School-schools & learning-schools

So, the whole pitch idea and citizen-artist project a moving along okay. We’ve started with lots of interactive-notebook-like visualizations of concepts and terms related to citizenship and some initial analysis of Jacob Lawrence’s life and work. I think maybe this project will take longer than I thought and become more episodic. For example, every Friday might be a citizen-artist study day with some reading, listening, viewing, responding, and sketching going on until each student finds an artist whom the student wants to study and emulate further.

More interesting than that project’s limited success are the mistakes I’ve made.

I worked at the idea of school all summer; my students did not, though of course they worked and learned on their own. I felt ready to reconnect with my students; my students experience difficulty connecting with other people. I started off too impatient to start; however, after two weeks we’ve wound up with a new peace that I could not have planned and, frankly, did not anticipate in the least.

This year I need to help students access texts and write more confidently and with more purpose. Reading and writing are habits my students resist, and for the past two years I’ve probably tried to make those things habits rather than instill them with a sense of purpose akin to what students feel when they do their self-directed work. I’ve experienced a very teacherly feeling of success in the past using a routine-and-rituals approach to class which engendered a lot of ritual and strategic compliance from my students. Now that I’m less enamored of compliance, I’m less satisfied with habit and more concerned with purpose.

Therefore, in choosing books to “teach” this year I tried to pick out the greatest hits of student engagement from years past. We have Walter Dean Myers’s Monster on the shelf. I’m about to order Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. We’ve started with Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. It’s working. In fact, it’s working really well, especially when I don’t get in the way with teaching. The only time class falls apart these days is when I interrupt students’ reading and attempt to move them on to another activity. It’s remarkable. Audiobooks have helped with access, along with a willingness not to prescribe to kids how to “read.” It all makes me want to go back to film studies past, to show Life is Beautiful, and to ask kids again if they think love can save someone.

I’m a little baffled. It’s like we suddenly have a different culture in class. We just read until I mess things up. Silently. All together. In the same place. At the same time. For more than half an hour daily, easily. Kids are choosing to read rather than to pursue their own work. For over half the class, reading has become the self-directed work. Kids are taking the books and audiobooks home. This is new behavior at our school.

Did I make a mistake in not trying this earlier in the life of our school and community? Were we ready for this before? Did we need to be together for two years in order to read in front of one another during our third?

I have a finding, but I’m happy enough to be at a loss to explain it. So here’s to purpose and ditching the rest of my planning and pacing for civics. Here’s to forming pro- and anti-cloning political parties, to compromising on a clones’ rights bill, and to predicting the economics of cloning – maybe. Maybe all of that will be too much, but I’ll try to use whatever common purpose we’ve found in reading to drive our civics work in whatever doses we can take and still preserve our community. I’ll try to get us to share out conversations we might have with our own clones and keep the citizen-artsit art show idea alive even as we, apparently, rediscover something that looks suspiciously like a unit, albeit one planned from what we’re doing, rather than what I wanted us to do.

After the long weekend I’ll pitch new ideas about civics work tied into our reading. I’m certain that we can find experts to join our conversations and share their work with us. If you’re interested in jamming with us about any of the ideas in any of the books I mentioned, find me @chadsansing.

There comes a time when what I’m teaching just doesn’t work. A time when I feel like I’m giving up and lowering my expectations by abandoning what I had planned. Why does it feel this way when what I need to do – and when what I should do – is to find a way to teach – or not – that supports students in finding their own purposes instead of going along with mine?

How does this mindset get into ed schools? Can we do away with that term – and can we do away with the charter vs. public school debate – if we just start talking abut school-schools and learning-schools?