Asking Deeper Questions

Since the turn of the century, educators have been encouraged to integrate what were called 21st century skills, so-called “soft” skills such creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship that were needed to help students learn to thrive in the contemporary world. In a complex world, being able to ask the right questions, examine the underlying systems, and apply creative and critical thinking is the way to find solutions. 

Well, a pandemic that closed school buildings (NOT schools if you equate school with learning) certainly revealed complexity especially in terms of how interwoven those buildings were to so much more than just schooling.  And, in addressing the complexity, it seems to me that officials have chosen to ask only one question: “How do we get kids back into school buildings?” And asking only one question immediately limits the critical thinking that can lead to creative and equitable solutions. 

The other problem with asking only that question is that it conflates school buildings with schooling and assumes that the best and really only way for students to learn is face to face in one location with children of the same age. It’s the model we’ve known, it’s the model around which most of our research is done, and, perhaps most importantly, the model around which we have built lots of systems including extracurricular activities, child care and meal distribution.

The buildings play essential roles in the community beyond schooling. But, and here’s the place where I think we are missing the opportunity to ask deeper questions, the buildings are not essential for schooling, at least for everyone in the one-size-fits-all way we’ve always done it. This narrow focus limits the opportunities for innovative solutions, the kinds of solutions that could meet the needs of all families and children in ways that we haven’t thought of before. 

In her book Real Change, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a research study designed to see if people who practiced mindfulness were more compassionate to others. It was simple: a waiting room with three chairs, two actors glued to their phones, and a participant. The participant takes the last chair. The third actor enters, walking with crutches, obviously in pain. While it would be nice to think everyone would give up the chairs, they didn’t. But the mindfulness practitioners had a higher percentage of those who yielded their chair to a fellow human being in pain.  While Sharon recognized the need for these personal acts of kindness, she also calls for a wider view:

It can also be helpful to recognize the value of thinking in terms of systems change even as we might be focused on acts of personal goodness. We rely on analysis and conscious reflection to make that distinction. When I heard of DeSteno’s experiment, it made me think in terms of systems. I wondered, for example, if anyone questioned how the people running the lab were allocating resources if they were putting so few chairs in the waiting room? (p. 180)

Right now, we have the opportunity to look deeper and  think in terms of real system change in education. We have the chance to ask more than just one question. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Who is benefitting from virtual learning? 
  2. Who might benefit from virtual learning if we had better resources including broadband in every home or easily accessible community-based child care? 
  3. How can we take some of the individual solutions that arose in the past year such as learning pods and integrate them in an equitable system? 

Most importantly, how can we make sure that the voices of those clamoring to return do not drown out the voices of those who are not eager to get back in the buildings–teachers, parents, and students alike–because they do not trust the current system to care enough about them to keep them and their families safe?

We must go beyond communicating empty-sounding reassurances about CDC guidelines and open ourselves and the system in order to collaborate with all stakeholders on creative solutions that could finally REALLY customize and personalize schooling for every kid in a way we never considered before the buildings closed. 

Historical Hypocrisy, Part Two

I saw a comment on Twitter the other day in reference to the murder of Auhmad Arbery that referenced this rising from the roots of slavery in the South.

In his detailed history of the first battles of the Revolutionary War, Nathaniel Philbrick takes the time to include details that might not have been widely reviewed in our history classes and should make smug northern people more than a little uncomfortable. These include the basic hypocrisy at the foundation of the revolution.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which boldly proclaimed that all men are created equal, one in five Boston families owned slaves. In fact, as the provincial soldiers (Philbrick rarely calls them patriots) headed to Bunker Hill, they passed through the Charlestown common past the place where “Mark was hung in chains.” Philbrick describes this gruesome landmark:

In 1755 the slave Mark had been executed for conspiring to poison his abusive master. Whereas his female accomplice had been burned to death, Mark had been hanged; his body was then stuffed into an iron cage that was suspended from a chain at the edge of the Charlestown Common, where the corpse was left to rot and be picked apart by birds.

The site was well-known, according to Philbrick, and he reminds us:

Slavery was more than a rhetorical construct for the city’s white residents; it was an impossible-to-ignore reality in a community where African men, women, and children regularly bought and sold and where anyone taking the road into or out of nearby Charlestown had no choice but to remember what had happened in 1755 when a black man threatened to overthrow his oppressor.

Finally, for those who may be thinking, but this is before Northern states outlawed slavery. I will end with a more contemporary example that occurred in Pennsylvania, the state formed by Quakers in support of religious freedom. My first teaching position was in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town about an hour west of Philadelphia. The division was quite diverse with African Americans from the city and whites coming in from the more rural county. New teachers were offered a bus tour of the division to help understand its dynamics.

First stop? The local hospital on the hill where, in 1911, Zachariah Walker, an African American mill worker was taken after an altercation with a Edgar Rice, a white local law enforcement officer, that left Rice dead and Walker with a gunshot wound. A mob came together and pulled Walker, still chained to his bed, from the hospital and threw him on a hastily created fire. As the fire melted the chains, Walker crawled from the fire and was thrown back at least two or three times until he died, surrounded by a huge crowd of white men, women and children cheering on his death. According to my tour guide, Rand McNally took Coatesville off the map for some time in response to this horrific event.

I lived down the hill from the hospital in the late 1980s. It was only in 2006 that a historical marker was erected. But, Coatesville carries the history in its soul as the 100th anniversary showed. 

 

Historical Hypocrisy

Some American history writers seem unwilling to take on the racist, violent events and attitudes of our shared past. Unless the topic directly relates to the atrocities and the people impacted by them, the writers either ignore them or pay some kind of lip service. I think we can celebrate ingenuity and innovation without sacrificing the often pretty terrible truth about how America became and continues to become the country it is.

Philbrick takes time out from recounting the first battles of the Revolutionary War to point out the essential hypocrisy and single minded fanaticism of the colonists. Long after the war was over, one of the militiamen stated his reason for fighting very simply: “We always had been free, and we meant to be free always” (p. 121). Philbrick does not let that statement simply go by without comment:

But to say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the regular is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement. Freedom was for these militiamen a very relative term. As for their Puritan ancestors, it applied only to those who were just like them. Enslaved African Americans, Indians, women, Catholics, and especially British loyalists were not worthy of the same freedoms they enjoyed. It did not seem a contradiction to these men that standing among them that night was the thirty-four-year-old enslaved African American Prince Estabrook, owned by town selectman and justice of the peace Benjamin Estabrook (p. 121).

He goes on to describe the sometimes brutal suppression of loyalists in Massachusetts. Tar and feathering was a popular punishment, and early in the book, Philbrick describes one such attack with excruciating detail so we understand the horror. Later, he only has to mention that it was administered to make my skin crawl.

I remember when, during her husband’s first Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama made a comment about being really proud of her country for the first time. Not surprisingly, she was widely criticized. But from its beginnings, the country that emphasized freedom for all not only left lots of people out, but did so in horrible, dehumanizing ways.

It is not without a touch of irony that Philbrick ends the section about the small battle in Lexington in which Prince Estabrook took part by describing the aftermath:

Besides Pitcairn’s twice-wounded horse and two soldiers who had received minor injuries, all the casualties had been sufferwd by the provincials, with eight dead and ten wounded, included Prince Estabrook, who became the first African American casualty of the Revo;ution since the death of the black sailor Crispus Attacks at the Boston Massacre (p. 128).

 

Parallels in History

Thoughts about reading Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Disclaimer: I am not a trained historian nor a Constitutional scholar. I know a bit about American history, mostly from the perspective of writers and filmmakers like Ken Burns, David McCullough, and Nathaniel Philbrick. They are, first and foremost, storytellers, providing context as needed but always putting the people first. I like reading history because there are often parallels with our own time, despite differences in cultures, countries, and ideologies.

For example, in Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Philbrick takes a detailed look at the battle that began the Revolutionary War. He begins with the Boston Tea Party with flashbacks to the Boston Massacre. He tells the story of patriots and loyalists centered on the city of Boston. In the preface, he describes Boston as “the true hero of the story.”

Bostonians, according to Philbrick, had a sense of themselves as an “autonomous enclave” that did not have to follow dictates from England, a feeling that originated with the first Puritan settlers in 1630.  During King Phillips’ War in 1676, John Leverett, the governor of Massachusetts, essentially declared independence to a British agent, saying the King could enlarge their liberties but not retract them. Philbrick writes, “A hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, the governor of Massachusetts boldly insisted that the laws enacted by the colony’s legislature superseded those of even Parliament” (p. 5).

Does that sound familiar? Substitute the federal government for Parliament, and we are suddenly firmly in 2020 as the federal and state governments debate their relationships in terms of the pandemic. This article about the possibility of the Department of Justice supporting legal action against state governors whose stay-at-home orders seem excessive shows the conflict between the federal and state governments. And states have to work with their counties. It is these kinds of conflicts that led to the Civil War.

How do we help students see these connections? How does this become the curriculum?

 

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Doing Besides Teleconferencing

One of my work-from-home rituals is to stop working at noon on Fridays. I am happy to take a few hours on Saturday or Sunday to do a few things if it means being able to get away from work.

South Porch GardenToday, I spent time in the garden. While my husband grows the vegetables, I am the flower gardener. We have a formal garden near the house, just outside the south porch. It had gotten overgrown in the past year as my arthritis kept me from doing the work of weeding and mulching. With my new hip in place, I am back to battling weeds and close to being ready to lay down the mulch. My husband grew plants for me from seed, and I transplanted borage and milkweed thistle.

Cinnamon Raisin Sourdough BreadI’ve also been baking from scratch. I like to bake but had taken to using mixes, kind of semi-homemade. But a friend gave me sourdough starter and then I turned some of it into a whole wheat starter and now I am baking at least twice a week. Yesterday, I just baked with the “discard” from the sourdough, that is, the stuff I wasn’t going to keep after a fed a smaller amount of the starter to keep it alive for next week. If you don’t, you end up with the starter that ate San Francisco, which is almost the plot of Robin Sloan’s Sourdough. I had enough to make Cinnamon Raisin Sourdough Bread and some crackers using the outlines of a recipe from a baker on Twitter. I went for rustic and “artisinal” for the crackers. The bread was lovely toasted with butter this morning. And the crackers are a little thick but they have a satisfying crunch. I used some flavored salts that we received as a holiday gift along with a bit of pepper.

Pork Loin with Vegies and SauerkrautFinally, I’ve been cooking. Years of watching Food TV and the Great British Baking Challenge have given me a foundation for putting meals together. I put a piece of pork in the crock pot with carrots, onions, potatoes and apples. I layered in our first experiment with sauerkraut and was rewarded with that tangy bite. The picture is pre-cooking: once it cooks away for hours, it doesn’t like quite as pretty but it tastes delicious!