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

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