Becoming Educated: More Questions Than Answers

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What if we were designing learning spaces where kids would develop and sustain personal understanding? Empathy? Collaborative competencies? Social-emotional learning?

(Creating collective social efficacy in a school community)

What if thinking in every way possible — collaborative, creative, logical, analytical, effectual, entrepreneurial — became a key end in mind for curricula, assessment, and pedagogy?

(Thinking through solutions in a design and build project)

What if we stopped designing spaces for decontextualized, content acquisition but rather designed for contextualized, transdisciplinary learning experience?

(Setting up bee hives for environmental studies, Photo courtesy of @munseyclass )

What if we designed learning spaces so that children grow up to thrive not just survive in the rising Age of Smart Machines? What if we created curricula to educate our young people for life, not school?

(Sharing sound studio skills at Entrepreneurial Showcase)

What if our goals, outcomes, expectations of learning were not, at their worst, painful or, at their least, limiting and inconsequential?

(Creating from music improv to tiny house construction)

What would change if our group purpose instead became democratization of learning so that children could access time, tools, expertise, and space to grow from their curiosity, interests, passion, and joy?

(Working on a personal project in the hacker space)

What if we designed spaces in which our young people inspire us to become better educators for them?

(Teens design and run a Youth Summit to share talents, projects, design challenges and solutions)

What if we designed spaces where contemporary children get to change the stories we tell about our own schooling? What if their narrative became stories of the power of their agency, voice, and influence as learners?

(Teens participating in School Board work session discussion on what they personally value about learning experiences)

What might the soul of learning become for those who teach, live, and learn together in this century’s learning spaces — if we made it our core work to make sense of these questions?

(Performing original music at the high school Entrepreneurial Showcase)

The Last Lesson Plan: On Losing a Teacher

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What lesson plan would you want written in your memory by your school community?

That question was framed for me in the most recent of many losses of a school community member across my career. If you work as an educator, eventually you will lose a colleague or a student. Sometimes that loss comes unexpectedly and sometimes it’s drawn out through the agony of time. In either case the loss represents tragedy.

I talked with our leadership team yesterday about the loss of a younger generation music educator, Eric, killed in a car accident the evening that Thanksgiving break began. I asked two novice principals affected by this teacher’s loss to share what they had learned about leading as they supported their communities to process this loss.

The high school principal said that as they returned from break that opening the music room for kids and staff to drop in and talk with each other was critical. “More than anything else we simply needed each other. The teachers came to the room with our students almost as if it was the home where everyone gathers after the loss of a family member.” He described the quiet conversations of sharing that occasionally shifted to notes from the piano or voices lifting in song, capturing the spirit and spirituality of Eric, a remembering that allowed their common grief and railing at his loss to turn to celebration of his uncommon joy in being a member of two of our school communities.

The principal of the middle school where this music teacher also taught commented simply that she had learned as she called every single staff member how important it was for them to hear her voice as a personal medium for sharing Eric’s loss with each of them individually. They needed the timbre of her real voice — not an email or a voice message.

As these two principals spoke, I was reminded of a similar time when as a young principal my own school community lost a novice kindergarten teacher. More than anything in my career, leading a school community through that loss, and subsequently many others, taught me that principals are ultimately tribal leaders, looked to for their voices, care, guidance, and skill in bringing people together to make sense of and respond to the needs of the community as a whole and its members as individuals.

Death is a test of our school communities. It halts time. It presses us to remember that we are a gathering of people who feel loss communally —  even when we didn’t know a person as well as another student or staff member did. Death teaches us that learning is truly about life and not about passing tests. It reminds us that what people take away from those we memorialize in our stories, eulogies, and music is emotional in tenor and social in context. As tears flow we push aside our hurried lives of covering content to connect with each other. We are reminded that what we think is the most important work we do may actually be the least important. That’s why in my district as we build our school communities for learners and learning, we prioritize building relationships first before we focus on creating relevance and rigor in the work our young people accomplish.

Relationships are foundational to all we do as educators. Last Sunday, Eric’s students described why he made a difference in their lives first as a caring adult and then as a music teacher. Who he was as a person mattered the most to them as they turned memories into narratives about their teacher.

“He would make waffles for our class at the end of the semester and when he found out I was gluten-free he made special waffles for me.”

“He always said hello in the hallways. If he knew you he wouldn’t just greet you by your first name. He always used your first and last name.”

“He would smile at everyone. He would wave at every one of us when he passed us in the halls.”

“When I lost my father, he helped me so much. He spent time with me to support me through that.”

“He was surprised that despite my outgoing personality, I was terrified to sing on stage. He worked with me to overcome that. Just before he died, I tried out for a solo and even though I knew I wouldn’t get it, I like that he got to see me do that.”

“He was funny. He wore funny ties and suits. He made class fun.”

“I learned so much from him and I will take those lessons with me for the rest of my life.”

“He inspired me to be a better singer but, most importantly, he inspired me to be a better person.”

Eric was one of those teachers who engaged the world around him through his love of hiking, apples, music, and people. As the winter concert service planned and shared by his young musicians and community peers unfolded last Sunday, we participated in a well-designed last lesson plan crafted carefully and purposefully by Eric.

He wasn’t physically on stage for his last concert but he was there in spirit and everyone had one more chance to participate in learning from and with Eric.

Teachers are lost but their teaching never dies, and in this there is immortality. When these children are old many of them will continue to recall what this man gave them at that vulnerable moment in their lives. Some, on their path to old age, will become teachers themselves, multiplying Eric and the work he did.

His music will play on.

In the Garden: Seeking and Finding Connections to Land, Air and Water

I spent some time yesterday reflecting upon a Connected Educators Month EdTechtalk: Teachers Teaching Teachers in which I participated last week with a diverse group of educational thinkers. Our conversation centered for me upon the critical importance of the interconnecting edu-ecosystems that we are building, one educator at a time. However, beyond the virtual connectivity that’s so essential to increasing the learning power of today’s youth, there’s another area of their connectivity I believe we’re neglecting.

a brown speckled buckeye butterfly on a pink coneflower

Fritillary butterfly on coneflower

Young people will face complex challenges in their adult futures- economically, politically, environmentally, and socially. Those challenges increasingly relate to the earth beneath our feet, the winds that blow across our continents and oceans, the temperatures that drive climate changes, and waters that sustain life. The Butterfly Effect governs the interactivity of seemingly chaotic systems across our world, far more than we ever thought when we first learned of Conrad Lorenz’s concept.

Connectivity is a given in the lives of our young people; allowing them to search, connect, communicate and create with others beyond the boundaries of physical communities, states – and nations. However, as we build virtual connectivity into learning spaces for all the right reasons,  in my opinion we must also reestablish a deep connectivity between children and the natural world so they can understand and process the deep environmental challenges of the coming decades. Indeed, their future may depend upon connectivity with each other and connectivity with the natural world- not either/or, but both.

The Earth’s natural spaces were the first learning spaces of humans, but our children are increasingly disconnected to those spaces. I first wrote the post below a couple of years ago while reflecting upon the importance of the natural world to learning. It feels even more relevant today. After a bit of editing, I decided to finally post it here.

Learning from the Garden

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

The early morning work I do in the garden reminded me on this morning what challenge really means when your survival depends upon providing your own food. Each season on earth marks time in months, years, and centuries of peoples’ intensity of effort to simply eat. We middle-class Americans who can so easily pop down to a grocery or convenience store to pick up the most basic items of sustenance – milk, bread, meat, potatoes- or to a farmers’ market to select heirloom tomatoes grown locally, are mostly out of touch with the struggle of humankind to simply eat.  This morning I confronted the loss of summer food supply; damage from deer gone wild because of one forgotten disconnect of the electric fence – peppers and cucumbers eaten down to the stems; tomatoes showing the first sign of blossom rot; and squash bug eggs on the underside of my crookneck leaves. Kneeling in red clay, simmering in summer humidity, I reconnected with my grandfather- me as learner, him as teacher- and the important lessons to be taken from the land.

a white sand road leading to a white frame farmhouse

the road to home

I grew up on a farm and understand the agrarian calendar well. My suburban-raised son does not. I have continued, throughout the ever-increasing number of seasons of my life, the habit of planting each year what has become a smaller and less tidy garden space than those of my childhood.

My family farm became a learning tool as I traced my grandfather’s steps across sugar-sand fields in the low country, not too far inland from Charleston, along the slash of a river named the Edisto.

the Edisto river is a black water river with cypress trees on its banks

The Edisto

Those fields held lost riches of natives from the Woodland Culture and we often would pause, eyes caught by birdpoint, scribed pottery shard, or flint chip, slipping such treasure into a pocket to keep it safe. Near our river and fields, live oaks stood, relics of centuries past, their limbs spread to ground; drips of Spanish moss sheltering acid-rain etched marble, chiseled with names of those who followed the natives onto this land. Through his stories and observations, my grandfather taught me to appreciate the role of the water, the land, and the air in supporting the lives of people who had lived and continued to live on and off of that land.

All of these generations past depended upon the skills of those who understood the give and take of living off of the land. Each successive wave who inherited the soil, the water, and forests discovered how tenuous survival can be. I learned that from my grandfather. The seasons of my own gardens have been, I hope, a learning gift passed from my grandfather to me to my own son.

Unfortunately, droughts and hard rains come to the land these days in chaotic cycles that leave humans confounded by the patterns of nature. But, I know this. My tomato plants depend upon a steady state of water or they will develop blossom end-rot, falling from the vines slightly ripened, blackened, and unfit to eat. I learned from my grandfather how to avoid tomato rot– there are rules to follow if you know to do so. It’s such a simple thing in Virginia to increase water supply or add a bit of calcium to the diet of my tomatoes.

When I see the rot of tomatoes as I did this morning, I also think of my mother’s Irish Catholic ancestors who came to this country during the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Today, we gardeners plant potatoes hybridized and resistant to the same killing blight that starved the Irish into an agonizing history of emigration and death. They had no such choice. When we pick up a bag of store-bought potatoes, we forget how close the relationship of land and people must be to those who depend upon it for survival. Today, we expect the potatoes to just be there.

abandoned stone hut in ireland in the mist

hut abandoned in Ireland mist

Although, like me, many Americans descend from ancestors who lived close to the land, and some who died because of the vagaries of nature and food supply, our industrial and technological relationship with food has removed us from understanding the role of the land in human ecology. Michael Pollan says that we don’t shop much around the edges of the supermarket- we shop on the inside lanes where the processed food is stacked. Whether it’s at home or school, our young people learn little about the connectivity of the natural environment to their lives. School lunches are an example of that.

4 red tomatoes on the vine

vine ripened

Today, these few rotten tomatoes, several pepper and cucumber plants damaged by the deer that plague my world, and droplets of golden eggs hidden under squash leaves led me to question what’s worthy to learn in a day and age of hyper-changing technologies in our world.How important is it for our young people to understand the relationships of land and food to their own survival; the patterns of weather, the food chains in which we figure, the shaping of cultures, politics and even religions, the ages through which civilizations pass, the migrations of peoples, and even the rise and fall of nations caused by our relationships with the natural world?

What do young people really need to know about stripped-down corn, packaged on Styrofoam and kept cool in the fresh vegetable bins? Or, the gulf shrimp on ice about which I overhead someone recently comment, “I’d rather not know where they came from”? What’s important to understand about the origins of sliced and diced tomatoes stacked neatly in cans on a grocery aisle? How do we communicate the value of good stewardship to relieve man-made stresses upon our environment? Why should we teach the connectedness and dependency of humanity upon the natural world for our very life’s breath and next meal? What’s worthy of learning when our children are often far removed from working the land? Why should we care about our children’s relationship to the land, air, and water around them?

High School Ecological studies of the pond

With global access we can find today’s media version of the Starving Times that decimated the 17th century Jamestown Settlement and 19th century Ireland. Far away from us, but perhaps closer than we think, humans live in starvation on the edge of death in the drought-weary world of West Africa. There, the peoples of Chad and Niger and six other countries eat leaves from trees and grain from ant hills to stave off death. Maybe as many as 15 million people face starvation in that region alone.The world’s population grows, the planet warms, and water shortages persist. And, our children take standardized tests that have little to do with learning how to find solutions to those critical problems.

We can write standards that cause us to learn the facts of the Potato Famine of the past and West Africa of today. We can measure that Virginia’s young people have learned what the Starving Times were in the first Anglo colony of America. That’s easy- 4 responses- choose one of the above.

However, this morning’s reflections cause me to ask if we want the kind of citizenry who can pose informed questions and craft informed perspectives about what went wrong in the recent mostly forgotten Gulf environmental disaster?* If so, what do we need to do to ensure we don’t create a future that looks like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

Perhaps we simply begin, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, by connecting our children “back into the garden.” **

gardening with preschoolers

(*see @jasonflom on Edutopia for discussion group of educators on learning from Gulf Oil Spill)

(**see @paulallison for more about East-West School for International Studies Gardening Project in NYC)

(**see@timlauer for more about Lewis Elementary Gardening Project in Portland, Or)

(**see grow veggies for Quick Start– Albemarle school grow local projects)

(**see @traceysaxon for more about Sutherland Middle School’s garden to food to compost project)

(**see @cwd4H for more about Yancey Elementary School’s Veggie Village in Esmont, Va)