The one thing I can do

I’m sure you don’t need me to point this out, but we’re having a tragically terrible summer. More innocent black Americans have been killed by the police, the police in turn have been targeted and murdered, the Leave camp won the Brexit referendum, a terrorist murdered 84 people in Nice, France, the Rio Olympics are likely to be a zika-virus/Russian-doping/inept-government disaster, and there was just a failed coup attempt in Turkey. The upcoming election in the US is a source of dreadful angst. The stock market is at an all-time high, but with bond yields at record lows, this is not a source of comfort or optimism. Essentially, all the news is bad news, and it’s hard not to take it to heart.

Sure, the summer months are always filled with unrest, and since I’m on vacation and have more time to pay attention to the news, world events weigh more heavily on me. Normally the Olympics would be a delightful diversion since the Columbia fencing team always sends some great representatives to the games (this year there is the amazing Nzingha Prescod to cheer on), but I can’t help feeling like the games in Rio may be the economic and human-rights disaster that finally seals the coffin for the whole modern Olympic movement.

When things get this bad, I ask myself, “What should I be doing to help heal the world?” Should I be marching in protests? (Yes, I’ve got the time.) Volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen? (Yes, although the logistics are tough with an infant in the family.) Running for political office? (I have little faith that I could make a difference in our current system.) But then I remember: I’m already doing the one, best thing I can to help make a better future. I work at a school.

The world of the present is seemingly unredeemable, or, if it can be fixed, it will take powers well beyond my small influence. But the world of the future is very much in my hands (and yours!), and working as a teacher is the strongest commitment I can make to construct a less discordant tomorrow. It’s times like these that I take pride and feel relief that I work at an institution devoted to the Quaker ideals of peace and equality. The world needs a lot more of both, and education is how we will get there.

Although I’m about to retreat to a cabin in the woods in Vermont for the next month, I’ll still be managing George School’s rising sophomores’ summer reading and blogging project. Some prescient colleagues selected The Other Wes Moore as the required text for the rising sophs, plus our school is doing a community-wide “one book” reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Thus, even though I and our students are on vacation, we are still at work pollinating our minds with narratives that broaden our understanding of injustice and discrimination in the US. After a year off from the classroom, I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year (AP Language and Composition), so I need to reflect and plan carefully how I can address these two powerful books in the opening week of the school year.

Merlyn’s speech about the power of learning as the best cure for boredom (and all the other ills of the world) from The Once and Future King has been over-popularized lately, but I feel a special closeness to it since I taught the book for seven years. Also, I read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk this year, and T.H. White looms in the background throughout the book. Every time we return to a work of art, or a text, we bring a slightly different set of life experiences and find ourselves noticing nuances that escaped us on previous viewings. The piece of Merlyn’s speech that jumps out at me today is, “you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics,” which always struck me as too strongly worded in the past. The world I grew up in, despite the Cold War that was going on, seemed lacking in evil lunatics. The world of 2016 seems to have an overabundance of them. Time to take Merlyn’s advice and focus on learning (and, in my case, teaching). Luckily, it’s the one thing I can do.

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Father’s Day Number One

I enjoyed my first Father’s Day as a dad today. My son is only seven months old, but somehow he managed to buy me a card and a framed photo collage! Maybe he has found a paid, freelance night job writing copy for online advertisers. Kids these days; they grow up fast.

My father hosted the family at his house. I got to see my sister, who was in from the west coast, and my in-laws. It’s a joy being the sandwich generation; I am both a dad and I have a dad at the same time. Father’s Day makes us stop and think about the debts we owe our fathers, but at the same time reflect on the kind of father we wish to be.

Fatherhood has already changed me in ways that are predictable. I can’t dedicate as many hours to work as I used to. I can’t indulge my every whim the way I used to. As Aziz Ansari put it in that episode of Master of None, if I want to go out for pasta in the evening, I might not be able to. (Although my son is getting better at behaving in restaurants, his 6:30pm bedtime is a bit of a challenge.) Still, I knew what I was getting into before we decided to have our first child, and I had been looking forward to those trade-offs for more than a decade.

The unpredictable part of becoming a parent, for me anyway, has been the way in which it makes me reevaluate time. How old will I be when my son is 18? When he’s 30? When he’s 45? How many years do I have to save for his college tuition? How  many more years do I have to work, and how old will he be if I retire early? Or late? How old will he be when the mortgage is paid off? (Because I’m a 42-year-old new dad, the answers to some of those questions aren’t pretty.)

That stuff is all a cliche, however. I also have to wonder: How many years until climate change makes the planet uninhabitable? Will I teach my son to drive, or will driverless cars be the norm before he turns 16? Will the professions that my generation aspired to even exist when he is done with college? Will Congress ever pass sensible gun control legislation?

These questions about the future of technology, the nation, and the globe explain why so many parents of young kids seem to be politically active, and sometimes radically so. Look out Washington; I’m coming to a march near you soon! The idea that I might spend my final years in an environmentally degraded ecosystem is troubling, but the idea that my grandkids might grow up in such a world are unconscionable. Time to get to work on the problem(s).

Some book recommendations for the rising sophomores

Members of our Class of ’19 (rising sophomores) have a summer reading assignment for English to read The Other Wes Moore and write five blog posts about it. Additionally, they must read one other book of their choice from a list of authors/works compiled by the department. The list can be found here. Since the list is long and a little chaotic, I thought I’d give some recommendations.

Each year over Winter Break, I like to read books from the NYTimes “10 Best Books” list. Two books from The 10 Best Books of 2015 that I read over break made it onto the summer reading list: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I loved both books, but it is the Berlin collection that has really stayed with me. It is long, and since she returns to the same themes often, some of the stories feel repetitive. However, the investment in time is well worth the effort, and any young writer interested in writing short stories in an autobiographical mode should consider picking up that collection. You’ll notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is also on the NYTimes Best of 2015 list. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but the entire faculty is reading it this summer, so stay tuned.

There are a lot of other authors on the list for the rising sophomores that my English department colleagues recommended, and whom I adore and enthusiastically endorse. We put Evelyn Waugh on there. My two favorite books by Waugh are Scoop and A Handful of Dust. Scoop is a satire about the media and journalism, and it is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was written (1938). I taught it one summer about seventeen years ago when I was teaching summer school at Hun, and I’ve often thought about teaching it again. The Modern Library Association put three novels by Waugh on their 100 Best Novels list, the two I mentioned plus the over-hyped Brideshead Revisited. Back at the turn of the millenium, I made a project of trying to read all 100 novels on their (just-published) list, but I only made it through about 80 of them before I gave up. Go ahead, call me a quitter!

A few books that we recommended last summer and the summer before (when the blogging assignment was different and students only had five books to choose from) have reappeared on this year’s list. I strongly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They are two of the best novels written in the last decade, and rising sophomore bloggers who have written about them over the last few summers have enjoyed them immensely. The Art of Fielding is great if you happen to be a baseball fan, but it is funny and brilliant and can be enjoyed by anyone. Wolf Hall is perfect for readers who enjoy historical fiction. It is set in the England of Henry VIII, and it has spun off an entire industry of TV shows, stage adaptations, etc. Read it! (And then read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and get ready for the final book of the trilogy, which is coming soon.)

I was a fantasy and sci-fi fanboy in my younger years, and we put some great options on the list. I’m not particularly a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but it’s there if you want to go in that direction. (I read the first six books in the series, or something like that, in high school and college, and I admit that peoples’ tastes change over time. I find his work too derivative now.) I’d rather see you get to know the work of Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, and who is one of the funniest fantasy writers of all time. (The Discworld series is the obvious starting point.) We also put Philip K. Dick on the list, and his writing is so influential, eerie, and intelligent that I would encourage everyone to read him. I guess I would recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a starting point, but I like VALIS, too.

Finally, you’ll see that Raymond Chandler is on the list, and you pretty much have to read Chandler if you want to call yourself a well-read citizen of the planet. Start with The Big Sleep, and then read The Long Goodbye. His detective stories don’t ever quite make sense, but the pleasure is in Chandler’s style, and the atmosphere, and the wonderful narrative voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe. High school students often try to write in this genre, so it is a good idea to feed yourself the roots of great detective fiction.

Disagree with my recommendations? Have some recommendations of your own? Leave a comment!

 

Summer Blogging Assignment, Year 3

For the third summer in row, George School’s rising sophomore class will be blogging about their summer reading assignment for their English classes. The assignment has evolved over time, and this year we are keeping it simple by just doing one “track.” In the past two years, we’ve allowed students to blog synchronously or asynchronously, but the synchronous track never quite lived up to its potential, so everyone is free to post whenever they want this summer. (Students need to have five posts up by Labor Day, which gives a lot of rope to procrastinators, but I have always wanted to protect students who go away to camp for eight weeks and try to stay away from technological distractions.)

Since I was completely out of the classroom this past year, I actually expected the assignment to die, and I’m hugely grateful to my colleagues for keeping it alive. I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year, so I’m back in the saddle as a co-manager for the project. My colleagues decided that every student would read one book in common, plus they would have a choice of a second book. With the AP Language and Composition curriculum orienting us towards non-fiction, the grade-wide text that was chosen is The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. I had read the NYTimes review back when the book was published, and it intrigued me and I wanted to read it, but I never got around to it. So I’m just finishing the book now (having started a month ago; I’m a new dad — give me a break!), and it was clearly an inspired choice. The entire GS community is also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me this summer, and the two books have a lot in common. We will have some powerful discussions come September!

While the texts are important, the tech is, too. I pitched the department on this summer blogging assignment two years ago because I wanted to help the school move forward in its use of academic technology, and I learned from my #edtechchat and #engchat PLNs that English teachers everywhere were asking their students to blog. I piloted a modest blogging initiative in my own classes, but I realized that we needed to do more school-wide. The beauty of this assignment is that every sophomore begins his or her year with an academic blog that they have made for this purpose, but it can be quickly repurposed by any teacher who wants their students to do some reflective journaling, or post a portfolio online, etc. Now that we are going into Year 3, every student at GS in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade will have an academic blog that any teacher can adopt for assignments in their class. (Okay, new 11th graders won’t, but that is a small population.) We give the 9th graders a year to learn our school’s values and build community offline before asking them to intentionally build community online, and hopefully that leads to respectful digital citizenship.

In past years I’ve used my blog to post links to some great writing by our rising sophomores done specifically for this assignment. Check back in the coming days and weeks!

The Homework Gap

You’ve probably already read “Bridging the Digital Divide That Leaves Schoolchildren Behind” in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes. How then do we process Anya Kamenetz’s piece for npr.org published today, “Study in Your PJs? What a High School ‘Work From Home’ Day Looks Like.” While the Times piece (written by Celia Kang) focuses on the homework challenges faced by the 40% of students in the McAllen, TX area who live in homes that can’t afford internet access, Kamenetz’s piece talks about a public school in northern NJ (Park Ridge) that had a voluntary distance learning day in which all of students were encouraged to stay at home. According to the principal of the NJ school quoted in Kamenetz’s piece, “99 percent” of the students in that district have high-speed internet at home. Park Ridge was experimenting with a distance learning day mostly to be innovative, with some lip-service paid to college readiness and future bad-weather situations. Meanwhile in McAllen and across the country, low-income students are lucky if they live in a district that is experimenting with wifi-hotspot-enabled school buses. Otherwise, they have to sit in fast food restaurants for hours using free internet. Burger King: the ideal setting to work on your research paper about Macbeth. Compare and contrast: fast food restaurants and the blasted heath.

At the boarding school where I work, we have had tough discussions about how late at night we allow our boarders to access our (strong, omnipresent) wifi network. We care about equal opportunities to access the web for our boarders and our day students. The conversation can tie you in knots since it requires you to make generalizations about what the parents of day students allow their children to do, or what the parents of our boarders would like us to do in their stead, but we are talking about a situation in which everyone has access to the web nearly all of the time. And even when we turn off the wifi (very, very late at night), many students just stay on their devices using their own data plans.

The Times piece discusses the Lifeline program that (controversially) spends $2 billion in tax dollars to subsidize broadband for low-income households. Hopefully the FCC will re-up this program next month, but much more attention is needed to the so-called homework gap. Students at my school complain (a little melodramatically at times) that they really can’t do any homework any more without access to the web, and in truth, that’s where they look up their assignments and access relevant coursework. Lifeline is a start, but we also need much more funding at the local level for public libraries, which for many school children are the go-to setting for after school internet study time. Wouldn’t we much rather see our kids working in a library than a fast food restaurant or a school bus? How does one even do homework for hours on a school bus, especially after dark and in cold weather? This issue is beginning to sound like it is one part educational access crisis, one part public health crisis.

 

Family Vacations and School Absences

I enjoyed reading Jessica Lahey’s piece in the NYTimes’ Motherlode blog, “Skipping School for Vacation: Good for Families, Or Bad for Students?” (2.15.16) Lahey’s piece is a  response to a blog post from September by Jeanne Sager in which Sager laments that the public school district where she sends her kids labelled it “illegal” when she pulled her kids out of classes for a family vacation, even though the teachers were given advanced warning and cooperated by sending the kids off with the work they’d be missing. (To be accurate, the entire state in which she resides passed a law declaring such vacations illegal!)

Because of my work in an independent school deans’ office, I often find myself on the front lines of this sticky conflict. Schools want to support their faculty and keep the focus on academics, so they frown on parents taking their kids on vacations that don’t align with the school’s calendar. Lahey makes all of the salient points regarding the challenges these absences pose to teachers, and she provides an even-handed look at the families’ point of view, too. I would add another argument in support of parents who occasionally need to pull their kids out of school for vacation: Many of them have children at multiple schools simultaneously. If you have three kids, ages 9, 12, and 15, they might very well be at three different schools. Perhaps they are all in the same public school district with an identical calendar, but often that isn’t the case, particularly if one or more of them goes to private or parochial school.

Of course in my work I am often on the other side of the phone when a parent calls to say that they are planning a vacation when our school is in session. What administrators appreciate most from parents is honesty and a recognition that some missed work might not be easily made up, and that could affect a student’s academic progress. As Lahey’s piece points out, missing multiple days of a student’s junior year of high school is a lot different than missing those same days in third grade. Like it or not (and I don’t), high schools are put in the position of ranking and sorting students for college admissions, and in the interest of fairness, it’s a challenge for us when a family pulls their child out of school when the major essay is due, or when the huge test is administered. In the independent school world, we are truly eager to partner with parents for the good of their kids. If the family vacation is a priority, be honest about that and approach the school in a spirit of willing collaboration, and we’ll see what we can do to help the student stay on top of their work. What we don’t much like is five phone calls on five consecutive mornings claiming that your child is home with the flu when we have already heard from all of their friends that your family is on vacation in Ft. Lauderdale. (And don’t get me started about the telltale social media posts!)

Lahey also notes that digital distance learning tools are eroding the differences between actually being “in” school or participating remotely. (Here she cites Zach Galvin, an assistant principal from Natick, MA.) It must be a rather joyless experience to take your child on a vacation only to plunk them down in front of their laptop in the hotel room so that they can participate in class through a video chat. I side with the mindfulness crowd: be present where you are. If you flew to Europe to see the Alps, breathe deeply of the mountain air, and turn in the work that you were able to get done when you get back to school.

While schools and parents will continue to come into conflict over family vacations that clash with the academic calendar, both sides need to show some generosity of spirit and work together. For schools, that means not acting like we never reschedule a test or push a deadline in order to accommodate a special situation. We certainly do! Having written policies that reflect reality would be helpful. For parents, please take Lahey seriously when she talks about the challenges that teachers face when asked to package material for a student who is going to be out for a number of days. Our classes don’t just cover material in a textbook. But Jeanne Sager was entirely correct when she felt maligned by her kids’ school labeling her family vacation “illegal.” Save that kind of rhetoric for the Israel-Palestine conflict. We’re just talking about children missing a few days of school.