The First Turning

A worldwide climate of positive change and hope for the future.

1 Comment

That is How I Stand Up

Bel Kaufman, the author of Up the Down Staircase, has died at the age of 103.

Her autobiographic novel, a refreshing, witty and unerringly accurate look at the bureaucracy to end all bureaucracies—the American public high school—sold more than six million copies upon its 1965 release.

The storyline follows a young idealistic teacher, Sylvia Barrett, in her first months at Calvin Coolidge High School. She tries to reach the hearts and minds of her students amid administrative directives that don’t quite make sense, and teenagers who dare her to teach them anything.

In 1971, another young idealistic teacher (me) also began her career in education at an American public high school and was met with the same mystifying world of “Eduspeak” and the same lethargic students.

I do not know how I survived those first years of teaching. Barely older than my students, I simply lived by my wits. Somehow I knew that the glaring teenagers sitting in front of me were not the whole story… that there was more to them than the initial attitude they projected toward me (that of prisoners chained to their desks against their will).

Today, as I think of Bel Kaufmann and that long-ago Carol Engler, an image comes to mind: the face of a long-haired, long-legged young man sprawled in the first seat near the window of my classroom, Room 210. He wore a motorcycle jacket, boots, and insolence with great style. He dared me to teach him, and I tried everything from my limited bag of tricks.

Finally, one day, I brought a copy of The New York Times to class. I casually threw it on his desk. There was an article about motorcycle gangs on the front page. I said: “Thought you might like this.” I then went on teaching the class. He sat there, at first, seemingly indifferent. Then he picked up the newspaper and began to read. By the end of the class, he had read the entire section of the newspaper. As he left the room at the end of class he asked if he could take the newspaper home with him.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And he went on to become valedictorian.”

In fact, I don’t know what happened to him after he graduated. (But he did graduate, which was a triumph for him and for me.)

But I do know this.

As I watched him out of the corner of my eye that day, absorbed in one news article after another from one of the greatest journalism sources in the world, I felt a sense of reaching down into someone’s soul and grabbing that soul… and hanging on.

At the end of Up The Down Staircase, Sylvia Barrett despairs to a colleague of ever being a good teacher. She is reminded by the veteran teacher that—despite all the mindless administrative directives, all the discipline issues and all the craziness—there is education going on in every single classroom of the school. It can be heard through the open doors as verbs are conjugated, books are read, thoughts are expressed. The veteran says: “That is how I stand up.”

So, as I view education from the vantage point of a four-decade veteran, I am reminded that 49 years after the publication of that book, education is still going on in every classroom in this nation, in every country of the world, and in virtual formats unheard of in 1965.

And that is how I stand up too.


The First Turning.


1 Comment

Online Education: From “Nice” to “Necessary”

I have been an educator for over 40 years. I went into this field because teaching and learning are what I was born to do. But several years ago I realized that that innate sense, that elemental calling to teach and learn, had grown dull. I had gotten fat over the years, in a literal and figurative sense. It was at that time that I began my four-year crash course in looking at the world through a new lens—which was what eventually led me to write The First Turning. Not only did I shed 40 pounds but also began to shed the pre-conceived “fat” assumptions about what learning should be.

As a tenured university professor I had come to accept “fat” as normal. The huge costs of a college education for this nation’s citizens did not faze me because that is the way I thought things should be—or rather, because I didn’t give it thought. It had been that way for decades, and, yes, it was a shame that some students could not afford to be educated, but it was not my problem.

But I was wrong, very wrong. And two incidents woke me up:

The first incident happened when I attended Ashoka Foundation’s “Disruption in Higher Education” conference at Arizona State University in February 2012. At a breakout session, I sat with a Stanford University administrator who told me about a professor who had opened up his traditional classroom-based Artificial Intelligence class to the world using a cutting-edge technology platform. The result was an astounding enrollment of 160,000 learners. The technological platform he used would later be called a MOOC, or massive open online classes.

My Stanford acquaintance told me that the professor, Sebastian Thrun, had resigned his tenured professor position and started a company called Udacity, dedicated to teaching not hundreds, but millions. The Stanford administrator went on to say that two more professors were about to launch a similar company. That company turned out to be Coursera, which now corners almost 50 percent of the MOOC market.

The second incident was more simple, and yet equally and perhaps more compelling. As I was watching network TV news, I saw a young boy in a Middle Eastern city pick his way through the rubble of war and violence in order to get to school. His determined little face is something that I will never forget. All he wanted was to learn. . .  simple, and yet, for him, nearly impossible.

Here’s the bottom line: Education is a basic human right, not a privilege. And whether that privilege needs to be extended to a determined little boy in a war zone, or an 18-year-old American who cannot afford the astronomical cost of getting a university degree, learning must be made possible. And it must happen soon.

Higher education must change. Traditional instruction is no longer a feasible singular solution, and online education isn’t just a “nice” alternative to face-to-face instruction. It is different than what we are used to, but it is neither wrong nor “less than” traditional teaching methods—and quite simply, colleges and universities can’t afford to claim it as such.

MOOCs and online education in general are not going away. Instead of funding the construction of bigger buildings or inflating athletic programs, colleges and universities and the alumni and donors who support them should be pouring monies into information technology departments so that online and MOOC learning can occur. And, yes, that may mean that residential student life, cherished by so many, becomes a lesser component of the American college experience.

But if we think for a moment about our nostalgia for that experience, can we not reconcile the loss of it with a greater good? And perhaps find a way to instead cherish the ability to give education to others?

Online education and MOOCs are a financial and a humanitarian necessity.


The First Turning.


Related links: