I watched a short television interview with a young black man who had just finished high school. The usual questions were asked. How does it feel? Are you relieved? What are your plans? But, his responses and his sad, if not hopeless demeanor, grabbed me. He shared with the reporter that he had graduated for his mother, that had he not promised her that he would finish high school, he would have dropped out. When asked why, he shared that he never felt like he fit in and that school was an uninteresting grind. “So, yes, I’m glad to be done.”
As school and district leaders reimagine their schools in preparation for re-opening them, the sentiments shared by this young man must be considered. From that brief, 40 second exchange, I came away with three stunning reminders.
A sense of belonging and feeling valued does not happen by accident.
We need schools that are more personalized and less standardized.
An education can only hold meaning if it’s relevant.
Anyone who has followed my efforts or who has read my book, The Education Kids Deserve, will not be surprised that these three themes would be my take away from watching that interview. That young fellow, in a very brief exchange, hit the nail on the head! He called out what is wrong with the current status of our system of American public schools. With a few and notable exceptions, they are not inclusive, they are overly dependent on standardization, and they are irrelevant to the very young people they are supposed to be serving.
I’m so glad he made, and kept, that promise to his mother. At least he is a graduate with a diploma in hand. But, his experience, and the experiences of thousands of kids across the nation, could have been so much better if we had done a better job.
Moving forward, we must.
In one of my earliest posts, August 2018, I wrote: It was the Greek philosopher Plutarch who first advised "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." The deliberate fostering of a trusting, informed and mutually respectful relationship within, and among, a learning community may be the needed tinder to allow a spark to take hold, inviting every student the opportunity to construct meaning and relevance in their education. Every classroom is full of fascinating people. Get to know, and value, each one. I continue to believe every word of what I wrote. People, all people, are fascinating. They have gifts, they have biographies, they have challenges. And they deserve, and need, the opportunity to be seen, to be understood, to be valued and to be appreciated.
That, my friends, is hard work. But, it must be among the top priorities of school and district leaders. Intentionally, not accidentally, intentionally we must construct and nurture and protect learning communities to “allow a spark to take hold, inviting every student the opportunity to construct meaning and relevance in their education.” No one can reasonably be expected to do their best work and achieve their best learning unless such a community exists and unless every participant knows that they are an important part of it. That was not the experience of the young man I saw on television. If the truth were to be told, he was voicing the frustrated experience of scores of kids. We can do better.
Moving forward, we must.
Returning to Plutarch’s wisdom, he used the image of a vessel as his metaphor. I doubt he would argue that not all vessels are the same. In fact, they can be remarkably dissimilar other that their ability to contain something. Some are tall, others are squat. Some are intricate, others are plain. There are red ones, and blue, green, pink and orange ones. And, some have greater capacity than others. Just like the kids sitting in our classrooms, it’s the individuality and uniqueness of each vessel that makes them so compelling when seen together. And, all those fires “to be kindled?” They are as unique as all those vessels.
We don’t run schools that way. For the sake of efficiency and accountability, we standardize our schools. We like predictability, so we create curricula and strategies and experiences that suggest that all of the vessels are the same. Further, we assume that all of the fires will ignite at the same time. It is ludicrous! What’s worse, we’ve been seeing ourselves accountable to the wrong audiences. Rather than prioritizing our accountability to the state education department, or to the school board, or to the taxpayers, we should be focusing our first accountability interests on the kids. A standardized, impersonal, experience is the opposite of what the recent graduate was lamenting on TV.
The subtitle of my book reads “Attaining Relevance and 21st Century Skills through Curiosity, Creativity, Inquiry, Integration and Innovation.” It is a sentence that is intentionally full of issues and needed conversations that have guided my advocacy efforts. But today, I focus on one, the one that in my estimation, is key to any sincere efforts to reimagine our educational system. The education of kids must be relevant to their interests, their experiences, their cultural perspectives, their aspirations. Short of that, their experience will devolve into the irrelevant realm of an “uninteresting grind.” We can do better.
Moving forward, we must.