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An open letter to those in attendance at The Children’s School Board of Trustees pre-board forum on Monday, January 25

This is a reblog of a post I made to tcsnmy6 and tcsnmy7. I’m saving it here as a record of my writing and thinking.

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I am sharing this letter here knowing full-well that those not in attendance will miss some of the references made, but also hoping that the content is nonetheless of value to them.

Thank you for your time and attention on Monday night. And thank you to the student volunteers who gave up an evening to share their NMY experience with everyone. As too often is the case, time was insufficient and the students were unable to get to all of your many questions with the articulate and witty responses that they seem to serve up so effortlessly. I too would have liked to add some additional anecdotes, articles, and thoughts, so I am writing to share a few of those with you. I am also including some links to items that I did mentioned in case you would like to explore them further. I’ll start with those.

ONE. To highlight the thoughtful ways in which The Children’s School has integrated a one-to-one laptop program in the Nelson Middle Years, I read this quote from Ira Socol which is part of a longer article he wrote about his visit to Holland Christian High School in Michigan:

All in all what I saw was a 1:1 initiative that had been shaped by a commitment to rethinking school, and centering the form of school on what students need now - collaboration, access to and effective use of global information, trust in students, belief in leveraging the world of today rather than avoiding it, and universal design.

As traditional schools roll out one-to-one laptop programs, they are forced to rethink school. That process leads them to practices and philosophies that progressive schools have used for years. Of course, even progressive schools like TCS must be mindful of the ways that we integrate technology. Read the rest of Socol’s article here.

TWO. As an example of the transparency of our program, I mentioned the use of the sixth and seventh grade class blogs which allow anyone with a connection to the internet to see what work is assigned and what activities are taking place in the NMY program. On a more personal note, I also shared my use of the Delicious bookmarking tool and, in particular, the bookmarks that I have tagged with ‘tcsnmy’. This is a record of the many influences that pass through my mind as I strive to learn more. It will continue to grow as I encounter more material in my reading. Remember that these bookmarks include articles and websites that are useful or fun for class, teachers, and administrators; that are related to progressive education; or that contain counter philosophies to make us constantly consider what we are doing. The bookmarks are public and available for viewing at delicious.com/rgreco/tcsnmy.

THREE. Not mentioned during my presentation is “Barbarians with Laptops.” It is a reflection that I wrote after the first trimester of school and that I posted to my personal blog. It was originally a pair of comments on the blog of Clay Burell, an American high school teacher in Singapore, and it is primarily about our one-to-one laptop program. This is another example of transparency, but more importantly it demonstrates the sort of modeling of critical thinking, reflection, sharing, and networking behaviors that we expect our students to develop. You can read the article here.

FOUR. Also not mentioned on Monday is “21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020,” a blog post from technology savvy educator Shelly Blake-Plock. While it is only one opinion, I find that the list includes most of the predictions and/or hopes of more well-known thinkers and leaders in education. By my calculations, the NMY program is well on its way to eliminating, has already eliminated, or has never had fourteen of the items on the list. Another six are starting to be phased out, and the final one is mostly beyond our control. Can you guess which items are which? Take a look at the full list here.

FIVE. I just saw this video from The New York Times about the Advanced Placement (AP) program which is so highly regarded by many and often carries significant weight in school rankings and college admissions. Its direct effect is felt by high school students as they look for a leg up in the college admissions process, but this same stress has now trickled down to the high school admissions process, and sadly even to the elementary and pre-school admissions processes in some parts of the country. One quote from the video: “High school now has become preparation for the college application, not even for college, just the college application.” And one question from me: Do we want the NMY program to be preparation for the high school application or for high school, and, preferably, a happy, fulfilling life? Regardless of your answer, the video is great food for thought. Watch it here.

SIX. Finally (and with more extensive notes from me), the Winter 2010 issue of Independent School magazine contains the transcript of a keynote address delivered to the 2009 Mediterranean Association of International Schools (MAIS) Annual Conference in Florence, Italy by William G. Durden, President of Dickinson College. It is titled “The Revolution Is Not Over: Achieving the ‘Big Idea’ in Education.” I encourage you to read the entire article, but I also want to point out some passages that I find pertinent to the discussion on Monday night.

Durden opens by recalling two of his previous speeches, and then leads into the rest of his talk with this concern:

American education has become partial to “little ideas” — facts and procedure — rather than those “big,” complex ideas that take on the meaning of life, aesthetics, and moral and ethical judgment that cannot so readily be measured by quantitative, standardized tests. Education has repeatedly been short on those big ideas involving the aims of education. The results are evident. If you ask today’s college students — as I have — what “big ideas” they have learned in the classroom that influence comprehensively the conduct of their lives and aspirations, they come up with none. If you ask them the name of a philosopher, a poet, a novelist, even a scientist who influences how they live their lives and define themselves and their interaction with those about them, they are usually silent.
Simply put, the challenge is to re­-admit students as enthusiastic and willing participants in the grand narrative that is education.

As a product of the student-led nature of the NMY program, students are “enthusiastic and willing participants” in their education. As they make choices about the literature they read and the experiments they conduct, they define themselves and build a connection to the great writers and scientists that they study.

Durden continues by urging his audience “to reclaim, after decades of neglect and actual scorn, the “intentionality” of education, the “purpose” of education — the truly BIG idea.” He does so by quoting from William Damon’s book, The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life.

If you visit a typical classroom and listen to what the teacher enjoins students to do, you will hear a host of study assignments, exam instructions, and lots of drill and practice. If you listen for the teacher’s reasons ‘why’ the students should perform these tasks, you will hear a host of narrow, instrumental goals, such as doing well in the class, getting good grades, and avoiding failure, or perhaps — if the students are lucky — the value of learning a specific skill for its own sake. But rarely (if ever) will you hear the teacher discuss with students broader purposes that any of these goals might lead to. Why do people read and write poetry? Why do scientists split genes? Why, indeed, did I myself become a teacher? Incredibly, in all my years as a scholar of youth development and education, I have never seen a single instance of a teacher sharing with students the reason why he or she went into the teaching profession…. How can we expect that our young people will find meaning in what they are doing if we so rarely draw attention to the personal meaning and purpose of what we work at in our daily lives?

Durden goes on to state that “[w]e have lost our sense of the “why” of education and the accompanying sense of urgency that motivates both student and teacher”. In the NMY program, we are constantly asking and trying to answer the question “why” and we encourage our students to do the same. This often occurs as part of the long discussions that we have when approaching a new subject, when deciding what artist to study for Great Artists, when reflecting on a project that has just been completed, when evaluating the effectiveness of a teacher at the end of a term, when thinking about how we can improve the NMY program itself, when blowing off steam during Open Studio, etc.

And, for the record, already twice this school year I have been asked by students why I became a teacher — the first time during a conversation in November with an individual sixth grade student during one of our Community Service Learning gardening sessions at the very end of a week, and the second time in December during my end-of-trimester teacher-evaluation chat with the seventh grade students. I can’t promise that they all remember my answer. You’ll have to find me if you really want to know.

Back to Durden, who, at the end of the article, shares a list of competencies and a list of capacities each from a different source. Go take a look at them and think about the philosophy of the NMY program and some of the examples shared on Monday night. I am confident that our program is helping to develop all of these competencies and capacities in developmentally appropriate ways.

That leads me to two of Drudens concluding paragraphs:

Let those of us for whom an American notion of education is relevant commit to reclaiming the original intention of the pre-K–16 experience in which educating for democracy is the intention — not just educating to gain academic knowledge without larger purpose. More simply stated, I challenge educators to reclaim intentionality — to educate for meaning — so as to inspire students to learn and be vibrant participants in the global community.
I suggest a commonality of purpose for both schools and undergraduate colleges and universities — a commonality that guides and inspires educators and students. I suggest it be intended to compel teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom to be infused with both a sense of purpose larger than the acquisition of academic knowledge merely for learning’s sake alone and to engage both teachers and students with a sense of urgency to complete something that answers the” why” of formal education.

What we have created in the NMY program is by no means perfect, but we are off to a solid start infused with the sense of purpose that Druden suggests. Sending our students off to the quality schools that fit them best should be the product of such a purpose, not the mission of our school, nor the focus of our program.

Druden’s full address as published in Independent School can be found online here.

Once again, thank you for your time and attention on Monday evening. I look forward to a continued dialogue about these ideas in the months and years ahead.

Best,

Rob Greco