Amazon.com 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."

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 2
     I own myself

Therapy has displaced education as the dominant rhetoric of public schools. This has left many young people with too few resources to escape the demands of the self, and it has left the future of public education in danger from the medicalization of schooling.

“Man cannot stand alone in the face of eternity: he needs the comfort of purpose, the peace of forgiveness, and the confidence of truth.�
Eric S. Cohen


Failing to teach Jason

A few years ago while teaching at a psychiatric hospital where nearly all the troubled adolescents were diagnosed as “oppositional-defiant,� I made a routine classroom request, “Take out your work from yesterday.�

Jason, a 15-year-old boy, angrily began shouting obscenities. He stood up and threw his desk at me, screaming violent threats. To protect myself and other kids, I restrained him and dragged him to the floor. Several other staff members rushed to help. Later, other staff members and I met with him. He had stopped swearing and begun crying.

“It’s your fault,” he said. “You’re supposed to fix me–” he pushed out his lower lip–“and I’m still like this.”

No doubt the kid had problems. “Needs,” he’d been taught to call them. He was searching, albeit ineffectively, for something beyond the self. He covered his notebooks and forearms with gang insignia, dreaming of belonging to a group that would provide an identity.

I wish the sort of problems he faced were rare, but the truth is that most teachers face at least some young people like him. Some teachers face a great many of them every day–kids who demand that we cater to them and blame us for all their failures. We only exist, in the story we have told them, to provide services to meet their needs. But try teaching someone who has been systematically taught to blame you for the consequences of his conduct.

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What Montana should do with Education Technology
     U.S. Department of Education recommendations on track

Secretary Paige and other officials presented the plan, ”Toward a New Golden Age in American Education:  How the Internet, the Law, and Today’s Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations.” The plan was developed with input from thousands of students, educators, administrators, technology experts, and organizations.

The plan includes support for lots of good ideas that are already being developed. The resources that are here and those that are coming are going to wreak fundamental changes on schooling. This is because the choices that students and parent will have will be too good to turn down. If Montana’s public education system doesn’t incorporate these changes, it will be left behind, as it should be.

Tuning in to a high tech broadcast

Today I tuned into webcast of U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige rolling out America’s National Education Technology Plan. Though I have an enhanced DSL line, the broadcast was sporadic--I would get the feed for a couple seconds then it would break up for 30 seconds or longer. I gave up.

“Promises, promises” might be the theme of those (including myself) who urge a real commitment to using new technologies to improve education. I spend a lot more time fiddling with software and hardware than I would like, trying to fix things that didn’t work as well as I dreamed they would when I bought them or downloaded them. Last week, Bill Gates couldn’t get Windows Media Player to work for his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Convention in Las Vegas. He needed to re-boot twice. Host Conan O’Brien asked, “So who’s in charge of Microsoft, anyway?”

Still, early auto enthusiasts didn’t give up just because trying to hand crank a Model T to life on a cold winter morning was sometimes hopeless and never fun. We need to keep a healthy sense of skepticism about promises, and we need to keep moving forward.

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The offending cabin
     A purification

Far up on west-facing slope of Mount Kakashe, Gilbert Holyoak had taken his boy scout troop to build a small crude cabin. He knew structures were banned, but he had enough boy in him to take some delight in creating a secret refuge in a secret place.

They picked a site off all trails, and lashed together upright lodgepole pine to form the walls. They stored sleeping bags and tents in the cabin, so that they could hike to it carrying only food, extending the range of their hikes. 

The cabin couldn’t be seen from a trail, and only a careful woodsman could have found it at all.  But word got to the Tribes that it existed, and tribal wardens climbed the mountain searching for it. Sometime after they found it, they got around to calling the scoutmaster. They gave him two weeks to remove it. 

But winter had settled and snow at the cabin site was chest-high. He said he would go in when spring came and remove the structure. He had the impression that this was agreeable, but a little later, a warden climbed in on snowshoes and set fire to the cabin, without removing the equipment. He left the melted and scorched sleeping bags, the cooking utensils, and the canned food scattered and smoldering in the wilderness, its purity restored according to policy. 


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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 1
     Life is a market economy

As we have abandoned morality to the markets, fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals, or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.

The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean that they speak the truth.
Thomas Merton


The meaning of school is to get a well-paying job

Years ago when I was a beginning teacher, I read an elementary school newspaper in which the children had been asked why doing well in school was important. Even first graders reported that they should do well at school so they would be able to “get good jobs.� While the seven-year-olds that I know are far too intrigued by the world in all its aspects to believe that the main thing is getting and spending money, their testimony indicated they had heard this story so often it seemed self-evident.

Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to be nice and work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they’ll be losers.

Like most myths that have staying power, this one has quite a lot truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.

But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.� Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.�

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Levels of storytelling, Part 3
     Master narratives and placemaking

The third level of storytelling is the level of master narratives. These are the large stories that shape communities and cultures.

The third level of storytelling is the level that postmodernists call “master narratives.” These are the large stories--such as those told by Karl Marx or Jesus--that sketch in the shape and meaning of human reality, and that thereby shape communities and cultures. The implication of the postmodernists has often been that these narratives are fictions, a conclusion that seems to follow from the fact that there are many of them, that they conflict with each other, and that we can to some degree enter or leave them at will.

It’s useful to draw on American pragmaticism here--the idea that our best approach to truth might be to select our beliefs based on what works. As pragmatist William James put it: “Grant an idea or belief to be true, . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

By asking about experiential consequences, we can discuss the objective data of what happens to persons and groups who commit themselves to various values. We can use reason to assist our decisions about which virtues to live and teach: should we be warriors or merchants or saints? We can ask what sort of society has in the past emerged when most people lived the anything-for-profit ethic or the never-resort-to-force ethic. 

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Montana’s future: the movie
     What destinies can teens imagine?

Epic, 2014, a flash movie, presents a vision of a possible future, one in which the New York Times no longer exists because of personalized media and disintermediated journalism. The 8-minute movie was put together by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson.

The movie is qutie effective, though the techniques it uses are well within reach of high school students. I would love to see a series of such films imagining possible futures for Montana, made by high schoolers.


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Tracks at Mollman Lakes
     Alone in the world

As soon as the snow melted enough for us to get in without skis or snowshoes, I hiked into an alpine lake with a friend I’d spent the winter taking long walks with.

He was giving me something of a gift, showing me a place that was special to him. He took me around the edge of the lake and followed a small inlet back into a deep canyon where small a marsh recorded the traffic there through footprints in the mud.  Deer, bear, rabbit, and bobcat had visited the springs. 

At one point, I slightly lost my balance and slipped off the clump of grass, stepping into the mud.  I was surprised at the sudden anger this provoked.  He glared at my footprint and swore.  “That’ll be there for weeks.”

He did not have the world to himself. The trace of human presence tainted the place. 


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Winter and cabin fever in Red Lodge
     Gary Ferguson in the LA Times

Gary Ferguson has an essay in today’s LA Times (free registration required) about winter in the Rockies and the persistent Montana drought.

What I once knew in theory I now know in my bones: that the overpowering weight of a Rocky Mountain winter, the snowbound days that drive us to the edge of madness, are the price paid in one season for the flush of life in another. What can at first seem a terrifying silence in the winter wilderness is in truth the sound of possibility.

Ferguson’s latest book is The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind, a book which I just read (after hearing his eloquence at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula). The Great Divide tells what sort of people have been attracted to this place in the past, and of the changing role of the Rockies in the American psyche. In Missoula he was the only writer on a panel of environmental writers who offered much hope for the future. He said one solution to immigration into this state was to create a literature that attracted the sort of people we want.

Of course, he was assuming most people in the audience would agree with him about what sort of people those were. In American politics, things tend to go together in a way that it’s hard to support environmental causes without also supporting a lot of other causes. I would like to see a reshuffling of which issues the two parties claim as theirs, in the hope that one of them might put together a better hand than either seems content to hold at present.

In any case, his is the best kind of thinking about what placemaking means.  Ferguson lives in Red Lodge.


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Levels of storytelling, Part 2
     Pursuing intentional purposes

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intend to live, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our intentional purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

Because schools are ritual centers cut off from the real living places where we love and hate, we burden them with all the elaborate aspirations that our love and labor are too meager and narrow to bear.
Madeline Grumet

Let us answer this book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Organizing around purpose

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intentionally create, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

What intentionally planned stories schools tell is a subject that every faculty should be able to discuss fluently. We know from experience that the most powerful learning occurs when we become protagonists in our own learning: pursuing desires, facing obstacles, meeting opportunities, making decisions, and arriving at conclusions. In many workshops, I’ve asked people to tell me the most significant thing they remember learning. The answer is always a story. Because we are made to live and learn through story, turning schoolinlg into a story requires neither pedagogical brilliance nor a complicated theory.

It mostly requires that we attempt something. A couple of years ago I visited with an unusually intelligent young man who had dropped out of school after ninth grade. “They never did anything,” he explained. Not doing anything, or not seeming to do anything, is a fatal mistake for schools. Getting ready for a test doesn’t count, unless the test itself means something.

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Levels of storytelling, Part 1
     Everyday stories

Early in the twentieth century, William Graham Sumner in Folkways pointed out that stories such as Bud Cheff’s a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes . . . the most essential and important education.”

This level of everyday narration may be thought of as a first level of storytelling. It goes on among us almost without pause. If the values we express in this level of narration aren’t consistent with what we say we believe and want, then we probably aren’t going where we think are.

Teachers who complain about administrators, for example, but also claim that students should respect their authority are, at best, incoherent. To get a grasp on what a school actually teaches, as opposed to what it merely espouses, visit the teachers’ lounge and listen to the stories teachers are telling about students, parents, and administrators. This will give you a better guide to a school’s moral intelligence and purpose than whatever is said in character classes or board meetings.

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