All posts by David Penberg

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. He has held leadership roles in non-profits, community-based organizations, independent, international and charter schools, and in higher education. He has a deep grounding in progressive education, the cross-cultural experience and leadership development. Dr. Penberg has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He was a fellow in the Carey Leadership Program at Bank Street College (1982-84) and Klingenstein Fellow for International School Heads at Teachers College, Columbia University (2008). He was the founding director of the nationally recognized Liberty Partnerships Program at Bank Street College. Since then, Penberg has held posts as Head of Studies and Head of School in international schools in Mexico City and Barcelona. He was most recently the Head of School at Innovate Manhattan Charter School in the lower east side and is an adjunct at Pace University’s Teaching Fellows program. He abides by Auden's dictum "We were put on earth to make things."

Where Has Groucho Marx Gone? Teaching Social Satire in a Time of Tyrants

With the miasma of crackdowns, collusions, and demonization that has become a weekly occurrence here in the United States, I wonder, where have all our Groucho Marxs’ gone.  All those wry, witty, double entendre, in-your-face comic geniuses who makeup the American landscape of satirists and comics. They who make us squirm or double over in revealing life’s absurdities and injustices.

With a lineage that traces back to Aristophanes and Ovid, social satire has long been a form of social criticism and a voice of dissent. It is a sensibility that is iconoclastic and irreligious and challenges all the sacred cows of a culture. Sometimes at great expense: Ovid and Lenny Bruce being two salient examples. When power is thin skinned and reactive it resorts to brute force to silence or exile its unrepentant critics.

Here in America we have a gilded tradition. Mark Twain, H.L. Menken, Groucho Marx, Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Robert Altman, Russell Baker, George Carlin, to name but a few. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about genocide, imperialism, capitalism and industrialism, racism, environmental destruction, are to be found here. It is a tradition, that cuts across genres that has long informed the American experience and the spirit of social critique. And yet, what school, what middle or high school humanities program, has considered this tradition as legitimate a form to study as ancient civilizations or chemistry? It would appear, that we are missing out on something that is an essential vehicle for cultural critique.

We live in a time of the narrowing of discourse and plurality of viewpoints. Is there not a better time, with democratic ideals at risk, to expose young people to this boisterous, often unrepentant tradition of satirists? The world has always needed a dangerous comic tradition and needs one now more than ever before. It needs voices that are inimical to greed, mendacity, shortsightedness, and intimidation. A nation that cannot laugh at itself, is a country that takes itself too seriously or too sanctimoniously. Both are omissions of resilience and humility. Call it an elective, an extra. Name it independent study. Where it fits into your curriculum doesn’t really matter. What does, is connecting the young to a tradition that has often been at the forefront of upholding civil liberties and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Is there not be a more propitious time to insert a study of social satire in the curriculum? Unless we see no place for humor in the expansive lists of 21st century skills. Or in the words of Groucho Marx: “Humor is reason gone mad.” In America, it is time to get mad.

 

 

 

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Something very special happened this past Friday. And I am not referring to the inauguration of our 45th President. I rediscovered my dormant activist in the company of 5-12 year olds. ‘Black Friday’ instead of a day for indignation or despair, turned into a day of healing and hope. I was part of a march (although much less a march, which connotes stridency, and more a promenade) involving a collaboration of three independent schools in the upper west side of Manhattan. The theme was not of denouncement (which had its place) but one of peace and kindness. It was in fact, a march representing the principles of the republic for which we stand.

Against the backdrop of a stern and damp grey day of intermittent rain, at least 300 young children, parents, teachers and school administrators, took to the streets in solidarity with a scintillating aura of joy and determination walking the circumference of 110th street until arriving at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. What was so elevating, was that as our new President so unpresidentially railed with an ominous sense of divisiveness and vitriol, was the innocence (from The Latin innocentia, meaning, not harming) of children and their sense of hope, as they proceeded through the rain swept streets with their placards and banners proclaiming peace, happiness and goodness for all on earth. Like heroes they were cheered by elder residents and neighborhood shop owners standing in doorways, and traffic cops giving them the thumbs up. I felt like I was witnessing the unveiling of new generation of social activists. I was.

At the church, in the hushed and solemn air of worship, the sacredness was punctuated not by defiance (there will be a time for that) but glissades of lovingness and civility. Song filled the majestic space, and the words of Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary flowed with the incandescence of moonlight. There was something both sacred and civic in what was happening. To take a line from Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here” and that was the burgeoning of the civility, civicmindedness and critical thinking that will be required for this nation to stand up for what matters. No. It was not a march on Washington. Or a mass movement to end an unjust war. Or all the global marches that took place the following day. These were children, with their parents and teachers, showing up, luminous and alert, praising and acknowledging our shared principles and shared truths. This was more like the gestation of an awareness that at this moment in time we are all the children of Thomas Paine, and that this is how we learn the true responsibilities of citizenship.

The last time I was in this cathedral was on the eve of the first invasion of Iraq. It was eerie and laden with uncertainty. There was no sense of burgeoning ideals but the helplessness of not having choices. This time, the weight of anxiety was no less. But in the company of children, there was hope. Here there was song and the transformative power of a human gathering reminding me that with the energy of children, the efficacy of ideals and the urgency for decency and goodness– that we will overcome.

This is what democracy looks like.

Where Do We Go From Here

Now that the fog has lifted, the smoke has diffused and the reality of our choices have been exposed: Now what? Or as Dr King posed, in the title of his final book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

The beauty and safety of life in the international school world is the feeling of a certain remove. The separation of geography and time somehow protects us. It’s as if we are sovereign islands buffered from the tumult of life back in America. But not really. Not ever.

Here in New York, which unlike the local mindset, is not the center of the universe, we have all awakened from the haze of denial and the aftershock of reality, to resume getting on with our lives. As educators we are faced with the thorny and existential proposition: How do we move forward?

With a sense of solidarity and regard for all of my international colleagues from Barcelona to Moscow, I share the following questions as handles and levers for making sense of our new reality and for continuing to infuse a sense of hopefulness and civic responsibility in all the students we work with and the teachers whom we support:

How do we grow global mindedness (cultural appreciation and intercultural understanding) in every child/student in a time of sectarianism, insecurity and divisiveness?

How do we infuse critical and creative thinking not across or into curriculum, but as the very basis for becoming educated and aware?

How do we tap into all students, a sense of agency, idealism and social imaginations to imagine the world as it should be, and provide them with the tools and capacities to act?

If education is the linchpin for democratic living, what does that look like in our schools, our classrooms and our boardrooms?

How does dissent and resistance function in the face of the irrational, the bellicose and the authoritarian with the threat of compliance and retaliation?

These are, in the veritable Socratic sense, meant to provoke and not prescribe. We are all at the dawn of an historical moment in which uncertainty and anxiety colors the global landscape. There is nothing to be taken for granted. And nothing that can be ignored. What we can do, is hold onto the immense responsibilities of using education to teach the young how to become passionate, ethical and inquisitive human beings. Or as the great educational philosopher Maxine Greene, once described, now is a moment when educators must become “lights in dark times.” I concur. It is neither a time for silence or for retreat, but a time to illuminate what matters.

 

Around the World in 34 Years: Life in International & Charter Schools

I set off for my first international job in 1978, right out of Bard College, to become an ESL teacher in Bogotá, Columbia and have been indelibly bitten since. Culture has been my elixir. I’ve been educated by the world and acquired cultural fluency by relinquishing the familiar and embracing the diverse. Over three decades, I have lived on three continents, running schools in Mexico City, Mexico; Hoboken, New Jersey; and Barcelona, Spain. In this time, New York has served as my family and professional hub. For the last five years, I have been battling windmills and state bureaucracies as a school head in the contested world of charter schools—a test-centric universe in a city where education is a political football.

Heading a middle school and later a dual-language K-8 school, my work has at times involved being a pastor, a priest, a detective, and a tweeter. I battle for the soul of kids one life at a time. Not a day goes by without a meltdown or an act of defiance. In the charter world, I’m doing less big-picture work and more reaching out to the wounded. I give pounds to kids with pouty faces and pounds to kids brimming with confidence. I take the social and emotional temperature of my students every day: Has Aiden taken his meds? Has Chemere gotten enough sleep? And why was Jackie wearing lipstick? I have always cared about helping young people learn to find their voice, discover their humanity, and learn to use their minds well. But here I find we are measuring a kid’s intelligence through standardized tests and reducing the scintillating gifts of intelligence to a matter of holding a # 2 pencil, being quiet, and staying seated.

I’ve seen both sides now—the international and the charter—and the most differentiating factor is socioeconomics. Poverty introduces a whole new language into an already complex world. Here, complacency and mediocrity are acceptable. Likewise, low expectations and cultures of disrespect can become the norm.

In the international world, one finds bullying, cultural prerogative, helicopter moms, boundary-testing young adults, and the rank-and-file issues inherent in administering a school. But rarely are there shattered families and cycles of social and emotional privation. In the global world of American education, school culture anchors stability, optimism, and a sense of the future. The charter world, by contrast, is a place of uncertainty and “at risk,” where dysfunctionality still prevails. In the international world, we place a premium on care and human development. Test scores are not jugular. In the charter world, testing is the driver and becomes all-consuming. Leading in an international school is more than living in another country. All the core elements of climate and wellness are there to draw on: school pride, mission, parental involvement, community service, resources, responsive boards, strategic plans, a sense of expansiveness and vision.

The fact is, international schools and charter schools are operating on intrinsically different models with different outcomes. One makes its way in the global era while the other, with wonderful exceptions, seems stuck in the industrial one.

My students are no longer third-culture kids who flit from one country to the next, vacationing in Amsterdam over spring break, and being dropped off at school by their nannies. Mine may never leave their neighborhoods. Or be able to find the Netherlands on a map. Some are angry kids with tragic lives. Overweight kids who dream of being professional basketball players. Desperate kids who sit invisible in the back of the room. Deprived kids who have never heard of Shakespeare or Marvin Gaye or Billie Holiday. Kids who shuffle. Kids who can’t sit still, whose bodies are like perpetual slinkies. Kids with “anger management issues.” Kids who carry homophobia, misogyny, and bias around their necks like medallions. Kids covered with labels and stereotypes, who face a lifetime of societal biases and obstacles.
And yet, the bottom line is constant: all students have the same human need to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be loved, to be held to high expectations, and to be surrounded with opportunities to learn. Our job is to set those conditions, be it in East Harlem or Helsinki.

The experience of education according to Ken Robinson, “is always personal. But the issues are increasingly global.” Here is what I have discovered after 34 years: the love for learning and interest in people and cultures develops a broad and generous vision of education and leadership. And the life of crossing many boundaries of language and culture deepens our understanding for and appreciation of how children learn and the varieties of communities that support them. Charter or international, the common thread is passion and commitment—not to any ideology or methodology, but to learning with and from students—and infusing our communities with a culture of joy and a sense of purposefulness wherever we happen to be.

Leadership Styles

There is the leadership of a Jack Welch and the leadership of a Joe Torre. Some operate with big sticks while others mindfully listen. There is the leadership of the missionary and the leadership of the visionary. Some are managers who administer and evaluate. And others are learners, who inspire and provoke. In the realm of leadership, each situation calls for its own response. The only size that fits all is who you are and knowing what the moment requires. Logarithms are for mathematicians. Leadership is idiosyncratic and at times improvisational. There is no script. It requires at any given moment that you draw on everything you know: from the playbook of life to the scriptures of the heart. Just because you dress in black and call your leadership entrepreneurial doesn’t mean you can stop greeting people in the hall. Leading is a verb and leadership is a noun. How you modify the two defines the confidence you elicit or the fear you create. I learned leadership through looking at myself from the inside out. I still am.

 

Summer Reads

Summer Reading/Viewing/Listening 2015

Not in the spirit of disconnect or the hammock, but out of the urge/need to replenish and invigorate, I offer the following eclectic selection (very) as a kind of kindling wood to spark the fire.

Sonia Nieto: Nice Is Not Enough: Defining Caring for Students of Color

Parker Palmer: A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited

John Dewey: My Pedagogic Creed Say what you will about his thorny and onerous prose. This piece penned in 1897 is visionary and accessible, and has as much pertinence in the educational arena as any thinker or writer.

Maxine Greene: Wide Awakeness and the Moral Life Just so we never fall asleep at the wheel. This is an article from 1978 laden with ideals worth having; a preventative to disillusion, burn out demoralization, and anything else that threatens passion and commitment.

Alfred North Whitehead: The Aim of Education. “There is only one subject matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.” Read on, written in 1916, every word resonates today.

Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms

Listen and learn. Words of one of the world’s great advocates of learning, innovation and creativity, sans jargon or eduspeak.

Ken Robinson: Bring on the Learning Revolution

Ken Robinson: How to Escape Educations Death Valley

David Foster Wallace: This is Water A powerful commencement address delivered at Kenyon College by this most eloquent of writers. Even though it is for a college audience it resonates with our work.

Neil Postman: “My Graduation Speech “One of America’s great iconoclastic thinkers and leaders of progressive education.

Pablo Neruda: Ode to Common Things

Yes a dollop of poetry to keep mediocrity away. A work that celebrates the awe and wonder of the mundane. Because most education writing is like an overheated classroom, where no air circulates but the myopic need to control. This takes spoons, dogs, peaches, locks and elevates them to the domain of the resplendent and sacred.

Charles Mingus: Piano Improvisations Because everyone needs time beside a still lake at dusk. Better Git it in Your Soul: Rousing celebration of praising ancestors and influences

Eric Dolphy: God Bless the Child

As lyrical and sensual a full of soulfulness as music can be

Billy Holiday: God Bless the ChildStrange Fruit,

Two compositions that should be national anthems

Neil Young: Rocking in the Free World Turn up the volume, roll down the windows, and drive.

 

Bob Dylan: May You Stay Forever Young The acoustic and electric version

 

Appalachian Spring:Early morning, when the sun rises, the birds scat, and the universe is a perennial state of Spring

 

 

Summer Reading/Viewing/Listening

 

Summer Reading/Viewing/Listening

Not in the spirit of disconnect or the hammock, but out of the urge/need to replenish and invigorate. As we move out of the mindset of crisis management to constructing a sustainable culture, I offer the following eclectic selection (very) as a kind of kindling wood to spark the fire.

Sonia Nieto: Nice Is Not Enough: Defining Caring for Students of Color

Mike Schmoker: Results Now. This is good nuts & bolts, meat & potatoes reading as to what is vital and core to teaching and learning

Parker Palmer: A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited

John Dewey: My Pedagogic Creed. Say what you will about his thorny and onerous prose. This piece penned in 1897 is visionary and accessible, and has as much pertinence in the educational arena as any thinker or writer.

Maxine Greene: Wide Awakeness and the Moral Life. Just so we never fall asleep at the wheel. This is an article from 1978 laden with ideals worth having; a preventative to disillusion, burn out demoralization, and anything else that threatens passion and commitment.

Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms.Listen and learn. Words of one of the world’s great advocates of learning, innovation and creativity, sans jargon or eduspeak.

Ken Robinson: Bring on the Learning Revolution

Ken Robinson: How to Escape Educations Death Valley

David Foster Wallace: This is Water. A powerful commencement address delivered at Kenyon College by this most eloquent of writers. Even though it is for a college audience it resonates with our work.

Neil Postman: My Graduation Speech. One of America’s great iconoclastic thinkers and leaders of progressive education.

Pablo Neruda: Ode to Common Things. Yes a dollop of poetry to keep mediocrity away. A work that celebrates the awe and wonder of the mundane. Because most education writing is like an overheated classroom, where no air circulates but the myopic need to control. This takes spoons, dogs, peaches, locks and elevates them to the domain of the resplendent and sacred.

Charles Mingus: Plays Piano. Because everyone needs time beside a still lake at dusk. Better Git it in Your Soul: Rousing celebration of praising ancestors and influences

Eric Dolphy: God Bless the Child. As lyrical and sensual a full of soulfulness as music can be

Billy Holiday: God Bless the ChildStrange Fruit, Two compositions that should be national anthems

Neil Young: Rocking in the Free World. Turn up the volume, roll down the windows, and drive.

Bob Dylan: May You Stay Forever Young. The acoustic and electric version

Appalachian Spring:Early morning, when the sun rises, the birds scat, and the universe is a perennial state of Spring

 

 

The Having of Difficult Conversations

The Having of Difficult Conversations

This is the part of leadership that is not taught in graduate school. We address curriculum, instruction, finance, governance, assessment, accountability, and data. But not this one. When is the last PD session where this was addressed? And yet, this is one of those unavoidable, full of anxiety and potential land mine experiences that we, who go by the name leader, have to have. Its absence in our preparation and evolution as leaders, is inexplicably and conspicuously, absent.

So where is the preparation? There is none. Unless you consider life, in all of its journeys, arrivals, departures and detours, as our coach. It is.

And it is that time of year again. For many, it has already occurred at the outset of January or shortly after Spring break or now. It is calling someone into your office, looking them in the eyes, and telling them they will not be offered a contract for next year. Euphemistically speaking, it is the pink slip syndrome.

Are there recipes or scripts for it? No again. These are scenarios that require all the honesty, integrity and empathy we have acquired. Anyone who tells you this is easy, has either left his or her conscience in the parking lot, or float on a carpet of denial. It has to be hard. It is about another human life.

I find my center by deep breaths. Keep my words to a minimum. And I imagine, that it is me, who is on the other side of the desk.

Coming Home

Returning Home

I am about to return to Heading a school. This one is not international. Nor is it independent. It is a public charter school in the heart of New York. My home. In the days, before I begin, I have been reflecting on life outside of school and my work as a consultant over these last six months. Here are some of those musings:

Being a consultant is analogous to being a tourist. Only you are paid to pass through, observe from a distance but always separate and outside the ethos and life force of a school. It’s like being in a foreign country and eating American food in the hotel restaurant.

Being a consultant (also like being an interim) prevents the establishment of deep and long lasting relationships. And as we all know, it is ALL about relationships in these crucibles, called schools. So trust is hard to acquire, when everyone knows you are here on a visitors pass and relations with people becomes like Tupperware.

As a consultant, teachers (not all) regard you warily. Like, Have you ever taught? Or, what’s her agenda?

I am not indicting consultants. (I was one). We need them. They can see things we can’t. They impart (and if they are good) can mine the knowledge and expertise of others. They can push us out of comatose comfort zones and jolt us into discomfort. They can be change agents. They always hold up a mirror to our own settings. They can be confessional and priest like whom we can say things to that we would never utter to our colleagues or supervisors. But they are not fixtures in a community. They won’t be there when the toilets get stuffed with paper towels and the boy’s bathroom begins to flood. They won’t there to have that difficult discussion with a teacher who is not rising to the occasion or the kid who will be put on home suspension for deriding a teacher on Facebook.

I am pleased that sojourn is over (for now). Now as I prepare to step out of these ranks my greatest anxiety (one of) is the loss of time. I can’t remember ever having this kind of open field of managing my time since I was in college. And too much of that was squandered because I didn’t know how. But the time to read, the time to write; the time to wander streets with no aim or metric or benchmark to meet; the time to take advantage of the immense cultural resources of this city; the time to be quiet and do absolutely nothing at all. This has been a privilege and a gift for staying mindful.

Half a year on the sidelines, in the audience and from the balcony, has been a source of perspective. That being said, I don’t like being an outlier in schools, because nothing comes close to approximating the existential tightrope of running a school. And now, it is time for the world of ATS exams, ELA, SF1s, the common core, lockdowns, shelter-ins, and fingerprints. And the immense responsibility of changing one life at a time.

It feels like returning home.

Best Practice?

KDE Best Practice Strategies Nomination

 

How many times have you heard the term ‘best practice’ uttered at a Board meeting, a workshop or a conference presentation? Too many, I am afraid. In a profession enamored with buzz words, this one gets used with the frequency of ‘awesome’ and shares the same shallowness.

The term best practice is used like a master key. You just need to invoke it and the draw bridge comes down, and everything opens. But ‘best’ according to whom and in relation to what?  How can anything be a ‘best practice’ when it is void of social, cultural, and historical context? Is best practice in a Baltimore middle school the same as one for an American school in Barcelona? Can a best practice ever become a bad practice or a mediocre one? It’s not that I doubt that there are many unique and effective practices out there, it is just the use of the superlative that makes me squirm.

Best practice has a way of designating itself as superior by virtue of being a best practice. The logic is circular.  The problem with ‘Best’ is that it comes off as imperial. It leaves no room for alternatives. It eschews variety, gradations and plurality. Why not call these emerging practices? We never talk about the change of seasons or a savory meal as best. Isn’t all effective education something that is fluid, protean and evolving? 

Like our omnipresent ear phones and head phones, we should have our critical antennas up whenever the word is uttered. The superlative is a tense that does not belong in education. Rather, let’s take the work or program in process, the draft and the evolving idea. It feels more authentic, resembling the messy and often improvisational nature of life in school. Best practice connotes white coats and flawless data. Emerging practice signals something iterative, evolving, and like our students, in a time zone of constant adaptation.

We should care as much about language and how that shapes our perceptions as we do our test results.