Sunday, September 28, 2008

Children, Fairness, Hard Work, and Altruism

Recently I enjoyed one of my favorite treats, reading to preschool children.  In a Montessori school, a preschool classroom consists of three-, four- and five-year old children.  What made this read so special was looking into the faces of the children when I reached the end of the book and the hen decides to eat the cake all by herself.

                               The Little Red Hen

The Little Red Hen, a folk tale illustrated by Paul Galdone, provides a great opportunity for parents to engage their children in the concepts of fairness, work ethic, and altruism.  Click above on the YouTube reading of the book, or better yet, go out and buy the book and read it with your child.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Young Adult or Adult Reading?

At the end of the summer, our school librarian — knowing how much I enjoy reading young adult literature — came to me with a must-read recommendation. The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt was in her hand and extended toward me as she said, “You’ll love it.”

Well, she was right. This Simpsonsesque novel, like the popular television series, guides the reader back and forth from young adult readers identifying with seventh grader Holling Hoodhood to adult readers enjoying the life of his family, Shakespeare, the Cold War, and the New York Yankees. A month a chapter, Holling grows up quickly in one year — 1967. I will read pages 75 to 81 to our middle school students to give them a taste of this wonderful book.

What I loved was how Schmidt wove works of the Bard with teaching, family life in the 60s, and the life of middle school students. He really captures it all. Read the NYTimes review if you want, but if you are a parent of a preadolescent, or teach middle school, or love the Simpsons, grab The Wednesday Wars. You’ll love it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Class Bias - The Real Enemy

This article first appeared in the winter 1999 issue of Independent School magazine.

Good literature and life experiences suggest that biases among people are often rooted in class — more so than in race, culture, sexual orientation, religion, or gender.

My own awareness of class differences heightened as I moved from my public school education to the military, where people were slotted into one of three classes — enlisted, non-commissioned officers, or officers — to teaching in a boarding school, to teaching in a day school on the North Shore of Long Island, and finally to my current position as head of a school in Connecticut. But it was while my wife and I were living and teaching on Long Island that class distinction — the invidiousness of it — was most dramatic. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby accurately describes the class-conscious segment of society in which my family and I were immersed. Independent schools are often seen as institutions that perpetuate class distinction. For me, however, the sharp contrast in class separation inspired me to fully appreciate and embrace the value of independent education.

As faculty members at a Long Island independent school in which our children were enrolled, we found ourselves in a world divided into two classes. Our parenting skills were often tested as our children straddled both of these worlds — living in a family of teachers, on one hand, and having wealthy classmates and friends, on the other. This was made clearest during holiday breaks when our choice for vacation was markedly different (read “less exotic”) from the choices of their classmates’ families. As we witnessed our own children comparing material differences, we realized they had difficulty understanding and accepting their own social status. And why shouldn’t they in a broader culture that too often equates success with wealth, with having it all?

It has been a great challenge for us as parents to help our children realize that who they are is so much more important that what they are — that material wealth is not the goal of life, not the pot at the end of the rainbow. This is the same challenge that many of today’s independent schools face. Some families are affluent while others invest their life savings in their children’s education, and others are grateful for scholarship or financial aid that allows the opportunity for a quality education. The good news is that the class structure that challenges independent schools evolves from the diversity of families our schools now enjoy serving, and that underlying everything is a unity of purpose among families: their appreciation of high-quality education and care given to children. It is the combination of this unity of purpose and our newly found dedication to embracing differences that validates my belief in independent education.

Keeping issues of diversity in the forefront reminds our schools of the constant need to move forward. Ultimately, each school must be sensitive to individual differences and promote a parenting style that embraces unified yet diverse school communities. At the same time, our similarities — those traits that bind humanity — need also to be emphasized. I am informed inspired by the work, writing, and life of Robert Coles, which transcends class distinctions and represents a valid map with routes to the essence of people understanding each other. Cole’s The Call of Stories is one of the most eloquent books on the subject. Whether a family enjoys eating at Pizza Hut, Denny’s, or at a gourmet restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; or whether the color of its skin is not in the majority; or its children’s education is supported by financial aid, the subtleties of class should never dull a family’s sense of its humanity, of its connectedness to others.

I understand that the independent school system is not above perpetuating its own class system. The "old-boy network" subtly pushes against gender diversity and tacitly yields to class distinctions and legacies within school communities; it can unconsciously nudge teachers, heads of school, children, and families away from our schools. By the nature of a school’s many diverse constituencies, there is inextricably woven within the fabric a class thread which can unravel the prevailing mission to educate children. But I believe the combination of dedication to high quality education, embracing of differences, and emphasis on shared values is leading us toward becoming truly inclusive schools that reach beyond class. The blueprint is drawn; people can envision the structure; now it is a matter of finding the raw materials — courage and perseverance — to complete the construction phase.

The human migration from England to America provided much to compare and think about regarding biases among people; oddly enough, it was class oppression which many of our relatives fled in the seventeenth century. But with all of America’s class struggles, I am grounded by how John Steinbeck set a common denominator and described America’s people in Travels with Charley. “If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Class Bias

I have always believed that issues of bias and prejudice are rooted in class. I was able to articulate my thoughts in an article published in the 1999 winter issue of Independent School magazine. (The next post will present that article.)

My 1999 thoughts were confirmed when I read the book Class Matters (Times Books, 2005), which looked at wealth, job, education, and income as class qualifiers. Click over to the Class Matters interactive graphic "How Class Works" to view "Components of Class," "How Class Breaks Down," "Income Mobility," and "A Nationwide Poll." This graphic will give you a better understanding of how class works in our society.

Read "The Next Kind of Integration" in the July 20 NYTimes Sunday Magazine. You will see that our education system is beginning to get to the root of equal education for all children by looking at class instead of race.

Lastly, in the book Three Cups of Tea, the author opens chapter 4 with "Greatness is always built on this foundation: the ability to appear, speak, and act as the most common man." -Shams-ud-din Muhammed Hafiz. Give some thought to what this quote is saying.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

How to Inspire 20,000 Teachers

A recent posting on the Montessori Heads' listserve was a clip of Dalton Sherman addressing 20,000 employees of the Dallas school system. Take five minutes to hear what he has to say about the importance of teachers.

While you are at YouTube, you may want to click on his award winning speech honoring Dr. Maya Angelou, quoting from Dr. Martin Luther King's "The Drum Major."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Different Kind of Romance

Having spent 30 years in school communities, 17 of those years as head of school, I have become acutely aware of the relationship of a head of school and a board of trustees. I tried to capture my thoughts in a short piece, which was published a year ago. "A romance: school and head" describes the courtship and life of a special kind of romance.

Friday, September 5, 2008

America Diverse?

Reading a Thomas Freidman Op-Ed piece the other day, "Melting Pot Meets Great Wall," caused me to think about the state of diversity in America. I quote from his piece:

"Let’s start with us. Walking through the Olympic Village the other day, here’s what struck me most: the Russian team all looks Russian; the African team all looks African; the Chinese team all looks Chinese; and the American team looks like all of them."

Actually, whenever I hear people getting down on America and what it represents, I reflect on what it is. Let's consider a few of the cultural identifiers and what is happening in America today:
• race - a presidential candidate is a person of color
• agism - a presidential candidate is in his 70s
• gender - a vice presidential candidate is a woman

America isn't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe Freidman's melting pot point is well taken.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Newbery Medal = Good Young Adult Reading

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a beautifully written book which places the reader in a medieval town. It is a perfect introduction to that time in history for young people (and adults, too).

This year's Newbery Medal Winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies, is one of many young adult books published each year, and while others receive Honor Medals, only one is the Newbery Medal Winner. Go to the site, read about the Newbery Medal awards, and note the list of winners that goes back to 1922.

As an aside, GMSL prompted me to read Ken Follett's World Without End, which is set in the 14th Century and is the sequel to his Pillars of the Earth . I can't put it down! All 1,024 (that's exactly a kilobyte of) pages have been a good friend as summer vacation comes to a close.