I got to participate in some beautiful and difficult conversations in and around Albemarle County’s 2010 Making Connections conference today (#acpsmc2010). Each conversation, in its own way, was about the disjunct between what we’re asked to do and what we’re asked to do.
Mary Beth asked, “Who’s the boss?” I suspect that there is no boss, just traditions and compliance inadequately examined.
In his session on liberating technologies, Ira Socol (@irasocol) explained the ambitions of Henry Barnard, the 19th Century father of the industrial-era school. Barnard, according to Ira, wanted to create a school system that assimilated Irish-Catholic children into the menial roles of industrio-Protestant shift work. Ira shared some great ideas about how to subvert this structure through allowing children meaningful choice amongst the tools best suited for their learning and learning preferences. Ira asked a great 1:1 question: why are students expected to use the same computers – moreover, why are schools dependent on the single technology of the book? He also posited a great multiple-choice question thought-experiment concerning drama midterms, which highlighted the obvious tension between teaching students how to do something and teaching students how to answer questions about it. “Where was Shakespeare from?”, asked Ira. One of the possible answers was Tennessee, which I imagine to be the distractor for kids who have heard of Tennessee Williams, but never performed his work.
After that, I participated in an open house for my own school. I think the conversation there between our faculty and our guests really captured the soul of our school and what we do to re-engage kids with learning. I came to the realization that we don’t rush through three years of middle school; we approach relationships and learning over the course of one, long school year that takes up three calendar years. That kind of time-dilation is risky for teachers assessed annually. It was notable in Virginia to see that our session was attended by arts teachers, alternative educators, and elementary teachers. I’m interested in secondary core teachers’ takes on their choices not to attend.
Then I reconnected with friends. I wonder how much of our lives and selves we keep out of our teaching. Self-expression is at a premium for students and teachers in American public schools (which, I suppose, is how you limit others’ voices). The more we’re asked to control – or the more we want to control – the more controlled we must be. I’m for accountability, but I’m frustrated that our American public education system doesn’t look at model standards and models of accountability from other countries that do a better job of balancing freedom and accountability for teachers, students, and schools alike. It’s not like the “technology” of authenticity, inquiry, and choice doesn’t exist to create more meaningful education, schools, and evaluation for all of our kids and their teachers.
I left the conference feeling as I often feel: all dressed up with nowhere to go. I do work in a division that is generous in its willingness to experiment with differentiated approaches to instruction, grading, and reporting. I know that the interventions we develop and purchase are meant to help kids learn. Nevertheless, I remain confused as ever about which session to attend: the one about subverting tradition or the one about using Embiggening Reading daily?
Which brings me back to my contention: there is no boss. It’s tradition all the way down to the 1840s. Stick your neck out and another tradition is gonna fall on it unless a neck above you is already stuck out, but then how can you scale up?
Kids don’t deserve to be silenced or met with silence when they ask, “Why?” Neither do teachers.
I don’t feel silenced; I think it’s great that my division’s leaders put together a day so full of cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, I question.
What do you want to ask today? What conversations are overdue?
A better question: it’s 2010; what do you want to make of your work? What conversations are you willing to have in pursuit of that ideal? What discussions about your practice are you willing to have in return for discussions about the system?
Somewhere last night the zombified corpse of Henry Barnard sat with the spectre of Sputnik and the ghost of standardized testing future. It may have been in the teachers’ lunchroom. They were toasting one another on the aether of lag indicators – to which none of us can catch up – and getting drunk. Somebody needs to take away their keys to the school, but there might not be a boss to do it, at least not alone.
After all, there were four Ghostbusters (PG-13 language). Now there’s a study in tradition, innovation, a solution in search of a problem that exposes a problem in need of solution, collaboration, and the real, gooey cost of authentic change.