Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day

How often does one get to write a blog on Leap Day? Well, technically once every four years, but I assumed this would be my first time. And then checked back four years ago and—yep, I wrote one! Isn’t this interesting?

Well, about as interesting as anything else I have to say. I have some thoughts cooking from a remarkable talk I heard at an education conference (NAIS) by someone named Bryan Stevenson. But I want them to settle a bit first. So this is all I have to offer:

• Next time NAIS invites our school to play a “walk-in concert,” I will refuse. I didn’t know until the morning off that our kids would be performing as people walked in the hall. The people I complained to (that morning) replied, “Well, they’re teachers. They’ll get quiet when they see kids up there.” My eyebrows raised skeptically.

And though I wish I wasn’t, I was 100% correct—they were loud as hell. After the 4th piece, I went to the mike and told them to tell their neighbor to quiet down and listen. Give the kids some respect for all their hard work! By the end, most of the 5,000 teachers had entered the hall and most of the front half seemed to be listening. And judging from the comments, they loved it. But come on, NAIS, what kind of respect is that for music as something worthy of attention? Just asking.

• Then came this extraordinary speaker. But you’ll have to read future blogs for that report.
From there to school for the Middle School Black History presentation, with kids reciting “spoken word” (ie, poetry) so passionately and skillfully. Next a square dance with 4th graders outside on the “green-top” and from there, the usual marvelous sing at the Jewish Home.

• On the weekend, celebrated my wife’s birthday with a dinner out that included witnessing Steph Curry’s extraordinary 45 foot shot! Then the next day (in his honor) took a 45-mile bike ride to Marin County and back. Impressed we both could do it. And capped off her special day with the Oscars. 

• And today, this gift of an extra day, I mostly spent avoiding getting my taxes ready for an appointment on Wednesday. Which is mostly what I’m still doing now.

Would you like to know what I had for dinner……?

P.S. Well, I finally sat down and went through my crumpled receipts from the year and lo and behold, amidst the Amoeba Records and Green Apple slips of paper was a $100 bill! I think it was a gift from a class at school that I had lost and forgotten about. A good end to Leap Day!!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Technology Manifesto

“What about technology?” The question comes up so often in workshops these days that
I’ve condensed my thinking into a manifesto of sorts. (© Doug Goodkin just in case it goes viral).

The right tool for the right job for the right reason at the right cost at the right age for the right amount of time with the right awareness of what it adds and what it takes away.

The right tool acknowledges that technology is a way of knowing through tools and we would be wise to find the one best suited for our goals. Not just figure out how to use what someone demands we use, but decide for ourselves which tool is most effective and efficient for our purposes. A xylophone is a technology as well as an i-Pad and can get more musical neurons firing than any slick pre-packaged music program with button clicks. As we now know, e-mail is a terrible technology for intelligent and communicative argument, but a fabulous tool to arrange and announce the workshop. Examples abound.

The right job is our vision of what we consider important, the cart that the horse pulls. Once we’re clear about that, then we can intelligently choose which horse to pick.

The right reason to use any technology is that the choices we’ve made will deepen our students’ understanding and get their neurons firing, their bodies engaged, their imagination percolating and their hearts excited.  Using computers just because the school bought them and needs to justify its purchase is not the right reason.

The right cost means factoring in the limited resources and budget of any school and deciding if the bang is big enough for the buck. But that cost is not just the price of the machine, but the expenses of upgrades, replacements required by planned obsolescence, increased security in the school building, electric bills and hiring people to maintain and fix the machines, train the students and staff.

The right age means educating ourselves about the developmental needs of young children and the damage using the wrong tools at the wrong times can cause. 14-year olds using an i-Pad for research is quite different from 4-year olds bonded to machines.

The right amount of time means taking into account the limited time we teachers have with children, the amount they need to follow nature’s developmental agenda, the amount they already spend in front of screens at home and after-school.

The right awareness means reflecting on how technologies change the body, change the brain, change culture. No technology is neutral. Each leans towards accenting certain human faculties and potentials and neglects others. Mostly people dismiss the question by casually saying, “it depends upon how you use it.” While the latter is true to some extent, the reality is much more complex. And if we are to use it consciously and not just reflexively, we will need some help. There is no training in the machine manuals that give you warnings (Danger: This technology has proven to be addictive!). There are no required classes before purchase to assist you in using appropriate restraint, for yourself and particularly for your children. Now there are camps for children that serve as rehab for electronic addiction, testaments of our failure to foresee the consequences ahead of time.

As for schools, I think it's time for experienced teachers to trust their knowledge of children, of their craft, of their field of interest and decide for themselves how much electronic technology to use and when and with whom and for how long without anyone mandating them or making them feel that they're not "21st century" if they don't go with the trend. How can we teach children to think critically and make wise choices if we ourselves are not doing so?

What would make sense is for each teacher to reflect on the points above and for each school to collectively consider them as springboards to further discussion. Do some research (consult me if you need a reading list) alongside personal reflection and actual observation as to how computers have already impacted the kids you teach. In a matter as delicate as children’s minds and bodies, we can’t afford to mindlessly invite machines in without due diligence and proper skepticism.

And particularly when the whole deal is tied to money. “Follow the money” is the first dictum of analysis as to how decisions get made and there are lots of people and corporations making lots of money from schools who know nothing about kids and education and may or may not even care. It’s not too late to just say "no, thank you" or "maybe, I'll think about it" or "yes, but…" to the wholesale acceptance of computers in schools. If this article can help move things in that direction, well, hooray for that.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Truth Trumps Trump

Every day my stomach turns at the next transgression against democracy, decency and civility by that big bully in the schoolyard, Donnie Bad-Boy Trump. And then turns again when the numbers flash on about his victories. I’ve known that there is a large segment of America (most of whom I’ve never met) who are angry about the wrong things (a government that gives them health care and sends their children to schools) and feaful of the wrong things (gay marriage more threatening than Wall St. stealing their money) and desperate to protect their privilege by trying to find someone lower than them (Mexicans, Muslims and as always, black folks). But now Trump is bringing them out in droves and though I think the actual numbers are deceiving, they are amongst us nonetheless. Other nations look at us with amusement, disbelief and trepidation while most people I know are as bewildered as I am—“Who are these people and how did they graduate high school?” (Or did they? As Trump said out loud the other day, “I love the poorly educated!” With the subscript “They’ll listen to anything I say without it mattering whether it’s true or not.”)

But with adversity, the counterforces of truth and caring start to wake up and speak up and mobilize. “Truth” is a slippery slope, a word too easily used by both sides, but before capitulating to a paralyzing semantics, there indeed is truth different from lies. Elizabeth Warren reminding the so-called self-made man disdainful of government that every dollar earned was made possible by a system of taxation that paid for the things that made it possible, Bernie Sanders drawing aside the curtain on Wall St. and showing who is really pulling the levers in America’s Oz, Tavis Smiley holding media responsible for responsible reporting, Louis Farrakhan revealing the legacy of white criminals'  money. All of these (available on Youtube) and more are a necessary counterforce to the dark path of hate, ignorance and division that Trump and his allies are walking and like the Pied Piper or leaders of the lemming charge, attempting to bring this country to the cliff’s edge of death and disaster.

It’s an ancient mythological struggle being played out here in real time with real people and the very real consequence of choosing Mordor or the Shire. Along with the nuts and bolts of campaign money, strategy, voter turn-out and more, it requires us as a nation to make a conscious choice between hope and fear, civility and slander, education and ignorance, love and hate, justice and oppression, truth and lies. The contest has run to the extreme edges and the middle ground is no longer a safe haven, a place to hide and hope that we can just keep business as usual, keep shopping in the mall, keep complacent and stupefied.

But hey, if we have to go to the edge, choose wisely. The extreme of hope, civility, education, love, justice, truth and more is a good place to be. It will demand more of us than we’re used to giving, enormous effort, dedication, passion, commitment and willingness to go further than our comfortable life would like to go. But if there’s any bright side of this scary moment in American history, it’s the mandate and opportunity to rise to the challenge. Stand up and be counted and tell the truth everywhere you can—at family gatherings, school staff meetings, business lunches, blogs and beyond. The trickle of truth allowed into public discourse by the media can grow to a roaring river and wash away the shame of a man who mocks the disabled, disdains women, celebrates ignorance, insults Mexicans, stirs up more hate against Muslims, claims that his greed to make money qualifies him to run a government and generally acts like the schoolyard bully he still is in his tiny heart.

Let’s do the work needed to look back at this in November and say with a sigh of relief, “Truth trumped Trump.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Lone Ranger Meets Mr. Chips

Well, the Australian honeymoon is over and it’s back to making sure I clean out the sink after shaving. I do love this work traveling and teaching, but all good things must end. I worked some 14 out of 16 days in Brisbane and Sydney, two different teacher workshops, two university classes, one public lecture, eight different schools and felt energized at the end of each day. It’s fun being the Lone Ranger—ride into town, get rid of the bad guys by doing fun music classes with the good guys and then ride off into the sunset. I get to use my greatest hits, show each kid (and adult) how much I enjoy them knowing that I don’t have to see them again the next day and find out about their quirky little annoying habits or give them a report card. Hit-and-run love—it’s easy!

But today I returned to school and back to “Oh, it’s you again”—from both sides. Well, I do love the kids I teach, but now there has to be a different texture to it, love born from behavior that can drive any sane adult a bit crazy, but with faith that there’s redemption just around the bend. And classes that have to keep changing and developing and go beyond the dazzle of the initial euphoria to the hard, nitty-gritty work. In short, real life. The long-term Mr. Chips commitment where things really get done.

Of course, we need both. There’s many a story of an entire life changed by a single memorable artist or guest speaker at a school, as well as the stories of those who signed up for the long haul. And I count my blessings that I’ve been able to arrange my life to include both. Putting my Mr. Chips hat back on for three short weeks (do people know this cultural reference? The book/.movie “Goodbye Mr. Chips”?) and then the Lone Ranger (Hmm. Do people know this reference?) rides off over the Pacific again to three weeks in Asia.

I’m both the guy that sticks around (41 years at the school) and takes off (16 years of Orff travel-teaching during the school year and in the summer) and I love them both.

But I could do without the jet lag. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Denial Ain't Just a River

Along with death and taxes, it is certain that we—all of us—will transgress against our neighbor/ spouse/ children/ co-workers/ ourselves. The question is when and whether we will apologize. The apologies I’ve given to others and those I’ve received from others have made a difference. And I’m still waiting for several that I imagine will never come and I imagine some are waiting for some from me (let me know if you’re one of them!). In this case, the healing must come from some larger place inside of me willing to forgive. Not to forget, but to re-tell the transgression in the context of a larger story and move on.

Perhaps an apology brings some satisfaction that we who thought we were right indeed (mostly) were and it certainly helps pave the road to forgiveness and reconciliation. But perhaps the most important feature is the acknowledgment from the person apologizing that what they said or did was indeed wrong. It is the first step taken to hope they won’t repeat it. Without an apology, one is left with the sense that it could, and probably will, happen again if there is no sense of remorse.

As on a personal level, so on a political level. Germany has created museums from its concentration camps, a public acknowledgment of the horrors of their past to teach the next generation what was so terribly wrong. And a bus stop in Australia, I read this impressive apology from the government to the Aboriginal peoples.

Where is the American equivalent? It took a racially-motivated terrorist attack in Charleston last year to finally get state governments in various Southern States to stop flying Confederate flags in honor of some glorious past that some still missed, a past dependent on inhuman and brutal slave labor. (The German equivalent would have been for state buildings to continue to display the swastika). Some years back, I visited a slave plantation and bought children’s books that said “Slavery was wrong” on one page and “here is the mistress in her beautiful bedroom making out the list of the day’s chores” on the next. Most of the tour was devoted to a ghost story to sideline the fact that the entire country is haunted by the ghosts of millions enslaved and murdered. And millions more Native Americans wiped out or shoved off to reservations.

Imagine living with centuries of abuse, hatred and intolerance without any formal, official or public apology. Imagine the courage to forgive without forgetting, the constant struggle to summon one’s resources of spirit so as not to be infected with hatred in return, the courage and stamina to turn the other cheek decade after decade, century after century, to summon some inner source of dignity denied from the outside, all the while speaking out against social injustice to a greater culture that has never publicly apologized nor seems to show any intention of ever doing so. The mind reels. Knowing what it cost me to try to forgive a single individual who wished me harm, I bow to those who shoulder this burden daily.

Perhaps Trump’s wall-building to keep out “lazy Mexican rapists,” “killing Muslims with bullets soaked in pig’s blood” and the like is fueled somewhat by our culture’s inability to publicly apologize. “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” and our long history of whitewashing our own atrocities, constantly pointing to the other as the “evil empires,” and fantasy of making “America great again” by reserving it for white folks only in the good ole boys club is healthy for exactly no one. A government document alone won’t stop police from killing innocent young black men or hold them accountable when they do, but it’s a necessary first step toward the healing we so desperately need. Imagine the power of telling Native Americans and African-Americans (for starters—the list continues) that it was wrong to build a nation on their land and labor and boast about how great we are. Imagine the courage to tell the world that public figures who have statues in public places, streets and airports named after them, did shameful things to their fellow human beings encouraged and protected by ideologies of privilege, prejudice and intolerance. It would be a difficult but impressive first step to show our commitment to increasing justice, inclusion, compassion.

And all we have to do is say two words: “I’m sorry.”