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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

The summer of our discontent

[This is a cross-post from Classroots.org, which is a blog about reforming classroom practice. Here the post is addressed to every community member invested in educational transformation, and whether or not there should be such a distinction or such a disclaimer as this are questions ripe for comment and debate.]

Storm-cloud by MrFenwick

Storm-cloud by MrFenwick

Transforming our schools will take a groundswell of local action rather than a downpour of educational-industrial reforms.

Moreover, transforming our schools will take teachers. However, this transformation isn’t one that comes from job security or better standards or blended learning. This transformation will come from one decision at a time made by one teacher at a time – by a teacher fed up with his or her frontline complicity with a broken system of public education that favors adult convenience over students’ learning and blame over resolution.

Our debate should not be about whether or not schools are broken based on test scores and poverty rates. Our debate should be about what we are willing to do, knowing, as we do, what is right for children, their learning, and motivation. We must focus on what we can do: we can decide to play defense and the spin the status quo, or we can individually change how we approach learning and our relationships with students and their work.

Look across our summer – to the start of the next school year – and experience its discontent.

  • Schools will still sort students and compartmentalize their time to prepare them to work in factories. Schools will still do the same thing to teachers.
  • Schools will still privilege standardized learning onsite over authentic learning elsewhere.
  • Schools will still punish kids more often than help them solve their problems.
  • Schools will still tell kids what to learn without ever seriously considering what kids could do if supported in their own pursuit of learning.
  • Schools will still be more concerned with keeping kids out of control than with sharing stewardship of our society with them and transferring that stewardship to them.
  • Schools will still lag behind every other sector in innovation – and schools will still look to education businesses – instead of to profoundly good business practices – in “adopting solutions” for learning “needs” without considering the broader picture of our teach-by-numbers school culture and the painful relationships it engenders.

#EdReform and its money never sleep, so if we want to change public education, neither can we. Forget our contracts and their number of days. Forget the stereotype of the lazy teacher. Forget the categorically herring-red conversations our leaders want us to have about the politics and funding of education.

Take action in a different direction this summer and seriously consider what you can do to hack your classroom into a place where students love learning and the community you build together.

Specifically:

  1. Get political about learning. Participate in the Save Our Schools March. Meet with your administrators and school board members to share with them your vision of education and how it differs powerfully from what your federal, state, and corporate “leaders” expect of you and your students. Meet with your Congressional representatives and share with them the classroom impact of their wanton cuts of national education programs that work. Offer to co-write a bill that would re-fund a worthy program facing the axe. Build peer networks online and off to share the burden of educating politicians and business leaders about what schools could be if we held them accountable for excellent inquiry- and project-based work of lasting benefit to their communities. When you write with your kids at summer school or next year, write about education and publish on your blog or a collaborative one, anonymously or not. Help people understand what teaching and learning could be in our public schools so that the societal opportunity cost of continued high-stakes schooling becomes as clear to them as our budget crises are. Help our leaders, schools, and communities see the academic, democratic, and entrepreneurial value in incubating real innovation in public schools.
  2. Get reflective about your practice. Whom are your reaching? Whom are you not reaching? Whom are you keeping in the room? Whom are you sending out? Who enjoys class? Who doesn’t? With whom is it easy to form relationships in your classroom? With whom is it difficult? What have you tried? What haven’t you tried? What are the patterns? What more can you dare? How many weeks or months of hard work are you willing to invest in a class to reach the point where it all works? What do you believe about kids? Inquiry? Project-based learning? Games? Writing? Standards? Testing? What is teaching? What is learning? Under which conditions do they work best? How well do your beliefs align with your practice? What would you be doing with your students if you weren’t doing what the system asks of you, and how can you exploit the system’s loopholes to do more of that? What are you afraid of and how can you work past it? How complicit are you in power struggles and are they the right ones to be having? What have you asked of your colleagues and supervisors, and what are you willing to do if they say, “no?” What would it take in terms of space, culture, and differentiation to make your classroom a joyous place for learning for you and all your kids? What baby steps can you take to make that happen? Start a journal or help us all by sharing your gut-check on a blog. Partner with a colleague to challenge one another safely. Partner with the third teacher to start a little educational apocalypse.
  3. Get moving on alternatives. The purest purpose of any alternative education program is to reach the kids who seem unreachable by traditional means – including reward and punishment. It does not matter what you call it – an alternative school, a charter school, a magnet school, a school-within-a-school, a small school, a specialty center. Pick the label most likely to appeal to your school board. Identify a student need you think you and a few hand-picked colleagues could fulfill. Research best practices in meeting that need – and be prepared to argue for the philosophically best practices that no one has paid a researcher to support. Write a plan. File an application. Garner community support. Do the leg work required to open a new place for joyful and personally meaningful learning by 2015. If you can’t imagine opening such a place in your school system, imagine opening it someplace else. If you can’t imagine finding pre-existing support for such a risk, start a new professional organization or non-profit to support it. Become a school starter.

There is no glorious fall for public schools on the horizon, but we can decide to radically re-shape the microclimates of our classrooms and start terraforming schools one by one, one classroom at a time.

If we attend to the relationships between us and our students, between our classrooms and our learning, and between our students and what we ask of them, then our willingness and collective power to change education for the better will become self-evident, rather than locked away in committee.

And that is it.

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “The summer of our discontent

  1. Chad, This is stirring and comprehensive and straightforward, and about action. Right on. I applaud you and I think this sets a great marching tone for our summer.

    Question now. I am constantly in conversations with folks these days, people who have been at reform and transformation for decades, who have begun to feel that the main action, the principle opportunities for DISRUPTION OF THE DYSFUNCTIONAL MONOPOLY of public schooling you describe very well in this post, is in aggressive action from the outside, creating viable other alternatives to the school in the neighborhood, the city, down the street. This is, as was noted by Jamie Steckhart in the comment below, exactly what happened to the last group of reformers from an earlier era, folks like John Holt and Ivan Illich who concluded that the system itself was unredeemable and the best course of action was to go outside.

    What are the consequences of going outside of public schools? The last group of reformers strategically marginalized themselves, and also lost their voices on the mainstream stage. On the other hand, many would argue that the tools of the internet and social media are a force of disruption themselves, and allow many alternative voices and exemplars to be magnified and amplified, to have real impact in the discourse today.

    And equally important to me, what’s holding you in school, personally and strategically?

    What’s your game plan?

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 2, 2011, 8:53 am
  2. I spent some time talking over your questions with my servant leadership mentor today, Kirsten. Your questions deserve frequent revisitation, but I’ll begin addressing them here.

    At the maker level, I would like to start and work in a public democratic school, or to help steward an existing school culture into a democratic one. I’d like to do this by 2015, but that might be an unrealistic goal depending on the other responsibilities to which I attend.

    At the disruptor level, I would like to see the National Writing Project re-funded and championed by the federal government as an example of the great things that happen when federal money is returned to local sites for teacher training and student writing and achievement. I would like to see a “union” that only lobbies for individual bargaining rights and legislation empowering humane/non-wounding/sane education, authentic learning, and schools that are held accountable for excellent work as measured by a sampling of juried student portfolios. I would like to see such legislation passed at the state, if not federal, level. I would like to help build an immense online community around educational advocacy that hits over 50% member participation in each of its initiatives. One stone might kill several birds here. I want to be in public education when public education finally gets ahead of the curve of time separating the shore of the future from the sunken depths of the past.

    I think the system does little to change minds, but I think that if we change minds at the local level, we can change the system. This is hard work. I feel more competent as an organizer of like-minded folk than as a leader of people with disparate notions of teaching and learning – how that translates into changing minds, I don’t know. Maybe it will be a start to help connect people ready to think about and act on the promise of authentic education in public school classrooms.

    If I was competent to approach the system from outside or on a tangent, as an academic or author or competitor or consultant (or, gasp, vendor!) to effect the changes I want to see, I might be more tempted to step outside my classroom and blogging platforms, but I feel like right now I am figuring out how to make more inquiry-, project-, and game-driven education work in public schools in a way that satisfies an increasingly large pool of stakeholders. So here I am.

    So the strategy is make education more healthy and democratic for everyone involved. The tactics include experimenting and publishing on how we teach and learn, the publication of thought experiments in educational systems design, and agitation, organization, and political action through social media.

    It’s not the best portfolio I can think of, but it’s one I’m happy to exercise.

    What thoughts come to mind?

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 2, 2011, 8:34 pm
    • This is powerful to me. I am mulling. This is essentially a personal strategy that echoes a larger strategy suggested by IDEA: multiple points of engagement, build power at the local level, suggest to folks that they are important individual actors, move people to move wherever and whenever possible.

      More thinking. Passing on to others.

      Kirsten

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 3, 2011, 8:52 am
  3. Excellent post! I love your energy, but find myself in a very low spot and as a result do not see much to be hopeful about at this time. It seems that money and politics wield a very effective tool pushing the “big lie.”

    How will we retain teachers when they no longer let us teach? I am celebrating my 20th year in alternative education, and I find the road very dark and disturbing. It isn’t because I lost the passion nor have I sunken into complacency of routine. Last term I spent over 30 days out in the field with students. I feel I am still pushing the envelope after all these years with a wellspring of new concepts and experience I want to create for students and teachers. Yet, the forces arrayed against us are coordinated, articulate and have leverage the public to believe everything we know in our hearts, harms kids.

    I am beginning to feel like John Holt in his later years. I have railed against the tide so long that it seems that many good people have fought and fought only to succumb to the waves. When I read him, it seems he got tired of fighting the organization. It may be that the only way to create the “schools our children deserve” is to “teach our own”.

    As you stated in your post the school year comes to an end and at NWPHS we have moved 40 students through to graduation, but we will end the summer having to justify our existence to continue to serve in the fall. Never before have I felt so attacked from so many sides.

    I want the word accountability to mean that we are accountable to our families and kids we serve, not the machine scored test. I want high quality to mean whether our children come back to our school with hope in their eyes rather than the look of apathy. I want public trust to mean that our parents choose to send their kids to our schools because they trust us to help their children learn not because it is their only option for cheap daycare. I want people who have not spent significant time in a classroom to shut the f*&% up or to at least pick up a book, plan an experiential activity to help those who have been helped the least.

    We few, we proud alt ed few. We fight from defensive positions, is it possible to turn the tide and fight from the offensive. Because the current reform indoctrination is offensive to me.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | June 3, 2011, 8:36 am
    • Jamie, I think it is up to the rest of us – those who have spent time norming kids and ourselves in the mainstream – to break away from the pack and join the kinds of work you, your colleagues, and your students share.

      I don’t know that we will turn the ship or stem the tide or tear down the walls, but I do know that by following examples like yours I now stand with you while I once stood with them.

      If we can get those folks you mention to talk with us instead of at or above us, then schools will benefit. I’m not above a little shouting to get those conversations started, and I know that you aren’t either. So I am, if you will, proceeding from your place of strength and the strength of progressives working before me.

      Within the law, we, regretfully, don’t have the power to decide what happens to schools such as ours. We do have the power to articulate what our students do and to do everything we can to make sure everyone knows what our leaders are throwing away when they come after our kids and the ways that they learn best.

      So thank you –
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 3, 2011, 1:45 pm
  4. Just as a side note: Last night’s graduation was incredible. In the past we have had “featured speakers”. Two years ago we went away from that practice and have nominated three graduates to do the talking. Our students delivered a very powerful message.

    When driving home with two colleagues, we talked about assessment and could honestly say that 80-90% of the grads could have delivered a speech at commencement just as good as the three chosen. We know this because our school requires our grads to present many times before they graduate.

    We ended the ceremony with a video staff produced of images collected of the grads during their time at our school.

    Picture the scene; the grads are sitting off to the side in cap and gowns. From where they are sitting, they will not be able to clearly see the film. So unprompted they jumped from their chairs and crowded on the floor in front of the stage like kindergarteners at a school assembly.

    At that moment they rediscovered the joy of childhood knowing they would soon walk into the world as adults. Hopefully the greatest lesson they learned at our school was the ability to access this joy. This joy of fun, of silly games, of whimsy; hopefully this nugget will sustain them on the rest of their journey.

    These are the moments that make my struggles seem worthwhile. It is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Link to his TED talk: http://bit.ly/kNTJQF) describes a peak experience. Those fleeting moments where everything else is quiet but that one thing, and in that one moment all was right with the world.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | June 3, 2011, 9:07 am
  5. GReat post and interesting comments; I wonder if the end of a school year prompts such self-reflection, or if it allows a “year at a glance” and a little extra time to consider the necessary vision required to move forward.
    I have what I would call a democratic classroom, and have been working toward better and better instances of democracy in my literature classroom. But I have not heard of a “democratic school”. Is this a movement? I found your post true of private education as well – whether in private or public ed we need to ask what is teaching and what is learning, reassessing it weekly.

    Posted by pradlfan | June 3, 2011, 9:21 am
    • Thank you for your comment, P -

      Democratic education is a type of schooling embodied by Sudbury schools, democratic schools, and free schools. I often look to the Brooklyn Free School as an example. In essence, kids in multi-age school houses determine what they will learn individually or in groups from one another, teachers, or outside experts, and adults facilitate that learning. Everyone, including students and sometimes parents, gets a vote in high-level school decision-making, such as hiring, and teachers share operational administrative burdens.

      I try to be reflective throughout the year and often write about my work, successes, misgivings, and wranglings. I thought I would post a call for action over the summer to invite people to rethink the rhythm of our professional year – I don’t know that there is time for rest, but there is room for a different kind of reflective, focusing, and political work during the summer. We can individually assess whether or not the price of doing that work is worth paying, just as we can individually assess the price of not doing such work at all.

      Yours in democratic education,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 3, 2011, 1:38 pm
  6. How kind you are!
    Thanks for your generous replies to our comments. One can only imagine that if the decision-makers at every school were aware of how teachers such as you (and, I hope, me)invest similar time and encouragement in their students and colleagues, with the sort of responses to their work which encourage and invite further reflection, they would consider such methods essential to teaching and learning.
    You are right – I cannot envision a time of rest from action during the summer, any more than I can imagine being a teacher who just shows up for the pay check. Maybe it will allow a more focused time and attention to those details that seldom receive my full attention during the school year. It helps to have a call to action such as you have sounded.
    I will look into the democratic and open school movement you defined. It sounds very familiar.

    Posted by pradlfan | June 4, 2011, 7:41 pm

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