A Trip Around the Globe: Hard Truths about Race & Education

I can’t believe we’re having this conversation, but let’s try… a trip around the globe from Italy to Brazil, to New Zealand, Selma, and back home again.

Every good liberal agrees that we have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. To which we would add, “Why stop there? What about the schooling of children of color from poverty backgrounds? Don’t we also need to come to terms with some hard truths about race and education as well?” Who, however, will depict their plight? Who will speak for the children?

What better voice than the children themselves?

Italy

“Dear Miss,

You don’t remember me or my name. You have flunked so many of us. On the other hand I have often had thoughts about you, and the other teachers, and about the institution which you call ‘school’ and about the kids that you flunk. You flunk us right out into the fields and factories and there you forget us.”

Thus began Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una professoressa) by the Schoolboys of Barbiana, a book in the form of a letter addressed to a composite teacher, by eight students speaking with a single voice.

All were students in a small school, located in a remote Italian village of about twenty farmhouses in the hills of the Mugello region, in Tuscany.

The school was the brainchild of Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967), a progressive educator, journalist and priest who created it as an alternative educational setting for poor children who had been pushed out from traditional schooling. Born into poor families, these schoolboys had been told by former teachers that their futures were limited. Most had either flunked out of school or were bitterly discouraged with the way they were taught.

It began with 10 peasant students, schoolboys, 11 to 13 years old and a rigorous schedule of eight hours of work per day, six to seven days a week and later grew to 20 students, with the older students teaching the younger ones.

The school was quite different than anything the children had previously experienced. Under Milani’s guidance, they learned how to write and think for themselves. They also learned to overcome their social-class limitations. The school respected the boys as learners and honored their backgrounds.

It s curriculum included the analysis and discussion of the children’s own lives, which included a year-long project (coordinated by Milani) about their experiences in the school system, a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, was cluttered with irrelevant curricula, placed an emphasis on rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Black and white photo of the schoolboys of Barbiana

The letter is an eloquent diatribe of the children’s own experiences in the public schools and the favoritism and class-bias of the entire educational system. It is one of the most simple but most forceful pieces of writing of the 20th century on school and social class and a powerful, indictment of how schools are complicit in perpetuating social injustice.

Brazil

That very same year (1966), Paolo Freire’s classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published. Freire had worked for years with the campesinos, “the shirtless ones,” those laboring in the fields of Brazil in efforts to raise adult literacy.

His approach to schooling also began with his students, integrating the mainsprings of their lives; their fears, hopes, aspirations, and concerns as the point of departure and the subject matter, dictating both classroom practice and the politics of the school.

Photo of Paulo Freire

Rejecting the traditional banking approach—the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student’s account— he replaced it with a process that was mutual and dialogical, in which students continually questioned and took meaning from everything they learned.

In the process, they learned how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, emerging with an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

This had implications on a much wider level as well. Education would be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

New Zealand

Four years later, Sylvia Ashton-Warner published her book, Teacher, recounting her experience teaching the Maori children of New Zealand.

Black and white photo of Sylvia Ashton-Warner and school children

Her approach towards introducing primitive children to the world of words was simple yet direct.

They (the words) must be made out of the stuff of the child itself. I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material… And in this dynamic material within the familiarity and security of it, the Maori finds that words have intense meaning to him, from which cannot help but arise a love of reading. For it’s here, right in this first word, that the love of reading is born, and the longer his reading is organic the stronger it becomes, until by the time he arrives at the books of the new culture, he receives them as another joy rather than as labor. I know all this because I’ve done it.

The approach of Milani, Freire, and Ashton-Warner is far different than the philosophy which today dictates the education of urban kids (read poor black and brown children). Martin Haberman called it “The pedagogy of poverty.”

Rather than facilitating student ownership of the educational content or treating them as partners in it, content is directive, tightly controlled and superimposed from above.

It has powerful and varied advocates: Those who fear minorities and the poor and have low expectations for them; those obsessed with control; and those who themselves have been brutalized and marginalized by the process; as well as business and reform-oriented leaders working from their narrow world view, believing it to be the only way of structuring reality,

Call it what you may, the approach at its heart is racism, masquerading as hope, working to perpetuate the current social and political reality.

Washington D.C.

We have already passed the 50th anniversary, of the publication of the single best-known pieces of social science research ever done on our schools. Named in deference to its senior author, sociologist, James Coleman, “The Coleman Report” is the second largest social science research project ever produced in this country’s history–an effort deemed “impressive,” even by today’s standards. The study was produced under the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The resulting report, “Equality in Educational Opportunity,” was published in July 1966.

Black and white photo of James Coleman

The central finding of the report was that what occurred in a child’s home and in their neighborhood and though their interactions with peers were far greater determinants of academic success than anything schools might do. Few school-related “inputs” seemed to matter much in terms of overcoming the academic disparities which children brought with them. Only teachers’ verbal ability seemed to be linked to higher student test scores and improving student achievement.

That’s what people remember most about the report. What many took away from it was the notion that “schools don’t matter,” an argument which many politicians used in opposing further educational funding–an interpretation which was greatly oversimplified.

Virtually lost in its discussion was what the report found to be the next–most important determinant of academic achievement after family characteristics–a student’s sense of control over his or her own destiny.

If the motivational problems of the poor is to a significant degree rooted in the conviction, resulting from the experience of a rigid or chaotic home and street life, that they cannot influence the relevant parts of their environment, surely the efforts of school to prevent their reflecting on, evaluating, and attempting to influence the environment of the school itself, could only further confirm their belief in the fruitlessness of making any effort toward self-mastery.

If the primary cause of lack of motivation among the poor is their feeling that they cannot control their own destiny – that feeling can only be reinforced by placing them in highly politicized and manipulative programs of compensatory education whose success is largely defined in terms of percentage of students gotten into “quality” colleges.

Oh yes, the report also noted that African-American students in schools with mostly white students had a greater sense of control. But forget about that. The goal of school integration has long since passed us by.

Photo of an integrated classroom from the fifties

How to address this disparity? Empowering the students might be a good place to start. Taking the lives of students seriously invariably leads to having to also take seriously the larger context in which schooling is played out. Empowering students goes hand in hand with empowering the community.

That is the challenge we face today.

Whoever is fond of the comfortable and fortunate stays out of politics, he does not want anything to change. To get to know the children of the poor, and to love politics, are one and the same thing. You cannot love human beings who are marked by unjust laws, and not work for other laws.

The Children of Barbiana

Why I Wrote a Book on Alternative Education and titled it: Dancing on the Contradictions

The stories contained within my book, Dancing on the Contradictions, detail the realities—the struggles and the resilience—of students in alternative educational settings grappling with assuming responsibility for their lives, forging identities, and carving out their autonomy, all within settings founded on democratic principles of free expression and community.

Yet, no matter how elaborate or comprehensive our machinery of governance, it never operated quite as we had hoped. Does this mean we failed or that democracy failed?

Certainly not. It means that there is where the dance begins.

Democracy is itself a contradiction, messy and difficult, beautiful and freeing. As Winston Churchill said, “It is the worst form of government, except for all the others…”  

And so, it is vital that progressive educators of today merge the “why” with the “how”, that they ground alternative education theory with real practice. That was the focus of my life’s work and that is what’s now contained within the pages of my book.

It’s about a dance that early school reformers took up many decades ago, and which I have no doubt modern educators will continue even better than before. If, that is, they understand the history of educational reform in this country and build upon it rather than exhausting their energy by reinventing everything the profession already knows–but has a tendency to forget.

And so we confront not only the contradictions within democracy, but within the educational system, and most importantly–within ourselves. Instead of railing against the system, we rise. We bring our talents and passions to bear in constructive ways to boldly articulate the values that inform the alternatives.

As the great social theorist Paul Goodman once said: “The notion that nothing can be done is completely unsatisfactory to me. Something must be done.”

His words have always hung on a wall in my study and been an ongoing personal challenge.

Even at the age of 85, I haven’t relinquished the call that captured me so many years ago when I stepped into a classroom for the first time as a new teacher.

For me, there is no joy like the joy of teaching. Being an educator is the spirit that animates me and so, for as long as I can take on Paul Goodman’s challenge, I will.

For I must.

And so must you.

But my time in the classroom has come and gone. Your time is now. My hope is that this book helps you along your own journey as you devise alternatives and build new models to help young people realize their potential.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Educational Reform, or Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before

New Way to Education Reform Sign

Those who know me know how often I fall back on Gore Vidal’s reference to the U.S.A. as “The United States of Amnesia,” and how no area of human endeavor is forgetfulness more the norm than it is in education.

I will often follow it with “Been there, seen it, done it,” followed by the old saw that insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.

A function of old age, congenital contrariness, and just plain weariness, it’s what comes of former educational reformers. They don’t go quietly into the dark night but go down kvetching loudly right to the very end.

Bitterly complaining about the quality of American education is part of our history.

When I first became a teacher in the 1950s, it was James Conant, former President of Harvard, and Admiral Rickover, father of the atomic submarine.

In 1957, came the political outcry in reaction to fears of Russian global ascendancy with the launching of Sputnik — attributing America’s failure to be number one in space to lack of rigor in our schools.

Over a half century later, President Obama revived that specter, recalling how Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education and helped America win the space race.

He warned that with billions of people in India and China having been “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” only those nations with the most educated workers would prevail,” and how, “America is in danger of falling behind.” Here we go again — more fire-bells ringing in the mid of night.

Back to the 1960s and the Great Society — a time when federal efforts in education ramped up significantly in the form of assistance to schools and colleges seeking to eliminate racial segregation, developing new strategies for educating disadvantaged children and in broadening access to higher education for previously neglected youths.

Many programs failed; a few succeeded. Lessons from these efforts provide instructive experiences that can guide future efforts in educational reform. But for the most part they have been ignored.

The late ’60s and ’70s featured a blossoming of educational reform and a progressive vision.

Programs of compensatory education were joined with the free school and alternative education movements. Most of these efforts, however, were not taken seriously and were prematurely aborted — succeeded by a wave of counter-reaction.

They have also been banished from recent memory.

The 1980s were driven by A Nation at Risk, a report chronicling the latest “crisis,” citing abysmally low basic skill scores, low basic comprehension rates, and high drop-out rates, recommending more rigorous standards, the standardization of curricula, and a program of National testing… Sound familiar?

In keeping with its recommendations, by the mid-1980s, 45 states had gotten with the program, expanding their testing programs, instituting more strenuous graduation requirements, cutting frills, and returning to basics (as if they had ever left them in the first place).

In the end, however, it all proved so much sound and fury…signifying nothing.

Research revealed that this highly orchestrated and costly effort had not the slightest effect on student learning and comprehension. Even when legislated merit pay systems were added to the mix, little of this trickled down to the classroom. None of it ever enhanced the students’ ability to learn.

Shouldn’t this historical backdrop have been at least noted amid the current hue and cry for more rigorous standards and high-stake testing procedures?

If not, the current effort must be judged to be more about public relations and politics than serious educational thought, in which case, damn the torpedoes (and the history) and full speed ahead!

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

In So Many Words: Building Blocks

Sometimes I like to step back from blogs about educational reform and schooling for democracy to indulge in my other love: word origins. Words have always been special to me, even as a child. Early on, I attributed magical qualities to them, believing that locked within were mysterious insights which could help guide me through life.

What you are about to read is a work of etymology from a comic series I wrote in a previous life called, In So Many Words.

Call it just so much bunk, gibberish, babble, and hokum — but do enjoy!

Building Blocks, A Comic by Larry Paros
from the comic series In So Many Words by Larry Paros
Building Blocks Page Two, A Comic by Larry Paros
from the comic series In So Many Words by Larry Paros

Text only version

Building Blocks

The major institutions of Academia are called “schools.” Their primary activity derives from the Greek skhole, “lecture, or discussion.” These roots also convey a sense of “leisure,” or “spare time,” the conditions under which learning might best take place.

This offers a clue as to their actual mandate — the need to provide a context for relaxed study, one that promotes the free play of ideas, and generates an interest in the arts and sciences. Alas, such matters are now considered academic in the narrowest sense, “dated and no longer relevant.”

There appears instead to be schemes afoot to undermine that meaning. These schemes were hatched by Skhole which was also originally a “holding back,” a “keeping clear” from skhein, “to get,” from a Proto-Indo-European root segh, “to hold in one’s power,” steps which were necessary to achieve “victory” in wartime.

This would explain the schemes our schools today tend to fall back on, such as grill and drillrote learning and test preparation — all expressions of power in their battle to vanquish ignorance. What is rote in the educational process derives from the Old French rote, from which we get our route, leading us to travel the same road over and over again; though there’s also the Latin rota, “wheel,” for going round and round.

Concerning “drill,” educators tend to confuse drilling, the relentless and repetitive nature of the tool with training or instilling what is to be learned and for later boring into students for answers, as if one were drilling into their head.

“Grill,” it of course, originally meant to broil something on a grill or griddle, as is done regularly at backyard barbecues across America. Its meaning was easily extended by likening the poor soul being questioned by the police to a helpless rib-steak sizzling over coals. It was then but a short leap from. “Where were you on the night of September 27th?” to, “Recite the quadratic formula.” All these schemes are quite elaborative and well thought out. They should all work well, providing, of course, that the metal detectors are functioning properly. And that is anything but an academic matter.


You can find more comics by following this link to In So Many Words.

Published by Kvetch Press, a Division of Neurobics, Inc.

Author Larry Paros

Illustrations by Sam Zaninovich

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced — mechanically, electronically, or by any other means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system — without written permission from the publisher.

All violators will be towed or forced to repeat sixth grade.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Shooting My Mouth Off: Thoughts About Gun Violence & Education

Old black and white photo of children playing with guns

Shocked by the horrific event in Charleston? That’s America, baby — Columbine, Aurora, Newtown — its everyday stuff — just the way life is in our country.

Each night children go to bed with “Bang, bang, you’re dead . . . thirty bullets in your head,” At school, they learn to give things their “best shot,” and to meet “bang-up” expectations. When their efforts finally “go over with a bang,” they attain recognition as a “top gun.”

Shooting Their Mouths Off

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I would like to engage in my passion for etymology and the insights it provides on the topic. “Top guns” were once synonymous with “great guns.” Our first “great guns” were simply large firearms like cannons, as opposed to smaller ones such as muskets or rifles, a distinction which held up to the end of the 19th century. They also came to name a person of note or consequence. The man we used to call a “great gun” was really something. Today we know him better as the real “big shot.”

Speaking of “big shots,” no one “goes great guns,” is more successful in pushing arms, than the manufacturers of guns and ammunition and their proxy, the NRA.

More Bang for the Buck

The expression, “going great guns” comes from British naval slang of the 18th century when “blowing great guns” signified a violent gale. For manufacturer of arms, however, it’s less a threatening storm than a windfall of profits. Gun makers churned out nearly six million guns last year — double the number that they did a decade ago. This year, the industry is expected to rack up in excess of $11.7 billion in sales and $993 million in profits.

They are literally getting “more bang for the buck.”

In 1953, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with a ‘New Look’ policy promising more combat effectiveness for less money, by substituting atomic firepower for manpower and conventional weaponry. They described it as the ‘bigger bang for your buck’ theory, a variation on Pepsi-Cola’s ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ (c.1950).

Today, “more bang for the buck” speaks directly to those seeking great returns for an investment in arms. It’s not just guns. It’s ammunition as well. As one gun lobbyist once put it, “You make a product for $300, and somebody could buy this revolver and, by the time they are 80, they’ll have fired $10,000 worth of ammunition through it.”

Better perhaps we should rephrase investment in armaments as “More bucks for the bang.”

Calling the Shots

Massacres are good business at creating “more bucks for the bang.” Critics may dramatically depict the results and fill the airwaves with talk about the need for new restrictions, but they only serve to convince gun owners that government is going to take away their right to buy guns, further spurring sales.

Feeding that frenzy is their mantra that everyone should be armed. When tragedies involving guns occur, they even go so far as to blame victims or their protectors for not having been properly armed. Their answer to gun violence, you see, is simply more guns.

That’s hardly a new idea. People have been keeping the peace with guns ever since 1330. The soldiers at Windsor Castle named their favorite and most prominent weapon — a huge catapult which hurtled large stones and balls of fire at the enemy — “Dame” or “Lady Gunhilda” from Icelandic gunnr, meaning “war” and hildr, a “battle”. Later, with the advent of the cannon, it was first shortened to gunne and later to gun, thus naming the world’s first firearms.

Though 75 percent of the American people favor some form of restriction on handguns, the big shots at the NRA work relentlessly towards its goal of a fully armed America. The sights of its 2.8 million members trained on Congress, it continues to “call the shots,” setting the substance and pace of the national debate. Congress is their target and they are dead on in compliance. It hasn’t passed a gun control measure since 1999.

The results are in. Today, you can find those sons of a gun everywhere. The horrors continue. And there’s no leadership in Congress willing to act decisively in any organized fashion to curtail their proliferation.

A Farewell to Arms

Sooner or later, we’ll just have to “bite the bullet” on the subject. A century ago, before anesthesia, it was common to give a wounded soldier a bullet to bite on in order to divert his attention from the pain of a battlefield amputation

No easy task to bite the bullet. In 1857, the Sepoys, many of whom were Muslim and Buddhist and constituted a large portion of Britain’s crack regiment in India, refused to fight, the mutiny ultimately breaking out into a full scale rebellion. The cause of their discontent was their belief that the bullets they first had to bite prior to firing were wrapped in a protective coating of lard and beef wax. Fact or fiction, the rumor managed to offend at once both the Buddhists to whom the cow was sacred and the Muslims to whom the pig was taboo.

Like good soldiers, we too will have to grit our teeth and do what has to be done. As Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Bite the bullet old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” (“The Light that Failed,” 1891).

Iver Johnson Ad for Revolvers
They are not toys: they shoot straight and kill.

              

I wrote in my new book, how I twice had the opportunity to fulfill the dream of every progressive educator: to create his or her own school. These were truly humbling occasions—I had not only to confront the contradictions and shortcomings of the system but my own personal ones as well. No longer could I take comfort in merely railing against the system. I had to be proactive and constructive.

I thought of my own children: What kind of school do you want them to attend? What kind of a world do you want them to grow up in? What do they need to know in order to build that world? How can the educational process help them acquire the skills and mind-sets to do so? The questions I asked then are the very same ones you need to address now. The world I see now is one of metal detectors and armed guards. Is that the world you want?

 Schools cannot be value-free in the process.

To paraphrase James Carville, an advisor of Bill Clinton, “It’s the values stupid!”—especially so, given what confronts us today.  In the wake of the tragedy at Parkland, we have seen hundreds of thousands of students organize, march, and protest against the rising tide of gun violence in our nation.  Most heartening is broad membership of this emerging coalition—well-to do, predominantly white suburban students from the privileged towns of Littleton, Newtown, and Parkland, joined with less advantaged urban young people of color from cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and New York, who are demanding action against the gun violence they are forced to live with each and every day of their life.

With it has come an emerging understanding that many of the issues which they face, transcend racial, geographic, and class divisions—requiring a new coming together on behalf of a future in which they can all believe.

They also challenge our schools to step to the forefront – to emphasize student autonomy and creativity, moral growth and engagement and put community at the very center of the educational process—not just through establishing checklists of social-emotional “skills,” or encouraging virtual communities on-line —but by actually  embodying community and living it daily.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

In So Many Words: Measuring Up

Sometimes I like to step back from blogs about educational reform and schooling for democracy to indulge in my other love: word origins. Words have always been special to me, even as a child. Early on, I attributed magical qualities to them, believing that locked within were mysterious insights which could help guide me through life.

What you are about to read is a work of etymology from a comic series I wrote in a previous life called, In So Many Words.

Call it just so much bunk, gibberish, babble, and hokum–but do enjoy!

Measuring Up, A Comic by Larry Paros
from the comic series In So Many Words by Larry Paros

Text only version

Measuring Up

Man overboard! When it comes to formal schooling, many are in over their head. And there’s nary a savior in sight.

Navigating academic waters requires scholarship, but, alas, there’s no real “ship” in scholarship, only the suffix meaning “condition” or “skill”.

We measure scholarship not by knots, but by grades. They are what enables a student to monitor his or her progress, from the Latin gradire, gress– “to step,” and pro, “forward,” following him closely, step by step, as he moves gradually up through the grades. This shows him how many steps he has fallen behind or raced ahead of the others. We also know them as marks — from the Old English mearc, “boundary”-a convenient way of setting young people off from the one another, as well as teaching them their limits.

Marks unfortunately also create stigmas, from those used by the Ancient Greeks to brand their slaves. The Romans took things a step further, using them to figuratively mark the disgrace caused by dishonorable conduct.

Today, we no longer employ branding irons, favoring instead computerized files and designations such as, “drop-out,” and “difficult to work with.” Of course, there’s always the “F ” for “Failure” to fall back on.

All this is not insignificant. The Latin, signum, “mark,” and facere, “to make,” gave us a sign how “important and full of meaning,” this all is, establishing the belief that what is significant in scholarship is primarily high marks.

Could it be, however, that what is significant is not the marks assigned by teachers but those made by the students themselves in laying out their future path — marks that are not made by anyone else but are those of their own design?


You can find more comics by following this link to In So Many Words.

Published by Kvetch Press, a Division of Neurobics, Inc.

Author Larry Paros

Illustrations by Sam Zaninovich

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced — mechanically, electronically, or by any other means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system — without written permission from the publisher.

All violators will be towed or forced to repeat sixth grade.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Take Me to Your Leader: The Kind of Principals Schools Deserve

Photo of Mug: I'm a school principal. What is YOUR superpower?

Much has been written about the need for leadership in education. That if we hope to turn our schools around, we need not only great teachers, but also great principals.

It’s not an unreasonable premise. The school executive plays a significant factor in determining a school’s fate. He sets the tone of the enterprise, determines its priorities; holds its participants to account; and is responsible for the overall energy of the setting.

The title “principal” is, however, a dated concept from our educational past, carrying with it certain connotations and expectations.

Old School Principals

The primary concern of the traditional principal is maintenance of order. He presides over a tightly run no-nonsense organization, committed to the amelioration of conflict. As the chief disciplinarian, he moves swiftly and surely to exorcise any “unreliable” or uncertain elements, ensuring that the rules are properly enforced by his underlings, i.e. the teachers, even if he has to intervene personally in punishing offenders.

He is protector of the status quo, staff, curriculum, and the school’s way of life from the “uneducated” onslaughts of its students, the community, and the media. His actions are informed primarily by political considerations and guided by conventional ethics and what passes as the conventional wisdom.

Though he welcomes the imagery of change and being thought of as forward-looking and progressive, he is fearful and apprehensive of genuine innovation given the unrest and anxiety it brings in its wake. Real change is messy and anarchic and replete with errors. There is no place for error in his school.

As the institution’s most visible figure, he embodies and articulates the conceptual framework of the institution — “L’école, c’est moi” — ” and is, in fact, the one least critical of it. All look to him as that force which will assuage their fears and render them secure. A goodly portion of the energies of the school is spent alternately praising or damning him.

Its public spokesperson, and its focal point, he is the head public relations man for the school. His task is to “sell” the school to the community.

Educational Leaders

He is not what is needed today. Agreed that, “We need to figure out how to get more people with the right training and support to take on one of the hardest jobs in America,” as the author argues. But what exactly are the job requirements? What is the job?

The job is to head up a school, but it is not school as it is currently known, but school as it might be — one in which new ideas might be incubated, alternate approaches to life explored, and the conventional wisdom, challenged.

The role of the leader is to initiate and expedite that process, relentlessly questioning existing practices and procedures, paving the way for innovation and change, and supporting and encouraging his staff in those efforts.

The path forward is neither neat nor linear. Much of the terrain is unchartered and marked by trial and error. Negotiating it requires that she learn to live with the impermanence and failure without which true education cannot occur.

Unlike the traditional principal, who engages in PR and “sells” his program to the community, the leader “educates.” Her efforts are directed at not giving her audience what it wants, but what it never knew it wanted. Rather than engaging in a slick sales pitch, she employs rational discourse, explaining and defining the actions of her school and its people to the public. First, last, and always, she is a teacher.

Her primary task is to guarantee the one permanent feature of the school — reason and self-reflection, which she, herself, must embody.

That Certain Something

It is fashionable today to treat education as an impersonal business enterprise whose efforts are dictated by the cult of efficiency. It is in reality a deeply intense and personal process. Dare one even speak the word “love?”

Without love and the accompanying passion, schooling is but another hollow corporate venture, commanding the allegiance of its participants only superficially. There is no joy. And without joy, there is no learning.

The educational leader is a lover of life and people. Her love is unconditional, manifesting itself as respect for her students, accepting them fully for where she finds them as opposed to where she would have them be, supporting them in their striving towards personhood, rather than obsessing on issues of external validation.

But as they say, love is not enough. A school must also have a certain mindfulness about it — a conscious purpose. The school principal, or leader, has to be not only a philosopher queen but a technologist as well, one versed in educational history, and the variety of ways one can learn and the most creative and imaginative ways they might be deployed.

Rather than recruit and train the right people for an anachronistic position and ask recruits to accommodate to it, we need to reformulate and redefine the job and the context, clearly articulate the values which should shape him/her and inform their actions and then recruit and train based on those same values.

We also need to muster the political will and determination to stand by these leaders, providing them with the moral support and political backing they require. Then and only then will we get the educational leaders we need and deserve.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

In So Many Words: Structured Learning

Sometimes I like to step back from blogs about educational reform and schooling for democracy to indulge in my other love: word origins. Words have always been special to me, even as a child. Early on, I attributed magical qualities to them, believing that locked within were mysterious insights which could help guide me through life.

What you are about to read is a work of etymology from a comic series I wrote in a previous life called, In So Many Words.

Call it just so much bunk, gibberish, babble, and hokum–but do enjoy!

Structured Learning, A Comic by Larry Paros
from the comic series In So Many Words by Larry Paros

Text only version

Structured Learning

Current educational theory holds that students achieve their best when under intense academic pressure. And there’s no better way to increase that pressure than by increasing the load they carry, with the Latin struere, “to pile things.” Taking their cue both from the roots of their profession (adding the prefix, in) and from official directives — instructors tend to “pile things,” “on,” their students — one after another (believing that to be their mandate).

This piling on is not meant to be indiscriminate. Hopes are that by joining their efforts with the prefix con, “with,” that it will be done with a guiding principle in mind, rendering the entire process constructive — culminating in structured learning.

Critics, however, consider the entire approach “destructive,” (“a pile away from”) and obstructive (“a pile in the way of”) real learning, if you construe what I mean. As an educated person, you should be able to put those pieces together properly.

If all of schooling is ultimately reduced to nothing more than a pile, how can we hope to instill in students a proper attitude towards learning? Could “pouring it on,” be the way to go? Noted educator Paolo Freire called it “jug to mug education,” whereby the teacher pours from his jug to the student’s mug. Come examination time, the student returns the favor.

Instill originates with the Latin stilla, “a drop,” giving us the verb stillare “to drop” and the derivative compound instillare, “to pour in drop by drop.” The process as described is anything but a “pouring on.”

Could that possibly be the best way to approach teaching — drop by drop, gradually imparting qualities of heart and mind to students? Rather than inundating them with data or piling it on, could that be the truly instructive way to go?

You can find more comics by following this link to In So Many Words.

Published by Kvetch Press, a Division of Neurobics, Inc.

Author Larry Paros

Illustrations by Sam Zaninovich

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced — mechanically, electronically, or by any other means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system — without written permission from the publisher.

All violators will be towed or forced to repeat sixth grade.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

The Farce of Educational Reform: Getting Down to Basics!

When last heard from, we called for a new vision for Education. Vision, however, does not spring full blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Though it originates in the interior of one’s being, it is grounded in past experience.

Fade back to the year 1932.

The great Depression is raging. The landscape is dotted with failed businesses; millions are forced into the ranks of the unemployed; and breadlines are everywhere. The very existence of our democracy hangs in the balance. Talk of revolution is everywhere.

Many believe that the dispossessed are about to overthrow the government and the economic system and take power into their own hands.

It is a watershed moment—a time of great truth when we as a nation are forced to come came face to face with our contradictions. Politicians thrash about, frantically searching for “practical” solutions; others look for a moral imperative to guide them through these times.

 In academia, George S. Counts, head of the Teachers College of Columbia University, pens his response. It takes the form of a series of lectures incorporated into a slim volume entitled, “Dare the Schools build a new Social Order?’  A forceful rebuke and a challenge to the members of the Progressive Education movement, it calls on them to expand their focus on the child by developing a realistic and challenging vision of human destiny and a broader theory of social welfare which might inform and guide the educational process.

School, he argued, had to become not merely the contemplator of our civilization but the leader in its reconstruction. Its task was not to simply reflect existing values, but to generate a vision of society’s potential and enlist students’ loyalties and enthusiasms in its realization. Once articulated, other social and political institutions could then be examined in the light of that vision. As we know, our schools and the educators who led them failed to answer the challenge. Captive of the prevailing political and economic interests, they not only lacked a sense of the moral imperative but also a blueprint on how to begin such a reconstruction as well as the resources to do so.

Fast forward to 1968 and to yet another defining moment in American history. 

A war is raging in South East Asia and the struggle for civil rights is taking place at home. Anti-war protests shake the college campuses. Student demonstrations are a commonplace, almost banal occurrence, from peaceful sit-ins to the seizure and occupation of buildings. Virtually every major campus experiences some disruption. A parallel front opens up in our cities — riots in Watts, Harlem, Detroit, and other urban centers, a warning to the Johnson administration that many Blacks had lost faith in the country’s intentions and were tired of waiting. Civil insurrection is becoming a fact of everyday life in America. America was in crisis.

On the campus of the Divinity School at Yale University a small program in compensatory education is taking shape. It is a small skirmish, part of the other war, the war on poverty, an articulated national commitment to address issues of social and economic injustice. The program, called the Yale Summer High School (YSHS), had been in operation for four years. But in 1968, a small group of educators assembled who redefined the enterprise and gave it a new direction.

This was the stuff of a real education, intellectually challenging and spiritually transforming. They took to heart the words of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator, that when we educate for personal liberation, we raise social and political consciousness. Though schools are primarily hand-maidens of the larger culture, perpetuating its values, traditions, and myths, they must also play the gadfly, holding the culture accountable, helping shape it in a more humane image.

YSHS was simply one small example of the painful, tedious, and complex task of creating a viable educational setting—one which made a conscious effort to seamlessly blend thought, feeling, and action together. A school that took Counts up on his “dare.”

Its story and that of similar efforts during the ‘60s, speaks to hope and possibility which might inspire young people to engage in similar efforts today, while providing insight and guidance to those now engaged in educational reform.

Our past is replete with such examples, as the community based alternative educational models of the 1970s.  How soon they forget. Most of these efforts have been relegated to the dust-bin of history. Many were initially touted as “exciting,” and “progressive,” and “heralding the future.” Some even had intimations of the 3rd wave. But the system always stopped them short of fruition. To have done so would have been simply too threatening, calling the host structure and the current educational practices seriously into question.

The history of educational reform is the story of efforts to tailor projects to the goals and values of an achievement consumer-oriented culture. It was a poor fit. Forcing projects into the existing framework only ended up robbing them of their essence, and operational center, leaving only a hollow shell, unrecognizable and contrary to the intent of its authors. Their creators fought hard and long for the integrity of their programs and their underlying principles, but most often, to little avail.

What if we revisited the hundreds of innovative and future-oriented research designs and pilot programs many of which were subsidized by government and private foundations over the past 50 years, beginning with the values which informed them. Examine their values and how they align with the values we most currently treasure? Let the values then serve as a roadmap on how to proceed. 

Next come working models. Let us roll up our sleeves and dream. What if?… What if we had the opportunity to start anew? To rethink the entire issue of education and schooling from the proverbial square one, drawing freely on that extraordinary repository of knowledge from projects past.

Begin a dialogue in which the most basic assumptions about schooling and education are freely questioned.  Begin with what we want, rather than what’s possible — rather than simply finding ways to accommodate them to what presently exists.  

Imagine that everything is up for grabs.  Question all the traditional givens. That includes even the concept of school itself. Perhaps its day has come and gone—a concrete building age segregated and organized by grade level; the working definition of a teacher, courses, and grades, the idea of a school year. Rather than accepting the existing framework and ethos and expending our energies tailoring our values and our technology to it, let us begin instead with a clear articulation of our values. And let the values then dictate the process and the structure.

What of that social-political reality?  Agreed, it is daunting. 

It has an inexorable logic that can easily produce despondency and despair or a detached and jaundiced cynicism. It, however, need not end there.

Ideal models may have little chance of realization, but so what? Others need to know of them—what we, as a people, at our very best, might achieve; what things might be like if things were right with us and the world. They need to be reminded of the importance of principles—a consistent set of values by which one can lead one’s life; and goals—having a centerpiece of one’s existence—something to actively strive for and towards.  They need to experience, even vicariously, the passion, and the bliss that comes of living one’s life in accord with one’s principles and one’s dreams.

We need to think outside the box. Those boxes are our schools.

In education, as in all areas of contemporary life, we need to not just recreate the past or amend the present but to actively shape the future, in ways that fire the imagination.

It might be argued that we are seeking heroic persons and exhorting them to a heroic task. So be it. We need to stretch ourselves and welcome that idea. Max Lerner, author and critic, once noted that one of the saddest things that has happened to American Education has been the squeezing out of the heroic.” Adding this necessary dimension is what it’s all about. 

You can read more about the Yale Summer High School and the heroic efforts of not only the educators but of the students in my book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming Our Schools, Our Students, and Ourselves.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

In So Many Words: Spare the Rod

Sometimes I like to step back from blogs about educational reform and schooling for democracy to indulge in my other love: word origins. Words have always been special to me, even as a child. Early on, I attributed magical qualities to them, believing that locked within were mysterious insights which could help guide me through life.

What you are about to read is a work of etymology from a comic series I wrote in a previous life called, In So Many Words.

Call it just so much bunk, gibberish, babble, and hokum–but do enjoy!

Spare the Rod, A Comic by Larry Paros
from the comic series In So Many Words by Larry Paros

Text only version

Spare the Rod

Eyes to the front! You there in the back — sit down!

Discipline is the cornerstone of the educational process. It originated with the Latin praecipere, praecept, “to take before.” Thus were created the precepts, i.e. those teachings placed “before” or “in front of” students.

Disciplina was instruction emphasizing the practice necessary to fully grasp those precepts. And there was no better group to spread them, dis, “around” — than a group of disciples.

According to the disciples of discipline, it’s still the purpose of discipline — to create the proper context for dealing with the disciplines or “major areas of knowledge.” We know it and welcome it today as the “maintenance of order.”

In the 1970s we “welcomed” back Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) to his old alma mater, via national TV, as teacher of the undisciplined “sweat-hogs,” a group of hopeless underachievers who personified for many what urban students were like.

This public’s perception of students as animals then contributed to the hue and cry for even more classroom discipline.

Unfortunately, the discipline required to train them derives from the Latin trahere, tract-, “to draw,” or “pull along.”

Educating them comes from the Latin ex, “out” and ducere, “to lead” — a real education being the process that draws out those talents already within. Anything less would be a real drag, man.

You can find more comics by following this link to In So Many Words.

Published by Kvetch Press, a Division of Neurobics, Inc.

Author Larry Paros

Illustrations by Sam Zaninovich

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced — mechanically, electronically, or by any other means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system — without written permission from the publisher.

All violators will be towed or forced to repeat sixth grade.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.