A new idea: shared poetry

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If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

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Stop reading right now If you are a strong ‘back to basics,’ no-frills education person, because this column is about as far away as humanly possible from your notions of what should be happening in schools.

However, if you teach in high school or middle school — or if you are worried about the narrowing of the curriculum — please stay with me.

In a given month, between 30,000 and 40,000 people read this blog; I am hoping that at least a few of you are HS or MS teachers who are committed to the arts. Or perhaps non-teachers who share that enthusiasm and are in a position to help.

In a recent post about the threats to the arts in the schools, I suggested that we needed to ‘energize the 80,’ my shorthand for the need to get the 80% or so of households without school-age children involved in supporting public education.

A lot of you liked the idea, which was gratifying for a day or two — but now it’s time to do it. Or rather, for students to do it. I envision a squad of middle school or high school students, armed with a decent video camera, going door to door and persuading apartment owners and shopkeepers to look into the camera and recite poetry. A couple of lines each, to be edited together, with the speakers identified on the screen.

(For fun, we will get a couple of recognizable people — think pro sports stars, like Derek Jeter — to contribute as well)

There’s just one rule: the students must recruit adults who do not have school-age children. They are members of the 80 percent that have to be energized in support of the arts.

I ask you to imagine watching the video described below on YouTube (I’ve used characters from my Manhattan neighborhood, but you should picture folks from your world):

Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:
To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to …

Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:
… ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream …

Augie Ramos at the Deli:
… ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Angela Packer at Equinox Gym:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office …

Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:
… and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Fifth grader teacher Alice Gotteswold:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought …

Richie O’Connor, 201 East 79th doorman:
… and enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

This could obviously be done for an assortment of literary elements.

Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow online video, and that has made all the difference in education.

You can be certain every one of those performers will be boasting about their roles and urging others to watch. And, even more important, they will be shaking their heads in amazement at what school kids are doing these days. They will now be the schools’ advocates.

Shakespeare can be intimidating, but because everyone can relate to passion, I’d suggest the kids bring along Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Vicki Hennigan, florist:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Archie Samuels, counterman at Wrap ‘n Run:
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

Victor Reynoso, 235 East 79th doorman:
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

Peggy Sydak, age 83, in Apartment 21B:
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And Robert Frost is a natural. Here I would break apart the verses, divide them among performers.

Alfonso Gonfriddo, postal carrier:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler …

Amanda Morales, office manager:
… long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth …

Joan Zrodowski, businesswoman:
… then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear …

Ted Bauer, web site developer:
… Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same …

Jerry Flanigan, owner of 81st Street Hardware:
… and both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Joe Quinlan, salesman:
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The kids will quickly figure out the importance of videotaping each performer reading lines from several different poems, with multiple takes of each reading. They will figure out that doing it well will not be easy, but this is the real world, and their work product will be up there for all to see, up against lots of other student productions. A little competition is a good thing, particularly when it’s team competition.

I have stressed that these videos will build support for the arts, but it’s just as important to point out that the process will teach valuable lessons to the students. In addition to the obvious ‘soft skill’ of working on a team with a real world product, producing these videos will add to their skill set, because they are going to have to persuade the adults to relax, persuade them to ‘do it again’ quite a few times, stroke their fragile egos when they mess up (which will happen a lot), and generally persuade them to take their minds off the camera — even as they are looking into the lens.

School will be more valuable and interesting, and the enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.

As they search for talent, and as they edit on their computers, I am sure that some of these young producers will start to take some chances, let their imaginations run free.

Perhaps they will have the dry cleaner saying “Out, damned spot.’

Or the local watch repair guy reciting ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…’

How about some pre-schoolers on the playground intoning “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won?”

Just don’t ask the school principal to intone ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

I understand that at least two school groups have begun working on this. That’s a start, but this is a big country with a lot of bored school kids out there, kids with drive, brains and energy.

Learning Matters will create a dedicated channel on YouTube, and we’ll try to get the big arts groups behind this.

Long ago the novelist E. M. Forster told us what matters. ‘Only connect,’ he wrote, getting it right.

What do you say?

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Steven Brill and the berated dog

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Please imagine this scenario: While walking in the park, you see someone famous ahead of you. This person is berating his dog, yelling at it, slapping it and then giving the poor whimpering dog a hard kick or two. Before you can intervene, the person drags the dog away.

Brill
The cover of Steven Brill's new book.

I ask you, would you ever be able to read about or even think about that person — let’s say he’s running for office or donating millions to charity — without that image coming into your mind?

I think something like that happened to Steven Brill, the lawyer/writer who broke the story of New York City’s infamous ‘Rubber Room,’ where teachers that no principal would hire were stashed — and paid — while awaiting arbitration. In that New Yorker article, Brill painted an unforgettable picture of hundreds of adults wasting their days (including a middle school teacher making $85,000 a year who brought in a beach lounge chair). In the piece, Brill correctly identifies the problem: a union contract that establishes procedures for dismissal that are so complex as to make firing even the most incompetent teacher impossible. It’s a good guy-bad guy story, with the teachers union being Brill’s villain (even though someone sat on the opposite side of the table and agreed to those provisions).

I use that word, ‘unforgettable,’ advisedly, because it seems that the experience colors just about every page of his new book, the very readable Class Warfare.

Brill seems to admit as much in an August 21 column distributed by Reuters:

I’ve now read all the white papers and commission reports. I’ve learned all the policy wonk acronyms, and logged hours with everyone from teacher trainees, to the secretary of education, to Weingarten and Ravitch. Yet after all of that it still seems as uncomplicated as it did when I saw my first Rubber Roomer with his head resting on a card table. I mean no disrespect to all the dedicated people who are the “experts” in education policy, but for me the problem and its root causes still seem as undebatable as the practice of paying that guy to sleep for three or four years.

That’s a shame, because the story is more nuanced and ultimately more interesting, as Brill finally acknowledges in his final chapter, which is roughly 180 degrees different in tone from the rest of the book.

In the body of Class Warfare, teacher unions are the villains — the ‘education deformists’ — and a handful of (mostly) Democrats who challenge them are the heroes. He blithely labels people and organizations as anti- or pro-reform. So, for example, the Washington Post’s blog, “The Answer Sheet” is identified as “an anti-education reform blog.” (Brill’s tunnel vision was also discussed in detail in Sara Mosle’s Aug. 18 review of the book for The New York Times ).

Even worse is his treatment of the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a badly-slanted film that distorts the reality of public education, praising charter schools despite their muddy record of success and ignoring successful traditional public schools. He explains away the millions of dollars the filmmakers received from large foundations, suggesting that since all that money came in after the fact, it did not influence the message and the filmmakers are not hypocrites or worse.

But he has no trouble implying that one of his villains, Diane Ravitch, is for sale. In a short chapter about Ravitch, he comes very close to saying that she changed her views to accommodate those who pay her speaking fees.

But Brill, a tough man who does see the big picture, does not seem to be able to criticize his heroes directly — those ideas, he puts in footnotes (two in particular about Wendy Kopp, one about Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation).

His heroes are Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Charter Schools, Jon Schnur, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and a few others in that camp. Never once does he take on school boards, although it seems to me they bear equal responsibility for our having a system that puts adult interests ahead of those of children.

It’s not a book to read in one gulp, largely because of his format — dozens and dozens of chapters that are only three or four pages in length. Each chapter ends with the transitional equivalent of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” that becomes a distraction after a while.

However, there’s a lot to like about the book — including his inside stuff about Race to the Top. I have to admit that those sections made me professionally jealous, because we had negotiated access to the Race process for our video crew with Assistant Secretary Peter Cunningham, approved by his boss, Arne Duncan, until the Department’s lawyers vetoed it.

I think all wonks will enjoy Class Warfare. It might ruin the book for you, but I’d suggest reading the last chapter first.

Who’s the most influential educator in America?

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

A month or so ago, I speculated about the most influential person in American education — then two weeks ago I expanded upon those musings in a feature for the New York Daily News. In both columns I put forth four nominees — Wendy Kopp, Big Bird, Arne Duncan and Joel Klein — and chose Joel for his remarkable network of eleven protégés now influencing what happens in schools and classrooms around the nation.

I was attacked for my choice by people who feel that his influence has been negative, or even destructive. Few seemed to notice that I neither praised nor condemned the former Chancellor’s policies. No one challenged that he changed New York City schools in dramatic ways — nor could they. Remember that before mayoral control, New York City had 32 separate districts, quite a few of them known as jobs programs for cronies with little regard for student outcomes. There was little sense of urgency about actually educating large numbers of children, and the central office at 110 Livingston Street was a nightmare. Joel changed all that.

But there were other reactions, including a few “How could you leave off….?” letters.

So, without asking Joel, I am reopening the discussion and adding several nominees. The new names are:

  • Diane Ravitch, the former Bush education official who has become NCLB’s fiercest critic
  • Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame, whose writings have influenced thousands of teachers
  • E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the inspiration behind Core Knowledge, whose elementary school curriculum is — for me anyway — a bright shining light.

From the original list, ‘Big Bird’ is, of course, a stand-in for Sesame Street , Joan Ganz Cooney, the Muppets and The Electric Company. Add two men we have lost — Fred Rogers and Jim Henson — as you consider your vote. Just think how many American children have been positively influenced by this team!

Would you vote for Arne Duncan as Most Influential Educator in America?

Arne Duncan might deserve more votes if he continues to press Congress on NCLB, which he now threatens to do by granting waivers.

When you consider Wendy Kopp, realize she’s a serious contender — and not just for the 9,000 Teach for America corps members who will be teaching in some of our toughest schools this fall. I invite you to review some of the names of people who have come through TFA in its 20 years on the scene and remain influential:

That list doesn’t mention a large handful of Teachers of the Year, and about 15% of the principals in Oakland. What’s more, she and TFA are a case study at the Harvard Business School, an honor that has so far escaped Joel, Arne and Big Bird.

Before you cast your vote, let me add a wild card, which I am calling the “Roberto/Robert team. ” They are two mostly invisible hands within the Obama Administration — hands that may not wash each other. Roberto J. Rodríguez serves in the White House Domestic Policy Council as Special Assistant to President Obama for Education. Previously, he was Chief Education Counsel to United States Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). In this capacity, he managed the Committee’s Democratic education strategy for legislation addressing early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, higher education, and adult education. As for Robert Gordon at OMB, the Washington Post described him thusly: “Gordon will tackle the task of finding wasted cash in the financials of the nation. Education and labor are his specialties; he has written extensively on the impact of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) bill, and has worked in the New York City Department of Education … Gordon has been an advocate for changing teacher-tenure rules in public schools, modifying NCLB and increasing efforts to fight crime.”

This raises the possibility that Roberto proposes from the White House and Robert vetoes from his desk at OMB, saying, ‘We can’t afford that.” Does that make them a force for stasis, for gridlock? Does that disqualify them? Your call.

So there are the new nominees for “Most Influential Educator in America.”

Vote here, vote early and vote often.

Another year without Fred Rogers, and more reminders of why we miss him

With some members of Congress intent on eliminating federal funding for public radio and television, a friend sent me this remarkable video.  It reminds us of what we lost when the remarkable Fred Rogers died eight years ago this Sunday, but it has a second powerful message about the value of public television and radio, then, now and tomorrow:

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