More on that first job in high school

After my post on my son’s first job, I reached out to a few friends to hear from them about their high school work experiences. Neighbor Allison Fultz, a lawyer at Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, wrote that she

worked as a teaching assistant in a Saturday morning program for gifted kids that I had attended in elementary and middle school. It was quite varied and a lot of fun. And I clearly remember that my father absolutely did not let me skip one day when a bunch of friends (OK, including a boy I was pursuing) were going in to NYC. My father gave me that lecture about the importance of work and the fact that people were relying on me to show up, a lecture I recall to this day. It was also my first exposure to whack-a-doo parents and their still-sweet kids.

What I learned: 1. I gained great pride and a sense of agency from earning my own money. 2. It was my first brush with adults not behaving rationally in public – some of the parents were difficult and demanding, and I had to learn to deal with them firmly but courteously. The kids, by and large, were great. 3. Camaraderie among colleagues is essential. Us teenage helpers got along well. 4. It may sound corny, and was like band, theater and chorus, but being part of an effort that’s larger than yourself conveys great pride and a sense of agency.

Neighbor Dana Cann, author of Ghosts of Bergen County, had this to say:

I went to high school in the late 1970s, and had a number of jobs I hated: caddie, sandwich maker, cafeteria worker. But the one job I liked (and held for fifteen months) was a “houseman” at the Holiday Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. I worked in Banquet Services, setting up rooms for parties and meetings—rolling out tables and chairs, piecing together dance floors and then taking it all down when the events were through. I liked the job because, unlike other jobs I’d had, it was largely unsupervised and never required customer interaction. I worked in teams with one or two others. We got a list of assignments at the start of the shift, and left when those assignments were complete. After-school shifts typically ran from 3-8. Weekend shifts started earlier. The housemen were almost all guys from my high school, college-bound, for the most part, living with parents, and looking to make money for records and stereo components. In contrast, the customer-facing side of Banquet Services was a group of waiters, who served food and beverages at the parties and meetings that the housemen set up and tore down. The waiters were paid more, but were also adults—primarily Latino men with families and rent and car payments and responsibilities we had no curiosity for. There was a generational, racial, and cultural divide between us, obvious even to a sixteen-year-old. What I never considered until much later was how difficult their lives must have been compared to mine. A record album cost $4.99. I could buy a new album every two hours of work. I doubt that the waiters thought of their pay in those terms.

And my college classmate Vaughn Halyard, who runs the Cedar Rapids-based media shop StoryLounge, reminisced about both his first and best jobs in high school:

The first job I had in high school was at a KFC at 14 and half. It was Wisconsin, labor laws were lax, and the money seemed good. It was real world, and I soon found there was little consideration for the need to balance work, education, sports, and homework. School work was disallowed during work hours, which actually made perfect sense given we were pressure cooking battered chicken at about 1200 degrees.

The best job I had in high school was working for one of our track coaches who had a tree trimming service, a fantastic experience that I’m certain would be illegal today in so many OSHA ways. I started at 15 as a “Grunt,” trimming and hauling stumps, scraps, and limbs. We were unburdened by back supports but did have harnesses and tree safety equipment. Most importantly, we had our own hard hats, which were stylishly macho.

I learned the value of perseverance, job promotion and advancement, teamwork…and cash payment. It is with those earnings that I paid for a Jeep that served as a pathway to instant promotion, via a trailer hitch that enabled me to pull scraps and stumps to the junior “Grunts” for them to deal with. I learned about seniority via execution and promotion to “Sawman” (one who uses a chainsaw) and ultimately to a “Squirrel,” one that climbs with spikes and pre-cuts limbs and branches before the tree is felled. In that Jeep I would travel to logging camps in upper Wisconsin and Michigan and serve on crews up there, which was culturally interesting. Before meeting me, the only black people most of those guys had ever seen was on TV or at the movies. Sadly, I’d think twice before venturing back into some of those areas today.

Looking back, the biggest life lesson I learned is that, given the working conditions and risks involved, it is most definitely a miracle that I’m alive to look back at a fantastic set of life lessons.

I got the record album picture here. I got the classroom picture here. Chainsaw guy came from here.

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That first job

Our son has his first job; he works at a local restaurant as a food runner, hustling out plates of food from the kitchen to tables all over the restaurant. He’s pretty happy to have this job, for three reasons, I think: He’s making a few bucks; he’s got an interesting little community to hang with each night that he’s working; and he’s treated as an adult the moment he walks in for his shift. Restaurant shirt on, apron tied tight, he’s put right to work and expected to carry out his duties (and others as assigned) right up to the end of his shift.

We feel pretty lucky that he got this job, as there are not as many jobs for teens as there used to be. As the Atlantic reported in June 2017, “employers are more reluctant to hire [teens]. First, the rise of low-skill immigration in the last few decades has created more competition for exactly the sort of jobs that teenagers used to do, like grocery-store cashiers, restaurant servers, and retail salespeople. Second, older Americans stay in the workforce longer than ever, and many of them wind down their careers in office secretary and retail jobs, which used to be the province of 16-year-olds in the summer.”

As the Atlantic reported, in the summer of 1978, 60 percent of teens were working or looking for work; in the summer of 2016, just 35 percent were. Child Trends reported that in 2015 about 18% of high school students had jobs.

More than 40 years ago, my brothers and I worked all through high school. On weekends we caddied at New Haven Country Club, and during my senior year I had a job at a small pool pump manufacturing plant in our town. A few days a week, I’d go in after school, spend my six hour shift testing pool pumps, to make sure they didn’t leak, and then head home for food, homework, and bed.

I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about my jobs when I was 17 – I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about much at that age – but as I now reflect on it – with our son juggling work, school, college applications, and social stuff – these first jobs can be really important for a young person. First, there’s the personal independence that comes with work – the chance to make a name for yourself out of the house – and to become (somewhat) financially independent, by making a few bucks. Second, there are those soft skills learned: Showing up to work on time, politely interacting with co-workers and customers, being part of a team, working well under pressure, etc.

A job (at least this kind of job) and school are an interesting pair, serving as different places to practice some of the same skills. You hand in your school work on time, and you get to work on time. You collaborate with classmates on a project, and you do the same with your co-workers during the dinner rush. You learn to work with your teacher, and you learn to work with your boss. As school (I hope) develops in our kids the kind of critical thinking skills that will serve them in a variety of settings, a first job (I hope) sets the table for those future jobs, giving young people a small sense of just what work is. No wonder career and technical education programs that are connected with a work place outside of the school can be so powerful for young people, as they build on – even more acutely and intentionally than for our son – that school/work connection.

I got the above picture here.

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Starting school (culture)

Eight years ago, the very first post that I wrote for this blog was about the beginning of the school year, and with school starting all over the country during these next few weeks, I thought I’d revisit this topic, since what that beginning is like for students sets an important tone for the rest of the year, if not beyond. Particularly for young students, a thoughtful, healthy start to the school year can impact how students view school more generally.

I really appreciate those teachers that start the year with just the right mix of big and little picture – as I said in that first blog post, addressing both the forest and the trees. It’s perfectly reasonable and important that teachers get some of the nitty gritty done on those first few days. Procedures for the classroom need to be established, pieces of paper need to be collected, stuff needs to get filled out. But how do you balance that side of those first few days with, for example, sharing the wonder of the topic to be studied or getting to know each other in the classroom?

My friend Bobby Thym, who teaches English at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, TN, wrote that

I remember getting a copy of that book First Days of School, whose writer really hammered the idea that the first week sets the stage for the rest of the year. At a community college there is an expectation to address the syllabus on the first day to let the students get an idea of how much reading and writing they’ll do, and there are procedures in place that are created to address certain problems that might arise (plagiarism, sexual harassment, emergency situations, etc.). I think reviewing the syllabus is great because this act does create a sense of order and premeditation; however, I used to work with a very good teacher who knew the students were being bombarded with a thousand rules on the first day, and he would immediately get his students free-writing to “send the message” that he took the acts of reading and writing seriously. In this stage of my career, I try to synthesize both approaches.

And here’s what I heard from Jessica North Macie, a middle school English teacher at DC’s National Cathedral School:

There are two things I always do in the first days of school: (1) I ask my students to tell me a story about their name. It could be a story about what their name means, where it comes from, how they got a nick name, etc. They tell the class and me the story of their name. (We use serial testimony, which is a technique from the National SEED Project.) From that activity, I make sure I am calling them by the name they want to be known by and pronouncing it correctly.

(2) I ask them to remember a time when they felt they were really learning – when they were feeling “in the groove” of learning. I ask them to close their eyes and remember what was going on in the room at that moment, the sights, sounds, and sensations of that learning moment. Then I ask them to throw out on a big brainstorm map those things that contributed effectively to a great learning environment. From this brainstorm we will generate norms for the classroom – expectations of self, peers, and teacher to establish and support a great learning environment.

Lastly, Dan Ryder, Education Director of the Success and Innovation Center at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine, has his students create a personal users’ manual during those first few days of school:

After reading an article about how helpful these have been in corporate settings, I decided to have my students design user manuals that will help their classmates and me better understand how to best work with that individual. The manual includes things like their strengths, their worries, their feelings about working in teams, their core beliefs and principles, and those things that make them smile and that annoy them.

A great way to get to know your students – and I bet that Dan’s already created his own manual, so that his students get to know him also.

Teachers: What do you do that first week? Parents: What have you seen done that really resonates with you and your cherubs?

I got the school bus photo here.

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Timeless Learning

Three nationally known educators that I respect a great deal – Ira Socol, Chad Ratliffand Pam Moran, all from Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools – have a new book out called Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools. It’s dynamite, and here’s what the three of them had to say about it, school today, educating young people, and hurling. Enjoy!

What led the three of you to write this book? What was its impetus?

The three of us have been talking with each other about education for almost a decade. We all “met” in the early days of Twitter, and we’ve been challenging each other ever since. In 2010 we began working together in Albemarle County, and in ways big and small, we teamed with great educators there to transform the learning experience for every child. We’ve written about these transformations separately and together and presented to groups across the nation – and beyond – separately and together. We finally decided that this was a story worth putting together, a story that could both inspire and offer hope to educators everywhere.

Why the focus on progressive education? What drew you to write from that perspective and about that topic?

As Chad says at the start of one chapter, “There are really only two types of schooling, that which is meant to assimilate and oppress and that which is to enlighten and empower.” So there is “progressive education” – which to us means paying close attention to the “timeless” ways humans learn – or there is what we might call “adult-centric formal education.”  Ira adds in that same chapter, “We don’t ask kids to develop ‘grit,’ we choose to surround them with whatever abundance we can muster. We don’t choose adult comfort at the expense of children’s. We choose to do what our kids need.” That’s our viewpoint. We disagree, in profound ways, with both the high-stakes test culture and the “grit narrative.” We believe in children, in childhood, in curiosity, in exploration, in collaboration, in play.

You begin each chapter with dialogue among the three of you, which is often about philosophy. Do you ever disagree with each other? And, if so, what about?

We disagree a lot. Of course we do. Ira and Chad actually debated fiercely with each other on Twitter in 2007 and 2008, as they worked toward an understanding of what was important to them – Ira coming from a postcolonial view, Chad from a more entrepreneurial, changemaker position. Pam and Ira, Pam and Chad, or all three of us – we have argued and challenged each other through all of our time together. We arrive from different school experiences, from very different adult experiences, and we’ve had very different roles to play. So we will argue about what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, about how we work with others, about strategies, but we are brought together in our understandings of the need to do better for kids.

Who is the book’s audience – and why?

Timeless Learning doesn’t read like the typical education book of these days. It’s a complex, somewhat circular narrative because none of us are linear thinkers, and all three of us are storytellers by nature. That said, we think this is a great book for teachers for the hope it offers and the support it presents. We think that it’s very important reading for educational leaders in any role because it presents proven-on-the-ground beliefs and actions. For those studying education – either as pre-service teachers or as graduate students in leadership – Timeless Learning offers a different narrative, a different way of thinking about how to make schools great places for kids to be – great places for every kid. Parents, too, are finding value in the book.  Many parents of young children came through school in the “accountability era” which, in many schools, was a double-down on compliance-based, test prep schooling, and they don’t want their own children to endure that.

You write in the afterword that you purposefully avoided focusing on data. Why, particularly in this day and age?

There are all kinds of data; people need to remember that. Measuring children – or schools – on linear, numerical scales is one way; we just don’t think that’s necessarily the best way. Ira has called the 2002 grad-school-standard text Scientific Research in Education “the most dangerous book published this century,” much to the consternation of some of his graduate school professors. He says the book implied that only one method of research really mattered, and that method reduced human children to numbers. But we see a very different kind of data as essential. It may start where one of our Australian collaborators does, “Where do we count the moments when a kid smiles for the first time?,” as Tomaz Lasic has asked. Chad watches for that “closed down” teen who joins a conversation with her peers. Pam rides school buses, sits on the floor in classrooms, talks to kids cutting classes in high school corridors, looking for everything from mood to relationships. Ira looks at kids’ feet as they sit in classrooms and counts the number of kids moving on their own through hallways to measure boredom and trust. Our book is filled with data, just not what people today think is data.

Thinking about the title: What do you mean by “zero-based thinking”?

Zero-based thinking is, in education, this idea: Imagine if you’d never seen a school, never heard of a school. How might you plan to get our kids from four-year-olds to 18-year olds, or 22-year-olds? What would you do? What would you want to do? That sounds extreme, but it’s the way real change is developed. Pam often talks about the “Bell Labs Moment.” In the very early 1950s an AT&T executive challenged the entire Bell Labs staff, “the entire phone system of the United States has been destroyed; now, how would you build a new system?” In those days of copper wire, rotary dials, and mechanical switching, the engineers developed – over the next 12 months – everything we now have in phones. They developed the basics of push-button dialing, cell phones, messaging, and microwave transmissions, because they were freed from, as Tyack and Cuban say“tinkering towards utopia.”

Now, there’s a balance. We start with observation and mapping the present state; find out where you are. Then – this next step returns to that research model because it’s never about one change but it’s about moving toward the environment you want (use of space, pedagogy, technology, etc.) – begin the changes that move toward that zero-based desired state. That desired state for every child needs to be your north star.

Lastly, just what is “timeless learning”?

Humans…well, everything is born ready to learn. Watch a two-year-old explore her world. Watch a four-year-old play in a puddle. Kids learn at this incredible rate birth to four or five, and then we impose “formal” education and the learning curve collapses – and not just during school hours. We literally teach most kids that learning is boring and painful and that it comes from passive information intake.

Pam and Ira visited a school outside Limerick, Ireland a few years ago – a small primary school, pre-K through grade six, about 40-something kids and two teachers. The verbal skills, the collaboration skills, the vocabulary, and the depth of understanding was astounding. We noticed a few things; one was the multi-age nature of the school (common in Irish primary schools), another was the peer mentoring and support, still another was the consistent complex adult vocabulary the teachers used with the kids, and another was the level of responsibility the kids were entrusted with. But here was the main thing: the school culture was predicated on the County Tipperary obsession with the sport of hurling. Every child had a helmet and “hurley” (the wooden stick the game is played with) under their desk. When they took breaks from the classrooms, almost all the kids engaged in a mass free-for-all version of the game. It was beautiful to see, and it built this great combination of competitiveness and camaraderie that drove things forward. But not every kid played, and that was fine too. Small groups of others just played catch with their sticks or just talked. Just as in the classroom, one highly dyslexic fifth grader videoed other students reading and talking on an old broken-screen iPhone. He gathered information and knowledge differently, and again, that was fine.

The point is that “timeless learning” is learning. It isn’t school. It isn’t really formal education as we know it. It is taking the natural routes of learning and giving those back to children.


Get Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools online and from independent booksellers. And follow the authors on Twitter: @csratlff, @pammoran, @irasocol, and @timelesslrng.

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What I learned on my college campus visits

I was talking with someone this weekend, who told me that his three children did not undertake the traditional ritual of visiting college campuses before they applied but rather applied, got an admissions decision, and then decided to visit the campus as part of the final decision-making process. Now, I get that approach, particularly if a student is living overseas or does not have the time or the funds to see a handful of schools before applying.

Over the past several months, I’ve found our pre-application college visits to be incredibly eye-opening – and I think they’ve given our son some sense of these different campuses and what it’d be like to be on that campus for four years. I can’t imagine going into the application process without the information that we gathered during those various visits. These campuses are not “all the same” and therefore not worth visiting, as this gentleman told me the other day; to me they’re very, very different.

Now, yes, they’re not all that different when it comes to athletic facilities (stunning) and dining halls (with their innumerable choices). I was more interested in what I could pick up about the culture of each admissions office and, therefore, the culture of the college.

For example, on one tour, the admissions officer spent an inordinate amount of time on facts and figures as it relates to the admissions process – such as deadlines for applications – facts and figures that we could get online. It felt like a lecture, and I was reminded of our sour kindergarten orientation when we were told what forms to fill out and when. Contrast that visit with another during which the admissions rep gave an elegant description of the three “campuses” that students inhabit – the college itself, the city that surrounds it, and then a national/international context – all without a PowerPoint deck. It told me a great deal about the school, its beliefs, and its hopes for its students – and I can go look up the application deadline if I need it!

I appreciated the care that went into preparing people (such as the person that spoke about the three campuses) and materials for our visits. On one campus, we sat in an auditorium waiting for the info session to start, and running was a promotional video, its upbeat music soundtrack by various groups from the college.

There were wonderful unspoken moments on these tours too: At one college, in the wing where the office of admissions was situated, there was the college president’s office, right at the very front corner, the first office you saw as you walked in, the door to it wide open. That was a very obvious choice by the college to put that office there, and I loved the symbolism of it being front and center. (An added bonus: Stumptown coffee was served!) In contrast on another campus, our (poorly prepared) tour guide pointed to a window high on a tower and said that’s where the president resides. We squinted up at the window through the sunshine – and then hustled on to the next stop on the tour.

There were few moments of outright honesty and transparency during these visits, as colleges and universities pay a lot of attention to the story that’s told the moment that potential applicants land on campus (even if that story falls flat, as it did with our facts and figures lecture). Perhaps my favorite moment from one of our first tours was the care and attention that we got from a member of the college’s music department, outside the control of the admissions office. He’d just finished teaching, it was a hot and humid Southern afternoon, and he was sweating through his blue blazer, mopping at his brow. But that did not stop him as he excitedly walked us around the music building, up and down stairs, even interrupting a student’s lesson to intro us to the professor giving it. This music department tour guide was a wonderful mess – and it told me a lot about that department and how things might work at the larger college and the city surrounding it. Luckily, there were more unscripted moments like this during other campus tours.

The college application process can be stress-filled for high school students and their families, but the college visit part of that process is not at all, in my opinion. Each visit is like an archaeological dig, unearthing information about the college or university with each utterance from a student guide, with each dorm room selected to see, with each slide from the PP deck used for the info session. For me, these visits were a great kick off for the rest of process; they told me a lot about what turned out to be very, very different places.

I got the first pic from here. I got the second one here.

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More on AP classes

(I shared my AP course post from Jul 11 with my friend and former colleague Robyn Harper; here’s what she had to say about AP.)

Public schools (both high school and college) often have to compete with private school in a number of ways. Public school graduates often feel inferior to private school graduates, regardless of the actual performance of the private school or its students. In some places, public schools have to compete with private schools for both students and funding.

Of course, private schools must operate in a way that attracts new students to their doors, but I think it’s important to understand that because the general public tends to have a biased view of private schools as “better” or more “forward thinking,” the decisions that they make around curriculum truly do influence the public opinion and expectations for what “the best education” looks like.

While AP courses leave a lot to be desired, for a lot of students, including myself, the worst AP course available to me [in my high school] offered rigor far beyond what was offered in the standard classes. Not to mention there are still so many students that don’t have access to even those.

AP courses offer public schools at least an objective measure of equitable access to rigor that can serve as a starting point to address the deeper issues that you do in your blog. However, if private schools are changing the “trend” and AP courses are no longer seen as a mark of rigorous coursework, how do we expect public students (especially from underserved schools) to compete?

If the AP courses I took in high school were dismissed as not being good enough by college admissions officers, I don’t know if I would have gotten the acceptances I did. I’m not saying that I even passed the AP tests – just the fact that I took the courses and did well in them were evidence that I performed well in the most rigorous coursework available to me.

So while private schools may be better to hold themselves accountable to ensure rigor without AP courses, I still believe [these classes] set the tone for public schools that still need objective measures of rigor for both accountability and equity.

Perhaps it would be important then for private schools who do choose to move away from AP to also take up the responsibility of developing and testing a measure of rigor to share with everyone else.

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