In my last post, I asked “Is there such a thing as too curious?” and at the end, I reflected on an old post in which I decided, “You can’t do it all.” I’m not quite sure why this sort of thing has been on my mind so much lately, but it has. Perhaps it’s a miniature “quarterlife crisis” of sorts (though, at my age, it would probably more like a “thirdlife crisis”). As I get older, I guess I feel the need to narrow my focus somewhat. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy lots of things, but I feel as though if I want to actually accomplish something, I can’t be skittering around constantly. Luckily, I do feel as though I’m gaining clarity on the pursuits and pastimes that matter most to me. Along these same lines, I’ve been thinking recently about letting go of dreams. I’m not talking about giving up on one’s dreams—that is different, I think—but rather, outgrowing them.

Case in point: When I was sixteen years old, I knew that I wanted to be a high school baseball coach. More precisely, I wanted to be a high school baseball head coach. (To be honest, that dream is what initially drew me into education.) I devoured articles on drills and strategies, printing them out and saving them in a notebook, which I still have to this day. I read books and watched videos, and I have an entire bookshelf devoted to coaching, which my wife finds unfathomable.

Even before I began my career, I made coaching a priority. While in graduate school, I e-mailed the coach of a local American Legion team, told him that I wanted to be a high school coach, and asked if I could help out. He said sure. (I’ve learned over the years that people will let you do almost anything if you offer to do it for free!) When I left with my Master’s degree and found a job teaching at an all-girls’ school, I made it clear that while I was happy to coach a fall or winter sport, I would be going elsewhere to coach baseball in the spring. Luckily they were supportive (though they did try briefly to recruit me to softball). During my time there, I volunteered at two different schools.

After five years of being pulled in different directions, I felt it was time to find a single school where I could both teach and coach, so I moved on to a coed boarding school. Though not the only factor, coaching was a major factor in that career move. When I took that job, I thought there might be a possibility of a head coaching opportunity developing in the next couple of years, and that was appealing. I also coached basketball there, initially as a JV assistant, and when the opportunity to become the JV head coach developed, I jumped at it. I was so hungry for the opportunity to lead a team, to try out my ideas, that I was thrilled to do it even in a sport where I didn’t know half as much. Some of my ideas worked well, and some didn’t, but I was much better the second time around. Had I stayed and coached the team for a third year, I am confident that we would be even stronger.

For lots of reasons, though, it was time to move on from that job after three years, and that brings us to the present. Ironically enough, shortly after I announced that I was leaving, the head baseball coach announced that he, too, was leaving, so the opportunity I anticipated when I moved there did indeed come to pass—just a few weeks too late. Meanwhile, the athletic director at my current school called me to talk about where I could be of the most help to the program, and I was a little surprised—maybe even a little miffed, if I’m being honest—to learn that I would be coaching middle school. I understood his rationale, and I’ve made my peace with it, but I find it almost comical that I’ll finally have my opportunity to be a head baseball coach, and half of the stuff I’ve learned over the years is probably too advanced for the age group I’ll be coaching.

There’s still a part of me who wonders if I could be a good head coach at the varsity level. I enjoy the competition and camaraderie, and I would appreciate the challenge. And yet, I find that I don’t have the drive that I once did. If the opportunity presented itself tomorrow, I would probably take it and be excited about it (at least for a few years), but it’s no longer my dream. I realized not long ago that I don’t plan for that day in the way that I once did.

As I’ve learned, again, you can’t do it all, and there are now other things in life that I want more. I want to be a good teacher, and I find that consumes a lot (maybe too much) of my time as it is. I’m frequently busy planning and grading during the week, and so I want to spend more time with my wife on the weekends. Baseball, especially at the higher levels of competition, can be an all-encompassing lifestyle for the months of the season (and in Florida, I’m learning, the season is nearly year-round). There was a time when the idea of spending my weekend at the ballpark would have thrilled me–not anymore.

I still love the game, and I think I’ll probably stay involved with it in some way for a long time… but I think maybe I outgrew my dream. Who knows where I’d be had I gotten a head coaching job at age 25, as I once hoped? I would probably be consumed by the sport and loving every minute of it. But that’s not how it played out, and I’m OK with that.

I sometimes tell my students that if they’re the exact same people 20 or 40 years after graduation, they will have failed at life. Maybe I’m practicing what I preach.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the challenge of teaching corroboration in the age of information overload. In that post, I described the 21st century citizen’s challenge of wading through pages upon pages of conflicting information, and especially of not succumbing to confirmation bias as a result.

In an attempt to improve my own personal “information management,” I recently read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. (I’m not going to write a full review here, but if you ever feel like you’re drowning in e-mails, paperwork, to do lists, etc., and you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.) In the book, Allen describes the problem we face nearly perfectly:

The necessity of dealing with frequent and complex barrages of potentially significant data was probably true in the past for remarkable individuals such as Napoleon as he marched through Europe, or Bach as he composed, or even Andy Warhol as he decided what to paint or show in a gallery. Now, though, the entire world’s digitally connected literate population is the recipient of an explosion of nonstop, potentially “important”—or at least relevant—information. The ease with which it can be accessed through technology has made it simultaneously rewarding in its opportunities and and treacherous in its volume, speed, and changeability. If you are by nature fascinated by what may be going on when you hear sirens in your neighborhood or wonder what a group of people across the room at a party is excitedly talking about, then you are ripe for becoming a victim of the endless and powerful distractions your personal technology dishes out to you. (Loc 195)

This makes me wonder: Is there such a thing as being “too curious”? In our schools, we often extol curiosity as a core value, but is there a downside? Especially given our (relatively) newfound ability to pursue any topic that crosses our path, is it possible that our curiosity leads us to be, as my grandfather might say, “a mile wide and an inch deep”?

(For what it’s worth, this is also reminiscent of my January 2015 post, “You Can’t Do It All.”)

It’s been a busy month for me, and I’ve started to develop a backlog of potential posts. Here’s an idea from almost a month ago (!):

On my way into school, I heard this piece on NPR: “Racial Bias Isn’t Just a Police Problem, It’s a Preschool Problem”. With a wife who teaches pre-school in a school that is roughly 98% African American, I was immediately intrigued. The focus of the piece, it turns out, was a study on implicit bias done by the Yale Child Study Center. The findings? That teachers are often implicitly biased in their classroom discipline.

This kind of work is important in helping to bring broader exposure to the problem of implicit bias, something all teachers (all people) need to be made aware of. Until we begin to recognize our implicit biases–thus making them explicit–we can’t work to counteract them. And yet, this story actually obscures a different implicit bias–one which the study seems to suggest might be more substantial than racial bias.

Here’s the gist of the study, and the kernel of the findings:

At a big, annual conference for pre-K teachers, Gilliam and his team recruited 135 educators to watch a few short videos. Here’s what they told them:

We are interested in learning about how teachers detect challenging
behavior in the classroom. Sometimes this involves seeing behavior before it becomes problematic. The video segments you are about to view are of preschoolers engaging in various activities. Some clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors. Your job is to press the enter key on the external keypad every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.

Each video included four children: a black boy and girl and a white boy and girl.

Here’s the deception: There was no challenging behavior.

While the teachers watched, eye-scan technology measured the trajectory of their gaze. Gilliam wanted to know: When teachers expected bad behavior, who did they watch?

“What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” Gilliam says. “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

Indeed, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. Put another way, black children account for roughly 19 percent of all preschoolers, but nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.

One reason that number is so high, Gilliam suggests, is that teachers spend more time focused on their black students, expecting bad behavior. “If you look for something in one place, that’s the only place you can typically find it.”

However, the next line of the article piece is the one that really got me thinking: “The Yale team also asked subjects to identify the child they felt required the most attention. Forty-two percent identified the black boy, 34 percent identified the white boy, while 13 percent and 10 percent identified the white and black girls respectively.”

This would appear to be in keeping with the title of the piece, and it fits nicely into the current debate over systemic and institutional bias in other areas of American life, such as criminal justice. If we look a bit more closely, though, we notice that black girls may actually receive less scrutiny than white girls. And girls in general appear to receive about one-third of the scrutiny that boys do. In fact, seventy-six percent of participants said that boys (regardless of race) required more attention to keep them in line, while only 23% said that girls did.

To me, this suggests more of a gender bias than a racial one.  I know that, thoughout my career, I have tended to see more “troublesome behavior” in boys, and I suspect that girls get away with more in class than boys do. This brings to mind the “boy crisis”–a hotly debated concept in education, but one which I think has at least some merit (even if the name itself is a bit melodramatic). I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a crisis, but I do think there is something to the idea. Why is it that boys are prescribed ADHD medications at rates far outstripping girls? Why is it that boys are suspended from school more often? Why is it that more boys are identified as “special needs” students? These things can’t all be accidents. Perhaps some of it stems from this implicit bias–the same one that the author of this piece seems to miss altogether.

To be sure, racially discriminatory discipline practices are real and problematic; they need to be exposed and addressed. I am by no means disputing that. But I think that this story actually obscures another problem that is potentially bigger (at least in terms of sheer numbers). As educators, we must work to ameliorate conditions which disadvantage black boys, absolutely, but as we do so, let’s not forget that most boys find school to be a challenge at some point. Are there changes we can make that would serve them all?

After the latest revelation about Donald Trump, it seems strange to write about anything else related to the presidential campaign, but I’ve been thinking about this for several days, so here it is.

In the wake of last week’s Vice Presidential debate, I read this article from the Washington Post:

Clinton debate prep is focused on what happens once the debate is done

It discusses this ad from the Clinton campaign, which was released mere hours after the debate ended.

Clearly, this informed Kaine’s debate strategy, as he repeatedly (and often awkwardly) said some variation of “I can’t believe Governor Pence is going to defend Donald Trump on this issue.” I suspect the ad was all but ready to go, pending only the video from Mike Pence, who played into their trap nearly perfectly.

I’m not here to talk about politics, though, except in the sense that I wonder if this sort of ad–while clearly effective for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the short run–is good for our nation’s civic health in the long run. Again, I’m not debating whether these statements by Trump and Pence are “fair game”; they certainly are.

But by using the debate as a venue for producing “gotcha advertising” (similar to “gotcha journalism”), is Clinton’s seeming innovation making it less likely that candidates, who are often reluctant to take the stage to begin with, will debate in the future?

We could argue about whether debates actually serve any real purpose, as they often devolve into little more than constant sniping and bickering, neither of which is good for our civic health either. But they do represent–at least in theory–one of the few times when the candidates appear together and at least attempt to talk about real differences of philosophy and policy. In that sense, I would argue that they are important and meaningful, imperfect though they are.

Of course, this could turn out to have just the opposite effect. Going forward, both parties will adopt this tactic, and candidates will know that they have to be prepared to defend previous statements with more than just a flat denial, lest they be made to look foolish. As Glenn Beck pointed out, “We’re not living in the 1800s. We can go back to the clips on YouTube.” Yes–sources matter!

We can’t predict the future, of course, but thinking historically, I wonder what the long-term (possibly unintended) consequences of this will be.

I recently came across Genius, a web annotation tool. The site proclaims itself the “world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and crowdsourced musical knowledge,” but it has the potential to be much more than that. I encountered it in this piece about an interview with Donald Trump’s campaign manager and thought it looked interesting. When I came across the article below today, it seemed like a good candidate for trying it out myself. If you click the link, you should be able to see my annotations (along with any contributed by other Genius users, I suppose):

Zak Slayback, Parents Have Been Demoted to Deputy School Teachers

Aside from my thoughts about Slayback’s article (which I won’t go into here–I’ll let the annotations speak for themselves), this does seem like a potential useful tool for students. It melds annotation features (admittedly somewhat basic) with some features of social media, which might appeal to students. It could also envision using this to have students annotate an article alongside each other outside of class, potentially very useful for current events discussion.

My new school has a regular “Talking About Teaching” professional development opportunity for teachers. Essentially, it’s a scheduled time for teachers to come and share thoughts and ideas about the craft of teaching. It’s one thing that drew me to the school. Today’s topic was “Student Motivation”—a topic I’ve thought a lot about.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but it left me thinking for much of the day about the interconnection of two topics that form the title of this post: intrinsic motivation and the relevance of history. We talked a lot about the role of grades and other extrinsic motivators in school, though there seemed to be general agreement that we’d like for our students to be more intrinsically motivated to learn—to play with ideas, to inquire and explore their interests.

I pointed out that, as Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive, we all tend to be more intrinsically motivated when we a) have some measure of autonomy in the task at hand; b) can observe ourselves progressing toward mastery of it; and c) appreciate its larger purpose. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of schools often serves to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

At this point, a colleague raised the concern that few students—and even some teachers—don’t necessarily understand the purpose of their studies in school. Why, for instance, do students need to know a particular equation in math class? Or (to reference one of my own lessons from today) why do they need to know the significance of itinerant preachers in the Great Awakening?

We batted that idea around for a while, and there were a variety of ideas. In the end, though, we seemed to reach a general consensus: at the end of the day, students probably don’t need to know all of those things. Many agreed that much of the “stuff” that we teach in our courses is not absolutely essential for students to learn. (This brought to mind my recent post on “The Siren Call of Coverage.”)

This has me reflecting on curriculum. Once we acknowledge that the sky would not fall if some things were cut, then paring back the content of the curriculum would seem to be a logical step toward remedying any perceived deficiencies. In our case, if we find that our students suffer from a lack of intrinsic motivation and don’t see the purpose of what they’re studying, we need to address that. Trimming the content covered would kill two birds with one stone:

  1. It would provide time for self-directed learning, in which students—under the supervision of teachers, to be sure—could pursue topics of interest to them, hopefully learning to ask questions, pursue their interests, and discover meaning for themselves. Even in a field that is not necessarily a student’s true passion, he or she may find a particular topic or question that is intriguing, perhaps sparking a lifelong hobby.
  2. By covering less material, teachers would have the opportunity to pursue deeper learning, which would helpfully hope students understand the value of their studies. For my part, I want my students to consider why history matters today—how historical narratives (even historically inaccurate ones) shape our contemporary worldview and how historical thinking skills can help us make sense of the time in which we live. When I feel pressure to get to chapter 15 by Christmas, though, that’s difficult to do.

It is admittedly something of a cliche, but I have nevertheless long appreciated Yeats’s famous adage that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Particularly in history, if the approach is just “one damn thing after another,” only the rare student will have their “fire” stoked. (We history teachers all know these kids—the ones who geek out over trivia while the other students slump in their seats and roll their eyes.) In the traditional coverage approach, everyone’s pails get filled… but most are unceremoniously dumped out later, after the extrinsic motivation (the test) is removed. Whatever small fires we managed to start along the way, most are extinguished in the deluge.

On my drive to and from school each day, I typically listen to NPR. My commute is only about 10-15 minutes, even with traffic, so I generally only hear a handful of stories. Even so, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a number of stories about the recent decision by ITT Technical Institute, a for profit college, to shut down virtually overnight.

If you’re not familiar with the situation, the U.S. Department of Education announced in August that ITT Tech wold not be permitted to enroll students who use federal financial aid. This came after a number of investigations which alleged fraud and a number of other questionable business practices.

As I was driving in this morning, I heard this story, produced by our local NPR affiliate (WUSF). The gist is that ITT students—some of whom were only months from graduation—are basically left high and dry, and they now face a difficult decision: They can transfer some (though likely not all) of their credits to another institution and continue holding their debt in full, or they can discharge most (though likely not all) of their debt and start over from scratch at another institution. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The story quotes an ITT administrator in Fort Lauderdale as saying, “If I had a magic wand, I would have said, ‘If you’re closing, you teach them out, [show] that there’s a plan in place to teach out anyone who’s currently enrolled and that you don’t just shut the doors, you don’t just do that to people.”

To me, this story gets at the heart of my concerns about for-profit education ventures. I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on this issue, and I’m sure there are some valid arguments in favor of for-profit education. Still, I believe that educational institutions (even private, for-profit ones) have a fiduciary responsibility* to their students—a responsibility to act in their students’ interest that goes beyond their obvious responsibility to provide a quality educational experience. Unfortunately, in a for-profit school (or college, in this case), the motives and responsibilities become blurry.

Is the institution’s motive to education—or to make a profit, come what may? Is its responsibility to its students—or to its shareholders/stakeholders?  Of course, those don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but when push comes to shove, which will it be? We now know the answer for ITT Tech.

* I am not a lawyer and thus don’t use this term in a strictly legal sense. Rather, I use to suggest that institutions (or, more precisely, the administrators who guide those institutions) must consider students’ interests when making decisions about the company. They must honor the trust that students place in them when they enroll.