Category Archives: school reform

Mitt Romney's Bain "Dream-Team"

On Honor, True and False

2013 National Honor Society Induction Speech
Singapore American School
21 March 2013

Thank you and welcome, 54 inductees, current members of NHS, parents, faculty, family, friends.

It’s an honor to have been asked to share some words of wisdom with you—especially so, given that I know your first choice, Mr. Kay, was unavailable to do so.

So: upon accepting this late assignment, I rushed to Mr. Sturgeon to ask what this speech should attempt.

His answer was simple: “Talk about character, service, and leadership—talk about honor.” I have to admit I found the answer slightly boring. But thankfully, Mr. Sturgeon added two more words that hit me in my sweet spot: “Inspire them.”

A Metaphor from the Dead

I happen to have fallen in love with the word “inspire” a good 30 years ago, when I was fresh out of high school and falling in love with the beauty of the English language to such a geeky degree that I spent my spare time playing with etymology—the study of word roots. I used to lie on my apartment floor with this very book—the Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language—for hours at a time, and surf through its pages looking not for definitions, but for the ancient, original meanings of words we use today.

The etymology of the word “inspire” has been one of my favorites for all my adult life. The literal definition—“fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something good or creative”—that’s so cliché by now that, here again, we find it boring. But as one of my very closest friends, the great German philosopher and Dead White Male Friedrich Nietzsche observed in the late 1800s, “all words in use today are dead metaphors.” All the words we use today, in other words, have a poetic meaning at their roots that has rubbed off over the centuries to the point that we don’t hear it.

So hear this one:

“inspire”: ORIGIN: from Latin in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ Originally used of a divine or supernatural being.

Do you hear that? Admit it: at its dead metaphoric root, the cliché word “inspire” has  more epic swag than all of us in this room combined: God breathing life into Adam? An act of “inspiring.” The muse of epic poetry breathing the Iliad into Homer? Another act of “inspiring.” Oh, the swag, it overwhelms.

At the same time, though, this piece of swag makes my job here harder. Because it means that this here ceremony, folks, is at heart religious, and that my job is to somehow try to express nothing less than “the divine.” It means that your teacher has suddenly received the role, for the space of this gathering, of something closer to that of priest.

So the flip tone, the swaggy slang, I must inform you, stops here. One of you asked me to be a rapper up here, and I am not sorry to say that you will be disappointed.

Because honor is no laughing matter.

We can laugh back in the mundane world. I’ll rap for you in the cafeteria.

But here, now, let us try to understand this ritual—yes, I said “ritual”—for what it is.

Out of the roughly one thousand young adults in our society, its elders—and again, yes, I said “elders”—have invited a tiny, select minority of our young—the 54 of you standing on this stage—to honor you with a rite of passage. It is a passing, from our generation to yours, of a torch we call, metaphorically, “honor.”

And this means, at bottom, that we have identified you as having the most promise to lead our society when we no longer can.

It is a solemn thing, the rite of passage, stretching back surely thousands of years and hundreds of generations in human history. In this ceremony, we are entrusting you, among all your peers, with a new role: to be our replacements in the future, and to lead our society well. We are passing to you the responsibility, when you replace us, to keep our society strong and wholesome, decent and admirable.

We don’t do solemn well in these times—so I’m going to ask you to take this moment to concentrate yourselves in order to, just this once, attempt to do solemnity well. I’m asking you to open yourself to whatever “divine breath” might inspire you for the remainder of this ceremony, as we discuss your passage to adulthood, and to a life of honor.

Let’s begin with that lamentably dead, cliché word itself. Let’s begin with the word “honor.”

An Uncomfortable Question

We observed you closely and chose you carefully, because you have shown uncommon honor. We are confident that you deserve this ceremony, and we congratulate you for it. I personally know many of you standing on this stage, and have observed you in action in our years here together, and I have greatly admired you. I am sure I speak for many of your elders in this room when I say that it gives great hope for the future.

It’s that future that we will now focus on—your future. Let’s be honest here: the odds are strong that many of you will graduate from SAS to enter some of the most privileged and ivied halls of power on earth today.

The question that intrigues me, but also concerns me, and that should concern you as well, is this: how will you handle the opportunities that your privilege will offer you as you grow into adulthood? Will you be able to continue handling them with honor?

I hate to say it, but unfortunately, the odds are very strong that for some of you—perhaps even most of you—the answer may be uncomfortable. Why? A Wall Street Journal article last year entitled 10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You says it well: “If you really want to cause social mayhem,” the author tells his imaginary audience of graduates, Continue reading

Economist Blogs: Beyond Commercial Journalism

Google Reader Screenshot

Who needs CNN? (Click image for larger view)

I broke my own rule by sending the following to students in an email, rather than posting to the web:

[Student] and I had a talk about economics journalism, and how CNN and even Reuters and McClatchy are second-rate (for CNN, third-rate) compared to professional economists who blog their views regularly. Since you guys seem interested in figuring this stuff out, but don’t seem to have figured out that the hardest-hitting and most in-depth (and readable) analysis is in the top-tier economists’ blogs, I offer the following starter-pack. It’s multipartisan, from right to left (especially Economists Club).

You’re smart enough to figure out Google Reader and RSS feed subscriptions with a simple Google search (use those terms), so I’ll just share a few economics blogs that go way deeper than the mainstream media.

Subscribe to them, read them regularly, and you’ll feel your brain swell beyond the pop journalism dimensions:

Here’s a Google Reader Bundle of the Econ blogs I read. Click the image  to go to the RSS feed for all of them (and feel free to drop recommendations in comments) Update: As a perceptive reader points out, Matt Taibbi is not an economist — though he’s a valuable (and hilarious) investigative journalist specializing in the Wall St./Politics nexus — so I removed him from the bundle:

Economics Blogs Bundle

Click the image for the Bundle page, subscribe there.

In Which the Teacher is Sacrificial Poet at His First Poetry Slam

In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)

You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.

Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.

Homework: To Flip? or to Toss?

Forays into Flipping

I’ve been edublog silent for a long time now, but buzz about the Flipped Classroom actually hit me human-to-human instead of via the interwebs. Teachers in my school are experimenting with it way out here in this Texan colony that is northern Singapore.

When it comes to social studies, though, I have a hard time seeing how assigning at-home readings for extension in class  –  a pretty traditional approach in history classrooms, in my experience  –  is not already “flipped.”

I did toy with the idea of flipping my classroom over the summer, though, was briefly active on the FC Ning, and played with podcasting and vodcasting content as homework during the first quarter of this school year. The experience left me with

  1. concerns that students read even less than many already do, possibly undercutting their readiness for college and adulthood generally, which expects advanced reading skills (but I could be wrong here; when I was in high school, I never read assigned hw because I wanted to read more interesting things like sci-fi and — if you laugh at the next one, you haven’t read the research — ’70s-era Marvel Comics);
  2. hard-won appreciation for how time-consuming the creation of quality podcasts or vodcasts is, and relatedly –
  3. ditto for how sadistic and morale-killing, good intentions aside, a poorly made teacher podcast or video can be.

I’ll add that students have overall volunteered their appreciation for image-enhanced podcasts. Last September, walking home from school after classes all day on Chinese philosophies, enjoying a thinker’s high about Confucius and the gonzo Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (“Jesus doing stand-up comedy” is the best hook I can come up with),  I sat under a tree and tried to share that high with my students in a talk into my iPhone voice recorder — the first 12 minutes on Confucianism, the last 12 on Taoism. I went home, slapped some images on top of the audio in Garageband (and took a photo from my 16th floor apartment of the very tree under which those thoughts found voice), and that was that:

Another similar “walk and talk” into that machine about “what goodness means” to a Hindu, a Hebrew monotheist, and a traditional Chinese person for my ninth-graders:

These got good feedback (“It’s interesting” is a nice review of homework, as is “it helped things make sense”). Occasionally students have emailed me special requests on topics we’ve covered in units since those efforts. I’m pretty convinced I’m more interesting talking into my iPhone than trying to deliver the same ideas live in front of the class. I’m less distracted by the clowns and corpses, more focused on the ideas, and less inhibited in letting my own impassioned interest come out.

But man, editing images in in Garageband takes a lot of time, and that time is just not available. I keep thinking I should go minimalist and do audio-only podcasts, and gauge student response. If still good, that’s much easier to pull off. Another option I’ve considered is having students collaborate with me by finding images for the audio lectures, and making them edit them into AV podcasts. Yet another possibility is to assign a crowdsourced transcript of the lecture by having each student transcribe, say, one minute of the audio lecture. 30 students could do 30 minutes and slap it all together on a Google Doc or wiki. That would provide a text that could replace the boring textbook.

But this semester my interests have changed. I want my students to have time to sit under trees too.

(Next to) No Homework: The Sweet Spot?

My current experiment involves not so much flipping homework as (almost) ending it.  I’m using document-based lessons in which all reading and discussion is done in class, and the only homework is a reflective blog post about the day’s content on a team blog — which student team-members read and comment on with corrections, extensions, challenges, etc. I like this so far, for several reasons:

  1. it ensures all have actually done the reading and received the input (never a certainty with homework assignments)
  2. it ensures, moreover, that more students have actually understood the deeper implications of the readings, through the discussions clarifying the concepts and understandings following our read-alouds (we’re currently reading 3,000-year-old Western Zhou Dynasty passages from the  Confucian Five Classics that bring out the teachings of Confucianism more powerfully than any textbook summary can, but that require close reading and clarification. So we read, stop, ask, and discuss; read, stop, ask, and discuss)
  3. it eliminates the “I read it last night but forgot most of it after waking up” that is as true for many adults as it is for students. We read and annotate based on front-loaded questions/reading purposes, take a couple of minutes to gather our impressions, and launch into talks with it all fresh in memory
  4. it makes the student peer-teaching via comments on the team blog more reliable (they read it and discussed it with the teacher’s guidance in class, so odds are at least two in a five-person team comprehended the finer points of the lesson and can reinforce them in blog comments by catching and addressing misunderstandings in their peers’ posts)

The short version: we read homework in class, discuss it in class, clarify and debate it in class — then briefly write about it at home. Hopefully this leads to less homework and deeper learning at the same time — and above all, to less aversion to school because of all that homework.