Dear Charles…

You’ve taken me to task. Rightfully so.

I thought of you yesterday as I spent a couple of hours with a remarkable group of students (some of whom you see here) who touched my life four years ago during the Project for Integrated Expression (PIE), a program I co-created and directed for incoming student leaders and artists, a program cut three years ago. last These final PIE participants, about to graduate, reminded me of the magic that can happen when you put as diverse a group of people as possible together with some powerful creative and intellectual challenges. They made me think of what Cory Doctorow wrote on boingboing a couple of days ago about Daniel Pinkwater’s novel, The Education of Robert Nifkin: “…the slow, delightful realization on Nifkin’s part that learning — especially eclectic, self-directed learning undertaken with your peers and with engaged teachers — is incredibly fun.” They made me think of your response to a recent post of mine:


I hope we all weren’t such acquiescent, diploma hungry minions. You are too hard on yourself. And wrong about us, too. Or maybe just me. Because I’d like to think that my battered notebooks past and present are filled not with the “easy” stuff, but with sloppy helpings of actual sustenance. The napkins are piled up; my belly is still rumbling. The lasting impression you left on me – and I know I’m not alone – speaks not to skinny learning. My time spent in EL 170 and my subsequent follies in writing and learning and teaching (you are an inspiration, you know? a frustrating and disorienting and gleeful prompter of my ideas and my role in the larger communities, personal and professional, I now call home) are more than polite forays from a “nice” Midwestern boy. I look at the relationship and knowledge we built in Rohatyn as a fat (and phat) helping of something real and caloric, stirred from prose and poetry and the interstices in-between. (Perhaps Carver’s slim words were an attempt at a diet…though he only urged me to eat on.)

What’s more disconcerting for me is that I now model my own teaching in large part on my Great Teachers, and that means, to a large extent, my experience under your tutelage. I fear to think that you were just scratching the surface. I’m curious: what would’ve the “really challenging spaces” looked like in EL 170? I ask because, shit, if you failed, then I’m doomed. Or maybe this is just another Mad Dog moment, a question and a silence and a chance for me to fill the quiet with my own answer. I’ll speak, but know your voice is speaking too. And that’s no failure.

You’re right. It is another Mad Dog moment. But I’ve been careless, too, perhaps to the point of recklessness in my critique of formal schooling as it is now. You’re not the only one dismayed. School has worked for some, especially for those who now work in schools. Makes sense.

A single experience, one teacher (in school or not), can help a young mind open to the world’s wonders. Absolutely. Some of us have extraordinary memories of teachers and classroom experiences. And it’s enough to provide the spark. We all need such teachers, absolutely. But do we need school?


School as it is– twelve to sixteen years of desk-sitting for the most part, participating (some of us) in largely contrived discussions (I am, of course, generalizing), doing the same kinds of problems and papers year after year? Do we keep kids in school all in the hopes that somewhere along the line, they’ll have such an experience, such a teacher as you? Or two or three? If they’re lucky, or ready to be moved by the potential of that moment when it arrives? Or lucky enough to land in one of those fabulous little schools like Urban or Fieldston? Or like Pinkwater’s Nifkin, who “… is drummed out of Riverview and convinces his father to send him to The Wheaton School, a free-school frequented by beatniks, idiots, criminals, dropouts, freaks, and misfits.”

My loud shouting from the sidelines should not make you wince. We need you, Charles, in our classrooms as long as we have classrooms. We need creative, passionate teachers who can “sing from the chains” as Rita Dove describes the writing of a sonnet. I tried. And mostly failed–but I believe in making mistakes, in errors, in pushing past the comfortable. As long as my students were finding their way and not being dulled or altogether overwhelmed.

When the impact of even a one-week creative workshop such as the Project for Integrated Expression can have such a profound impact as it had on the group of young men and women who returned to my house yesterday–I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had spent less time throughout their formal schooling years in conventional classrooms and more time interacting with each other and the world through games and simulations and solving real problems with people of different ages and backgrounds. I love that in Vermont, you can still “read the law.” What if primary school were more like a cross between 826 Valencia and Zeum? Middle School like the North Branch School? Exploration. Collaboration. Communication. High school as a cauldron of problem-solving, a place that invites flops and sustained reflection and study of those glorious failures? And college as a combination of the slow (solitude for deep contemplation and reflection) and the fast (internships/apprenticeships/fieldwork within diverse communities) instead of being a tsunami of readings/tests/papers?
pickled eggs
What if we moved even beyond these modest shifts and questioned formal schooling as the sole avenue to accreditation?
What if we questioned what a teacher is and does? That we based our selection of teachers on curiosity, creativity, caring and sense of humor as much as on scholarship?

bg and students in the classroom, a typical day

Thanks, Charles, for reminding me not to run over great teachers and the positive parts of formal education in my zeal to explore other learning models. I’m now a year out of the classroom and still learning from my students–that’s as it should be! I hope that’s your experience as a teacher, too. Yes, I wished I had shaken things up more in my classrooms. Moved beyond the unclassroom, the unsyllabus, no teacher-grading to active engagement in the everyday world–using the skills we practiced together out in our local community, and learning more about writing and reading from those we encountered beyond the school walls. Adaptive expertise. Writing and reading and conversation and collaboration–way more collaboration–just as the PIE students experienced, to better ourselves, sure, but with the wider aim of bettering the world–now, every day, little by little.


7 Responses

  1. Barbara,

    I’m tucking the napkin, readying for a messy reply. (Not sure why I’m on the food metaphor kick…guess I’m just hungry, that’s all). I’ll see you on the other side of Romeo and Juliet and a much needed trip to Michigan and birch trees and good beer.


  2. I love this—his response, your honesty, the good in teachers that does live in. My son has just completed his first year of college. I waited and waited to hear of one good teacher who would sustain and tease and push.

    There was, as it turns out, just one. That’s the one we will remember.

  3. OTOH, what if it is the unusual that is the important thing? Just about all I remember from Barthes is the studium-punctum concept, and it occurs to me that it may hold true for education as well. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read all your writings, so I may be stating something you’ve covered already.) In a world where students are in a permanently more flexible and adaptive environment attempt to fossilize that environment in the name of both rebellion and stability? In that world, what exists to shake them out of their comfort zone. Put another way, if they are always out of their comfort zone, won’t they just create a new comfort zone that encompasses the instability? And if so (at the risk of creating a straw man), where is the punctum?

  4. Dear Barbara,

    I always read your posts about education with fascination. I often find myself unsure about whether I fully agree with your assessment of creativity within education, or if I am strongly against what you say. Which for me is quite strange, since creativity is a part of my everyday life and I spend most of my time engaged in what one would call “creative acts” in various forms.

    I will admit that my academic background is not a particularly creative one. I went through New York City public schools before attending college, and high school was a 3000+ math and science school often known for its intense competition and what one might call “grade-grubbing.”

    It is my experience at Stuyvesant that makes me question your assessments of creativity within the classroom. I will not deny that the demands of my education in high school did not leave a particularly large amount of room for creativity. (For anyone who may be reading this who is unfamiliar with Stuy, the best example I can give to set the atmosphere is that in my graduating class 12 kids were accepted early decision to Harvard. Or perhaps a better example is that the 45th-ranked student in my grade had a GPA above 98.60 – because yes, Stuy calculates GPA to the 100th decimal.)

    I am the first to admit that I am definitely a product of my high school experience. I want to do well in school. I want to please the professors or teachers I have had. I think I’ve grown out of caring so much about grades, but that said I spent most of college unhappy with an A-.

    But that said, Stuyvesant was also the most creative and interesting place I have found myself in. Middlebury and Barnard/Columbia were lovely and perhaps they sometimes offered me more chances to take classes in which total and complete creative freedom was given to me to do what I pleased – I do of course think most highly of EL170 and certain writing classes that followed. But at Stuyvesant it was the student population that made the school interesting and amazing. I had teachers in HS that I think most highly of; they are some of the best teachers I have ever had. I also had some terrible teachers – beyond not being terribly interesting, some of them quite frankly could not teach. It was the students who made class interesting, who brought up interesting subjects (even in classes where the teacher barely started the conversations), who forced me to constantly think in new ways and discover new things about the world. It was the students who poured over the NY TImes during lunch. The passion for creativity extended into the amazing art – visual, musical, theatrical, etc. – which was a huge part of my high school’s extracurricular life. It was this environment which forced me, when prompted to write reflectively in my English class at the end of my senior year, to analogize calculus with life. All of this in a school where the academic environment screamed grades and learning from books and syllabi that were set and all just to get into the best college possible. I loved certain things I learned in HS but trust me, chemistry was forced upon me. But if no one had forced me to learn in a certain way, I would never have taken chemistry or any other of a multitude of things. Perhaps it was close minded in it’s approach, but sometimes close-mindedness leads to an opening of opportunities. Personally, I liked the structure just as much as I liked the creativity. My happiest semesters at college were the ones where I paired creative classes where I could more or less learn and create in a completely free manner with classes where the structure was cut and dry. That dichotomy forced me to find creativity in things that others might not see as creative, to use both sides of my brain and to create my own structure when things were left free and open, and to find creative ways to think about things full of structure.

    So my question for you is along the same lines of the one above: should full and complete creativity in education really be the only way we learn? Perhaps forcing a structure upon students is what allows them to grow, to find their own creativity, to seek the tiny openings in every subject no matter how matter-of-fact the teaching method may be. Perhaps it is what inspires creativity outside of the classroom, so that the students have a balance between full creative outlet and academic control. Some of the best teachers I have had have been the freest and most creative in their approach to teaching. Others have simply been passionate about what they were teaching and the fact that they had students who they could teach. Those teachers weren’t necessarily novel in their approach to the subject at hand, but they were some of the best teachers I have had.


  5. Thanks for the wonderful comments–

    Beth, good teachers are out there, but to match a teacher with a student–at the moment when that learning relationship is ripe-isn’t always easy. And there are far too many teachers, I think, more interested in their own scholarship or in the content than in their students as learners. The system feeds that situation.

    Trip and Elena. Excellent questions. I assure you that I believe in parameters–the box of the problem we set out of which we have to wriggle. We are always in search of equilibrium–following desire lines, when we can, to sense. But to learn, there must be disruption, and in a school that is largely structured, ordered, and predictable, I found that having my students explore the far end of their own creative voices was the best way of helping them to learn deeply. Lots of my exercises asked them to sing from the chains, by the way. But we did it as play–whatever happened to play in school? Whatever happened to deep inquiry rather than content memorizing?

    Elena, I love that you mention the students, and not the teachers, as the source of your most emphatic, memorable learning moments–and you went to an extraordinary school–such a place is not the norm for most people. Almost anyone at that school must have been comfortable to a degree with school, with learning according to the rules, and so do well in that situation and find your creative outlets together outside of class. I love your description of interstices between classes. And of your best teachers possessing passion–that is essential, of course. Classrooms should be places of exceptional opportunity for every learner to seek answers, to explore how to think creatively and critically, how to communicate, how to collaborate–to push to the edge of his/her ability to think.

    “Full and complete creativity” contains order–it is not chaotic, it seeks structure and can absolutely work form within structure. We cram our classes so full of content as though each class competes with every other–who can read, really read and take in and consider 1000 pages a week and really think about them? Plus write papers, take tests, etc. etc. Only the most capable academic thinkers. We not only do not ask our students to think for themselves, to innovate–we often penalize those that do. And many students are not comfortable with being asked to stand out there and sort out what they really think and know. Failure should be a core feature of a classroom, I think. Where’s that in our schools–except as something undesirable?

    So good to see you here, pushing back.


  6. Dear Barbara:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I am not familiar with the conversation you were having with Charles that prompted this post. Still it had me remembering a recent turning point in my life, thanks to 3 teachers (Rachel Woodburn, Linda Hicks and Cheryl Colan). It’s amazing what teachers can do through their access to and impact on students (children, peers, adults, disabled, etc.)

    In 2005 a digital storytelling workshop changed my life. While I’ve only made 1 other digital story since this first one ( ), my teaching was transformed by the use of the web2.0 and digital tools introduced in the workshop.

    Today I do most things differently – relate to people, approach learning, consider Bloom’ s Taxonomy, address learning styles, acknowledge teaching my style- Today I am more transparent, humble, and inclusive. Yet I am also more confident and serene. It appears that my students are more open to change, patient with the learning curve and excited to tackle the unknown.

    Best wishes, Marlene

  7. i feel like i have just landed on a gold mine.

    i teach high school math. i couldn’t read your words fast enough – they felt like they were coming straight from my heart.

    i look forward to future insight – i’m assuming there’s a whole volume of posts in here – that i can consume.

    thank you for your words of hope.

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