Reflections: on life, learning, and finding a metric for meaning

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As I was packing up my office — the flotsam and jetsam of 13 years as superintendent and 43 years total in school work — someone walked in and commented, “can’t you throw most of this stuff out?” In that moment I held this framed drawing in my hands, a personal going away gift to the principal from an artist as he was rising up to middle school.

I could see as if yesterday the face of the artist, a honey-blonde fifth grader named Ned with strong hands for his age, already a sculptor. I quickly slid the frame into a box and turned away. I couldn’t throw it into the industrial trash barrel that I was neatly filling with my life. I’d already culled remaining boxes of books and wrapped up plaques and my grandfather’s table, shoehorning the office remains into a pickup truck- the last stage in their final journey home.

My son’s already been clear that the artifacts of his family’s life won’t survive his purge one day. It’s the way of millennials- rather than be paid for their family’s china and furniture and paintings, they pay companies to haul it all away.

I haven’t unpacked anything yet. I can’t get motivated to do so with the same excitement I’ve held in every new learning space I’ve inhabited since I became a teacher. My new home office is a tiny corner of a room filled with WWII memorabilia — artifacts of a time when my son’s “greatest generation” grandparents built tanks, B-24 bombers, and yes, the atomic bomb to make the world a safer place for the minorities among us. I’m comfortable in there because I grew up on the stories of America’s goodness and its willing to sacrifice so much for people who lived on another continent. Photos on the wall, fighter plane replicas, and books pay homage to men and women in the family and to those whose lives remained because of the loss of so many Americans on foreign soil.

However, this room is not school and schools have been my garden for a very long time. Being isolated from learners and educators doesn’t feel normal to me and I doubt it ever will. To see school communities grow and thrive affirms my life’s work.

But back to Ned’s picture. The other night, while watching a show about Albert Einstein on NOVA, I was reminded of a sculpture by this fifth grade artist. It was fired clay, glazed brown, and held an uncanny resemblance to the violin-playing philosopher-physicist. I hadn’t thought about it in years but Ned could bring feeling to clay and that was very special. When I reached out to an intervention teacher (also an artist, reading not his forte — nothing new there) and the art teacher they both remembered him well and the gifts he brought to our school community. “Remember he had that Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll? Remember when he graduated from high school he went to one of the best arts schools in the country?”

I wondered what he was doing now and turned of course to Facebook where I found his dad and an album of his first show of sculptures which then led me to Ned’s blog.

I once asked my friend and global educator John Hunter how he knew what children were learning from playing his World Peace Game. He paused and then replied, “Pam, I likely won’t know that for 20 more years.”

It was an insight into what really matters as a measure of success for those of us who are educators. Our life’s work to educate well isn’t measured in a weekly spelling quiz, a 5-paragraph essay, a 60 item state math test, or a final exam performance assessment.

Kids remember little from most of what we measure. What they do remember gets embedded in emotional memories, sensory remembrances, stories that stick, the concepts they use to make sense of knowledge, and… even the feel of clay in their hands.

When our children move past us and remain simply as a remembrance of a picture in a frame, we know their success, and ours vicariously, can only be measured in the realization of their hopes and dreams, their talents seen, their potential made possible. I keep artifacts from children to hold on to that- to the timeless learning that represents who we are as educators and who our learners become across their lifetime.

Ned is an adult artist today and he has important thoughts to share about his frame on life and art. Maybe a good measure of our own success is that we knew he had the soul of an artist and we did everything we could to support that in him.

World Peace Game: No Standard Problems – or Solutions

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel by bus to the Pentagon with John Hunter, career teacher and creator of the World Peace Game, twenty-three of the latest crop of 4th grade world peace gamers, 2 teacher-colleagues, the children’s principal, and Chris Farina, documentary film maker of “World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Accomplishments.”

The kids were invited guests of the Office of The Secretary of Defense and they arrived at school early that morning with dossiers in hand containing their white papers and questions on the critical issues of the world. After the children settled into seats on the bus, John chatted with me for a few minutes about the trip, visiting some education topics near and dear to our district’s work to ensure all young people engage in work that engages, challenges, and provides choice and opportunity to pursue passions and interests. John shared first how the children prepared for the trip and his philosophy for “unfettering” their learning.

“Each child was expected to do extensive research and develop a white paper and questions about countries they represented so that they could engage intelligently with adult policy experts on topics of interest. They are people – they are young people -in the learning adventure, their uniqueness appears; there’s no separation or line of authority they aren’t afraid to broach when asking questions and seeking information. When we take the fetters off and the false boundary lines and parameters , they have an unfettered imagination and ability and when given the chance in their own young, youthful way they can develop things that we adults in our staid and traditional way might not even see. “

John Hunter’s been in a Ted Talk – generated international limelight for the last two years for a couple of reasons. First, he represents for all educators the best of creative genius and fabulous facilitation of learning among young people. John also happened to be in the right place at the right time when Chris was looking for a film to make. John is extraordinary, no question about it. He’s the best of ambassadors for extraordinary educators who create amazing learning spaces for children in public schools everywhere. He’s quietly reflective and a wise practitioner of the art and science of teaching. But, when he speaks, others can’t help but listen.  I sometimes say that all teachers who love to teach, love to learn, and value the capabilities of all young people have a bit of John Hunter in them.

“Children show us what they can do when we remove anything from in front of them that might get in their way as people. They come to us as experts in something already. We need to use those strengths and build on those strengths.”

The daylong trip to the Pentagon makes for an interesting story about the current crop of world peace game fourth grader gamers who engaged with twenty-five high level staffers from generals to top policy makers. They even had a chance to chat about global warming, office phones, and other topics of interest for almost half an hour with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I’m not sure anyone else got that kind of time from him that day, but the children did.  Senior policymakers in the Under Secretary’s departments engaged in dialogue with the fourth graders about world issues from the current problems generated by the conflict between Israel and Iran, China’s relationship with Tibet, Yemen’s terrorists’ camps, Mexican drug wars along our border, and, the mistreatment of Syrian people by Bashir al-Assad. They then participated in a simulated press conference in the Pentagon Press Room with Press Secretary George Little.

Not much of what these children demonstrated in their learning could, or would, be assessed on the typical standardized tests they take each spring. John has thought a lot about assessment over the years and what it really means in the big scheme of lifelong learning. He sees a much bigger picture than the current reality educators face today.

“We assess for a unit, a day, a lesson, a week, a month, a year. Interestingly enough, what’s been a revelation to me of recent is that over the 35 years I’ve taught, I’m finding kids are coming back through social media from ten or twenty years ago and talking  about something they learned years ago and saying ‘you said that and I’ve been able to use that in my life.’ What an amazing thing that we educators seem to reach through time – and life becomes the assessment. Perhaps we need to start to open our assessment window beyond our classroom and look at assessment as lifelong.”

It was a wonderful day for me to observe what happens when children have worked with a teacher who has total confidence in their capability (and, no they aren’t all “gifted” by label requirements although no one who watches them can doubt their giftedness as a team of learners) and sets high expectations for a kind of creative and critical thinking work that cannot be measured with 4 choices- one correct response. For over thirty years across multiple school districts, school levels, and demographics, John’s “kids” have consistently performed in ways that transcend the 20th century paradigm for achievement and the accountability outcomes defined for today’s public school learners.

You see, John Hunter is a dreamer. He’s dreamed of no minimums for learning. He’s dreamed of children who will grow up to change the world. He’s dreamed of unlimited opportunities for children who otherwise would be limited by desks in rows and a teacher lecturing them about factoid trivia that represent the unimaginative, de-contextualized instruction to which so many children have been subjected for decades. John encourages children to be imaginative, playful, and passionate about learning. Thus, when they visited the Pentagon, they put themselves on equal footing with adults, a partnership of respectful learning.

“You see the video monitors on the bus. One of the children asked when we got on the bus this morning if we were going to watch a movie. One of the other children said, ‘no, the movie’s in your mind today’… what a great thing that their imagination is their canvas, not some Madison Avenue firm developing their imagination for them…”

John is a believer in the power and voice of children as learners. He sees his job as:

“planting the seed of possibilities in children and connecting them to the larger vision of our country and world… I don’t know the answers to give them. It becomes an adventure for everyone in the classroom everyday. They have to develop their own questions … what they need to know, so they can figure out what other things they need to know.”

Pentagon officials who didn’t know the story of John’s work asked several times if these children were “from private schools.” I proudly told them that these were children from a regular public school and that many more teachers and children just like them were back in schools in our district. They were surprised by the seriousness of the children’s pointed questions, and their public school education.

As one chief policymaker said, “you were fierce in asking senior leaders some very important and tough questions.” It struck all of us that John’s created an environment where children don’t see a hierarchy in their work with their teacher and their classmates. The Pentagon officials considered whether they need to attend less to protocols that block them from challenging each other. It’s a lesson for educators everywhere who dream of children who think independently about challenging problems, not ones looking to the teacher to tell them what to do.

At the end of the day, the children engaged in what’s known as a “hotwash” exercise – one used by Pentagon officials to debrief their own work.  The kids shared feedback for the adult staffers, pulling philosophies from their reading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and their own experiences,  “think forward; don’t be afraid to change your plans if what you’re doing isn’t working; remember, war isn’t the answer.”

The staffers, in turn shared what they thought we should hear. Many of them noted that it had been a “favorite day at the Pentagon; I am inspired by these fourth graders; I am reminded of a teacher who inspired me when I was a child….”

Then one policymaker said something which made me stop and think about the accountability movement left over from the 20th century to which the nation’s children are subjected each day.  “We use creativity and imagination every day to solve problems around the world.. we need more people in America who can do what you are doing in your class….”

I’m struck after visiting the Pentagon with twenty-three 4th graders and John Hunter  that there are no standard problems in today’s world- global warming, water problems, economic crises, political differences, war – and no standard solutions. Yet, we educators spend our time teaching kids to pass standardized tests of standardized objectives found inside standardized programs and curricula that demand no creativity or imagination to generate solutions.

Maybe the Department of Education should talk to the Pentagon.