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

References
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
Publications.

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.

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