TEACHER AS LEARNER
I have spent my career in education because it was the best way to guarantee that my own learning would be an essential part of my work. I have been privileged to explore many paths and experience a variety of environments. Over the last 40 years, I have been teacher, scholar, mentor, coach, department chair, and curator. I have worked in institutions as diverse as Dalton and the Old State House, Bunker Hill Community College and the Boston Public Library, Charlestown High School and the University of Pennsylvania. I have taught children, teachers, scholars, and librarians and learned from them all. I have seen the finest of our educational system and witnessed the horrid as well.
During the last 20 years, in my work as an independent consultant, I have focused primary on three, often connected pieces: Exhibitions, Curriculum Development, and Teacher Training. Ideally, the three roles reinforce and support one another as I travel from the ‘archive to the rug’. I take my training as an historian, cull what is engaging and essential to tell a compelling story, work with educators on how they might find relevance in the materials, and then integrate a few of the items in Lesson Plans and Family Activities to illustrate the fundamental skills and ideas that form the foundation of essential learning.
As a classroom teacher, I taught 100 or so students each year and chaired a department of 8. As a consultant, I train over 2000 teachers each year, often in impoverished and/or underperforming settings. As I have traveled from Revere to Chelsea to Worcester to East Boston to Dorchester, I have been able to see past the problems to the dedication of individual teachers, the joy of learning of engaged students, the response to common sense practices, and enduring educational wisdoms. Indeed, after all of this time, there are only three essential truths of which I am completely certain.
SEPTEMBER TO JUNE
The first is that what you do in September matters in June. Before the journey begins, one needs to have a sense of the destination. In the case of education, that means what is the ultimate goal. What must those who go through this experience learn? The selection of this hoped for end result must be considered carefully because it defines the process and the path.
For me, it is the answer to the question:
What would it break my heart if they left the room not knowing?
In this era of assessment and testing, how does this translate into practical considerations?
Education has three fundamental components: CONTENT, SKILLS, AND CONCEPTS, but, in most American schools today, it is only the first that seems to matter. Additionally, there is often a disconnect between these three parts, for teachers as well as for students. There needs to be an organic connection that begins with the inherently evaluative nature of education. This link should inform the learning environment that good educators adjust as they proceed. The question becomes which tool to employ. Far too often we use a sledgehammer when a tweezers would suffice. Truly differentiated learning means to understand the context of the educational environment.
Education should be content rich but the content should always inform skill development and conceptual underpinnings. By making the standards so content driven, however, teachers and students often miss the connections between the various pieces of classroom content, and the result is an atomized environment of instruction and learning. Our classrooms need to become places where the standards are not the goal, but the path to deep learning. As it is, however, today, a child’s education is rife with gaps and redundancies while fundamental skills and ideas are often lacking.
I spent several days at the McKinley School in Revere, a deeply impoverished and low performing K -5 School. One of my standard “drop-in” lessons is to have younger students make longitudinal maps of their bedrooms so they can understand change over time. Because of the many homeless children, I jettisoned that plan and instead we made maps of our shoes, to show movement and review basic cartographic elements. The teachers also adjusted their own landscapes to show subtle alteration. Finally, to understand fully the shifts in a growing colonial Boston, we imagined all four classes in a grade sharing a single room and the students drew creative plans to adapt to the repercussions of urban change over time. The goals remained the same. The path was easily altered.
LESS IS MORE
The second and connected truth is that Less is More. As I maintain the priority of setting goals, of never losing sight of the ultimate objective, I reflect at great length about the real priorities of any educational experience, whether it lasts an hour or a school year. I frame this question by incorporating these essential elements in a reconstituted equation. As noted above, CONTENT, often dominates educational discourse and planning. Although this paradigm makes certain sense from a logistical standpoint, it often restricts more than it expands.
By placing SKILLS and CONCEPTS as the overriding organizational concern, I am able to conceive of education as a process that is both timeless and transferable. A school curriculum built around skills and concepts allows for cross discipline, age- appropriate development over the course of a child’s education, while also permitting individual teacher content preferences to reside within the broader framework.
While the destination is important, as Thoreau reminds us, “…there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center.” How one acquires and transmits knowledge is shaped by many factors and there is not one right way. Content needs to be in service to broader educational goals because its disconnect from skills and concepts works counter to the associative nature of the human brain. We ask students (whether children in a classroom or adults in a workshop) to do a lot. To ensure the value of the experience, to be sure that real sustained learning occurs, we need to focus on how students learn as much as what they learn. So if the goal, e.g., is to see the bias inherent in any text, the actual material read is less important than the skill of critical reading and the concept that even factual material is slanted in one direction or another.
As I have helped schools revamp their curricula, I have tried to get them to understand the value of constructing common threads along the lines of Concepts and Skills upon which the teachers can agree and collaborate. I have also witnessed the isolated, atomized mentality of failing learning environments when school personnel fail to recognize their common interests and objectives.
In my work as the Director of Education at the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, we faced the reality of a vast range of student knowledge, rarely in evidence prior to actual contact. We also had a collection of over 200,000 historic maps. I created a concept driven educational approach, so that regardless of their prior knowledge, everyone in attendance could understand the role of choice, bias, and perspective that is present in all visual images as well as be the foundation for any learning experience. This pedagogic vision would become the framework for everything from a brief school group visit to a week long summer institute. It was woven through 125 Lesson Plans and Curriculum Guides, Map Activities and all Professional Development endeavors.
I chose only 50 maps for our Maps in the Classroom program. Despite having access to all of the library’s several collections, we selected only 110 items for our exhibition on the Civil War and highlighted a mere 10 of those for school group tours and family activities. They provided ample evidence of the larger story we were telling, as well as the pervasive themes of choice, perspective and conflicting values that had indeed ‘torn our nation in two’.
In teacher trainings, I encourage educators to use their own materials more effectively. I have participants “pass the baton” to see how a single item might have salience at several different stages of a child’s learning. More can be accomplished with less, creating efficiency while simultaneously avoiding duplication. Likewise, I have them use different items to accomplish the same objective. But mostly, I have teachers see how any single curriculum piece fits into a larger schema, how it could assist colleagues in their own objectives.
To illustrate this model fully, I ask you to look at the Red, White and Blue School, a fun and effective mechanism to teach the Electoral College. The unequal size of the grades and the problems the school faced—electing officials, allocating resources, solving constituent problems served as an extraordinary model for our electoral system.
A COMMUNITY OF LEARNING (AND TEACHING)
As I transitioned from the autonomy and often isolation of the classroom to the role of consultant, I gained the broader perspective of seeing how many teachers were not part of their institution’s wider objectives and as a result, limited systemic change. This isolation only increases in an era of perceived assault from seemingly endless testing and evaluation ungrounded in the daily reality of the school day.
These observations have led me to the third truth—that it really does take an entire school to educate the whole child. The general strategy involves creating a community of learners, with the practical steps of placing Skills and Concepts at the center of a school’s curriculum. Teachers participate at each step of the process, first by setting the long-range goals that determine what a student who graduates from their school should know. The entire staff then works together to break these goals down, year-by-year, unit-by-unit. This collaborative process engages the passion of educators who went into teaching because they loved learning themselves, and reunites the three core pillars of education articulated above.
The real strength of this approach is that the entire faculty works together to map out the school’s overall curriculum and each teacher understands his or her specific role, and how what he or she does fits into a wider schema. Teachers will also be able to assess their own contributions to each child’s education as well as those of their colleagues’. No longer sidetracked by an exclusive and narrow focus on content, they now are building skills and concepts collaboratively with their peers, reinforcing what their colleagues are teaching. Moreover, the foundational elements of the students’ learning are strengthened in multiple ways, still through many content areas.
Throughout this process, I emphasize that each teacher admit to his or her limitations as an educator. I believe that limitation is not weakness. The strength of operating within a community of learners is knowing what each member contributes to the total education of the students. We respect learning differences in children. We need to extend that courtesy to those who teach them. We can then move away from the true limitation—the idea that each teacher has to do everything alone and develop a shared understanding that each teacher contributes his or her strengths. Teachers develop a heightened awareness of and sense of responsibility regarding what they will bequeath as well as what they may expect to inherit from their colleagues.
I have had success in schools when I have been able to navigate among various stakeholders to enable them to see the concerns and compassion of one another. While administrators often have the big picture, teachers tasked with covering increasing amounts of material often lose site of larger objectives. Administrators far too often seem to forget the immediate pressures and indescribable joys of being in the classroom on a daily basis. Essential to this process, as I have witnessed repeatedly, is establishing a dialogue where all parties are able to hear what each wants to accomplish. In successful cases, participants commit to the ultimate goal of educating the whole child while individual roles become clearly defined and managed. Using this ‘community of learners’ model, everyone is invested in a successful outcome and sees their efforts as working towards fulfilling common efforts.
Central to this process is “taking advantage of the talent in the room.” Akin to the model of Hospital Rounds, I believe teachers learn from one another, so peer learning, engaging the knowledge of senior teachers as mentors, is a worthwhile endeavor. Furthermore Professional Development does not end with the workshop. The classroom must be part of teacher training as teachers are encouraged to combine the creative with the traditional as basic topics are enriched by having them rethink their assumptions which is the essence of the best educational experiences.
People go into teaching because they love learning themselves. Woe is the educational endeavor that fails to draw on that understanding or recall that spark. We need to inspire teachers’ own passion for learning while infusing the experience with practical considerations and outcomes. We need to provide teachers with tools they can use and model strategies that they can employ in a variety of contexts.