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Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Study Proves Mindfulness Reduces Stress, Improves Academics… But There’s Another Benefit

September 2, 2019 Comments off

A few days ago, Science Daily reported on two studies at MIT that came to the same conclusion: “…mindfulness — the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment — can enhance academic performance and mental health in middle-schoolers.”

I have been a formal mindfulness practitioner for roughly 15 years and can attest to the positive effects it has had on my mental acuity and physical well-being. But as one who has practiced mindfulness, I believe that the studies’ focus on the positive impacts on children are understated. Here are the conclusions of the studies as reported in Science Daily:

Synopsis of Study #1: After the mindfulness training, students showed a smaller amygdala response when they saw the fearful faces, consistent with their reports that they felt less stressed. This suggests that mindfulness training could potentially help prevent or mitigate mood disorders linked with higher stress levels, the researchers say.

Synopsis of Study #2: Students who showed more mindfulness tended to have better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions.

The first study’s conclusions are drawn from brain scans while the second study’s conclusions were drawn from an analysis of questionnaires. John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the scientist from the second study, emphasized that mindfulness cannot be taught in isolation or offered as a one-time course. It needs to become a habit:

“Mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last. It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.”

These reports and this conclusion bring to mind a talk given at a retreat by Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh who was approached by the military to offer mindfulness training to soldiers to help them improve their functioning. While he was disinclined to refuse the opportunity to offer the training because he knew the power of mindfulness, he ultimately rejected the proposal because he saw mindfulness as a PATH and not an end in itself. While this sounds like a call for a dogmatic “religious” approach, it reinforces the message offered by the MIT researchers. The mindfulness trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh require a wholistic approach, a willingness to not only go to the gym every day but to commit to a regimen of healthy living, to adopt habits of mind and habits of living that are sustainable for the individual and the planet. Those habits of mind will lead to a level of self-awareness that will help preclude the fear that grips us today, fear that leads to hatred of “the other” and a sense of isolation that ultimately can lead to unhealthy thoughts, speech, and deeds.

If mindfulness is approached as a path, as part of a mental regimen, it will do more than lead to better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions…it will help transform the mental formations that are leading us in the wrong direction… mental formations that compel us to think that better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions is all we need to change in schools.

The Unshakeable Myth of Horatio Alger Lives On… Facts Notwithstanding. But Then So Does Sorting Students by Age and Standardized Testing

July 5, 2019 1 comment

It is difficult to NOT to sound haughty and dismissive when I react to large swaths of the population in our country who cannot accept the fact that unregulated capitalism works against their needs. Today’s NYTimes, for example, had an article by Patricia Cohen titled “Southerners, Facing Big Odds, Believe in a Path Out of Poverty“. The article describes how most Southerners see no need for any kind of government assistance because they cling to the Horatio Alger myth that “anyone with enough gumption and grit can clamber to the top”. It also describes how those holding this belief are unshaken when confronted with facts illustrating that social mobility in their region is the worst in the country and worse than it has ever been. And what was even more astonishing was to read research showing that that this optimism persisted and even increased in the face of segregation. Social scientists di find one factor that DID make a difference: an individual;s political viewpoint:

Whether people think opportunity is equally available, though, often depends on their political viewpoint.

Liberals are generally more pessimistic than conservatives about the ability of poorer Americans to hoist themselves up economically, and they are more inclined to support government programs meant to ease the route. Tell them that social mobility from one generation to the next is less than they thought, and their support for public assistance increases.

For conservatives, none of that is true. Learning that they have overestimated the odds does not increase their support for government intervention, but causes it to drop even further.

To this New England liberal, this conservative unwillingness to face facts seems backward! How could anyone NOT want to change an economic system that reduces the odds for their children to have a better life? But then I reflect on my own life experience and realize that I often ignored cold, hard facts when I applied for jobs and worked hard in my teens and in my workalike to “clamber to the top” thanks to “gumption and grit”. I could easily create a narrative based on this personal experience that anyone who applied themselves, persisted, and accumulated the prerequisite skills could realize their dreams without any help from the government. But this narrative would have to overlook the reality that I was born as a white male into a family where both parents had college degrees and were able to provide me with food, clothing and shelter throughout my youth.

In the early 1990s I read a book by Joel Barker titled Paradigms, a book that drew on the then arcane research of scientist Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Barker posited that the collective rules that govern our thinking, our paradigms, can often block us from seeing potential business opportunities and can often lead us to cling to ideas that are outdated and unsubstantiated by facts. I showed the video that accompanied the book to faculty members and administrators in the district where I was working at the time, linking Barker’s message to the changes we were making as we converted our “junior high schools” to “middle schools”, our budgeting toward a school-based approach as opposed to a centralized one, and our student grading system towards a mastery approach. The conversion to middle schools was relatively easy, challenged primarily by budget constraints that made inter-disciplinary team organization scheduling very complicated. The school-based budget was also relatively easy to accomplish: most of the Principals readily accepted the idea that they could allocate a pool of money among accounts instead of having the central office mandate budget lines for supplies, texts, workbooks, and equipment. The student grading system, though, seemed impervious to change. I hoped that we would move away from a bell curve to a j-curve, away from letter grades that compared students to each other toward a system that measured each individual against a series of performance standards, a system that used time instead of mastery as a variable. What I found was that the imprint of the bell curve and the rules that accompanied that imprint, were seemingly impervious to change.

The lesson I learned from this is that some mind shifts can occur fairly rapidly, especially when the benefits of the shift are relatively painless to achieve. But when a mind shift requires a corresponding change in deeply imprinted paradigms like the bell curve, a mind shift can be measured in generations unless some kind of shared experience compels us to think differently.

One Phrase Explains Demise of Alternative Colleges: “…a Desire for a Higher Return on Investment”

March 4, 2019 Comments off

I have a soft spot in my heart for so-called “alternative colleges”, a soft spot born from my own personal experience as an undergraduate and my older daughter’s experience as a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and my younger daughter’s experience at Amherst College.

As one who valued hands-on experiential learning and the opportunity to develop one’s own curriculum, I stumbled into an ideal situation as an undergraduate at Drexel University. When I entered Drexel, it was an “institute of technology” like it’s more famous role model Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It differentiated itself from other “institutes of technology” by offering a five year work-study program that enabled undergraduates to work six-month stints in industry where they could see how the abstract coursework they were completing in the classroom translated to the workplace. When I enrolled, I intended to pursue engineering, but after two six month assignments at the Ford Motor Company and increasingly daunting and uninteresting coursework in mathematics and science I decided to change majors to Commerce and Engineering— a hybrid major Drexel offered to disenchanted and/or challenged engineering majors who wanted to pursue a degree that would prepare them for the workplace at that time. While I found the coursework much more interesting and upgraded my cumulative average, after a successful six-month period at Mobil Oil, I turned down an offer to return there because I had decided to become one of the first students to enroll in Drexel’s fledgling “Humanities and Technology” college— an undergraduate degree that Drexel needed to offer in order to become a university instead of an institute of technology. My plan was to major in English, teach in the City, and find my way to a leadership role in that organization instead of climbing the corporate ladder. While my classmates dreamed of becoming CEO of their own business or of an existing Fortune 500 company, I dreamed of being Superintendent of Schools in Philadelphia.

As a new student in a new and as-yet-undefined program, I was able to design my own major for my final two years. I took a heavy load of poetry, literature, and history courses, was tutored in the design of standardized tests by Drexel’s lone psychometrics professor, and dabbled in introductory courses in biology and pure mathematics (as opposed to the five calculus and many physics and chemistry courses I took as an aspiring engineer) in order to broaden my opportunities for education certification. I also spent three months as a student teacher in English at West Philadelphia HS. When I graduated, I had sufficient courses to be certified in English, social studies, science, and mathematics. Since Pennsylvania only allowed a prospective teacher to have two certificates, my academic advisor recommended that I get certified in English and mathematics. But more importantly, I had a sense that I had in some sense controlled my destiny for the previous five years.

When my daughters were selecting a college to attend, they leaned toward schools that did not have distribution requirements and allowed undergraduates to take a wide array of courses. My older daughter specifically sought out unconventional schools that would allow her to pursue coursework based on her own interests. The colleges we visited included some liberal arts schools that had distribution requirements, but also included Antioch in Ohio and The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, the school she ultimately selected. My younger daughter was more interested in attending a school that would nurture her desire to become a writer, which led us to visit Brown, Wesleyan, and Amherst where she ultimately enrolled.

Given my personal experiences as an undergraduate and the fact that their mother majored in art as an undergraduate and was working as a fabric artist at the time they were aspiring to college, we supported the idea of them attending liberal arts colleges. We both recognized that once they obtained degrees they would be able to find their way in the world… and, from my perspective, if they could effectively design their own course of studies they would have a sense of agency that many college students who follow a prescribed curriculum lack.

With all of this as a backdrop, I was saddened to read Anemona Hartocollis’ article in today’s NYTimes that one of the groundbreaking “alternative colleges”, Hampshire, was on the verge of closing its doors. The reason?

The problems alternative colleges face point to a larger crisis in higher education: a shrinking college-age population, especially in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where many of these institutions are clustered. But they are also confronting a growing skepticism of the liberal arts, often a focus of nontraditional programs, and a desire for a higher return on investment.

The shrinking college-age population is a demographic reality, but the notion that college attendance is based on a “return on investment” is a mental construct that exemplifies everything that is wrong with traditional education and the so-called K-12 “reform” movement that perpetuates traditional schooling. A quote from Eva-Maria Swidler, a faculty member at Goddard College, an alternative college in Plainfield, Vermont, offers the best insight on the current state of affairs in undergraduate education:

“What I see happening under the aegis of ‘financial responsibility’ is a purging of colleges that serve unconventional students….What this purge leaves behind is a system of higher education even more focused on either training only the elites in the liberal arts or training everyone else as obedient workers for a corporate work force.

The call for students to be “ready-for-work” creates a demand for cookie-cutter curricula that prepare undergraduates for job vacancies that exist today but are unlikely to exist in the future… and by obediently completing these prescribed course sequences undergraduates who aspire to get a good “return on their investment” are denied the opportunity to control their own destiny, to learn-how-to-learn, to have any sense of agency, or be prepared for an ambiguous future.

Education is not intended to “prepare students for work”… it is, in the words of John Dewey, “life itself”. I did not realize it when I entered college, Drexel was following Dewey’s admonition:

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.

I doubt that John Dewey ever uttered the phrase “return on investment”… indeed, I cannot think of any respected education philosopher who ever used that phrase. Nor did any creative genius.

Dwight Scott: A Great Teacher, a Great Coach, a Wonderful Human Being

January 2, 2019 Comments off

I read on Facebook that my younger daughter’s cross country coach, Dwight Scott, passed away at the age of 87. Dwight Scott’s obituary that appeared in the local newspaper in Western Maryland, the Herald Mail, offered this synopsis of his career as an educator:

Coach Scott spent his primary years as an educator at Boonsboro High School, Boonsboro, MD, where he served for 37 years as physical education teacher, coach, and athletic director (final 19 years). He started the football and track and field programs there in the school year 1959-60. Highlights of his time as head coach of the football, track and field, and cross country teams include: Football — ten league or district championships, including two undefeated seasons (1968 and 1969); Girls Outdoor Track and Field — five state championships; Girls Cross Country — also five state championships. After retiring in 1996, Coach Scott was a volunteer assistant for the Boonsboro High School track and field program for 22 years.

Like most obituaries of educators and coaches, this one failed to capture the true essence of the human being who spent years working with students and athletes. It focused on Coach Scott’s major accomplishments: athletic programs he launched, championships he won, and the countless hours he spent as a volunteer for track and field. What it doesn’t capture is how Coach Scott connected with students when he was teaching gym classes, how he connected with athletes and the parents of athletes when he was a coach, and how he connected with his colleagues in the school when he was Athletic Director. And what it fails to capture at all is what a wonderful human being Coach Scott was.

Three personal anecdotes about Coach Scott illustrate his humanity.

When my younger daughter was in middle school, she and her classmates participated in a Field Day at the end of the year. After she did well in the longest run that was part of the event, Coach Scott approached her and two of her classmates and promised them if they joined the cross country team they would win a state championship and he would “graduate” with them in 1996. She and several of her classmates became the core of three of those championship teams on Coach Scott’s list… but they did so because Coach Scott developed a camaraderie among the team and the parents of the team members. Saturday cross country meets were not only competitions between teams from across the region, they were picnics catered by parents who formed their own bonds with each other and with Coach Scott. To his credit, Coach Scott never thought of me as “the Superintendent of Schools”, he thought of me as “Hannah’s dad” and treated me with the same respect as he treated every parent of one of his athletes. We— the cross country athletes and parents— were Coach Scott’s family and we all felt blessed to be a part of it.

During the fall of my daughter’s sophomore year, my father passed away. Between my own grief and the demands of my job, I had lost sight of the impact his passing had on my daughter. Coach Scott called me at work and called my wife at home to let us know that Hannah was experiencing some stress over her grandfather’s death and encouraged us to be sensitive to that. She reached out to him, and he, in turn, reached out to us.

A few years later after I moved from the area and my younger daughter went away to college in New England, Coach Scott learned that my wife had cancer. Because of the team picnics she attended over my daughter’s four years on the cross country team he knew her well… and because he connected with me as a human being he wrote to both is us regularly offering encouragement… and he corresponded with my daughter as well.  When my late wife ultimately passed away, Coach Scott he sent me a touching sympathy card, one that showed he knew my wife well and appreciated her life.

Obituaries cannot capture the humanity of those who pass away, nor can they capture the impact of the deceased on the community at large. Teachers and coaches, especially, touch countless lives. My late wife, daughter and I were touched deeply by Coach Scott, just as parents and students across the nation are touched deeply by thousands of teachers and coaches…. and, just as we touch the lives of everyone we come in contact with on a daily basis.

I believe Coach Scott would want us to honor his memory by honoring every human being we come in contact with the way he honored his athletes and their parents… by inviting every human being to be part of one family the way way he created one family with his cross country team and their parents. I also believe he would want to be remembered for his small acts of kindness more than his championships. Here’s hoping everyone who benefitted from Coach Scott’s humanity pays it forward in the years to come.

 

Connecting the Dots: Meritocracy in Children’s Athletics and the Disappearance of Childhood

December 25, 2018 Comments off

Several posts on this blog made reference to Neil Postman’s 1980s book The Disappearance of Childhood, which describes how well-intentioned adults of my generation ended the existence of childhood by imposing tight schedules on their children instead of the freedom children of my generation experienced, highly organized sports activities instead of the pick-up games children of my generation threw together in an ad hoc fashion, and lots of lessons instead of the trial-and-error method of learning children in my generation experienced.

American Meritocracy is Killing Youth Sports, a recent Atlantic magazine article by Derek Thompson, underscores the damage done to childhood by our generation and illustrates how the next generation is diminishing it even more. In the article, Mr. Thompson omits the legacy of pick-up games but does describe how sports went from the town and school sponsored leagues that accepted all comers in all sports to the “elite” teams that sort and select only the best athletes who are increasingly “specializing” in only one sport. This means that amateurs like me, who had lots of chances to play lots of sports with lots of kids of varying abilities are left on the sidelines… and it means that lots of kids who played multiple sports in multiple leagues — like my sons in laws– are finding it necessary to resist the pull their children feel to specialize in one sport or one area.

From my increasingly curmudgeonly and nostalgic perspective, I wish that kids could be free to explore in the woods, play two-or-three man baseball games, pick-up basketball on outdoor courts, and touch football in open fields instead of being compelled to play in fancy uniforms in highly structured leagues….

 

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Forbes’ Op Ed by Michael McShane Gets the Facts Right, But his Convoluted Conclusion is WAY Off Base

December 19, 2018 Comments off

Earlier this week Forbes published an op ed by Michael McShane, a self described student of “K-12 education, including entrepreneurship and school choice“, titled “Enrollment Fraud Reminds Us That Many Public Schools Aren’t Public“. The article describes a recent lawsuit filed by the DC public schools when they discovered that six of their students resided in a neighboring Maryland district. He followed up this account with the following paragraph:

Lying about one’s residence to gain access to a public school is called enrollment fraud (or residency fraud) and it is something that is more common than you might think.  Philadelphia public radio station WHYY did an in-depth storyabout enrollment fraud back in May that is worth listening to. They even shadowed an investigator who follows students home from school and videotapes them taking out the trash and walking dogs to prove that they are not living where they say that they are.

Mr. McShane reports this as if it is a new phenomenon that has only emerged in the past few years. This is clearly NOT the case! When I worked as an assistant principal in a school district that abutted Philadelphia we routinely culled out a half dozen students a year who were Philadelphia residents thanks to the work of a team of three district employees with anodyne title of “Pupil Personnel Workers” whose job was to gather evidence needed to establish the student’s true residency. The year was 1975— 40+ years ago. Oh, and roughly half of the bogus attendees in our district had been expelled from school in Philadelphia for disciplinary or truancy issues.

And residency fraud was not limited to districts adjoining cities. I encounter this issue throughout my career: as Principal and Superintendent in rural Maine, and Superintendent in affluent communities in New Hampshire, rural Maryland, and upstate New York.

Mr. McShane as a self-proclaimed student of K-12 education accurately identifies one of the major flaws of our existing system:

School district lines often act as invisible barriers to opportunity. Many poor families find themselves on the outside looking in. Prosecuting families that pierce those barriers through nefarious means raises questions that cut to the very heart of our notions of public schooling. Aren’t public schools supposed to take all comers? Aren’t they supposed to be working to limit inequality, not exacerbate it? What would Horace Mann, father of “Common Schools,” say?

…Enrollment fraud is an example of where the reality of public schooling conflicts with the rhetoric of public schooling. No, great public schools aren’t always open to all comers. Public schools can, and do, act to exacerbate inequality. School choice is not something that only occurs when a state allows for charter schools or starts a voucher program…

In fact, the debate around school choice in this country would vastly improve if all of us were simply more honest about the de facto school choice programs that already exist in our communities. Rather than acting like a state “gets” school choice the day that a charter school law is passed, we would recognize that many Americans, from suburbanites to posh urbanites ensconced in exclusive attendance zone enclaves, exercise school choice. The fact that people want to choose a school increases the value of homes within its attendance zone. That premium keeps poor children out of that school. It functions like tuition, making a public school a private one….

Mr. McShane, as a school choice advocate, sees the problem as one of not having enough flexibility in enrollments. He would, presumably, allow the students expelled from Philadelphia Public Schools to choose to attend schools in neighboring districts and perhaps mandate that residents who pay a premium in housing costs and property tax to open the doors of their schools and overcrowd their classrooms with children who live just across the border— or who might commute in on a train, trolley, or bus. His means of addressing Horace Mann’s desire to limit inequality would, presumably, be to ask affluent districts to expand the space inter classroom to make it possible for them to “..take all comers”. 

This idea is preposterous… but it may sadly be as preposterous as raising taxes on those who are affluent so that the funding for all schools and the opportunities for all students can be equitable. The problems Mr. McShane presents have been around for decades… and the solutions involving spending more have been as well. HOW to spend more is the issue. WHETHER to spend more is not. The sooner the public realizes that reality the better off our children will be.

Good News For Underachievers (and the Well-Being of Students): Straight A’s Do NOT Translate to Success in Life

December 10, 2018 Comments off

In writing this post, I initially thought I would title it “This Just In: Grades Don’t Matter” because I thought that the lack of a correlation between high grades and “success” was as self evident as, say, the correlation between poverty and test scores. But I went with the title above because, as one who was labelled an “underachiever” because I failed to earn straight A’s in middle school I think it better reflects the reality of the mindset of public education when I attended school in the 50s and 60s, a mindset that persists today.

The post was prompted by an article in the Sunday NYTimes by Adam Grant titled “What Straight A Students Get Wrong”, and the “what” is that in the final analysis the grades you earned in high school and college do not matter once you get in the real world. In his op ed, Dr. Grant describes counseling a distraught college junior who had just received her first A-, a blot on her academic record that she was certain would doom her to some kind of second class citizenship in the future. Dr. Grant then revealed what underachiever like me have known for decades and used to comfort ourselves (or rebut our parents):

Getting straight A’s requires conformity.Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Dr. Grant then offers a long list of individualists who did poorly in school but made a name for themselves in their chosen areas of interest: Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have provided a much longer list, but those three clearly made the point.

He concludes his essay with advice for universities, employers, and students, suggesting to students that they recognize that “…underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life” and that getting a B might be the best thing for them.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a high school student I never aspired to be valedictorian, perhaps because I did not (and still do not) have the temperament needed and did not (and still do not) see the point in it. As a parent I celebrated the first B my children brought home in high school because I knew that they would no longer be able to become valedictorian and would, therefore, be able to dedicate their time to other pursuits… ones that satisfied their curiosity and not the needs of the schools.

There is a place for evaluation in school. Students need to master fundamental math skills and need to be coached to become good communicators. And once students have these baseline skills in place— and certainly by the time they are in college– there is no need for assigning letter grades or numeric grades. Narrative descriptions of a student’s performance are far more beneficial to the student and compel the teacher to get to know each student in their class deeply.

Alas… binary pass-fail grades on fundamentals and narrative descriptions once a student has progressed to higher levels of education do not yield rankings, and without rankings there can be no “competition” and without that, well, what? I suppose some will posit that without competition our “economic system” will collapse. I prefer to believe that without competition the well-being of children will improve and our political system will improve. Evidently I am not alone in this belief. The renegades who did not conform in school and spent their time working on computers send their children to Waldorf Schools and Montessori programs where doing things and being human is valued more than getting good grades and conforming to a system that measures skills needed in the early 20th Century. Maybe it’s time to re-think grades altogether… in doing so we would necessarily be re-thinking school.