “you don’t want to see these? Why do you want to see these?” Italy I believe has stricter gender roles than San Francisco.
“Understand,” I said. “I am from San Francisco.”
“Crazy city.”
“I speak to you English word, yes. ‘Drag queen.’ I have a story to speak to you.” I switched over to English. “I went to see a U2 concert.”
“Oh yes, U2.” She sang a few words to “Mysterious Ways.’ “I had floor tickets. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see well. I’m short for an American. I wanted a little height. So I went to a women’s shoe store and bought boots with six inch heels. No, I didn’t wear them on the bus. I brought them inside in a bag. Security checked my bag but they didn’t say anything. Inside I took off my men’s shoes and slipped the boots on. They really helped me see Bono. Then the next day I went back to the store. ‘These are a little small,’ I said. I need to return them.” The Siena clerk’s English was pretty good, good enough for her to put her arm in mine again before she went off to attend to a customer.

The Blood and Waters of Venice

After two months of self-administered Italian Youtube video lessons, it felt good to issue first words on terra Italiana. Those words felt romantic on the tongue: “vorrei un biglietto per la linea arancione.” I would like a ticket for the orange line. Then the vaporetto took off for the island.

Some say Venice is a dying city, an open air museum, a brilliant amphibious architectural gem emptied of authentic life and replaced by a tourist overrun. Tourists do crawl over this city’s beautiful bones. A pageant of theme park gondolas and fake commedia dell’ arte masks commodifies the public space. And it’s true this is the only city in the world where on any given day there are more tourists than residents. So many residents have fled because of the expense and the shrinkage of the economy into the one niche of tourism that the population has declined from 174,000 in 1951 to under 60,000 today. A few years ago the city held its own mock funeral led by three gondalas on the Grand Canal. I asked Gaetano, who works in a cellphone store, if he could afford to live here. No way, he said. He commutes two hours from Padua by motorcycle and train and 15 minutes more by foot. Federico, owner of The Venice Jazz Club, the only jazz venue in Venice, does live in the city. He calls native Venetians like himself who can still live here “survivors.” He said “every day we are elbowing through 25,000 tourists. And for Venetians there is nothing to do, no nightlife.” Though the house band was solid playing basso nova on a Friday night, his club was half empty, and more English could be heard than Italian. Venice, though humbled by its depletion, yet continues to breathe in its back alleyways and produce markets and at 7am while I walked Strada Misercordia to my yoga class in Canareggio as Venetians hustled to their offices, shops, and art galleries. And when the weekend arrives, the city bursts into open air life as people populate the streets, flush with self-contained women in dark dresses and burgundy toenails smoking over the canals. I can’t say the men quite match them. They wear loose jeans more and hold their vino bianco glasses with less aplomb, but I probably have biased vision.

The emancipatory pleasure of Venice is its navigational impossibility. When you live with a mentality of destination, as I do, to be lost, as one inevitably must be here, frees you up. For hours I wandered the alleyways marked by indecipherable, ever-changing Christian titles barely matched to any map. I have no need to enter churches, only to come fortuitously upon their faces before passing on.

I stumbled upon an exhibit in a converted church of Leonardo da Vinci contraptions recreated from hundreds of pages of design drawings. It is a one man 15th century version of a futuristic science expo that might be sponsored by Google. There is a proto-bicycle, a hang glider with linen wings, a robot in medieval armor, and, though the great inventor called war “bestial madness,” a 16 gun cannon arranged 360 degrees to maximize explosive payload. Visitors can play with the machines, turning cranks and levers that operate the moving parts. Considering his studies using interlocking gears, pistons, pulleys, pendulums, counterweights, and flywheels, Leonardo today would likely have a start up robotics engineering enterprise and moonlight as a master BMW mechanic. Suddenly Apple inventing the new iteration of the Ipad doesn’t seem so innovative.

I’ve sometimes thought about Jews in Venice for two reasons. One I know that Shylock talks about the Rialto bridge in The Merchant of Venice. Two, I know that the word ghetto was created in Venice to refer to the area where Jews were confined that was located near a group of foundries. The word for foundry in Italian is ghetto. In the old ghetto I took a tour of the three synagogues, none of which is still in use. Today only 450 Jews live in Venice and only a handful in the old ghetto. I saw a few men standing in the square wearing skullcaps and fringed garments. But the presence of a people was faint. Not even the tour guide was Jewish. Some might say this is another way Venice is dying.

In an Italian yoga class, the common language is Sanskrit. No need to translate namaste. I recognized a lot of Italian phrases too. Breathe deep, relax your shoulders. But even without language I was okay because the body is its own language. Yoga today is universal like an ATM machine. You can depend that the sequence of steps will always be familiar. Triangle pose, down dog, bambino. The teacher even adjusted my torso the way Laura does back at Yogatree in the Castro.

It’s a funny thing about bread here in Venice. It’s bad. Italian bread bad? The basic panino or bread basket at a Venice restaurant has a soft, white non-descript quality. 40 years ago American bread lagged far behind European varieties. Now you can get excellent artisanal bread in every major U.S. city and pockets of Kansas. Wouldn’t it be easy to change? The linguine in squid ink is so good. Why not its accompaniment? I asked Marika my cooking teacher who makes bread every morning for her catering business and she said it’s the Venetian humidity. But it seems to me it starts with low quality ingredients. I didn’t get to taste her bread and I admittedly didn’t go to any high end restaurants. I’ll investigate when I get to Siena.

Marika gave me a full experience of Venetian cuisine beginning with a trip to the Rialto outdoor produce and fish market where we spent an hour and a half selecting ingredients for the lunch we would prepare later in the day. Mountain strawberries, fresh basil, beefsteak and grape tomatoes. She explained how shrimp that are losing their freshness have discolored heads. I also never knew there is a difference between calamari and squid. I just thought calamari was the Italian and Spanish word that restaurants like to use because squid sounds squishy. Actually the two are cooked in totally different ways. We bought about 20 ingredients in all. When we made dinner back at the Lido, the neighboring island where Death in Venice takes place, the only things we used that we did not buy fresh that day were olive oil, butter, flour for dredging the calamari and some risotto. When I get home the first thing I will try is the pomodoro sauce. Some American tomatoes these days can make the cut.

Tenero Terra Italiana

June 17, Wednesday
I had 32 pairs of shoes in my closet but I still felt I didn’t have all the right ones for Italy, because Italy, unlike say Amsterdam or LA, appreciates sensual style. It doesn’t necessarily begrudge the colloquial, but it likes elegance. It might be nice walking across the central piazza in Siena to feel a touch of chic. So after I arrive today in Venice I don’t plan to sit in Café Reggio’s drinking chianti wearing a Golden State Warriors championship t-shirt and a pair of Nikes even if it is 86 degrees. I’ll have my trim latticed light brown summer flats I found in San Francisco after an earnest search. They go best with the blonde linen shorts. I am resting easier here on the plane knowing these items are tucked away in my luggage down below. That’s the first order of business. The second is a bicycle, also an Italian hallmark, which I will rent in every city except Venice, a pure walking place. There is nothing like learning my district in a new city after a few hours pedaling around with a shoulder bag containing pecorino cheese for a late afternoon picnic and feeling I just about live here.

I will be in Venice four days, followed by Ravenna, Siena, a bike trip to a little village just outside Florence, a day on the Tuscan coast, and finally Verona, two weeks total. When I am able I will send off little accounts to you. The only other thing I must decide is the song. Right now I am feeling maybe “Ordinary Love” by U2. It’s been in my head since flying out for my college reunion last month. Anyone who has alternative suggestions for good soundtracks feel free to e-mail me.

Ciao,

Erik

Venice, June 18-20
After two months of self-administered Italian Youtube video lessons, it felt good to issue first words on terra Italiana. Those words felt romantic on the tongue: “vorrei un biglietto per la linea arancione.” I would like a ticket for the orange line. Then the vaporetto took off for the island.

Some say Venice is a dying city, an open air museum, a brilliant amphibious architectural gem emptied of authentic life and replaced by a tourist overrun. Tourists do crawl over this city’s beautiful bones. A pageant of theme park gondolas and fake commedia dell’ arte masks commodifies the public space. And it’s true this is the only city in the world where on any given day there are more tourists than residents. So many residents have fled because of the expense and the shrinkage of the economy into the one niche of tourism that the population has declined from 174,000 in 1951 to under 60,000 today. A few years ago the city held its own mock funeral led by three gondalas on the Grand Canal. I asked Gaetano, who works in a cellphone store, if he could afford to live here. No way, he said. He commutes two hours from Padua by motorcycle and train and 15 minutes more by foot. Federico, owner of The Venice Jazz Club, the only jazz venue in Venice, does live in the city. He calls native Venetians like himself who can still live here “survivors.” He said “every day we are elbowing through 25,000 tourists. And for Venetians there is nothing to do, no nightlife.” Though the house band was solid playing basso nova on a Friday night, his club was half empty, and more English could be heard than Italian. Venice, though humbled by its depletion, yet continues to breathe in its back alleyways and produce markets and at 7am while I walked Strada Misercordia to my yoga class in Canareggio as Venetians hustled to their offices, shops, and art galleries. And when the weekend arrives, the city bursts into open air life as people populate the streets, flush with self-contained women in dark dresses and burgundy toenails smoking over the canals. I can’t say the men quite match them. They wear loose jeans more and hold their vino bianco glasses with less aplomb, but I probably have biased vision.

The emancipatory pleasure of Venice is its navigational impossibility. When you live with a mentality of destination, as I do, to be lost, as one inevitably must be here, frees you up. For hours I wandered the alleyways marked by indecipherable, ever-changing Christian titles barely matched to any map. I have no need to enter churches, only to come fortuitously upon their faces before passing on.

I stumbled upon an exhibit in a converted church of Leonardo da Vinci contraptions recreated from hundreds of pages of design drawings. It is a one man 15th century version of a futuristic science expo that might be sponsored by Google. There is a proto-bicycle, a hang glider with linen wings, a robot in medieval armor, and, though the great inventor called war “bestial madness,” a 16 gun cannon arranged 360 degrees to maximize explosive payload. Visitors can play with the machines, turning cranks and levers that operate the moving parts. Considering his studies using interlocking gears, pistons, pulleys, pendulums, counterweights, and flywheels, Leonardo today would likely have a start up robotics engineering enterprise and moonlight as a master BMW mechanic. Suddenly Apple inventing the new iteration of the Ipad doesn’t seem so innovative.

I’ve sometimes thought about Jews in Venice for two reasons. One I know that Shylock talks about the Rialto bridge in The Merchant of Venice. Two, I know that the word ghetto was created in Venice to refer to the area where Jews were confined that was located near a group of foundries. The word for foundry in Italian is ghetto. In the old ghetto I took a tour of the three synagogues, none of which is still in use. Today only 450 Jews live in Venice and only a handful in the old ghetto. I saw a few men standing in the square wearing skullcaps and fringed garments. But the presence of a people was faint. Not even the tour guide was Jewish. Some might say this is another way Venice is dying.

In an Italian yoga class, the common language is Sanskrit. No need to translate namaste. I recognized a lot of Italian phrases too. Breathe deep, relax your shoulders. But even without language I was okay because the body is its own language. Yoga today is universal like an ATM machine. You can depend that the sequence of steps will always be familiar. Triangle pose, down dog, bambino. The teacher even adjusted my torso the way Laura does back at Yogatree in the Castro.

It’s a funny thing about bread here in Venice. It’s bad. Italian bread bad? The basic panino or bread basket at a Venice restaurant has a soft, white non-descript quality. 40 years ago American bread lagged far behind European varieties. Now you can get excellent artisanal bread in every major U.S. city and pockets of Kansas. Wouldn’t it be easy to change? The linguine in squid ink is so good. Why not its accompaniment? I asked Marika my cooking teacher who makes bread every morning for her catering business and she said it’s the Venetian humidity. But it seems to me it starts with low quality ingredients. I didn’t get to taste her bread and I admittedly didn’t go to any high end restaurants. I’ll investigate when I get to Siena.

Marika gave me a full experience of Venetian cuisine beginning with a trip to the Rialto outdoor produce and fish market where we spent an hour and a half selecting ingredients for the lunch we would prepare later in the day. Mountain strawberries, fresh basil, beefsteak and grape tomatoes. She explained how shrimp that are losing their freshness have discolored heads. I also never knew there is a difference between calamari and squid. I just thought calamari was the Italian and Spanish word that restaurants like to use because squid sounds squishy. Actually the two are cooked in totally different ways. We bought about 20 ingredients in all. When we made dinner back at the Lido, the neighboring island where Death in Venice takes place, the only things we used that we did not buy fresh that day were olive oil, butter, flour for dredging the calamari and some risotto. When I get home the first thing I will try is the pomodoro sauce. Some American tomatoes these days can make the cut.

Ciao,

Erik

The activist principal

When I asked a number of people to list the three most important things a school principal does, they only infrequently named things that directly involve the fundamental purpose of schools: learning. What things they did list at the top are surely important, including communication with staff (86%), providing safety (67%), and ensuring discipline (50%). A good argument can be made that a typical principal does promote learning by creating the conditions under which learning can occur. But there are many schools out there where principals are expertly covering all the non-classroom aspects of school functioning and yet student learning outcomes are mediocre. If we agree that our students deserve better learning opportunities, the principal who is charismatic and organizationally deft but who essentially just maintains a smooth status quo efficiency is failing. There is a clear consensus in this country that something fundamental needs to be done to improve classroom learning. This is the assumption behind the federal No Child Left Behind effort of the last 15 years and its successor under the Obama administration Race to the Top. Who else at a school site who is going to lead the process of improving teaching and learning if not the principal? We need nothing less than a new vision of the principalship, one that sees the principal as an instructional leader. And if a principal is to support learning for all students, for the most marginalized as well as the most privileged, that principal is going to have to lead instructional change with a social justice commitment that challenges learning inequities deeply embedded in the educational system. The job is both a big project of transforming unsuccessful practices in a complacent system and a small project of sharing an hour reading a storybook with one tentative child.

For a principal intent on becoming an instructional leader an obvious place to begin is in the classroom. This might seem obvious, but what I have observed in 25 years inside Bay Area schools is that most principals are everywhere but classrooms. When they are outside their office they are patrolling the hallways, cheering on teams in the gym, overseeing the lunchroom, or investigating the pipes. The traditional role of the principal is to exert a commanding presence like a morale-boosting field captain. The irony is that classrooms are the one space of the school considered private, the domain of the teacher. When the door is closed, don’t intrude. Respect teacher autonomy. The exception is when there is a visible problem like an out of control student or a chemical spill. But what if there is no outward problem? What if the problem is just that day after day a teacher is uninspired and pedagogically limited?

A principal who is an instructional leader should work with that struggling teacher and in fact all teachers, just as a coach works with all players of all skill levels on an athletic team. What might this look like? It might involve a certain instructional intimacy. Instead of doing the remote formalized 40 minute observational one off, the principal could spend multiple hours in a classroom getting to know the culture there, watching up close how students interact with the teacher and learning the teacher’s strategies and style of implementing them. Then the principal could help the teacher investigate a learning issue almost the way a researcher might do. As an example, the principal might train a lens on the act of asking questions. How students pose questions to each other is a key indicator of how they learn. What language do students use in their exchanges when trying to make sense of documents about climate change? The teacher herself might be the one to propose this observation, directing the principal to collect data on how the identified low performers formulate questions in comparison to the identified high performers. How do two student groups differ in the way they conceptualize a subject? After the lesson the teacher and principal discuss the data and what the teacher might change to deepen the learning for both high and low performers. It is a rigorous but collegial conversation.

Obviously a principal cannot do this type of in depth instructional coaching all the time with a whole faculty. What she can do is undertake a concerted professional development effort to train the faculty to observe and coach each other, something that is now routinely done in many innovative progressive schools. To accomplish this goal the principal needs to be able to challenge the prevailing school culture in which teachers fear being judged when other adults enter their classrooms. With huge workloads in their own classrooms, they will also need to be convinced that it is worthwhile to do such reciprocal coaching. A school in which teachers commonly visit each other’s classrooms is rare indeed. Behind the frenetic social bustle of the typical school is often a closed, atomized system where individual teachers guard their power closely and remain unaware of each other’s experience and beliefs. The job of an activist principal should be to establish an open, collaborative culture. The school should engage in a collective conversation about teaching and learning, one that includes parents and students.

A principal qualified to lead such a conversation needs to be a professional in the field and that means being familiar with the scholarly literature on instructional practice. It’s amazing to me how much valuable research has been done over the last several decades of which principals and entire teaching staffs have no knowledge. Here in the Bay Area UC Berkeley and Stanford are doing cutting edge educational research, but the percentage of schools connected to their work is relatively small. Research-literate principals don’t have to endure scholarly monographs. They can subscribe to journals like Educational Leadership and Kappan which discuss research for the general practitioner. A truly forward-thinking principal might even go beyond material strictly in the field of education and study organizational theory, the kind of scholarly work that savvy business administrators study. Schools have a lot to learn from well run businesses. I’d be impressed to come across a copy of Harvard Business Review on the desk of a principal.

It is unreasonable to think that a principal is going to approach the job with the scholarly rigor of a dissertation candidate, but the principal should insist that the school make instructional decisions through the systematic collection and interpretation of student data. It is routine these days for schools to discuss student scores on standardized tests, but a skilled principal goes deeper, enabling the school to scrutinize data in less obvious but revealing ways. What if each of the six teachers of an A, a C and a failing student contributed several representative pieces of work to a kind of academic portfolio for each student and in a whole faculty conversation, people publicly discussed the evidence of learning and failure to learn that they saw using the work pieces as artifacts? Instead of talking about learning in the abstract or studying the disembodied indications of standardized test data, teachers use the raw products of students to investigate. The principal would facilitate the whole school process. This isn’t far-fetched. Some schools are currently conducting such conversations.

The principal has to be more than an anecdotal observer of the school milieu. She has to be an anthropologist of her instructional habitat where everything that happens constitutes revealing data: the girl with her head down during the read aloud, two boys playfighting in the hall after the bell rings, the design of the slides in a student’s Power Point presentation.

Transforming an atomized school culture into one where teachers collaboratively examine student learning and their own teaching is extremely difficult because you have to confront the entrenched patterns of how schools traditionally operate. But what is even more challenging than changing how teachers work together is altering the deep patterns of school practice that work against historically marginalized students including students of color, second language English learners and students with disabilities. A principal committed to all students has to uproot systemic practices that contribute to marginalization, practices we often don’t realize are marginalizing because they mirror practices in the larger social structure that are traditionally accepted.

Many people get defensive when you say that your average suburban Bay Area school marginalizes certain students. This is 2015 after all when consciousness about racial issues especially has evolved from past prejudice, when discrimination in public institutions has been effectively eliminated. The activist principal sees below that surface. She observes, for example, the differential results of ability grouping, where students are placed in honors or general ed English classes. Why is it that African-American boys are disproportionately represented in the general ed classes? While many clear thinkers realize this is not the result of some conspicuously racist assignment process, but an insidious product of long-accumulated racial micro-injustices, the discerning principal goes further, and based on the published literature about restorative justice in educational reform, proposes practices that can begin to actually reverse the discriminatory outcomes. Ultimately such practices will help all students, not just those who are marginalized because injustice harms everyone in its midst. The whole community can be stronger.

Martin Luther King was not a school educator, but I ask myself what would MLK do if he were a principal today? We know he’d likely talk about the soul and dignity of each child, and the right of each child to deep self-discovery and the opportunity to go forth in the world confident and open. We can easily imagine what he might say. But what would he do? He wouldn’t I suspect, deal with getting graffiti off the walls or focus on state compliance issues. He wouldn’t likely be immersed in logistics and public relations. These reflect the priorities of the skilled status quo defender. King confronted the deep status quo. The activist principal fighting for all students will have to channel a King-like resolve. She will have to have courage, when questioning how do our teachers teach and how do our students learn, to push against the invisible wall.

A curriculum on love

The standard curriculum of schooling is a curriculum of the outer life. It is a curriculum for the world of work and public life, seeking to cultivate a keen mind and effective intellectual skills. This is appropriately practical. Few would question this. And it has always been this way in America, going back to the days of the one room 19th century schoolhouse. I wonder, though, while we so earnestly attend to developing productive workers and citizens, if we might also find a way to support the education of the inner life. Where in their unfolding growth do our children learn about the realm of dreams, the contours of grief, the light of intuition, the sense of connection to the rivers? I wonder, for example, would we ever consider a curriculum on love?

A lot of people might react viscerally against such an idea. Love is private and a school is a place of public knowledge. A parent once reported me to the school district when she read her daughter’s journal entry on the topic I suggested “What is the color of love?” It is interesting to consider that we would shield from study what people profess is the most important thing in their lives. Love might well be the most primary of human experiences, from the bonding at one end of life within the womb to its final demise when a child weeps at her dying parent’s bedside. Love pervades experience: love of family, partner, friend, pet, the earth, the divine. Is it so radical a notion that we study what anchors our being? Love (however that might actually be defined) is a compelling and deeply challenging subject for study: complex, rich, transformative, difficult and painful. It is a deep existential concern that can be explored with multi-disciplinary perspectives, through philosophy, psychology, biology, history, literature, and theology. It has all the gravitas of any topic the academy can offer.

I recall the first day of the love unit in the high school psychology class I taught when 22 students and I sat in a circle to discuss the question “What is intimacy?” The week before I had proposed we deviate from the traditional and somewhat clinical curricular unit on emotion and instead do a unit specifically on love. Certain girls got demonstrably excited (maybe a chance to share in the open air what was spoken only in hushed conversations and leather bound journals) while others, especially the boys, seemed impassive or slightly unsteadied. This is good, I thought. Successful education should subvert the status quo. I made it clear at the outset it would be serious, no spending our time sitting around reading Beyonce lyrics or discussing how to get a date.

The resulting discussion of our outré question was profound. Over many years of teaching I have found that when posing the right well-timed question that touches a personal chord and combining it with skillful facilitation, a discussion with everyday high school kids can magically ascend at moments to the level of a Stanford seminar. These kids deftly wove in proto-literary references to U2 and Twilight and offered questions that gradually expanded the philosophical depth.

We got onto the sub-question can you be intimate with a stranger. Somebody asked whether if your car breaks down on a long stretch of highway in Nevada where no one else is around and a guy stops to help you and you both get your hands dirty and then he stays with you while you wait for the tow truck and while waiting you both somehow get to talking about how you love your kids, is that intimacy? A lot of the students had something to say about this. We also talked about self-intimacy (which provoked scattered laughter), how maybe standing in the rain in July under an open sky tasting the drops was something like love. The next day one of those enthusiastic girls came up to me and confided she felt freer. She always thought intimacy meant sex. Now she knew it could be so much more. I thought to myself I probably didn’t learn such things until I was 24. Some people never do. I decided we were going in the right direction.

A study of love doesn’t have to be this freewheeling. In fact, there already exists curriculum on love and it is hardly avant-garde. It’s the psychology programs at universities. They don’t often use the word love, but they do analyze theories of love relationships. Clinical classes teach students to help others in navigating love relationships, romantic and familial mainly. Seminaries add another layer, training students to do pastoral work and help people explore spiritual love. But school age students generally don’t have exposure at their corresponding level to academic psychology, although high schools often offer introductory psychology courses like the one I taught for juniors and seniors.

Challenging curriculum can be created at different developmental levels for students in the whole K-12 range that could employ various subject skills. As a starting point students at any age could explore the question “What is love?” Second graders might read stories such as fairly tales through the lens of that question. Everybody in education talks these days about critical thinking. I can’t think of a more critical question for second graders to engage than “Did the prince really love Cinderella?” They teach that in undergraduate literature classes, how to read against the text.

Upper elementary and middle school students could also read stories at their respective levels which have themes of love. So many books contain these themes, but teachers rarely bring them into the open. A classic story, readable by middle school kids as well as soft-hearted adults is The Little Prince, in which the young prince falls in love with a narcissistic rose. In considering her self-involved and mendacious behavior, the question again appears is this really love?

Literature is a wonderful vehicle for raising such a question, but I think even young children are also ready for authentic psychological study. For example, they could learn about the parts of the brain that light up (on a PET scan) when someone gets a hug. They could learn about that seminal research study showing baby monkeys developed greater attachment to a wire mesh mother figure covered by terry cloth than an equivalent wire mother holding a bottle of milk. These students could explore the implications of an experiment that suggests physical affection is more important than nourishment in inducing bonding. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that 5th graders can do cross-cultural anthropology, which is what they would be doing if they compared patterns of how mothers sleep with their babies across cultures worldwide.

Love doesn’t have to be a soft, amorphous topic of study. It can be explored under the lens of science. I had my students study empirical data and theory as well as do field research. I had them, for example, collect data through a survey asking groups of different ages to define love and then analyze the results developmentally. How do middle aged adults define love compared to middle school children and what are the resulting implications? This was a study in data analysis as much as it was a query on love. Students can look at love through the biological lens as well. What is the chemical composition of oxytocin and where is it secreted? What happens if you compare the brain activity of a person kissing to one of that person only fantasizing about the act?

One can also study love in English and history. Literature, filled as it is from Homer to Toni Morrison with explorations of love, is ripe territory for probing. I think sometimes classroom love analysis in literature could go a little deeper. High school English programs, for example, have adopted Romeo and Juliet as one of their standard texts depicting love, a play that lends the subject only superficial treatment with its two adolescent protagonists floating more in infatuating metaphors than real intimacy. Perhaps Othello would work better. Can a man that frenzied by jealousy be said to love? The question is echoed by a contemporary short story “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” (portrayed recently in the film Birdman) in which a man kills himself over a lost love. Goethe wrote about suicide over love a few centuries earlier in The Lies of Young Werther. In recent years, Toni Morrison depicts a more extreme moment when in Beloved Sethe murders her own daughter to save her from the slave catchers. Is love compatible with annihilation? Such a question provides another angle of entry into the topic than science.

History offers a chance to understand how the experience and practices of love have evolved over time. In those hefty high school courses on Western Civilization, within the traditional broad-scoped material on political power, geography and the arts, there could be a honing in to a study of something like courtship practices through the centuries. Or standard topics like feudalism could be reframed. How is the relationship between a knight and his vassal a form of filial love? If a teacher doesn’t want to deviate into such material, students might have the opportunity to do so through their research papers. The topics are hardly trivial. They are microcosms of human experience that illuminate larger historical patterns.

These kinds of academic studies through psychology, biology, literature and history might seem misguided to some parents and educators, but probably not controversial. What might provoke resistance, however, is if we began to consider a curriculum that actually aims to help students examine love in a personal way. What if we asked that sophomore reading Othello to go beyond evaluating Othello’s feelings, turn the lens in on himself and reflect, perhaps in a private journal, whether jealousy ever impinges on his close relationships? This is a potentially explosive proposal. It involves opening the realm of the private. Concerned parents might call it unwarranted intrusion. In this country we do not constitutionally mandate a separation of emotion and state, but many people would say that to ask students to inwardly explore love and other emotions, is akin to asking them to explore their religious beliefs. A large philosophical question emerges about what aspects of the human experience should school learning touch and where boundaries should be drawn between public and private?

There is precedent for exploring emotions in a school context going back to the 1970s with the introduction of affective curriculum. Particularly in elementary schools teachers have helped their students to learn not only about the nature of emotions such as anger, sadness and love, but to apply skills to manage them. The average parent would probably not raise an eyebrow hearing that her second grade son read Dr. Seuss’ My Many Colored Days and then was asked to free draw one color mood. Often discussion of emotions is framed in the context of relationships. If you are in a fight with your sister and getting angry, what can you do to work with your anger? Conflict resolution has been a staple of curriculums in elementary, middle, and high schools for years. Sometimes this material is taught as part of a health education curriculum.

The interest in affective curriculum has increased with the advent of the concept of emotional intelligence. Harvard educational theorist Howard Gardner proposed the idea in the 1980s that there are at least seven distinct types of intelligence and that two, interpersonal and intrapersonal, involve awareness of emotion. Journalist Daniel Goleman popularized the notion in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence. In this framework, having conscious awareness of exactly what you are feeling when you say you are feeling love is a form of intelligence.

The growth of the increasingly research-based affective curriculum is making its way into elementary schools, but we tend to see such curriculum fade by high school. We teach little kids to be kind, develop empathy skills, and raise their self-esteem. It’s okay in a discussion on global warming to say you love Mother Earth or draw a picture of Mommy and Daddy holding hands. But in our culture there is a belief that somehow by the time you reach about age 15, education should be an exclusively intellectual experience. I have always thought that high schools have a lot to learn or relearn from elementary schools.

Affective curriculum, that might have a place for students from kindergarten to graduate school, can fit into a broader instructional picture. Whether learning to listen with attentive care, looking at an MRI of the emotional brain center, researching how Hindu gods expressed romantic desire, or comparing the wedding ceremonies of Scandanavians and Masai, to study love is much more than to study a particular emotional experience. It is to poise oneself along the deep boundary of the human experience where one can investigate where the biological, psychological, relational, historical and philosophical interconnect all while gaining greater self-awareness and perhaps a few tools for walking the human world with a somewhat surer footing. I wouldn’t want to claim too much for one small out of the mainstream instructional unit, but perhaps such study could help heal in an engaging way the traditional educational split between inner and outer, academic and personal. Maybe we could help our kids become a little more whole.

One child left behind

Jacob has chafed in 8th grade math for the last two days, bewildered by the Pythagorean Theorem. Friday he will almost certainly fail the weekly quiz. The week before he couldn’t solve equations by graphing and he failed that quiz. His struggle is not unique to math. He can’t identify key themes in To Kill a Mockingbird nor retell the basic plot. In science he can’t diagram the water cycle and in history, when asked to write an in-class essay explaining the main reason for the fall of Rome, he produces five superficial sentences. But Jacob does not have a learning disability. He is not impaired. He just isn’t close to the cognitive developmental level our educational system designates for 8th graders.

Two consequences flow from Jacob’s predicament. One is he is impeded from growing academically because instead of processing subject material his brain constantly hits a wall. Two, he suffers tremendous pain. He is in a continual silent crisis. His teachers are aware, but busy managing 29 other students, they feel powerless. They also adhere to the dominant instructional paradigm that says if a student does not meet an objective standard, he fails. And so the teachers reluctantly place the letter F on Jacob’s report card.

What can we do to remediate the situations of the Jacobs in our schools? Are any schools addressing the problem at all now? Or is Jacob destined to be the child that No Child Left Behind forgot about?

The root of the problem is that schools work under the mistaken guiding assumption that students should be grouped academically by age. The theory goes that in an age cohort, variation of skill and experience exists within a limited enough range that all members of the group should be able to access and master the curriculum. More advanced students may be able to succeed quickly and independently, while less advanced students may require supplemental resources and the skilled intervention of a teacher.

Jacob is in some ways fortunate because in the last 50 years American society has adopted the philosophy that all students have the right to succeed. Before World War II it was assumed that not everyone would make it. Schooling was a winnowing process, with those who couldn’t master the curriculum being shunted into vocational education. And even within the core academic program there was an inequitable hierarchy with students designated as lowered skilled tracked into inferior classes. While tracking still exists, along with great controversy, public education policy is now theoretically committed to the goal that all students master their grade level skills. Despite its many flaws, the No Child Left Behind legislation passed during the Clinton presidency and continued under President Bush was actually progressive in this regard.

The massive problem, however, is that to achieve such a lofty goal, instructional practice (not to mention how schools are run generally) must change dramatically. And in some ways it has. As public education policy has evolved to embrace success for those at all academic levels, a corresponding pedagogy has evolved that attempts to meet the needs of students who cannot master the curriculum through standard instruction in a class of 25 (or 35 plus in many public schools). The greatest beneficiary of special needs instruction are students with designated learning disabilities who are legally entitled to receive supplemental support under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In many private and public schools there is a learning specialist who can offer one on one help. But since most students unable to master the curriculum in a standard set up like Jacob are not learning disabled, teachers must find alternatives. One is differentiated instruction. Here, the teacher modifies a basic lesson plan according to the diverse skill levels of the students. With the Pythagorean theorem lesson that baffled Jacob there is the conventional pen and paper approach that the conspicuous achievers receive, and at least one alternative approach that makes the lesson accessible to struggling students. The lower-skilled student might work with a computer-based lesson that provides gradual step by step guidance and creative imaging of right triangles. A key component of differentiated instruction is the practice of scaffolding. Just as a physical scaffold is a support structure that allows someone to reach a place they otherwise could not access, instructional scaffolding provides a cognitive support mechanism to make curriculum more accessible. So, instead of simply asking a student to research and write a paragraph arguing a point about what caused Rome to fall, the teacher might supply a pre-selected accessible text for the research and a graphic organizer with titled boxes for the student to fill in with causes of the empire’s decline. Some critics would argue that this kind of support dumbs down the curriculum and fails to maintain proper standards. But skillfully scaffolded curriculum still demands that students demonstrate mastery of the core skills and curriculum.

There are unfortunately two essential problems with differentiated instruction. One, it is extremely difficult for a teacher to do effectively enough to reach all students. But more fundamentally, teachers simply lack the time to do it. When I taught public high school I had five classes averaging 30 students each and often three separate subjects. I often taught 12th grade AP English, 9th grade English and Psychology. So I was already writing three lesson plans a day. To differentiate any of these lessons would effectively add a fourth. Much as I wanted to do it, I balked. I was already practicing triage. Between designing lessons, grading work, calling parents and helping run school programs, let alone the 25 hours of base classroom time, I was already working 60 hours a week. And I was not unusual.

In Jacob’s case it is questionable whether the instruction can even be differentiated down to his level. Jacob tests at three years below his grade level in reading. Is it possible for any instructional approach to help Jacob bridge the gap between his reading level and the level of To Kill a Mockingbird? The Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky introduced the concept of the zone of proximal development that represents the range of difficulty in which students can achieve. At one end of the zone is what they can do independently. At the other end is what they can do through attentive guidance. In the middle is what students can learn to do independently with initial support that is gradually released, sort of like cognitive training wheels. What Jacob is being asked to do is outside this zone of proximal development.

In my first experience 24 years ago as a teacher in training at San Francisco’s Mission High School I faced the irremediable problem of having a third of my students in junior English at least three years below grade level in reading. The San Francisco Unified School District was essentially in a state of institutionalized denial for having promoted these students year by year without any remediation. The problem was compounded by the fact that many of my students were second language English speakers whose reading issues were different from those of the struggling native speakers. I was stunned to discover that the school provided no strategy for addressing the problem. My own best strategy was to modify the curriculum. The 11th grade reading list included The Scarlett Letter, a book inappropriate not only because of the reading level, but because the 17th century Puritan world it depicted was so alien to my 20th century urban students. I went down to the school book inventory to look for something still justifiably literary, but more accessible. I came up with Richard Wright’s searing autobiography Black Boy. The reading level was more accessible and the story of a young man coming of age in a violently dysfunctional family in the virulently racist south was something many of my students could relate to. All of my students were young people of color. Many students responded. Some began to rise shakily from a longstanding intellectual stupor. And yet many others still remained outside the zone of proximal development.

I’m not suggesting that I had some kind of unique solution to the problem in that first year of teaching. I certainly was not the only one undermining the prescribed curriculum. But my minimum effort at challenging the status quo was a necessary step toward breaking down the monolith of a system institutionally built around a rigidly leveled standardized curriculum. That system actually works for most young people and provides an all-important pathway to college entrance. I’m not against that. But for the minority of students who are shunted to the side of the road and effectively told they are failures, there has to be an alternative. Curriculum needs to be more than differentiated. For some students it must be transformed.

I have the image in my mind of a 15 year old overweight boy asked to run a mile. Would it be just to set a standard for boys of his grade level to run say between a seven and a nine and a half minute mile because kinesthesiology researchers determine that to be a reasonable performance range? No, we wouldn’t do that because we know the boy cannot reach that range regardless of the training he undergoes. But what he can do is improve measurably on the baseline time he runs now. Let’s say 20 seconds. If he is to be evaluated, he should be evaluated against his own standard, not against some generalized standard that has nothing to do with his particular body.

The same is true of minds. I think it’s fair to evaluate Jacob based on his growth over time. But the only way to produce such growth is to give him the opportunity to work at his developmental level. If we want him to work at the highest level within his zone of proximal development he will need ongoing one on one instruction. I have the luxury of being able to do that very kind of instruction in my mentoring practice. While I cannot bring a Jacob up to so called grade level, I can design an experience that allows him to grow toward it. He can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird independently and answer character analysis questions even with the support of class discussion but my goal isn’t to get the eight question homework done with him. Instead I use the homework as a vehicle for entering an authentic learning experience that engages the assigned material. We might take a single paragraph in one scene of the story and closely study it for 25 minutes with an almost Shakespearian focus where every word and phrase merits scrutiny. Jacob would articulate ideas and insights as much or more than I do (my role being more to ask questions). The strategy is to slow everything down to a speed at which Jacob can see the landscape. In his daily classroom experience everything is always rushing by in a blur.

But I am not an option for the vast majority of Jacobs in this world. I don’t work in public schools. I am an expensive private educator hired by middle class and wealthy parents to supplement what their children are getting in school. What I do is a small stay for the privileged against a dangerous slippage into the cracks.

In Jacob’s school as it is traditionally set up he would need to be in a different classroom than his peers if he is to work in the center of his zone of proximal development. But no school is able or willing to set up an alternative program for the minority of students who cannot do so called grade level work. A school like Mission High where I taught that Black Boy that first year would have to completely reconfigure itself if it were serious about addressing the needs of all its students. The entire instructional structure of the school based on age-graded classes with a standardized curriculum would have to be rethought, a structure that replicates the configuration of schooling in America going back a hundred years. It would appear to be fundamentally obvious and yet it is radical and threatening to the system to propose that all students be given the opportunity to learn within their zone of proximal development. It is threatening because it might subvert the existing machine of educational delivery that serves the majority and oppresses a minority. It is also a political non-starter because of the heightened expense it would likely involve.

One of the reasons I left public school teaching ten years ago was that I could not endure the ongoing experience of being unable to serve my students at lower skill levels. I felt powerless within the deeply unchangeable structures of the school, district, state and nation that interlock to sustain the status quo. The status quo may mean success for the vast majority. But if we evaluate ourselves as a community based on how well we treat our most vulnerable members, we would have to conclude that we have willfully tolerated collective failure.

The South’s spectre of slavery

When I mounted a horse-drawn carriage for a tour of old Charleston in the Carolina heat last summer, the starting point was the Old Slave Mart. Here private slave auctions were held until the Union army occupied the city in 1865 and shut it down. Encountering such an historic landmark on my first day in the deep south was a bracing reminder of the historical proximity of slavery. But while it’s slightly shocking to discover, one expects these reminders. They’re named in the tourist guides, and their conversion into historic sites that educate the public about the realities of slavery suggest a continuing effort to heal. The south today appears to be doing it’s reputable official part to own the past. But in my ten days traveling through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia, I sometimes sensed the undercurrents of a consciousness that refuses to fully surrender the past.

On that first day in Charleston, I felt uneasy with the scruffy young driver who described his family ties to the city stretching back many generations. He was genial enough, offering his tremendous knowledge of local history. He guided us around the old town telling stories of local luminaries, pointed out the features of the antebellum houses, including slave quarters, and described historic landmarks such as the house where South Carolina proclaimed its secession, presaging the Civil War. These facts in themselves were essentially neutral, but I detected a note of nostalgic bitterness. He had a tic of following his flatly stated information about the demise of the old way of life with a jerk on the horse’s reins. Maybe he was just burnt out after countless tours in the heat with clueless Yankees and foreigners. But at one point he offered a cryptic unsolicited commentary. “You know slavery isn’t dead,” he said. “Today, all over the world people are being trafficked. In fact there’s more slavery now than there’s ever been.” I tried to parse this. Was it a progressive statement for social justice designed to harness our outrage at America’s slave past to confront current reality? I wanted to believe it was, but as he jerked the reins yet again, I concluded that in fact he was saying something sinister, that if we so easily accepted slavery in today’s global society, we shouldn’t be so judgmental of slavery in the South’s history. The Old South was not any worse than contemporary Burma or Sierra Leone, he seemed to suggest. Whatever the case, as he guided his mare over the cobblestone streets he was clearly wrestling with a demon.

On my second day in Charleston I drove out to the Middleton Plantation to see the sculpted gardens and ride a horse around the grounds where slaves once cultivated rice in disease-ridden swamps. Circling the surviving swamp on horseback I could imagine an overseer with a lash lording over the laborers. The work was backbreaking, perhaps even more so than that required in the cultivation of the two other commercial crops the Old South is known for, cotton and tobacco. I felt slightly guilty traipsing around the plantation. The idea of actually enjoying a place where human beings were tortured for profit was disturbing, but I felt it was the best way to understand the reality of a plantation. The Middleton owners themselves, however, do not seem to have any desire to acknowledge their history. The estate website tells the history of the family since the 17th century, but says nothing of slavery, referring only once to the “family’s interest in rice culture.”

Further north, in Lexington, Virginia I discovered that the great military hero of the Confederacy, Stonewall Jackson, is still revered. The problem wasn’t that his home downtown has been turned into a museum. After all he was an historic figure. It was rather the quote above the entrance to the student barracks at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) reading “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” For a military college to invoke Jackson as a paragon and inspiration is, whether conscious or not, to embrace the legacy of the Confederacy. On the VMI campus I walked the enormous immaculate parade grounds surrounded by neo-Gothic buildings. As it was summer, I saw only a few cadets. One who crossed my path saluted me despite the fact that I was wearing plaid shorts. I wondered what he thought of Stonewall Jackson. I wondered what he thought about the Confederacy losing the war. I walked back down the hill past downtown and out towards the cemetery named after Jackson. I entered the grounds that contain 144 Confederate soldiers and approached the enormous statue of the general. There at the base was a Confederate flag.

The Confederate flag is a pernicious symbol of the Old South whose dark connotations so many of the southerners who flaunt it refuse to acknowledge. Whoever planted that flag at Jackson’s grave would probably say it’s just a way to honor a brave man in his proper context. It doesn’t mean anything more than that. I wonder what the politicians would say in South Carolina where the flag still flies on the state house grounds. I wish I could interview on their back porches over Jim Beam shots the Georgians who display the flag on their pick ups. Something surely remains veiled.

I will acknowledge that while it may be easy to judge those in white southern society who seem almost to condone the South’s past, it’s also true that they have a burden of having to face the story of that past in a way those of us outside the south never have to. I was reminded of this in Savannah, Georgia when I opened the city’s alternative weekly paper and saw that the cover story was an expose on how the city government had owned slaves before the Civil War. This fact amazingly had never been publicly documented. If you live in the urban south you cannot escape the surrounding reminders of painful history. Some people wrestle with it, some willfully ignore it and some obliquely justify it. Whatever the response, there is still work to do.

Private schools, private souls

Back when I was teaching in a public high school, one year a sophomore girl used to get into my classroom every lunch and on the board write “I love you Mr. Gleibermann.” The word love was written as a heart symbol. Other students would put up their own friendly notes. “What’s up Mr. G?” (or the street version, “What up G?”). “Catch you 6th period.” The notes so covered the board at times that I had to designate a special section just for messages. Others students acknowledged me between periods, sticking their head inside the classroom door and giving a shout. “Yo, Glei-dog!” Girls would stop by after school and report on the trifles of their day. Then they asked me how I was doing. They really wanted to know.

I have to admit I got a little high off that attention. Never have I felt so saturated with affection as when teaching in an urban public school. I mattered in these kids’ lives. And it was beautiful to see the shine in their eyes.

In the years since I left public schools, and moved over to working with predominantly private school students, I’ve had to come down from the high. While today I still love working with high school kids, the tenor of my relationships is markedly less intimate. My kids today are unfailingly friendly, but consistently distant. We meet. We work together for an hour, maybe talk about baseball or vacation plans, but then it’s done. I doubt that l cross their minds again until we meet the following week. Many of them certainly regard me as helpful, and perhaps they are grateful for my help, but I don’t figure in their emotional lives, lives they rarely breathe a word about.

It’s true that interacting with kids in a classroom setting every day facilitates a connection that meeting only once or twice a week in an office does not. But when I occasionally work in my mentoring practice with public school kids I sometimes get wind again of that once familiar openness. The private school kids, on the other hand, are often inscrutable. Who are they, I wonder, so personable, yet so aloof? What have so many public school kids experienced that frequently leads them to the openness so many private schools kids do not express? I’m not implying that the open way of relating is better than the reserved, but I see an opportunity lost, a chance with my private school kids to inhabit a more human place.

The most obvious explanation for the public-private difference is that it’s a matter of socioeconomics. My private school students come from predominantly affluent families, while my former public school kids were generally working and middle class. My private school kids are privileged materially, but often also psychologically. Their days are comfortably scheduled. Their parents are usually accessible and understanding. The outwardly settled quality of their lives seems to allow them to somehow glide along without the turmoil that characterizes the stereotypical adolescence. The only turmoil I see comes from the stress of academic pressure and overscheduling. They are quick to indicate their stress. I can hear it in their voices and see it in their body language. But they always seem to present it as a surface phenomenon. I don’t usually detect their deeper emotions.

Spending a lot of time in private schools, I wonder to what extent it is the school environment that inhibits openness. A revealing sociological study could be done on this question with results that might be counterintuitive. When you look at the milieu of non-parochial private schools in San Francisco, you see it is generally relaxed and liberal-minded. There is an ethic of openness and tolerance. Many schools pride themselves on providing multiple academic and personal supports for students. There is often a health component to the curriculum, typically taught in a small advisory group, where students can talk about such issues as sexuality, mental illness, drugs, and family life. But my sense is that in these forums most students do not talk about themselves. They may benefit from the discussions, but they also treat the groups like another class. Likewise when an academic class offers an opportunity to share personally, students may not take it. I worked with one of my students on his papers in an English course called Construction of Self that explored how race and gender figure in shaping our identities. It was heady stuff for 17 year olds. According to my student, discussions were lively, but when I asked how much students talked about their personal experiences wrestling with race and gender, he said almost never. They can read Gloria Steinem and Cornel West like the proto-college students they were treated as by their teachers and discuss the sexual orientation continuum, but they can’t say I’m in pain or I’m proud.

My public school kids on the other hand often related what I did as an English or psychology teacher to their own experience. I remember in my first year working in San Francisco I had to teach a group of urban alienated students of color Thornton Wilder’s Our Town about a staid New Hampshire hamlet caught in its ongoing uneventful mundanities. I felt sure I would fail and in the beginning the plodding class seemed an absurd mismatch of reader and subject matter. But when we got to the last act that depicts dead characters sitting in an invisible graveyard reflecting back on their lives, one girl Asha opened up and the class came alive. She was a troubled brooding girl grieving the loss of her cousin who had been shot in the basement of his house. She took the opportunity to wrestle with mortality in response to the quiet reflection on death in the play. At times throughout the rest of the year she would write in her journal about her cousin and share it with me. I felt close to her.

Student-teacher closeness seems rare in private schools despite practices that would seem to promote it. In many private schools the faculty have students call them by their first names, an approach with roots in 1970s efforts to break down hierarchy and support a more fluid familiarity between students and teachers. Although this relational loosening might appear to facilitate greater student-teacher connection, I wonder if it doesn’t work against it. The old model might be more formal, but it also cast teachers in a subtlety more paternal role that allowed students to look up to them as nurturers. When adults lose their role as surrogate parent figures, students correspondingly lose something of their identity as children. I see a lot of adultified children.

I’m struck by how mature my private school kids can be. Many speak with evenhandedness, don’t seem reactive against their parents, remain upbeat after getting benched in the basketball game, and go about the college search process in a reflective, methodical way. I wonder if they are overly identified with their own maturity, a maturity that seems based on a need to have it together. When I walk past the closed door of a school’s mental health counselor, I know a student is inside talking about her pain (and it usually is a she). In fact, a lot of kids I see have therapists. I have occassionally asked them what the experience is like. It seems highly compartmentalized, an island of personal talk time that does not translate into their daily lives. I get the sense that at times it is almost like one of my mentoring sessions, a kind of one on one seminar you could do for a course credit. I once ran into a student of mine with his parents at an outpatient psychiatric clinic where I myself was being treated for depression. I felt for him. He was in his senior year and had just been accepted to Duke. I wondered if the imminent transition to the elite college world far from California was spurring unmanageable anxieties. The next time we met, I thought, I would reassure him, acknowledge my mental health issues and express some understanding for his. But when we sat down in my office several days later I could tell he didn’t want to talk about the encounter. I could feel an aloneness in the room.

My public school kids wouldn’t necessarily talk to me about any psychotherapy experiences. Many of those kids were withdrawn, remote, hyperactive or seething, but many of them sought me out to share all kinds of personal problems: a troubled romantic relationship, conflict with parents, a fight with a friend, the unfair teacher, bullying, pregnancy, addiction, depression, lack of money, or just a horrible time at prom. Work in a public school happened at an ongoing high pitch of excitement where almost every day had the slightly histrionic air of a Glee episode.

At public schools adolescent feeling is in the open air. It is most apparent in displays of physical affection. Girls hold hands walking down the hallway the way they did back in elementary school. Boys give smooth-palmed soul shakes. A guy might lean with his back to a locker, his girl against his shoulder. In the private schools I rarely see any student touching another. You’d never know there was such a thing as sexuality. I know it’s all going on under the surface. I know maturity is about keeping relational matters differentiated from public daily life. That is what adults do. But these are not adults. This is high school.

Though it couldn’t possibly be accurate, what so many of my current students present is an air of self-sufficiency, in contrast to my former students who seemed to hunger for connection. Those former students who lived lives often filled with visible troubles were familiar with vulnerability and they were sometimes comfortable showing it. Even the macho young men in loose jeans who wore sunglasses indoors and wouldn’t cop to being studious were in subtle ways quite vulnerable under the surface and in their own blustery fashion sought my attention if only through a bumping of fists. It was like they needed an uncle.

Despite the vulnerability their stress must create, my private school kids seem poised and secure, like the Pacific Heights homes they sleep in each night. But the vulnerability of the human heart is not mitigated by the fact that you live in Pacific Heights. I know they have the same turbulent insides as any other kids. Aren’t their bedroom diaries filled with the same effusions as those of the kids who open their lives to me? I wish I could know. But unless I return to the public classroom I will only be left to imagine the inner turnings of their souls.

Unpacking the Common Core

Amidst the firestorm of political controversy over the national education standards known as the Common Core, what has been lost is a pedagogical evaluation of the standards themselves. Can they help students learn better? What is it about these standards that would facilitate greater student achievement? What do they look like in the classroom? The Common Core is likely neither the essential key to improving student learning that some supporters trumpet, nor the injurious educational bludgeon some critics claim. Its impact is more likely to be modest, serving as one helpful instructional vehicle if teachers are effectively trained to apply it intelligently.

But before examining the standards themselves let’s first clear away some of the volatile politics. Rigorous curriculum standards, as the Common Core purports to be, are actually nothing new in public K-12 education. States have been adopting them over the last three decades. California adopted a comprehensive set in 2000. The thinking is that by articulating the essential skills and content knowledge students should have, teachers have a blueprint for what to teach in their classrooms and student learning is consistent and rigorous. Teachers could also be held more accountable because their work could be evaluated against the learning goals specified in the standards. The Common Core, developed for math and language arts, advances the same premise but adds the seductive extension that the regime goes national. We would now have a single uniform college prep K-12 framework. One argument for a national set of standards is that it promotes equity. Theoretically any student, whether in a resource-rich wealthy suburb or a poor rural hamlet, would be taught the same essential skills in graded sequence. The Common Core doesn’t prescribe curriculum. It is only a skills-based framework. But it is the first federal gesture at something like a national curriculum.

That the Common Core promotes a national, federally-supported teaching effort has many conservatives fulminating. While conservatives initially heralded the rigor of the standards, the tide has recently turned with Republican governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal arguing that the standards are a federal intrusion on states’ authority over education. Even some seeming moderates like Chris Christie of New Jersey have criticized the standards. While 46 states originally adopted the Common Core, four have repealed adoption and nine others are reconsidering. Actually, the standards do not represent federal intrusion on state education control. The National Governors Association and its partners with funding from the Gates Foundation devised the Common Core and it is up to individual states to adopt them. The Obama administration has, however, made their adoption a prerequisite for federal education funding and increasingly has demanded that use of the standards be tied to high stakes testing.

The besieged curriculum standards have been treated more as a political artifact than a pedagogical tool. Politics aside, the question to examine is what impact might these standards have in the classroom? One important starting point is to recognize that the Common Core, like all state and other K-12 standard outlines is developmental, promoting progressively deeper levels of achievement through the grades. Theoretically one could isolate a particular skill and trace a through line from early elementary school to high school seniors. So if first graders identify a simile in “The Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe,” seniors might explicate a conceit in a Spenser sonnet. One first grade writing standard calls on students to:
Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.
This standard actually comprises four inter-related skills (the last of which, providing closure, being vague) built around the learning goal of expressing an opinion. The corresponding standard for grade five asks students to:
Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
The first two tasks here are the same as those specified for first graders. The difference is that the fifth graders have to organize supporting ideas around the opinion. High school students might correspondingly have to build a multi-point argument that refutes a counterargument.
The standards are actually amorphous in key ways. They cannot concretely articulate how complexly or deeply the argument needs to be. The fifth grade standard could just as well be the 12th grade standard. Nonetheless the concept of grade to grade articulation is instructionally helpful, especially if subject area teachers from different grades discuss how they are using their respective standards. Wouldn’t it be powerful if first, fifth, eight and 11th grade teachers sat down together to explore how their students drafted arguments?
A developmental approach to the standards makes pedagogical sense, but a problem is that the leveling may not be appropriate. The designers of the standards, most of whom were not educational experts, could not necessarily assess how well a fourth grader can weigh textual evidence. Some teachers and parents have been disturbed by what they see as an attempt to push overly difficult skills on learners in the lower grades.
But the emphasis on critical thinking, what some people consider a higher order skill not accessible to young children, is right on. Critical thinking is a sometimes overused catch phrase that really means evaluating evidence and assertions well, often based on a text. The intellectual task goes beyond memorization and recall to an emphasis on inquiry and discernment. A first grade standard asks students to “identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.” This is rudimentary literary-based psychology for tykes. Students might notice that if a character has her arms wrapped around her mid-section that might suggest worry. This is challenging and age appropriate. In fifth grade students advance to “determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details.” In grades 11 and 12 students “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.” This focus on text analysis is crucial because the ability to comprehend complex texts is the most significant factor differentiating college-ready from non-college-ready readers. Such analytical thinking standards are not limited to language arts. In math, for example, fifth graders “generate two numerical patterns using two given rules. Identify apparent relationships between corresponding terms.”
This type of standard isn’t groundbreaking. Forward-looking math programs seeking to surpass the “drill and kill” techniques of standardized math curricula have been using such standards for years. Many of the standards in fact recreate existing curriculum. The algebra standards may look familiar even to parents who haven’t manipulated a variable in 30 years. Algebra students “graph linear and quadratic functions and show intercepts, maxima, and minima.” That’s straight out of my freshman math class. At times the standards are conventional but dressed in overwrought language. First graders “understand subtraction as an unknown-addend problem. For example, subtract 10 – 8 by finding the number that makes 10 when added to 8.” If you break down the language of many of the fundamental standards you could overlay much of schools’ existing language arts and math curricula onto the standards and get a pretty good meshing.
Besides the sometimes tortured phrasing of the standards another issue I have is that they can be vague and even tautological. A description of mathematics practices for 1st grade says that students will “make sense of problems.” Another statement directs students to reason “quantitatively,” an odd point given that math is inherently quantitative. “Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding” is a meaningless statement because it merely asserts that students will be able to do what students at that level are supposed to do. What teacher is helped by that?
Whatever the quality of the standards and the precision of the language with which they are articulated, the issue remains that nothing will change in our classrooms until teachers are trained to improve instructional practice. The standards themselves change nothing. They are a framework. Establishing a call for second graders to think critically is one thing, but actually knowing how to cultivate such thinking when you have never done it before is quite another. Without a rigorous program of professional development in every school, the standards are merely a wish list.
Standards can also be turned into flimsy statements teachers manipulate in order to maintain their existing teaching practice. I have seen teachers work backwards to satisfy a school’s requirements that the standards be employed by continuing to do the same lessons they have always done and mechanically attaching the standards that most closely align, providing themselves political cover.
While individual standards may be quite helpful in guiding teaching if used creatively, a problem is that for a given grade and subject, the whole body of standards is impossible to cover with any depth. A principle of good pedagogy is depth over breadth. Teachers would probably be best off taking a few standards and covering them developmentally over the course of a year. Yet schools face pressure to cover them all and the standardized tests now being devised to assess students’ mastery of the standards are comprehensive.
Not only does classroom teaching need to develop, so do schoolwide practices. It is a great step to have developmentally progressive standards that set benchmarks from year to year, but this design will be effective only if teachers across grade levels develop articulated curriculum. That would require something unheard of, that elementary and secondary teachers talk to each other.

It’s unfortunate that the standards were created in an insulated inorganic way without the ongoing collaboration of teachers in the field. This has made implementation bumpy at best, and damaging at worst. If the standards had been considered a draft and then field tested before high stakes assessments were imposed, they might have been more easily swallowed. In New York state a first round of testing based on the standards measured only 30% proficient, generating a community backlash as well as a blow to the self-esteem of many children.

It is ultimately naïve to think that uniform adoption of the Common Core nationally will somehow generate academic parity across demographics. The value of standards, however well they are used, is limited given the deep socioeconomic disparities within American society that have produced corresponding inequities in the quality of public education. Poor urban schools that serve primarily students of color are woefully lacking in resources compared to schools in suburban and high income areas. To claim that somehow the standards will foster success for all our children is to cynically elide
these inequities. A kid in Compton using the standards is not going to get an education that touches the education of a kid using the standards in nearby Beverly Hills. We are a country that invests faith in measurements. Hence our standardized testing obsession in public education. If you look closely at their statements, the creators of the Common Core and the U.S. Department of Education seem to believe that by setting high performance expectations and then testing the results, students everywhere will naturally rise to new levels. But this is unlikely to happen until local, state and federal governments move to address much deeper problems of poverty, underfunding, inadequate teacher support, low teacher salaries, elimination of arts programming, and school violence. The Common Core can put into practice some important pedagogical concepts and has its place in school reform efforts, but to claim it provides a key to a solution is to vastly overstate the impact it will have.

The adventurous college visit

When Josh returned from his six school tour of east coast colleges last spring he enthusiastically told me he had settled on a first choice, Tufts. Middlebury, Haverford, Penn, Boston College and Colby had varying attractive qualities, but at Tufts the students nicely balanced studiousness and sociability. The campus was pretty and there is a renowned international relations program. Things just had a nice feel. I didn’t outwardly question Josh’s choice. I’m sure he’ll be happy at Tufts if he gets in, but I was aware that he had spent only three hours on campus.

Josh had done what so many families do every visitation season when they descend on campuses during spring break and summer. They use the superficial college visit template. Parents and their children often take a student-guided tour, stroll the grounds, try on sweatshirts in the campus bookstore, perhaps eat in the cafeteria, and less commonly, have a pre-arranged interview with an admissions officer. The student tour leader is not only a guide, but becomes a prototype. She usually describes her representative career: how she chose a major, what dorm she lives in, the campus alcohol policy, the intramural sport she plays, and where to get the best pizza. It’s a helpful story, but the striking thing is that it’s the only one visitors usually hear during their visit.

Families visiting colleges and universities often approach the experience like tourists skimming the surface. They are essentially passive, listening to a tour guide, soaking in the atmosphere, generally gazing from the exterior. The key to a rich school visit is to engage. A college campus is a buzzing community, a structured laboratory of young adult life.

My advice to you the high school student is take at least a day and an evening and preferably 24 hours, not just an afternoon, and throw yourself into the vitality. Put away the camera and venture. Parents are welcome to tail along but the adventure is really yours. You need to get them to turn you loose while they go back to the hotel.

A good visit will benefit from some innovative planning. How do you find out if the academic program is for you? Not by reading about programs in a printed guide. Get beyond the public information sources a school produces by hooking up with a professor or two. Since Josh is interested in international relations, he could go to the departmental web page before the visit and pick out a professor who teachers an intriguing course, e-mail the professor, and ask if they can meet when he visits. It’s a bold move, but the fact is that professors usually enjoy talking with prospective students. They appreciate that you sought them out. It’s novel. The day of the visit, have tea, and visit one of their classes.

It’s amazing to me that high school students are willing to commit to four years of butt-busting academic work at a school where they have never sampled a class. Get out the course schedule, pick out that class on African-American literature (because you loved Native Son this year) and at the class location, politely ask the instructor if you can sit in. They not only are likely to say yes, but if it is a small class, might ask you to introduce yourself, opening the way for you to meet students afterward.

To find out about student life, an embarkation point is a campus bulletin board. Scan the flyers for clubs and meetings that interest you. On the day you’re there maybe the Capoeira club has practice, Hillel has a Shabbat meal, and the debate society will contest a controversial proposition on counter-terrorism. Just show up, explain you are a prospective student, observe and maybe participate. This visit could also be pre-arranged. Go to the school website and look for a list of clubs. Often there will be a contact. E-mail the contact, explain your mission and see if they are meeting on the day of your visit.

There is no substitute for hanging out with students, whether in the cafeteria, after a class, or sitting on the grass of the central quad. Admittedly, it can take some uncomfortable assertiveness to strike up a conversation on the library steps, but undergraduates will likely enjoy it. It can be fun for them to serve as emissaries and have a college junior interested in their assessment of the Greek system.

The ultimate way to embed oneself in the life of a school is to shadow a student. Many school admissions offices will set this up. Some schools allow you to spend a day and overnight. You will vicariously experience a full 24 hours of the undergraduate life. Let’s face it, to comprehend the full truth of the Tufts zeitgeist you have to know not only the grading policy for Calculus 100, but also what happens at Delta Kappa Epsilon at two in the morning.

Most students tell me they don’t have the luxury of 24 hours, nor will their parents want to spend time wandering a college town while you explore the campus. In fact, many students say they don’t have the luxury of eight hours. On the standard college tour families pack two or three schools into a weekend, or half a dozen during spring break (when many colleges are also on spring break and therefore virtually shut down). It’s one school a day, a lot of driving and some sightseeing. When visiting Tufts Josh spent considerable time exploring Boston with his parents, which would be fine if it didn’t make them feel like they were cramming in Tufts. I don’t think one should do an immersion experience at several schools, but one or two is possible. And it doesn’t take that much more time to visit a class, sit in a dorm lounge a while, or meet a professor during her office hours.

But making these kinds of visits does require more time. Students often fear missing days back at their high school because their grades might be affected. I understand this, but I encourage them, if needed, to take an extra day or two beyond weekends and spring breaks to make their visits. The irony is that while students are afraid of missing days because it might hurt their chances of getting in to certain colleges, they don’t want to spend extended time at these same colleges.

Many families deal with the problem of missing school days during the year by making college visits during the summer. I discourage such visits. They are the antithesis of what I’m advocating. Schools during the summer are generally hibernating. There are few students to hang out with, limited classes, professors on vacation, the soccer field grass untouched. In summer, one gets the extreme version of the surface glide.

The kind of visit I’m suggesting does require some reprioritizing and a willingness to stretch beyond the comfort zone. Brio is what will serve a student well when he arrives on campus down the road. For an undergraduate at virtually any school, opportunities abound to explore on many levels. The adventurous, enthusiastic and most of all active college visit can set the tone for the first undergraduate days. There is a risk that on some level a student will fall into college, letting it unfold as it will. A first step to really owning an eventual new life at college is to act alive on the visit the year before.

One additional benefit of making this kind of visit is that it can help the student get accepted to a school. A student who has an interview at the end of the visit or back home with an alumni can impress with a story of how she took the initiative to discuss President Hollande with a French professor or have dinner with the Asian-American student alliance. Many schools have an application question that asks why the applicant wants to attend the school. Students who have only consulted a website, read published material and made a superficial visit, often struggle to get beyond a generic answer. A student who has really explored a school can tell a better story. But the benefit of answering that question well isn’t just about getting admitted. It’s about being able to write with conviction for oneself, to know with more confidence that a particular school can be a home. There is no substitute for that awareness. One adventurous day on campus is hardly enough to establish a deep bond but it can be enough to establish the beginning of a vision that extends years ahead.

A light inside the depths

Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people, but not to myself.
-Robin Williams

While every year I taught a unit to my high school psychology class on mental illness, every year I hid my own. There were times I would stand in front of my students and speak about depression, despair, the suicide rates, when my own depression, despair, and suicidal thoughts breathed silently in the room. One year I reached a turning point. The depression had become so bad it was outwardly noticeable. I sometimes stopped silent mid-discussion, lost in anxiety. My hands trembled at the board. I had lost 15 pounds and my face was slack. A rumor began to circulate on campus that I had cancer. For years I had lived in fear that the kids would discover my truth. Now, at the depths, already half-exposed, I began to wonder if it wasn’t worse to walk around paranoid than to reveal my condition. I didn’t deserve to wear a veil of shame. At that point I underwent a small, quiet paradigm shift away from believing I had to maintain secrecy toward a belief that openness might be freeing. And as a teacher who strives to model integrity I wanted to normalize mental illness for my students, demonstrating that sufferers like myself can cope with and accept it, that none of us is alone. So I stood up in front of each of my five classes and said I have depression. I said I’m going to be who I am in this room. I told them teenagers need to see that teachers, parents and adults everywhere suffer psychological hardship as much as teens do in their turbulent adolescence. I reached out to the anonymously lonely, depressed students in the crowd. Knowing I understand depression, I said, those among you who also suffer, be assured you can rely on me. And indeed in the next several days certain students privately approached me about their own depression and sometime battle with suicidal thoughts.

Although our culture has in recent years become increasingly sensitive around issues of mental illness and depression in particular, the stigma of mental illness remains strong, evidenced by the vast numbers of sufferers who never speak about their condition, young people especially. It is telling that Robin Williams, who spoke openly for years about his substance abuse struggles, never said anything publicly about his battle with depression. We have reached a point where even in the image-fixated world of the entertainment industry being an addict approaches social acceptability. In fact addiction, while obviously destructive, can signify attractive intensity, edginess, and reckless freedom. It is ostensibly glamorous. Depression, meanwhile, remains decidedly uncool and disturbing. We don’t know what to do with depression.

We like to believe that as a culture we are coming from a place of compassion and acceptance. We consciously profess understanding, but behind that in many corners lies subtle and not so subtle judgment, the perception that those with depression are deficient and weak. I’ve lived with depression for over two decades and I still hold that attitude, having internalized the outer culture’s unconscious judgments. Anyone who believes that depression signifies a deficit does not understand that depression is an illness. Though a depressed person can in many ways treat the condition with diligent effort, depression isn’t really subject to individual will anymore than leukemia is.

Despite its frequency, depression, when severe like my own has been, inhabits the realm of the alien. It’s untouchable. Coming out remains an ongoing issue for me. I remain afraid that if I reveal my illness to the clients of my education business, they will drop me, fearing that I will be less than competent. Indeed that appears to have already happened. And what if they read this blog, which is the first public statement I have made of my depression?

The flat clinical word depression is painfully inadequate to capture a sense of the agonizing consciousness that characterizes this affliction. The official medical description of depression is in the diagnostic manual of mental illness known as the DSM-V that catalogs nine separate symptoms with a facile inexactitude. Depression transcends these symptoms. Describing the symptoms of a body is one thing. Describing the symptoms of a state of mind is quite another. The feelings of depression are a shifting constellation of fear, anxiety, guilt, despair, sadness, lethargy, numbness, self-hate and the shadings of many others. The conventional view that depression is merely low mood or deep sadness is an extraordinarily limited one. Depression can be a saturated darkness, an abyss, a gaping blankness where a song once loved becomes a faraway echo and one is untouched by the midnight expanse of stars. In my own case, I awake every morning in an oppression that evolves each day to a thin, livable despair. I withstand it.

It may be nearly as difficult for me to empathize with another’s experience of depression as it is for a non-sufferer, for depression is as varied as the individuals who have it. While one person weeps in the middle of the night, another can never cry. While one person has anxious racing thoughts, another has a mind that feels like it’s operating on a single weak piston. I know depression profoundly from the inside and deal with suicidal thoughts, but I doubt I could truly understand what Robin Williams experienced.

If we really want to understand depression we have to go beyond clinical public education, public health statistics and descriptions of standardized symptoms and treatments. We need to take a humanistic approach and look into the inner experience by hearing personal testimony. I encourage everyone open to learning to read a memoir such as William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Katherine Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. When I was a classroom high school teacher I called my unit on mental illness Pain and Healing to emphasize the struggle and hope of the individual rather than the mere psychological and pathological facts.

I want to add some reflection here about suicide because suicide has an even greater stigma than depression. It is bewildering to the living, horrifying, the ultimate negation. How could he or she do it? The world of the suicidal is often a remote inaccessible realm that those of us left behind cannot comprehend. Perhaps our foremost expert on suicide, Professor Jamison of Johns Hopkins, recognized its fathomless reality last month in The New York Times, saying that “suicidal depression involves a kind of pain and hopelessness that is impossible to describe- and I have tried.” Difficult as it is, especially for those personally touched by suicide, it is important not to pass judgment. Many people blame suicide victims as selfish for inflicting pain on others when in fact those who choose suicide may be profoundly agonized by what their loss may cause loved ones. Some have judged Robin Williams’ choice because he had so much to be happy about in his life. Others, including psychologists, label suicide as an aggressive act designed to get back at the world or a grandiose and romanticized gesture. And many times I have heard suicide called cowardly, an easy out. On the contrary for suicidal people to endure horrific psychic torture, battling the demons and the sense that death is inexorable, it requires courage. Bromides such as suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, may neatly reassure the undepressed but deny the truth of the suicidal for whom the unrelenting pain can be anything but temporary.

The death of Robin Williams may spur us to destigmatize depression and suicide and inquire more deeply into their reality. Statistics that show a sharp increase in suicide rates for men in his age group over the last 20 years do not have as much impact on public response as one prominent tragedy. Looking ahead, we can perhaps soften in our compassion for the suffering and harden in our resolve to address mental illness. We should take heed, though, that when the shock and memory of tragedy fades amidst the ongoing deluge of developing news, we struggle to maintain our focus on pressing issues. Our wounds cannot afford it.

Why teach grammar

There’s a good chance that the New Yorker essayist who wrote this week’s lead piece has no idea what a gerund is. She probably uses the subjunctive form from time to time, but likely couldn’t explain it. But despite lacking explicit awareness of grammatical constructions she composes crisp prose because she understands the architecture of English intuitively. Would studying grammar help her writing?

English teachers from kindergarten to college have debated for over a hundred years how much value explicit formal grammar instruction has. Specifically, does it improve written expression? And beyond that might it have some less tangible value, perhaps developing the linguistic mind in some essential way akin to how studying mathematics supposedly develops core cognitive abilities? Writers who learn grammatical intricacies may be like sprinters who learn biomechanics. It may not be essential to understand how the hamstring flexes to run the 100 meter dash, but having such awareness may sharpen one’s technique.

I’ve met a lot of parents and teachers who think grammar instruction is essential for language skills and who lament the decreasing emphasis in recent decades on direct grammar instruction. There is a deep public mythology that a seeming educational looseness traceable back to the 1970s and our current tech and media saturation have given rise to teaching that eschews rigorous traditional methods and has resulted in declining academic performance and especially writing. Parents commonly cite their own children’s writing as evidence.

On the question of whether grammar instruction improves academic and writing performance the research is inconclusive. Belying common belief, research studies in various English-speaking countries do not consistently show that formal grammar instruction improves writing. In one British review study from 2006, Andrews et. al. concluded that “studies in the twentieth century have suggested that the learning of formal, traditional grammar has no beneficial effect on children’s written work.” While this position remains debatable, what is certainly clear is that decontextualized grammar instruction without any relation to students’ actual writing has little effect and may in some cases even be detrimental if it makes students approach writing as a system of rules rather than expression. This means it’s time to end the practice of giving students a worksheet of 20 bland sentences and asking them to underline all the adverbial phrases. And we would be best to discard sentence diagramming, that notorious rigidified task favored by stodgy prep school traditionalists. There just isn’t any credible evidence that formulaically mapping the structure of component parts of a sentence enhances students’ ability to use language.

One of the worst ways of trying to teach grammar is also the most widely practiced, randomly correcting grammatical errors on student papers. While teachers may feel teacherly crossing out improperly used verb tenses and ambiguous pronouns, students do not internalize these grammatical corrections and instead begin to self-evaluate their writing in terms of its correctness rather than its expressive quality. When asked whether they are good writers, students taught under the correction regime will often say no because they make too many mistakes. This is a shame, because despite the errors, they may be highly expressive and subtle thinkers on paper.

This is not to say that grammatical mistakes should be ignored, but that they should be addressed within the larger framework of teaching effective language expression. The issue is not whether to teach grammar per se, but how to do it strategically. Grammar, like any subject, can be taught poorly with little pedagogical consciousness. When taught creatively and selectively, however, with a sophisticated sense of how instruction integrates into a larger picture, students can gain tools for being able to manipulate language better. Practicing how to identify prepositional phrases will not achieve that goal. A better exercise would be to have students compose an authentic piece of writing such as an autobiographical essay and use a specified grammatical construction the class has studied. For example, students might be asked to tell their story including a sentence with parallel structure, such as “I hung there on the wall of the climbing gym, wondered if my legs would hold, and prayed something vaguely remembered from church.” The key here is that the learning is constructive. Students integrate a grammatical concept into their own expression rather than passively and mechanically correcting some other source’s disembodied sentences. They see the goal is ultimately about communication, not correctness.

What we are really after is keen thinking. Grammar is personally fascinating to me because it encodes the logical substructure of thinking. Grammar instruction should be subsumed under instruction in rhetoric and reason. This forms the basis for good academic writing, the kind of writing we begin to train students for at least by late middle school. Sentence structure study can particularly enhance thinking because a sentence is a miniature piece of logical architecture. For example, by practicing unfamiliar types of subordination one plays with arranging the relationships between independent and dependent ideas. Elementary age students write simple sentences that mirror their similarly simple logic. One exercise that challenges students to make their logic more complex is sentence combining. A high school student might be asked to take four simple sentences and combine them into one.

Starter sentences
1. President Obama is generally a compromiser.
2. He initiated a climate change proposal.
3. He sought a bi-partisan deal.
4. The Republican Congress stymied his proposal.

Combined sentence
When President Obama, generally a compromiser, initiated a climate change proposal he sought a bi-partisan deal, but the Republican Congress stymied the proposal.

This exercise requires several logical constructive tasks including ordering and subordinating, resulting in a sentence with more sophistication than students would likely produce on their own. But the teacher doesn’t need to name terms like subordinate clause and appositive to have students benefit from the exercise.

Correct use of certain grammatical constructions makes thinking more precise and should be taught with that in mind. A common writing mistake is the ambiguous pronoun reference when, for example, a conversation between two males is being described and three sentences into the paragraph one of the men is referred to as “he.” Is it the one figure or the other? Although the writer himself knows the answer, his inability to express it on the page reflects fuzzy thinking on a micro level. It can be helpful to make students more aware of this grammatical pitfall.

It’s also important to acknowledge that the real world expects a certain ability to use grammar correctly. Students take college entrance exams with grammar sub-tests. We fill out applications. We write public documents. I have seen many instances of the school principal or business executive who sends out a memo with grammatical or mechanical errors and loses credibility. If our knowledge of grammar and writing conventions is shaky, it goes without saying that we should use an editor as well as word processing spell checks and grammar checks.

While there are obviously pragmatic reasons for knowing proper grammar, there is also a cultural ethic about correctness we should challenge and not impose on students. This is the belief that correct grammar must be upheld because rules are rules. The teacher treats a misplaced comma as a minute violation of the language order. A split infinitive is criticized. Or, God forbid, someone ends a sentence in a preposition. Those who profess a great respect for grammar may argue that the issue is a question of social norms. Their view is that using a dangling modifier in a master’s thesis is like wearing a skewed tie at a wedding.

Grammar finally offers an opportunity to observe the intricate beauty behind the automatic use of the language system we take for granted every day. Part of why grammar teaching gets such as a bad rap is that it often presented as being more like scraping underlayers of paint rather than creating blends from a palette. Students will be more open to applying the practical lessons of grammar study when they can see there is actually an intriguing aesthetic element to the inner design of syntax. Other elegant systems of study have at times been presented similarly bled of their beauty: architecture as merely concrete and stresses, human anatomy as bones and sinew, geometry as angles and postulates. Let’s not continue to do something like that with grammar, for the power of studying it is greater than the bland stereotypical lesson implies. More than just improve writing and thinking, grammar study opens a window onto how the hidden verbal mechanisms operate of the very way our minds negotiate the world.

Jazz, recovery and Katrina: students investigate New Orleans

Like the rest of us, students who hear about distant human suffering from war, natural disaster, public health crisis or other destructive conditions often feel remote and powerless. In school, a conscientious history or English teacher may spare half a lesson to acknowledge sobering headlines, whether the war in Syria, Hurricane Sandy or other issue, but then the subtle pressure builds to revert to the New Deal or Oliver Twist. A diligent teacher, however, willing to depart from mandated curriculum and engage a critical issue squarely, can offer students an opportunity to strongly take on the challenging issues of the day. And if done well, the teaching can surface the same key themes explored in any rigorous history or literature course, but with an immediacy and compelling relevance textbook study lacks.

I would like to teach a unit on how the city of New Orleans has responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in these last nine years. This would not be a textbook-based study. It would be an attempt to enter the heart of New Orleans and use historical and journalistic research to explore the resonant political, social, economic and cultural issues that emerged from Katrina. But the implications would go beyond New Orleans, for the city is microcosm of a troubled urban America, exhibiting as dramatically as any literary work the ills and triumphs that frame United States history. New Orleans would itself become a multi-dimensional protagonist and the aim of the unit would be to bring the city to life.

I would begin by investigating how today’s cultural milieu is rooted in its French colonial past and development of a cultural creole unlike anything else ever seen in the United States. Music of course emblemizes the rich cultural melange beginning with slaves drumming on Sundays in the place known as Congo Square. Students would trace a line from the colonial musical roots through to jazz and bring it up to date by evaluating the range of music before Katrina. We’d follow by analyzing what happened to the music scene post-Katrina when so many musicians were displaced and instruments destroyed. The analysis would require rigorous investigation. While music history can be found in books, to study music since Katrina would require acute journalistic skills, whether going through magazine archives or calling a musician’s cooperative that has helped performers whose livelihood was damaged by the storm. I’d have students read my own small contribution to knowledge about the current music situation, a magazine profile of the Soul Rebels, a funky brass band whose members were separated by Katrina, but who with determination stayed together despite two of the eight members indefinitely needing to commute from Houston each week to perform gigs.

The unit would be built around two essential questions: how extensive and equitable has the recovery been and how does music strengthen the city? The questions require students to go beyond merely documenting what has happened to evaluating the resulting impact. The issue of equitability echoes concerns about disparities in America writ large. This is a tall order admittedly. We would have to locate comparative economic and demographic data. We would also look at how economic patterns correspond to racial demographics. What, for example, is the racial composition of neighborhoods where homes have and have not been rebuilt? We would look at which businesses have been restored or started up since Katrina. While it is widely known that the French Quarter is ironically doing even better than before Katrina, how representative is the success of this economic showpiece of progress in other zones of the city? What’s going on where the tourists never go? With the internet students would have access to city documents and magazine research that would illuminate these questions. They’d call and e-mail the city government directly too, becoming inquisitive news hounds.

By interviewing people involved in the struggle to rejuvenate the city, students would begin to form a human connection to the New Orleans community. To let them see into the lives of community members I would intersperse our study with episodes of the HBO show Treme, an incisive portrayal of a cross-section of New Orleans characters. There is the aspiring trumpeter whose ailing father determinedly rebuilds his destroyed home without help from government authorities. There is the slacker DJ searching for the musical act that will score him big. There is the lawyer trying to document the abuse and negligence of a hopelessly corrupt and self-protective police department. There is the corner bar owner scraping to maintain a business that provides a social haven for the neighborhood. And suffusing the various storylines is the extraordinary array of music, not just jazz, but varieties and blends of blues, zydeco, folk, metal, and hip hop with scenes shot at many local venues and featuring performances by nationally renowned musicians, local favorites and unknown street players. The show captures how New Orleans truly pulses through its music.

Fictional narratives can help humanize the study, but I would finally want my students to make a direct connection with people in the city. The most natural would be to connect with other high schools students. And so the framing activity of the unit would be to contact a public high school and pair students who could dialogue about their lives. My San Francisco crew would share what it is like to grow up in the Bay Area and ask the New Orleans kids about what it has been like to grow up in the wake of Katrina. 16 year olds were seven years old at the time of the storm. What happened to their families, their neighborhoods, their schools? Who among them are musicians? What is that state of the marching band at their school (just about every high school in New Orleans pre-Katrina had a marching band, the training corps for future jazz musicians).

Ultimately, if we can raise the money, we’d get ourselves to the city, visit our school counterparts, watch a second line street parade, meet people we encountered in our journalistic investigations. I would also arrange volunteer work. The most valuable might be helping Habitat for Humanity rebuild homes, an essential effort when in certain neighborhoods still to this day a mere fraction of the homes destroyed by Katrina have been rebuilt.

It has always been the case in our school system that learning proceeds primarily from a book or from a screen. There is little chance to directly see and touch what is being studied. The New Orleans unit is a small effort to promote academic study on a critical concern with intimacy and visceral relevance. It’s the difference between reading a description of Louis Armstrong and discussing song repertoire with a busker blowing his horn on Frenchman St.

The academic dilemma of the college athletic star

When the star wideout from Acadinia High School in Lafayette, Louisiana arrived on the Cal Berkeley campus in August, the last subject on his mind was Introduction to Economics. In six weeks he’d step onto the grass at Memorial Stadium clad in blue and gold for the football home opener. During those six weeks he would have two a day practices, weight training sessions, team strategy meetings, team meals, and time on his own to learn the playbook. It was virtually a full time job. So when it came time to get started on academics he didn’t have a lot left. But he needed a lot, more than the average incoming freshman, because at Acadinia he was a below average student with grades and test scores not even close to the range usually required to get into what is considered the most elite public university in the country. Football got him to Cal, not the SAT, and without the time nor the skills, he was set up to struggle in the classroom. He wasn’t alone. At Cal, 44% of football players fail to graduate. And for basketball players in the seven major athletic conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten, the graduation rate was 32.4 lower than for the general male population in 2011.

Although the NCAA cites statistics somewhat better than Cal’s, with football and basketball player graduation rates in the 60s among major schools, colleges and universities show a consistent pattern of recruiting academically underperforming players, often in football and basketball, who ultimately falter in the classroom. It is an embarrassment to the schools and an injustice to these students who are put in an untenable predicament. The question we must pose is whether it’s legitimate to lure such athletic stars to campuses and ask them to survive in the classroom while devoting 30 hours a week to a sport.

There is a culture of falsity around this issue, as schools claim they do not accept underqualified students, especially at elite institutions like Stanford, Duke and Michigan. But the recruiting narrative even at these schools belies the claim. Duke, for example, is arguably the best basketball recruiting team in the nation and offers scholarships to the cream of the high school crop. It doesn’t withhold prize scholarships from superstar athletes who may struggle to fulfill its demanding academic requirements.

One answer to the dilemma of the beleaguered student-athlete is to create a specialized support system that fosters academic success. Critics will argue this is inequitable, that other students don’t have special programs set up for them outside a campus tutoring center. But if we accept that these students should have the opportunity to be on campus, we owe it to them to provide the tools for academic success. Current efforts to help students are sometimes enabling. Stories abound of ersatz classes with flimsy achievement requirements and tutors who over-assist students. One of the most egregious cases has been at the University of North Carolina where over the last two decades football players and other athletes have been allowed to take so-called independent studies classes with little oversight or academic demands. A tutor for these classes who said she could no longer remain silent about an unethical system reported that many of her students read at elementary grade school level and yet managed to receive course credits. This is certainly an extreme but there are many examples of patsy classes oriented specifically to serve athletes. I can remember as a kid growing up in Ann Arbor back in the 70s reading incredulously at the University of Michigan football magazine player profiles that listed physical education for half the student majors. Even Stanford, the university of highest academic standing among schools in the major conferences, has had a list circulated among athletes of undemanding courses like social dancing.

An academic support system that obviates the perceived necessity of lowering standards should begin when athletes are still in high school. When recruits visit college campuses and are ushered around to meet with coaches and tour athletic facilities, what kind of introduction do they get to the academic side of life? Do they sit down with an academic counselor, attend a sample class or get shown a reading list or course syllabus? Just as football players arrive on campus for practices in the summer to prepare for the fall season, they should be given a rigorous introduction to the college experience in the summer between high school and college. Once on campus, these athletes need more than piecemeal and often loose remedial tutoring. More than graduate student tutors who spend an hour or two narrowly focused on a particular math or writing assignment, students need trained mentors who serve as models and guide student athletes more systematically toward academic success. Athletes should also be required to meet regularly with professors just as they meet with coaches. The coaches themselves should be in touch with those on the academic side so that the athletic and academic experiences are more closely connected. Players should be helped to perceive how they can apply to their academics many of the practices for success they engage in on the court and the field including rigorous discipline and strategic analysis. To their credit some schools and universities are developing programs to provide such guidance.

Some people might argue that offering this kind of academic support is coddling. It’s hard to argue, though, that an athlete is being indulged when he is in a position of having to work demonstrably harder than a typical student to achieve academically while also spending months working at what amounts to a full time commitment. Others may say schools cannot afford to allocate so many resources to such a structured support program. But if so many resources are put into the athletic programs and facilities, a corresponding commitment to academics seems just.

Schools should also provide opportunities to meaningfully integrate athletic and academic work, thereby enhancing both. Athletic life for many athletes now has virtually no relationship to academics. The University of Michigan is one school that has challenged this disconnect by updating the old dubious physical education program into a more sophisticated program in the School of Kinesiology where one can study biomechanics, sports marketing, and legal issues in athletics. Other universities have similarly multi-dimensional programs.

Students who are invited to attend a school as athletes first, and scholars second, may struggle to negotiate their dual identity. As of this spring that identity has become even more complicated by the federal labor ruling that football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees and have the right to unionize. The ruling underlines that athletes in the most demanding sports serve the university as much as it serves them and that in essence these athletes are being asked to carry two jobs. Whether these athletes should be compensated in dollars because schools profit from them financially, they should definitely be compensated with extensive academic support. Our system that offers elite athletes the opportunity to get higher education is commendable for opening a gateway to young people who might otherwise not have access to quality schooling. We need to make sure the gateway remains open for all of them.

Scoring the new SAT

The politically correct position on the SAT these days is that it fails the test. According to many progressive educators the exam unjustifiably claims to predict college success and reinforces socioeconomic inequities, the relic of a bygone era when so-called objective testing was believed to efficiently quantify intellectual ability. The College Board itself acknowledged the test’s inadequacies earlier this month when it announced core format changes. Students will be relieved to know they no longer need to identify the definition of equivocate or write an essay in 25 minutes on whether television disrupts social cohesion. The new test, whose specifics will be unveiled this month, supposedly will ask students to interpret literary and historical texts more actively and answer math problems more in line with authentic college prep curriculum. But can the new SAT reconfigure itself into a form that actually measures something worth measuring? Or do we need to begin with a whole new evaluation paradigm?

The A in SAT stands for aptitude. Aptitude is different from knowledge. It means capacity. The SAT supposedly measures a student’s capacity for college success, whatever the particular curriculum he may have studied. That’s why student scores from two totally dissimilar schools in Spokane and Schenectady can ostensibly be compared. This capacity underlies classroom experience and is more intrinsic to the mind of the student. But if the SAT assesses deeper qualities of thinking that transcend classroom experience, that is, if it isn’t about knowledge, then you shouldn’t be able to study for it. But you can. I spend an inordinate amount of my work time as a private academic mentor teaching the SAT trade, usually to high end students from well off families anxiously hoping to get into Yale, Cal, Duke or Oberlin (It’s rare I get a student going only for a “second tier” school like San Francisco State or Texas A & M). So, what does the SAT look like, what aspects of it can be taught, will the new SAT reduce the coachability of the test and will it evaluate ability more authentically?

The SAT now consists of four multiple choice question types and an essay. One type asks students to fill in a blank from a sentence with a vocabulary word. A second asks reading comprehension questions based on a passage. A third requires identification of grammatical and word usage errors, and a fourth consists of mathematical problems based on basic algebra and geometry rules.

The 25 minute essay section, added in 2005, has been unpopular with both students and college admissions officers. Is it a helpful tool for determining writing skills? My perhaps reactionary position is that it is. It captures a dimension of a student’s ability to think on his feet in a structured way. There are admittedly drawbacks to the assignment. 25 minutes is an inappropriately short amount of time and breeds superficiality. The topics are also sometimes inane. And it’s certainly not an authentic task. No college student will ever be asked to write cold on a decontextualized topic. But I see how the quality of response might correlate to how well a student parses Faulkner at NYU two years down the road. This is a wildly unpopular view in liberal circles, but it’s based on having worked on writing with scores of students. The kind of essay writing expected in college is often largely formulaic and a formula is what I give students for writing the SAT essay. The template is basic: a three sentence introduction with a thesis at the end, two body paragraphs each with a topic sentence and an example capable of analysis. I recommend that they keep two generic examples in their pockets that could be used for a wide range of topics. I suggest Obama as one stock example, so if the topic is something like “Does success usually involve struggle,” a typical prompt, one could be ready to discuss Obama’s fight with the Republican Party. The new SAT will not alter much the need for this formula. Expanding the time allotted to 50 minutes will allow students to delve a little deeper and the task will involve analysis of the argument in a text, but I’ll likely be able to coach it in a similar way.

The new SAT appears to drop what is the least legitimate part of the existing test, a multiple choice writing section that asks students to correct grammatical and word usage errors and critique the quality of some horrendously written sham student essays. This section is conspicuously flawed. Whether a student can pick out a dangling modifier or notice that imminent is mistakenly being used for eminent, bears little on his ability to write or do college work in general. But more fundamentally, rules of grammar and word usage are teachable knowledge. I tell students this is the section I can help them raise their scores on more than any other. I simply give them a crash English course. I don’t even need to be a particularly skilled teacher. Any one of the SAT study guides by companies like Barrons and Princeton Review have lists of grammar and usage rules with sample questions. I merely explain how they apply and make sure students take notes. The College Board says that with the new test students “will be asked to do more than correct errors; they’ll edit and revise to improve texts.” But the old SAT also asked students to edit by doing things like identifying a poor transition in a weakly written student essay. The bottom line is that a multiple choice approach to a task as complex and ill-structured as writing will inherently fail to assess writing skill. College English professors and their high school counterparts might even find such an approach to writing assessment offensive.

My experience has been that the most helpful section of the SAT has been the critical reading. Students read passages often by authentic authors (I’ve encountered Richard Wright and Oliver Sacks) and answer questions testing their understanding. The questions can be subjective, but the logic of the answers is generally accurate. I do acknowledge concern about cultural bias in the selection of passages. My students who perform well on this section correspondingly tend to be strong humanities students in school. And my students who struggle to comprehend these passages are apt to encounter problems in working with college level texts. The new SAT is not likely to improve much on its formula. The College Board emphasizes that there will be a new focus on analyzing an author’s argument, particularly the use of evidence. The Board has clearly joined the crowd of educators saying it’s all about critical thinking. Questions asking for deconstruction of an argument are a welcome addition, but I am fond of the current questions that ask students whether one passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is ethereal or whether another portrays Atlantic jellyfish as passive-aggressive.

The most controversial question type of the current SAT and the one that the College Board seems to have the most need to disown is the sentence completion that tests vocabulary. What value is there to knowing a student’s vocabulary? In a rare moment of self-critique the Board slapped itself on the wrist recently when it said “no longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down.” It’s true that students sometimes spend countless hours filling their vocabulary buckets one grain at a time in the hopes that their work will translate into higher scores on this section. It’s also true that the size of a student’s vocabulary reflects socioeconomic status (particularly the education of the parents). But there is a correlation between vocabulary and reading skill, in part because of the valid truism that reading increases vocabulary. In a more obscure way my observation is that vocabulary is partly a function of how someone engages with language in the world, both written and spoken. Does a student passively absorb challenging language, or wrestle with its meaning, reformulate it, integrate its contents. A more active relationship with language means a stronger vocabulary and that active approach is the mark of a successful student. There actually is something to testing students’ understanding of less than common words. The new SAT, though, will not test knowledge of less common words. The College Board has taken pains to make vocabulary testing authentic by using relevant words in the context of a real piece of writing. When the Board releases sample questions later this month, it will be interesting to see what types of words it considers relevant.

Finally, the math section is certainly the least accurate predictor of college performance, given that a minority of students use algebra and higher level math skills in their courses. Supposedly the ability to solve the SAT mathematical puzzles indicates a certain generalizable left-brained problem solving ability, perhaps something like chess acumen, but really it just displays savvy in the math subject area, not useless by any means, but hardly a genuine indicator of college readiness. The math section can be coached much more easily than the reading because a student can be taught to identify specific question types that have been practiced. If a question asks one to measure the area of a figure formed by four overlapping circles, it is doubtful the student will have seen such a figure before, but he may have studied areas formed by other geometric shapes. So the problem becomes an exercise in adeptly transposing conceptual understanding. That’s a helpful capacity to know about that gets beyond specific content knowledge. But in some ways it appears the new SAT may move back toward evaluating traditional content knowledge, similar to what the rival college entrance test, the ACT does. The College Board claims it intends to measure what it calls “quantitative literacy.” It’s hard to project what this might be. Is there some kind of underlying mathematical comprehension that parallels reading comprehension? It’s more likely that the new math section will measure directly or indirectly what students learn in the classroom.

Whatever improvements the new SAT makes over the old there is no getting around the problematic fact that it is a multiple choice test. Multiple choice tests cannot detect complex, creative, and thickly reasoned thought. They also place the testee in a passive position, not allowing her to construct answers herself but only having her choose limited possibilities from a pre-written menu. A multiple choice exam is seductive to those wishing for an objective standard. By giving statistical outcomes to student performance it creates a manageable system for sorting college applicants at a national level. It is the only de facto national assessment we have for high school students. Whatever it may actually measure, it appears the SAT will remain a valued currency for purchasing a ticket to college. Test revisions may be welcome, but the old regime remains.

The challenge of the introverted child

After several days in her assigned work group 6th grader Tania remained noticeably quiet. The teacher observed that during the 15 minute discussion period on the story the class was reading, Tania offered few contributions. And when asked a direct question by other students she responded only briefly. The teacher was concerned by the disparity between Tania’s thoughtful written work on the book and her reticence in both the group and the larger class. Several weeks later the teacher brought up her concern in a conference with Tania’s parents. They agreed Tania would need help with social self-assertion.

But was there really a problem? Did a quiet demeanor signify that Tania was inhibited? Instead, maybe she was just an introvert.

In the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain posits that Western and especially American society reward the extravert and discriminate against the introvert. Extraverts do well with conversation. They often act quickly, thrive in groups and exhibit high energy, all rewarded in the American work world, and to a large extent on that training ground for the work world, the classroom. The introvert is more attuned to the inner world and prefers working alone. The introvert tends to be deliberate and slow-paced and listens more than she talks. Her greatest challenges might be giving a speech or birthday parties. As an adult she is more likely to be a therapist than a sales executive.

Although students often work individually and quietly at desks in the American classroom, most classrooms are social hives where activities are often done in groups, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels. Cain points out that in the last 30 years cooperative learning has been the pedagogical fashion, with students learning as much from each other in small groupings as directly from a teacher. The speed of many classrooms, where a series of activities follows in quick succession, does not coincide with the kind of deliberate reflection and in depth processing characteristic of the introvert, The sheer level of classroom noise can challenge the introvert who works better without high level external stimulation. The introvert pays more attention to stimulation from within. At the high school level, classrooms can be as socially-oriented in their own way as those at lower grade levels. In high schools whole class and small group discussion has partially supplanted the traditional lecture. I work in a number of independent high schools in San Francisco where I see more whole class discussion in English and history classes than any other kind of activity. Often the conversations are like popcorn, jumping rapidly from one voice to another. A cultural comparison with East Asian classrooms is revealing. As an example, a student in a Chinese classroom would never be asked a question in front of a whole class. Public exposure of ones understanding is discouraged. The Asian classroom is often more oriented toward the introverted child.

Introversion does not, however, mean being anti-social. Introverts are as social as extraverts. They just socialize differently. Tania might prefer a deeper level one on one discussion of a topic than a whole group discussion. And introverts can still be highly successful in groups. They can make great leaders, but leaders with a different style than the demonstratively influential approach of the extrovert. Extraverts often want to express their views, convince others and jump into action. Introverts are more considered. They are better at reading a group and guiding it on a path that reflects the collective spirit.

Schools would do well to develop teaching that includes the style of the introvert. These days, educators talk a lot about learning style. Who is a visual, auditory or verbal learner? We should also examine whether a student is an extroverted or an introverted learner and design classroom instruction that accommodates students along every point of the introversion-extroversion spectrum. This is a more equitable approach. The use of a more flexible set of social approaches to teaching will ultimately allow both introverts and extroverts to benefit. It is an approach that honors how children in the deepest way relate to their outer worlds.

Mandela’s garden and the new South Africa

 

The closest I ever came to feeling the presence of Nelson Mandela was when on a teaching research trip I toured the Robben Island prison where Mandela spent 18 years. I saw the barren quarry where he and his fellow political prisoners were forced to break rocks with pickaxes. I saw the cramped cell with bucket toilet and bed covered by a gray blanket where Mandela kept himself strong doing daily pushups. The authorities offered to upgrade his conditions because of his public status, but he refused without his comrades receiving the same improvement.

I spent the night on Robben Island thinking about what Mandela and other political prisoners thought about as they went to bed each night. I thought about the legend that in the nighttime silence, ten years after the Robben Island prison was shut down, one could still hear echoes of prisoners being tortured. The next morning I walked down to the shore and found a smooth stone slightly larger than my palm. When I returned four miles by boat to Cape town I painted the following poem on the stone with liquid paper (tellingly known as white out in colloquial usage). It recently appeared in The New Haven Review.

 

From the Soil

On the prison rooftop Mandela
grew tomatoes to feed every man,
the one who bled from the neck,
tightened the rope,
considered reprieve,
cleaned shit and memory
the next morning.
One flesh digests the seeds.

I had read somewhere that prison authorities granted Mandela the privilege of tending a tiny tomato plot in his later years and that he gave tomatoes to the guards and the prison kitchen. What would the man who locked Mandela’s cell at night and the one who watched him bend over and split rocks during the day think when eating the flesh of a tomato?

Long before being released and becoming president, Mandela was cultivating the new South Africa, a South Africa whose new flag blended the colors of the traditional banner that symbolized white supremacy with the black, green and gold of the ANC, the South Africa that adopted 12 indigenous tongues as national languages in addition to English and Afrikaans. When he placed a tomato in the palm of the prison guard, the one who might have prodded a prisoner asleep on the cement without a sheet or beaten him unconscious in a windowless basement, Mandela was planting the seed of the unprecedented process of national reconciliation that would ultimately save the country from racial implosion. Whatever the vast divisions, hatred and fabric of violence, Mandela allowed everyone to eat of the same fruit.

What Jefferson would say about marijuana

Recently a student and I discussed the lurid smear campaign of the 1828 presidential election to illustrate that the vicious personal attacks we see in contemporary electoral politics actually pale in comparison to many from the past. In 1828 National Republican candidate John Quincy Adams accused Democrat Andrew Jackson of bigamy and the Jackson campaign retaliated with the claim that as Russian ambassador Adams had pimped a woman to the czar. Such wild stories as these offer a tempering perspective on the unresearched proposition that the 2012 Obama-Romney presidential contest was the most negative on record. To be sure, conservatives were conniving in promoting the myth that Obama was a secret Muslim born outside the United States. But conservatives never actually attacked Obama’s character, seeing the potential for backlash when most of the polled American electorate said it believed in Obama’s general integrity.

When students have the chance to explore previous eras in light of contemporary political concerns, events come alive. Bringing aliveness to academic work is part of what I strive for. History can be transformed from a collection of static, two-dimensional and decontextualized facts into resonant stories that form a political foundation for current debate. Some history teachers are creative about linking past and present, but many are so absorbed by the pressure to cover a standardized curriculum (especially advanced placement) that they never look past the particular legislation, election, military battle or protest to be covered on any given day.

Students enjoy opening history onto the present. It’s novel and sometimes even connects to their own lives. When students are introduced to the ostensibly abstract concept of federalism in their study of the Constitution I bring up the current day issues of marijuana legalization and gay marriage. On what constitutional basis does the federal government claim the power to send FBI agents after Colorado marijuana sellers working within state law? When the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court why weren’t states then required to recognize gay marriages?

As a classroom history teacher some years ago I would slow our steady march through the textbook and spend three full days grappling with such questions in light of the historical concept of federalism. As an academic mentor today I don’t see teachers willing to sacrifice that amount of time to achieve depth on such issues. But they don’t need to set up a mock Supreme Court trial. 15 minutes of a class period will suffice to contemporize historical issues.

The learning benefits go beyond just making history relevant. Students will also learn the assigned material better. One of the most effective tools for promoting comprehension of any subject is to allow students to connect personally with the material. Numbers of educational studies document this. Not many students report U.S. history as being fun. But when teachers feel free to mention Thomas Jefferson and street drugs in the same breath, it’s a step in the right direction.