On the occasion of 25 years of a good thing

One of the joys of non-profit work is the creating of something out of nothing. You put together like-minded people tethered by an ideal and you say, “let’s create a thing.” And over a series of meetings that seems to stretch endlessly backward in time that thing you create is molded and patterned, tested and reshaped, reflected upon, acted upon, celebrated, retooled, strengthen, defended and perpetuated.

Those four lines above describe the skeletal shape of the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois program, our advanced teacher preparation and mentoring program we created  in 1987 and launched in the winter of 1988, debuted at UIC in the summer of 1989, and this weekend in Tinley Park celebrated for the 25th year of its operation.

You hang in one place for a quarter-century, you worry over this thing like a thumb rubs a prayer stone, and you come across a passel of emotions, remember a flotilla of people, recall a trove of memories:  hilarious stories, sad recollections, worrisome times. The survival and resilience of this program is remarkable. State funded since 1993 through four governor administrations, passing of legislative power from one party to another, ever  subject  to the whims of political vicissitude, the Scholars program is a testament to the resourcefulness of good people who led it and good people chosen to participate in it.

And that paragraph above could not begin to describe the immensity of the task in creating this program, nor of the brilliant and dear people who have been part of it, nor of the countless meetings held to further, sustain or protect it. All this rolls in my mind like the memory collects—gauzy, sometimes selective, a bit secretly triumphant, sometimes secretly despondent, as we sometimes are when the rain falls and thoughts wander.

None of this, not one moment of what has transpired this last quarter century, could have been accomplished without the stunning generosity and belief in teachers possessed by our founders, Mike and Pat Koldyke. Absent them and we would have wandered a course, no doubt,  and strive, certainly, and probably achieve, but not with this level of sheen nor this amount of pride.

I wonder frequently about the young people we have brought into teaching through this program. Most nearly all are darling, but sometimes worrisome thoughts surface. I worry about entitlement seep. I worry that they don’t realize the old school notion that when someone is given a beneficence,  that beneficence is repaid seven times over. I wonder, like an old teacher wonders, if there will come a time some day in the future when they truly appreciate the depth of excelling in this profession of ours—that it is seven-eights humility and equal remaining parts of reflection and plan, with little room for hubris.

But the truest of gratitude that can be received is in the manner each of them teach. For every kindness shown a child, for every patience paid and forbearance granted, for every extra hour spent or early awakened to help a student, the effort to create this thing we celebrate, and those who know their fingerprints upon it, are thanked.

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No time limit on conciliation?

I married into a family that owned liquor stores, worked in them while dating my wife, and observed first hand how angry words and an inability to be conciliatory broke apart a successful family business. By the time my wife and I married, my father-in-law and his brother were deeply suspicious of each other. The older brother that could bring together disparate opinions and jealousies of his pugnacious younger brothers perished in a plane crash years before. Absent his presence, the dueling brothers saw no common ground. The antipathy grew, despite the obvious negative impact it had on the business. In due time, the business collapsed, the bank took over the name of the chain, which exists today without any family involvement in them (indeed, one store stands near my home, and drive by it with my wife’s maiden name on it every day with,as you can imagine, ironicfeelings). Such irony was italicized years later when, at my father-in-law’s wake, his brother arrives to weep over the casket. And the emotions of those around were perhaps the same: Now? Now you come to seek conciliation?

The memory came to me while reading reports of a different tone taken in the board meetings on proposed school closings in which a tone of conciliation was noted. Can we not work together to form a better solution than the one proffered, it intimates.

 

Can we not work together?  Now—a thought from my past echoed? Now, after posture and ridicule and outrageous charge and point accumulation on both sides of this polemic have been raised, shouted, finger-pointed and simpered, this emotion surfaces? When hectoring and speech-impediment deriding and four-letter ranting have punctuated discussion; when the push-me/pull-you  of this past year has left a list of bruised I’ll-never-forget-that moments, can sides  truly come together?

 

Perhaps, finally, the true impact has surfaced. Schools will be closed and students will be in schools new to them. Not new schools, but schools where the path seems funny and the rooms smell different and the faces of peer and adult that greet and interact with them will differ. Everyone will have a stake in how successful or challenging the transition will be. If these closings cannot be forestalled, can these sides come together, finally, on behalf of Chicago’s children?   

 

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Buzz Café, Oak Park

I’m still “processing” as the professionals say, my meeting the English teacher I had sophomore year that inspired me to want to teach. Forty-five years is a long time between moments, and the moment I so frequently had with former students, turned to my direction, has made me reflective, maybe a little bittersweet, and wondering if I evoke the same as was evoked that evening.

As a sophomore in 1970 I was lost and angry with no purpose in my anger save jealousy that the Summer of Love, the tumult of the Democratic National Convention and Woodstock all went on without me. Bill was to my young mind the most together, most philosophic, the most frenetic  teacher I have ever seen, so different from the stoic Christian Brothers or the borderline incompetent Vietnam dodgers wasting our time with no idea how to forward a class. Bill was all forward, with a manic glee as he focused on connections between art and music and literature. I was enthralled, I was convinced, this was the life work I would and did pursue.

The man I sat with at Buzz, as memory meets reality, looked nothing like the person in my mind’s eye. We are eight years apart, and the gulf between 67 and 59 seemed like nothing compared to the presumed gulf between 23 and 15.Bill retires this year, and his tales were of the injustices he suffered at the hands of administrators and the disparate plans he has for the future.

Will I look like this? Do I look like this now to those who come back and reconnect? Do they, like me, gloss over the realities that age brings? Will I be found less together, a bit wanting? Should our memories of the great people who inspire us be stored in amber, ever relevant, ever young?

Still processing, as they say. Delighted to see him again, thoughtful and vibrant, yet wistful, as l was as I drove away.

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When was the last time you were in a school that you’d call a joyful place to learn?

Please note: We have a guest blogger today! Penny Lundquist is the Director of Professional Development and Inquiry Science Institute.

When was the last time you were in a school that you’d call a joyful place to learn?

I hope your answer is, “The last time I visited a school.”  Or, “the school where I teach.”  Or “my child’s school.”   Or “the schools I attended .” But if you’re like the vast majority of us, I bet it isn’t.

Furthermore, I bet most of the schools you know probably conform to this description given by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in a speech to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future in 2005, but sadly still true.

“Today’s teachers and children have one foot in the future and the other in the past.  The Internet, cell phones, text messaging, MP3 players, are ubiquitous in the lives of our children.  They often spend hours working with their friends to conquer the intricacies of complex games.  Their daily activities foreshadow their future work.  But too often when our children walk into their schools, they step into the past, as they enter isolated classrooms to sit behind desks that their parents and grandparents would recognize.”

A portion of Riley’s speech “Creating America’s First Learning Generation” appears in The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning, an ingeniousesigned book, recommended by Stephanie Pace Marshall, Founding President and President Emerita of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, arguably one of the most future-oriented schools in the nation. (Stephanie was a panelist at our last symposium, “Beyond These Times: Reimagining School“; more details below.) In a series of brief but pointed essays by some of the most innovative minds working on schools for the future, The Third Teacher raises some powerful questions we would all do well to consider before we simply tinker with schools as they currently are … attempting to tweak this and modify that in an effort to reform what’s obviously broken about the schools we inherited from an earlier age rather than transform education with the future in mind. Here is additional information on The Third Teacher.

Questions like:

  • What is a great learning environment in the Wikipedia age?
  • If parents were allowed to design schools for their children, what would those schools be like?
  • How do we keep the third of all American students who drop out of school from doing so?

At the last Beyond These Times forum on March 21, interlocutors James Paul Gee and Stephanie Pace Marshall added nuance to these questions.

  • How do we prepare people to face the modern world with deep thought and problem-solving skills, to participate in a true democracy where their votes are based on considered arguments backed by evidence and to feel like – and actually be – important participants in society? (Gee)
  • How do we avoid creating “learning deprived children in a learning abundant universe?  How do we inspire innovators?” (Marshall)

In sum, “What must learning be like in the future? That’s the fundamental question currently being explored in “Beyond These Times: Reimagining School ~ Conversations with the Future in Mind,” the ongoing forum series sponsored by Golden Apple, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and National Louis University. The next program in the series features Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World and Constance Yowell, Director of Education at the MacArthur Foundation who oversees their Digital Media and Learning initiative.  The program will be held at Chicago Shakespeare Theater the evening of May 21, and you can learn more and reserve your seat here.

Toward the end of The Third Teacher, and among the 79 ways to transform teaching and learning, is a critical one.  In the chapter called “Create a Movement!,” the authors advise us to  “engage in meaningful conversations about changing the education landscape.  Parents, teachers, students, community members, and politicians are all important and powerful stakeholders in this movement.”  We invite you to participate with us and join the conversation on May 21. Attending, either in person or via live streaming, is one way to demonstrate your commitment and our collective will to transform our schools into joyful places to learn where teachers and students are enabled to have both feet squarely in the future.

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“We must try to contribute joy to the world.”

Roger Ebert’s statements from his memoir have been reverberating in my mind this week. It is on this measure of joy that so many of us fail, fail miserably in fact. His illness sharpened his perspective past accomplishment and ambition to this single tenet “(t)hat is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

In the teacher’s world of the classroom, one hopes to engender joy. We can all recall when it has surfaced, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes miraculously.

These times make it hard for joy to surface. I sought it in the classrooms I visited this year and hardly found it. I found dogged determinism, I found the usual adolescent antic, I found bitterness in the teacher’s lounge, I found suspicion in the principal’s offices.

But joy seems hard to come by.

There is no joy to be found in school board meetings, or any of the meetings upon meetings this town has held. Anguish and outrage in plentitude can be found, so can the wearied expression of the besieged and the forced placid demeanor of the decided. But joy, like this spring, has been slow to surface with consistency.

Bill Ayers wrote to me recently, currently enjoying new grandparenthood in Berkeley while his son and daughter-in-law resume teaching. There he expresses the tired joy of being in the company of new life, a feeling that transcends accomplishment and ambition.

Still, he shared with me a bit of his thoughts on the testing juggernaut wrenching the joy out of the student and teacher experience. In commenting on the aftermath of the test cheating scandal in Atlanta, which he claims can be laid at the feet of the focus on testing launched by the Bush and continued in the Obama Administrations, he wrote:

“The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and the Emanuels sent their children—and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was none. I pressed the point and was told that in their view test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching. None.”

And so the toll knells, and while the press conferences and releases and policy statements move circumstance and emotion, a movie man at the end of his life writes “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crimes start.”

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Chicago Psychodrama Part Two

The relationship between labor and management has been traditionally wary, suspicious, thinly-veiled. Each presume the lesser elements of the other lie just beneath the surface of a veneer of sincerity and altruism. When the door is shut, when the cat’s away, when the guard is down, comments about labor from management and vice versa reach bottom quickly, to the depths of mockery.

In education, when at its best, labor and management coincide and trust. The latter serves as a heat shield to the former, allowing the teacher to pursue goals with a minimum of “administrivia” by a leader who believes in colleagues and ardently preserves their classroom autonomy.

When it’s the pits in education, Queeg-like paranoia intrudes into the classroom dynamic. Colleagues turn against each other playing the roles of toady or malcontent.

Writ large, what’s happening in Chicago is a second-stage macrocosm of the distrusting and the dysfunctional in a business setting with the unfortunate collateral damage potential to children’s education, parental trust in their school system, business acumen and political heft. All of these elements intermingle in what will soon reach the level of social dynamite.

Chicago public school management, political leadership, business scions, union leadership, and school based education principals and classroom teachers are all intertwined now in a drama equally fascinating and repulsive to observe.

Teachers who are in closed schools are in mourning, some unabashedly involving their students in public grieving. Principals of ironically named welcoming schools may inwardly look forward to the doubling of their student population and the inclusion of faculty from those closed schools with less than welcomed embrace. Community activists, religious leaders see within this tumult the opportunity to make point and acquire access and influence. The union calls the school closing action closeted racism insisting this exercise is a social experiment to open schools to private enterprise, there is no budget gap to close there is no truth in central office public methodology, their transparency a sham, their political agenda naked and injurious to children. Business may warn the mayor’s office the need to show the steely resolve and strength that we were supposed to be getting, the Washingtonian fish wrapped in newspaper intransigence that was supposed to get things going, move the needle, or some such business idiom.

Meanwhile, kids and parents are scared or angry, teachers scared or angry. One could assume it difficult for any instruction to go on in a school slated for closing, little more for those being consolidated.

Gang lines must be respected, insist some. We should never allow criminal elements to dictate policy say others. Get real. Get tough. Get going. Get out. Get back. Get in line. Get with the program. Get out of my way. Get into it.

And you wonder why the number of people wanting to teach, or the number of teachers wanting leadership roles is in decline?

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A good idea turns 25

Back in 1989, the only common belief about teacher preparation pathways in college was that its relation to relevance once entering the classroom was scant at best. Golden Apple was a young organization back then, striving to find a direction outside of offering the opportunity to give practicing teachers their deserved fifteen minutes. Those teachers wanted to use their newfound platform to create something meaningful. That second group of teachers so honored, of which I was one, talked with Golden Apple founder Mike Koldyke about their idea and his about creating a pipeline to teaching for young people unique to the nation. Wouldn’t it be cool, we thought, if young people interested in teaching would spend time with award winning teachers in classic apprenticeship manner, learn from their errors and strengths as they helped these young teachers-to-be patch together their teacher persona. The idea would exist side-by-side with university preparation. During the school year they would do their thing, and in the summer we would do ours—starting the summer before college began, where we could give them an esprit de corps and passion for teaching. And if we could get them some bucks for college—all the better. And in return for the tuition assistance and the professional development, they would promise to teach in a challenging school setting for five years—the quintessential paying it forward formula.

What surfaced from those conversations at Northwestern in the fall of 1987 became three summers later the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois program. Starting with fifteen Scholars and $60,000 of private funding has brought 1,400 people into or towards teaching careers in Illinois, permanently ad positively impacting the quality and the diversity of the teaching force in Illinois.

Miraculously, the program, now bringing in next month 135 Scholars from across Illinois and receiving over $5 million in state funding, has continued on as a state-wide program since 1993, through the governorships of Thompson, Edgar, Ryan, Blagojevich and now Quinn; have continued on with respect and acclaim from both sides of the aisle and both houses of the Illinois legislature, and soon to be announced as a partner with Chicago Public Schools in providing new teacher talent to schools on the city’s south side.

This skeletal story doesn’t begin to touch upon the countless moments, the thousands of teachable moments that this program has achieved with its participants and those students taught by these inspiring young people. It doesn’t begin to touch upon the incredible moments of kindness and challenge presented by my colleagues to these young teachers (even while the oldest of them have been in teaching  for TWENTY-ONE YEARS) as they were meeting the travail of college and post-adolescent turmoil. Now these Scholars are reaching levels of education leadership as administrators, principals. Now we have empiric evidence that what was experienced by them has clear impact in their resilience and their students’ achievement.

This May 11 we will take time out and celebrate the accomplishments of these teachers and especial notice to Sr. Raeleen Sweeney, who has devoted a third of her life in service to their instruction and mentoring. It’s a proverbial homecoming, where all who have been part of this crazy quilt cult fondly referred to as “GA” can reacquaint, hug and weep, applaud and receive deserved thanks for retaining the honor of being a teacher in Illinois. Information about that event can be found here and on the web site. You might want to check it out if you need a shot of adrenaline based in hope and promise—promise achieved and promises kept.

The history of this program will one day be recorded. Be part of that history on May 11—with an open bar (how best to celebrate history!) with a sit-down dinner and memories relived. See what it means to be a Golden Apple Scholar first hand, in Tinley Park in May.

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