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Keeping Company With Kids, Not Lecturing at Them

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Dear Diane,

How many of our friends 10 years ago would have imagined that in 2008 you and I could almost be writing each other's columns? At least when it comes to NCLB, and quite a lot of other things—but not all! More or less amen, amen, and amen to every word you wrote on Tuesday.

By the time folks see either of these columns we'll have discussed this in public at NYU (Monday) and I'll have moved on to Pennsylvania to try to add a vote here and there to Obama's column, and visiting an old friend (Ruth Jordan) who I share a long history with. When I won that unexpected MacArthur award in 1987, I called Ruth immediately to ask what I should do with my five minutes of fame and glory. She came to my aid, as she always has and stretched that five to 10-plus. She also came up to NYC to help our parents and staff figure out how to say what we wanted said in sound bites. That was hugely fun and important. So we keep trying and trying.

An exhausting week in Minnesota and seven crammed speeches in Winnipeg was a tough test. Having Jane Andrias with me in Winnipeg, doing a terrific job of helping to uncover the power of childhood, helped. We met lots of great folks, including many who agreed with us and who are working in contexts (Manitoba, at least) that haven't yet become enamored of "the business model." My old Coalition friend Elliot Washor of The Big Picture Company gave a great speech, too, about their groundbreaking maverick schools (70 in all—including a dozen in the Netherlands and Australia!). It was a lift. But, alas, I'm more and more intrigued about how little we (Canadians, too) think about the requirements of a healthy democracy, and above all the education of an informed citizenry, not to mention any connection between schools and democracy.

You probably recall our effort at CPESS to define five habits of mind we thought not merely compatible but essential to good citizenship. We used these to a large extent to define and defend our curriculum and our assessment tools. Together they might be summed up as the habits of exercising sound judgment. If these were good ones, we figured they should inform our assessment also. CPESS has fallen victim to the larger system within which it exists, but there are offspring in many places that have adopted the same approach or invented their own forms of it. Sometimes our colleagues have come up with quite different ways to frame the goals, which adds to the conversation. There are dozens of these in NY state that have managed to avoid the state's killer's ax. I dare not mention them for fear that someone will notice that they're still alive and well! I'd love—once this election is over—to discuss these alternative approaches with you, and our readers.

I was just watching a program about Obama in Africa, and I was struck by his tone of voice—how conversational it was. That's rare among public figures, and it's something I listen for in schools. There's too often a very off-putting kindergarten teacher's voice, and so on all the way through the grades. I catch myself speaking that way on occasion. What would schools be like, I imagine, if we learned to use our conversational adult voice within its four walls. It might immediately remind us that we are keeping company with kids, not lecturing at them. It might also suggest to them that they might speak to us in the same way. After all, our way of talking, arguing, persuading, and thinking aloud are, however unintentional, models for those we share the space with. How might we, in short, create for the young settings in which they learn how to join us in the adult world? This would include modeling themselves on the varied styles of adulthood we offer, while also inventing their own ones—suitable to their ages, the generation they are growing up in, and their own unique personalities. Instead, we've carefully designed a society in which the closer our young get to adulthood the fewer authentic relationships they have with adults. That means, of course, that we have fewer relationships with the young, as well. Just thoughts as I recover from one grueling week and enter into another!

By the time I write you again—right?—we'll know whose voice and style will dominate the next four or more years. My fingers are crossed.

Best,
Deborah

5 Comments

Deborah, like you I am excited at the thought of a democrat African American stepping into the Presidency. Whether he leads Black America into success or not, his being in the leadership role can bring some astounding attitude change if it is allowed to play out.

What comes with that, however, is not something that those who know about the economy embrace. I'd encourage everyone to read The True Meaning of 'Historic Vote'.

Back to education...

Is anyone here proud of the people who created and relied on the financial models the banks and central bankers used these past years? Anyone proud of the congressional oversight which pushed the once repected Fannie Mae into new and absurd lending territory? Of the Congress who overrode the regulators fears about Credit Default Swaps and the like? Proud of our own understanding of any of this?

Did Education play a role here?

Here's the problem with the 'conversation with kids' thing: It works if you want a new generation of adults who are good at conversing, but little else. (Say economics, science, finance).

Don't get me wrong here. I love talking with today's teens; they step up and are shy about very little. You can engage them, they're open, for the most part trusting. Schools have helped make them that way.

Yet, do we not also need citizens who can be engineers and scientists, doctors and yes financial analysts? Citizens who remember that the world did not start in 1965? We're not doing so well on those fronts, and casual conversation will not help.

Kids need and want to be pushed. We all do. Some teachers can push in a friendly way. Others have a different tone. What matters to the kids is the subject competence, not the voice.

We don't talk much about subject competence here at Bridging Differences. The fact that perhaps 3 in 10 of us here can even define economics as a science bothers no one? Who here has needed to think about laying out a 400' electric service, let alone an integrated weapon system? Who here has modeled a complex system?

Over at Fireside, I asked Where is NATO?

[Afghanistan] is primarily a UN-mandated, NATO led mission-- unlike the US led coalition in Iraq. If 15,000 troops are needed, and we are in the post-American era, where are the troops of Europe? Why would anyone assume, as the filmmakers have, that such troops can, should, or will come from the US? (An education question: if we all agree on the relative importance of Afghanistan, and if NATO citizens are not stepping up, did education play a role in their reluctance?) Which European country should be leading there?

I also asked:

I am curious what this community know of Wahhabism, its origins, and its intents for our future. Is this the stuff of learning in schools?
And, are we teaching newspaper reporters well? When they learn of 'getting the story' does it include people like Baitullah Mehsud and Ali al Sistani? [Who here knows of these worthies?] How many of us, even of the learned class, know the difference between the Sunni views on politics vs religion and Shia thought thereupon? Do we know who is who in the war?

Don't we want young adults who are also competent?

Deborah,

I would have loved to hear you both speak on Monday! I was not far away that afternoon, and would have come. But I did not know. It is funny, though, because as I walked along Washington Square Park it seemed to me that something special was happening. I figured it was the leaves.

As a child, when in the back seat of a car amidst lots of traffic, I used to think about how the people in all those cars were on their way to somewhere important for them. The thought would overwhelm me: all those "I"s in cars. One of my favorite short stories is "La autopista del sur" by Julio Cortazar, about a traffic jam that brings strangers together for a little while.

There is something about that "traffic jam" schools--there are so many children, but start teaching in any school, and before long you are part of these children's lives, and they part of yours, for a while. In the evenings I think back on the day and remember the voices of these children as they rehearsed A Midsummer Night's Dream. Each voice comes back to me and brings something out of the play.

Voices tend to stay in my mind for years; I agree with you that we affect children with our voices. But the substance of what we say matters even more; would you agree? I am distressed that a voice can sometimes sweep away a crowd with sheer tone and beat.

I saw an example just today on video. A fifth-grade boy was giving a convocation address to a crowd of 17,500. I won't give details, because I have no desire to insult this boy. His timing, pitch, cadence, and emotion won him a standing ovation.

In my opinion he said close to nothing, over and over. People who watched the video talked about how moved they were by his speech, how close they came to tears. I was sad in the other direction: sad that the cheers were so wild over words that went round and round--skillfully, yes, genuinely, yes, but without a lasting idea.

I do forget much of what I hear, even the best speeches. But usually something will stay with me, and I will think about it for a long time. That beats the loveliest tone.

Diana Senechal

I, too, have found the cool, collected, and conversational speaking style of Senator Obama to be extremely refreshing in today's political climate.

In too many of our schools and classrooms (including my school and my classroom) we run little authoritarian fiefdoms which regularly tell students what to do and when to do it. This isn't the type of relationship that prepares students for participation in our democratic process.

Too often my students are uncomfortable in environments that allow them freedom of choice and gray areas. I can feel it in the electorate during this election season as well. I see too many people from both sides of the fence picking a side and vigorously defending all the tenants of that party without thinking twice. We need an electorate that can have rigorous debates over the issues; picking candidates based on engagement with other viewpoints instead of isolation from them.

I greatly enjoy reading the discussions posted on this space. Thank you.

An update: after a little digging, I found out that the fifth-grade boy did not write his own speech. The school district (not NYC) wrote it for him and coached him extensively in the delivery.

I feel bad for the boy now. He has been praised as a brilliant orator, genius, etc., and yet none of this was his except for the effort, performance, and genuine intent.

Now, there is no shame in delivering the words of another. But they should be credited as such, and they should be worth quoting. The boy gave the speech as though it were his own, and it had no meaning outside of the delivery.

I recognize, Deborah, that you were not talking about tone of voice alone, but about a manner of thinking and conversing with others. What you advocate is far different from what that boy unwittingly delivered. I believe I may have responded in a skewed way to what you were saying, and for that I am sorry.

But I am sometimes (of course not always) skeptical of the "conversational" tone. I use it a lot! But my favorite teachers have occupied quite a range--from formal to colloquial, from distant to familiar. They tended just a little toward the distant. Not forced formality, not false superiority--but they had a certain remove that made respect possible.

Perhaps you weren't denying that, either. Perhaps you object primarily to condescension of tone and thought. And there I agree with you heartily.

Diana Senechal

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