The Millefoglie of Success

graduation 2017

Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.


Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Uncertainty as an Opening

uncertainty Once in a while, for fun, I take some quiz or questionnaire that has me rate my agreement with various statements, for instance: “I like to have things planned out in advance.” What am I to say? Do I agree with it or not? Is it even possible to respond in the abstract? Yes, I like to plan things in advance. In less than two weeks I leave from Istanbul, where I will be teaching for two weeks at the wonderful Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi; from there I go to Budapest and Košice for a week. I have planned a beautiful itinerary and schedule but have also left room for the unexpected. It’s possible that the unforeseen parts will have the most meaning, as they will take me out of what I already know.

I have uncertainties in my life as well. I devoted this year to writing my second book. I have finished the second round of revisions but do not yet have an agent, let alone a publisher. People are often surprised when they hear this; they don’t know why someone would write a book without a contract. Of course it’s risky–but not nearly as risky as waiting for that elusive contract and maybe not writing any book at all! I chose to focus first on the work and only later on its place in the world. For that reason, I am facing uncertainty, but it’s worthwhile.

There’s a great comfort in locating yourself in the world, especially in conversations with others. Perceived success often has to do with having a place. When people ask, “Who’s your publisher?” it’s awkward to say, “I don’t have one.” When people ask, “How’s the job search going?” it’s embarrassing to reply, “I was turned down for job A and haven’t heard anything about B, C, D, E, or F.” I sense acutely that I am coming across as Unsuccessful. But this lack of placement–this interval of not knowing where one will be–can have great meaning and thrill.

I lack certain external markers right now; I cannot glibly say, “Oh, my book will be published by Knopf, and I will be heading a new humanities program at Carnegie Mellon in the fall.” That sounds extremely impressive and warming; I suspect that if it were true, I’d be glad. Sweet grapes these would be. The names wouldn’t even have to be so grand; there’s a comfort in having any concrete answer to the question, “Who are you and where are you going?”

But here’s the rub; if I had these externals all set up, if I had a ready-made answer, I would never have worked with the question. The uncertainty has been its own fortune.

Not knowing who the publisher would be, I persisted with the book; through this, I came to know it on its own terms.

Not knowing what my job would be, I looked at many possibilities; in seeing them, I started imagining what I could do. Had my job been all set up, I would not have had a chance to do this.

Beyond that, there’s a strength that comes from letting oneself just plain not know.

I also recognized how much I have, even in this uncertainty. I thought of the harrowing uncertainty that millions upon millions of people suffer every day: the uncertainty about the next meal or shelter, or even life itself. My uncertainties are not petty or trivial–but in looking at them, I see uncertainties vastly more difficult than my own.

The uncertainty can also open up into beauty. This year I have had room to go to concerts, plays, and an opera; see friends; take walks; go biking; visit Columbia Secondary School and lead philosophy roundtables there; and plan the upcoming trip, while also devoting myself to my book and the cantillation course.

So uncertainty can be an opening into oneself, one’s work, and the world. Last week, when walking down 88th St., I saw a tree in bloom and took the photo above. At that moment, I realized that I had noticed the tree because I was not rushing off somewhere. I had a little lull in the morning and did not know exactly where I would go next. There’s a liveliness in that lull. Of course I can’t stay in it forever, but I remember it as I go on.

In fact, if I think of the happiest moments of my life, there’s one kind that stands out among the rest. It’s that brief shivery hesitation, where for a split second your soul vibrates. I have had this at street intersections, in classrooms, and before a scroll. For just a flash, you do not know the next step, and that flash holds everything. Then it goes away and you continue on your course, which now has tinges of gold.


District Purchases New Goal Package

vennUpsidasi, MN–While schools around the country scramble to align themselves with the new Common Core State Standards, a district in Minnesota has taken a different tack. Because growth is what matters, it has purchased a new product called Goal-a-Matic, which gathers data through surveys and sensors, generates personalized goals, and then calculates progress toward them. What’s more, it guarantees growth for all.

“It’s amazing,” said Superintendent Tracy Groter. “I just sit down with a sensor bracelet, fill out a form, and boom! I’ve got a goal that matches me. Then a few months later, I sit down again, and boom! I see growth. Not any old growth, mind you, but academic growth.”

What was her personalized goal? “I will learn the spelling of two of the three following words: accommodations, accountability, and principal.”

Isn’t that goal a bit too close at hand? “It doesn’t matter; it’s a goal,” she replied. “Goals are goals. Growth is growth. Show the growth, and you’re good to go.”

The software comes with electronic Goal-Mentors, cellphone-size digital devices that remind users of the goal every hour. “It’s great to have that kind of pressure,” she explained. “If you know you’re being held accountable, you’re less likely to slip up.”

Teachers’ goals range from “I will write three standards on chart paper five times a week” to “I will praise the new teacher evaluation system in two out of the next three faculty meetings.” (While not strictly academic, these goals still serve academic purposes, according to Groter.)

For students, the goals are friendly and flexible: for instance, “I will turn and talk to my neighbor in 80 percent of my classes”; “I will draw a Venn diagram of something”; or “I will look at the title of a book and predict what it will be about.”

“I find these goals incredibly annoying,” said a fifth-grader. “I want to learn algebra, and instead I have to spend all day promising to learn inane strategies that I don’t even need and then showing that I’ve learned them.”

“This kid is just going to have to get used to it,” said Groter, “because the workplace does this kind of thing too. In fact, we’re borrowing a lot from what we hear is out there.”

Setting and meeting goals is only part of the process. Once they have attained their goals, students, teachers, and administrators must advertise their attainments. “When you’ve got 100 people showing growth, there’s got to be some other way of standing out,” said Groter. “Basically you’ve got to promote yourself. You do it by buying airtime.”

When students meet goals, they earn advertisement points. Once they accumulate five points, they may show a video ad of their attainments at the start of class. The teacher must accommodate these needs. At the end of the week, students vote on the most popular ads. The students with the winning ads take part in speed-networking events; the one that makes the best impression is named Student of the Week. At the end of the year, the student with the most Student of the Week awards receives the Success Prize, the school’s highest honor.

“I made my ads over the summer,” said Vince Chitry, a high school junior. “Then I started talking them up on Facebook. I know I’ve got the votes. Question is, what if someone offers to buy my votes? I could really use the cash. I could even use some of it toward special effects for my next video. I’ll have to think about that one.”

Vera Denken, a history teacher, asked what students would learn from all of this. She was swiftly informed that she would have to make an ad (her second) in which she displayed at least five approved “artifacts” of goal attainment.

“She had better be wearing new shoes this time,” commented Groter. “You can’t succeed in the real world if you wear the same shoes in two ads.”

Teacher Ratings and Rubric Reverence

Some seven years ago, when I was taking education courses as a New York City Teaching Fellow, we had to hand in “double-entry journals”—that is, two-column pages with a quotation or situation on one side and our response on the right. On one occasion, I needed far more room for my response than for the quotations, so I adjusted the format: instead of using columns, I simply provided the quotations and my comments below each one.

The instructor chided me in front of the class. She said that this was a masters program and that I should learn to produce masters-level work. (She wasn’t aware that I already had a Ph.D. from Yale.) If the instructions specified a double-entry journal, well, then I was supposed to provide a double-entry journal. She had no quibbles with my commentary itself, which she found insightful. She just took issue with my flouting of the instructions. I have no grudges against the instructor, who meant well and knew her stuff. But it was an eye-opener.

Up to this point, I had not encountered such rigidity regarding instructions. In high school, college, and graduate school, we were expected to use certain formats for term papers, publishable work, and dissertations. But on everyday assignments, it was substance and clarity that mattered most. The teacher or professor even appreciated it when I departed from the usual format for a good reason. I did so judiciously and rarely.

The double-entry-journal incident was part of my induction into New York City public schools. There, the rubric (which usually emphasized appearance and format) ruled supreme; if you did everything just so, you could get a good score, while if you diverged from the instructions but had a compelling idea, you could be penalized. I saw rubrics applied to student work, teachers’ lessons, bulletin boards, classroom layout, group activities, and standardized tests. I will comment on the last of these—rubrics on standardized tests—and their bearing on the recent publication of New York City teachers’ value-added ratings (their rankings based on student test score growth).

A New York Daily News editorial asserts that teachers with consistently high value-added ratings are clearly doing something right. (This is the argument put forth by many value-added proponents.) But that’s not necessarily so; all we really know is that their students are making test score gains.

In New York State, on the written portion of the English Language Arts examinations, it matters little what the students actually say or how well they argue it. What matters is that they address the question in the prompt and follow the instructions to the letter. A student may make erroneous or illogical statements and still receive a high score; a student may make subtle observations and lose points for failing to do everything exactly as specified.

Here’s an essay prompt from the 2009 grade 8 ELA exam. (For an example at the high school level, see my blog “A Critical Look at the Critical Lens Essay.”)

Bill Watterson in “Drawing Calvin and Hobbes” and Roald Dahl in “Lucky Break” discuss their approaches to their work. Write an essay in which you describe the similarities and differences between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl. Explain how their work habits contribute to their success. Use details from both passages to support your answer.  In your essay, be sure to include

  • a description of the similarities between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl
  • a description of the differences between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl
  • an explanation of how their work habits contribute to their success
  • details from both passages to support your answer 

To get a good score, a student would only have to write one paragraph about similarities, one paragraph about differences, and one paragraph about how their work habits led to their success. By contrast, a student who began by considering definitions of “success” (as G.  K. Chesterton does) would not fare so well, even though that might be the more thoughtful essay. Likewise, a student who questioned the direct link between work habits and success (as Mark Twain does) would be at a disadvantage. Students are better off if they write a predictable essay, even a bland one, that meets the criteria. Their teachers are better off, too; every point counts when it comes to value-added scores. 

I have scored ELA exams. Human judgment has little place in those scoring rooms. To maintain consistency, everyone is supposed to follow the rubric, and, if there’s any doubt, the state’s own interpretation of the rubric. It comes down, in the end, to following instructions rather than judgment. On the one hand, this is fair and justified. If teachers were to use their own judgment when scoring, two essays of similar quality could receive wildly different scores. On the other, it means that there’s no way to acknowledge the student who struggles with the question becausethe question is tricky or problematic—that is, the student who pushes beyond the obvious response. 

Now let’s consider the consequences in the classroom. Teachers A and B teach at a relatively high-performing school. Teacher A tells students that to write well, you should have something to say and should take care with words. Her students read G. K. Chesterton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, and others. They discuss these essays, look at their structures, respond to favorite passages in them, and write essays inspired by them. Teacher B, within the same school, has a different approach. She brings in reading passages like those on the tests. She teaches students how to read essay prompts and produce the expected responses. She has them do this every day. Now, arguably, one can teach students to write thoughtfully and follow directions precisely. But the latter has the greater test score payoff.

So, teacher B’s students make more test score gains than Teacher A’s students. Teacher B gets rated “high”; teacher A, “below average.” (This is a plausible scenario in an unusually high- or low-performing school, where a slight difference in points can account for a large difference in ratings.) Then the ratings appear in the New York Times and elsewhere. Many readers will assume, even with caveats galore, that teacher B does better work than teacher A. Teacher A then finds herself under pressure to do what teacher B is doing. That means ensuring that her students follow directions.

How do you get teachers to teach in this manner? Train them in education school. Impress upon them the sacrosanctity of instructions. Teach them that if the assignment is a double-entry journal, then that is what they must produce, period.