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How To Find A Zebra

At The Grauer School, we continually refine a mastery learning policy, one of the most valuable student experiences and one of the hardest for any school to implement: our students set their own levels for achievement. You want to be on the honor roll? Let’s hear what you believe to be honorable, you set the level. It is research-based and transformational if implemented as intended. If students overestimate or underestimate their skills, quietly, they learn that. They may need to work harder or else shift their priorities. I love that. All the while, they are developing an accurate self-concept and clear aspirations.

The problem comes when someone, usually a parent, tells the student what their expectations “should” be. “You should set your mastery learning level to 90, Jimmy, you’re smart,” I heard a mom say. As if the reason Jimmy “should” strive for a 90 is because his mother thinks he should. No question: “should” is the enemy. 

Sometimes it seems parents will do almost anything to assure the high performance of their child…as if education were an end-product, a purchase.

We’re lost and at last it is irrefutable. That’s the good news. Good news, since admitting how lost we are is our only chance to find a way.  

Grauer 7th Grade students on a nature hike - March 12, 2019

The predetermined goals some families, students and teachers make for themselves are my enemy. I declared war on this obsession for predetermined goals 28 years ago, the school is founded on that principle, and I am not winning the war, as anyone could see this week when the scandal busted out. I am trying to contain my rage. The college-admissions scandal—in which fifty people have been indicted for scheming and lying to get the children of wealthy parents into top schools—is more than cocktail chatter:  there are parents so crazed that their kids get into “the right colleges” that they would pay any amount of money to get them in fraudulently. These are parents so controlling and pathetic they would photoshop their children’s faces onto the bodies of outstanding young athletes. 

Here, it will be easy to misunderstand the source of my rage. I’m not enraged, much less surprised, that egotistical parents and university officials are frauds—that’s not the problem. The problem is that our entire education system is a scam: a process of replacing a legitimate coming of age with sets of predetermined, other people’s goals that our children are duped into holding as a personal gold standard. That’s not education—though it might be winning.

Educators and parents are prescribing an end-product for our kids, it is called “college rank,” and it is destroying the process of discovery. Parents and educators are insisting that their own kids SHOULD (millennials tell me that all-caps is for shouting) make their own way—that is, so long as your way is ranked enough to hold up at cocktail parties, and so long as “their own way” is not a year sailing or touring with the band, or enrollment in a sustainable farming program or a  community college, or some other weird calling that does not play well to our egos. (Warning: I once counseled a student looking for what to do next with his life to be a poet in the gutter—the parents were not amused.)

Grauer 7th grade student Cooper B. '24 examining an insect with English teacher Paige Prindle - March 12, 2019

Last weekend, at the 14th Annual Brain Injury Rehabilitation Conference, in The Thomas Chippendale Memorial Lecture, I learned how, with catastrophic illness or injury, terrible as it is, people develop new agency. Profound transformation occurs during catastrophe. Catastrophe brings out some of the best in people: in extreme situations you start worrying about the tribe, the collective, as we saw in Hurricane Katrina. I’m obviously not in favor of catastrophic illness or hurricanes. But I am not in favor of sanitizing or controlling the lives of our kids, either; that’s a catastrophe, too.

Teens who are told what grades to earn, what college to go to, what person to marry, and what to major in, are not finding their way. They are finding somebody else’s way. Students’ families who purchase achievements for them they could not qualify to earn on their own are dealt a mean blow, though only some will know it. But why should this cause such anger and frustration on my part?  Reason: We have steered way out straight into an epidemic in anxiety that our communities could never have even dreamed up, and it is brain injuring education.  

At the brain injury conference, key note author-adventurer and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit, was reminding me how therapeutic life is on the road. Life is real, and uncertain. And: She was reminding me how living in certainty is often the same as living in anxiety. It is uncertainty that drives us, engages us in real life. It uncertainty that draws the essential out of us and that burnishes the character. Uncertainty is the lab where courage is conjured up.

Courageous kids are taught that if you run from the things that frighten you, they’ll follow you, until you take control of your emotional response to them. Real teachers teach that and I want The Grauer School to teach it, always. Grauer school legend Trevor Olson takes preppy kids who rarely walk off of pavement far down the Baja wilderness and puts them out to swim with whales, then he takes courses with them as they get hunting licenses, and takes them out to hunt pigs and fowl. When they return home, ragged and real. When we dispense with controlled definitions of “success” in education, we can develop courageous, high integrity kids.

Grauer 7th grader Gillian C. '24 investigating insects on a nature hike - March 12, 2019

But, for the most part, we are not raising courageous kids, and the only reason this failure is not obvious is because we don’t even think about it, don’t even value it. I did a study of this and found that courage is a core value in approximately zero percent of all schools. We are too busy raising anxious kids, spectators, tightly under our controls and safe goals. We are too busy talking about “excellence.” Add to these controls the insidious, anxiety provoking externalities the rising generation can only stand by and observe in a state of victimhood: climate chaos, plastic taking over the seas, techno-catatonia. Mass extinction is the great American spectator sport—we love watching it on TV and Facebooking it. Education is a spectator sport, conducted almost entirely in a chair. These trends are impacting student subconsciousness and peace of mind. Students grow up not knowing the difference between artificial turf and earth—let this be our prevailing metaphor as caveat. 21-25% of teens today have had anxiety diagnoses but many more report it, undiagnosed—in a nationwide study, 61% said they suffer from “overwhelming anxiety”. [1]

Anxious kids are taught that if you hear the sound of hooves, you must think “horses.” Safe odds. Greta Sundberg, a student from Stockholm, went on strike because she said her elders were doing nothing about climate change. She was practically alone at first, but people eventually heard the hooves. And they weren’t horses. Just this past January 30,000 students walked out of classes for climate change. Greta is a 15-year-old. She heard zebra. Greta has now been a speaker at Davos and the United Nations, and she would be a perfect candidate for The Grauer School's “Highest School Honors,” our Annual Resourcefulness Award.

I follow the young people staging walkouts, setting their own levels for mastery, writing proposals, and embracing the unmeasurable. If we are willing to watch our children move towards what others cringe from or avoid, and express their agency like Greta, we can be teachers again. Full catastrophe teachers.

The Grauer School is a zebra by design. We are untamable, though there will never be a time people are not attempting to “fix” that. We belong outdoors. We try not to blame kids for being victims of the fear gripping them, the fear that seizes control of their lives and their educational outcomes. We’re not going to blame the victims, our teens, because the right thing to do is to blame ourselves. Today’s anxious kids are our victims, too, because we play along too much, and the latest, big college bribe scandal is the best evidence we could ever get:  the crooked rules of the game…  here is the path you “should” take. 

Grauer 7th grader Zander B. '24 on a nature hike - March 12, 2019

We’ve stood and watched it unfold, watched the college system gaming, watched the fear and anxiety and not spoken up. We’ve watched the smart money turn youth and education into a lonely and immoral contest. When I consider all the things that caused me to found a school years ago, all the problems and pathologies and fears, all those things are getting worse. 

I will close with a poem for our teens:

Listen and Learn

I will listen to your concerns
About all that life will throw at you
The ups and downs
Troubles swirling around, like clouds

Hold on tight
Withstand the storms of life
To gain strength and wisdom
Listen and learn

            —Sandy Swallow, Lakota/Northern Cheyenne


[1] American College Health Association, 2017 survey.


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