Posts Tagged ‘education’

I did a school show the other day at 2 pm. There were about two hundred kids sitting in the school auditorium No one died, but it was a dead crowd. Teachers and kids came up afterward and told me that they liked it, but you woudn’t have known it during the show. Most of them sat there, semi-comatose. Great periods of silence. Quite the contrast to the show I had done in the morning. That morning, it seemed I could do no wrong. What was wrong with my show in the afternoon?

I don’t think it was me.

If you’ve been performing for a while, you know a dead room almost immediately – three minutes into the performance, you’re pulling out all your tricks, every thing you’ve learned to get some kind of reaction, but they sit there, deep in their seats, and they ain’t moving for you. It’s just something to get through, and you accept it. It’s not always about me – it’s just where they are.

That show was a dead room. And the truth is, most school shows in the afternoon are much more difficult than the ones in the morning. The teachers don’t react. It’s harder to get the kids to participate. Their attention wanders. Everyone is tired. You can see it in their eyes and in the way they sit.

Generally, I try to avoid doing afternoon shows.

All this has me thinking about the move towards having longer school days. I would like to know whose bright idea this is. Who thinks that kids can learn more than a certain amount in any given day? Who thinks that extending the day will raise the almighty test scores?

Ask any teacher when they teach math and reading. Not at 2:30 in the afternoon, that’s for sure. It’s too late, at that point. As my memory serves me, that was when the health teacher taught us how to brush our teeth – a lesson I was taught every year, and a lesson I still haven’t learned, according to Peggy, my dental hygienist.

More instruction is not the answer to greater learning. It’s a simple answer, and easily instituted (ah, then, perhaps the politicians…), but not an intelligent one. The proof to this is the kids I meet who are taught well at home in a home schooling situation (and not all home schooling situations fit this description). Academics can be handled in a couple of hours, when the kids is alert and attentive. Another class at 2:45 is not going to solve the problems faced by the American educational system.

This observation is so transparent it boggles my mind that there’s any discussion about it. Who does anything well at 2 pm in the afternoon? A good time for a kickball game, I think. Or for doing something with your hands.

There are two arguments for a longer school day – one sad, and one logical, but not really about education. The first is that instituting a longer school day frees adults from having to deal with children for another hour or so. This is the argument for school as warehouses or holding bins – not a particularly positive aspect of education. The other, with more merit, is that for many kids, especially in urban areas, the late afternoon hours are fraught with danger – it’s when kids are most at risk for bad things happening. But this is not really an argument for more instruction, but instead an argument for a safe place for them to be.

Other than that, I don’t know why anyone thinks more hours of school is a good idea.

I sure don’t.

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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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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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Enjoying the delightful anarchy of children (as long as it’s not at my expense)

I had just finished a school show. Before I could turn off the microphones, a slightly officious administrator had taken the stage (I use that term loosely – there was no stage, it was the gym floor)

“Students!” she said in a voice that immediately quieted the audience. “I have an important announcement that you need to hear.”

Amazing how adults have that voice – I mean, this was really important! Kids can tell when an adult really has something to say.

“Starting today, we will have only two playground monitors on the playground at recess. Fourth graders, this means that you must stay on the nearside of the playground. No one may go past the gym door.”

No sooner had those words gotten out of her mouth than hands shot up. Just in case you didn’t think anyone was paying attention. Who knows the geography of the playground better than a fourth grader? Who can divine the ramifications of policy based on budget restraints better than an eight year old? She was trying to sneak something by them, and they knew it.

She held her hand up to stop the questions – she wasn’t done with the outline of the policy.

“You must go directly from the lunchroom to the playground. No students are allowed in the hall between lunch and recess. You will go directly to recess from lunch.”

She paused to catch her breath. Bad idea. Now there was a sea of hands up. Even if you have authority, that many hands up is hard to ignore – it’s enough to give even Dick Cheney pause. Well, okay, maybe not Dick, but…

“What about our coats?” a kid asked. “What if we need coats?” Everyone nodded as if they were all concerned about their coats. It was probably the first time they were worried about wearing their coats, but ignore that.

“Bring your coats to the cafeteria,” she answered. This was an improvised answer, and everyone knew it.

Uh oh.

There was a slight stir in the crowd as the students imagined this process. Perplexed looks passed over the faces of the teachers, but the dogged administrator was still in charge.

“You will have to plan ahead,” she said.

Hmm. Good idea, I thought.

If she were going to maintain order and have any chance of her new policy surviving, she should have stopped the discussion right then, but she genuinely wanted to make this work. She made the mistake of calling on someone else.

Children smell the spawning of anarchy and are happy to aid in its growth. Another dozen hands went up. It looked like open season on the vice-principal, and the collective fourth grade mind was beginning to work with wild abandon.

“What about our lunch boxes?” a girl asked.

“What lunch boxes? What do you mean?” she answered, trying not be annoyed.

“What do we do with our lunchboxes after lunch?”

“Bring them to the playground.”

The students looked at each other.

“Can we bring them back to the room?” someone shouted.

“No – because there will be no students in the hallway. We can’t have any students in the hall because they won’t be supervised.”

More hands. She didn’t want to call on anyone.

“What if we have to go to the bathroom?” someone asked anyway.

The entire mass of humanity nodded as one. Now, the chaos was self-organizing. What if you had to go the bathroom? What then? Every teacher knows that the bathroom question is a student’s first method of sabotaging the system.

“Go before you go to lunch. You will have to think ahead.”

There was one boy in the front who had his hand up through this entire interaction – ever since the beginning. He held his right hand up straight and high. He would not be denied. She wanted to dismiss them, but he was so insistent – staring at her. Just waiting.

She pointed at him.

“Can we play basketball?”

It was silent. They all awaited her response. It was like walking into a trap in a chess game, and she knew it. Basketball had, to this point, been a God-given right of fourth graders at recess.

“You need to stay on this side of the gym door.” An evasive answer, as if they couldn’t extrapolate the consequences.

“The basketball court is on the other side!” someone shouted.

I was reminded of the townspeople in Frankenstein. I wondered how fast she could run.

“For the time being, you’ll have to do without basketball.”

There were gasps.

“We’ll get some courts up,” she offered. Sure, I thought. And so did they.

Now there was a sea of hands up. Teachers waded out into the mass of students, trying to reassert control at the local level. I shook my head.

Bathrooms, coats, lunch boxes, basketball courts. Who would have know that a simple budget cut could lead to this result? Who would have guessed that two hundred elementary school students could see the holes in a hastily-applied plan and the mayhem it would engender?

The poor woman.

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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