Sunday, October 17, 2010

What Rests in Our Hands Is Simply That: Be a Learner

In light of Tom Whitby's "modest proposal" to post a blog  about positive educational reform on 10.17.10, I found myself thinking about reform and redesign. Now, I am not much for reform as I think the word, the process, and what it has come to mean is at best, tired—and for the last 40 years, increasingly divisive.  I do believe though that redesign is needed in public education and I offer here a simple way to revolutionize public and private education. Be a learner (your choice of passions and interests), study how you and others learn, and bring all of it with you to your classroom, school or district, and show it off via public exhibitions. Personal learning passions and public exhibitions of learner's work are more important than national and state standards movements, national and state testing, national and state curriculum maps, and the like.

Having worked for 29 years as an educator, most of those years in K-12 public education in urban, suburban, and rural locations, I have been privileged to work alongside great teachers, principals, and administrators.  Their greatness has been neither static, nor superhuman. Rather, they are learners who always have a project going, a passion they are following, an idea they are tugging at--in short it is simply a stance they embody.  These are gregarious learners, quiet learners, deep and thoughtful rivers that are both purposeful and nomadic.  They wander and reorganize.  They are largely contradictory in their thinking, believing, and (re)actions as they are often in the present moment. They resist and theorize.  Memory of these learners reminds me that all of the plans and schemes and reforming in the world cannot and will not achieve a sustained learning environment for the practice  of doing to others is so seriously flawed.  Reform is always an epic design and couldn't recognize a rhizomatic moment if it tripped over a mass of roots. 

Listen to Whitman, who in Song of Myself , wrote:

The past and present wilt - I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.  

Reform measures--progressive and not have often been largely about filling others with something the reformers privileged: workshop, direct instruction, rigor, process, mapping, cross walking, and on and on. It is not that anything is actually wrong with these approaches at their core. Rather, by attending to something else, something other—the more personal and I would urge, empowered learning is suppressed.  When this happens over and over again—perhaps for whole careers—the learner (student, teacher, administrator, parent) internalizes that his/her job is to attend to things that may or may not make sense and to suppress and not trust what does make sense.  This is what kills education. A direct shot to the heart.

So what am I advocating? I am interested in redesigning schools to focus on learning for all who step through the door (real and virtual) and to have learning direct our attention, resources, staffing and time.  Instead of asking: Will this technique do x, I want to occasion learning passions. Instead of the old input-output algorithm, imagine if passion was x and we asked: What do we need to set into play in order for the possibility of x to be realized?

In the school system where I work we are redesigning the high school and by extension the district.  As the director of curriculum, my goals are two-fold: privilege learning and learners and organize in such a manner that idiosyncratic methods, content, and beings can flourish.  Nothing more. Nothing less.  I tell you here though, it takes extraordinary design as the teaching world has been largely organized to resist such overtures. Nonetheless, we beat on. In the last four weeks, high school faculty have forwarded courses they would like to teach--beautiful, idiosyncratic works that are embedded with who they are.  They make my heart sing.  Next, I would like students to have the same opportunity and responsibility to design personal and public learning.  A  simple redesign plan might be: Let's plan, learn, redesign,  and exhibit our learning to the public.

We have some early trailblazers already out and about: this year we opened a small academy (Classics Academy) that are comprised of five courses taught by four teachers, and three other team-taught courses.  We are in the process of issuing  iPads, 24/7, to all.  Just last week, two of the teachers and their students, along with the students' parents and siblings, neighbors and other educators from the school found themselves in a field at night holding up their iPads loaded with the interactive astronomy app, Star Walk. The students had been studying astronomy as part of a Classics History and Classics Mathematics course that the two teachers (Dawn DeMartino and Harry Sugar) teach.  As one of our Board of Education members told me (I paraphrase): It was cold and late and I knew those teachers had been teaching all day and still there they were. We were on blankets and looking up at the sky looking at the iPad to better know what we were seeing.  And there was Mr. Sugar who had set up his telescope so we could see better--see the indentations of moon craters. My one child was fascinated by the Hercules constellation and my daughter was explaining that the North star did not remain constant over time.  It was beautiful and powerful. 

Beautiful work. Empowered learners and learning. That is the revolution.

We must stop doing unto others and instead take mark of where we are.  It is more challenging than one might think. For example, I fell pray to my own worst moment when I decided we would move forward with a physics in ninth grade initiative. Some of the teachers voiced resistance as they worried that they would need to suppress their leaning in order to enact a program. I offered assurances (ones I actually believed) and yet their commentary gave me pause.  I realized a bit later (a day) that I had lost sight of the real goal: not to have physics in ninth grade at all cost, but to engender a place of learning.  These teachers were not objecting to redesigning the science courses, but the means by which we did it.  Ah, time to listen and seek a third space. As Ruth Vinz writes: "The bulk of teacher knowledge is socially derived and hybrid" (1996, p. 168).  She then quotes Homi Bhabha (1990) who explains hybridity:  'For me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the 'third space' which enables other positions to emerge' [p.211] (as quoted in Vinz, 1996, p. 168).  Ruth concludes by asserting: "The act of teaching engenders a continual contestation beyond teachers' present and future knowledge—challenging, mixing, testing, and ultimately transgressing what the teacher knows 'how to do' or has ever done before" (p. 168).  The teachers and I need a third space, not a directive.

I love Ruth's book, Composing a Teaching Life.  She has been both my finest teacher and friend these last 17 years.  In one of the chapters in the text she discusses what rests in teachers' hands. She concludes: "We must keep the learning and the imagining. That's what rests in our hands—the responsibility to do just that" (p. 164).  I have read those words for years and it is the pronoun, that, I want to emphasize.  Our responsibility rests not in enacting other schemes.  We are responsible to keep the learning and imagining.  Just that.

If we want to (in)form the conversation about learning at local, state, national and international forums, we need to ensure that what we are learning is not insubstantial, but rather worthy of our time and attention.  I grow weary of the books and websites that offer 15 ways to do this, 30 ways to do that.  Fodder mostly.  I have given some thought to works that have influenced me and have helped me to better understand and appreciate the complexity of learning, that have encouraged me to consider multiple and often contradictory perspectives and the importance of resistance, that have shown me slices of worlds I simply had not known existed, and have inspired me to be brave in light of politics and manufactured fear.  Here is my list:
  1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  2. Bakhtin, M.M. (1990).  Art and Answerability: Early philosophical essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  3. Barthes, Roland. (1982/2010). Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography. NY: Hill and Wang.
  4. Bateson, Mary Catherine. (2000). Full circles, overlapping lives: Culture and generation in transition. NY: Random House.
  5. Baudrillard, Jean. (1995). Simulacra and simulation (the Body, in theory: History of cultural materialism).  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  6. Berger, John & Jean Mohr. (1982/1995). Another way of telling. NY: Vintage.
  7. Berger, Ron. (2003). An ethics of excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  8. Bhabha, Homi K. (2004). The location of culture, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
  9. Cochran-Smith, Marilyn and Susan L. Lytle. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research in the next generation. NY: Teachers College Press.
  10. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  11. Dewey, John. (1916/1944). Democracy and education: An introduction to philosophy of education. NY: The Free Press.
  12. Du Bois, W.E. B. (1994). The souls of Black folks. NY: Barnes & Noble Classics.
  13. Eisner, Elliot (Ed). (1985). Learning and teaching the ways of knowing: Eighty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  14. Gee, James Paul. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology and Discourses, 3rd edition. London: Routledge.
  15. Gonzalez, Norma, Moll, Luis C., and Cathy Amanti. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  16. Graves, Donald. (1983/2003). Writing: Teachers & children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  17. Greene, Maxine. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. NY: Teachers College Press.
  18. Heath, Shirley Brice. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  19. Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962/1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, second edition.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  
  20. Leander, Kevin M. & Margaret Sheehy (Eds,) (2004). Spatializing literacy research and practice. NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
  21. Morrison, Toni. (1987). Beloved. NY: Alfred Knopf.
  22. Pinar, William. (2009). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  23. Rosenblatt, Lousie. (1978/1994). The reader, the text, the poem: transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale & Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
  24. Schank, Roger. C. (1995). Tell me a story: Narrative and intelligence. Evanston, IL: Northwetsern Universty Press.
  25. Said, Edward. (1983).  The World, the text, and the critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  26. Soja, Edward W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Cambridge. MA: Blackwell Publisher, Inc. 
  27. Vinz, Ruth. (1996). Composing a teaching life. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook.
  28. Vygotsky, Lev. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  29. West, Cornel. (2005). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. NY: Penguin.
  30. Whitman, Walt. (1855/2008). Leaves of grass. Kindle edition.
  31. Williams, William Carlos. (1967). Pictures from Brueghel and other poems. NY: New Directions.
  32. Woolf, Virginia. (1991). A room of one's own. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

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