Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

Last week the NY Times had a great op-ed piece about what schools need to teach. It’s so commonsensical it’s stunning, and  echoes what many of us feel about the current direction of education. Here’s the link – Playing to Learn. The discussion page of the article is good, too.

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For want of a light bulb, the lesson was lost.....

I’ve been thinking about janitors.

Maybe because I’m waiting to hear from a publisher about a book of mine. It’s a picture book a kid and his interaction with the school janitor (er, custodian – more on that in a second). The kid is afraid of Mr. Rumkowsky, but he has to find his hat, and Mr. Rumkowsky (the janitor – custodian) might have it.

Remember your janitor?

It’s a tongue in cheek joke, but it’s often said that the two people who run any school are the secretary and the janitor. They may not teach, but, in addition, hopefully, to the principal, they are the ones who have an overall view of what is going on in the school.

I know from my work as a visiting artist that if the janitor doesn’t feel like helping, I’m going to have a tough job. Where are the chairs? Can you sweep the floor? – someone spilled their cheese curls. The door is sticking. The radiator in Room 17 isn’t working. The food delivery truck can’t get to the loading dock because someone parked there. Any one of those things will mess up a school schedule, and thereby the learning process in a place that has to manipulate four hundred souls for eight hours.

Janitors are key. Actually – custodians. The folks who do all that necessary, often invisible, work would rather we call them custodians. One of them pointed out to me, “Janitors just clean, I take care of things. Don’t call me a janitor. I’m a custodian.”

And custodian is a nice thought – some one who has custody of a place. Someone who cares for it. Every school needs that.

Which is why I scratched my head when a friend of mine, a school librarian in a local elementary school, told me that they have no custodian. In a penny-wise, pound-foolish move, the system decided to out-source the “custodial services”. Now the hired service comes early in the morning, at lunch time, and late in the afternoon and does their work (exactly as contracted) and has no interaction with the rest of the school staff.

There is, I guess, still a little room where the supplies are kept. Children throw up during the school day, and waiting until 5 pm might be a little much. Remember? The smell makes everyone else throw up. There must be a place to get wood chips.

But if one little thing goes wrong, uh oh.

Life is about things going wrong. Like they say, “Man plans, the universe laughs”.

Like my friend’s overhead projector. The light bulb burnt out. It didn’t work and she needed it. There was no custodian to ask. She looked around the school. No one knew where the replacement bulbs were or how to fix it. Someone in the office told her if she needed a new overhead projector, she could send in a purchase order. Easier to get a new projector than a new bulb?

Her husband came to rescue. He looked at the make of the projector, Googled the company, got the diagram of the projector and ordered the $2 bulb, then replaced it himself.

I guess the spouses of school staff count as community. But it would be nice if the school system paid for that kind of thing.


I’ve talked in earlier posts about schools being gift-giving communities, not businesses. It seems to me that a custodian, or caretaker, is an important part of that. At the school I work at regularly, the Paul Cuffee School, the custodian Henry greets all the kids in the morning. I’m pretty sure it’s not in his job description.

I’m also thinking that the contract custodial service companies have no interest in their employees talking to six year olds.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

Stories about custodians? I’d love to hear them. You can call them janitors, but don’t forget how important they are.

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In storytelling workshops with teachers, I regularly ask them to tell a story about a teacher that had an influence on them. This leads to a discussion about what makes a good teacher, and opens up the door for them to talk about their work in a narrative way. It also emphasizes a notion I mentioned in an earlier blog – the “structure” of teaching is not a political one, but rather an unbroken line through centuries of teachers who influenced people who then became teachers themselves.

What comes out of those teacher stories in the exercise is always interesting. It is usually a story about some kindness offered, or some revealing act on the part of the teacher – something that shows them as a person.

I was doing this exercise last month for a school district in California. When we got back together I asked, “How many of your memories with those teachers had to do with the curriculum?” I looked around. No one spoke, no one raised their hand.

Finally, one of the older teachers said, “It never has anything to do with the curriculum.”

Everyone in the room nodded.

I’ve heard this response before and it makes my point in the workshop that it’s the culture of a classroom or a school that really encourages learning to take place. A kindness given to a student, or a story told, gives them courage to take a chance on learning something, knowing they’ll be supported. It may even encourage them to become a teacher. (Aaagh! Not that!) Without that culture, the best curriculum in the world is going to have problems. Some kids will learn under almost any conditions, but many others, especially ones at risk, are never going to get anywhere without those moments of kindness.

I have in my mind a thought about this. “Love is in between.” It’s not the part you notice, or the time curriculum developers think about. But kindness or openness really acts like mortar in a brick building. You have all these bricks you’re using to construct the building, but something needs to hold them together. We don’t notice the mortar, we notice the bricks. But it’s the mortar, the binding agent, in between the bricks that helps the bricks do their job.

Okay enough metaphor. You get my point, I hope. The kindness, the stories, and the building of community seem like small things, and they certainly are in a formal evaluation of what was learned.

But no mortar, no building.

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My friend David Holt gave me a recording by Danny Ellis, called “800 Voices”. It is truly gorgeous. Danny is an incredible songwriter and singer from Ireland, now living in the States, and the album documents his childhood growing up in the Artane Brothers Christian School, an infamous orphanage in Ireland and a very, very tough place to be a kid. The songs are both personal and universal, and prove how art is some kind of alchemical process, turning pain into something beautiful. Here’s a live performance of one of the songs, “Tommy Bonner”. I’m listening to his album everywhere I go. Like David told me, try to listen to the whole thing through at once.

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SIEHUNG, South Korea—Children smear paint around the room in this class to enhance creativity and expression, 2007. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

SIEHUNG, South Korea—Children smear paint around the room in this class to enhance creativity and expression, 2007. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

When I do workshop with teachers on stories and storytelling, I talk about how we perceive the infrastructure of education and teaching. What some would have us believe is that the structure of education and learning is: a state board of education, then a town board of ed, then a superintendent, then a bunch of principals, and then finally, the teachers. Teachers are dependent on the people above them for their work and their direction.

That’s true politically and economically, but when I take a long term view of learning and education, that’s not how I see it.

Instead, I see the teachers working. And I see the teachers who made them want to be teachers, and the teachers before them that made them want to be teachers. That structure, or lineage, goes back tens of thousands of years in an unbroken chain. And it stretches ahead to the people who will be touched by good teaching and want to teach. This is a very impressive structure. Long after whatever system we operate here to facilitate learning is gone, this other, more vertical, structure will continue – even if we end up in some kind of Blade Runner post-apocalyptic B movie script. Some teacher in rags with a few books or hard drives, or whatever is in their head, will teach a younger person because someone taught the teacher when she was young.

That’s true for any kind of teaching – reading teachers, guitar teachers, dance instructors, of after-school chess coaches. I find this thought comforting when I get frustrated with the current structures we have.

I was reminded of all this when Michele, our office manager and computer maven, sent me a link to a collection of photos on Slate called “Thanks Teach!” that shows teachers over the last fifty years working in a variety of settings. What comes through is the incredible humanity of the situation (as opposed to the fellow in my last post, “I Meet My Enemy”). My favorite is the teacher in Korea with the poster paint. So much for organization.

Happy teaching. When you get depressed, think about the kid in your class who is the next one in line to carry the torch.

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A little while ago I was doing school visits in a city in California – four or five schools in a week. It’s part of the itinerant traveling whatever-I-am that I never know what to expect when I show up at a school or library or theater.

That week I got it all.

One of the schools had kids’ drawings of my books, stories and songs hanging from the rafters and plastered on the walls. That’s enough to give anyone an overhealthy sense of themselves. Because they’d been listening and reading, I had something to offer – shows, workshop, even a stop in the teacher’s lounge for some high-end coffee.
What’s not to like?

Then I got to the last school of the week. It was just a reminder that I’m not the center of the universe. And that some people don’t get what I do. To them, I am just a distraction in an otherwise very well-ordered and planned educational project.

It was a large elementary school in a well-off part of town. When I got there, I found that despite the advance work, nothing was arranged as I had asked. One microphone on the cafeteria stage ( I need two, one for my guitar). The lunch tables were set up, which meant some kids were in the far corners of the cafeteria, seemingly miles from me, with kindergartner’s legs dangling down – an uncomfortable position for forty five minutes. I like them up close on the floor. The shows were scheduled by the office to mix fifth graders with kindergartners and pre-schoolers. That arrangement doesn’t recognize the difference in language, social, and cognitive skills. (Note: The difference between a four year old and a ten year old is greater that the difference between a twenty-five year old an a forty year old) I can do it, but I don’t like to. After twenty-five years, I know what works.

And I knew I was about to meet a principal that just didn’t care if I was there or not.

I hate to present someone so stereotypical, but I guess stereotypes are based on something. It’s enough to give m the hives, but there he was. Good looking, early forties, suit and tie; he had the smell of a future superintendent about him. I asked for things to be rearranged according to the information I’d sent in advance.

“This is the way I like to do things,” he informed me. “It works better. The schedule doesn’t allow the changes you suggested.”

Oh, I thought. This school is different from the other two thousand I’ve been in.

The shows were flat – the kids were far away. The teachers graded papers. The principal watched at one of the tables for ten minutes, and didn’t seem all that impressed. I didn’t feel impressive – this was in marked contrast to how I’d been feeling all week. DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I thought. And the unspoken answer was, “Well, no, and we don’t care!”

Oh well.

Believe me, I tried. It’s my job to entertain people, and I try to do that. If someone doesn’t smile a little in my performance, either their life is in crisis, or I’ve failed, or both.

Finished with the shows, I only wanted to escape, but I didn’t have a ride, so I was there until the last bus left. Boy, the school day is pretty long, and I’m not five years old. And then the principal, who I had studiously avoided, gave me a ride back to my favorite Hampton Inn.

On the way back, my curiosity got the better of me and I started asking him questions about the school. I mean – I spend so much time in schools, I’m actually interested in them. And I found myself sitting in a car with someone who I guessed looked at me like I was inconsequential. I was interested.

So I asked about the continuing move towards standards and testing.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he said. ‘I like to know where everyone is, and the testing helps us get an angle on that.”

I let this pass. I was gathering information. And by the way, I know testing has a place. But I suspected my understanding of its function was different from his.

So I pushed a little deeper. “Given we all want kids to learn a certain body of knowledge and particular processes,” I asked, “do you think there should be a wide range of methods used, according to the teacher’s approach and the kid’s needs?”

“No,” he said, “I think we’re better off if everyone is using the same approach. I don’t like people experimenting.” He paused, then went on. “I want to know what my teachers are doing. Oh, I know…some of the older teachers grumble about this, but we’re all better off being on the same page. We ought to use the same methods throughout the school, throughout the district. The school is for instruction. Between a puppet show and a language lesson, we should have another language lesson.”

I looked at him as he drove.

Holy cow, I thought. This is my enemy!

He didn’t really look like my enemy – he didn’t have three heads or anything. But he was – or I was his nightmare.

Because I, of course, am the puppet show he would rather not have – foisted upon his fiefdom by a school district or PTO mom.. I’m a frill. In his mind, I have nothing to do with language development or test scores. My approach, global in nature (and by that I mean all encompassing, holistic, and not delineated into separate tasks), is that if people develop a love of language – of words, and story, and naming things in the world – they will want to develop the skills to help them interact with the world and understand themselves.

That is, by the way, the approach that has been used by the human race for most of its existence.

The use of story and music in a learning environment is about the structure of language and the world (something he wants to teach, I believe) AND the content of the story and song, and the feelings that arrive in their expression. I assume this principal would acknowledge that those things are nice, but they are not what we’re here for.

Kill the puppet. Teach the lesson. I hate puppicide.

No wonder I’ve come to view my work as a guerilla attack on some schools. I hope they tell my stories in class, and in the lunchroom when no one is watching. I hope someone sings my songs walking down the hall. I want to write a song good enough that even my nemesis finds himself singing it . I want to tell a story that makes him think about something that happened in his own life – or even better, in the lives of the people he touches.

I want to be outside the curriculum and inside his life.

This will be my final revenge.

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When you’re sitting in class, There’s a tickle in your nose
Then you let out a sneeze and it finally explodes
You look down at your hand, It’s all covered with that goo,
Don’t wipe it anywhere, You know what to do!

You gotta wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos).

I wrote this song several years ago for the Paul Cuffee School, and have just recorded it for the upcoming flu season. NPR’s All Things Considered played it on Monday with an accompanying story on the swine flu.

You can have it for free! Go here to listen and download.

We decided to not worry about money ( What, me worry?) and do what we could do to get the song out there before the H1N1 virus comes back with a vengeance. The Massachusetts Department of Health is distributing it to schools, and we’re happy to give permission to other schools, organizations and agencies if they wish to do so. Contact our office (michele@billharley.com) or call 508-336-9703.

And please spread the word to friends and families that we’re making this offer. If you need a physical CD for your local radio station let us know – our WONDERFUL CD duplicators, Oasis, have generously donated the manufacture of a number of CD’s for us to distribute.

It seems ridiculous to repeat this, but one of the greatest deterrents to the spread of communicable diseases is handwashing.
In order of importance (I know this now, since I seem to be involved with various Departments of Health!)
1) Get vaccinated
2) Cover your cough
3) Wash your hands
4) Stay home when you’re sick

If you need me to write you an excuse from work, let me know.

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Honoring Failure

A couple of years ago I was doing a show for a primary grade audience at an elementary school. After an introductory song, I took a good look at the audience, decided on a particular story and launched into the telling.

A minute and a half into the story, I realized I had miscalculated – it was the wrong story, it was not going to work, and it was long – another fifteen to eighteen minutes. It was going to be a tough slog. I pushed on for another minute – I could feel attention wavering.

Then I stopped.

The students were suddenly alert. This was not expected. The guy up there was just supposed to keep blabbing about something they didn’t care about. What was he doing?

I paused. Something was now clearly wrong. This was even more interesting.

I looked at the teachers, sitting in chairs on the side of the audience – even they were now paying attention – even the ones grading papers! I addressed the teachers.

“Have you ever spent a lot of time on a lesson plan, and realized as soon as you started it, it wasn’t going to work?”

A couple of teachers nodded. The kids were looking at their teachers. I went on.

“So, then you have two choices – you can just push right ahead and teach that lesson no matter what, or give up and try something else.”

I paused again. A few nods. Kids looking at me.

“I’m giving up,” I said. Then I said to the kids, “I don’t like that story. I’m telling another.”

The teachers laughed and applauded. They knew exactly how I felt, and were relieved to see me readjust. I started another story, a better one for that moment. The kids listened and liked it.

Messing up, admitting it, and adjusting is one of the great challenges of being human, and I wish it were easier to do. (Okay, the messing up part is surprisingly easy – it’s the whole process that presents difficulty). But when someone can admit failure and move on, it’s a blessing for everyone around them.

I was reminded of all of this when my friend and fellow storyteller, Syd Lieberman, told me about a recent school visit. The head of the school had challenged all the teachers to bring a story about a mistake they had made in the classroom to the next staff meeting. They sat around and told their stories, and there was a prize for the best story. The head of the school told a story, too. Syd said the feeling of community and support in the school was exceptional – unlike any he had ever seen.

What a great exercise.

I should note here that a story of failure is different from a war story, or what musicians call “gigs from hell”, in which everything happens to you. Those are fun to tell, and comforting, to a point. But this story, where people admit failings, is a different bird.

Two things happen when a trusted friend or respected colleague admits mistakes. First, there is a lesson more easily learned. When an accomplished teacher or craftsman of any kind shows where he went wrong, others learn quickly from that mistake. It’s always hard to learn from someone else’s errors, but you’re more likely to when someone you respect shows where they went wrong. That kind of mistake sticks in your mind.

Second, and most important, it has a leveling effect and helps others relax. “She’s just like me,” is a wonderful insight. When you realize that mistakes are part of the process, you’re much more likely to stretch for new approaches and make yourself vulnerable to the moment. People in positions of authority who can admit mistakes don’t have to hold up the façade of a role that doesn’t quite fit them. Real loss of authority comes when everyone can see the leader has made a mistake but won’t admit it.

My friend, Curtis Buchanan, chairmaker extraordinaire, told me of a class he was teaching in which he had forgotten to perform a basic function before the class – sharpening his chisels. He kept trying to perform one procedure and failing, with a dozen people watching. Then he realized the problem, stopped and showed his error. In the evaluations, one of the students said, “The most liberating thing about your class was to see you make a mistake and admit your error. It gave me permission to try things I wouldn’t have tried, for fear of failing.”

Failure? It’s a great thing. When you can admit it.

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Summer sunset - Joe's Pond, West Danville, VT

Summer sunset - Joe's Pond, West Danville, VT

Truth be told, I like summer best of all. Every season has its good points – we northerners defend the beauty and contrast of the other seasons, saying we would hate having it warm all year round, and I’m pretty sure we’re not just being defensive. I’d like to believe that, and choose to do so. But, regardless of my appreciation for spring, fall and winter, my compass is pointed towards June, July and August as the place I want to be.

It’s not that long a time, and early on in the season, part of me starts lamenting the days going by.

Last week at the storytelling workshop I held at Pendle Hill, one of the teachers said that summer was like a long weekend – June is Friday, July Saturday, and August Sunday. Everyone nodded – we all knew it was true. In June, you’re just happy it’s here, relieved to be free of the responsibility of the school or business cycle. July, like Saturday is the heart of it, and in August, as on Sunday, you’re already regretting the loss of the time off, looking ahead towards the things you have to get ready for the new week, or season.

So here we are in August. It’s finally hot – too hot to try and do too much – if you’re going for a bike ride, be done by eleven or wait until the late afternoon. I know it’s late summer, too, by the sounds – the crickets and cicadas are out in full force – in Pennsylvania last week,the locusts roared, their different pitched calls swirling around, shifting from one tree to another, like the curves of a sine wave, going in and out of phase, rising and falling. Lying in bed with the windows open, I felt like I was still eight years old.

It feels to me as if all the experiences I’ve had in summer are packed into one mythical summer – somehow, by magic, I was able to experience all those things in one short season – I hiked, biked, canoed, vacationed, watched the meteor showers, swam in lakes, rivers, and swimming pools, walked barefoot, drove across the country, read a dozen mysteries, had late dinners with friends, went to ball games – all in three months.

Summer isn’t a time, but a place.

Now, as summer winds down, I realize I haven’t done half of those things – summer has shrunk! But what I have done this summer gets thrown into the summer footlocker, adding to the mythical Summer, making every one to follow it seem even smaller and shorter.

There must be a word in some language – Yiddish, Portuguese, Swahili – for the longing for what you’re experiencing at the moment, knowing it won’t last. That’s what I feel like right now. Trying to hold on to this moment, this summer day, even as it’s slipping away.

Hmmm. I’m wondering about the wisdom of blog posts when I hear the clock ticking.

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One of my favorite books is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. In it, Hyde proposes that artists (and let’s use that term broadly) are forever going to be at odds with our culture because they live in a different kind of culture and economy. Hyde writes that today’s society is a commodity culture: I give you money, you give me something back, and we’re even – the relationship is complete.

Hyde says that artists really live in a gift-giving culture – someone gives a gift without worrying about being repaid. The gift he says “goes around the corner”. The belief of the participant in a gift-giving culture is that things will even out – they act on that faith. And their giving is a symbol of their health and wealth. When you give a gift it’s not immediately compensated – it would be crass to do so. If someone brought you a bottle of wine because they know you like red wine, you wouldn’t give them ten bucks so you’d be even. You let it be a gift.

When the gift is given, a relationship is established. It’s that web of relationships that marks a gift-giving culture. If all artists were worried about is whether they’d be compensated fairly, they’d never create anything, or they’d never let their art go out into the world. Most art isn’t compensated. And then they would dry up and stop creating. That does happen to artists who become bitter about the difficulties of being an artist.

Hyde’s book is an affirmation for those people who can’t help but create, even if their work isn’t compensated or appreciated.

But I’ve been thinking that the concept of a gift-giving culture also makes sense in a learning community – whether it’s a public school, or a university, or a night class, or a guitar lesson.

There’s a structure of finance, and numbers, and measuring in many learning environments (school budgets, testing, grade point average, blah blah blah), but the deeper structure is the relationships established. Teachers, wanting their students to learn, don’t measure their hours, or make a mark on some ledger every time they do something to make sure they get paid back. (That’s why “work to rule” in contract disagreements seem so distasteful to us – we inherently know that teachers aren’t just selling widgets and feel they shouldn’t care about money.) Students are eager to please the teacher- and for many of them, there’s no idea of the money behind education – what they see is the people offering their time and care.

The good learning places I go to are filled with evidence of their being gift-giving cultures. Children bring in cupcakes and teacher presents. They happily wipe the blackboards or write get-well cards to sick teachers or other students. Math teachers show up at piano recitals; English teachers give books from their own libraries to interested students. All teachers buy supplies for which they aren’t repaid. These are all gifts, given freely, without thought of compensation. There is no way we can untangle the web of relationships that form in a learning environment.

And so, teachers and learners are up against the same problems as artists – when someone wants to start measuring everything, there’s bound to be confusion. Teachers have to make a living, and so have to live some kind of divided life – most won’t make what they “deserve” because they’re participating in a gift-giving culture. And when the bean counters succeed in presenting themselves as the arbiters of good educational practice, the gift giving suffers.(Wow, that was a long way to get to the question of testing, but….)

Schools make a lot more sense to me when I look at them as gift-giving cultures, not as some model of corporations with hierarchical structure.

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