Category Archives: David Penberg




“Only the educated are free.” 


To honor a day that should be less about consumption and more about gratitude. To the teachers who we are given, who we find and who accompany us along the way:

Thank you John Dewey for framing the conversation more than century ago.

Thank you Lucy Sprague Mitchell for guiding us towards the natural geography of learning where children explore and map and reconstruct the world.

Thank you Myles Horton for the faith in humanity and the connectedness between education, social justice and living democratically.

Thank you Paul Goodman for iconoclasm and passion. We haven’t banned cars from New York yet but nearly every neighborhood has a green market.

Thank you Herb Kohl and Maxine Greene, for wide awakeness and for being lights in the darkest of times.

Thank you John Hamlin, Barnard School for Boys, 1968 for risking your job in challenging us to use our freedom well and take the responsibility for learning.

Thank you Mark Blecher, Barnard School for Boys, for risking your job to engage us in history for the first time and the one that was swirling around us in the cities of America, 1969.

Thank you Mrs Kirkcules, for letting me come out of my 8 year old shell and stand on the desk, stove top hat and improvise the Gettysburg address as Abe Lincoln.

Thank you Leon Botstein for showing me what scholarship looks like.

Thank you mom, for the gift of kindness.

Thank you dad, for the guile of Odysseus and the gift of generosity.

Thank you to my grandparents for teaching me everything I ever needed to know about life at the aluminum card table in your kitchens.

Thank you Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Jose Marti, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, ee Cummings, for celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Thank you Luis Armstrong, Duke, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ella and Nina and Sarah and Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder for awakening in me the joyous, blues soaked history of America.

Thank you Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, The Beatles, The Band, The Stones, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nero and Bruce Springsteen for music with conscience, and music with humor, to be played in a car with the windows wide open.

Thank you life— and to all my teachers—for giving me this one chance at immortality.

Workshops Without Power Points

Dear Presenter,

What I am about to suggest is without arrogance or flippancy. Do you think that for your next conference presentation that you could forgo the power points? Ok. No intention to be extreme. A few slides to illustrate but without the infrared pointer and the busy look-a-like slides. Could you just talk with us? Tell us some stories. Or perhaps, even more audaciously, ask us to get out of our seats, move about, and DO something, as human beings are wont to do. What about sparking a dialogue between us? There must be well over 100 years of collective wisdom and insight in this room. How might you tap into it, stir it up, in the same way we are trying to do with our students. Why not step out from the podium, put the mike down, turn off the projector, and challenge us—probe us—provoke us? Don’t you see that we are at risk of drowning in sound bites and recipes? Because we all want to be engaged, and already spend too much time in front of our digital altars to spend three days of that at this conference. We want workshops, think tanks, round tables, seminars. Just no more power points with mixed fonts and Disney like icons of people, bold faced arrows, and screens that fold like venetian blinds. Give us challenges. Unsettle us with problems. Wrest us out of our comfort zones. Deny us our I Pads and Air books. Dispense with the handouts and links— so that we can wrestle with experience and ideas, with real problems and opportunities. Invite us out of our silos so we can look in the eyes of those who surround us and leave the session inspired and enthused, confounded or perplexed. Anything but power point overload. Because education will never evolve if we don’t begin with ourselves and the ways and forms we choose to communicate. There is music in the human voice, and insights in our stories. And all of us know in our hearts, that this is no way to innovate.

Professional Underdevelopment (and its Inverse)

Scenario #1:

4 o’clock in the afternoon. People shuffle in with the countenance of weary commuters. There is not a piece of food or drink in sight. Some people have furtively packed student papers they will review. Another has folded a newspaper on the inside of their notebook. The level of enthusiasm is equivalent to passengers on a transatlantic flight with a six hour layover who have just been told of delays. For 45 minutes a principal or Head of School or both will efficiently read from the weekly bulletin reminding teachers of upcoming events, due dates and contributions to the annual fund. Some people keep yawning and checking their watches. Some do email or text. Others have the vacant, glassy look in their eyes that tell you they are someplace else. The meeting ends on the familiar refrain:  Does anyone have any questions or wish to make an announcement?

Scenario #2:

The third session on the Common Core or Backwards Design or Differentiation. The school has spent a sizable amount of money to bring in a specialist whose book and accompanying DVD are on sale in the lobby. He has never visited anyone in their classes nor will he. The power point slides have the glossy look of a magazine and the presenter even has an infra-red pointer to go with it. Teachers stay moored to their seats with the exception of handing out the PowerPoint print outs. “No need to take notes,” says the facilitator, “it’s all in the Handouts I’ll be passing out.” When a question is posed, the answer is “that will be covered in the last workshop. ”

The problem with the old model of professional development is its inertia and disconnection from the ways we want our students to learn. It takes itself too seriously and eschews everything we know about adult learning. It doesn’t belong to teachers. It reproduces the passivity and compliance of the teacher centered classroom. There is no activity, no collaborating, and no contextualizing. And like a stuffy room, there is no fluid circulation of ideas except those that emanate from the front of the room.

Scenario #3

As part of a commitment to creative scheduling every 3rd day of the month is a half day. All teachers convene in a large room where the Head welcomes everyone, acknowledges an exciting project she witnessed in someone’s classroom the other day and outlines the course of the afternoon. Three rooms have been assigned to faculty. The three themes, identified by teachers over the summer include:  using iMovie to document and examine student learning; global exchanges across content areas and how to organize one, and a reading circle that has been reviewing Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed.”

At the completion of each mini workshop an evaluation form is handed out. At the end of the day, teachers convene again in the auditorium. There is food and drinks. Once assembled the Head asks for feedback and questions that might have emerged from the workshops. After 15 minutes she thanks everyone for the participation and reminds them, that this is what a professional community does: collaborate, share and inquire together. People stay around to talk to each other. No one hurries out or rolls their eyes. There is the palpable energy of inquiry and unity in the space. Everyone knows where they are going. And those who are not quite sure don’t get left behind. On a whiteboard in bold letters is written:

Learning is not what is done to you. It is something you choose to do.



Laughter and Learning

Lots of work and talk these days about social and emotional learning. The need for resiliency, grit and determination has become part of the parlance of many educators. And this is a good thing. But there is hardly any reference to humor and happiness. Ever wonder why? Is there anything more specific and salutary to life than the capacity to laugh? Yet it remains conspicuously absent from school, as something to examine, talk about, and understand. Even more so is any mention of it in all discussions around educational reform. Lots about core curriculum, standards, test scores, and student outcomes but a complete void in any sensible conversation around the purpose of education around well-being and what might make people happy? i.e. being able to laugh.

Laughter and happiness are an objective dimension of human experience. And we all know as products of school, that skills and knowledge are not enough. As educators, we also have a fundamental role in shaping dispositions. In other words, if people are to flourish and be happy, they need to gain various dispositions or virtues that enable them to align all of this together into a coherent whole. Nel Noddings, one of the great educational thinkers of this time in a wonderful book entitled “Happiness and Education” poses the challenge to educators: “Happiness and education are, properly, intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness.” Would it not stand to reason then, that a priority be placed upon laughter in school and the pursuit of happiness?

In thinking about my own life, it was from my father that I learned to laugh. How to laugh at myself, the world, and to never take disappointment or failure (my own and others) too seriously. It has served me well. Humor and laughter have consistently enabled me to make visceral connections with others, be it the taciturn man in the post office or the guarded and silent student in the back of the classroom. It is a highly effective form of diplomacy that can disarm and allow boundaries to be transcended.

When you think about it, there are so many layers and dimensions to humor, that can be entry points to cultural understanding. Have you ever considered finding out from your students what makes them laugh and how they define what is funny? Or what is a joke for the Japanese as opposed to the Spanish? Or if there such a thing as word play and puns in Latino culture? Or why some things are funny in one culture and seen as inappropriate in others?

Historically speaking, we have an extraordinary tradition of humor: Charley Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Woody Allan. There is an important connection with social critique and humor that runs from Aristophanes to Lenny Bruce. Haven’t some of our finest and most perceptive of social critics been those who have used the veil of humor to challenge and unsettle us out of the normal? Satire is one of the great traditions in American culture that includes Mark Twain, S. J. Perlman, Art Buckwald, and Russell Baker. Have we had more piercing and perceptive critiquing of America than from the mouths of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin? The tradition of humor in our culture is as vital an art form as literature, poetry, music, dance or the visual arts. Yet they remain absent from the life of school and the formal curriculum.

How many of us can recall a math teacher who deployed humor as a tool for learning? I am not talking about using humor as a way to laugh at others. But as an anodyne for the challenges and tragedies of life, which can debilitate the desire to learn. Teachers who take themselves and their classes too seriously rob kids of one of human beings healthiest attributes: laughter.

How many schools have we seen where an unnatural pallor of silence and sternness permeates the halls? Instead of relegating humor for recess and the school yard, why not elevate it as something worthy of analysis and study. Try it. You might just find a dour classroom transformed into a site of unabashed happiness and a room full of engaged, smiling and present lives.

Global Citizens?

The other day, on the #1 train, I think I spotted a global citizen. Instead of loitering by the door, as many subway riders are apt to do, blocking people from entering and exiting, she was seated and actually offered hers to an elderly woman weighted down with shopping bags. Global citizens you see, are not genetically endowed. Do not walk on water. Don’t have wings, and live and move amongst us, with the air of mindful and engaged people.

What is a global citizen?

Before answering that it is important to state at the outset that text book, academic journal, education periodical definitions, will not suffice. One, because they sound like each other. Second, wrapped in the gauze of hyperbole and platitude, they illuminate nothing but opaque concepts that contribute nothing but another opaque concept.

My hope resides in what it means to become a citizen, globally minded, in the Greek sense of civitas—citizenhood of people not as people but as citizens belonging to a collective bound by responsibilities, rights and a common good.

Global citizens?

Someone who embodies lots of Socrates and the belief that ‘the unexamined life’ is not worth living, John Dewey’s learning by doing, Maxine Greene’s metaphor of ‘wide awakeness‘, and Thoreau’s retreat to the woods ‘to live deliberately‘.

Global citizens?

Savor music from Debussy to Sonny Rollins. Tony Bennet to Mercedes Sosa.

Know that food is one of the elemental expressions of culture and can relish everything from pazolle to beef stroganoff.

Don’t walk by the homeless as if they are lamp pots or fire hydrants.

Know the world is neither what FOX TV nor CNN depicts, but something complex, historical and full of perspectives.

Accept that everything is at risk– from the biosphere to civil liberties, public education to freedom for all. And neither waits for politicians to save them or complacency to take over.

Are connected and conscious that the last century of unprecedented war and destruction cannot be the way of the 21st century.

Inhabit cities and towns with a restless desire for wellness and justice, knowing that the two are not incompatible or mutually exclusive.

Unite in the face of injustice be it in the streets of Cairo or Sanford, Florida.

Are students of life.

Come in all shapes, sizes, colors, nations, classes .

Are full of hope, ideals, indignation, civility and the conviction that limits have been violated and only humility and the urgency of social action can restore peace, balance and a future to the wounded planet.

Know that the nature of citizenship is an obligation and a social contract that crosses all borders and boundaries, is colorblind and ageless.

Revere the natural and the urban world.

Travel to learn not to distract.

Don’t wait for the world to change but work with others to change the world.


It was reported that Luis Armstrong, Pablo Neruda, Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie gathered over the weekend at Ellis Island to organize  a day of silence to occur in every city of the world to honor children, and the immaculate powers of play and the imagination.

They too, are our global citizens.

Failure & Mistakes

Failure & Mistakes

I have been thinking lately about failure and mistakes. Schools are arenas where we often isolate those who commit them (go to the principal’s office!) or put on probation those who do not perform well (code word: improvement plans). Both contribute to a culture of blame and of shame.  Historically, the punitive route has always been easier. If anything, failures and mistakes can be the great equalizer. They put us on common ground, from janitor to head of school, 3rd grader to valedictorian.  It is the existential tattoo of being human. Yet we live in a culture bound by right answers and wrong ones. Boxes and labels. Dewey spoke eloquently about this kind of two dimensional thinking in “Experience and Education” when he said, ”Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites….In terms of Either –Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. “

But mistakes, if we allow them, and failure, if acknowledged, can be harbingers of opportunity and self-knowledge.

In organizations that are unforgiving, the default mode is to either cover up or to point fingers. When we assign blame to everyone but ourselves, we vindicate ourselves. On the Richter scale of emotional intelligence it is up there with road rage: instinctual, and unconscious. I have been in both camps, a disciple of blame and avoidance.

Failure, a close relative to mistakes is another cultural taboo (in spite of the sate of articles and books on embracing it). Failure is like a bad odor: You want to avoid it. Flee from it. Or be in total denial. When I was fired from a job in which I held a high position, it was a time of shame and retrenchment. I felt branded with the Scarlett A of unemployed. At the time, I felt lost, wounded, and very angry. Failure never feels good. It’s not something you want to talk about at a dinner party. But it is a part of the University of life. And if we accept responsibility, probe beneath the surface; we apprehend one of life’s great treasures: humility and perspective. Failure is not apocalyptic. It is a rite of passage that sometimes  (if we allow it) can transform us.

There is the proverbial ‘school of life.’ But what about life in school? The knotty, ambivalent, complexities where failure and mistakes happen all the time. Where do they fit into the curriculum? This is where literature, the sciences, the arts, and history can play such a riveting role. The dilemma of Oedipus, the trial of Socrates, the Voyager Space Shuttle, Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the life of Charley Parker. School should be a place where we explore and talk openly of these things, so that our students can learn what it means to live deliberately and mindfully. But this only happens in schools filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, and reflective people who are enfranchised to take responsibility. If school, as we so glibly claim, is a preparation for life, than it is not test scores that kids need readiness for but a seamless environment which takes seriously learning how to lose, how to fail, and what it means to accept responsibility for our actions. Who has not broken a rule, lost an assignment, or unfairly judged a colleague? These are immeasurably important lessons that arise from our frailty and sometimes our carelessness.

So teachers and administrators, make your school (and life) a safe zone for failure and for mistakes. But don’t confuse understanding with permissiveness. Few things establish a greater sense of bonding or commonality. Or the preparedness to live life ethically.


Rules of Engagement

1. Know your students names. You have the latitude to mispronounce them once. In many cultures all of ones ancestry and history are embedded in a name.

2. Before launching into the year, find out something about whom they are and life outside of school. Things like what languages are spoken at home, what kind of music they listen to, or what they imagine they will be doing 10 years from now. These are not ice breakers. They are relationship builders.

3. Learn to listen not merely hear. Silences are important spaces in between. They communicate meaning as well.

4. Observe like a point guard with court sense: who does most of the talking and who stays quiet. Don’t monopolize the floor. Distribute it.

5. Pay more attention to the questions than the answers. Questions are the language of curiosity. The trick is to cultivate the art of posing and pursuing complex questions.

6. Distribute expertise. Everyone has something they love, that makes them happy, that inspires. Could be the kid in the back with a perpetual yawn who is a master chess player. Or the girl with the quiet eyes who never talks, but is a budding poet. Distribute expertise and knowledge, and enthusiasm will spread, like democracy, when legitimate opportunities are created.

7. Curiosity. Pledge allegiance to the most important element of the learning process. Use every verb in your arsenal to seed it. Then watch it germinate. It s a perennial plant in the garden of becoming human.

8. You can’t fake it. Either you are passionate and deeply committed to what you do. Or aren’t. Both are obvious. And kids, as Hemingway said of writing, are consummate  crap detectors.

9. Make connections. Eschew information without context. It only serves to reinforce knowledge as a textbook of linear facts with questions to answer at the end of the chapter. Life is not organized according to subjects. Help them see the natural linkages to what they are learning and the world they are inhabiting.

10. Be an advocate and a mentor. A guide and a coach. Don’t be a friend. Don’t blur boundaries. Kids will let you set the bar higher if you respect and support them.

Let Freedom Ring: Entreaty to Teachers

Let Freedom Ring: Entreaty to Teachers

The words of Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world… it is the only thing that ever has,” are as pertinent now, as ever. The anniversary of the march on Washington has just passed. 9.11 is approaching. While something ominous and deadly is imminent in Syria. Events have a way of arriving and then departing like weather reports and headlines, here in America, where we are afflicted with historical amnesia and the conveyor belt of holidays. In the spirit of dreams and the tradition of dissent, I offer this multimedia list as a resource to use with your students (whether in Amsterdam or Brooklyn, international schools or public ones), to remind us of the madness of the world and the vigilance that peace requires.

Myles Horton’s The Long Haul

Dr Kings “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”

Paul Robeson’s “Old Man River” (the unexpurgated version)

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court

Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun

Langston Hughes’ “Columbia” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

Picasso’s Guernica

Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”

Charles Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration”

Phil Ochs’ “I Aint Marching Anymore”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Wendel Berry’s “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear”

Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

My entreaty is this, put aside your lesson plans for a day, or at the very least, one period. Because this is the core curriculum: learning how to become a citizen and a human being. So that freedom one day will resound with the energy of rock and roll, from sea to luminous sea, from farms to cities, from the east to the west, without wars, or arms, or the shameless pilfering of the earth. Do this with and for the children you teach. So they discover that history is made by ordinary people with the courage not to be silenced or sit in the back of the bus. And come to understand that freedom for all is still a dream deferred. Is still the only dream worth having.

Open Letter to New Teachers

Although you have just arrived, over time, you will discover that there are very few experiences as transformative and broadening, while at the same time as perplexing and frustrating, as teaching and living abroad. That makes sense. With the exception of physical growth, very little in our lives contains the intensity and vitality of life as an international educator. You live walking the cultural tightrope of the unfamiliar. The only safety net is resiliency, a sense of humor, and perspective: multiple ones.

The cross-cultural life is not for the lighthearted or the inflexible. In Bogota, I got fleas. In Mexico City, I learned how to negotiate traffic violations on the spot. And in Barcelona, I acquired the taste for cafe life and the key to living in time, without measuring it. Cross-cultural living is a graduate education in life.

In the spirit of preparedness, here is a list of some of the unexpected and culturally foreign experiences that you might encounter. And when you do, pause, and remember to breathe:

  1. Officious parents who want to give you a gift as a token of their appreciation. Or to invite you to join them and their children for their winter getaway to Calabria.
  2. Confusion and disquiet after giving one of the most engaging and challenging units you can remember on the causes of civil war, and your students remain silent as lampposts. Later to discover it is culturally disrespectful to ask questions of the teacher.
  3. The rows of sleek polished SUV’s with the bullet proof glass windows driven by bodyguards in dark suits with sunglasses.
  4. The subtle and sometimes not so subtle examples of the division between local and foreign hires. (Watch where people eat for example)
  5. The physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from learning a new language.
  6. Homesickness. What is erroneously seen as a symptom of childhood but can be triggered when least expected, especially around holidays like Thanksgiving or birthdays.
  7. In some countries we kiss on both cheeks at school. In others arriving on time (socially) is looked down upon. While in some countries, when a dinner guest in someone’s home, leaving nothing on your plate, is a sign that you have not had enough.
  8. Waiting on line. While this is an assumed protocol in much of the world, in some places you pay others to do it for you (visas, taxes) or the very concept is foreign.
  9. Social space. You will find in some cultures physical proximity is nothing less than uncomfortable. While in others, eye contact is frowned upon.
  10. Leaving tips, driving protocols, and acknowledging someone when they are eating. Small things that together define a culture while at the same time leaving the expat confounded.

In short: expect the unexpected, be mindful of difference, and suspend judgment. It is not only a new language and culture you are immersed in, but a worldview. Read the Iliad. Read the Odyssey. Or read the Golden Ass. Part of the adventure (and it is an adventure) is getting lost, being taken, and becoming transformed. Anything worthwhile can be perilous. And finally, when the siren for home calls (at least 5 years later) that you come back with broader perspectives, another language, and the first hand experience of what living globally means. The educational world is desperate for global citizens like you. And oh yes. Drink lots of water the first 24 hours, if you have not already. It’s a good antidote for jet lag.



Mission Statements

Mission Statements hardly ever inspire. They should. They can. But most don’t. Have you ever noticed the similarity from school to school, of the same jargon, vagaries, and stale language? If there was a proctor for school mission statements most would be accused of plagiarism. Mission statements too often speak in the soothing, humorless, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important –to –us- language of the market. Not of educators. Mission statements are often sterile. Not merely for the quality of words but the paucity of verve and originality and ideas. Orwell, when speaking of political language, describes a similar quality, “as an accumulation of stale phrases that chokes like tea leaves blocking a sink.” The sound of mission statements are more often than not, without a human voice but the artificial speak of the dog and pony show. They don’t speak in human voices but the homogenized language of the sales pitch. Mission statements take themselves too seriously by speaking in language that is distant, uninviting and abstract. To speak with a human voice schools have to share the concerns of their communities. But first, they must belong to a community. When is the last time you spoke to a teacher who knows their mission statement? Who can show evidence of how it infuses the life of a school? Better yet, a student who can cite the mission of her school? Not often. Hardly ever. If the purpose and the guiding principles of a school are couched in platitudes, is it unusual that schools run the risk of becoming irrelevant? Mission statements should be like haikus: lean, transparent without adjectives or excess. They should enliven, anchor, legitimize and affirm what a school believes in.

More importantly, it is the process that should be refined. They offer the opportunity for all the stakeholders to articulate what matters in a school. Otherwise, like statues, they get taken for granted and lose their significance. Once, when in an accreditation year we went from class to class, challenging students to examine the mission, word by word, and gave them butcher block paper and colored markers to illustrate what it meant to them. We did the same with all 240 teachers. The closer you come to owning a mission the more likely it will guide and unify a community. We already have enough cookie cutter verbiage. Its time we rediscover the artistry of the mission statement before it goes the way of the mimeograph machine and the VCR, stockpiled in closets that no one has access to.