Sunday, December 15, 2013

Where America Shops – (Or not.)

searsDo you want a software engineer or hedge fund manager removing your appendix, filing your taxes, or fixing the brakes on your car? If you don’t want to wake up dead or incarcerated, probably not.

But we still give credence to the education “reform” movement spearheaded by folks who have never stepped into a classroom. There seems to be this idea that if a person makes billions of dollars in one industry their talent seamlessly can be used to “fix” education.

We need to run schools more like a business, we need to be data driven, we need more technology we need competition. Sara and I like to ask – exactly what business are you referring to? Enron?

The above tenets don't even work in business at times.

Sears CEO, (and hedge fund manager with no prior retail experience) Eddie Lampert gave some ideas that should sound familiar to the school reformist a spin with one of America’s most recognizable brands.

He pitted store managers against each other so that they competed for resources based on performance reviews.

He spied on and goaded his employees.

He became obsessed with technology and data collection – squandering resources on apps while his stores infrastructure crumbled.

So how did this work out for Mr. Lampert?

Sears has lost half its value in five years.

Tools that may have worked for him in his prior profession as a hedge fund manager did not translate into success when he became a retailer.

But we are expected to implement these very same steps in our schools and succeed?

We need to foster a feeling of cooperation and collaboration I the education world – not one where high stake test scores are published without context in order to scare and shame teachers into compliance. Hanging that sword of Damocles over our educator’s heads provides a disincentive for teamwork. The teacher can end up feeling that it is them against the world, why should they share best practices with the teacher down the hall aiding and abetting the competition?

This didn’t work with Sears – and it’s not going to work in school.

Requiring every lesson plan to cite a standard or worse yet that every teacher follow a script that is checked up on from some unseen terminal not only comes across as spying but infers to the educator that they cannot be trusted – that they need to be checked up on constantly. This not only infers that the teacher is inadequate it fosters mistrust between the classroom and the administration.

Didn’t work with Sears – not going to work in school.

The blind allegiance to technology and data collection while ignoring the root causes impeding robust instruction such as poverty, transience, infrastructure and curriculum not only breed failure but becomes an impetus for data manipulation. Technology has its place – but a strong inquiry based curriculum where the teacher, with parents, sets goals based on the student’s needs not on how well they will stack up against kids in the same grade level on the other side of the country is much more important than any iPad app.

Didn’t work with Sears – not going to work in school.

Now Sara and I fully understand that there must be some sort of assessment and that the implementation of standards is not inherently evil. (We’ve linked the applicable standards to all the lessons in our new teacher resource.) We just believe the execution be left up to teachers and their principals – not someone with no real world education experience.

So no, I don’t want some software engineer tuning up my car, putting a filling in my tooth, or writing my will – nor do I want one setting my school’s education policy.

Do you?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

It’s a Sausage party!

prisonerI am in an abusive relationship and I just can’t quit it.

United Airlines is the bane of my travel existence. I used to be a Continental kinda guy, a big wig at Cleveland Hopkins Airport – one of the airline’s hubs. I got upgrades, preferential seating all that good stuff that comes with flitting about the sky for a hundred thousand or so miles a year will bring. Sort of like hardship pay for all the time I spent with my butt in those blue upholstered seats.

Then all that changed one fateful day when the friendly skies over Cleveland darkened, ominously grumbling, then erupting with a boom as United Airlines swooped in like a lumbering albatross diving into a squadron of squid indiscriminately splashing and gnashing with its thick hooked bill.


Gone were those heady days of being treated like a human – a big fish in a little pond getting first dibs at the crumbs and perks tossed in my direction. Today I am but just a dead eyed anchovy greased with olive oil and wedged into a tin.

Nowadays – if I have the audacity to accept an upgrade within an itinerary I can expect the rest of my subsequent flights to be fed into a jet engine and incinerated on the tarmac. Eighteen hour flight from Singapore – how about we make your reservation disappear so that you have to beg for a seat at the gate – here ya go – a middle seat within the buoyancy bladder deep in the belly of the plane – hope ya don’t plan on going pee!


Oh you like those frequent flier miles? Tell ya what – we’re gonna take them away from you for no apparent reason other than we arbitrarily changed your ticket status after we accidently deleted your trip for the fifth time this year! You don’t mind spending a couple hours listening to the opening measures of Rhapsody in Blue do ya? Imagine Al Pacino shouting Boohya! right here.

But – every now and then even the most frustrating fiasco has a serendipitous silver lining.


A couple years back United was late in getting us to Newark for a mid-December overseas flight and we missed our connection with Air France (the only major airline with worse customer service on the planet). Because of this we ended up taking a later flight missing the rest of our connectors and spending an unscheduled night in Frankfurt.

As is the policy when the missed flight is the airlines fault they put us up in a hotel and got us booked out the nest morning. As we checked in to the Steigenberger Hotel we asked if there was anything to do that evening. “Well, there is the Christmas Market,” was the reply. Sara and I figured it would be a little folksy kinda thing. But instead we found city block after city block of food and festivities – a whole section of the town was a yuletide wonderland fueled by sausage and chocolate.


So this time when we found ourselves connecting through Frankfurt on our way home from Kazakhstan we built in an extra day so that we could hit the market again.

So thanks United – if you weren’t such a mess we would never have known the joy that is a five sausage sampler plate with sauerkraut and potatoes while a brightly lit carrousel spins in holiday cheer over our shoulders.


Keep up the bad work – as long as it is sprinkled with fortuitous happenstance every now and then I’ll resist taking out a restraining order.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013


A Lennon with a different spelling than the one pictured here asked us to do just that – Imagine.


One thing that Sara and I couldn’t ever have imagined ten years ago was that we would be bopping around the globe spreading poetry as a literacy tool as our way of keeping our dog’s food bowls full. We are just back from our second trip to Kazakhstan – we could hardly believe that we would ever go there in the first place – much less a second time. But there we were on the windblown steppe home of yurts and borscht.


Sara and I feel so lucky to be working in the International School world. It’s comparable to one giant district with folks moving around the globe like backgammon pieces hopping back and forth. We’ve worked with the same educators in multiple venues thousands of miles apart, manifold time and temperate zones, schools big and small.


The international educators community is a subculture unto its own – comprised of people with a little adventure in their DNA – a trait that Sara and I share. Within this subculture are subsets of differing interests and avocations that overlap here and there slicing into almond slivers of varying thickness ala Venn diagrams. You’ve got your tech folks, your music folks, your zombie aficionados, your arts folks and my personal favorite – your bicycle folks.


It has been my pleasure to hook up with riders across the planet riding in jungles, through city streets, on elevated paths over rice fields, through bleak Chinese industrial wastelands, amongst thatched hut African villages, through mud thick and heavy as wood putty and coasting downhill from the top of a volcano.


Most recently in Atyrau Kazakhstan I had the opportunity to ride with my buddy Brent Fullerton who I first met in the rain forests of Borneo where he and his clan of mountain bikers - the mud hogs -attempted to grind me into the humid rich tropical soil. Well here we attacked the thick mudded Kazakh steppe and the paved and dirt pathways around the Ural River. Brent is the tech coordinator and jack of all trades teacher at the Dostyk International School, a boutique sized school for Chevron employees’ kids where teachers wear many hats. (Brent is also a lunatic – a mountain climber – trekker – and all around adventurer/explorer.)


We went out on the bike twice while I was visiting – once to the bleak and gray industrial edge of the steppe where wheel stopping mud turned us back and then again on a group ride called in commemoration of one of the members moving away from KZ.


In this group were mixed folks from the school, Chevron and from Shell. Dutch, Irish, Canadian, Americans and Australians a veritable hodgepodge whose overlap in this case was cycling. I was informed that the two camps, Chevron and Shell rarely if ever mixed – except in tis cycling group. As we toasted the man of honor while having breakfast at a riverside pub I was grateful for the camaraderie that a couple of pedal powered wheels were able to provide. This little spandex dressed subculture that cut across corporate loyalties and personal politics was my entryway into a sense of belonging half a globe away from my home.


Imagine that.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dostyk American International School

Okay we are talking about seventy degrees of separation – Fahrenheit that is.

My friend, all around adventurer, teacher  and tech guru, Brent Fullerton was the instigator behind Sara and my visit to the international school in Atayrau, Kazakhstan. The last time I saw him we were in Balikpapan Borneo – half a globe away and whole lot warmer.

I should qualify that – the outside temperature may have been warmer but our reception here on the edge of the steppes couldn’t have been more kindhearted. Sara and I felt welcomed and appreciated by the whole staff and student body. What DAIS may lack in size of enrollment (around 80 kids grades pre-K to 8) it more than makes up with a sense of inclusion in this close knit community.

We opted for a home stay instead of spending the week in a hotel – bunking with the Parkers – Konna (rhymes with Donna) and the super hero alias sharing Peter. He middle school language arts and history, she science and math. Good call – we laughed and chatted and made a couple of new friends before the week was out. We also became pals with the Parker’s Husky – Tashi. I did learn though that Tashi has decided that his main job in the household it to guard the laundry drying rack which he does with no small amount of fierceness.

At school we worked mostly from our new book High Impact Writing Clinics and visited each classroom twice from the little pre-K guys through the eighth grade. We ended the residency with the kids performing the work we coproduced in the classroom for the whole student body and their parents and teachers.
Principal Raul and his wife Patsy made sure we were comfortable every step of the way and the aforementioned Brent and his indefatigable better (and I mean way better) half Cheryl were responsible for bike rides, dinners, and accompaniment on hat buying trios to the market.

sara and peter conferring during class

This was our second trip to Kazakhstan and after the experience we had this time we sure hope it won’t be our last. Now, I wouldn’t mind the next time being during the spring – but even this wind swept steppe of a visit left us toasty inside.