Wednesday, March 26. 2008
[I sent this letter to the Wall Street Journal Letters to the Editor for publication.]
In response to your March 22 editorial "Certifying Parents":
So the California courts think that every parent who home schools their children should have government certification, to ensure the quality of education their children receive. Ok, fine. I can understand wanting to control standards for education. Just do one more thing: pay those home-schooling parents the $8,000 per child that is currently going to the public school system from which they are opting out. I think many home schooling parents would gladly undergo whatever certification testing is required, in order to recoup their substantial tax investment in the public schools.
Whenever the public tries to hold the public school teachers accountable to the results of the school, the teachers unions immediately complain about having insufficient resources to do the job, and the unfunded mandates imposed by No Child Left Behind. Well, if the teachers don't like unfunded mandates for themselves, they shouldn't seek to impose them on home schoolers, either. You want professional-grade teachers for every child? Pay for it. Otherwise, leave the home schoolers alone.
Sunday, February 24. 2008
NPR ran a story a couple days ago that gives me hope for our educational system: "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills" [Alix Spiegel, February 21, 2009.]
The basic thesis of the story: it was only relatively recently, with the advent of year-round toy advertisements on television, that children's play in our culture became focused on the toy, rather than on play. Before then, play was fundamentally an activity, a free-wheeling imaginative make-believe in which children narrated stories, individually and collectively. But the focus on toys, with ever-more-articulated detail and pre-scripted stories, restricted the imaginative sphere of the child. Add to that the increasing focus on child safety, and the trend to put kids into adult-managed activities: Little Leagues, karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps, etc. (To quote the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Child-Safety Experts Call for the Restrictions on Childhood Imagination.") In the end, children had much, much less room for imaginative play.
Which, it turns out, was a disastrous mistake. Imaginative play turns out to have a strong role in the development of "executive function," a constellation of cognitive abilities that includes, most significantly, "self-regulation" -- the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. And executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.
What makes this story particularly interesting for me is that it is a sweeping endorsement of Waldorf Education pedagogy. Waldorf distinguishes itself with a strong de-emphasis on early reading, instead making the ideal environment for imaginative play for younger children. In the Waldorf preschools and kindergartens, you will not find a single alphabet block. Instead you will find the raw material for imaginative play: play stands, colorful silk scarves, polished stones, pieces of wood, and extremely rudimentary dolls. You will also see lots of handwork and practical arts: knitting, felting, drawing, painting, cooking, and gardening. These are basic exercises for self-regulation.
The NPR story also helps justify Waldorf's strong prohibitions against exposure to media and commercial messages. Waldorf teachers urge parents to limit, and preferably eliminate, all TV, radio, and computer time for young children. School dress codes forbid brand logos, television characters, and all forms of writing. Now we know why: television targeting young audiences is deliberately, consciously trying to co-opt imaginative play for the sake of selling products.
Think of all the modern complaints about the rise in "attention-deficit disorder", and discipline issues in school. Is it any wonder that they can't sit still and pay attention, if we never gave them the chance to practice those abilities?
I find it exciting and promising that the mainstream culture is starting to realize what Waldorf teachers knew all along: children do not need to be little Einsteins. They need to be little children. They need to play.
Tuesday, December 11. 2007
For marketing and fundraising purposes, the Emerson Waldorf School was looking for some short verbiage about why we send our kids to a Waldorf school. I had already written some lengthier posts about why I don't send my kids to public schools and why we chose Waldorf education. But my deathless prose won't fit in a call-out box on a brochure, so we need something a little tighter. Here are some attempts:
Monday, October 22. 2007
I was convinced thatÂ we needed to find an alternative education option for our kids. What were our options?
I went on a campus tour of the Emerson Waldorf School a few months before my first son was born. It was a beautiful day, and the wooded campus seemed especially picturesque with the sun filtering through the trees and the ground still damp from recent rain. Just walking to the meeting room, I thought, "What a wonderful place to come to every day." And that effect continued inside, too, in the Eurythmy room where the tour was gathering. What was it, exactly? The wood trim, the big windows, the color of the walls? The place felt extremely . . . comfortable. No, comforting -- something about it actively embraced you. I am not, temperamentally, a touchy-feely kind of guy, but my reaction to this place almost made me believe there was such a thing as an "inner child," because I had a spontaneous longing and sense of regret, something like, "I wish I'd grown up here." And all that before they even started talking.
And the talking only took me further in. They explained some of the nature of Waldorf schools, how every little detail is consciously created to meet the child at their level. I heard several teachers speak, and I was struck by how well they could articulate their philosophy of education. Though I didn't understand it completely, it was clear they had spine, a consistent approach to doing things that felt rigorous and well-defined. And yet they were also totally grounded in their own experience. When Ameli Fairman-Evans, the kindergarten teacher, spoke about the early education program and the skills the children are acquiring there, she said, with heartfelt tenderness, "You know, sharing is really hard." The way she said it convinced me that she herself was there, in the same world the children occupied, and all this pedagogical theory was both the result and the cause of a deep understanding of the child. German has two words for understanding: wissen for intellectual knowing about something, and kennen for personally experiencing something. Clearly these teachers had both.
After the orientation we walked outside again, touring the campus, looking at some of the classrooms and workshops and gardens where the children studied, worked, played. As we walked I spoke with Ingeborg Boesch, one of the teachers. I asked her, "So, you mentioned that stories play a big role in the teaching in the early grades . . . "
"Do all Waldorf teachers use the same stories, or do the teachers choose the stories themselves?"
"Oh, we all choose our own stories."
"So . . . what do you look for, in a story that you might use for teaching?"
I literally stopped dead in my tracks, and Frau Boesch had to turn around to continue talking. "Of course I don't mean literal truth, I mean that certain archetypes are contained --"
"No, no!" I said, holding my hands up, a wondrous grin on my face. "You don't have to explain. I understand completely."
And I did. The fact that someone could say that . . . that there were still teachers in the world who understood Truth, and who knew that their job was to lead students to their own experience of it . . . I was blown away. I think that was the exact moment I knew my kids would go to a Waldorf school.
Of course there were other influencing factors on that tour. For all of the feel-good vibe, the curriculum was both vigorous and broad. Two languages, music, drawing, handwork-- all on top of the reading, math, and science you would expect of any school. Looking at the beautiful objects in the woodshop, I'm sure I wasn't the only parent quietly thinking, "Damn, I couldn't make anything like that." A lot of us grew up thinking that we weren't the kind of person who could build something, or sing, or play music, or grow a plant, or draw . . . and Waldorf clearly believes that no such person exists. Implicit in its broad curriculum is an unspoken empowering message: you can do this. Nor do the teachers confuse nurturing with mollycoddling. One mother, nervously fingering a rasp in the handwork shop, said, "You make them wear gloves when they're using these tools, right?" Mr. Hagerman, the grandfatherly shop teacher, replied, "Of course not. They couldn't feel the wood if they did. We teach them how to use the tools safely, and absolutely no horseplay is allowed in the shop. But they need to learn to respect the tools; that also is part of the lesson."
So what did I think about my options now? Looking back, I laugh at my absolute hubris for thinking that I was the best person to education my children. I probably would have done better than the public schools, but looking at the Waldorf curriculum I realized how vast my ignorance was, how much I would have missed. Nor have I encountered any other school, public or private, that impressed me with its wisdom. I've seen other schools with tremendous faculty, and talented students, and beautiful facilities, and engaging curricula, but none of them ever manifested such a complete understanding of how to nurture the development of a complete human being. Â
Sunday, October 21. 2007
This past week I joined the steering committee for the Emerson Waldorf School's annual fund. Since testimonials are one of the best ways to sell, I thought I'd share my own Waldorf story, since it has some spiritual significance.
Personally, I did very well in public school . . . if all you're looking at is the report card. I got great grades, stayed out of trouble, and went on to college without a hitch. I would be one of those students the public schools would be proud to claim as their own. The only problem was . . . well, everything else, everything besides the grades. I spent vast amounts of time in the earlier grades being hopelessly bored -- "Oh, jeez, not another geometry unit again? How many times are we going to have exactly the same lesson about parallelograms?" I managed to get along with other kids but never really had friends. I was high-strung, geeky, unsocialized, and generally unhappy, though I was too proud to admit it.
The public schools gave me a number of disappointing teachers along the way, and I have my mother to thank for watching carefully and knocking down anyone and anything that got in my way. One year I had a mentally unstable teacher who routinely lost assignments, accused people of not turning them in, and read passages of the historical novel sheÂ was writing to her third-graders, including scenes of colonial settlers being hung in their own homes by British soldiers. My mom volunteered to be an assistant in the classroom, and managed to shelter us from most of the damage. Another year my teacher only got us halfway through the reading text we were supposed to cover. The school administration shrugged its collective shoulders and planned to just let us repeat the text next year. My mom arranged for me to finish the text in the summertime. Because I stuttered in the earlier years, I had been tracked into the lowest reading level. My mom intervened again and arranged to demonstrate my reading comprehension was actually several grade levels above, and I moved from the lowest reading group to the highest. At that point the school was ready to just promote me a couple grade levels, but my mom (who herself had been unhappy when promoted past her age level) prevented it, knowing I was having a hard time fitting in as it was. When the local teacher's union threatened a nasty strike, my mom organized parents to monitor the picket lines for trouble.
So, by the time I finished school I had an largely negative impression of the public school system.Â Well, actually that's being generous -- I thought they sucked.Â Once I realized that I was smarter than the teachers, that I could read better than they could, and cared more about learning than they did,Â my teacher's-pet eagerness to please turned into silent contempt.Â There were some notable exceptions, though. I had a fantastic experience in a gifted program that took students out of the regular schools once a week and brought us together to do fun stuff -- build rockets, dig for artifacts, study mythology, conduct toga parties in Latin. It was a much-needed dose of oxygen to my intellectual life, a reassurance that school could be wonderful, even if it often wasn't. When we returned to the regular school to get our homework assignments, the teachers were often full of spite, angry that they were not deemed fit to teach the best and brightest, angry at anything that disrupted their educational reign. Later on, I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a public boarding school that took students for their last two years of high school. I had the same experience of elation: "oh my God, this is what school is supposed to be like." And I encountered the same spite from the regular school; teachers and guidance counselors told me it was a mistake, that I could get just as good an education at Brevard High.
So, even when public schools were exceptional, they were literally an exception --Â a special program that took me away from the usual schooling. Like most Americans, I believe in the ideal of public education. I don't think we can embrace a social order that promises the American Dream of upward mobility without giving people the educational opportunity to rise to the highest level of their talents. But I also can't argue with my experience that the public education system is broken, and that anything to shake it up is a Good Thing.
When it came time to consider school options for my own kids, I wasn't sure what I would do, but I knew for certain that:
(to be continued . . . )
Tuesday, September 4. 2007
A volunteer at my kids' school approached me to do a short essay to help promote an upcoming talk. Here's what I wrote:
Why â€œEmersonâ€ Waldorf?
Ever wonder why our school is called the Emerson Waldorf School? â€œWho is this Emerson Waldorf guy?â€ I first asked. Only much later did I learn (to my embarrassment) that the name came from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement in the early 19th century. Ok . . . so . . . what does Emerson have to do with us?
The Waldorf pedagogy is rooted in Anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Unfortunately, few of us can even pronounce â€œanthroposophyâ€ at the first go, much less have a real understanding of it. Steinerâ€™s thought is so broad, and so deep, and so seemingly esoteric that itâ€™s a little daunting to the newcomer. Of course, you donâ€™t have to know anything about anthroposophy to recognize and appreciate the value of Waldorf education . . . but it helps, especially since it puts significant demands on parents. It would be nice to be able to explain to your mother-in-law why your son is learning to knit.
Fortunately, we have Ralph Waldo Emerson in our corner. Steiner had a special regard for Emerson: â€œAmerica is to have a different form of Anthroposophy, and . . . one should look to Emerson and his friends to understand it,â€ he wrote. Evidently the Transcendentalists were independently hitting on the same insights and intuitions that were powering Steinerâ€™s work in Europe. So, if you want to get to know anthroposophical thinking from a uniquely American point of view, you could start by dusting off your old Norton Anthology of American Literature and reading â€œSelf-Reliance.â€ Emerson may not say any more or less than Steiner did . . . but at least your mother-in-law has heard of Emerson, a name practically synonomous with American scholarship.
Actually, as Emerson describes it, â€œself-relianceâ€ sounds an awful lot like the ultimate goal for our childenâ€™s education. What Emerson wishes for us, we would wish for our children: to be able to think for themselves; to be able to do the right thing, even in the face of social scorn; to be alive to the creative potential in themselves; to listen to the â€œstill small voiceâ€ that enables genuine spirituality. â€œNothing can bring you peace but yourself,â€ he concludes. Thatâ€™s what Waldorf education seeks to do: allow the child to be fully themselves.
To learn more about Emerson, and how his essays help elucidate Steinerâ€™s teachings, join us at the public lecture by Rick Spaulding on October 26, 7 pm â€“ 9 pm, at the school, entitled: â€œRalph Waldo Emerson: Self-Relianceâ€.
Tuesday, August 28. 2007
This weekend some SKS members were out painting a Cube (a big free-standing sign in front of the student union), and as we stood there waiting for the first coat of paint to dry, a large group of fifty or more young women walked by. They were all wearing light summery dresses and open-toed shoes, all good-looking in a non-descript sort of way. They all filed into the student union, with an air of formality that would have been grim except for all that hair and exposed skin. I hadn't seen so much good looks headed for an obviously non-fun gathering since my days in the Baptist church. "Hmmm," I thought, "Well, it is Sunday . . . "
But then another troop of a hundred young women walked by. And another. And another. I felt alternately conspicuous and invisible, standing there in the heat in ratty painting clothes while so many composed-looking women walked by. I imagine the Hispanic laborers must feel this way. And then I realized: "Must be the sororities rushing."
I confess that I never really understood the Greeks. It sounds so good on paper: young men and women joined together in societies to develop leadership, scholarship, service to the community and each other . . . at its best, you would think it was "Dead Poets Society." Except that, weirdly enough, nobody really associates any of those qualities with the fraternities and sororites. I am not a knee-jerk Greek-basher. I would take all their self-descriptions of themselves at face value, were it not that nobody else took it seriously. I never knew a single person who said, "Boy, I really want to excel at my studies here . . . I know! I'll join a fraternity!" or "I really want to help the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged, which is why it's so important for me to pledge."
Of course there are obvious exceptions. Any fraternity or sorority that was "about" something -- music, religion, ethnic identity -- made perfect sense to me. You want to be a musician? Hang out with other musicians. But the "general" fraternities, the social organizations . . . what were they aspiring to be? I can't accept that it's just "get drunk, get high, get laid," because in the morning these people have to look in the mirror and feel good about themselves. There is some other need being met here.
I think the answer is: "normal." They want to be normal. Meaning: accepted. The Greek system, with its elaborate kabuki dance of rushing and pledging and initiation, is first and foremost geared to create a sense of belonging. Everyone wants to find themselves in good company, and as long as you are surrounded by good-looking, well-dressed and well-heeled people, you can feel fairly certain you are not alone in the universe. The Greek system is engaged in the most obvious and straightforward attempt to deal with existential anxiety. If it looks superficial, it's only because it's so universal. Which is why someone like me, who never drank or smoked or hooked up or even so much as attended a football game, can still feel self-conscious when the rushees march past.
Of course the rushees are not doing themselves any favors by plugging into ready-made social identities. The whole point of the college experience is to find out who you are, notÂ answer the questionÂ in the first two weeks of the first semester.Â Personally, I would hope for them that they burn through the comforts of society-for-society's-sake,Â and get hungry enough to look for greater fulfillment beyond. But I doubt it will happen. In fifteen years of the Self Knowledge Symposium on several different campuses, to my knowledge no Greek has ever actively participated. For better or worse, they seem to have found their answers.
Friday, June 8. 2007
My son graduated from kindergarten yesterday. I used to be mildly contemptuous of calling anything below getting your diploma a "graduation" -- it smacked of an overweening praise-everything-and-everyone parenting culture that watered down real standards and discredited real achievement. Surely we don't need pomp and circumstance for someone learning to tie their shoes and sit quietly in circle.
But that's why I send my kids to a Waldorf school. They are much wiser about these things than I am. The teachers understand that the work the kindergartners are doing is real work. The capacities they are developing for cooperation, self-control, consistent application of energy, and respect for others are the bedrock of a successful life. It is an accomplishment to learn those things.
The ceremony was simple. Miss Patricia told a story about a young princess who played in a garden every day, until one day she strayed through garden walls and explored the outside world, worrying the king at first but prompting him to let her explore the world some more. Miss Patricia handed each child an orange ("to sustain you in the work you have to do"), a stone ("for wisdom to always choose to do the right thing") and a flower ("to remind you of the beauty of the garden, and find beauty in the outside world.") And when the children went outside to join the other classes, the rising first-graders walked through a flowered trellis, to symbolism their transition out of the garden.
None of this would have impressed me particularly, except for the effect that I saw it had on Aidan. There was no visible effect at the time, other than him just enjoying himself. But at home, he asked if he could use a tool that were previously off-limits: a swing-blade for whacking down large weeds. And I let him. He accepted my instruction seriously and without argument. He was extremely careful in using it, and worked hard to make sure his little brother was never threatened by the blade. Later that evening he picked up all the toys, telling his little brother that, "You don't have to worry about it, I'll do it." He fed the dogs without the usual arguments and tantrums. He asked if he could make it his regular job: "I know I could remember to do it . . . I would just need help telling the time."
I never had to tell him, "Now that you're a big boy, you should be accepting new responsibilities." (I remember in my grade school, the teachers always bellowing, "Now, children, you're no longer (x) graders, you're (x+1) graders, so you should behave better." I always despised that for some reason, and it never worked, anyway.) I didn't have to have that conversation, because the ritual had already told him.
The logical, rational mind will always chafe at ceremony and ritual. There is nothing rational about ceremony. It smacks of superstitious magic -- the vain belief that saying the right words and doing the right symbolic actions will mysteriously make the world obey your desires. But the human psyche is not rational, and the will and imagination do obey the laws of magic. You will hear people say that something is "merely symbolic" or "only metaphorical" when they discuss religious practices, as well. The mistake is not to call them symbolic or metaphorical; the mistake is to say, "merely symbolic." In the context of the human mind, nothing is merely symbolic. The mind is just one huge cavalcade of symbols, "a mobile army of metaphors" as Nietzsche put it. Symbols have real power.
Sunday, May 20. 2007
Time Magazine described the new high-tech means students use to plagiarize essays for their assignments (e.g. affordabletermpapers.com) and the counter-measures that universities are using to suss out the cheaters (e.g. turnitin.com). Some students have objected to their own papers being added to turnitin.com's massive database of term papers that it uses to identify non-original work, claiming their intellectual property is being scooped up without their consent. Why, they ask, should some for-profit company make money off their work? Some professors, too, were skeptical about pursuing draconian measures to catch cheaters, fearing it might actually undermine the honor code spirit that insists and expects ethical behavior from its students.
Two questions arise from this debate: can high-tech anti-cheating measures be taken (is it technically and legally possible), and should they be taken (is it morally correct and realistically advisable to do so)? I hope the answer to both is obvious.
As far as the legal case goes . . . those students are dreaming if they think they can squeeze concessions from turnitin.com. No expectation of copyright control ever existed before in the schools, so it's useless to pretend it does now. Reading a text in order to identify possible plagiarism is going to be way, waaaay inside the bounds of "fair use" in copyright law, anyway. Any school that wants to cover its butt can simply make the non-expectation explicit: "When you turn in your papers, you give us the right to share it with whomever we please to verify it's originality." Case closed. If students still feel like they want to opt out of such a system, let them vote with their feet: transfer to a school that doesn't use the systems. Or, perhaps, let them come up with their own alternative for verifying the originality of their papers -- like, say, writing them in a controlled test room . . . and paying the fees of the proctors who administer them. I have a feeling all the high-minded objections from students would vanish if they were actually asked to pay to defend their precious term papers.
Should we try to catch the cheaters? This is a slam-dunk for reducto ad absurdum. If you think that rigorously pursuing cheaters will compromise a spirit of integrity, we might as well close down all the police stations, disban the SEC, and dismantel all the accounting firms' audit departments while we're at it. A presumption of individual innocence does not mean a presumption of collective innocence. We know that over half of students admit to cheating at some point in their college careers. Anyone who wants to defend the validity of their grades should be willing to accept a level of oversight . . . especially if it's as non-invasive as an automated plagiarism test. It's like the sleazy suspect on Law & Order who refuses to provide a DNA sample -- they claim all kinds of high-falutin' moral reasons for refusing an invasion of privacy . . . while the police, and the entire audience with them, says, "Uh-huh. Something to hide, huh?"
What I find even more sad is that people don't see how terribly important these ethical matters are. Academic misconduct is not a small matter. Look around at all the countries were free civil society has completely broken down: Iraq, third-world Africa, etc. The common denominator in all these places is corruption. Once corruption becomes commonplace and accepted as a part of life, you are condemned to world in which there is no trust at all . . . which is to say, a world in which all collective effort for collective good is utterly doomed. Is this what we want to school our children in? That success can be bought? That all that matters is what you can get away with? That personal success and fortune matters more than personal integrity and goodness? If corruption (and that's what we should call it -- not cheating, not misconduct, but corruption) prevails in the university, we will have planted the seeds of our society's destruction.
I also think, coincidentally, that this whole debate only exposes the arbitrary, unrealistic, totally bogus nature of most school assignments and tests. I heard of a Duke business school teacher who told his students: "In my classes, anyone who is asked for help, and refuses to give it, is a cheater." The dean of the school heard of this policy, rushed to his office and said, "We can't have this. What kind of a world do think this would be if everybody went around helping everyone else?" (Beat . . . .wait for laughter.) If, instead of working on individual essays that are canned and arbitrary, students worked collectively on real-life problems with real-world benefactors, the problem of cheating would not be so much of an issue.
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