Archive for January, 2011

Guest teachers in public schools

My parents, as high school sweethearts, were the product of public schools a handful of miles from downtown Atlanta, within what we know of today as the Atlanta “perimeter.”

The nearby Atlanta public school system (APS) today is in the kind of trouble that hurts its students badly, and also can have a far reaching impact on the city and state economy.  One reason is a scandal that we might call “cheatgate,” wherein it’s alleged that there was a fairly widespread effort on the part of APS employees to falsify their students’ standardized test scores. Constant coverage of “cheatgate” by the regional paper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has put the school system, its superintendent, and its teachers in an unpleasant light.

Now, Atlanta Public Schools has been put on accreditation probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Atlanta city councilman Kwanza Hall asked the following excellent question on Twitter today:

If you were selected to be superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools what would you do first?

To which I responded:

I’d work on a seamless approach to get professionals from the cmty to be able to guest teach without having formal ed training.

That answer is a short version of a hazily defined vision I have for the future of education in high schools and state colleges. I believe the future of public education — at least, at the secondary and post-secondary levels — needs those members of the community who have proven expertise in their fields to become more involved in the education of the next generation.

Now, I’m familiar with the excellent Teach for America program, which trains college graduates as well as professionals to serve in inner-city schools for a period of two years. But there are factors we must consider: the societal norms of the professionals who need to be involved (workers from Generation X, and those from Generation Y and Generation Z who have entered the workforce), and the ideal learning environment for our high schoolers and college students.  Taking those factors into account, I believe it’s best for the professionals and the students to take even more of a “short-burst” approach than a two-year commitment.

We need to encourage those who are passionate experts in their chosen careers to be able to guest teach or lecture in public school / state college classrooms for short periods of time.  Perhaps every public high school class in any topic should be strongly encouraged to bring in an outside speaker once every few months (or, if community involvement is high, even more often). What are the obstacles?

  • Finding / rewarding interested guest speakers
  • Fostering an environment that encourages students to be respectful to the guests
  • Fostering an environment where the actual teacher is comfortable with having guests and integrating them into a lesson plan
  • Correlating a guest teacher/lecturer to actual content that needs to be covered

I believe all of the above are solvable. But there may be one other big obstacle:

  • Most professionals won’t want to undergo any other educational training, like getting a teaching certificate

For all of the above reasons, and perhaps especially the last one, I return to my Twitter response that a “seamless solution” is needed.  Such a solution would require business organizations and trade groups working closely with state and federal education personnel. I envision a US-wide government portal website, akin to today’s or  However, the new portal would serve the sole purpose of making it easy for professionals and schools to network and find each other for guest teaching opportunities. A professional should be able to see requests from his/her local schools, and a teacher/administrator should be able to post his/her exact needs.

Who knows? After a careerist outside the school system does a few guest teaching stints at various schools in her neighborhood, she may very well decide that teaching is her true calling. That would be both a wonderful side effect, and a commendable choice.

Relatively early in his Presidency, Barack Obama set a mandate of ensuring high school students are ready for “college or career.” I believe school systems and their communities need to take that seriously.  In summary, one of the ways to work towards that goal, and become more closely connected, is by fostering this kind of “short burst” involvement by passionate professionals.  There’s an old African proverb which has been quoted by many authors, and one famous First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State: “It takes a village to raise a child.” This vision of streamlining a path for career professionals to assist with public education is another way to try to meet the demands of that proverb.


Sarah Palin blows another chance at real leadership

Blessed with a platform and an opportunity to help change a toxic tone of discourse, Sarah Palin does no such thing.

Recently, I’ve become disturbed with those who aren’t willing to “fess up” to the fact that their words reference — and even encourage — militancy and violence against our elected government.  The other day, in an excellent article banned from Huffington Post, Cenk Ugur referred to the small percentage of the population which can be incited to actual violence as “hate-seeking missles.”  The video that accompanies the post, documenting a recent history of violent speech, is also well worth your time.

I believe our culture has changed dramatically and regrettably since the campaign of Senator John McCain and then-Governor Palin.  As Kimberly Krauter points out in this post, Ms. Palin’s rhetoric during that campaign was beyond the pale.  Numerous articles and videos — which can be found in any Bing search — documented cries such as “terrorist,” and “kill him” in McCain/Palin rally audiences.

So today, I watched Ms. Palin’s entire professionally-produced video of “condolences,” and I was sickened by it.  The propagandistic narrative made it clear that she wasn’t backing down from this highly charged language of hatred and violence, nor was she going to hold her followers or anyone in her party accountable for their lingo.  Contrast this with Keith Olbermann recently admitting blame for something he said once on the air, and taking a pledge to abandon the use of inflammatory phrasing that could incite violence.

One of the first goals of the Tea Party was to defeat the reform of America’s broken healthcare system.  A strategy was distributed in writing at that time, intended to harass public servants at town halls (documented here).  At its core, it embraces tactics of being disruptive early and often.

The other day, I happened across a piece by a Tea Partier who actually referred to “the soft TREASON of civility.”  (I will not link to such a piece.)  Civility is treason?  What is happening to the discourse in my country? “Take them out?”  “Reload!”  “Second Amendment Remedies!”  This has gone far enough.

Politicians like Ms. Palin and radical radio/TV personalities like Glenn Beck are encouraging this type of content and vile tone.  We have leaders on the right who won’t even use the word “compromise,” and consider those across the aisle their “enemies.”  Will this devolution of a peaceful political process lead to a world fit for our children and grandchildren?

After more than two years of ridiculous vitriol, Americans have a right to request a calmer, more reasoned political discussion.  Ms. Palin could have acknowledged that and pledged to use her platform to bring about positive change.  She could have pledged to encourage political discourse containing no reference to militancy and violence.  But she did not, and I doubt she and her colleagues on the radical right ever will.

The secret(s) of happiness?

I don’t mean to patronize you. Perhaps you’re very happy, and perhaps you understand exactly why.

But I was able to put it into words this morning, and thought I’d write it down.

I believe there are a few secrets to happiness.

The first secret of happiness (inner peace?)

The first secret is being able to be happy for no reason at all. If you haven’t mastered this yet — and I think many of us have not — then I urge you to read these books: Happy for No Reason by Marci Shimoff, and The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand. If you can master the art of happiness and loving others, you’ve reached a nirvana.  You’ll be the envy of most of your friends and relatives, and you’ll often have true inner peace. However, it might take a lifetime to master this, and I’m not the expert to guide you on that journey.

The second secret of happiness (practical?)

But the second secret of happiness is something specific you can do today. Let’s call it the practical secret of happiness. For this one, picture something in your mind that you are “lacking,” but you know would make you truly happy. There’s probably some weight on your shoulders or something nagging at you that you think is holding you back from being happy. I’m listing some examples, just so we can see the scope of things it might take to make a person happy:

  • having a better relationship with a relative
  • being happy in your job
  • doing a particular creative thing (making a painting, creating a website, etc.)
  • owning something specific, like a certain watch or a certain car
  • finding the right person in your love life
  • winning the lottery

I believe that the “practical secret of happiness” is to visualize that thing that you believe would complete you.  (At least, you believe it at the moment: that’s the reason to not ignore the other secrets of happiness.)  With it fresh in your mind, write down at least one thing, and at most three things that will bring you closer to having what you’re visualizing will make you happy.

When you look again at the examples I listed, every one of them has one to three practical steps that can help you get closer.  Things that seem ethereal — like having the perfect relationship, resolving things at work (or finding another job) — still have practical steps.  On the other end of the scale, I’m no math whiz, but I believe you can even improve your chances of winning the lottery by applying strategies about odds.

So try it! List one, two, or three steps that will get you closer to your goal. I bet even listing the steps will make you happier. Don’t forget to follow through, and list one, two, or three new steps if your goal is still out of reach, and if achieving this goal would still make you happy.

Visualize how you’ll feel when you find that watch on eBay, get a hug from your estranged relative, improve your job conditions, or see the lottery numbers fall your way (and happily write the check to me for my cut).

The final secret of happiness (the meaning of life?)

Many years ago, I read a story by Robert Fulghum, which was told in the book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It. The story is about a time that Fulghum was told the meaning of life. I haven’t been able to disprove this meaning in my life, and when I feel happy, I often think back on this story and realize that I may have successfully applied this philosophy. Therefore, I believe it’s true. If you haven’t read it before, see if you feel the same way:

“Are There Any Questions?” An offer that comes at the end of college lectures and long meetings….if there is a little time left and there is a little silence in response to the invitation, I usually ask the most important question of all: “What is the meaning of life?”

You never know, somebody may have the answer, and I’d really hate to miss it because I was too socially inhibited to ask. But when I ask, it’s usually taken as a kind of absurdist move — people laugh and nod and gather up their stuff and the meeting is dismissed on that ridiculous note.

Once, and only once, I asked that question and got a serious answer. One that is with me still….

Mr. Fulgham goes on to describe that he was in Greece, on the island of Crete, for a summer institute given by a very special person:

Alexander Papaderos.A doctor of philosophy, teacher, politician, resident of Athens but a son of this soil. At war’s end he came to believe that the Germans and the Cretans had much to give one another — much to learn from one another. That they had an example to set. For if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.

To make a lovely story short, Papaderos succeeded. The institute became a reality — a conference ground on the site of horror — and it was in fact a source of producive interaction between the two countries….

Alexander Papaderos had become a living legend. One look at him and you saw his strength and intensity — energy, physical power, courage, intelligence, passion, and vivacity radiated from this person. And to speak to him, to shake his hand, to be in a room with him when he spoke, was to experience his extraordinary electric humanity. Few men live up to their reputations when you get close. Alexander Papaderos was an exception.

At the last session on the last morning of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields who were recruited by Papaderos from across Greece, Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out. We followed his gaze across the bay to the iron cross marking the German cemetery.

He turned. And made the ritual gesture: “Are there any questions?”

Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence.

“No questions?” Papaderos swept the room with his eyes.

So. I asked.

“Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”

The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go.

Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.

“I will answer your question.”

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter….

“When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

“…I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light — truth, understanding, knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

“I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Much of what I experienced in the way of information about Greek culture and history that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.

In 2011 and beyond, may you find your own happiness in discovering the meaning of life.

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