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Sometimes when you fall, you fly.

I’ve always profited from taking risks with my education. Not to say that my most insightful papers were written in a batting cage, or that I had a moment of enlightenment whilst reading poetry on a 10 story ledge, but my experience has been that when you ignore that little doubtful voice in the back of your mind and jump in before testing the water, you can circumvent comfort and open yourself to experiences that many people deprive themselves of due to irrational caution. Don’t do this. The water is fine. An example. I was a transplant my sophomore year of college at UNH. I found myself with two years of college level learning under my belt, but was denied a higher level seminar-style class in anthropology that was reserved for juniors and seniors. I had heard that it was a really good class… So I went anyway. This was an advanced class in anthropological theory and we spent a lot of time pouring over very old texts written in the most dense language that one can imagine this side of a legal notice of foreclosure. But the other students were “on” the moment they walked in to the class

Suzuki violin

I think I learned more about teaching and learning from my training as a Suzuki violin teacher than from anything else I have studied. I first encountered this method as a traditional teacher who took a pair of students who had just moved to town from a big established Suzuki program elsewhere. It astounded me that the mother came to the lesson and wrote down everything I said. They treated each bit of instruction as a gold nugget and got very excited about my suggestions. The following week they showed up having mastered every bit of what I had assigned and were hungry for more. Normal students were nothing like that, in my experience. This family knew how to learn and somehow they had been taught to learn this way. I was fascinated and decided to learn more about the method. I took teacher training through book four and when I used it in my studio teaching the results were amazing. I learned SO much about how children learn and the importance of play, imitation, preview and review and so very many other things. This happened thirty years ago and I have done a lot of stuff in education since

The Three Most Important Questions in Education

It’s graduation season again – yet nobody seems to be celebrating. On college campuses, graduates are entering an economy in which the stable career paths of yesteryear are disappearing – and the specialized job opportunities of tomorrow have yet to appear. And in communities across the country, parents and young people are left wondering what exactly those past four years of high school were in service of – and how much, if any, truly transformational learning occurred. Something’s gotta give. The Industrial-Age model of schooling, which benefited 20th-century generations by serving as a legitimate ticket to the middle class, has clearly run its course. In its place, we need a model for a new age – the Democratic Age. And we need strategies for ensuring that young people learn how to be successful in the 21st-century world of work, life, and our democratic society. We can get there, but to do so we need to start asking – and answering – the three most essential questions in education reform:   1. How do people learn best? Over the past several years, a slew of research from a range of fields has helped illuminate a much deeper understanding of what powerful

Well Rounded Education is Best

I was in third grade when a very caring teacher, Mrs. DeCarlo, realized that although I was “smart,” I struggled in class and that maybe something was going on. I got evaluated for IQ and learning disorders and they discovered I was Dyslexic. Having a label to put with my struggles helped me to get the right interventions needed to develop my skills to the best of my ability. I went to resource classes for the extra help, which made a world of difference. Mrs. DeCarlo’s teaching style helped a lot too. In fact, I would say having her for third through fifth grade made all the difference for me. She was very creative in our class work. We did not sit in rows and get talked at all day like many teachers do. We did everything in group settings and break out sessions. Hands on was big for her. Math was all about manipulatives so that you could “see” the problem in real life and not just theory. Creative writing was one of my favorite parts of our week. She had many ways to include it in our daily work, such as story starters. She didn’t just explore our

What’s in that box?

In first grade my teacher, Ms. McDonald, came to class one day armed with a big cardboard box that was so big one of us could have fit inside it. We went quiet as we were all guessing what was inside and what this was all about. Ms. McDonald opened the box and pulled out another box that was white and had a rounded shape. That box turned out to be made of styrofoam, which I couldn’t pronounce yet, and there were actually two of them in the larger box. I did not know what to think yet but my curiosity had me leaning forward to see what came next. Each side of the classroom was divided and so we went into groups and either group had its own box. Ms. McDonald went to assist the other group and my group had a teacher’s helper (I think they are called TA’s now) to give us the guidance we needed for our project. We all got handouts and the mysterious box that could be anything was finally unveiled. We were making ovens! Ms. McDonald gave each side a kit with aluminum foil, a corded incandescent light bulb, masking tape and a

My Poems

I am a high school English teacher. The learning communities that I have been a part of that were most powerful were my graduate classes in literature. In most of them a group of 15 or 20 people who loved literature sat in a circle and discussed novels and stories and poems. We batted about ideas, we interpreted and reinterpreted, we disagreed and really enjoyed disagreeing. At the end of a class we would walk out in groups and wander here and there carrying on our conversations. The reason that my title is “My Poems” is that one of the things I used to do in these classes was write poems. Most of the time some other student would say something, a line or a phrase, that I thought was quite poetical. I would jot it down and build around it, even though it wasn’t my line or my thought, and the person who said it didn’t mean it as poetry. But something about it had struck me as poetic, and that was the powerful thing about those classes: I never knew what strange and interesting and poetic ideas were going to just fly out of someone’s mouth at any

“Prison gave me a sense of urgency.”

My soul looks back and wonders how I got over. How I stumbled past classrooms that couldn’t hold my attention into jail cells that couldn’t hold my hunger for knowledge. I’ve come to realize that a thousand baby steps led me to prison, steps that aren’t always definable, aren’t always recognizable. But the steps that took me away from the classroom are clear. I remember my eleventh grade AP US History teacher catching me with a blunt burning between my fingers. From the window Mr. Scott watched smoke defy the gravity I thought held me down. Even then, as a smart mouthed eleventh grader I’d read more books than I could number. Books ranging from Chinua Achebe to James Baldwin to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Mosley; yet, those books didn’t translate into a passion for school. My teachers never knew about my reading habits and never did much to support them. I can’t name more than four books I read in middle school and high school as a part of a school curriculum. I never had to do summer readings, and never had to walk into a classroom and actually think critically about how something Shakespeare wrote years

Steven Zemelman’s Learning Story

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working with a small group of schools in Chicago that are improving kids’ learning through instructional leadership teams. These are teams of teachers in schools that work democratically and systematically to help teachers throughout the school adopt a powerful practice, such as classroom writers workshop. What I love about this is that it is not only improving classrooms, but also developing teachers’ leadership capacity so they can continue making improvements whether consultants or grant funds or other outside resources are available or not. And when teachers learn how to work more democratically, they come to view kids this way as well. This is a kind of sustainable improvement in education that we have lacked across the country. Too often schools depend on outside experts (like me) to promote change, and then we wonder why it doesn’t last. What’s also exciting is that the well-structured development process the teams are using helps insure that the effort really gets carried out and deepened as it goes along — which too often hasn’t happened in schools. I’ve helped coach the teams — but it’s really the teachers and the kids who do the work.

Kenneth Bernstein’s Learning Story

Can we call this learning how important it is to empower students? My last year at Kettering Middle School, where I first taught, I had only two classes of 8th grade students, each of which I saw for two 73-minute periods a day, teaching them English, Reading, and American History. I wanted them to work on being able to tell personal narratives. I prepared them using several approaches. First, we read a passage from Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton Taulbert. The passage we read was about going to see the circus, but were evicted by an usher and were told ‘This ain’t the night for niggers/\.’ Given the largely African-American makeup of my classes, I suppose there was some risk, but my students knew of my own work in civil rights, and were willing to trust me. The next day I came dressed as a Roman Catholic Monsignor. I then put up two different versions of a personal narrative of my own life, when I as a student of Jewish background was enrolled in a masters program at a Roman Catholic Seminary. While I was Christian, I was not Catholic. One of my teachers, Monsignor

Flunking Out to Figure It Out

I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, and I had just gotten back into school after flunking out my freshman year, so I thought I was ready to get serious, but I wasn’t exactly confident about my prospects. I took a course on African-American Music & Literature with Craig Werner, and for the first time, a light went on. He played songs I was listening to on my own time, and showed me how to find the deeper meaning and connect it to a larger meta-narrative that was all around me. For the first time I saw that the world was far more connected, and complex, than I’d previously imagined. The stories we read opened up new worlds for me, and tapped into my innate curiosity about people, culture and identity. Professor Werner challenged me to fulfill my own intellectual potential, in ways that made me work harder than I’d ever worked as a student. Because of his class, I discovered that I really loved to learn, and that it was possible to combine all of my passions. And I decided to become an educator largely because I wanted to give other people the gift that he had

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