Thursday, August 25, 2005

Thoughts on My Nonno

As I prepare to kick back by the ocean this week, I want to say a few things about my grandfather, who turned 80 this weekend.

I call him Nonno. I’m so glad I have him. He’s one of the most interesting people I know. He tells great stories, and I love listening to them. He tells stories about growing up as a little boy in an Italian-American neighborhood, he talks about his service in Europe as a tank driver during World War II, he talks about hunting for rabbits and deer, and he talks about working in a print shop and as a union steward for years. I know about how he used to gather coal that had fallen off trains at the rail yard, how he slept in the dairy barns of the Eastern States Exposition during fair time and brought home milk for his mother, how he and his friends initiated each other and sneaked into hockey games as boys. I know some things about his time in the war–actually, I know quite a few things, but not everything. My most recent discovery, when I was working as my union’s building representative and negotiator, was to find that he had handled grievances with his own union and used to travel to national conventions for his shop.

He’s given me so many things.

One thing I can thank him for is how he helped my imagination grow. I tend to be creative and interested in new ideas and new ways of doing things. Hearing so many stories in detail about far-away, long-ago events gave me pictures of things I had never experienced. As he tells each story, I see images in my mind, and because they’re his and I love him, they’re all really important to me. Of course I’ll never know exactly what the pass into the mountains looked like where five men in a tank were ambushed and killed due to an officer’s incompetence, but I have an image that stays with me and helps keep that story, and its sense of injustice is fresh and alive in my mind. The movie Saving Private Ryan made the edges of these images a little less fuzzy for me, but it didn’t change those stories of my Nonno in Europe.

He has also had, along with my Dad, an important influence on my sense of humor and appreciation of ideas. Every time I would go to his house as a child, he would have a new riddle for me to solve or a clever joke that helped me appreciate a play on words or the ironic part of a situation. He helped me to value the intelligence in humor, and that fact that the funniest things are not the stupidest, but are usually the cleverest.

He also gave me patience and respect for individual differences. When I was six, he had a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. Over the years, I have regretted, because of this, that I never got to learn to hunt rabbits or deer. I felt like I missed out on something important. Who could have imagined, then, the gifts that would come in the wake of this change?

When my brother Chris and I were small, we would often take bicycle rides with Nonno after supper. I would ride a black bike he found and fixed up for me. He could only drive his bicycle with one hand, and so, when he wasn’t around, we would practice riding our bikes one-handed, as well. When we would take walks after dinner, we would hold one of our hands behind our backs, just as he did. He was probably our first hero.

When I was learning to tie my shoes, Nonno was relearning to tie his shoes, too. We both had velcro sneakers in the mid-’80s. He recovered his multiplication tables a few years after I learned mine. Today, as a teacher, I share the joy of my students when they finally achieve the things that may look small to outsiders but are enormous steps in their lives. Through my Nonno, I learned as a boy to appreciate the accomplishments of each person as an individual.

Nonno’s manipulative devices from physical therapy were in a little shoebox that was like a toybox to me. As his right hand got stronger through therapy, he would grasp my hand and squeeze as hard as he could, and I could feel his strength growing. We’d ask him to do the same with his “good” left hand, and I think he went easy on us, now that I think about it. He showed me that one form of weakness did not have to overcome other forms of strength. Despite his disabled arm, I’ve always seen him as one of the strongest, most powerful people I know.

As I watched him and saw his attitude, he showed me another kind of courage, not unlike that of a soldier, but there–present–right in front of me. He showed me that he didn’t give up. He told me of men he saw in the hospital who did give up, who stopped going for walks, who didn’t do their therapy exercises, who decided to die–and showed me that he decided not to die. As I have gone through my roughest times, I have known, despite everything else, that surviving is of the highest value. How much do I owe to his example? He repeatedly showed me through childhood that giving up is not noble and that working through the hardest times–starting over from scratch, even–is worth the effort. He has always given me a living example of someone who has repeatedly stared death, hopelessness, and impossibility in the face and said, “No way , I’m not giving up.”

A few years ago, when I told him about being gay, his reaction was one of the most amazing of anyone I knew. After listening and thinking for a little while, he started to talk about what it was like to come back from World War II and to feel like there was a monster in him, a sense of perpetual unease and anger. Today, we might call it post-traumatic stress. In those days, beyond a two-week trip home by ship, there was no help for soldiers adjusting from war to civilian life. He lived with the beast of his war training and experiences haunting him like a shadow over his waking and sleeping moments for nearly twenty years. He was around 40 when it finally lifted. He explains that one day, he just noticed that it was gone, that the pressure had cleared away. I cannot say this enough: that is EXACTLY what it was like for me. One day, my existence was hunched, angry, and distorted by fear; I was lashing out with anger I didn’t even want or understand. The next was like taking a deep breath for the first time in years, without feeling compressed by fear of and anger at everything around me. On that day, six years ago this month, he found the part of his experiences that allowed him to understand something completely different, my experiences, in an instant. It was a moment of compassion, generosity, and intelligence, and I respect him so much for finding that connection between us.

John Fiorini, my grandfather, has shown me through his example what it means to be responsible, loyal, and ethical. He has given me love and understanding, and I love him tremendously, too. He has taught me the importance of family and helped give me a sense of justice, of right and wrong. He has taught me to be patient with people whose views or experiences may be different than mine. He has given me much of my humor, intelligence, and creativity. Along with my parents and grandmother–my Nonni–he helped me become who I am, and I am grateful for all he has given me.

Nonno, I’m so glad I have you.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Nitty Gritty on Real Ed Reform

I often spend a lot of time crowing about the extent to which the school where I work is different from other schools. Specifically, we've done a great deal of work toward redefining what makes for a successful high school experience. My bio on this webzine even refers to my work as part of an interdisciplinary teaching team that looks at the sustainability of the world. That course may actually be teaching me as much as I'm trying to teach the kids! So, what is so revolutionary about where I work and what I teach?

The school where I teach is in the midst of a powerful process of renewal and restructuring that began in earnest two years ago but has been in planning and preparation for about five years. Our principal often says to faculty and students, “We’re going to make this the best school in the state of Vermont.” That statement used to earn laughs from students who, upon my arrival in 2000, told me we were the “dumb school”, and incorrectly assumed that I didn’t get any other job offers. In 2005, things are significantly different. Her statement may correctly be understood to mean that we are striving to be the most flexible, adaptive, student-centered purveyors of meaningful, rigorous education that we can be. In order to create such a degree of cultural shift within a public school, we as teachers have had to undertake a thorough re-conception of the purpose and type of work we wish to do. The workings of the school, as well as mission, tone, and climate must all shift. We could not accomplish this solely by administrative edict or by the desires of a small group of faculty or community members. As I have learned from my experiences, true meaningful renewal comes from all interested parties engaging in individual, small collective, and major systemic action to achieve a common essential outcome. And simply changing one or two factors that affect teaching and learning will not make for education reform; change must go in some way to the core of how things work in a school.

At our school, one of the driving forces for this change has been the formation of interdisciplinary teaching teams, which have a non-traditional structure. These teams came about as a way of addressing several problems that plagued the poor, rural school: low academic achievement, bad behavior, and the lack of a consistent safety net for students in crisis. One part of the identity crisis of the school involved the inability of a small high school to offer a great variety of electives and honors courses. This was coupled with a sense that the courses in existence were not sufficiently rigorous. As a small high school, we had four main departments (English, social studies, math, and science), each staffed with two teachers. Each department acted individually and no funding was available to increase department sizes. We wondered how we might offer a more rigorous curriculum, more choice, and more relevance. At the same time, we were dealing with issues related to socioeconomic factors; many students felt little motivation to engage in class or behave appropriately in class. Unaddressed, problematic situations at home have a disastrous effect on school performance. Though our school is small and most high school teachers know most students by name, the availability of time and manpower for teachers to contact families, track student issues, and support students is about as limited as in any other school. How might we create a more effective student support system, we wondered?

With the goals of more choice, more engagement, more student support and accountability, better behavior, and more serious academics, we looked at two model interdisciplinary courses that seemed to be working, American Studies (English/history) and Living Systems (biology/history), as successful models of interdisciplinary teaching that engaged and motivated students. How might we build upon the strengths of these programs? We decided to build more choice by eliminating tracking at grades 9 and 10; to enhance engagement by teaching core subjects in an interdisciplinary fashion that would eliminate artificial divisions of knowledge areas and allow for a more relevant, action-oriented curriculum; to provide academic challenges through this more integrated, individualized curriculum; to deal with the issue of inadequate choice by providing fewer but broader-based courses that could more flexibly adapt to a student’s particular interests; to increase support for students by teaming teachers with shared student loads; and to facilitate both planning and student support, including meeting with parents, through shared planning time and including all teachers in the Educational Support Team (EST) process. Building upon the experience of forty years of teaming in Vermont’s middle schools, we established the Core system, whereby three teachers (in English, social studies, and science) would provide a common core learning experience to students in each grade 9 and 10. The three core teachers would comprise the foundation of each grade’s EST and would approach the several disciplines through an integrated, thematic approach. (Other innovations at the time included the introduction of an integrated, standards-based math program and the development of a formal alternative program and the less structured offering of on-line courses.)

Those of us involved in constituting the Cores were aware that we would be working closely together all the time; we were perhaps less aware that these new Cores would become the dominant structure of organizing teachers at the high school level. Creating interdisciplinary curricula and working collectively as an EST group required teachers, and occasionally instructional assistants, to forsake autonomy in the areas most crucial to students’ success: the social/emotional and the intellectual.

The practical aspect of these teams is that they are not arbitrary; collegiality and collaboration are intimately linked to other aspects of our professional responsibilities. For example, we could have chosen to use a less formal structure, such as having teachers voluntarily meet periodically to discuss student issues. Beyond “doing what’s best for kids”, which can be a powerful motivator but not necessarily a particularly organized one, a casual effort to improve coordination for the good of the students may have lacked the immediacy to bring teachers into intentional collaboration. Instead, the structure around us changed–or, it changed with our input as well as administrative direction–which necessitated our engagement with each other; under the new structure of teamed classes, the success of both the academic program and students is now largely dependent on the collaboration of the educators in each team. With this collective organization comes power, flexibility, and responsibility.

The first link, academics, is hardly casual in our new organizational system. At the Core 10 level, our curriculum is thematic. We all work together to coordinate time and activities around a few central themes: cultural and ecological sustainability, and the interdependence of living things. As broad categories, these themes allow a diverse, wide-ranging curriculum full of opportunities for relevant activities, the addressing of various learning styles, and the thorough inclusion of specific content in life science, world history/social studies, writing and literature. Though we sometimes teach as individuals, we must coordinate our activities and they must be relevant to our themes in order for students to meet our overall course goal of understanding sustainability and interdependence. Further impetus for meaningful coordination comes from the fact that we must model pedagogical and curricular interdependence in order for students to best understand the interdependent elements everywhere around them.

Our second, built-in tie to building a strong community of practice is our joint role in the EST. In previous years, EST had been the domain of the nurse and guidance counselors, who issued lists of accommodations for students covered under educational support plans. Under our new structure, our Core 10 team became chiefly responsible for determining action related to student needs. Math and other teachers were included as well, but meetings were scheduled around the availability of Core teachers. As a team, working together with a group of students for one-third of the school day, we were able to share and build on each other’s insights. This brought immediacy to our community of practice because of our identical student loads and frequent informal discussion of concerns and frustrations on a daily basis. As the core of the formal EST structure, our daily and informal interactions took on new significance as we were given control of the situation and were required to take collective action regarding the success of our students. We share responsibility and we share consequences. The result is that even our least formal discussion takes on greater significance and immediacy.

Creating a new paradigm for teaching–wherein educators think, work, and learn with each other to form a community that best supports the learning and growth of all students and educators within it–requires making deliberate, intentional changes to the entire system, from the applied to the conceptual. Change and renewal are not haphazard activities that can be accomplished by the appearance of activity. In my experience, a more effective approach is to invest in the expertise of the teachers who do the daily work with students and to permit wholesale reform and reorganization on the classroom level. If reform is linked not only to teacher duties, but to sharing the responsibility and consequences for the curriculum and success of students, the stakes are raised in a way that encourages each of us to bring out his or her flexibility, creativity, and innovation. And successful collaboration, which creates ownership in the collective and individual participants, as it has on my teaching team, can lead to a gradual improvement in attitudes, school climate, behavior, engagement, and achievement. In this more holistic way, educational reform is structured so that individual educators, rather than abstract institutions, come to embody the reform and provide it with the sustenance and immediacy that it requires to create meaningful change.