Wednesday, September 09, 2009


As I've already chatted with Ira about this, I don't agree with everything in this post of his -- in fact I think some of it is ridiculous.

Nonetheless, it's a great piece of essay/blog writing and a testament to the power of critical thinking. For those of you keeping score: yeah, Ira's the man. Read up.

[Addendum Sept 10th 11:15PM]
Reading back through this, I realize that in dashing off a quick post, I wasn't specific enough. I've got a minute so I'll just comment on the section of this essay where I think it nails it:
Changing schools requires something much more than telling kids to "try harder" and "keep trying." Especially since kids aren't that stupid. They actually know what is going on. They see "Zero Tolerance Policies" which tell kids that one mistake is all they get. They see voters choose to fund football stadiums over classrooms. They hear their parents and leaders denigrate teachers almost every day. They see that the only way they can be treated like an "adult" before they are 21 is to commit a crime. They see cutbacks in school funding while any talk of altering funding for senior citizens is met by howls of protest. They see politicians and even religious leaders lying and cheating. Mostly they see their leaders not listening to them. They know it's a game, a game rigged against most of them.

I think this tendency -- in all areas of life -- to just play the game is one of the worst results of the 20th century American education experiment.

And as a rule, this sort of outlook will just sustain itself from generation to generation. I remember my old neighbor in East Baltimore, a 70-something year old man named Ed. Ed asked me what I did for a living one day not long after we moved into the rowhouse and I told him I was a teacher. He instantly clammed up. A few pauses and he says, "I remember the way my 3rd grade teacher treated me. School didn't do nothing for me."

That anti-school sentiment is reaching a boiling point. And whatever side of the aisle your favorite congressman sits, you should be more than a little concerned. Because one thing we often forget is the way the educational experience shapes culture; and an inauthentic, high-stakes testing educational experience fosters a culture that will react against all things educational.

Where I disagree is in the idea that this should somehow preclude or alter the nature of a presidential speech. I think it's too much of an assumption to think that kids are getting a positive motivation message at school. So, given the opportunity, yeah I'd like to see the president give a 15 minute pep talk. I think that's healthy and in the current climate, perhaps the best option. After all, could you imagine the backlash if that thing had turned into a raucous rockstar event?

As for kids being told to shush and sit down, well, I really don't think any of the kids took the president's asking them to sit from a standing ovation to be anything repressive.

Would it be good to get real student voices and real student passions involved in shaping the future of education? Absolutely. There's no reason that students -- whether public school kids sitting in advisory roles for the Dept of Ed or private school kids having a seat at the Board of Trustee's table -- shouldn't be active members of the debate.

But there are all sorts of different fora. This one was a speech. A pep talk. We all need those now and then. Next time, the White House should consider holding a town hall. Sort of a National Student Affairs gathering.


  1. I'm sorry. I agree with Ira. There is a lot wrong here and it is not just in education. We value the wrong things.

  2. @Louise,

    I think his essay nails it on the matter of students understanding (and expecting) how to game the system. And that is such a colossal culture failure embedded in so much of what we perceive everyday.

    But I think framing this particular debate within the context of 'appropriate behavior' at a presidential visit doesn't do it justice.

    - Shelly

  3. The Barack Obama I saw running for President was a man who embraced the town hall, discussion-based approach as more than just a means of garnering votes. Couple that with his "Change" mantra and I'm right there with Ira as well. This was a sit-down-and-listen speech, and that's where it failed. I know your classes, Shelly, aren't sit-down-and-listen, so would you consider what you do "raucous rockstar?" I don't think that's the only other option for what this event could have been.


  4. @Russ,

    I hear you. We are certainly in a time of transition with regard to
    how communication is changing in specific contexts -- including very
    traditional ones like a presidential visit.

    Personally, I would have
    been happy to have seen a Twitter feed running on the screen next to
    the stage, but again I think it's just a matter of venue (or at least given the situation surrounding this speech it may have been). Perhaps more just fear of going out on a limb in the context of the surrounding protest, or maybe there's more to it.

    It's good for debate, one way or another.

    And yes, I do consider my classes to be 'rockstar' ; )

    - Shelly


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