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Where the Environment Matters: the legacy of the Milton Hershey School


Courtesy of Milton Hershey School

Sometimes those ideals that have been ignored for years can still work—in spite of efforts to undermine them.

I was privileged to attend a screening of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade’s newest film, a documentary about the Milton Hershey School.  The film, at least partially, proved two things for me: (a) there are people in corporate America who actually care; and (b) the old-fashioned way can still work in education.

 MHS is a PreK-12 school for underprivileged children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, just across the street from Hershey Park.  Milton Hershey, the founder of the Hershey chocolate empire, and his wife founded the school in 1909.  Since they were unable to have children, the Hersheys founded a school where children in desperate economic or family situations can learn and grow in a safe nurturing environment.

The school is comprised of over 1800 students sprawled across buildings throughout the town.  The school is funded by the Hershey Trust Company, which owns the controlling shares of stock in the Hershey Company.  This is particularly helpful when similar ventures are struggling due to lack of funds: it’s nice when a school has a blue-chip company for a piggy bank.

Regardless of these resources, MHS does not pride itself on its riches, but rather its people.  The core of their philosophy is the house parenting system.  Students who enroll in MHS live in single-gender family houses run by house parents.  These parents act as the authority figures these children often lack: chores are done strictly, discipline is assertive and effective, and studies are monitored rigorously.  Furthermore, these parents are the students’ principle cheerleaders and advocates: they form a liaison with the school and their biological/legal guardians, to ensure the best interests of the children are met.

As I was watching the film, the emphasis was almost exclusively on the house parents and the student house system.  As interesting as it was, I was a little skeptical.  This is an academic institution, after all.  I didn’t see a whole lot of teaching.  Yet when the scenes in the classroom did appear, I was astonished.

Students were not in guided reading groups, but in rows. 

Old fashioned tests and essays. 

No mandated time for this or that, as far as I could see. 

The school seems almost entirely devoid of the theoretical nonsense that has clouded public education for the last two decades.  Calkins, Fountas, Pinnell, Wiggins, Marzano—the heavy hitters of educational theory for the last twenty years seemingly ignored.

Milton Hershey School teaches a valuable lesson.  Theories don’t work unless children feel safe and secure in their home environment.  MHS doesn’t need Teachers College or Bank Street to tell them what to do.  As long as the home environment is monitored and nurtured, it doesn’t matter what pedagogy or curriculum design you use.

To say Milton Hershey School is a success story is a severe understatement.  According to MHS, 90% of their graduates go on to some form of higher education.  MHS graduates have gone on to become CEOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, even high ranking officers in our armed forces.  I also had the pleasure of meeting some MHS students at the screening.  If these kids came from troubled homes, it sure didn’t show.  The alumni assembled look like a gathering of Ivy League swells: there’s not even a hint that these successful people were once in desperate situations.

The biggest concern is that the fruits of the MHS experiment seem lost on the grand poobahs of education.  To them, the opposite is true: the teacher makes the student, regardless of their background.  Simply train the teacher better in the newest theories—not necessarily the best ones—and that teacher can work miracles.  This is the thinking behind a lot of the methods coming out of the large schools of education.

What’s more frightening is that the wrong people, the people in power, take these theories seriously.

Public school teachers must deal with children as they come, with whatever baggage they take from their home life.  As such, teachers have to adjust their practice in order to connect to children that see the school as the only real form of structure in their life.  This is where the theories come in: it places the onus on the teacher almost exclusively since it is assumed nothing is provided at home.  The public school does not have the luxury of altering the environment of children as MHS does. 

Yet if the MHS experiment shows the value of a stable home life, regardless of the academic theories or methods used in the classroom, shouldn’t there be some effort on the part of school districts to help smooth out the rough edges of these kids’ lives?

The MHS experience shows how environment matters.  Districts across America should use this example and reach out more to families and homes–and work with teachers as a partner, not as miracle workers.  Many community programs exist that help parents to become successful along with their children.  These programs provide a huge help in changing what in many public schools is another intangible obstacle. 

Milton Hershey School is a place that’s going in the right direction.  More administrators in this country should take its example–and less from the academics who seem to go in every direction.

For more information about the school, visit http://www.mhs-pa.org

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This Day in History 7/8: The “Black Ships”: The 1853-54 expedition of Matthew Perry

It is a term still used in Japan today.  “Black Ships” refers to any threat to Japanese culture from Western technology.  Yet without the original “black ships” of 1853, we would not enjoy our Hondas, Nintendos or Sonys.  It took a pudgy naval officer to bring Japan into the modern world–kicking and screaming.

To understand the reluctance, you must understand Japan.  This was a place that literally was “closed for renovations” for centuries.   For approximately 250 years, the Tokugawa shogunate, the dynasty of military rulers that held de facto rule on the islands, decided to sever almost all ties with the outside world.  After centuries of internal strife and outside interference by missionaries, traders and Chinese invasions, Japan decided to close up shop so it can get its act together. 

It allowed one port, Nagasaki, and one Western country, the Netherlands, to trade with Japan.  This suited the Japanese well: the Dutch wanted no part of colonizing Japan, Japan had no need for the Dutch spreading Calvinism and personal freedoms to the island.  Although other influences were able to sneak in here and there, particularly in relations with China, Japan would be in relative isolation for the next two and a half centuries.

Yet sometimes the renovations take too long.  It was time for Japan to open up shop.

The Dutch knew it, as they sent a letter in 1844 to the Japanese asking to open up trade.  The Americans knew it, too, as they sent unsuccessful missions to Japan in 1837, 1846 and 1849.  There was also technology to consider: a lot has changed in 250 years, especially in warfare.  The Japanese army and navy was woefully underdeveloped to withstand any conflict with a Western power, let alone an all-out war.

So on July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry (No relation to the Friends actor, by the way) sailed into the Uraga harbor near Edo, now Tokyo to present a letter by President Millard Fillmore issuing terms for a treaty.  The Japanese government told him to head to Nagasaki, as that’s where the trading post is.  Perry was having none of it, insisting on delivering his message and returning for a reply. 

The Japanese have fended off these attempts before.  Yet the business end of an 18-pounder, multiplied by several hundred, makes anybody whistle a different tune–especially if your capital city is made of mostly wooden buildings.  Since these fearsome warships were pitched with tar to keep them watertight, they were referred to as the “Black ships”.  The Japanese had no choice but to receive his message and consider a response.

Perry returned in February of 1854.  He heard that the Japanese treaty would satisfy all American demands, but Perry was sure to hedge his bets.  So he brought twice as many frigates as before, to make sure the Japanese keep their end of the deal. On March 31, 1854, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed, allowing US ships to trade in Japanese ports and the establishment of US diplomatic relations with the Japanese government.  Perry came home a hero in 1855, only to drink himself to death in 1858. 

Although the approach was a bit heavy-handed, Perry’s expedition became a watershed in world history.  Japan, long isolated from the world, now had access to Western ideas, technology and military might.  It would cause major internal conflicts, culminating in the removal of the shogunate in 1867 and the establishment of a semi-constitutional monarchy.  In Japan’s hunger for new things, however, they managed to step on a lot of toes–let’s not forget World War II.  Yet in the modern age, Japan has become a technological, financial and industrial power in full openness with the international system.

The fear of the “black ships” always remains, however.  Japan is a society that struggles to maintain its own distinct culture in the overwhelming onslaught of technological innovation–mostly its own doing.  It is a struggle many societies face in the 21st Century, as streams of communication reduce or obliterate the barriers that made Japanese isolation such an enduring institution.

Come September, the fear of “black ships” and the cross-connections of cultures is definitely a theme to build on with your students.  How do we reconcile our own cultural identity with the modern world? 

Or, at the very least, stress that those Sony Playstations and Nintendo DS systems didn’t just spring from the Earth by themselves.

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Why Hypocrisy is the greatest danger in Education.

We’ve all heard the line before: “Do as I say, not as I do.” In education, this comes up more often than we realize.

How often do we see this scenario: A teacher is covering a lesson with the class when a student curses at another. The teacher admonishes the student about the use of bad language. Once in the teacher’s lounge, however, that same teacher will swear like a sailor–often with children in earshot of his/her salty tongue.

This is among the more mundane examples, but it can quickly spiral into other matters more substantive. I cannot stand how education programs stress to new teachers the need for complete impartiality in all instruction. This is impossible. Let a robot teach the class, and maybe it will be impartial–yet someone had to write the material for the robot.

So we’re reduced to saying one thing in class and believing something else. With my students, it was always more beneficial to express my opinions out in the open, as long as I make clear they are just my opinions. Kids respect honesty, even if they are often dishonest with themselves or other adults.  If you start lying to them now, they will either (a) mindlessly listen to every word you say, or (b) not trust anyone for anything.  This doesn’t make for an informed citizenry. 

Hypocrisy is the main focus today, as I reflect on one of my favorite artists.  One of the most influential singer/songwriters of the 1960s was Phil Ochs.  Unlike so many of the 1960s political-esque artists who wouldn’t attend an antiwar rally unless from inside their Ferrari, Ochs was a true believer.  Even though I disagree with many of his political views, I respect and admire someone who makes their opinions clear without the “base alloy of hypocrisy”, as Abraham Lincoln stated.

Below is an updated version of his classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, along with a video. It was re-written by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and psychobilly pioneer Mojo Nixon to reflect the late 1990’s-early 2000’s.  Even if you don’t agree with these guys–and I don’t, not always–appreciate that they, like so many educators, strive to cut through the hypocrisy to be as honest as possible. 

We should all be mindful of how our words and actions are conveyed to children.  REGARDLESS of our own political viewpoint.

“Love Me, I’m a Liberal” – Original lyrics by Phil Ochs, adapted by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon

I cried when they shot John Lennon
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when I saw “JFK”
As though I’d lost a father of mine

But Malcolm X and Ice-T had it coming
They got what they asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I go to pro-choice rallies
Recycle my cans and jars
I’ll honk if you love the Dead
Hope those funny grunge bands become stars

But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I cheered when Clinton was chosen
My faith in the system reborn
I’ll do anything to save our schools
If my taxes ain’t too much more

And I love blacks and gays and Latinos
As long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Rush Limbaugh and the L.A.P.D.
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand where they’re at
Arsenio should set them straight

But if Neigborhood Watch doesn’t know you
I hope the cops take your name
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Yeh, I read the New Republic(an)
Rolling Stone and Mother Jones too
If I vote it’s a Democrat
With a sensible economy view

But when it comes to terrorist Arabs
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Once I was young and had an attitude
Stickers covered the car I drove in
Even went on some direct actions
When there weren’t rent-a-cops to be seen

Ah, but now I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

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