Thursday, December 18, 2014

Class Dismissed, Homeschooling Explored

Last week I had the pleasure of screening the documentary, Class Dismissed.  I didn’t know much about it, just that it explored education reform.  That was reason enough for me to call for a dinner and a movie.  Once we arrived I became a little concerned.  The theater was filled with families – not the normal documentary crowd on a weekday night. It turns out the movie is not just about education reform, but specifically about homeschooling as an answer.  It seems that the local homeschooling community is a tight-knit bunch and they showed up in force to support this film.

Taken in conjunction with Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, we have three very interesting and somewhat contrasting looks at what is wrong with American education today, but three different solutions.  Class Dismissed introduces us to a few issues that some people have with school as we know it – a focus on grades and test scores at the expense of authentic learning, an inflexibility with the variety of children and their learning styles and interests, and modes of instruction and curriculum suited for a by-gone industrial era.  The film introduces us to John Holt, a critic of mainstream education from the 1970s. Listening to old interviews with him, I found many of his complaints are the same as mine, a generation later. While I would like to see schools change, Holt’s solution was to withdraw from “schooling” and home-school.    
I am guilty of many assumptions about home schooling.  Kids will lack social skills.  Colleges will not know what to do with them, if they can even get admitted.  Instruction, if any, will lack depth and challenge.  Kids will not know how to work hard because parents will go easy and instruction will look like play time.  Parents lack the content knowledge to appropriately instruct kids at higher levels.  Class Dismissed took each of these concerns and dismantled each and every one rather convincingly. 

Following a Los Angeles family through their homeschooling process, the film introduces us to a few models for homeschooling, honestly exploring potential failures of each and acknowledging that there is no perfect model (and isn’t that just the point?).  By following one family for two years, we also get to see that some models work for a time but that as kids mature, some models become ineffective.  

In the end I must confess, I am now much more open to the possibility of home schooling.  However, it certainly is not a solution for the masses.  I continue to struggle with how most families could manage this in the current economy.  How many families can make ends meet on one income? Let’s face it, home schooling is a full time job that does not provide any income. 
Homeschooling does have something to teach the rest of us, though.  When we try to figure out individualization, learning styles, exploratory learning, constructivism and other “outside the box” ideas, we should open our minds and see what the home schooling community is up to.  They are pooling resources, experimenting, and exploring – and they have something useful to share.

If you are concerned about the state of education and looking at solutions, either as a parent or an educator, do yourself a favor and see Class Dismissed.  You will be provoked. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Last night as I drove home and listened to the Grand Jury’s decision I was struck with sadness and longing.  I am sad for our country…again.  I am longing for my 14 years teaching African-American Studies in Columbia, Missouri, 120 miles from Ferguson.  I am longing for the freedom and opportunity to tackle the teachable moment.  I am longing to sit in a room of white, black, Latino and Asian students and figure out how to make sense of all this and how to do better.

I believe in a country of laws, but I am not na├»ve.  I want to believe the Grand Jury got it right, but I am already reading strange inconsistencies and contradictions.  I know it is incredibly rare for a Grand Jury not to indict.  I know it is far more common for a Grand Jury not to indict when a police officer is involved.  I know enough about power, fear and emotions to know this entire situation is more complex than we are processing yet.  

I am frustrated with our media and ourselves.  Fires and violence make for great television, but don’t come close to telling the story.  As a white man, I cannot pretend to really understand.  However, I think my study and my experience with students, their families and many, many friends tells me a few things.  The protesters are not simply angry with the Grand Jury’s decision.  When we and the media make it that simple we are ignoring context.  We are ignoring Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till.  We are ignoring Rodney King and Fred Hampton.  We are ignoring slavery and Jim Crow.  We are ignoring declining infrastructure, low wage jobs, poor school systems, unemployment, wealth stratification, and disenfranchisement.  We must put this in the big picture if we even want to begin to understand.  We must turn off Dancing with the Stars and read.  We must turn the channel away from CNN and Fox and demand some depth.  We must delve into the nuance and the context.

Are there opportunists?  Are there those who see an opportunity for a thrill, for some free oil filters and car battery?  Are there boneheads out there figuring now is a good time to get away with something?  Of course.

But I think it is safe to say there are far, far more who are sad, angry, frustrated, exhausted, losing hope, and just plain fed up but protesting peacefully.  There are far more who want to yell, but are trying to carry on some dialogue to make a positive difference.  There are far, far more who want some healing.

But that healing will not happen until we all learn to empathize.  Can you see things from another perspective?  Can you try on another’s lens?  

Stop for a moment and consider what it might be like to have to sit with your son and teach him how to act when stopped by the police in order to save his own life.  

Stop and consider what it might be like to be confronted with a system that seems to be rigged against you from birth.  

Stop and consider what it might be like to be a 14 year old boy and learn about the murder of Emmett Till.  What if you saw that story repeated a few dozen times in your life? 

Stop and consider.  Think.  Empathize.

Put all of this in the context of the history of St. Louis’ northern suburbs.  Put this in the context of St. Louis’ and Missouri’s history.  Put this in the context of American history.  

It is no more true that all black teenage boys are thugs than it is that all cops are racist killers so let’s get past the hyperbole and ridiculousness and talk and listen to each other.

We need to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of listening deeply.  We have a world that needs some changing and it is up to us.

Monday, November 24, 2014

An Important Letter

At another blog an elite college's Admissions Officer has some suggestions for parents and I could not agree more....please read Parents: Let Harvard Go at Rox and Roll, The Cacophony of Motherhood, Seriously, if you have amazing dreams for your kids and are freaked out by the demands today or what you see your peers doing to their kids, read this.  If you think success begins with an elite college, read this.  If you think grades, test scores and a long resume of extra-curriculars are the key to success, read this.  Just read this!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Daniel Siegel and Alfie Kohn

On Tuesday evening last week I had the opportunity to see UCLA psychiatrist Daniel Siegel speak. His presentation was wonderful, focusing on brain development in adolescents. I was so impressed I want to pass along a short video clip from him as well as a link to a full presentation of his. I encourage you to take a look; it may help you understand your teens a little more.

This is a short clip –

This is a longer, complete presentation -
If you are in the South Bay you can see the next Common Ground speaker next month - Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, The Schools Our Kids Deserve, and others including a new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. This will be the subject of his talks November 12 at The Harker School in San Jose and the 13th at Sacred Heart in Menlo. Check out a couple clips at and

It is important that we consider the research, particularly that which challenges us, when making our instructional decisions.  Both Siegel and Kohn present a lot of material that ought to make us all pause and re-consider our practices.  Just because something has been done a certain way for generations does not mean that's the way to do it.  Challenge yourself, think outside the box, try something new and discard something old...but use the research to guide your decisions.

Learn more about the Common Ground series at 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What can teachers learn from Ferguson?

As we embark upon another school year, my 22nd as a teacher, I am sitting with the usual excitement, anxiety and sense that there must still be something else to get done.  But I am also struck with a profound sadness with Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown dominating the news.  I spent 17 years teaching in Missouri, 14 of them teaching African-American Studies.  I have had dozens, if not hundreds of students that could have been Michael Brown.

I don't pretend to know what happened and I am not here to comment on the hundreds of issues this awful, devastating event raises. I am saddened by the loss of a family and community.  I am struck by my memories of so many students who may have been just like Michael.  

I read an article last week about Michael.  He was described as a good kid in the sense that he did little to bring attention to himself.  Apparently it took a lot of support to get him through school.  Parents had to really push at times.  But he stayed out of trouble.  How many students have we had that just blended in and avoided attention and were therefore defined as good kids?  How much potential went unrecognized?  How many of these kids were African-American boys?

I have had too many young, African-American men who fit this description.  The reasons are different for every kid.  Some dealt with poverty or a lack of role models.  Others came from homes struggling with abuse of all kinds.  Some came from homes with adults that didn’t value education because of their own negative experiences.  Some came from excellent homes with involved families that valued an education.  Some simply felt lost, excluded and ignored.  

However, they all had dreams, they were all capable, and they all had their own unique passions and interests.  

The results were just as varied.  Most of these young men have become successful in a myriad of ways – college students, good fathers and business and civic leaders.  Others have had different routes to and through adulthood.

But what I have seen over and over from these guys is an aching to be heard, respected and given a genuinely fair shot at being successful and safely being themselves.  Isn’t this what all of our kids want?  Why do we so often struggle giving this to our African-American boys?  

If we allow any of our students to feel disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected or hopeless we run the risk of ending up with angry, unhappy, hopeless adults – and we don’t need any more of that.

This year pledge to notice the students who blend in and avoid being noticed.  Find out what their dreams are.  Teach them something about being resilient in the face of a challenge.  Be the adult they can lean on and learn from.  Listen, respect, validate, support.
We’ve all heard the maxim about teaching them well because every student you have is somebody’s baby.  But what if you taught them not like they were somebody else’s baby, but like they might marry yours!