Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘education’

Last week, the Rhode Island Committee on the Humanities gave me their Lifetime Achievement Award. I was deeply honored to receive it, and it also really gave me pause – it wasn’t something I expected, and like many people, I have a healthily developed impostor syndrome which immediately made itself known to me. Receiving the award made me think about what I was doing and what the humanities are. Below is the short acceptance speech I gave.

There is an active discussion now about the place of the humanities in society. Stanley Fish wrote a blog piece for the NY Times just about that this past week – it touches on many parts of what I said.

Here’s my talk:

Thanks very much. Thanks to all of you for coming. I give my thanks to the Committee on the Humanities for this honor – to Mary Kim Arnold, to Shea’la, to SueEllen, to Mary Lee Partington and the members of the board.
And of course, my thanks, most of all to my wife and work partner, Debbie Block –my anchor and compass. What I present as an artist is really a shared vision of the way we would like the world to be – those of you who know me, know that it is just not me up here. Who knows what I would be doing without her – certainly not this.

I am still a little concerned about what to do after I get a lifetime achievement award. Now what? I didn’t know that I was finished, nor that I was even eligible. What I am left with is to continue my work and try and show I deserved it. When I look out on this room, I see many out there who are at least as or even more deserving of this recognition – many others have had a deep and lasting effect on the culture of Rhode Island.

Getting this award – totally unexpected, and really a joy – has led me to think about boundaries and borders. People who study systems know that it is at the edges – the borders and boundaries – that the most interesting things occur. A border or boundary is where there is the greatest expression of life. Who would know more about borders and boundaries than Rhode Islanders? The whole state is a border. In giving me this award, the Committee has shown a willingness to extend borders and boundaries in at least three ways.

First – most obviously, to me at least – in giving the award to someone from Massachusetts, they have reached beyond the border of the state. Thirty years ago, Debbie and I moved to the Providence area, and didn’t pay attention to political districts. We still don’t – my car can drive itself to Providence and does so almost every day. And as many of you know, the history of Seekonk, where I live, is a little murky – were we part of Rhode Island once? Was East Providence part of Seekonk? We ourselves are not quite sure where we live. I offer my appreciation for your seeing beyond that political border.

Second – you have crossed the border and reached into the arts. I call myself an artist, although that is a name someone else gives – Martha Graham noted that it’s not our job to worry about whether we’re creating art, it’s our job to do our craft as well as we can and let someone else decide. I have never been able to distinguish my art from my vision of the way I think the world might be if we were to listen and act with greater intention and care. Much of my work is about the great question of how do free individuals live in community with each other. What underlies all of my work is the search for what we hold in common. As an artist, and a student of the humanities, it’s my job to try and make my audience look at the world in a different way. I am quite glad to use whatever tools I have to do that; story works for me, and so does song , but I see no real, solid boundary between the arts and the humanities. Apparently, the Committee is willing to cross that border, too.

Third- the Committee has willingly crossed the border from the adult world to reach into the world of childhood, where I have most firmly placed my work. I was early on influenced by Gandhi and King, and have had it in mind to give my voice to the voiceless. Children and their caretakers are my constituents. Many of you here know that people who choose to work with children often have their work devalued by those who think adult work is more important and of more substance. I, too am often challenged by the choice I have made, and can, in weaker moments, devalue it myself. By giving me this award, all of you here recognize that what happens to a child determines what happens to the world. I thank you for that.

Being given this award has caused me to think a lot about the humanities. It brings me to near speechlessness – (near!)– that the humanities today seem endangered – even elements in higher education perceive the humanities as having a dwindling importance .
It’s not surprising this has happened, I guess – especially as I look at the debate in education. In the movement to measure learning through more and more testing I see a parallel discussion – the tendency to value technical knowledge and “hard” facts over a kind of knowledge more difficult, in fact, sometimes impossible, to quantify.

But for all their “squishiness”, their inability to provide hard data, the humanities – arts and letters, the history of our time here on earth, the strivings and failings of humans – is the proper locus for the study of questions that are increasingly crucial to our life on this planet. They are questions that are hard, perhaps impossible, to answer definitively. As a storyteller, I understand that we are, in the end, contextual beings, creatures of time – our acts, our thoughts, our dreams, bear no meaning without what came before, and what they imply for the world that will follow – this is what we, as humans, as storytellers, do – we live in a context, and make sense of the world through our narrative, the telling of our stories. It is the job of the humanities to listen to these stories and to ask the questions that, as Rilke said, “have no answers”.
Questions like:
“What is the value of a human life?”
“What does it mean to live in community?”
“What is beautiful and elegant and why?”
“What is required of us?”
“What is, what should be, what might be, our relationship with the rest of life on this planet?
And of course, in the end, there is the question of how we should live our lives, and what does it mean to live a good life.
These are questions that must be asked every day. This is our calling – this is our charge – this is what those of us who live in the world of the humanities, should strive to do.
We are better when we ask these questions, and when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we know and who we are to make the circle bigger.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with Phillip and Phyllis Morrison in their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillip Morrison was a Nobel Prize Physicist, at the center of the development of the atomic bomb. He gave the countdown at Los Alamos – an act, he told me, he had spent the rest of his life trying to make up for. He was completely delightful, quite clearly upon my first meeting with him a genius – a man of unending curiosity, who took delight in the workings of the world. At one point in the time we spent with each other, I proposed that the very nature of our understanding of time was changing and we were changing with it, as we divided it further and further, as things seemingly went faster and faster. I thought, in fact a scientist would understand and agree with me. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Our measure of time will always have to do with seconds. A second is how we measure our lives, because a second is one beat of the human heart. That’s the prism through which we look at the world. Always.”
Time in the end, will always be human for us. And the study of it will be our work – the study of the beating of the human heart.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Read Full Post »


I’ve been spending time lately looking at an amazing book my dad gave me, The Deep by Claire Nouvian, a photo essay about the creatures that live down there where no one goes (except, maybe and unfortunately, certain oil companies). The pictures, like the one above, are astounding, and Nouvian makes clear that we have only scratched the surface of the type of live that exists in that world. One can’t look at those pictures without thinking several things.

First, are there not certain similarities between the things deep underwater and those deep in space?


Second, it seems to me that Nature (with a capital “N”?) is really willing to try anything. A creature with seven eyes – let’s see. One lung? A mom who carries her unborn babies in her mouth? (Some frogs). Many of these experiments don’t work, or don’t work for long. (Hmmm – humans?) The restrictions on what kind of life is actually supportable for any length of time condemn many of them very quickly, but nature (small “n”?) seems to be shrugging its shoulders, unperturbed by its many failures and then saying, “Okay, what about this?”, and coming up with something even more bizarre. Every once in a while, one of them works – for a while.

In short, humans spend a lot of time asking “Why?” and the universe seems happy to ask “Why not?”

Good science begins in wonder. So does a good life, I think. So along with asking why, it’s a good idea just to walk around with your mouth open at the millions of bizarre things the universe offers up.

Read Full Post »

If I were to design a test for the effectiveness of schools (and I won’t), one of the questions that everyone (teachers, students, administrators, staff) would have to answer would be, “How many people can you name?”. The more people everyone can name, the better the school.

Faceless and nameless doesn’t work in a learning environment, and when you read about the consolidation of schools to save money, you know it’s going the wrong way. The more people, the fewer of them you really know. When you know the people around you, and you feel part of a community, you care more about what happens.

There’s an editorial in the New York Times yesterday talking about the success of small schools in NYC. When large high schools were broken up to smaller theme-based schools, student performance went up (and not by some shaky test measurement, but by attendance and graduation rates).

Of course, this makes me think, “Well, duh”. It’s so obvious we shouldn’t have to say it. But it needs to be said. You can put all of this under the heading of “Things we know, but don’t pay attention to”.

Read Full Post »


I got an e-mail from a friend that she is losing her position as school librarian – as a matter of fact, all the elementary school librarians in her district are losing their jobs. While the idiocy of this move astounds me, it really made me think of something else that happened to me a couple of months ago. What happened goes part of the way towards explaining why schools don’t have librarians.

I found myself sitting at a gate at Midway Airport in Chicago, waiting for the plane to board to Providence. Next to me was an older couple – I’m guessing late sixties. I struck up a conversation and asked if they were headed home.

No, said the man, they were just going to visit relatives. They used to live in the Rhode Island area.

“Where do you live now?” I asked

“South Dakota”, he answered.

“Wow,” I said. “South Dakota. How long have you lived there?”

“Three years,” he answered.

“You must have moved for family,” I guessed.

“No,” he harrumphed. “No family there.”

“Oh, “ I said, a little perplexed. “Why’d you move there? Work?”

“No, we retired there,” he said.

“Retired to South Dakota. Why?” I asked. No slam on South Dakota. I’ve been there a number of times and liked it, but it’s not your typical retirement spot.

“No taxes,” he said.

“You moved so you wouldn’t have to pay taxes?”

“Nothing compared to what we had to pay where we were. We were sick of paying taxes.”

His wife nodded. “We did the research and found the place where we would have to pay the least taxes. We live in the cheapest place in the country.”

“Do you still have family in Rhode Island?” I asked. I was trying to reorient to the whole notion of moving away from your home and community because you didn’t like the tax structure.

“We go to see her family,” the man nodded at his wife. “I don’t care if I go back.”

“You must live in a nice town, and made some friends,” I said.

“No,” the man said, “It’s a real small town – only a thousand. And we live outside of town and don’t really know anybody.”

“Do you see anybody?” I asked. This was all sounding kind of desperate. If they were in the federal witness protection program, I could understand it, but…

“Well,” the man said, “we brought her mother out with us. She’s ninety and lives in a nursing home about ten miles away.”

I was really trying to find something encouraging to say but it sounded like a nightmare to me. I was wondering how excited his mother-in-law was about leaving her family and home behind to move to South Dakota and live by herself in a nursing home. “That’s quite a change,” I said.

“We got a good sized house and we don’t have to pay property taxes. We don’t pay any taxes,” he said. She nodded.

“Oh,” I said.

“No taxes,” he said definitively. She nodded. They were both quite proud of the fact they had pulled this off.

I thanked them for their conversation, then got up and moved.

I suppose it is fine to try to pay less taxes, or at least not pay more than you have to. And I don’t want government to be wasteful (in my case, a few less bombers would be fine, thank you). And there may be more to their story than I was told – I know that people are strapped by the economy. But with that said, this attitude mystifies me. It seems that the refusal to pay taxes, and the decision to abandon a lifetime of community to avoid paying taxes, is put forth as a virtue. I didn’t get the impression that these folks absolutely couldn’t, but that they felt they shouldn’t have to pay taxes and they didn’t want to. The decision to balance government budgets by cutting programs because we won’t pay taxes is laid out in terms of acting responsibly. In my own town meeting I’ve heard it couched in terms of not passing a debt onto our children.

From another perspective though (and that would be mine), it just seems selfish. There is another debt we’re passing on when we don’t want to pay taxes anymore. As a result of our refusal to pay our share, and to show concern for others in our community, we cut the librarians, and let go of teachers. We do this under the guise of responsibility, but that’s not what it looks like to me. Libraries don’t really work without librarians. Schools don’t really work without libraries. Kids don’t learn well with thirty students in a class. And civilizations don’t really work without educated people.

Even in South Dakota.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Jeesh.

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 168 other followers