Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 4)

Parts 1, 2, and 3 trace the arc of my close friendship with a small group of Pittsburghers beginning in the late-1940s. Far beyond the schooling I have had, my friendship with these “buddies” of mine has educated me and made possible my living a full life.

Turning Points in the Group’s History

Moving from a bunch of teenage boys in high school and college who had learned over years to accept both strengths and flaws in each other to a group of husbands and wives coming together monthly was a huge leap. Most adolescent friendships that survive college, I would guess, founder as couples form and marriages occur.   

In our group, many wives did not know one another well before they married into the group. It was a Pittsburgh Jewish community divided into Oakland, East Liberty, and Squirrel Hill where different B’nai Brith youth groups straddled neighborhoods so some wives had met and knew of one another but not as close friends. Surely, many of us knew the wives when they were dating one of the guys especially as dating evolved into engagements and then marriage. Our annual New Year’s Eve parties brought the women we dated together. For example, I brought Barbara to her first New Year’s Eve party in 1957, a year before we got married.

Wives expand group. Why did the group of close pals accept wives as integral members of the group and make it a joint venture in forming the book club in 1960. Had this move not occurred, I believe, the group of Victory buddies would have slid into the familiar obscurity of teenage friendships remembered in holiday cards, birthdays, and funerals. Once part of the group, women took active roles in nourishing the crew’s identity and pride.

I do not know why this group of young men accepted wives as integral members of the group. It would be self-serving to slip into the cliché about how accepting the men were or how hard the wives worked at overlooking issues that would divide us. At that time in our marriages with kids arriving, I would guess, the idea of the ex-Victory guys getting together for a night out from their wives went against the grain and getting of us together sounded like a worthwhile idea to try out.  Beyond that guess, I simply don’t know. But it did occur.

Of course, tensions surfaced periodically as our group doubled at parties and other annual gatherings.  One wife or husband found another wife or husband in the group awful, i.e., too loud or too quiet; too assertive, too reticent; too picky, too careless, and on and on. Over the years, such differences submerged or were ignored or were accepted as, well, that is who so-so is. And, of course, genuine friendships arose between the wives as they discussed books, shared recipes, and pursued professional jobs.

Why conflicts didn’t split the group, I just don’t know. Perhaps it was because at some level individuals knew that dragging politics or personal peeves into discussions would ultimately destroy the group. Perhaps the terms of the unwritten social compact and the trust at its foundation that we had worked out informally avoided such confrontations. Or perhaps it was because each couple had networks of friends and family and did not solely depend upon the group for closeness. What I do know is that had those differences continued to surface and had they gotten rubbed raw, they would fragmented the group. That did not happen then and has not occurred since. But there were close calls.

Tensions surfaced over the book club, for example. Each discussion over a book was accompanied by a full meal in the early years—venues changed monthly among the group as each couple took its turn at hosting—but in later years the group scaled back to desserts and coffee. Some couples took responsibility to read a book, do background reading, and make sure they were prepared for the monthly discussion. Others felt more relaxed about the obligation; if they could read the book, they did; if they could not finish it in time, they would still come and contribute or keep quiet. Often, for some couples, the social time together over eating became the primary reason for getting together.

This see-sawing between those that valued highly the intellectual side of the monthly get-together and those who prized the social interaction rose and fell in intensity until the mid-1970s when a few couples dropped out of the club. Book discussions stopped for a number of months. The group still gathered for picnics and the annual New Year’s Eve party yet strains, while mild, were just below the surface.

After almost a year, a few couples who had liked the intellectual exchange decided to reconstitute the monthly book discussions. They also decided to invite other couples, a few years younger and not part of the original group. The book discussions again flourished and the new couples began to attend picnics and other parties.

By broadening the original group beyond the men to include wives, constructing a social framework for interactions, and, later, adding new couples, the group demonstrated, I believe, a solid core of inner strength, self-confidence, and mutual trust to continue the strong network they had created over previous decades..

Retreats. In the late -1970s and for the next two decades, the Pittsburgh group started having weekend Fall retreats in West Virginia. Begun with an exchange of phone calls, the plan grew into a search for a moderately priced place, the right dates for as many that wanted to come and detailed plans for who should bring food and wine for meals through Friday evening and Sunday morning, pull together the Shabbat dinner, lead discussions (not about books but built around topics we chose), conduct the Saturday morning service, and plan the entertainment for Saturday evening. 

At the first retreat in a state park, seven couples from Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. (where Barbara and I lived at the time) traveled to a state park to spend a sunny, mild October weekend. Without children, 14 adults gathered Friday evening in one of the four-bedroom cabins for services to welcome the Shabbat. Followed by a dinner punctuated by jokes, spirited conversation, and laughter over a stubborn fire that almost smoked us out. The evening ended with a quiet moonlight walk.

The next day, a morning service was followed by long hikes in woods filled with rich autumn colors. Some couples tramped paths just to search out quiet spots to either talk with a friend or be alone. In the early evening, a service brought the Shabbat to a close and then dinner. In the evening, by a fire that flamed slowly and evenly this time, a group discussion took place. Spirited and intense, the group wrestled with the strengths and weaknesses of Jews as an ethnic group assimilated into a larger Christian culture and the centrality of religion or lack of it in modern American Jewish life. Lasting a few hours, afterwards we took a midnight walk.

The next morning, there was another breakfast with much laughter and camaraderie and then sightseeing elsewhere in the state park. By early afternoon, everyone had departed. The retreat was over.

We found mutually agreeable dates over the years and different couples drove to the hills of West Virginia to be together as Fall colors bloomed. While the California contingent made a few of the retreats, it was the Pittsburghers who did all of the heavy lifting insofar as food and planning. At each retreat, we hiked, talked to one another, shared meals, played board games, and renewed connections.

I have gone on at length about these retreats to convey, if only a fragment, the whirl of activities, the time to be alone with a partner or friend, the warmth that flowed from long friendships and the confidence of a group that springs from self-direction. We needed no Rabbi to lead services. We needed no expert to guide our discussions. We needed no social director to organize the retreat. Pride in many years of friendship spurs these statements, not arrogance.

Yet this brief summary cannot capture the renewal of ties that have bound us together for many years. The easily tapped laughter flowing from recall of old times that prefaced deeper exploration about parenting adolescents, what being a Jew meant in a Christian world, career goals, death and a host of issues that harried middle-aged men and women seldom have a chance to share, much less think about with anyone back home. Within the womb of close friends, things can get said that would, in other company, be swallowed. There is little fear of that cocktail party repartee that jabs or clutches at the jugular. Or fear of revealing something that will return as stinging criticism. The teasing that does occur comes from the acceptance of human flaws and not from probing for weaknesses.

That first of many retreats was refreshing, a moment of renewal in the daily grind of events. It brought to those of us who were there a deeper sense of friendship and intimacy. For the group, self-confidence grew in knowing that we have ties to one another that gained in strength as years pass. Such ties are a gift from each of us to one another.

The retreats lasted into the late 1990s. Growing children, the appearance of grand-children, the large amount of work that it took, mostly by wives who had to do the buying and preparing of food and other reasons diminished the size of group each year and finally it was no more. But oh ,what a run it was for our still unnamed group of ex-Victory “buddies” and there wives.

Continuing, however, were the monthly book club discussions, New Year’s Eve parties (now with septuagenarians making decisions a group decision to shift the party from New Year’s Eve to a New Year’s Day brunch), and picnics, theater and symphony dates, and the like. The group still exists.

This history of Victory when Sam, Yus, Dave, and I joined in the late-1940s and its evolving into a social network of close friends and wives meeting decade after decade is one that I have constructed—others could recall different details and offer other interpretations–give the background for four of us becoming intimate friends over the years with periodic reunions on the east and west coasts.

The final part of this series on friendship’s power to educate me is next.

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Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe the origin of a group of teenage friends in Pittsburgh (PA) in the late-1940s. It is also a story of my education outside of schools and how I learned to live a full life with people I loved.

Deciding to Stay Together

The idea of a group of close friends who worked at staying together did not emerge among us until after college when many of us left Pittsburgh to attend graduate school, work in other cities or serve in the U.S. military. While we had already begun annual New Year’s Eve parties in the early ‘50s while in college (much food, little liquor and awfully amateurish but hilarious entertainment staged by ourselves with the obligatory game of charades after midnight), the notion of a cohesive group beyond annual parties had not taken hold.

By the early 1960s, most of have us had been married a few years.* Children arrived. We were building careers. Some of us lived in Cleveland and Youngstown (OH) and Elizabeth (NJ). A few of us in Pittsburgh and Cleveland got together to establish a book discussion group. As to who would join, a core of seven couples who had kept in touch by phone, letter, visits, and being at each other’s weddings became the book club (Yus, Sam, Dave, and I along with our wives were among those founding couples).

We had no name. No president, dues, or business meetings. No rules save those agreed upon by consensus. Intellectual and social interests had merged.

Once the book club formed and met monthly, even traveling to Barbara and Larry’s home in Cleveland on a few occasions, the idea and its existence grabbed our imaginations. We began to pride ourselves in sticking together even though our careers diverged, a few of us lived out of town, and each of us had created other networks of acquaintances and friends at work, in schools our children attended, the synagogues we joined, and neighborhoods in which we lived.

In effect, what we did unselfconsciously over subsequent years was to build a group folklore, enriched initially by common experiences in Victory but extended to include incidents involving wives and children, joint vacations, annual picnics New Year’s Eve parties, and, of course, the book club. We had learned to do for ourselves as a group. In little bits and pieces we taught ourselves how to survive as a group, creating more ties that bind through book discussions and annual events.

We had an identity but no name. We had a history with no written record only an oral tradition. We had learned without teachers. And we had pride in lasting as long as we did without anyone’s guidance or approval.

A wealth of images, some manufactured, some embellished, some remembered through photos and slides were embraced by all of us to define who we were as a group. A common history of experiences meant that recall of a particular New Year’s Eve party, a certain picnic, a slide-sharing evening—often exaggerated for effect–would trigger gales of laughter, knee slapping and elbow pokes of shared warmth. And, yes, we also shared children and career achievements, disappointments, and sadness in family member illnesses, the death of siblings and parents. Without basic trust in one another built up over the years, such sharing would not have occurred.

Who We Were Two Decades Later

Here’s a snapshot of the group in the 1970s. Ten couples made up our group. Jewish, middle aged, married and nearly all with children. No divorces had occurred except for one in the late-1980s. All of us had married within our faith and raised our children with varying degrees of religious observance.

College educated, all of us were in the mid-to-late stages of their careers. Among wives and husbands in these years, there were four social workers, five school teachers, one administrator, two lawyers, a college professor, a family physician, three housewives, a college student, a manufacturer’s representative and a public information specialist in a large organization. The core of the group—now eight couples—lived in Pittsburgh where all of us had grown up. Barbara and I lived in Washington, D.C.  for 16 years and then relocated to northern California in 1981;  Dave moved his family to Los Angeles in 1976.

Of course, these few facts sketch out little more than the bare outline of who we were then. For those who find comfort in categories, I guess we would be classified as Jewish, middle-class business and professional types, indistinguishable from contemporaries in big cities. In religion, families, sports interests (especially Pittsburgh teams), we were probably no different than others with similar backgrounds, families, stable friendships, careers, and quite predictable daily rhythms in our lives. All of us had other friends, of course, but what I believe made us unique was that a core group of individuals strove to stay together in subsequent decades.

Working at Staying Together

Groups such as ours do not jell magically. It takes time, commitment, and trust. Surely a common history and chemistry of sorts must be present for cohesive relationships to initially meld, evolve over time even as membership changes, and cement the group together.

No single leader mobilized and consolidated our group. Leadership was casual and distributed among the couples during these years. Informally, leadership flowed from some couples to others over time when it came to planning book club meetings, New Year’s Eve parties, summer picnics and later, weekend retreats. Everyone somehow did things and leadership, often shared, emerged naturally without prodding. Organizing chores fell to some folks while operating tasks fell to others. Starting and maintaining a book club required different skills and time, for example, than the important work of keeping it on course. Conflicts arose over the years. They ebbed and flowed and only once rose to the level of ending the book club that by the end of the 1970s was nearly twenty years old.

What prevented conflicts from splitting the group irreversibly was that an informal, unsigned social compact had emerged for staying together in the group’s decisions to begin, continue, and expand the book club, maintain annual New Year’s Eve parties, and annual picnics. Politics, for example, seldom was discussed within the group. Nor did simmering divisions in the group over how much work for events some people did (or did not do) or spotty participation by other couples ever get discussed explicitly.  Raw and open conflict was tamped down. Within that social compact, anchored in mutual trust the group would gather more than a dozen times a year. In between those gatherings, individual couples would go out for dinner, get theater and symphony subscriptions, and see one another adding more stitches to the social fabric of the group.

Since in these early decades, almost half of the group was at times away from Pittsburgh, patterns of contact emerged.

Those of us who lived far from the group such as Barbara and me worked at staying in touch. Letters, monthly phone calls, cassette tapes (remember this is before the Internet), exchanges of photos, and, of course, visits kept alive memories while creating new ones. Birthdays, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, and, yes, funerals, were events that each of us noted and cared about—further enriching our bonds. Thus, Dave, Sam, Yus, and me grew close especially with playing tennis in SLO and having occasional reunions on the west coast.

As Yus once observed about those of our AK group who had moved from Pittsburgh (I at the age of 21 and Dave in his 40s) and had lived in various places since, the close “buddies” of those day became an extended family that I could turn to time and again for solace, sharing fears, and seeking advice.  Knowing that I had such intimate friends made each move to Cleveland, Washington, and then California one in which Barbara and I didn’t worry about making new friends in each new location although we did through our professional work and synagogues we joined. I always had my rock of faith in my long-time Pittsburgh “buddies.”  **  

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*Evidence of our closeness and a footnote to the social norms of the day that we adhered to was a betting pool on getting married. The first to get married would collect five dollars from each of us. While hardly an economic incentive to get married ($50), it does illustrate how we viewed the inevitability of marriage in the 1950s. Not so, today.

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**In our rough-hewn taxonomy of friendship, there are acquaintances, friends, and buddies  (or the phrase “intimate friends” which we did not use then). All of us in the group reminded ourselves occasionally that each of us had acquaintances and friends, but it was “buddies” that encompassed what we had.

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Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 2)

This is a five-part story of a long friendship in which I learned a lot about life outside of the schooling I received. See Part 1 for why I connect my friendships with an education that goes beyond schooling.

How We Began

Our origins are familiar, if not common. A group of urban teenagers, first and second generation Americans from homes of working men, small businessmen, and stay-at-home mothers, joined a local chapter of Pittsburgh’s B’nai Brith youth called Victory in the late 1940s. Passions for sports, girls, driving cars, and being accepted by the “guys” filled our lives. For some, practicing Judaism was part of the mix; for others, less so. Getting through high school and graduating was important but no more than a blip on radar screens dominated by our club.

High school and Victory were intertwined in our daily lives.  While we spent far more time in classrooms and corridors of our nearby high school, few of us were members of the popular in-groups. Much of our social and athletic life revolved around club activities. We played each sport in its season, attended weekly meetings, and double-dated while gnawing nails over how to carry off a goodnight kiss. In the four years each of us were members of Victory, what we probably did most was talk.

And did we talk! Over hot dogs at the local deli after club meetings or at one of our homes after a football game that we had played or in cars late at night after dropping off dates, we would talk about everything. For some of us, this club served as family; for others it was another prized activity in an already busy life; and even for others it eased the stormy passage through difficult years. No matter which purpose Victory served in our lives, the club glued us together. Here is where some of us learned the basic requirement for an intimate friendship: trust.

Not only did we learn to trust one another, but we learned life lessons also. I remember one meeting vividly when Sam was president of Victory. On the agenda—we learned well Roberts’ Rules of Order—was an item to vote on new members. Because you aged out of the club at 18, there was constant turnover in this group of about 25. We recruited new members and sometimes teenagers simply wanted to join because of the full array of sports teams that we fielded over the course of a year, the B’nai Brith tournaments we went to in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and many social activities we sponsored. So we voted unanimously to accept the handful up for membership because they brought athletic and social skills that we felt the club would benefit from.  Except for one teenager whose nomination for membership triggered a vigorous discussion that I remember to this day.

There was a split in our group over whether Merle should become part of Victory. Those who argued for him saw his speaking skills as a solid addition to our debate team that went to B’nai Brith regional and state tournaments. One member of that team had aged out of Victory; Merle would be useful to the club. Those who argued against him pointed out his argumentative skills went too far and he was constantly talking and trying to make his point. Moreover, he was too talkative and didn’t pick up what others were saying and feeling. He was not a listener. There was a deadlock over admitting Merle, a highly unusual situation, one that in my experience had never occurred while I was in Victory.

Sam presided over the discussion. He listened carefully to each point made by advocates and opponents of Merle’s entry into Victory. At one point, one of us—I don’t remember who—asked Sam what was his opinion of Merle. Sam answered by saying that he uses a principle when he considers each nominee for membership. He asks himself not only what the candidate can contribute to Victory but also what Victory can do for him. He felt that Merle would surely help the club given his verbal skills but more important, Sam felt, who we were as a club could help Merle be a stronger, better, and less antagonistic person.

I, for one, had only asked one question of myself whenever I voted on new candidates: how will the nominee contribute to our athletic, social, and religious activities? Sam asked another one as well: what can the club contribute to the candidate? I had never thought until then about the club culture and activities having significant influence on how I think and what I do. The concept of the club helping someone be a better person I simply had not considered. It was a light bulb moment for me that I have never forgotten. Sam’s response brought the discussion to a close and we voted. In a close vote, Merle became a member of Victory.

Common to many teenagers, such intense club life was put behind after high school graduation.  Most of us went to the University of Pittsburgh, a short trolley ride from our homes in Squirrel Hill, and spent the next four years there. Those in our group who didn’t go to college, eventually drifted away.

About ten former club members, however, continued to see each other periodically either in part-time jobs on campus before and after class, in playing sports, and occasional double dates. Some of us not yet 18 still participated in club athletic and social events, some of us joined college fraternities and some of us now seriously dated young women. 

With little continuing contact weekly, sub-groups among the dozen of us formed and re-formed throughout the four years of college. Some of us, more than others, remained close sometimes drifting away for a year only to return when classes, playing ball, dating, or a summer job drew us back together (e.g., Dave and I sold magazines door-to-door the summer of 1953).

Exuberant and fun-seeking as most others our age, we were not hell raisers. Few of us smoked or drank more than the absolute minimum to prove our manliness. In our group, no one smoked pot, weed, or whatever else it was called in the early-1950s. It was unknown to us as were other drugs. I didn’t hear the word “beatnik” until after I got married in 1958.  In short, we were—there are no other words—hard-working young men, children and grand-children of immigrants, who saw going to college, getting married, and having a family the fulfillment of our dreams as well as those of our parents.

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Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 1)

I have been writing this blog for over a decade. It has focused nearly always on how state and district policies–most of which aim to reform practices– are formed and what happens to them as they trickle down into classrooms. In other words, I have described and analyzed the institution of schooling both past and present and how policies, if at all, shape classroom lessons and student learning. I have been a historian of “schooling” more than a historian of “education.” In analyzing formal schooling I have not fully captured how the young are educated.

Readers know that schooling is not the same as education; it is only one part–albeit an important one–to becoming a full human being who keeps learning throughout life. Consider that of the 6,000 hours that children and youth are awake each year, about 1,000 (or less than 20 percent) are spent in age-graded public schools.

There is, however, an array of informal institutions that also educate. They are the furniture of daily life that are in the background and taken for granted. Family, workplace, congregations, libraries, museums, neighborhoods, clubs, television, social media–I could go on but readers know what I mean–educate both children and adults. Each of these has their own “grammar of instruction” but without attendance being taken, individual desks to sit at, homework, report cards, and lesson plans.

I have been thinking of the distinction between formal schooling and informal education for a long time. As a historian of education, I have been an institutionalist, that is, I have concentrated on formal school organizations, professionals and non-professionals involved in governance, curriculum, and instruction.

There are other historians, however, who have described and analyzed how children and adults learn from a rich array of American social, cultural, religious, economic, and political institutions. Lawrence Cremin, building on the work of Bernard Bailyn, has written about how Americans have learned informally before tax-supported schools even existed in the 19th century, and since (here, here, and here).

Even while tax-supported public schools now occupy a central part of four year-olds’ to high school seniors’ lives and even at a time when parents, political activists, and policymakers see schools as both the escalator to higher social class and crucial to the economy and social stability, there are historians and social scientists who explore how children and youth become educated informally (see here, here and here)

That’s the big picture about schooling and education. In the following posts, I offer a far smaller picture in recounting how I learned a great deal outside of school through friendships that began as a teenager and have lasted until now–nearly three-quarters of a century. Learning from friends is not new. Philosophers, adult educators, and sociologists have pointed out time and again how friendships educate beyond what formal institutions do (see here, here, and here)

I dedicate these posts to one of my friends who died in September 2019. I append his biography and obituary to Part 5 of this series.*

In early June 2017, I drove to San Francisco International airport to pick up my long-time Pittsburgh friends for an AK** reunion we had scheduled months ago. Sam, the oldest, is 85. Yus, the youngest, is 82. Yus’s son Bruce, in his early 50s, took off from his law practice to help his father negotiate the four-day get-together in Palo Alto. The fourth member of our group, Dave, is 83 and lives in Los Angeles. He could not make it because of a recent series of falls.  I am 82.

The four AKers have known one another since the late-1940s in Pittsburgh where we grew up. We became close as members of a Jewish youth group that we had joined while in high school. Over the decades, we have stayed in touch by seeing one another on vacations and holidays, family get-togethers, phoning and writing periodic emails. Long ago, we had become emotionally intimate friends (see here and here).

Beginning in the 1980s, the four of us began getting together on the west coast in San Luis Obispo—midway between Los Angeles where Dave lived and Palo Alto where I lived. We would meet in SLO over a weekend to play tennis at Cal Poly University. Dave was the best of us since he regularly played, Yus was the most competitive to the point of once throwing his racket up in the air when he and his partner lost. Sam and I were happy to return the ball over the net inbounds. We would follow routines of having breakfast at the motel, playing tennis in the morning, going for frozen yogurt afterwards, returning to the motel for a shower and nap and more conversation, go out for dinner and then see a film that the four of us would agree on. The following morning, we would have breakfast with more talk, perhaps play one set of doubles, and then the two Pittsburghers would either go with Dave traveling south to LA or me traveling north (depending whether they had flown in to Los Angeles or San Francisco) for another night with each of our families before they flew home.

As we aged, we made adjustments. We dropped tennis (although Dave played until he was 81). Instead, we would take walks to and from the campus. Two of the reunions occurred at my home in Palo Alto. The Pittsburgh friends would fly in, stay at the house, have meals together, take walks, talk and more talk, go out for dinner and see a film. One of my daughters who lived nearby would join us for a dinner. She had known all of the AKers since she was a toddler.

So the airport run in 2017 was to pick up Pittsburgh friends for another AK reunion in Palo Alto.  While I know that others have experienced long-term, close, and deep friendships as we have, they have their own story to tell.  Here is ours as I remember it over the past six decades. Yus, Sam, and Dave could well write their accounts of our friendship and they would, no doubt, differ in details and interpretations. So this is my rendering of what I have learned about living a full life through friendships experienced for nearly three quarters of a century.

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*I thank Sondra Cuban for pointing me to the adult education literature and other readings that examined friendship as a way of learning outside of formal institutions.

**AK is an acronym for a Yiddish phrase “alte kocker” which loosely translated means old man.

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On Getting an Award

On October 25, 2019, I received an award from the Alumni of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education for Lifetime Achievement. Three other graduates of GSE received awards for Excellence in Education. Here is what I said upon receiving the award.

I thank my family and friends who have come out tonight.

Two people who I wish were here tonight are not. They helped me become the person I am today: Barbara Cuban and David Tyack. I miss them a great deal.

In these brief remarks I want to talk about my career as a teacher/scholar, what the award means to me, and the importance of knowing about the past particularly when it comes to school reform.

1. My career path since I began teaching in 1955 has been unplanned and uncommon.

I had been a high school history teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. for 14 years. While I have never been a school principal, I did work as an administrator in the D.C. district office. In that position I came in frequent contact with the superintendent. I learned a lot about leadership and bureaucratic decision-making and slowly came to realize that I could do the work of a superintendent, a job that I had once thought was well beyond my grasp as a teacher. But I needed an advanced degree.

So at the age of 37 my family and I came to Stanford. I came for only one reason: I wanted to be a superintendent and needed a doctorate. David Tyack made it possible for Barbara, my daughters, and me to come here. Living in Escondido Village were great years for my family. David Tyack was my adviser. Under him, I researched and completed a dissertation on three big city superintendents and in 1974 got that degree.

I then applied for superintendencies. After 50 rejections, I was finally appointed superintendent in Arlington (VA). I served seven years in one of the most exhilarating and exhausting jobs I have ever had. Then I returned to Stanford to teach, do research, and write. I did all of that for five years and then applied for big city superintendencies across the nation. I was a finalist time and again but was not chosen. Failing to become an urban superintendent, I remained at Stanford to teach, advise doctoral students, write, and publish.

What ties together my zigzag career path is the teaching I did in high schools, the teaching I did as superintendent, and, of course, the teaching I did as a professor.

I describe my unplanned and uncommon career path because of the award I receive this evening. My students in the decades that I taught here have honored me with awards as a teacher.   

This award for lifetime achievement, however, recognizes my scholarly work, advising students, and real-life school experiences. I see myself today as a teacher/scholar.  Teaching, researching, and publishing have been central to my journey. Particularly around the issue of school reform. A few words about that never-ending American effort to improve schooling.

2. David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform for a decade. History was central to our work because we believed that not knowing of past efforts to alter public schools is similar to individuals having amnesia. Forgetting your past and how you became the person you are is a tragedy. Not knowing how earlier generations of well-intentioned reformers tried again and again to improve public schools is a forgetfulness, an intellectual disaster that blinds and deafens those who think they know best how to make schools better. But teaching such a history to those who see themselves as future reformers has a downside.

Idealistic graduate students eager to improve schools often told us at the end of the course that studying decades of failed efforts to reform schools depressed them and battered their idealism.  

They would often ask David and me: Are you pessimistic about improving public schools? My answer was always no. I do have hope for the future of public schools. My optimism, however, is tempered and realistic.

I would ask our students to compare improving schools to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible climbers would want a guide who has climbed the mountain before and can point out the crevices and where to step carefully. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, candor, and humility are as crucial to reaching the summit as they are in making a school reform work.

Hope for success in both climbing a mountain and converting reform policies into classroom practices rests in expertise, problem solving, courage, and yes, a touch of luck. But–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain is still worth the effort even if success is not achieved. Being realistic about the task is crucial. Realism and hope, then, are married in my mind. 

Although the history of reform shows clearly that schools cannot transform society, competent and committed teachers can influence their students’ minds, hearts, and actions. They can and have helped the young grow into adults who can work to reduce societal ills. That is the tempered, realistic optimism that I continue to have after six decades as a teacher/scholar.

So thanks to all of you who have made possible this award.

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The Case for Teaching about Sharks and Mummies, Not Captions and the Main Idea (Natalie Wexler)

This article appeared August 6, 2019 in Chalkbeat.

“How do students best learn to read? Equally important, how do students learn to love reading? The Common Core emphasizes reading comprehension skills, like identifying the main idea of a text. Yet in her new book, “The Knowledge Gap,” Natalie Wexler argues that teaching those skills in a vacuum, rather than centering instruction around interesting and rigorous content knowledge, hurts both student achievement and engagement.

In the excerpt below, Wexler observes two elementary school classrooms, each one taking a different approach to teaching reading.”

On a sunny November morning, Gaby Arredondo is trying to initiate twenty first-graders into the mysteries of reading.

Today’s particular mystery is captions. Ms. Arredondo recently gave a test that asked her students to identify a caption, and — even though she had spent 15 minutes teaching the concept — many chose the title of the passage instead. Her goal today is to show her students that what makes something a caption isn’t where it appears on the page or what it looks like but what it does: it’s a label that describes a picture.

“What is a caption?” Ms. Arredondo begins brightly to the five students gathered before her at a semicircular table. As she speaks, she writes caption on a whiteboard next to her chair. No one answers. Ms. Arredondo writes a second word: label.

“It’s a label,” volunteers one girl.

“What kind of a label?” Ms. Arredondo prods.

A boy chimes in: “It’s a label that describes things.”

“What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”

“It tells us the author and the title,” the boy repeats dutifully.

“No,” Ms. Arredondo says. “It tells us about the picture.”

She shows them a photo from a book called “Mothers,” which has the words “daughters,” “mother,” and “son” superimposed in the appropriate spots. “So, what is a caption?”

“Words?” a girl named Nevaeh ventures.

As Ms. Arredondo goes through other books with subsequent small groups, the children pepper her with questions about the pictures — what a shark is eating, or whether a planet is Mars or the moon. She deflects them. The point of this lesson isn’t to learn about sharks or planets. It’s to learn about captions.

– – – –

In a first-grade classroom in another school, teacher Adrienne Williams is about to read aloud a book on mummies. But first, she asks the kids what they already know about the subject—or what they think they know.

“They chase you!” says one.

“They don’t exist.”

“They walk like they’re crazy!”

“They’re wrapped in paper.”

“They kidnap you.”

“You all have a lot of ideas about mummies,” Ms. Williams says calmly. After taking some questions (“Are they real?” “What do they do?”), she puts the book into a projector so the kids can follow along.

“Eww!” they chorus delightedly, as the screen reveals a photograph of a mummy with its hands pressed to its cheeks, its teeth fixed in a ghoulish smile.

The children are rapt as Ms. Williams reads about how mummies are dead bodies that have been preserved, sometimes for thousands of years, and the things that scientists can tell about them: that one ancient man used hair gel, that another’s last meal was vegetable soup.

Along the way she casually points out the “text features” that, in a typical elementary classroom, would be the focus of instruction: the table of contents (“So if I want to make a mummy, what page do I go to? … Yes, page 18, ‘How to Make a Mummy’”), and a text box that contains a definition of bacteria (“You already know about bacteria after studying germs,” she reminds them). There’s a picture of a sarcophagus. “We’re going to learn that word,” she says.

– – – –

Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Arredondo were teaching at schools serving low-income populations on a first-come, first-served basis. Both were considered effective and well-trained teachers. Ms. Williams is naturally gifted, but the fact that her lesson was so much meatier and more engaging was largely a matter of luck: her school happened to be using a curriculum that emphasized building knowledge. A few years before, Ms. Williams’ school had used the kind of curriculum used by Ms. Arredondo — which is the norm — and she could see that her students weren’t particularly engaged. “It was just an isolated set of skills,” she says. “There was no bigger context.”

The theory that has shaped the American approach to elementary education goes like this: Reading comprehension is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content. Teach children to identify captions in a simple text — or find the main idea, or make inferences, or any one of a number of other skills — and eventually they’ll be able to grasp the meaning of any text put in front of them.

But cognitive scientists have known for decades that the most important factor in comprehension isn’t a set of generally applicable skills; it’s how much background knowledge the reader has about the topic. If you don’t have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text, no amount of “skills” practice will help. Given the lack of attention to building knowledge in school, the system ends up further privileging the kids who are already privileged — those who have highly educated parents and are more likely to pick up sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary at home.

Another widespread belief among educators is that history and non-hands-on science are inappropriate for young children. That, too, is not supported by the evidence — including the anecdotal evidence from Ms. Williams’ classroom. The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories. The same is true for science topics that don’t lend themselves to hands-on activities. It’s ironic that truly abstract concepts like captions are considered appropriate for six-year-olds, but informational tales about history, science, and the arts are not.

When young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with those topics with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.

The good news is that a growing number of elementary schools, like the one where Ms. Williams taught, are recognizing that it’s not only OK to focus on building children’s knowledge, it’s vital to their chances of success. And that kids love it.

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Teaching at D.Tech High School: Government (Part 4)

Spencer is doing his three-minute talk. Since the semester began, every one of the 30-plus seniors in Government signs up for a day to talk about topics important to them. Topics range from singing, sharing art work, dancing, and similar interests.

Spencer chose to talk about himself. Eyes focus on Spencer as he tells about his family, life before and during d.tech high school, favorite foods and drinks (some of which he brought to share with class), and other topics. Then Spencer asks for questions. One student asks: “What is your ethnicity?” Spencer replies: “Three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Korean.” Another student asks about the paper straw that he is using. “Do you want me to use a metal straw,” Spencer asks questioner. Laughter ripples across the room.

The three minutes are up. Spencer then asks the class for feedback on what he said and brought. A bunch of students compliment Spencer for his clarity, humor, and self-confidence in talking about himself. Spencer thanks the class and then asks for students to evaluate his introduction by raising their hands. Four is the top evaluation of performance and one is the poorest. Spencer calls out the each number and nearly all hands go up for a four. He returns to his seat and the teacher informs the next day’s student to be ready for tomorrow’s class.

Welcome to Ken Klieman’s Government class this late-September morning in 2019. The 32 seniors are sitting at tables facing the front of the room where the teacher’s table holding the LCD projector and white board are located.

Klieman, wearing a green polo shirt, grey chinos , tennis shoes, and what looks to me like a Greek sailing cap, has been at d.tech for the past two years arriving at the school in 2017. Although new to the school, he brought a quarter-century of teaching experience in Bay area middle schools.

The lesson that I observe following Spencer’s three-minute Introduction is nearly all focused upon the process of teaching and learning over the past six weeks in the class. I noted that a number of teachers I observed mention that they will be evaluating their classroom work using students’ anonymous responses to teacher-constructed surveys.

Klieman started off the lesson by having students look at scatter plot graphs that he had created from student responses to a survey about how the class operates (e.g., “Do You Know What Assignments Are and Expectations?” “Is Workload Do-able?,” class discussions, tests, teacher’s grading of students’ performance, etc.). The teacher had arrayed the graphs on tables outside of the classroom. He had also included questions that students had asked to be posted . Klieman asks students to look at their classmates’ responses, take notes, and be prepared to discuss their interpretations of the scatter plots when they return to their seats. They leave the room.

After 10 minutes, student return to their tables with post-its and scraps of paper with their notes. Klieman directs the class to take out their notebooks and title a page “Understanding Data” and put their name and date on it (they will turn this sheet in later). But before launching into students stating their views of the scatter plots, Klieman says “I am going to babble for a few minutes”

Leaning against the LCD stand, he talks about what the class has covered thus far in content and how they have worked on homework, projects, and essays. He says that in his opinion students have not experienced or are ready for academically rigorous courses in college. Deadlines are missed, extensions are continually requested to get extra time to complete essays, research papers, or projects. Other teachers, he remarks, too often say: “take more time to finish up.” He says the school has “coddled” students.

According to Klieman, he was trying to convey the importance of raising their standards through self reflection. He told me: “I often say ‘I cherish the 72 year old you, that is why I have high standards for the 17 year old you. I want the future you to have a beautiful life.’ “*

He acknowledges that there are difficulties that students experience during a major move across the entire high school from a traditional grading system to a system of grading fitted to competency based learning. Recognizing the occasional confusion and glitches in grading, he still wants students to better self-manage themselves insofar as assignments and time they allot to work on them. A few students chime in responding to the teacher’s comments. Of these, some agree with what teacher says but most keep quiet.

Klieman then returns to the task of interpreting scatter plots. He asks students to pair up and exchange observations. He directs them to write their thoughts and interpretations on the sheet of paper they titled “Understanding Data” particularly on how much and in what ways they are learning content and acquiring skills in the class so far this semester. Scatter plots offer a basis for making statements about the entire class.

After about ten minutes, the teacher segues into a whole group discussion with some students raising their hands to contribute and others entering the discussion during pauses. Klieman records what students say on a pad he is holding.

Klieman then summarizes what he has heard from students about particular Government assignments. He projects a slide onto the front whiteboard showing all of the assignments they have worked on during the semester. He stands up on his desk and asks students which of the assignments listed on the slide didn’t work and for what reasons. A number of students raise their hands and point to particular homework and essays that were unclear in what the teacher expected and also required heavy time commitments. They express concern for how grades are calculated as the competency-based learning system kicks in. As one student says: “Grades do matter.”

At the table where I am sitting, the three students there identified two assignments and write it into their notebooks. As I look around the room during this whole group discussion, nearly all of the students are either writing in their notebooks, offering suggestions or listening to what they classmates say.

As the discussion trails off, Klieman says that he will take their feedback seriously and integrate it into future assignments and workload. There are a flurry of student comments about the existing deadline of midnight to electronically submit assignments. The teacher makes clear that the deadline will move from midnight to 10PM.

Klieman says: “I care about the whole you. I want you to get sleep. Having a midnight deadline is not in line with the central value of nurturing good life habits. That is why I am non-negotiable on 10 p.m….. I am not going to bend.” The teacher ends this segment of the interactive discussion by saying: “Hey, I’m your third base coach urging you to get to home plate safely.”

As the period is coming to an end, he asks students to hold up one-to-five fingers (more fingers, more positive rating) as to the worth of looking at scatter plots, discussing workload and particular Economics assignments, and offering suggestions. He then asks students to turn in the sheet of paper they filled out.

After the class packs up and leaves, three students stay behind and they sit with Klieman to discuss particular assignments and upcoming projects. After another 10 minutes, they leave. He and I discuss a few items I did not understand about the lesson. I thank him for letting me observe the lesson.

________________

*This sentence comes from Klieman after he reviewed the draft I had sent him.

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