Sunday, November 3, 2019

The College Craze

            When my older daughter earned a C+ in Geometry Advanced as a freshman, it might have seemed to some like a disappointment. But to Katie (and her parents), it turned out to be a pretty big relief.

            With that one C+, Katie had likely removed herself from consideration for admission to the elite universities in America. And she had absolutely no problem with that.

            We are living through an educational era dominated by the competition of college admissions. Over the past two decades, universities have managed to lower their acceptance rates, increase their tuitions, and draw students and parents into a frenzy over which school will accept them, and what that will mean for their futures.

            Journalists such as Frank Bruni and Paul Tough have written eloquently about this topic, using research- and anecdotal-based evidence to show that this frenzy is unnecessary. Studies reveal that hard work and character mean more to an individual’s life success than which undergraduate school he or she attended. But that message has not been received by many.

            We’ve reached a point where college preparation is part of the focus even for middle-schoolers. The colleges are able to direct their admissions departments to consider not only GPA and standardized test scores for admissions decisions, but also courseload difficulty. This leads some students to take anywhere from four to six advanced classes per year. While there will always be some students for whom this is actually doable and enjoyable, there are many more for whom this means incredible stress and nowhere near enough sleep.

            The interesting thing about this college crunch is that no student knows for sure which university will be best for him or her. I am living proof of that. As I applied to colleges during the autumn of my senior year, I had never earned a grade lower than A, and was on my way to tying for the school’s highest GPA. I had pressured myself to study harder and harder throughout high school, and I expected the highest of rewards from college admissions offices.

            But when the responses came in, I was disappointed. Harvard said no. So did Princeton. And Brown. Georgetown, too. The University of Virginia added its own rejection.

            I was a valedictorian, yet I’d received more rejections than acceptances. As I enrolled in the University of North Carolina, I found myself disappointed and thought I was settling for less than I deserved. Of course, as I arrived in Chapel Hill, I immediately recognized that this was a special place. It was a school that asked me to work hard academically while also living a balanced life. I was expected to spend hours studying in Davis Library, yet also spend hours in line waiting for UNC-Duke basketball tickets. I was to write papers, but also write for the school newspaper. I sat for long lectures, but also sat down for dinner with my friends.

            If you had offered me, halfway through my freshman year, a spot at Princeton or Georgetown, I would have turned you down. Because I’d realized that the school I was attending was in fact the best fit for me. This was the place where I could grow in the ways I needed most. Back in high school, there was no way for me to know this for sure. I had to trust the process, and recognize that there was so much I didn’t know about my future needs.

            It’s so hard to recognize this when everyone else is talking about the college pressures. It’s hard to take a deep breath and believe that it will truly turn out fine, and that most of the undergraduate schools out there are actually offering tremendous opportunities for us to grow and feel challenged. It’s hard to realize that the schools many students attend for graduate school might actually mean more toward their career path, particularly with regard to location.

            As educators, we remain deeply concerned about the college crunch. We keep sharing current research along with our own experiences when we talk with students and parents. We hope that they hear our encouragement to live in the moment and stop checking the grade portal every hour. We encourage students to fully experience high school rather than “doing school.” We encourage them to recognize that whichever school they attend, there will be so much opportunity for success.

            As for my daughter, she has completed most of her applications, and has gone on most of her visits. She has a dream school, but knows it might not offer a financial package we can afford. She has other schools in mind as well. She wants to be a nurse, and knows there are many schools prepared to educate her well in that field. She has a guidance counselor who reassures her that she is on a path toward true success.

            I recently finished the payments that make me a lifetime alumni of the college I attended for undergraduate school. It wasn’t a huge payment, but it was a way of saying thank you to the school that gave me what I needed, even when I didn’t know that myself. It was a way of wishing that all our students could recognize that this is possible for each and every one of them. Hard work, character, an openness to new ideas, true friendships – these are the things we need as we grow, at all ages. If the university we attend encourages these things, we are in good hands. We will be just fine.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Teach Like a DJ


            When I was a kid, there were lots of things to do on warm summer weekends such as this one: Get to a pool, run through the sprinkler, chase down a Good Humor truck, watch the Yankees game in the air conditioning, and play some Atari games. As a lover of pop music and of lists, there was another treat I enjoyed: Finding a musical “countdown” on the radio.
            Sunday mornings brought Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Saturday evenings brought Dick Clark’s own radio countdown. In early July, the New York FM station WNEW would play its “Firecracker 500” of the top rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.
            These countdowns introduced me to the idea of the disc jockey, as someone who sat in a room, behind a microphone, and told stories while weaving one song into another. Before media giants bought most of the radio stations and turned them into auto-programmed playlists, and before iTunes, Pandora and Spotify turned listeners into their own playlist creators, we relied on professional DJs to introduce us to songs, and to fill the airspace in between tunes. There are still some radio stations, both traditional and satellite, that use DJs. But for the most part, the radio DJ is a thing of the past.
            Interestingly enough, when I think about teaching, I find a lot of similarities between the classroom and the DJ’s space. I haven’t heard someone encouraging an educator to “Teach like a DJ,” but if you’ll humor me for a moment, I think it’s good advice, especially for secondary-school teachers who are seeing students once a day for short periods of time. Here are some reasons:
            Engagement: Radio DJs have the obvious tool of playing music to engage the listeners, yet teachers who want to engage their students can start right there: Play some tunes while they are walking into class, perhaps even while they’re working on their “Do Now” or journal entry. The classroom engagement can continue by valuing movement in the classroom, and looking for ways to get students on their feet during class periods. Add in some strong group and partner conversations and activities, and teachers may find that their students walk in each day genuinely looking forward to this class because it engages them each day.
            Context: The radio DJ needs to tell us why the music matters, and what it means to us. That might mean explaining just how many No. 1 hits Michael Jackson now has off the Bad album, giving us the story behind Kurt Cobain’s writing of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or sharing the tale of how the Little River Band got its name. In the classroom, it might mean showing students how the algebra they’re learning will matter in life, or illustrating the ways in which Napoleon or Julius Caesar help us understand the nature of power and the cult of personality. Every student should be able to know the “So what?” behind the material being taught.
            Flow: Radio DJs, like club DJs, need to segue from one song to another without losing us. They look for that perfect transition between songs, one that fills the listener with a kind of joy they didn’t see coming. In the classroom, transitions are essential as well. If, for instance, our latest environmental science lab led to some dynamic dialogue about climate change, I want to make sure our next unit keeps that discussion going, because I’ve got a groove going in the class right now, and that groove is leading to self-directed learning. No reason to switch genres right now.
            Storytelling: Casey Kasem would stop his countdown at certain points to read a “long-distance dedication,” directed from one listener to another. He’d read a letter that someone had written, perhaps a girlfriend whose boyfriend was away at college, or serving in the armed forces, or taking some time away from the relationship. Casey would read the letter thoroughly, giving us the details, then connecting back to the music: “Casey, can you please dedicate Open Arms by Journey to so-and-so, who I still love so much.” Teachers, like DJs, need to keep the stories going – not at the expense of instruction, but as a way of enhancing instruction. When I taught my journalism students about the importance of getting your facts right, I stopped and told them the story of the mock obituary I wrote for my first news reporting course in college. I received the assignment back and saw a giant letter F on the paper. The teacher spoke to me afterward and said, “You’re a good writer, and you’ll do well in this class. But you spelled the person’s name wrong in the obituary. This is a published document of that person’s life, and the last chance most families will get to seeing that. You can’t get the name wrong.” As I told the story, all eyes were upon me, and no one missed the message. They story had resonated.
            Choice: Whether it’s a long-distance dedication or a listener calling in a request, radio DJs have always offered audience choice in addition to their own song selections. Teachers, at the same time, must balance the core curricular decisions they make with student-generated ideas. When we give students independent choice in assignments, we empower them to take ownership over their learning in ways that they value deeply. And, at the same time, we gain more leverage in asking them to hang in with the lessons and units we’re choosing.  
            Incentives: Radio DJs might offer a pair of tickets to the Madonna concert for the 95th caller, leading to a frenzy of dialing in hopes that somehow, the listener might hit the jackpot. Teachers usually don’t have concert tickets in hand, but incentives are important in the classroom nonetheless. It might be something as simple as rewarding strong participation and behavior with bagels one Friday morning. Or it might be allowing the class to hold its own holiday celebration on the day before winter break. These incentives don’t require much work on the part of the teacher, but they do offer a reason for students to stay tuned.
            Pop Culture, Always: The radio DJ and the songs played are part of the pop culture scene, but DJs are also eager to reference other entertainers, songs, movies, TV shows or anything else that spices up the conversation. Teachers can do the same, finding a current news story that leads into this week’s physics unit, or a modern-day celebrity whose story reminds us in some ways of Macbeth. That doesn’t mean pandering to our students, but it can lead to some great openings. If I’m asking students to read Frankenstein and talk deeply about whether humans are inherently good or evil, I might ask them to find a short video on YouTube, Vine or Tik Tok that illustrates one side of this debate. The responses I get may solidify the learning for them in some significant ways.
            Oldies and New Hits: Some of those old-school DJs were playing music from “the ‘60s, ‘70s and today” or whatever eras their stations were focusing on at that time. They knew that listeners wanted to hear the comfort of classics along with the shock of the new. Musicians, too, have always been interested in celebrating the past and present, from singing about the past (“Summer of ‘69”) to sampling songs from the past within a newer song (more hip hop songs than we can count). Teachers will find that some students genuinely want to read The Great Gatsby, because they find the writing and the themes to be timeless. But they also wouldn’t mind trying out something by Jacqueline Woodson or Colson Whitehead, because, well, these authors are delivering the hits of today, and their work matters just as much as the stories we’ve taught in years past.
            Find Your Voice: The DJ works on vocal delivery, on word choice, and on knowing when to step back from the mic. The DJ wants to feel like a trusted friend to listeners, and wants to come across as genuine. Whenever I turn to a radio station and Delilah is on, I don’t know if I’m going to want to hear the adult contemporary song she’s about to play; but I do know that I’m going to feel respected by her delivery. Teachers work so hard to find their voice in the classroom. They often reach a point where they stop trying to be what the educational textbooks say they should be, and start incorporating their true selves into the instruction. Teachers want their voice to impact the instruction in a positive way. I never had the most dynamic voice in the room, but I kept an even keel almost all the time, and spoke in a soothing tone. One student, with whom I was close, would make fun of me as I walked into class, saying, “Oh no, here he comes with that monotonous voice of his.” This was, for a teenager steeped in sarcasm, a compliment to me.
            Stay Humble: A radio DJ can go by a catchy nickname (“Wolfman Jack,” “Shadoe Stevens”) that serves as a sign that he or she has made it big. But in the end, every DJ is only as good as his or her latest broadcast. The reputation may be there, but you’ve got to bring it every day to maintain that rep. Teachers have the same responsibility: Prepare the lesson, deliver it well, make it count. Humility is essential in order to avoid resting on one’s laurels. As Casey Kasem said each week, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”
            Connect: The last, and perhaps most obvious, piece to the DJ-teacher metaphor is that both are grounded in making human connections. As I sat there with my boom box playing in my bedroom, I was looking in some way to engage with that DJ through his or her words, delivery, and song choice. What came out of those radio speakers was incorporated into the life I was living at the time. Students are no different; they hear and see the teachers, and they are paying some level of attention. But when you put the academic, the social and the emotional learning together, are they leaving that classroom feeling known, cared about, and instructed? That’s the magical part, where we do so much more than teach the Revolutionary War or French verb conjugations. Our connections go beyond the content of the songs or lessons, and into the deeper human fabric that leaves someone feeling valued and understood.
             It’s not easy to find a great radio DJ today. But the work they did is part of our cultural history of storytelling and communication. If educators heed the lessons of this craft, we might find that it’s always possible to teach like a DJ. In some ways, it’s essential that we do so. It’s one way to ensure that the hits just keep on coming.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Mentors and Media Literacy


           It has been three months now since our school principal, Derrick Nelson, passed away. His life and impact have been honored and celebrated in many ways, from the floor of the House of Representatives to the flags at half-staff across New Jersey to the local Memorial Day parade in his honor. Our students, staff and parents have continued talking about Derrick. We still recognize him as a role model, and still hear his words and laughter in our minds.
            But even so, time passes. Our school held a prom, awards night and graduation without Derrick. A new principal was appointed last week. Derrick’s family cleaned out his office this week. The school keeps opening its doors every day, and we have work to do.
            On the Friday before he became ill, Derrick allowed me to present a professional-development workshop on media literacy to several staff members. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this topic during and after the workshop, but I had not been able to follow up on it because our school year changed so dramatically when we returned after that weekend in February.
Today, I found myself in an empty office, the sole administrator on duty this day after July 4. So I opened up a textbook on media literacy and got back to work, preparing for ways to support our staff as they address media messages with their students.
I first noticed our country’s need for media literacy long before smartphones and social media changed our means of communication. Twenty-five years ago, just before summer began, a low-speed car chase took place throughout Los Angeles, and as millions upon millions of Americans became aware of this event, the name O.J. Simpson stood to symbolize a sea change in media consumption.
Throughout my childhood, media messages were consumed at certain agreed-upon times, and in certain agreed-upon ways. The TV news could be watched at 5, 6 or 11 p.m., on a square television set in the living room. Sports and weather would air at 20 minutes past the hour. Movies were watched in theaters or via VCR, and private telephone conversations required stretching the cord from kitchen to bathroom. Video games could be played with a console, and music could be listened to via tape, then CD. Newspapers and magazines were printed, on paper.
Media technology was already changing quickly by 1994, but the O.J. chase and subsequent trial saw us develop a collective mindset in which we could no longer wait until a certain time of day to learn what was happening in the world. The 24-hour cable news stations sensed this, and they hustled to provide us with at least one new nugget of info on O.J. each day. The internet soon blossomed with more messages than we could possibly consume, and late-night talk show hosts provided satirical commentary. It would take more than a decade before we were holding iPhones in our hands and posting “Michael Jackson RIP” tributes on Facebook. But the groundwork had been laid, and we were hungry for new information, all the time. When the O.J. trial was over, we devoured new, juicy tales, from a president and his intern in the Oval Office to hanging chads in Florida to the children of O.J. lawyer Robert Kardashian.
The devices we now hold have taken this all to an entirely new level, of course, to the point where we are media consumers nearly every moment of the day. Educators have been reflecting on how they wish to address media consumption through their lessons and units, considering just how much media-saturated their students are.
But media literacy is not about trying to change students’ habits or shaming them for spending so much time on Instagram. It is, instead, about critically analyzing the media messages we consume and create, and reflecting on the impact these messages have on our society and on ourselves. Becoming media literate goes beyond merely knowing that our current president is the first to use Twitter so extensively. It asks us to analyze the impact of his Twitter use, from his choice of words and punctuation to the audience response to the impact on traditional news media. It asks us to compare his social media communication to other presidents’ use of new media, and to consider where this takes us as a society. It asks us to compare his use of Twitter to our own, and to determine if there’s a difference, and why.
As I worked and reflected on media literacy today, it felt good to get back to this. I look forward to talking about it with my peers again in the year ahead. Thanks to a statewide mentoring program, a veteran administrator has been assigned to help me during these first two years as an assistant principal, and she is interested in the media literacy work as well. When we spoke last week, my mentor asked how things were going; she has used multiple forms of media to check in on me (text, email, phone and, of course, in-person meetings). As we sat in my office, she noticed that my room is filled with one particular medium – books – and asked me to share a few titles that have impacted me as an educator. I’m not sure she knew what she was getting into – after I had told her about five or six books, I finally stopped myself.
Another piece to being media literate is knowing which forms of media your mind and body need at certain times. After a year that has been trying in ways I never could have imagined, I need some time to rest and reflect this summer. So I am reading. And writing. And listening to music (currently going through Elton John’s albums from the ‘70s).
Just as Derrick did, my mentor recognizes that I work hard and strives to support that. But she also wants to make sure I’m taking care of myself. My late boss would want nothing less. So pardon me while I finish this up and grab my book. I just started one about baseball stadiums and their impact on America’s concept of public spaces. It’s not Instagram, for sure. But it’s what I need right now.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Derrick Nelson


            When you see news trucks in front of a high school, it’s usually not a good sign. This week at my school, the trucks were out in full force. But there was no school shooting, no acts of violence, no arrests, no protests. There was just a lot of quiet mourning in the halls, classrooms and courtyards of Westfield High School.
            Nearly eight weeks ago, I became aware that something horrible and potentially tragic had taken place during a procedure in which my boss, Dr. Derrick Nelson, was donating bone marrow cells to try and save the life of a boy in France for whom he was a match. The complication resulted in Nelson being in a coma for seven weeks, and he passed away last weekend. Nelson was the principal of Westfield High, a proud Army Reservist, a father, fiancĂ©, son, friend, Delaware State alum, Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, and Plainfield, NJ, native and resident.
            Students and staff have known for weeks that Dr. Nelson was sick, although the specific details were not released to most in order to afford the family the privacy it needed. News of Nelson’s death brought immediate grief, and that grieving will continue for some time. When leaders and selfless givers depart from this world, we are left with holes that don’t fill themselves easily.
            In our school’s journalism program, we discuss and debate the definition of news – what makes a newsworthy story? Is it what the public needs to know, or what it wants to know? Is it informative news? Sensationalism? Partisan politics? Internet-fueled images and videos? While those questions are at the heart of today’s journalism instruction, there are also times when news decisions make themselves, and reporters know instinctively that a story needs to be told.
            That was the case with the death of Derrick Nelson. When the news trucks showed up, they were there for good reason. This man’s story was well worth telling, and his life’s work was well worth sharing. This past week, individuals from throughout the region, country and world have learned about Derrick Nelson. That is a very good thing. There is tragedy, of course, at the heart of why they learned. But to know this man’s story and his unwavering commitment to service is to know something more about the better angels of our nature.
            Dr. Nelson hired me out of the classroom less than a year ago, and I am an assistant principal because, quite simply, he and our superintendent chose me. He asked me, during our midyear review, how I thought he was doing in supporting me. I told him that he was in many ways the perfect boss, because he set clear standards and also gave me the freedom to try my own methods of leadership and learn from them. The Friday before his procedure, he allowed me to give two presentations at a staff in-service day, one on media literacy and the other on social and emotional learning. Before we parted ways for the weekend, he told me who he had chosen for our school’s “Unsung Hero” award, to be presented at a Union County event. A few weeks later, I stood in for him in giving this award to one of our students.
            It was a busy Friday when we parted ways, and as usual the two of us were in the building later than we should have been, getting a bit more work done before leaving. From the moment I learned of his illness, there was a heavy weight associated with carrying a combination of grief, worry, and a desire to support colleagues and students. I’ve done what all of my fellow school leaders have done – worked, worked, then worked some more. I’ve paid attention to the pulse of the building and done what was asked of me as the junior administrator on staff. I would wake up in the night thinking of my mentor and friend, I’d find myself saying his name out loud, and I’d drive up to the hospital to visit. I’d confide in my wife, pastor and fellow assistant principals, but otherwise I just kept at the work, as I know my boss would have wanted.  
            During the week ahead, we will attend the viewing and funeral for our principal. Our students and staff have a week off, and when they return we will continue talking about how we’re doing, how we can support one another, and how we can help his family. The news trucks will be long gone by then, and we’ll have lots to do: state testing makeups, AP exam preparation, end-of-year conferences, class scheduling, final budget orders, and student attendance conferences. More will be added to that list as well; we’ll be busy, as we always are.
            Our school will continue to function, because it has to. Our staff will do its work with a heightened awareness of what our boss would have asked of us. And we will, somehow, keep on going. We will find our way through staff meetings, awards night, prom and graduation without him there, and we will carry his spirit with us in all the ways we can.
            They say that we are the authors of our own life stories, and I agree with this. But sometimes, we are also contributors to others’ life stories. Our own decisions, words, personality or actions slip inside the pages of another’s narrative, and that person’s life is never the same. That’s what has happened this week in Westfield, NJ. I know that Derrick Nelson’s story is now a part of mine, and I will carry that with me always. The students and staff of Westfield High are saying the same. And, thanks to some smart news decisions, so are many others, who have paid attention to his inspiring story and allowed it to resonate.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Parent's Education


             I removed all of the tiny screws that held together the base of her Chromebook. When I had taken them out, I used a small flathead screwdriver to pry the keyboard up from the base, revealing the guts of the modest computer. I unfastened the battery’s connection to the motherboard, performed a few more functions that a YouTube video told me to do, then refastened the battery, keyboard and screws. I pressed the power button, and my daughter’s computer was up and running again.
            She is 17 years old, and is in the midst of her first major research paper. It’s a rite of passage at her school, the junior research paper. She loves her topic, because it’s related to health care and she wants to be a nurse. She’s approaching the finish line, and her teacher has applauded her enthusiasm. Perhaps the most valuable part of this experience, however, has been the fact that she’s done it all herself. Her dad, the educator and writer, has not seen a word of this paper. My job is to fix the Chromebook, not to concern myself with the words that the computer produces when used.
            She is 17 years old, and she needs to know that she can get a lot done without parental involvement. She is driving her own car now, joining her own gym, and occasionally making her own dinner. As she visits colleges, she prefers to go with my wife, and my role is to help research the schools and make reservations for visits. I miss the experience of checking out colleges, but understand her need to sort through this decision without too much advice.
            Of course, there are times when she reaches out for help with difficult situations that produce anxiety and stress. My wife and I respond to those requests with whatever level of parental assistance seems necessary. We may have been “helicopter” parents at one time, but that level of involvement is not helpful anymore. Our instincts hold us back from being “snowplow” parents, as we want her to find her own way through the struggles in life. When asked by the school if we wanted to drop a course that she was struggling with earlier in the year, we said no; with independence comes a need for resilience.
            Her research paper is about the current public health crisis stemming from unvaccinated Americans, and the ways in which the internet has fueled opposition to vaccines. We’ve talked about the topic, and I’ve shared with her articles that I’ve found on the topic. It’s hard to read through a paper without stumbling upon another article on this topic, so I’ve shared them and she’s thanked me. But when I’ve asked if she wanted any parental proofreading, she has respectfully declined. This is a grade she wants to earn through her own efforts, and no one else’s.
            My wife and I know that our assistance is still needed; we have a number of parenting experiences and decisions ahead of us with this young adult. But our education right now is one of adjusting to the job description of parent, and stepping back in important ways. It’s not always easy to recognize that this is needed. But we’re trying. And in the quiet of our kitchen late at night, I carefully turn the screws on the kid’s computer, finding my new role and hoping it can help her punch those keys on her own.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Looking Toward the Light


            With so many concerns affecting our nation, world and planet, it can be tempting to lose hope. An overload of vitriol, vendettas and violence threatens to establish volatility as the status quo. In times like this, it takes a deeply concerted effort to stem the tide of negativity.
            So often, we turn to education and the arts in search of solutions to the stresses. We begin by looking for a window into what ails us, through investigation, perspective and reflection. We welcome a reason to breathe deeply, think different, and find a way forward.
Many Americans have turned to podcasts in recent years as trusted sources of information. The 60 Minutes of podcasts remains This American Life, which for more than 20 years has been producing weekly stories based around a single theme. Many of the show’s episodes in recent months have focused on how our government operates today, and many others have looked deeply into immigration. Tomorrow, the show will release a new episode on border walls around the world. I know that I will be listening and learning.
Documentaries are in a golden age right now, as so many filmmakers are experimenting with different ways of crafting nonfiction movies, and streaming services such as Netflix offer new ways for viewers to access these films. Last week, my brother Eric, who writes about documentaries for many publications and also serves as film curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, introduced me to a 10-part documentary series that appeared on Starz last year. It’s called America to Me, and it chronicles a year in the life of an Illinois high school. The series, which was created by Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), is a stunning look into the ways in which teens and teachers learn about one another, society at large, and themselves in the world of American public education.
Young adult books have never been more popular, and agents and publishers have worked diligently to find authors who specialize in connecting with younger readers. Jacqueline Woodson is about as good as it gets in young-adult fiction these days, and her recent book Harbor Me follows a half-dozen students whose teacher gives them a chance to meet, once a week, by themselves in a classroom to talk. They call it the ARTT room (“A Room to Talk”) and in that space, these six students make connections that allow them to gain some amazing degrees of understanding, empathy and compassion. I’m not a young adult anymore, but I couldn’t put the book down.
History books line the bestseller lists today, many of them trying to help us make sense of the chaos in our country and world. Perhaps the most-praised history book in recent months is These Truths by Jill Lepore, an ambitious, 800-page text that chronicles the entire history of the United States. In doing so, the book asks if “these truths” that the Declaration declared to be “self-evident” – political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people – have indeed been met in these past two and a half centuries. I just started the book, and I know it will take awhile for me to get through it. But I’m committed to reading, reflecting and reconsidering my own assumptions and biases.
Teenagers are always pointing a way forward for those of us paying attention. This weekend, I’m helping to chaperone a Model United Nations conference, in which 200 of my school’s students and hundreds more are gathering in a Pennsylvania hotel to present papers, resolutions and amendments in a mini-UN filled with delegations, chairpersons and a down-to-the-minute itinerary. It’s the kind of stuff that takes your breath away and leads you to believe that, if we don’t scar them first, these young people can help us all find a path toward understanding, collaboration and fellowship. I just watched two delegations debating education and refugee issues, and while there was no universal agreement, there was a ton of listening, learning, and respecting.
Most of the educational programs and arts initiatives in this world are beyond my knowledge, so these few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. But they are a reminder, to me, of where I want to spend my energies when considering a way out of the darkness in today’s world. When I learn from these students, artists and journalists, I have one job: To think about the ways in which the stories I’m seeing and hearing can be channeled into my own interactions with the world around me. One person, one step, one day at a time: That’s the most we can ask, but it’s our responsibility to pay attention and look toward the light.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Using the Past to Navigate the Present


            One of the most fulfilling parts of my administrative work this year has been observing classes and learning from my fellow educators. I’ve been assigned to observe teachers in a few different departments, one of them being social studies. As I’ve sat through many classes in this discipline, I’ve realized that students are gaining more than facts and dates in today’s social studies classes. They are gaining, from their teachers, a chance to understand the present through the lens of the past. Never has that been more needed than at this time.

            At their best, social studies teachers avoid the sound bites, the pundits and the social media comments. They focus instead on depth of study and of thought. They encourage reflection, deliberation and collaboration. They help students re-discover the reality that nothing has ever come easy in America, that despite our freedoms and opportunity we often take steps forward and backward at the same time.

            The students in these classes read stories of individuals who have never given up on the promise of America. They study leaders who were unwilling to stop reaching toward the promise of the Declaration, toward a fuller and more just Constitution, and toward an electoral process that represented everyone. They write essays and DBQs and take part in class discussions and presentations about the constant tug and pull of American history.

            The challenges of this divided nation are growing by the day. It’s reached a point where many of us can feel this underlying vibe of stress connected with our national events and political sphere. Even on our best days, many of us still feel the static queasiness of “What’s next?” In relating that feeling to the teens in my school, I wonder if one social studies class per day is enough at this point. These classes, as great as they are, have curricula to cover. Our kids have questions about issues all over the map, literally and figuratively. We owe it to them to answer those questions.

Book groups, discussion clubs and additional humanities-based study are all emerging in my school as well. Some teens are recognizing that as lifelong learners they’ve got a responsibility to deepen their understanding of the challenges we face. At my church, we’ve had teen discussion groups related to race this year, and we’ve combined conversation, video and reading to try and understand America’s history of race relations. My church is definitely not the only extracurricular group offering students the chance to think about American history. Pop culture is doing its part, too, from film to television to music videos. Streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify offer many volumes of though-provoking media. And yes, there are still books that students are reading – and enjoying – on their own.

Education is grounded in the free association of ideas and the belief that our students can become our next leaders. As we work toward that goal, it’s essential that we recognize that different eras bring different responsibilities. This time period calls for a deep dive into history, journalism, literature and media, to gain a stronger sense of where we are, how we got here, and how we can move forward. As I see this at play throughout and beyond my school, I see many reasons to hope. The only way forward is to keep exploring both yesterday and today.