Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Student Guest Post: Robinson’s View of Education: Replenishing the Creativity Drainage System

Here's a guest post from one of my students, Lauren Broseker. Lauren's desire to change the way schools work is matched only by her curiosity and work ethic.  She submitted the following paper after studying Sir Ken Robinson.

Robinson’s View of Education: Replenishing the Creativity Drainage System

Humans are naturally creative. This remarkable ability of ours to forge fresh and innovative ideas is why the world has become so advanced. We are unlike any other species because this capacity that we have for ingenuity and originality allows us to fix nearly every problem we come across and aim higher each time. Frank Zappa claimed, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” We have proven this to be true by developing at such a rapid pace through entrepreneurship and inventiveness. Creativity allows us to make something out of nothing, and this aptness is found to be especially present in children. There are no limits to their imaginations because “kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go… they’re not frightened of being wrong” (Robinson). To them, mistakes are not an area of worry; they use them to learn and improve upon ideas, and to expand their creative minds even further.
Yet, as we grow up, our capacity for creativity seems to shrink. Why is this? The answer is simple. The school system is educating us out of it. Sir Ken Robinson is an expert in creativity and is known all over the world for his well-regarded TedTalk, which delves into how the education system is ridding students of their creativity and why it is essential to promote this capacity of ours in school, instead of stigmatizing it. His concepts and ideas are thought-provoking and should be expanded upon and explored further. Another speaker for Ted, Tom Wujec, conducted several design workshops. In the workshops, he analyzed how different groups of people, including architects, kindergartners, and recent graduates of business schools, performed the Marshmallow Challenge. In this challenge, a group must build a structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and to top it off, they must place a marshmallow on top. The aim is to produce the tallest tower without it collapsing. However, the main issue in this challenge is that the tower must be completed in 18 short minutes. The results, at first glance, are surprising. While the business school students consistently performed poorly, the kindergartners proved to be quite successful. They produced some of the tallest and most unique structures out of all the groups. However, when we look deeper into the processes the groups took, we can understand why the results turned out this way. Most people, including the business school students, spent the first few minutes orienting themselves with the task and vying for power. Then they planned what the tower would look like and laid out all of the materials. The majority of the time was spent building the tower, and at the very end, when the marshmallow was placed on top, the structure would collapse, but there would be no time left to try another strategy. However, when the kindergartners approached the task, they delved into it headfirst, without planning or overthinking. This allowed them more time to try new ideas if others failed. They were left with successful and interesting designs. This shows that when people try without thinking of the improbabilities or possibilities of making a mistake, creative ideas are shared, and therefore, problems are successfully solved. Ken Robinson said, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” yet the education system is operating directly against this. As we constantly move towards an unknown future, the public education system continues to stigmatize mistakes and eliminate opportunities for creativity and individualism, squandering possibilities of innovation that keep this world running.
All across the world, people have a common misconception about how school works and the purpose of it. As Robinson said,
“It goes like this: Young children go to elementary school mainly to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. These skills are essential so they can do well academically in high school. If they go on to higher education and graduate with a good degree, they’ll find a well-paid job and the country will prosper too.”

This may seem like it makes sense, but when one looks deeper into it, they will come up with some harrowing questions. Why are we commonizing education for everybody when we all have different talents and skills? We can’t force all students into the same category of interest and aptitude. The choreographer for two of the longest-running shows on Broadway, “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” was a victim of this “education malpractice,” as Prince Ea, a word artist and filmmaker likes to call it. Her name is Gillian Lynne, and when she was younger, she underperformed at school. When her mother consulted a doctor about Gillian’s constant fidgeting and movement, he left Gillian in a room with the radio on, and observed her. After seeing her immediately get up to dance, he concluded that she was a dancer, and that she should be brought to a dance school. Now, she is a highly acclaimed choreographer, whereas if she had been told that she had a condition, she would have had to sit in school and never would have found her talent (Robinson).
This raises another question concerning success in life. Why should the only way to be able to live a comfortable life be to get a job that is only given to those with a good degree from a prestigious school? Gillian’s story goes to show that you don’t have to get a higher education in order to be successful, and to assume so is absurd. “Children are born with different amounts of this intelligence, and so naturally some do well at school and some don’t,” said Robinson, speaking about academic intelligence. We are all being molded into robots and replicas of each other, and are all expected to travel down the same path towards the future. Students who excel in less valued subjects are discouraged from pursuing those, and are instead shoved on the assembly line that is school to get constant information, which may not even pertain to their interests, thrown their way. This is a ridiculous notion, yet this myth about how schools are run is trapping us in a never-ending game. It is the main reason why reform efforts end up failing because we feel we have to continue to adhere to the expectations and rules of education to be successful.
All across the world, we have the same hierarchy of subjects. Mathematics and languages are at the peak of the pyramid, the humanities are in the middle, and the arts are rock bottom. To go even further, there is a ranking of specific areas within the arts: drama and dance are valued less than music and art. In fact, “There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics” (Robinson). Why is this the case when the arts allow us to open our minds to critical thinking, expose us to all that the world has to offer, and teach us how to collaborate and cooperate with each other? Eugene Ferguson, a historian said, "Pyramids, cathedrals, and rockets exist not because of geometry, theories of structures, or thermodynamics, but because they were first a picture - literally a vision - in the minds of those who built them.” Every student has a flame of brilliance in them, and the education system is extinguishing those flames by teaching students material that they may not grasp or care about. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” So why are we determining the intelligence of students based on subjects some are not meant for?
In addition to this hierarchy of subjects, budget cuts have been made to schools more and more frequently. In the Chicago public school system a few years ago, over 1,000 teachers were laid off due to budget cuts, and 10% of those teachers were in the arts programs (Hambek). Instead of listening to students’ opinions about what to cut from the curriculum, policymakers immediately get rid of programs in the arts. This is because they find them less important than the core subjects we study, but it completely eliminates the opportunity for students to express themselves creatively.
Aside from the hierarchy of subjects and budget cuts in schools, there has also been a massive rise in preparation for standardized testing. A continual increase in stress is being put on schools to produce top-notch test scores, making the sole focus of education being prepared for the test at the end of the year. Instead of teaching to help nurture the developing minds of our youth, teachers have begun teaching to the test. This limits creativity and individuality because students who write more original and unique responses may receive a poor result based off of the fact that they don’t follow the structure preferred by test makers. Tests also create narrow-minded thinkers because they suggest that there is only ever one correct answer to a question, when in reality, we should be encouraging the idea that there are several solutions to an issue. We live in a society where “mistakes are the worst thing you can make” (Robinson). Yet, making mistakes is the only way we can learn how to persevere and eventually succeed. The most worrisome part about standardized testing however, is what the creator of the tests, Alfred Binet, remarked about them: “these tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned.” How is it possible that our education system is centered around something that isn’t qualified to measure our intelligence?
Robinson brought up an interesting concept in his TedTalk. He suggests the idea that if an alien came to Earth and asked what the point of public education is, we would have to conclude, by looking at the “winners” and most successful people, that public education is meant to produce university professors. However, shouldn’t the answer to the alien’s question be to prepare students for whatever comes their way in the future to further advance the world? How can we possibly expect all students to become professors when we all have different capabilities, some academic and some not. Education should not be one dimensional. It should be diverse, dynamic, and distinct. We learn in endless ways: mentally, visually, kinesthetically, abstractly, and so on, and through interactive education, creativity can more easily be expressed (Robinson). These are not the bases that the education system stems from, however.
Before the 19th century, there essentially weren’t any forms of public education. Robinson said, “These systems were developed in large part to meet the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution and they are organized on the principles of mass production.” At the time, it made sense for all the students to learn the same few subjects because that was what was required for jobs in the industrial field. However, the world has vastly changed, so why is our education system remaining in the past when everything else has advanced and progressed? The modern world calls for entrepreneurship and innovativeness, which can only be fostered by creative and critical thinking in schools. However, colleges have also twisted education into a “protracted process of university entrance” (Robinson). This allows only those who excel at the valued subjects to believe they are intelligent, and those who are skilled in areas that are stigmatized in schools are led to think they are not talented. Robinson continues to say, “We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.” This means a major change must be made to the education system.
However, many people don’t realize a change can be made. Robinson states,
“If you want to change education, it’s important to recognize what sort of system it is. It is neither monolithic nor unchanging, which is why you can do something about it. It has many faces, many intersecting interests, and many potential points of innovation.”

While there is no doubt that a change can be made, it may take time and consistent effort. To start, people need to define what the issues with education are currently, and using these pinpointed problems, a vision and plan for what education should look like can emerge. Will standardized testing be included in new visions of education? Will grades still exist, or will the arts be of a higher standard than the current core subjects we value? These questions are an essential part of making adjustments to schools. By having examples of difficulties in the classroom and providing specific areas of improvement, others can become aware of the education reform that needs to be made, causing more people to take a stand.
The best way to make a change would be to not just reach people in general, however, but the education policymakers themselves. The policies through which political pressures are being pushed on schools need to be confronted and revised. However, the time it would take for policymakers to realize an extensive upgrade needs to be made would be quite lengthy (Robinson). This is because their, as well as universities’, main focus has shifted from education to money, similar to most societal ventures in today’s esurient world. Jana Kasperkevic, a reporter, commented about universities’ “transformation from providers of education to business ventures that strive to be the biggest and the best providers of the ‘college experience.’” Instead of cutting important and creative classes which help expand students’ minds, policy makers should be made aware of the possibility of reconfiguring the entire structure of school. This change is long overdue, but policy makers are not going to step up to the challenge on their own.
It is up to those who are actually involved with schools and the current education system at the ground level. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators alike can all make a difference and can vouch for creativity to be brought back into education. Robinson said, “If you’re a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you’re a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you’re a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system.” By making small changes or endorsing adjustments to education within the system, or taking initiatives outside the system, a substantial modification can be made to the public education system to reclaim the values we want and need students to learn to make the most of the future.
As students grow and learn throughout their years in school, their capacity for creativity and ingenuity are drained, posing a serious issue for this ever-changing and developing world we live in, which thrives on innovation and entrepreneurship. The uncertainty and ambiguity of the future cannot be dealt with close-minded and uncreative people; the world as we know it is dependant on innovation, and we need to fuel it with original and fresh ideas, which can only occur if we expand upon children’s creativity from the time they are born, and certainly throughout their school years. Children are the future, and our job is to help them find their talent and build upon it to reach their full potential.
So why is it that in a study by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, children were found to be, based on scores from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle?” Along with the fact that the number of startups over the last few decades has steadily diminished, it seems that there is a plausible major economic issue in store for us. The need for change in the classroom is long overdue; we need to stop suffocating children’s creative spirits and let them live colorful and diverse lives. Picasso once said, “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” Let’s stop stigmatizing and undermining subjects which have just as much value as mathematics and writing, and let mistakes be made to promote perseverance and a want to share new ideas. It’s time to stop judging fish by their ability to climb trees, and for everyone to remain and flourish as their own creative artist.

Works Cited

Awosika, Ayodeji. "25 Quotes That Accurately Represent the Problems with Our
    Education System." Thought Catalog, Thought & Expression Company, 17 Apr.
    Accessed 16 Nov. 2016.

B., Robin. "Standardized Testing." Letters to the Next President, National
    Writing Project, 7 Nov. 2016, Accessed
    16 Nov. 2016.

Batten Institute University of Virginia Darden School of Business. "How
    America's Education Model Kills Creativity and Entrepreneurship."
    Forbes, 19 Mar. 2015,
    #5ee217b81ac7. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.

Build a Tower, Build a Team. By Tom Wujec. Perf. Tom Wujec. Ted. Ted Conferences, Feb. 2010. Web. 7 Jan. 2017. <>.

Do Schools Kill Creativity? By Ken Robinson. Perf. Ken Robinson. Ted. Ted Conferences, Feb. 2006. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <>.

Hambek, Jill. "Arts Programs in Schools Often in Danger of Being Cut."
    Washington Times, 14 Mar. 2016,
    arts-programs-in-schools-often-in-danger-of-being-/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.

I Just Sued the School System. By Richard Williams. Perf. Prince Ea. Youtube. N.p., 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <>.

Kasperkevic, Jana. "The Harsh Truth: US Colleges Are Businesses, and Student
    Loans Pay the Bills." The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Oct. 2014,
    colleges-ceos-cooper-union-ivory-tower-tuition-student-loan-debt. Accessed
    10 Jan. 2017.

"Quote by Frank Zappa." Goodreads,
    4408-without-deviation-from-the-norm-progress-is-not-possible. Accessed 7
    Jan. 2017.

Robinson, Ken, and Lou Aronica. "How Schools Kill Creativity: Forget
    Standardized Tests, Here’s How We Really Engage Our Kids." Salon, Salon
    Media Group, 26 Apr. 2015,
    our_kids/. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017.

"Useful Quotes for Arts Advocates." National Performing Arts Convention, 27 Mar.
    2012, Accessed 7 Jan.
Lauren Broseker is a freshman at Morristown High School in New Jersey. She is an avid reader and loves to write as well. She is a strong believer in keeping creativity and arts programs in schools, and hopes this paper will bring more awareness to the change that must be made in the education system.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Design Thinking in the Classroom: Setting the Tone for the Upcoming Year

I was fortunate over the summer to do some contract work for a social entrepreneurship in New York City.  The Future Project is a company that is attempting to change the lives of young people in a variety of ways, but most specifically, by inserting outside actors, called Dream Directors, into schools to maximize student abilities. At the time I joined the company, they had just revolutionized their Research and Development Department, and were beginning to train staff on these changes.  I was lucky enough to be a part of this transition, and also used their process to develop some ideas for future projects within the organization.  The lead designer, Anjali Balakrishna, was tasked with taking my teacher-brain, and retraining it to think using the Design Process.  This wasn’t necessarily easy for me.  I’m typically a person who jumps to solutions first, and has a difficult time removing my instincts and personal bias from my solutions.  This new way of thinking, however, demanded a more careful and intentful approach at the outset, and Anjali guided me through the somewhat bumpy process, allowing me to create work that was much stronger than it could have been had I used my previous way of doing things.
I think one of the biggest difficulties I faced was due to the amount of time I have spent within the educational system, both as a student and teacher.  For the most part, my experiences in education have been intensely personal, and it is rare that true collaboration or agency are offered. This unfortunately leads to some myopic approaches to my own learning and, I fear, the learning of my students.
After getting back into the classroom in September, I resolved to create a new version of my classroom, one that incorporated the ideals of Design Thinking, and made them available to my students.  I began looking into ways to foster this in my classroom, and came across the Stanford Design School, or The website is replete with resources and walkthroughs, and I decided to take my students through the Gift Giving Challenge, as a way of introducing them to this new way of approaching tasks. Before I could show them this new way however, I had to break them out of their previous ways of thinking.

Students came into a classroom that was a virtual blank slate.  I removed all posters, graphics, and color from the classroom environment.  The only thing that stayed in the room were the desks.  I informed the students that they would be populating the walls with a variety of infographics and tools, and that the classroom was not mine to decorate.  Each class was given a task, some were asked to create physical and digital tools for the room, like a variety of seating charts to fit the needs of each day, or an abilities tracker for students to collaborate throughout the year.  I gave a brief overview of what the requirements were, and then told them to get to work.  I sat in the back of the room, taking notes, as abject chaos ensued.
Students attempted to take the lead, others fled into themselves, consensus could not be found, and students began protecting their first ideas with borderline obsessive zeal.  Frustration mounted, and by the end of class, almost nothing had been accomplished.
After allowing the confusion to reach a peak, we discussed the things that had gone wrong.  Students in general were fairly accurate in their descriptions of their failings, and I promised them that we would be learning a better way to approach the difficult problems I had presented them.
Before they could get settled the next class, I had printed out worksheets, and queued up the Gift Giving Challenge video on the projector.  I randomly placed the students in pairs, and began the session.  The video runs itself, and I merely had to clarify directions and remind them of times as the students moved through the activity.
The video runs about 80 minutes, and goes through each step of the design process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.  Watching the video prior to implementing it was very helpful, and allowed me to better direct the students.  It is designed to be fast-paced, and make the students uncomfortable, and it accomplished this.
When we were done, I had the students write reflections about what they learned, and we held a large in-class discussion around what we could take away from the experience.
For the next class, we went back over the original project that they were assigned, and we began using the language and techniques of the Design Process to accomplish the goals.  Each class still struggled with the process, but there was a noticeable difference in the quality and depth of their ideas.
The application of this way of thinking may seem like a stretch in a Language Arts class.  There are a couple of reasons that I would argue that it is actually vital.
My students are 9th graders, they have just entered a school environment that, for better or worse, will shape their lives tremendously over the coming four years. By giving them a better way to approach and solve problems, they stand a much better chance of finding success in the ever-changing economy that awaits them.  From a content standpoint, my students will be asked to complete a variety of papers and projects over the course of the year.  The approach we must take in writing especially, relies on the same approach utilized in Design Thinking.  We gather evidence, develop a plan, execute the plan, and then present it to an audience.  The process also lends itself to the reading of Literature.  The role of the hero, and the hero’s journey, is very similar to the design process, and plots in general.
Design Thinking has changed the way I approach tasks, and made my creativity and work stronger.  Instituting these ideas in your classroom is a great step in increasing both the quality of student work, as well as the collaborative and creative skills of you students.  I’ll check back in soon with the results!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Checking their Pulse: Consequences of Comparative Grading

John and I jogged around the track at Conard High School, dew tipping the long blades of grass that covered the football field.  We moved at an easy pace, talking about the game we would play later that day on the same field.  Lacrosse season was at its peak intensity, and we weren’t going to waste energy on the mile run we were completing in gym class.  
Even at our pace, we would finish under 10 minutes, and we chugged slowly by some of our less-athletic classmates, breathing heavily, or slowing their feet to a walk, beads of sweat dripping down their faces, like more blades of swaying grass.
I crossed the finish line as my gym teacher began walking towards me.  He was a small guy, more of a coach than an athlete, so it took me completely off guard when he reached for my throat.
I knocked his hand away out of instinct.
“Relax, Daly,” he said, “I’m just checking your pulse.”
He placed his index and middle fingers against my Carotid artery, and started counting while he looked at his watch.
“I thought so,” he exclaimed in disgust, moving his fingers away from my neck. “You’re an athlete, you’re supposed to be an example! And you’re not even trying!”
I turned back to the track, noticing the substantial number of my classmates that were still running.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, pretty annoyed. “I finished before almost everyone! We have a game today, I’m not spending all my energy here!”
He shook his head, looking down at the track. “I understand that you guys have a game today, but this class isn’t about how you do against others, it’s about how you do against yourself.”
I used to tell that story for a different reason.  Usually it was to ridicule the teacher, and explain how crazy he was for grabbing my neck.  He was a bit of a clown, and it was easy to dismiss his opinions because I was young, and headstrong.
Now, however, I see the wisdom in the lesson.
Imagine the same scenario inside a non-physical education setting. Students are given a standard task, such as writing a 5-paragraph essay. A group of students that are already writing at grade-level toil appropriately at the task.  The students that are above grade-level are capable of breezing through the assignment, and the students that struggle are forced to work much harder to complete the task, if at all.
Now think about the way these students will be graded.  In general, the higher level students will receive the higher grades, and the lower level students will be assigned the lower grades.
We typically rationalize this behavior for one of two reasons.

  1. Fairness
  2. Getting them ready for “The Real World”

Let’s approach these rationales, and explore why they represent gross fallacies that may actually border on student oppression.


Often, when dealing with less progressive teachers, the subject of grades and fairness arises. At the middle and secondary level in most American schools, the A through F approach is still both a requirement and reality.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with this.
It is perfectly acceptable to assess a student’s work, and assign a number or letter to that work.
The problem arises in the way we are assessing, and the role that Personalization and Individualization, along with proficiency and growth, play in reaching that letter or number grade.
Dweck’s work on Mindset plays a key role here, as the importance of factoring a student’s effort into their grade, and how that effort is perceived by the rest of the class, is integral to developing grit and perseverance in our students.  To put it plainly, our grading and assessment systems need to promote the idea that EFFORT EQUALS ACHIEVEMENT. Anything that gets in the way of this is short term or arbitrary at best.
In order to be truly fair, we need to individualize student work, using standard acquisition and effort as the formula for grading.

The Real World

This fallacy is tied to the previous section as well.
We are often in positions as teachers where we are receiving pressure from some other entity above us, bemoaning the lack of student readiness.  In the public school system, this is always true, as the influence and anxiety that the college acceptance process creates looms large over all decisions in a trickle-down manner.
Proponents of this type of thinking see college as a hard deadline, one where their students must be up to proficiency at the end of the 12th grade.
This assertion is sloppy, lazy, and used to create excuses against innovation.
The real world exists, but we cannot use a child’s experience as a student in our system to pretend that what happens prior to their eventual high school and college graduation is a preamble to some “Real” life that exists.
I have been working now for around 20 years.  What makes me a good employee, and an effective worker, have been my ability to be resilient, to understand how important a work ethic is, to see myself as a learner, to know how to ask questions, to cultivate healthy relationships and communication with my colleagues, to be empathetic towards my students or customers, to care about what I do, and to show up day in and day out.
None of those skills are related to my ability to determine the points on a parabola, or name the capitals of 50 states.  The grades I received through my education, and the tasks i was required to complete were rarely things I have used in my adult life.
Imagine now that you are entering high school reading below grade-level.  You desperately want to improve, but none of the classes are built to specifically address your literacy deficiencies.  You are asked to read Shakespeare, or Salinger, Steinbeck if you are lucky. You are going to learn one thing very quickly: that you are unable to do. That you are stupid. That hard work is a waste of time.
Imagine instead that we reward resilience, learning as a process, grit, hard work, pushing yourself. These qualities couldn’t be more needed in a workforce and economy.  
We do need to get students ready for the “Real World”, but I would argue that comparative grading is getting in the way of that.

Moving away from static ways of assessment, and comparative grading, is the only way to ensure that all of our students are being treated fairly.  This can be accomplished through the adoption of grading platforms and structures that take into account growth, standard acquisition, and effort.  In order for this to occur however, we must move toward a policy of personalization and individualization of curriculum as well.
These days, I don’t run as much as I should. With my two children (with one on the way), work requirements, tutoring sessions, coaching, and the never-ending joys of homeownership, exercise has too often taken a back seat.

When I do get out for a run or walk, I find myself putting my two fingers to my neck, making sure that I am pushing myself, measuring whether I’m making the most out of the time that I have. 
Are we doing this for our students? 
Can we do better?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Good Kid, M.a.a.D. City: Trauma and Education:

Trauma and Education: 
Addressing the Needs of Struggling Learners in Heterogeneous Environments

I. Art of Peer Pressure

My sister graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia last Saturday. Our entire family was attending, so my brother drove down from his home in Boston to pick me up in Jersey.  Steve has always had a strong love of Hip Hop, especially the emcee’s that are associated with the Consciousness movement.  We listen to The Roots obsessively, and for years have talked at length about how underrated they are as a group. I remember, vividly, driving through the streets of our childhood town of West Hartford, CT, listening to De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. At that time, in our town, our high school experience was incredibly eclectic, our side of West Hartford boasted a very diverse population, both racially and economically. This diversity exists today, but it also calls into sharp focus the disparities at play between these different groups.
A homogenous experience would have created a myopic blindness around these issues.
In the car, Steve suggested we listen to an artist named Kendrick Lamar.  My only experience with him up to that point was an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, and some related passing articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I knew he was a West Coast rapper, from Compton specifically, and that he was generally considered an up-and-coming artist.
Steve suggested that we listen to his major-label debut, titled “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” He explained that it was a concept album, and we began listening.
Track after track, and skit after skit, I realized that this was an experience as well as a collection of songs.  The album chronicles a young Lamar navigating his way around Compton as a 17-year old.  Over the course of the story, he details the various pressures and concessions he is forced to endure, often in brutal fashion.
Like the narrator of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, Lamar is viewing all of this through a lens of both art, and reflection.  The album was released when he was 25, a good 7 years removed from his time on Rosecrans.  Breaking out of the bubble allowed Kendrick to view his experiences from outside his singular frame of reference, and turn it into art.
As we drove, admiring the linguistic and sonic intricacies of the album, I felt myself becoming overwhelmed.  The album and its atmosphere were creating stress for me.  Kendrick’s portrayal of Compton put me in the car with him, driving around in a white Toyota with the constant threat of violence and death surrounding us.
At points, Lamar confronts these feelings directly:

“I suffer a lot, and every day the glass mirror
Gets tougher to watch; I tie my stomach in knots
And I'm not sure why I'm infatuated with death
My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats
That can come about,”

I thought about how suffocating, how madness-inducing that could become, and, as my mind tends to work, began to think about both the educational consequences and implications of that type of upbringing.
A child raised in that environment is almost certainly exposed to enough stress that it could be considered some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the problem, is that there is no “post” anything, the children are in a constant state of trauma and anguish.

II. Allostatic Load

In his book, “How Children Succeed,” author Paul Tough outlines the ways that neuroscience can help us as educators better understand the human learning experience.  One of the topics he discusses at length is the concept of Allostatic Load, and the role of sustained adverse experiences on the developing mind.
Tough uses for a definition and its effect as  “...the process of managing stress, which [McEwen] labelled allostasis, …[which is] what creates wear and tear on the body.”
There are consequences to Allostatic Overload.  The same process that is designed to help our bodies deal with stress, can eventually turn on people, literally affecting them physically:

“Although the human stress response system is highly complex in design, the practice has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet. Depending on what kind of stress you experience, the ideal response might come from any number of defense mechanisms… But the HPA axis can’t distinguish between different types of threat, so it activates every defense, all at once, in response to any threat” (Tough, 13).

From an evolutionary standpoint, our body’s ability to transfer resources, and allocate oxygen and antibodies to specific areas of our system is important if we are being chased by a Sabretooth tiger.  We escape, maybe with a few wounds, but this is followed by down time, a period of safety.  During that time, our bodies switch back to a normal state of being.  Unfortunately, the body cannot differentiate between threats, and is actually harmed by a state of constant stress.
Consequently, as teachers, we are faced with a system that contains children that are in dire need of intervention, and in a heterogenous environment, where these students may appear as simply “struggling learners”, it is incredibly important to have a way of mitigating the stress of these students.

III. Empathy and Individualization

If anything, the knowledge of neuroscience should at the very least result in a change in our attitudes toward struggling learners.  Developing an empathetic view of your students should be a non-negotiable on a personal level, but this must be reflected in our practice as well.  Gone are the days of a learning environment that is at best, static, and at worst, comparative in nature.
Looking at the mastery of standards called for in the Common Core, it is the height of oppression to gauge students successes and failures as tied to the achievement of their peers.
When we combine the idea of educational empathy with the movement towards a standards-based approach, a necessary change in both practice and classroom structure becomes paramount.
The only ethical way to mitigate the problems presented by these new understandings is to individualize curriculum at the district and classroom level.  The oft-referred to concept of differentiation breaks down under true heterogeneous groupings.
Many of the charter schools that have demonstrated “success” in helping struggling learners have made their hay from moving in the opposite direction.  The use of mnemonic devices or songs, strict emphasis on rote memorization, and even the implementation of dress codes and public shamings, seem to work initially due only to the homogenous makeup of said schools.  As the data has shown, intervention in this way has only created change at the schools where the students attend, with alarming dropout rates spiking after the student leaves.
A balanced or blended learning environment addresses the needs of individual students within any system, however, this is vital to the success of schools with heterogeneous populations. In schools where the label of “struggling learner” exists due to comparative norms, there must be a system in place that can adapt to student need at the structural level.
By using a mixture of technology, flipped instruction, direct instruction, small group and individual intervention, and a strong screening tool, schools with a wide variety of students can better assist students in taking control of their learning, regardless of their environment.

IV. Good Kids, Mad Cities

The ultimate realization that frees Kendrick from the cycle of violence and fear that surrounds him, is a focus on his art.  He uses this skill to escape his toxic environment, and much like the protagonist in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, returns enlightened to shine a light on his experiences. I worry about the students that don’t have the ability to transcend their situations through raw talent and luck.
What are we doing with our systems of education to combat this?  How can we better provide access for these students that so often slip through the cracks?
These questions are at the core of not just the problems we face in inner city education, but in the suburbs as well, where a wider variety of learners often reside.
I dove into the album after the car ride, using Rap Genius and other sites to compile as much background as I could on the songs and messages it contained. The cover art is a picture, a purple Dodge Caravan, circa the late 90's. It's the same car I drove around the streets of West Hartford. I know for a fact that the worries and anxieties I felt within that car, were radically different, trivial at best, when compared to the night, one of many, that a young Kendrick experienced in his neighborhoods.
Schools must become outposts on the front line of triage. In order to do this, we must build systems that are able to handle the many issues and traumas facing all of our children.

Works Cited

Lamar, Kendrick, et al. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City [sound Recording]: A Short Film. [Deluxe ed., explicit version]. Santa Monica, Calif.: Aftermath/Interscope, 2013.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Mariner, 2012. Print.