How do we act as catalysts of change within our present circumstances?”
I’m worried about getting a rep for being too patsy over here at this discussion, so I want to say first that I’m all about acting up and making trouble. I had a conversation with Herb Kohl recently (someone who is a mentor to me, served on my doctoral committee and is stilly mighty fiery and clear thinking well into his 70s) ). Herb said,
If you’re not causing trouble you’re not working on the right problems.
So with this in mind, I am a catalyst of change by acting on my deep-seated beliefs about learning and students, and ACTING UP and SPEAKING OUT about these beliefs in my work in schools.
For me, in Aaron’s words from his post this week, this means, “Sitting and having lengthy conversations with your students and with recalcitrant staff members who frequently want no part of what you have to say. It means allowing for yourself to be a target of scrutiny and backchannel discussions. It means putting yourself in the spotlight of the school and bringing those same recalcitrant teachers into it with you. Most importantly, it means not doing it half-assed.”
Not doing it half-assed (I am certainly generously-assed), can mean getting into a lot of trouble, because many of my deep seated beliefs about students and teaching and learning appear to be in opposition to the modal culture of American schools.
For instance, I truly do believe…
1. People (students, babies, grandparents, middle-aged commuters) love to learn, and learning–even difficult learning–is natural. It’s just that in school we make it so choiceless, painful, unreal, and boring. I’m not sure that the majority of teachers I meet believe that learning is pleasurable. (See the success of Daniel Willingham’s tiresome book, for instance.) Many teachers certainly don’t’ act this way when they talk about their students and their curricular arrangements–how to “get” (trick) students into learning; complaining about them when they don’t enthusiastically comply with silly, boring assignments; getting angry with them if they don’t act like they love school. (An act which is mostly, in my view, about making adults feel good about their jobs.)
If you are not a powerful learner yourself, and do not very often experience pleasure in learning, then how can you “teach” someone else to experience its pleasures? On what do you draw? Where is your own practice? A brilliant superintendent I worked with once summarized this very well. The superintendent was arguing for firing a teacher and she noted about the teacher’s practice, “The teacher isn’t a reader. If you’re not a reader, you’re not going to be able to teach other people to love reading.” There you go. That’s it.
So when teachers complain about students and their learning underperformance, I ask, what practice are you (adult) demonstrating yourself around engaged learning? Could your students model their academic and intellectual habits on you?
2. Don’t blame kids for not liking school. If you caged up my body, made me exist every day on a fragmenting, uncontrollable schedule, subjected me to mountains of low-level and meaningless work, and then assessed my “abilities” based on cursory, superficial tests, I wouldn’t like the institution much either. Yet this is the daily reality of school life for many, many kids in school.
So when teachers complain about kids being so unmotivated (again, see Aaron’s post), I say we’ve got to ask: does student disengagement, lack of motivation, and underperformance reflect something real about the institution itself, rather than some nefarious plot to undermine adult wishes and desires?
3. The most important people in the school building are students. Their needs, their concerns, their desires, their lives should be what drives the institution. It should be student biorhythms that determine school schedules, their intellectual profiles that create its learning climates and activities, their feedback needs that form its assessments. Yet what I see are educational institutions largely designed around the needs of adults, around taking care of adults, and adult needs for predictability, order, measurability, quantifiability, compliance.
Why? Are our priorities in the right place when we think about reforming and reframing schools? What would an organization genuinely designed to foster the learning of students look like, for this particular group of children or young adults? Is this the question on the table, in this district, in this school?
4. Many of the ways school seemingly “has to be” are wrongheaded and counterproductive, but when you’re in the institution for too long it’s hard to see this. Question everything.
So how do you live those ideals, and ask these questions, and still stay in the game of improving mainstream American public school?
To be neither half assed, nor an asshole. That’s the question I’m in every day.
How are you living your ideals? How counter-cultural are they? How far are you willing to go to be effective?