Roll Up Your Sleeves

Yesterday our school had its ‘Inter-house Swimming Gala,’ a day-long contest in which the school’s houses swam for victory, or waited to swim for victory. Hong Kong is studded with municipal swimming pools or, more accurately, complexes comprising many pools and ‘lakes’ with geographic features and, in the case of ‘our’ pool, bleachers; for we had the gala at one of the municipal pools.

I took not one but two seats in the Sargent House bleachers: one for myself and one for the steady stream of students who came by to talk during the gaps between cheers about their IB English submissions and their college admission essays. Finally, a bit after my last student conference and a bit before the end of the gala, I left with a colleague to attend a citywide meeting of teachers of the IB’s Theory of Knowledge course. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the recently released ‘Prescribed Titles’ for ToK essays, due in March. The talks were productive and helpful.

This morning I had a letter from a former colleague, also of mature years if not as mature as mine, who with his wife took a job at another school in east Asia. Now, this former colleague established and ran one of the world’s pre-eminent Model United Nations conferences and took his students to two other conferences in addition to his work as a successful IB history teacher. He wrote to say that he was overwhelmed with work, though I guess he will find a way, as he always used to do, to stay on top of it. (When I had to go in to the school on weekends, as often as not he was there planning the week or the conference ahead. He is the teacher who taught me to use classroom furniture flexibly depending on the kind of lesson to be taught.)

Also this morning I read a wonderful article in The New York Times about Xavier University, a Catholic historically black college founded in New Orleans by St. Katharine Drexel, which has the most successful rate of placing African-American graduates in medical schools of any undergraduate program in the country, including the Ivies. I was highly impressed by the determined dedication to teaching and learning displayed by its faculty, and by the same kind of dedication displayed by its students, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college.

The title of today’s posting is the Text: “Roll Up Your Sleeves.” Though care must be taken to avoid burnout in students or teachers, the late Jaime Escalante, a high-school teacher of renown, put succinctly what he thought the “secret” of success in teaching and learning was: “a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike.”


“Are Our Kids Tough Enough?”

The three-hour BBC documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” is about a group of Chinese teachers who travel to England in an experiment to teach 9th grade using Chinese methods for a month. It portrays the ways of teaching typically employed at excellent Chinese schools and in our laboratory school, which is rated Outstanding by Ofsted, the British office that inspects and regulates state schools. Watch it, but watch it with caution.

I think it is important to spoil the suspense at the outset: the Chinese teachers produce significantly better results with English pupils than do the teachers of an outstanding English state school. The reason you need to know this at the outset is that there is not very much evidence presented in the documentary of how these results are attained. Scene after scene shows boys & girls charmingly rebelling against the harsh and demanding teaching regime, sleeping during lectures, making mischief, and dissolving in tears; the classrooms are appalling nightmares of mismanagement and ineptitude. If the classes were really so constantly awful, how did the teachers succeed? The documentary will not tell us.

The makers of the documentary do a bit of playing to the British gallery. The soundtrack includes music from old prison-camp movies, the Chinese teachers are usually (but by no means always) shown as severe by contrast with the gentle British teachers, and the troublemakers are articulate and sympathetic, not feckless louts. The whole experiment is treated as a competition till near the end.

Again and again the charge is made during the documentary that Chinese teaching does nothing but tell students to take notes and memorize. This in spite of (brief) footage shown during the last hour of Chinese teachers giving help and encouragement, and of students working out an understanding. It also ignores the PISA results on solving problems with which students are not familiar, in which Chinese students outdo British and American.

In short, the documentary does an incomplete job. We are left with some big unanswered questions. They have to do with “Chinese methods,” but they also and more importantly have to do with the culture of learning. It may be that the larger questions are not questions of pedagogy but questions about what a culture values in its young.

We are not answering those questions in a culture where expectation and blame fall on teachers but not on students, parents and society.


O horrible, o horrible, most horrible!

The school where I began my teaching career required all 9th-graders to be able to write a five-paragraph essay and all 11th-graders to write a successful research paper under the dual guidance of their English teachers and one other-subject teacher. I am not a great fan of the five-paragraph essay because I hold with Barzun that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake.’ Even so, I see the need for some students to start with training-wheels, as it were, before the unaided bike ride actually begins.

I was therefore deeply shocked to hear about a new-teacher orientation at a state university in which the following exchange took place. One new teacher asked the Director of Academic Technology what to do with students who ‘struggle with the five-paragraph essay’ and do not like writing at all. The director replied that the teacher might make an alternative assignment ‘like a poster’. (No advice on buying crayons and scissors was given.)

The principal of my first high school would have had a better answer to that question. It would have been to advise the teacher to help the students learn the five-paragraph essay. If a student had been foolish enough to assert to that principal that he did not like writing at all, the answer would have been very clear: If you want to be a sophomore, you will learn how to write a five-paragraph essay whether you like it or not.

If students at this university can avoid learning to write because they ‘don’t like it at all,’ what do they have to look forward to? The university’s president said at the same convocation that he wants students to ‘own their own minds.’ What a statement! Fan away the misty cliché about ownership and it becomes perfectly meaningless and unintelligible. If a student doesn’t like writing and therefore doesn’t have to do it, if he doesn’t like reading more than a few pages a day, if he doesn’t like demanding teachers and savages them in the course evaluation, if he likes computing but not counting, and if he can’t hold up for thirty seconds in a Socratic discussion, what kind of mind will he ‘own’?


Strategic Planning for Goodness

Regardless of what verdict may be returned in the case brought against a former upperclassman of St Paul’s School for raping a freshman, the rector’s public reaction to the case is unsettling. On the one hand, he assures parents and students that the school remains ‘committed, as always, to ensuring our students’ safety and wellbeing [emphasis added].’ On the other, in the face of allegations that the school appears to turn a blind eye to sexual predation in certain circumstances, he says that ‘we could be doing better’ to plan and structure preventives to such things as ‘relational violence’.

‘Relational violence prevention’ is one of the eeriest euphemisms I have heard anyone use in connection with secondary education. It is possible that the rector is merely walking on eggshells, but yet another statement of his suggests a deeper problem. The New York Times reports that he said, ‘[the alleged rape] provides us with an important opportunity to reconsider elements of our shared life that do not appear in our strategic plan.’

Strategic plan? St. Paul’s School is an Episcopal school, or professes to be. The times being what they are, everyone professes need for a ‘strategic plan’, though organically constituted communities can manage without them, as did another Anglican institution, the University of Oxford, in its 19th-Century reform movement. More to the point is the implicit admission that strategic planning is not a be-all and end-all. How anyone could have thought otherwise?

Part of strategic planning is to identify opportunities and threats and to consider what might be done to take advantage of the former and keep the latter at bay. Anyone who has participated in this part of the plan knows how much fantasy and wishful thinking matter in the final lists and plan. Suppose you are in a planning group and you say, on the basis of evidence available to you, that one threat to a school is destructive and violent behavior by students countenanced or tolerated within the school culture. The chances are that within an insecure or disingenuous corporate culture your warning will be dealt with ineffectively or, worse, will be dismissed or derided.

But all this discussion should be beside the point. Schools should have moral compasses, which are one of the things that happily distinguish them, or should distinguish them, from educational software. By moral compass I do not mean the one that identifies bad conduct as ‘inappropriate behavior’. That sorry category makes date rape sound like a faux pas.

If the allegations now on trial should be proved true, and if as claimed the school’s culture is shown to have led to the behavior alleged, it will suggest strongly that St. Paul’s moral compass is faulty. That is a pity, for an effective traditional guide to conduct is available to St. Paul’s. It is called the Spiritual Works of Mercy. If that seems too sectarian, there is yet another guide available. It is called the law.


In the Meantime…

Now that the unfortunate Motoko Rich has reported in The New York Times that there’s a teacher shortage, and Frank Bruni has editorialized about making teaching jobs more attractive, we can repose in the stability of inertia, one of two normal responses to trouble in the ed biz.

(The other response is to launch a futile and abortive revolution such as NCLB or RAT. The Didact’s Dictionary proposes a definition of inertia (n.): The normal state of education. The revolutions usually said to punctuate inertia are in fact extensions of it because nothing continues to change.)

Nonetheless, I have a few suggestions for dealing with the teacher shortage.

1.    Determine that public schools are a public good and that their teachers, like soldiers and police, should be shielded from the worst effects of the business cycle.

2.    Do something about the fact that teachers are dead last among jobholders for their relationship with their supervisors.

3.    Get rid of the demonstrably worthless ‘metrics’ used to impose false accountability on them.

4.    Train them truly and then trust them truly, as the Finns do. No fake teacher education, and no top-down management.

5.    End wasteful and unsustainable personnel management (e.g., lower 24% annual turnover rates to acceptable levels).

6.    Take school administration out of the hands of incompetent monsters of the deep.

7.    Bring up children like Jane Eyre’s Adèle, to be obedient and teachable.

8.    Do not impose unreasonable teaching burdens. Instead, like the Finns & Japanese, allow teachers time to do their work at school.

9.    Do not entertain false notions about the ease and simplicity of teaching, or think by reductive fallacies that it can be reduced to a series of steps that can be captured by software.

10.    If you insist on leaving teaching a miserable job, at least provide good pay and job security until that time in the unimaginable future when the world beats a path to education’s door.


Touts at the Schoolhouse Door


At one end of San Francisco’s Broadway in a quiet neighborhood stands the Sacred Heart Convent School for girls, the soul of discretion. Its Wikipedia entry is only a few lines. It knows what it wants to do, as do its students and their parents.

At the other or neon end are (or used to be) the city’s topless and strip clubs. True, you could get gnocchi al pesto at Enrico’s or hear Tom Lehrer or Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, and you can still buy ‘Howl’ at City Lights Books, where it was notoriously published sixty years ago. But for many people from the 1970s to the 1990s it was the topless joints that made the street famous. People would stroll by the topless clubs, each with its ‘barker’ outside touting the delights to be found within, such as ‘live girls’. (Gary Larson in The Far Side imagined an insect topless joint featuring ‘live females’, but that joke is less understandable today, when people often refer to men and women as males and females, than it was when Larson published it.)

The polarity of Broadway has its analogous polarity in education. At one pole are the schools that simply get along in their completeness, giving information to those who inquire and simply attending to their missions. Those missions are themselves simple and free of gongs and sirens. One school I know of has the mission ‘to provide a liberal education based on Christian principles’. One can hope that such a mission is free of baloney and that people are attracted to the school for all the right reasons.

At the other pole are the schools that ‘market’ themselves like barkers, inviting the young to sample the delights within, delights that usually fall far short of the barkers’ hyperbolic promises.  One such school, absurdly named Quest to Learn, even managed to get The New York Times to do its barking. I was not very hopeful that the children gulled into attending would come out with much to show for their efforts, assuming efforts were required. (This is not a sure thing, especially where ‘failure is not an option’.)

As my summer holiday continues I visited a former colleague who found a teaching job at one of the more ‘prestigious’ (what a word!) schools in the city where she lives. She has just quit, telling me that she is tired of an administration that seems more intent on barking than teaching. Part of the school’s ‘problem’ is that it and other schools ‘compete’ for the same students and try to catch them by pitching ‘the delights within’. It sounds less like admissions than like hunting season. I think the last straw was being commanded to make students take notes on computers only, not by hand, so the school would be 100% computerized. Since there can’t be any reason for 100% computerization that forbids handwriting, it must be to accommodate their pitchmen.

One mark of a potentially good school (there are others) is that it can be found at the right end of Broadway, so to speak, far from the barking crowd.


Education by Poetry and Education by the Beast from the East

During his years teaching poetry at Amherst, Robert Frost came to understand an important feature of ‘slow learning’ that is often overlooked by proponents of ‘virtual’ education. It is that in a classroom, students often show their nearness to or achievement of understanding by a look that is fugitive but unmistakable when it appears. Experienced teachers recognize this look and use it, as did Frost, to check understanding. At one point in his ‘meditative monologue’ on “Education by Poetry’ Frost correctly asserts that sometimes the look is the only thing we have to go on for judging successful understanding and for marking.

These postings have argued that assessments that are close to the course being taught are likelier to capture fugitive elements of a course than are ‘distant’ assessments like standardized tests. William James argued that consciousness includes an item on which we focus and a ‘fringe’ of material that is tentatively present to us, to which we may immediately turn at need. On line education rids the ‘classroom’ of this fringe and proceeds, as if blinkered, through its syllabus. How many of us have had a teacher like Mr. Ciriello, who used to scan the faces of his students for comprehension during lectures and discussions? When I realized what he was doing, I could knit my brow and count on an explanation without the embarrassment of having to raise my hand and admit that I did not understand what he was talking about. And how many of us have had teachers like Professor Sareil, who probed and crumbled caked wisdom thoroughly and relentlessly at his colloquium table? It was scary, but it worked; and by being a bit scary he helped teach me how not to crumple under forensic pressure[1].

One of Frost’s students reports that after his classmate had done a particularly splendid reading of a poem, Frost told him, “You get an A forever.” What a wonderful reward and motivation to continue as he had done! Education on a human basis allows all these possibilities. Education by machine does not.

* * *

My summer trip continues, during which I heard two stories about excellent teachers of long standing who were maltreated by capricious administrators. One of them was a gifted math teacher who after twenty years of successful teaching[2] was hounded out of his school by a vindictive principal. Another, a successful English teacher of thirty years’ standing, suddenly started receiving negative reviews. It turned out that the reviewer’s administrative colleague, whose son she had taught, had given him false reports of her methods. This kind of whispering campaign is not always detected and eliminated, as my friend’s fortunately was. More often it results in wreckage such as happened to the math teacher.

(The ghastliest story of capricious bullying by an administrator involves a former colleague who became a target of our principal’s tender attentions. She was gradually beaten down, but the last straw came when her husband, a distinguished physicist, received news that he had been elected to the Royal Society. She asked the principal’s permission to attend his investiture; he rejected her request. She came to school but announced her resignation. I saw her a year after she left, her health entirely restored.)

Evidence shows that American teachers are dead last among jobholders in the quality of relationships with their supervisors. One reason, but only one, is this kind of treatment by bad administrators. Why is no one investigating this deadly impediment to good teaching and learning?

[1] As I think about it, I wonder whether part of the washout problem in American universities is due to students’ not having had such experiences in their education.

[2] One of his students, a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge, was beyond the high-school curriculum, but this teacher arranged for him to receive instruction by professors at Cal Berkeley.


Unraveled Sleeves and Abaci

My summer holiday took me this week into some terrain containing oblique lessons in education. While on the remote and mountainous Big Sur coast of California I stayed in a monastic ‘cell’ at a monastery whose monks are largely silent except during sung and spoken prayers. (The discipline is relaxed at the midday meal.) Like the cells of the Grand Charterhouse in Grenoble, the cells of this monastery are designed for silent reading and other contemplative activities by their tenants when they are not at work or prayer. Each one has a little garden with a wall around it. After evening prayers the cloister becomes utterly silent and dark. No TV, screens, or gadgets.

These conditions, it turns out, may conduce to good and healthful sleep of the kind that students (and their teachers) are, more and more, giving up. It is not just that they are staying up longer: it is that when they finally drop off, the sleep they get is less in quantity and quality.  The reason lies to a great extent in the kind of light they experience in the hours before their bedtime. Light with an abundance of its constituent wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum acts on our bodies as a signal that undercuts the impulse to sleep, even to the point of disrupting circadian rhythms. This is precisely the kind of light emitted by the gadgets one does not use at the monastery.

Though most of us would prefer a bit of sleep deprivation to a very ascetic life, there is a big difference between a bit and a lot. Sleep is supposed to “knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care,” but no knitting gets done when students are murdering sleep in how they conduct their waking lives.

* * *

Today I visited a small but excellent bookstore that deals in new and used books. The shop assistant was helpful but distant until I took out my fountain pen to sign the credit card slip. She complimented the pen and asked if she might try it. She took it in a practiced grip and with confident speed executed a line of beautiful calligraphy. It turns out that she had studied calligraphy under Corita Kent. As the fountain pen goes the way of the abacus (except at the marvelous Hop Cheong Pen Shop in Hong Kong and other outposts), we are not just giving up a bit of the modest artistry that a full life should afford. We are handicapping the young people who miss the formative and even therapeutic effects that handwriting can have, for it turns out that learning to write and then taking notes in cursive letters rather than typing them aids in the handling of the material noted.

Such experiences and arguments would not impress Idaho’s unfortunate Governor Otter, who said of one of Idaho’s gifted but gadget-free teachers that if she has “only an abacus in her hand, she is missing the boat.” He and others like him, who keep catching futile boat rides to successive futures of the month, will eventually be forced to see what they and their students miss and what remains unraveled in their education.


Great-rooted Blossomers

Hong Kong’s schools start their summer holidays in mid-July. (Summer’s lease hath all too short a date, for we return at the beginning of September.) At my school year-end report cards are distributed to students on Parents’ Day, the second-to-last school day. Each student and his parents meet with his ‘academic advisor’, a teacher who minds his progress during the year, flagging trouble if need be.

I was in the office this morning (Saturday) because I needed to meet with a student and his parents: the father would be unable to attend on Parents’ Day. We had a productive meeting at which (again) I marveled silently at how non-adversarial the relationship between parents and teachers tends to be here. There are exceptions, but they are notable, not run of the mill.

Before that meeting I was reviewing the report card, which is actually a seven-page document that includes, besides grades, comments by each teacher, explanations of grades, and a compendium of Creativity, Activity, and Service. Academic advisors usually check with teachers who write severe or non-laudatory comments to try and find out what lies behind them. There were none of this kind of comment on the report I was about to hand out. The student’s grades were very good, though not quite what he would like; but he has been deeply involved in a number of extracurricular activities, particularly drama.

While I was looking, a familiar voice called to me on the intercom at the door that allows students (politely) to summon teachers from the office for meetings. Whom should I find at the door but two graduates to see me! One of them, who graduated a year ago, is ‘reading’ (studying) law at the London School of Economics. The other, who graduated two years ago, is in the Philosophy Politics and Economics program at Oxford.

Both graduates had been in the school choir, but the LSE student has turned to writing in his spare time, while the Oxford student joined the choir of his college, where he now regularly sings at the college’s services. (It is Oriel College, where the Oxford Movement started).

This evening I’ll be attending a ‘Homecoming Concert’ in the school’s auditorium. There are four in July to mark the end of the school year.  All charge rather stiff prices for seats, and all the seats are sold out. I am looking forward to hearing the Senior Choir, the Orchestra, the String Orchestra, and other groups play.

These are not just elitist frills, or shouldn’t be. My own public high school in California used to field award-winning bands and orchestras, and wherever they are found, secondary-school arts and music programs bring something essential to a curriculum and a school. Some students like my Oxonian continue their musical activities past graduation. Most have fond memories of them.

But there is more. They bring something essential to the mind, something that Charles Darwin regretfully recognized in his middle age. He said that he regretted giving up listening to music, reading poems, and looking at pictures, and was sure that he had lost something essential in this lack. In touting the STEM we should not forget the roots and trunk and crown.


Caution: Sowing in Progress

Sometimes a single statistic tells a whole story. That is the case with a statistic taken from a report I recently read. Pages 3 and 4 of the report say that California now spends nearly twice as much on its prisons as it does on its universities. Thirty-five years ago it spent more than three times as much on its universities as on its prisons.