Be Kind to Be Free: Escaping the Bully Free Zone


I stand on a stage in a large, echoey cafeteria. Beneath me is a sea of children sitting on the tile floor.  I ask the question I always ask when I begin Force Field for Good, my singing assembly for kindness.“Why be kind?”  The answers range from a kindergartner who says ,

“You have to be nice to people, so that they will be nice to you?” to a fifth  grader who says,”You have to be nice to people so you don’t get in trouble.” This is my favorite part to of the assembly because it is the part where I get a read on the culture of the school.  Ironically, I’ve found it is often the schools that have defined kindness for their students are the schools where the question, “Why be Kind?”is the most problematic.

This is one of those schools. I could tell from the moment I entered its main hallway and noticed  two giant posters. The first proclaims, This School is a Bully Free Zone; the second,  Learning is Our Number 1 Priority.   Am I the only one to see the irony here? If kindness were the goal, perhaps loving should be the number one priority, or caring, or even children?

On the walls of the echoey cafeteria, quotes from famous athletes exhort the importance of determination, as if grit itself  were a moral virtue. Wayne Gretzky: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Babe Ruth: You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.

I find myself talking back to these quotes.  Wayne, you say that you miss 100 percent of the shots you  don’t take, but isn’t it good to share the puck once in a while? You don’t have to hog it  to win, do you? Don’t we achieve more through cooperation?

Babe, I know you don’t want me to give up, but what if I am doing something wrong? In that case, its isn’t it healthy give up, to say sorry, to ask for forgiveness?  How will we ever learn if we never give up? How will we grow to love each other more perfectly if our individual pursuits always supersede our need for connection? Giving up would be a virtue for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.  

Like many others across the country, this school has identified the lack of resilience as a problem and purchased a “leadership” program to inspire children to try harder.  The program has an acronym all children have memorized and will willingly shout at the principal’s command. Memorizing acronyms that can be shouted back at you have become a necessary component of these systems. Perhaps there is something wrong with me, but it’s always disturbing to hear a room of children barking out words like caring, respect, and helpfulness on command. I know the intentions of these efforts are good and that most administrators think these programs bring unity and a common language, but I also think that deep down inside, they know it’s all window dressing. To truly understand kindness, citizenship, the golden rule, or respect for others, students must do more than memorize a few words and shout them back. True learning has less to do with obeying rules and much more to do with living by a single principle. Human beings have free will, and only when they act freely do their actions have meaning.

Here is a the question I wish these school leaders would ask.  When we teach kindness, are we teaching children compliance or are we teaching children agency? Are we teaching students to obey our rules, or are we teaching them to reflect and act for themselves, to apply the one golden rule in any given situation?

I learned this from Colleen Mestdagh, a second grade teacher in Michigan, who wrote to me after sharing my song, “Know your Higher Self,” with her students.  The song’s chorus, which Colleen taught her students with sign language, transformed the social emotional learning in her classroom. It goes like this.

Know your higher self

Take it off the shelf

Give it room to play

Every single day,

Forget about the fight

Reach for what is right

You can teach yourself to fly

When you want to cry.

According to Colleen, after learning the song and discussing words, her students began to reflect about their higher selves  and whether they were using them. What’s more, they spontaneously began applying the concept to characters in novels and movies. One observed, The character Woody in Toy Story 2 was being his higher self when he went  to rescue Wheezy the penguin, who was about to be sold in the yard sale, but not being his higher self when he got mad and jealous of Buzz Lightyear.  Another noticed, The character Jack in the book Wonder  was being his higher self when he makes friends with Augie but not being his higher self when laughs along with the bullies at Augie’s expense.. Connections with characters lead to connections with life experience.   Another student reflected, I was not being my higher self today when I refused to let the new kid sit with me at the lunch table but when I helped my sister with her homework I was being my higher self.

Colleen looked at each one of the  class rules her students had created together at the beginning of the school year with her guidance.  In a flash of inspiration, she realized that her students could not truly follow any of these rules without practicing being their higher selves.  So, she reasoned, why not just forget all these little rules and replace them with one simple rule not just to follow, but to live by. Be your higher self.

Colleen said that what came next was more than miraculous.  In the past, children would follow rules or they would break them.  Always there was finger pointing. “He didn’t follow the rule. She didn’t; follow rule 3.” After these crimes were committed, students expected Colleen, their  almighty teacher and protector, to dole out the punishment. Without a list of rules to follow, everything shifted and the victim and the perpetrator of the crime were left asking themselves one simple question, “Was I being my higher self?” It was no longer a straightforward decision of who was good and who was bad.  Suddenly it was not so clear who was to blame. If a student pushes another student, he is breaking a serious rule, but what if that violence came about because the victim of the pushing had teased the perpetrator? Both students share in some of the blame, and both students can take some of the responsibility.   I wasn’t being my higher self when I teased you. Sorry. I wasn’t being my higher self when I pushed you. Sorry.

What surprised Colleen the most was that having one rule gave her students more agency to work out their own conflicts. The locus of control shifted from the all powerful teacher judge to the students, who came to her more to confess their personal failures than to point fingers at each other.  Eventually, Colleen created a mediation space in her classroom where students could talk through their problems without her assistance. Self reflection became a habit. Her second graders were no longer following rules. They were living by simple rule that was not easy to follow: Be your higher self.

At Franconia Elementary School in Souderton, Pennsylvania,where the school embraced the Force Field for Good, bus drivers and other adults make one comment on the changed behavior of the students. They seem calmer.  When a  little boy said to the bus driver,“Could I sit up front?” the bus driver asked him why.  He replied,”I think I will make better choices if I sit there.” Principal Lana noticed that children seemed not to be just following rules anymore.  The one rule gave them control. There was no need for a bully-free zone at the school because children were practicing and reflecting on kindness wherever they went and whatever they did. She also noted that the concept of the bully free zone often didn’t apply to places like the bus, where no one was looking.  Children were taking more responsibility for their own behavior everywhere.

As I reflect on Colleen’s class and what I have seen in other classes that  have embraced the Force Field for Good, I realize what bothers me most about those quotes from Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth is that they frame success for children in binary terms. You try hard and you succeed. You don’t try and you fail. Life is either or.  When we apply this type of thinking to behaviors like kindness, we end up with the bully-free zone. What immediately happens in such cultures is that children, start pointing fingers. “You are being a bully or you are not being a bully. Bullying is seen as a crime and the word itself has been given more power than it deserves.

Imagine a world where there are no bully-free zones, a world where each person is responsible for their own behavior and able to admit to each other when they inevitably screw up.  Imagine a world where you are never just good or bad, a world where we all know we are seen for who we truly are: works in progress. This is a world where children are safe to fail and not afraid to say, “I’m sorry.” Success is no longer about winning. Success is about telling the truth, learning to admit personal failure, accepting our humanity  and seeking redemption from each other.

In  this world,  when you ask the question, Why be kind?, you will have your answer.

Be kind to be free.

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Reaching for the Chicken Salad: an essay for Teacher Appreciation Week



It is my first eulogy. I stand here with my guitar in the packed room at the Tasker Funeral Home in Dover, New Hampshire. To my left lies a wooden coffin. In it lies Miss Carolyn Foley, my fourth grade teacher, the great teacher who changed my life, the teacher you remember forever. I have spent a career working with teachers, and I have been eulogizing the woman in this coffin in my talks and books. I have written a song about Miss Foley, and I will sing that song to her for the last time today. But before I do, I will tell these people what she meant to me. I will remember the time she made me MC of the talent show, the time she asked me to make a dreidel when all the other children were making Josephs and Marys. (Back then the Christian religion was practiced openly in public school.) Miss Foley would not let me hide my differentness. On the contrary, she required I celebrate it. She was the first person to tell me it’s okay to be who you are; you don’t have to squeeze yourself into a little box to survive. She made school a safe place to grow and to learn.

That’s what I say when I try to describe Miss Foley’s effect on me to teachers today. I say it because today teachers are under so much pressure to fit themselves into ever smaller boxes. With the insatiable corporate need to turn the art of teaching into efficiency skill acquisition and data management, something has been lost – and it only can be rediscovered when we think of the teachers who made a permanent mark on our lives.

Close your eyes and think of your greatest teachers right now. Do you say to yourself, “She was so wonderful.  She followed the curriculum so thoroughly. She kept the 4-inch binder of expectations on her desk. It inspired us so!”

Probably not.

Researcher Mark Wasicsko has found the 4 things that make teachers like Miss Foley.

  1. They feel connected with everyone they meet. They don’t see themselves as separate or above others.
  2. They are hopelessly and endlessly naive. They never give up on anybody.
  3. They realize that at the end of the day, it’s is not about what they are teaching. It is about something larger than themselves. They are not teaching algebra. They are teaching children, teenagers, world citizens. They keep their eyes on the prize.
  4. It’s all about relationships. Great teachers create a comfortable place to learn. It’s always about people and never about things.

As I read these four qualities, I see at least two or three in every teacher who has made a lasting impression on my life.  Many of these teachers, I’m sure, are not even aware of their effect on me. I think of my first and only modern dance class and how hopeless I am. There is a never ending critical voice in my head chiding me for each failed attempt at a plié. Then, every so often I do something almost half right and I hear my teacher Patti say just 2 words, “Go Barry.” She sees the success and ignores the rest.

I think of Mrs. Schram, my 10th grade English teacher who lets us bring in lyrics to our favorite songs and analyze the words for the April poetry unit. I bring in “A Working Class Hero” by John Lennon, a song with the F-bomb in it. She seems unfazed when the song plays. It is not about the shock of that one bad word; it is about what Lennon is trying to say. The last words of the song are, “If you want to be a hero well just follow me.” Mrs. Schram asks me, what Lennon means by that.  I think, Gee, I never thought about that before. I come up with a few ideas. Marry Yoko, leave the Beatles. Do drugs? Not as deep a song as I had originally thought once it was under the microscope.

Back in fourth grade, Miss Foley asks us to do projects that take all year long in a school where most assignments are done before the mimeograph fluid dries. Mine is on Egypt, and I work on it with Julianna Hill. Miss Foley lets us stay in at recess to consult with her, our valued colleague, about our project. This is important stuff, far more important than school. We are archeologists uncovering past civilizations. We drink cocoa.



Song parody by Paul Hankins and Barry Lane


I give my eulogy for Miss Foley. I am surprised by the lump that rises up in my throat and makes me unable to finish a thought without heaving a few sobs. Later, I realize my sadness is not just grief for Miss Foley. I grieve for all the teachers who are not Miss Foley, for all the boring classes, all the vocabulary lists, all the senseless reprimands, all the rules we followed just because they were rules. I visit some schools  today where all teachers are following some prescribed, scripted, program for standardized teaching. The lessons are precise, scientific, and efficient, worked out by well-credentialed researchers. Administrators love to know everyone is on the same page, but they rarely talk about the need for teacher agency, teacher creativity, teacher and student passion. On the contrary, compliance and fidelity are the words applied to successful teachers using these programs.

Miss Foley was teaching something much bigger than that, something you could not put your finger on. You could call it life,  but it was more like freedom, or joy or love. Like the four qualities in Mark Wasicsko’s research, they cannot easily be assessed because they can never be automated. Proficiency-based education requires we see schools as skill factories where teachers must gear their lessons to these tested skills. If we adopt this view of school, teachers like Miss Foley will not not be needed. Teaching can be turned into a computer skill acquisition game, and what we call teachers today will become like cooks at McDonald’s and not skilled chefs in their own dynamic bistros. Many rich, powerful and smart people are advocating for this limited kind of learning. Many brilliant teachers are leaving the profession because they don’t see a place for the kind of teaching that changes lives forever. Too much of their time is taken up with busy work, test prep, and pointless data collection.

In the Army they have a word for all the crap you have to do just because someone orders you to do it. They call it “chicken shit,” a term that ironically also refers to a lack of courage.

At the reception after the funeral, I reach for another chicken product: a chicken salad sandwich in a finger bun. A voice comes from behind me.

She is an older woman with well quaffed head of gray hair.

“I loved what you said about Cal,” she says.

“Thank you,” I reply, but can tell there is something more behind her eyes. I pause, drop the sandwich on my paper plate, and wait.

“Your song was beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“You know, I also taught in Dover for 30 years,” she says.

“Oh really?”

She tells me which school and we discuss dates.

Light streams in through the stained glass window and falls over the basket of potato chips.

Then, almost like an after thought, she turns, looks me straight in the eye, and says.“No student ever wrote a song about me.”

I look down at my plate.  I nod, not quite knowing what to say.

Inside, I vow to tell this story to every group of teachers I meet.

Life passes so quickly.  Blink and your children are grown. Blink again and your career is over. Blink again and you are lying in a coffin in a room full of  former students. All we have is the memories we make.

Can we make big memories?

Can we teach in such a way that our students will write songs about those memories?

Can we live our own song each day?

Can we vow to know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad?

WSRA Cabaret.001.jpeg


Return to the Pencil Planet: A Tribute to Miss Foley

I  can tell you the exact moment I became a writer. It was 4th grade, 1964. Miss Carolyn Foley stands at the front of the class wearing that  familiar green dress that clings to her stately frame.  She holds a picture clipping from a magazine in her hand  and moves to the blackboard.  Her high heel shoes make clicking sounds on the dark tile floor as we sit there at our school desks in anticipation.

“Today we are going to try something different,” she says, emphasis on the word “different”.

“We are going to write with our imagination.  We are going to let our imagination carry our words. You might not know what that means yet but that doesn’t matter.  You will find out when you start to write.”

She pins the picture to the bulletin board and steps back like an artist trying to gain perspective.

“Look at this photograph and let your imagination find the words to describe what you see. Write a story about the picture. Don’t worry about your spelling or your grammar at first. You can fix that later.  Don’t let it make you lose your train of thought”

She moved away from the bulletin board and beckoned us to leave our seats and look at the photo one row at a time. When it came my turn I stood there for a good 10 minutes staring at the photo or the little pink elephant with the worried look on his face standing in a forest of yellow pencils with their pink erasers thrusting into the deep blue sky. What would I write about? I thought, as I sat back at my desk .  By now all my classmates had begun scribbling away on the paper, the distinct sound of lead scraping paper in stereo all around me. Each scrape seemed to sharpen my sense of failure.  What were they writing  about, I thought for a moment and then I remembered Miss Foley’s words, “let your imagination carry your words.”

Suddenly it came to me:  I could just make up a story about the little elephant and how he got to this place.  I didn’t have to tell a real story.  There  was no right answer here.  The first sentence  lept onto  the page before I was conscious of picking up the pencil.

“Once upon a time there was an elephant who had forgotten who he was, because , of course ,  elephants are very forgetful.”

In the story the elephant thinks he is a person and gets ridiculed by the people around  him for the way he looks and the way he continues to break furniture when he sits on it.   He is eventually helped by a kind doctor who tells him there is a place he can go to find his stories.  The place was called the pencil planet and you go there to write the  stories that tell you who you are.   The elephant goes to the planet and learns to write with his trunk, creates a land where creatures like him live and has many friends.  He gets to live inside the stories he creates and for the first time in this life he is not alone.

All of the students in the class had finished their stories  in the 20 minutes before recess.  My story was completed a month later. Miss Foley gave me special permission to take it home and make a book out of it.  I remember staying up late at night,  pacing back and forth in my bathrobe like the young Flaubert musing about my story. “what would happen next.  How would I end it?  Should there be a sequel? I made  carefully colored illustrations and borrowed my mother’s stapler to make the book. When I brought it into class, Miss Foley held it up for all to see and read it  slowly with deep emotion.  Soon, I had a small cult following in the back of the room.   They would ask me when my next book was coming out.  What was it going to be about.  There was  no doubt in my mind now–I was  a writer.

Looking back, I realize my story about the elephant was really about me.  My parents were 2nd generation immigrant Jews who had spent much  of their childhood rejecting the old world values of their parents and moving into mainstream American society.  My father had changed his name from Zysblatt to Lane to give it a slightly more anglo sound.   He had grown up in great poverty in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and ended up taking his family to Dover,  New Hampshire on the coat tails of the company he worked for.  Being one of the only Jewish children in a public school where Christian religion was openly practiced added to a feeling of alienation.  Miss Foley sensed this and asked me to tell the story of Chanukah to the class and make a paper mache dredel from a Dixie cup while all the rest of the class was making Josephs and Marys for the crèche.  She knew that writing was not only an academic skill but an essential tool for self-expression. She nurtured our sense of self through our writing and like the elephant in my story, I gained acceptance.

Here is a photo of the young Miss Foley.


Sometimes I hold it up at my writing seminars and ask the teachers who attend to think of their great writing teachers. You know  who I mean, the teacher who saw you for who you were , or the teachers who held a high standard and taught with passion and clarity.  I tell them one of my favorite stories about Miss Foley.  She once wrote a reading grant and bought guitars for every student in her class.  The name of the grant was Guitars with Strings Attached and she made the case that reading chords   G D A F   was decoding.  For 28 years she got to school one half hour early and tuned guitars. She taught every student in her class to play the old folk some Tom Dooley on the guitar.

Sometimes I stop at this point in the story and I turn to the room of teachers of all grade levels and subjects. I ask them, “Could you do this in today’s classroom with all the demands placed on teachers from above?”  Most of the heads shake no in an almost spring loaded reflex. Only a few veteran  teachers in the back give a slight affirmative nod, not wanting to tip their hand.  These are the teachers who sit in the back row at staff meetings, that mona Lisa smile planted firmly on their faces whenever new meaningless directives are handed down  from above.  These are the teachers who will do right for their students no matter what they are told to do from above.

Then I ask the second question.  “How many think they could do more than they are doing to bring your passion and  your self into the classroom.”  Then the nods come almost in unison. Every teacher has a Miss Foley inside, waiting to be born.

I remember 15 years ago when I went back to visit Miss Foley in her house on Silver Street in Dover , New Hampshire.  I knew exactly where she lived because we had gone there for a field trip once to look at her bird feeders.  We marched over their singing world war 1  songs. “Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail as those caissons go rolling along….”

Like many people I had passed her house many times over the years on visits to my parents and occasionally I would think about trying to visit but I never did.  Now,I walked up the familiar long brick walk way to the front door.  I knocked and like magic she appeared.  At first I thought she was a lot shorter, then I remembered  I  was only 4 feet tall in the fourth grade.  Her hair had turned gray,  and there were more wrinkles but those eyes sparkled with the same passion,.

‘Do  you remember me’, I asked.  ( perhaps the teacher’s worst nightmare scenario) but she did, “  Barry.” Was the only word she said as we embraced.

Later, I found out that not only did she remember me. She remembered exactly where I sat,  “right next to her desk.”  As we sat in her living room sipping cranberry juice I tried to tell he what she meant to me.  I remembered one morning, near the beginning of  the school year , before I wrote Return to the Pencil Planet,  that if I could write small enough and faint enough my penmanship might  appear neat because the entire page would be blank.  I sharpened a few pencils and assumed  my  medieval scribe writing position hunched over my wooden desk.  Miss Foley was making her rounds.  I felt her hand gently touch my shoulder and she said,  “Barry, what happened to your wonderful, looping letters.”  I exhaled deeply and began to write in my normal fashion.   Later I would reflect that this was perhaps the only time in school I remember a teacher saying , it’s ok  to be like you are already, that you just don’t have to squeeze yourself into a  little box to survive.  barry-001


When I told my story, Miss Foley paused and said, “ Barry I have a confession to make to you.  You know how you would see this beautiful handwriting on the blackboard.  I would get into school early, draw staff lines across the blackboard and then erase the little lines so the principal would think I had great handwriting too.”

Like all the great ones in education, be they teachers or administrators, Miss Foley did not pass down the anxiety she felt from above to her students.   She knew how to create a safe zone for learning.  She didn’t follow the curriculum. The  curriculum followed her.

Some might argue that we teach to  create better workers who can communicate ideas with precision, depth and clarity to their bosses.  Other’s might say it’s to succeed on  tests that measure student and school success and show the world how smart we are as a nation.  Others , like myself, might look at the bigger picture and say we teach to create  productive, creative citizens who contribute to this democratic way of life.   But as I think about Miss Foley and my story, the Pencil Planet,  I think of the Greek God Apollo who proclaimed, “Know thyself.”

We teach to help ourselves and our students find out who they are.


Humans on a Plane: Circa 2013: My First Encounter with Competency Based Education: a True Story

He sat next to me on a plane to Houston. He was a big man with a dark beard, and his name was Al. He worked for a company that tailored software to the needs of human beings, the end users of the software. His company specialized in what is called ‘human interface,’ a very mechanical term for a very human thing. He explained that his job was to interview people who were beta testing software and get their input so that the software could be reshaped to make it more useful to their jobs. I told him I was an educator, and he told me he had recently began working with NYC schools based on a multi-million dollar grant from Mayor Bloomberg (the guy who took over city schools).

“It’s been frustrating experience working in schools.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The software company that hired us doesn’t seem to want suggestions from teachers,” he said. “Last week I went to this school and met with some. Many of them had good suggestions on how to make the software more useful in the classroom, but the company rejected all of them. We had another meeting and this one teacher, a guy, made some wonderful suggestions to make the program more useful, yet the company told me not to pay attention to that guy. He was a ‘troublemaker.’”

Al ate a couple of pretzels and glanced out the window at the puffy clouds.Then he turned back to me and said.

“Then, they told me out straight out: We are not interested in changing the program for teachers. We want teachers to do what we tell them to do. Apparently, they did not want real feedback. My company was hired because it looked good on paper that they were listening to teachers. It was all window dressing.“

Al was puzzled. He had been successful working with all sorts of Fortune 500 corporations, and the key to making the software better was listening to the needs of its users. Why didn’t this education software company feel the same way?

“Welcome to the world of education reform,” I told Al as the flight attendant handed him a beer. “ Many of the people who seek to reform education have little or no respect for the work that the best teachers do.” I felt that familiar anger rising. “What is called education reform is built on a distrust of teachers and total trust in un-vetted digital technologies that in the mind of business leaders will will individualize learning electronically and somehow replace teachers and lower the per pupil cost. Teachers are now seen as lowly implementers of these wonderful advanced systems of “personalized” learning. In the mind of these companies teachers are now tech support for students interacting with the light screens of enlightenment. These new McDonalds of education need only compliant line cooks who follow orders, not artful chefs who create their own gourmet learning meals. “

He sipped on his beer and I continued.


“Teachers are now seen as the hand, patting the shoulder of students staring into computer screens. You see pictures like this on the websites of these software companies. The smiling teacher in the background, the delighted child gazing at the screen in wonder. This is also, of course, driven by the need of these companies to profit greatly off the trillions of public school tax dollars that could be better spent loweringclass size and investing in school libraries, librarians, arts programs, higher teacher salaries, buildings and professional development. Years of research show that funding these things results in real school improvement. You won’t find private prep schools using these lockstep programs for teaching and assessment.  They prefer the good old-fashioned, real, professional teachers; small classes and all the arts and sciences for their elite students. They have digital technology, but it is used as a tool in the classroom, not a way to replace real teaching, real thinking, and real learning. Programs like these are used in public and especially charter schools that teach the poor and rely on unskilled teachers who are easy to mold into the scheme.’

Al nodded as I spoke. We gathered our pretzel bags, and handed them to the almost smiling flight attendant. He thanked me for my insight.  It helped him to understand why his job in NYC schools was so frustrating and when the plane landed he looked at his smartphone and groaned.

“Oh damn,” he said as the plane lurched to a stop at the gate.

“They cancelled my meeting.”  He shook his head in disbelief.

“Al,” I said, “Your meeting was not cancelled.”

“What do you mean?”

I pointed to him and then back to me.

“This was your meeting.”

He smiled and we share a knowing look only humans who connect randomly on plane’s share.


Later I searched online for the education software company Al’s company had contracted with. I clicked on the about us button and saw a page full of grinning head shots of 30-somethings. The company was composed entirely of MBAs and a series of Teach for America graduates (Ivy League college students who took a 5 week mini-course in teaching and then became teachers in inner city schools). There was not a single professional teacher in the mix. Today this company is working in many states, not just New York.

Now, three years  after this meeting on a plane, we have the ESSA law which green lights “Competency Based Education” to replace testing and computer programs that “personalize” learning and assess students each day or week.  Entire school districts are buying into these un-vetted, expensive technologies because they promise “results” and a free pass on accountability. Fake graduates schools of education ,like Relay Graduate school, have been sanctioned by the ESSA law to support these systems with narrowly trained teachers ready to do what the program tells them.  The  year-end assessment is now replaced by the daily or weekly assessment of competency with no thought to all the interactive learning time or teacher agency lost to students plunked in front of computer screens.  Parents can go online  each day to see how their child is doing.  Parents will not be able to opt their children out of these programs (as they can with standardized tests) because a large part of their schooling will be based on this program.

Our only hope is that school districts  and parents are informed about what real teachers do and will use new technology to enhance learning, not replace it with these snake oil schemes.    Competency or proficiency measured by a machine, even one that promises to personalize learning, will never honor the unique mind and spirit of our children.  When we resist such programs, we are not taking a stand against progress or digital literacy. We are neither luddites nor dinosaurs, but rather human beings seeking genuine “human interface” for our human children and their human teachers.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand … So Please Put Down the Calipers

 for Dr. Jennifer Cook  who held the hand of so many new teachers.  We will never forget you.


I was in my car listening to Spotify, the streaming music service with over 20 million songs.  At a stoplight I had typed in Beatles and waited for the music to start as I sped up the road. It started with an oldie,  I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the song I first heard when I was in third grade. “Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll under stand .  When I say that something, I wanna hold your hand…” For second or two,  I had a  sweet memory of me and my two friends Mark Veillux and John Kenney and I  singing the song in front of the class to start the morning in third grade.  I was Paul, Mark was John and John was George. Ringo was the  imaginary guy behind us that we would nod to occasionally.   We closed our eyes and shook are heads on the “  I want to hold your Haaaaaaannnd” line to get the full Beatle excitement.  I’m not sure the girls were that impressed , but for just a brief moment, we  were the Beatles. And our teacher, in a moment of spontaneous wisdom, had granted it be so.

As I listened now, driving down the interstate, something was terribly wrong.  The chords were the same , the arrangements the same, and the voices the same , but something  indescribable was missing.  I glanced at my smart phone and instantly saw the problem.   This was not the Beatles, (whose music is so heavily licensed it only made it to Itunes a few years ago). This was a Beatles tribute band, a group of four men whose sole purpose is to replicate Beatles music note for note,  word for word, to adoring  Beatles fans.   They were a live band pretending to be a dead band.  They were a group with a past, but no present, and no future. They were a Xerox machine with instruments.

I started to meditate on what was missing in a tribute’s band performing a Beatles song  compared to real artist like Stevie Wonder covering  We Can Work it Out on his Sign, Sealed , Delivered album.  Wonder interpreted the song,  he brought his unique spirit and voice  to the Beatles words.   The Beatles tribute band was not allowed to interpret or reimagine the song. Their performance was measured on how well they could imitate and duplicate the Beatles standard performance. In a flash, I had an uncomfortable realization on what is really wrong with our mandated Common Core  Standards approach to education and the high stakes  assessments to which they are so tightly bound. We are turning our students, teachers and administrators into tribute bands whose goal is to replicate past approaches to learning  to meet basic measurable test requirements. Creativity passion and interpretation, along with the magical yearning you hear in the real  Lennon or McCartney’s voice has been put aside in favor of the basic skills which can be measured , standardized and rewarded or punished.

This bureaucratic understanding of what learning is, and how it should be measured has not always been a part of the American Public Education  but gained great prominence in the  early 20th century. In his book , Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan documented  the profound influence corporations imposed on public schools in the early 20th century and how little resistance they faced from bewildered  educators.  The scientific management ideas of Fredrick Taylor which improved Pittsburgh steel mill production and Model T production at Ford plants,  seemed ripe for public schools.   Progressive educators like John Dewey,  who had  notions of teaching children to think for themselves, were seen as dreamy eyed idealists, or messy impractical thinkers .  The education reformers of 1912 believed that children,  like perfect widgets, must be sent through a system that insured they would be complete.  Our modern  curriculum and documents like the Common Core State Standards are like an assembly line  where each grade level adds new doodads to the car before passing them on to the next.  Our public perception of failing schools  begins with a politician saying that children are being passed through the system and not learning enough. We need to retain them to make sure the hubcaps are secured tightly, never mind the decades of educational research that clearly shows retention is damaging to a child’s psychological well being and their ability to learn.

This mechanistic model of learning is supported by the false assumption that the most important things about education can be tested regularly and tell us exactly what is being learned at any given moment.  The Gates foundation and certain  educational think tanks, including the United States Department of Education,  measure all their success  for schools on these standardized test scores that pretty much ignore  what happens in a classroom in favor of a narrow slice of iknowledge conceived by test makers miles away from the class. Even the highest scoring countries like China are questioning this myopic approach because their children are not creative enough to drive a modern economy forward.    “Real” education goes beyond the “workplace literacy”touted by the Common Core State Standards. Real education , like real art,  challenges the status quo. Real teachers , teach students that they have something to say , that their voice matters.  They have a song to sing that no one has sung it  before in quite the same way.  I am not always convinced these students would be college and career ready, but they would be “life ready.”   They would be citizens. They would be problem solvers not drones.   This may sound a bit romantic, but it is this wild ,absurd, solipsistic, entrepreneurial , romanticism that built America and spills from the voices as diverse as  of  Sojourner Truth, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gloria Steinham,  Henry Ford, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton,  Thomas Jefferson, Cheryl Sandburg, Steve Jobs, Elvis Presley.

We have always been a country that believed we could change the status quo, we could do it better, make it safer, fairer,  freer, wilder,  insanely greater. Today our educational leaders  have betrayed our children’s futures by investing a trillion dollars since 1990 in the NCLB law,  which even by their own  questionable  measurements, had no impact.    And now to pay for the dubious Common Core assessments,  schools are laying off teachers and librarians .The result will be larger  class size and less books into the hands of children.   Test companies and curriculum canning factories are the only winners here.

Meanwhile, private profit and non-profit corporations are moving in to create privately run public schools under the charter school movement. Well documented research shows that these charter schools have no better results than public schools, even though they are often funded better, end up with better students and are held to a lower  standard.  This broad ranging, systematic attack on our public schools is motivated, by profit, not the welfare and education of our children ,and the only thing we have going for us is that we still live in a democracy, our vote counts, and we have the right to speak up and organize.

In the recent Hollywood  fiction movie Wont Back Down as in the popular documentary Waiting for Superman  this was portrayed as parents and corporate leaders like Michelle Rhee rebelling against a hopelessly bureaucratic public school system. The enemy was seen as teachers unions, and the  simplistic solution, fire bad teachers, start your own private school.  This is the message of the corporate reformers, skillfully crafted to pin the blame on teachers, and unions who  are unable to defend themselves without sounding full of self interest.   Well I am here to tell you that the real problem with American is not “bad teachers”  but all the great ones who are leaving the profession  because their best work is ignored in favor of scripted curriculum and constant meaningless assessments which attempt to micro-manage every aspect of learning without adding to instruction.

Real teacher assessment should involve observation by a skilled team of teachers who know what good teaching looks like.   Real teacher evaluation would see teaching that sounded and looked  like a Beatles tribute band for what is is, a  flat, uninspired  effort. The test scores in such a class could even be very high, as  proven by conformity schools like KIPP academy, (which often hire 5 week– trained, Teach For America teachers to administer test prep curriculum.)  Are these students getting a real education or just an indoctrination? Are these students learning to think for themselves  or are they just learning to think for the test which all the newspapers report diligently to praise and shame? Don’t children of poverty deserve schools that promote curiosity and  love of learning?

I have been traveling down the education road for 20 years now working with teachers and students.  I am still in awe of the amazing teachers I see, often struggling to excel in a system that just ignores their best work.  In the past 10 years, since NCLB we have lionized  mundane education through high stakes testing and the foolish notion that schools must be punished and rewarded based on these test scores.   The music in American education died, the day No Child Left Behind law was passed.  The only way to get it back is to repeal the punitive No Child Left Behind law, and invite real teachers, parents and students into a real conversation  on how to improve schools. We need to stop Racing to the Top and start honoring and respecting those who work on the bottom.

Some of you are reading this and hearing the word’s of  Oklahoma daddy of  Rock n roll Buddy Holly, “That’ll be the day,” and I hope you’re not right for the sake of our future.   Our children will be the ones to solve all the problems we have created. Our children are not empty vessels that we fill with facts and then teach to dispense when required on test.  Our children have a voice, raspy  and raucus as John Lennon,  sweet and bell-like as Paul McCartney, a voice that rises up like a mountain from the sea of life , a voice that is unstoppable if we only would encourage it to start.

Together parents and teachers can take back the public school system.

Step one:  Opt your children out of all “high stakes”  meaningless state testing.  This includes the coming PAARC and Smarter Balance Assessments.    These tests tell very little of what a child is learning .  (The writing portion is scored by robots. Can you get more meaningless than that?)  If more than 5% of parents opt out in a district the test results lose their value and schools will have to find a better  and far cheaper way to assess learning.  Find information about your right to opt out at .

Step two:  As a parent, insist on better information from your child’s school.  Instead of what did he get, move to what can she do. This discussion puts  professional teachers and children in charge of their education not politicians and testing companies.

Step three:  Find other parents who think the same as you on this topic and organize. Democracy only works when an informed citizenship rises up to reclaim what was theirs to start with.   It may take a village to raise a child, but it only  takes a few villagers to convince the village to do it.   visit