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I’m currently reading Sean Wilentz’s (relatively) new book The Politicians & The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics. It is a timely read, and though I’m only a single chapter in, it is proving to be a psychological balm in these polarized times. In short, Wilentz’s thesis (or at least half of it) is that while Americans have, since nearly the earliest days of the republic, longed for an end to partisan rancor, parties are in fact a vital institution for making democracy work in a nation as large and diverse as the United States. “The American dream of politics without conflict . . . has a history as old as American politics,” he writes (3). Yet fierce partisan politics, “although often manipulated and abused, has been Americans’ most effective vehicle for democratic social and political reform” (4).

In his first chapter, Wilentz neatly traces the ebbs and flows of what he terms “postpartisanship” from Washington’s Farewell Address up to the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Among the conclusions he draws from this broad sweep of history are that postpartisanship takes two forms: on one hand, it represents a genuine dissatisfaction with political parties and their attendant friction; on the other, it has been co-opted by one party or the other as a cudgel for attacking their political opponents. “The rage for a modern postpartisanship,” Wilentz argues, “has failed to distinguish between a sincere if wrong-headed antiparty rhetoric and attacking parties as a partisan ploy—distinct uses of antipartisan politics that have sometimes overlapped” (4).

Though he does not emphasize it (at least not in the first chapter), Wilentz also hints at a class element underlying postpartisanship. Washington’s Farewell Address, in his eyes, was not simply a disinterested warning against the dangers of party. Though we prefer to remember him as a paragon of virtue (which we may unconsciously associate with objectivity and, thus, postpartisanship), Washington had a political ideology. He pursued one particular vision for America (that is, Hamilton’s, as exemplified by the fight over the bank) but viewed with disdain the hostile conflict brewing between Hamilton and Jefferson. According to Wilentz, Washington’s attack on parties was designed to malign the (Jeffersonian) “low demagogues who fomented” partisanship, but it “was also genuinely motivated by a patrician ideal of politics without parties” (6). Washington’s critique of parties, in other words, reflected his genteel sensibilities. (Of course, it was also easier for a man elected unanimously to see parties as unnecessarily divisive.)

Later, Wilentz describes Progressive era postpartisanship in a similar way. “Driven by severe class anxieties, incapable in the North of formally excluding the poor and the uneducated from politics, [liberal reformers] aimed instead to change other rules of the political game. By founding various independent clubs and quasi-learned societies, they sought to educate the electorate properly. Instead of denouncing parties outright, the elite liberals, with their style of ‘independency,’ appeared to be inside the parties but above politics. The independent style rejected the old party flim-flam—including a stridently partisan press—in favor of a cooler, more detached politics, free of the old emotional partisanship” (20). This would appear to have relevance in our own time. Postpartisanship is not the exclusive property of one political party or the other, but rather of the “elite.”

In other words, legitimate anti-party feeling might, in fact, be a bourgeois tendency, reflective of a deep-seated aversion to conflict and social “ugliness.” In any conflict, after all, elites are the ones with more to lose. And when those elites do lose power, attacking partisanship becomes a convenient way to re-assert themselves without appearing overly self-serving. Thus, postpartisanship is fundamentally conservative. Or, as Wilentz puts it, “The antiparty current is by definition undemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters” (28). To achieve a politics that is free from conflict, we must necessarily limit the number of voices and perspectives. By maligning parties—that is, the means by which millions of diverse voices are organized and made audible—we move away from the nation’s democratic ideals.

For the title of his first chapter (“The Postpartisan Style in American Politics”), Wilentz draws on Richard Hofstadter, who famously wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter’s work has received renewed interest in recent years, which should come as no surprise given our president’s tendency to engage in conspiratorial thinking that fires up his populist base. So is Donald Trump the latest manifestation of postpartisanship?

In running against “politicians” and promising to “drain the swamp,” Trump tapped into a feeling that only an outsider could possibly represent the interests of “the people.” His campaign certainly looked much different from those of Obama, but he also appealed to people who viewed the Republican Party “establishment” as hopelessly out of touch with average Americans. The fact that Trump has not yet drained the swamp suggests that his approach was perhaps postpartisanship of the disingenuous sort—an attack on parties as a partisan ploy. And for as much as he lambasts them, Trump is a member of the elite. The tax bill currently under consideration reveals the limits of his (and the GOP’s) populism.

All of this reminds me of an article I read by Joe Scarborough, written in the days after this year’s gubernatorial elections. According to Scarborough, some might interpret Democratic victories as “a political primal scream aimed at President Trump and his dangerous excesses. Some may even conclude that a Democratic sweep of next year’s midterms will follow along with the speedy impeachment of Trump. Then, surely, reason and order will return to the business of running the United States. Unfortunately, that pipe dream ignores the more profound meaning of this week’s election results: The shellacking Republicans took proves again just how unmoored American politics has become in the 21st century.”

Scarborough then offers, much like Wilentz, a broad overview of American political history. “Democrats and Republicans,” he writes, “have held a duopoly over Washington since Franklin Pierce got elected president in 1852. For most of that time, both parties saw their governing majorities rise and fall over the course of entire generations.” That is changing, however:

“[T]he political alignments that once endured decades of change have begun collapsing in two-year intervals. In 2004, Karl Rove spoke of a permanent Republican majority. Just over two years later, Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House. In 2008, many hailed Barack Obama’s winning coalition as a new Democratic majority, built on a well-educated and demographically diverse coalition. Fast-forward two years and the tea party laid waste to all previous political presumptions. . . . [In 2016,] Trump destroyed the Democratic establishment, but only after reducing the Republican political machine to rubble. Now, less than a year after seizing control of all branches of government, Trumpism is in full retreat.”

I’m not sure I agree with his last statement, but that’s not the point. In Scarborough’s view, “The fact that Trump’s GOP was beaten so badly . . . proves again that voters are voting against political parties instead of voting for inspiring leaders.”

Is this what comes of postpartisanship? Is this, in fact, the root cause of our seemingly broken political system? Like many others, I’ve long worried that the partisan divide is the cause of our problems. In only 20 pages or so, Wilentz turns that conventional wisdom on its head.

We may be in the midst of a political realignment, but Wilentz suggests that we may also be in the midst or a reorientation with regard to partisanship. In the year since Trump’s victory, naked partisanship appears to be on the rise, and as he points out, “The Tea Party activists who emerged in 2010, for all their proclaimed alienation from both major parties . . . did not whine about the evils of partisanship, they worked on it and, with great success, used the party system to advance their hard-right agenda as a wing of the Republican Party” (29).

I noted in my first paragraph that Wilentz’s book is proving to be a psychological balm. Over the past year, I have found myself turned off by all the bitterness, but I also wonder to what extent that is a middle-class predilection on my part. Is it possible that the solution is, in fact, to get down in the gutter and slug it out against one’s partisan foes? This, in turn, raises a related question: Is it partisan bickering that actually disgusts me, or was my desire for “harmony” really just a desire for the forces of change to keep their voices down?

I still have 300+ pages to read in Wilentz’s book. Perhaps another post will be warranted.

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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.”)

Today is what I affectionately refer to each year as “Teachmas Eve.” We’ve made it through the faculty meetings and the first week or so of adjusting back to a semi-normal sleep and work schedule, and tomorrow we begin teaching in earnest. So with summer coming to a hard close, it seems like a good time to reflect on some summer reading and set a goal for the coming year.

Considering all that I did this summer (moving, etc.), I’m fairly pleased with the amount I was able to read. I read a few things on a whim (like Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power–the biography of George H.W. Bush–which I recommend), and I was also able to mark off a few books that had been on the “To Read” list for years. One of those was Teach Like a Champion. (I know: It’s so 2010!) I had been meaning to read it for quite some time, but for one reason or another I never got around to reading it.

I don’t agree with everything Doug Lemov writes. Philosophically, for instance, I favor a more student-centered classroom than he does. That said, I am slowly becoming less ideological in my views on teaching. I still hold strong beliefs, but I’ve tried–especially in the last few years–to seek ideas from across the spectrum, and while I wouldn’t do everything Lemov advocates, that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t do any of it. I believe that all education is contextual, and the contexts in which he and I work are different in many ways. That said, students are still students, and some things probably are more science than art.

Over and over again while reading Teach Like a Champion, I found myself thinking, “Wow–that’s a great idea.” In fact, one of the biggest flaws I see with the book is that Lemov presents “49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College” (his subtitle). There are many great ideas in this book, but for any one teacher to try and implement them all would be nearly impossible. Even thinking about it would be overwhelming.

Even so, when I finished reading the book, I decided that I would try to incorporate some of Lemov’s ideas into my practice this year. I initially thought I would choose a technique from several different chapters, but the more I looked over his list again, the more I decided to focus on one area: classroom management.

I began my teaching career at an all-girls school, and I taught mostly juniors and seniors. The students were, almost without exception, engaged and motivated. They weren’t all academic superstars, but they cared and they wanted to please their teachers. If a student was talking in class or was underachieving, I usually just talked to them and the behavior improved. I loved teaching there, but one of the downsides is that I never really developed strong classroom management skills. I never really had to. When I moved to my next school, which was co-ed (but majority boys) and where I taught primarily 9th graders, this shortcoming hit me right between the eyes. My lack of classroom management skills shone through immediately. I learned on the fly and definitely got better, but it’s still an area that I would call a weakness.

So, with this in mind, I’ve chosen four techniques on classroom management from Teach Like a Champion:

Technique 36: 100 Percent

“There’s one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subjection to interpretation, situation, and motivation.” (p. 168)

On the face of it, this would seem to be one of Lemov’s more authoritarian techniques–one that I would not likely embrace. And, in fact, that pretty much sums up my initial reaction to reading this. First of all, I think it’s a bit ridiculous to expect that 100 percent of students will obey the teacher’s every command, and I don’t think that’s generally the end of the world. We want creative types and divergent thinkers in our classrooms, just as in our world. That said, students should never be allowed to think that they can willfully ignore a teacher’s direction, and I appreciate Lemov’s approach to “100 percent compliance” (particularly using the least invasive form of intervention–a menu of possible responses to any challenge).

Technique 37: What to Do

“Some portion of student noncompliance–a larger portion than many teachers ever suppose–is caused not by defiance but by incompetence: by students’ misunderstanding a direction, not knowing how to follow it, or tuning out in a moment of benign distraction. . . . What to Do starts, logically, with telling your students what to do–that is, with not telling them what not to do.” (p. 177-178)

For me, this is critical. Patience is not my forte, and I know that I am quick to assume that a student is willfully disregarding my instructions. This technique serves as both a reminder that I should be explicit in my expectations and instructions, as well as a reminder to ascertain the cause of the noncompliance. I definitely zone out at times; perhaps this is true of a student as well? (Of course it is, but too often we teachers imagine that what we’re saying has such import that no student could possibly get distracted.) By taking a moment to determine if the cause is incompetence or defiance, we can respond more appropriate–defusing some situations and escalating the ones that need to be escalated.

Technique 38: Strong Voice

“When you get loud and talk fast, you show that you are nervous, scared, out of control. You make visible all the anxieties and send a message to students that they can control you and your emotions.” (p. 187)

Again, because I lacked classroom management skills, I remember how, in my early days of teaching 9th graders, I would raise my voice to talk over students, and I would (at times) engage in a tense back-and-forth with the more outspoken members of the class. Strong Voice reminds me not to do that. When the classroom is loud; get quiet. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Choose your words carefully and judiciously.

Technique 41: Threshold

“The first minute, when students cross the threshold into the classroom, you must remind them of the expectations. It’s the critical time to establish rapport, set the tone, and reinforce the first steps in a routine that makes excellence habitual.” (p. 197)

I’m not sure why this isn’t the first technique in the chapter, if not the book. When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why don’t I take advantage of the time before class starts to welcome students, to make them feel welcome, and yes, to address any issues that need to be addressed. Why wait until the period begins to address a student who is wearing his headphones? Classroom cultures must be carefully cultivated and then defended vigorously. This will be a challenge for me this year as I don’t have a classroom of my own (I’ll be moving from room to room just as the students will), but I hope to make this part of my practice–to find a routine that works for me in which I can use that pre-class time to build and defend the classroom culture.

There are other techniques that I’d like to incorporate as well (Do Now, Cold Call, Pepper, Take a Stand, etc.) and I probably will do so here and there. But my focus, at least for the next few months, will be on using these techniques to improve my classroom management skills. I’ll try to write periodic reflections on how that is going.

 

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

One of the goals I set for myself this year was to was to read at least one book on history or education per month and write a short review here. Unfortunately, September has passed and I have no review to write. As it turns out, I’ve been doing a lot more writing than reading lately, but instead of blog posts, it’s been informal feedback for my students based on their participation in discussion, comments for progress reports, and, for my seniors, letters of recommendation for college.

At the moment, though, I am plugging away (slowly but surely) at Gordon S. Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. I’m an avid reader of Wood’s work and have been disappointed to find that much of the material is recycled and repackaged from Wood’s earlier writings. For example, the chapter I just finished last night was on Benjamin Franklin, and was pulled almost verbatim from his book The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. Still, Wood is such a giant in the field that it’s hard not to learn something every time I pick up his work. I expect that to be the case with this book as well.

I look forward to having a bit more to say about it once I’ve finished, but in the meantime, if you’re ever looking for a good read on the Revolutionary era, Wood is the place to start.

Since my brother-in-law got me a subscription for Christmas a few years ago, I have been a proud subscriber to the Oxford American. Each quarterly issue is so densely packed that I’ve unfortunately fallen quite far behind in my reading, such that to catch up seems an almost insurmountable task. As a result, my habit of late (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit) has been to give each issue only a cursory scan before placing it in the magazine file on the bookshelf.

However, the most recent arrival, boldly labeled “The Education Issue,” caught my interest immediately. I typically read the magazine cover-to-cover, so I started with the editor’s column. In it, Marc Smirnoff shares a couple of anecdotes from his own education–fairly run-of-the-mill examples of curmudgeonly teachers stamping out his natural interest in learning. He writes:

That I was mostly so mediocre and unhappy in school is odd, I suppose, because the career I eventually fell in love with has many times to academia. But it more or less took me getting out of high school [to discover my love of literature, which] makes me wonder whether it’s common for schools to fail to tap into, and turn on, a student’s deepest passion and career interest.

To be sure, this is a serious concern, certainly something worth wondering about. Presumably, Smirnoff would support efforts to individualize education and help students discover their particular talents and passions. And who wouldn’t?

What makes this difficult, though, I think, is the compartmentalized nature of most schools. At some point, high schools (and many middle and elementary schools) went the way of universities in pursuing knowledge almost solely in discrete disciplines. Although there have been calls to change that at the K-12 level–as well as a proliferation of interdisciplinary “fields” at the university level–the “subjects” approach to education still predominates. And if teachers are charged with narrowly teaching kids “world history” or “algebra” or “American literature” in 45 to 90 minute blocks, it becomes fairly difficult to “tap into . . . a student’s deepest passion”–unless, of course, that passion happens to be world history, algebra, or American literature.

At it’s core, I suppose, Smirnoff’s is a query about the nature and purpose of schooling. If were able–and willing–to free teachers from the content-coverage model of education (something that is becoming outdated in our smartphone-driven world) we might be able to teach across disciplines, emphasizing entrepreneurial skills and tapping into students’ passions and possible career interests. While it’s not impossible, trying to do this in a traditional school is an uphill battle.

Although his target seems to be “tradition” more so than “teachers,” Smirnoff also takes issue with how we do school, specifically when it comes to teaching reading and literature. “Wait for kids to reach college before teaching them Shakespeare,” he writes. (I will wait while the English teachers out there catch their collective breath.) “I remember how to my high-school ears even Dickens seemed to be speaking in code. Dickens! But such are the suspicions of the uninformed brain–or at least the brain raised on Gilligan’s Island.”

Leaving aside Smirnoff’s built-in assumption that all children will, in fact, have the opportunity to someday experience Hamlet in a collegiate setting, I think his concern is generally well-founded. “For kids not ready,” he continues, “Shakespeare can single-handedly cause them to equate literature with everything that is dense and dull.” His solution? “Turn the children on to the delights of plot before we charge them with subduing archaisms. Let them feel how the very act of turning a page goes hand in hand with enjoyment and engagement. Teach Agatha Christie, John Grisham, and Stephen King!”

This is, of course, a bit of a red herring, because it’s not as if teachers haven’t tried to do this. After all, the whole purpose of programs like “sustained silent reading” (which I think is a wonderful idea, particularly–but not exclusively–for students in lower grades) is to encourage children to read for the sake of reading.

Particularly in the context of compartmentalized schools, too, I think there are inconsistencies in Smirnoff’s thinking, as his goals can sometimes act at odds with one another. For example, because I want for them to experience true history and at least consider it as a major/career possibility, I try very hard to expose my students to a type of historical study that is different from the lecture-and-textbook approach to which many of them are accustomed. I do this by regularly assigning challenging primary sources and fairly sophisticated excerpts from historical monographs. I show them that history can be much more meaningful than a third-hand textbook rehashing, but to do that, I have to expose them to the rich and often confusing complexity of the historical source record. So which goal is more important: the tapping into of undiscovered passions or the simplification of source material in the name of enjoyment? And are they really mutually exclusive?

Even if his proposed solution is a bit extreme, I do think Smirnoff diagnoses a legitimate problem: in this age of never-ending digital distractions, if we hope to inspire in our students a love of the written word, we must be very thoughtful about what we assign and, perhaps more importantly, how we assign it. And although it doesn’t help to force Shakespeare down their throats, I’m also not sure we do them any favors by saying, “This Shakespeare stuff is too difficult. Don’t worry about it unless you decide to become an English major.” (Who would choose that major?)

Instead, perhaps the best approach will strive for balance: reading for reading’s sake on some days, and careful and well-planned considerations of more challenging texts on others. Only then we can begin to build mental bridges for our students between the sheer joy of a Grisham page-turner and the intellectual satisfaction of coming to understand a portion of the canon.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if they eventually picked up Macbeth on their own?