There is a gulf between what we know works (projects, passion, personal initiative) and what is mandated (rigorous testing, uniform presentation, threats). This is like the disconnect we all recognize with someone saying the beating they’ve just delivered was out of love, for the kid’s own good, because the victim made them do it. It certainly feels that way as a teacher. Kids tell me it feels that way to them, too.
I listen to Sugata Mitra exhorting TED audiences to build a school in the “cloud” and I know that is how we should be teaching. I know that the best teaching I’ve done is using my role as coach to help kids form their own questions and discover their own answers. In a class that was reading Tarzan we had research projects going on parasites, Peace Corps, sign language, transatlantic currents, language acquisition, the British Raj. The list was as varied as the twenty students in the class. Some found experts to consult with in the school. Others started correspondence with folks at research facilities in local universities. We worked on good questions, formulating a research plan, selecting materials and modes for good presentations.
Did I worry about the Common Core while we were doing this? Nope. Not at all.
Why not? Because there was no need. The Common Core asks three things of students – at least in English Language Arts: Read widely and critically, write so others can understand you and be compelled by what you say, and communicate clearly using a variety of modes. Everyone in the class knew that is what we were about. We all realized that it would happen, because you can’t approach a written work, in the way we were doing it, without learning those skills.
Start ignoring the exhortations of government policy makers. I never worried about everyone being on the same page skill-wise. It was not necessary for them to wait for each other to catch up. I recognized that there would be clumps of students in each class who were in the same ball park skill-wise. As long as everyone, myself included, was learning something then we were good. We came out of each day moving forward. Students helped each other. There were regular conversations about progress, resources, web sites, people to talk with. We used this approach with The Moon Is Down and Pigs In Heaven as well. Then switched to articles of students’ choice from a set of books I had scrounged that dealt with travel and adventure, since the course was “Travel and Adventure Literature.” These were primarily from the “Best American” series, but also from some “On the Edge” essay collections. They demonstrated what they had learned in terms of critical reading, writing, and presentations. Because young people also need to learn how to work in groups and negotiate as part of learning “argument,” in groups of three of four, they also had to present their collection of essays in a bound form with cover, linking language, and persuasion.
This was my model for teaching anything. I did it with Science Fiction, World Lit, American Lit, Poetry. You name it. Everyone had to try out strategies during the common reading phase of the course. No one could use Google as a reference – although they were all encouraged to use Google, among other search tools and document repositories, to find references. We learned that citations were more about provenance of thought than plagiarism. They learned how to scaffold their own work. And they all had choice. They learned to relate a wide variety of topics, to things they were interested in.
I did not learn to do this in any education class I took. I learned it from a pair of marvelous American Studies teachers I shared a wall with. And I learned it in a leadership class in Business School. There is a continuum of leadership from tight, think Master Sergeant, to loose, think research facility with hundreds of people working on their own projects.
The tight leader is good for situations and subordinates who shouldn’t (or can’t) think independently, where there needs to be a uniformity of product, and where the unexpected can result in demise. (Doesn’t this sound like what a lot of administrative imposition on teachers is like? Hmmm?)
The loose leader is good when problems need to be solved, where learning and work are organic, and where success is determined by an ability to change and adapt according to both external and internal influences.
Here’s the catch. The tight leader needs to be right, and know the answer all the time. The loose leader needs to have a vision, but realizes that there is more than one path for achieving that vision. The tight leader needs to be in charge. The loose leader needs to be vulnerable and be a roll model for questioning. A loose leader needs to be able to keep people on track. A tight leader keeps them on task.
There is an impossible dream to get the brightest and best into teaching. Why impossible? Because bright creative people are messy, they tolerate chaos, and understand that innovation needs a little mayhem to be productive. This is exceedingly irksome for administrators, both school and government, who are being “held accountable” by a public that wants safety. Independent, deep thinking, creative teachers can’t tolerate the tight leadership style many principals, superintendents, and Commissioners of Education fall back on.
There is a scene in Catch 22 in which Lt. Scheisskopf floats the idea for the perfect marching man. The solution is bolts through the thighs and hands to keep soldiers’ body parts in alignment. The follies in this are legion, but one of Scheisskopf’s soldiers is exactly what it feels like to be a thinking teacher in a US public school. It is, of course, the Catch 22 of education. The ranks of teaching are swelling with, new, untried, unsure teachers, many of whom lack gravitas simply because they are young, who need to be supervised as they gain experience. But because administrators are looking for cookie cutter solutions, they treat their seasoned teachers the same way. Equal is not always just and appropriate. In the same way students need to be treated according to where there are in terms of skills and capacity, so do teachers.
This drive to standardize is applied to both teachers and students. The third thing I would change (and this is the last for now) has to do with school attendance. Students, we all know, learn best when they arrive at school prepared to work. Setting aside, for the moment, the questions of nutrition, sleep, and safe housing, Some kids, no matter how much choice they have in research topics, reading material, or alternate ways of expressing themselves, are not developmentally ready to learn with a focus that will get them successfully through high school without driving their teachers nuts, and distracting other students who are ready to explore the realms of knowledge.
Many of these kids who are un-ready as freshmen or sophomores drop out. If they return to school during what would be their senior year, the amazing thing is that they are able to accomplish not only graduation requirements, but make up any deficit they had incurred during their first two years struggling to be academic, and often surpass their colleagues who stuck with it and stayed in school. Others who stay and struggle seem to suddenly wake up near the end of their junior year, and have a fabulous terminal year, graduating with a plan for their post-secondary education solidly intact. I call them Awakened Seniors, or Pop Corn Kids for the way they seem to explode with learning and direction.
I would offer a hiatus to kids like this. It should be easy for them to participate in a work-study program, or even to join the workforce and serve as a laborer or apprentice for a few years. I know there is adult education with the possibility of a GED available as an alternative. There is, however, value for these students in becoming role models and leaders, and immersing themselves in an academic setting. There is also value for younger students in in seeing how a person approaches education when they have a specific goal in mind. Internships and school-to-work programs answer part of this need, but some kids need to be removed from academics completely. I have found older students who return to school more polite, more driven, and less inclined to put up with the malarkey a traditional student tends to hand out. The door needs to be left open.
Students would have a right to four years of free public secondary education, in a school, until the age of 25. For some this might mean at last getting the basic skills they missed during their time of disengagement from school. For others, however, it could mean an opportunity to finish the formal secondary curriculum and take advantage of early college courses allowed high school students. In a school filled with tight leaders, teachers who are forced to teach a regimented program of learning, having students at widely differing maturity levels would be difficult if not impossible. But in a school filled with teachers whose focus is on thinking, communicating, and learning, who want to help their students make discoveries, this sort of flexibility is a natural next step.
The big change we need to see, the one I dream of, is to refocus on learning. Give students choice in the things that matter to them. The basics, literacy and math skills, can be acquired doing just about anything. Teaching kids how to apply those skills in a variety of ways that stretch their understanding of the world, and their capacity to influence it should come naturally. If we want a system that will help our youth do their best, it needs to also be one that does not constrict teachers from their best. Most of us in education, students or teachers, benefit from the free swinging stride of learning, not the lock-step gate of a soldier, marching off to conquer quadratics or the subjunctive.