I witnessed my daughter at age 3 years, she played one note on the piano; she heard it with her whole being and she has been playing music ever since. She has just finished recording her first CD. A student who learns with their whole being, who learns as an individual impacting the world (their own or the community’s), who takes ownership of the experience and can carry it forward into the rest of their life…that is powerful. Once in a while I feel that or witness it in a student as their deep ‘aha’ moment changes them forever. As teachers we try to make those experiences be the positive impact we are hoping to bring to the future.
Constructing a narrative about my own learning story has stimulated reflections on my experiences as a teacher for almost fifty years in a variety of contexts and through all sorts of trends and movements. Out of those fifty years, one decade-length experience I now see as pivotal in the development of how I approach schooling. The lessons I learned ranged from affirming, to challenging, to chastening. My career in education began with stints as a social studies teacher in high schools around Atlanta, then as a guest teacher, responding to invitations by secondary social studies teachers to conduct simulations and role-playing activities in their classrooms, presumably modeling these strategies for them. Modeling did not pay off, if measured by the number of teachers who began using simulations and role-playing in their repertoires of instructional practices. However, moving from school to school in virtually every neighborhood in Atlanta provided opportunities to observe teachers in action, as well as the climate and culture in each of those schools. The differences in resources between white and black schools stunned me. The invidious inequities in black and white schools was manifest before me on a daily basis. But it was the failure of all
It was Bill Geer who launched me on my “life of unlearning.” In fact, Professor Geer (as we insisted upon calling him no matter how often he said ‘call me Bill’), challenged us to live just such a life, taking the term from Lincoln Steffens’ essay. It was, he would bellow from the front of the class room, “a damn shame that so many smart young people come to this great University just to convince themselves that what they already know is all they need to know.” Disabusing us of such nonsense and getting us to think for ourselves was a mission he set himself to with great relish, and I was lucky to have stumbled upon him as a professor. I met Bill Geer at a pre-college camp sponsored by the campus YW/MCA. He was one of a number of lecturers and speakers that came that long weekend to try to get us to think about what college held in store; we were more interested in finding our first dates for the football home opener. To this day he is the only thing I really remember about the camp. On a clear evening he held forth about the so-called
I am a teacher in a Title I school in Phoenix. For the past six years, I have been able to raise the funds to take some of my students to the Grand Canyon to take a class called “Dynamic Earth.” It is taught by the Park Rangers, who specifically deal with education and align the trips to the Arizona State Standards. Many of these students have never been out of their neighborhoods. When we get to the Flagstaff area and view the San Francisco Peaks (our tallest mountains — over 12,000 feet), my students are so excited. Last year there was a thin layer of snow at the rest area. Many had never seen snow. They ran and jumped around it until we had to get back on the bus. Their first view of the canyon was like watching children on Christmas morning or some other special occasion.The Rangers took us to a fossil bed a 1/4 mile down. They all learned that this area was once an ocean. They also learned the types of animals that lived in the ocean. Next, they hiked along the rim and learned the layers of the Canyon. The Rangers teach them the
Last summer, I participated in a graduation gateway exhibition of a young man, “Patrick”, at the Monadnock Community Connections School in Surry, NH. Patrick started MC2 four years ago with only one interest, his Supra car! He was able to build on that interest through four different internships and mentorships, to graduation with core academic skills. He graduated with 12 credits of post-secondary accounting courses and has gone on to 4 year college. All because he was connected to a school that connected to him. His comment, “I would have ended up in jail if it wasn’t for this school!” Bravo, CES and Ted Sizer, for creating and fostering the creation of a wave of schools dedicated to true personalized learning! Bravo!!!
When I was a senior in high school, I experienced an intellectual awakening that prepared me for college and lifelong learning as nothing else had. During my junior year I applied and was accepted into a project-based learning program that was available to seniors. There were various projects and courses within this program, but one in particular revolutionized my mind. Part of what made this experience unique was a combination of scope and intensity. We were given a daunting assignment over the December holiday: to read The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski and Civilization by Kenneth Clark. When school resumed after the holiday break, I had the richest learning experience of my life. Bronowski’s book charts the development of humanity from prehistoric times into the 20th century. He views the developments through various scientific and anthropologic lenses. Clark’s book explores the question, “What is civilization?” and he uses the lenses of art and culture to help the reader see more deeply into this territory. Each book contains 13 chapters, and a BBC video series was produced for each book, with a one-hour episode for each chapter. In less than two weeks, my classmates and I viewed all 26 hours
One of the most powerful learning experiences of my life is a recent one where, pursuing a personal goal to develop my “will, knowledge, skill and capacity” for interrupting social inequities, I signed up for a two-day training. The most significant learning took place around an exercise called “The Color Line.” After filling out a self-report questionnaire and scoring myself about the degree to which I experience privilege in my life, I placed myself on a continuum based on my score. I wasn’t surprised to find myself closer to the high end of the scale — I am, after all, a white woman — nor was I surprised to see the lowest scoring participants were people of color. What did surprise me were other patterns the trainers were able to predict: the high percentage of low-scoring participants who held doctorates, how the continuum progressed from darkest to lightest skin tone, the exception of a smattering of whites in the mid-range who turned out to be members of biracial families, for example. While that activity gave me — and other participants – a lot to think about, the trainers were savvy enough to not leave it at that. Our homework was