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."

Beside the sumac
     Autumn gardening during the cold civil war

Sumac, Umphrey's gardens

I put on a heavy sweater to plant spring bulbs. Pink tulips, white tulips and every color of hyacinth. It’s a way of looking past winter, which I feel on my cheeks, in my legs, and hear in the cold tonality of the election fight this year.

The ground is not yet frozen. The dahlias are black and fallen, the peonies still green.

One of my designs is to divide the pinkest peony, the fragrant one, when it goes dormant. I have a hedge of red peonies that bloom earlier that I want to move back, to make room for pink peonies and lilies in front of it, so when the red peonies fade in June the blooms will continue. I pause at a wilted bug bane and wonder again what I might plant around it. Dwarf asters?

Through the cooling weekend, I plot a thousand little things, a small swirl of intentions, lifting and settling moments of color, drifts of scent in a distant summer I build from memory.

Am I dreaming or remembering? I look at the red sumac, bleeding or flaming with something too doomed for defiance, too lovely for defeat.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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

How to improve the teaching of writing
     Five steps to a better high school writing program

After the Revolution

We’ve gone through something of a revolution in teaching writing since the late 1970s, when “the writing process” began to be championed throughout the land. Most state teaching guides now talk about the writing process. Everyone’s been trained in it. And yet.

And yet, skillful and vivid writing remains far from the norm among high school students. Indeed, there’s been scarcely any measurable improvement in student writing. James D. Williams noted that “over the last 20 years, during which process has been integrated into instruction nationwide, all NAEP reports have shown a gradual decline in writing performance.” ( James D. Williams, Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2003, p. 99.)

He was looking at the NAEP 1996 Trends in Writing. We can be thankful that between 1998 and 2003 there were slight improvements in the NAEP scores for 4th and 8th graders. Unfortunately, there were no such improvements for 12th graders, and since in Montana scores stayed flat during that time, it appears that our students slipped downward in the national rankings.

It appears that the widespread adoption of process teaching has not led to notable improvement in writing, I don’t take this to mean that the approach is wrong. Indeed, as one who has spent countless hours both writing and teaching writing, I am quite sure it is not. Good writing really does require planning, and drafting, along with revising and revising and revising.

What the scores suggest to me is not that writing teachers are inept or their methods wrong but that we haven’t yet made the commitment to teaching writing that’s required to make much of a difference. Nothing that schools attempt is more difficult than teaching writing. Writing may be the most intellectually challenging thing many students are asked to learn in school, and teaching writing requires individualized coaching, which is laborious and time-consuming.

Time is the resource that has often been lacking.

If kids do not write a lot and do not get quick and useful feedback as they work, they are not going to get much better, regardless of whether the teaching takes a pedagogical or a process approach. What this means in practice is that if most students are going to learn to write skillfully, the school day needs to include substantial blocks of time for writing, and the writing teachers’ work day needs to include substantial blocks of time for coaching student writers.

The College Board created the National Commission on Writing to call attention to the teaching of writing, and its first report to Congress in 2003, the Commission called for a revolution in the teaching of writing. The Commission urged schools to “double the amount of time most students spend writing.” Maybe they should have specified a minimum number of minutes, since two times zero still isn’t much. In any case, last year’s Carnegie Report, Writing Next, warned that “American students today are not meeting even basic writing standards.”

That failure is of fundamental importance, the report said, because “young people who do not have the ability to transform thoughts, experiences, and ideas into written words are in danger of losing touch with the joy of inquiry, the sense of intellectual curiosity, and the inestimable satisfaction of acquiring wisdom that are the touchstones of humanity.” This has implications for civilization itself: “What that means for all of us is that the essential educative transmissions that have been passed along century after century, generation after generation, are in danger of fading away, or even falling silent.”

A Practitioner’s View

Based on my experience as an administrator and a writing teacher, these are five things that I think people in schools could be doing.

1. Clarify and articulate the vision of why writing matters. Be able to say clearly why it is important. Then say it often.

Kids do learn what they are taught, and they do believe what they are repeatedly told, if what they are told isn’t so foolish that their own experience contradicts it, and if the tellers aren’t obvious hypocrites.

I believe writing matters because it’s impossible to do large, complex thinking tasks without it. I believe writing matters because without being articulate in language, we are at the mercy of the large bureaucracies that govern modern life. Theodore Dalrymple, in his work as a physician in the London slums, commented on the way the inarticulate are held hostage by the very bureaucracies that were invented to serve them:

In their dealings with authority, they were at a huge disadvantage, a disaster, since so many of them depended upon various public bureaucracies for so many of their needs, from their housing and health care to their income and the education of their children. I would find myself dealing on their behalf with those bureaucracies, which were often simultaneously bullying and incompetent; and what officialdom had claimed for months or even years to be impossible suddenly, on my intervention, became possible within a week. Of course, it was not my mastery of language alone that produced this result; rather, my mastery of language signaled my capacity to make serious trouble for the bureaucrats if they did not do as I asked. I do not think it is a coincidence that the offices of all those bureaucracies were increasingly installing security barriers against the physical attacks on the staff by enraged but inarticulate dependents.

I believe writing matters because I believe every human life matters, and to the extent possible each should create a history of its significant experiences and insights. I believe writing matters because organized society–with its miracles of medical science, of improved production and distribution that make life less painful and more enjoyable, of social linkages that help us find and stay connected to those who are important to us—depends on dense communication, including written communications, at every level. I believe writing matters because I agree with Francis Bacon that “Reading makes a full man, . . . writing an exact man,” and all the higher occupations require the sort of analytical exactness that can only be learned through writing.

Oh, and then there’s this:

The bottom-line problem and opportunity remain the same: The correlation between career success and writing proficiency is extremely strong. Government and private sector employers alike have told us that those who can write well will advance in the workplace and those who cannot write well will struggle to be promoted or even retained. (Bob Kerrey, National Writing Commission Chair)

2. Ensure that all teachers hired can write well. Don’t assume any teacher has much writing skill just because he or she has a teaching license. Don’t assume all English teachers can write or teach writing well.

Require a writing sample created at the interview site at the time of the interview. Make sure a skilled writer is available to evaluate the samples.

3. Develop the writing skills of teachers already on staff.

This is challenging. “Drive-by” inservice workshops won’t do it. Further, much of the advice out there about the teaching of writing really has little to do with the foundations of powerful writing, which still include knowledge, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The first rule of powerful speaking, Cicero taught, was to know your subject. He observed that unless a speaker “grasps and understands what he is talking about, his speech will be worthless.” So it is with writing.

But if you look for help with teaching writing many of the promotional materials you find might lead you to believe that good writing is mostly a political affair, having to do with empowerment, authenticity, and voice. “Voice” is the somewhat unfortunate word many of today’s “writing experts” use instead of “style.” I prefer “style” because it mystifies less and leads more directly to what is teachable: active voice, specific nouns, vivid verbs, clear and simple sentences.

It would also be refreshing if more of today’s authorities on teaching writing believed that “research"—not just Googling but also interviewing, observing, and experiencing—was thought important enough to be it’s own trait. Also, some mention of truth and accuracy would be bracing.

In any case, having teachers write more is a necessary part of improving their skill at teaching writing. One thing that would make sense would be to have them write regularly about their practice: brief reviews of websites and other materials, introductory comments to units they want to use, reflections on student work, and so on. When I was a high school principal, we had teachers write as part of their in-service training, and we published teachers’ thoughts about using writing in their teaching. I was surprised at the generally high quality of the work we received.

Today, I would think long and hard about ways to use blogging to engage teachers in writing and collaborating about their practice. For one thing, I would design the school website so that each department was posting regularly for the public, for other staff, and for students about topics of interest in that discipline. Teachers would need to be given some time to write, but if they are not given regular time to write and, more important, a reason to write, they are not likely to get much better at it or give it serious thought.

4. Ensure that student writing is visible.

Both accountability and standards are best addressed by making the work real and public. Athletic programs provide a model--both accountability and standards grow out of regular games and tournaments. A writing program should also feature regular performances. The best of these, I think, involve writing for real world purposes which provide a natural audience. Having students research and write local history in an obvious example.

Blogging is a new genre of writing that should also have a place in the writing curriculum. What I have in mind is not so much the diary-writing that young people put on their My Space pages, but the focused and regular writing on specialized topics that have emerged everywhere. While journalism continues to decline as a profession, all sorts of businesses are adding bloggers to their payroll, recognizing the advantage of putting a personal voice before the public, along with a constant flow of information and links related to a particular area of expertise, whether that is gardening or automobile racing or software development. For students, the practice of regularly reading online information on a topic that interests them, and then summarizing it, commenting on it and providing links is an excellent way for them to advance their interests while doing large amounts of regular reading and writing.

5. Ensure that writing teachers have the time.

This is the main thing. A major reason students don’t write more is that teachers don’t have time to deal effectively with floods of student writing. I suspect that the real reason writing ability declined during twenty years of emphasis on the writing process was simply because all the workshops and exhortations were unaccompanied by any real increase in time to do the work.

All English teachers know the math: If a teacher assigns only fifty students an essay, that often translates into more than fifteen hours of reading and commenting. If those essays are taken through three drafts, you can triple that time. This is time that, for a typical teacher, will be spent after school and on weekends. A good writing conference with a single student can easily take a half hour, though such conferences are much, much more effective than scrawling comments in the margin.

But even those large investments in time aren’t enough. Except for teachers of honors classes, much of the writing will contain numerous basic problems, such as unclear pronoun references, which can’t be explained simply to students who are not eagerly seeking the skill. At the end of reading a batch of essays laden with problems of basic usage, problems of style, problems of coherence and organization, and problems of general mindlessness, the teacher needs to decide what to do about it all.

Writing comments on papers hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective. Even if it were feasible, re-teaching everything that needs to be re-taught tends to be similarly ineffective. Students who have failed to figure out active voice many times before are quite capable of ignoring yet another lesson.

And in any case, there isn’t time in class to re-teach everything, though if you add up the errors made in many typical classes, they will include pretty much everything. There have been dozens of suggestions for how to handle what is basically an impossible situation: have the students edit each other’s work, have students get their papers read by two or three other people before turning them in to the teacher, teach “mini-lessons” on all those problems that show up in the work. All of these work to a limited degree with a limited number of students, but a good many students continue to write poorly all the way through high school graduation, and then on through college, and not infrequently on through graduate school.

What works best is coaching: reading carefully through a students’ paper alongside the student, giving explanations and making helpful changes. To the extent that I have been able to do this, it has worked. I believe a good faith effort to teach every student to write competently would require a writing teacher’s load to be no more than three classes a day, with no more than fifteen students in each class. The other three hours a day would be spent reading student writing and holding conferences. Students enrolled in a writing class should be simultaneously enrolled in a computer-equipped study hall, both so they have time each day to write and so they are available for conferences.

Teaching writing to 45 students a day, who were actually writing for an hour each day, would be more than a full-time job. If this were done at least one semester each year for three years during high school, I would expect to see significant gains in the writing ability of a majority of students in such a program.

If this isn’t possible, for financial reasons, then I would advocate that such a program be available to those students who freely choose it. It is as impossible to teach a student to write well who hasn’t the least desire to learn it as it is to teach good basketball skills to a player who refuses to run at more than three-quarter speed or to pay attention to what is happening on the court.

Though sometimes a talented teacher can motivate a student, this is a difficult and inexact art, and I’m not of the mind that opportunities should be withheld from some students because no one has found a way to persuade all students to strive for them.

But of course, it is possible to give writing coaches teaching loads of 45 students. American schools have enough money to do nearly anything they want. The problem is merely that they don’t have enough money to do everything they want. So they do what matters to them most. Thus far, teaching writing has not been a priority.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Centralize information, disperse control
     Helping schools get better

The discussion of NCLB over at New Talk had few surprises. The most interesting thing said might be this suggestion from Diane Ravitch:

My own preference would be for Congress to authorize national testing (à la NAEP), based on coherent curriculum standards, but without stakes or sanctions. The federal role should be to provide accurate information about student performance. It should be left to states and districts to devise sanctions and reforms. These jurisdictions are closer to the schools and likelier to come up with workable reforms. If states and localities don’t want to improve their schools, then we are in deeper trouble as a nation than any law passed by Congress can fix.

The principle Ravitch invokes here is correct: centralize information gathering and dissemination but disperse decision-making and control.

Both parents and teachers can benefit from seeing how their students compare with other students around their state and around the nation, and if basic demographic data from each school is also recorded, we could learn a tremendous amount about what is working and what isn’t working for various populations.  Some people would continue to argue that the tests measure the wrong things, but the existence of nationally standardized data for each school would nonetheless create powerful incentives to pay attention to research into what the successful schools are doing.

It could lead to a situation where the performance standards are set not by politicized bureaucracies but by the best actual performances in the field.

If this were linked to real local control of schools, so that people were free to adapt, I would expect to see many schools making rapid progress. I would also expect to see many schools dithering or slipping backwards. But others would also see it and know it. That’s a powerful thing.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Schools where you can belong
     Beginning with values

David Whitman has created some buzz among the ed pundits with his new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism

He describes six “no excuses” schools that dramatically boost academic achievement among inner-city adolescents using methods that differ substantively from the romantic approach to education advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his American follower John Dewey. Instead of believing that “students should be free to explore, to cultivate a love of learning, and to develop their ‘critical thinking’ skills unencumbered by rote learning,” Whitman says, the new schools are staffed by people who believe that “disadvantaged students do best when structure and expectations are crystal clear, rather than presuming that kids should learn to figure things out for themselves.”

According to Whitman, the new paternalistic schools “devote inordinate attention to making sure that shirts are tucked in, bathrooms are kept clean, students speak politely, and trash is picked up.” And they go further than this:

Paternalistic schools teach character and middle-class virtues like diligence, politeness, cleanliness, and thrift. They impose detentions for tardiness and disruptive behavior in class and forbid pupils from cursing at or talking disrespectfully to teachers. But the new paternalistic schools go further than even strict Catholic schools in prescribing student conduct and minimizing signs of disorder. Pupils are typically taught not just to walk rather than run in the hallway—they learn how to walk from class to class: silently, with a book in hand. In class, teachers constantly monitor whether students are tracking them with their eyes, whether students nod their heads to show that they listening, and if students have slouched in their seats.

It’s heartening that the book so far has had mostly a positive buzz. The main trouble with education today is not that the budgets are too low or that today’s kids are unteachable. It’s that so many educators in places high and low have their heads filled with cant. If a few simple principles of effective teaching could penetrate enough minds to make simple and effective practices widespread, I believe we could make huge strides forward while doing things that are both easier and more pleasant than much of what we do now.

It’s interesting, though, that the main controversy about the book so far has revolved around the use of the word “paternalistic” to describe the approach. In his Washington Post review, Jay Mathews mused that “maybe there was a time when paternalistic was a useful term with no pejorative spin, but now it carries one of the heaviest loads of negativity I can imagine. This convinces me it is time to get these great schools a label they deserve.” He’s even invited readers email him suggestions for a different label.

In some ways, I think he’s right. For example, his point that “the label makes these inner-city successes sound like a guy thing, when in fact many of their principals and most of their teachers are women” is well taken. Still, I can’t help but think the instinctive negative reaction toward “paternalistic” is a symptom of the main problem the schools are trying to overcome. The romantics who’ve made such a mess of many schools react negatively to all the words that suggest a world in which young people have things to learn from their elders. They have bad feelings toward authority, hierarchies, obedience and conformity, and so when in practice they are confronted with disorder, slovenliness, and boorish self-indulgence they often lose confidence, managing to meet ignorance only with weakness.

Boys, especially, would do better in a world less skittish about using the word “paternalistic” in a positive way--a world that taught them the duties and nobility of paternalism rightly understood. It’s no secret that boys are doing worse than girls in the schools we’ve built, and Leonard Sax in Boys Adrift has argued that a major reason for this is the way we’ve devalued masculine roles. “Forty years ago we had Father Knows Best,” he says. “Today we have The Simpsons.”

So although I think paternalism is a good and necessary thing (being the father of five and the grandfather of sixteen), it is true that maternalism is equally important in schools. And after my huffing and puffing I am quite willing to agree with Matthews that a different term might work better. My suggestion would avoid gender references. Maybe “authoritative” would do.

I know that those who dislike “paternalism” will probably also dislike “authoritative,” but part of the work the good schools are doing and that we need to acknowledge is they are recovering the distinction between “authoritative” and “authoritarian.” We need to stop wincing at any assertion of authority, and assist young people in better understanding not just the dangers of unjust authority but also the necessity of good and just authority.

“Authoritative” was the word chosen by the Commission on Children at Risk in their report, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities.

The report--sponsored by the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values--was written by 33 doctors, research scientists and other professionals and it addressed many growing problems among American’s children and adolescents. They found that a major cause of the problems was the lack of connectedness experienced by many of today’s youth, and that their disconnect had come about because of the weakening of social institutions where people live out the sort of connectedness that students increasingly lack.

The social institutions kids need but are failing to find are “groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” The researchers called such institutions that worked “authoritative communities.”

To some degree, the schools that Whitman describes have reached the same understanding of what young people need as did the Hardwired to Connect researchers. Among other things, they need the structure of strong communities with clear values that teach right ways of acting, and they need to be held accountable within a set of standards that are linked to clear moral purposes.

They need to encounter good, sincere, hardworking adults who speak and act with authority on behalf of the civilizing virtues.


Update: David Whitman himself responds to the little tempest over his use of “paternalism” to describe the method of effective urban schools:

The “new paternalism,” as I detail in a 33-page chapter, is a movement that social scientists have been writing about for more than a decade. In fact, in 1997, the Brookings Institution-no bastion of reactionary thought-published a 350-page volume entitled The New Paternalism in which various luminaries explored the reach of the new paternalism in welfare offices, prisons, schools, and other areas of public policy.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Wild gardens reveal the only world
     Waking up in an alpine place

In the Montana where I grew up, I never visited elaborate gardens. The gardens I knew were not grand creations, but humble efforts made with little more than shovels and hoes, aimed more at food than design. A neighbor, Mrs. Dunn, was a marvel because she actually built raised beds out of recycled planks and filled them with black soil dug by hand at Mission Dam in late fall when the reservoir was nearly empty and the rich deposits of top soil could be easily loaded into a truck. She talked beets and rutabagas more than peonies and thyme.

Lots of people grew potatoes, cabbage and corn in long rows, along with beds of cucumbers and tomatoes, but gardening for beauty was quite limited. An occasional line of marigolds beside the beets and radishes, a few petunias along the sidewalk, a small bed of snapdragons, an heirloom yellow rose bush by the front gate. There was one house in town that, for a couple of years, had a lush display of flowers I had no names for then but now know included lupines and irises and and lilies. I stopped in wonder that such things could actually grow in Montana. It was like something from a movie or magazine.

But I hardly thought about gardens. The strongest influence on my gardening aesthetic has probably been the wildflower displays I saw in rocky meadows around alpine lakes in the Mission Mountains. Waking in wilderness mountains beside meadows brimming with morning light, I felt a sense of pure grace. For a gardener, awakening comes before planting. Sometimes I inarticulately felt I could see more deeply into the heart of creation and sense there not the unintended accidents of a world of chance so much as gardens within gardens. Awakening there was being young in a way that does not wane with mere passage of years.

What moved me about those wild alpine gardens probably had as much to do with my attention as with what was “out there"--because I since have had the same sense in many other places, including urban parks. Much, maybe most, of what I like about camping is the absence of noise and distractions which makes it easier to pay attention to the moment, to the light which both reveals and feeds the world, to the endlessly varying mosaic beautiful in each of its details and sublime in its depth and breadth. A dew-sparkled world of flowers and shrubs and rocks and water seen in the slant light of morning is a world that, once seen, is always there, everywhere.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Way of Teacher Complete

The Way of the Teacher Restoring the Narrative Environment Preface "You can't hit it!" yelled Roy from the dugout, where he sat beside his oxygen tank in the shade. Lung cancer kept him off the field but not out of the game. He was the oldest person at the family softball game. He was Gwen's father-in-law–she was my daughter. Gwen had loaded up an armful of softball gloves and organized a Memorial Day softball game on the town's softball diamond, which adjoined Eldon's and Christina's back yard. Eldon was her younger brother. All together there were twenty-three of us. We were playing workup, rotating through various positions from right field to pitcher, making allowances for the younger players who could neither catch nor throw or, in a few cases, understand the main principles of the game. Gage was at bat. Since he was only four, we had set the ball on a t-ball pedestal for him. He swung and missed once, so Valerie, my wife and his grandmother, intervened. She shifted him from a left-handed stance to a right-handed one. This allowed him to whack the ball hard enough to send it thumping a few feet toward my son Eldon, who was pitching. Gage understood he was to run at that point and set off in a wayward vector angled between the pitcher and third base amid a chorus of shouts: "The other way!" "Go to first base!" Eldon caught him and turned him toward first. "Run to Courtney," he directed, pointing toward first base. Now, with a clear mission, Gage took off. Eldon picked up the ball and threw it to Courtney. She caught it, looked at Gage still scurrying toward her, tapped her foot on the base and tossed the ball back to Eldon. Gage finished his run, then stood on first with both feet, tottering a bit with a breathless sense of accomplishment. The play before had been similar, except that the batter had been six-year-old Israel. He had hit a real pitch rather than knocking the ball off a pedestal and Eldon had easily fielded the grounder and tossed it Courtney, who tagged Israel out ten feet before he reached the plate. He hadn't liked it, and I could see his huffy briskness from left field. Courtney sensed that he needed to be put out just as she sensed that Gage needed to run the bases. Israel stomped past Zoran, his one-year-old brother, sitting on a blanket in the shade of the dugout with an odd assortment of brightly colored toy parts–a donut-sized key ring, a power ranger without a head, a yellow telephone handset. Zoran did not know there was a baseball game in the vicinity. "Come look what I found," yelled Daij. "What is it?" Israel answered, forgetting about swatting Jenna and moving toward the dugout. "A spider!" Daij yelled again. "If it bites you, you'll be super dumb!" Gage called, happy at the commotion and eager to contribute. A gang of little boys began assembling itself in motion toward Gage's discovery. "All you guys come here!" Israel called, trying to put himself in charge of the unfolding. At six, he was the oldest, a fact which suited his taste for being at the center of any group. Jenna dropped the paper plate she had been using as a shield against Israel's willow and stared toward Daij, trying to determine what to make of the excitement. Her red hair was pulled back into a orphanesque pony tale, and her blue eyes were alight with the boldness only little girls, certain the universe finds them cute, are blessed to feel. Daij was bent forward, his hands on his knees, his wifebeater brilliant white against his perfect skin, already tanned. Azia looked up from pouring root beer into the dust between home plate and the dugout and mixing it with a dirty popsicle stick, interested in the commotion of young bodies past her toward some convergence. Azia stomped one foot and pointed imperiously toward Daij, trying to look and sound like her mother. "No. I already told you." She flounced her dark bangs as she talked. When her orders had no effect on the gang, which didn't notice her, she started toward them. "Let me see," she said, not loudly, not really to anybody. "If it bites you, you'll be superdumb," Gage called as he stopped at the gang, peering at the spider which clung to its web, unaware of the universe its presence had disturbed. Eldon hit the pitch solidly–a line drive which Dev only needed to raise a glove to catch. Eldon dropped his bat, picked up a glove lying beside the on-deck box, and headed toward right field. Dev tossed the ball to Courtney, who rotated to pitcher, and headed toward the catcher's position. "You're up," Gwen said to seven-year-old Kenzie, who hadn't rushed off to see the spider. It is the fate of children to be organized into games that they did not invent and, at first, don't even perceive. That this is also the fate of adults is a thought that gives us pause. Daij was not really playing softball. He was really slaying dragons, wielding a powerful bat, racing with the speed of wind toward a goal. But then, Gwen wasn't really playing softball either. She's woven that game into a larger one. She's weaving Courtney's life into the family. She's helping her father and her husband get to know one another better. And me, standing in the grass of center field where it is unlikely any balls will reach with a house I built on the right and a town where I've always lived spread out to my left, the first memorial day weekend since my own father died, I'm not really playing softball either. I'm having a vision of sorts. Chapter 1 "Ah," said the mouse, "the world is growing narrower every day. At first it was so wide that I felt anxious. I kept running and was happy to see finally walls to the right and left of me in the distance, but these walls are speeding so fast toward each other that I am already in the last room and there in the corner stands the trap into which I'm running." "You need only change the direction in which you're running," said the cat and gobbled it up. A teacher's faith We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. . .We are far too easily pleased. C.S. Lewis We are haunted by the world that we find, despite ourselves, is really here. I think fondly now of the young people who have worked their way into that haunting. There was April, a fifteen-year-old girl with eyes that spat fire at any school authority who talked to her. Though she refused to answer most questions, sometimes she would snarl an obscenity in response to a routine classroom request. This landed her in my office quite frequently. I tried to break her sullen silence by asking questions and suggesting ways I thought she might be feeling. After a serious of fruitless "conferences" with her the first months of school, I sat with her one morning for a half hour without getting so much as an eyebrow's twitch in answer to my questions about why she had cursed the science teacher or what I should do now that she had been kicked out of class. I tried several long minutes of silence, hoping the weight of it would prompt her to speak. Finally, she said, "I haven't ate for two days." I brought her a doughnut from the outer office, but she wouldn't even look at it. "Would you like me to find something else?" I asked. No answer. I sat and looked at her for several minutes. "My grandpa died on the couch," she said. I nodded and listened, waiting for her to go on. She didn't. "What happened?" I asked vaguely. "I drug him out to the porch." This seemed like a breakthrough. She was admitting to a difficult situation, possibly asking for help. Her grandfather's death might account for her rebellious conduct. "When was this?" I asked, groping for detail. "I was six." She was talking about something nine years before—something, for someone her age, a great distance away. She had communicated to me only with grimaces for months. Even my simple "hellos" in the hall seemed like annoyances to her, so I grappled with what to say now that wouldn't trigger another shutdown. Letting me hear anything at all about her personal life felt like an important step. "How did you feel?" I asked lamely. "It didn't bother me. It didn't mean anything." That was all. She wouldn't talk further and became hostile when I asked questions. I offered her the doughnut again, and she mumbled, "I'm not hungry." She sat with her eyes fixed on nothing, wearing the denim jacket carefully splattered with her own blood that had become her uniform. A few days later the math teacher, a matronly woman prone to losing control of her classes and reacting with shrill outbursts, came into my office pushing April in front of her. The teacher was puffing and scarlet. April, again, was stone-faced. The teacher told me what had happened, in her wide-eyed, fearful way. She had asked April to open her book, and April had uttered the most provocatively obscene response she knew. Since I thought I should separate them, I asked April to sit in the outer office while I talked with the teacher. April raised her middle finger and stuck it in my face, snarling profanities. "April, sit down." I said quietly. "I'll talk to you in a minute." "Go to hell!" she swore, then called me a string of names, whirled, and left my office. When she got to the front door and slammed it open, I said, "April, you can't leave campus." More swearing. She kept walking. She was on probation for a host of the usual crimes—alcohol, vandalism, and the like—and wasn't supposed to be unsupervised. I called the sheriff's office to let them know she had left school without permission. When a deputy got to her house, she wasn't there. Neither were any adults. Her boyfriend, who had spent the night, was still passed out on the living room floor. She never came back to school. One teacher told me that it was a good thing. She hadn't learned anything in the classes that she continually disrupted. She didn't do homework, didn't bother with class activities, made no effort on tests, and was never pleasant. The mystery for me was not that she had left school, but that she had kept coming for so long. No one at home woke her or told her to go. Her mother had left school functionally illiterate when she was younger than April. Now, she was involved in an addiction treatment program, trying to overcome her problem with drinking, but for most of April's life she had been simply unavailable. April had never met her father, though a string of abusive and drunken boyfriends of her mother's had passed through her life. She had lived in several places, with a number of aunts and uncles, and it was pretty much left up to her where she stayed. One teacher told me I should have kicked her out long before. In a limited sense, I didn't disagree. If we lack the will to defend a good order against those who, out of whatever deprivations or ignorances drive them, we will lose the order and with it the means of helping anybody. But the important question is this: kick her out to where? She is here, with us. A few months later I heard from April again. Sometime in the middle of the night, she and two of her friends broke the window on my father's car, got inside, tore the ignition switch out of the dash and hot wired it. They drove it to a reservation several hundred miles away where they ran it into a ditch and abandoned it. Our failures with our children will haunt us. I met her downtown a few months after the incident. She came up to me and, without making eye contact, apologized quickly in a mumbling tone for having stolen my Dad's car. Two of her friends stood off a few feet. They snickered, and she quickly retreated, joining them. "It's good to see you again, April," I said. She snorted contemptuously, and, without looking back at me, wandered down the street with her gang. But I think she had heard some of what I hadn't been able to tell her. Everyone who works in schools these days meets students like April. In some neighborhoods, there are a great many of them. April lives in the wake of the breakdown of a traditional Salish order that her great-grandparents knew. Parenting in that culture was often indulgent by European standards, allowing children considerable free rein. When there were no worlds but that of nature and that of the tribe, this worked well. Children could explore and observe, gradually joining the circle of grown-ups and the order that they preserved. But as white settlers flooded into the valley, the folk were surrounded by worlds which offered the children choices their traditions didn't constrain. At the same time, the circle of grown-ups itself was broken. Many children wandered into destructive ways. The lives of April's grandparents and her parents were disordered by alcohol and a sense of having lost the story, the plot and theme of their lives. April had received neither strong and attentive parenting nor the support of an extended circle of cousins and grandparents. She was free to find her own way, in a world noisy with hucksters selling seductive cultural trash. It isn't only on Indian reservations that children are growing up outside traditional community order. Through slavery and kindred betrayals of our best ideals, and the political and economic opportunism injustice fosters, many families have been undermined, sowing seeds of hostility and distrust that continue growing. Communities are kept in order by a shared commitment to justice. When too many of us look away from injustice, every person has to look out for himself. We lose the ability to live together well. In an important sense, when one person loses his place wrongly, we all lose our places. Even in places isolated from the direct effects of slavery, no neighborhood is without children who, through misfortune or incompetence, are growing up without being taught the basics of living together with dignity and decency. They are the greatest challenge facing our schools, and they are rapidly becoming the greatest problem facing our nation. In a better world, each child would be embedded in a loving family, and each family would be embedded in a just community. Teachers need to remain committed to building such a world, though it's easy to see that history is a terrible failure, full of crime and bloodshed, and that none of us can walk out of it. There is nowhere for us to go. Our fate as persons is linked to the fate of the world. My fate is linked to April's. And hers is linked to mine. I wondered what prompted April to come up to me on a street and apologize. I think that at some level she wanted my approval, wanted to join the world she thought I lived in, if only she really could. In her rebellion was a shout that she wanted to be free. I think she wanted to be taught how. To teach children like April to get free, we need to draw them into an order that surrounds them. The hard work is building that order. It's hard because we can't have such an order without authority, but our age is distrustful of authority—and with good cause. Many people have noted the statistics of teenage mothers, violence, and drug abuse that indicate a widespread disintegration of traditional society. Nonetheless, any suggestion to change is met by reflexive protest against any authoritative action. Such a rejection, of course, is anarchy. Hannah Arendt once commented that because we did not understand authority, we were in danger of losing our freedom. Freedom should be the first goal of education. The best education is a not merely an accumulation of facts or information, but a passing on of the arts of freedom, which are deeply related to the arts of community building. Communities are ordered systems, and all ordered systems are balances between opposing forces of freedom and constraint, as an atom is a balance between attractive and repulsive forces within electrons and protons or as the solar system is a balance between centrifugal and gravitational forces. Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan has described human growth as a continual striving for balance between a strong desire to be independent and an equally strong desire to join. the balance is freedom, a tension that exists in a good community between polar opposites: anarchy and tyranny. A teacher who is uncertain that authoritative acts will be supported tends to look away from small situations that need to be dealt with, and the school becomes somewhat like a body in which white blood cells are reluctant to respond to invading bacteria. When school systems meet crises by paralyzing themselves in endless arguments, granting no person or group authority to respond until all are agreed. Systems whose parts aren't given enough freedom soon lose contact with their changing environment and they eventually collapse, to be replaced by other systems. Systems that don't constrain their parts enough are unable act as a whole, and they are also destroyed, as We need to remember that systems can take authority not from force but from the consent of the governed. People can willingly give others authority, within limits, because they understand the need for it. We live in an unprecedentedly organized world where everything from the glass of water at our kitchen sink to the newspaper at our doorstep reaches us through complicated and interconnected systems. To keep such a world working, we must standardize procedures and keep careful schedules. To keep order in a society as complex as ours, persons need to accept considerable constraint. If we are to keep order without abolishing freedom, we need a more profound understanding of authority than we have often had. Most of us work in large institutions that monitor and regulate us through both formal and informal controls. We tend to forget that such approaches work only within limits. Despite the many formal controls, we keep finding toxic byproducts of our culture in our water and every issue of the newspaper reveals further moral, political, and economic horrors, which lead to demands for more controls. We will be able to relax our controls over one another only to the extent that we find and accept some authority other than mere force. Without authority, we cannot act as one, accomplishing things that require our cooperation, such as producing and distributing food, playing symphonies, or caring for the poor. Musicians submit to the authority of a conductor because there are many ways to play a symphony, but if each musician pursues an individual interpretation, the result is not music. All are deprived of the joy they can only create by working together. The conductor's authority sets them free to join in beautiful music. With primarily a bureaucratic understanding of authority, we have created inflexible systems that stifle and deaden us. The essence of bureaucratic control is its impersonality. You will be treated exactly like everyone else. That is, without care. Our teacher Erik Erikson pointed out that when adolescents meet the impersonal demands of institutions at just the age when they are demanding to be treated as persons, their very identity may be threatened. They may rebel "with the force of wild animals." Like April. We need an alternative. Teaching is that alternative—not teaching as career so much as teaching as a way of life. The essence of teaching is persuasion, drawing another toward what we see and love by living it and by sharing it, and by encouraging others to freely accept what is offered. This reliance upon persuasion grows from a faith that if what is truly good is offered as one of the choices, people will freely choose it. Rather than through coercion, teachers work through offering demonstrations, opportunities, and resources. An important goal of teaching children should be to teach them to be teachers—not professional classroom instructors unless they are so inclined—but citizens of the kingdom of hope who believe that others can become better and more powerful creatures than they are and that such a becoming would be a good thing and that most people, when they can see, will freely choose such a course. To believe that is to live by faith. Unfortunately, my experience of the world and of many schools insists that many people, and many of them avowed teachers, give their allegiance to a different faith: that of coercion and control. Controllers believe that the world can be made to work if only enough control can be built into our systems. This often leads, step by step, to faith in manipulation, deception, and intimidation to attain ends that seem worth the costs. A controller's authority comes from the power to reward and punish. A teacher's authority comes from knowledge of the world. We believe what they say is true. The goal of control is control, but the goal of teaching is freedom. A teacher gives away the best that he or she has been given. Teaching authority wants the student to become the teacher's equal. Believing that the goal of teaching is freedom, some people have concluded that children need to be unconstrained. But freedom is not an absence of constraint. In fact, obedience is the first step toward freedom, and the truly free are in many ways the most obedient. They color within the lines, cross the t's, and detach the chads. The developmental stages of growth into freedom are, first, obedience, and then negotiation, and, finally, freedom. When each of our children was a toddler, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. Each of our five children went through a time when the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. We slapped little hands gently and said "No!" Of course, it would have been easier simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but we wanted to teach rather than to design a mini-world where they neither met nor caused trouble. But in general we did not turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of reach—a controller's strategy. Valerie and I set about surrounding our children with the order that we wanted them to learn. Much of the brilliance of Montessori's method derives from her insight that children grow by being held in a place of order and taught to sustain that order. The rhythm of teaching, at every level, is holding and contradicting: we hold the person and sustain the order at the same time we contradict actions that threaten or destroy that order. Of course, this approach also has limits. Cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger were put out of reach. But the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. It is true that when you give people opportunities they are not yet responsible enough to manage prudently, they will often act badly, like my daughter joyfully shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. But such actions are only problems when your goal is "appropriate behavior"—if your goal is free and intelligent action, they are teaching opportunities. We begin with obedience because it is as necessary to freedom as air resistance is to flight. When I slapped my daughter's hand and said "No!" what did I want her to learn? I would have been deeply disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, even though from her child's perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. "Thou shalt not touch the philodendron" was not a law that expressed our final will. It was only a means to a deeper law that might be expressed "Thou shalt respect living things," or "Thou shalt live in a house of order." And beyond these laws was a higher reality: "Thou shalt love plants." Our philodendron rule was given in faith that our daughter would question it, not in a spirit of rebellion but out of hunger to know and understand. We knew she would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature our answers—both implicit and explicit—would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Eventually, we allowed her to help with some tasks, such as watering the plants. As she asked to do more, we negotiated with her, and gradually her responsibilities and freedom increased to keep pace with her understanding. In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but should be touched. They could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beneath the philodendron rule lay deeper laws, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Our rules in many organizations, including schools, are not the highest standard to which we aspire. They are often the lowest standard that we will accept, the lower limit of the realm, the point below which we will shift to coercive methods. In the absence of virtue, we are forced to compel obedience. But we should never be satisfied with obedience or think it is our goal. The higher reality that we are trying to teach—freedom—can't be legislated, but it is death to forget it. As organizations that are committed to control rather than to human growth deteriorate, regulations flourish as desperation for order becomes a desperate grasping for further control. Predictably, the controls often aggravate a spirit of protest and rebellion. All sides lose faith in teaching, and begin to fight for control. We put much effort into error avoidance, hiding the philodendron, rather than goal seeking, teaching a good relationship with plants. Imagine the difficulty a child would have learning to walk if he were protected from falling. If his every slight imbalance was met swiftly with a hand that corrected it, the child might not fall, but he also might not learn balance, finding limits by falling past them. If the entire room were padded, the toddler might find it impossible to get hurt but also impossible to walk. By the time I got to know April, her identity at school was almost completely that of a rebel. She had been punished and punished and punished, but she had been taught little. She had been asked to comply, but she hadn't yet trusted any invitations to join. Most teachers were seeing of April in terms of her past and her present, which were troubled. When we respond to students on other terms than faith in their future, we abdicate the hope they need. I didn't get angry at my daughter for wrecking a plant because I was living partly in her future, which, since I could see it better than she, I was able to guide her toward. In that future, she joined me in an order that I loved. She believed what I taught her: that she was a powerful being growing toward a completion that would in time be wholly hers. In a good school, as in a good town, sustaining a good order is the daily work. Understanding the wisdom and necessity of that order should be the central preoccupation of the curriculum. A faith in teaching and freedom is the first principle. From the principle of freedom, three closely related principles emerge which we also need to learn and teach: a commitment to stewardship rather than ownership, a commitment to ecological rather than to fragmented thinking, and a commitment to working beyond diversity amid a larger unity. One of the early pleasures of my marriage was brought to me by living in the place where my wife's father had worked, building corrals and planting trees. Just before he died he moved a mountain ash from the foothills to what became our yard. It couldn't have been more than a couple feet tall the last time he saw it. Each year as I pruned and watered it, I thought about his life. The tree was taller than our house and every fall when it bore enormous clusters of brilliant red berries, I shared the world with him. Without me to be glad for it, some of his work would have been wasted. Without him, my life would have been less abundant. Though we missed each other in time, we are bound to one another through stewardship. Stewardship is easy to understand when we discuss the earth, since it's easy to see that the land outlasts all those who live through it, but we can also begin to understand the ways we are stewards of many other things—the learning and wisdom of the past, for example. It does the world no good that people once struggled against ignorance and found light if that learning is not kept alive by stewards who spend enchanted hours understanding, who keep knowledge in good order through their own efforts, and who dedicate some part of their time to passing it on. A library can't help us if we don't study, if we are not stewards of what it holds. Stewardship is not the same as collective ownership, which doesn't necessarily dissolve the destructive tendencies inherent in conceiving of the world as something we possess rather than as something to which we belong. Collective ownership can be even worse than individual ownership when it undermines the commitment to personal responsibility that is the hallmark of stewardship. Ownership may or may not lead to care, but stewardship is care. Understanding stewardship can help us understand the liberating possibilities of authority. One who acts as a steward over something—a parent over a family, a farmer over a farm, a teacher over a class, a priest over a parish, a physician over a skilled procedure, a talented singer over a voice, a wealthy person over a business—will not realize his gifts without authority to carry out his stewardship. To say that a farmer is "only" a steward of his land does not mean that he must allow others to come and go without constraints, making such use of it as they see fit. Farms—as well as wealth, intelligence, and talent—are given to persons for the benefit of the community, and gifts, in all their forms, create obligations. The farmer's obligation to care for the land gives him authority. When we act as if organizations were contests for control, we tend to become jealous of the authority of others. When we begin seeing them as ordered networks of nested stewardships, we can more easily see that in protecting the freedom of others to exercise authority, we are protecting our own. To be good stewards, principals need authority to decide many issues that affect more than one classroom, especially those over which teachers may disagree. Similarly, teachers need authority to keep their classrooms safe and work-oriented, to ensure that each student is cherished and invited to join. And students need some authority over their own learning as well as over school facilities and equipment they are privileged to use. The better we understand the way stewards need authority as well as accountability, the more likely we are to be able to resolve conflicts. Many disagreements in schools are less over what is done than who gets to decide. When we place our faith in control, we have trouble knowing where to stop. The administrative state we are creating spreads its tentacles into every reach of our lives, searching for noncompliance that interferes with its plans. But as we place our faith in stewardship, handling problems with a strong bias in favor of teaching rather than coercing, we become deeply attentive to limits, more ready to grant others freedom. Some decisions belong to persons. Some belong to families. Some belong to teachers. They don't all belong to administrators or boards. In schools committed to stewardships, teachers and other authorities would teach respect for authority by ensuring that the authority they exercise is respectful. In tribes that pass on their morality through customs and rituals, those who hold the authority to perform these rituals do not own the authority in the way that one might own a pocket knife. Rather, they are stewards of an authority to which they must be as submissive as any. When they use such authority as a personal possession they begin the process of destroying it. The hard work we face is not tearing down central authority in the name of empowerment, but balancing the many levels in a school, clarifying which decisions belong with the student, which with the family, and which with the administration, and which elsewhere. The alternative is unlimited competition, which in practice amounts to little more than a political theory of anarchy. In anarchy, the strong defeat the poor and weak, and secrecy and lies triumph over openness and honesty. We have too often tried to substitute competition for stewardship, and our schools thereby tend toward anarchy, filled not with students trying to understand the old verities of truth, beauty, and goodness, which command little respect in the market, but with students imitating many of their teachers in trying to get as much as they can as quickly and easily as possible. One problem with this is that competition motivates only those who think they might win. Students like April, who began losing early, are soon encouraged to become hostile toward the game. To admit an interest in it is to accept failure. Stewards are judged by the use they make of the gifts they have been given, not by how they compare with others. A good school establishes an economy of gifts, where every person is a student, laboring to receive the best that has yet been created, and where every person is a teacher, laboring to give away what has been received. Children who grow up in loving families already know much of this way of life. For children like April, school may be their best chance to experience it. A society of careful stewards creates abundance whereas, despite the propaganda, unconstrained competition leads to scarcity. As we fan desires for the highest test scores and access to a few lucrative jobs, we create failures for the many, fostering indifference, docility and open hostility among them in the name of success for the few. We identify the problems we thereby cause, mounting ever more costly programs to mitigate the symptoms of selfishness that are legion among us, without seeing that the failures are as much a product of the system as are the honor students. By design we teach our children that their worth is determined by their readiness to defeat their fellows in the scramble for a handful of bright tokens tossed among them. Our best models for understanding networks of nested stewardships have been created by ecologists trying better to understand ecosystems. They have done pioneering work in advancing our understanding of complex orders, and the way decision-making is distributed throughout them. A couple of years ago I was lifting my rototiller into the back of my pickup and it slipped, catching my hand between the sheet metal side of the tiller and the side of the pickup box. This severed the tendons to one of my fingers, freeing that finger from my will. It was eery to exert conscious effort to move one of my fingers and to get no result. Nothing. I couldn't feel where the command from my conscious mind went, which led me to think about the strangeness that had always been there: I didn't how to move my finger. That is, I had no conscious awareness of the system that allowed me to move my finger. The elaborate networks of cells, nerves, muscles, synapses, tendons and bones that I activate moment by moment, that is me, in a sense, was completely beyond my consciousness. Each day as I go about my business, millions of cells in my body are born, millions do the work they have been created to do, and millions die. As far as I know, they don't know that I exist. I am made of systems I cannot perceive. I am also a part of systems I can't perceive. The scientist Lewis Thomas, watching ants busily scurrying across the ground, said that the movement of individual ants appeared random and confused. They struggled against obstacles, took detours and appeared to have no clear idea of what they were doing or were supposed to be doing. But as he shifted his focus to the whole colony, he saw the work that was being done, smoothly and efficiently. Individual ants appeared to be neurons in one large nervous system, as though the entire colony were one mind, possessed of an intelligence and a purpose of which the individual ants were only dimly aware. Barry Lopez watched herds of musk oxen in the north approached by Arctic wolves. Without apparent communication, they moved together into a circle around the calves and drove the wolves away with their hooves. They became, when they needed to, one organism with an intelligence and a purpose that no one of them on its own could fulfill. Aldo Leopold saw an even bigger picture. "You cannot love the game without loving the predator," he told us. "The land is a single organism." Ecologists have enriched us with their increasingly precise descriptions of the way every whole is also a part of a yet larger whole: populations are embedded in communities, communities within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the earth, which is one thing. Of course, it is the precision that is new. The way of seeing itself is ancient. Our greatest teachers have always understood. Part of where that understanding leads is quite practical. The curriculum and all school policies should form a single teaching. The discourse at school board meetings should be of a piece with the principles that are taught in the classrooms. It can't be any other way, if we take our teaching seriously. Unlike cells and musk oxen, folks achieve what they can of unity through discourse. The colony of muscles cells that are a human heart normally contract in unity, constrained by an electrical pulse, a message from higher in the system. Their unity creates a strong heartbeat. When the electrical message is absent, the cells go on contracting on their own. The heart quivers in an uncoordinated and ineffective way the French call ventricular anarchy. Lay people call it a heart attack. When most people no longer accept constraining messages that unify them to a common set of principles, the community soon suffers its own cataclysms. Cities are held together, barely, by a thousand subtle forms of coercion, but their individual wills of persons are not in harmony. Society is sometimes more like a war than a community. Organizations to promote the interests of this or that group proliferate like billboards, seeking not justice or some view of the common good which most people could join, though they often use such language. Instead, they seek their own interests, which they define mostly as accumulating wealth in their own coffers and deflecting costs to some other group. The shrill polarization that results from arguments designed to win rather than to clarify the truth has led many of us to become cynical about the public realm and the contests that are fought there. As discourse is more and more often used to deceive rather than to reveal, more and more people withdraw from taking any arguments seriously, and we gradually lose the power of discourse which we need if we are to live together. Instead of struggling for honest discourse, people merely pay union dues or send checks to lobbying organizations that protect their interests. Teachers, more than any other group, have a moral responsibility to reject this approach for themselves. Teachers need to be committed to truth in somewhat the way physicians need to be committed to health. Before physicians are admitted to their profession they must take an oath to "First, do no harm." The analogous oath for teachers would be, "First, tell no fibs." If teachers took such an oath and struggled to honor it, this by itself would revolutionize our schools. For a long time I thought the oath should be, "Always tell the truth," but though we always know when we are lying (which is one of the strongest arguments against those who would deny the whole concept of truth), to tell the truth we have to know the truth, but it is seldom easy to know, and sometimes impossible. Being honest is more important than telling the truth. The various academic disciplines are conversations about truth. There are many disciplines we need many approaches to understanding a reality vastly more complex than our theories have yet described. When faced with hard problems, we sometimes move from discipline to discipline, listening to sociologists or neuropsychologists or mathematicians for something that seems likely to help. All our disciplines are important, though their boundaries should probably be considerably more flexible than the departmental structure of universities seems to allow. In any case, we need to remember that beyond the diversity of intellectual approaches lies a unity that John Dewey, among others, has urged us to seek: "There is only one genuine discipline," he said. "Namely, that which takes effect in producing habits of observation and judgment that ensure intelligent desires." Intelligent desires are what we need. We will be able to have large and highly developed civilizations and genuine freedom only if the desires of individuals are intelligent. If we follow unintelligent desires, we have hard learning in our future. Our education has more often been advanced by catastrophe than by teaching. Dust from Colorado blew through the halls of Congress in Washington D.C. before a bill was passed in March 1935 creating the Soil Conservation Service. April 14 of that year was called Black Sunday. The soil was lifted from the dry plains of Kansas and Colorado into raging winds that continued for hours. Livestock and wildlife perished, mud filling their lungs and their hides sandblasted. Humans caught outside had only minutes to find shelter, and driving was impossible. The earth had become uninhabitable. The next day, with dust still hanging in the air, Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin said that "society had developed an unstable adjustment to its environment, from which both must eventually suffer damage or even ruin." After asking whether the ruin could be made to sustain life, he asked, "yet who wants to be a cell in that kind of a body politic? I for one do not." In that speech, he first used the phrase "land ethic," and began teaching that we need to learn to judge our actions by their effect on the earth, since our entire society is embedded in nature in much the way each of us is embedded in society. What we do to the earth happens to us. This, too, is the work of the teacher: to take from catastrophe not despair but further learning, and to go on articulating the way a better world could work, refusing to abandon hope even as things seem to be falling apart. In hard times, nothing is so vital as an unyielding commitment to better times. The schools, like any other large market, attract people who aim low to sell their wares. A speaker brought into my community recently to discuss AIDS sparked a controversy when he chose to use violently obscene language to shock students into noticing him. Those who defended his presentation said that people had to be "realistic" about kids these days, pointing out that the students had heard such language before. During the debate, my thoughts returned to April and a dozen other students similar to her. It was true they had heard such language. They knew all about violent language and violent sex. But they had heard far too little language that placed sex in a different context, that created a different order, a different reality. She would not be free to choose until she was presented with a powerfully articulated and powerfully lived alternative, a real order that adults created, sustained, and offered. We were failing to do that. To do it, we need to care enough about such an order to practice it as a daily habit. Many schools are failing to create human environments where joy and peace and compassion are realities for the students. Building such an environment is the most important work of schools. If it doesn't exist, students can't choose it. Fortunately, one joyful, peaceful and compassionate teacher can create such an environment for at least a few students, and can even buffer them somewhat from a routinized, contentious and impersonal bureaucracy. However, working contrary to an organization's norms takes tremendous energy, like staying warm above the Arctic circle. By ignoring principles pf stewardship and designing our schools as bureaucracies of unrelated specialties, we've made the best teaching—that which is not done by lecture or book or activity but by involvement in an intelligent community—unreasonably difficult. At the same time, many families have become little more than adjuncts to the economy, with parents living lives too far away for children to join. Excluded from real worlds both at home and at school, they turn to the corporate storytellers of music and movies for moral guidance, and they turn to unintelligent peer cultures for a sense of belonging. We are surrounded now by a dust storm of bad practices repaid with a vengeance, in the form of illegitimate births, violence, drug epidemics, careerism, consumerism, and light-mindedness. The crime in our cities has crept into our suburbs and is emerging in our most rural areas. And we continue to think of education as a service provided by the government rather than as an activity through which we live, both as teachers and as learners. Leopold came to see that conservation, finding a way to live in balance and harmony, could not ultimately be accomplished by government action, because "the real substance" did not lie in "the physical processes of government, but in the mental processes of citizens." What he said is true of any genuine reform. He stressed that "the basic defect [in our approach] is this: we have not asked the citizen to assume any real responsibility. We have told him that if he will vote right, obey the law, join some organizations. . .the government will do the rest. "The formula is too easy to accomplish anything worthwhile. It calls for no effort or sacrifice; no change in our philosophy of values. . .No important change in human conduct is ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections, and our convictions." These are troubled times. They have to be. We insist on it. But we are free whenever we so choose to walk out of our noisy contentions, to interrupt our endless tasks and listen to each other, not just the chatter about the incessant rush of events, but the slower and quieter talk that lies behind it, about what we hope and what we fear and what we want. We are free to talk less about the world that surrounds us and more about the world we would like to build. We are free to plan with others ways of moving closer to that world. We are free to commune not just with those who are here now, but those who have been here before, to search the world for sacred writings, for any text that advances our understanding, for all the forms of scripture, all the ways the voice of the divine is filtered through the human voices of this realm. We are free to struggle not against some human enemy who needs to be destroyed, but against the anger and hurt and selfishness in our own hearts that makes us want to win, and against the unholiness that runs through our whole history as individuals and as a world, that destroys us as we try to destroy it, but that lets us go as we let it go. We are free to live not in fear, not in loneliness, not in endless strategies to protect ourselves and get our share, but as students, accepting the gifts that others bring, and as teachers, giving away what we have been given. And we are free to invite our children, all our children, to join us. If we do, we will be okay, and when we are, they will be. We live and work in a world with many children like April leading lives marred by violence and destruction, bringing pain to themselves and those around them. We hear on the news of hunger and homelessness and war around the world, and nations conduct their business according to the wisdom of men, meeting evil with evil and balancing terror with terror. In such a world, we can build only one enduring community: the community of fellow seekers of the truth. People who want lesser things—acclaim, money, popularity, success, security—will be easily pitted against one another in hard times, but a person who honestly desires understanding has no need of enemies. It is as hard for many people to live without enemies as it is to live without money. People won't live without meaning, and contention fills empty lives with purpose. Our loneliness and urgency lead us to look for large, quick solutions. When I was a principal, I created and partially implemented a school-wide reform plan that changed the curriculum, the teacher evaluation system, the student assessment procedures, and the structure of the school day. I put on workshops, I made fundamental changes to the schedule, and I established a host of new policies. As I watched who was threatened and why, I came to the conclusion that although organizational structures can help and hinder our work, the homely truth was that good people could make the traditional structure work, and that weak people could subvert any new structure that was created. I became convinced that the hard work in education was not reforming institutions but helping people grow. This can only be done one person at a time. The solutions to our problems will not come quickly from political action, but slowly, from teaching. I also learned that to do the real work, no one needs to await better times. We can follow nature's model for creating a new order. Entire plant communities are regularly displaced by new communities, but this isn't done in a grand gesture with trumpets and proclamations. It often happens so gradually that an unobservant stroller may be unaware that he is standing in the midst of momentous changes. Nature does her work through principles we can all use. A few years ago, knapweed was nonexistent in western Montana. Today, it has displaced other plants on thousands of acres. Knapweed's first principle is alertness to opportunity. Any disturbance to the land is viewed as a possible chance to get a toehold. No opening is too slight for at least an attempt. A single plant may produce 20,000 seeds, broadcasting them everywhere in a biological form of hope that a few might take root. If the first knapweed plant could consider the vast expanse before it and could think of all that had to be done, it would tend toward despair. Knapweed colonies don't take over entire prairies in a single season. Seeds may remain in the soil for fifteen years, awaiting the right conditions to germinate. Deep social changes don't come about because someone pushes a political lever. They come about because individuals, one by one, change their hearts and minds. Changing hearts and minds may be slow work, but it's the only work that ultimately matters. For teachers, it's the real work. And it is accomplished through faith in small things. Accepting any tiny toehold they are given, knapweed plants put their resources to work establishing their roots and making seeds to scatter freely wherever they can. They aren't distracted from doing what they can by thinking about all that they can't do. Of course, teachers who talk about goodness and truth as if they matter will invite ridicule from educationists who think they have a technique that trumps personal relationship, from therapists who specialize in skills and are alarmed by talk of principles, by academics who fear stepping out of the refuge of objectivity, and from administrators who are stressed and annoyed by complexity. That's okay. We learn how much our love matters by hanging on in spite of what it sometimes costs. We can restore our courage by seeking out colleagues who share our hopes. If we can't find them, we can seek the company of books and essays written by kindred spirits. Courage, like other virtues, can be learned and practiced. It amounts, finally, to admitting to ourselves and then to others what we honestly do love and what we honestly do care about. Thankfully, we are sometimes blessed with moments that bolster our courage. Last week, I ran into April. She's in her early twenties now, with a child of her own. She crossed the lobby of a busy theater to come see me. She had a charming smile and wanted to tell me what she's doing. She's taking classes part time at a junior college, she has a steady job, and her life has a fair amount of stability and order. It would be easy to find graduates who have accomplished more by the world's usual way of reckoning, but a more important measure is that her life has more light, more grace, and more hope than her mother's life. I was touched that she wanted to tell me, that she believed I would care. Never once in my conversations with her at school did she smile or meet my overtures with anything but hostility. But at some level, she heard. I choose to believe that my clumsy and inarticulate efforts to tell her that I knew of a better world and that I wanted her to live in it with me were a part of helping her. I now think that the worst mistake I made with her was that out of fear of seeming unprofessional, of being mocked, of being misunderstood and a dozen other similar weaknesses, I never told her that I loved her. Fortunately, young people often hear such things, even when we don't say them. The important thing is that we make them true. Chapter Two: At Risk In my years as a teacher and volunteer EMT, I’ve known several young people who killed themselves. All of them had problems with drugs and alcohol, but none of them were poor. And the drugs and alcohol weren’t the cause but merely one of the symptoms of a life story gone bad, gone self-destructive. When we talk about teenagers being “at risk,” this is what we’re talking about. They’re at risk of not being able to create a life story that makes sense and gives them hope. The more mistakes they make--getting involved with drinking or skipping school or hanging out with unintelligent friends--the harder it seems to turn their lives into stories that turn out well. Teenagers are at the age where, for the first time, they have to put together a life story that connects what they’ve experienced in the past with what they perceive in the present and what they anticipate for the future. They have to make decisions about occupations, about what to believe, about how to organize a meaningful life. They need to form what narrative psychologist Dan McAdams calls a “narrative identity.” This isn’t easy in an age when fundamental disagreements about the most basic meanings of life are broadcast all around them. It’s hardly surprising that the kids most likely to get into trouble are those whose families are unstable and for whom adult friends are nonexistent and churches don’t exist. Teachers preoccupied with test scores are unlikely to be much help. When they were younger, they got by with fantasies: becoming Spiderman or a pitcher for the Braves or a ballerina. They had figured out the basics of autobiography--making a narrative tale out of episodes--but didn’t yet need to incorporate the hard realities we learn while growing up--understandings about the limits of our talents, our failures to get things as simple as a pair of shoes or a smile from someone who matters to us. Most of us know how easy it is to dig ourselves into a pit--skipping this task we should have done, missing that obligation, indulging in this temptation or that. It’s not hard to reach a place where some things seem hopeless. Where none of our choices seem good. According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide rates for teens have tripled over the past couple of decades and it is now the third leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. Teens who feel disconnected and isolated are at greatest risk. What to do? Work on the narrative environment. Listening as placemaking When we rehearse in our minds a conversation we think we might have tomorrow or remember an episode from yesterday, the quality of our thought depends to some extent on the quality of the audience that we imagine. If we imagine we will be with dull-witted thugs, the character of our thought is quite different than if we believe we will be in the company of attentive and thoughtful listeners. Furthermore, the quality of the audience we imagine depends to a great extent on the quality of the audiences we have experienced. Seeing this we can see that better audiences make the world better--not in a mystical way but quite directly. They change the narrative environment in ways that improve our thinking. Most of us, including our students, would become better thinkers if we had had better audiences, and becoming better thinkers is an important step on the way to becoming better people. It’s safe to assume that our successes or failures as listeners may have a profound influence on the narrative environment--as much as the words we speak. We spend much of our time as audience for someone or for something, and how we listen is an important part of our narrative intelligence. What we attend to, what makes us smile, what we hear, what we ignore, what makes us linger, what we construe and what we don’t--these are not small matters. Good or bad audiences can change a person’s life. Listening is also an important part of placemaking. A place is a geographic location associated with human meaning--a space in which people have made something--sometimes a city but sometimes only a memory. When some ancient fisherman in the Columbia Basin, pondering the fish he had burned his fingers trying to cook the night before, shared his idea of a stone fireplace and saw his friend’s raised eyebrows and approving nod, they were well on their way to transforming their piece of the world. They gathered the rocks and before the sun set they had created the memory of a shared dinner of grilled trout. They had made their spot along the river into a place. It became a place by becoming a feature of the two characters’ story worlds. The built environment and most of history takes form first in story worlds we construct out of memory and imagination. If the friend had answered in such a way that made it clear he hadn’t really been listening at all but was instead caught up in his own worries, quite likely world history would have been one barbeque poorer. His listening was part of creation. Interestingly, if he had listened to his friend carefully in the past, he may not have needed to be present at all to have done his part. His friend could have imagined him, based on memory. Listening is so important that it has become a major preoccupation of the most powerful creatures on earth--vast mercantile creatures--business corporations are the most common form, but these are being joined by large universities and other cultural organizations, by mega-churches, by large-scale criminal gangs and by nations and former nations. Oh do they listen. They conduct polls, they do market surveys, they find ingenious ways to track our movements and purchases, they organize focus groups, they test market--they do everything they can to keep us under their surveillance. They are obsessed with hearing from us. They listen with passion but it’s a disciplined and focused passion that doesn’t include us, necessarily. Mostly they want to know just what it is that we, in turn, will listen to. Their listening is a strategy to find the ways to be sure we hear them. They have figured out the world of humans is, more than anything, a competition between stories. And it’s a competition they want to win. They specialize in strange types of storytelling. One of these they call “branding.” Old-style advertisements tended to give information: buy our shaving lotion because it has lanolin and it will soothe your skin. But brandmakers tend to provide images--visions of a world as, they hope, you want it. Their stories often give no information at all. Their plots are more like dreams than like arguments. If I argue with you, I wake up parts of your mind that might listen to other voices than mine. So I might offer you a vision of a Sunday afternoon in the summer, and you are free, driving fast along a highway that swoops along the edge of a vast ocean. You have nothing to worry about. Eagles soar overhead. Pulses of music pierce you, shafts of sun through white clouds. You go faster, a beautiful stranger beside you. Nothing can hurt you. And faster. The music pounds. And faster. Are you listening? If not, there are other stories, some far better and some far, far worse. The ones that get listened to win, and out of them empires grow. They get larger and more powerful month by month, the managers deciding, by watching what works, what to make with their vast resources. On the Internet the pattern is already clear: computers never stop tabulating your mouse clicks and monitoring how long you look at which pages. What you ignore shuts down and goes away. What you look at gets replicated and developed. What you click on gets more powerful. You are free to look at whatever you want. And as our choices multiply, we are more and more free not to look at or listen to what we do not want. And so, less and less are we all in the same empire. Some of us are so far away we can’t hear each other, really. Each of us moves farther and farther into story worlds built especially for people just like us. We are separating into empires that get stronger by our very listening. Already we have branded housing developments such as retirement communities with just the amenities and architecture we dreamed of. It may not be long till whole towns are built and people move into cities that were imagined, designed, constructed, scripted and sold--people will move into them and they will be real. It may be our destiny to live in worlds whose qualities--ugliness or beauty, superficiality or depth, depravity or goodness--are precise renderings of the quality of our listening. And the rest will be forgotten. Understanding others is key to narrative intelligence As we assimilate a story, our emotions are our own, not those of the characters. By means of the story our emotions may be transformed by having them deepened or understood better, and they may be extended toward people of kinds for whom we might previously have felt nothing. Keith Oatley, “Emotions and the Story Worlds of Fiction,” in Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, Timothy C. Brock, Melanie C. Green, and Jeffrey J. Strange. editors. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 2002. p. 43. One of the more delightful forms of human intelligence is the quickness and accuracy with which some people sense what others are feeling. To do this, they must (in Jerome Bruner‘s phrase) “construe reality.” We cannot, after all, see into others’ minds. To a large extent, our understanding of others is a story we tell ourselves about what their intentions seem to be and what might be causing them to act and speak as they do. Our knowledge of other people always has a fictive element. We are most keenly aware of this when others fail--when they badly misconstrue us, ascribing to us motives that we do not in fact have. A Separate Peace by John Knowles has been a perennial favorite of high school English teachers precisely because it explores in the story of two friends at a boarding school during World War II the horrific conseqences of just such a failure. It suggests that the most pressing problems on earth, such as the world war that goes on relentlessly in the background, at least sometimes spring from just such failures. The only way to understand others is through stories. Young people develop their narrative intelligence by experiencing many stories involving many kinds of people. Stories from books, stories from films, stories from old guys in the coffee shop downtown, stories from parents, stories from teachers and stories from friends. One of the great values of literature in the classroom is that “reading” another person isn’t so different from reading a character in a book. What we learn in literatur
Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Poetry Slams
     The power of words

Introduction to Youth Speaks.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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