Archive for the ‘Civility’ Category

Don’t Get Mad, Ask Questions

September 26, 2009

Anger is a staple of modern public discourse.  Perhaps, some people will say, that’s always been so.  The fact that a mean spirited element has long existed makes it no less toxic.

Most of us have freshly burned in our memories people shouting down members of congress at August town hall meetings.  And, in some cases, members of congress shouting back down their constituents.  Fresher still are images of a member of congress shouting down the President during his address to a joint session of Congress.  Immediately after, there was a spike in campaign contributions to the offending member of congress as well as his opponent.

In the social media sphere it is not uncommon to see anger filled political comments sprinkled among the updates on newborn nieces, vacation photos and business updates.  Perhaps we share some of the anger we read in our respective news feeds.  Perhaps some posts make us angrier still because we disagree – especially if we have not carefully filtered out all those who think differently.

In my community, I see anger expressed on a daily basis in our local newspaper.  There is a section in the paper in which people can express anonymous sentiments about any subject of their choice.  Each morning I read people sniping back and forth at one another over everything ranging from the Apostle Paul, to whether the President should make a speech to school children, to health care, to who knows what else.  It’s like a car wreck.  So many people I know feel sad by what they read but look religiously.

So many of us feel sorrowful about the current state of public discourse and yet the toxicity persists even amplifies.  We listen to calls for civility with a cynical ear.  We implore political candidates for office to be more civil not believing that they will.  What we don’t often consider is that, perhaps or even probably, the conduct of political candidates is a reflection of their communities and that civility begins with each one of us.

Don Haddad, Superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools, suggested at a recent school board meeting that each of us can contribute to a more civil public realm.  Here is what I took away from his remarks:

 It has become a habit when we read, hear or see something which we don’t like to immediately express anger without thought or care for the consequences.  We don’t consider how we might be stirring the cauldron of toxic public discourse.

We need a new reflex; a new habit.  When we read, hear or see something which triggers an angry feeling inside, we must resist the temptation to express those emotions immediately, unfiltered.  Instead, the feelings of concern should trigger each of us to ask questions, to learn more, to channel our feelings of anger into a learning opportunity.  We may find where there is smoke there is no fire.  Or, perhaps we will find a situation with enough complication that shouting each other down will do nothing but fan the flames and impede progress further.  In either case knee jerk reactions of anger are not useful.

I appreciate Mr. Haddad’s remarks because I can act on his advice.  I don’t need to wait for anyone else to take action first.  And though I may find it hard on occasion it is a good standard to strive for.

*     *    *

Also published in


Civil Discourse

February 25, 2009

Anyone who is interested in public issues, be they education or anything else, this piece by Stephen L. Carter is worth reading.

I have been inspired by Carter for many years – in particular by his books, Civility and Integrity.  My copies are marked up, dog eared and referred to from time-to-time.

Segmenting of America

January 30, 2009

These are signs of our times:

Chicago Public Schools is developing a high school for gay and lesbian students to better serve these students needs.

New America Charter Schools operate in Colorado and New Mexico with a mission of empowering new immigrants and English language learners.

Kipp School leaders advocate for separate schools for the economically disadvantaged because their learning needs are very different than more affluent students.

The Denver Urban League operates neighborhood learning centers in partnership with Hope Online Learning Academy because their constituents are "lost" in traditional schools.

In the St. Vrain Valley charter schools open to satisfy stylistic differences.  Some families prefer structure and uniforms.  They choose core knowledge schools.  Others prefer more self-directed learning.  They choose a Montessori approach.

And, within traditional St. Vrain schools nearly a quarter of families exercise use of open enrollment, which leads to a tremendous sorting out of students by ethnic groups.

Choice is a part of our lives to stay.  Anyone who argues that we should end choice would be just as likely to succeed at arguing that women should not be in the workforce.

But, what are the unintended consequences of the segmenting of America and the segmenting of education.

One of the things that attracts me to public education and schools is the potential of this institution to build a civil society.  It is more difficult to build civil society in a segmented world.

The jury is out on whether homogeneous schools will better serve the academic needs of children.  Perhaps there is academic merit to this approach. 

Meantime, there is no doubt in my mind that we need to be more intentional about bringing together young people of different interests and backgrounds to learn from and with one another.  We need only look around the world to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and central Africa to see the consequences of balkanization.

We need new ideas and new methods to make this happen.  We're not going to do it by forcefully assigning students to schools.  Besides, just sharing space is of limited value.

The adults in America must show leadership.  We must embrace the value of diversity.  We must help our children to embrace it, too.

Diversity will not go away.  Understanding is the only way to make it valuable.  Surely we can find a place for that within our education system.

A word on behalf of newspapers

May 16, 2008

Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, is credited with saying that the newspaper is the first rough draft of history.  The notion of the newspapers as a rough draft is a good one.

In my work, I have the opportunity to interview a wide range of people about a variety of public issues and public institutions.  Newspapers are not people’s favorite institutions.  It’s typical for people to complain that newspapers are too incomplete, misleading, and "biased."

When it comes to St. Vrain School issues, it is not uncommon for people in our communities to be critical of the Times-Call.

Let me suggest for your consideration that one of newspapers’ deficiencies lies not with the newspapers at all but with we newspaper readers.  I would suggest we have unrealistic expectations of newspapers.

Daily news is reported in a matter of hours and must be made to fit space constraints.  This daily news is, indeed, a rough draft.

We should read the newspaper to pique our curiosity rather than for definitive information from which to draw conclusions.  Indeed, newspaper reporters should begin every one of their articles with this preface:  "You should check this out more for yourself if you find it of interest but here’s something I’ve learned" (of course to do that in practice would be tedious and absurd).

Now, I’m not suggesting that newspapers should be let off the hook for enduring journalism values such as accuracy and fairness.  Those standards are essential.

My brief experience with the Times-Call as a public official, as one example, I’ve been treated very fairly.  The articles written about meetings I’ve attended or have been part of have been accurate.  It also is true that these newspaper articles have not included all the nuance or complete context of the issues.  But that is the very nature of a first rough draft.

I had a chance to talk to a group of Skyline High School students about news coverage and I encouraged them to be curious first and jump to conclusions second (after you’ve done some homework on your own).  I encourage that of us all and to cut newspapers a little bit of slack.

Discover Colorado

April 27, 2008

Discover Colorado: It’s People, Places, and Times is a text book written by Mathew Downey and Ty Bliss.  Ty is a teacher at Prairie Ridge Elementary School.  I am reading the book with my children.   The book is designed to do two things:  Help students learn about Colorado and improve their literacy skills.  This integrated approach to literacy and social studies is essential in our modern education system.

More Sandra Day O’Connor

April 22, 2008

In our cynical world, many of us assume that people seek public office for personal gain.  One of Justice O’Connor’s answers to a question was a refreshing reminder that this is not necessarily – or often – the case.

The question was posed by a high school government teacher.  He asked (paraphrased), When I ask my students to discuss Supreme Court cases they have a hard time separating their personal views from the law.  How would you advise me to help them do this?

Without hesitation, Justice O’Connor responded (also paraphrased), Have them raise their right hands and say these words:  I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.

She went on to explain that when you commit yourself to this oath it is easy to separate your own views from the judgments you must make.  “It’s not about you,” she concluded emphatically.  “It’s about the Constitution and laws of the United States.”


Sandra Day O’Connor

April 22, 2008

Last Thursday, I experienced one of the perks of serving on the school board.  I was invited to attend a conversation with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

I have had the privilege to meet a few people who hold (or have held) high office.  My experience is that people in these positions operate on a different plane than the rest of us – certainly I on higher plane than I operate.  That is certainly true of Justice O’Connor.  The confidence, optimism and get it done attitude are palpable.  She, and others I’ve met at this level, radiate a different type of energy.

It was a real treat to be able to meet her.

Justice O’Connor was in Boulder to speak about her efforts to renew a commitment to civic education in our classrooms.  Part of this effort includes an initiative known as Our Courts.  Justice O’Connor also is working with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

Civil Discourse

February 18, 2008

I would like begin this post with a passage from page 24 of Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter.  This book has become a reference manual for me, dog-eared and tattered, especially when I’m feeling snide or unruly.  Carter writes:

Democracy demands dialogue, and dialogue flows from disagreement.  But we can, and maybe must, be relentlessly partisan without being actively uncivil.  Indeed, the more passionate our certainty that we are right, the more urgent our need to practice the art of civility – otherwise, we make dialogue impossible, and the possibility of dialogue is the reason democracy values disagreement in the first place.  For those who believe in dialogue, then, hypocrisy lies in the pretense that we can discuss our differences seriously without the aid of civility.

I would like to encourage more comments and comments from more people on this blog.  It is my hope that this can be one place for dialogue about public schools, public education and St. Vrain schools in particular.

I would encourage everyone who posts comments to consider Carter’s advice.  Consider, too, these questions when you do post:  How will this add to the discussion?  Will it add new knowledge or a different perspective?  Will the tenor of the comment invite others to join in?

I would like this to be a place in which we can engage on disagreements, even sharp disagreements.  I believe that sorting through disagreements is the best way to learn and discover better ways to do things.  I do not want this to be a place where people feel a license to be mean spirited.  Snide remarks typically shut conversation down.  As Carter says, we cannot discuss our differences seriously without the aid of civility.

I am confident that people who read this blog know the difference between constructive disagreement and being rude.  I hope many people will comment and comment often in this spirit.

Daily Routines and Positive Learning Environments

December 17, 2007

Productive social norms are an essential part of a quality learning environment.  Or, put another way, cliques and intolerance can impede learning.

At our December 12, board meeting we heard a report on programs being implemented to foster positive behavior and positive learning environments in schools.

My children are influenced in a good way by these programs.  The positive behavior program at Central Elementary is call Fire Hawk Five.  The program goes by other names at other schools.  My daughter has learned to use the Peace Place to work out disputes.

These are good programs.  But, daily routines may be more important.

I took part in a youth summit that brought together more than 100 St. Vrain high school students.  We assigned students to tables at random to make sure they would congregate with friends.  The students said that they were talking with people from different "groups" – I can’t remember all the labels they used – often for the first time.  The students were surprised and pleased to learn how much they had in common with their peers from other "groups."

During the conversation, we asked the high schoolers for ideas on how to promote a positive environment in their schools.  They did not mention programs such as those we heard about at our last board meeting.  Instead, they focused on daily routines.  The students’ ideas to build tolerance included: Assign our locker partners don’t let us choose our own and make us sit by different people at lunch.  The students said this would force us to talk to, get to know and perhaps even become friends with people outside their own cliques – similar to what was happening at the youth summit.

The students added that they would complain if such ideas were implemented.  But, these types of practices would force them to interact with peers outside of cliques and, perhaps, build more tolerance in schools.

I’ve noticed how cliques begin to form even at the elementary grades when daily routines are changed.  For a variety of sound reasons, Central Elementary has students go to recess immediately before lunch.  In the past it was reverse, lunch immediately before recess.  Other schools have adopted this practice, too.

When I went to lunch with my kids in the past, I noticed the teachers had a lot of influence over how the kids lined up because they were coming to the cafeteria directly from the classroom.  My children seldom were in line next to the friends they played with at recess.  But, they laughed and talked with their classmates just the same.

Now, I notice that when my children come to the cafeteria from the playground they are in line with their playground buddies.  It tends to be a similar group of kids each time.  Girls and boys are separated as they enter the lunch room.  The unintended consequence is that the kids are sitting in what amount to cliques.  There is less interaction with peers with whom they are less familiar and comfortable.

I urge principals, teachers and staff to consider how small daily routines can affect civility in the school house.

Benevolence and Trust

December 16, 2007

We held a board work session on Monday, December 10.  One of our agenda items was how we will work together as a board.  As part of our discussion, we discussed factors that influence trust.  Here are elements of trust discussed in a book Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools by Megan Tschannen-Moran.

Reliability – Do I do what I say I’ll do?  Am I committed, dedicated and consistent?

Predictability – Will I act/decide the same way in similar situations? Can people predict what I’ll do in similar situations?

Benevolence – Do I express appreciation and support people?  Do I demonstrate good will?  Do I guard confidences?

Honesty – Do I tell the truth?  Do I keep promises and honor agreement?  Do I avoid manipulating others?  Am I true to myself?

Accountability – Do I take responsibility for what I do?

Openness – Do I share important information?  Do I share decision making and power?

Competence – Do I work hard and meet standards? Do I handle difficult situations and deal with conflict appropriately?

Most of these are familiar.  Rod Schmidt, a fellow board member from Mead, noted that Benevolence is less commonly associated with trust.  Benevolence is something worth considering not just during the holiday seasons but throughout the year.  As a friend of mine likes to say, "You can get more done with sugar than vinegar."