Friday, August 31, 2018

On Resilience

"Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor."  Marianne Williamson

A year ago at this time, my knees were about as close to hitting the floor as they've ever been in my life.

My mother was recovering from a recent surgery due to lung cancer and my dad was on his deathbed.  I was traveling to and from Southern California every few days to be with them and to help my mom deal with the many things that inevitably come at us when a loved one is about to die. Meanwhile, in RVSD we were busy trying to replace two school administrators who left the district suddenly and without warning, just weeks before students were to arrive.  Our entire RVSD team was working full-speed and virtually around the clock to take care of the thousands of details that need to be addressed to successfully open a school year.  There were also emails ... so many emails ... with all manner of issues to address, questions to answer and rumors to quell.  And of course, the local newspaper and social media were ablaze with the usual ill-informed rants, personal attacks and distractions that have become the background noise of our daily experience.

I'm not complaining and definitely not seeking anyone's sympathy, as I know everyone faces challenges, hard times, disappointments, sadness, loss and pain.  Instead, I'm observing, reflecting, and appreciating how resilient we can all be when we have people in our lives to steady and support us when our knees can't.

Some years ago I received a call from a principal who was in tears over the fact that one of her teachers had simply abandoned her position and left all her first graders wondering if somehow it was their fault.  The students showed-up for school that day and lined-up as they always did, to wait for their teacher to come and take them to their classroom. The kids waited and waited, while all the other kids and teachers went inside their rooms. Their teacher never came.  Finally someone alerted the principal and she came to take the kids into the classroom.  Once inside they found the teacher's keys on the desk with a note saying she was quitting and not coming back.  There was no warning, no "sign" of a problem and no way to protect a group of six-year-olds from what they all knew had just happened.

That day, and several days afterward was spent helping little knees get up from the floor.  Teachers, parents, students, the principal and many of us from the District Office, all pitched-in to help the kids recover, receive needed reassurance and deal with their disappointment, sadness and loss.  The students rebounded quickly. Within a few weeks we found and hired a great new teacher, and the students rebounded even more.  They ultimately had a great year and many parents later reflected it was the best of their children's entire elementary school experience.  Those students taught us all a lesson in the power of resilience through the care and support of others.

In a couple of weeks our calendars will once again turn to "September 11th," a day of unspeakable tragedy, senseless loss and profound pain. All these years later I still cannot comprehend the impact that dark day must continue to have on the lives of all who were so directly touched and irrevocably changed by it. For all of us, but most especially those intimately linked to the events of 9/11, the loss will never go away.  Yet through the care, compassion, understanding and helping hands of others, we've all read accounts of how survivors of 9/11 found, incredibly so, a way to get up off their knees.

Resiliency through the support of others, is the path from darkness to the light.

In my case, I have time and again come to see and appreciate that my resilience is an inner strength I could not have found on my own.  My wife, daughters and their significant others, grandsons, family, friends and colleagues help me find it.  Our incredible RVSD Board of Trustees helps me find it.  Our supportive community helps me find it.  Our inspiring students help me find it.  My mentors and all the special people who helped me on my journey to this place, help me find it.

I don't know if resilience in the face of adversity inspires higher intelligence, nobility or humility, but I do believe resilience is a beautiful thing. Hopefully each of us has others in our lives who can help us find our resilience when we most need it.  May we be there for them as well.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


”In the end, those who demean others only disrespect themselves.”  Rana Junaid Mustafa Gohar

Upon her death last week, Aretha Franklin was hailed as one-of-a-kind, an icon, a national treasure.  Her magnificent talent was a gift to the world for over six decades, as she not only entertained, but inspired.  

About her, former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Aretha helped define the American experience.  In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade - our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”  

Otis Redding wrote the words and Aretha sang them ... 

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me."

I'm sure most of us strive to be respected by our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors and others in our community, not because of our roles or titles, but for our actions in making a positive difference ... having an impact.  Through our actions and impact, others learn how much we value their respect, that we will go the extra mile to earn it and that retaining it is never taken for granted.  Likewise, it is through the actions and impact of others, that respect is given or lost.

When you think about it, respect and trust are inextricably linked.  We respect those we trust and trust those we respect.  When either goes missing, the other tends to diminish or go missing as well. 

Agreeing or disagreeing with others on a particular issue may or may not influence our respect for them and visa versa.  For example, we’ve all probably disagreed with people for whom we have the utmost respect and agreed with others for whom we have none.  I think what perhaps distinguishes the former situation from the latter is not necessarily the issue being debated, as much as agreement (or not) on certain underlying truths.

Author Santosh Kalwar writes, "Trust starts with truth and ends with truth."  If this statement is accurate, then trust ... and by extension, respect ... are difficult to achieve in situations where there is a fundamental disagreement about what is true. 

The notion that respect is linked to trust and trust is rooted in truth, can be put to the test on many levels.  Whether we are talking huge geopolitical issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or local debates regarding education, the connection between truth, trust and respect is unmistakable as the voice of the Queen of Soul.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On Equality, Equity and a Few Other Things

"The world is just too complicated.  Life was so much simpler back in the old days."  Ruth Kolman (my grandmother)

I loved my grandma so much.  She is one of the very special people in my life who always believed in me - even in the times when I was full of self doubt.  She is among my personal heroes.  But when she made statements like the one quoted above, I tended to think these were the musings of an elderly person whose bucolic and sanitized memories had become more vivid and real than what was actually going on at the time.

Then again, my grandmother saw and lived through so much change in her 91 years.  She witnessed our world devolve into two global wars and countless other deadly conflicts.  She lived through Prohibition, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the assassination of a President and near assassination of another.  She lived to see everyone carry cellphones and own microcomputers.  The Wright Brothers touched the sky just a few months before she was born and she died decades after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  She once lived in a home where the deed of trust prohibited her and my grandfather from selling it to a person of color.

Indeed, my grandmother saw the world change pretty dramatically from the time Theodore Roosevelt won his first Presidential election in 1904.

I now stand at a point where my grandma once stood.  It is that stage in life where those of us lucky enough to get here, realize the road behind is much longer than the road ahead.  I now know, as she did, that this journey and all it entails, rewards its travelers with priceless experience, opportunities to learn and the time to develop perspective.  Is this what people refer to as wisdom?  I don't really know.  What I do know is that while my grandma may have been justified in worrying about a world moving too fast, I believe we've gone the opposite direction in terms of how we communicate information, concepts, constructs and ideas regarding the complexities of the ever-changing landscape around us.

The world today is arguably more complex than it was in the early years of the last century, but paradoxically the ways in which we communicate information about it has become simplified to the point where meaning and context are diminished, distorted or even lost.  Two examples are the news media in general and social media in particular.  Nowadays everything seems to be communicated in sound bites or 140 characters on a Twitter feed.  Dense and complex information, important topics and deep meaning are constantly distilled to a few short words, a headline, a tag line, a Facebook post, a cartoon and yes, even a blog.

To illustrate, below is an image that has been floating around the web for a few years now.  It is intended to communicate, through two simple frames, the complexities of equality and equity.

The frame on the left is intended to illustrate what happens when students are given the same level of support, resources or whatever the boxes may represent.  Clearly, though each figure stands atop a equal sized box, the figure on the right is still unable to see over the obstacle, a fence.  In the frame on the right, the boxes are redistributed and now everyone can see over the fence.  We've simply, efficiently and succinctly communicated the concepts of equality and equity without having to get into a long, detailed and complex explanation.

Or have we?

As a person with a disability I do not see equity here.  And if I were a person of color I think I'd be shaking my head while wondering, "Is the world ever going to get it?"

From my perspective, achieving equity for people with disabilities is accomplished chiefly by one learning how to compensate for his/her disability.  Receiving an accommodation, no matter how helpful, is not the same thing as learning to compensate.  It's like the difference between being given a fish and learning how to catch them.  As the old saying goes, the former satisfies hunger for a day and the latter for a lifetime.

I cannot tell from the drawing above if the student on the right figured out on his/her own, how to rearrange the boxes (compensation) or if someone else did it for him/her (accommodation).  And if someone else did redistribute the boxes, did the student learn from this experience so he/she could successfully transfer the strategy to other situations?  Was this student given a fish or taught how to catch one?  In other words, with regard to disabilities, I think this image vastly oversimplifies the concepts of equality and equity, while completely ignoring the importance of compensation and accommodation.  It fails in its simplicity, to communicate the whole story.

But what about equality and equity in regard to race?  Doesn't this image help us see that some people of color need more of something in order to, for example, "bridge the achievement gap?"  Actually, there are many (myself included) who see this image as a perpetuation of the myth that racial inequities are somehow physical in nature.  Look at the image again.  The student on the right is experiencing inequity because of his/her physical size.  He/she needs the box (a metaphor for some resource or other) to accommodate his/her height disadvantage.  By extension, in order to achieve equity for people of color, do they need some resource or other to make up for a physical and/or intellectual disadvantage?  Author Ijeoma Oluo would likely say such a notion perpetuates a system of racism.  Oluo defines racism as, "any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power." (2018, p. 26).  The notion that people of color are somehow inherently "less than," ultimately supports a system of power that cyclically reinforces the original erroneous notion (Rothstein, 2017).

As with disabilities, I think this image falls woefully short in terms of accurately communicating the complex meaning of equality and equity as they pertains to race.

I've seen this image or one of its many iterations, used to help explain the massively complex system of educational funding in California.  I've also seen it used to illustrate how the "achievement gap" can be narrowed or closed.  Again, these are vast over-simplifications that communicate incomplete or wholly inaccurate information.  The funding of California's public schools has never been, and still isn't, either equal or equitable. And what if the so-called achievement gap is really (as many suggest) an opportunity gap?  What if we don't need to accommodate people by resourcing them with additional boxes, but instead teaching them how to compensate by tearing down the fence that is the real obstacle in the first place?

Oversimplifying the complex deprives us of important context, dumbs us down, distorts the truth and causes us to lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Much as my grandma may have wished it to be the case, the road ahead is not circling back to meet the road we've left behind.  Likewise, our quest to communicate the complex in simple and theoretically more efficient ways, is not going to guide us in the direction we really need to go.


  • Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. Hachette UK.
  • Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law. New York: Liveright.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

On Pedagogy

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.”  Bertrand Russell

A half century ago in the movie “Bullitt,” Steve McQueen tore through the hilly streets of San Francisco in his 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback.  This month the Ford Motor Company is releasing its 2019 homage to McQueen’s legendary wheels.

What’s old is new again.  Or is It?

Aside from sharing the same name and all the generic similarities defining a car as a car, the 1968 and 2019 Mustangs couldn’t be more different.

The model McQueen drove was, at the time, considered state-of-the-art for its class.  It had all the bells and whistles of the “modern” sports car and many features aficionados of the day likely considered “progressive.”  For example, the car came stock with new features such as front and rear side marker lights, an energy absorbing steering wheel and three-point lap and shoulder seat-belts.  Top speed of McQueen's 390 horsepower machine would have been about 130 mph and its approximate cost was around $3,500.

The re-booted 2019 Bullitt Mustang sports a host of features that were science fiction fifty years ago, including front head airbags, 4-wheel ABS, dusk sensing headlights, heated mirrors, rear parking sensors and much more.  The car cranks 475 horsepower, has a top speed of 163 mph and sells (if you can get your hands on one) for an MSRP starting at $46,595.

In other words, no matter how cutting-edge the McQueen Mustang may have been in 1968, by modern standards that car is a relic of a time gone by and not something any of us would consider "progressive" today.

Education, like the automobile, has evolved and improved over time.  Many instructional ideologies and strategies once believed to be innovative and cutting-edge, have long since been proven through research and practice to provide little or even no actual learning benefit to today's students (Hattie, 2008).  Others, such as project based learning, seem to have efficacy on their face but sometimes don't because they are often delivered incorrectly (McDowell, 2017).  Interestingly, these out-dated, ineffective and/or improperly executed educational ideas, philosophies and reforms, some heralded sixty to a hundred years ago as "progressive," continue to attract followers to this day.

Why?  If we were talking cars instead of education, it would be like believing a 1968 Mustang is "progressive,"  in an age where vehicles are equipped with fuel efficient engines, satellite navigation, automatic braking systems and self-parking technology.

One possible explanation is that when it comes to decisions (or "choices") regarding educating our children, research has shown that some of us act based on what we feel, what we subjectively think and most important, information we obtain through our social networks (Holme, 2002).  This runs contrary to what we might assume to be the case, particularly in communities where parents and educators themselves are generally well informed, highly educated and well resourced.  Yet more often than not, even when data and evidence say otherwise, a certain percentage of us will make educational choices, with firm and absolute conviction, based on opinion, anecdotal information and the hearsay of others.

For example, if the early twentieth century pragmatist theories of John Dewey are marketed as more "progressive" than our modern instructional pedagogy, some of us will buy into it for all the reasons Holme (2002) discusses.  That's not to suggest Dewey's theories on education, like the 1968 Mustang, aren't classics ... they are.  And classics certainly have their place.  We have great respect for them and all they helped teach us, for it is the classics that put down the foundation of what we know and have today.  But just as we presumably want our everyday cars to have the most up-to-date and progressive safety features, it seems we should also want our public schools to adhere with fidelity, to the most up-to-date, relevant and impact-rich pedagogy.

In the Ross Valley School District, we are committed to focusing our attention, energy and effort on what McDowell (2017, p 9.) refers to as students' "confidence and competence in learning."  We know that before students can self-direct and advocate for the next steps in their learning, they must first have mastery of the skills and knowledge required to do so.  Students' understanding of learning intentions and success criteria, two of modern educators' most powerful tools, is also important to us.

In short, we value, appreciate and respect the pedagogies of old, but like the classic 1968 Mustang, their place is in the pages of history and not on the roads our students now travel.

  • Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
  • Holme, J. J. (2002). Buying homes, buying schools: School choice and the social construction of school quality. Harvard Educational Review72(2), 177-206.
  • McDowell, M. (2017). Rigorous PBL by Design: Three Shifts for Developing Confident and Competent Learners. Corwin Press.