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:

Barbara,

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?

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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.