1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Monday, December 31, 2007

Avoiding Presumption: Hiring Teachers

How easy it is to make assumptions about persons and things. For example, in the hiring of teachers it is often presumed that (a) demonstration of certain competencies (a degree, teacher training/certification, teaching experience, et al) translates into (b) a good or suitable teacher. Of course, we have all experienced "qualified" teachers who were dull, uninspiring or otherwise "useless" (with respect to communicating something to their students that was helpful to the students' lives).

How to avoid "misplaced" teachers in the hiring process? For one thing, beyond screening through a simple cover letter and resume, perhaps we could additionally have the prospective teacher write about his or her philosophies of education and of life. If we are faced with a generic ("boilerplate") philosophy of education, there's a red flag; a teacher who thinks that life's meaning is found in mere financial success or other extrinsic rewards is one who should not teach at our school.

In addition we might ask a teacher to read a relatively short article, essay or story and ask, "If this were part of your curriculum, how would you use it? What is important or useful in it to you personally? What elements in it do you think your students will find difficult? How would you help them overcome the difficulties?"

"What kind of man or woman are you?" is far more important than the degree in hand. People with a passion for the destiny of their students -- that's the ticket.

What is Education? Upcoming Workshop in the Denver area

What is Education? Definition and Method. A free workshop

I know that education is not the same thing as schooling, and that, in fact, not much of our education takes place in school.
-Neil Postman

Education isn't explaining reality; it's helping students to enter into reality.
-Julian Carrón

The value of an education is measured by how closely and obediently it follows reality.
-Luigi Giussani

There is a lot of talk today about how to “fix” our schools, how to raise student achievement, and ways to hold teachers “accountable” for results. But what is missing from the current education debate is this: a clear understanding of what education itself consists of and how education ought to help us live a more fully human life.

Whether you are a parent, teacher, professor, homeschooler, or are simply interested in what education is and how it relates to life, please join us for this free workshop:
What is Education? Definition and Method
Part I. Education is an introduction to reality
Part II. Education draws from tradition
Part III. Education is an education in criticism
Part IV. Education requires verification of a hypothesis of meaning

This workshop will draw primarily from Luigi Giussani's The Risk of Education, but will also include reflections from Neil Postman (The End of Education), Christopher Dawson (The Crisis of Western Education) and others.
Location, dates and times are still being finalized.
A common educational tradition creates a common world of thought with common moral and intellectual values and a common inheritance of knowledge, and these are the conditions which make a culture. -Christopher Dawson

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Scheduling and Courses

Before you yawn, think about this: Who says that we must have an 180 day year with classes five days per week, each lasting 50 minutes each?

What does the above kind of scheduling and the courses that conform to this schedule (note the inversion here of means and ends!) indicate about the various subjects? To me it indicates that they are all equally (un)important.

A Typical High School's Graduation Requirements.

Here is one from Jefferson County R-1.


Course of Study Requirements

The following requirements are approved by the Board of Education for high school graduation. Principals have the option to grant waivers in course requirements based upon individual student needs and circumstances in order to deal with unusual cases. Students will be informed of a course waiver through the registration process. A credit is the equivalent of the completion of a full year course. A half-credit is the equivalent of the completion of a semester course.

English Language Arts: Four credits

-Four years of English language arts in high school
-Competence in all eight English language arts standards as demonstrated by classroom performance in the curriculum
-Three credits of required core courses that focus on and assess all eight English language arts standards
-One credit during the senior year based on the English language arts standards as defined by the school

Social Studies: Three credits

-Three years of social studies in high school
-Competence in all social studies standards including geography, civics, history, and economics as demonstrated by classroom performance in the curriculum sequenced by individual schools.

Mathematics: Two credits

-Two years of math in high school
-At least one year of high school math at the level of algebra I or above to demonstrate competence in high school math standards

Science: Two credits

-Two years of science courses in high school
-Competence in standards aligned with earth/space science, life science, and physical science as demonstrated by classroom performance in the curriculum sequenced by individual schools

Physical Education/Health: One-half credit

-One semester of physical education/health in a course aligned with the physical education standards, or
-Participation in a school-sanctioned activity that is aligned with the physical education standards and that receives pre-approval from the principal or designee. Students should confer with their counselor if interested in a waiver.

Fine/Practical Arts: One-half credit

-One semester of course work in one of the following: visual arts, music, technology, business, world language, consumer and family studies, or technical arts, or
-Participation in a school-sanctioned activity that is aligned with the applicable content standards and that receives pre-approval from the principal or designee

Electives: Ten credits

Four years of course work in additional academic core areas and/or school sponsored elective classes to equal ten credits


Now I have numerous observations that could be made, but I'll limit myself to just a few. One of my observations is that this district (and it is by no means exceptional) has really no idea what it is doing. Seriously. 12 credits required and 10 left wholly to the discretion of the student?

Another is this: We sanction what is important by requiring it. Are the twelve credits equally important? Are there things missing from the "required column" that ought to be there? Should some of the required courses be deemed optional?

Third: need it be this way? Must the high school curriculum be directionless?

A sample curriculum sans electives

This is just a sample. As you will see, there are two things different about this curriculum and the typical high school curriculum. First, the courses do not have the standard 45 or 60 or 70 or 90 minutes of length. Course meeting times are different based upon purposes. The number of students in a given "part" of a course will vary.

Here's the idea: each course consists of some or all of these delivery methods: (1) traditional lecture (15-35 students); (2) seminar (10-15 students); (3) Shared Inquiry discussion group (10-15 students); (4) Debate or outside speaker (whole school); (5) panel discussion (whole school); (6) student-led demonstration of learning (whole school). The time spent in each of these venues would be different (e.g., more time would be spent in a seminar than in a demonstration of learning), but the courses would not fit the traditional time-bound mode.

For example, a literature class over the course of a semester might have 25 hours of lecture; 25 hours of seminar; six hours of debate; 3 hours of Shared Inquiry; 11 hours of DOL; 20 hours of panel discussion.

All courses required

Here's a very rough sketch of what might constitute the required courses. The district and state standards would be exceeded in all required areas without doing violence to the arts -- fine and physical.

Literature: Three credits (but really really five and one half credits, as will be explained below)
1. Composition; 2. Research Report Writing; 3. British Literature; 4. American Literature; 5. Modern Literature; 6. Post-modern Literature; [7. History, ILL; 8. Science, ILL; 9. Math, ILL; 10. Fine Arts, ILL; 11. Physical Arts, ILL].

History: Four credits
1. History: Its Language and Literature (=ILL; These foundational courses explain the philosophical and literary underpinnings of the subject, hence meta-history, meta-science, meta-mathematics, etc. These are dual listed as Literature and the subject matter); 2. Western Civilization I; 3. Western Civilization II; 4. European History; 5. Asian and African History; 6. American Government; 7. U.S. History I; 8. U.S. History II.

Science: Three credits
1. Science, ILL; 2. Technology and Society; 3. Biology; 4. Chemistry; 5. Physics; 6. Earth Science

Mathematics: Four credits
1. Math, ILL; 2. Algebra I; 3. Algebra II; 4. Geometry; 5. Pre-calculus; 6. Calculus; 7. Statistics; 8. Economics.

Fine Arts: Three credits
1. Fine Arts, ILL; 2. Art Appreciation; 3. Music I; 4. Music II; 5. Sculpture; 6. Post-modern Music and Art.

Physical Arts: Three credits
1. Physical Arts, ILL; 2. Basic Physical Fitness; 3. Yoga; 4. Orienteering; 5. Track; 6. Self-defense.

Philosophy: Three credits
1. Introduction to Philosophy; 2. Greek Philosophy; 3. Christian/Medieval Philosophy; 4. Eastern Philosophy; 5. Modern Philosophy; 6. Existentialism/Post-modern Philosophy.

Somewhere to be determined: One credit
1. School and Society, ILL (lower division); 2. Senior Thesis and Presentation (upper division).

Cultivating Controversy II

Notes on a curriculum unafraid of controversy

What would be included in a high school curriculum that was at once juridically responsible and intellectually far-reaching?

I can think of no better way to preface my remarks than to quote from G.K. Chesterton's Heretics:
When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext96/heret11.txt.
Turning loose "the hounds of inquiry" would seem to be the kind of education that is needed in our time. With respect to a juridically responsible education, a bit more research must be done. Nevertheless, here are some topics that an interesting high school ought to approach:
  • The nature of the universe
  • God (Eastern and Western views)
  • Science (what it can tell us and what it cannot)
  • Theology (what it can tell us and what it cannot)
  • The nature of the human person (from conception to death; good and evil; immortality; etc.)
  • What makes the difference between great art, music, literature, or any other subject and lousy art, music, literature, etc?
  • What it means to live a good life (beyond economic utility)
  • How to judge reality and live a good life

Naturally, we will include "required" courses, but there seems to be no reason to avoid questions that actually mean something. How this might translate into specific courses and structure of the school is still to be determined.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cultivating Controversy I

"Thou shalt not offend"
In some school districts this would seem to be the eleventh commandment. School boards have a diverse clientele to keep happy, so avoiding controversy seems to be a way to "give the people what they want." So a district may offer a curriculum that is said to be "academically rigorous" but one that also fails to address controversial issues or questions in a vigorous way. Sometimes topics are not discussed out of ignorance. More often though, the strategy of "avoidance" is employed by either banning certain discussions or, more commonly, simply avoiding speaking their names. These issues and subjects (a la The Village) become "those we don't speak of."

Those we don't speak of
God, human nature, death, marriage, sex (unless it is about plumbing or avoiding -- physical and physical alone! -- consequences), politics, and, my personal favorite, the tasks of education. All of these "get discussed" on various occasions but they are generally avoided. They are not "part of the curriculum" as a whole. Put another way, most education is broad, shallow and lukewarm.

Cause and effect
Another word for lukewarm is mediocre. Subtract controversy from education and not much is left. In fact, if you curtail discussions of religion and/or politics, what is left? Sports? (How odd that there are more cases of parental violence over their children's sporting events: parents killing each other or coaches or referees!). I don't know of one can "scientifically" correlate "controversy avoidance" and "functional idiocy" (by a functional idiot I mean the high school graduate whose human aspirations don't go beyond sex, drugs and/or video games), but it would seem there is a connection. After all, if one asks stupid or vague questions, one can expect sub-standard answers.

Not asking the questions
Recently I overheard an administrator tell her teachers that because Christmas was coming up, they should avoid telling students their religious views. What was interesting to me was not only what was said, but what was left unsaid. She is surely on shaky constitutional ground to suggest that teachers lose all "free exercise" protections of the 1st Amendment when they enter the classroom, and that this personal (if temporary!) agnosticism is (somehow) necessary to ensure a non-establishment of religion at the school. What her comments suggested was that religion is off-limits: don't share your views. This tactic of soft intimidation might work on young educators, but anyone who has read even a few Supreme Court cases on religion in the schools can tell you that while the public school cannot be a place of "proselytizing," religious views are not forbidden, nor is the discussion of real existing religions. If a discussion leads to the Gulf War and Christianity and Islam and a student asks, "Miss, what do you believe?" -- must you whip out a roll of duct tape to ensure your "religious ideas" don't seep out? By no means. It is wholly constitutional to tell students what you think or to refuse to tell them. If it weren't, why draw the line at religion? Why not avoid sex, marriage, politics? In short, the teacher would become a mere appendage of the (wholly) secular State, whose metaphysical views were masked by a claim of "religious neutrality." Thank God it hasn't come to that.

A consequence
But the cumulative effect of administrative over-reactions and/or muddled thinking seem to have led to a regime of "don't ask, don't tell" when it comes to controversial questions. Another generation raised without being challenged to look at all aspects of life. Another generation offered inadequate answers to the yearning of their hearts. If students don't engage in meaningful questions in a civil and curious way early in life, how will they face life as adults? Just like the majority of Americans: plugged into TV and satisfied to rely on the secondhand opinion of the "experts."

The mystery of the incurious
A question for another time is, Why are so many so-called educators seemingly satisfied to not help their students ask deep and meaningful questions about life?

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Animus Against Totality

The Agnostic Teacher

I teach at a public high school. Every year we get some lecture about the separation of church and state, viz., Christmas. This year was particularly onerous: "Keep your beliefs to yourself" we were told. In other words, share your lives with these kids but only up to the point where God, the Mystery, the Infinite enters in. Whether or not this adminstrator's interpretation of church-state jurisprudence would stand up to legal scrutiny (I think not), her remarks do reflect the mentality of so-called public educators: Ignore religion, politics or anything else that might be controversial. Ah, but then, what is left to talk about? Sports, perhaps?

A School That Educates the Whole Person

Thus is it reasonable to begin a public charter school that takes the humanity of the students seriously -- when our understanding of their humanity includes a religious dimension?

-Can we even help students to ask the right kinds of questions when "practical atheism" holds sway over the "public" education machine?

-Is the price of public funding the suppression of fundamental questions such as What is the meaning of everything? Who or what will answer my need to totality? How can I find happiness?

-If we can ask the questions, are we still constrained by an inability to propose certain answers as helpful, true or meaningful?

-If we can ask all the right questions but not give coherent or meaningful answers, are we not simply setting up the students for a sceptical outlook on life? (The teacher is always an authority of some stripe, so a teacher that says "I dunno" to meaningful questions is a weak, pathetic figure)

All of this takes us back to a question raised by a previous post, The Freedom to Educate : Is the price of freedom to educate charging parents tuition? Or can some via media be found?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Cult of Experts

An irreverent prologue.

Question: How many bureaucrats does it take to solve a simple problem?

Answer: An indefinite number because the number of bureaucrats (=B) is always inversely related to the simplicity of the problem (=P): P1 = B10; P2 = B5; P3 = B1.

For example, a simple problem like too few books in a classroom will likely be solved by (A) hiring a consultant to determine why books are needed in the modern classroom or (B) a seminar for all staff on how to be more creative in the classroom or (C) some combination of the above or (D) or other "solutions" equally useless.

Notice in the "formula" above that the more intractable the problem, the fewer bureaucrats to be found. Real problem require work, which is antithetical to the bureaucratic faith that there is no problem they cannot solve, unless it involves actual work.

The real problem: Intelligence outsourced.

"Thanks to the progress of technology, the greater part of the restraints imposed on us by the cosmos have disappeared and, along with the, the crative personal effort which thos restraints demanded ... The frontiers of good and eviil have vanished in a mist of ideologies, whims, and appetites ... As everyone knows, few observations and much discussion are conducive to error: much observation and little discussion to truth" (Alexis Carrel, Reflections on Life).

Put into an educational context, there is much talk but little observation of occuring reality within actual classrooms with the aim of solving problems. More often there is so-called research which is bandied about without doing much of anything about the status quo. In fact, the cult of research may simply mask problems by creating a sense that "something is being done" when in fact, nothing is being done.

Let us vow to place our experience at the forefront of our judgments. This does not mean despising research or avoiding study; rather, let the theory be tested and "read" through the lenses of our "I"s.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Counter-intuitive Films

Some films and their possible application to the spirit and vision of our school. In roughly alphabetical order.

Signs (2002). A fascinating meditation on how life's meaning unfolds through time, people, events, and - sigh - extraterrestrials. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess who has lost faith in God and everything else after his wife's death. With the appearance of "crop circles" on his property, he seeks rational, pragmatic answers but these answers are ultimately unreasonable.

Though he fights it, Graham ultimately takes his dying wife's counsel to "see." Thus he connects the seemingly random events of his son's asthma, his daughter's obsession with "dirty" and "contaminated" water, and his younger brother's short-lived baseball career. Her death mysteriously leads to their living.

Isn't this the point of education: to help us see? Scanning high school graduation requirements, one may wonder what the point of all these disconnected courses mean. Helping students to sort out the important from the non-essential will be part of our critical role. Others may not be clear on what the point of what has been traditionally called a "liberal arts education" is, but we have the opportunity to show students that reality is coherent. Perhaps "show" is not the right word. How about provide them with a way of judging reality and their own experience?

The Terminator (1984). No, I'm not joking. This is a significant quotation:
Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn): "John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn't know why at the time. It was very old - torn, faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line, every curve. I came across time for you Sarah. I love you; I always have."

In the context of a new school, I take it to mean: We, like Kyle Reese, are going into the past for a kind of beauty that fascinates us. Yet that beauty is also something contemporaneous (not dead). Through out students we help perpetuate something more, something greater than we possess in the shattered ruins of our post-modern present. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088247/

A Third Way?

I see two kinds of charter schools out there that have attractive elements: The classical variety and the experiential learning model. (The charter schools that simply adopt public school models on a smaller scale leave me cold.)

One of the classical variety puts their approach to education this way:
"The classical approach to education can be described as a journey to meaning. It begins with students acquiring knowledge through a wide familiarity with literature, history, science, math, music, arts, people, and places. Liberty's purpose is to lead young people on an odyssey of the mind and heart, which will steer them towards self-reliance." -- Liberty Common School in Fort Collins.
(See http://www.libertycommon.org/about_us/classical_education/index.htm)

Here's a more free-flowing experiential type of school:
"Skyland's vision for educating one student at a time can best be understood based on The Five A's: 1. Academic vigor – student learning is in-depth, engages at a high level, and challenges them to learn new skills and knowledge; 2. Active learning – hands-on work leads to a product that reflects the student's level of effort; 3. Authenticity – student work reflects real-world learning and application; 4. Adult relationships – students work closely with adults (teachers and mentors) who help them pursue their passions and interests; 5. Assessment – student work is evaluated against professional standards, aligns to state model content standards, reflects a body of work, and includes student reflection." -- Skyland Community High School in Denver.
(See http://www.cde.state.co.us/scripts/chartersearchresults.asp)

A Third Way.
Classical schools are great for bringing the Western tradition to students; progressive schools emphasize things like relevance, relationships and authenticity. I think there is a need for both. The problem is that most people seem to see this as an "either/or" proposition: one is for tradition or for progressivism. This is, of course, an ideological reduction.

Someone who recognized the need for a holistic education was Luigi Giussani (see recommended reading elsewhere on this blog). In The Risk of Education he discusses three elements necessary for education to be truly "an introduction to the whole of reality":

1. Tradition as a proposal or hypothesis of meaning. All teachers do this consciously or not. What we say or fail to say communicates our approach not only to the "subject" but are approach to life itself.

2. This tradition becomes a problem for the student and creates in him or her a "crisis." What Socrates, Buddha or Jesus or Marx or Freud or whomever might have said years ago is reduced to trivia if the student does not encounter for himself or herself the problem posed. The tradition must become existentially relevant for the student.

3. The student is entrusted (yet accompanied by the teacher and others) to verify the hypothesis of meaning that his been proposed. The student moves to seeing tradition as a problem but is given the freedom to say, "Yes, what I've learned is true" or "No, it's garbage" or "I'm not sure." In any event, the student learns a method for approaching life that does reduce problems to ideological categories.

This is only a rough sketch of his approach to education. Please see http://crossroadsnyc.com/files/giussani_education.pdf for a transcript of an address Giussani delivered in 1985. It is The Risk of Education in an abbreviated yet very accessible form.

Websites and Blogs

Here are few websites and blogs that may be of interest.

Colorado Charter Schools is a blog with links and interesting reflections on charters. I don't know who the author of the blog is.

Colorado Charter Schools on the Colorado Department of Educatation website. Law, policy, links. Indespensible for our work.

Challenge To Excellence Charter School in Parker, Colorado. K-8 but interesting education philosophy.

Parent/Student Handbooks

A parent student handbook tells students and parents and the community what our school stands for and what it won't stand for. Here are some examples from inside and outside Colorado.

Frontier Academy Secondary. Charter HS (part of three K-12 schools). High expectations from students. Are some of these policies legal? I hope so because many of them sound like policies from a private or parochial school.

Interesting Articles

Below are some links to articles I found helpful. This will be added to periodically.

"A School Built for Horace" by T.R. Sizer and N.F. Sizer.
"Horace Smith" is a fictional high school teacher in a book called Horace's Comprise which chronicles how "one size fits all" high schools demoralizes students and staff alike. The article is about the authors involvement in starting a charter school in Massachusetts. It has good insights on the compromises that may be necessary to get a school running but how fidelity to vision pays off.

"Education: What’s the Point?" by Stephen Bertucci.
Bertucci argues that "the end [goal] of education is to help us to learn to love what is true and good and beautiful."

"Where Everyone Can Overachieve" by Victoria Murphy in Forbes Magazine.
This is about High Tech High School in San Diego. Here's an interesting thing on enrollment: "In July 2000 the school sent out 40,000 flyers with applications, filling the mailboxes of every eighth-grader in San Diego. The school got 1,000 applicants for 150 spots."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Interesting Schools

Here are some schools that seem to be "on to something." They run the gamut from public to private to parochial. I've placed some reactions next to some of the entries. I will expand the entries as I run into different websites. Feel free to post your own.

Here's a start:

Tempe Preparatory Academy in Tempe, Arizona. 7-12.

Ridgeview Classical Schools. K-12. Core knowledge (ala E.D. Hirsch) in elementary school; classical liberal curriculum in upper grades. Located in Fort Collins.

Liberty Common School. K-12. http://www.libertycommon.org/home/index.htm

Arrupe Jesuit High School. 9-12. They advertise an affordable college preparatory education via a unique corporate sponsored work study program. With big bucks we could have a private school instead of a charter. I don't know what underlies their pedagogical approach.

Denver Arts and Technology Academy (DATA). I include this one because it's run by educational management organization (EMO). According to Colorado Charter School law, schools can be affiliated with a for-profit or non-profit EMO. In addition, their "high tech" emphasis is something that costs big bucks. If I get my way, our school will be decidely "low tech" with an emphasis on the written word. http://www.denveratacademy.org/

St. John's College. A college? Take a look at some of the methods they are using. Some things might be adaptable for our context. I'm intriguiged by their "all courses required" approach.

Show Me the Money

As uncomfortable as it may be for me to say this, charter schools need money to operate. And lots of it. At first glance, the $6,000 or so a school gets per full time students seems like a whole lot. Say if you project enrollment at 100 the first year then students alone bring the school $600,000. "Wow, we could have six teachers, giving us a 1:17 teacher to student ratio and we could pay each teacher $100,000 per year!" Whoa, Nelly: once you start accounting for salaries/benefits, rent, utilities and other operational costs, the money goes fast. Here are a couple of thoughts on avoiding bancruptcy:

Everyone teaches. I put this here even though it more properly belongs under "educational philosophy" or "curriculum." In many schools there is a cleavage between adminstrators and teachers. Thus principals have "their" agenda and teachers have "theirs." The net result is that they often end up trying to subvert each other. No, principals, counselors, grant-writers need to teach. I am highly sceptical of a person in these positions who does not have a desire to teach. Beware the bewitching power of bureaucracies!

The US Marines have a maxim that goes something like this: Every Marine a rifleman. In our context what this means is that everyone involved in the school should be teaching in some capacity. I hear an objection already:

"But Colorado law the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) require that teachers at charter schools have a four year degree, 24 credit hours in the discipline they are teaching in OR have passed a content area exam such as the PLACE or PRAXIS. So what about someone who works for the school who does not possess a BA?"

This is true, the teacher of record must meet these requirements, but by everyone a teacher I mean that all staff are directly involved in the education and formation of students as is possible. Say we hire a secretary with 90 hours toward a BA. This person could also be assigned the task of helping the math teacher run Shared Inquiry discussions. Or assist in a keyboarding class.

This also means that students get different adult perspectives as well as saving the school a few pennies.

Fees. I recently saw the account balance for a student at a local public high school. It was around $150. Some of these fees seemed silly, but some were legitimate. What might constitute reasonable fees? Books and handouts, science lab expenses, compass and maps for land navigation exercise (orienteering), library/locker fees, etc. The point is not to exploit parents and students but to offset bona fide expenses that are necessary for the kinds of programs we envision. FAPE (Free, Appropriate Public Education) does not mean EVERYTHING is free in a public education.

Grants. There are hundreds of grants available from private foundations and governmental programs that give monetary or material support to schools. Some foundations focus on charter schools.

Ideas. There are also think tanks and other organizations that might not have money available, but might be willing to provide advice or speakers or magazine/journal subscriptions.

Free stuff. Craigs List, organizations that want their name advertised on pens, pencils and notepaper, The Tightwad Gazette is an online resource for hardcore penny-pinchers: See http://www.tightwad.com/

Friday, September 28, 2007

Admitting Students

Public schools (including charters) are in a bit of a pickle: they must admit all students, regardless of their suitability or level of preparation. Imagine a top medical school stuck with this requirement or a school for rocket scientists burdened with this "come one, come all" requirement.

Does this mean our school must, willy-nilly, become like any other school? On the contrary, there are ways to attract students who would truly benefit from the kind of education we have in mind and dissuade those who are disinterested from enrolling in the first place. As I understand it, the only potential student we could say, "No" to would be a student who has been expelled from a school within the district we are operating in. Here are a couple of ideas for ensuring that the school culture remains positive.

Entrance counseling and placement testing. Given our mission and approach to education, it would behoove us to counsel prospective students on precisely what will be expected of them and their parent(s) in terms of academic rigor, behavior and other things that will help students and parents discern whether or not this is the right school for them. In addition, if we give placement tests, families would be able to see the kinds of academic expectations the school has.

Cap enrollment. Let's not be greedy. This year public schools get somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,200 per student. It's easy to be tempted to say if 100 students is good, 150 is better. The obvious problem is that more students means that the teacher to pupil ratio shifts. One can move very quickly from students sensing a degree of accountability to staff and peers to a sense of anonymity ("I can do what I want; I'm a face in the crowd"). Placing a limit on the number of students we admit is permitted. What also needs to be in place is a method of saying who can be admitted if fair. This usually takes the form of a wait list (first come, first served) or a lottery.

Exit examination(s)? Some research is required here, but might we insist upon some sort of comprehensive exam prior to graduation? It galls me to run into high school graduates who are functionally illiterate. I take it for granted that our courses would prevent this, but it would also give others a kind of objective verification that our graduates are also competent in the "basics." What I don't know is this: is it legal (Can you imagine it being illegal to have an exit for high school graduates? -- I think it completely within the realm of possibility -- absurd though it be!). I recently read that exit exams are now required in 20 states.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ideas on Parental Involvement

What is the role of parents in the education of their children? Nature and society entrust children to their parents, so it is altogether fitting that parents take an active role in the education of their children. Throughout history, various societies come and go, but the family remains. Public charter schools are a step in the right direction in a recognition of this relationship between parents, children and education.

What role might parents play in the initial start up and the day to day operations of Sophia Academy? Here are some unscientific reflections:

1. Start Up. Before one makes a formal application to the district/state, the future school must demonstrate parental/community support via "Parent Information Meetings," which will (hopefully!) lead to letters of support from parents, politicians, business people, etc. In addition, parents will be asked to file "Letters of Intent" with us (these don't go in with the application, but we need to give the state numbers and keep them on file).

Ideally, the parental support we get comes from the parents' conviction that this school has something that no other school has. In other words, parents are in agreement with the mission and vision of Sophia Academy. Not in all details necessarily, but they support what we are doing.

Parents might also be able to provide some key services to the school on a voluntary basis. A pro bono lawyer, for example.

2. Day to Day Operations. For a high school to be run well, it takes many good people. Some jobs are obviously full time and should be compensated justly: teachers, secretary, administrator/site coordinator, registrar, counselor. Depending upon the number of students, some of these positions would be combined. One could also include teacher aides, janitor, maintenance, security, librarian, computer support, etc. I can see parents helping in the classroom if the right kind of training is provided. I would like to see students have the task of keeping the school clean (it's "their" house, in a very real sense). Security -- one hopes this would be superfluous. Having a librarian is predicated upon having a library. I think of the school as being basically "low tech" but computers are a part of life and require maintenance.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Typical (?) Graduate

Aristotle wisely observed that small errors in the beginning lead to huge ones over time. Hence, a question: Just what are we hoping for in our students? How will they be changed by four years at our school? What will be some observable qualities in an average graduate? Here are some thoughts -- please add your own comments, observations and criticisms.

1. Students will still be curious. My experience is as follows: By the time I left high school, I was hedonistic and nihilistic. Sure, natural tendencies contributed to this, but I can recall no compelling alternatives. Question: How do we create a place where reason flourishes and human needs are thorougly addressed?

2. Students will not be sceptical. I see our school as "inquiry-based" in some sense. Yet inquiry can become circular -- questions lead to further questions, which lead to further questions.... How can we help students discern that the Mystery is ultimately positive? Or to put it slightly differently, How do we ensure they know that unresolved questions don't mean answers don't exist?

3. Students will trust their experience. We will all make mistakes and perhaps some grievious errors, but how to get students to compare the contents of their hearts with their lives?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

From Method to Curriculum

A struggle I've had as a public school teacher -- and I see this as quite relevant to the creation of a new school -- is the following: How do I take my approach to education and apply it to the courses I teach? In my limited experience of teaching history, philosophy and literature, I have found that a common theme in my approach is that in all cases I try to get the students to ask questions about meaning.

Trying to "understand the meaning of everything" will be central to our school. Here are some questions I have about how such an interpretive stance becomes incarnated:
1. Concerning particular courses, do we want to use traditional kinds of courses (with the risk of fragmentation) or a more inter/multi-disciplinary approach (with the risk of "fuzziness")?
2. What unites all of the courses into a coherent curriculum?
3. If course titles and/or course objectives deviate from state/district standards, how do we demonstrate that we are meeting the state/district requirements?
4. Should we draw from a Great Books kind of canon in the selection of our texts? My preference is that we would go to primary works and do without traditional textbooks -- for the most part.
5. In selecting texts, our criteria will not be the same as, for example, Mortimer Adler who had the aim of "general learning" for all; instead, we are seeking to educate what is most human in our students. So, what is our criteria for texts?
6. How does the school's philosophical approach to education connect with the day-to-day teaching of our teachers?
7. What kinds of pre-existing training for teachers would we like to use or adapt? (I'm all for using the Great Books Foundation's Shared Inquiry Method training)
8. If we use pre-existing programs, how do we ensure our own uniqueness in adapting it? How do we ensure that we don't incorporate contradictory methods?
9. Since the school's focus is the liberal arts, would it make sense to refer to the Trivium and Quadrivium in the curriculum? Might courses be arranged around Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric in some fashion?
10. In drawing from different sources, how do we keep our focus?

Suggested Reading: Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, The risk of education: Discovering our ultimate destiny

This text asks a necessary but oft neglected question in education: Just what is it that we want to ultimately achieve? Giussani unapologetically asserts in the first paragraph, “The fundamental idea in the education of the young is the fact that it is through the younger generations that society successively rebuilds itself; therefore the primary concern of society is to teach the young. This is the opposite of what currently happens” (p. 7). He proposes neither a return to some return to what is derisively called “traditional methods,” nor does he envision education as a means for “social progress.” Instead of separating tradition and criticism, he insists that both are necessary for an authentically human education. He does this through four movements. First, there is the insistence that teachers present the past to their students. Tradition, the past, becomes what he calls a “hypothesis of meaning in life” (p. 53). This is not as amorphous as it may initially sound: parents consciously or unconsciously communicate a view of life to their children. Second, the teacher must be aware that he or she bears within himself or herself such a “working hypothesis” and that the students will look to the teacher to help them verify the proposal veracity. If the teacher is existentially coherent, the students will look to this person as an authority. Third, “true education must be an education in criticism” (p. 9). According to Giussani, the student must “take this past [tradition] and these reasons [what an authority such as a teacher has said], look at them critically, compare them with the contents of his heart, and say, ‘This is true,’ or ‘This is not true,’ or ‘I’m not sure’” (p. 10).

These three elements point to a fourth: the risk of education. The risk is that the student may not see things as we wish he or she might; they may abuse their freedom. For Giussani, our love for freedom must outweigh our love for results. He observes: “Here, the situation of many educators, both in families and in schools, is painfully clear; their ideal is to risk absolutely nothing” (p. 82). His goal throughout the text is summarized in the Introduction, “What we want … is to free the young generation from mental slavery and from the tendency to conform, which mentally enslaves them to the forces in society” (p. 11).

In my opinion, this is precisely the kind of posture required for a new kind of school. It seems to me that Catholic schools may emphasize "tradition" without criticism or risk; public schools are good at criticism but no coherent tradition is proposed. With Guissani, the best existing elements can be brought together into a unified whole.

Now, how does one build a curriculum around this philosophy of education?

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Freedom to Educate: Public or Private?

Several friends interested in the idea of a high school that is geared toward "introducing students to the whole of reality" have expressed the following concern: Can a public charter school take our human need for totality, for the Infinite, seriously? To put it bluntly, isn't asking questions about, and seeking answers to these questions about what fulfills the human heart illegal? Or to restate it slightly, isn't asking ultimate questions within the curriculum a sectarian undertaking? "Sectarian" seems to be legal jargon for "religious" in numerous Supreme Court decisions. Not being a lawyer, I don't yet have a legal answer, but my current understanding is that "asking the questions is permitted," but "insisting upon a particular answer" is not allowable. (If you read that last sentence and find it incoherent, you have a good grasp of church-state jurisprudence.)

Here are some questions and issues to look at:
1. In theory a private school would allow for maximum academic freedom yet creating a private school means steep tuition and - barring a lottery windfall - this would limit us to teaching the affluent.
2. A public charter allows for a stream of revenue, but limits our freedom to teach. Thus, we can teach students from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds but may be constrained in what we teach.
3. Is it moral to raise the questions about life's meaning without providing an adequate hypothesis of meaning for the student? Might this not lead to scepticism? JB has pointed out that this one criticism of schools organized around the Great Books curriculum. Can the danger be lessened or eliminated?
4. Wouldn't this school be redundant? After all, there are (aren't there?) private and pariochial schools that take the human heart seriously. This is an objection worth taking a serious look at. My hunch is that they are few and far between. There are schools that, for example, say they are all about Jesus but their curriculum mirrors a secular one with the addition of a Theology or Bible class sprinkled on top. As I see it, what is lacking is not so much "faith" as it is "rationality" - a rationality that doesn't limit itself to narrow categories. Who is doing this right now?

These are the questions that have come up so far. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Suggested Reading: Hank Edmondson annotation

Hank Edmondson, John Dewey and the Decline of America Education

The subtitle of the book is rich in irony -- "How the patron saint of schools has corrupted teaching and learning" -- inasmuch as Dewey was a signer of the original Humanist Manifesto and eschewed religion as just so much claptrap. One value of this book lies in arguing for one of the “ends of education” endorsed by Neil Postman in The End of Education: The American Experiment. Another is to critically examine Dewey’s legacy. According to Edmondson, a major failing of Dewey was that his theories, claims of pragmatism notwithstanding, were both vague and impracticable. According to Edmondson (and I can vouch for this, if only anecdotally), “Dewey’s ideas, and their impact on American educational thought, are poorly understood, especially among the very people who run our schools” (p. xiv). As an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy, I was required to take a semester one a “great philosopher.” Fate would have it that that Philosopher was John Dewey. I found him difficult then and my distaste for his thought has increased over time. Yet most of this contempt was for his philosophical views and I hoped that Edmondson’s text would be helpful for understanding elements of his educational thought. In Edmondson’s book I find not only a confirmation of my previous judgments about Dewey, but a discussion of the history of education in the U.S., and thus why here are such divergent goals and methods in education. According to Edmondson, thanks to John Dewey, we are “like the prodigal son” and “the educational establishment in this country has wandered from its inheritance. This inheritance comes from ancient Greece through the Judeo-Christian tradition and the best of Enlightenment thought, especially the ideas of the nation’s founders. Perhaps the most significant development in our apostasy is the departure form the common sense in favor of grand schemes of classroom experimentation.” (p. 17)

Edmondson correlates the decline of American education with the ascendancy of Dewey-inspired progressive education. This thesis can be countered by asserting that the problem is not too much Dewey, but too little. Edmondson is aware of this criticism but insists that the answer to our educational malaise is to return to the founding fathers’ vision of education. This seems to oversimplify the problem of education into what can be called largely political terms. This political posture is not surprising when one notes that the publisher is the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Some have criticized this text because Edmondson fails to fully examine Dewey’s work. This is an unfair criticism in part because pinning down Dewey’s exact position on very many subjects is impossible. Edmondson seems to have identified a major antagonist in the goal of vibrant schools, but his answers seem a bit narrowly conceived.

Mimicry: A Pitfall for Charters

One danger charter schools face is simply replicating the failing public school model but doing so on much smaller scale. I believe this happens when the school asks, "What does the district (and/or state) tell us we must do?" (things such as high school graduation requirements, discipline policies, reporting requirements, etc.) before the school has firmly in view its own vision of curriculum and school culture.

In other words, it is important to know what kind of school one has in mind and what it will take to organize and implement such a school. Then one asks, "Now, how do we meet the state/district requirements?" Otherwise, the central intuition (why we are starting the school in the first place) gets subordinated or simply "tacked on" to a bureaucratic school model.

For example, if our school is in a district that requires three credits (three years) of Social Studies, the easiest thing to do might be to have six courses available that have the same course titles as Mainstream High: World History 1 & 2; American History 1, 2 & 3; American Government. Might not it be more interesting to ask, "What should our students know about history?" first? Once this question is answered we can proceed to formulate courses or seminars. We might end up with a course such as the History of Science which offers 1/2 Science credit, 1/2 World History credit, and 1/2 English Composition credit. Such a course would be more demanding than 3 compartmentalized Science, Social Studies and English courses, but it also might be more interesting and useful for our students. Then we say, "Okay, how do convince the district/state that our courses meet or exceed their requirements?"

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My Philosophy of Education (by PostPaganBaby)

This paper consists of two parts: an introduction to eight of my premises about education, and a narrative that discusses these premises in a deeper way with some reflections on my teaching practice.

Part I. An Ironic Reduction.
My approach to education can be summarized by resorting to eight premises that I have rather lamely reduced to eight bumper stickers. Some of these “bumper stickers” have an explanatory note where I thought this necessary. All of these ideas will be further developed in the second part.

1. Education is about reality Education should be an introduction to the whole of reality (see Giussani, 1996, pp. 50, 106).
2. Reality is meaningful.
3. It’s the content, stupid. Inputs are more important than outputs. I regret using this jargon, but it is handy to say what I mean. What I mean is that I believe that many things involving a quality education are not (directly) measurable. I think that assessment is important but not a trump card. I wish to state at the outset that methods should be at the service of content, not the other way around.
4. Preconception reduces “’The method of research is imposed by the object.’ This is an important assertion by Alexis Carrel ([then a] young Nobelist in medicine) which means that we are called to give more importance to the observation of real events (in other words, the real facts of our life), instead of trying to interpret reality on the ground of an intellectual scheme present in our mind” (Bonomo, 2006).
5. Opinion is not knowledge This has to do with mainly with my insistence that what is given the name “knowledge” is often mere “opinion.” That is, we (humans) often find ourselves spouting off about ideas that we have borrowed from God knows where and parade them about as if they were ours.
6. The West has a hypothesis
7. Verify This one is directed toward my students more than myself (in a professional sense, though it is no less necessary for me at the existential level). Bumper sticker #6 speaks of a tradition (the Western tradition as a hypothesis of meaning); whether one embraces this or any other tradition, the fact remains that the dominant view of reality is that of Western Civilization. A major task of the educator is help the student ask whether or not this hypothesis corresponds to his/her desires.
8. Stay in front of reality If there is any one pitfall I see in secondary education, it is this: becoming hardened (in the intellectual and spiritual senses, though this may also include the emotional) by repeatedly teaching the same courses year after year without returning to the original questions that led them to become courses in the first place. The ancients insisted that “knowledge begins in wonder.” Retrieving wonder is essential to my role as an educator.

Part II. An Exposition.
In what follows I will take up my premises in some detail and refer to how some of these ideas have worked (or failed) in my teaching practice.
The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 263).
As I survey the landscape of secondary education, albeit in largely unscientific ways, I find many cause for concern: apathetic students, ignorant teachers, incompetent administrators; I see competing and often contradictory goals and objectives; I see methodological confusion over how to teach and philosophical disagreement over what to teach. All of this I see from the classroom to the federal level. I consider myself a reasonable person, so it must be asked: Given the state of education today, why bother? That is, why willingly subject oneself to an environment characterized by such discord and disorder?
For the sake of brevity I am tempted to reach for some cliché, such as “to make a difference” to justify my existence in a teacher preparation program, but there are numerous ways to make a difference in society, not all of them constructive nor attractive. One can engage in other forms of cultural rebuilding such as writing or lobbying, but these have not chosen me; teaching, however, has chosen me. That would be inaccurate: the Mystery (God, Christ) has chosen me for this work. That is its only rational justification.
Let us begin to judge. This is the beginning of liberation (Giussani, 1997, p. 11).
In reflecting on both my experience as an educator to date and the standards that are proposed to me as teacher, concerning content and approach, I am frankly dismayed. I find, for example, the Colorado Model Content Standards for History (1995) vague and not very helpful; nor am I enamored with the Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers. My reasons for this will become readily apparent throughout this paper, so I will not elaborate here; I will, however, note in passing that on the Colorado teacher standards, a teacher’s content area ranks fourth. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this ordering, but this seems to reflect the mentality that teachers must all be generalists first, and secondarily passionate about their specialty. In my experience as a student, it was teachers who were passionately engaged with their area of specialization who impressed me and motivated me to become a teacher: Tim Gould who bled Philosophy, Regis Martin who sweated Theology, and Jeremiah Ring who gushed History. Of these three (I could mention dozens more), there was no unitary method or approach – these differed wildly. What was universal was their engagement with the students and their love for what they taught.
I must admit that I am a bit misplaced as a social studies teacher. My real love is not merely what has happened (history as a record of the immutable past), but why things happened and why they are happening now. Further, I am interested in what reality means and this is not discernable by looking only at history. Thus I find myself drawn toward philosophy, religion and anthropology more than history or American government. Put another way, I bring these interest into the study of history and government. My approach to history tends to be textual and this comports well with teaching my ELLs. (So perhaps I should also seek endorsement in English!)
There is nothing new under the sun. (Holy Bible, 1966, Ecclesiastes 1:9)
In my experience great teachers can and do illuminate reality. Thus education is about reality. The current pathway through which I try to illuminate my students’ path is through the subject-formerly-known-as-history: social studies. History, though it is always an approximate science, inasmuch as it deals with both the nonrepeatable past and human beings (who always surprise us), can give us knowledge about our present. So, for example, in studying ancient Greece, I avoid the textbooks as much as possible. I find the textbook helpful for orientating the student to the general lay of the land. But just as map is limited compared with the actual terrain, the textbook falls short of helping the student to experience the ancient world.
The method I find most helpful is to go to ancient texts. Curious about Greek mythology? Well, first off, it wasn’t mythology to them, it was a living, breathing religion with strange stories and stranger still rituals and sacrifices. Into the Bacchae we plunge, meeting fate and Dionysus; seeing “how far” we have come in some ways, but also acknowledging that the modern secular altars we bow down to are in some ways more despotic than the suave yet capricious Dionysus. A typical text says this about the Greeks and philosophy: “By asking questions, the philosopher Socrates forced people to examine what they believed. This great teacher always said, ‘Know thyself’” (King & Lewinski, 2001, p. 159). Well, yes, but one will not have the slightest clue of his importance if one does not read Plato. Reading Plato takes time, so students will lack breadth to get depth. This is generally worth it if the students are willing because it takes a subject that might seem lifeless and they find vibrant characters full of life’s intensity. My students have risen to the occasion, even when I have chosen archaic and notoriously difficult translations. I am filled with awe and appreciation.l
Everything is grace (Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1950).
If everything is a gift, life is meaningful. I know for some coworkers and many students, life’s beauty and wonder are not something self-evident. This leads to my assertion that reality is meaningful. Sometimes one finds an insistence in educational literature that activities should be meaningful, but doesn’t this beg the question, “What constitutes meaning?” Two people can perform the same action but for one person it is pointless, for another it gives life. So as a teacher I attempt to till the soil in order to help the student see meaning. I’m no fool: I know that competing with a culture built on consumption is, one the whole, a lost cause. The modern secular society is driven by a desire for “bad infinity,” which one of my favorite theologians defines as trying to satisfy infinite desire with finite, consumable articles.
Despite this, I believe that my students can find value in the education they receive to the degree that they find meaning. This is always a possibility but I prefer to not leave these things to chance. By relating the past of others to the present of my students, they have an opportunity to grapple with the same questions posed by Plato, Jesus, Marx, etc.
Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? (Plato, 1976, p. 3).
The best methods of teaching are hotly contested (although expertise in any method or methods is conspicuously absent from Colorado teacher standards). At the [public charter high school], where I teach, we are utilizing the SIOP Model (Echevarria, J., Short, D. J., & Vogt, M.E., 2003) to teach our English language learners. If our school existed twenty-five or thirty years ago, we probably would have been utilizing bilingual education. Which one is better? Scientific arguments can be made both ways, but in the final analysis, there is no “über-method” that miraculously cures a student’s ignorance. I believe that it is important to be open to methods that may, to a greater or lesser degree, help convey content; but I think it absurd to insist that one method works for all subjects or all students. Thus methods are at the service of the content. To recall Plato, despite buckets of research, we still don’t know how to ensure that a child learn. We can point out certain necessary conditions and obstacles to learning, but we are ignorant of what makes it all possible. This is not surprising when we reflect upon the mystery of language.
Why is it that scientists have a theory about everything under the sun but do not have a theory of man? Is it possible that a theory of man is nothing more nor less than a theory of the speaking creature? (Percy, 2000, p. 8).
To speak of the origins of language may seem tangential to a philosophy of education paper, but I am convinced that many of the root causes of educational dis-ease are to be found in unwarranted assumption about what it means to be human; what one can, should or ought to learn; what the real goal of education is, etc. None of this can be developed here, so suffice to say that all approaches to education presume (of necessity) a certain anthropology.
Education without authority is impossible… (Giussani, 2006, p. 29).
Given our ignorance of our own lack of knowledge, it can be tempting to fall into relativism or despair. More typically educators seem to avoid these questions and stick with what they know. Psychologically, this completely understandable, but it consists of an abdication of one’s role in introducing others to reality. To do less than this is to train, not educate. The teacher as an authority means firstly to be one who takes his humanity seriously; secondarily, it means to be interested in the pupils’ destiny. It borders on pathological when educators seek satisfaction from their students. It is like a mother who expects to be nursed by her own baby! Perhaps what I’m trying to say here can be summed up saying that the teacher must have a high degree of self-knowledge before embarking upon the task of walking with others.
Sadly I find that all too much of my authority is expended on disciplinary matters. Sometimes it seems that all I am doing is rebuilding a foundation after having built the same foundation on the day before. In part this is the nature of my students. In part it is my own failure to help the students grasp the importance of respect and decorum. Still another part is the school culture as a whole that does not place value on coming to school to learn. In the not too distant past I looked on all of this is mostly negative terms: “Oh, here we go again – Drill Instructor McGuiness reporting for duty.” Now I still see creating a peaceful environment as necessary and a lot of work, but I can also recognize the progress my classes have made. When the year began, students were throwing things around the classroom and cursing like sailors. This trimester I marvel at their ability to settle down for the task at hand, be it “quiet reading” or a quiz. Chaos seemed to reign in the past but now I see them engaged in reading, listening, writing, and speaking (appropriately!). Not all the time, but frequently enough that I may be able to retire my campaign hat for the year. I don’t attribute the change to my personal authority. I think that’s a piece of the puzzle, but I think my students have discovered the value of learning and they understand that it is up to them to make it possible. A few weeks ago, it was the day before a quiz, a Civics class was particularly rambunctious. I said, “Listen, if you want to prepare for this quiz, let me know. If not just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll do something else.” I then proceeded to begin reading a book. Within in ten minutes, the students had become quiet. Several students said, “Mister, we’re ready.” We then prepared for the quiz.
To be an authority does not mean to be one who possesses the keys to all knowledge. To be an authority is to know one’s weakness, ignorance, and need. And yet, yet one knows. That’s the paradox. It is a paradox that seems to be denied by statements such as “Collect data on individual student achievement and be held accountable for each child's learning” (6.6). Now the first part of the statement is reasonable: see how students are progressing. The second part strikes me as completely nonsensical: why or how should one be “held accountable” for another’s learning? What can this possibly mean? That I fire myself if students don’t progress in a way I find adequate? To be willing to receive praise or blame for what a student knows? One might be able to teach 99 students in an exceptional manner, but there remains one who seems unreachable. In such a case, what does it mean to be held accountable? As a slogan, this standard sounds nice; as a guide for praxis, it is worthless. Still, I do “hold myself accountable” as we all do and must. I find that I rely on both formal assessments like quizzes or writing samples and informal assessments. For students’ grades, the formal assessments are king; my informal assessments help me to know where the class is at and where we may be going in the future. This points to the reality that teaching is more an art than a science, despite a myriad of benchmarks, standards and testing to the contrary notwithstanding.
Behold the man! (Holy Bible, 1996, John 19:15)
I insist that all teachers (regardless of content area proficiency) should affirm silly bumper sticker number three: it’s the content, stupid. Already in my nascent teaching career, I have run into my fair share of educated fools who obsess over the measurable and the statistically verifiable. They are like the interns who surround Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) in the film Wit. These interns have lab reports and tons of data but cannot see her humanity. Doctor Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) asks about side-effects of the chemotherapy on Ms. Bearing. After listing what is documented in medical reports, they still are missing an obvious side effect. Dr. Kelekian exclaims, “Hair loss!” (Wit, 2001). Like Kelekian’s interns, I often miss the symptoms or cues that the students manifest. There are times when I expect “more” from students but they just aren’t ready. It is difficult to discern genuine exhaustion from laziness, but it gets easier in time. Still, there are other times when I’m sure they’ll want to travel the easy road, but they consciously choose a more difficult task. This occurred last trimester in a Civics class. I gave the class the option to finish up the year with an open book examination or a Shared Inquiry discussion on the Declaration of Independence. They chose the Declaration along with all the difficult vocabulary and conceptual baggage therein.
Content is interesting when it is related to the humanity of one’s students. If and when students connect content with life, something magical happens. It is as if the veil of the world is lifted for a moment and they see things as they are. On the other hand, when content is subservient to measuring and assessing tools, we have entered the theatre of the absurd. The latter seems to be the trend, but because some have chosen to invert means and ends, it doesn’t mean one must swear allegiance to such a farce.
To love the truth more than our own ideas about it is the same as being free from preconception (Giussani, 1997, p. 32).
Having preconceived ideas about this or that is unavoidable. We have all been shaped by our experiences, family, education and numerous other factors. To lack any preconceived ideas would be to have no memory or experience whatsoever. Still, excessive preconception can lead one to positing answers before even knowing the questions! Thus preconception reduces when it clouds openness to the real. Nearly every day I teach I am challenged to not reduce my students to the lesson plan I have conceived. Rare is the day that my pristine plan goes as planned. Shall I give up planning? No, because by acknowledging that I am in some way an authority for these students, it is important that have a clue as to where I am headed, even if they erect barricades or have other destinations in mind. The victory of preconception occurs when I force my agenda on the students without due consideration for their interests, fatigue or fears.
I also attempt to disabuse students of some of their preconceived ideas. I recall when I first began teaching at a [public charter high school] two years ago. I proposed some task and the students responding by calling me “racist.” This was curious indeed: they haven’t mastered English but they are adept at playing the race card! In any event, this was surely not an adequate explanation. Rather than become defensive or apologetic, I said, “OK, you’re right I’m racist. I decided to come teach at this school to give you the worst education possible. So let’s get on with it.” From this they were able to go a little deeper in articulating their objections to the proposed assignment.
I must also confess that I have let go of some of my assumptions about teaching of late. I came to this school armed with a pair of prejudices: students should be at school to learn and some students will be in school simply to avoid a less pleasant fate. These prejudices both turn out to be true, but it is in understanding their application and relevance that I have grown. If the ideal of all students coming to school to learn on the terms and conditions set by teachers and administrators, how should I respond? By trying to understand my students and to simultaneously call them up to something higher. Perhaps their education is fragmented (whose isn’t today?) or they live in a home that devalues learning or any of a myriad of obstacles. I’m reminded of these words in a song by U2 “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me” (Hewson, 1981). I can’t change who and what my students are, but I can respond to them in ways that are productive. How else can education become attractive?
How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know what it is? (Plato, 1976, p. 13).
The truth is, we know less than we think. I find my students have many opinions but not a whole lot of knowledge. In this way, they are not much different than me or my peers. Still, it is a problem and opinion is not knowledge. One might cynically respond, “What problem? Isn’t this evidence of assimilation at work?” This would be to conflate ignorance with the American ethos, which doesn’t seem quite fair. How then to move students (even if it be ever so slightly) from opinion to knowledge? I haven’t found a sure fire way, though I know it is critically important. One concrete way is to have students write about their own learning through journaling. I should do more of this.
Rome is the light (Gladiator, 2000).
Despite the fact of slavery, colonialization and other oppressive practices, it is still undeniable that the West has a hypothesis of meaning that has sustained humanity for centuries. To my mind this means, among other things, stressing exposure to some foundational texts: The Bible, various works by Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, the Communist Manifesto, etc.

Bonomo, R. P. (2006, June 3). Science and religious sense. Paper prepared for Metanexus Institute conference, “Continuity + Change: Perspectives on Science and Religion,” Philadelphia.
Bresson, R. (1950). Director Diary of a country priest. (adaption of Georges Bernanos novel)
Chesterton, G. K. (n.d.). What’s wrong with the world. Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden and Company. (Original work published 1910).
Colorado Department of Education (1995, September 14). Colorado model content standards for history. Retrieved February 11, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeassess/documents/standards/hist.htm#full-standards
Colorado Department of Education (2000, January 13). Performance-based standards for colorado teachers. Retrieved February 11, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeprof/download/pdf/li_perfbasedstandards.pdf
Echevarria, J., Short, D. J., & Vogt, M.E. (2003). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP model (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson, Allyn and Bacon.
Giussani, L. (1996). The risk of education: Discovering our ultimate destiny. (R. G. Frongia, Trans.). New York: Crossroad.
Giussani, L. (1997). The religious sense. (John Zucchi, Trans.). Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
Giussani, L. (2006). The journey to truth is an experience. (J. Zucchi, Trans. with the assistance of P. Stevenson). Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
Gladiator (2000). http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/g/gladiator-script-transcript-russell-crowe.html
Hewson, P. (1981). Rejoice. On Gloria [record]. New York: Island Records.
Holy Bible. (1996). RSV-CE.
King, W.E. & Lewinski, M. (2001). World history. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service, Inc.
MacIntyre, A. (1984). After virtue. (2nd ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Plato (1976). Meno. (G.M.A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. (Original work written ca. 390 BCE.).
Percy, W. (2000). The message in the bottle. New York: Picador. (Original work published 1954).
Wit (2001). Director Mike Nichols. Emma Thompson; Christopher Lloyd. VHS.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A New School -- Suggested Reading

A few of us in the Denver area are looking at starting a new public charter high school. The basic idea of the school is one that takes the needs of the human heart seriously. Those needs can be stated as follows: the need of truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and total self-satisfaction. The goal of such a school as the one we envision is not merely "college preparation" but preparation for a more human life.

Here are some texts that I have found helpful in thinking about a new kind of school:

  • Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education

  • Jean Daneilou, Prayer as a Political Problem

  • Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education

  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

  • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

  • Neil Postman, The End of Education

  • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

  • Hank Edmondson, John Dewey & The Decline of American Education

  • Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture

  • David Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church

The first thing to be noted that several of the texts are not primarily about education, but culture. But as Giussani says somewhere, the terms are synomous. We take it as axiomatic that an educative proposal is also a cultural proposal.

Is it possible for a public charter high school to operate with philosophical sources such as the above? Time will tell. Over the next few weeks I will provide commentary on how some of these texts relate to a public (in the richest sense of the word) high school.

-- PPB