Mark your calendars!

A few days ago, Edutopia asked me to write another piece voicing my objections to NBC’s Education Nation coverage and the deeply flawed documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” I suggested that they host a webinar instead. I had already tweeted, blogged and Facebooked so much that I inexplicably lost my voice.

Edutopia took the suggestion and enlisted boy wonder, Steve Hargaddon, to organize and host the event entitled, Elevating the Education Reform Debate. This two hour webinar will feature some of the voices silenced by NBC, Oprah and director Davis Guggenheim. They include my heroes and colleagues, Deborah Meier and Alfie Kohn; friends, Chris Lehmann and Will Richardson; YouTube sensation, Sir Ken Robinson; and Julie Evans. I cannot wait to hear what they (or I) will say on Monday.

Wake the kids and call your neighbors! This is an event you won’t want to miss!

This Elluminate webinar is FREE and open to the entire World Wide Web.

Date: Monday, October 4, 2010
Time: 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern / 9pm GMT (international times here)
Duration: 2 hours
Location
: Log in at http://tr.im/futureofed
Recordings: Posted after the event at http://www.learncentral.org/event/106358
Note: Conference organizers have a nasty tendency to book me last on the program, this webinar may be no exception. Therefore, stick around for Sir Ken and hangout for me to bring up the rear. I promise not to disappoint!

During these dark days of American history in which politicians, media figures and billionaires of every persuasion are vilifying teachers and turning classrooms into joy-free Dickensian sweatshops concerned with little more than raising test scores on deeply flawed standardized tests, there is one candidate running for higher office who knows better and has been an on-the-record proponent of progressive education for decades.

In fact, when Governor Jerry Brown (now California Attorney General seeking re-election to a 3rd term as governor) nearly beat Bill Clinton for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, he made headlines for carrying a laptop with him everywhere. During his last term as governor of California in the 1980s, Brown was known to give away copies of Seymour Papert’s seminal book, Mindstorms: Computers, Children and Powerful Ideas. I’m told that the Governor kept a pile of copies in his office.

I look horrific!

I met Governor Brown once and a profoundly candid and interesting conversation about teaching, learning and education policy with him. He’s a very smart guy, with great instincts, pure motives and a remarkable commitment to public service.

A few hours before Governor Brown debates his billionaire job and budget-slashing opponent, Meg Whitman, I decided to find the blurb “Jerry” wrote for the hardcover edition of Papert’s classic book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.

In my opinion, this is the most important book about learning now and in the future published over the past 25 years. It is a scandal that more educators have not read it. Jerry Brown has and wrote the stunning and prescient endorsement below.

“With wit and insight, Seymour Papert demolishes the hierarchical, right/wrong logic behind the rush to national testing and commend-and-control education. Instead, he shows why “little schools,” cybernetics and the creative use of computers can revolutionize how Americans learn. Give schooling, he tells us, back to the grass roots by devising ways for parents and kids to take ownership of their own learning.”

- Jerry Brown, former governor of California (1993)

My nephew Mathew is a terrific 13 year-old with lots of interests and much to my chagrin, he loves school. In fact, he has never missed a day of school despite schools undeserving of his loyalty. He lives in NJ and is a good student.

I just received the following unsolicited email from Mathew. I haven’t spoken with him in several months due to travel and anyone with children will understand how difficult it is to get a kid to correspond via email. That’s what makes the passion of his email message a delightful surprise that is at once heartwarming and heart-breaking.

I have not touched a character in Mathew’s message to me. He gave me permission to publish it. Feel free to share your love in via comments below.

(Note: The NJ ASK is the NJ New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge)

TOO FAR

by Mathew M.

The charming governer of New Jersey has just launched some new laws regarding education. From what I heard, he is paying teachers based on how well kids do on the NJ ASK. What?! I don’t know if Christie knows this, but the teachers already feed us this garbage so we do well on the test. Now that it affects their pay, we will learn NOTHING but the junk for the test. Nothing. What happened to education? This is not education. The only education we are getting is how to take a standardized test. Does the government honestly believe that standardized tests will get us into Harvard or Yale? That we will become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? What about the special-education teachers? Will they get payed less because their students are bound to flunk the NJ ASK? Something needs to be done about this. This goes right to Washington. We NEED to get rid of standardized tests.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to throw a few dollars around for parental involvement to distract the public from the anti-democratic school “reforms” he advocates. Of course this announcement is accompanied by the familiar “mea culpa” that the government hasn’t done enough to involve parents.

This is a total load o’ crap, especially given Duncan’s heavy-handed imposition of Race-to-the-Top and endorsement of anti-democratic measures, such as charter schools and mayoral control of school districts. (Let’s set aside the abysmal record of mayoral control in D.C., Duncan’s Chicago and New York where after 8 1/2 years of heroic mayoral control 28% of African American males now graduate).

Oh yeah, an awful lot of parents are school teachers and union members who don’t appreciate being vilified and having their family’s security jeopardized by the policies of Duncan and his billionaire buddies.

If you want parental involvement/engagement in education, then make them full partners in the operation of public schools. Encourage greater participation in elected school boards and advocate “universal charter school” legislation in which every single American public school is run by the parents and teachers in that school. The only parental involvement ever tolerated by many local schools is when they ask parents to be ATMs and Narcs. Schools want parents to write checks and enforce their rules beyond school hours.

Perhaps, Secretary Duncan can stop blaming kids and parents for the fact that you have created joyless & irrelevant test-prep sweatshops where teachers work in fear and learning is subservient to compliance.

Parental involvement does not require $270,000,000 of Federal investment. It requires a bag of Doritos, a cheap box of wine and an honest partnership between equally empowered stakeholders.

The following is an article I published in 2008 that should give you a sense of how terrible the Duncan “parental involvement” plan happens to be when put into practice.

Chief Family Engagement Officer (2008) by Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

  • Seize control of 1,400 public schools
  • Appoint a prosecutor to lead
  • Disband the democratically elected Board of Education
  • Hold one public hearing in five years
  • Centralize the bureaucracy
  • Maintain files used to discredit critics on the right and left
  • Favor managers over educators
  • Detain teachers in rubber rooms (read additional news accounts here and here)
  • Invent Orwellian job titles for propaganda officers…
  • Stalinist Russia?

    Fughetaboutit! It’s just the New York City Public Schools under Chancellor Joel Klein.

    The March 4, 2008 edition of the New York Times reports on the state of Mayoral control of the public schools in After 5 Years, City Council Holds First Hearing on Mayor’s Control of Public Schools. The article covers a New York City Council hearing where questions about the efficacy of suspending democracy battled the non-educator Chancellor’s argument that “mayoral oversight is critical to turning around the vast system…” and “The fundamental governance structure of mayoral accountability and control, I think, is right and needs to be maintained.” As the title of the Times article suggests, this was the first time the City Council has held a hearing about the Mayor’s school takeover in five years.

    Sure, the Chancellor’s claims of improved test scores, enhanced accountability and greater efficiency went unchallenged. I have come to expect very little from politicians and journalists who suspend their disbelief when matters of public education are discussed. At least once Councilman compared mayoral control to martial law.

    Lack of parental input into governance of their local schools, standardized curricula, no public oversight of the system and powerless administrators are the expected outcomes when political ideologues get to play corporate dress-up and the public schools become their toy.

    None of this surprises me. I was however delighted by the latest Orwellian confection served up by the Chancellor. Klein offered a faux mea culpa about how he had not followed up on the millions he spent to hire “parent coordinators” in each school. (I assume to neutralize desires for parental involvment)

    If the image of full-time paid “parent coordinators” does not paint a clear enough picture of this educational Potemkin Village, Chancellor Klein admitted that “he had waited too long to create the post of a ‘chief family engagement officer’ to oversee the coordinators.”

    Just when I thought the corporate psychosis polluting our public schools had reached its zenith, semantic gems like “chief family engagement officer” are invented. Thank you Chancellor Klein! That’s one for the ages!

    — Gary Stager
    The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

    2008-03-05

    As some of you know, I have been writing about school improvement and the political, corporate and ideological forces that have been attempting to claim “school reform” as their own invention for more than a decade for my blog, District Administration Magazine, The Huffington Post and GOOD Magazine (perhaps my most cogent discussion of the “School Wars” and the desire to surrender the public treasure of public education to private hands.)

    You may also beware of my serious misgivings about what I view as NBC News’ unprecedented attack on public education in the guise of Education Nation. I so annoyed NBC News earlier this week that they had me blocked from posting on Facebook for a time. Since my social media sentence was commuted, I continue to try and correct the record on Education Nation‘s Facebook page and via Twitter.

    My greatest concern about Education Nation is the one-sided depiction of both the “crisis” in public education and the “solution” to said crisis. Despite NBC News’ cries that 300 people are participating in their televised panels and therefore diversity is automatically achieved, citizens would be well-advised to heed the advice of Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” and follow the money.

    Merely adding Al Sharpton or NBC and Oprah’s resident education expert, R&B singer John Legend, to a discussion does not ensure that multiple perspectives will be heard or that expertise is bestowed upon unqualified folks with access to the media. Colin Powell might be an expert on creating “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” or on starting a war in Iraq, but does not qualify him as a leading voice on school reform.

    Simply stated, Education Nation does not represent the well-informed, research-based expertise of many successful urban school reformers and education experts including obvious choices, MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier; best-selling author, Alfie Kohn; outspoken critic of the corporate takeover of public education, Susan Ohanian; tireless advocate for poor children, Jonathan Kozol or serial urban school reformer, Dennis Littky.

    Many brave and vocal educators, such as Carolyn Foote, have held NBC News’ feet to the fire and demanded to know why teacher voices were not being adequately represented in the Education Nation programming. Carolyn and others have rightfully pointed out that the participating teachers are unlikely to receive proper billing or sufficient air-time. NBC News responded by indicating that “some of Education Nation’s best friends are teachers.”

    However, we make a huge mistake if we accept NBC’s claims of teacher involvement by counting heads or are persuaded by the impressive biographies of the teachers chosen to participate without exploring why such invitations were extended to those particular teachers. In this case, a few clicks of the mouse allows one to follow the money and follow the ideological blindness.

    I do not in any way mean to denigrate the teachers being showcased by NBC News. I have no reason to believe that they are anything but hard-working, dedicated and excellent educators. I merely wish to make the case that they were chosen by NBC to advance a particular narrative.

    That narrative is based on the following myths:

    1. Public education is destroying America
    2. There is a sudden emergency of bad teachers sweeping the land
    3. Schools should be run more like businesses (Education Nation’s patron Eli Broad believes this, but should we listen to a man who served on the board of AIG?)
    4. Charter schools, merit pay, standardized testing and mayoral control are the magic beans that will save children from wretched teachers
    5. When we fire all of the zillions of bad teachers a whole new crop of fantastic ones will grow in a Washington D.C. cornfield
    6. The best and brightest will eagerly become teachers when we remove all teacher autonomy and reduce teaching to test prep and script reading
    7. Unqualified is the new qualified as exemplified by Teach for America’s zeal to create unqualified missionaries to replace teachers
    8. Getting tougher is the same as reform
    9. Michelle Rhee was victimized by enemies of school reform (teachers) when voters rejected her tactics and bankrupt educational vision (thanks Nora O’Donnell)
    10. Billionaires are smart!
    11. Racism and intergenerational poverty have nothing to do with academic achievement
    12. The purpose of education is job readiness
    13. Teacher layoffs, budget cuts and union busting are just three ways of saying “We should pay teachers more, but them accountable.”
    14. Poor children need educational experiences much different from those afforded the children of the powerful
    15. We should all run out to the cineplex and see Waiting for Superman!

    Here are the teachers NBC touts as being representative of educators’ interests.

    Kaycee Eckhardt had been teaching for four years in Japan when Hurricane Katrina hit her native Louisiana on her 25th birthday. Inspired to return home and teach in New Orleans, she took a job as a 9th grade reading teacher at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. Her school serves some of the areas hit worst by Hurricane Katrina and often struggles to provide hot food, running water, and electricity. Despite that, in the past two years, Kaycee’s students have averaged a phenomenal three years of growth each year. In addition, Kaycee’s students have the highest math and science scores of any school in New Orleans. In 2009, she was awarded the Louisiana Charter School Association Teacher of the Year award.

    Charter school teacher who may not hold a teaching credential and who is participating in TeachNola, a spinoff of Teach-for-America and the New Teacher Project that “streamlines” the process of learning to become a qualified educator. This is the same path Michelle Rhee took in her meteoric rise and fall as D.C. Schools Chancellor.

    Sarah Zuckerman teaches art in Indianapolis, Indiana. As an art teacher she is deeply committed to making sure students develop core literacy skills and integrates literacy into all her art lessons. As a result her students have shown consistent academic growth in all their tested subjects. Sarah has taught abroad in China and Mexico and is a practicing artist who has shown her work nationally and internationally. Sarah received the Sontag Prize for Urban Education in 2010 and was a 2009 Teach Plus Fellow.

    Wealthier children enjoy art education for aesthetic, cultural and creative reasons, not to raise test scores. The Sontag Prize is funded by Boston Public Schools and the Lynch Foundation, an advocate of Catholic Schools. It is unclear whether Ms. Zuckerman is a “trained” educator.

    Shakera Walker is an award winning kindergarten teacher and a passionate advocate for the education reform movement and early childhood education. With over 8 years of teaching experience, Shakera continues to have a dramatic impact on student achievement. As a result of her incredible leadership, Shakera was awarded The Sontag Prize in Urban Education (2010).

    The Sontag Prize is funded by Boston Public Schools and the Lynch Foundation, an advocate of Catholic Schools.

    Joseph Almeida teaches 6th grade math at KIPP Infinity in New York City. He has created a YouTube channel with tailored lessons recorded for his students so that they can learn both inside and outside of the classroom. Joseph was awarded the Sue Lehman Award for Teaching excellence by Teach for America and was featured in the recently released book “Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide in Closing the Achievement Gap,” a book that has been hailed for both its policy and pedagogical influence.

    KIPP and Teach for America affiliations. Works in a charter school. Not sure if he is a credentialed teacher.

    David Wu, who spent part of his life in Taiwan, is a high school Chemistry teacher at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Originally headed to medical school, he decided to join Teach for America for two years and has now stayed four. His students, who often start far below the district and statewide averages for Chemistry, have beaten both the district average and state average the last two years on the California Standards Test. He is also the first teacher at Dorsey High School to see one of his students score a perfect score on the CST–and he’s had two students do it in the last two years.

    Yet another Teach for America teacher. Works in a charter school. Not sure if he is a credentialed teacher. More emphasis on meaningless standardized test scores.

    Kelly Burnette is a high school Biology and Physical Science teacher from Nassau, Florida. Her school district, which has quickly transformed from a rural community to a bustling suburb, has one brand-new state-of-the-art high school and another one built in 1912. Kelly just recently transferred from the new school in the suburbs to the older school in an under served area in an attempt to help that school turn around. At her previous school, Kelly helped lead teachers at a school that had been given a “D” grade in 2007-2008 to an  ”A” rating in 2008-2009. For her work, she was chosen as a finalist for Florida’s Teacher of the Year award.

    Ms. Burnette might be an actual public school educator! Hooray! (I will assume that all of the school grade nonsense is beyond her control.)

    Abigail Garland teaches 12th grade history at IDEA College Prep, a charter school in Donna, Texas, at which 80% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. She previously taught at Jaurez-Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas. For the past three years, not a single student of Abigail’s has failed his or her state assessment, and 80% scored a 90% or higher on the 11th grade Social Studies exam. In 2008-2009 she was awarded the Humanities Texas award as an outstanding teacher. Since becoming Department Head the school’s state assessment passing rate has not fallen below 99% and commended scores (scores of 90% or higher) have risen from 50% to 73%. Abigail is passionate about higher education, and her classroom goals are derived from her hope that every student will have the ability to succeed in college.

    Charter school teacher. More obsession with test scores.

    Doris Milano is an elementary school teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida. During her 16-year tenure as an educator in her community, Doris has inspired and challenged her students to soar beyond mediocrity. For three consecutive years, Doris students have made more than a year and a half of growth in a year’s time in all subject areas. Doris has won numerous awards for her teaching practice, including the EXCEL Award from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

    The implication that other teachers strive for mediocrity is offensive. The award she has received is from Jeb Bush’s non-profit dedicated to the failed or unconstitutional strategies of private school vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and standardized testing.

    Fatima Rich teaches 4th and 5th grade at Greenbrier Elementary in Indianapolis, IN. Although 77% of the students at Greenbrier qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch, she has seen phenomenal growth in her student’s test scores, with more than 30% increase in the number of students who scored proficient or advanced in one year and her students are now beating the state average on the 5th grade math assessment.

    Another example of reducing education to test preparation and standardized test scores.

    Erin Dukeshire has taught middle school science in Miami and Boston and currently took a job as the science teacher at a turnaround school called Orchard Gardens because she wanted to transform a Boston school where only 3% of the students are proficient in math and none were proficient in science. At her previous school Erin lifted her students’ science scores from 15% below the state average to well above the average.

    Might be a great teacher, but “turnaround schools” are under-performing schools that can circumvent teacher union contracts.

    Pamela Heuer is a 7th and 8th Grade Reading teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools. An alumna of Teach For America, Heuer’s students averaged 1.9 years of growth in one semester during the 2008-2009 school year, and her students were recognized as the fastest growing students in the entire Indianapolis school district. For spearheading a peer reading program with a neighboring elementary school, Heuer received the Eli Lilly New Teacher Challenge Award.

    Teach for America affiliation and advocate.

    Claudia Aguirre is the principal at MS 247 Dual Language Middle School in Manhattan.  That school, which teaches about half of its classes in each language, has quickly moved up the ranks of New York City’s middle schools because of Claudia’s efforts to impose strict program of classes and work, add academic help sessions and social activities after regular school hours. MS 247 now tests on par with the average middle school in the state across the board, a marked improvement from the scores before Claudia took over.

    An actual school principal. Nothing particular jumps out from her bio except for the emphasis on “strict” and after school hours which indicate that this might be a school unlike those parents of means might embrace for their children.

    Michelle Henry teachers 3rd-5th Grade Mathematics at Witter Elementary in Florida. Although a full 93 percent of Witter’s students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, the school had an 82 percent AYP rating in 2009. In addition, the Foundation for Excellence in Education recently presented Henry an award for having some of the greatest math gains of any teacher in the state of Florida. Henry is the recipient of the Mary Fraiser National Scholar of Gifted Education Award is rated an “Outstanding Teacher” under MAP and the Teacher Incentive Fund.

    Another recipient of an award from Jeb Bush’s foundation and citation of the No Child Left Behind Annual Yearly Progress rating

    Pam Williams, the current Georgia Teacher of the Year, is a high school social studies and economics teacher from rural Appling County in southern Georgia.  A strong advocate for the Common Core State Standards, Pam is spending part of this year touring the state to talk to teachers and advocate for them at the state level.  She has previously taught in a self-contained 6th grade classroom, middle school Spanish, music, language arts, and social studies before moving to the high school level. In the last two years, she has taken over the economics program at Appling County High School and saw a 33% increase in the number of students passing the statewide End of Year Test after she redesigned the curriculum.”

    Another emphasis on test-prep and an embrace of “Common Core Standards,” a fancy euphemism for “standardized national curriculum.”

    In closing, it’s worth exploring the sponsors of Education Nation. The following foundations and corporations have their fingerprints on many of the most regressive educational practices in the United States today.

    • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are major sponsors of Waiting for Superman directly and through their spin-off organization, Get Schooled. They are also a sponsor of Education Nation. Gates also appears on Oprah and Education Nation as an education expert. The Gates Foundation’s influence on public education is enormous from its advocacy of KIPP Schools for other people’s children to its staffing of the US Department of Education.
    • The Broad Foundation is a sponsor of Waiting for Superman and of Education Nation, plus a host of the other organizations being represented during Education Nation.
    • The Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) is a sponsor of Waiting for Superman and advocate for school vouchers (privatization).
    • The University of Phoenix is a sponsor of Education Nation despite admitting to fraud in its educational recruiting practices and its self-service advocacy of for-profit education.
    • Microsoft is another sponsor of Education Nation. I believe that they might have a connection to The Gates Foundation. Some readers might find Microsoft’s record on labor practices disturbing and be unsurprised by its longstanding antipathy towards labor unions. Oh yeah, don’t forget to check out how Microsoft created an educational disaster in the Philadelphia public schools.

    Further reading:

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    Note: This was originally submitted for publication in The Huffington Post. I sincerely hope it gets an airing there ASAP at which time I may remove the cross-posting here. I just wanted this to be read before Education Nation begins.


    In anticipation of NBC News’ assault on public education, Education Nation, I decided to collect some inspirational tales of teaching excellence.

    I hope you enjoy reading these stories and will share your own.

    1. Me and Mr. Jones (about a 7th grade computing teacher who made me feel powerful)
    2. “Social” Studies (about the two gentlemen responsible for my social activism)
    3. Walking Among Giants (about a late great singer & my junior high music teacher)
    4. A School Story (about collaboration with my high school jazz teacher)

    If you share your own stories about excellent teachers, please use the hashtag #greatteaching

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    Regarding the Zuckerberg donation to the Newark Public Schools…

    I am not hopeful at all. I am concerned. What makes you think that Christie hated public education and teachers yesterday, but not today?

    Will the funds be used to supplement or supplant local school funding? In other words, will Christie steal $100,000,000 from Newark’s budget as soon as the check clears?
    This is a hostile takeover of another urban school district and a surrender of democracy to mayoral control. Neither Cory Booker or Chris Christie have a clue how to end the poverty and terrible infrastructure deficits in Newark, let alone run a school system. Until, quite recently (kudos to Booker), Newark didn’t have a supermarket, movie theatre or bowling alley. It was a dead city.

    How high do you expect student achievement to be in a once-majestic city with intergenerational poverty? I have said it before and I will say it again. I have worked in schools all over the world (on 6 continents) and have never come across more genuinely committed, hard-working or generous educators as those who work in the Newark, NJ Public Schools.

    The teachers in that district have been maligned through decades of “state control” of the district and yet if we are to believe the politicians, nothing has improved. Shame on the politicians, not the poor kids and their teachers.

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    I’ve offered Cory Booker my assistance (via Twitter) many times. He’s never had the courtesy to respond.

    The teacher-bashing, charter school takeovers and endless standardized testing is sure to follow turn this gift into a weapon against common sense and the children of Newark.

    Sadly, $100,000,000 is probably not enough money to build one new high school in Newark.

    Zuckerberg’s generosity is laudable, but the money won’t help when marshall law/mayoral control is declared, the community is pushed aside and teachers are demonized.

    Read the following articles for related information:

    The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…
    Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)

    (2001) I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

    Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

    In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

    To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

    The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

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    We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

    The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

    During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

    Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

    Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

    As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.




    © 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
    Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

    Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)

    Rocco Patierno & George Hicswa - July 2010

    The challenge of telling one school story is a formidable one. I have so many to share. My colleagues urged me to tell the stories of the felonious teachers who taught from lawn chairs, led ethnic relay races and committed other hideous crimes against children. I could also tell the story of learning to love computing in the 70s because of imaginative trusting educators. Hopefully, I will have such opportunities in the future. This is the tale of music teachers who brought beauty, humor and a sense of place to my life.

    Back in the 1970s, the Wayne, NJ Public Schools offered me the opportunity to fall in love with music and pursue it with abandon under the tutelage of spectacular teachers, Bob Simpson, Rocco Patierno, Ted Anderson, George Hicswa and Dick Lukas. Our fluid relationships flowed

    from teacher-student, teacher-teacher, friend-friend to fellow artists creating together. My high school supported my desire to take four years of music theory and four years of performance classes (nine in all) without missing a single “important” academic course.

    Midway through high school, George Hicswa, a professional jazz musician, achieved his goal of offering a daily Jazz Improvisation course. The class would be concerned with jazz theory, history and performance. Few universities at the time offered such a class. This was the perfect venue for a man of Mr Hicswa’s considerable idiosyncrasies, humor and talent as a musician. This class was quite comparable to the Brazilian Samba School Seymour Papert describes in Mindstorms, as an optimal environment for productive learning.

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    The thing that strikes me today is how the course was so learner-centered. I remember the excitement of calling classmates on Sunday night to plan which records we should bring in to analyze on Monday and Tuesday. At the time we joked that Mr. Hicswa was lazy and that we were teaching his class. I now understand that a great teacher connects his/her wisdom and experience with the interests of students. We always felt that there was great gravity to the work we were doing in this class. After all, we were studying an American art form not taught in American schools. This was a music of the blues – of the struggle for civil rights, being performed reverently by white kids from the suburbs.

    The course epitomized an interdisciplinary curriculum making connections between history, musical performance and the mathematics used to learn improvisation. It was a multi-age class you could take for credit year after year. How could that be possible? Because there was always something to learn and new ways to grow. A strong community of practice existed in which we could learn by “playing” together.

    I remember the shock on the faces of judges as we took the stage for a jazz competition (one of those obscene oxymorons invented by schools). We would follow paramilitary “stage bands” wearing white platform suits and zoot suits as they faithfully recreated “In the Mood.” The stage band is a musical amalgamation with no analog outside of school.

    Our small jazz combo would be garbed in dashikis, kimonos and “bebop helmets.” I once performed on gong. Our repertoire consisted of works by Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, John Coltrane and student composers. We honored ourselves and our musical heroes by sharing our individuality through collective improvisation.

    It was never clear if Mr. Hicswa liked teaching or even liked children. What he loved were musicians – even people trying to become musicians. He created an environment in which personal growth was possible. For that I will always be grateful.


    ©1999 Gary S. Stager
    From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 1999

    Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)
    Amidst the sadism, angst and mediocrity of middle school, two social studies teachers had an important impact on my development. Bob Prail has taught social studies for decades and has touched the lives of countless children at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey. His class was concerned more with the intellectual, moral and emotional development of each student than the bunch ‘o facts curriculum commonplace in similar classes. Mr. Prail’s class was rigorous despite the pabulum prescribed by the mediocre textbook, which remained in virginal condition. He excited us about American history and our nation’s uneasy quest for justice. Before multicultural education and interdisciplinary teaching were hot, Mr. Prail had each seventh grader read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and each eighth grader read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Decades before student-created multimedia was the rage, our class produced a film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was Harry the imp. Being home sick for a week created interesting cinematic challenges when my understudy, an Asian classmate, replaced me. Few middle school students read, let alone dramatize the controversial lessons of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

    Mr. Prail’s classes were filled with lively discussions and our content knowledge was tested by using an electronic game show set built by the teacher. His classroom was a safe environment for shaping an opinion or arguing one already formed. I’ll never forget how much grief Mr. Prail faced for teaching us how to relax and meditate during class time. There were absurd accusations of religious proselytizing and sorcery swirling around the school while any rational person familiar with middle school kids understands the need for relaxation and reflection. While I hardly remember the content of the class, Mr. Prail taught me a much more important lesson by his example. He treated everyone with dignity and respect even when little respect was accorded him by the school administration. I am convinced that my personal sense of political activism and willingness to fight for those people and issues worthy of support may be traced back to an intuitive sense that at twelve years old we might need to stage a protest to ensure Mr. Prail’s job security. Bob Prail’s lifelong commitment to doing the right thing on behalf of kids, regardless of what the adults around him might think is a testament to the courage and power of great teachers.

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    My eighth grade social studies teacher, Harold “Hack” Miller, inspired me in many other extra-curricular ways. Mr. Miller introduced partisanship, parody, humor and controversy to the study of history and importance of politics. These are noble traits required by a strong democracy. I’ll never forget the bulletin board decoration in Mr. Miller’s classroom. On it hung a front-page tabloid photo of President Ford receiving his swine flu shot and underneath it Mr. Miller wrote the caption, “No Brain… No Pain.” Mr. Miller traded “boring” subjects from the curriculum for more engaging ones like the influence of the arts on American culture. Best of all, he let us in on his subversion. He knew what his students needed and taught expertly what he knew best. Mr. Miller cultivated my love of history and passion for politics in both eighth and eleventh grade.

    In high school, Mr. Miller was a behind-the-scenes instigator in our effort to rid the school of the sappy sexist expensive pre-Title IX annual student dance competition. He encouraged a camouflage-wearing school legend named Duke to seek the presidency of this august student organization while a slate of my male pals ran to be captains of a dance team. When informal polling indicated that the head cheerleaders were about to lose their most cherished position to a bunch of… well, boys all hell broke loose. While we were not particularly serious about leading the dance contest into the next millennium we were fighting for important principles of gender equity and against entrenched patterns of discrimination. Our mucking up of the works may have been silly, but it was also in the great tradition of the Boston Tea Party and the anti-Viet Nam war protests.

    Mr. Prail and Mr. Miller taught without the script or straightjacket imposed by the textbook. They taught from a wealth of knowledge, a love of the subject matter and a commitment to children. I am most grateful for the role they played in the development of active citizens. They make me proud to be a teacher and an American.


    © 2000 Gary S. Stager

    From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 2000