Nov 10

Movember

That's one itchy beard.

That’s one itchy beard.

As many readers know, my father passed away a year ago this month from prostate cancer. My dad’s battle with cancer taught my entire family a great deal about men’s health in general and prostate cancer in specific.

So this November, I’m growing a beard along with thousands of other men across the world as part of the Movember movement. This movement has already raised over $26 million dollars worldwide, and I’m hoping that I can do my part in contributing.

You can help by contributing to my page or by contributing (or joining) Team Sid. And I promise to keep posting silly pictures of me with a beard all month long.

Aug 01

Trayvon, Creating ‘The Other’ and the Cover of the Rolling Stone

[It has taken me a while to find the mindspace to write coherently about this. I've been talking to a lot of people about this, and while I don't think my thoughts are anywhere near fully evolved on this yet, I think I need to take some time to write about it, if I am going to be able to push my own thinking. Thanks to Jose Vilson and Bob Dillon for being early readers of this, and thanks to the summer tech girls at SLA for talking through some of these ideas with me.]

I, like many of us, been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin lately. One of the quotes that resonated more deeply than any other was the priest who said, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home.”

That’s the world I want to live in too. To do that, Zimmerman would have had to have seen Trayvon as a young man out in the rain, not as a threat. He would have had to seen his humanity first and foremost. He would have had to have been willing to see the young black man in a hoodie as something different than a threat… something different than “the other.” He clearly didn’t, and in my opinion, George Zimmerman’s unwillingness to see the shared humanity between two people – regardless of race – set in  motion the tragic — and yes, in my mind, criminal — events that unfolded that night.

I also have been thinking a lot about the Rolling Stone cover story about the young men who are responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. More than anything else, what I think is perhaps truly troublesome to me about the story — and about the events of that tragic day — is that this was American terrorism. These two brothers were American kids. They had, in their upbringing, as much — if not more — in common with Timothy McVie as they did with the 9/11 bombers.

What happened to them? Why did a young man who grew up in Cambridge, MA as a seemingly ‘normal’ American teenager become a bomber? What happened such that he turned against the only country he really knew? When did he stop believing in the American Dream for himself and his family? And why? And how could he believe that a radical terrorist act, mere miles from his home, was the right thing to do?

And let me be clear here – the Boston Marathon bombers are no more a victim than George Zimmerman was. Both took a lens on the world that allowed them to see people they did not know as “other” and that allowed them to commit horrible acts. The Boston Marathon bombers made a decision that “American” meant that any runner in that Boston Marathon was guilty of crimes against the Muslim world and therefore deserved anything they got. George Zimmerman believed that “Young, Black Male” meant Trayvon Martin was up to no good, and therefore had to be stopped. Both need to be held accountable for their actions.

Both George Zimmerman and the Boston Marathon bombers felt justified in their actions because they refused to see the fundamental humanity of the people their actions would impact. Both George Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers showed no empathy for people who were different than they were.

Both were powerfully and tragically wrong.

If we, as a nation, do not start to do a better job of bridging the divide between peoples… if we do not do a better job of enfranchising the disenfranchised… if we do not re-invest in ensuring that the American Dream is inclusive rather than “I got mine,” we will see more and more Jahars and we will see more Zimmermans. And while I believe that both Jahar and Zimmerman need to be punished for the actions that they undertook that caused the loss of life, I also believe we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we live in that creates the conditions that allows people to ignore the fundamental humanity of those around them, and instead reach for violence.

For me, that happens when, as a society, we too often react with fear and abandon hope.

And where this really has been resonating with me is this… as a society, are we teaching fear, lack of empathy and loss of hope?

Think of all the young African-American men and women who are learning a powerful lesson from the Trayvon Martin case — that the United States justice system will not serve them, and ask if they are learning the next lesson — that the United States will not take care of them.

Think of the young men and women who have come to this country, brought by parents before the children could choose, and think of the vitriolic rhetoric against the DREAM Act where US Congressmen state that “For every valedictorian, there are 100 drug dealers,” and ask yourself whether those young men and women believe that this country will take care of them.

Think of the young men and women in rural America who have seen their local economies dry up as we have not replaced the working-class jobs that once existed, and think of the political rhetoric that suggests that they must “defend” what they have against those who would take it away, and ask yourself whether those young men and women seeing a nation that is taking care of them.

Think of the many young men and women who are working at a minimum wage that, according to McDonalds, is a living wage as long as you are willing to work 75 hours a week, forego heating, and find health insurance for less than $20 / month.

Think about a generation that is growing up where 80% of the population fears joblessness, and the divide between rich and poor grows wider and wider.

Think of all the kids in our cities who go to under-funded schools, who watch their parents struggle to survive on sub-standard wages… think about how many indignities our children suffer…

And now ask… are we creating the next-generation of home-grown terrorists?

Are we creating a generation of kids who do not believe that America believes in them? And if so, what will some of them do? And how many Trayvon Martins have to die, how many Boston Marathon-style bombings do we have to endure before we ask ourselves what are the systems at work in our society that are creating this kind of fear, hatred and disenfranchisement?

I have been thinking a lot about MLK lately… thinking that we need both sides of his message right now… we need to increase the amount of love *and* the amount of justice in this world… and we need to understand that if we don’t, people from across the wide spectrum of America are going to get their needs met…

By any means necessary.

Jul 11

Medicating Ourselves To Death

I’m going to start this post by saying that it is really just a case of out-loud thinking. I don’t really know where this leads… I just know I’m thinking about it a lot lately, and I’m hoping that by writing, I make some sense of my thoughts.

I struggle a lot with issues of drug use among American teens– I’ve written about this before when I wrote When I Learned to Hate Drugs — and I worry about it both with the illegal drug use – with 6.5% of high school seniors smoking marijuana on a daily basis according to the NIH – and with the legal drug use where we see more and more kids getting medicated for things like ADHD. As Ken Robinson has noted, it is a bigger issue the further east you go in American, and in my home state of Pennsylvania, 5.6% of all kids between ages four and seventeen are being medicated for ADD / ADHD. And scarily, there’s a huge crossover of kids who fall into both categories, as approximately 30% of people with ADHD have a history of substance abuse.

And I can say, anecdotally, that I have seen multiple kids getting prescribed ADHD drugs without ever being asked if they are using any illegal drugs. Worse, I also know kids who have been prescribed ADHD drugs when their doctors have known they are also using recreational drugs.

And yet, a half-hour search of the internet could not find any really definitive research on what happens to teenage brains when a drug like Ritalin is used in conjunction with marijuana. There were, however, a lot of sites where teens were asking questions about what happens when these drugs are mixed. And there were a fair number of doctor sites that suggested that the symptoms of marijuana use could be mistaken for some of the symptoms of ADD.

So as we have created an adolescence for so many children that is really nothing more than a holding pattern for adulthood — where we tell them that “school is good for you some day,” rather than daring them to be engaged now, empowered now, caring now, where they are bombarded outside of school with an ever more sophisticated marketing industry that preaches instant gratification for material desires — and then we wonder why kids can’t focus or won’t focus and choose to self-medicate or end up getting medicated.

This isn’t to say that there are not kids with real attention issues that profoundly impact their lives in negative ways — there most certainly are. But I worry that there are also many students who are currently being prescribed drugs who have something more resembling situational ADHD, caused by any number of circumstances from really boring and unconnected schoolwork to marijuana use to poor eating habits.

I don’t know that we know the long-term consequences to the behaviors around drug use that are both being explicitly endorsed (major increases in the number of children in American being prescribed drugs for ADHD) and implicitly tolerated (the passive acceptance of teenage drug use which we see in so many families and so many communities.) And I certainly don’t think we know what happens, long-term, to the kids who overlap in both camps.

I want to see us combat the illegal drug use with care. Both the way we care for kids, and by daring more and more kids to care about the lives they lead now such that the allure of drug use is less powerful than the allure of all there is accomplish in front of us.

I want to see us combat the legal drug use by slowing down a bit. I want families to look at sleep patterns of kids (as I finish this blog entry at 2:36 am.) I want families to be smart about healthy dietary habits. I want kids to learn meditation as a way to quiet the mind, not a pill. And perhaps most of all, I want schools to create more work for kids that is actually worth focusing on, relevant, powerful and driven by the student, not the teacher.

There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that I’m too hyper-sensitive about marijuana use among teens. There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that ADHD medication isn’t being over-prescribed to kids today. And there are probably folks who will tell me that the reason I can’t find any red flags about what happens when kids mix these drugs is because no one has found any red flags yet.

Maybe.

But the cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I worry that we inch closer and closer to some Huxley-like dystopia where we simply take our soma and go blithely about our day, never taking the time to really do the hard work of looking around us and taking more ownership of our society and our world.

I worry.

Dec 09

A Thought From #BlackInAmerica

[Influencing this post - tonight's CNN documentary - Black in America]

I watched Black In America for a lot of reasons tonight. First, much of the documentary was shot at SLA, focusing on the incredible work of the poets of PYPM and one of PYPM teacher / mentors, Vision. Whenever you get to see people you like and care about on television, doing amazing things, you watch. But the show was thoughtful and powerful and explored issues of racial identity and how that racial identity is defined. One of the stories they followed was the evolving sense of self of a young bi-racial woman, raised by her white father.

I’ve seen a lot of bi-racial students struggle with identity over the years, and much of it has been about the word “or.” “Am I black or am I white?” And, in so many ways, that’s an impossible question that forces kids to somehow deny some piece of their identity. It strikes me that American racial dynamics — largely defined by a dominant white culture — has been so oppositional for so long that we want these kids to choose a single identity, rather than embracing the complexity of what makes them who they are. It should not be as hard for a kid to say, “I am black and I am white” or “I am Afro-Latino” as our society makes it.

I watch the kids of SLA deal with issues of race and racial identity in ways that both seem familiar to the questions of twenty-five years ago when I was their age and also deeply unfamiliar. I see them engage with the issues of race with an openness and honesty that I would have been unable to do when I was their age. But I see so many of the same challenges and issues still around. And I still see too much pain as kids figure out the complexity of who they are in a world that still wants to put people into too many neat little boxes that rarely represent the complexity of their lives.

Thank you, CNN, for focusing on the amazing poets of PYPM, and thank you for the work you are doing with Black in America. With luck, it made a lot of people think tonight.

Nov 22

Thankfulness

The last few weeks have been an incredible reminder of how incredibly lucky I am because, in the midst of the sadness and grief of losing my dad, I was reminded of just how full both his life was and my life is.

So today, while it is so hard to have Thanksgiving without my dad, I am making an active choice to remember how thankful I should be — and am — today.

I am thankful to have a father in my life for 41 years who was an incredible role model and dad.

I am thankful to have a close-knit family that rallies together at the big moments.

I am thankful to be married to an amazing woman who I love more every day.

I am thankful for two incredible children who bring me joy every day.

I am thankful for the many, many friends who enrich my life.

I am thankful to be able to do work I love, that makes a difference in the world, and that asks the best of me.

I am thankful to work with and for a community that takes care of each other — including taking care of the principal when needed.

I am thankful for all of this and so much more.

And so here’s my thought for Thanksgiving Day: We should remember to be thankful every day, because, no matter how hard our lives are, we have things to be thankful for – and more often than not, the “things” we have to be thankful for are people. Let’s make sure we take a moment every day – not just Thanksgiving Day – to be thankful for our lives.

This coming year, let’s try to live in a state of thankfulness more often. Let’s say make it a point to say “thank you” to the folks in our lives who matter — and mean it — every day. And then, let’s see if that actually makes us more likely to realize all the amazing pieces of our lives and maybe even a little more likely to be willing to live our lives as people others are thankful for. That’s my best idea today – that I will try to live more often in a state of thankfulness. I hope you are willing to join me in that idea.

Happy Thanksgiving Day everyone.

 

Nov 18

My Eulogy for My Father

[Today was my father's funeral. Over 600 people showed up to mourn my father's passing and to celebrate his life. It was an incredible difficult, sad and yet powerful day. What follows is my eulogy, which a few folks asked me to post. It borrows, not surprisingly, from my post from the other day, but not completely. I have to say, it was probably the hardest speech I have ever had to give.]

I am not sure how I’m supposed to follow Elizabeth’s speech… I think she gave us all our call to arms… but I’m going to try anyway.

Thank you all for being here today. To see so many people who loved Dad and want to be here to say goodbye to him is just incredible.

In a moment of true, wonderful irony, though, Dad’s funeral is, of course, happening during an Eagles game. I’d like to think that if there is an afterlife, Dad is somehow flipping the afterlife remote control between being here with all of us and the game. And of course, he would be doing so for two reasons… first, let’s be clear, he’d want to know the score of the game, but second, Dad would be profoundly uncomfortable with all of us saying really wonderful things about him. So, as we say goodbye to my father and say all the things we love so much about him, I just want you to imagine that high laugh of his – and picture him changing the channel to the Eagles game, because he could have never sat through this.

And that’s as good a place to start as any – because my father was a great man who did not accept his own greatness. Even as he was fighting against cancer with more strength and courage and honesty than I can imagine, he complained about his procrastination. My father… who was expending such energy and will and strength to fight for more time… still talked about the things he didn’t do. He never quite accepted his own greatness, all he had done, all the lives he profoundly changed. I wish he could have been here today if only to see the incredible good he did in the world.

That’s not to say he wasn’t proud – he was. He wasn’t vain at all. He was the most down-to-earth person you could know. But he was proud in all the right ways. When I was in high school, I had to do a paper on a US Supreme Court case, and my father took some friends of mine and I to the Trenton Law Library, so we could do research. Dad stayed with us, and about a half an hour into the day, he called me over to one of the stacks. He had some of the books off of the shelves so he could show me where he had argued cases in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He told me about the cases, and there was such pride – justifiable, earned pride – that he could show his son those accomplishments.

That was one of those moments with my father that I cherish, because it was this window that let me know that as important as it was for me that he was proud of who I was, he wanted me to be proud of who he was as well. Needless to say, I was always incredibly proud to be Sid Lehmann’s son.

How could I not be?  My father was, simply put, my hero. He spent his life in service of working people. He could have used his considerable, powerful intellect chasing down wealth and power, and I have no doubt that he could have acquired both, but instead he chose to serve. My dad is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he chose a life of service. And more than that, he had a fundamental and powerful respect for the people he served.

Because my father’s intellect was really only matched by his humility. It didn’t matter how smart he was, he respected the gifts and the intellect and the lives of the working people he served – and really of all the people he met. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you should never use your own intellect to make others feel less smart than you, but as smart or smarter than you, and if you respected the ideas and perspectives of others, you could and would learn from anyone and everyone. My dad believed that whatever gifts one was given, they had to be spent lifting others up, not putting them down.

Dad believed also that kindness could be created writ large in the work you did in the world. You felt it from him, and his work as a labor lawyer came from a few deeply held beliefs. One was the idea that the purpose of life was that you should try to leave the world a little bit better off because you happened to live in it, and the other was that every person had a right to dignity and a fair shake at life.

He learned that idea first from his own mother -  it came from her belief that you should never intentionally try to hurt another person. He had a fundamental and abiding respect for all people -  or most anyway. He couldn’t believe or understand or forgive those who occupied a place of privilege–whether by birth or through their own success–and did not use their position to better the lives of others. It simply made no sense to him.

I remember when I was in college at U. Penn – and probably a little more (a lot more) full of myself than I should have been. I was questioning a lot of my beliefs about unions and working people and what people “deserved.”  At the time, the New York Daily News was on strike, and it was looking like the paper was going to go under. My dad and I got into a heated argument about it. I’d call it a discussion, but in my family, we argue. I was arguing that it made no sense for the unions not to give in and I said something about the paper not really “belonging” to them anyway. My dad replied by saying, “You know, maybe the union would be better off if they were run by a bunch of [expletive] Wharton MBAs, but that doesn’t mean that working people don’t have a right to a say in their own lives, and you should remember that of land, labor and capital, only one of the three is sentient.”

That was over twenty years ago, and I’ve used that argument ever since. No one has ever made a better one.

And so it was from my father that I learned that kindness has to be tempered by true steel in your spine – a lesson that has proven invaluable to me as a teacher and principal. But my father’s steel -  my father’s courage -  was incredible. Last year, after most people with a terminal cancer diagnosis would’ve long retired, my dad was still fighting. I remember him telling me about taking on Gov. Christie’s state appointed monitor in a case where my dad represented the custodians for the Trenton Public Schools. Gov. Christie’s unelected appointee wanted to privatize the custodial jobs, and my father would not let him. He rallied the Trenton Board of Ed to side with the union, imploring them not to lay off the parents of the very children they served, and in a letter to the state he wrote, “the state monitor should learn that urban communities and school districts exist for reasons other than transferring public monies to private corporations.” He did this while he was dying of cancer. We should all wish for one-tenth of the courage and the steel and the resolve that my father had.

That resolve that belief in standing up for what is right was not just in his public life but in his private life as well. That was who he was, that is what he passed on to me and to my sister who probably understood that lesson better than I did. There was no delineation between the morality of my father’s public life and morality of his private life. He was who he was in all aspects of his life, deeply committed to justice, deeply committed to fairness, deeply committed to kindness.

And he was so much more than political. He also loved the life of the mind, and there was nothing more fun than great passionate debate. I remember coming home from college shortly after having gone to a pro-choice rally in Washington, DC. Dad and I were driving somewhere and my Dad – who was deeply pro-choice – was arguing an anti-feminist, anti-choice line of reasoning, and I finally got so angry that I said, “You don’t even believe your own argument right now!” And he replied, “Yeah, but I just really love to debate with you.” And after I finished banging my head on the dashboard of the car, I realized even then what an incredible compliment that was. That love of the give and take of a debate — that willingness to learn from others while you were debating, even if it meant you didn’t “win,” I learned that from him. It was from my dad I learned how you can argue to learn, not just argue to win.

The list goes on and on… my dad was my baseball and soccer coach when I was a kid. He embraced Ultimate Frisbee when I fell in love with the sport, even learning to throw a forehand, just so we could have a catch. He was my moral compass. And as my life and my career has become what it has become, he was my best advisor and strategist. In one of the great joys of my life, over the past decade, I was able to be a strategist and sounding board for him as well. And he has been the most amazing grandfather to Jakob and Theo and my niece Amelia. He is one of the truly greatest men I have ever known – and likely ever will.

It’s funny, I say all of the time, “I am the son of a union lawyer and a teacher. I am the most derivative human being ever, none of my ideas my own.” Dad tried to argue that point with me–perhaps not surprisingly–but it really is true. My best ideas are merely an outgrowth–a logical extension–of all he and my mother taught me.

I haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that I will never have another conversation with my father again. I am sure I share that with many of you. And as much as anything else, I am angry that we were robbed of his third act. He and I talked about the things he knew he wasn’t going to have time for. There were still windmills to tilt at. There were still battles to fight. And in an era where it is so important to make sure that all people have a right to a say in their own lives – a right to self-determination and self-worth, we have lost one of our great champions in that fight.

So, Elizabeth has already given you her list – and it is an excellent one – but let me add one more thing. Let us all – to quote my Dad -  try to make the world a better place because we happened to have lived in it. The world is a better place because Sid Lehmann lived in it for sixty-seven years. It is because of the way he lived both his private and public lives. Now it is our turn. We have to ask ourselves – “What would Sid do?” And granted, the answer would usually involve profanity, but then there would be action. We should all work just a little harder to make the world a better place because we happened to have lived in it. To do that is to honor his life and honor his memory. And it has the added benefit of being the right thing to do, too.

Thank you, Dad, for being the most incredible father I could have ever wanted. Thank you for making me want to make the world a better place and for, along with Mom, showing me a path to do so. Thank you for making sure that I have known I was loved every day of my life.

I love you, Dad, and I’ll miss you more than I can say.

Thank you.

Nov 15

Sidney Lehmann – 1945-2012

Early this morning, November 15, 2012, my father ended his six-year battle with cancer. He was with his wife and children who made sure that his final moments were filled with laughter and love as he had lived. He will be deeply, deeply missed by his family and the many friends whose lives he touched. And as I wrote, I will miss him more than I can possibly say. And thank you to everyone who has reached out across so many media – your words mean the world to my family and me.

There’s much more to write in time about how we all in the edu-world have an obligation to the folks in my father’s generation who have fought the good fight… and how it is now our job to pick up the mantle, but that is a post for another day.

 

I wanted to let everyone know the funeral arrangements:

Services will be held Sunday November 18 @  2:00 pm

Adath Israel Synagogue
1958 Lawrenceville Rd.
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648

Shiva will be held at my parents’ house on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Nov 12

My Father

For six years my father is battled cancer.

In the very near future, that battle will be over.

Over the last few months, I’ve come to understand why cancer survivors don’t say that someone has lost their battle with cancer. I’ve watched my dad be more courageous in what we have long known was a fight with an endgame we did not want to face. He has battled the whole time with dignity and grace and strength and humor in ways that have made me respect him and learn from him and love him all the more.  And even now, as we approach the hardest days, he has remained uniquely him, powerfully him, in ways that have left those of us who love him most in awe of his strength.

When it is all said and done, my dad will not have lost his battle with cancer, he will have simply have run out of time to fight it.

Anyone who has ever heard me give a speech or even just talked to me for any length of time, knows how much my father means to me. He is, simply put, my hero. Sid Lehmann spent his adult life in service of working people. Professionally, he was a union lawyer; his clients were teachers, police officers, custodians and more, and he spent his working life making their lives better. My dad is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he chose a life of service. And more than that, he had a fundamental and powerful respect for the people he served.

My father’s intellect was really only matched by his humility. It didn’t matter how smart he was, he respected the gifts and the intellect and the lives of the working people he served – and really of all the people he met. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you should never use your own intellect to make others feel less smart than you, but as smart or smarter than you, and if you respected the ideas and perspectives of others, you could and would learn from anyone and everyone. My dad believes that whatever gifts one was given, they had to be spent lifting others up, not putting them down.

My father learned from his mother the idea that you should never intentionally try to hurt another person. He had a fundamental and abiding respect for all people. While I think the delineation I made years later about how there was a difference between “nice” and “kind” — and what one should shoot for was “kind,” came from both of my parents, the idea that kindness could be created writ large in the work you did in the world came from him. You felt it from him, and his work as a union lawyer came from a few deeply held beliefs. One was the idea that the purpose of life was that you should try to leave the world a little bit better off because you happened to live in it, and the other was that every person had a right to dignity and a fair shake at life.

My father’s kindness has been tempered by true steel in his spine. He didn’t back away from a fight, and in my house, if you wanted to argue, you were taught to bring your A-game. I remember when I was in college at U. Penn – and probably a little more (a lot more) full of myself than I should have been. I was questioning a lot of my beliefs about unions and working people and what people “deserved.”  At the time, the New York Daily News was on strike, and it was looking like the paper was going to go under. My dad and I got into an argument about it. I’d call it a discussion, but in my family, we argue. I was arguing that it made no sense for the unions not to give in and I said something about the paper not really “belonging” to them anyway. My dad replied by saying, “You know, maybe the union would be better off if they were run by a bunch of [expletive] Wharton MBAs, but that doesn’t mean that working people don’t have a right to a say in their own lives, and you should remember that of land, labor and capital, only one of the three is sentient.”

That was over twenty years ago, and I’ve used that argument ever since. No one has ever made a better one. And for the record, no one – I mean no one – can curse better than my father.

I have so many friends who cannot talk to their parents about politics or the way of the world because what they believe is so different from what their parents believe, and I have never been able to fully grasp what that must be like. I remember back in the mid-90s when I was working in DC, something happened politically – probably the Clinton health care fight, actually – and I answered the phone where I worked, and there was my dad on the other end of the line, “Jesus, Christopher – it’s time to storm the [expletive] barricades – can you believe this?” Suffice to say, I come by my passion honestly. And his never abated, as the many conversations we had about the election this fall showed.

But he has been so much more than political. He also loved the life of the mind, and there was nothing more fun than great passionate debate. Another college memory was when I was home from school shortly after having gone to a pro-choice rally in Washington, DC. My Dad – who was and is pro-choice – was arguing with me about the politics of the rally, and I finally got so angry that I said, “You don’t even believe your argument right now!” And he replied, “Yeah, but I just really love to debate with you.” Funny thing was I knew even then what an incredible compliment that was. That love of the give and take of a debate — that willingness to learn from others while you were debating, even if it meant you didn’t “win,” I learned that from him. It was from my dad I learned how you can argue to learn, not just argue to win.

The list goes on and on… my dad was my baseball and soccer coach when I was a kid. He embraced Ultimate Frisbee when I fell in love with the sport, even learning to throw a forehand, just so we could have a catch. He has been my moral compass. And as my life and my career has become what it has become, he was my best advisor and strategist. In one of the great joys of my life, over the past decade, I was able to be a strategist and sounding board for him as well. And he has been the most amazing grandfather to Jakob and Theo and my niece Amelia. He is one of the truly greatest men I have ever known – and likely ever will.

There’s a black and white photo of my father on my wall that I took when I was taking a photography class in graduate school many years ago. Dad was fifty years old, and we were down the shore on vacation. He’s sitting, shirt off, on the rocks on the beach, ocean behind him, looking slightly up and out, away from the camera. I took the shot from slightly lower than he was, because I wanted that kind of iconic frame to the photo. I look at it now, and I realize that it captures both who my dad is, but also who he is to me. The values I hold most dear about the way the world should be – and the obligation we have to try to create that world – have their roots in what he has taught me.

This post isn’t really meant to be his eulogy, although I’m sure this will form the start of it. I have to admit that if my dad could read this, he would probably be a little embarrassed by it. He has a laugh that everyone who knows him knows well when he thinks something is a little ridiculous or embarrassing or just when he is a little bit in disbelief about the world. I have no doubt this post would have provoked that laugh a few times, but he would have read it anyway. It’s on his son’s blog, after all, and what I learned over the past few years is that he had my blog bookmarked, and I’m pretty sure he read just about everything I wrote here.

My family is in the thick of the hardest time now. My father’s fight is ending soon, and my family will have to begin the process of figuring out our lives without his physical presence in our lives day-to-day. My dad is sixty-seven years old, and he deserved more time than he will have gotten. He deserved to see his grandkids grow up, and my mom and my dad really should have had the chance to grow much, much older together. But in the time that my dad has had, he made a profound difference in the world, and an incredible difference in the lives of the people he knew. The world is – without question – a better place because Sid Lehmann has lived in it.

Thank you, Dad, for being the most incredible father I could have ever wanted. Thank you for making me want to make the world a better place and for, along with Mom, showing me a path to do so. Thank you for making sure that I have known I was loved every day of my life.

I love you, Dad, and I’ll miss you more than I can say.

Sep 11

What I Learned from 9/11

As befits a day of remembrance, it feels appropriate to not only think about what we lost on 9/11, but what I learned.

I was teaching in New York City that day, so 9/11 is and always will be an intensely personal memory for me. But today, I want to focus on one lesson I learned.

As parents came to my school from downtown, covered in soot and ash, they only wanted to have their child in their arms. When the planes hit the towers, it was as if a homing beacon went off in their heads, and the only thing that matter to them was being with their child. Parents didn’t stop to wipe off their face; they just started walking. You could look at them and see it in their eyes, “If I can get my child in my arms, it’s going to be o.k.”

That day completely changed how I understood the parent-child relationship. Jakob and Theo weren’t around yet, so I only understood parenting from the perspective of a teacher. So for me, it deepened my understanding of the deeply visceral nature of parenting, and that – along with being a parent myself – deeply informs the way I do my job. After 9/11, I can never look at the concern or fear or love in a parent’s eyes and underestimate how deeply that parent is feeling that emotion.

That’s how I make sense of 9/11 and how I try to take something from that day that allows me to move forward.

Aug 23

Genius v. Expertise

[An update: The friend I reference in this post has asked that I identify him. He's Eric Weinstein - very much worth following. It is both of our hope that this post becomes part of a much larger dialogue.]

I ran into a friend of mine the other day. He’s not a teacher, not involved in education except that he has children in school but he’s deeply concerned about it nonetheless. He also has a mind that can spin ideas at a blinding rate, and a conversation with him can feel like the intellectual cross between an 800 yard dash and a boxing match.

I asked him what ideas he was playing with these days and he said the following:

The coming change in this country will be between genius and expertise. The West Coast is primarily concerned with genius while the East Coast has built a fortress of expertise. I think genius is the right way to go.

I told him I had to think about this, and I have quite a bit, and if nothing else I think it’s a fascinating what way to analyze some of the conflict we are seen in various places in our society. To me, he was tapping into an old tradition of the enfant terrible, the idea of the brilliant young mind–often tragically misunderstood and doomed because of the society that could not accept its genius. We’ve had that been for a long time, and we have just enough proof of its existence as to think it’s true. It’s also a profoundly romantic idea, and Americans love romantic myths. We would rather believe in the genius of the Steve Jobs then in the work of someone like Gordon Moore.

My friend challenged me think about the ramifications of this in education, arguing that much of the current argument about teacher certification and seniority were about protecting expertise at the expense of genius. He argued that expertise seeks to stay within the box of what is known while geniuses able to invent the new and see beyond the current limits of the system.

This was a chance encounter, and I admit I wasn’t ready to have that debate right then and there.

The next time I see him though, I will tell him that I think he has created a false dichotomy. I will tell him that we shouldn’t reject knowledge simply because an idea came before us, and I will remind him that wisdom, which could be another frame for his idea of expertise, is hard-earned.

I watched when a group of people who thought they were smarter than everyone in the room tried to start a school once. They declared that “all prior language of education is tainted,” and they sought to create a wholly new language. Their school was a mess, and they repeated many of the sins of the past and a promising idea of a school failed in a truly epic fashion. Perhaps my friend would argue that they were not as genius as they thought they were. And he would probably be right. But, often those who would appoint themselves as genius are not as smart as they think they are, and the old saying of pride going before the fall is often true.

But I see his point too – if expertise is used as a caste system. If those who would consider themselves “expert” believe that their learning is over, or that they have nothing to learn from those whose life and work experiences are not as detailed as their own, commit just as great a sin. The educational community is reeling these days because so many of their “experts” didn’t foresee the coming storm of the past decade. I remember talking to a principal as we were starting SLA. He thought he had mastered all that Philadelphia education was, and I couldn’t possibly understand how to run a school because I didn’t have the expertise he had. Turns out, he might have misjudged that situation. And worse, as the rules of the game changed over the past eight years, his unwillingness to see what he did not know had profoundly negative effects on his school. I hope his successor is up to the challenge he has left.

The other problem with the genius myth is that there just aren’t enough geniuses to go around, so those who believe in their own genius fall back on a somewhat autocratic response. The Gates Foundation / Broad Foundation phenomenon in education is much like this. So many of the people who come from that part of the education world seem to think that they’ve got the answer if everyone else just did exactly what the genius folks told us to do. But that doesn’t work either, because rarely can you help a child develop agency when you have been denied it yourself.

It can take some really smart people — maybe even geniuses — to innovate. Let’s be sure of that. But the true gift lies not in coming up with the idea, but in developing ways for others to own it. We aren’t going to get four million geniuses to teach in our schools. (I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want them anyway, the teachers’ lounge would become even more insufferable.) We also have to understand that expertise can become a prison of its own creation if it locks out new ideas and creates a hierarchy of “expert” that causes resentment, stagnation of ideas and entropy. And in the end, what both genius and expertise need is a healthy dose of humility because we should never fall in love with our own ideas, no matter how we came to them.

What I will tell my friend is that we need both and a lot more humility too. We need creativity and knowledge. We need folks who can look at problems in new ways, listen to those who are most deeply affected by the problems and then apply acquired knowledge, wisdom and skill to create the solutions we need. We need the designers and the engineers if we are going to build sustainable models for the future of our schools. And then we need good people of honest intent who are smart enough to learn from the lessons of others, apply those lessons to their schools and communities to create rich places of learning for everyone there.