Cairns #82 – End of the Long Days, 2015

School has started so teaching is dominating my mind, including this issue of Cairns.


I recently read “Schooled”, an article in The New Yorker by Dale Russakoff <>. It describes what happened when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s donated one hundred million dollars to the city of Newark to jumpstart reform of their school system. According to the article, much of the money went to consultants and union salaries. The families of the students resented changes being made by outside consultants who did not understand the city so political opposition to the “reforms” increased. The article leaves the impression that public education is so entrenched with so many factions that change is almost impossible.

The article reminded me of ten years ago when Chrysalis was losing our site and had to find a new facility. I was advised to meet with a development (fund-raising) person. She asked me what was special about Chrysalis. One of the things I mentioned was our small class sizes which led her to ask whether I thought I was smarter than Bill Gates. I was taken aback by the question. She said that Bill Gates had already experimented with small class size and it didn’t make a difference so why should I think it would.

Billionaires try to improve public education without much success. In my experience with Chrysalis, I’ve come to deeply know that one of the most important ingredients for student learning is responsiveness of the teacher to the input of the students. I start every year with my eighth graders balancing sticks because it is such a perfect image of what learning looks like, this dance between student and teacher. The teacher does something and the student responds and the teacher responds to that with something that could not be known until that moment, leading the student to respond in an unknown way.

Over and over again, politicians and wealthy philanthropists and people who have worked their way high into the educational hierarchy try reforming education by requiring (perhaps without awareness) something that restricts the ability of the teacher to respond to their students in the moment. It happens over and over again in different forms.

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind set the impossible goal of having 100% of students to test proficient on standardized tests. Once, when giving that year’s standardized tests, I looked at my students taking the test and thought “Two of them had restraining orders placed on their dads in the last two weeks. One boy’s brother died last week. Probability is that at least two girls are on their period and, being early in their womanhood, they might be experiencing bad cramps. Yet 100% of my students are supposed to perform proficiently.”

In pursuit of this impossible goal, schools turned the school day into mostly math and language arts. One school that was placed in “program improvement” had outside consultants come in and tell the teachers they should not have students’ art on the walls because the school shouldn’t be using limited time for doing art. They needed to be doing math and language. And instead of reading books, they practice reading short (no plot or character development) selections and answering multiple choice questions about them so they can improve their language scores.

Being high in the hierarchy or creating great wealth can create an invisible arrogance: that the view one sees from on high gives you the perspective and insight to see how things really are. You are in the unique position to see how to really reform the system. If only the schools and teachers would do …, the system would get improve. We will make them do …. things like standards-based learning. Teach to the standards. Some schools require their teachers to begin each lesson by writing on the board the objective from the standards that will now be taught. To require that of a teacher’s every lesson is to confine them to the paved walkways of our Earth. It signals the student that what is happening at this moment was determined by some committee years and miles away without any knowledge of you. It signals to the student that your teacher is responding to that committee, not to you. If you wall knowledge into compartments, much of the life ebbs away.

These top-down reforms have been so obviously wrong that the language has changed. “Top-down” is not used anymore. The new phrase is “scaling up”. Reformers are looking for innovations that can be “scaled up.” Replicated in thousands of schools. Which still means that those of us up high are looking for ideas that we’ll make all teachers down there do. We will curtail their ability to be responsively unique by scaling up this technique and require them all to do something that we know will work.

This reminds me of a point Donella Meadows made in her classic “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” “The systems analysis community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have all absorbed one of his favorite stories. “People know intuitively where leverage points are,” he says. “Time after time I’ve done an analysis of a company, and I’ve figured out a leverage point — in inventory policy, maybe, or in the relationship between sales force and productive force, or in personnel policy. Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that there’s already a lot of attention to that point. Everyone is trying very hard to push it IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!” In education, everyone is trying to push standardized test scores higher, not realizing how that effort leads to deadened teaching and turned-off students. People high in the hierarchies require teachers to do the wrong thing and then blame the teachers when wrong things happen. Teachers are required to use ineffective curriculum to achieve inappropriate goals; not meeting those goals will mark the teacher as “ineffective.”


It’s easy to complain and criticize. But what do I mean by responsiveness? How is it like balancing a stick? Let me share an experience that captures the magical power of responsiveness.

One of my former eighth-grade students transferred to us from another school where she had been bullied, partly because of low grades, especially in math. She was pretty much defeated in math, lacking confidence. I was helping her, one on one, with a math problem she had not understood. I was doing my usual practice of asking questions rather than telling her what to do. At some point in our back and forth question-reply-new question requiring a new reply–new question, I realized that almost all of her energy was going into figuring out what phrase she could say that would protect her from giving a reply that would once again reveal her slowness in math, expose that she was stupid. (It’s OK to be smart and not try but it’s not OK to be stupid. Acting dumb can be cool but stupid is never cool; it makes you a target for teasing.) None of her energy/attention was thinking about the actual mathematics within my question; it all was going into deflecting the question. I looked up from the paper into her eyes and I said, “Math is hard for you, isn’t it?”

Her irises brimmed with an upwelling of tears. Just before they overflowed into tears, I could see a clenching of her tear ducts. The brimming stopped and gradually “soaked” away until the danger of crying was past. Her eyes started to relax which allowed the tears to again fill her eyes. Again she clenched and shut them just before they overflowed and again the tears subsided. I told her that I could see her tears (which made them well up again) and could see how she was trying to hold them back. When I acknowledged her tears, she no longer choked back the tears as strongly as she had before.

What followed was a beautiful dance of our eyes, an oscillation of tear ducts letting loose and clenching back again, of tears brimming and subsiding as my eyes, in response to her brimming tears, showed that I was seeing her tears and it was OK. I understand. There was no need to be afraid, no need to hold back her tears. And then when her tear ducts clenched, my eyes showed that it was OK to hold them back because she had needed to in order to survive the bullying. The oscillations became gentler, subsiding to eyes filled with tears, neither brimming over nor shutting down, eyes relaxing within a veil of tears that expressed so much, expressing a new equilibrium between us.

Our last day of school, the class was sitting in a Sharing Circle talking about the year, and she shared the story of crying in front of me and how it bonded us together. It was an important moment to her and it was an important moment for me too. Just as importantly, after that relaxing of her eyes, her concentration shifted from diverting remarks to actual engagement with the problem and she started doing mathematics. Several times in the remainder of the year, she successfully reached the answer to a complex hard problem, one that was challenging other kids, and I could see confidence and pride glowing in her eyes. She is now taking CP (college placement) math classes in high school.


A spiritual dimension lies at the heart of teaching, connecting teacher, what is being taught, and student. This spirit can’t be replaced with required techniques and procedures. It can’t be scaled up. It needs to be acknowledged and nourished. It needs to be given space and air to grow. That’s why Chrysalis’s mission is so important: “to encourage the light within each student to shine brighter.” Almost every teacher who has read that mission responds with a “Yes!” but no other school yet says it. Those not in the classroom will tend to say “but you can’t measure it?” You don’t measure it; you navigate by it every minute of the day and that leads into wonderful growth that can be measured. Most teachers everywhere long for the opportunity to really teach and connect with their students. They need to be allowed to teach in response to their students.


P.S. Interestingly, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece just before I emailed this Cairns out. “The Stranglehold on French Schools” by Peter Gumbel, Sept. 11, 2015, discusses the top-down centralized administration of France’s public schools. The following is from the last three paragraphs.

“The most surprising experiments are taking place within the decaying public system, especially in the worst schools in the toughest areas. Groups of highly motivated teachers, seeing that the prescribed curriculum and methods simply don’t work, are taking matters into their own hands, and convincing local education officials to grant them exemptions from the rules.

“A small network of so-called “micro-lycées” that help school dropouts get back on track and take their baccalaureate has sprung up. The results are spectacular: kids written off as complete failures suddenly end up with commendations and are going on to university. I also spent time in a suburb of Lille in a primary school that was threatened with closure 15 years ago because it was failing so badly. Today, its results are above the national average.

“These breakaway movements are still few and far between. But the system could and should learn from them. The key to solving France’s education crisis is to empower teachers and give schools far more autonomy. Let them teach Latin if they want. When teachers are motivated and work together for the good of their pupils, it makes all the difference.”


Here is another example of responsive teaching.


Chrysalis produced a wonderful example of place-based education this last school year. We often take kids for field study to a local park a few blocks away. Beyond the park is private property that includes riparian vegetation adjoining the main creek in the area. Teachers have thought it would be great if our classes could access that area (they referred to it as Narnia) but I, as administrator, didn’t do anything about it because the property owner was the president of the board of the neighboring school district. We represent competition to them.

But I was practicing stepping back from administration and our middle school language arts teacher (with support from our new administrator) had an idea. One of the main goals of 6th grade is writing a persuasive essay. Usually kids practice on made-up topics. But our kids worked on persuasive essays in the form of letters to the landowners asking permission to do field studies on their property. The class gathered information and discussed arguments and then each student wrote their own letter. The teacher then put all the letters together in one package and sent them to the landowner.

The husband and wife responded with enthusiastic delight. They invited the kids to come meet them and walk the land with them. They gave permission to utilize the riparian area. One of the things that moved them was the uniqueness of each letter. They could really sense the individuality of each child in each letter. They invited the school to come at apple harvest time and help harvest from their apple orchard. What a great demonstration of the power of a persuasive essay!

(It is also a reminder for me that it is right for me to step aside from administration and let new perspective come on in. I was there at the beginning, when we struggled for months seeking sponsorship and being turned down again and again because of the competition that a charter school might bring into the region. (Chrysalis was the first charter school north of Sacramento back in 1996). So I think I developed an image of ourselves as the barbarians at the gate of public education, persona non grata. Plus, as a part-time administrator of a school that was growing to a size that needed a full-time administrator, I was concentrating only on what I quickly judged offered the most return on my time, letting other things go. So I never imagined Narnia could turn out like this. It’s good to step aside and allow others to reveal new possibilities.)


Finite but Immense

Once I was flying back from England. The plane was cruising close to 40,000 feet over the ocean. Looking out the window, I was amazed that I could see the curve of the Earth. The horizon was almost a straight line if I looked at one part of it but when I focused on the entire horizon, the curve was very slight.

That slightest of curves was so smoothly beautifully. Seeing the curve brought tears to my eyes because that slightest of curves contained two simultaneous pieces of information lacking in a straight horizon. One is that the Earth is finite. The second is that the Earth is immense. It is really, really huge on our scale. It contains far more adventures than can be had in a lifetime. Those two truths, seemingly contradictory, embraced in that curve was so beautiful.

I am feeling something similar with my mortality. My heart continues to have its issues and makes me aware I might not be here ten years from now. I am at a high enough point in my life that I can see its curve. My life feels finite. But also the gift of life is so vast in potential. Vast but finite. The beauty of it often brings tears to my eyes.

Back to Cairns of HOPE


Just learning how to play with all of this.

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One comment on “Cairns #82 – End of the Long Days, 2015
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