Dear readers,

Change of subject (I’ll be back to teacher-written books ). There are a few interesting things that I have come across and want to comment on.

For example, I re-read two of Seymour Sarason’s books—The Predictable Failure 0f Educational Reform (published in 1990!), and How Schools Might Be Governed and Why (1997). It was rather depressing to do so since in the past 20-25 years we have fallen into every predicted abuse of reform that he feared. It is definitely time to reread him. It is all about who has the power, he reminds us. The power has shifted sharply even further away from those involved in the daily life of public education, a phenomenon that Sarason saw then as the critical root cause of our failure. (Not to mention that charters are even more segregated than the already too segregated public system’s schools.) Pages 34 and 35 lay out his five assumptions about governance—which I will keep a secret for a few weeks so that some may go out read it for yourselves.

I also read a book by Jason Riley accusing liberals of making it harder for Blacks to succeed. The hypocrisy of this neo-con argument has always intrigued me. I quote Riley, affirmative action “comes with a stigma and reinforces ugly stereotypes of black inferiority.” Yes, indeed, there is some truth to it—largely because folks on the Right have made this argument so often and stoked the fear that success for people of color comes at a cost to white people! How come they aren’t equally concerned about the “special” treatment of alumnae children or students of wealthy and influential potential givers? Whose spots do they take? Do they therefore suffer from this “stigma” too? Hardly. And how often does that fear stop any of us from using our influence on behalf of our children and grandchildren? Did the “stigma” get its negative currency from all those years in which we selectively refused to accept students of color, regardless of their academic success—and the repeated claims by powerful people that, alas, Black people have low innate intelligence (See “The Bell Curve” and others). And why have we used a particular instrument (SATs), known to be better at predicting one’s family income than it predicts academic success.

Reading “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” by Jed Rakoff in The New York Review of Books, (November 20, 2014), made me think about how poorly civics is taught to the young. How many are told that the 6th Amendment of our Constitution is a mirage, bearing no resemblance to the ordinary course of our system of justice. Less than 3% of Federal criminal cases are now heard by a jury and judge. Meanwhile no more 5% of State and local felony cases are resolved by courts of law. (This shift provides prosecutors with enormous power, above all for those who can’t afford lawyers.) I have been so enamored by the assumptions underlying the idea of trial by one’s peers that I missed contemporary reality! We still have mock trials in our schools. Maybe it is time for mock plea-bargains.

And finally, I was entranced by an essay in Schools: Studies in Education, A Journal for Inquiry (the magazine I touted last week). “Finding the Cracks” by Shanti Elliott, Joan Bradbury and Joy Gardner describes the responses from 200 Chicago area educators to the film “Good Morning Mission Hill” Wow. Their discussion was aided by the presence of Mission Hill staff—principal Ayla Gavins and math teacher Ann Ruggiero. The film includes one minute of me, on good judgment as a critical aim of education. That fits well with my previous comments about our lost jury system—since I usually rest my case on that esteemed institution where matters of life and death rest on ordinary human judgment.

Just stuff to mull over.

More Books by Teachers

Dear readers,

I am embarrassed to admit that when I read a book education I find that first I look to see if I am mentioned or a book I wrote is included. And then I look for Ted Sizer in the appendix or bibliography. And then Seymour Sarason. And then… etc. I am frequently disappointed. And even more so after coming back from the Coalition of Essential Schools’ annual Fall Forum.

This time it was in San Francisco, and next November it will be in…. Portland, Maine!!! Since the Coalition isn’t rolling in money these days attendance is down—no one gets paid to go. But the sessions are always great—led by working teachers. And Pedro Noguerra gave an excellent rousing keynote.

So, here are just a few of the people I recommend: Read Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise (plus the two that followed) if you want to know what we once meant by standards, and what real reform of high schools looks like if we put the ten CES principles into effect. Seymour Sarason wrote many books, all are my favorite. But I am planning to reread The Predictable Failure Of Education Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late? He died many years ago, but it is hard to believe since everything he wrote is so applicable today. Another good person to read is Larry Cuban who has a wonderful blog. Then there is Mike Rose whose first book Lives on the Boundary is still the one I wanted every teacher to read when I started the last two new schools, and whose Minds at Work is the best I have ever read on “vocational” education. And of course, I wrote a few—worth reading The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust for the story of two innovative schools that go back a long long way.

But what a pleasure to read new books written from the heart of working or almost working teachers. A few have since quit or moved on. (see my previous entry here)

I got one in the mail today!

American Classrooms, Portraits From a Public School in Harlem, by Darren Marelli. It’s the story of P.S. 241 but also called The Family School, which was started by a former colleague of mine and which had a brief and glorious beginning—and a sad ending under Bloomberg.


1 Reeducation

Getting Schooled, The Reeducation of an American Teacher, by Garret Keizer. The tale of his one-year return to the classroom in Vermont. He “gets it,” I wish he would have stayed longer. It resonated with my experience in urban schools—which was useful and pleasing.

2 hanging in there

Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most, by Jeffrey Benson. Thirteen chapters, one each on a student he found intriguing. And so did I.


A School Must Have a Heart and other essays, by Chris Mercoguano. I have been intending to visit the Albany Free School—an old-timer in the world of very free-loving schools and allied I many ways with secular home-schooling a la John Holt (whose work you MUST MUST read.) But Chris has given me a wonderful glimpse into the life of the school that convinces me I definitely should visit.


4 today

Their Name is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World, by Johann Christopher Arnold. This was sent to me by my favorite business, Community Playthings. I am having a hard time visiting kindergartens—even PreKs—these days with all the seat work and teacher directed activities. So while I am not sure whether Arnold is a working teacher, I am listing it anyhow.


5 yo miz 

Yo Miz By Elizabeth Rose. A fast and interesting glimpse at the 25 schools that the author worked in when she was an ATR (an unassigned teacher).



More next week. I may deviate even further them.

6 sch

Also, subscribe to a fine little magazine called Schools: Studies in Education, published by the University of Chicago Press in association with the Francis W Parker School. It has the kind of accounts that one rarely finds other places, including, for example, occasional archival pieces that remind us that this is long and old struggle. The spring issue had two pieces, one by Robert Hampel who wrote The Citadel on the Hill while working with Ted Sizer’s study of American high schools 30 pus years ago and the other by Paul Diederich in 1945. Both are entitled Simplifying a Crowded Schedule. One of my favorite “young” writers and teacher/director, Elijah Hawkes, frequently writes for them too.

Finally, just a word about one of my favorite high schools—June Jordan in San Francisco. I have been visiting them since their first year—more than a decade ago. I visited this year too. California is not as far into the worst of the madness this time which may help. But it is another reminder of what real grit is. That word drives me crazy because if there is one thing that the kids “at-risk” display, it’s grit. Not entirely out of choice. And so do the teachers at places like June Jordan.


Civic Learning and National Service (Guest Post)

This week I present a guest post by Alan D. Solomont 

Alan D. Solomont is the Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. The mission of Tisch College is to ensure that every student at Tufts University is educated to be an active citizen.


At the end of World War II, as millions of young veterans were returning to college, President Harry S. Truman convened “The President’s Commission on Higher Education for Democracy.” This Commission described the dire threats then facing democracy around the world and the responsibility of American colleges and universities to address those threats. The Commission declared:

Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation’s enterprises. Long ago our people recognized that education for all is not only democracy’s obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.

While the Truman Commission stated that educating for democracy “should come first … among the principal goals for higher education,” today, society asks colleges and universities to prepare individuals for jobs in a cost-effective and accessible way. That is an important mission in a global economy, but there is a striking gap between 1947 rhetoric and today’s more narrow focus on education for individual economic success.

The Truman Commission set three major goals: “Education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living,” “Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation,” and “Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs.”

Preparation for democracy is a powerful tradition of American higher education. At a time when democracy itself is under threat at home and abroad, we must reclaim higher education’s legacy by having colleges and universities serve democracy in their teaching, research and outreach.

The White House Domestic Policy Council recently asked Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service to explore this challenge through a National Summit on Civic Learning and National Service. Working with the Department of Education, the White House Office of Social Innovation, and the Corporation for  National and Community Service, Tisch College hosted college leaders, experts in higher education, students, and community-based organizations on October 16 to generate ideas for strengthening service and civic learning on college campuses.

Participants came from institutions as diverse as Brown University in Rhode Island and the Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona. They were full of ideas and eager to share the impressive programs already in place at their own institutions.

Although a whole network of centers and institutes dedicated to civic engagement has grown, over the past 25 years, in higher education,  these programs tend to be optional and, in some cases,  marginal on many  campuses. Too often, civic learning is not deeply embedded in the mainstream experience of students or deeply  connected to faculty teaching and research. Service learning and experiential learning are not measured and assessed in ways that are consequential to the schools or their students.  As a result, a relatively small number of students and faculty benefit from these opportunities.

The generation who attend colleges and universities today, the Millennials are committed to service. They have served at high rates in high school and they come to college with the expectation that they will continue to serve. But these young people are understandably cynical about politics and the democratic process. Unfortunately, policymakers, campus leaders, parents, and students do not see higher education as education for democracy.

But how will we ever confront our polarized and broken political system if today’s young people are not prepared to tackle these deep challenges? Let’s begin by rekindling a public appreciation for democratic education, and let’s make education for democracy central to the function of a 21st century college or university, not just an option for especially enthusiastic students.

Higher education should continue to invest in, measure and expand the civic learning practices that currently exist on many campuses. These include courses on democracy, community service programs with strong academic content, research projects done in collaboration with community groups, student-run news media, and other programs that exist on many campuses.

Students, parents, educators, and society at large should demand these experiences, not just for the benefit of individual students, but to restore America’s leadership in democracy. If we succeed, a great education would again be one that serves democracy and addresses our most pressing national and global problems, not only as one that boosts a student’s job prospects.

Alan D. Solomont 

Books by Teachers

Dear readers,

I could be wrong—probably a statement worth saying at least once a day—but there seem to be far more books written by school teachers about their experiences these days than ever before. I used to complain that aside from a short and glorious period in the sixties (Kohl, Kozol, Ashton-Warner, Featherstone, et al) the teacher voice was missing from educational discourse.

So what follows is a quick glance at some good teacher-told accounts published since 2011. I am limiting my definition of teachers to those who wrote while still working daily with K-12 students! Of course, that leaves out some who once taught, or who teach college-aged students. More on them some other time. I also invite other to add to this list, or correct me if some don’t match my definition. But more importantly, this is just a sampling of what’s on my particular desk or at my bedside. My number one favorite may not even be there at the moment—if I could only remember what it was it would be, of course. My memory for names, titles and faces has always been a weak point.

0 Delorenzo

Lisa C. DeLorenzo’s Sketches in Democracy: Notes from an Urban Classroom, 2012

Lisa, a former public school music teacher, describes her sabbatical experience creating a new University lab high school intended to be a practicing democracy. It failed—after six problematic years. The story is important because these experimental schools are meant to be lessons—including lessons in failure. Lisa, while having had many years of experience as a White elementary and high school teacher in mostly White communities, had almost no prior teaching experience in urban school settings, with mostly low-income kids of color. But in some ways it makes this account particularly interesting and relevant.


Tom Gallagher, SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools. 2014

Having started my “career” subbing in Chicago (K-8), I wondered why Tom decided to do it as a fulltime occupation. But his almost daily notes on the experience are amusing, troubling and thought-provoking. It is not quite clear what he concludes or how he makes sense of it. He is on “my side” of the education debates, but the book itself (minus the preface and appendix) might suggest the opposite!

2 Greene

David Greene, Doing the Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks

Actually, I am not sure he still teaches K-12—but he did for 38 years. So I may have bent the rules a little here. Each chapter adds something new, including those on TFA. I loved his focus on what “planned spontaneity” means.

3 Kuhn

John Kuhn, Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers ad the Attack on Public Education

Kuhn wrote this, after teaching for many years, while serving as a superintendent in a Texas district. I quote Karen Lewis in saying “this is a masterpiece”—it takes on all the critical issues facing us with plenty of good stories based on his vast experience.

4 Martin

Anne C. Martin and Ellen Schwartz, editors, Making Space for Active Learning: The Art and Practice of Teaching. 2014

The authors of the 17 essays all were or are were K-12 teachers for many years. They also share the impact of Pat Carini’s “Descriptive Review of Practice” approach—through time spent with Carini and/or at Prospect School’s summer gatherings. It starts with two sections on “In the Company” of students and teachers and ends with timely “visions and vigilance.” The authors are all my friends and colleagues and their work still inspires me.

5 Mayer

Janet Grossback Mayer, As BAD As They Say: Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx. 2012: The other side, if you will, of Tom Gallagher’s account (above). “Despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.” And she takes it on, student by student. Gallagher doesn’t probably disagree as much as he comes to it with a different “take.”

6 Owens

John Owens, Confessions of a Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education. 2013: A lively examination of the impact of “reform” on teachers and their work. He sums it up in 10 lessons learned, and a few thoughts about “what works” and “what doesn’t work.” Of course, one reason I enjoyed it is because we agree…mostly.

8 Zasloff

Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel, Hold Fast to Dreams, 2014. An unusual story about a College Guidance Counselor’s experience in a small well-regarded public high school serving mostly poor children of color (after many years of doing the same job for White privileged ones). It is absorbing reading, and gets the particulars of his entry into this “other” world, and of the students he encounters as they seek to go to college. It is also a reminder of how important “the company we keep” is—for both teachers and students.

Len Solo, Education: Back to the Future. 2014. Len taught everything, starting with kindergarten, and was principal of a very interesting (and good) public K-8 school. Twenty-seven years in the field leaves him with a lot to say—and this is his 6th (book?). He ends with a reminder that if democracy is never practiced except at the voting booth after we are 18, democracy is going to always be in danger. A good combination of real-life stories and policy.

Okay, they are mostly critical of both the schools as they are and have been, and the current efforts to “reform” them via mandate, prescription and fear. If teachers are also writing on the other side of this divide I guess they and their publishers don’t send them to me, Meanwhile I am reading a lot of other books by working teachers that I equally enjoy—but are still in manuscript form.

In a few weeks —after I get back from the Coalition of Essential School’s Fall Forum in San Francisco—I will add some recent book that will include some that fall outside my definition as well as some I just left out. Please, please…write me about them ( or add your comments to this website. Or even write me about why you think some of the above are not worth reading, etc. I could be wrong.

Grace Lee Boggs

I met Grace Boggs some yers ago through the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG).  Many of the good things in my life are associated with my 41 years as part of that group,  Started in 1973 by Vito Perrone (who was then in North Dakota) it has had many lives–and remains still healthy and fruitful.   It’s a tribute to democratic anarchism!
The followng e-mail made me sad.  But if I live as long and well as Grace has I’d be more that satisfied; and if we could all “catch” the kind of warmth and hope that she gives off we’d be l,uckier still.   She is an amazing person.

Grace Lee in New York City. (Photo by Michael Falco)



Grace has requested to share the following statement recorded recently at her bedside. Please respect her privacy, as she cannot entertain interviews, phone calls, or visitors. Thank you for the love and struggle you have shared with her.

“I am coming to the end of a long journey—a journey that began over 70 years ago at the beginning of World War II. This journey has basically been to show that there is an alternative to the Bolshevik revolutionary prototype. It has taken us a long time to accomplish this, but we have been able to do so both as a result of our historical vision and because of the very practical efforts of comrades who have risen to the challenge of creating a revolution unlike any revolution that has been in the past.

“Because of my increasing physical limitations in the last few years, I have not been able to play the role that I might have played. But that is not as important now as recognizing what has been achieved. A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.

“We will be finding ways and means to celebrate this, one of which will be the Reimagining Work and Culture conference in October. We want people to understand how much this concept of new work and new culture is based upon not only enormous activity but also on vision and on imagination.”

School as Community

While waxing romantic about families in my last blog, and meaning every single word, I’m also reminded that there’s good reasons behind my concern with using family-like metaphors to describe good schools or good colleagues.  The distinctions between them are too important to ignore.  One of the most dangerous being that our students already have families whose ties of loyalty usually come before their loyalty to their school and us.  That’s how it should be. And the same is probably true for the faculty, of course. We get in trouble when we forget this. But there’s an essential link between what we mean by community and family. It has something to do with trust.

Even within a good family, trust is not 100%. There are times…. and similarly, in the larger world, there are important reasons for families to educate their children in coping with situations that require distrust.  For some this wariness covers a broad terrain—and again, wisely so. The wisdom of life experience needs to be passed along to the young, and trust is sometimes the victim.

The necessary tension between trust and distrust is also at the heart of democracy. How  to put our own interests first while also not losing sight of our connection with “others_–including the entire species! We’re all dependent on each other in some ways for the health and welfare of the entire planet, our fellow citizens, our tribe, our particular blood- related family….and ourselves. How to wed narrow self-interest to the self-interest of the planet can’t be reduced to an algebraic equation.


The balancing act that putting this all together under one roof involves is tricky, yields to no clear formulas or recipes and is in many ways a matter of trial and error.

That’s where democracy comes in. It allows for trial and error. It  is a trial and error undertaken by ordinary human beings, who have different self-interests! An impossible dream?  Perhaps, but working on it is worthwhile given the alternatives.

Some kind of mutual respect sustains it, enriches it and allows sufficient trust to grow over the centuries? How can one balance such trust with skepticism? What essential character traits makes this more than an idle dream and how do family and school negotiate this balancing act?? It’s a starting point to an education in democracy.

Actually, of course, it starts with the most simple one-on-one relationship of trust between infant and adult caregiver. It grows as the child works out the myriad relationships that effect her life. It includes trusting one’s own judgment—differentiating between levels of reality. This is turn requires settings where the child and later the adult, can keep experimenting, pulling back when necessary, reassigning risks, giving one’s all to a task or a relationship, or not. Making sense of the world starts at birth, and who and how much to trust others is part of this learning experience. It requires, perhaps those “habits of mind” which the Central Park East and Mission Hill schools rested on, plus… certain kinds of life experience. Life experience cannot be replaced by virtual realities or games of trust—but only by new experiences. What then happens when virtual reality replaces other life experience?

Yes, in the end we have to make a leap (of a sort) of faith and treat the “whole world” with some default position of trust — while also applying the habits of mind of skepticism and empathy that we tried to spell at in those Five Habits of Mind (and heart).

That is why I cherish the intimacy that a small school makes possible, the opportunity to be part of every decision made in some form or another as we train ourselves to be citizens of a far more anonymous world—one more like those huge anonymous high schools. At some point too big is too big whether it is several million or a mere few thousand. We can’t sit together and all be heard unless the numbers are far, far smaller. As an expert on nonprofit boards once wrote (I forget the name?),  if you want a Board that really has a role to make in policy than make the board  small—ideally under 20.

In our attempt to create a staff-run democracy we never quite made it, especially since we did not assume that only certified teachers constituted the “staff”, but we came close.  Our classroom sizes followed the same rule. More tricky, even in a small school, is the “school-as-a-whole” democracy where we fell back on representative formats, experimenting all the time with what was policy and what was not, what needed to remain in the hands of each individual and what belonged to the larger community. Our default rule being to leave as much power in the hands of those who must implement policy as feasible. Different circumstances dictated different answers in different schools— for example, how formally autonomous the school itself was, how much choice folks had about being members of the community and how expert the professional staff was.

I would like to use this blog to explore what I learned about democracy over the years of work in these schools and schools like them that may help us think about why small intimate non-virtual relationships are still at the heart of it and the ways I see them endangered. It is why I also hope that e-mail et al won’t replace our once every five years gathering of the clan.

Family Reunion

ATTENTION ONE AND ALL. Check out the trailer of the new film on Mission Hill: Good Morning Mission Hill. Check on where and when it’s being shown. And ask your local PBS station to show it if they are not already planning to.

Dear friends (and other readers),

deb in pool2

As I lolled lazily in the swimming pool (see above) in Bodega Bay –at our one every five-year family reunion) I thought mostly about my amazing and wonderful Larner family (descendants of my grandparents, Sara and Maylor Larner). I am lucky to have such interesting, kind, and engaged relatives. I also had time to think about absolutely nothing. Plus a little left over to think about “the world,” and my particular obsessions—public schooling and the democratic idea. How much does the sense of family that pervades my life and in my work in schools have a connection to my obsession about the future of both.

On my return home from California I joined a few friends at a local Hillsdale restaurant to celebrate the work of a colleague and friend—Nancy Mann—who has just retired from being the principal of Fannie Lou Hammer Freedom High School in the Bronx. She was a great CPESS humanities teacher and our union rep, and, along with Peter Steinberg, agreed to start a new CPESS-like school in the Bronx. She has just completed 20 (could it be?) years of inspiring leadership in that quite remarkable school. The occasion felt family-like.