Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wise words to frame our story

On a lovely Sunday in April, we drove down to Palo Alto to Channing House, a large senior living complex. We were invited by Dr. Ray Bacchetti, whose long career in education included serving on a school board, being in the Stanford administration, disbursing education grants, and being designated a Scholar in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He had decided to screen 22 minutes of excerpts from AUGUST TO JUNE as a first exposure to the film, leaving plenty of time to put the film in context with his remarks and a question and answer period. We were very satisfied to see the size of the audience--my guess is there were close to 200 people. Here follows extensive excerpts from Ray's excellent opening remarks:

An Important Piece of School Reform: Teaching the Whole Child

"Welcome. I’m very pleased to be here and to see you all here too. Education is dear to my heart, especially public education—what used to be called a century ago the “free, public, common school.” Having my granddaughter, Emily Taylor, here too is a special pleasure. Emily graduated from Brown University last June and is in the Stanford Teacher Education Program. She plans to be one of the 1.7 million new teachers the nation will need over the next 5 years.

School reform is a huge topic. Today we’re going to deal with an important piece of it—teaching the whole child. That may sound to some like code. Of course you teach the whole child—it’s the whole child who comes to school every day. True enough. But one can see a whole child in a classroom and chose to ignore parts of that child. A teacher can concentrate on their minds and ignore or pay only marginal attention to their social, emotional, and ethical learning, to how they relate to each other, how they cooperate, how they feel in different situations and how those feelings help or get in the way of learning."

"...[Emily]will be entering the educational system at a time of unprecedented scrutiny from . . .

-- the federal and state governments,
-- business, especially big business,
-- foundations large enough to affect priorities in policy and practice at state and national levels,
-- reformers of many stripes,
--and many others."

"President Obama recently said that teachers are nation builders. My friend, John Merrow, the education correspondent for the NewsHour, [who by the way introduced me to Amy and her marvelous video] recently blogged that the schools are ill-equipped for nation building. But the question isn’t whether the schools are or are not building the nation. The question what kind of a nation are they building.

-- If schools don’t teach problem solving and creativity, where will future citizens turn when there are problems to solve and alternatives to create?
-- If they don’t teach the values and skills of empathy, resilience, self-confidence, honesty, and collaboration, what will take the place of those qualities in a healthy society?
-- If the value of diversity and the imperative of inclusion isn’t part of the school day, what does that say about kids’ abilities as adults to care about social justice and whether society works for everyone?

By paying insufficient attention to the recruitment and cultivation of teachers, by insisting on curriculum standards that are narrow and prescriptive about what teachers must do to meet them, by focusing on fill-in-the-bubble assessments that are easy to grade, average, and report, we are hollowing out what school can and should be.

William James once said that we can’t decide not to decide, because that in itself is a decision. We need to think about the irrevocable truth of that and keep asking—what sort of a nation are we building?

This afternoon, Emily’s and my objective is to take a look at what a rich place a classroom can be and how we’re going to get teachers to be, and to be seen to be, the nation’s partners with parents in raising up generation after generation of people who think democracy is the best thing since sliced bread and are able and willing to keep it going and getting better . . .

And who at the same time will themselves be life-long learners, potent contributors to the economy, people whose lives are enriched by diversity, and who become the sort of parents kids are entitled to have.My favorite philosopher, John Dewey, once wrote about this question of how good our schools should be. I’m very fond of his answer. He said:

'What the best and wisest parents want for their children, that must the community want for all of its children.'

I like that sentiment for several reasons. For its core message, of course. For its emphasis on wisdom. For its placing responsibility on the community. And for the implication that all children are our children in the grand scheme of our American social contract."

"Initiatives multiply like mosquitoes, reforms are everywhere, political interventions happen in the District of Columbia, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and up and down the state of California, some for better reasons than others.

The one repeating voice in all this is the centrality of the teacher. If a child has a good teacher in elementary school for three years in a row, that child’s educational outcomes are destined to be much, much better than those of a child who has three poor teachers in a row, almost regardless of what the rest of her or his educational experiences might be.

What are the qualities a teacher needs to have to be that “good” teacher? In my experience, they come under three headings:

1. Subject matter knowledge. For many of today’s critics, this is not only #1 but it’s meant to trump the others. Of course it’s vital! Teachers need to know how subject matter goes together, how we know things in math, geography, literature, social studies, and so forth. There are different ways of knowing, and subject matter is where those ways are learned. To teach for understanding, teachers must understand subject matter well.
But subject matter alone won’t do the trick.

2. Pedagogy. Teachers need to know how to teach. Teaching isn’t telling, it’s not the product of extrinsic rewards like gold stars (at least not if you want learning to last), its not a result of stern demands (at least not for everyone), and it’s not the product of children doing whatever they want. It’s not the same in different subjects nor for children in different grades. And it’s often not the same for different children—from backgrounds with low word counts in family talk, or where English is a second language, or for those who go home each day to dysfunctional families, or kids with chips on their shoulders or backpacks loaded with indifference. Pedagogical knowledge is to teachers what surgical technique is to surgeons, prosecutorial skill is to a lawyer, or a game plan and the ability to execute it is to a quarterback.

3. Child development. Understanding where children are in their cognitive, moral, physical, social, and emotional development is vital. This is the third leg of the triangle. This is where teachers know what is age-appropriate, what maturity looks like in terms of readiness for particular kinds of learning, when expectations are reasonable and when they are not.

This triangle of knowledge about subject-matter, pedagogy, and child development anchors schooling. But there’s another element that pulls them all together in the service of learning and growing up, and that is one’s philosophy of education. To oversimplify a complex subject, I can divide approaches, or philosophies, as predominately focused on basics vs. engaged in the progressive exploration of a problematic world, or as subject-matter centered vs. child centered, or as a matter of discipline vs. discovery. I can also declare without fear of contradiction what most of us have experienced—that many teachers use combinations of all of these.

But what you’re about to look at in this excerpt from the video “August to June” is a classroom exemplifying the whole-child approach without slighting basics, or subject matter, or discipline. The film is subtitled, “bringing life to school: one year in an unconventional public school classroom figuring out what really counts.” The teacher knits many elements together in a way that makes sense from a child’s perspective and takes each boy or girl from where he or she is to where they need to go on this particular stage of their journey—as students and as people. When you look at this school, note how the classroom looks, how the kids relate to one another and the teacher to them, how important resolving conflict is to keeping children open to learning, and, in the scene where parents are talking about what they want for their kids, how long and rich the list they develop."

Ray got much applause, and the clips were very well received. The hardest part of this day was listening to Emily talk about the compromises she saw in front of herself. While she clearly sees the value to whole child experiential education, a newly minted teacher finds few such schools in which to begin a career. Because she is dedicated to reaching society's most vulnerable, she will teach next year in a narrowly focused charter school in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood that is devoted to just such children. While she will put her heart, mind, and Stanford training into her teaching, I only wish young teachers were finding more places to begin their careers where the whole child in all her or his complexity and possibilities lived at the center of the classroom.

The discussion after the screening was rich, ranging from concerns about Teach For America to reminiscences of the start of what became NCLB (and how angry teachers felt about what was happening) from a woman who had taught in Texas.

Driving back home we realized that we should have brought some way for these motivated grandparents and elders to let others know their response. I'm wondering about developing either a petition or a form letter we could carry with us in the future.

Ray will be showing the entire film at Channing House on May 2. From what we saw, I think he will have a good turn out, and more lively conversation!

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