“The air is humming, and something great is coming”

Walking home by myself a few nights ago, I felt like singing.  Because it was late and the sidewalks were deserted, I wasn’t risking embarrassment. So, what the heck, I broke into song.  The song pretty much chose me.

“Could be
Who knows
There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

My exuberance was triggered by the eloquent high school students I had met at the 25th Anniversary celebration of EL Education, which you may know as Expeditionary Learning. More than 150 schools have embraced EL, and its open source curriculum is being used in thousands more schools. Detroit, arguably the nation’s worst school system, has just embraced EL, and that could be its first step upward.  But, for me, that evening was representative of something that is happening in schools and statehouses and public squares across America.

“Could it be? yes it could
something’ s coming, something good”

Something is definitely coming. It feels like a great awakening of what it means to be an American, the recognition of what it will take for our country to live up to its promises, and a surprising determination to take control, to act.  I believe this started with Black Lives Matter, and was followed by the Women’s March one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Then came #MeToo, followed by #Never Again, led by students from Parkland High School.  Recently, we have seen teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Minnesota, and elsewhere say, in effect, “No Mas!”  What all of these phenomena have in common is their insistence upon RESPECTAnd if these powerful movements join forces, they will become unstoppable…..and our country will be the better for it.

Let’s not forget the latest NAEP results, showing more flat-lining and a widening achievement gap. This news seems to be convincing a growing number of people that ‘test-and-punish’ was stupid and dangerous policy.

“I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true coming to me”

I felt it when I visited several Urban Assembly High Schools.  This network of 21 schools in New York City (and now in LA) is another occasion for hope.

“There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

Good things are happening in other places too, like Barnett Berry’s network of teacher-run schools, the Coalition for Community Schools (meeting in Baltimore in early May), and the important work being done by Ted Kolderie, Curtis Johnson, and Joe Graba and their Education/Evolving project.

“It may come cannonballing down from the sky, gleaming its eye bright as a rose
Who knows, it’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach under a tree”

Of course there’s plenty of depressing stuff going in on public education: A US Secretary of Education who is hostile to public education, the proliferation of profiteers in the ‘Charter World’ and on-line education, the resegregation of public education, and the intentional underfunding of schools in dozens of states.  But if we continue to work together, those obstacles can be thrown aside.  

“The air is humming and something great is coming
Who knows
It’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach, maybe tonight”

The song is, of course, Something’s Coming, from West Side Story.  You can listen to it here. 

That’s really all I have to say.  Whether you agree or disagree, please post your thoughts below.

And if you would like to know more about EL Education and Urban Assemblies, please keep reading:

This passage about EL Education is taken from my new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education:

Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, is a fan of Expeditionary Learning.  “The central premise of EL Schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.”  In his article in The Atlantic, he described the inner workings:

Classrooms at EL schools are by design much more engaging and interactive than classrooms in most other American public schools. They are full of student discussions and group activities large and small; teachers guide the conversation, but they spend considerably less time lecturing than most other public-school teachers do.

EL students complete a lot of rigorous and demanding long-term projects, often going through extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers. They frequently work on these projects in collaborative groups, and many projects conclude with students giving a presentation in front of the class, the school, or even a community group. In addition, students are responsible, whenever possible, for assessing themselves; two or three times a year, at report-card time, parents or other family members come to the school for meetings known as student-led conferences, in which students as young as 5 narrate for their parents and teachers their achievements and struggles over the past semester.

However, the best way to fully grasp what Expeditionary Learning entails is to go on an expedition, which is what my former colleague at the PBS NewsHour, John Tulenko, did. John followed a group of 8th graders in Portland, Maine, over four months as they worked to invent a labor-saving device for the home. It remains one of my favorite NewsHour pieces, and I urge you to click and watch. It may be the best 8 minutes and 51 seconds you’ll ever spend.

Now, about my second reason for singing:  Richard Kahan, the founder of Urban Assemblies, spent 35 years in public service and private real estate; then in 1990 he decided that he hadn’t made enough of a difference, and so he turned to education.  Most people who take this road do what is logical and easy: they start with kindergarten and first grade!  Not Richard! He started HIGH SCHOOLS, meaning that he would be working with kids who had already experienced 8-10 years of traditional public schools.  

Urban Assembly High Schools focus on professions, are open enrollment with no admissions criteria, are traditional public schools (not charter schools), and embrace Social and Emotional Learning.  A few examples: The School for Law, Government, and Justice, The Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, The Bronx Academy of Letters, the Gateway School for Technology, The Maker Academy, the Media High School, and the Harbor School.  I have recently visited three of them and have been impressed by the students and the teachers.  


“Could it be? yes it could
something’ s coming something good
if I can wait
Something’s coming I don’t know what it is but it is gonna be great”

9 thoughts on ““The air is humming, and something great is coming”

  1. Right on, John. We do not hear often enough about the many creative, innovative schools and leaders who are creating waves, maybe even a tsunami of change for the good. Ted Dintersmith visited over 200 schools, found some amazing stuff going on, some of which he has documented in his book “What School Could Be” and his work with Tony Wagner in the movie (and book) “Most Likely to Succeed.” There are other examples too, Grant Lichtman’s work in “Moving the Rock” and in groups like “Leadership and Design.org” showing schools and leaders new ways to address old problems. Thanks for your encouraging, uplifting post. Keep up the good work!


    • You may want to read Ted Dintersmith’s book again. It starts great and then starts bashing public education. Mr. Dindersmith is a business executive and has never taught in a public school. He wants to impose business techniques to run public schools….this hasn’t worked in the past and it certainly won’t work now or in the future. Schools are NOT businesses. Mr. Dindersmith needs to take his “fauxlanthropy” elsewhere.


      • We could debate the value of Mr. Dintersmith’s work and probably agree to disagree. Education is actually big business in this country, not as a corporate for profit business but as a not for profit enterprise. Consider the investment of human resources, time and money and see if you think the return on that enormous investment is getting sufficient and acceptable results. I invested 50 years in the profession of education, public, private and at every level, K-12, college, university and post graduate teaching. I am still committed to helping re-form and transform education that is failing so many of our kids and yet there are places and people who are succeeding extremely well. No need to reinvent the wheel as we could apply what we have learned that works and discard much of that which isn’t working. Teachers are underpaid, undervalued, often not recognized and appreciated. Too many schools have not changed nor kept pace with what’s relevant and what’s needed to keep kids engaged in meaningful learning experiences. For what it’s worth…..and thanks for your response.


  2. Excellent commentary, John. Too many of us are inclined to sink into our own pity pot. The sky is falling. Oh, woe is me! Bad people are doing bad things to us.

    Something is going on. People are tired of being treated like obstacles on the road to progress by wealthy autocrats busy buying influence in Washington and state capitals. I heard from AFT vice president Adam Urbanski some months ago: “If public schools don’t survive, it will be harder to hang on to democracy. There is no such thing as leadership that is pessimistic. We may be downcast about where we are today, but we must be optimistic about the possibility of change tomorrow.”

    Optimism is called for. We can control the destiny of our country and our schools.

    Liked by 1 person

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