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Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Subverting Myself

I’ve been thinking about ways to subvert the systems of public education that have more to do with managing kids and producing test scores than with authentic learning. The best way to subvert public education might be to build collaborative relationships with students in pursuit of the knowledge, skills, and understandings they want to learn – through the production of the projects, portfolios, and performances they want to share.

Here are some of my favorite examples of how to do so, shared by schools, teachers, and a community organization I wholeheartedly recommend you follow in addition to the @CoopCatalyst crew. Adam Burk (@pushingupward) can share with you a bevy of exemplary authentic, joyful, student-centered, socially-just schools, as well. Consider each of these links a starting point for finding even more schools and educators sharing amazing learning opportunities with their students.

As I think about these educators, their students, and their practice, I turn over in my head, again and again, the questions we pose for ourselves here.

Can we educators let students lead us in learning? Can we buy in to a flat classroom? Can we avoid behaving towards students like the experts behind standardized education behave towards us?

In what kinds of communities do we want to work? How do we want our colleagues and leaders to treat us? How do we want to feel about what we do? How different do we imagine things are for our students?

All of these questions echo in my conscience thanks to my participation in this blog, but while I feel closer than ever to articulating and acting on just answers, I struggle with my role as a public educator.

Quite clearly, I have contracted myself to fulfill the duties assigned to me by my administrators and school board. I have agreed to a salary and benefits, and in return for that salary, I have accepted that I am expected to teach a curriculum, to address state standards through instruction, and to prepare kids to pass end-of-course Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Even as I’ve worked through the development of students’ self-directed work this year, I’ve helped students align their projects to reading and writing goals, and I’ve worked with my collaborators to establish, in class, stations directly related to our state curriculum and standards.

However, I think standardized tests and their supporting documents artificially cap learning. I think the testing schedule further superimposes grade-levels’ arbitrary pace on the idiosyncratic learning of individual students. I think the amount of time and money spent teaching test-taking strategies and trivial arcana robs struggling students of the time and human resources needed to further their literacy.

So what’s the career arc in public education for a teacher like me? An endless series of compromises? An uneasy acceptance of the “AND,” connecting authentic work back to state standards? A lateral, Praxis II-enabled move to a “non-core” subject? Do I stay in charter schools? Move to private schools? Re-enter the world of administration? See if they need any help in the Young Adult Lit section of the book store? Go write a book? A dissertation?

I’m not going anywhere. I’m committed to changing things from inside public education – and, at present, from inside a classroom. I just can’t stop asking myself these questions. By asking them, I ask myself “who am I?” as a teacher. What do I communicate about teaching and learning to my students and their parents? To my coworkers and leaders?

Am I a subverter? Am I ready to own that label? What does it mean for me? For my students? For my family?

I feel tremendously supported by my school and division in my work with non-traditional students and curriculum at our chartered middle school, one of only three in Virginia. It’s our state’s only chartered middle school and, currently, its only start-up charter school. However, dealing with the uncertainties of students’ lives and our division’s budget, I can’t help but wonder, ultimately, what share of our success will be attributed to failing forward, and what share will be awarded to having good test scores? From where does our viability come? From trying to create a school culture of artistic expression, life-long literacy, and innovative teaching and learning? From test results? Or from the “AND” – we’re an arts-infused, literacy focused school for non-traditional learners AND we get good test results?

From where does my worth come from as a teacher? By virtue of my behavior, to whom do I seem most beholden? How coercive is whose approval to me?

Who says it’s enough for a school to reconnect disengaged kids with learning, despite their test scores? Who says it’s enough for a school to help a child make up several years of reading even though he or she doesn’t pass a grade-level test? Who says it’s enough for a school to keep kids safely in the classroom by favoring counseling over suspension?

Several people say it. Am I one of them?

Where in my job description does it say that?

What am I afraid of, and for how long do I teach from a place of fear?

More frighteningly, when we do well on the tests this year, will I suddenly feel all better?

I’m going to continue to develop and implement classrooms structures for self-directed learning and take on personal responsibility for better communication with parents. I’m going to keep on lightening up and sharing teaching and learning with kids. There aren’t any easy, comfortable, or unambiguous answers to my questions, so I won’t hazard any here. I will say that I’m beginning to think that the opposite of burn-out isn’t contentedness; rather it’s a constant cognitive dissonance and the desire to do everything instead of one thing or nothing.

For me, it comes down to this:

Am I this kid?

Or this one?

What do I want for them both?

How do I have to subvert myself to make that happen?


About Chad Sansing

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


8 thoughts on “Subverting Myself

  1. Love the title Chad! Too often, it is in fact ourselves that holds us back. And even when we are progressive, we are a part of a cohort that might not be.

    I believe there is a kind of professional subversion and that we must hold our heads high in knowing that sometimes doing the right thing appears to be breaking the rules.

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 19, 2010, 5:33 pm
    • Thanks, Joe. I would love to see more school systems make it explicitly clear to their communities and in their cultures that there’s room for “subverters” in classrooms. “Change agency” ought to be a look for in employee evaluations.

      It would be easier to have more honest conversations about beliefs and practice across teacher teams if dissonance was valued as a prompt for exploration and a resource for professional development.

      What do you want to hear administrators say about subverting the status quo in schools?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 19, 2010, 7:51 pm
  2. Chad,

    I love this post! This is Sparta! I will elaborate in my post tomorrow, but I really think that all these constraints as you put them are natural reverberations. Culturally we have been living unhealthy lifestyles for centuries now. All our systems are degenerating-ecologically and culturally. In the past year Goldman Sachs’ profited billions of dollars by putting millions of people out of their homes, their jobs, and into bankruptcy. The U.S. government is suing them in a civil suit. This means no one will go to jail no one will called out for their egregious immoral behavior. But the government may merely cash in on their piece of the pie. This is Madness! (Bonus Point!)

    You ask a great series of questions beginning with “who says its enough.” I am saying that none of those things are enough. Education reform is not enough. The only answer to all the problems ahead of us is cultivation of character, not test scores, not GPA’s, not salaries, but virtue. We live in a wayward world quickly drifting towards chaos we can’t even imagine. Our lifeline is the one thing we all have the power to change–our selves.

    So your question is absolutely the right one,”how do I subvert myself?” This acknowledges that each of us is a player in the problems encircling the planet.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 19, 2010, 6:42 pm
    • Adam, I keep thinking about poor alignment between our schools and culture on the one hand, and our hopes for children and the future on the other. You’re right – no one change to policy or practice will ensure for future generations a peaceful and whole life and planet.

      And surely it’s time to separate self-assessment from grading and scoring. We need honest and caring conversations about moving students’ learning forward without asking them to imagine how a teacher would judge their work against an arbitrary scale. Authentic feedback and honest talk that’s not compromised by the rhetoric of coercion are THIS IS SPARTA! vital to modeling good character, personal accountability, and growth in learning relationships.

      Considering the primacy of teachers and students’ selves in enacting and sustaining change in education, is it better to wait for people to find their inner subverters, or can you imagine a productive way to push people to change more quickly in education?

      Yours in THIS IS MADNESS!,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 19, 2010, 8:03 pm
  3. Chad,

    One of the books from a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away was Teaching as a Subversive Activity,, which was a must read in my college ed classes. It was current events in the 70s but now part of historical reading in education.

    Great teachers have always worked outside the box to figure out how to make sense of the boxes we have built and labeled as classooms in schools. Whether at the Community Charter or a “just regular” (whatever regular means) middle school, teachers in public schools who make a difference for learners and learning, and not just students and testing, do so by creating spaces where learners engage, create, think, explore, and aspire and where teachers are passionate, protective, and inspiring. We have lived in a 20th century accountability 1.0 model of achievement testing with little real shift in learners’ performance- just heard the Sec. of Ed say on national tv this weekend that we need to get out of “the bubble” sheet business. So, hang in there and help work towards the change we all (mostly) believe in.

    I believe that if you subvert to the side of passion, protection, and inspiration and young people are caught up in challenging work of interest, they will be successful by any measure. You couldn’t ask for a more open space in which to do that work than at CC!

    Posted by Pam | April 19, 2010, 8:07 pm
    • I agree wholeheartedly. It’s amazing to have this opportunity. I’m not sure I’d be able to examine my own beliefs and question myself so thoroughly without it, though surely I would have tried 😉

      I’m just starting to include students in unpacking standards on which to concentrate, especially in history. I wonder if one way to customize curriculum is to train our kids as “framework advisors” selecting their own power standards to pursue as passions and narratives of learning throughout their academic careers.

      Subverting to the side of aspiration,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 19, 2010, 9:10 pm
  4. THIS IS SPARTA! Yeah Chad! Love that, love those students–gotta jump over there and get into that discussion. Because I wrestle with many of the same dilemmas you raise in this post: where do we put our energy, personally and politically, and WHO AM I as a political actor based on those choices, this is a very resonant set of thinkings, subversions Chad. In my life at this moment I’m so about the meaning of individual acts of activism, of the ways we can light up our colleagues and perhaps even more importantly our students’ thinkings and objectings to the system through our own protests. I guess my underlying belief is that a freer and more open mind is the basis for real transformation of this institution (my own, and my students’), and that through small acts of objection, envisioning, and questioning, I am working on that problem. It doesn’t sound very grand, but I think that’s where the real work lies?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 21, 2010, 8:00 am
  5. Now we need the “I would prefer not to write ‘THIS IS SPARTA!'” FB group.

    Thanks for the comment, Kirsten. I had a great conversation about school recently with someone outside the school. I’m going to work next on taking more responsibility for having conversations like that one throughout the course of a normal school day with my colleagues. I need to shift from worrying about how those conversations might go (fruitless), and to concentrate instead on celebrating what students’ are learning through inquiry and authentic learning, with facilitation, rather than management, from us teachers.

    Maybe I should suggest a weekly “unmeeting” solely about students’ sparkling moments with learning, or even see if there’s interest in a closed, whole-school blog or network for the sharing of great moments. Hmmmmmmmm.

    Trying to “light up” more learning,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 11:05 am

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