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Will the humanities save us? It depends.

Wes Davis is among those who, in recent months, have portrayed the humanities as an antidote to the excesses that hastened our financial crisis. He tells the story of a big company that, a half century ago, sent its top executives to college for a year to get a crash course in the liberal arts. The executives read very widely and had discussions with leading thinkers. They loved it, but they also became "less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities." The program came to an end in 1960.

Davis mourns the loss of that program. "As the worst economic crisis since the Depression continues and the deepening rift in the nation’s political fabric threatens to forestall economic reform, the values the program instilled would certainly come in handy today," he writes.

I'm inclined to agree with Davis, but I think we have to be careful not to present the humanities as a cure-all. It's perfectly possible to venerate the great artists and authors while committing atrocities of the first order, so I'm not sure a fuller curriculum would, in itself, protect us from the kinds of dirty dealing that contributed to our current woes.

I'll focus on an extreme example--far, far more extreme than any of the worst things than ever happened on Wall Street. The Nazis embraced the humanities. Many of their leaders were aesthetes who celebrated poetry and painting. (Hitler began ...

Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan made news when it beat out thousands of other schools for the honor of hosting President Obama as its commencement speaker. The President will speak before the school's 2010 graduates today.

His audience will include scores of students whose lives have been transformed by a stunning promise: free tuition at any public university in the state. At a time when many towns in Michigan are losing people, the "Kalamazoo Promise" has drawn a flood of new families into the city and the school system.

We recently spoke with Von Washington, the principal of the high school, about the President's visit and what it means for the school. Buoyed by the Promise, students have been streaming into AP classes and graduating in higher numbers.

Their passion, academic focus and hope for the future come through loud and clear in a video they created to make their case to the President. It clearly hit home.

Public School Insights: Kalamazoo Central High School recently received a big honor. You won the Race to the Commencement. As a result, President Obama is going to give your commencement address. What do you think set Kalamazoo Central apart from all of the other schools that tried to get the same honor?

Washington: It is really tough to tell. We are not entirely sure. But there are a couple of things that are distinct about us. One is that in the video presentation we really believe the students, through their words and their passion, gave a good idea to those viewing the video of what it means to go to school at Kalamazoo Central High School and what it means to be serious about your education.

Second, we are not a school that, by any means, has arrived. But we are a school, and a school district, definitely on an incline. We are reaching towards the sky, and we are moving towards our goals. And because it can appear that education is kind of in the doldrums financially and/or in achievement, I think that people recognize that if you are ...

[First published April 22, 2008]

LastChildinWoods.jpg In a few days, a new and expanded edition of Richard Louv’sLast Child in the Woods, will hit bookstores around the country. Louv’s book has fueled an international movement to combat what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” children’s growing alienation from the natural world. (Louv’s term for the disorder is quickly catching on, turning up in major newspapers, on television, and even in a February cartoon by Bloom County creator Berke Breathed.)

A quotation from our recent telephone interview with Louv elegantly captures the thrust of his argument: “[T]he message we’re sending kids is that nature is in the past and probably doesn’t count anymore, the future’s in electronics, the boogeyman lives in the woods, and playing outdoors is probably illicit and possibly illegal.”

Development is choking off access to nature, kids are succumbing to the attractions of televisionRichardLouv.jpg and computers, and—yes—time for school recess has dwindled dramatically in the past decade. To make matters worse, Louv argues, parents, educators, and even environmentalists have been complicit in erecting barriers to the natural world. We keep our children indoors to protect them from real or (very often) imagined dangers, we regulate and confine their play, and we tell them to not to disturb delicate flowers, quiet streams or pristine undergrowth.

Louv does find encouraging signs of change in the rapid growth of “Leave No Child Indoors” movements around the country. (Many movement leaders credit Louv’s book for greatly accelerating that growth.) Nature is far too elemental a human need, he argues, for Nature Deficit Disorder to grow unchecked. For an overview of "No Child Left Inside" initiatives around the country, see the Children and Nature Network.

Hear a recording of highlights from the interview (5 minutes):

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Or check out the transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Last Child in the Woods?

LOUV: The central argument is that you have an increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature. And that this has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of ...

Louisiana’s Greenlawn Terrace Elementary is a small school achieving big things. It is one of the top-performing schools in its district, a feat made even more impressive given the high rate of poverty of its student population. In fact, the school was recently named a High-Performing High-Poverty School by the Louisiana Department of Education, one of a very few neighborhood schools in the greater New Orleans area to receive the honor.

We recently spoke with members of the Greenlawn community to learn how they do it. Two major themes emerged: their school environment, which is caring and safe for students, parents and staff, and their focus on data.

Principal Katherine “Kitty” Croft, special education teacher and department chair Marguerite Hymel and Title I extension teacher Amy Lang told us more.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Greenlawn Terrace Elementary?

Croft: At Greenlawn, everyone in the school, from the custodial staff to the principal, shares the same vision.

I have been at the school almost 25 years, and that stability, of course, adds to what goes on here. And we are a small neighborhood school, with about 370 students. But when I first came, this was a large school. We were almost 700 children. I took home the yearbook so I could memorize the teachers. But now we are a small, suburban school tucked in Kenner, Louisiana, behind a very busy street. I love it.

Our population…When I first came to the school it was about 66% white, 33% black. Today it is about 41% white, 33% black and 25% Hispanic. We have always been a Title I school, which means that we are always “at-risk.” We have right now about 85% free or reduced price lunch students.

I have always loved psychometry. I figured when I was in graduate school that there would always be ...

Mike Town is a man with a mission. This Washington state environmental science teacher has spent the past 25 years educating students on environmental issues. His students do real-world projects designed to show the relevance of science, get them thinking about the environmental impact of their actions, and introduce them to the emerging green job sector.

One such project is the Cool School Challenge, a model he helped develop that engages students and teachers in reducing their school's greenhouse gas emissions. Now available for free on the web, this approach has saved over 1.6 million pounds of CO2 nationwide (and saved Redmond High School more than $100,000 over the past three years). And he and his students are scaling up the concept in their community, joining forces with the local government for the “Eco-Office Challenge.” ...

Jay Mathews of The Washington Post clearly wants to get a rise out of his readers. He just published a short column titled "Why waste time on a foreign language?" I suspect (or rather, hope) he's playing devil's advocate. Because now is not the time to grease the rails for more cuts to foreign language programs.

Mathews trots out the rather shopworn argument that the rest of the world speaks English and that we can easily import the foreign speakers we need. C'mon, Jay. There's no need to celebrate American parochialism. We can't be so sure that the American century will become the American millennium. And even if we do stay on top of the cultural heap, wouldn't it be nice to expose our children to some other languages and cultures in a diverse and shrinking world?

Mathews's other argument is a bit jarring. High school students don't learn anything in language classes anyway, he argues, so why bother?

Well, how about improving language instruction? How about starting it much earlier, in the primary grades perhaps, when children are more likely to take to a new language? The Center for Applied Linguistics has found that the share of public ...

David Kelley is a legend in technology and design circles. Decades ago, he founded a design firm that dreamed up the  computer mouse as we know it today. That firm has since evolved into IDEO, a global design company that has left its unique stamp on everything from consumer goods to social innovation. IDEO's work has probably touched your life in ways you don't even know.

For years, Kelley has brought his passion for design into the classroom as a professor at Stanford's famed Institute of Design (or D.School, for those in the know). More recently, Kelley has set his sights on the K-12 classroom. He and his Stanford graduate students are working with schools to help teachers and students master "design thinking." He recently told us what that means.

Public School Insights: Let's start with a big question. What is "design thinking?"

Kelley: To me, design thinking is basically a methodology that allows people to have confidence in their creative ability. Normally many people don't think of themselves as creative, or they think that creativity comes from somewhere that they don't know—like an angel appears and tells them the answer or gives them a new idea.

So design thinking is hopefully a framework that people can hang their creative confidence on. We give people a step-by-step method on how to more routinely be creative or more routinely innovate.

Public School Insights: So you are not talking about something that only artists or engineers would use.

Kelley: No. I struggled with what to call it when we first started out. The reason that we put the word design in it is that this really is the way that designers naturally think. It's not necessarily the way that doctors, lawyers or teachers think, ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Back to the Future

Will Craig Jerald effect a truce in the 21st-century skills fight? Read his new report for the Center for Public Education and draw your own conclusions.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about: Almost a year ago, a battle erupted between champions and skeptics of 21st-century skills. Some skeptics charged the champions with pushing fuzzy skills at the expense of content knowledge. Some champions charged the skeptics with turning facts into fetishes and all but ignoring vital skills like problem solving and critical thinking. Along the way, people on both sides held out hope for common ground.

Jerald's report reads like an attempt to stake out that common ground. He takes 21st-century skills seriously and does much more than most to define slippery concepts like problem solving, collaboration and creativity. He also insists that such skills "are best taught within traditional disciplines."

As Jerald defines them, some of those 21st-century skills seem just as at home in the nineteenth. Creativity, for example, is the ability "to combine disparate ...

Teachers should fend for themselves. May the best ones win.

That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind so many school reform ideas lately. No one can shake the really incompetent teachers out of the system, reformers tell us, and gifted teachers can't rise to the top. Listen to some reform advocates, and you'd think that the former far outnumber the latter. So you use carrots and sticks to help the market do its work.

And what about the conditions that help teachers succeed? You don't hear much about those.

The fuss over teachers who sell their lesson plans on the internet offers a case in point. As always happens in discussions of teachers and money, big questions arise about how we value teachers and their work. Do we cheapen the vocation of teaching when we assume teachers are motivated primarily by money? On the other hand, do we damage teaching as a profession when we make altruism the main job qualification? (For a great discussion of these matters, head on over to the Teacher Leaders Network.) For my money, though, blogger Corey Bower asks the most important question: "The right question is why teachers should have to buy lesson plans."

So here's the vision I see emerging from this discussion. Teachers are free agents. They pay their own way, create their own reality. Those who thrive in this ...

A few months ago, the blogosphere was abuzz with news that American students are shockingly ignorant of U.S. civics and history. Research sponsored by conservative think tanks found that fewer than one in twenty public school students in Arizona and Oklahoma could answer six or more questions correctly on the U.S. Citizenship Test. The most alarming finding: Only one in four could name George Washington as our first president. It turns out that those findings were likely hogwash.

I suspected as much when the studies were released. The results of the Washington question in particular didn't pass the laugh test. Statistics guru Nate Silver had the same reaction in September. For example, he found the claim that not one out of 1,000 Oklahoma students could get more than 7 answers right well nigh impossible. "Isn't there some total nerd in Tulsa, some AP Honors student in Stillwater, who was able to answer at least eight of these ten very basic questions correctly?"

His suspicions grew when Oklahoma state representative Ed Cannaday re-administered the same test to seniors in 10 high schools across his district. According to Cannaday, almost 80 percent of his seniors answered all ten ...

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