Sunday, March 20, 2011

School Detox

Sometimes I just blather my ideas while driving my 14-year-old son to and from school and to various activities. All I require of him is an occasional grunt to let me know I'm on the right track.

"Seems to me adults are afraid that if they tell kids to learn what they most want to learn, they'll choose to learn video games."


"But I think it's not the case. First of all we wouldn't be telling kids to do whatever they want to do, we're telling them to learn whatever they want to learn."


"And it shows a deep distrust of kids that we think they are so absolutely not to be counted on to do anything more interesting than play video games."

"I guess so."

"So it seems to me what we need is a kind of 'school detox.' A period of time when we establish trust and kids learn they really no longer have anything to rebel against. That the school will provide a way of letting them learn what interests them most. And if it is video games, I can think of good ways to learn stuff connected with them right off the top of my head."


"But it's distrust of kids that makes people think that all they will ever be interested in given the choice is video games. In order to establish trust we need to be worthy of it. That if we let them follow their noses that their noses will lead them places that even adults will think worthwhile."


So there it is: my theory of trust has the Eli Seal of Approval.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

If I was a kid

If I was a kid I'd be so royally pissed off at adults right now. If I was a kid, and I was shown what was happening on the planet they are to inherit, I'd be outraged. "You made me take multiple-choice tests while trashing my planet? You dithered and delayed about how and what to teach me, and in the meantime you were creating problems that my education left me unable to solve? How could you do that?"

We argue endlessly over the dangers of nuclear power, global warming, trashing oceans, lack of fresh water, wasting resources on weapons of war, and so on, and so on, while our kids' educations come down to the filling in of little circles.

If I was a kid, I'd be furious, but luckily we aren't educating them well enough to have a clear sense of the mess we are leaving to them, and their children. We may not be held accountable after all.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Today I feel like I want to ask all those I know who plan changes in my little school district to come to a dead stop. Just freeze for a moment, step away from the whirlwind and consider a new idea.

I have been preaching passion-based learning, choice, respect for kids, allowing kids to pursue their strengths, their dearest wishes, for years, but things are wriggling out of my grasp -- or perhaps, I have realized that what I've been grasping is a chimera. We are closer now to true school change than we have ever been, and I have been a rallying voice for this change. The disruption of the routine of our institution will be very great. But I'm no longer sure we'll end up in the right place. We need to figure out what it means to respect children.

This is very hard for me, because I feel like a lone voice. When that happens to a lay person, she has to have real confidence in order to keep up the struggle. In education, someone like me is working with people who not only don't mind reading the driest of pedagogical literature, they LIKE it. And they understand it. And they can advocate for it. I can't do that; I have this problem with my eyes. They glaze over. My head starts to nod. I wake up with my head on the keyboard and gggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg
gggg across the screen.

They also are the ones in the building, the ones confronted with the product of a system that doesn't respect children, therefore their voices trump mine every time. THEY know how to cope with children, they do it every day, and I just don't understand what it entails. It's an argument that is supposed to shut down opposing voices, and it is very effective.

But I do it anyway. I've read more educational material than lots of people in education. I read and email and tweet and talk and research and write. And I read works by the people whose ideas make sense to me, who are in the classroom, and who have been trained to read pedagogical materials, people whom I have grown to trust will tell me their meaning.

Lately I've been trying to read the Common Core documents. I've been trying to find out that even if we adopt a RISC-model, Standards-based system, that kids will still be able to choose what they learn -- to some degree! I've been trying to discover that following children's passions will still be possible in a system where what kids learn is imposed upon them. I have been hoping against hope, but I'm afraid I'm wrong. When I talk about kids choosing what they learn so that they can pursue their dreams with great passion and unstoppable motivation, what I hear is that in the RISC model, kids get to choose HOW they learn those things that we tell them they have to learn. They must demonstrate that they have met the standards that we have picked out for them.

But: to get respect, you have to give respect, and in our current system, respect for kids isn't even a factor. In the traditional public education model, one reason why we have discipline problems is that kids know perfectly well that they have no real choice in the system; there is no real regard for what they hold near and dear. For some educators it is quite enough to tell a child what they are to learn and give them 5 choices for how they are to learn it. Of course kids jump at it, of course they seem well satisfied. They've already been taught that choice is a real gift from on high, and they'll take it, in whatever form it presents itself. In fact, they have been taught (watch out, sweeping generalization coming) that their passions and pursuits are superfluous to the grand scheme of the adults.

The give-and-get nature of the respect between between adults and children in the projected model is not sufficiently clear to me. If you allow children to learn what is closest to their hearts, they will much more willingly learn what you prescribe for them. I don't reject the need for kids to learn what we know is important. I'm talking about creating a system based on trust. I don't see the word entering any of the discussions we have had about our new vision for our schools.

There is a lot of merit in the plans to establish a RISC-based school, and I am in support of it in general, but -- for what my support is worth -- I can't give it to a model in which the most important concept, the most pivotal point of change, is not part of the foundation on which it's built.

So let's just pause a bit, back away from the model and consider what it means to respect children.