achievement: Macbeth also raced to the top
students succeed when the focus is not success
“Hey John, can you describe your approach to parenting?”
“I guess I would say that I want to have a few firm boundaries, a considerable amount of freedom and unconditional love.”
“Oh, that's not at all how I run a family,” my friend explains. The term “run” jars me, but I'm intrigued.
“Yeah, I have my kids compete with one another. It makes them work harder. Unconditional love is just another term for low expectations. I want accountability. If my kids are someday going to compete in a global economy, they need to first compete for my affection.”
“Describe what you mean.”
“For example, take dinner time. Each week, I have my children take a test. Those who have reached the top get more food. Those who fail it . . . well, I don't exactly starve them. But I give them just enough food to stay alive. It's a motivational tool.”
“Wow, that seems a little cruel.”
“Oh no, my kids work really, really hard. We need to incent children to learn.” I'm not sure if “incent” is really a word, but if the Secretary of Education can use it, I suppose I'll give my friend a free pass as well.
“What about the child you just adopted from China?”
“Yeah, he's having a hard time. But I want my ELL child to know that he has to compete on the same playing field as the rest of my family. And you know what? My guess is he'll learn English faster this way.”
“Don't you have a child with special needs?”
“Yeah, but he competes with the other kids, too. Don't get me wrong, he won't ever have as much on his plates as others, but God knows he'll try. Where else will he get competition? The Special Olympics lies to them and tells them that they're all winners. That's simply not how corporate America works.”
“Are your kids afraid of making mistakes?”
“Perhaps, but in the process they learn that mistakes have consequences. We've settled for mediocre for too long. Indeed, I want to set up a neighborhood competition that will pit my house against the others. Maybe we can shut down some of the lower performing homes and sell them to a company who will run a more competitive household. The family as a social institution is broken. Data demonstrates that the divorce rate continues to increase. We need, competitive families with smart children.”
“I'm not sure I agree with your approach.”
“Oh, I see. You just don't believe that all kids can learn. You don't believe in competition. You probably won't even push your kids into joining football or winning the academic pissing contest. But don't complain later when Joel and Micah and Brenna aren't competitive global leaders.”
I wrote that sardonic, fictional conversation after reading a report about how we, as teachers, were failing students. It's nothing new. When I was four people were using the doom-and-gloom scare tactics, telling America that we were A Nation At Risk until that very risky generation created Google and Yahoo and helped lead the innovation that would fuel a global economy. For all the posturing and fear mongering about low standards, I don't see it. If anything, the obsession with a narrow definition of success is hindering rather than helping children.
* * *Brad begins his lesson on Macbeth with short articles about ambitious famous people. In each case, it's essentially the Rock Cycle (start out small, gain status, gain popularity, get stuck in drugs and end up small again – then repeat with a comeback tour). Brad doesn't seem convinced that the greater issue is simply getting hooked on drugs, but rather getting hooked on toxic success.
“Are you suggesting that success is a bad thing?” I ask him.
“I'm not against success. I love to see people succeed. I just think that Macbeth has something valuable to teach us about the dangers of ambition and power.
Brad reminds me that Osama bin Ladin was ambitious and the Unibomber was ambitious. So was Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosevich. He warns me that success for the sake of success is not simply meaningless. It's dangerous.
* * *The project begins with high interest. Students spend a week researching the social implications of video games from their inception to now. Their answers are deep, their questions deeper. At some point, however, I begin to see a quality project forming within my clunky cerebrum. I picture this documentary winning an award in a student film festival. Subtly, I push the higher-level students into the skits and I excuse a few struggling students who fail to finish their scripts. The damage isn't in words. It's in the subtle body language telling students that only those who are truly talented have a right to work on the project.
I might as well call it Race to the Top and I'm more than happy to push a few students down the cliff in the process. I hardly realize it until I start walking around the groups and talk to those who have given up.
“I didn't want it to suck,” a boy says. “I was confused, but I didn't want to ask. I'll just take an f. It's what our project is. Effed up.”
The imaginary escape world I created begins to crumble. I apologize to my class and begin to schedule morning meetings for students who are behind. We work laboriously, slowly, creating something that is as imperfect as we are. When I quit focusing on the final product, I am able to focus on the students and in the process, more learning occurs and surprisingly the end result turns out pretty impressive as well.
* * *It's a week before our high-stakes standardized testing and I'm nervous. I'm scared that my approach to teaching will not transfer well into a drill-and-kill test. I'm tempted to move toward the Postmodern Pinocchio approach. I want my students to do well, because I don't want them to be judged and I don't want to be judged and I don't want the politicians to have another reason to shut down our school.
Sometimes when I can't articulate my thoughts well in person, I have a dream and on this evening, it's about NASCAAR. I'm sitting in a cock pit telling students to work harder and drive faster. People are watching and judging and I'm scared that they will judge me if the kids fail. The students stop after each lap so that we can measure progress. After all, my students are racing not only against one another, but against the world.
Half-way through the race, I notice students crash and burn. Their cars are a wreck and the crowd turns away. Others run out of gas. Yet, we continue to cheer and yell and chant out slogans about change and hope and the need to beat everyone else. Until I notice one kid pull off the side of the track and say, “I'm done. I'm tired of racing around over and over again in circles. I want to drive in a real road. I want to learn how to handle the traffic and navigate the roads. I might get in a wreck or two, but I want something more real than a trophy.”
I look at the scrawny eighth grader with braces and an over-sized baseball cap. It's me.
* * *Brad thinks that a lack of ambition might actually mean more success. “If you are trying to be successful just to be successful, you give up or you cheat or you don't take risks. But if you have something you care about, you take your time. You throw yourself into it knowing that you might fail. You don't buy into the belief that 'failure is not an option,' because you know that anything worth doing will be difficult.”
I leave the conversation and make a list of all the reasons that focusing on success leads to less success.
- Students choose easier tasks
- Students give up when they realize that they won't reach the ultimate goal
- Students cheat in order to reach the goal
- Students quit working together and often work toward subverting one another's efforts toward success
- Those who succeed feel a sense of emptiness when it is over. They realize that purposeless success is not success at all.
- Students end up blaming others for failure, because of the message that “those who fail are losers”
* * *As we analyze the functions of money, a student raises his hand and wonders why we left off two categories. "What about bribes? It's not the same as spend, save, invest, give away, lend or borrow."
Another student argues that it fits better within the category of "spend." She points out that whether one spends money on influence or a product, it is still spending.
The first student then asks, "Well, what about stealing? Shouldn't that be a category?"
Another student asks, "What's the difference between stealing and investing." He's not joking. He asks about a recent Wall Street executive who had run a pyramid scheme and I explain that most investors don't steal and yet he won't drop it.
"Why do rich people who steal millions go to fancy prisons while my brother goes to a ghetto prison for stealing a car?"
Another student jumps in, "Did he have a gun? That could have been armed robbery."
"Why does it matter if he had a gun?"
"Well, it would really scare someone if you had a gun."
"I'm sure people were scared when they lost their entire retirement. Which fear is going to last longer?"
It has me thinking about the ways our nation punishes poor people. If I am rich, I get golden parachutes during an economic crisis. (I've read What Color Is Your Parachute and I still can't find the chapter about golden ones) If I'm rich and I donate, I get buildings named in my honor. If I am rich, I can steal and end up spending four years in a fancy prison. My money alone gives me the loudest voice in education reform.
The system is rigged. Seriously rigged. When Wall Street executives get fat bonus checks and seventh grade ELL students are still expected to pass a multiple choice reading exam, there is something wrong with our nation's definition of accountability. Why is it that we are closing "failing" schools and propping up failing banks?
For all the talk about low expectations among low income students, it seems to me that our nation has higher expectations for the poor than we do for the rich. I'm not against wealth. I'm not a socialist. It just seems wrong that those who are born into a challenging circumstance should then be required to live the rest of their lives at a higher ethical standard than those who are born into privilege.
The whole conversation leaves me wondering about my students and the whole focus on achievement in order to gain wealth. It is easy, at this point, to shift toward thinking that poverty is okay, ambition is evil and contentment is the solution. I have been in homes with gripping poverty and I do not wish this on anyone. I had a student one time tell me that she could not do homework because her electricity had been turned off for two weeks. She explained that, for the first week, she walked to the park and worked at the bench. After a drive-by, though, she grew scared and quit trying. I think of her or the girl with the backpack full of toast and I can see the benefits of ambition and success.
Still, I want success defined in terms of a deeper meaning. Students should have a larger purpose to what they are doing beyond simply “success” or “achievement.” It is only when they find a deeper purpose that they are able to achieve anything that is truly sustainable.
* * *I went to Wal-Mart the other day and it was packed. The same parents that radio pundits label as "Welfare Queens" helped their kids sort through stacks of binders and erasers and reams of paper.
“No mija, not Dora the Explorer. She can't find her way around the jungle. Have you seen her? How will she help you find your way through fractions? Besides, you're too old for her. Do they have one with the Santos?”
“The football team?” her son asked. I'm not sure if he means the Brazilian soccer team or the New Orlean Saints.
“No, the Santos. Fourth grade is going to be hard. You'll need some help. I only finished up to fifth. You can do better.” In this moment, I feel like crying under the weight of being a teacher.
It's not uncommon where I work to see parents with a fifth or sixth grade education who are learning English with their children. They might not be the greatest homework tutors. Their jobs might prevent them from joining a PTA, but a simple glance at Wal-Mart reveals the reality that they care.
I pretend to sort through binders as I listen to her speech. “I want you to get a good life. Find a job that you love and get an education. Be respectful, mijo. Try your best and if you do well, don't let it get to your head. If you do that, I am a happy mom.”
I may never have that student, but my guess is that he succeeds, not because he is getting a reward or inspired by success-for-the-sake-of-success, but because he has a deeper purpose to what he is doing. She is not pushing him toward Macbethian ambition or a meaningless NASCAAR race. She wants him to walk the journey and to do so with humility and respect. I hope he succeeds.
* * *“Is eco a root word or a prefix?” an ELL student asks me (ELL stands for English Language Learner, which is a bit of a misnomer, because we're all learning English)
“I think it's a root word. I'm not sure.”
“What does it mean?”
“You know, I really don't know.”
“How can you teach economics if you don't know what 'eco' means?”
It's not meant to be a mean question, just a question. I tell her that she can meander away from her budget if she really wants to find he answer. She quotes a few different sources and tells me, "I think it has to do with life. And I found out that economics once had to do with the environment, because it was about the environment."
When I press her to explain, she gets flustered and gives up, but then she asks me, “How many economists have learned the root word for economy?”
It has me thinking about ecology and economy and what it would mean to pursue sustainability in both. I don't know who deserves bailouts. I don't know what to think of the stimulus package, aside from the fact that I still snicker every time a news anchor uses the phrase.
I do know this: unsustainable growth in “life” is cancer. We need cycles and seasons. We need solstices. I don't want to be lectured by pundits about how the bad economy might be "good for us" and how it's a “reality check.” For them, perhaps. But I've been living reality for quite some time. When my anger at media subsides, though, I wonder if there is an element of truth in what they are preaching.
Perhaps the beauty of a solstice (and we're in an economic winter solstice right now) is that people embrace one another out of the necessity of staying warm. I could be wrong, but it seems that people are relying on one another a little more right now.
I want my students to achieve great things. I want them to find success. I just don't believe that pursuing achievement for the sake of achievement ever leads to true success. I want my students to find sustainable success – the kind that allows a person to be content in the midst of a bitter cold winter solstice.