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How Many Sacred Cows Does It Take to Sustain A Movement?

How do we transform the quality of teaching and learning in America? Like a lot of people, I’ve been wrestling with that riddle for the bulk of my career. And this month, three separate events are making me wonder in a new way about how to bring about such a shift – and sustain such a movement. The first two were meetings that represented parallel, powerful constituencies and ideas – an Imagination Summit hosted by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City; and an Empathy in Action working group, hosted by Ashoka in Washington, DC. At each gathering, I heard stories and insights from some of the world’s most influential thinkers – from Sir Ken Robinson to Deepak Chopra to Kiran Bir Sethi. I heard compelling cases for helping our education system become more effective at ensuring that all children become empathetic, and develop the ability to think imaginatively, act creatively, and behave innovatively. And I left feeling impressed by the energy and the motivation that was driving each group to push its work forward. In a few days, I’ll also be attending the Save Our Schools (SOS) March, a grassroots-led movement of teachers and parents from across the

What DC Can Teach Us About New Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead. 1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn. The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.” Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education. On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are

A Signature Shift?

Last week, I was asked by CNN to comment on the news that most states will soon phase out cursive writing in order to give students more time to hone their digital skills. Initially, I wondered why the issue was receiving national coverage – there are bigger fish to fry, after all – so I posed a Facebook query to that effect.  A torrent of comments followed, and I received several long emails from viewers who saw the segment and felt compelled to share their thoughts. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, and a strong one at that. Why were so many people so upset about this seemingly small development on the gigantic landscape of K-12 education reform? This morning, as I watched my two-year old son make distinctive colorful swirls on his drawing paper, I realized what was going on: not only were we inching toward a new understanding about what each child must learn; we were also moving away from a deeply held belief about what makes each of us unique – the distinctive imprint of our handwritten signature. The first issue is the one I tried to address last week – the powerful influence that memes have

Learning Through Chewing

I was running late, once again, to a group therapy session in a tall glass office building near Georgetown in the District of Columbia, and, once again, I hadn’t eaten beforehand. I hopped off my bike, locked it up and hurried through the tall glass doors and up the elevator. I punched in the door code and walked through the empty lobby, knocking on the closed door at the end of the hall. Everyone else was already in conversation as I slipped into my seat, listening closely for clues to what they had been talking about. As I did I pulled out a container of leftovers and started chowing down. There were seven of us in the room, including the therapist, ranging vastly in ages between mid-twenties to over sixty. All of us were there because we were struggling with intimacy issues, and every week we’d sit in a circle, on my therapist’s soft ash colored couches, and talk about our lives and relationships. I started group therapy two years ago because I never knew where I stood with the people closest to me in my life. Over the course of two years, in these weekly sessions, I’d gotten a

Literacy is Powerful

My name is Milton Whitley. I am 57 years old and until five years ago, could barely read or write. School was especially hard for me. The teacher used to spank me with a big stick when I didn’t know something. It put fear in my heart and made it hard for me to learn. People called me retarded. I believed I was retarded. I dropped out of school when I was 14. Didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t read or write. For a long time, I worked in a sign shop installing signs. But, when I hung these signs I didn’t even know what they were saying. If one letter was off, if it was spelled wrong, I didn’t even know. Not knowing how to read or write made everything difficult. It made me boil with anger inside. I was using drugs. I got with people just like me; used drugs; no education. I didn’t care about education. All I knew were slang words. Street language. One time, I was given a form to fill out at a doctor’s office. I couldn’t read a word. I sat in my chair staring at the paper for a long

It’s Harder Than It Looks

I remember praying that I could understand why students could not understand how to multiply. Soon after I was trying to help a student multiply, and I did not know how. I realized why the students were having difficulty.

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