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 This is the outdated factory model of education.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.)

 

I love it when things line up unexpectedly.

A significant portion of my students’ exam last semester was an entirely student-led Harkness discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. They managed to sustain the conversation for the better part of 90 minutes, but it felt superficial and very competitive and, at times, downright rude. It was not at all reflective of what I’ve tried to teach them about how to have a discussion. (I suspect that’s because with such a high-profile grade attached, they reverted to instinct–but that’s another post altogether.)

At any rate, I started the new semester today with a reflection on that experience and tried to help the class move forward. We talked about the need to respect each other, and they talked about being “kind” and “friendly” and “not rolling your eyes”–all important ideas. But I took it a step farther, imploring them to actually value each other. As I told them, “Even if you disagree with someone–even if the two of you are completely opposed in every way–you can still learn from them. It won’t hurt you to listen to his ideas, and even if you come away still disagreeing with him, you’ll at least be forced to consider the merits of your own views and hopefully come away stronger. There’s value in that, so don’t waste that opportunity.”

We then moved into our regularly scheduled lesson, the beginning of a unit on virtue. One of my students pointed out that our school’s motto–emblazoned on the school seal (which I had placed on the course syllabus, which we had just discussed)–included the latin word Virtus. That was not part of my original lesson plan, but we ran with it. We talked a bit about why that might be. Why would a school want its students to be virtuous, and in what way(s)?

Later, after brainstorming a list of possible virtues, I offered an unexpected one: politeness. My students looked puzzled. Politeness? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is in fact the foundation for all other virtues. I assigned that chapter of the book to my students for Thursday, and we will discuss it. Again, not part of my original plan when I chose the reading over the summer, but I’m hoping that the discussion on politeness might offer my students an opportunity to reflect on our exam discussion while practicing better (I daresay, more virtuous) discussion skills.

It’s getting pretty meta up in here, but I do love it when things line up unexpectedly.

Four years ago, I began keeping a log of all the books I read, which I cleverly titled Book of Books. Last night, I closed out my 2015 entries and have just about filled the entire journal. It might seem silly, but I’m proud of it. Because I like to record my thoughts about the book as soon as I finish it, the Book of Books has traveled with me to seven countries across three continents, and reading back over it today was a trip down memory lane. (Of course, my memory must be getting faulty, because I realized that the book I finished last night, just under the wire, I had already read back in 2013. Oops!)

I also noticed that the number of books I’ve read each year has declined somewhat from a high of 50 in 2011. I did start off the New Year on the right foot, though, spending this morning lost in a new book—one of the very best ways to spend a morning, if you ask me. (A long, lingering brunch is another, as is a big steaming mug of tea or hot chocolate around a campfire… but those are posts for another time.)

Reading is a priority for me, and I try to make time for reading every day, but I don’t always succeed–so I’m going to try something new. Last night, as I was catching up on blogs, I came across this from Farnam Street, reflecting on the daunting task of reading Robert Caro’s 1100-word tome The Power Broker:

The solution I devised for myself is a simple one I wanted to share. It’s 25 pages a day. That’s it. Just commit to that, and then do it. What will 25 pages a day get you?

Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. 25 pages a day for 340 days is 8,400 pages. 8,400. What I have also found is that, when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,400 pages 10,000. (I’d only need to extend that 25 pages into 30 to get there.)

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

I worry that setting a specific page goal for myself might make reading feel more like work—just another thing to be crossed off the to-do list each day—but I would like to find away to hold myself accountable. So I’m going to try to make a habit of posting the number of pages I’ve read on a regular (at least weekly) basis, even if that number is zero. I’m also hoping that this will help me log in here more frequently and encourage me to write more (one of my resolutions for 2016).

And, for the curious, here are the books I read in 2015:

Garrett Keizer, Getting Schooled
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock
Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending
A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically
Justin Fox, Whoever Fears the Sea
John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
Dan Brown, Inferno
Mike Matheny, The Matheny Manifesto
Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity
Ted Sizer, The New American High School
Brad Snyder, In the Shadow of the Senators
H.W. Brands, American Dreams
Brad Parks, The Girl Next Door
Douglas Stone et al., Difficult Conversations
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto
Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education
Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be
David Brooks, The Road to Character
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Laura & Malcolm Gauld, The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have
Robert Coles, The Call of Stories
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Steve Estes, I Am a Man!
Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi
Stephen Breyer, Active Liberty
Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation
Melton McLaurin, Celia, a Slave
Brad Parks, The Good Cop
Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed

Although we’re told that the fourth Thursday in November is the day to be grateful, I always find that I’m more reflective at the New Year. As I near the end of a long holiday break, I’ve had time to decompress and relax, more so than I usually do at Thanksgiving, which typically sneaks up on me in a rush and when exam season is just around the corner, always on the brain.

So, with that said, I’ve been thinking lately about 2015. It hasn’t been a perfect year, to be sure, and I could (if I wanted) list all of the things that didn’t go my way or left me disappointed. But I don’t want. On balance, it’s been a pretty great year, and I have much to be grateful for: my health and the (relative) health of my friends and family, a wife with whom I can share the highs and lows and for whom my love grows every day, a job that leaves me feeling challenged,  No, all things considered, it’s been a pretty great year.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights from 2015:

In March, I helped chaperone a 15-day service learning trip to India. As a bonus, because Emily was doing weekend duty on campus last year, she was eligible to travel as a “faculty participant” at cost. It was an incredible and humbling adventure for both of us—something neither of us will ever forget.

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In June, Emily and I bought a “new” (gently used) car: a 2012 Subaru Outback with low mileage. This was the first car either of us had bought on our own, so we’re pretty proud of her. I did have about a week of buyer’s remorse as I feared that we bought more car than we really needed—and we did—but we got a good deal. I drove Emily crazy with all the research, but in the end, she agrees, we got the right one.

Later that month, I headed north in the new whip to the Boston area, where I spent the summer on the campus of Wellesley College working as an administrator for the same summer program where I cut my teeth in education as a college student. It was a crazy, exhausting two months, but it gave me a ton of great experience for my new role (see below). I saw a lot of myself (my old self) in the staff: energetic and idealistic. Hard not to be inspired in an environment like that!

It was tough being apart for Emily for two months (though she did come up to spend the Fourth of July in Boston—an experience I highly recommend for anyone who has the chance), but being on my own in a new environment did have an upside: it allowed me to reset some of my habits (especially around eating and exercising) and build some healthy new ones. I spent the summer eating well and running, and in the end, I lost about 30 pounds. (Actually, at one point, it was closer for 40 pounds, but after the holidays…)

I got a promotion as well, and in August, I returned from Boston to start in my first administrative position. It was a whirlwind few weeks, especially since my boss was out of the country for the start of school, but I eventually got my feet under me. I’m still learning a lot (and making mistakes), but I’m trying to practice what I preach and keep a growth mindset.

Finally, after an incredibly busy 11-month run (India over Spring Break, Boston for the summer), Emily and I finally got some much-needed R&R during the first part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Having loved our trip to East Africa in the summer of 2014, we decided to check out another part of the African continent. On the recommendation of a friend and colleagued who has lived and worked there, we spent several days in Senegal—mostly reading and relaxing in a hammock and sleeping in a treehouse built into a baobab tree and eating amazing French food. We didn’t do a lot of sight-seeing on this trip, but it was a glorious experience nevertheless. To top it off, we were able to take advantage of a direct flight from DC to Dakar to make it home in time to spend Thanksgiving with our families.

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So, all in all: 30 pounds, two continents, two new jobs, and one new car. A pretty great year overall.

Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time looking forward as well as back—thinking about what the next few years might hold for myself and for Emily. My new role has brought about some fresh thinking in terms of the issues I want to work on, and the New Year gives us reason to reflect on all that we have to be thankful for and all that we hope for in the years ahead.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that going forward, but I’ll end with my resolutions for 2016. For now, I have two: to be a better (i.e., more communicative) son/brother/friend, and to make more time to write (whether here or elsewhere).

As part of our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observances, our school took the entire boarding community to view the film Selma. As a history teacher with an avowed interest in civil rights history (not to mention an Alabama native), I was asked to give a short talk providing some historical background during our morning assembly, especially for those students in 9th and 10th grade who may not be quite as familiar with the civil rights movement. Here’s what I wrote:

The setting for the film you’re going to see tonight is Selma, Alabama in 1965. To give you a sense of the historical context for this film, we must keep in mind that this twenty years after the end of World War II. Those twenty years were exciting ones, if a little scary: it was during that time that the United States had become the wealthiest country on the planet, and the nation was in the thick of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

It was also during this time that what we today know as the civil rights movement emerged into national consciousness. African Americans, particularly in the South, had been advocating for their full rights as American citizens for decades (if not centuries), but it was in the wake of World War II that these scattered efforts became a full-fledged social movement.

There are a few key ideas I think you all should understand before you see this movie. As African American men returned home from war, having fought overseas in defense of democracy, they began to raise the question much more vocally of why they should be expected to fight and die for democracy in Europe or Asia when they were denied democracy at home in America. Despite the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (which granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote, respectively) at the end of the Civil War, white southerners had effectively denied those rights through a number of legal tricks, as well as through intimidation and physical violence. Without representation in government, southern states had passed extensive legislation (known as “Jim Crow laws”) that segregated African Americans from the white population and often relegated them to an economic and social condition not that different from slavery in some ways.

In 1946, a World War II veteran by the name of George Dorsey was murdered (along with his wife and another couple), which brought national attention to the problem. In the wake of Dorsey’s murder, then-President Harry S. Truman created a President’s Commission on Civil Rights to study the situation of black people in the United States.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (also known as the NAACP) began to challenge Jim Crow laws, especially those creating separate schools for whites and blacks. In 1954, this culminated in the famous Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and ordered the desegregation of American public schools. At last, the American government had signaled to African Americans that someone was listening. Of course, significant progress on the desegregation front was a long time in the making, and by some measures, one could argue that it still has not been fully achieved. But Brown v. Board is often viewed as the beginning of the “civil rights movement,” because in its wake, African Americans began to push much more assertively for their rights.

The following year, in 1955, a seamstress and activist by the name of Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and took a seat near the front. When she was ordered by the white driver to move to the back of the bus so that a white passenger could have her seat, Parks refused. She was arrested for violating Montgomery’s segregation laws, sparking a black boycott of the Montgomery bus system that ultimately lasted an entire year. As the boycott got underway, local activists searched for a leader, ultimately settling on a young and relatively unknown Baptist preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Soon, King was the public face of the boycott and would, in the years to come, become the most most recognizable figure of the entire movement.

Now, I don’t think it does any disrespect to Dr. King to point out that although we celebrate today as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there were hundreds of other leaders of the civil rights movement, and thousands of people who put their lives and their livelihoods at risk to participate in the various boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other actions that would dramatize the plight of southern blacks in the media.

As the civil rights movement progressed, King and his followers promoted what they called non-violent direct action. Often, they intentionally violated segregation laws in hopes of eliciting a violent response from the local authorities and gaining media attention for their cause. Often, this strategy worked perfectly. Occasionally—as in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and 1962—it did not. There, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had read King’s books and studied his tactics, and Pritchett simply enforced the laws without violence. Because there was no dramatic conflict to play on television, the media gave the movement there little attention.

Still, demonstrations spread across the South, and in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The Civil Rights Act outlawed many forms of segregation, but King and others believed that without the right to vote, African Americans would continue to suffer at the hands of whites.

King and his fellow leaders learned from their mistakes in Albany, and as the movement gained strength, they made the conscious decision to target cities with law enforcement known for their violent response. By 1965, they had identified Selma as a prime target for a march, and the focus of their efforts there would be voting rights in particular.

This brings us to the film.

My wife and I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you that it is powerful. For me, it has some personal significance. First, my mother was actually born in Selma in 1953—twelve years before the events depicted in the film. Although she and her family had moved away by 1965, they still lived in Alabama, and I grew up hearing her stories about that time and place. Those stories are ultimately what led me to pursue a two degrees in history, and when I was in graduate school at the University of Alabama, I did a lot of research on a very poor rural county about an hour and a half from Selma. In the 1960s, African Americans accounted for about 80% of the population of Greene County, Alabama, but the local government was all white. The banks and most businesses were white-owned as well, so whites had a pretty firm grip on the local economy. The schools remained completely segregated until 1965—the same year as the events in the film, and eleven years after Brown v. Board—and even then, only one black student (a girl named Mattye Hutton) was enrolled in the previously all-white high school. As soon as this happened, white families began to send their children to a newly formed private school called Warrior Academy.

By the end of the decade, though, things had begun to change. As a result of the actions you will see in the film today, African Americans did claim their constitutional right to vote, and in the elections of 1969, Greene County was one of the first counties in the South to elect a majority-black government. One of the first things the new school board did was to fire the superintendent—allegedly because he refused to allow a school program celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated the previous year.

So in that sense, the events in Selma were a success. They did contribute directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and made it possible for African Americans to elect officials who would be sensitive to their needs and concerns. But let’s be clear: This story is not all rainbows and sunshine. For all the progress made as a result of the civil rights movement—and there has been much progress—the story does not end with King’s untimely death.

Warrior Academy did not admit its first black student until 2004—fully fifty years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board. Even today, we need only look at the headlines to see that injustices still exist: after all, Michael Brown and Eric Garner became household names in 2014. And here are a couple of other statistics that may startle you: Despite representing only 30% of the U.S. population, people of color make up roughly 60% of those in prison. On top of that, voter laws in many states permanently deny some convicted felons the right to vote, even after they have served their prison sentences. What this means is that in those states, more than ten percent of their voting-age African American population is actually ineligible to vote.[*]

So here’s a final thought that struck me as the credits rolled on Selma. In 1965, when he led the marches there, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in his mid-thirties—not that much older than me. Realizing this caused me to reflect on what I’m doing with my life. Am I standing up for the causes I believe in? Too often, I’m afraid, I’m not. Life is too busy; or maybe I’m just too scared to speak up.

John Lewis, another individual you’ll meet in the film, is now entering his twenty-ninth year as a member of Congress—a position he would not even been allowed to vote for, let alone serve in, prior to Selma. In 1965, John Lewis was in his twenties—not that much older than you.

So to me, that’s what this movie is all about—really, what this day is all about: it is an opportunity to reflect on some very important questions. What do you stand for? What kind of life do you want to lead? On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we have an obligation to honor the sacrifices made not only by King, but by the thousands of others who marched alongside him. To do that, I think, we must look not only to the past, but to the future as well. So what are the causes that spur you to action? We don’t necessarily have to put our lives at risk as the marchers in Selma did, but if we don’t work to make the world a better place—if we live only for ourselves, in other words—we will have failed those who paved the road we travel.

Thank you, and I hope you all enjoy Selma as much as I did.

[*] http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/cjprimer2009.pdf

https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/

 

I’ve been thinking lately about how we educators (whether explicitly or implicitly) often encourage students to spread themselves too thin. Part of this is the insanely competitive college admissions race. But another part of it is simply our well-meaning desire for kids to experience the richness of life. I was that kid once–getting good grades, playing sports, being in school clubs, doing community service, working a part-time job, playing in the school jazz band as well as a garage band with my friends, spending hours on video games, going to the movies, staying up late talking to my girlfriend (now wife) on the phone, throwing tailgate parties with my friends, etc., etc. You get the idea.

Just the other day, though, I had a conversation with one of my classes about how I’m finally realizing–now that I’m in my thirties–that I can’t do it all. My interests are still as wide-ranging as ever, but the realities of work and home life mean that I just don’t have the time (or the energy) to pursue everything that tickles my fancy. And I’m struggling with that.

A couple of things I’ve read recently brought this idea to the fore. First: “The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World” from the New York Times. ICYMI (in case you missed it), the gist of the article is the fact that the ever-increasing amount of content available on the web means that we’re caught in a perpetual “catch up” mode. For me, this is no doubt the case. Twitter, blog subscriptions, the NextIssue app for iPad, my constantly growing Amazon wishlist, Netflix, etc., etc. Again, you get the idea.

The other source that provoked this line of thought was Mark Crotty’s recent post “Death of the Blog?” In it, Crotty writes:

For me the best blog posts have a meditative quality, as if the writer has peeled back his or her scalp and allowed you to see the neurons firing. Such posts echo the origins of the essay, its name derived from the Middle French essayer, which means to examine and to test. Part of the power lies in the struggle to construct that scaffolding, and it’s why we hold in awe those who can do it so gracefully that we read the words and they seem so natural, so easy, so much what we want to say…but can’t figure out how. They capture humans at their reflective best.

This struck a chord with me. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, “I hope that this blog will be a forum where I can ‘wonder aloud,’ so to speak, about the things that arouse my curiosity, most notably teaching and learning, history, and ideas in general.” And it has been just that. Occasionally. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to “wonder aloud” as much–or as deeply–as I would like. Blogging, like so much else, often feels extraneous. I do value it, but then again, I value lots of activities, and there are so many that feel much more urgent than blogging.

These days, the struggle at the forefront of my mind revolves around basketball. I’m the head JV boys’ basketball coach this year. I’ve invested significant time learning (re-learning) the game over the last couple of years, but as our season progresses, I’m realizing every day just how much I still don’t know. And here’s the thing: I don’t know if I want to. I do enjoy coaching basketball, and I enjoy learning the intricacies of the game, but to become a truly successful coach at the high school level would take a serious commitment of time and energy. And I just don’t know if I want to make that investment.

The nature of working in boarding schools is that you’re often required to be a jack-of-all-trades, but in how many realms can we be truly competent? I can be a passable basketball coach (depending on how one defines “passable”). But I don’t know if I can be great–at least not while still doing all of the other parts of my job well. In fact, I don’t think any of us can truly do it all well. And if we try (as many of us in boarding schools do), what is the cost? What is the cost in terms of our family lives? In terms of our longevity in our careers? In terms of our health?

And how do we apply these questions to our schools and our students?

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