Friday, August 12, 2016

[Insert Clever "Something's Rotten in Denmark" Cliche Here]

First it was the Finns’ highly exalted and top-ranked education system.  Now it’s the Danes’ happiness-making empathy curriculum.  What have those Scandinavians figured out? 

In their new book, The Danish Way of Parenting; What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl highlight Danish schools’ weekly hour of empathy training--including a collective cake baking activity-- and how that contributes to making the happiest society in the world.  

They offer an elegant case for seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.  As an 8th grade teacher (in the United States), I can indeed see the need for greater empathy among teenagers, and people.  

I’m just not sure it’s as easy as the “piece of cake” pun that Alexander’s Salon.com summary of her book makes out.  And when we think it is--easy--we imbibe a trope that seriously distorts our expectations of education in our own society.  

Consider this.  Empathy for others isn’t the same in Denmark as in the US.  Indeed, Denmark is 90% ethnically Danish.  The vast majority of its citizens are of the same “people,” and this may actually work against Alexander and Sandahl’s reasoning.  

They argue for an institutionalized program of empathy building--the idea of which will certainly have its moment in the cacophonous education reform debate in the US.  But fundamental psychology ideas explain how in-group affiliations are deep and enduring, and how such intra-group identifying can make life in the out-group more difficult.  

In other words, a homogenous group getting trained to see the world through the eyes of somebody else--in the same homogenous group--really isn’t all that helpful, or unusual.  Indeed, empathy training among the in-group might just as likely reinforce the natural tendencies of the frail and self-centered psyche.

So consider how things are for the other 10% of Denmark’s citizens, and there, things aren’t quite as happy.

Web searches of “racism in Denmark” return not only anecdotes about Danes’ racism against Asians or Turks or Middle Easterners, but also the UN’s Committee for Racial Discrimination (read here) concerns about Denmark’s “deep institutional discrimination...in the labor and property markets, and in the process of applying for citizenship.”

Moreover, Special Advisor for Equal Treatment in The Danish Institute for Human Rights, Nanna Margrethe Krusaa, acknowledges “There may be a tendency for employers to hire people who they think look like themselves.”  She goes on, “We have, of course, a discrimination law that says that one [may not] rule out candidates because of their ethnic background, but we have not yet reached the point where all employers comply with the law.” (here)

Apparently, the cake-making empathy curriculum hasn’t yet caught up with these 10% of the population. 

But Denmark’s number one ranking in income equality (among OECD countries) reflects a kind of fairness and generosity, right?  Perhaps, but again, in-group dynamics make it psychologically easier for people to accept wealth-redistribution to others in their own group, but less so to the out-group.

In short, maybe the “piece of cake” curriculum is cheerfully embraced by Danes because it’s the consequence of deep and enduring demographic realities, rather than the cause of empathy and happiness.

Contrast the United States.  Clearly, we struggle mightily with race problems, and we are notorious for both our high income inequality and lack of social safety net.  

Accept these observations, for the sake of discussion.  But also accept that the Americans are significantly more generous in private giving than Denmark.  In the Charities Aid Foundation (a UK organization) 2015 world ranking of giving, the US is number 2; Denmark is number 39.  

Tellingly, for the claims about an empathy curriculum, in the “help a stranger” index, the US ranks 3rd; Denmark 61st.

Undoubtedly, American society is a confusing melange of socio-economic circumstances.  Income inequality is high, but we give more money and help strangers more often than the supposedly empathic Danes.  Further, Americans transfer and donate substantial wealth--indeed, economists are projecting an inter-generational transfer of dozens of trillions of dollars in the next 30 years, but not by way of the government. 

Given all this, it would be unwise to hope that simply adopting Denmark’s cake-making empathy program would turn our society around.  We need to stop thinking that a school program or the right new curriculum will solve the deep and divisive problems we have in the United States.  Schools can’t bear burdens that heavy.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Roads not only less taken, but not even open anymore

Had a strange experience--for the first time--the other day.

I was looking through old books, and I came across a small, as yet unread, collection of works on Central Asia.  I had spent a week in Kazakhstan about 10 years ago (and my wife spent the summer there in 1994).  I was also, at one time, a political scientist studying and teaching on comparative politics.  After visiting, Central Asia moved up my list of topics I thought I'd like to know more about.  I even imagined the different ways I might get back--some sort of short-term teaching or mission trip.  And there were opportunities.  I know folks who do that kind of work in various parts of the region.  I even made some enquiries.  And the first step in all this was to buy some books on the topic...in this case, the region.

But as I looked at those books, a new and odd sensation came over me.  I leafed through one and consciously thought, "You're not going there.  That's no longer available, because you've got other priorities and opportunities.  You can't do everything you ever wanted to do, after all." 

As I put the books in the "sell" pile, I could palpably recall the thoughts and hopes from earlier years.  "I want to go here, and I want to do this and that, and, and...."

I've done plenty.  And there's plenty I'll never do, but would be pleased to have done.  And there are some remarkable things I've gotten to do that I would never have imagined.  So, I have no need of a bucket list.  I'm sure I wouldn't put together one that created anything but the most temporal--in both senses--satisfaction in me.  Further, to think I could "construct" some sort of experiential delight would diminish the essential joy I've had in all the things I have done...even the ones that weren't so enjoyable at the time, but fundamentally constitute the breadth of my life.

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Rat Caught in a Trap

If you've read any of this blog, you probably know that I'm not a huge fan of digital life, especially when it draws youngters' attention resources away from academic pursuits.  But I will admit that I am glad for YouTube inasmuch as it enables me to get access to gems like the film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, based on Ambrose Bierce's brilliant short story by the same name.

I read this with my 8th graders every year (though I cut out the last paragraph, so they don't know the outcome), then watch the video.  It's a good day.  Great story, fantastic film adaptation--remarkable for many things, one of which is almost complete absence of dialogue.

Well, today, my 8-year-old son and his friend were wanting to watch videos about trapping rats and mice.  I said, I got one for you, and I turned on the video.   (They don't know the story.)

It was interesting to sit in the other room and listen to my son trying to figure out what was going on.  Almost immediately it was, "Is somebody going to get hanged?"  Then as he was watching the preparation for the hanging and working out what was going to happen.  "Oh, I get it...that guy will step off the board, and the other guy will fall."

Soon, it was, "What's this have to do with rat traps?"

"Wait," I said.  Then the line (added to the film, not in the story) came up.  "Payton Farquhar.  You're caught, like a rat in a trap."

When Farquhar fell into the creek and swam away, it was, "Did you ever think he should have been shot by now (with the number of soldiers shooting at him)?"  And, "I don't think he could swim that far...he would be tired."  Later, during the long run, "He would have been out of breath by now."  And, eventually, "He couldn't run for this long!"

Then, upon the reveal at the end, "Ohhhh...that was harsh."

Not a 5 on the AP test, but this is"engagement with the text," as it were.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Character & 8th Grade Promotion

Yes...a promotion ceremony for 8th grade.  It's not as silly as it sounds.  My school has been doing them for about 160 years, when 8th grade would indeed be the last year of school for most kids.  Further, until about 35 years ago, my district didn't have a high school.  So after 8th grade the kids went the separate ways.

Anyway...we practice for a few hours this morning, then have the ceremony in the late afternoon.  While we practice, I give a little speech.  And here's what I say:

Promotion or graduation speeches typically pursue one of two themes—follow your dreams, or you can change the world.  Or perhaps a combination of the two—if you follow your dreams, you can change the world. 
I want to say a word—714 actually—to all of you about something much more important—your character.

Historically, when people thought about how to live a good life, philosophized about how to live rightly, they emphasized character traits—honor, humility, integrity, thoughtful regard for others, and so on.  These are things one can cultivate, by choice.  You can choose honorable or dishonorable actions.  You can choose to express humility or arrogance…it’s up to you.  In other words, the decision to be a person of good character is yours to make, not somebody else’s.  And nobody can take those character qualities from you….You can GIVE them away, or SQUANDER them, but nobody can take them from you.

About a 100 years ago—around the beginning of the 20th Century, the focus on how to live rightly and well shifted from character to personality.  And people seeking to live a good life began trying to align the qualities of their personalities with the situation they found themselves in.  How can my expressiveness fit best in this situation?  How do I overcome my shyness so I can be a vibrant member of this group?  And this fateful question—How will every around me deal with my sense of humor—which all too often means my very self-oriented sarcasm?  The questions of living well shifted from how to live properly with and for the people around me to the issues of how to make my personality fit comfortably in my environment, or better yet, how to bend or shape that environment so as to satisfy my own personality desires. 
In the intervening 100 years, we’ve come to value personality—having a good personality, being a personality, being “yourself”—as just about the highest moral goal you can pursue.
But you’ll find the personality is always yearning, seeking after its pleasures and desires, because we’re always wanting something new and interesting, and because the circumstances around us are always changing.  The harsh reality of seeking to satisfy the personality’s whims is that you and your personality become subject to forces outside your control or authority.  When friends drift from you, or significant others disappoint you, or colleagues frustrate you, or bosses impose upon you, your personality will have to cope in order to remain happy or fulfilled or committed.  You’ll have to readjust your personality needs to the changing circumstances, and the circumstances will be in charge…of you.
But if you cultivate a strong character—and be clear, everything you do is always cultivating a character…good or bad, strong or weak, selfish or selfless—I say, if you cultivate a strong character, your circumstances will not overmaster you.  Instead, since you—and you alone—have authority over whether you will be honest or not, thoughtful or not, patient or not, you can—with good choices—maintain your integrity, your character in spite of the changing situations. 
You can, as the saying goes—keep your head while others about you are losing theirs.  While others around you might lie and deceive, your honesty can remain intact.  While others might seek credit and glory, your humility can stand uncompromised.  While others might manipulate people around them, your selflessness can remain consistent…
if you so choose.
In this way, good character—doing what is right—is actually quite liberating.  You’re not dependent on what is happening around you.  If you choose honesty, patience, humility, etc., then you know what to do in all circumstances…you don’t have to figure out how best to “play” your situation.
But if you want to live as a “personality”—to be funny, or the life of the party, or to be the force shaping everything around you, get ready to compete with other personalities who are either seeking their own attention or trying to shape your shared circumstances to best fit their particular personality needs…jostling and bouncing your personality and its needs along the way.

So, you’ve got a choice—seek to satisfy your own particular desires in an ever-shifting and often competitive social environment and be one of millions of personalities, or be what is—unfortunately—more like one in a million, and cultivate good character.
This choice has deep and serious consequences. 

Choose well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Standardized Testing Season

...is just about over for another year.  

800 students, 300ish computers, 16 days of testing, undetermined number of days for make-ups...it all started May 3 and will end about June 8 or 9.

8th graders took 6 days of tests, 6th and 7th 5 each.  But all test days disrupted for all students.  For instance, the library was closed (the library computer center was in use for test-taking) every day of testing until about noon.

Other parts of the schedule got messed up, too.  On our shortened day (Wednesday), those who aren't testing have 4 regular periods of classes, then the last 2 are 1/2 length.  That means what you do with 1-4 can't be done the same in 5 and 6.  

No particular disruption is particularly difficult, but it's a bit of death by a thousand cuts, where all the disruptions become hard to even keep straight.

Add to that the inevitable technology disruptions--laptop batteries that die in the middle of testing, web access disrupted (as mine was when I was supposed to be logging in to the test administration web site), and so on--and it all makes for stress...mostly on the adults.

The students are fine.  They know what they're supposed to do so well that they're often logged in and ready to go before I've even finished reading the directions.  And when the laptop batteries died some students just plugged theirs into the carrying cart's power cords and worked in the corner, with the laptop actually on their laps.

I'm sure future generations will look back on this process and won't believe it.  Just like we look back on any number of things that used to be done and can't believe it.  

Solomon got it mostly right...It really is that even the new things under the sun aren't any different in their fundamental uselessness.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Brains and Electronics...again

Did the annual Brains and Electronics work with my 8th graders.  They took the attention tests again, did the electronics usage survey and tried to imagine Mark Twain texting, tweeting and instagramming (is that the verb?).  This year, the parents of my 8th graders also took the survey.  Some interesting things...all noted here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What's in a (demographic) name?

Here's the list of the various ways that Washington's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction demographically breaks down results of student performance.



In my school, more than a third of students have parents in the military, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which hosts several of the units that have done numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years.  Indeed, it has been my privilege to meet Medal of Honor winner, Leroy Petry, whose children attended my school.

The educational and personal stresses that follow from parent(s) deploying, then returning, are numerous and significant.  And that's on top of the consequences of frequent family moves.  (Last year, I had an 8th grader who said that my school was her 9th...in 9 years of schooling.)

Yet, we take no demographic notice of that.  Not sure I understand that, but, of course, there's much I don't understand.