After I graduated from college, I needed some space to clear my head. I had reflected on my 17 years of schooling and seen one year blend into another, all part of the conveyor belt that carried me through my undergraduate degree. It was so tempting to just keep riding that conveyor belt into the nine-to-five world of work.

I could have done that. But I knew it would not have been healthy. I needed some space.

So I moved across the country to Tucson, Arizona and took a part-time job as waiter. I didn’t know anyone in Tucson, which was one of the reasons I chose it. I didn’t want to be burdened by someone else’s expectations of who they wanted me to be.

After some time, I began getting some pressure from people back in my hometown to “get a job.” These messages accumulated over time, and they affected me. I was determined to chart my own course, but I began to wonder: Am I still working part-time as a waiter because I want to? Or am I doing it out of stubbornness, a refusal to cave to the pressure I was feeling?

* * *

I think kids deal with this phenomenon at school. Well-meaning teachers, administrators, and counselors give kids very clear messages about how they should live their lives, and where they should aspire to go next.

It forces kids to make important decisions—Where should I go to college? Wait, should I go to college?—partly in response to authority. In traditional schooling, we do kids a disservice by not offering them space to think clearly, free from our judgement, to act on their own intuition.

(Get updates at https://twitter.com/stevemiranda.)


Here’s one of my favorite passages from Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness:

The authority such a leader needs is not power. Power comes to anyone who controls the tools of coercion, which range from grades to guns. But authority comes only to those who are granted it by others. And what leads us to grant someone authority? The word itself contains a clue: we grant authority to people who we perceive as “authoring” their own words and actions, people who do not speak from a script or behave in preprogrammed ways.

In other words, we grant authority to people we perceive as living undivided lives.

* * *

I received an email recently from a former student, who wrote:

“I am currently a senior [in college], and have been focusing a lot on political economic theory recently . . . and I keep on thinking about your lit and philosophy class. It was really really smart, and I am really grateful to have taken it. I was wondering if you still had the reading list for the class?”

This is not the first time I had been asked this. (It’s a great honor, and these messages always fill me with gratitude and joy.) It was a popular class, one that I completely made up from scratch. When writing the syllabus, I never once considered the state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements or what a traditional “philosophy” class might include. Instead, I focused on creating a curriculum that inspired me, selecting ideas that had a profound impact on the way I think.

Because I was inspired every day, I was able to facilitate class discussions with energy and enthusiasm. Every class period really mattered to me because every class period was focused on an idea that had changed my life.

Reading Palmer’s book last night gave me another interpretation of what happened in that class. I relied so little on “the tools of coercion”—students had to write three essays over the course of five months, and anyone who took the assignment seriously earned full credit—that the presence of any “power” in our relationship was almost imperceptible.

I didn’t exercise much power over students in that class, but by presenting a curriculum that I had authored myself, I gained a very real authority among them.

* * *

I know it seems efficient to have curriculum writers just send out unit plans to the mass of teachers in a school district. That way, students in different schools are all on the same page, and if one of them transfers to a different school, he can pick right up where he left off in his old school. It can save time and money, and acts as a buffer to soften the impact that bad teachers can have. It all seems logical.

But I think we lose more than we gain. By telling teachers what and how to teach, we take from them their authority in the classroom. Without authority from the students, they have to rely increasingly on exercising power.

(Get updates at twitter.com/stevemiranda)

When does now matter?

My 5-year-old son has homework. Since he’s going to have homework in first grade, it’s good to establish the habit now. That’s the theory, anyway.

(Of course, the only reason to have homework in first grade is the make sure he’s ready for second grade. And the only reason to have homework in second grade . . . )

Ambitious high school students tackle a rigorous academic program that will prepare them for college. And in college, they’ll take classes that will prepare them for the work world. That’s the theory, anyway.

After graduating, they’ll take boring entry-level jobs that they’re overqualified for in hopes that, soon, if they follow orders well and ingratiate themselves to the boss, it will position them for a great job. Soon, they’ll find themselves performing challenging tasks, effecting change that matters, and solving real problems.


When does now matter?

There’s a spoken word poem by a teacher named Taylor Mali that has been viewed by millions on YouTube. In the poem, Mali calls out a dinner guest who utters the old line, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” He explains that he’s not worried about how much money he makes because he makes something more important than money—he makes a difference.

Everyone loves this poem. Except me.

Mali’s poem reinforces the old notion that teachers and students are adversaries, and the teacher’s job is the push the students hard and—against all odds—to make them do things they don’t want to do. Contrary to what society tells us, my experience has taught me that attitude actually hinders student achievement.

I don’t believe in the teacher-as-hero narrative.

I once had a student who designed, purchased materials for, constructed, and mounted a theatre-style projection screen in my classroom. One former student built a professional-quality website for our student newspaper. Two students wrote a script and shot a 20-minute movie. I had a student solicit and audition acts, send out invitations, design the event program, and manage backstage at an all-school talent show. Each of these achievements were done without a single push from me. I didn’t “make” them do it. They were done because the individuals were inspired and wanted to do something extraordinary.

I have an even longer list of failed attempts at pushing students do something extraordinary. It always ended in an embarrassing mess. Always.

Eventually, I learned a profound lesson: the greatest teachers don’t push students or make them do things. The greatest teachers cultivate an environment that inspires, get out of the way, and provide support.

Get updates at https://twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

Infinite schools

When people ask me for book recommendations, the first one I always suggest is Finite and Infinite Games, a little philosophy book by NYU professor emeritus James P. Carse.

Here’s the entire first chapter: “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other, infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

Society is set up like a finite game, with winners and losers. The point of this game is to climb the social and economic ladder: get rich, marry well, accrue power, then raise kids who will be even more successful than you.

So we create schools that will train people to succeed in this finite game. We give kids test that they either pass or fail, we rank students by grade point average, and we help them win a spot in an exclusive university.

But what about those “infinite games,” the ones we play just for inherent joy they bring? Playing hide-and-seek with your 4-year-old daughter. Going on a road trip with friends. Playing fetch with your dog. There is no winner and loser in these activities, but these are the moments that bring the most profound sense of joy to our lives.

What if we created infinite schools? What if, instead of correctly answering a question about the Civil War, the point was to have a discussion that leads to tackling ever more complex questions? School districts all have as their goal “creating lifelong learners,” but they disrespect that notion by treating school as a finite game to be won or lost.

What would it mean to re-imagine school as an infinite game?

I’m a big fan of the William Goldman movie The Princess Bride. There’s a famous line uttered by the character Inigo Montoya to the character Vizzini, who keeps referring to various phenomena as “inconceivable.”

Montoya finally responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

* * *

The high school transcript. It does not mean what you think it means.

Consider this scenario:

A student—we’ll call her Jane—is enrolled in my English class. She raises her hand every 15 seconds in class to respond to a question or offer an opinion. She has a perfect 4.0 GPA. Her parents are wealthy professionals. Her writing is mediocre; there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s not a whole lot right with it either. She doesn’t seem to enjoy writing very much or work particularly hard at it, but she is always vigilant about knowing exactly what the assignment is, what the parameters are, how many points it’s worth, and when it’s due.

As a teacher, I could tell within the first three or four days of the semester that Jane was going to get an A. Not because I could somehow magically predict the quality of her academic work, but simply because it was clear that she would not accept anything less.

Here’s another one:

Andrew is also enrolled in my English class. He’s perhaps the finest writer I’ve ever had the privilege of having in class. He shows no outward interest in what his grade is. Mostly he wants to listen to music, talk about music, write about music, and talk about writing about music. He writes with a voice that is so alive that I find myself nodding my head rhythmically to the beat of his prose. He misses a few assignments throughout the course of the semester, and ends up with a B. When his report card comes, he questions me about the B. I show him my gradebook and point to the missed assignments. He shrugs, puts his headphones back on, and rejoins his friends.

One more:

Zelia is an elite writer, competing with Andrew for perhaps the finest writer I’ve ever worked with. Her sentences and paragraphs sing. She’s very humble about her talent, and has dreams that are not nearly ambitious enough considering her talent. However, she takes the craft of writing so seriously that she suffers from a pathological condition: she refuses to let anyone read her work unless it is perfect. In fact, she doesn’t even let herself read her own work unless it’s perfect. Her method is to write in her head, and only type the words on the computer after she’s edited them to perfection in her head.

It’s an impossibly inefficient method, and Zelia misses a series of crucial deadlines for a major writing assignment. She gets an F.

* * *

High school is a game that’s played by a certain set of rules. Those who are good at understanding and following the rules are rewarded with A’s. The problem is that, often, these rules have nothing to do with a student’s command of academic content.

So all the complexity of Jane, Andrew, and Zelia are reduced to this:

Jane – A
Andrew – B

As their classroom teacher, I can tell you with certainty: these letters, they do not mean what you think they mean.

* * *

It’s possible to completely reimagine what a high school transcript might look like. Perhaps the first step in this process might be to figure out what information should be included.

If you’re a college admissions representative, surely you want to know something personal about the applicant. For example, instead of just listing a bunch of course titles next to letter grades, you want to know what makes this person unique. So maybe the transcript starts with the student’s declaration of what they’re passionate about.

But talk is cheap, right? So maybe there’s a section listing things the student has done: performed the lead role in the school musical, organized the church youth group retreat, earned a brown belt in taekwondo.

Colleges want to know if you’ve got the academic chops to handle higher education, so there should be a list of academic competencies. This is different from grades, which are just reflections of how well students understand and follow the rules of school. Academic competencies are things like “I can apply the Pythagorean Theorem,” “I can write a thoughtful literary analysis of Amiri Baraka’s poetry,” and “I can conceive an original hypothesis and test it by designing and executing an experiment using the scientific method.”

I use the present tense because academic competencies are skills you possess right now. Grades, on the other hand, are a measure of skills you may (or may not) have possessed at some point during a previous semester.

Of course, all these declarations of academic competency are hyperlinked to real examples of the student’s work.

* * *

The structure of the high school transcript is an unbelievably powerful force that shapes how students spend their high school years.

But there’s no law that says that the way transcripts look now is the way they must look. By a simple reinvention of this piece of paper, we can transform schools. Instead of being places where student success is dependent on learning a set of arbitrary rules, schools can be places that support students as they get busy trying to do something awesome, something meaningful to them.