I’m posting a little late, and I’m sorry. I was out this evening giving a talk on pleasure in learning. I’d love your comments.
I’ve spent time on the blog today reading around and I’m blown away by how thoughtful and deep-thinking people gathered here are. In fact, people are so passionate and deep-thinking that it is hard to respond to every post fully. There is so much in each one! Yikes! Do I talk to Paula first, or Adam, or Aaron or Chad? As a reader, I think, you’re tempted to respond to the last thing in the post, or jump to make a comment after reading someone’s first paragraph, just so you can hold onto to that thought that rose up like a phoenix after Sentence #2.
Does anyone else feel this way?
So I’m going to try being really simple here. I’m going to try to blog about TWO THOUGHTS, with the implied understanding that we all know that we have MANY thoughts, and that there is much that fills our hearts with passion! I’m interested in getting pretty fine-grained in this conversation here (Paula, see my question to you about how you subvert testing and standards and pacing guides around powerful learning in YOUR classroom); I want to learn from everyone explicitly. This is harder for me to do when everyone has so much to say.
Our prompt for this week is: How can each of us do more with less, in our individual educational realms? How do we make our voices most effectively heard, given the things we care about, and the state of the educational reform discourse?
1) First, I want to question whether we are really in an era of educational scarcity. From a federal and state point of view, never have more dollars flowed to the educational sector and never have more reform-minded folks been talking and thinking and working on HOW WE CHANGE THIS BABY and make it respond better to the needs of learners. Where is the less, and how do we name that? What “less” matters most? What privations are we talking about?
2) Second, at the risk of sounding unconscionable optimistic, I believe that all of our individual acts of activism matter, wherever they occur. In urban Boston, I work with teachers and school leaders in a middle school that is chronically dysfunctional. Teachers are poorly educated and under supervised. School leaders are involved in emotional triangulation with each other and focus too little on the well being of the school and its students. In this setting, students have been acculturated to intense boredom and routinization, and to an implicit bargain: they will be asked to do little, as long as they don’t act up too much. For them school is a necessary but uncompelling routine for the day—like driving at 35 mph in cruise control—not very difficult, without much meaning, disconnected from most emotional or developmental realities, a genial show. Not surprisingly, given the correspondence principle of education (you get educated for the capitalist work you are to do based on your social class—95% of these students are poor, working class and of color), classroom work here is a lot like a minimum wage job: undemanding, uninteresting, repetitive, with little opportunity for advancement. Beyond the fact that its students will be grotesquely under prepared to go on to high school after graduating from this school (we know statistically that they will be most likely to drop out in 9th grade, when they make the transition to high school), these students are being acculturated to chronic boredom and a lack of meaning around learning. School isn’t about anything very important, so you can give it half (or less) or your attention and still get by pretty much just fine. Students in this school are incredibly friendly, easy to engage in conversation, filled with light, energy, and passion as soon as you get them in something that they want to talk about. But mostly they move silently, listlessly from class to class, punching the clock of instruction and eagerly waiting for the day to be over. No wonder they are likely to drop out in high school.
What have I decided to do about the dilemmas I see, working in the American educational system everyday? How do I resolve these awful conundrums for myself, someone who has been trained up to see, moment to moment, that participating in our educational system can be diminishing and punishing—and also economically critical? That education can (and sometimes does) offer the means of liberation and the scaffolding for criticality, while at the same time also actively reproduces inequality, internalized oppression, and deep personal displacement? That people are both lost and found in school?
I have worked, and I am working, to make these dilemmas more explicit. I try to write, teach, and speak specifically about practices in school that I think harm students every day, and not practice them myself. I try to counsel individuals and school systems with whom I consult to be aware of the consequences of their actions, that what they say to students, and how they construct learning, really matters. That education is “soul crafting,” as Cornel West says.
I am radical, and radically critical, and yet I am also trying to learn to be forbearing, to be humble. I believe that the system of education we currently have in our country needs to be taken down to the ground and rebuilt, and that students and teachers need much, much greater choice and control in the systems in which they are forcibly educated. I encourage student activism, and acting up—everywhere. But at the same time I am patient. I know people are afraid, they find it hard to conceive of something else, some other way of doing education; they think it is “a lot of trouble to remake our educational system,”as someone recently said to me. For about a decade I studied the thinking and careers of deschoolers who have come before this generation: John Holt, Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman—and note the disillusionment and withdrawal they ultimately experienced around reform of the system. They opted out—ultimately left altogether, concluded it couldn’t be done. Recollecting John Holt at the end of his life, George Dennison described driving around New England with John Holt on a driving tour. Holt was gravely ill and dying of cancer; Dennison was at the wheel. Holt looked out the car window at some picture of New England natural beauty and said, “It’s all so beautiful. If only they wouldn’t mess it up.”
I don’t want to get to that point. I don’t want to believe that I see something in the world that other people don’t, because I think that means one has essentially disconnected, or held oneself above other, poor deluded people who can’t perceive the same things that I do. I think that’s fundamentally a mistake. As daunting as it is to stay engaged with the educational system, I think we all participate in the same systems, we all support them or have been influenced by them in some way or another, and we all bear ongoing responsibility for doing something about them, even if the work is messy, upsetting, very slow going, two steps backward for every forward step.
So every time I have a powerful conversation with a student in a classroom, every time I see the fire in the eyes of sixth graders, every time I experience how a teacher or administrator can grow and become more kind, more wise, more interesting in their classroom arrangements, I am refreshed by the quickening heart of the world. My impatience, my own sense of overwhelm, my wish for the system to be different are the weapons I must use, I must harness in the work, to stay with it and just keep on going. “After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends,” wrote Wallace Stevens. That’s what I’m going with.
Last Friday I was working in a school in southern Massachusetts. I was observing a fifth grade classroom. The teacher called all students to the rug to talk about the posters they had made of pioneer life–all but 3 students. The remaining 3–do I even need to say this–were students with IEPs. They had to stay behind at their desks, to “finish their work.” So I think to myself: if I can convince this teacher that it matters more that she include those 3 students on the rug than that they finish their work, this may be a small but perhaps meaningful victory.
Small acts of activism matter. I hope. What do the rest of you think?