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.
- Shelly Blake-Plock
- Darah Bonham
- Shawn Cornally
- John Hunter
- Jerrid Kruse
- Laura Oldham
- Matt Townsley
- The Corbett Charter school
- The Manhattan Free School
- Murray High School
- The Music Resource Center
- The New Country School
- Quest High School
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:
What do I want for them both?
How do I have to subvert myself to make that happen?