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.


  1. Someday these children will be adults and we what them to know what respect is. Not just the definition.

  2. I understand where you're coming from, I really do! Just where I'm standing with twenty seven kids who really just want to have fun I'm not sure what else to do but be grateful that I have a core curriculum so I know what they need to know by the end of the year. I have kids who would read all day and never touch math. I have kids who would do math all day and never touch a book. Then I have kids who wouldn't do either if I didn't beg and plead for ANYTHING. And this is in fourth grade! You have to have these foundational skills to be able to go up and chase down those passions and dreams. A core curriculum in math and language arts allows us to give them that basis to jump off from. Even Montessori schools have a curriculum and things their kids need to know by the time they leave.

  3. I don't believe I ever said kids should ONLY do what they want. I have always said the same thing: Give kids some of what they want and they will be much more willing to learn what you want to teach them.

  4. Hey-

    I followed you over from Joanne Jacob's blog and I have to say, I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly.

    I'm studying literacy education right now and the whole focus of my curriculum class is the Common Core standards. My professor is lauding them like they're the greatest thing to happen to education.

    I just see it as the next step in the standardization of American Education-now that we have the means to have nation wide education standards- then comes a test based off those standards...and so on.

    Although part of me says that's what a lot of lazy teachers are doing in the first place when they make the practice books for whatever their state tests are their whole curriculum.

    Anyway, it's disheartening.

  5. Thanks for posting. I have been hoping maybe some folks are getting what I'm saying especially on Joanne Jacob's blog. It's always nice to hear that folks who are on the inside of the educational scene DO understand what the problems are. What surprises me is the lack of willingness on some people's part to even engage on the issue of respect and trust.

  6. Lisa,
    Have you heard of Project Follow Through? If not, you should read about it. The ideas you have are not new. The models most similar to your opinions produced some of the worst results, not only in kids' skills but also their self-esteem. Here is a URL with links to articles on PFT:

  7. They can try, and most do, but it's darned hard in a public school setting for teachers to continue to show respect to the few students causing problems because it isn't returned by them or their parents.

  8. The parents are not part of the equation when a school system is based on teaching kids not what they want to learn, but on what we as adults have decided they need to know. Factor in kids' passions and you have to come up with a better system. There are ways of doing it! many ways!

    The fact that we're losing kids because we're not relevant to them is not something that begins in the home - it begins with the education system -- which, luckily for us, IS something in our purvue to change, as the home and parenting is not.

  9. Hi, I have thought A LOT about this as a mom and teacher. Here are some of my thoughts/questions:
    1.I have three children. My two oldest are boys-9 and 7. They both are passionate about math. One loves to read and play soprts... the other loves to build and create art. When asked what they are passionate about, they will tell you all of this and more... science, frogs, animals, planets, etc... how do we allow our students to study and learn about what they are passionate about if they are not exposed to what we are passionate about? You stated, "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 understand. I agree. If my son does not like to read, do I make him? If my son does not want to learn how to play an instrument, do I encourage him? Do I wait? Do I allow their passions to evolve, and teach what they need at those moments? How would I have known my sons were passionate about math if they did not learn from their wonderful teachers at school?
    2. I may get the facts wrong, but there was an olympic skier who was adopted from a country that did not have skiing, snows, mountains. He was exposed to this at a young age by his adopted mother, and became passionate about it, and became a world class skier. How do our kids know what they are passionate about if we do not teach them? Give them a foundation?
    3. How do we determine these foundations? Who makes them? Standards that all kids need? What curriculum do all students need to know? How is that dtermined?
    Thank you for making me think. :)

  10. Wow, great questions and a great comment. I was reading something recently, just some romantic fiction, and it talked about whether we have a "soul mate," one person whom we are destined to be with, and if we don't happen to meet that person we are SOL.

    Others said that it was a myth; there isn't just one person for all of us, much as I might think that my husband is my perfect mate and if not for him I'd still be single.

    I think the same is true for passion. Little kids and big kids (us) won't always have one passion; I have three at last count, and that's not even counting my kids! Also, if we don't have access to a passion for skiing, we might find it somewhere else.

    My point in saying that passion is a process is...being open to having a complete devotion to learning something is important. If I hadn't sent my kid to an arts camp when he was seven, and they hadn't taught him to make glass beads at a torch, I never would have discovered it, and never would have known that despite the fact that I am NOT a visual artist of any kind, I have a real talent for least, in glass. Take a look at You can see that there is an understanding of color in those beads. But it was the slimmest of chances that I found it at all.

    Schools and parents should raise kids to love something...something bigger than themselves, something that energizes them, something that has meaning for them and for others, something where his/her contribution will be felt.

    Your questions are great, and I was able to articulate something here that I've been stewing on for a few days! Thanks.


  11. This is one of the best things you've ever written, Lisa, because you articulate so clearly your perspective, passion, and challenges. You aren't political, which can sound shrill. You are humane and child-focused. You bring the reader with you in your discussion, and the reader is moved by what you share about yourself.

  12. Thanks, Cathy! Blogger sent your post to Spam so I didn't see it until now!