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."

What do today’s students need to learn?
     A relevant education responds to real problems

I’m trying to get clear for myself and my little tribe what young people facing today’s world most need to learn.

These, I think, are the main challenges they face:

The threat of of a modern “slave empire”--the ongoing escape by vast, nationless business enterprises from the reach of national law, leading to an increasingly pervasive manipulation of public opinion and public policy by a ”superclass” of bipartisan elites who control the major multinationals. Particularly troubling is growing influence of these corporations on schools.

The ignorance of American voters at a time when the rule of law is in steep decline, being replaced by modern democracy--i.e. rule by a majority and rule by public opinion. Most national political campaigns are now organized on principles of demagoguery--i.e. lying for power.

The erosion of liberty as demagogues buy votes while peddling programs that appear to be benefits but that also create permanent dependency. Many citizens’ salaries, retirement benefits, health care coverage, and housing are entangled in government policy, making them easily manipulated through fear campaigns. For the most part, the promises will not be kept. Witness the indifference to social security by both parties in the last presidential campaign, despite the looming train wreck as boomers retire. Instead, both parties competed by making even more lavish promises, which there is no money to fund.

A superficial understanding of human nature related to an excessive “presentism.” Unprepared by education to understand the “Greek” mind, the “Roman” mind, the “Jewish” mind, or the “Christian” mind represented in our rich historical and literary heritage, many of today’s citizens are regrettably provincial without the breadth or depth of knowledge that vitalizes dialogue with those outside their own “neighborhood,” without the past’s endless resources that so often trigger innovative responses to trouble.

Dissipation in a relentless commercial culture that leaves many unable to focus on long and difficult tasks, unable to pay complete attention to anything, and unable to make intelligent plans or discipline the self to move toward goals. To often, teachers are being urged to imitate or become adjuncts to that commercial culture.

A near collapse of the culture of marriage among large portions of the population, leaving many children growing up in unstable and fatherless households. This has led to large increases of “at risk” behaviors by both boys and girls in those populations.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Getting back to reality
     A focus on community

The Real Work
by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Plato gave us a vivid portrait unreal work in his “Allegory of the Cave,” where people are kept busy dealing with shadows cast on the wall, unaware of what caused the shadows and not even dreaming of a world where the sun was shining.

We’ve all been at meetings where the world-that-is seemed awfully cave-like, buzzwords and fads flickering like so many shadows and phantoms. We are besieged by unreality.

Maybe you’ve also noticed something else that Wendell Berry pointed out – while we’ve avoided jousting with windmills, we’ve been invaded by the darn things: great rotating mechanisms whirling and clanging around us, blocking the horizon and filling up our hours greasing their wheels and ducking their blades.

A few years ago I stopped in at a meeting of grant coordinators in Oregon where I’d been invited to talk and sat and listened for an hour or so. I hadn’t been around schools for some years and was struck by the sense that I had left exactly that conversation ten years earlier and walked back in and all the same points were being made. It was like the world outside didn’t exist.

Such experiences of unreality that trigger our soul-deep hunger for the real. And we know something of reality. All of us have experienced those moments when we know in our guts and feel in our minds that this – this is the real world. Reading to a daughter, meeting an old friend, finding a passage in a book that resolves a long-standing confusion, breaking out of trees into an alpine meadow – these are the moments when our hunger for reality is satisfied.

We know why Archimedes yelled “Eureka!” and ran naked down the street, though we’re more likely to just turn the page, oblivious to all but what the words evoke. Such moments in our own learning histories should guide our teaching. If such moments are rare in our classrooms (or schools or lives), then we’ve lost our way.

We need to make them more common by making them more deliberate.

To make them more deliberate, we might consider that Archimedes’ “eureka moment” followed hard inquiry into a difficult problem: how to determine the amount of silver the goldsmith might have hidden in the king’s crown. As he stepped into his bath and watched the displaced water rise, the solution hit him instantly. “Eureka” is perfect tense of the Greek word heuriskein, “to find.” But he noticed it only because his mind was engaged in his task.

For students, school is more likely to lead to “eureka” moments when at least part of the day focuses on forming authentic questions and pursuing original research. I’m not talking Google here. I’m talking the world outside the window.

Kate Campbell, a sophomore in Corvallis, Montana, researched the role that adversity had played in the lives of community members. She created a video segment on “adversity” for their community heritage evening in the spring. One of the stories was about a fire that destroyed the Corvallis school on January 15, 1930. “In a matter of minutes,” Kate said, “It forced two hundred grammar students and ninety-six high school students out into the bitter snow, where fifteen below zero winds were blowing. It was one of the coldest days that winter.” As 200 community members listened, Kate told some of their own stories back to them, reminding them that they had gotten through hard times in the past by being a community rather than trying to go it alone.

On the screen, Mabel Popham, now elderly, described the fire: “I had gotten a new coat for Christmas – that was in 1929 and the beginning of the depression – and I couldn’t stop to pick up my coat. Everybody just got out. That was the main thing, to escape the fire. And everybody did get out, everyone was safe, but everybody lost their coats that they got for Christmas, which was kind of traumatic at that time because it was the beginning of the Depression.”

Kate studied how the community responded. She wrote, “Buildings such as the Masonic Temple, a school in a neighboring town, and various churches were offered to house school children in need of a warm place to learn. Many people freely gave time, talents, and money to help out wherever and whenever they were needed. The network of support that developed because of a community disaster became vital as the Depression worsened.”

A few months after Kate’s gift of scholarship to her community, Corvallis’s middle school caught fire and burned to the ground. People in town had just heard from one of their children how their parents and grandparents had handled similar trouble, and they knew instantly how they should act.

Kate was doing real work. She was doing real writing--gathering information that hasn’t yet been gathered and put into words and uploaded on the Web.

Every community is a web of stories. When student writers focus on the community itself: the defining events and persons of the past, its relationship to the natural environment, its place in national and world events, its current challenges or its future prospects, students can pursue solid academic work in ways that create and strengthen relationships.

This is important. Part of what we know about adolescents is that they are trying to construct an identity, and they are doing this work on the threshold between family and the larger society. Substantial research indicates that when the various adult groups that surround teenagers – parents, teachers, employers, church leaders, community leaders – send coherent messages about the things worth wanting and the right ways to get them, most teens make the transition from youth to adulthood quite smoothly, without the wrenching mistakes that we hear so much about.

A focus on community – community as the subject of research, community as a teaching resource, and community as a set of practices – can provide the integrating vision we need.

Not to mention the reality. Towns and neighborhoods are real. Too much of what goes on at school is too distant and too abstract to engage adolescents. Study after study going back at least two decades has found that over half of secondary students make no consistent effort to learn anything in school. Student disengagement is epidemic.

At bottom, the problem is that many young people do not understand the story of their lives as having any meaningful connection with school. That is, school does not seem real to them.

Though it is easy to miss amid the billion dollar roar of NCLB, the good news is that we are in the midst of what Jeremy Rifkin has called the most significant grassroots revolution in education since the progressive reforms after World War I. Laboring under many flags – community--centered teaching, service learning, civic-education, place-based instruction, character education – people all over the country are rediscovering America, exploring ways that schools can help build or rebuild relationships between young people and their communities by establishing projects that get the young and old working together.

What does it take to build community? What does it take to sustain community? These are powerfully integrating questions, about which every academic discipline and every community member has insight to share. They are essential questions. Really.

I’ve been using “community” in quite an expansive way. What I mean by it is simply that secular state of grace where we do not – cannot – earn everything we get. We don’t earn the beautiful streets and peaceful parks, the free schools, the library card, the chance to join a volleyball league, the safe water, the brief chats with old friends in the aisle of the grocery store, or the passer-by stopping when our car breaks down.

In a good town, people understand this self-sustained state of grace and teach it to their children. Schools can do their part in that teaching while taking seriously the ideals of scholarship. The key is to organize young people to research their communities and to give their gifts of scholarship back to those communities, in the form of web pages, heritage evenings, podcast, YouTube videos, and, of course, books.

A glance at the headlines makes it clear that we are surrounded by challenges. A good school for adolescents would be one in which grownups took these real issues as the stuff of education, and accompanied young people in learning expeditions on quests to better understand the social, historical, environmental, political, economic and moral forces in at work in the places they live.

Young people face the real troubles of life with elders who share their plight. They build the council fires, which are also beacon fires, and think together. As school classes are organized into research teams, working with community members and organizations to form questions and make answers, community ceases being a buzz word in a mission statement and becomes a way of life.

Young people are drawn to the adventure. They wake up and join the conversation, excited by the power of the real.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The writing teacher: speech to my students
     Delivered at the Montana Heritage Project's Youth Heritage Festival

Never has it mattered so profoundly what an individual thinks. The world is shaped by the responses of government and business to the desires of citizens and consumers. Therefore, young people have a responsibility to think well. Education is the most important work in the world.

You think that it doesn’t much matter what you think. After all, you’re just one small person in a vast and noisy world that’s ruled by transnational corporate empires that even vast government bureaucracies obey. Your little world of private desires and hidden fears doesn’t matter. Nobody notices and nobody cares.

But you are wrong. What you think matters profoundly.

One way you can tell how much it matters what you think is to observe the money and ingenuity powerful groups use to influence what you think. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you are surrounded and bombarded with messages, often purchased at enormous expense and designed with spectacular artistry. Television, movies, music, and the internet, not to mention textbooks, teachers, and speakers such as myself send messages your way in a steady stream.

If it didn’t matter what you thought, then the princes of the earth would just ignore you. But they don’t. They not only yell and whisper at you, they also study you intently. They listen. They make strategic plans based on what you want. In more and more ways, the vast interconnected systems of modern society study what you think, shaping and reshaping themselves based on what they can figure out about the secrets of your heart.

They do this in many ways, some obvious and others quite subtle. Polls are obvious. More subtle may be that Best Buy Reward Zone card or that Barnes & Nobles Readers Advantage card that allows merchants to monitor what you buy, and how often, and in what quantities. You are being studied. When you enter a store, where do you go first, where do you linger longest, and what do you ultimately buy? Stores are rearranged, some sections growing and others dwindling away, based partly on what you ignore and what you like. The world changes by tracing the flow of your pennies.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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