The Wine Glass and the Music: A Strength-based Education Benefits the Whole Community.

Last summer, near a stone water tower on a hilltop amid the scent of wild rosemary, thyme, and scrub oak, I had to sit down when my eyes flooded with tears. I was returning from a long walk near our house in the south of France, and was caught at unawares when I heard my daughter’s voice, carried on a breeze out of the hamlet. How far that voice has come, I thought.

In 2004, on a whim, when the dollar was strong against the Euro, we bought a 700

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[This was not the part of the house we lived in. Our kids were earning money for market by moving rubble from our future kitchen]


year-old stone house in a tiny French hamlet in wine country. It had a bit of plumbing and electricity, but it was a bona fide—even deeded—ruín. Before we could sleep there on the very first day of our tenure, we went to the hardware store to buy a rake, a push broom, a mop, a bucket, and some French industrial type disinfectant. If the store had sold children’s hard hats, we might have purchased those, too. Our toes stubbed against rocks, newly fallen from the walls, nearly every morning when we climbed out of our sleeping bags. Our three kids were six, nine, and ten years old.

In 2007, we lived there from June until December while my wife went to cooking school. But when we arrived in June, the contractor, whom we had hired to do the big work, was profoundly behind schedule. The house was still open to the elements: few windows were in place; wires dangled from every wall; there were ladders where staircases were supposed to be. In short, it was still a hardhat area. We had no choice but to move in.Vendange looking south over Cazo

Admittedly, this whole “France thing” was self-imposed. In fact, we had even justified doing it because we thought the challenges would be good character building for all of us. School in the USA had been going almost too well for our two oldest children. On the other hand, school hadn’t been going well for our youngest, and we thought a change might come as a relief: barely a day went by, it seemed, without a phone call or a chat at pick-up time regarding her behavior. Hardly a morning went by without a tantrum about attendance.

But we knew her as a wonderful and bright kid: a voracious and hyper-observant reader and a lover of music and art, and so creative that we didn’t worry about her thinking outside the box, we spent our energies teaching her that there was a box. Lilly Cadow deep sandcastle explorerNights, she kept awake singing to herself in the crib, and later, in her bed. She was a quick study of math and science, with a remarkable eye for discerning patterns in the world—except for when it came to social situations. And, first and foremost for her, school was a social situation. She felt ungrounded and anxious there, and so, she acted out.

The constant disruption from work on the French house continued through the summer and dragged on into the fall. Our youngest daughter expressed her stress in the way she always had. One evening in August, I poured myself a small glass of Muscat wine and set it on the windowsill. Before I had a single sip, an old piece of mortar tumbled from between the header boards above the deep window, shattering my wine glass and frazzling my spirits. When, soon after, a new tantrum erupted, my wife gave me permission to go for a walk.


On an ancient dirt and rubble road, I walked up and away, until the whole hamlet was behind me, appearing as a single clay-tiled mass of roofs crowned with chimneys. And then, next to the chateau d’eau—the water tower—I made a startling discovery. The chimney of our house, located in the very center of the hamlet, acted like a megaphone. It occurred to me that the tantrums over the previous months—and there had been many—had been audible to the whole community. Everyone had been privy to the challenges we faced, or, rather, we did not have the privacy we thought. I sprinted back to the house.

We were mortified. In this cluster of homes, our houses shared common walls. We had thought that the three-foot thickness of stone between each house protected our neighbors from our trials. And now, even though no one—not the hamlet matriarch, nor the young couple, nor the singular teen, nor the man on the moped, nor the octogenarian bachelor brothers, had ever looked askance when we all met at the bread truck in the morning, we felt judged.

The tantrums and the acting out, both at school and at home, did not go away upon our return to the United States, and they affected our American community, too. Our youngest daughter’s grades remained admirable, but the phone calls from school, and the reactions of some of her peers were unsettling, and not just for us. Sometimes, she bit kids.

In the spring of her 8th grade, her guidance counselor suggested that she enter the middle school talent show. She did, but until she needed a ride on the very night of the performance, she didn’t tell us about it. There were a few classical acts, a magic show, a dance routine or two, and several pop songs. Her performance was One Small Voice, from Sesame Street. She had asked a sixth-grader to accompany her on piano. They won.

I had taken the last available seat in the audience, next to the veteran high school chorus teacher. “Does she take lessons?” she asked. “No,” I said. “But most nights, sometime after midnight, we hear her singing and we have to go in and tell her to go back to sleep.” The chorus teacher smiled and nodded. She knew this kind of kid.

Double rainbow over Cazo at high Noon, December 07

From that moment on, music emerged as key to our youngest child’s identity. As a freshman, she joined chorus and became integral to the theater group. Fast forward to one day in her junior year: the phone rang. It was from the school. We held our breath. My wife answered.

Her new chorus teacher introduced herself. It was all good news. “You have a remarkable daughter,” she said.

Then came last summer. I took a break from repairing the tiles on the roof. As I struck out for a walk, the children in the hamlet, offspring of the young couple from 2007, were waiting for my daughter. With my poor French, I explained that she had just woken up. They should give her a little time. More than an hour later, as I followed the old dirt road back to the hamlet, I heard her.

The song of our youngest daughter was spilling out of our chimney and down into the streets. By time I reached the place where the road becomes paved, she had switched from an aria to a French folk song. At the corner of our little rue, I met one of the neighbors. He, too, seemed lost in thought. “C’est ta fille qui chante?” he asked: It is your daughter singing? Inside, in the salon, four children from the hamlet were standing around the keyboard. My daughter was teaching them songs.IMG_2054

Fast forward to the present, her senior year. She shares the directorship of the co-ed a cappella group: she is a teacher apprentice in two sections of chorus; and in one section of theory. She is the secretary of the school council. She is taking an independent study in conducting with the orchestra teacher. She has been hired by a community church to direct their choir; she gives voice lessons; and, she’ll be singing at graduation. I could go on, but what is most important is that she has a win-win relationship with school and community… in two countries, even.

Music has become her anchor, keel, and rudder in navigating the world. Her studies of other subjects both deepen and serve as accouterments to her understanding of it. Just the other day, she came home to explain that they had been exploring sound waves, frequency, and resonance in physics. She set a crystal wine glass on the kitchen counter, and ran her finger along the rim to find the pitch. “I’m going to try to break it,” she said.


What’s Getting in the Way of Project-Based Learning?

There are calls all over the place to move more opportunities to move around into the classroom. Kids need to move. They learn well if they can use their hands while they’re using their brains (and so… we give them stress balls instead of hand tools? Is this smart? But I digress).

My vision paper for my administrator certification was on a school model called Storied Learning, where students see themselves as the heroes at the centers of their own educational journeys. My next few posts will be excerpts from that paper.

One year, when my son had a significant gap in his schedule, I suggested he consider a course at the technical school just across the river. My wife, very much a forward thinker and a true success story of the educational approach of the 20th century, and my son both had the same kneejerk reaction: NO! Few people would argue against the practical side of Storied Learning, STEM labs, Project-Based Learning, ILOs, and so on. But what is it about our culture that is getting in the way of implementing experiential learning in our liberal arts educations?
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen published his work The Theory of the Leisure Class. In a nutshell, Veblen suggested that society has not evolved quite as far from our barbarian roots as we might like to believe. In barbarian cultures, the elite were warriors, religious figures, and political leaders. Thus, the elite had the time and the energy at the end of the day to party—to enjoy conspicuous consumption—a term coined by Veblen himself. Those who worked with their hands were inferior (e.g. women, smiths, farmers). The elite-acceptable jobs evolved, through the centuries, to include careers in certain businesses, law, medicine, and education. Those who work with their hands, and are thus physically involved in necessary industries, continue, Veblen argued, to maintain lower rungs on the social ladders.


This student belonged to a team that made a windmill from scratch. By the time they finished, they were able to use it to power a light bulb. Their progress from the point this picture was taken up until the windmill lit that bulb was quite a story!

Hence, today, even though research shows a strong correlation between hands-on learning and retention, the resistance to grand scale implementation of it on the part of educators and government alike, is very likely to have its roots in class snobbery.

The Hegemony of the Core

Are core teacher teams supporting our students, or are they blockading the education system from change that is essential to the success of our public schools?

We should all feel that we belong on top of the world.

“Specials” teachers should be no less special than those who teach the traditional subjects. The students who excel in the “specials” should be no less celebrated or supported in their triumphs than the students who may some day ace the SATs. Below are two emails I wrote to our grade 8 Core team as part of such an effort. They became part of the school record.

Dear colleagues,

I hope you will read this in the congenial and sincere tone that I intend. Reading Core notes, I can’t help but feel a little bit left out. I am going to take this opportunity to once again ask for reconsideration of the meeting time, and even the name, of Core.

I’m sure all of us have had a student removed from one of our classes without our consent or input… I’m sure we all know what that feels like. I would wager, however, that those of us who do not comprise Core, those of us who are in the implicit periphery, experience this with far greater frequency. I’d like you to read the following through my eyes:

“[A. Student] – We are concerned about her level of dishonesty. Also, she does not stay after school to do academic work. At her meeting we thought we asked that she would be scheduled in Project Achieve – she is open to this. What block does she have available – [the Achieve teacher] asked. She is willing to give up either flute or STREAM. We all agreed she would benefit more from PA than STREAM. [Achieve Teacher] says this would work.”

Had I been in a position to contribute, I may have ultimately concurred, but I also might have told you that in STREAM, this student has emerged as the primary person directing productivity and analysis within her team. I also might have voiced concerns I have about her. I might have told you about our classroom discussion regarding a definition for “integrity,” which, at the middle school level, we have defined as the ability to hold up to the job that one is expected to do: whether that be to support a load of a certain weight, or, in the case of a person, to tell the truth, and to do the work that is expected. As I read your concerns about this student, I believe my class is a good place for her to be, given the parallels we make between engineering terms and forces and concepts in our lives that help to make us stronger citizens.

Alas, I am not in a position to contribute, and I’m left feeling very aware that the “we” who all agreed that this student would benefit more from PA than STREAM did not include me. If it had been decided that she drop flute, “we” would not include the music teacher. I believe that the approach we take at [our school] with Core … demeans our arts departments and ultimately contributes significantly to the disenfranchisement of many of our hands-on learners, and potentially, though I won’t speak for anyone else, our colleagues. I think our present Core model subjects students and colleagues to the very inequalities that we are teaching our students to recognize, and to speak out against.

I once again propose that one meeting per week for Core in each grade, be moved to take place [after school] from 2:25 until 3 p.m.

Thank you for your time, and see you in the halls!

I am learning, firsthand, how it feels to speak out against a social injustice. The only written response I received was from the note-taker, who apologized for the way the notes were worded. She also expressed a wish that all students could take a class with me. It felt like a nice bow on a bag of garbage—easily and prettily disposed of.

I responded, again to the school record:

Hi [note-taker] & all,

I appreciate your sentiments [note-taker], and am very much in agreement with you that it would be great if STREAM could be made available to all middle school kids. I hope you don’t feel responsible, or take the wording of the notes too much to heart–they are only a symptom. Core is an approach to serving a lot of kids that works for a lot of people, but I think that, with a different schedule it could serve more people. I love working as part of [our] 8th grade team, and I know I could learn a lot by being part of the group, and could also bring a lot to the table… if I could come to the table. The present system sets caring people up for making oversights, and makes it impossible for all to contribute equally–I think it is the system that is the problem.

Let’s leave this electronic communication behind. Would love to have a pizza party or some gathering in my –or anyone’s — space (or One Main?) and continue the conversation!

* * *

Alas, no one took me up on the offer of continuing the conversation. The members of Core are content with its makeup. Most remain civil to me, but I get the sense that overall, they feel less comfortable around me now. As a person who loves to create comfortable spaces, I find it painful.

But the meaning of the word “comfort” does not, from its roots, imply complacency, nor does it imply a soft, or cushy existence. The prefix “com-” means with, and the root “fort-” means strength.

My hope is for our public schools to be places where students can build their understanding and their skills outwardly from their naturally strongest foundations and interests. It should not matter if those strengths are in writing, drawing, math, music, science, or phys. ed. The teachers who witness students at their strongest aptitude should be part of the Core team. But to do that, we need to change things at the core level. As I am finding out, it isn’t going to be easy, but if like-minded teachers will speak out–and will encourage their students to do the same–we’ll get there.