The summer of our discontent

Storm-cloud by MrFenwick

Storm-cloud by MrFenwick

Transforming our schools will take a groundswell of local action rather than a downpour of educational-industrial reforms.

Moreover, transforming our schools will take teachers. However, this transformation isn’t one that comes from job security or better standards or blended learning. This transformation will come from one decision at a time made by one teacher at a time – by a teacher fed up with his or her frontline complicity with a broken system of public education that favors adult convenience over students’ learning and blame over resolution.

Our debate should not be about whether or not schools are broken based on test scores and poverty rates. Our debate should be about what we are willing to do, knowing, as we do, what is right for children, their learning, and motivation. We must focus on what we can do: we can decide to play defense and the spin the status quo, or we can individually change how we approach learning and our relationships with students and their work.

Look across our summer – to the start of the next school year – and experience its discontent.

  • Schools will still sort students and compartmentalize their time to prepare them to work in factories. Schools will still do the same thing to teachers.
  • Schools will still privilege standardized learning onsite over authentic learning elsewhere.
  • Schools will still punish kids more often than help them solve their problems.
  • Schools will still tell kids what to learn without ever seriously considering what kids could do if supported in their own pursuit of learning.
  • Schools will still be more concerned with keeping kids out of control than with sharing stewardship of our society with them and transferring that stewardship to them.
  • Schools will still lag behind every other sector in innovation – and schools will still look to education businesses – instead of to profoundly good business practices – in “adopting solutions” for learning “needs” without considering the broader picture of our teach-by-numbers school culture and the painful relationships it engenders.

#EdReform and its money never sleep, so if we want to change public education, neither can we. Forget our contracts and their number of days. Forget the stereotype of the lazy teacher. Forget the categorically herring-red conversations our leaders want us to have about the politics and funding of education.

Take action in a different direction this summer and seriously consider what you can do to hack your classroom into a place where students love learning and the community you build together.


  1. Get political about learning. Participate in the Save Our Schools March. Meet with your administrators and school board members to share with them your vision of education and how it differs powerfully from what your federal, state, and corporate “leaders” expect of you and your students. Meet with your Congressional representatives and share with them the classroom impact of their wanton cuts of national education programs that work. Offer to co-write a bill that would re-fund a worthy program facing the axe. Build peer networks online and off to share the burden of educating politicians and business leaders about what schools could be if we held them accountable for excellent inquiry- and project-based work of lasting benefit to their communities. When you write with your kids at summer school or next year, write about education and publish on your blog or a collaborative one, anonymously or not. Help people understand what teaching and learning could be in our public schools so that the societal opportunity cost of continued high-stakes schooling becomes as clear to them as our budget crises are. Help our leaders, schools, and communities see the academic, democratic, and entrepreneurial value in incubating real innovation in public schools.
  2. Get reflective about your practice. Whom are your reaching? Whom are you not reaching? Whom are you keeping in the room? Whom are you sending out? Who enjoys class? Who doesn’t? With whom is it easy to form relationships in your classroom? With whom is it difficult? What have you tried? What haven’t you tried? What are the patterns? What more can you dare? How many weeks or months of hard work are you willing to invest in a class to reach the point where it all works? What do you believe about kids? Inquiry? Project-based learning? Games? Writing? Standards? Testing? What is teaching? What is learning? Under which conditions do they work best? How well do your beliefs align with your practice? What would you be doing with your students if you weren’t doing what the system asks of you, and how can you exploit the system’s loopholes to do more of that? What are you afraid of and how can you work past it? How complicit are you in power struggles and are they the right ones to be having? What have you asked of your colleagues and supervisors, and what are you willing to do if they say, “no?” What would it take in terms of space, culture, and differentiation to make your classroom a joyous place for learning for you and all your kids? What baby steps can you take to make that happen? Start a journal or help us all by sharing your gut-check on a blog. Partner with a colleague to challenge one another safely. Partner with the third teacher to start a little educational apocalypse.
  3. Get moving on alternatives. The purest purpose of any alternative education program is to reach the kids who seem unreachable by traditional means – including reward and punishment. It does not matter what you call it – an alternative school, a charter school, a magnet school, a school-within-a-school, a small school, a specialty center. Pick the label most likely to appeal to your school board. Identify a student need you think you and a few hand-picked colleagues could fulfill. Research best practices in meeting that need – and be prepared to argue for the philosophically best practices that no one has paid a researcher to support. Write a plan. File an application. Garner community support. Do the leg work required to open a new place for joyful and personally meaningful learning by 2015. If you can’t imagine opening such a place in your school system, imagine opening it someplace else. If you can’t imagine finding pre-existing support for such a risk, start a new professional organization or non-profit to support it. Become a school starter.

There is no glorious fall for public schools on the horizon, but we can decide to radically re-shape the microclimates of our classrooms and start terraforming schools one by one, one classroom at a time.

If we attend to the relationships between us and our students, between our classrooms and our learning, and between our students and what we ask of them, then our willingness and collective power to change education for the better will become self-evident, rather than locked away in committee.

And that is it.

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