Rewriting the Script of Schooling

Today I spent an hour at my daughter’s school watching five 5th grade classes do their orignal performances at an event titled “Expressions.”  For the last several weeks the students in each class have been spending their “specials” (meaning physical education, Spanish, music and art) on creating an original performance that incorporates these classes, which I think are called specials because they are not tested, which means they are nonessential.   From what the lead teacher told us, each of the five classes was given full artistic license to be creative,  the only constraint being the theme of a Puerto Rican Folk tale about frogs singing like birds.  They had worked on these by themselves, we were told, and that this performance was so the students to see watch each other’s creative expressions.

And then I sat, flabbergasted,  as five classes did almost exactly the same “original” performance.  Their costumes, advertised as orignal art, all looked the same.  Their lines were all the same, often mumbled with little feeling by listless students.   They all played the same drums the same way and stood in the same places.   As I sat watching the seemingly synchronized performances, I wondered if there had been one original script.  After two performances, I was bored. After five, catatonic.

Then I thought about what it must be like for the students to be told that they would have full creative licence, that they could own the project, only to find out that no, there was already a way to do it and lo and behold the teachers had already created it for them.  I thought that in many ways my sitting through that performance was what it was like for many students to sit through school, one big repetitive script played over and over and pawned off as creative and original.

And then we stood and clapped for the teachers who had put this together, for all of their hard work and dedication for making “this” happen- which to me looked like herding kids into the crushing corral of conformity.   I am not bashing teachers, because it goes far beyond them, as each of these teachers had to be accountable for how this project met the standards, down the fine print.  They had to know the script before the play began, because their superiors demand this in the form of objectives, lesson plans and bench marks.  And once the teachers are fenced in in terms of creativity, it is almost impossible for their students to do anything but what they did- aka same damn thing.

I am not sure where to go with this, in part because I am concerned about my daughter’s education.  I see hope at the Sustainability Workshop for a kind of education that really walks the talk in terms of pushing students to think out of the box, and then working to give them the skills to actually get out of the box.  I think the reason this works is because the teachers get out of the box.  They experiment, create, and push their practices in ways that they see as benefitting their students.  And then they learn from what happens.

This is what the Workshop is for us, the teachers and founders.   It is our attempt at writing our own script for school, one that allows students to do the same with their education.  It is anything but easy, but at least everyone (and I mean everyone) at the Workshop is engaged and committed to what they are doing.  They should be, because they are allowed to follow their interests, passions and questions.  Sure there are mistakes and false starts, but this is where the learning is for everyone- teachers and students alike.

Who We Are

Last week I was able to witness the students presenting their “Who Am I” Projects to their teachers and peers.   Students had been working on creating a past map and future map, and tasked with narrating the trajectory of their lives.  Standing in front of their new classmates, they told their stories, told who they are, who helped them get to where they are, and who they still hope to be.

Tears flowed as students talked of their struggles and payed homage to the people who have stoof behind them, such as parents, aunts, grandparents and siblings.   They showed pictures of families, pictures of when they were little, the countries they were from, the states they had lived in.  They showed  their support networks, their inspirations, hopes and dreams.  The students showed themselves to each other.

It takes a great deal of courage to stand up and share your life, your tragedies, hopes and dreams with a group that you have not known for long.  But students did it, and did it well.  The power of their words, stories and dreams filled the room, as we were all riveted to each speaker’s words.   When students shared painful chapters in their lives to the point where they could not go on, others students comforted them and helped them continue.  It was one of those days in school that one does not forget easily, a day when students tell and listen to each others’ truths in a deeply respectful way.

Something changed in the group dynamic after the students presented.  I could get a sense that everyone knew each other a little better, and trusted each other a little more.   The question of “Who Am I” helped bring about an increased sense of community, a sense of who we are.

While projects like this do not end in technological breakthroughs, new hybrid cars or startup companies, they do contribute to the creation of a caring and committed learning community.  They also allow for personal breakthroughs and for students to present on a subject very near and dear to them- themselves.  The projects create a culture of learning and respect necessary for students and teachers to, as they did last year, come to see each other as family.


How to Create Reform-Proof Schools

I have a friend who teaches AP Math courses at a good public high school here in Atlanta.   He has about fifteen years in the system and is, hands down, a good teacher.   I was talking to him last week about what has changed in his school over his time there, and he told me that it is getting harder to teach.  He told me that each year there seems to be more accountability initiatives reaching into his classroom, asking him to count this or document that.  Basically he said that it is getting harder for him to keep his head down and teach.

Still, he told me if he has learned one thing it is to just wait the new initiatives out, as most had a half life of about a year or so.   He had developed his own means to seal himself off from them and the chaos and uncertainty they often inflict on schools and classrooms.  He had firewalls up, but told me that it was getting harder to keep them up as all of the new accountability measures tried to make him more of an accountant than a teacher.  Worse yet, the things he was being told to do made no sense in his classroom or with his students.  They were often worse than ineffective, as they made things worse.

I was a pharmacist a long time ago, and if there was one thing I learned it was that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics led to bacterial resistance.  Using these powerful drugs willy-nilly or haphazardly gave the bugs a chance to build resistance to them, which has led to the evolution of superbugs that have developed resistance to all of our antibiotics.  It turns out that bacterium can even pass resistance to other bacterium, which means that over time many antibiotics become useless.

Ok, teachers are not germs and schools are not sick.  But the notion of reform as the ongoing treatment of schools with fixes that are poorly designed and implemented to the point of producing massive resistance is an apt metaphor for what is happening with teachers and schools.  In some ways this resistance has enabled them to survive the endless onslaught of reforms and change over the last fifteen years.  In other ways it has sealed them off from real change.

My friend knows a lot about teaching and learning.  He reads widely on it and the more he learns the harder it is for him to teach at his school.  One of the problems is that nobody asks or enlists him in the process of improving his school- or his practice.   That is left to others who supposedly know better, who get to tell teachers what to do.   This leaves my friend having to learn how to do otherwise and teach to the best of his ability.

I still cannot get over the amount of waste that this model creates in education.  Teachers spend more time fighting and trying to figure out the newest “bestest” approach that is always coming down the pike than actually learning from and with each other  about how to best teach their students.   After years of the same thing- endless yet ineffective change- the teachers begin to tire of it and, as my friend told me, from being treated like children.  It is no surprise why so many good teachers leave teaching.

At the Workshop an educational model was not imposed on us.  We designed it.  We drew from our experiences and the best research on teaching and learning.  We then implemented it and are learning in and from it.  We are all in.  If it had been imposed on us by the some new CEO, I am not sure it would have worked.   But we are all in, which means that we are invested in learning from our experiment how to educate students better.  We are not implementing someone else’s agenda, but rather realizing our own ideas.   There is no agenda or BS we have hide from or find ways to circumvent or resist.  Instead it is all about the learning.

And it is no accident or surprise that this is precisely what the students say they love about the Workshop.



School > Learning

After a dramatically successful first year, the million-dollar question for the Sustainability Workshop is how to scale “up.”  Scale is something I have always struggled with as an educator, probably because I believe schools can scale their way right out of real learning.  Somewhere on the way up ‘school’ surpasses learning, with the result being an institution focused more on meeting its own needs instead of those of the students.  Sometimes by scaling up learning gets scaled out.

Schools can scale their way right out of learning when they begin to bureaucratize, to create lots of paperwork, schedules, checklists and rules.  While these might all be justified institutionally, all too often the tools become the task, making school an endless series of forms, rosters and checked boxes.  What makes possible the efficient processing of students can make real learning all but impossible.

I was struck by Michael Clapper’s recent post about the joy of making plans that  the teachers actually knew they could implement during the coming year.  There is something powerful in the idea that teachers could come together and lay out their own plans for the upcoming year based on the kind of students they wanted to see graduate the following spring.  These teachers celebrated this situation because they have  worked in schools where they were profoundly disempowered, where the the best laid plans have had to be thrown by the wayside.  They relish the freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, and in many ways are embarking on their own experiment in education.  Having reflected on last year, they are making their plans based on what did and did not work.  Some of it will inevitably not to work out as planned this year, but that’s part of the beauty of the Workshop Model- teachers and students get to try out their ideas and learn from their mistakes.

Bear in mind that these teachers do not yet know the students who will walk into the Workshop in September.  The curriculum will need to remain a bit loose so that it can be tailored to -and by- the students.   This will happen as the teachers come to know their students and vice-versa.   Talking to the first Workshop graduates, I was particularly taken by their insistence that having the teachers in the trenches with them fostered a level of trust unheard of in schools.  They were all in it together, becoming what the students regularly referred to as a “family.”

Which brings me back to scale.  How does one scale up “family?”  Or for that matter trust?   How does one scale up learning by making lots of mistakes?  Why is there such a press to scale things up?

Maybe a better question is whether one should or even can scale up authentic education.  Maybe instead of looking for the next educational silver bullet to scale up we should be working on scaling down education, on shrinking school back down to the size where the word family can actually mean something,where the decisions about learning get made in the classroom and school, where teachers and students can stop pretending that learning happens in fifty-two minute periods.


Oil Pans and Education

In a previous post, Simon Hauger summed up the first year of the Sustainability Workshop by telling the story of his adventures of changing an oil pan on Michael Clapper’s 2001 Jetta Wagon.  The whole project ended up being anything but straightforward, as Micael and Simon struggled to remove the bolts and then, after learning that there was a special tool for this, ended up making their own tool to put the bolts back in.  The project was frustrating at times, took a lot longer than expected, and teetered on the edge of failure.   Simon ends by mentioning that despite all of this- or most likely because of it- the whole endeavor was extremely satisfying and fun.

Simon then left this gem of a challenge in the post:

“At this point I would like to say something smart about how this parallels teaching and learning but it’s the end of the school year and I’ve got nothing. I’ll count on you to come up with your own inspirational insight – please share it with me when you do.”

So I thought I might take a stab at this, as I think his story speaks volumes about the approach to teaching and learning that goes on at the Workshop.  Let me begin with learning.

First, Simon and Michael ran into problems while doing meaningful work, something they had a vested interest in completing.  I am sure going into it they did not think it would take two days or that they would end up making their own tool to get the bolts back in.  But they did, and they learned far more than they thought they would in the process.  As Matthew Crawford explains so well in Shop Class as Soulcraft, this kind of thoughtful tinkering is how people become good at things, developing an embodied expertise about to make, invent or fix things.  It is also how they get good at solving problems.  It is a process that relies on a peculiar admixture of perspiration, frustration and imagination, that often has its own built in indicators of success.  Either the pan holds oil or it does not, and it is hard not to smile when it does.

Most of us have been in this situation, even if not under the hood of a car.  We venture out into unknown territory, run into problems, and then get to work doing the learning necessary to proceed.   It always takes longer than we might expect, and always involves the frustation of being unsure of how to proceed, of making mistakes, of possibly failing altogether.  But there is something more here than simply changing an oil pan or even writing this blog- it is the immense satisfaction that comes with having figured something out, with having created or learned something new in the process.  So how do you teach this?

You don’t.  You create the situations where students can take up the problems or questions that compel them. Then you create the space for them to make mistakes, and in it a reflective space for them to learn from them.  You create a space for them reach out to others who might know more, to figure out what they might need to learn or do to go forward.  You give them the time to tinker, to try and to fail, and then trust them learn from it.  Perhaps most importantly, you create a space for them to develop a trusting community that can offer perspectives, advice and support, that believes in and values each of its members.   The students and teachers at the Workshop have done just this, and call it their family.

One way to think of the Workshop is as a place where students get the opportunity to learn by doing, by following the questions that compel them into the real world.  Another way to think of the Workshop is as a place where teachers get an opportunity to do the same, to pursue their own ideas about education and to develop them in and through practice.  What I find most compelling about the Workshop is that both the students and teachers have told me more than once that this has been their best year in school.  Imagine that.  It makes sense though because they both got a chance to put their ideas into practice, to build things that matter to them, such as hybrid cars, trusting relationships and yes, a very different kind of school.



“I can’t ______________”

My 4-year old daughter can do anything.  She can fly, turn into a cat, sing, write a book, you name it she can do it.  Just ask her.  While she will admit to be working on a few things-she has put off poddy training until she is 5- she is quite forthcoming about being able to do just about everything.

A approximately twenty year old student in my Education and Culture class here at Emory University recently e-mailed me about an article in the NY Times about being black at Stuyvesant High School in NYC.  He asked if we might talk about it in class, as he found it very compelling and knew that another student in class had attended Stuyvesant High School.  Being the student-centered pedagogue/overwhelmed professor that I am, I agreed and asked if he might want to lead the discussion. He agreed and I sent the article to the rest of the class, wondering just what the student was going to do

A little background.  The student is from Jamaica and after attending four very different high schools here in the states- charter, inner-city, private and magnet (I think)- has a passionate interest in improving education for all students.   He is sharp as a tack, one of those students you want to plant in every class to ask the hard questions.

I let him run with it and he did not disappoint.  He had prepared a presentation along with questions that engaged the whole class.  He tapped the student who had attended Stuyvesant and confronted head on the deeper cultural assumptions about race and achievement that ran through the article and for that matter our society.   He hit it out the park to the point where I think the class forgot I was there.  They even forgot about their Iphones and Ipads.  This made me so uncomfortable that I had to reassert my academic omniscience with a ten minute lecture that sent many clambering for their social media. Seriously though, it was one of those moments I live for as a teacher, when students engage each other about questions that are near and dear to them in a respectful and open way.  I think we all learned something that day.

I talked to the student after class and complimented him on his presentation.  I told him he had “professor” written all over him.  Before I could begin to dissuade him from going to graduate school, he laughingly told me he could not write. It stopped me in my tracks, as I realized that he was not kidding.  My mind flashed back to his skimpy essay for the class and it all made more sense.  He could write, but somewhere along the way he had learned that he can’t write.  This meant that he could not be a professor, because as he told me professors write books.

I remember thinking I could not write.  I remember getting back papers that looked as if they had been in a slasher movie, full of red corrections and crossed out words.  Grammar ain’t never been my strong point.  It took me a long time to realize that writing is not grammar, that it is my right, an act of expressing my thoughts and ideas on paper.  It also took me a long time to learn that I could learn to write better, and by doing so even think better.

Which got me thinking about my daughters.  I hope and pray that school does not teach them they can’t write, or for that matter that they can’t_______.  I also hope that in the next two years I can help this Emory student realize that he can write while at the same time help him become a better writer.  I am not talking about instilling in him or my daughters a naive sense that anything is possible, but rather a sense that life is about doing the hard work of moving beyond ourselves, about learning how to take the “T” off of the end of can.



Training Wheels

Last week my four year old daughter Maeve approached me about putting pedals on her run bike.  For those of you unfamiliar with run bikes, they are little bikes missing pedals that toddlers can push with their legs and learn to balance on.  When they get good, they can almost run on them.  Maeve had become a little pro on her run bike, and wanted to graduate to the real “big-girl” bike.

So I found my older daughter’s first real bike, inflated the tires and considered whether to put the training wheels back on.  Marianna had ridden it with training wheels for about a year or so before being cajoled into taking them off.   If she could have put them back on herself she would have, as it took her a good few weeks- not to mention a bunch of “agony of defeat” crashes- to finally get the hang of riding a bike.  She had learned to rely on the training wheels.

So I braced myself for Maeve’s inevitable wipeouts.  Tightening up her little bike helmet I hoped for the best.  Seemingly oblivious to the impending danger, she got on the bike and I began to push.  I ran alongside her as she began to pedal, and then slowly let go.  I had the band-aids as well as my “honey you have to get back on the bike” motivational speech in the ready as I watched her shakily ride a bike for the first time.  My draw dropped, as she pedaled away as if she was an old pro.

Standing there stunned, all I could think of was how wrong we do school.

Lets assume that high school is meant to prepare students to do something well in the real world, like think critically, solve larger social or environmental problems and be productive and engaged citizens.  So how do schools often do this?  By putting training wheels on students.     Many schools operate under the paradigm of a factory, that students will assembled by installing skills and competencies in then in a broken down and sequential order.  The problem is that this approach can  atrophy the very skills and competencies that students will actually need to succeed in the real world.  Far too many students learn to do well in school at the expense of doing well afterwards.  They become really good at riding a bike with training wheels oblivious to the fact that they are not learning the most important skill for riding a bike- balance.

My point here is that if schools are really serious about preparing students to succeed after they leave, then the schools might want to better simulate  the actual skills and competencies that students will need- such as being able to problem solve, take initiative, think critically, and so on- to achieve their goals and change the world.  High school should be like a run bike than a bike with training wheels,  a place where students can learn the actual skills that will help them succeed after school.  It is also a place where they should be able to make good mistakes–ones that they can recover and more importantly learn from.  School should be a place where students do not get a false sense of success from doing artificial activities that can negatively prepare them for success at the next level, such as riding a bike with training wheels.

At the Workshop there are no training wheels. Students  take on meaningful real world problems, and the teachers help them run with them.  Learning occurs in and through doing authentic work that builds the intellectual muscles necessary to creatively solve ill structured problems. It is about learning how to balance between the known and unknown, all the while moving forward.

If You Build It (With Them) They Will Come

I know I can speak for all of us in saying that starting a new school is a dream come true.  The idea that we could imagine a different kind of school and then make it a reality has still not fully sunk in.  Seeing students who were in elementary school when we first started thinking and working on the ideas behind the Sustainability Workshop walking through its doors sent shivers down my spine.  Here were twenty-nine young persons willing to take a chance on their senior year of high school and try our brand new program.  That takes courage.  It is also puts the pressure on us- and more specifically on Micheal and Simon, our two talented teachers- to “deliver.”

Here is where things get interesting.  Setting up a new school is a ton of work.  I am saying this mostly from the sidelines, from watching Simon and Micheal (along with Matt, Ann and others) log long hours dealing with the avalanche of things that must get done to set up and run a school.  I get lost in the logistics alone.  As they have told me more than once, one could spend one’s whole day and night on just the details, on just keeping the whole enterprise going.  When does one have time to teach? Continue Reading

I love to learn __________? (Fill in the blank)

Just the other day I heard it again- “I love to learn.”  Variations on it pepper my recent past, as students love to profess their love of learning to those tasked with teaching them.  Love of learning has become a personal trait of sorts, one that schools try to cultivate in students because it serves them well in school.

Instilling a love of or for learning has been an explicit or implicit goal in every school I have ever been or taught in.  It makes sense to have students love what schools have to make them do.  There is an assumption that students learn better if they develop a shining to the act- even coming to Continue Reading