I hope that anyone reading this is healthy and sane during this period of uncertainty. Teachers and kids alike are grieving over the loss of freedom, social interactions, and normalcy. Many families, even those never before considered at-risk, are terrified of the potential for financial ruin or catastrophic health risks. Since I’m all about the love and spreading optimism, I humbly share a silver-lining for teachers and the kids that they serve.

The fact that you are being told to “teach online” in some vague version of “look busy” may mean that teachers are finally being trusted. Districts large and small are abandoning grading as they recognize that education (at home) is inequitable. I guess it’s better late than never to discover the obvious.

Parents and superintendents are vanquishing the needless infliction of nonsense known as homework. Standardized testing is being canceled, an actual miracle. Colleges have recognized that enrolling students next Fall is more important than SAT or ACT scores. Each of these emergency measures has been advocated by sentient educators forever.

So, there is reason to celebrate (briefly), but then you must act! Use this time to remake schooling in a way that’s more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centered. This is your moment!

In the absence of compelling models of what’s possible, the forces of darkness will fill the void. Each of us needs to create models of possibility.

The fact that kids’ days are now unencumbered by school could mean that they finally have adequate time to work on projects that matter rather than being interrupted every 23 minutes. I recently wrote, What’s Your Hurry?, about teaching computer programming, but it’s applicable to other disciplines.

Project-based learning offers a context for learner-centered pedagogy. I was reminded that the new edition of our book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” includes several chapters on effective prompt setting that may be useful in designing projects for kids at home. Invent To Learn also lays out the case for learning-by-doing. Use that information to guide your communication with administrators, parents, and the community.

The following are but a few suggestions for seizing the moment and reinventing education after this crisis is resolved so we may all return to a new, better, normal.

Practice “Less us, more them”

Anytime a teacher feels the impulse to intervene in an educational transaction, it is worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking, “Is there less that I can do and more that the student(s) can do?” The more agency shifted to the student, the more they will learn.

One exercise you can practice teaching online, as well as face-to-face, is talk less. If you typically lecture for 40 minutes, try 20. If you talk for 20 minutes, try 10. If you talk for 10, try 5. In my experience, there is rarely an instance in which a minute or two of instruction is insufficient before asking students to do something. While teaching online, try not to present content, but rather stimulate discussion or organize activities to maximize student participation. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Remember, less is more

My colleague Brian Harvey once said, “The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.” This is wise advice during sudden shift to online teaching and the chaos caused by the interruption of the school year.

Focus on the big ideas. Make connections between topics and employ multiple skills simultaneously. Abandon the compulsion to “deliver” a morbidly obese curriculum. Simplify. Edit. Curate.

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

Learning adventures are a technique I became known for when I began teaching online in the 1990s. This process is described in the 2008 paper, Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments.

Inspire kids to read entire books

Since the bowdlerized and abridged basals are locked in school, encourage kids to luxuriate with real books! Imagine if kids had the freedom to select texts that interest them and to read them from cover-to-cover without a comprehension quiz or vocabulary lesson interrupting every paragraph! Suggest that kids post reviews on Amazon.com for an authentic audience rather than making a mobile or writing a five-paragraph essay. Use Amazon.com or Goodreads to find other books you might enjoy.

Tackle a new piece of software

Been meaning to learn Final Cut X, Lightroom, a new programming language, or any other piece of sophisticated software? Employ groups of kids to tackle the software alone or together and employ their knowledge once school returns. Let them share what they know and lead.

Contribute to something larger than yourself

This is the time for teachers to support kids in creating big creative projects. Write a newspaper, novel, poetry anthology, play, cookbook, or joke book. Make a movie and then make it better. Create a virtual museum. Share your work, engage in peer editing, and share to a potentially infinite audience.

Check out what Berklee College of Music students have already done!

Teach like you know better

Use this time to rev-up or revive sound pedagogical practices like genre study, author study, process writing, interdisciplinary projects and the other educative good stuff too often sacrificed due to a lack of sufficient time. You now have the time to teach well.

Take note of current events

Daily life offers a world of inspiration and learning invitations. Why not engage kids in developmentally appropriate current events or take advantage of opportunities like JSTOR being open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis? Here’s a possible student prompt.

“Go to JSTOR, figure out how it works, find an interesting article, and share what you learned with the class.”

Let Grow

Change the world by challenging students to learn something on their own by embracing the simple, yet profound, Let Grow school project. A simple assignment asks kids to do something on their own with their parent’s permission and share their experiences with their peers.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Every problem in education has been solved and every imaginable idea has been implemented somewhere. Teachers should use this time to read books about education written by experts and learn the lessons of the masters.

Take time to enjoy some culture

There is no excuse to miss out on all of the cultural activities being shared online from free Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre, Broadway shows, operas, living room concerts, piano practice with Chick Corea, and exciting multimedia collaborations. Many of these streams are archived on social media, YouTube, or the Web. Bring some peace, beauty, and serenity into your home.

The following are some links, albeit incomplete and subjective, to free streaming cultural events.

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

In A Personal Road to Reinventing Mathematics Education, I wrote about how I have been fortunate enough to know and spend time with some of the world’s most prominent mathematicians and that while not a single one of them ever made me feel stupid, plenty of math teachers did. Stephen Wolfram is arguably the world’s leading mathematician/scientist/computer scientist. Over the past few years, he has become interested in teachers, kids, and math education. Dr. Wolfram spoke at Constructing Modern Knowledge, runs an annual summer camp for high school mathematicians, and has made many of his company’s remarkable computational tools available for learners.

Acknowledging that many students are home do to the pandemic this week, Wolfram led a free online Ask Me Anything session about an array of math and science topics, ostensibly for kids, as well as a “follow-along” computation workshop. You, your children, or your students have unprecedented access to all sorts of expertise, just a click away! This is like Albert Einstein making house calls!

A bit of exploration will undoubtedly uncover experts in other disciplines sharing their knowledge and talents online as well.

Abandon hysterical internet policies

The immediate need for laptops, Internet access, student email, plus the expedient use of available technologies like YouTube, FaceTime, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom has instantly dispelled the hysterical and paranoid centralized approach to the Internet schools have labored under for the past twenty-five years. The Internet has never been dependent on the policies of your school or your paraprofessional IT staff to succeed. Perhaps we will learn what digital citizenship actually looks like after teachers and children are treated like modern citizens.

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

When I worked with Seymour Papert, he created a document titled, “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab.” This one sheet of paper challenges educators to create productive contexts for learning in the 21st Century. Can you aspire to make these recommendations a reality in your classroom(s)?

Do twenty things to do with a computer

In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. How does your school measure up a half-century later?

Program your own Gameboy

Yes, you read that correctly. Here is everything you need to know to write your own computer games, build an arcade, or program a handheld gaming device!

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

Upper elementary and middle school students could learn to program in Scratch and develop their reading fluency at the same time. Learn how in A Modest Proposal.

Share my sense of optimism

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis, I published, Time for Optimism, in which I shared reasons why progressive education is on the march and how we might teach accordingly. We can do this!

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

There is so much for educators to learn about learning, learn about love, and loving to learn in this remarkable reunion commemorating Art Blakey’s Centennial. (start watching from 25:41)

The Jazz Congress in NYC ended today with a panel discussion featuring approximately thirty of the world’s finest musicians, all of whom played with the great Art Blakey over the course of four decades. For my money, this may be the single greatest gathering of artists ever assembled to honor a common mentor in history. Whether you never heard of Art Blakey or he is indelibly part of your consciousness, this conversation is simultaneously moving, profound, profane, and hilarious.

This video is everything! You owe yourself the two hour experience. I will refrain from saying more so you may construct your own meaning.

This remarkable gathering may be of equal or greater significance than the legendary A Great Day in Harlem photo.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

I’ve watched American Idol since its inception and am a fan. Months ago, I predicted that Angie would win this year. we will know for sure in a few weeks.

In the post-Simon Cowell years of American Idol, the quality of judging has become tedious, cloying and adoring of the young contestants. There has been little instructive teaching for the kids competing or the audience at home. That’s a shame because American Idol used to feature legendary artists every week as mentors who would perform a quickie masterclass for contestants (and audience) who otherwise would enjoy no such access to expertise. One of my favorite mentors a few years back was Harry Connick, Jr. It was also one of the lowest rated episodes of the season. Despite the relative (un)popularity of Mr. Connick, he taught the kids, played with them and wrote charts suited to their talents. He was a great mentor.

I was thrilled to see Harry back on Idol again this week and he ignited a firestorm when he refused to agree with the incredibly terrible advice being dispensed by an incredibly disingenuous Randy Jackson. You can the details of his awful advice in the well-written article linked below, but suffice to say that Mr. Jackson knows better. He may not have the talent and musical knowledge of Harry Connick, Jr., but he has enjoyed a great deal of success in the music business. If Randy Jackson had been paying for Kree’s studio time as a producer, his advice would have been exactly the same as that of Mr. Connick.

After Wednesday night’s show, an educator colleague of mine posted the following message on Facebook:

Harry Connick seems sort of mean and opinionated. #justsayin
I admit that I lost it and posted the following comment:
TEACHERS SHOULD HAVE OPINIONS and be great at what they do!I could not disagree more. American Idol vs. Harry Connick Jr. is a great metaphor for everything wrong with American culture. The entire season has been spent repeating clichés and telling the contestants that they are geniuses. Celebrity and popularity are not the same as talent or artistry.

How dare those kids call themselves artists? Artist, reformer and revolutionary are terms that must be bestowed upon you by others. As Seinfeld said, “I’m 17. Why aren’t I huge?”

Harry Connick, Jr. is an incredibly gifted singer, pianist, composer, arranger, technology pioneer and he acts too. He has been a professional musician since he was 5.

He is an expert in jazz history and the American songbook.

Amber and Kree’s performance of classic standards was atrocious. It is NOT unreasonable to expect “singers” about to get rich beyond their dreams to learn or understand a song. Countless thousands of peers of the “Idols” studying music around the country do so. In fact, jazz majors at Julliard are required to memorize every piece of music they perform, including full big band arrangements.

My friend Emmet Cohen is 22 years old and knows a few thousand songs that he can play and improvise on in 12 keys. That’s artistry and talent.

Harry gave Kree incredibly good advice and she ignored all of it. She added runs to almost every note. It was unmusical.

Harry Connick is the expert. Kree is the student. She should behave accordingly and be open to instruction. Randy’s advice to her was completely disingenuous. He would NEVER tolerate such a shambolic performance if he was spending his time or money producing her.

The judges do the kids no favor my not teaching them or asking them to “just be Kree.” Being Kree is terrible advice. She’s an amateur with a lot to learn.

I sure wish every American student could have a good music teacher. It would make the world a better place!

It is unclear as to whether the American Idol contestants were disrespectful of Harry Connick, Jr. and his expertise or just so musically ignorant and untalented that they are incapable of following his advice.
Some of you might be asking, “Why are we making kids who want to be pop-stars sing show-tunes?
There are two answers:
  1. As Randy Jackson reminds us constantly, “this is a singing competition!” Singers should be able to sing anything.
  2. The #1 album today is by Michael Bublé, a guy who sings the Great American Songbook. These classic songs are contemporary hits.
“The point Connick tried to make, which Jackson didn’t want to hear, was that the show’s contestants didn’t know these classic songs well enough to take liberties with their melodies and lyrics. In doing so, they were murdering the music.” – John Stark

Just returned home from speaking at another large international conference where meaningless clichés filled the air and rolled off of people’s tongues. Aside from being boring, clichés oversimplify complex issues and distract us from making forward progress. Clichés are a tranquilizer that retard our thinking and decision-making. Clichés amplify the superficial and form of a vapor barrier around powerful ideas.

Sometimes, the clichés are not even true. Yet, they still manage to become a community standard.

One particularly pernicious cliché goes something like this.

“We all have so much to learn from our students.”

Variations on this theme include:

“The kids are so much smarter than us.”

“My students know so much more than me.”

“They are the digital natives. We are digital immigrants.”

The motivation behind uttering such banalities is likely positive. It acknowledges that children are competent and encourages adults to learn with them.

However, these clichés suggest a power relationship in which all adults (particularly teachers) are resigned to the role of bumbling TV dad while the kids rule the roost. In education, this often serves as a justification for why teachers irrationally fear computers and modernity or appear to have stopped learning.

The cliché diminishes the value of expertise and effort for adults and young people alike.

Let me state clearly that I have no problem learning from anyone or any experience. I love learning with and from children. Nothing delights me more than when we co-construct some meaning. I just don’t go into classrooms thinking I am dumber than my students. I have experience, expertise, knowledge, wisdom, insights and a better Rolodex than they do.

My old friend Branford Marsalis is widely considered one of the world’s greatest musicians. He is also a very fine educator.

In the documentary, Before the Music Dies, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Branford Marsalis was asked to share what he has learned from his students.

This one-minute clip may surprise you.

I look forward to the discussion…

Four collections of recommended books

  1. The Constructivist Consortium has compiled an extensive online book store for creative educators. Be sure to peruse these recommendations!
  2. Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better Do Your Homework! Required reading for school leaders, administrators and policy makers.
  3. Tinkering resources for educators
  4. Overlooked gems, books kids (especially boys) will love

The two best education books of 2011

Tricia Tunstall’s beautiful new book, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, tells the story of El Sistema, perhaps the world’s most exciting large-scale (systemic) education project. At a time when presidential candidates call for children to clean toilets as a way of “learning the dignity of work,”, El Sistema, teaches hundreds of thousands of children to achieve their potential as productive citizens by learning to play classical music at a level previously unimagined.

This book is a must-read. It’s incredibly well-written and reminds us of how arts education can change lives. The lessons for all educators, politicians and parents are multitudinous. I sincerely hopes this book reaches a wide audience, it asks much of each of us, but the rewards are extraordinary. It reminds us what it means to be human. You should also get the fantastic DVDs, El Sistema: Music to Change Lives and The Promise of Music to bring music and motion to the ideas in Tunstall’s fantastic new book.

 

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank

Dr. Schank is one of the leading experts on artificial intelligence, storytelling, simulation, entrepreneurship and learning. His new book is another fearless volume about what is wrong with education and how it may be “fixed.” Schank is hilarious, provocative and not a person you want to argue with. This important book may help cleanse school leaders of the nonsense spread by Pink, Willingham and Marzano.

From Schank’s web site: “Unfortunately education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world. The premise of my new book is simple. We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But how else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around thought processes.”

 

Honorable Mention Book of 2011

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It by Ron Wolk

While I profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions and views on educational technology, veteran academic and founder of Education Week, Ron Wolk does an exceptional job of describing the current educational landscape. The data within the book is invaluable.

 

 

Soon-to-be-released Books I Can Hardly Wait to Read!

 

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformationby Edwards, Gandini and Foreman is the most comprehensive book on the phenomenal “Reggio Emilia approach” to education.The 3rd volume of this comprehensive anthology will be available any day now. It is a must read and re-read for many years to come.Lella Gandini has made a spectacular contribution to Constructing Modern Knowledge over the past few years. One of the great honors of my life was being invited by legendary educator and author of 40 seminal education books, Herbert Kohl, to make a small contribution to this new book about the importance of the arts in education.Being included in a book with Deborah Meier, Bill T. Jones, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Ayers, Lisa Delpit, Rosie Perez, Phylicia Rashad, Diane Ravitch and Maxine Greene leaves me speechless.I cannot wait for The Muses Go to School:Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education to arrive!

Deeply moving & often hilarious book

 

Regardless of your politics or how you feel about his films, Michael Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, is a poignant, witty and exceptionally well written memoir of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. This book really captures one person’s realization of the American dream. I highly recommend this page-turner for idealistic teens and their parents.

 

 

My Ten Favorite Jazz Recordings of 2011
Unsung Heroes by Brian Lynch Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Caldarazzo In the Element by Emmet Cohen Roy-alty by Roy Haynes Road Shows volume 2 by Sonny Rollins
This extraordinary new album of modern jazz in tribute to unsung trumpet heroes is by my friend Brian Lynch and earned five stars from Downbeat Magazine. I’ve known Branford for 30 years. This new album is a duet with his longtime pianist, Joey Caldarazzo. The result is quite beautiful. I met young Emmet almost a year ago and we’ve hung out ever since. He recently placed 3rd in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. His debut recording is quite good and he is going to be a monster in years to come. I heard Roy Haynes for the first time when I was 14 and his music has brought me more joy than perhaps anything else in life. He not only represents the history of American music, but at 86 years old, Mr. Haynes swings harder than any drummer alive. Sonny Rollins may be the world’s greatest living musician and he’s finally enjoying the respect he deserves. He was given a Presidential Arts Medal and Kennedy Center Honor in 2011. This recording includes recent live recordings, including a rare duet with Ornette Coleman.
Forever by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny Whtite
Pinnacle by Freddie Hubbard
The first CD in this 2-CD album is unbelievably exiting and hard swinging. The second disc? Not so much. I saw Freddie Hubbard perform live dozens of times and each note he played was exhilerating. This live recording is available for the first time. Unreleased “bootlegs” by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter & Tony Williams – what’s not to love?? Here’s my credit card! This young vibraphonist has been called the “Mike Tyson” of the Vibes. Check out his terrific major label debut recording produced by mentor Christian McBride. It’s been a busy year for the hardest working man in jazz. Christian McBride’s big band and all-star duet recording are must-haves.


The weather outside may be frightful, but summer is right around the corner. You deserve to spend four days next July reigniting your creative flame, recharging your battery and learning with world-class educators, artists and inventors.

Join us to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event in Manchester, New Hampshire – July 9-12, 2012!

Why not replace visions of sugarplums with the opportunity to learn storytelling with award-winning filmmaker Casey Neistat; tinkering with the Editor of Make Magazine, Mark Frauenfelder; project-based learning from one of its originators, Dr. Lilian Katz and explore the ultimate 21st Century toy factory, the MIT Media Laboratory, with Dr. Leah Buechley? Nine year-old faculty member, Super Awesome Sylvia, reminds us of the meaning of education.

Give yourself the learning experience of a lifetime and register today!

60 Minutes just aired a two-part story that stands in their grand tradition of breathtaking journalism. The report tells the story of Gospel for Teens, a non-profit arts organization created in Harlem, NYC by the radio broadcaster, publisher and theatre producer, Vy Higginsen. Her original goals were modest; teach kids to sing gospel music so that this important African American art form endures. The lessons Ms. Higginsen, the teenagers and the 60 Minutes audience learn are much more profound and life-altering.

First you witness the children’s drive, determination and capacity for intensity (a major theme of my forthcoming book). During their first two-hour class, the kids learn three gospel songs in three-part harmony. Try comparing this accomplishment to the school tasks teachers so mightily struggle to eek out of these kids, or kids just like them. The complexity of this musical feat dwarfs much of what one finds in the school curriculum, especially the curriculum for poor children.

The 60 Minutes report follows the development of these children through two semesters of participation in Gospel for Teens and explores their backgrounds, daily struggles and triumphs. Perhaps you know the challenges urban teens face, but have forgotten, or you are just so focused on raising those damned test scores that you forgot why you became an educator. Every child – yours and mine – is precariously close to being labeled “at-risk.” This is especially true of poor children.

Teaching is as complex and diverse as each learner. Although these kids can sing their pants off, they struggle with the most basic of life skills. Their emotional needs can make academic success impossible, especially because way too few adults give a damn about each kid and do whatever is necessary to connect with them on a human level.

I am sick and tired of hearing about “those kids” and how they are failing! You never know when the slightest gesture of good will, willingness to listen or simple act of kindness can change a young person’s life and enrich us all.

We are all reminded of this lesson over and over again throughout the 60 Minutes piece. As in other constructive environments where children choose to be, there are quite likely no discipline problems at Gospel for Teens.

Teachers really need to do some soul-searching during these challenging times.

Try remembering why you told your parents that you wanted to become an educator. Was it so you could scream at children and control when they get to pee? Was it so you could march kids up and down the hall like POWs? Was it to deliver the curriculum and hold them accountable? Was it to raise f$#king test scores on tests never intended to be used to rank kids or punish teachers, especially when they are hugely expensive and rigged against the very children you serve?

If the answer to all of the above is NO, then wake up every morning and ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure that this is the best 7 hours of each student’s day?” While you’re at it, fight with every ounce of your being to preserve world-class music and art opportunities for every American child! Don’t blame the kids when we won’t do the right thing!

Why not declare every day, “I’m Here for the Kids Day,” and protect them from the corporate and political bullies fighting to make their schools joyless test-prep factories?

Watch the 60 Minutes report:

  1. Gospel for Teens 60 Minutes Story – Part 1
  2. Gospel for Teens 60 Minutes Story – Part 2

(the clips may not play inline, but the links above work)

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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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

A variation on the old joke goes,

Question: “How do you get to perform for the President of the United States?

Answer: Don’t ask Jessica Simpson. She has no idea.

According to “news” reports Jessica Simpson was a performer in this year’s Kennedy Center Honors program attended by President Bush and countless other dignitaries. Ms. Simpson was to sing the operatic classic, “Nine-to-Five,” as a tribute to Dolly Parton, but ended the song abruptly, muttered, “nervous,” and burst off the stage in tears.

While hardly cause for indefinite detention in Guantanamo, this sorry incident offers lessons for educators.

James Carville once said, “In America the last job you ever have is being famous.” Too many young people in our country see fame, the quicker the better, as their goal. Yet, Jessica Simpson has proven that fame doesn’t prepare you to perform in front of music legends, millions of viewers and the leader of the free world. Maybe she just had a bad night, but I don’t think so.

Once your failed reality TV marriage and B-movie career fades from the spotlight you are sustained by what musicians call “chops.” You develop chops by paying dues, studying and practicing for hours and hours each day for years. You don’t pay your dues by being photographed exiting a nightclub with your BFFs or by dating musicians. You are not entitled to be rich and famous just because you want to be.

Every great artist knows this.  Even successful pop stars learned it along the road to fame. Motown artists spent countless hours studying music, dance and comportment before they left the studio. They spent weeks on the road honing each song before appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and yes, even Britney Spears developed a similar work ethic from working on The Mickey Mouse Club. Like the pop-stars of yore, they come “ready to play” regardless of the venue – in concert or in a variety show skit. I can see you wince when I say this, but they may be this generation’s Sammy, Dean, Frank, Diana Ross or Dolly Parton. Ask any musician in the know and they will tell you that Dolly Parton can play her…. uh, butt off.

This isn’t the first public meltdown in the Simpson family. Remember that little sister, Ashley, (the “punk” one) stunk up Saturday Night Live last year when she began lip-synching to the wrong recorded music track. She too ran off the stage in tears. Ashley was quick to blame everyone, but Milli Vanilli for her humiliation, but after a quick makeover came back for what was left of her fifteen minutes of fame.

Memo to Daddy Simpson…. No amount of reconstructive surgery or blonde/brunette ambition is a substitute for talent. Talent is the result of effort. Doh!

So, what does this have to do with school?
My nine year-old nephew has played the trumpet for about six weeks. He recently came home with four pieces of music to learn in order to perform in a public concert a week later. Without any instruction he had to figure out several unfamiliar notes and practice the new songs. Nobody taught him what “practice” means. After one short rehearsal he was to join a group of other children in concert.

While I fully appreciate the power of audience and the inspiration it provides for children, why do we indulge kids by offering the fame of the concert before the requisite investment of effort? I love my nephew and there is nothing cuter than seeing little kids in concert but what message are we sending? IS it true that we should have to sit in an uncomfortable gymnasium and listen to anything they play, regardless of the quality or effort just because the children want us to? Concerts are not rehearsals. They are special and should be held to a higher standard.

During the week preceding my nephew’s inaugural concert, I helped him practice the new songs – something his teacher left to chance. He plays OK for a beginner. He knows around six notes, some of which he manages to string together in a sequence. After playing four or five consecutive notes in a fashion only an uncle could love, he proclaimed, “I really nailed it!”

How does a kid develop such a false sense of triumph? The media is partially responsible, but the gold star, instant gratification of our school’s worksheet culture is culpable as well.

Every student should be made to watch Dolly Parton perform and then Jessica Simpson’s Kennedy Center disaster. They could then write a five-paragraph essay in which they compare and contrast the two performances.

Originally published December 04, 2006 in The Pulse: Education’s Pace for Debate