This is a quiet, reflective time, now, after a fall full of work and a year full of transitions and moves.  This is our first Christmas in our Vermont house since 1990!..when our sons were age 7 and 10.  That was the year before we moved to Italy for a year and spent Christmas with my brother and family in the snowy Alps. After that, we moved to St. Louis and rented this Vermont house for the following 20 years.  Our sons are now 29 and 32 and we have a new grandson.  It is said so often, but it is remarkable how fast it seems that time moves.  Looking back, I never imagined that our lives would take the turns that they have.  And, I am grateful for every one.  Vermont, Italy, Reggio Emilia, St. Louis, and all the educators with whom we have worked along the way and work with now, from Indianapolis to Chicago to Portland, Oregon.

And, it feels gratifying to come full circle, to come home to a place where we began all those years ago.  Today, it snowed and snowed.  We watched the snow white world around our old, new house and ventured out on cross country skis on a loop into the old orchard where our house is and into the fields beyond.  And then, returned to our beautifully lit tree, roaring fire, candle light and cozy family time.

With all the difficulties, sadness, and challenges that we face in education and in many aspects of our lives on this beautiful planet, we are grateful for the beauty and quiet of the season and the love that we share.  We send you all our warmest greetings as 2012 finishes and we open a new year, full, once again, of hope and promise and all possibilities.

Louise and Ashley

A Hope and a Prayer

Every time, now, that I see a parent and a young child together, or hear a young voice, or look into bright eyes, or see our flag at half mast, my heart is heavy and full of grief.  How have schools in our country become so unsafe, a place for horror and violence?  How could we ever have let this happen? The holidays are overshadowed by our national tragedy and we are all looking for solace and community out there in the world that might give us some comfort and hope. In his speech at the prayer vigil in Newtown, I was heartened to hear President Obama say that we are not doing enough to keep our children safe.  That is clear.  Since last Friday, there are a number of petitions circulating to support gun control and perhaps they will have an impact. There are also voices speaking out for more effective, accessible mental health care.  And, there is renewed alarm at the prevalence of violent video games.  For me, the most powerful and true words of the President were the following:

We come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children. This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

These words are echoed in Susan MacKay wrote in her beautiful post on Opal School Blog:

As our hearts break over the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are looking for ways to keep our own children safe -- both in body and in spirit. How do we raise children in this society where we've grown our own kind of domestic terrorism? How do we raise them to have hope and courage and to continue to care?

Susan refers us to resources posted by Brene Brown that are extensive and all helpful.  And she reminds us, as Fred Rogers did, to focus on the helpers and look for them.

Advice from Mr. Rogers (shared by Angel Marie):

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

I will always remember a New Yorker cover the fall of 2011, just before Halloween with children in firemen and police uniforms, dressed as their heroes, trick or treating in the glow of street lights and autumn leaves.

Susan calls us to nurture our children to become helpers with body and spirit, head and heart connected, where we can, however we can.

This is a worthy calling that belongs to all of us.



Teaching may be a matter of faith....

Teaching may be principally a matter of faith.  First you must have faith that what you're doing will make a difference.  Then you need to have faith in your students.  Finally, there's the little matter of faith in yourself.

This is from Howard Frank Mosher in his wonderful memoir, The Great Northern Express, A Writer's Journey HomeMosher was a teacher for a short while right out of college, newly married, his wife also a new teacher (but far better prepared).  In this memoir, Mosher recounts many stories from his first year of teaching in Orleans, Vermont, a town in the far northeast county, just across the border from Canada, an area known affectionately as The Northeast Kingdom.  The memoir is a marvelous weave of these stories of making The Kingdom his home, and incidents from his three month self-designed book tour around the U.S. just after his final radiation treatment for prostate cancer at age 65.  The man knows something about faith...and to my mind he writes like a delightfully amused muse.

And, isn't he right about teaching...that it is in large part a matter of faith...even for the most experienced among us.  Do we teachers ever really know that what we're doing makes a difference?  Most of the time, no.

However, we certainly do know when we're told that we did make a difference by a returning graduate.  Mosher tells the story of a boy, Cody, who hoodwinked him, the rookie teacher, on the first day of school to loan him his car...for a "family emergency."  A couple minutes later Mosher's English class was disrupted by a roaring commotion just outside the large windows looking over the main street in front of the school.  "Say, Mr. Mosher, ain't that YOUR car?"  Indeed it was, with the rascal at the wheel, tearing down the street at 60 reverse.  Despite this traumatic beginning, Mosher didn't give up on the boy.  He kept looking for a way to get the miscreant, who'd been in and out of reform school for years and "had Northeast Kingdom outlaw written all over him," to write...anything.

Now, I have to quote, at length, the rest of this story. It's too good, in every way, not to.

As the Thanksgiving break approached, I was desperate to get something--anything--in the way of a written assignment from Cody.  Finally, I asked him if he'd ever considered writing about Budweiser [his pet raccoon].  "Teach," he said, "I never considered writing about anything."

A day or two later, to my surprise, he handed me an essay on old Bud.  Cody told how he found the little guy in the road, trying to nurse from his dead mother.  He fed the baby raccoon from a doll's bottle and raised him like a house cat--a thirty-pound house cat with a mean streak.  It was a wonderful composition.  Next he turned to chronicling his life of crime, an essay that could have landed him back in the reformatory for years.  Then Cody wrote about the adults he'd like to beat up.  It was a long list.

In early December, Cody announced that he and his mom and sister were moving to New Hampshire  On this last day at Orleans High, he gave me not a composition but a letter, beginning "Dear Teach."  It was about his sister [who suffered irreversible brain damage as a toddler].  He described what it would be like to be teased by classmates, behind in school, constantly challenged by simple tasks.  He told me how his sister might be able to lead a fairly normal life and what their working mom had sacrificed to nurture that hope.  He did not mention himself, though he was probably more responsible that anyone else for his sister's progress in school.  It was the best student essay I've ever read, before or since.  But Cody's story didn't end there.

Some twenty years later, a tall, distinguished-looking man with a touch of gray in his longish hair showed up at our door.  He was wearing a suit and tie, but I recognized him immediately.  "I was on my way home from a conference in Montreal," Cody said.  "I thought I'd stop by and say hello."

Cody came in--I half expected old Budweiser to shamble though the doorway after him and make straight for the refrigerator--and sat down at the kitchen table.  He handed me a card with his name printed on it and, below that his title.  He was superintendent of a large school system in Rhode Island.

"Well," I said, "how did this happen."

"After I got out of the service and got my degree, I taught special ed for six years," he said.  "I was  director of special education services for three years, and I've been superintendent of schools in the same district for the past decade."

"I'm going to put this card up on my refrigerator," I told him.

Cody grinned at me.  "Hey, Teach," he said. "Could I borrow your car?  I've got a little emergency at home that I need to take care of."

Stories like Cody's and Mosher's give us faith, especially when stories anything like this happen to us.

Keep the faith.  Carry on.

Happy Holidays.





Great Teachers

Picking up on where Louise left off in her last blog post I would posit that great teachers embody the qualities of liberally educated people.  I find it useful to apply both William Cronin's meaning of liberal education and his ten qualities of liberally educated people to the goals of education and the qualities of great teachers at every level, early childhood through adult education. For Cronin, the purpose of education is to nurture human freedom and growth.  Great teachers do that.  For great teachers, education (to apply Cronin's observation of liberal education) is not something any of us ever achieve; it is not a stateRather, it is a way of living in the face of our own ignorance, a way of groping toward wisdom in full recognition of our own folly, a way of educating ourselves without any illusion that our educations will ever be complete.  The best teachers embody this tenet...they are clearly engaged in the learning process along with their students.

And, great teachers recognize that education for freedom (again, to refer to Cronin) is also education for human community.  The two [freedom and community] cannot exist without each other.  The best teachers are intrepid in their quest to connect skills and knowledge with community engagement.

Rather than repeat the ten qualities that Cronin lists to describe liberally educated persons, and apply each quality to a description of great teachers (Louise has quoted them in her piece), I would emphasize Cronin's tenth quality: Only connect...from which I will now quote and change "educated person" to "great teacher"...

More than anything else, being [a great teacher] means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.  Every one of the qualities I [Cronin] have described here—listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community—is finally about connecting.  [Being a great teacher] is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.

And, I would add, that in those myriad connections come the rewards of teaching.

The photographs of great teachers in this blog post come from three of the exceptional schools where we are honored to work:  The College School, Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, and Butler University Indianapolis Public School Laboratory School


What Is Living For?

Last night, we participated in an online seminar offered to alumni of Middlebury College, led by Jonathon Isham, Professor of Economics and Co-Director of Middlebury's relatively new Center for Social Entrepreneurship.  Jon Isham has become a colleague of ours over the last several years because of our mutual work with students in the areas of sustainability and youth engagement and because we are now living more of the time in Middlebury. The subject of the seminar last night: What is Social Entrepreneurship?

The drive of the social entrepreneur is to innovate, to connect to the market, and to be a systems changer.  In the 21st century, solutions to our global problems will most likely come from collaboration across disciplines and among generations as well as across national boundaries.  And now, a liberal arts education trends toward real work that matters where students passionately dedicate their growing knowledge, skills and ability to reflect, connect, analyze and engage.  That is why college students are among the social entrepreneurship wave of the future.

Jon did a wonderful job of engaging participants in dialogue and learning, as well as sharing examples of students' exciting work all over the world.  Several resources that Jon shared were of particular interest to us.  One is an article by  William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Jon drew parallels between the qualities of a social entrepreneur and a well educated graduate of the liberal arts.  Below we list the 10 qualities that Cronon names because they are so well articulated.  They are a good list of qualities for leaders and for all of us as we strive to answer the personal and collective question, what are we living for?


How do we recognize a liberally educated person...(or a social entrepreneur)?

1. They listen and they hear. ...they know how to pay attention—to others and to the world around them. They work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.

2. They read and they understand. ... there are so many ways of reading in our world. For example, educated people can appreciate not only the front page of the New York Times but also the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the science section, and the editorials...Skilled readers know how to read far more than just words. They are moved by what they see in a great art museum and what they hear in a concert hall. They recognize extraordinary athletic achievements; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema; they find in television a valuable window on popular culture. When they wander through a forest or a wetland or a desert, they can identify the wildlife and interpret the lay of the land... They recognize fine craftsmanship... All of these are ways in which the eyes and the ears are attuned to the wonders that make up the human and the natural worlds...

3. They can talk with anyone. They can give a speech, ask thoughtful questions, and make people laugh. They can hold a conversation with a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, a child or a nursing- home resident, a factory worker or a corporate president. Moreover, they participate in such conversations because they are genuinely interested in others.

4. They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly. Educated people know the craft of putting words on paper expressing what is in their minds and hearts so as to teach, persuade, and move the person who reads their words.

5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems. The ability to solve puzzles requires many skills, including a basic comfort with numbers, with computers...These are the skills of the analyst, the manager, the engineer, the critic: the ability to look at a complicated reality, break it into pieces, and figure out how it works in order to do practical things in the real world.

6. They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth. They understand that knowledge serves values, and they strive to put these two—knowledge and values—into constant dialogue with each other.

7. They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism. They have the intellectual range and emotional generosity to step outside their own experiences and prejudices, thereby opening themselves to perspectives different from their own and celebrate the wider world: studying foreign languages, learning about the cultures of others...Without such encounters, we cannot learn how much people differ—and how much they have in common.

8. They understand how to get things done in the world. Learning how to get things done in the world in order to leave it a better place is surely one of the most practical and important lessons we can take from our education.

9. They nurture and empower the people around them. Nothing is more important in tempering the exercise of power and shaping right action than the recognition that no one ever acts alone. Liberally educated people understand that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being are crucial to their own, and they help that community flourish by making the success of others possible.

10. They followE.M.Forster’s injunction from Howards End:“Only connect...”

More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. Every one of the qualities I have described here—listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community—is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.

All our best wishes to all of you as we turn from November to December tomorrow and enter the land of winter. Stay warm, stay connected, and enjoy the weekend.

Louise and Ashley