Monday, March 3, 2014

Accentuate the Positive

I’ve always had a good nose for what is rotten in the state of Denmark. But lately I’m thinking that it feels equally important to be able to smell what’s sweet over in Iceland. By feeling so deeply what’s wrong with the world, I’ve arrived by a “via negativa” at what might be right. But these insights can only go so far— my sense of what's right has been built class-by-class with children and adults and if critique is essential, then so is affirmation. 

As a writer, head-shaking disappointment and even outrage often lead the charge as I fill the blank page. Having come recently from a set of workshops where I heard the stories about ignorant educational policy, I set off to write my new book as revenge. And that sets a certain tone, as shown in this first draft introduction:

“Common Core. Understanding by Design. Race to the Top. No Child Left Behind.
Brain-based learning. Project Zero. Multiple Intelligences. Emotional Intelligence. Cooperative Learning. Cultural Literacy. National Standards. Portfolio Assessment. Great Books. Math Our Way.

A cursory look at this list of the “latest and greatest in education” from these past few decades reveals the constantly shifting sands of American education. The above policies, theories and practices range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but all share in common the sense of schools unable to find a solid ground that can be depended upon as effective and inspired education theory and practice. Each new idea has a shelf life of one to four years before it is swept away by the next and everyone buckles down to learn the new key words, memorize the new acronyms and buy the new supplementary materials. Hurricane winds bring the next innovation sweeping through the school halls, blowing everything and everyone off their feet yet once again. (Gandhi once said, “I let the winds of all cultures blow freely through my house, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them.”)  The result is teachers who feel disheartened, dispirited and confused, unable to trust their own intuitions and practiced experience and spending far too much of their time jumping through hoops handed down from above. And as soon as they learn the proper moves, new hoops and jumping procedures replace them.”

It’s all true, but is this any way to invite the reader in? I thought of Johnny Mercer’s advice: “You’ve got to accent-uate the positive, e-liminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.” And so I re-wrote as follows:

“Suppose we set up in schools the same social improvements that we are so proud of achieving? Let us feed the children, give them playgrounds, clothing, freedom of speech… These small things will be a beginning, but will not suffice and  to learn what greater remedies are needed, we must study the nature of humanity as revealed in the first years of life. Then we shall know with certainty what is needed.”

                                            Maria Montessori  (p. 83 To Educate the Human Potential)

What is the nature of the child? How does the mind work? What is the role of the heart in learning? If we dig down to the bottom of such questions, we rise up with a clearer understanding of how to teach. We start to organize education around the actual needs of children, start to plan our classes around the kinds of experiences that motivate and inspire, affirm and challenge, actual kids. To be a great teacher starts with a great story about who we are and what we yet might become, a story born from patient observation of children’s nature and an unshakeable allegiance to the child still within us as adults. Once our feet are planted firmly on that solid ground, we’re ready to consider how to proceed, guided in the day-to-day by the north star of what makes children happy, what gives them what they deeply need.

The story that has guided my work with children and adults these past 40 years is that we are luminous beings capable of extraordinary things. with elegant and expressive bodies, compassionate and feeling hearts, dazzling and imaginative minds and soaring spirits. These potentialities are given to us at birth in seed form, awaiting both our own efforts to realize them and our culture’s efforts to encourage and support us in that task. Education is one of the ways a culture nurtures or shuts down, cultivates or lets go to seed, feeds or starves our possibilities. At its best, it fulfills its etymological root by leading out and drawing forth the full range of our promise. When teachers choose the things that help children train their body, open their heart, cultivate their mind and feed their spirit, we are on the right track. When we blindly follow the next trend to sweep through the schools, look at numbers instead of faces, leave the children out of our notions about what schools should be, we are lost.”

You’ll notice I slipped in a little critique in that last sentence! But in general, it feels like a more inviting tone for a book about the details of how to make children happy in school. Comments on my blogs are few and far between, but if you want to encourage me to continue in this direction or convince me to stick with my rotten-Denmark default setting, I’d be happy to hear from you.

Meanwhile, back to work.

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