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Follow your passions indeed

by Steven Delpome

Every one of you out there, you teachers, is following your passion.  I hope that’s true anyway.  We all need to be around passionate people and you’ve got a job that puts you in close quarters with people every day.  That and most teachers I’ve known are passionate about teaching.  Doing what they feel is right for children.  Putting in longer hours to do so.  Feeling pain when attacked, and yes, as a person who is often a critic, I’ve grown an increasing awareness of that pain.


Every one of you out there, you successful happy people who are giving us advice from commencement speech podiums and auditorium stages, are telling us that in order to be happy and successful (are those even two different things?), we must be passionate and work at that which we are passionate.  That getting up in the morning to an alarm should be exciting.  That the rewards don’t matter because they’re not guaranteed.  That the work must be enough.

Diana David: Have the balls to follow your dream

So what are we doing sitting children down for hours and hours every week and having them complete linear equation problems 1-35 (odd numbers only)?  And having them take information from history books and documents and make tri-fold posters of the information?  And rewarding them for completing work they don’t care about, and teaching children the value of following the rules regardless of the rules’ impact on them?  

Neil Gaiman's Commencement Speech to the Class of 2012 University of the Arts in Philadelphia

And why are we on the outside of school encouraging it by supporting these ideas?


“Mrs. Brown, your son hasn’t been completing his math homework.”

“He doesn’t like it.  It makes him sad and takes him away from doing what he’s passionate about.”


Even as I re-read it, the conversation sounds ridiculous in the context of school, but if we want our children to be happy and successful (again, same thing?), and happy and successful people are telling us that’s the way to become that way…


But they must learn _________ (Math, History, English, Science, etc.).

Denzel Washington's commencement address to the class of 2011 of the University of Pennsylvania

Do you think so little of your children that they won’t ask you to help them read they don’t understand when they want to know about the subject?  Do you think they won’t ask for your help with math if they need it to help with what they want to learn?  Of course you don't.


If these are truly important life skills, children will encounter the need for them, and when they do need them to do what is important to them, they will want them and ask for them.  Children ask to learn how to play games they want to, play sports they want to, do crafts that they want to, say words that they want to.  They ask us for help to learn how to drive and if that’s not an important life skill I don’t know what is.  

Larry Smith:  Why you will fail to have a great career

It must be that we’ve been taught that Math, English, Science, History, etc. must be learned by our having it forced upon us whether we want it or not.  So many of us associate learning some or all of those with pain and boredom that we can’t see another way.  But Neil DeGrasse Tyson doesn’t seem to find science painful. Neil Gaiman takes great pleasure from writing--and other Neils in the other areas I’m sure feel the same pleasure. And it ain’t because of the paycheck.


So if we know that children will ask to learn things when they want to and need to, even “important life skills,” and that those subjects and skills are important because we all need them at some point and will encounter them, and we know that school subjects aren’t inherently painful, and we want them to be happy and successful (damn it they are one in the same), why aren’t we letting children learn by following their passions as so many happy people have advised us all people should do to be happy?

Is it all about ego?

by Steven Delpome

I think of this quote from John Lennon regularly when I wonder about the problems I see in school.  I never could pinpoint a source of the problem, likely there are many, but one major one that my eyes were opened to by a friend of mine (follow him on Twitter @Sisyphus38), is adult ego.  The above quote is quintessential I’m right-you’re wrong ego.


So this post is dedicated to much of the wisdom that school ignores and, based on who said them and the context, it’s hard to argue that ignoring them is based on anything but ego.

Then we have Sir Ken.


We all know he’s right.  


Yet everything we traditionally do in school, unit tests, weekly quizzes, standard rubrics, the marginalization of the arts and physical education, all speak to the fact that school is going to do what it wants because we know better.  We know better than an internationally recognized expert on learning.




We see this and yet we think we can instruct children how to be creative and that we can measure creativity with rubrics.  Rubrics are about being conscious of what you are doing while you are doing it—this is frontal cortex work.  Yet we know from brain science that, when artists are in the throughs of creativity, their frontal cortexes are practically shut down and the unconscious parts of the brain are activated.


But we know of creativity better than Picasso and better than science.



Wofford College, in 2013 asked writers to give advice to their graduate students by photographing the advice on their hands.


If you click the link above, you will see that overwhelmingly the advice is to simply “write” “keep writing” “finish what you write” “read” “read widely” and on and on with the simplest of ideas on how to become a better writer.


The response to this in school is puzzling: “you can’t just do that, you have to show kids how to write topic sentences, supporting details, concrete details, introductions, conclusions, and on and on and on”  


“But these are people who write for a living, successfully, telling us this.”


“That doesn’t matter.  This is what we have to do.”


We know better how to become a better writer than those who are far better writers than we.


I planned some grand conclusion to this piece, but the only words I seem to be able to conjure are “What the hell are we doing?”

The Facade

by Steven Delpome

At the writing of this entry, I'm in the midst of a lesson where the students are taking what they enjoy and know and connecting it to English concepts.  Two boys are watching Pixar's Ratatouille and looking for evidence of character development, conflict, etc., another set of students are watching the movie Cyberbully looking for the same, a girl is doing research and creating a presentation about the effects setting has on a story, etc.


There is no one unifying objective for any student based on all students learning the same thing.  Because of that, I teach in fear of an impromptu administrator evaluation in spite of the fact that I whole heartedly believe in the value of this learning, especially in terms of educating the individual. 


The problem is that the firm belief in The Facade stands in the way of teachers doing just that.


The Facade is what the majority of people believe learning should look like and thus, when learning does not look that way, a classroom is considered out of order.


The Facade in an English classroom calls for quiet students who are quietly engaged with pen to paper or eyes to text activity.  The Facade values the appearance of learning over actual learning.  The embrace would be bad enough if it were merely taking developmentally inappropriate activities and disguising them as genuine learning in children. What the facade is hiding is far more hellacious than what one might think.


I don't use the word "hell" lightly.  The educational leaders embracing The Facade are well-intentioned, and well, we know which road construction jobs good intentions are used to pave.


For the second time in a month I've heard a source make a legitimate comparison between modern school and prison and, while I know that many of the educational thinkers I read about and listen to are considered fringe sources, this second source is unimpeachable and because of that, The Facade scares me all the more.


Richard Elmore is a professor of educational leadership at the graduate school of Harvard University.  In a blog post for Education Week, he draws a direct comparison between our school institutions and prison institutions:


"Mostly what I see in my visits to middle and upper grades classrooms are examples of what of Michael Sedlack, et al. (1986), long-ago characterized as 'the bargain'-- 'you give me order and attendance, I'll give you passing grades and [minimal] homework.'  The only other public institution in our society that works this way, with this degree of focus and dedication, is the prison system."


There's a third point-of-view, mine, that believes that there is a historical precedent that makes school leaders run their schools like prisons and that the schools are intentionally structured to resemble them.


"Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?"


Our current system of public education was designed in response to the beginning of the industrial revolution in order to prepare young people for adult life in the emerging new era.


Good systemas most people would agree that one of the primary purposes for school is to prepare people for life in the world.


What we also learn from history is that the businesses of the industrial revolution were run in a hierarchal manner and closely resembled gulags.  Thus the system of operation of a school would have to resemble them.  Some right down to the physical and psychological damage inflicted on students that were inflicted on workers in the factories.  


Schools were designed to resemble hierarchal gulags.


What opened my eyes was when I was made to think for a moment and I realized that we still run our schools using the same system. The same organizational structure that spawned the schools that inspired Dickens' Dotheboys Hall and Mr. Squeers.  


One can argue that schools don't inflict the punishment on students that those schools did and they'd be right, but there is still abuse of a sort.


First we must accept that, just as a bully may bully unintentionally, so may an abuser abuse unintentionally.  It's the bullied and abused that get to say whether abuse is happening.


Take a student and put him in a situation where he won't fear telling the truth and ask if he feels abused in any way.  Has an adult bullied him?  Is he trusted?


Think back to your own education.  Did an adult bully you?  Did you feel trusted?  Our shame is that this system is so ingrained in our culture that we've come to believe that this lack of trust and the occasional bullying teacher are a natural part of growing up and going to school.  We accept that children will dislike going to school and that children's dislike of school is perfectly natural.


Except for the fact that any of us who've learned something, whether we've mastered a skill or had that "eureka" moment of discovery, knows that there is great pleasure in learning.


If school is a place of learning, then school should be a place of pleasure.  The natural conclusion one might leap to based on this is that schools have sucked the pleasure out of learning.  This would be a specious logical connection.  The truth is that we've removed the learning from school and because there is no learning, there is no pleasure.

Is Demoralization Immoral?

by Steven Delpome

The above question is based on the countless articles and blog posts I've read about educators increasingly feeling demoralized at work.


I challenge you to name a person of great wisdom who was immoral.


They don't exist. 


They don't exist because, as the brilliant psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us, our morals lead us toward wisdom.


I challenge you now to name a person of great wisdom that followed the rules.


This challenge seems odd because in our time where we put such a value on following the rules, we never equate our heroes with rule breaking or defiance.  Yet all of them did.  Our Founding Fathers, Mahatma Ghandi, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony--all did what they did in defiance of the rules.  We don't see it because we've been trained to hold the rules in the highest regard.


"Don't do that."  "Why?" "You can't." "Why?" "Because I said so."


We've reached a dangerous point in our society where the rules, instead of being designed by our morality, have become our morality. Our morals are being defined by the rules, rather than our rules defined by our morals.  And oddly we are all becoming more and more deMORALized by this strange quirk.


First we have to look at the link in the two words--a link that is never investigated.  Immoral/Demoralization.  Clearly both spring from the same root, but when you look at the dictionary definitions for both, you don't get a hint that they are in any way related, despite the clear "moral" connection.


One definition of moral:  founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom.  


Isn't it the legailities, enactments and customs that often lead to demoralization?  And if so, doesn't that mean that following those legalities, enactments, and customs (rules) is immoral?  And thus, isn't demoralization the forcing of one to do what is immoral?


...and if teachers are feeling demoralized...

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