John Merrow puts us on the map!

It’s so interesting how networking works. Early on in the life of this project I contacted some of the educators whose writings I respected and asked if they would look at a 45 minute compilation meant to span all the areas we could possibly develop in the film. Alfie Kohn and Deb Meier were among those who responded, giving important initial feedback. Deb also sent information about us to a number of her colleagues. As a result Brenda Engel was among those who helped us define our direction. A year later, with a much more developed work, I asked another of Deb’s and Alfie’s contacts, Monty Neill to help us screen the first rough cut. He suggested that Brenda Engel might invite Jay and Helen Featherstone.

The group of a dozen or so people who watched the film in Louis Kruger’s Northeastern classroom all sparked our energy with wonderful comments, and the Featherstones began corresponding with us. When Jay asked what he could do to help us, I asked if he knew anyone in media–for example John Merrow, long time education reporter on PBS.

It turns out Jay was one of John’s thesis advisors at Harvard! He wrote a wonderful letter suggesting John view the film. To our great pleasure John also found value in our work. This led to a phone interview, which led to John’s blog about us at http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/

That review has multiplied our network by many factors!! Requests to screen the film, ranging from a teacher’s union in Des Moines to Stanford’s Governor’s Corner Office of Residential Education, arrive each time I open my email. My “outreach learning curve” is being challenged, and I’m paddling hard to be up to speed with their requests, but we couldn’t be more delighted with the opportunities that are arising. When 60 Minutes called, I nearly fell off my chair! Fingers crossed that when they see the film they will find it calls to them as strongly as it did to the thread that led them to us: Deb and Alfie to Monty and Brenda to Jay and Helen to John.

It seems to me that no matter what 60 Minutes decides, the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction. As parents join the mix, it won’t be long before the voices for meaningful education are louder than the voices of the test pushers.

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Fast and Furious

Responses to Waiting for Superman are all over the media world. Some of them drive me crazy, as they accept his assumption that we have figured out how to measure “good schools” and “good teachers” with standardized tests, and could give every child a “good education” if we just made more spots available in charters. Many echo my own response to the film: I’m glad that people are talking about what needs to be changed in our schools, but: Whoa Nelly! Take a closer look before thinking that galloping down the charter school path in and of itself is the answer!

Here are a couple of articles I particularly appreciated:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ellen-galinsky/fixing-education-lessons_b_739367.html
http://www.fairtest.org/real-facts-about-waiting-superman
This youtube video: (some of whose information could have been very useful to balance Guggenheim’s questionable factoids) http://www.waitingforsupermantruth.org/

So then here we come, trotting behind a well-financed and publicized film like Waiting for You Know Who. By showing that learning is not like that dreadful animation of a teacher pouring knowledge into the open heads of students, can we make use of the momentum Guggenheim has created to “initiate a gigantic, messy, national conversation that would take place in every neighborhood, every barrio, every ghetto of every city and every town, to raise the questions: “What knowledge and experiences are most valuable? What makes someone an educated person? How do we make that knowledge and experience accessible to all students?” (Bill Ayers words from a recent Truthout article)? That is our challenge.

Every day I find new allies online. Some are voices that have been there for a long time, but that I hadn’t run across, but also there are teachers and parents who are just now ready to speak out.

A few months ago we were told (in so many words) by the Fledgling Foundation that they couldn’t fund us although they loved our film. They felt the education community was so divided that the time wasn’t at hand where a film could have much impact. I think I will write to them now and see if they still feel the same way.

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guess how many hours the credits took

Well, I can’t actually tell you how many hours the credits took, but I can tell you it was MANY MANY MANY more than I would have imagined. First of all there was making sure we had the names of everyone who we needed to thank–days and weeks on that, checking spelling, locating who to credit for songs, and getting their website addresses. Then there was our first attempt at designing a nice way to show them on the screen. There are certain traditions: some categories get a screen of their own, some get larger type than others. There are still a lot of possible variations. We wanted to thank everyone who gave us any kind of help (up to the cut-off date of when we had to have the credits finished). Oh gee, I hope we got them all! We also wanted to work with two pieces of music, and be done with the credits when the music finished. That meant some names were going to be pretty small. Work, rework, work, rework: days. It was looking pretty good when I remembered a song we hadn’t credited! Last minute email to Doug Goodkin, phone call to Ashley Bryan in Maine (87 years old: such a nice man!!) rework again. Show it to Kim Aubry at ZAP who tells us we are out of broadcast framing for our most tightly packed page. AGH! Back to the drawing board, come up with a new design. Kim writes back that we might want to do it differently because of interlacing. Interlacing is a video issue that didn’t cross our minds because Tom works on digital screens. Interlacing sometimes makes small words bouncy and blurry. Kim suggests we consider rolling credits. We spend hours looking at all the videos in our possession to see how other people have done it. No consensus. Some are way worse than ours, some better but done so differently it is hard to apply them to our situation. Tom decides he has to actually create rolling credits so we can compare. This involves using a new program that he doesn’t know well (this means several trips past GO without collecting $200). We look at the new version…and there are pros and cons. Different screens give us different impressions. Are they easier to read? Size-wise yes, but they go by too fast. Tom’s program doesn’t seem to allow them to go slower.

We finally decide we like the original design with static pages better. We tell Kim. The next day Tom has second thoughts. OY!

To find out what we ended up with you’ll have to wait til the end of the film :)

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On the same page with the Dalai Lama

I noticed in the SF Chronicle that the Dalai Lama is giving $50,000 to the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. They will use it to see if positive emotions such as kindness and compassion help a person’s brain be more resilient to life’s hard knocks. While the Dalai Lama is thinking about meditation, and its effects on well being, I immediately thought of the more active work that can be done in school to foster kindness and compassion. There are so many times in a day when opportunities arise, from taking care of a school pet, to looking at a conflict from the other person’s perspective. One of the parts of being in a school where all the ages have daily interactions that I love is how it allows older children to be involved in the lives of younger ones. On our playground one often sees a younger child turning to an older one for help. When younger ones join a mixed age game, more often than not the older students are encouraging and tone the game down to work for the younger ones. And when that doesn’t happen, or a younger child feels unfairly treated, it can very quickly come to the attention of an adult who knows the older child, and can bring the parties together–taking the time to build understanding, and compassion. This requires Time: when children are playing and talking with each other, involved in activities together. Unstructured time is an important part of the mix, as well as a common understanding that working with “feelings’ is part of what happens at school. i understand the Dalai Lama’s focus on meditation, but I hope the folks in Wisconsin also study other pieces of what makes for healthy children’s minds. I’d like that to include the difference that creative outlets make and the presence of situations where children can learn how to be kind and compassionate.

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Turning around “reorganizing”

I “attended” a Teachers Letters to Obama web roundtable called Turn Around This Policy,a few days ago. First of all I am still pretty amazed by how these technologies bring people together. 42 of us from all across the country were listening to speakers, seeing their slides, and exchanging our reactions at the same time. The “discussion space” could have held 100, but if the speed that the comments of 42 is any indication, I would never have caught the comments if a hundred had been typing their thoughts. So while I would wish more people had been present, it was a good number for interacting.

The four speakers each had been affected by school “reorganization’ in one way or another. Chuck Olnyck from LA’s Fremont High, a school with 4,600 students(the first mistake) was labeled failing and teachers made to reapply for their jobs. Chuck refused, and now is looking in from the outside at what the results have been. As far as he can see it’s mainly disruption of some promising small schools within this monster that were making the kinds of changes most likely to turn the school around. There will be more first time teachers. Some might view that as a positive, but without good support those new teachers may join the large ranks of those who quit after 3 years.

Nikki Barnes teaches at a KIPP middle school charter that has a very high rate of college acceptance for its students. She has been there 12 years, but many of the teachers around her have only stayed for their 2 year Teach For America contract. They put their all out for those two years, but Nikki questions this strategy of burning through young idealistic teachers, as well as wondering about the definition of success in KIPP and other schools. High results on standardized tests are seen as basic. More is demanded than that, but still schooling sounds very limited to what will look good on a college resume. Some of the practices she described dismayed me, but I was impressed by Nikki’s objectivity. She does not dismiss KIPP, and will continue to teach there, but see the faults. Is there a way to incorporate some of the positive student-centered KIPP practices into other settings?

Sabrina Stevens Shupe has a blog called Failing Schools. Her explanation of how labeling a school as failing increases the likelihood it will get worse, was very persuasive. I hope she is reaching policy makers!

The last speakers were three teachers from Detroit who are starting a teacher led elementary school. The school is a three year experiment, which all who commented felt was too short a period. Perhaps they can negotiate a longer trial, and broader measurements of success. Right now it is limited to the rate that they raise test scores. Whatever the shortcomings, the fact that teachers are taking (and sharing) leadership is big. They are getting some of the support they will need in the form of planning time. I hope we can get updates as to how they are doing, and if I do, I will report about it.

This roundtable was just one more reminder of how much is going on in education right now–positive and negative. Helping to “unleash the positive” is my goal!

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THE NEWS ABOUT TEACHERS

Three pieces about teachers came my way today. There was an editorial in the SF Chronicle blaming teacher’s unions for California not getting Race To The Top funding. I read Alfie Kohn’s piece called Turning Children Into Data in Education Week (http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/data.htm) and then I listened to an American Radioworks program called Testing Teachers (http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/testing_teachers/index.html)

The good news is that all three agree on the importance of good teachers.

But there is discouraging news too. The Chronicle editorial continues the straw man of blaming unions for the sad mess in our inner city schools. It lauds the LA Times for their plan to link teachers’ names to test score results. I can’t imagine a worse incentive for creative teaching than that. What young teacher would take the chance of not teaching to the test with that stick looming? How many experienced teachers would choose a low performing school knowing they will be compared in that way to teachers in wealthy districts? What union would allow their members to be treated so simplistically? The Chronicle’s editorial writers seem to think that embarrassment makes people perform. hmmmm.

The American Radioworks program was more of a mixed bag. It began with a focus on the work of economist Eric Hanushek, who uses data from standardized tests to prove that some teachers uniformly get better results than others. Hanushek’s analysis was also used in the film Waiting for Superman. He believes that “teachers are born, not made,” so the emphasis should be on removing “bad” teachers. Also as in Waiting for Superman, Michelle Rhee’s slash and burn approach to the Washington DC schools was portrayed sympathetically. But as the program goes on, it mentions that even Hanushek thinks the weight given to test scores is misguided.

In the second half of the program they feature the changes made in the Chattanooga city schools by offering “sustained long term training and support” to all teachers by mentor teachers who were still active in the classroom. In the process they discussed the importance of focusing on the needs of individual children! Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. But in my view they left out major pieces: the range of basic training we offer teachers and the importance of enlisting parents as partners.

It seems so hard to get people to realize how little is learned from test scores. Alfie Kohn’s article, which is subtitled “A Skeptic’s Guide to Assessment Programs” makes that point as well as several other salient ones about who is profiting from the so-called “reform movement.” I would feel much better about the possibility of recruiting and retaining good teachers if the folks in the Obama administration, Public Radio, and The Chronicle were reading Kohn!

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NO TIME TO BASK

The site is up! I’ve sent messages to my Facebook folks, and received lots of positive responses, plus some very helpful critiques. Only two misspelled words!! My daughter Keja, who teaches college level English composition gave my writing style a brutal once over. I was attached to some of my phrases, so it isn’t her fault if there are still too many gerunds and a few misplaced commas!

Hopefully some of the work I did for the website will be transferable to my next project–designing the DVD package. Once again a former student is coming to my rescue. Reuben Raffael, a wonderful graphic artist with many projects to his credit, has volunteered his expertise. His one caveat: that I come with all “the nuts and bolts” in working order. So on Wednesday, when we come back from a brief (but well deserved!) backpacking trip, I will start getting nuts and bolts in order!

And then there are two upcoming fund raising house parties, figuring out how we will debut the film and celebrate with the school community, plus lots more outreach work ahead of us. Stay tuned!

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COMING TO A COMPUTER NEAR YOU

After weeks of work we are about to put on line our new website. I worked closely with our web designer, Brindl Markle, who I have known since she was two years old! Her sister Kendra was our daughter’s playmate, and Brindl attended the Open Classroom as did her two brothers and Kendra. So it was easy to explain what I wanted to get across with the new site: something upbeat, stressing the kids and their creativity.

The tables were turned and Brindl became the teacher. Her first assignment to me was that I look at other sites and tell her what I liked. Whenever something is on your mind, you know how it is, everything seems related to it. Not only when I was on the computer scanning websites, but everywhere I went I saw design elements, and how they were put together. Pretty quickly we decided on a basic framework, using some of the portraits that are integral to the film and creating a quilt effect with them.

Just as has been the case with every aspect of this project, there was more to learn, and details that force me to slow down and pay attention! Who knew there would be so many decisions simply around what we would include in the menu? But yesterday Brindl and I sat in front of the computer and she talked me through the process of adding and updating content. After she left I spent some hours using what she taught me so it would sink in. Even so, when I came back from a hiking break with my friend (and former classroom aide) Gabi, I had forgotten stuff.

Remember that, teachers. You can’t stuff gobs of new information into the old brain (or the young one) and expect it will all stick! But I have tools!! I used almost all of them, and figured out most of what I needed to know. Then I sent an email to Brindl saying “HELP!” As soon as I sent it I figured out most of the rest:)

Today Brindle emailed me back. Like the good teacher that she is, she didn’t just do it for me. She cheered me on for trying things, told me the book I need to get and read…and, after all, gave me some clues that would get me back in gear. By tomorrow the site will be ready for action!

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MUSIC NUTS AND BOLTS

There is lots of singing in AUGUST TO JUNE because there was lots of singing in my classroom, and in our school music is a major element. Early on it was mainly parents coming in, playing music very informally with kids who wanted to stand around the piano and sing. After a few years we hired Sarah Whitman, who introduced us the work of Carl Orff. Orff-Schulwerk builds on folk traditions, dancing, rhythm instruments, xylophones, and improvisation. We’ve since raised money to train later music teachers in Orff techniques, and have been very happy with the interactive lively music sessions it produces. Our plays always include child produced songs that are supported by the improvisation students experience in music classes.

One thing that happened as a result of such successful music classes was that for a while there was less music in the classroom! Teachers unintentionally left it to the music teachers. One day a parent complained to me that there wasn’t enough music in our school. I started to protest, when I realized what he was saying. I wasn’t singing with my kids, parents were rarely playing music with kids: it had been “relegated” to a large extent to the music class. I can’t thank that dad enough for pointing that out to me! I immediately began singing with my students! Such a treat! My fear that they might not want to sing with me was gone in a minute. Kids love to sing!

We had had a special birthday song for quite a while, but when music teacher Kate Munger, came on board, she loved to develop songs with kids that reflected their experiences. Some songs became “our” songs for saying good by to a student who was leaving, for singing at certain times of year, for welcoming the day, or going on a hike.

When I made a list of all the songs sung in the film I was shocked at how many there were. Some had been with us for so long, and come to us so circuitously, that the current music teachers, Tom Finch and Anny Owen, were unclear who the authors were. Thus began a months long search. Each time I thought I had them all covered, it would turn out that one I had thought was in the public domain actually was written by a modern musician. Slowly but surely I have located just about all of the composers/lyricists of the songs in the film, and almost all of them have been very gracious about letting us use their material at no cost. We will credit them with pleasure!

The one exception was the only song that is very well known. We’d used 11 seconds during a music class with Anny Owen where the kids were practicing “Moonglow.” We liked it for many reasons. It was an upbeat lift after some serious classroom interactions. Ivan is wearing a shirt we see him silk screening in an earlier part of the film, and he is participating easily in the class, a great step forward for him. Even though the kids have made a mistake, and Anny has to stop to correct them, everyone is very involved, and you feel their ease working through something that requires repetition and refinement.

Whether is was my inexperience, or the way the Internet is used by music companies, it was not easy to reach the companies that owned the rights to “Moonglow.” Eventually I found out that one company owned one third of the rights, and another two thirds. Many emails followed, but while everyone was very nice, the bottom line was that we were offered a two year contract for $500 for 2/3 use, and would most likely be paying $250 for the other 1/3, plus we couldn’t get a clear answer about what would happen after that.

I investigated a documentary concept called “fair use” which means that the use is part of a reportage, and not meant as a performance, but it is a very fuzzy area, and in the end the best informal advise we got was not to use the footage unless we paid for it. And so we very regretfully cut “Moonglow.” Sigh!

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MEETING FELLOW TRAVELERS

Today was the first day of the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference, and I am sitting at the computer at 11:15 pm not quite able to go to sleep with so many images in my head. The biggest one is of over 400 people from all over the US ( and some from other countries) smiling and welcoming and curious about what the others were involved in. Many young people! A few black and brown faces. More public school teachers than I had expected, but of course lots of home schoolers, unschoolers, and folks representing a variety of other education approaches and philosophies. The first person we met was Rick Posner, whose book about the alumni of the Jefferson County Open Classroom, Lives of Passion, School of Hope is now in my backpack. I knew from a phone conversation that we’d had a year ago that I’d like him, and I did. He introduced me to one of his former students, Ian, who is here with him, and who struck me immediately with his sense of humor and astute observations as we watched a video conference with Herb Kohl.

Herb was full of piss and vinegar, chiding the Alternative movement for not being activist enough, and for deserting the public schools. He didn’t pull any punches, and I am sure agrevated a bunch of the participants with his negative comments about home schooling and the elitism he sees. He went overboard, as is his wont, but much of what he said was valuable. One quote I liked was “schools need to embrace the vision of a decent world>”

At a workshop on maintaining a positive school culture I discovered that there are a group of teachers here from the independent school in LA where I taught in 69-70! Play Mountain Place is probably the oldest Summerhill based school in the US. I was so pleased to talk with two young teachers who brought me up to date about how the school is doing. It sounds like it has stayed true to it’s original mission of incorporating ideas brought forward by Carl Rogers about the emotional needs of children. I hope i get to talk more with them tomorrow.

This evening we saw a film called The War On Children which traces all the inhumanness that has entered the public schools–from zero tolerance policies, to medicating for quiet classrooms. the film had many interesting and important points to make, but I am not comfortable with its conclusion that we need to toss out the whole public school system…the two videos of the day were in stark contrast on that point!

Time for bed. Tomorrow we show our film!

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