Monday, June 1, 2009

Interview with Daniel Wolff, Author of How Lincoln Learned to Read

A few weeks back, I fell in love with How Lincoln Learned to Read, which tells the story of America and American education, from the time of Ben Franklin on up to modernity, by diving into the young lives of twelve well-known people. It is a fascinating read, well-written and with a great story to tell (to read my rave review, go here - and, to read Daniel Wolff's blog about the book at Amazon, go here, where he shares about some of the talks and readings he's done since How Lincoln Learned to Read was published in March. I loved the perspective it gives from people around the country who've read the book).

Anyway, Mr. Wolff agreed to an interview with me, and I'm happy to be able to present it here today. I think his take on education is conducive to homeschooling; in fact, many of the Americans he writes about were homeschooled themselves, and their educations helped shape them into the influential people they eventually became. The book poses questions about what education is for, and how people learn what they need to know. Here's the interview:

Stone Age Techie: 1. While I have not yet read them, this book seems like a departure from the books you've written before; how did this idea occur to you, and how did you develop the idea into How Lincoln Learned to Read?

Daniel Wolff: It was a less an idea than feeling. You know that sensation when your kid – of, for that matter, when you – went off for the first day of kindergarten? Both the excitement of facing a new world and the sinking sensation of entering a large and largely faceless institution. I think that was the start of How Lincoln Learned to Read: all the questions that follow from that moment.

One of the main ones that I’ve always had is: what’s this for? Why do we take our children to one part of town and put them in those buildings with the playgrounds out back? What are we trying to accomplish?

In my experience, these are hard questions just to ask, never mind answer. Before my kids entered public school, and for about a decade afterwards, I was involved in a group of people who tried to discuss what education was for and how we might make it better. We called ourselves Partners in Education and created a little stir in our hometown and, to some degree, nationally.

We were parents and guardians, teachers and community members, from various races and economic groups. We discovered, early on, that to ask what education is for is to ask for trouble. Our “opponents” (and it soon became that polarized) saw our actions as the equivalent of disrespecting the flag. Or questioning the military draft. Parents were supposed to support public education, not ask what it was about. People were entitled to differences of opinion, of course, about testing and merit pay and playground safety, but asking how our children might learn to think was crossing the line.

Looking back, I’m not sure we ever really got the question out in the open. I’m lucky enough to live in a town where the schools are multi-racial: by high school, about 60% of the students are labeled “white” and 40% “other:” African American, Haitian American, Hispanic, Asian. Almost immediately, our discussion turned to whether or not “minority” kids were getting as good an education as “white majority” students. As I discuss in How Lincoln Learned to Read, one of the central beliefs behind American public education is that it gives everyone an equal chance. That it’s based on merit, not skin color or money. But we kept finding that the schools mostly ranked kids like they’d already been ranked in society. White kids from educated, better-off families tended to be in the honors programs; black kids from less well-off families tended to be in the “slow” groups or in special ed. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the pattern. And the longer kids were in the system, the stronger those divisions became.

So, instead of getting to ask why our kids went to those buildings with the playgrounds, we ended up spending our time asking if all kids were getting an equal chance once they entered. It was hard and fascinating and well worth it. But in a sense, it wasn’t what we’d set out to do.

So when our coalition finally ceased to be, I still had these issues I wanted to deal with. And I thought I might be able to write about them.

Oh, and I’m not sure how much this book is a departure. I wanted to understand how Sam Cooke learned from gospel music how to make great soul music, so I wrote his biography. It’s about learning (and a bunch of other things). And the story of American democracy that is one of the narratives through How Lincoln Learned to Read is central to the history of Asbury Park I wrote. I hope there’s a thread through all my stuff about where we’re headed and why. And about people who don’t normally get a voice having a chance to speak out.

SAT: I love your discussion of Partners in Education - "People were entitled to differences of opinion, of course, about testing and merit pay and playground safety, but asking how our children might learn to think was crossing the line."... this is something that many homeschoolers care deeply about, and I think part of why we are seen by our non-homeschooling neighbors as eccentric, even radical. I can see them thinking sometimes, 'don't we send them to school so we don't have to think about education?'

Also, I can see that I am going to have to read your other books, it was very presumptious of me to dismiss them as not about education, just by their titles :-)

SAT: 2. As you researched and wrote How Lincoln Learned to Read, did any of your subjects especially appeal to you? Did you identify with any of them more than the others, and, if so, why?

DW: Once I set out to deal with education and learning, I was determined to avoid the “education debate” that, it seems to me, circles and circles itself. If you go back, you can find people a hundred years ago arguing about how best to test students, teach reading, maintain classroom discipline. I didn’t want to get drawn into that whirlpool; I wanted to talk about how and why people learned. It seemed to me that the best way to do that was to side-step theory and “ask” the people themselves.

I thought I’d start before this was a nation and bring us up to the present – both to see how our thinking abut learning had changed and to trace how we got to this point. So I started looking for people who seemed to stand out as American types: folks we might or might not admire but who seemed key to our idea of ourselves as a people and a nation.

I began with Benjamin Franklin whose autobiography is about what he called his “self-education.” Then I jumped a couple of decades and chose Abigail Adams. And I went on like that right through American history! I didn’t necessarily “like” all they people I chose, but they all seemed important to the story. Through their own writings or talks, they’d each commented on how they learned the things they needed to know.

So I got to ask this question about learning sequentially, from Franklin through Elvis Presley. And it ended up producing a kind of narrative about the country: how we arrived at this point, what our goals have been, what factors came in and out of play as we kept adjusting the idea of getting a “good education.”

Did I identify more with one or another? I don’t think so. I identified with them all. I was amazed and impressed by how hard people work to learn – inside and outside the classroom.

SAT: 3. I love How Lincoln Learned to Read for both its history and the important questions it poses for individual people and our society as a whole. I wonder, what sort of feedback are you getting about the book, and also, is there any way to tell who's reading it? (College students, President Obama, parents of school-aged children...)

DW: Well, I was lucky enough to get an endorsement from Arne Duncan, current Secretary of Education. So I assume How Lincoln Learned to Read is way up on President Obama’s reading list! I’ll let you know when I get his review. But I also received kind words from Deborah Meier, one of the leaders of the alternative school movement. I’ve heard from teachers and parents, students and “general readers.” And I’ve heard a lot from home-schoolers or un-schoolers.

I think what that indicates is that the book doesn’t have a particular ax to grind. I certainly tried to research as thoroughly as I could and to report accurately how folks learned – whether it was at home or in school, from books or machines, with help from teachers or alone. And readers of all kinds seem to have responded to that. I’ve been very pleased with the conversations I’ve had at readings and other events and hope folks will feel free not only to contact me but to push the conversation forward among friends and colleagues.

Part of what I hope to do with How Lincoln Learned to Read is simply to broaden the questions we ask about learning. To acknowledge that some people learn best in the backyard with a tin can and an irrigation ditch, and some people learn best with a text book and a clock ticking. I think we all know that; we just don’t say it very often.

And if we can say it more often and more clearly, I think it might take some of the pressure off of teachers, schools, parents, and kids. The way we talk about learning now, if your child does badly on the 4th grade reading test … well, it’s curtains. He or she is a failure, is in trouble. There’s this enormous pressure on teachers and schools to educate everyone along strict standards, leave no child behind, and, so, solve the problems of the world.

I hope How Lincoln Learned to Read suggests that’s too simplistic. Just as we keep learning as long as we’re alive, we keep finding other ways to learn and situations to learn in. Shouldn’t they all be respected? The guy who fixes my car knows a lot more about that that I do. He learned some of it formally, a lot of it on the job. He has an amazing bank of knowledge he relies on – and I, in turn, rely on him. Did he do well on his SAT’s? I don’t know or particularly care.

SAT: 4. We pulled our son out of second grade and began homeschooling him because not only was he not learning what he needed to know, he was being taught to mistrust his own instincts, which destroyed any confidence he'd once had in his ability to learn. Homeschooling has restored his confidence and his joy in learning, because he decides what it's important to learn about. Do you think that your book could influence the course of our nation's education system, perhaps making it easier for schoolchildren to learn what they need to know in school?

DW: The destruction of confidence often goes back to that first day walking into kindergarten. Sometimes people call that “adjusting to society” -- which it is, in part. But one of the results of that adjustment can be a kid who enjoys life, feels good about him or herself, and is suddenly made to think that he or she isn’t good enough, can’t be good enough. In How Lincoln Learned to Read I write about the history of schools as a way to “Americanize” kids – so that we’re all on the same page and society as a whole can function – but part of that Americanization includes this sense that we’re all in competition. Some get A’s; some get F’s; and that is what matters.

I don’t begin to say that homeschooling is the answer for all kids. I know families, for example, where one kid learned at home, another went off to school. But I do think we can learn some things from the principles underlying homeschooling – or, for that matter, from the dynamics of learning in a family whether the kids are homeschooled or not.

There are a couple of reoccurring themes in How Lincoln Learned to Read. One of them is that people seem to learn when they care: whether it’s the young Andy Jackson learning to fight for his survival during the Revolutionary War, or the young Elvis Presley learning that he can let out his frustration and hope in a Pentecostal service. Learning is connected to passion. And meaning.

That’s often clearer at home, I think, then it is in a classroom where the management of 25 or 30 kids tends to dominate. How do we get some of that passion into the educations of the majority of our kids? I won’t pretend to have the answer to that. But I do think the question has to be asked, and asked over and over again. And I sure hope How Lincoln Learned to Read will contribute to that happening.

Oh, and I should add that I hope the spirit of the book not only restores the confidence of someone like your son but of you, as a parent, trying to decide what learning is. I hope it broadens your choices and helps you recognize that it isn’t school or not school: it’s the unbelievable range of learning possibilities that all of us have.

SAT: Your response to this question gave me goosebumps; you can't fit all kids into one academic box and expect to turn out successful, creative graduates. Kind of along these same lines, a friend just passed on this link to me, it's a group of educators including two of my absolute heroes, David Elkind and Vivian Gussin Paley, discussing the disappearance of unstructured play in Kindergarten and the problems this is causing: Alliance for Childhood in case anyone's interested.

SAT: 5. Two-part question: first, in your opinion what changes might educators make to schools nationwide, to teach children more of what they'll need to know – and second, are any of these changes evident, or even discussed to your knowledge, in school systems today?

DW: How Lincoln Learned to Read deliberately begins and ends in the present. My hope was to help formulate what you’re asking here – how children can learn more of what they need to know -- in a larger, more inclusive way. But the same way I believe good classrooms don’t provide answers but let kids think, I believe good books give readers the information to wrestle with issues.

The job of answering the first part of your question – changes that might be made to education – is up to each of us, I think. And the answers are going to vary per town, per school, often per kid. I’m not at all convinced that nationwide change would be helpful – unless it’s the sort of nationwide change that allows for this kind of one-on-one decision making. A nationwide policy, that is, that allows us to act locally.

As to whether these kinds of educational questions are currently being discussed, I have two reactions. The first is that with No Child Left Behind and the current emphasis on testing and on product, nothing much is being discussed. Part of why our group of activists faded out, I believe, is because the current slant of education doesn’t leave room for this kind of debate. I believe in measuring how we’re doing, but too often “outcome driven” schools seem to me to be driving out all discussion and questioning. Everybody ends up handcuffed: teacher, student, administrator, parent.

My second reaction is that education as a field is full of serious, passionate, well-meaning people – who get involved because they care a lot about exactly these kinds of questions. I know many who are extremely frustrated by the system as is and are still trying to do the best they can under the circumstances. If I had to guess, I’d guess that folks are indeed having the discussion about “how we learn what we need to know” – but it’s more likely to be on vacation, or in the supermarket line, or over a beer, than in school.

SAT: 6. Do you have an opinion on how television and other screen-time influences children's learning?

DW: I think it’s astonishing how the human species learns from all sorts of sources, for better or for worse. We don’t stop! Abraham Lincoln studied newspapers; Sojourner Truth had to study slavery; John Kennedy tried not to study anything too hard – and learned from that. Bruce Springsteen famously said he learned more from a three minute record than he ever learned in school. None of these strike me as bad influences per se. It’s how they’re used. It’s the context they grow in.

Limitations on TV or computer time make some sense to me, just so they don’t take over the whole day. But I don’t think those screens are the bad guys or the good guys. I think it’s the people and the values behind them. And if those are going to be changed, don’t kids need to know how the screens work?

SAT: 7. Is there anything you'd like to add about education in general, or How Lincoln Learned to Read in particular?

DW: Ah, no! Your kind questions have already made me go on too long.

Except, I want to thank you.

SAT: I really want to thank you for taking so much time over this, and for putting so much thought into your responses!

You mentioned your hope that people would contact you, and I'm wondering if there is an email or website that we could direct people to?

DW: Sure,

6/9/09 Update: Daniel Wolff was recently interviewed on NPR! If you'd like to listen, click here.


Melissa R said...

Wonderful interview. I had the book in my possession, from the library, but I didn't read it in time and it couldn't be renewed because of a waiting list. It will be in my hands again soon!

Mister Dad said...

Good grief, woman! What a great interview!!!

Gonna hafta buy all said books and create dialogue direct!

Thank, and bless you!!!

Adele said...

I think it is so wonderful that your own passion for education and providing a rich environment for your boys has led you to wonderful dialogues like this one. Your friendship and your experiences have enriched my live. Individuals like you and Daniel Wolff constantly show the world that education is so much more about learning and so much less about teaching.

Susan said...

I am going to hunt down a bookstore in Philadelphia and get that book!

This is what I argue for all the time whenever I can get someone to listen:

I’m not at all convinced that nationwide change would be helpful – unless it’s the sort of nationwide change that allows for this kind of one-on-one decision making. A nationwide policy, that is, that allows us to act locally.

Not only is every kid different, but every teacher is different. You know the Yeats quotation: Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire? Handing out scripts to teachers means they are always filling buckets instead of lighting fires. Because they are not given the freedom to communicate their passion for subjects that interest them.

Wonderful interview, thanks so much for sharing it.

Oh, and on the subject of how Abraham Lincoln learned to the American History museum in the Abraham Lincoln exhibit there is a plaque that reads,

"How did an unschooled, backwoods politician rise to the presidency and steer the nation through its greatest crisis?"

I am so steeped in homeschooling that I read unschooled at first with the stress on un as in unschooling. Makes perfect sense to me that and UNschooled child would rise to the presidency.

topsytechie said...

Definitely going to be linking to this post on my blog. What a terrific interview!!!! And I am so excited to discover, just now, that I am finally 2nd in queue for the book at the library now! Whew!!

The Stone Age Techie said...

Melissa - glad you'll have it again soon, it is worth making time for!

Mister Dad - you've got your work cut out for you, I guess :-)

Adele - I have tears in my eyes right now; I feel the same way about you and your family!

Susan - that's it, I am going to the American History museum, ASAP. Hey, maybe I'll be able to see Jefferson's desk :-)

Topsy - I would be honored if you'd link to this post - this is the kind of book we can really get behind, and the more people who know about it, the better!

jugglingpaynes said...

I meant to go to bed, as it's late here, and then I started reading this wonderful interview! Thank you for posting it, I will have to look for the book now!

I'm glad you enjoyed my story! Princess Bride is one of our favorites too!

The Stone Age Techie said...

JP - I've just done the same thing at your blog, I am loving the comic strips, and the garden, and the pictures...

Kat said...

Great interview! I finally got my copy from the library. First one to check it out. :) Thanks for the heads up on a very interesting read.