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Archive for December, 2013

I’m reading Paul Tough’s book “Whatever It Takes,” which documents Geoffrey Canada’s amazing work building the Harlem Children’s Zone.

When I first heard of this book I avoided it, probably because the title suggested to me that the way to tackle poverty is just work really hard, sacrifice for the cause, and, you know, just do whatever it takes!

It turns out, the book is much more nuanced than that.

* * *

I’ve been asking myself a question lately. Every kid, in every school, is moving along a certain life trajectory. Kids from privileged families across the country are making their ways towards private colleges. Meanwhile students dealing with socioeconomic disadvantage, all too often, are facing an uphill battle.

Are we, as teachers in schools, having an impact on those life trajectories? Or, are we merely bearing witness to what is already going to happen anyway?

* * *

A big part of Geoffrey Canada’s work with Harlem Children’s Zone is something called Baby College. A team of staff members canvasses the neighborhood to recruit new parents into a program that educates them on the latest research on things like positive discipline, nutrition, and brain development. The book describes in great detail the ways in which parents grapple with these ideas and how some struggle to change long held beliefs about how to raise a child.

But the specific facts about specific parenting strategies are not the point, according to the author. He writes,

“In the end, the real goal of Baby College was not to impart information. It was to change the parents’ whole vision of themselves as parents, to encourage them to accept the idea that their child’s education and intellectual development began at birth, if not before, and that they, as parents, had a crucial role to play in that development. If they got that . . . the details would be more likely to work themselves out.”

What he’s talking about is changing the trajectory of their lives as parents.

* * *

In school, we focus on imparting information: reading, writing, arithmetic, and all the rest. It’s very important. But it’s not enough. What we typically fail to do is challenge students to create a vision for themselves. (After all, we measure success by standardized test scores, not the quality of their lives at age 25.) Just like kids from privileged families grow up with the assumption that they will inherit a similar station in life as adults, my experience has been that kids dealing with socioeconomic disadvantage do the same: it’s really hard to imagine a life different from the one in which you were raised. Hard, but not impossible.

Once young people have a vision for a new life trajectory, the details on how to make it happen are more likely to work themselves out.

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

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A senior at a nearby high school wrote a terrific opinion column in the Seattle Times recently. The headline for the print edition of the paper is, “Students should craft their own education.”

The author wrote, “Like any student, I’ve had good teachers and bad teachers. Our schools are never going to be filled with only good teachers, but there is one lesson best taught by a bad teacher: The responsibility for one’s education can only be one’s own.”

He continues, “It’s an often-quoted fact that one of the greatest scientific and political minds this continent has produced only had two years of formal education. This trivia about Benjamin Franklin is sometimes used to point out his unique genius. However, Franklin’s genius is not unique. Why did one of 17 children of a candle and soap maker become so successful? As a child, Franklin quickly learned that nobody was going to do anything for him, and this was certainly true of his education. So he read.”

I love this story. But I think the writer makes a crucial error. Learning the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own education is not a lesson best delivered by a bad teacher through his incompetence; that’s a lesson best delivered by a great teacher through a nuanced understanding human development.

This, of course, requires a redefinition of what it means to be a great teacher. In my 12 years as a classroom teacher in traditional schools, I’ve always thought my job was to deliver academic content to students—as much as possible, in as much depth as possible. It’s hard to do that effectively when students are only there because they’re required to, and their primary motivation for completing my assignments is the fear getting a bad grade. To keep them engaged, I’ve had to crank up the charisma and the entertainment value of our 55-minute period. If I could keep them awake and engaged, I’ve always thought, hopefully they would learn some pieces of the lesson I was trying to impart.

Then, I could pat myself on the back for being a great teacher.

It’s a totally backwards way of looking at teaching and learning.

The best teachers don’t focus primarily on delivering academic content to a captive audience. The best teachers focus primarily on helping students understand this: the responsibility for one’s education can only be one’s own. That’s the gift that keeps on giving, even after the student has graduated and moved on to the next stage in life. When students have internalized that message, they can give up playing the game of school where they memorize things in the short term only to forget them three weeks later.

To do this in a traditional learning environment is a near-impossible task. Here’s a short scene that might give you a sense of what I mean:

TEACHER: Good morning class.  I want to have a conversation with you guys about what it means to really own your learning process, to really take responsibility for it yourself.

STUDENT: Will there be a test on this?

The learning environment in a traditional school is dominated by requirements and extrinsic motivators. It’s not designed to teach students responsibility, maturity, or curiosity. Without responsibility, maturity, or curiosity, school for kids becomes a ritual in following directions and placating adults. In that kind of environment, expecting students to take charge of their education is really, really tall order.

The problem with our education system is not budget cuts, lazy students, or bad teachers. School is a design problem. For it to deliver the outcomes we desire, school needs to be redesigned based on a different set up assumptions.

Near the end of his opinion column, the author writes, “Every student is the craftsman of their own education, whether they realize it or not. We as students must dismiss the idea that we are entitled to a good education. We are not. . . . We must ensure for ourselves that we are well-educated.”

I don’t believe that for a second. Of course students are entitled to a good education. We just need to redefine what the words “good education” mean.

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

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Judgement

After I graduated from college, I needed some space to clear my head. I had reflected on my 17 years of schooling and seen one year blend into another, all part of the conveyor belt that carried me through my undergraduate degree. It was so tempting to just keep riding that conveyor belt into the nine-to-five world of work.

I could have done that. But I knew it would not have been healthy. I needed some space.

So I moved across the country to Tucson, Arizona and took a part-time job as waiter. I didn’t know anyone in Tucson, which was one of the reasons I chose it. I didn’t want to be burdened by someone else’s expectations of who they wanted me to be.

After some time, I began getting some pressure from people back in my hometown to “get a job.” These messages accumulated over time, and they affected me. I was determined to chart my own course, but I began to wonder: Am I still working part-time as a waiter because I want to? Or am I doing it out of stubbornness, a refusal to cave to the pressure I was feeling?

* * *

I think kids deal with this phenomenon at school. Well-meaning teachers, administrators, and counselors give kids very clear messages about how they should live their lives, and where they should aspire to go next.

It forces kids to make important decisions—Where should I go to college? Wait, should I go to college?—partly in response to authority. In traditional schooling, we do kids a disservice by not offering them space to think clearly, free from our judgement, to act on their own intuition.

(Get updates at https://twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

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Here’s one of my favorite passages from Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness:

The authority such a leader needs is not power. Power comes to anyone who controls the tools of coercion, which range from grades to guns. But authority comes only to those who are granted it by others. And what leads us to grant someone authority? The word itself contains a clue: we grant authority to people who we perceive as “authoring” their own words and actions, people who do not speak from a script or behave in preprogrammed ways.

In other words, we grant authority to people we perceive as living undivided lives.

* * *

I received an email recently from a former student, who wrote:

“I am currently a senior [in college], and have been focusing a lot on political economic theory recently . . . and I keep on thinking about your lit and philosophy class. It was really really smart, and I am really grateful to have taken it. I was wondering if you still had the reading list for the class?”

This is not the first time I had been asked this. (It’s a great honor, and these messages always fill me with gratitude and joy.) It was a popular class, one that I completely made up from scratch. When writing the syllabus, I never once considered the state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements or what a traditional “philosophy” class might include. Instead, I focused on creating a curriculum that inspired me, selecting ideas that had a profound impact on the way I think.

Because I was inspired every day, I was able to facilitate class discussions with energy and enthusiasm. Every class period really mattered to me because every class period was focused on an idea that had changed my life.

Reading Palmer’s book last night gave me another interpretation of what happened in that class. I relied so little on “the tools of coercion”—students had to write three essays over the course of five months, and anyone who took the assignment seriously earned full credit—that the presence of any “power” in our relationship was almost imperceptible.

I didn’t exercise much power over students in that class, but by presenting a curriculum that I had authored myself, I gained a very real authority among them.

* * *

I know it seems efficient to have curriculum writers just send out unit plans to the mass of teachers in a school district. That way, students in different schools are all on the same page, and if one of them transfers to a different school, he can pick right up where he left off in his old school. It can save time and money, and acts as a buffer to soften the impact that bad teachers can have. It all seems logical.

But I think we lose more than we gain. By telling teachers what and how to teach, we take from them their authority in the classroom. Without authority from the students, they have to rely increasingly on exercising power.

(Get updates at twitter.com/stevemiranda)

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