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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

When did I fall in love with learning?

When did I fall in love with learning? Or, maybe, why was it that I never fell out of love with learning? For me, my most powerful learning experiences have always included people I admired, conversations that mattered, engaging writing, eye-opening films, and most importantly opportunities to put my learning into action. As a high school student, I had two teachers in particular that opened the way for me to learn in real world settings: Jeff DePew and Ted Munnecke. They saw possibilities for me that I had not yet imagined for myself. Through their support and my mom’s persistent phone calls, I spent a summer volunteering for the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Nearly sixteen, I volunteered forty hours per week feeding small mammals and cleaning their cages. While some of the work was repetitive and physically demanding, the real learning for me happened with the zoo keepers who took me seriously and engaged me in aspirational conversations. Through their questions and guidance they helped me see more clearly my next steps. Through their connections and additional support from my biology teachers, I spent the following summer and volunteering for the Marine Systems Laboratory of the Smithsonian’s Natural History

Jan Resseger’s Learning Story

My primary school in an upwardly mobile neighborhood of a small Western town in the early 1950s was new and clean. The floor was vinyl, the walls a pale pastel. Dim round ceiling lights produced what was said to be the correct amount of light without glare. Desks in rows, we were arranged in alphabetical order. Paragraph by paragraph we read aloud from basic text books cleaned of excitement and controversy. Work completed, were were allowed to read the faded orange biographies on a shelf at the back of the room — Louisa Alcott, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, George Washington Carver, Henry Clay. School was one of the places I learned the virtues of compliance and obedience, what most families expected of white, middle class American girls in that era. My classrooms represented the values of my town. Maybe this is the reason I pay a lot of attention to the physical space in the schools I visit. At one time I assumed that school buildings that appealed to the imagination, that sparked curiosity and intellectual rigor were settings for the education of the wealthy, but I now know that is not true. At Chicago’s Harold Washington Elementary School, hallways display

La Madre Superior

I have been teaching, formally and informally, for over ten years, accumulating many interesting stories and experiences along the way. One of those experiences stands out from all the rest as a lesson and reminder as to why I teach. Unlike most of my teaching experiences this particular one was not planned nor was it in the United States. Towards the end of a volunteering vacation at a boys orphanage in Guatemala, I realized that there was a sluggish pattern to the young boys’ school days — spend an hour watching an educational video, recite math to the nuns, play soccer for a couple of hours, then color in what were supposed to be educational coloring books. So when one of the nuns asked if I would like to teach the boys numbers in English, I jumped at the chance to bring some variety to the day. I put together a quick game and we recited our numbers — 1-10 in both Spanish and English for about an hour, after which we went and played our daily soccer game. It was not until later in the day, during coloring time, that I realized the true impact I could leave the

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.

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