On my way home from DC

I haven’t written here in a while. Not because I haven’t wanted to, but because so much of my writing time is devoted to writing other things. I’m on a plane now, on my way home from the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit. (It’s a long trip to Washington DC for a one day event, but in this case it was well worth the time and trouble.) Since I’m officially on my way “back to Oakland” at the moment, and since I have 3.5 hours left on my flight, I figured I’d jot down some thoughts on my current state of mind.

When I started teaching in the fall I was a little naive. Armed with my optimism and a freshly minted intern teaching credential, I hoped to walk into a classroom and change the lives of the children entrusted to my care. While I’ve seen some thrilling successes, there are still obstacles to be overcome. Most of my students have made gains in reading and writing, but there is still a big gap to close.

At the TFA Summit on Saturday we were treated to some incredibly inspiring presentations. NYC Schools chancellor Joel Klein spoke passionately about the need for meaningful change. Incoming LAUSD superintendent John Deasy was funny and smart. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was not the most gifted speaker, but he had a powerful message. What these speakers (and others) shared was a passionate commitment to the idea that what goes on in a classroom needs to centered around the single driving ideal—student achievement. And the first question we (not just professional educators, but every person in this country) should be asking ourselves every day is “what am I doing to contribute to that cause?” Our survival as a democracy depends on each of us becoming preoccupied with that question.

In my classroom at Edna Brewer I work with kids who are struggling readers. They’re bright, energetic kids with lots of talents. One is an incredible artist. Another is a talented athlete. Some are funny. I enjoy playing chess with a couple of them at lunchtime. We’ve become friends. But even as I grow to love these children, I see how they continue to struggle to thrive inside a school that is asking them to conform to a relatively inflexible timeline for reaching a somewhat abstract goal. It’s not that I don’t have high expectations for these children—I do. (And they’re living up to those expectations.) At the root of my anguish is the fact that our school system doesn’t credit them for the incredible qualities and skills they already posses. Nor is it asking them to exercise those skills everyday. We ask them to do math, science, English and science. What about art, philosophy, drama, and music?

While I was in Washington at the summit I attended a panel discussion featuring four district superintendents: Cami Anderson of District 79 in New York; John Deasy of LAUSD; John Covington of Kansas City; and Ray Spain from North Carolina. The panel was moderated by my favorite conservative, David Brooks. During the conversation, Superintendent Covington talked about a program Kansas City is piloting at a couple of elementary schools next year. Students will work through curriculum at their own pace. No grade levels—every student is learning while following an individualized plan. Students and teachers are held accountable to standards, but students are able to work to master those standards at a pace and in an order that makes sense for them. The instruction is more flexible, and requires a high degree of creativity on the part of the teacher. Students may work independently or in pairs or groups. Instead of the factory model that we have today, students enjoy a school environment that is customized to their unique needs and abilities. And, unlike today’s system, which was designed to deliver industrial and corporate workers at the end of 12th grade, the students who graduate from these schools will have the opportunity to climb the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy and become creative, analytical, and synthetic thinkers. These are the kids of skills that are needed in tomorrow’s workplace.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union address a couple of weeks ago, this is a pressing issue for us. We need to raise a generation of “nation builders” to navigate through the massive paradigm shifts that are presently disrupting our society. We can’t do that with an education system designed in the 19th century. We need an educational system that speaks to children about the serious issues that are tearing at the fabric of our culture. In his recent book “The Empire of Illusion,” former New York Times reporter Christopher Hedges speaks of a “cult of victimhood,” and laments the “undiluted narcissism of a society in precipitous decline.” We need a system of education that gives these children a fighting chance at dealing with these issues. Not only does the delivery system need a overhaul, we may need to consider revising the canon. While ancient academics, poets, artists, and philosophers may have grappled with these issues in their day, and while the ancient canon still has meaning, we also need to heed the voices of today’s elite thinkers if we hope to teach our children how to navigate our new world order.

During the past few months I’ve been working to change the trajectory of the lives of my students. And maybe I’m making some progress. But I have let them down in one big way. I haven’t shaped their experiences around the ideal that they will one day need to solve the problems facing this country. Problems that we are as yet unprepared to solve. I know the full weight of that responsibility won’t fall on their shoulders alone. But it is irresponsible not to do all I can to help them develop a vision and a voice for being part of the conversation. That starts tomorrow. We’re starting a dialogue about what it means to become an agent of change. My kids may not read at the same level as some of their peers, but they have the capacity for wise and creative thought. Tomorrow we start exercising that vision and those voices.

Sunday February 13, 2011 — Mark —