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Archive for October, 2011

Last month John Porter, a retired Episcopal priest, and I had hatched an idea for a fundraiser.  The tuition for a Haitian child to attend school is $100 a year, and the salary for a teacher is $1200.00.  We would photograph each child and teacher, place their faces on holiday ornaments, and raise the money to fund the school for a full year. This past weekend, John and I traveled to Haiti with two friends acting as photographers.  We photographed 400 Haitian students at two Episcopal schools: St. Matthieu and St. Jean Baptiste.  Both schools are located near Leogane, the epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake.

Each member of the school’s Haiti Club, composed of over 75 students, has agreed to sponsor a Haitian student.  To sell the other 325 ornaments, we will host a Haitian Christmas party, rent a booth at the Jingle Bell Jubilee fair held at school, decorate four small Christmas trees at the entrance of each of the school’s divisions, and hopefully create a purchase page on the school’s website.  So many people have already expressed desire to purchase an ornament. We hope to raise $50,000 by 1/1/2012.

This was my second pilgrimage to Haiti.  On the first, I traveled with students the year before the earthquake.  On that trip, we had no mission other than to see and be seen. The visible presence of the international community, especially Americans, shows the rest of the world that Haiti matters.

And Haiti does matter.  Because Haiti and its people have something to teach us.

Haiti is desperately poor.  Trash literally piles the streets, sewage runs under your feet, and their homes, mostly tents provided by relief organizations 22 months ago, defy the very word “home.”  I found myself reflecting, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I immediately recoiled for having had that thought. Once a phrase used by a martyr, that line now reflects privilege and prestige.  It suggests in some way that I’ve been granted special status by God, and that’s why I live in America, in a comfortable home, with healthy children.  But I felt once again on this trip, as I did on the last, that it is I who am estranged from God.

God, for the Haitians, is not someone who answers prayers. If they believed that prayer would ensure food, shelter, and safety, they would long ago have deemed God deaf.  Instead, they seem to see God as a loving mother, one whom you seek in fear or need.  She provides intimacy but not protection.  She offers love but no assurance. The Haitians embody the quote, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

The Haitians are undaunted by the uncertainties of life. They continue to work, laugh, worship, and hope.  I wondered again on this trip where my identity lies, who I would be if stripped of my comforts and security. Would I still have the same strength of character?  Would I still be able to meet life head-on like they do every day?  Would I still have faith…in God, others, or myself? It’s true – the Haitians benefit immensely from our assistance – but we have much to learn from them also.  I’d like to believe that I possess that same indomitable spirit and that I would rise to meet any occasion.  But I also know that if I were tested in that way, the way that they are tested every day of their lives, if I were a child in Haiti faced with all the challenges of life before me, I would have to rely on the grace of God to give me strength.  I know I would find myself using a new phrase, “There because of the grace of God go I.”

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This past Saturday, I read in The Wall Street Journal about the death of a two-year-old Chinese toddler, hit by a van on a busy market street in the city of Foshan and disregarded by over a dozen passersby.  The child – called Little Yueyue by the local media – had wandered away from her parents’ hardware store. Her father was attending to customers while her mother was busy hanging laundry.  The video footage below shows Yueyue in obvious distress while 18 people bike or walk by her, oblivious to her pain. Left in the street, she is hit once again by another van. Eventually, an elderly scrap peddler drags her to the side of the street after seven minutes.  The woman then rushes to find Yueyue’s mother who cradles her daughter’s broken body. It’s a difficult video to watch.

The footage has created a firestorm of media activity in China, prompting millions of social media posts.  WSJ quotes media researcher Zhou Kui who wrote on China’s version of Twitter, “The Chinese nation faces its most immoral moment.”

I shared the story with one of our Ethics teachers, and he asked me if I would address the issue with his classes on Monday.  Before we watched the video the first time(without sound), I asked the students to consider what questions and conclusions the video provoked.  All of the students were stunned and disgusted by the graphic video.  Their questions ranged from “Why wasn’t she monitored by her parents?” to “What is wrong with all of those people?”  Their conclusions were more harsh: “The Chinese have problems” and “Communism causes people not to care.”

I read them the WSJ article which offers possible explanations for the bystanders’ behavior.  China has undergone exponential economic growth, and some blame the country’s singular pursuit of financial success for the lack of empathy shown Yueyue.  “The most important thing for Chinese people right now is making money and pursuing their own interests,” said Jin Liang, deputy director of the Shandong Institute of Behavioral Science in eastern China.  “Our education system doesn’t teach ethics.  Environment is very important in determining people’s behavior, and right now Chinese culture is sick.”

Additionally, unlike America, the Chinese do not have Good Samaritan laws.  In fact, the article cites a famous 2007 legal case in which a young man was ordered to pay 40% of an elderly woman’s medical bill after escorting her to the hospital after she had fallen.  The ruling reasoned that “according to common sense” he wouldn’t have assisted the woman unless he was actually responsible for her fall.

An attorney pushing for Good Samaritan laws in China, as well as laws punishing anyone who fails to offer aid to an injured stranger, argues that the culture itself is to blame for Yueyue’s death, suggesting in some way that everyone in China is a passerby.  “Most Chinese parents teach their children to never get involved in matters that have nothing to do with you, and try your best to avoid any trouble.”  He believes proposed laws would help “guide morality” and encourage parents to teach empathy.

I posed this question to the students, “I am the President of the People’s Republic of China, and Yueyue’s death has cast a pall over our country’s reputation.  What, if anything, can I do to help my people develop a sense of compassion for one another?”

Most of the students pushed for stricter laws and legal protection for Good Samaritans.  When I asked if laws shape behavior or if behavior shapes law, they refused to be hemmed in with either distinction.  Most surprising to me was the students’ unanimous argument that Chinese education should include Ethics in the curriculum.  Responding to the NCAA’s validation (or lack thereof) of certain courses, our school assigns only a half credit for each of its religion courses.  As a result, students sometimes view these courses like glorified study halls: they argue for no homework, no academic writing, no difficult reading assignments.  Yet, when I feigned disbelief and asked if they were really trying to tell me they consider Ethics as important as Physics or Calculus, they acknowledged, “Yes, if not more.”

I think Yueyue and her parents would agree.

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Back to Blogging!

I’m back to blogging after quite an absence.  I stopped blogging for a couple of reasons.  First, it takes time. Perhaps if I treated a blog like some sort of stream-of-consciousness exercise, I might find myself posting more often.  But I’m rather old school in my thinking about what one should publish for the world to see – or rather not see since few blogs are actually read.  In my blog, I want to distil my thoughts and to clarify my thinking about the relationship between effective teaching and meaningful learning.  That impulse was rekindled recently by a Steve Job’s quote in an article on good design in BusinessWeek, May 1998, the year Apple returned to profitability in just a few months after Jobs re-assumed control. Jobs explained the company’s new success:

We’ve got a good team now, and we’re firing on all cylinders.
And as the strategy becomes clearer to more of the people in
the company, it really makes things much easier. The organization
is clean and simple to understand, and very accountable. Everything
just got simpler. That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity.
Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your
thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because
once you get there, you can move mountains.

In that light, I want to examine what I do well as a teacher to guide my students to greater learning, who are the individuals who are shaping my thinking, and how I might become part of a team that seeks to develop a productive, integrated, and meaningful experience for students in today’s and tomorrow’s classrooms.  And who knows – maybe we’ll move some mountains, or at least a mound here or there.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about my role in education for some time. I spent this past summer writing a book I titled The Mission-Centered School.  In many ways it’s the extended version of a blog, but hopefully it will have an ISBN attached to it at one point.  I can’t honestly say that it’s groundbreaking material for the educational world.  It’s more or less a distillation of the aspects of school reform I see as essential.  But the process of writing helped clarify my own beliefs, many of which were inchoate or germinal at best.  There’s a tremendous amount of information out there today in books, articles, ed sites, blogs, twitter feeds, etc. that are creating a welcome groundswell for the restructuring of how school and in particular how administrators and faculty operate.  Nevertheless, in many ways, when you walk the halls, we’re still pouring new wine into old wineskins at this point.  I want to help determine how we promote or implement these progressive ideas so that they gain more traction in the educational community. I realize that critics argue that the American system of education is like an unwieldy tanker, but even a tanker can shift direction by degrees.

So, here I am, back for one primary reason.  Thinking and writing for me are inextricably bound.  When I choose to channel my thoughts into black, fonted characters, I begin to hone them a little better.  When I was writing my book, my mind was both reflective and focused.  Bo Adams, author of the blog “It’s About Learning,” helped remind me that, while one hopes his or her blog will find followers, ultimately one blogs to better understand oneself. Time to get back into that mode again.

My old blog (where do all the old, abandoned blogs go?) can be found at http://hollychesser.edublogs.org/

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