” You were wild and free once, don’t let them tame you.”
This quotation by Isadora Duncan, who is known as the creator of modern dance, makes me think about what “real education” means because I firmly believe that “real education” is about becoming more, not less, ourselves. In these posts, I discuss how real education involves having a sense of ownership for one’s learning that leads to personal responsibility and a sort of pay-it-forward gratitude. Next, I consider the importance of authentic exploration as an antidote to boredom. Finally, I consider how excursions (and perhaps even “incursions”) can help learners to come more fully alive.
I. Education for Personal Responsibility.
“We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibilities that have been turned over to governments, corporations, and specialists and put those fragments back together again in our own minds and in our families and household neighbourhoods.” – Wendell Berry
Every day at my school, I see spit balls on the bathroom ceiling, drawings on lockers and desks, and the overall mess of their surroundings that the students have left. This shows me that the students are bored and take little pride in their school? Why is this? Do they not consider their education something meaningful and valuable? Worse, do they not even consider it their own?
A friend of mine once told me all about the Cristo Rey Network of schools. According to their website, “The Cristo Rey Network is the only network of high schools in the country that integrate four years of rigorous college preparatory academics with four years of professional work experience through the Corporate Work Study Program. Comprised of 32 Catholic, college preparatory schools that today serve more than 10,700 students across 21 states and DC and collectively claim 11,500 graduates, the Cristo Rey Network delivers a powerful and innovative approach to inner-city education that equips students from economically-disadvantaged families with the knowledge, character, and skills to transform their lives.”
The network’s success has been enormous. To cite only a few statistics, a 97% daily attendance rate, a 90% college enrolment rate, and an 88% retention rate at the corporate sponsors who employ students. Clearly Cristo Rey is a unique and pioneering model that helps students to discover their own potential in a radical, real-world way. The work experience builds character, enabling to finance their own education for which they naturally assume far greater responsibility. How can teachers and administrators facilitate a greater sense of ownership among their students? Will a sense of “paying for it” or “owning their education” cultivate a richer sense of personal responsibility as well as gratitude?
II. Don’t Let Boredom Kill Curiosity.
Students at my private school are often expected to sit quietly in their desks for six hours a day. I hear teachers “Ssssshhhhhing” their students in every classroom as I pass by them. As adults, we cannot even sit through a 30-minute staff meeting without talking and moving.
Teachers often give me “the look” when walking by my classroom because it is often loud, noisy, and messy. Students tend to be working on a variety of projects (from Renaissance fairs to poetry cafes to explorer museums. I am not claiming to be a model teacher, but such dynamic and interactive activities do seem to shake students’ out of the numbness they otherwise have when not being stimulated.
Canadian artist Emily Carr once exclaimed, “Oh, Spring! I want to go out and feel you and get inspiration. My old things seem dead. I want fresh contacts, more vital searching.”
I follow a homeschool community called Wild and Free. It is a community of mothers who want their children to be deeply engaged in learning at all times and to let them live out their childhoods by not pressuring them to prepare now for high school and beyond. This community offers excellent resources for how to integrate the world and the classroom. I particularly love Kristen Rodgers’ nature journaling, and have integrated this in my classroom through “explorer journals.”
Each week I provide a journal prompt to the students, often from Kerri Smiths’ “How to be an Explorer of the World” and the students are tasked with exploring that topic outdoors. It could be anything from tracking the moon every evening to finding accidental art to documenting scents to designing a tiny home. It is the only homework I give. The journals have turned out beautifully and the students have been tremendously engaged. At the end of the year, I host an explorer museum, where parents and the community are invited to share in the students’ findings.
If journaling is not for every student, what are some equivalent exercises that can draw out students’ creativity? Are there other lessons that teachers can learn from homeschooling parents? What habits can I practice personally to improve my sense of wonder in such a way that will also be beneficial for students?
III. Coming Alive.
” Whatever an education is, it should make you unique individual, not a conformist; I should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges. It should allow you to find values which will be a roadmap through life; I should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, whoever you are with; it should teach you how to live and how to die.” – John Taylor Gatto
In Alberta, students study Canada and its people from ECS to Grade 9 (Grades 3 and 8 are the only years when other cultures are studied). Every year students seem to moan about how much they hate social studies.
Last year, I decided to take the students on a weeklong trip to Salt Spring Island, where they would travel and live like the First Nations. For one week they learned to forage for their own food, kayak on open water, tell stories by the fire, and to use the land wisely. They built their own sweat lodge to honour their loved ones. In that one week, I built an incredible bond with those students, and watched them come alive. I had knocks on my cabin door at 6 a.m. asking whether I was ready to go. I even had one student say, “I want to fail grade 7 just so I can do this trip again!” Another student said with surprise, “Wow, First Nation culture is actually interesting.” The students went to bed exhausted, not because of boredom, but because of truly being present and engaging with their world and their country’s history.
How can we teach students in a way that allows them to truly come alive, in a way that makes learning a true joy, not a mere chore? Are there ways to simulate field trip experiences within the classroom that could make learning more experiential? What is it about such excursions that make them so intensely memorable and meaningful?
IV. Living Books.
“My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don’t read for pleasure. When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parent’s rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says ‘PRIVATE–GROWNUPS KEEP OUT’: a child sprawled on the bed, reading.” ― Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
One of the novel studies that I lead with my students is “The Wildwood Chronicles.” The whole book is about children entering a magical realm in Portland’s forest, and the adventures they encounter with the creatures of the wood. This is one of my favourite novels, and I am always recommending it to others. Ordinarily, I wait until May to teach the book so that I can take my students outdoors to read it. As a class, we walk to the woods near our school and read it under the trees. Once, we had the cantor from our synagogue sing about nature as sat and read. Another time, the kids made masks from different characters in the book and took part in an intense survival game (simulated from the novel). The novel so easily allows teachers to integrate all academic disciplines.
We read, they answered traditional critical thinking questions about the book, and they also lived out the book. It was the best novel study I have taught. As bibliophile Anne Fadiman also says, “I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.” This is my position, too. While I know that students need the foundations of literacy and grammar before they can fully play with words and appreciate them, I often wonder if grammar is really best taught to students sitting in desks looking at the board. What is the balance between traditional classroom learning and unconventional and dynamic methods? Do teachers have a greater responsibility for one or the other? What are some other creative ways that students can “live” the books that they study so that they are meaningfully and existentially engaged in the literature they encounter?
**The painting you see on this section is one that the students in my class designed and painted on my bulletin board as a daily reminder of the importance of literature. **
Barry, W. (2011). Prosperous way down: our civilization can thrive when we live on less. Retrieved on January 22, 2017 from http://prosperouswaydown.com/policies-for-descent/adaptation/
Carr, E., & Moray, G. (2006). Hundreds and thousands: the journals of Emily Carr. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Duncan, I. (2013). My life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.
Fadiman, A. (1998). Ex libris: confessions of a common reader. London: Penguin Books.
Home – Cristo Rey Network. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2017, from https://www.cristoreynetwork.org/