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Learning at its Best

Please Don’t Be a Decemberist

I don’t like the Decemberists. I’m geeky. I love books. Yes, I understand their varied allusions to obscure literary figures. And yet, I can’t stand their music. Instead of allowing knowledge to be a gateway to understanding, they use it to form a gated community, with a big invisible sign reading, “If you’re enough of a geeky trendy hipster, you get to enjoy our tunes.”
I like indie bands that remain indie, not because they are so elusive, but because they refuse to conform. I love storytellers that recognize the democracy of humanity; who manage to avoid talking down to their listeners while avoiding pretentious jargon. I don’t pretend it’s easy, but when it happens, it’s beautiful.

So, I’m at a professional development session. The speaker launches into a long PowerPoint explaining why he’s the most qualified, credentialed badass to show me how to differentiate my instruction. He offers his allusions to Marzano and Freire and even manages a decent out-of-context quote from Dewey.

He’s a Decemberist.

I don’t mind theory. I don’t mind scholarly journals. I’m geeky. I enjoy academic endeavors. However, if you want to reach me, don’t use your knowledge as a pretentious gated community that I can’t join. If you want me to grow as a teacher, you need to use your wisdom as a gateway. If you want me to listen to your story, tell it honestly, humbly and humanely.

Don’t talk down to me. Instead, reach out to me.

Don’t explain why you know everything. Instead, admit what you don’t know.

Don’t use advanced language to describe simple concepts. Instead, use common language to explain complex concepts.

Ditch the Decemberist approach and take a cue from Sufjan Stevens. Tell a story with grace and simplicity. Let your voice guide people humbly and teachers will be open to sustainable change.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


13 thoughts on “Please Don’t Be a Decemberist

  1. TOTALLY feel from “If you want me to grow as a teacher, you need to use your wisdom as…” all the way to the second to last sentence.

    The meaning is head on, and I enjoy your writing style… but why the decemberists? Maybe I haven’t listend to them in awhile, but loved their music 5 years ago. Literary. Smart. Goofy.

    But your point is 100% there… the best drummer in the world is shit for your band, if he can’t hear you jam. 🙂

    Posted by Brad Patterson | March 22, 2011, 4:23 pm
    • Perhaps I picked the wrong band to mention. I have a hunch many Coop readers are Decemberist fans and that’s totally fine. I don’t mind that they are literary or smart. I’ve never seen the goofy side of them, for that matter.

      Posted by johntspencer | March 23, 2011, 9:12 am
      • Glad to hear back from you. And as the chinese say: 萝卜白菜,各有所爱… radishes and cabbage, each has its lover… or “to each his own”… I’ve had friends try to convince me that “The Smiths” are the real thing… just can’t feel it myself. 🙂

        Saw the Decemberists live in 2005, at a large outdoor festival. Afterwards they just hopped off the stage and started chatting with folks. It was cool… that rather rare personal connection certainly left a soft spot in me heart. They also did their famous “whale sailor revenge” song on stage and it was muy muy goofy.

        Regardless, your ideas are right on. Cheers, b

        Posted by Brad Patterson | March 24, 2011, 4:17 pm
      • Never goofy. Well here’s my footage of them at Bristol. The Drummer is at the mike, the lead singer is at the drums.

        Posted by Warren Cooper | March 27, 2011, 7:49 am
  2. Hey John,

    I am going to have to disagree with you on your reference, but agree with your idea. I would argue the Decemberists are as geeky as they come, and actually argue they are not singing to a gate community, but created a world where it is cool to love history and write songs about books and architects. Though one may argue that most readers on this blog don’t know what you are referring to…or maybe they do…. and by the way while fans of both…Sujan Stevens is about as pretentious as they come or maybe he just doesn’t care and want to try different types of song writing etc…. though I am not sure they are so different… have you been to Sujan Stevens concert…. he does like to put on a show….

    Either way, I think knowledge alone is no longer the key to a great education. There is a strong hold, more so in College, than K-12, of knowledge based ego teaching…. I have the knowledge and you don’t, so listen to me and don’t think for yourself.

    This is changing so fast from a student perspective, have you seen the internet…. Yet a lot of people are have not moved out of the “expect” version of knowledge. Whole Generations of professionals, in every field, have made a living off of being the expert at something….of having all the knowledge that they could sell at workshops or books, even blogs.

    Now it is not so much about what you know, but how you can share that knowledge in a way that connects it to others in the way that creates more ideas, not just dollars signs.

    Music is often about taste, knowledge is often about power, but we need to start approaching education and learning as place to share ideas,understanding, wisdom, shared experiences and just the joy of debate and contrast.


    Posted by dloitz | March 22, 2011, 4:34 pm
  3. You might have a point with the Decemberists. Perhaps they are singing to themselves alone.

    However, I’ll have to respectfully disagree on Sufjan Stevens. His work is very accessible. Quirky, but certainly accessible. I think he tackles big ideas with a simplicity of language that you don’t get with the Decemberists.

    Posted by johntspencer | March 22, 2011, 4:54 pm
  4. Hey,
    I like the Decemberists, Sufjan, and Justin Bieber. Go figure. Each bring something quite different to the table. And I like choices. That used to be the mantra of my school. Now not so much. Education/what education means to those in the profession/those NOT in our world is evolving with more speed than actual thought. I, too, agree with your message – but, hey, Hazard of Love is as good a ballad as it gets : )
    Keep writing.

    Posted by Christine Becraft | March 22, 2011, 11:43 pm
  5. Would that we had more of their their audience, influence, and partnerships with charities like p:ear.

    John, I’m curious about your take on Freire and Dewey and appropriate ways to cite them and their influence on our shared work. I’m curious, for that matter, about what happens when a speaker introduces him- or herself as a Coöp member or author. How self-referential can we be? Your take?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2011, 5:58 am
    • I like when someone quotes Freire, but if you cite him, keep the social context there. Understand his role in adult education. Remember where he stands as a Marxist and a proponent of social justice. Don’t simply quote him just to show that you have a nice quote. If you are quoting Dewey, remember his contributions as a progressive educator.

      The man I’m referring to was quoting out of context and his tone was condescending and arrogant. That was my real issue with him.

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying you are a Coop author. I don’t typically mention it to people, but that’s partially because I am far less active in this group than others (rarely respond to the e-mails, don’t post or comment as often, etc.). There is nothing wrong with talking about who you are. Just be transparent. Include mistakes.

      Posted by johntspencer | March 23, 2011, 9:10 am
      • John just to note ….:) you are one of our most active authors like 5 most posts even more than mister burk if we are counting Chad has the most….even though you keep saying you are not involved… 🙂 I think you are a COOPer….

        quotes or not… arrogance and condescending tone is never fun to be around nor does it make for a good learning environment or learning engagement.

        That is when you get up and leave and say I can learn better on my own.


        Posted by dloitz | March 23, 2011, 11:58 am
      • John, I hope you enjoyed the videos, regardless.

        Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2011, 1:35 pm
    • I enjoyed the videos 🙂

      I’m still not won over as a Decemberist fan, though.

      Posted by johntspencer | March 23, 2011, 1:53 pm

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