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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

For the Sake of the Children

Hearing this phrase is also grounds for reaching for the proverbial Luger or perhaps a reason for paying close attention to what the speaker says next.

On talk radio and during an interview
A local radio station (KHOW) has a show called "Caplis and Silverman" co-hosted by Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman; they are a great pair - far more interesting than, say, Hannity and Colmes were. Last week they were discussing a sick out by Boulder Valley teachers. Caplis was suggesting that everyone should agree to do "what is best for the children." Hmm, sounds good. But so does "pro-choice" unless you think deeply about what is being chosen. Yet unlike the "pro-choice" mantra, "for the children" is far more ambiguous.

Short term or long term?
In my experience, "what is good for the children" is sometimes proposed without reference to what is good for teachers. I've heard administrators say such things as "this isn't about teacher comfort, but what's good for the students" in reference to an inane and insane requirement that teachers call each student's home at least once per week. This was at a charter school where the parents were predominately Spanish-speakers. Call 120 homes in a language I don't speak; this benefits whom, how exactly?

On the "Caplis and Silverman Show," Dan Caplis was suggesting that teachers should always do what is best for the students, not themselves. (Not to get Kantian here, but does Mr. Caplis in his law practice do what is best for his clients without reference to himself - does he routinely foreswear compensation?) Implicit in this naive remark are at least two facts:

1. What is "best" for the children is rarely univocal.
Is it always best that teachers stay on the job and never strike? Well, that would depend on the rationale for the strike. Teachers might be striking because of bad adminstrative policies that "dumb down" the curriculum or teachers might be asking for an unreasonable pay raise; in the former case one would say, "strike," in the latter, don't.
Is a longer school day always best for the children? It depends on how the time is spent and what provision is made for teachers having adequate leisure [I find it interesting that the only people I hear say how "easy" teaching is, are either (a) incompetent teachers or (b) more likely, those who don't teach]. I met a guy recently who was fired from a charter school chain because he suggested that teachers have more time to meet together and fewer contact hours with students. In other words, because he was concerned about an "assembly line" approach to teaching, he was deemed to not be a "team player" (even as he was asking for more time for "the team" to coordinate their activities!)

2. What is bad for teachers is also bad for students.
Suppose you have a cadre of teachers that always believes a principal when he says, "This is good for the kids, so we're going to do it," and these teachers nod their heads in assent. If the administrator is wise, benevloent and saintly, then, well, perhaps all of these good things shower upon teachers and students alike. If however one lives on this planet, we would soon find out that "what is good for the children" (for now we'll assume that these are actually good things) -- things such as longer school days, more instructional time, and more lively instruction -- these things have a price that teachers must pay. Let's take them in order with the assumption that there are no changes in staffing:

A. A longer school day. This means that either teachers make their families and friends suffer by cloistering themselves away and continuing to grade papers long into the night and skip time with the family or these teachers, say, "Screw it, I used to ask for essays, but now I don't have time to grade them, so I'll start handing out multiple choice quizzes" or some other time saving measure. In the long term, students pay the price.

B. More instructional time or "contact hours."
Teachers teach more but they might also communicate less. A great booklet I recently read was Julian Carron's "Educating: That is, a Communication of Yourself." Carron makes it very clear that the most important thing a teacher communicates is not content per se, but how the teacher views all of reality. This is not pie-in-the-sky, but quite concrete. More contact hours may translate into uninspired teacher, which helps no one.

C. More interesting or lively instruction.
This one kills me: the vision of the teacher as entertainer and the assumption that students should be distracted into learning. In any event, where does the time for creativity come from? It has been taken away. If the teacher does make instruction more entertaining, it will in fact be less interesting; bells and whistles will have replaced curiosity and wonder.

Abstractions are useless
What I love about teaching is that reality is unavoidable. My students challenge me to ask daily why I do what I do (and if, in fact, it is worth doing!); I cannot just fall back into some ideology to explain reality: they won't let me.

Those who use ideological phrases like "it's for the children" aren't working with the children (even if there is a classroom of kids in front of them); they are working with abstractions. In The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, E.D. Hirsch has a great glossary of terms and he shows how eduspeak is a dodge from thought. Let's add "for the children" to the list.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Plato I

A Return to Sanity
Pretty bad when reading about a guy who is on trial for his life over trumped up charges seems like "sanity." In comparison to Dewey, Socrates is a breath of fresh air (whereas Dewey is largely stale error). There are so many things to learn about through the "Apology." Something that struck me on this rereading was Socrates' patience in explaining the context of how accusations arose against him. How preconception and prejudice led to his indictment; how he did indeed do things that were, in today's parlance, politically incorrect.
Two for One
As I mentioned previously, taking up an ancient text was motivated by a desire to get some distance from the modern mentality (well represented by John Dewey). Reading the "Apology"
and Aristophanes' "The Clouds" (a first) was also motivated by the opportunity to teach an undergraduate Philosophy course. I was able to get what I think is a very good translation by C.D.C. Reeve - it's certainly more readable than the Jowett translation (see The Trials of Socrates at http://www.hackettpublishing.com).