Saturday, September 27, 2008


Education has changed in the past few decades, and one indicator of this seems to be that we are all busier than ever. The start of each school year feels more like a scramble, with new initiatives, new ideas, new constraints, and of course new students. My father, who retired as a head nearly 20 years ago and who ran his school with an administrative leanness that is scarcely imaginable today, has a very hard time wrapping his head around the idea that teachers and administrators seem to have so many meetings. "What are you meeting about?" he asks, in an accusatory tone. Are we noisily tailoring new clothes for the emperor only so we look busy and important? Are we only working to out-guilt each other with our claims to be working under barely tolerable loads of stress?

On bad days I think he might be onto something, but on the whole I am confident that the work that good educators are doing these days is pretty substantial. One of the main characteristics of the New Progressivism is an almost fanatical commitment to the re-examination and continuous improvement of practice. If we are meeting more often than our forebears, it is because we are at last talking with one another about the work we do and testing our assumptions and our actions against principles and benchmarks that we are working to make explicit and alive.

I spent an hour yesterday morning sitting with a couple of department chairs and the assistant head of school talking about units. We're going to make unit design the focus of both our professional development efforts and our evaluation system this year, and so we need to establish some baseline language and baseline expectations with which teachers can do the work we will be asking them to do. It was a great conversation, ranging from the challenge of creating great essential questions to the feasibility of integrating some Understanding by Design and Teaching for Understanding concepts into a schematic diagram that would help teachers conceptualize a process at which most are already, in their individual ways, quite adept.

The biggest issue we had, however, was how to present these ideas in ways that will not overwhelm and discourage a faculty already working very, very hard. The trick is to help teachers integrate new understanddings into their work in a way that reflects what the Coalition of Essential Schools calls "unanxious expectations"--the idea that we work toward our best not in the hysterical and destructively competitive pursuit of abstract "excellence" but rather calmly and in the service of explicit standards directed toward deep understanding and profound engagement. We have to allow our teachers time and space to build new concepts into their work in a way that is organic and authentic, and we have to give the tools and training to do this well.

A major difference between older models and New Progressivist schools, I like to tell people, is that in our kinds of schools we are asking teachers to take on two jobs. The first is the day-to-day teaching, correcting, advising, and coaching that all teachers must do. The second is the professional work required both to hone one's own craft as well as to forward the aims and strategic goals of the division, the department, and the school. When I was interviewing candidates I called my description of these two tasks the "informed consent" part of the meeting. For a teacher interested in disappearing into a classroom in September to emerge only in June, the New Progressivism is a bad match.

So let's step back, in late September, to ask ourselves whether our busy lives are worth it in terms of educational expertise expanded and student experience improved. I think that in schools committed to institutional reflection, collaboration, and improvement, all the meetings, all the conversations, all the drafts and redrafts, and finally all the new and better ways of doing the work are more than payoff enough.

I'd go so far as to suggest that the modeling that teachers do in such schools has a powerful effect on our students. In a school where they don't sense complacency and self-satisfaction but rather steady efforts to improve, they learn that good enough is always just a starting place. Rather than "stressing" students, this understanding becomes internalized as an ethic of improvement and even craftsmanship that will serve them well beyond their years with us.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Letting kids be

In my working life I guide kids through the process of searching for and applying to colleges, and we're smack dab in the middle of essay-writing season. Seniors have to generate the perfect essay, you know, a 600-word distillation of their character composed with wit, originality, and verbal precision.

No newspaper account of the stresses and anxieties of college admission is complete without an arch comment by some admission officer about not wanting to read any more essays about kids' service trips to Ghana or Biloxi. Apparently admissions officers are tired of these essays.

I suppose I can sympathize. Some of these poor people are reading hundreds of application folders and expected to make sensible and internally consistent decisions about each student in a pool that is probably remarkable for its own internal consistency. These folks want, need, to be hooked and to some degree enlightened and entertained by the essays they read, which must be their only relief from tables of SAT and ACT scores and grade-point averages, and I can't entirely blame them.

As a progressive educator in a school with a string commitment to advocacy and social justice, I get to know, and know well, a whole lot of students who have gone on service trips, to Biloxi, to Kenya, to Costa Rica, to many other places ravaged by the pain of the post-industrial and post-colonial globalized economy, and even to the socioeconomically ragged edges of their own communities. When essay season comes around, many of these kids want write about their experiences, and often I really want them to. What they believe, and their teachers, families, and I know, is that these trips can change kids--that they really can be and often are the transformative experiences that educators and kids themselves hope for them to be. I want to go on record as saying that kids should be encouraged to write about these experiences, to testify not only to their power but to the power of an educational philosophy that connects students to their world in ways that matter.

Students steeped in non-triumphalist, unvarnished ways of looking at history and society will experience genuine and immersive work among people of different cultures and different ways of knowing as true, personalized educational experiences. Students whose education has involved authentic and honest exposure to a variety of ideas and the necessity of examining everything from multiple points of view are ready and able to internalize the lessons they learn from experience in the field in ways that are both compelling and inspiring--as just the kinds of experiences that college essays are designed to embody--and just exactly the kinds of essays that kids are told, for the sake of application readers, not to write.

I will be continuing to tell my students, the ones whose lives have been rocked and perspectives changed forever by working on the farm in Costa Rica or reading to homeless children in a shelter, that if this is the story they need to tell about themselves, they should go ahead and tell it. I am more than satisfied that, in no small part because of their experience in a New Progressivist school, their education in and out of the classroom has provided them with the intellectual and cultural tools as well as personal depth to write 600 words about themselves that will make even the most jaded admission officer sit up and take notice.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Technology, and then some

I've been trying to update the look and functionality of this blog over and above the cosmic wisdom of the posts themselves, and I find myself focusing quite a lot on technology. The links, widgets, and feeds that form the corona around the intended content are almost blinding, but I think that we're not going to be living without their like again. It's really too early to know what Web 2.0 will really bring, but already the possibilities seem endless, and even some of the old technoskeptics in my world are beginning to succumb. Give a man a phone, and he can make a phone call; give a man an iPhone, and he dreams he can do anything. (And yes, I have one, an "old" one, and I envy the 3G crowd and am shamelessly plotting to leapfrog them when the next iteration arrives; I check MacRumors every day in hope....)

But one of the cool things about the New Progressivism is the understanding that technology is a tool, and not an end in itself. If the tools of 2.0 seem compelling, it is because they support goals of collaboration, advocacy, self-expression, and creativity that are the hallmarks of the movement, and teachers quickly learn that students fluent in their use can move quickly to a mastery of skills and content and to depths of understanding that would simply not have been so attainable in a world without digital media. The possibilities for acquiring and using better and more complex data and for creating, editing, and polishing presentations in all media are simply astounding, and the best students become expert at technologically facilitated learning that is profound, real, and lasting.

The trick, of course, is to learn how to process and evaluate what students can do and are doing in ways that align with high, explicit standards and lofty, clear values. We have all seen student work whose form glitters with its own corona of bells, whistles, animations, widgets, sound files, and sheer cleverness but whose substance falls far short of demonstrating the intended learning. Teachers creating rubrics for the 2.0 world need to be astute, not astounded, when confronted with such work, and we need to be able to guide students toward truly effective and sustainable learning using technology. To this end, teachers will need to understand how it all works, even if they are neither expert in application nor wedded to the world of 2.0 in their own lives.

Thus, technology, and in particular the technologies of Web 2.0 and the world to come, may seem to be taking a place of primacy in New Progressivist thought, and I think this is all right for now. We have at times needed to accelerate rapidly in expanding our skills as educators in order to integrate new thinking in cognitive theory, curriculum design, sustainable development, and multicultural education into our work before, and we now have a compelling body of possibility from the tech side. Our students may be digital natives, but it is our job to harness and hone their skills as substantial tools in our common struggle to teach and learn in the name of global equity, opportunity, and security.

A goal of New Progressivism is to create "all-terrain" students, able to function and thrive in any cultural or intellectual milieu. Our students intuit that cyberspace is not a void that separates us but rather a membrane that connects us, but as educators we need to believe and act on our belief that there is even more: that connection is only the beginning of common effort and collaborative enterprise with the very highest of human purposes.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Progressivism: Ready to Go!

The funny thing is, it's five years later and I'm not sure things have changed in the world all that much--"progressive education" still raises lots of questions, and whenever we use that term in our school we get lots of head-scratching.

I'm still pretty happy with the idea of the "New Progressivism"--a student-centered approach to education that applies new ideas about teaching and learning to the development of thoughtful curriculum and assessment in combination with deep civic and community engagement around issues of equity and social justice.
I like to think that this is the way Dewey and his followers would have wanted it, but with higher standards.

The New Progressivism hasn't exactly taken root as a term of art, but I have hopes. More on this as time goes on. I'm back--tanned, rested, and ready for some good blogging on progressive education in the twenty-first century.


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