Monday, April 13, 2015

Interview with educator and writer D.A. Russell

D.A. Russell is here today to talk about and give us a glimpse into his book, Lifting the Curtain: The Disgrace We Call Urban High School Education, 2nd Edition.

D. A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools that is the subject of Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and has his master’s degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent. Russell has a passion for children that dominates his life. He has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in Russell’s view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world.

He is a contributor for education matters to the Huffington Post, and runs a personal blog at: dedicated to letting teachers’ voices be heard in the real problems with education.

Welcome, D.A. Please tell us about your current release.
Lifting the Curtain is the result of three years of research, including interviews with hundreds of teachers and students, to identify the real issues that have stolen a good education from a generation of children. Today’s discussion of a failed education system always seems to be based upon the false mantra that education is failing because of “…bad funding, bad unions, bad children, and bad teachers.” From outside the classroom it certainly can appear that way. Only if we lift the curtain and let people see beyond the school entryway is there hope of real change.

LTC was written from what both Kirkus and Clarion praise as “…an impassioned look at the shortcomings of public education, from the perspective of an inner-city high school teacher,” and as Margo Dill cited in her review “…his passion for getting to the root of the problem and helping teenagers is all over these pages.” It includes dozens of passages written by teachers nationwide, includes the survey results from three years of research, and benefits from thousands of posts and emails from teachers and parents.

What inspired you to write this book?
Four years ago I was listening to my favorite talk show on Boston radio when one of the hosts made a joke about the latest fiasco in education: “…to fix education, just shoot all the teachers.” A light bulb went on for me. I realized that if someone that insightful and intelligent could miss what is really happening in schools, then we would never be able to fix education. I started designing the research project, and writing the book that very night.

Below are summaries from a few of the chapters in the book:
Systemic Failure #7: The untouchables – Parents and Teacher Unions
The problem with discussing the contribution of these two groups to systemic failures in education is that they are untouchable in any practical manner. It is hard to see what can be done to directly (there are indirect options) influence the minority of parents whose actions (or inaction) hurt the education of their own children. And the difficulties with changing union approaches to education are well known, and would be a topic that could fill three more books.

Systemic Failure #8: Rewards unrelated to performance
The final systemic failure in education is that the vital cause-and-effect relationship between an employee’s rewards, and their performance, does not exist for teachers. Worse, the only significant differentiator in pay between two teachers in the same position is that one might be receiving special assignments (coaching, club leaders, etc.) because of blatant cronyism in administration’s assignment of those duties.

The solution – Surprise! There is one, and it is not more money!

The final chapter in Lifting the Curtain is a set of twelve practical and achievable solutions to the systemic failure of urban education. All will be strongly contested by those with vested interests in the current system, and who profit from the terrible education we are providing our children. Expect loud opposition from bureaucrats whose jobs depend upon churning out ever more useless and harmful mandates, the "clique" of cronies who abuse the system, and a minority of parents who want to just see Johnny "pass" whether or not he actually learns anything.

And the surprise of all is that these initiatives will reduce education costs rather than just throw more money at the failed policies that have destroyed urban education for our children.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am simply a classroom high school math teacher, with a passion for children, who is deeply frustrated about how we have failed today’s school children. I was in high tech management for years until 9/11 destroyed my business. Rather than retire, I made the decision to chase a dream I had put aside decades earlier to become a teacher. I wish I had been a teacher from day one!

Other than that, I have two children, and four granddaughters. I’m a Dartmouth honors graduate, master’s degree from the Simon School, a decorated Vietnam vet, and a FIFA gold medalist as goalie for the 2000 world champion over-50 soccer team.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Sleeplessness! I am cursed by one of those brains (at least the three remaining functioning marbles) that seems to come up with the most powerful ideas and concepts during the night. I wake up with an idea and simply have to write it down. I started with a pad of paper at bedside, but that was a complete fail – I’d wake in the morning to find a line something like “…haxe Grenoble dg the sneeasm!!!!!” It’s very frustrating knowing you lost out on a five-exclamation idea based upon something called a sneeasm.

So I finally gave in and started to get up and head to the computer. I have a folder on my desktop called “Ideas in the night.” It has worked well, and I’ve not had a single sneeasm since I started with it.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
By far the most valuable thing I can share with new authors is that there are far more scammers than helpers out there ready to promise you fame and fortune, take your money, and deliver nothing.

I spent a great deal of time looking at publishing and marketing options. My first publisher (for a fiction book I wrote a few years ago) seemed good in all regards, yet turned out to be far from that. I recall getting a phone call from an “excited” agent of the company who felt, after reading my book, that it was so good he wanted to include it in a national advertisement for just $800. There were only two problems with the offer. First of all, I had not sent in the text of the book yet, so his ability to read a book that did not exist was somewhat suspect. Second, I managed to find prior examples of the ad, and discovered they were completely about promoting their publishing and marketing services to new authors, and my inclusion was a ½ inch cover thumbnail at the bottom of the ad along with a dozen other covers.

There are so many contests you can enter that I had to route them to my junk mail filter after a while.

Finally, scam marketers and publicists are all over the web. Caveat emptor is the word of the day. Many simply mass email a prĂ©cis you write to dozens of mistargeted sites. The whole process takes them about five minutes, and has nothing to do with the customization and “personal contacts” that were promised.

Now, cynicism aside, there really are good helpers and sites out there! They are just hard to find, and limited. It has taken me 3-4 years to find a handful of excellent ones. You can find them too – just don’t buy the snake oil.


Thanks, D.A. Readers, you can find out more about D.A. as he does a virtual book tour with WOW-Women on Writing by visiting other tour stops.

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