Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Day Misspent

I like thinking of this Friday as a day misspent. It was misspent wonderfully. Nearly everything that normally characterizes a weekday didn't characterize Friday. With my band I performed in Hershey at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association conference in Hershey.

I didn't teach. In fact, I spent most of the day quiet, devouring a good book rather than doing a lot of talking. Given my job and role as a father of two rather talkative kids, that made for a very different way to spend a day. That I was reading fiction so much was even a departure: usually it's news that I'm devouring.

Rather than drive myself out to Hershey, I rode with fellow members of the band on a coach bus. I spend enough time alone driving.

I spent a day as an amateur in the midst of professionals. The PMEA conference is geared toward musicians who make a life out of music: teaching, performing, composing, selling and repairing instruments. I didn't have nearly the talent to truly peruse the B.A.C. wares (but I was probably good for the PBone exhibit from Zeswitz).

I spent the day doing something more economic than normal (car pooling) but also something fairly uneconomic (playing an unpaid gig with a not-for-profit ensemble).

Winter is long. March seems even longer. It's a time of year filled with routine for me, and the routine can be grueling relative to other parts of the year (or at least as grueling as it can be in affluent suburban public education). It was wonderful to simply break from that routine for a day. I'm ready now for April.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Educational Turning Point Moments

This has been a winter of transition for me in teaching. By my accounting, it's the third such transition in my career. It seems that every five or six years, I encounter a new perspective that prompts me to not just question my approach but to dramatically and quickly change it.

In 2004, the change came as the result of a workshop led by Joseph Ginotti, a University of Pennsylvania professor who exposed me to the idea of Focus Correction Areas in the assessment of student work. It was a liberating notion, and it led to an overnight change in how I assessed student writing. I wish I had more ability to work with the Penn Literacy Network.

Around 2010 my district hired Kelly Gallagher to visit Central Bucks, and he energized me to re-consider the purpose of teaching news in the classroom. He made it clear that talking current events wasn't a waste of time, but instead a crucial piece of helping students master your content.

And then this winter a friend introduced me to the concept of anchor assignments, which I'm an earnest novice in using in my classroom. But the suggestion came just at the time that I was hitting a ceiling of effectiveness. As the fall semester of 2013-14 was ending, it was becoming more obvious that I was talking too much, and that if I talked less and listened more I might just teach more stuff.

It's been a bit interesting to watch the culture shift in my classroom. Perhaps the neatest change I'm seeing is in what my students are starting to do when they feel like they're temporarily done with a particular task or activity. I'm seeing more initiative on their part. I'm also seeing how tough it is to transform a culture in which the kids really do come to class expecting "the show" and how they are resistant when the aren't getting the 60-minute-long lecture occasionally punctuated by the off-topic sidebars that, frankly, kids enjoy.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Where Do I Begin with Ukraine?

The news recently has been filled with news stories that make a great case for the relevance of my job. Certainly a lot of teachable moments. And I've found myself drawn to the news, ingesting as much as I can about the events in Ukraine. To say the least, it's unsettling.

Russia's conquest of the Crimea was shadowy and completed so swiftly that Ukraine didn't know what hit them. I guess Russia has made clear to the people of Ukraine what price there would be for alignment with the West: it'll cost them Crimea. The only thing that's unclear is whether or not Crimea is the whole sum or just a down payment on the eastern half of the country.

This sad American has a few perspectives to offer:

1) We, the United States, probably lack the means and resolve to actually engage in armed combat in this episode. That fact leaves me ambivalent. The patriot in my cringes that we seem toothless in the face of aggression. The objective observer in me realizes that the cost to the U.S. of intervening at this point in time is too high for what we would likely gain. Tom Friedman (from the New York Times) offered a helpful perspective, however, in an op-ed penned earlier this week. Friedman claims that there are two models of nation-building: nations that try to elevate the individual vs. those that seek to elevate the state. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea exemplify the latter. We exemplify the former. One can hope that, over the long run, we can make the emphatic point that the statist model is anachronistic in a changing world. Sadly, millions upon millions will languish through decades of a degraded life in a corrupt quasi-Soviet environment until government triumphing the individual proves itself. However . . .

2) . . . I'm finding myself angrier at the intransigence of politicians in our nation's capital for engaging in the grid-locked, short-term, stunted thinking when it comes to our nation's problems. If we're to show the people of Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran, etc. that a way of life triumphing and elevating the individual then let's make some progress on the dilemmas of democracy. Compromise, dammit, on immigration, the minimum wage, and entitlement reform. The slavish obedience of Democrats and Republicans to their bases isn't much better than the kleptocrats' dependence on their oligarchical heads of business in Ukraine and Russia. Futher, it's preventing us from enjoying the kind of prosperity that will defy any veneer of respectability the Putins of the world can erect.

3) The United States and the West lost Crimea for Ukraine years ago. We've been hasty to beat a retreat from Afghanistan. We couldn't wait to extract ourselves from Iraq. We were wishy-washy on Syria. This president and his peers in Western Europe have proceeded with timidity and naivete in many, many episodes since the middle of the last decade.

4) I heard that President Obama was on the phone with President Putin for an hour and a half earlier this week. I'm trying to imagine what Putin was insisting on that could've kept the conversation going that long. And I've tried to force myself to understand his world view. It's funny, we in the U.S. felt some measure of pride and relief in bringing El Chapo to justice in Mexico. However, might not Putin view our logistical and surveillance support of the Mexican Marines in that operation as an example of imperialistic meddling? And isn't the U.S. a smug little power, what with two borders defined by two vast oceans, another shared with a vastly poorer state, and the fourth shared by the world's greatest, kindest neighbor, Canada? Russia's whole existence is defined by ill-defined frontiers. To the east is the vastness of Siberia. To the south is what the Bush administration called the Arc of Instability. To the west is a set of borders as fluid as any others in the western world: Russia shares borders with five states that didn't even exist twenty-five years ago, and it was through the lands of those states that Russia was invaded twice in the last century. Putin's is a world view carved from insecurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty that is generations in the making.

Now it's time for me to pray that our leaders in Washington will consider ways to set the long-run so it's less likely the Putins of the world will see opportunity where we see promise. Have we made mistakes in the last ten or fifteen years that laid the seeds for Ukraine's tragedy? Yes. It's easy to blame our policymakers, but we live in a republic. Power stems from the people, not from the kleptocrats. I hope we can give more thought to the messages we send about what matters to our policymakers, so it's likely we can be an anchor for the next Ukraine rather than just a vague, distant dream.