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."

Place-based teaching

Which stories? (24 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

As we contemplate stories, both in books and in living, we increase their prominence in our personal narrative environment. It’s helpful to have some general principles in mind, just as we rethink our diet in the light of principles of nutrition that we learn. We might note, for example, that stories that only evoke fear are not as important as those that also teach understanding. We might consider that stories that only clarify principles are not as good as those that somehow manage to kindle or encourage a love of rightness.

I think that a story that leads me to delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself; and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family. Further, I’m confident that a story that leads me to feel empathy for all of humanity is better than one that tempts me to expect outsiders to be enemies. A story that instills a reverent sense of co-creation with all of life may be about as good as stories get.

Though details may vary and shift as we see more, we can nonetheless discern a hierarchy of stories based on the vision of reality that they encode, with better stories helping us glimpse larger realities, preparing the mental structures we need to inhabit such stories.

This doesn’t mean that I think such a hierarchy can be defined or promoted in any useful way by any coercive bureaucracy. Beyond the level of law, we can only invite, entice, persuade and perhaps seduce. Besides, literature is more subtle than organizational policies, and a powerful vision of evil sometimes teaches much about why goodness works as it does. A principal (and Jesuit priest) at a Catholic high school where I once taught forbade the teaching of Once and Future King--T. H. White’s telling of the Camelot story--because the novel’s central action was the adultery between Lancelot and Guenever. It occurred to me that adultery is also a central theme in the King David story from the Bible, and that the more important issue might be whether the story tells the truth or not. The infidelity in the Camelot story leads to the fall of the kingdom and the suffering of all the main characters. But since I had not been asked for my opinion I didn’t offer one. My point is that I have no interest in any “authorities” imposing a hierarchy of better or worse books, though I do think we, as free people, need to be discussing always which books are better and why. Socrates argued that the good life is the life spent asking the question, “what is the good life?” Thinking one has arrived at the final answer is a way turning away from the question, a way of failing. So it is, I think, with the question, “what are the good books?” It’s death not to ask the question, but it is also death to think it has been finally answered.

We need to recognize that some stories are more useful than others, and we need to keep the discussion about good and better alive. We cannot give the authorities the power to settle the matter. The power to compel belongs to lower orders.

But our problem today isn’t authorities imposing reading lists. Instead, the difficulty of answering such a question has led many of us to make the mistake of thinking that we can turn away from it. The current trend is away from such questions, so teaching literature devolves to teaching reading, and the question of what to read is answered by noting what kids seem to like. This serves the need of children to develop powerful moral imaginations no better than planning meals based on children’s preferences serves their need to for nutritional diversity and balance.

Having a vision about what a good life might be and what a good society is like is an adult responsibility. Having such a vision, we have a sense of what stories young people will benefit from experiencing. When it comes to educating children, no question is more important than how we will constitute their narrative environment, what stories we will consciously live and tell.

To some extent the moral sense–the feeling that some things are right and some are wrong–is innate, but the moral imagination that shapes the cognitive and emotional landscape of our fears and desires does so by constructing coherent wholes from the patterns of intention, action and consequence that we learn from the stories we inhabit--those we hear, but also those we experience and those we learn to tell.

Our narrative environment includes the curricular stories of history, science and literature, of course, but it also includes the informal storytelling that goes on without pause in the hallways and lounges. It includes the carefully structured narratives of the football team’s movement through a series of planned contests toward the resolution of the seasonal script. It includes the way the principal deals with a recalcitrant student and the way the school board responds to a parent’s challenge over a book.

The better schools are those that manage to pull all these levels and genres of narrative into more coherent wholes. Such schools are orders that waste less energy than failing schools at enacting competing tales, trying to will contradictions. To a large extent, then, school reform requires many acts of literary criticism in which participants increase their narrative intelligence.

Just as we get more intelligent as individuals by recognizing when we are working against ourselves, learning bit by bit that we can only make our lives coherent by devoting ourselves to higher purposes–in the way that being healthy is a higher purpose than tasting candy–and by editing the profusion of whims and desires–"goods," the utilitarians call them–that threaten to dissolve us, so schools get better by trying to make the story of their desire and their action coherent. Kierkegaard argued that “the good” is our name for that which we can will without contradiction. “Purity of heart,” he said, “is to will one thing.”

So it is with schools and other organizations. As they get better, their purposes become more harmonious. They become more beautiful–more sustainable and more healthy–at the same time they become more free. They are lively with stories that bind us together in common cause, in contemplation and discussion about what works and what does not work. They are animated by high purpose, and they are rich in chances to speak and to listen.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within that is in harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

Still, there are lots of troubles, and it is not clear that much of the world is getting better. The world has never been an easy place for working toward peace. When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. Nevertheless, no matter how urgent things appear around us, we can’t evade the responsibility to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the very contention and conflict we hope to resolve.

I understand that Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and others find support for the work of peace through a kindred faith that larger powers are operative in the world, and that our efforts, insufficient on their own, are part of a bigger story.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Free chapter: The Power of Community-Centered Education
     Eight Practices of Community-Centered Teachers

Download a free chapter. (Chapter 8: Eight Practices of Community-Centered Teachers)

Order the book: The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.


“Umphrey’s book is part philosophical speculation, part sociological inquiry, part how-to guide for interested educators. Its depth and intellectual substance propel a reader through its pages, looking for more fresh insights and examples of positive educational practice. His message...fills an important gap in contemporary discussions about what Americans should seek from public schools. What is being lost in our preoccupation with accountability and assessment are more fundamental elements of what it means to be a good human being and those elements are all tied into relationships with those around us and the places that support our lives. Gregory Smith, professor, Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Lewis & Clark

“I am so impressed with this wonderful book about teaching and place...It has been observed that 90% of our knowledge is folklore (learned by experience) and this is the knowledge that we will pass on to the next generation. Unfortunately our educational curricula, testing requirements, and bureaucratic busywork have kept teachers and students in a knowledge-restricting straight-jacket. The Power of Community-Centered Education gives us a blueprint for breaking out of these constraints to give teachers and students a way back to real experience-based community-centered learning. Peggy A. Bulger, director, American Folklife Center, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Power of Community-Centered Education is a passionate and personal testimonial based on real experiences in education...[Umphrey] brings his profound insights on education and community together in a treatise that outlines how to create a successful model for 21st century education. This book should be a “must” for all adults who are educating children and young adults...Umphrey’s experiences as the director of the Montana Heritage Project for the past ten years have resulted in a unique and important view of the way that we learn, and the way that we construct our lives from this learning.” Paddy B. Bowman, coordinator, National Network for Folk Arts in Education, Alexandria, VA

Publisher’s blurb:

We face an epidemic of disengagement in American high schools as our institutions fail to offer meaningful and relevant ways to connect curriculum with students’ emerging life stories. These students do not see how schooling, as it is presently constituted, is important to their own developing identities. One solution to this problem is to organize the curriculum around the concept of community and to link the study of abstract concepts and principles to their manifestations in the places that students know and care about (local history, shared traditions, civic pride, etc.).

The Power of Community-Centered Education provides psychological, sociological, historical, and philosophical insights into why community works so well as an organizing principle for high school. The book concludes with a call to action for all agencies and institutions that have public outreach programs to consider how they assist in building “education-centered communities” that support the work of high schools by offering research opportunities and scaffolding to secondary education.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Paradox: on the value of hierarchical thinking 5/24
     The way of the teacher

Living amid a multi-level reality, we are often confused about questions of value. Consider a simple question (posed by Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen) : is a forest fire good or bad?

At the level of one tree, fire is catastrophic, leading to the complete destruction of the individual. Clearly, fire is bad.

But seen from the level of the forest as a whole organism, the fire releases nutrients back into the cycle, allowing diversity and vitality to continue. Fires are part of the life cycle of forests, necessary to their health. Clearly, fire is good.

This only sounds like a contradiction. In truth, it is a paradox. A contradiction arises within a unified descriptive system, and it signals an error: This is Jack, and this is not Jack. Something is wrong.

But a paradox occurs when we mix descriptive system or levels in a hierarchy, and it only signals a limit. When Jesus said, “You must lose your life to find your life,” he was using “life” in two different senses, inviting people to consider the possibility of a larger and more liberating reality beyond what they normally thought of as “life.”

He said his mission centered on peace, and he often spoke in paradoxes to awaken people to the multi-level, hierarchical nature of reality. Seeing the hierarchy is an important step both toward seeing the futility of much of our fighting and toward being at peace with much of what happens.

A good deal of conflict between well-intentioned people occurs simply because opponents are looking at different levels in a hierarchy. People who are looking at the same phenomenon but seeing different realities often seem to each other so unable to see the obvious that both sides begin thinking the other is unforgivably stupid or downright malicious. Visit any cable news talk show for examples.

If your attention is focused upon a particular tree engulfed in flames while your opponent is focused upon the 500-year cycle of a cedar grove and seems unable to grant what you are seeing much worth, it’s natural to get impatient. When neither our clear evidence nor our sound reason can persuade those who oppose us, it’s easy to begin suspecting that we are up against something evil.

So an important rule of peace is to appreciate paradox--that in the complexity of life, our opponents may have experiences and perceptions that are simply invisible to us, and that they might not be contradicting us so much as calling our attention to aspects of reality that we do not yet know.

Consider some of the educational questions that have led people into shrill divisiveness: Should we use the whole language or the skills approach? Should schools be centrally administered for the sake of efficiency, or should they adopt site-based approaches for the sake of flexibility? On specific discipline questions, should we favor consistency or flexibility? Is it the family or the community that educates?

Partisans on each side of such questions tend to argue past each other, like ships passing in the night. They often become angry with each other, although the best answer to each of these questions is “both, within limits.”

This may also be the best answer to even more vexing questions. Should a woman have the right to control her own body, or should others step in and prevent the wanton destruction of unborn children? Should our leaders take courageous stands, even when they must act alone, or should they adopt consensual approaches and bend to political power?

The ecologist Aldo Leopold noted that “nature is full of laws that begin working at some lower limit and cease working at some upper limit.” So, too, societies. The fundamental insight of ecology is that nature is a complex hierarchy in which every level is related to levels above it and below it, and that this complex hierarchy is characterized by a stunning array of feedback loops connecting all the levels in communication systems that we are only beginning to discern.

Still, the universe is one thing. Many value conflicts emerge from our own perceptual limitations.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The Power of Community-Centered Education
     Presentation for Portland State University

I’ll be presenting a webinar for a Portland State University class this month, taught by Marta Turner. The main reading is Chapter 8 from The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Now what? School reform after NCLB
     Keeping faith with community-centered teaching

One of the more comical aspects of NCLB is
the Hickory Farms facade on the US Depart-
ment of Education building in Washington,
D.C. The homey little red school house
acknowledges what we all know: kids do best
in human-scale places. We are apparently not
supposed to really notice that vast bureau-
cratic structure looming behind, that repre-
sents the reality of school reform via federal

Why are the politicians in charge of education?

Diane Ravitch asks Deborah Meier a critical question on the Bridging Differences blog:

. . .how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics?

How indeed?

Since schools are politically-governed institutions, why would you expect them not to be controlled by politicians? And as you increasingly centralize their governance, how would you not expect lawyers and businessmen to increase their control, as they have of most other centralized bureaucracies where there’s huge opportunity for gain?

It’s not quite true that these politicians, lawyers and businessmen truly know nothing. It’s just that in a democracy where vast numbers of voters are ignorant or inattentive or both, politics will often be dominated by opportunists who pander for gain. It would take a Know Nothing—or at least someone uninformed by much history— to expect otherwise.

Schools depend on the surrounding community for both their clientle and their staff. Public schools also depend on that community for their governance. Ever since I was a young, reform-minded principal, I’ve been quite sure that the community needs to be the unit of educational change, if we are talking about a public school. As long as decisions are made by elections, it’s nearly inconceivable that a school will operate for long at a higher intellectual or ethical level than the community in which it is embedded. To get the community to do something difficult, such as succeeding at teaching children difficult things, at least a majority of the community will need to see and understand the need for doing hard things.

Lost in a national “community”

That seemed hard enough in the town where I worked. When the size of the decision-making community has been expanded to include the entire nation, as it has been under No Child Left Behind, the difficulty is beyond daunting. No individual is likely to be heard above the roar of institutional voices, speaking through costly lawyers in forums created and controlled by big money. Of course we lose our voices.

At this juncture, those of us who would like schools to be thoughtful places where difficult and meaningful work is the daily task, our choices for getting there seem to be either to educate a majority of the national citizenry to share our vision, so we can get past gridlock or ugly compromises and can get on with the work, or to escape national decision-making (though we may want to keep national information gathering and dissemination) and let folks at the site make most of the decisions, through some system of decentralization.

The most hopeful may be vouchers which could allow a network of private schools where decisions about professional practice could be made by professional educators without undue interference from local politicians. Disgruntled parents would not need to campaign for politicians who promise some axe grinding. Instead, their freedom would be preserved through choice. If they disliked what was happening at school, instead of getting involved in politics they could just change schools.

One danger, of course, is that many private schools would just be local franchise outlets of large corporations offering the educational equivalent of happy meals: cheap, standardized, and gratifying but not very good for you. To be honest, I’m not at all sure this would be worse than what many kids are now getting, and I’m also sure that educational fast food would not be the only offerings on the market. McDonalds has not driven good restaurants out of business.

Be that as it may, we are nowhere near the first choice袀reaching a shared vision of what quality public schools would look likeԢindeed, we may be moving farther from it, judging by the partisan tone of our national political conversation. So the first choice seems, well, impossible.

And if the second choice—a robust national system of private schools—doesn’t quite seem impossible, it does seem unsatisfying, ineffective and unrealistic, at least in the short term.

One initial problem with it is that new schools would be staffed by people from the existing education industry and so would tend to re-create the system we would hope to reform. A lot of ideas about teaching that have been demonstrated not to work (whole language, learning styles, multiple intelligences, portfolio assessments and most thing deemed “authentic” or “student-centered") are, nevertheless, ubiquitous and seemingly as ineradicable as false ideas about medicine that seem so ingrained that even many doctors believe them: we only use 10 percent of our brains or we should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Speaking about the difficulty of making progress by increasing parental choice, Ravitch somewhat irreverently points out that

most schools will reflect the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training, so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math. . . . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about history or literature or science.

City Journal

This is what I’ve thought for a long time. Parental choice may be better for reasons having to do with freedom, but I wouldn’t expect it to lead to mass improvement on standardized tests. In the short run, a new charter school or voucher school is unlikely to be fundamentally different than a typical public school. Where would it find people who think and act in ways fundamentally different than their colleagues up the street?

Where are our teaching orders?

So things at the moment look a little bleak. At such times, when there seems no clear way forward, I sometimes finding myself thinking about an odd comment Philip Rief once threw out: “Where are our teaching orders?”

An order is as different from an organization as a team is from a committee. In an order, each member has internalized the principles that the larger order is dedicated to so that, in a sense, each member contains the whole. People are bound together by their shared vision and shared commitment rather than by the formal rules, though formal rules will certainly exist as expressions of the vision and commitment and as a way to remember complex learnings.

A good teaching order would both train teachers and operate schools. The animating vision of the order would provide guidance not only for the curriculum, but also for system-wide discipline involving the conduct of teachers and administrators as well as students. Most schools today have adopted the vision of school as a due-process bureaucracy, which often creates organizations that exist in a high state of disorder because the wills of the individuals are not aligned. Students are taught they have rights but less often are they taught they have duties to any particular communal order. Orders must be entered by choice.

At present, leaders who would create different schools usually need to use teachers trained by the universities into the standard progressive ed vision. Though we do have hundreds or thousands of programs that do some teacher training, the training is usually inservice and narrowly focused, and after a summer institute the teachers return to their various schools, where they are likely to be quite lonely.

Focusing on the work at hand

Even so, I feel oddly optimistic. Maybe because at the moment I have lots of work to do and the school I’m at is at least in comparative terms a sane place. It would be a breach of faith to feel pessimistic when every twenty-four hours a brand new morning arrives, and I have energy.

I also know that the rules that govern our reality respond to us. Many of those laws are, as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman put it, “socially constructed,” and some realities we can change by changing such simple things as the way we walk, our posture and the expression on our face.

At times when we can’t do all we would like to do, it may be enough to be honest with ourselves, to listen carefully, to think clearly and to speak candidly. Sometimes we don’t need to solve problems so much as we need to lose our fear of them and turn away from them to the other things that matter to us more.

We only need to change our minds and all sorts of unsolvable problems vanish. Something is going to change. Keep busy and look forward to what’s going to happen next.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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