Monthly Archives: September 2012

Another Vote For a New Schooling

This article from an interesting site called Mind/Shift came to me through the network.  Nothing particularly new here if you are already in the choir, but Tina Barseghian offers a clear-eyed look at some of Madeline Levine’s ideas and a promising path to a better model for schooling. You might guess that I don’t think it goes far enough. We have to rethink the purpose of education in current times in order to know how to revise it. If the purpose has changed, then simply making the system better at doing what it always meant to do won’t do. It is also true that our best schools are already doing these things – not all to the same degree or with the same success – but the point is made: the pace of change in schools in the main is glacial.

The photo is by Elizabeth Albert.  The article by Tina Barseghian.

Student Internships & Real World Experience

A student came to me the other day.  She was in tears.  Something had just happened in Spanish class that really threw her.

“I have to drop Spanish,” she said.  “I can’t go back there.”

“Tell me what’s going on.”  I pushed a box of tissues within reach.

We talked at length.  We talked through what had happened that afternoon in class and how we would handle it.  And then our conversation turned to larger concerns and she told of me of her ongoing frustration.  She wasn’t learning what she wanted to learn and it hurt because she loves the language, but she felt that her time was being wasted in this advanced class that focused on literature and the technical aspects of the language.

“I don’t want to read science fiction in Spanish,” she explained.  “I want to speak it.  I want to speak Spanish to Spanish speaking people.  I want to be able to go to a Spanish speaking country and live there and meet the people.”

It was easy to feel her frustration with a curriculum that simply wasn’t meeting her needs, wasn’t igniting her passion for Spanish.  And yet, that’s what this level of Spanish was all about.  It wasn’t a problem with the class; it was just a bad match for her interests – and she was serious about her interests.

We talked through possibilities.  Could she stick it out?  Would it be different in a different class?  Could she take a different kind of Spanish class at a community college?

How about volunteering with a local social service non-profit in place of her Spanish class?  Her eyes lit up.

In the following few days we talked to many different people.  Her parents were excited, supportive, and nervous because what we were contemplating represented an atypical path through school.  College Counseling was not against it – the important thing was to be able to talk about it on a college application and to tell a compelling story about the decision to drop Spanish.  The Academic Office was doubtful because it was more or less unprecidented and our program is not set up to allow lots of students to do the same.  The Service Learning Coordinator was thrilled.

“Oh yeah,” she said.  “Four things come immediately to mind.”

My student, with the help of her parents, generated a list of interests.  How would she like to spend her time learning, and what did she want to get out of this experience?  Then, she and the Service Learning Coordinator came up with a list of eight possibilities.  Eight local organizations who were looking for volunteers.  Eight opportunities to use her Spanish to help people.  I was amazed, and we are still waiting to hear what comes of the contacts, but to think that a week ago she was in tears of frustration because of not learning what she felt was relevant and today she is looking forward to the possibility of volunteering with a Spanish speaking non profit is eye-opening.

I met with her late in the week for an update.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“I am nervous.  I don’t want this to be a bad decision.”

I tried to help her see that in this case she was in control, that whether this turned out to be a good decision or a bad one depended on her, her initiative, her drive, her approach, her follow though; it was up to her.  And I would be there to help.

The moment has stuck with me.  I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps for the first time, this student was faced with an unpredictable outcome.  It might work and it might not.  But the moment seemed real.  Neither she nor I knew what would happen, but we knew what it depended on.  That, too, is the live encounter.

The next morning, as my student was filling out a form, I overheard her talking to a friend.

“I heard you might be picking up an internship,” her friend said.  “That sounds so cool.  I’m so jealous.”

And then I started to think.

Finding One’s Way – A Teacher’s Intuition and the New Schooling

Some truths are born in the bones.   I mean you can’t get away from them.  You stray at times, temporarily convinced by specious reasoning that your intuition is unreliable – just a feeling and not a way of knowing – but the truth, your truth, the particular way in which all of your sensibilities come together to make sense of the world is always there.  And you know it when you feel it.  It comes back to you – or you stumble back upon it after being away – with a familiarity that feels like returning.

Much of my career in education has been spent contemplating the value of intuition.  In my practice I have weaved in and out of alignment with it, on and off the path, losing it and then finding it again when the time was right and forces – courage, invitation, autonomy, support – coalesced to make an opening wide enough for me to slip through.  A colleague of mine calls it finding the seam.  William Stafford writes there is a thread you follow.  Same idea, different words.

In teaching, there are forces and circumstances that make it difficult at times to follow your intuition and honor the truth that is carried in the bones.  And I understand them; I am not advocating anarchy in education or absolute autonomy.  It is true that as institutions schools have identity, direction, purpose, and values, and it is right that they pursue those.  To function well and with integrity, schools need to be able to hire and retain teachers who believe in and value the credo.  When there isn’t a mutually beneficial alignment of values between the individual and the institution, the individual should be let go.

What I am advocating is the habit of mind that assumes that people do not make negative decisions – that the fundamental endeavor of all people is to improve their condition, and that people perform at their best when the truth they carry in their bones is honored by the work they do and the life they live.

This idea has deep implications for professional development in schools and the for the way a school regards its teachers.  I have never met a teacher who came to work in the morning having decided to be “bad”, “ineffective”, or “not a team player”.  In fact, all teachers come to work in the morning hoping to honor the truth they carry.

That is not to say that all teachers are great or that no teacher should ever be fired, let go, or counseled out of the profession.  Quite the opposite.  If schools truly and deeply engage with the work of connecting teachers with the truth they carry and if they take a vested interest in helping teachers find their way in the institution’s transparent credo, then we would see far less conflict (Chicago teacher’s strike?), far greater alignment (Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap?), and far greater frequency of what we tend to call “great teachers.”

Because greatness, however we define it, is facilitated and nurtured when a one finds oneself at the confluence of purpose, ability, and belief.  It is about fit and alignment, self-knowledge and credo.  Sir Ken Robinson, in his clarifying book, The Element, says that your element is the place where the things you love to do and the things you are good at come together (Robinson 8).  It’s “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion” (Robinson 21).

The only thing I would add to that is a sense of purpose, which I define as pursuit of a cause greater than the self.  And, of course, there are some teachers for whom the teaching profession is not a strong fit, but that is the case with any profession.  The point is, it is about fit.

Imagine the change in education if schools took it as a mission to connect teachers with their truth, to be transparent about their credo, and to explore  the alignment between the two.  Think of the implications for professional development, faculty-administration rapport, trust, collaboration, teamwork, innovation, and student learning.

I am a believer in 21st Century Skills for students, but I am a proponent of a new model of education for all, because we won’t change education simply by teaching different skills.  Everything has to be reworked – Teachers, Students, Curriculum, Learning, Purpose, Program, Outcome.  Let’s get to it.