Are we going in the right direction?

Bird Droppings March 30, 2012

Are we going in the right direction?

            Sometimes when I start my day I have no real understanding of the direction and or course of my day. I walked out into a dark morning lit with stars only and knowing somewhere hidden was a moon soon to be showing. A great horned owl called deep in the pines and around me birds were waking up getting ready to proceed with the day. I paused for several moments listening to an awakening world and headed towards one of my favorite stores to get my morning beverage usually a cranberry grapefruit drink at Quick Trip. I was standing at the counter when the clerk who I actually know yet don’t as we talk often at five in the morning when customers are not waiting tells me he finally read an essay I had shared several months back. Before he could tell me what he thought of my former students writing out of nowhere I am being hugged from behind. A former student at the high school who probably spent more time in my room than class caught me by surprise. She went on to show me her engagement ring and how excited she was about getting married. As I was leaving the clerk informed of his opinion on the student written essay that it was great. I got to school a bit later than I usually do and ended up discussing education and life with another teacher and how over a hundred years ago John Dewey wrote about and developed what is still considered progressive education. We are still functioning within the industrial model mass production of students to go be workers and consumers in society. John Dewey wanted individuals.


“I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground. I believe that education which does not occur through forms of life, or that are worth living for their own sake, is always a poor substitute for the genuine reality and tends to cramp and to deaden.” John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

I recall many years ago taking a test in high school that would indicate what we were suitable for in terms of an occupation. I recall getting called in to the “guidance” counselors who in my day were wives of the football coaches. Funny thing is how does a guidance counselor who does not know you and has never talked with you even offer any sort of guidance. I never quite figured that out while in high school that is until I was told I should look at technical training because of my very poor grades. The fact I had been in accelerated classes all through junior high and all of my achievement scores and tests were off the charts did not seem to count. My SAT score that was significantly higher than many was inconsequential to that counselor until I pointed to it and said I really do not like high school and thank you for your time but I will stay in college track. I was not a very good student in high school 597th 0f 795 students. It seems I was side tracked somewhere in elementary school about education, and periodically I would have a few flare ups of wisdom. The little flare ups during standardized tests were just enough for me to remain in college prep and high functioning classes all through my remaining days of high school.

 So I was amused by the guidance recommendations. I was reminded recently of my turmoil in high school of trying to place me in a job before I knew what life was about and what was out there. It is interesting because across our state we are now trying to do just that with career tracks and educational tracks laid down in ninth grade for students. I was thinking about Special Education and in our IEP’s we do a transitional plan at age fourteen.  What do you want to do is asked and I have had three want to be a rappers and a few professional sports figures on transitional plans over the years. 

“I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive.” John W. Gardner

“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” John W. Gardner

For nearly thirty years I have had a Chinese proverb hanging on my wall that reads as follows.

“You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day: You can teach a man to fish and feed him for life.”

I have been to teenagers funerals to many times and thinking about all the kids I talked with there and on emails I really wondered, as I sat thinking this morning about trying to figure out what these students will be doing in twenty years. It made me think of my own life. I was thinking what do we as teachers really need to teach. With the advent of federal and state legislation demanding certain standards be met it is interesting how teachers and parents get left out of the loops and legislators decide.

As I look at John Dewey and John Gardner’s comments while differing in philosophies a point of interest. Dewey mentions a process of living give your teaching context making it meaningful. Gardner says not just cut flowers but to teach them how to grow the flower, not simply facts. What does this mean to me as a teacher?

“The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.” John W. Gardner


“WHEN most people think of the word ‘education,’ they think of a pupil as a sort of animate sausage casing. Into this empty casing, the teachers are supposed to stuff ‘education.’ But genuine education, as Socrates knew more than two thousand years ago, is not inserting the stuffing’s of information into a person, but rather eliciting knowledge from him; it is the drawing out of what is in the mind.” Sydney J. Harris, Strictly Speaking, What true education should do?

It has been nearly ten years since I did this lesson and it was quite an experience. It seems like yesterday I had two students in my class room and several were out during second period suspended or in School Suspension (ISS), this was a really rough group of kids. I had decided to do a class project that the class wanted to do. I set parameters that were relatively simply borrowing on my Foxfire teachings and trying to set up a democratic classroom.

1. Project had to be of interest to all students

2. Project had to be school appropriate

3. Students had to be able to learn academics in the context of the project

4. As the teacher I had to be able to measure learning

5. There had to be a culminating project and end point during the semester

So a day or two later when everyone was in school we started by first coming up with ideas for the project. The class came up with several, wrestling, girls, cars, animation, photography, building something and several very inappropriate for school if not in violation of state and federal laws.

One however that continued to peak interest and has been an integral part of my class as I use digital photography daily and every student has taken a camera home and taken literally tens of thousands of pictures. As the discussion progressed photography seemed to be the choice and eventually the project became a photography contest within the school sponsored by my second period class.  While tedious in the beginning as ideas it all started and soon took on a life of its own eliciting thinking from these kids. Naturally thinking was the big word and was the main task and for a few of them it was tiring but then on to next step. How do we get permission? Actually after the class decided I had gone and gotten permission from the principal but students would have to proceed as if they do not have it and formally get permission. We actually almost completed the project but in the end behaviors out of my class sent one to alternative school and one back to the psycho-ed program. Unfortunately these two were the leaders of the class. But somewhere in my files is this great effort in a folder.

Watching the thought process evolve from students who often simply do worksheets and or get in trouble.  For students who read several grades below their actual level throwing ideas around about having a voting process and different categories and digital versus film it was a pretty amazing discussion. I argue day in and day out about having context to a lesson. When a student has context for the content it has life and meaning. 

“I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living” John Dewey


“If we are succeeding in our efforts to establish an excellent quality of present experience, people, teachers, students, administrators, parents should enjoy being in school; there should be fewer incidents of violence and nastiness; there should be more acts of kindness, more expressions of concern for others; more open conversation and fewer acts of control on the part of adults.” Nel Noddings

As a teacher I get frustrated knowing that information, understanding and knowledge of what is education and learning are out there in the nebulous but get rejected by a cookie cutter mentality that requires easy quick fixes and various publishers’ approval. I found this article from Nel Noddings and was amazed at her suggestions that follow many European and Asian approaches to schooling. First that excellence in schooling is not that everyone meets a collegiate curriculum and succeeds in it but that individually we are providing and excelling in directions that we are suited for. It could be that the individual student is more adept at art, music, technology, industry or even academics. This was written several years ago and if you get serious John Dewey was writing about this in 1897 over one hundred years ago and why do we never pay attention. The article is Excellence as a guide to Educational Conversation by Dr. Nel Noddings, Stanford University, 2004. We have to as teachers to go beyond in many cases. Sadly what we have been taught in education classes, which has been to do what is expedient versus real. Noddings and Dewey both would agree we need to try and not just teach just “stuff” as Harris indicates. We have to bring life to education and make it alive. As a parent and now grandparent this comes home as well and parents need to be involved. We need to wake up parents instead of simply letting them sleep through their child’s school experience. This is a community effort not simply one teacher and one student. Even though that is where it starts. Sydney J. Harris uses an illustration of an oyster and a pearl.

“Pupils are more like oysters than sausages. The job of teaching is not to stuff them and seal them up, but to help them open and reveal the riches within. There are pearls in each of us, if only we knew how to cultivate them with ardor and persistence.” Sydney J. Harris

“The real difficulty, the difficulty which has baffled the sages of all times, is rather this: how can we make our teaching so potent in the motional life of man, that its influence should withstand the pressure of the elemental psychic forces in the individual?” Albert Einstein

I got a bit carried away today. But as I read this last quote by Einstein who was left behind more than once in his educational experience at an early age can we as a society begin to look at each other as potential pearls instead of just sausages? I wonder as this school year is winding down and a new school year approaches all too soon. Try today to please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and in your hearts and to always give thanks.



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