I was doing better with my resolution to write more this year… and then life caught up with me. The last few months have been a whirlwind of job searching, soul searching, house hunting, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in. Now, as the dust begins to settle, I find myself wanting to get back to writing (and teaching).

As I alluded to in my last post, I’ve been in the midst of a career move, leaving the small boarding school in rural eastern Virginia where I spent the past three years in favor of a considerably larger day school in Tampa, Florida. My wife and I decided last winter that it was time for a change, but I don’t think either of us could have predicted the way things shook out. (Florida, for instance, was not even on our radar when I started my job search. Life is funny sometimes.)

The school we left behind was a lovely little community in many respects. We made some good friends, folks we’ll probably stay in touch with for a long time, but the career opportunities for my wife were sparse, and while she did manage to find meaningful work, few of her colleagues were in the same age bracket/life stage. Owing to the “triple threat” nature of boarding schools, I was usually busy, even on the weekends, and she felt particularly isolated.

Finally, last year I had been offered an administrative role at the school. I was initially very excited about the opportunity, but as the year progressed, I found myself missing the classroom. I taught one section of a class which met 2-3 times per week, and there were plenty of times when that was the highlight of the day. It got me out of my office, interacting with kids, thinking and talking about ideas, and I came to realize that this is the part of the job I love the most. I also felt like I had a lot more work to do to hone my craft as a teacher, and I wasn’t able to do it in that setting or especially in that role. I may very well return to school leadership someday—there are challenges in that realm which intrigue me—but at this point in my career, I don’t feel the need. (That said, I did learn a lot this past year, which I expect will serve me well if/when I do rejoin the administrative ranks. Perhaps that will become a future post.) Along with a few other factors which I won’t get into here, these things set the stage for a move, so I set out in search of a new teaching position.

My experience of the job market was very different this time around than last, when I talked to what felt like 50 different schools and went on (I think) eight campus interviews. This time, the search was more focused from the very beginning. I was invited for a campus interview here in Tampa, and my wife and I spent a weekend here prior to that (neither of us had ever been here before). We really liked what we saw. Tampa felt like the right size—not huge, but with plenty to do. There were different areas of the city, each with their own unique feel. We got some great restaurant recommendations, visited a local brewery, and went for a run along the Hillsborough River, where we saw dolphins breaching the surface. (Of course, it helped that the weather was fantastic. Only a couple of days before, I had been wearing fleece long underwear on the baseball field in Virginia, while in Tampa I wore shorts and a t-shirt.)

In terms of the school itself, I was impressed. There seemed to be a strong intellectual culture among the faculty, along with significant support for professional development. Students appeared bright and engaged, and the history department’s approach meshed well with my own. As we left Tampa, I was excited about the possibilities and hoped I would get an offer. About a week later, it did.

At that point, everything “got real,” and the decision was much harder than I expected it would be. Even with its downsides, the setting in Virginia was beautiful—right on the Rappahannock River near its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. Crossing the river on the nearby bridge, especially at sunset, could be truly breathtaking. The leadership at my school had been good to me, rewarding me with new responsibilities each year, and it seemed as if I was on an upward career trajectory. And perhaps most importantly, we were close to our families—about 90 minutes away. Even though we didn’t see them nearly as often as we would have liked (boarding school life…), knowingly putting 12 hours of driving distance between us suddenly became tough to justify. After much soul-searching, it was my wife who clarified things for me. She had initially been skeptical when I told her I was thinking of applying for the job in Tampa, but she warmed to the idea, and after listening to me hem and haw for a few days, she finally said, “Matt, this is a good opportunity. You should take it.”

The saga of our house-hunting adventure could easily fill many more paragraphs, but in the end, we bought a small house in a neighborhood that we love. We’re within walking distance of a great park along the river. After several years of having to drive 45 minutes to a good restaurant, we’re now within walking distance of several. And I didn’t realize it before I took the job, but Tampa Bay actually has a phenomenal craft beer scene, with several breweries a stone’s throw from us. We have a sunny backyard where we hope to finally be able to do some gardening, and I’ve made it to my new school in 7 minutes, though I think I may try biking to work when the weather cooperates. All in all, we’re excited about our new situation, and after several weeks of settling in (and countless trips to Home Depot), I’m finally in a place where I can enjoy what’s left of summer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (another future post?) and am beginning to plan for the coming school year. While I can’t honestly say I’m not quite ready to give up the summer schedule, I am starting to feel the itch to get back into the classroom. It’s a good feeling.

Note: This post is an attempt to hash through an experience I had alongside my students earlier this semester. I’m attempting to make sense of some big ideas for myself, and I find that I think better through writing, so here goes. What follows may or may not come out in a clear, coherent form. (It should also be noted that this piece was written in dribs and drabs over a period of almost two months.)

I teach in a school that has an ambitious vision for education, which is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. While many schools talk of an “integrated curriculum” or “place-based education,” this place comes the closest I’ve seen to backing that up, with scaffolded themes and essential questions for each grade level (progressing from a local emphasis in the 9th grade to a global emphasis in the 12th). Each grade level also has a unique three-day “immersion trip” designed to bring these themes to life in an experiential way. Also incorporated throughout the curriculum is a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, though the degree of incorporation varies by teacher.

triple-bottom-line

For a sense of what this looks like in practice, I served on the 9th grade team for my first two years here, so I spent some time paddling a canoe around one of the most ecologically significant ecosystems in the entire Chesapeake Bay region, visiting one of the earliest and largest tobacco plantations in the area, talking with an elder of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, and thinking about the ways in which the Rappahannock River watershed might impact culture and economy (both historically and in the 21st century).

This year, I served on the 12th grade team, so the focus was much broader. In theory, our students are prepared by the 12th grade to address complex questions on a more abstract level, and so in early April, we spent a long weekend in the DC area, exploring questions of global significance. (Because I recently accepted a position at another school, this was also my last immersion trip, so it was very bittersweet for me personally—but what a privilege to be able to witness the entire progression of the program from 9th grade to 12th grade before I leave!)

The trip spanned Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, and we spent the first day hiking along the Potomac River in Great Falls Park and in Old Town Alexandria. The hike was a bit more strenuous than I expected—a lot of rock scrambling which tested my balance and ankle strength—but the views of the river were worth it. I had heard of Great Falls but never imagined that there was something of such impressive natural beauty and power in such close proximity to the nation’s capital. And that was the point. The trip was designed to take students—and first-time faculty, like me—from a place of relatively unspoiled natural wonder (unspoiled to the naked eye, at least) just a few miles into the city to demonstrate just how much our “built environment” affects the natural environment. After dinner and some time for exploration in Old Town, we ended up along the banks of the Potomac just downriver from its confluence with the Anacostia—a heavily-polluted and long-neglected waterway. We were also about two miles due south of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, almost in a direct line with its north-south runways, which meant that there was a constant flow of planes overhead. I marked them at about one every 90 seconds. Except for the noise, it was hard to imagine a better setting in which to talk about global development and the triple bottom line. Not only was it literal the confluence of two rivers, it was the figurative confluence of people, environment, and economics—all very tangible for students in that moment.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the headquarters of the National Geographic Society and its well-known magazine, where we visited with Robert Kunzig, Senior Environmental Editor. kunzig_port2_tnKunzig gave a brief presentation on climate change and the challenges we face, and I was pleased to learn that he is basically optimistic about our prospects. Without downplaying the reality of climate change at all, he acknowledged that there is a lot of scary, out-of-context information out there, and that meaningful improvement is within our reach… if we act. He offered a quote from E.L. Doctorow, which I found quite poignant: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Doctorow, of course, was referring to the process of writing a novel, but Kunzig applied the same principle to reversing climate change: We can’t necessarily see the destination right now, and we certainly can’t reverse climate change in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can get there.
The best part of the visit, however, was not Kunzig’s presentation; it was the Q&A that followed. The big question of the weekend for me—the question that kept playing in my head, as if on a loop—was “Where does culture fit into the ‘triple bottom line’?” If you’re familiar with the concept, you know that “triple bottom line” companies seek to achieve sustainability, which is defined not strictly as environmental protection, but as a balance of environment, equity, and economy (e.g., profit). But what about culture? Perhaps it fits into the equity (people) category, but that doesn’t feel quite right, as my understanding of equity is structured more around issues of fairness, etc. A company which seeks to profit but do so equitably may nevertheless destroy or change a culture in the process.

Nevertheless, this question of culture arose in my mind on the first night of the trip as we discussed the sustainability of Old Town Alexandria, and affluent community with many historic row houses and other buildings. In a discussion with students about urban planning, I suggested that the preservation of older buildings was one element of sustainability; by not tearing down old buildings to construct new, modern ones, fewer resources were consumed. One student rightly countered, though, that many of those old buildings leak energy, which led to a broader conversation about the “energy cost” of tearing down a building, removing the old materials, the environmental cost of disposing of them, etc. It was a good conversation, and the students were doing their best to consider the different elements of the “triple bottom line,” but I was struck by how quickly the conversation became about economics and ecology. For all of its flaws, one of the things I appreciate about Old Town Alexandria is its charming historical character, and this was barely a consideration.

ngm_november_2015_cvr
The question really came to life for me later that same night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the floor of the church where we were staying. Preparing for our meeting with Mr. Kunzig the following day, I read his article, “Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future” (in National Geographic’s recent “Cool It.” issue).  In it, he connects Germany’s environmentalism to its culture:

The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.

As I read that, I began to think more about American culture. One “grand narrative” of American history involves manifest destiny: “Go west, young man.” Strike out for the frontier. Conquer the land. Bend nature to your will. Having grown up with this narrative likely gives us Americans a very different perspective on the environment. (I recognize that I’m oversimplifying here, but I do think the principle holds.)

During our conversation with Kunzig the following day, a student asked a question about climate change deniers, and Kunzig (who was surprisingly even-handed throughout) came the closest I saw to being dismissive. He basically said that those who deny the science of climate change aren’t worth wasting our time our breath on. While he was talking, though, it hit me: Why not use culture to “sell” action on climate change? It seems to me that many of the people who deny the science are the same ones who might actually be persuaded by a a more visceral cultural argument in favor of environmental sustainability. (Kunzig pointed out that there is a small evangelical movement focused on climate issues, and in response to a student question about the viability of living off the grid, he posited that he could see a rancher in Wyoming choosing to do so because he wanted to be “independent.”)

Yes!, I thought, when he said this. A rancher in Wyoming who installs wind turbines, solar panels, and a cistern for harvesting rainwater? This is rugged individualism. This is bending nature to your will for the 21st century. Of course, when thinking about the triple bottom line, we need to take into account the upfront costs of these technologies: what is the break-even point for recouping one’s investment? And, as the residents of Cape Cod could tell you, wind turbines may affect my neighbor’s business, property values, or  quality of life, so there are equity issues to consider as well. But culture has a role to play, too.

The triple bottom line model—useful though it is—is insufficient to address this. Perhaps it’s time to explore a quadruple bottom line.

qbl_well-being_diagram_28ver429

About a month ago, I saw a number of people in my news feed sharing an article called “Horizontal History” from the website Wait But Why. I wasn’t familiar with the site before, but it seemed interesting, so I saved it in my Instapaper queue. I finally got around to reading it this week, and it’s worth a read. Fair warning: the language is a bit coarse at times, but the ideas are nevertheless worth considering. I was particularly struck by the following passage.

The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.

That’s a pretty good explanation of why we must teach students to think historically. It also explains why history, as it should be taught, is far more complex than names and dates. Like Whitman, real history is large. It contains multitudes.

Earlier this month, Valerie Strauss, in her Washington Post blog “Answer Sheet,” published a guest post by Steve Neumann entitled “Why kids—now more than ever—need to learn philosophy. Yes, philosophy.” Neumann, to his credit, recognizes the seeming absurdity of his claim, opening his manifesto by acknowledging that “The idea that schoolchildren should become philosophers will be scoffed at by school boards, teachers, parents, and philosophers alike.” But Neumann is not arguing for esoterica; his is a call for a more usable philosophy. As he writes, The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called ‘embryonic society.’”

Laughable though it may appear, in today’s hyper-partisan society, Neumann’s call is spot on. In particular, Neumann takes issue with political polarization and the “state of discourse” in our current political culture—an issue that shapes my own educational philosophy. Neumann states, “I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.” He quotes Frederick Douglass in support of this: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Central to Neumann’s article are the concepts of inquiry and dialogue—hallmarks, to my mind, of any good classroom.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:”

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

Neumann argues for a constructivist classroom, or as he describes it, “a kind of philosophical apprenticeship where they learn by doing.” Although his focus is explicitly on philosophy, I think the idea holds for history as well. As he writes, “The teacher’s job is to guide and inform student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.” That’s exactly what I try to do in my own classroom. I even wrote an article about this a few years ago.

As I read the news about Antonin Scalia’s death and the partisan rancor that swirls around his potential replacement, I can’t help but think of the opportunity that exists for those teachers brave enough to wade into the controversy. What a wonderful opportunity this offers to help students ask important and relevant questions, and then converse about it. In an ideal setting, the classroom would contain a spectrum of opinions which led to strenuous—though civil—conversation.

We have an opportunity to help our students become philosophers or historians or whatever they want to be, but we have an obligation to help them become citizens worthy of the name. Neumann is right: the younger generation has the capacity to create a better, more civil politics, but they won’t do it unless we help them. Left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they will be socialized by the likes of Donald Trump and Michael Moore, and they will be trapped by our broken status. We, the Teachers, must help them become philosophers (in the sense that Neumann describes) so that they might envision a better way.

This is a great article and should be read by all teachers, but especially history/humanities teachers.

On Monday, I came across this article on The Atlantic website: “A Better Way to Teach History.” It should be required reading for all history teachers. The author describes an undergraduate class at Harvard taught by Professor David Moss, who does most of his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The article was a revelation. As someone who is committed to a more constructivist classroom, I am always looking for tools and techniques to add to my toolbox. The Harkness method forms the cornerstone of my pedagogical approach, but students (and I!) sometimes need a change of pace. The case study approach looks like a wonderful way to bring the concept of contingency alive for students–to illustrate the present is profoundly shaped by each decision made in the past. By extension, the decisions we make in the present will shape the future.

Along those lines, the case study method offers a way to engage students in the learning process and also, as the article states, “help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making.” This is very much in keeping with my vision of history education as a key to civic preparation.

Last fall, I discovered the National History Center‘s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which has the potential to do much the same thing: illustrate for students for students how the study of the past can, in fact, have relevance in the present and influence the future in important ways.

I recently finished reading Education and Democracy in the 21st Century, a slim but provocative book from Nel Noddings, Professor Emerita at Stanford. She packs a lot of punch into 157 pages.

Noddings clearly leans progressive, both in terms of her educational philosophy and her politics, but she is even-handed. While some of her particular recommendations are likely to appeal more to “liberals” than to “conservatives,” she argues above all that we must teach students to think critically. At first blush, such a stance seems uncontroversial. (After all, what parent—Republican or Democrat—doesn’t want their child to learn to think critically?) Noddings, however, takes the rarer and more subversive step of actually thinking critically about the current state of education.

Notably, Noddings challenges one of the central dogmas of education in the 21st century: the idea that “all children can learn.” To be fair, Noddings, would probably not disagree with that simplistic statement; rather, she would flesh it out and add a qualifier. Throughout the essays in this book, Noddings argues that while all children can learn, not all children can learn everything we hope to teach them equally well. She acknowledges, for instance, that some children may not have an aptitude for or an interest in higher level math and that a true 21st century education should accommodate this. “Children are not equal in their capacity for academic learning,” she writes, “and a universal, academic curriculum may well aggravate academic differences. A richer, more varied curriculum might help students find out what they are suited to do . . . Even within a particular course, there should be a balance between common learning and individualized units and topics that provide students with opportunities to exercise their special talents and interests” (30-31).

Here I detect a similarity to Ken Robinson, who notes in his famous TED talk, “I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” Why continue treating children as widgets, forcing square pegs into round holes? This is the outdated factory model of education. More to the point, Noddings argues against the notion that every child should learn everything; followed to its logical end, she says, that idea is fundamentally anti-democratic. In our pursuit of “equality,” she posits, we have created an educational system that is unfair and counterproductive.

Her point about aptitudes and interests leads me to reflect on Carol Dweck and the “growth mindset,” an idea that has received much attention from educators over the last ten years or so—and one which has become a central part of my own educational philosophy and practice. In her work, Dweck argues that while we may all differ in our natural aptitudes, we can all improve with effort. (Try as I might, I’m never going to surpass LeBron James in basketball ability—but I can become better than I am today.) Also, we have different mindsets in different areas. I, for instance, have a growth mindset when it comes to cooking but a fixed mindset when it comes to art. I believe that I can improve in the kitchen with practice, and to this end, I have taken a few cooking classes, bought onions to practice my knife skills, etc. If you were to ask me about my artistic ability, however, I would tell you, “I’m not an artist.” The reality, however, is that I simply don’t have a strong enough interest in art to justify the time and energy it would take to improve. If I did, I’m sure that I could improve.

Noddings argues for more student choice in the curriculum. She supports the notion that students—especially middle school students—should be encouraged to discover their aptitudes and interests, and that education should provide multiple paths to success. Not everyone can do calculus, but then, not everyone needs to do calculus. Contrary to one of the central tenets of “standards-based” education reform, an “equal” education does not mean that everyone should get the same education.

Similarly, Noddings notes that, despite our best intentions of sending every student to college in the name of equality, “there will always be unattractive work that needs doing” (102)—work which does not require a college degree. Thus, she argues that “schools should direct their efforts toward producing people who can act purposefully and morally in every domain of life. When people are forced to work at meaningless jobs, they need even more to find meaning in their personal and civic lives” (102). Again, the supposedly “equal” college preparatory track may not serve every student equally well—especially if that track serves to tell some students that they are stupid. Noddings calls for more respect—and support—for vocational education, a better vocational education that goes beyond the mere learning of employable skills to include some liberal arts exposure as well as training for parenting and home life.

Although the book will generally serve to further our thinking on education in the 21st century, it is not devoid of flaws. For instance, Noddings seems to believe that she is only suggesting tweaks to our current system, when in actuality, her proposals would amount to massive changes in American education. She is careful to point out that her intention is not to prescribe a full curriculum, and she restates several times throughout the book that we must work within the existing discipline-based curriculum framework. For instance, in her chapter entitled “Educating for Home Life,” Noddings writes, “I am not suggesting that we should develop detailed sub-curricula on houses and homemaking for each of the traditional subjects. That might well defeat our purpose. Teachers would revolt against one more demand on their time” (72). However, she then goes on to propose numerous additions to the curriculum. For history courses alone, she suggests adding material on “the history of homes or women’s history” (74) and “the history of childhood and child-rearing” (80). While these would be likely be valuable additions, Noddings does not seem to recognize that these add up to “detailed sub-curricula”: yet another demand on limited instructional time. To add them would mean cutting something else, and therein lies the rub.

Also, in her call for “ecological cosmopolitanism,” Noddings reveals a certain degree of naiveté. She calls for a 21st century “ecological cosmopolitanism” (a love of and commitment to the Earth) to replace the 19th and 20th century emphasis on nationalism, she acknowledges that cosmopolitanism “does not ‘grab’ us emotionally as does national patriotism with its multiple supports in rousing music, flags, parades, uniforms, heroic stories, and celebrations.” However, she posits that “The possibility of destroying Earth through neglect and selfish exploitation might well have some emotional impact” (99). I won’t dispute Noddings argument that we must do a better job of protecting our planet, or even that such a call should inspire an emotional response. The fact of the matter, however, is that it doesn’t inspire an emotional response, at least not for most people. Here Noddings is guilty of preaching to the choir. (Here, too, she also proposes numerous additions to the curriculum for helping students learn about the Earth and develop their ecological cosmopolitanism.)

In the end, Noddings offers a powerful reminder that “Education is an enterprise with multiple aims” (41). In an era of increasing standardization, centralization, and politicization, that is a worthwhile thing to remember. Schools should never be anti-intellectual places, but to say that their focus should not be strictly academic is hardly anti-intellectual. It is honest. In fact, those who present the false dichotomy of schools as “intellectual” or “anti-intellectual” are the ones who are guilty of anti-intellectualism. It is possible to disagree with some—or even most—of Noddings proposals, but we can, and should, and must think critically about education rather than accepting the cant of “reformers.” Here, Noddings makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Truth be told
I’m not much for the cold
But if you’re selling a snow day,
Mother Nature, I’m sold!

An original poem, perhaps one of my finest! (Excluding those I wrote for school assignments, I think I’ve written–at most–a half-dozen poems in my life. See what you can do on a snow day!)

We missed the brunt of the recent winter storm as it passed through Virginia; just a bit to the north of us they received about 25″. For our part, we got probably 6-8″, though it’s hard to say for sure. Late Friday night it changed over to freezing rain/sleet, which compacted the original snow and turned it to ice. It then changed back to snow for much of the day Saturday which added a few more inches of powder on top. School was cancelled on Friday, primarily because everything else was cancelled, and it’s cancelled again today. And what a wonderful winter weekend it has been!

A snow day provides an opportunity to think and reflect (and write poetry). Over the past few days, I’ve luxuriated in a slow-sipped pot of tea, helped clean the house, and, yes, done some work–grading, catching up on e-mail, planning my upcoming weekend duty. These are all things I might normally do on a weekend day, but with a sea of white outside my window, it somehow feels different.

Another thing I’ve done this weekend is read–a lot. I just finished Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. Now I’m working on Anthony Grooms’s novel Bombingham and Nel Noddings’s Education and Democracy in the 21st Century.

I also read this article from the Washington Post: “Expecting to enjoy a lazy snow day? Teachers urge parents, students to think again.” While it’s not the hardest-hitting journalism I’ve ever read, it does manage to provide an interesting angle on one of education’s stickiest wickets in just a few paragraphs. In short: whereas a heavy snow used to promise kids a fun-filled day of frolicking outdoors, educators now worry about the consequences of such activities. As the article states, “[I]n an era of increased academic testing, stacked curricula and virtual learning, many educators and school officials are urging students to continue their schoolwork during snow days to avoid the dreaded ‘amnesia’ that can set in after a few missed days of class.” Particularly in the upper grades and in Advanced Placement courses, “that can create stress for teachers, who worry about how they will cram a year’s worth of advanced curriculum into one shortened by snow days.”

To me, this is suggestive of the difference between a “teacher-centered” and a “student-centered” (or “learner-centered”) education system. I do sympathize with the teachers, who appear to be caught between an immovable rock (the AP exam) and a cold hard place, though I think the use of the verb “cram” is telling. How much curriculum should we be cramming in the first place? (And if we are cramming, is this really education?)

I think there’s a reasonable a fair conversation to be had about the “costs” of a snow day in the classroom, especially for those students who are really struggling or when a “snow day” becomes a “snow week” or more. For the vast majority of kids, though, the idea of “amnesia” setting in after just a few days is ridiculous. If that were true, we wouldn’t have long weekends, holidays, or spring break. In fact, such breaks are necessary to allow students (and teachers!) the opportunity to recharge and come back into the classroom fresh.

Perhaps most frightening of all is this asinine quote from Connie Skelton, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in Arlington Public Schools: “In Arlington, we really are moving towards 24/7 learning.” She’s explaining how Arlington’s use of iPads and other technology can be a game-changer, but what does that even mean? Do kids not sleep? Do they not eat or go to the bathroom? And even if we set aside the ridiculousness of the actual claim, we should ask ourselves a more serious question: Just how much learning is necessary and appropriate? I’m all for providing a “rigorous” education, but the law of diminishing marginal returns applies here. There is a point at which enough is enough.

I am heartened, however, by this quote from Evan Glazer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (better known throughout the DC area as “TJ”): “‘We want them to go out and play and make snowmen and snow angels, because it doesn’t happen all that often,’ Glazer said. ‘You might as well take a break when Mother Nature gives you the opportunity.’” This from a school that has been ranked among the very best in the country and sends its graduates to top-notch universities. (I can hear the counterargument now: “With a more advanced student, you can ‘afford’ to take that stance.” Maybe so, but I also wonder to what extent the 24/7 “cramming” mentality contributes to the percentage of students who either drop out of school or simply go through the motions.)

 

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