Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

The best thing about living in a garden

Bryce, Jenna and Daij.

On a church blog a few days ago, people were wondering whether it were doctrine that people should have a garden. I don’t know, but it does seem to me that we are meant to live in a garden. Living in a garden is quite different from having one. It may be the destiny of human beings that they come to understand that earth is their garden.

For now, five acres gives me plenty to think about. Though most of my effort goes into flowering plants, we do grow some things for the kitchen--tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, peas, beans, pumpkins and potatoes.

The thing I like best in my garden, though, is grandkids. Here Bryce, Jenna and Daij harvest some potatoes. I get more pleasure out of their discovery of the wonders of nature than I do out of the food itself.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

What about the next guy?
     A sense of belonging and school discipline

During third period today, the AP came on the intercom to announce that we’d had too many tardies after lunch as well as too much litter in the parking lot, and that if things didn’t improve, the campus would be closed. Today was the fourth day of school. I would have rather we waited till we could have face-to-face meetings with the kids where we focused on teaching more than on threatening.

The messiness of large numbers of teenagers has been on my mind. A couple days earlier, a student had started a small conversation with me at the end of seventh period, and I didn’t pay attention to students when the bell rang and they left. When I surveyed the room a few minutes later, I noticed that the class had left behind two empty water bottles and a few scraps of paper.

In class, we had been talking about the way people are shaped by the places they grow up. It’s a way of getting into American literature, much of which is the exploration of such questions as why did the world feel as it did to the Puritans and what led Thoreau to believe he could find answers to life’s basic questions by living by a pond in the woods?

So we’d been talking about such questions as, are kids growing up in a small Montana town likely to think and feel differently about some things than kids who are growing up in urban New Jersey? Are kids growing up in America likely to differ in some ways from kids growing up in Italy or China? We talked a little how rural and urban spaces affect us, and how religious beliefs and political realities shape us psychologically as well as socially.

So it seemed an easy step to put our little littering problem in the context of what sort of people we are. The next day, I talked for a couple minutes about what Japanese high schools were like. In Japan, when students come into the school, they stop at their lockers and change out of their street shoes into their indoor slippers. Before they go into a rest room, they change again into shoes that are only worn there.

I invited them to imagine a clean and orderly place that was kept that way not by threats of punishment so much as by habits of neatness and cleanliness.

Outside shoes locker at a Japanese high school.

The most vocal students expressed the opinion that Americans tended to be too laid back and in too much of a hurry for the Japanese shoe thing to work here, but they acknowledged that there was something nice about it.

I then moved on to suggest that the idea of cleaning up your own messes was quite American and quite common among us. When I was a little kid, my Dad took me to work with him. At the time he was driving truck on a highway construction project quite far away, so he stayed in a motel during the week and came home on weekends. I wasn’t in school yet, and it was my first time living briefly in a motel. For dinner, we had bar sandwiches. It was tiny town-- one bar that also served sandwiches, one motel, one gas station, and two churches. He took me into the bar’s restroom to wash up after the hard day’s work and before the pork chop sandwich. After I washed and dried my hands with paper towels, I started to leave. He stopped me and pointed to the water I’d splashed around the basin.

“What about the next guy?” he asked.

He told me that when he was in army during World War II, he learned quickly that when you were in places that a lot of people had to use, it was important to think about the next guy. In the army, real men didn’t leave messes for other people, though a few punks did. If people made messes and then just left them, pretty soon everyone had to live in a mess all the time. But if everyone just cleaned up his own mess, then the next guy always got to enjoy a clean spot at the lunch table or a clean sink in the rest room.

Chastened a little, I got a paper towel and wiped up my water splashes from around the sink.

Classrooms are a little like that, I pointed out to the class. If people trash them, then the next people who come in have to put up with other people’s messes. But if each class just makes sure they pick up around them before they leave, everyone can come into a place that’s neat and clean.

As I said, it’s only been a couple days, but the room has been neat at the end of each period. It won’t last, of course. But when someone gets careless or maybe a little rebellious, I’ll figure out who the individual is and then try more direct teaching to that person, maybe including punishment. After all, most of the kids aren’t creating messes.

But before I start chewing people out or threatening them or punishing them, I like to try simple teaching: we’re the sort of people who think about other people, and the sort of people who clean up our own messes.

Most successful groups control behavior less with rules and punishments than by having leaders explain the way we are and why we are that way. This is done simply but effectively with storytelling, as when the elder of a hunting tribe tells his story of tracking a wounded buck for miles through a swirling snow storm to finish the kill, making it clear even when it’s not explicitly stated that “we” are the sort of people who are bothered by an animal’s suffering, that “we” are a persistent and diligent sort of people, and that “we” do things the right way. Then when a youngster has to do something difficult--following a buck uphill in spite of fatigue and bad weather--he feels a bit of a glow inside and being a bit grown up and doing the right thing.

The more we create a community that means something the more kids and the more we make the meaning of that community central to our teaching, the more kids will want to join us and the less need we will find for punishment.

This doesn’t mean we can avoid punishment completely. It does, though, let us be clear that we punish as a way of defending a good community against bad practices that destroy community, which is a quite different than punishing to preserve our own control or because we don’t like people, which some kids think is what’s really going on. It helps keep punishment just and loving--part of our repertoire of teaching.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Belonging, yes--but to what?
     Chronicling endless school reform

For more than a year now, the school where I work has been listening to periodic exhortations from an expensive consultant focusing on increasing a sense of belonging among our students. “Belonging” is one of eight “conditions” being championed as the key to. . .well, I’m not clear on what it’s a key to.

A couple of times I’ve suggested that one way to think about giving kids a sense of belonging is to think about what sort of community we are building, or even if we are building a community at all. I was hoping to move the talk on to more interesting things than tabulating how many times we smile per period, making sure we’re in the hall to greet kids, or expressing concern after a student has been absent. Though such things are good and fine, they are the stuff of bureaucracies, where being pleasant is a daily requirement. Even the clerk at the drivers license bureau is likely to be pleasant.

Being pleasant, like being punctual, is an important bureaucratic skill. It’s not that hard. But superficial pleasantness does not create a sense of belonging.

In a couple of meetings I suggested that part of the problem is that the high school presents itself to students primarily as a due-process bureaucracy, with our emphasis on policies and procedures and rules. A modern high school, of course, is a due-process bureaucracy--a place where everyone will be treated fairly, which means everyone will be treated the same, according to policy. Which means everyone will be treated impersonally--which is to say, without much care.

It’s true a good teacher can do quite a lot to humanize such institutions, mediating between the required legal structures and the necessary accommodations to individual differences and needs. And it’s true that a good principal can do a lot to make it easier for good teachers to really work on that humanizing.

Still, it’s hard to feel one belongs unless there is a community--even if it’s just a gang. We belong to posses, tribes, teams, bands, families and even nations, but we only pass through bureaucracies, getting what we need and then getting out. Well. Some of us do. A little over fifty percent, according to the surveys of our school the consultants administered.

The trouble schools have with building any strong sense of real community is that to form strong communities we need to champion clear values and virtues. Even the Hell’s Angels are clear about what they are about. So are the marines, the Mormons, and nearly any other group you can think of that has members who really feel they belong.

But if virtues are compelling enough to move people, they are sure--in our modern age of competing stories about who we are, our modern age of debunkers--to be controversial. So we try to make a virtue out of being uncommitted to any particular set of virtues. The posters in the halls celebrate diversity and teach tolerance. “Respect” comes readily to our lips. Generally, making such our core virtues mean that you are free to value anything you want as long you keep it to yourself and no one objects. In other words, it sort of means nobody cares what you think. It sort of means you’re on your own. We’re a collection of free individuals, but there really is no “we.”

We find ourselves aiming no higher than a low common denominator. Everyone needs money, so everyone is somewhat motivated to get some. So schools have come to discuss their mission mostly in careerist terms. Schools exist to prepare young people for careers. It’s hard at school to discern any deep and committed sense of older and loftier reasons for education. Usually, kids are urged to do things or avoid things because of the impact those things will have on their career prospects. In other words, our appeals are usually to students’ self interest. We encourage them to be little careerists, keeping their self-interest paramount in their planning and doing.

Naturally, we get a lot of kids who care about grades and who are looking out for themselves, and just as naturally, since most young people sense vividly that they are meant for grander things than to surrender all of existence to a job, we get a lot of kids who don’t really listen anymore. Teachers once talked about the path of nobility. Not us. When our children come to seem a little too selfish, we add “service” requirements as another hoop that successful careerists need to jump through, and the honor students jump and the others sort of shuffle.

Since it’s hard for me to feel any sense of belonging to such an institution, it doesn’t surprise me that lots of kids disengage. They would like to join some grand enterprise that would give their lives meaning, but that’s not what we mostly offer. To what or to whom would they belong?

No one really trusts a careerist. If I were involved, say, in a real contest with the forces of darkness, I wouldn’t look to a careerist to back me up, unless the prospects of winning were quite good and the rewards for winning appropriately scaled to his or her aspirations. Hirelings only go so far.

Most likely in the big issues of life I’m on my own, as far as the institution goes.

Career success among adults is somewhat like good grades for students--one of the lower things that tend to take care of themselves when one has purposes and aspirations that have a higher aim. I sometimes tell students that grades are a sucker’s game, by which I don’t mean they don’t matter or that there are no costs associated with bad grades. I only mean that a person arduously seeking understanding and knowledge doesn’t need to worry overmuch about grades, which is a wonderful condition, just as a person working hard at solving real problems often doesn’t need to spend a lot of time calculating for money.

I do try to help kids see real communities around them that one can join and that are worth joining, though. There’s the community of fellow seekers of the truth, for example. It seldom has pep assemblies and the members aren’t always smiling and making pleasant small talk in the halls, but it has other attractions. For example, it affords a good view as here and there, bit by bit, the forces of darkness recede, the controllers losing control, descending into a maddening rush of new initiatives that never quite work, leading one member of that old community to wonder that so many people were in “desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises.”

Most teenagers are getting their sense of belonging from families, churches and nonschool organizations, and they are content to have schools teach the skills needed for career success. I think they are more interested in online alternatives to all-day attendance, or early graduation, or dual enrollment courses, than they are to recreating the total institutions of the 1950s. And what they want, eventually we will provide.

The kids who don’t feel they belong anywhere are having trouble, and many of them turn to drugs, video games, sex and gangs. The schools that work best with them take a strong approach, teaching clear virtues. This approach requires strong leadership growing out of a coherent vision. That sort of leadership is rare in the schools we’ve built.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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