Do No Harm: A Teachers’ Hippocratic Call to Action

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Teaching as a Subversive Activity

So my district is talking about “doing school different.”  Sorry, but haven’t many schools been talking (or avoiding talking) about it for long enough?

There’s plenty of reason to stop talking about it and start doing it, and most of the reasons stem all the way back to Postman and Weingartner, if not  John Dewey himself.  But then there’s this blog post, the first lines of which are chilling:  “We’re not helping kids…we’re actually imperiling them!”  If this is true, and I tend to think, given all the voices in this direction, that it is, how much time can we waste?  How much of my own children’s time is being lost to outdated, outmoded, never-more-than-compliance-seeking methods of learning?  This isn’t just about my district doing school different…this is about every school.  You can call me an evangelist…fine.  I’ll be evangelical if that’s what it takes to make sure my own children and those children I serve are provided with a thought-ful classroom.  And if that means I’m called on the carpet…then fine, because I refuse to be complicit in a thought-crime.  If my refusal paints me as crazy…then I’ll accept that.  “Here’s to the crazy ones/the misfits, the rebels/the round-pegs in the square holes/the ones who see things differently….about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them./Because they change things.”

I know the following reeks of clickbait, but the article’s title is:

“Traditional School Imperils Kids; They Need to Be Innovators”

As well, the title implies an agenda (creating business-world ready “innovators”).  But don’t make me a Cassandra.  Too many people are shouting the same prophecies.  We need to change how we are doing.  (Emerson said as much: “A foolish consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds.”)

But it’s frightening, right?  Change is frightening.  We talked about this in my 10th grade classes yesterday.  It’s frightening because it carries with it a sense of loss–loss of the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and others) about who we are for so long.  The fear is deep, existential; we try to bury the fear, ignore it…but it doesn’t go away. It eats at us and for most of us…we just retreat further and further into what we know, seeking ever-shrinking security from a future of change that looms ever larger.
The same is true for institutions.  And SCHOOL is an institution.
Last year I worked with twin girls in an independent study where they sought to bring more curiosity and student inquiry into the classroom.  One of those girls, Cali, wrote a brilliant blog post this summer about how she experienced the institution of school, about how it distorted her sense of self and robbed her of her health. Sure…there is opportunity and good that comes from “doing school,”  but the results of a cursory cost-benefits analysis are clear.   If the lives of students are not reason enough for teachers to question their practice and make substantive changes, then I would unapologetically argue that those teachers are part of a system whose leaders need to be replaced, for both the leaders and the teachers who refuse to or are not actively seeking out change are imperiling the lives and livelihoods of the children in their classroom.

And sure, the Institution offers a pretense of change.  It has catchphrases, it goes through the motions of “change.”  But are enough of our institutions of schooling doing so?  And more important, are they doing so quickly enough?  I don’t see it. But the rocks are starting to roll thanks to people and organizations like Ken Robinson, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon,Grant Lichtman,Education Reimagined,certainly Don Wettrick (see the Twitter Thread below) and countless others.

 

We can do better, we can be better, we must be better.  Otherwise, we, as individuals and institutions, become like Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye— stagnant, depressed (and depressing) creatures trying so desperately to hold on to our past that we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow into larger, more genuine and healthy senses of ourselves.

http://www.bie.org/blog/traditional_school_imperils_kids_they_need_to_be_innovators

 

“Doing School Different”

Our new superintendent has initiated her tenure through this post’s titular phrase.  While I’m not enamored of the phrase “doing school,” I’m all for “thinking different”  and I hope my fellow teachers don’t, as is to often the case, approach this invitation from our superintendent with the perennial “change fatigue.”   However, we’re two days into the student year, and five days into the teacher year and the #(hashtag) we have on twitter for doing school different in my district is populated by a mere 15 tweets.

If we’re “doing school different,” then the royal “we” on #pvsddoschooldifferent represents a population of four.  And sure…it’s early in the year.  But what better time to try to alter the approach to education than now, the beginning, the point at which we set the culture, set the expectations, set the course, and steel ourselves for the journey ahead?  If we expect to wait and see, if we expect that we’ll be ready at some later point to “do school different” we are sorely mistaken and ignore the vast experience we have of how school years move into our lives, dominate our time, and leave us exhausted, treasuring the growth and binding the wounds the journey brings.

There is no better time than now to “do school different.”  (Again, I’m going to apologize for the phrasing.  It sits poorly with me.  It’s not that I mind it’s echoing of the famous Apple ad campaign for the iMac. It’s just the “doing school” part.  But I can live with it, I can make it work, I CAN do school different, because I believe that if I don’t, I assure myself of irrelevancy.  Over a decade ago the vice president of Microsoft’s Education division opened a talk to an auditorium full of teachers with the words, “Your students are learning without you.”  It’s more true now than ever.)

My distric has a superintendent who is inviting us to take risks, to take risks, and to turn the failures that will inevitably derive from those risks into positive learning experiences rather than marks against our person and profession.  The invitation is a clean, fresh, airy elixir that blows away the stagnant, hanging fog of “the way we’ve always done things because we’re good enough.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow teachers are on social media like twitter in order to build professional learning networks. I’d venture from the quick poll our Superintendent took at our opening day convocation that it’s a small percentage.  I also don’t know how many of us are blogging about our experiences in the classroom.  Given the time that takes, I’d imagine it’s a similarly small percentage.

Maybe that’s where we start…we start with “transparency.”  We start by breaking down the walls of the classroom and inviting the world inside.  That takes courage, it takes a willingness to hang one’s professional self in the open air and to potentially suffer the “slings and arrows” of whatever the blogosphere/twitterverse will launch at it.  From my own experience, these places are far more helpful than harmful.  In fact, they represent the most intense and informative Prof. Learning I’ve done in almost a decade.

Change and IrrelevanceAt the top of this paragraph I offer the words of General Eric Shinseki.  I offer them not to motivate through fear but rather to remind us that teachers are responsible for the future.  The future is not a place and it is not a time, it is the minds we help grow through learning each day in our classrooms.  The future is not an abstract concept, it is real, and it is human, and it is changing.  It will change without us, in spite of us, and regardless of us, for we, through our invention and innovation, have given it that power.  If we do not change ourselves, we develop little in our class but mediocrity and the increasing urge for our students to go elsewhere to find culture in which they can cultivate their genius.

(For many, the question is, I believe, not “Why should I change?” but rather, “How do I change?”  For a good start on this, I suggest the book whose cover appears in the featured image of this blog post (AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower).  I also suggest reading this blog post from AJ Juliani:  Poking Holes in Pockets of Innovation. )

I’m Just Sitting Here Watching the Wheels Go Round and Round

My students just finished a unit about the forces or personal philosophies that drive us to make the choices we make in life.   In essence, we explored the Roman notion of carpe diem.
Carpe diem meaning - what does Carpe diem stand for?
Some students interpreted Horace’s words with an urgency, much as the students in Dead Poets Society did when teacher John Keating entreated them to make “[their] lives extraordinary.”   Waiting for things to happen, constantly working towards the next externally defined success?  These were not in the purview of some of my students’ essays.  They urged their readers to move forward, to take the leaps and bounds that would drive them to heights and achievements that the less courageous could only dream of.

Other authors read Horace differently, something similar to the way wake-up-and-live John Spencer describes “The Epic Life” in his ingenious video.  In this interpretation, every moment of life is extraordinary, but most of us miss it because we’re too busy looking to and working towards the future, to the futures planned by, or in some cases, for us.  (We miss it because we’re too busy, as John Lennon might say, “riding on the merry-go-round.”)  Billy Collins’ irony doused poem “Carpe Diem” offers a similar interpretation, countering the clichéd “drain the cup of life to the dregs” notion of carpe diem with a more contemplative and relaxed interpretation of life.

In the end, there’s no wrong way to seize the day.  Adrenaline junkies abound and burn brightly in the big skies of life.  At the same time, John Lennon, who gives us the title to this post, suggests something different.  An observant, patient, determined life…perhaps a “conscious life.”  Or it might be “the life of the artist,” a life in the pursuit of a happiness that doesn’t come at the expense of, to use a phrase from the 60s, “selling out.”

I link here to several of my student’s blogs and their thoughts about this notion of carpe diem.  But I also recommend this recent post by Charles Chu on Medium.  His interpretation of Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson’s path in life actually started me thinking about this post, and offers a better and deeper examination of this aesthetic.  I urge you to read that, too.

Carpe Diem:  Marked Absent  — about the lack of initiative and spark in the school system

Struggling to Synthesize the Self

Carpe Diem: Sprouting Against Conformity — daring to forge one’s own life

From Seized by the Day to Seizing the Day— (a tumblr…you might need one to read it)

Take a Chance on the Future

A Poet’s Guide to Carpe Diem— Poetry and seizing the day.