Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Educational Utopia

The worst thing I could grow up to be was a Chi-honky—a Chicana who believed herself to be white. And, while I don’t recall a dinner-time kind of discussion about what exactly constituted a Chi-honky, the hidden curriculum of my surroundings gave me ample opportunity to associate the term with someone who succeeds—someone who earns a high level of education; marries well; raises children in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood; and whose income reaches above poverty level. The sting of the phrase has dulled because, when my family and I reminisce about what I was like as a child, we can all vividly recall the quirkiness of my make-believe schoolrooms that traveled with us to each new living residence—I had desks, a real chalkboard (commandeered by my grandfather when an old schoolhouse was being torn down), out-of-print textbooks, and an over-abundance of coloring utensils.

• I believe in education
The statement may seem like a meronym for an educational utopia, but it deserves inclusion. Far too many educators seem not to believe in the intrinsic value of education. They complain without a discernable ambition to change what it is they are frustrated with. They scoff at every new reform effort and label those who seek a new vision “impractical optimists.” Every school has them, but what has been truly disheartening is their existence even in every level of education degree program. Educators, and all those directly associated with the field, who do not believe in the inherent value of it should be—perhaps not shot—but certainly, strongly encouraged to find where else their passions might lie. For, as Ayers (2001) states, “Teaching is intellectual and ethical work; it takes a thoughtful, reflective, and caring person to do it well” (134).

• I believe an educated populace is a more just and humane populace
Lack of education allows people to stay in their own enclaves. They do not have authentic opportunities to interact with others, and therefore, are free to develop opinions about others without ever having those opinions challenged. Authentic, in this sense, is used as a distinction against “grocery-store” kind of interaction. While people living in any community may come in direct contact with others from outside their affinity group, they do not genuinely engage in dialogue with them about matters of value. Ghandi says the following of his own worldly education: “A variety of incidents in my life have conspired to bring me in close contact with people of many creeds and many communities, and my experience with all of them warrants the statement that I have known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths, whether Mussulmans, Parsis, Christians or Jews” (compiled by Kripalani, 1972, p. 24).

It is not solely interaction with others that creates this empathy but also encounters with ideas hitherto foreign. Teachers can, and should, purposefully provide opportunities for students to challenge their own cultural values and perceptions.

• I believe every individual needs a mentor outside of the nuclear family unit. The cliché “It takes a village to raise a child” should not be overlooked. Contemporary American culture has moved so dramatically away from this ideal, it might be arguable that it is no longer “cliché.” On the contrary, there is a new term in use to describe the absolute opposite—helicopter parents. A large portion of today’s parent population seeks greater and greater control over all aspects of their children’s education and everyday experiences. While parents are a critical attributing factor to a child’s success and sense of well-being, they cannot, should not, be the only source of mentorship for a child. Governmental restrictions meant to guard children’s privacy need to be re-examined. Many cultures honor extended family members or even valued family friends as a key component to their children’s well-being. The Latino-Catholic community, for instance, honors god-parents as compadres, which in direct translation means “co-parents.” And some children, despite having parents, need other caring adults to also intervene on their behalves.

In addition to the re-examination of regulations which may make it difficult for mentors to have direct involvement in a child’s education, schools themselves ought to actively identify outside mentors for their students, for we currently do not “encourage teachers to develop links to the often rich home lives of students, yet teachers cannot hope to begin to understand who sits before them unless they can connect with the families and communities from which their students come” (Delpit, 2006, p. 179).

• I believe in universal concepts, not universal texts
21st Century Learning skills ask for the following five precepts: a) problem-solving oriented critical reasoning skills, b) ability to collaborate, c) self-directed motivation, d) information literacy, and e) ability to be innovative. Every educator working in today’s schools, public or private, understands that we are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been invented but will undoubtedly demand that they be ready to be successful in. The abundance of field knowledge and dialogue surrounding what is truly essential in the educating of our youth is overwhelming—no single educator could ever truly be an “expert in the field.” He or she must resign to be an expert in a sliver of a discipline within the broader scope of the field.

Hirsh’s (2006) Core Knowledge, a popular argument for the use of universal texts, has the right intent—the intention of providing a means for accountability, a means for clear assessment, and a means for those on the bottom of the social spectrum to gain access to knowledge which might otherwise be reserved for the elite. However, the critical error is in attempting to provide a canon of core texts from which this knowledge should be mined and from which these intentions met. Rather, as we are finally acknowledging as a society with our new focus on 21st Century Learning skills, it is the skills themselves that are of primary importance. Therefore, universal concepts which can be found in any text the individual teacher might have association with, should be the tool necessary for experience with the desired skills. For example, collaboration is a precept of 21st Century mandates—surely, there is not just one text that stands out above all others in its ability to provide students with the opportunity to collaborate. Universal concepts such as justice, equality, well-being, etc., can be found in multiple texts. I myself can freely admit that I have not read every text in print (or digital form). Information literacy is not just important for students, but for educators as well. Access to free, educational material is in such high abundance that no two teachers could possibly have the same warehouse of core knowledge. We too need to accept the fact and then use the gems we know and love to our best possible advantage in the classroom.

• I believe an educator’s familiarity and passion (or lack thereof) will impact his or her learners.
Like writers who are constantly instructed to write what you know, educators “must learn to imagine possibilities within the context of their teaching” (Schubert cited in Urmacher & Matthews, 2005, p. 21). Adjunct instructors are instructors who often have very little say in what they teach. The textbooks are ordered for them before they sign their names to the dotted lines, and their syllabi are housed in a database awaiting their revisions. Most adjuncts, however, have an uncanny ability to adapt—they read the pre-designed syllabus, page through the textbook—and adapt. “This I like, this I can’t stand—I’m not even sure what that is . . . .” They transform the course into something they can find passion in. In most cases, this passion translates to favorable outcomes. The worst possible scenarios in education are those that happen when a teacher is forced to teach something he or she has little knowledge of and minimal passion for.

Administrators worried about state-mandated standards need to focus less on the actual content and more on giving educators the license to be innovative (again ironic coincidence that those skills we ask our students to acquire are the same ones we deny our teachers from exercising). Universal concepts—not texts.

And finally, I will end with a relatively self-explanatory one that is directed at teachers themselves. Too often we become overly accustomed to the physical space at the front of the classroom. We are being asked to teach students in ways we ourselves were not taught—and that is sometimes an anxiety-causing hurdle. If we are truly educating today’s students’ with their unique futures in mind, futures we ourselves will not be able to enter with them, we must trust them to collaborate not only with one another—but with us as well. As stated by Alan November:
The essential question is not “What technology should we buy for our schools?” The much more important question is one of control: “Can we change our traditional culture of teaching and learning so that students are empowered to take more responsibility for making important contributions to their own learning and to their learning community?” (p.193)

* I believe teachers must be willing to dance with their students and be able to anticipate when to allow their students to lead—and when to gently reign them back into the rhythm of the song we are playing for them

Ayers, W. (2001) To Teach: the journey of a teacher. (2nd ed.). New York:
Teachers College Press.

Delpit, L. (2006) Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom.
New York: The New Press.

Gandhi (1972) All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi As Told
in His Own Words. Ed. K. Kripalani. United States: UNESCO, World Without War

Hirsch, Jr., E.D. (2006) The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. November, A. (2010) Power Down or Power Up? In H.H. Jacobs (Ed.). Curriculum 21:
Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria: ASCD.

Schubert, W.H. (2005) Sensibility and Imagination: Curriculum Contributions of Elliot W. Eisner. In P.B. Uhrmacher & J. Matthews (Eds.). Intricate Palette: Working the Ideas of Elliot Eisner. (pp.17-32). Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chilling in the Now

It’s that time again—3:10 p.m. and all I want to do is hop into a warm vehicle and drive the two blocks. No, I convince myself, that’s not the plan. Get those boots on, the static-infusing hat, and the dog leash out. Last year at this time I would have been sitting at my desk trying to wrap up classroom tasks and reminding myself that I needed not to lose track of time, so I could walk across the campus quad to pick up my six year old daughter. After having followed the pressures of that routine for four years, I finally decided it was time for a change.

We live in the north-west area of Colorado Springs. And, although we are two minutes away from a Safeway and Mc Donalds, it is Pikes Peak that greets us each morning. Neighborhoods in this area were designed for “Colorado Living.” There’s a community-shared open space that runs behind each row of houses—accessible wildlife. We have birds, bunnies, raccoons, garter snakes, squirrels, foxes, deer—and yes, occasionally even a visiting bear or two. We are also fortunate in that the neighborhood public elementary school is literally two blocks away on our same street. Up until this year I was a middle school English teacher at a small private school on the opposite end of the city. Naturally, out of convenience, both my children attended the school where I taught. The drawback was that each morning we had to awake extra early and get all three of us out the door at the same time. On Wednesday mornings, the day of my faculty morning meetings, my girls would have to be in the car no later than 6:30 a.m. My soul was suffering—and worse, I felt as though my daughters’ souls were suffering.

The decision to finally leave my full-time teaching post was not an easily made one. I love teaching—especially teaching middle grades. But, like most mothers, I was being pulled in too many directions. One reason we bought our house where we did was because it is located in an older neighborhood, and we naturally received more house for our money. More importantly, for me however, was that the day we came to view it, we saw a small herd of deer crossing the street. I crave nature. I grew up playing on my grandparents’ eighty acre farm in Door County, Wisconsin. My grandmother and I took walks just to walk. But even something as natural as walking is a lost art, it seems.

According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, only “10% of children nationwide walk to school regularly.” What’s more surprising is that “even among those kids living within a mile of their school, only 25% are regular walkers.”[1] While the numbers are surprising to me, they are also understandable—more so on a day like today with the current temperature resting at 17°F. It’s easy. On cold days, it’s warmer. On hot days, it’s cooler. On mornings when you haven’t removed last night’s make-up, it’s shielding. And let’s not forget, it saves you from parent small-talk. But is it the right thing to do?

I can’t say that I gave up my full-time, cherished teaching post so I could walk my youngest, Isa, to and from school, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was a contributing factor. In addition to the widely acclaimed health benefits of exercise and the minute potential drop in pollution, seeking out opportunities to walk even short distances with your child wherever you live be it to school or otherwise, can in fact be the right thing to do. In a vehicle, a parent's attention is necessarily divided between safety and the musing of his or her young voice in the backseat. Often that attention is divided even further by the radio program playing in the background. And even if the parent makes a point to engage his or her child during that time, there is the physical barrier of seats between them. They are both strapped into their own bubbles of space. There is no hand-holding, no skipping—maybe an occasional head-bobbing session to a favorite song or two, but the interaction that takes place between a parent and his or her child while in the car is necessarily mediocre.

Nature still exists. We look around it to locate our metal and glass destinations, but it is still there. There are birds in every sky, insects crawling on every sidewalk, and pebbles strewn along every path. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, makes the case for reconnecting kids with outdoor environments. Not only is it good for the environment, he argues, but good for the children’s psychological well-being. Seldom are children capable of creating such initiatives, however. Without parental support and encouragement, the path of least resistance will prevail. We are too short on time and too short on energy to entertain the fanciful ideal of walking in lieu of driving. “Parents, educators, other adults, institutions—the culture itself—may say one thing to children about nature’s gifts” warns Louv, “but so many of our actions and messages—especially the ones we cannot hear ourselves deliver—are different. And children hear very well.”

When I picked Isa up yesterday she asked me, “What do we have today?” It hit me that for her, the end of school is often the beginning of evening enrichment. “We have a day off,” I replied mentally crossing off Taekwondo and exchanging it with the following day. “Yay!”

“Yay!” I echoed. On the way home, we kicked rocks, pointed and laughed at the deer watching us, and enjoyed our ten minute allotment of time outdoors together. It’s only a ten-minute walk, I chide myself each afternoon. By the time you warm up the car, drive the two blocks, and sit idle in the dreaded car-line, you will have still experienced the cold and now feel aggravated—and you will have given up the opportunity to spend at least ten minutes in the Now with your child. “Come on, Mocha,” I yell to our lab, “time to get Isa.”

[1] National Center for Safe Routes to School. University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. iWalk International Walk to School in the USA. 11 Jan. 20011. Online.