“People are jagged.” These words lingered in my head as I left our group meeting this week, where we discussed the progress we have (or haven’t) made on our final project at CSW. As it turns out, designing an integrated studies curriculum becomes much easier (and perhaps requires) an integration of the minds. These meetings have typically involved consulting one another on our ideas, and have been particularly helpful for working through places we might feel stuck. More often than not, these meetings also involve larger discussions of school systems; where everything from deadlines, to bells ringing at the end of class periods, to assigning homework in elementary school is put into question.
It is during these discussions that I hear my frustrated, fourteen-year-old self in those sweaty, adrenaline producing final-exam moments, “Is this really going to help me in life? Who decided that everyone needs to go to school anyway?“. I didn’t know it yet, but I was starting to deconstruct school systems in a way not unlike these meetings I am a part of today. It starts with questions: Why are students given identical forms of instruction, assignments, and deadlines when they have different learning styles, interests, skill-sets, processing speeds, etc.? That is say, if “people are jagged”, why are school systems flat?
The simplest most glaring explanations are a) it’s easier and b) it’s fair. The former is difficult to argue with- though, easier of course doesn’t mean better, but that opens up a whole debate about intrinsic motivation- so I am going to run with the latter. Is it really fair? Having instruction, assignments, and deadlines be consistent across all students certainly speaks to treating all students equally, but the upshot is that some real differences amongst people are being ignored. Although teachers can adjust and account for these differences at the classroom level, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a foundational system that factors these differences in to begin with? Rather than working backwards from system, teachers could focus more on moving their students forward.
To borrow some CSW buzz words: Educators need to think about Intent vs. Impact when designing school systems and curriculum. The intent of providing equality is a good one, but as the photo below depicts it may not always have a desirable impact.
By creating equitable school systems and curriculum however, we can better help all kinds of “jagged” students to have successful learning experiences. We have acknowledged in our discussions that this not an easy endeavor, as it requires rethinking an education system that has been ingrained in us before we could probably form full sentences. However, the potential outcome for deeper and more accessible learning for all students makes it a project worth pursuing (or at least discussing for now).
Thanks for reading,
[Mythologies are] stories about the wisdom of life, they really are. What we’re learning in our schools is not the wisdom of life. We’re learning technologies, we’re getting information. There’s a curious reluctance on the part of faculties to indicate the life values of their subjects”– Joseph Campbell 1985 The Power of Myth
The PELlows had our first workshop this week to aid us in designing an integrated studies curriculum (our module 2 project at CSW!). We spent most of our hour together discussing positive personal learning experiences that had occurred outside of school in an effort to identify recurring patterns of successful learning stories. I talked about learning yoga, Matt discussed learning from an improvisation scene, Ruth’s story was about after- school robotics, while Arielle’s was about teaching outdoor education. Despite the wide array of learning experiences we described, some common themes appeared:
•peer collaboration • autonomy • teaching that induces learning • mistakes • having no “right answer” •mentor • failure • reflection • time • context • application • teachable moments
Of course, these elements manifested differently for each story. While failure for Matt was an improv scene that “just didn’t work”, for me it was injuring my foot while pushing beyond my limits in one of my first yoga classes. For Arielle, teaching fourth-graders about the outdoors taught her about effective leadership and group dynamics, and for Ruth, teaching her peers about robot mechanisms helped her to gain a better understanding of those mechanisms herself.
Noticing these common threads in our learning stories raised the questions: Why are these elements important for learning? Are these necessary components for successful learning to occur?
We also briefly talked about the overlap of these ideas with Joseph Campbell’s model, The Hero’s Journey (see below). Note “Meeting the Mentor”, “Allies” which may be thought of as the peer collaboration aspect, “The Ordeal” as failure or mistakes, and “The Return with the Elixir” as teaching that induces learning. I was very intrigued by this connection because I was first exposed to this model in one of my favorite classes (way back when) my junior year of high school. I remember being fascinated that there was a secret framework to all the stories that I had known and loved- I felt simultaneously cheated and enlightened. So in honor of my seventeen-year-old self, I read some interviews of Campbell this week in the Power of Myth found in our *ad drop* very own CSW library.
What I learned is that Campbell talks about this heroic cycle in the context of myths. Mythologies that have been around since the beginning of time often have a hero that follows this cycle in one way or another, as do many stories in entertainment we know today (ie. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). Campbell argues that myths are “stories about the wisdom of life”, which is partly why we must be so drawn to them. They aren’t just entertainment, but they “Put [our] mind[s] in touch with the spirit of being alive”.
Campbell also says that schools don’t focus on “life values” perhaps as much as they should have (it should be noted this was in 1985). I wonder then, if school focused on incorporating myths and stories of the hero’s journey, students would be more drawn to learning- the same way they are drawn to movies for life inspiration. It seems to me progressive education is making an effort to inspire life, perhaps more so than traditional forms. Not necessarily by telling myths in the classroom, but by incorporating life values. After all, John Dewey says “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”
I think that the successful learning experiences the four of us described in our workshop were examples of learning occuring in “life itself.” Is there a way to emulate such learning experiences inside classroom? To incorporate these seemingly effective elements of learning? As I think about designing an integrated studies curriculum, I will keep the hero’s journey and The Power of Myth in mind. How wonderful would it be if a student was as excited about coming to class as they were about going to the new Star Wars or, at the risk of sounding cheesy, felt like their very own Luke Skywalker on a quest to learn.
Thanks for reading!
Somehow five whole weeks have passed since we got to CSW; we’re done with the first mod, classes with our mentors, and weekly workshops. Now, as we’ve gained some experience, we’re being given some autonomy as well; we can choose a class and teacher to learn from and to collaborate and spend our days with. Gone are the days of following schedules carefully constructed entirely by someone else, but the daily mentor meetings are gone as well. I have to say, as much as I’ve enjoyed and learned in Tad’s Animal Behavior class, I’m excited to be in a math class (my subject area of choice) — Algebra 2 with Agnes.
Just as Mod 1 ended, the PEN (Progressive Education Network) Conference began in Boston; Arielle and I got tickets and each attended four workshops of our choice over the course of two days. Some of mine were more about general integrated/interdisciplinary education, but I also went to a couple math-specific ones. Progressive education in math seems to me to be objectively the most problematic. Mastery of math concepts seem to be the most easily measurable and comparable, and meeting certain standards is very important in our society, especially in the college application process. High school math is a subject everyone is expected to take, and unlike other subjects, the most important aspect seems to be getting the correct answer, rather than being able to synthesize information and understand how to get to the right answer. (English and history involve some memorization, but synthesis of information is also valued; subjects like science and foreign language generally have different options available — there aren’t universal standards).
How, then, can we re-frame math in such a way that understanding and skills become the goal, instead of simply trying to get the correct answer? In some of the workshops I attended, the teachers integrated math into multidisciplinary units their students were focusing on; however, this approach mainly seemed to work with lower levels, where math is primarily computation-based. While it is possible to incorporate higher-level math into interdisciplinary studies, its real-world applications do become more limited. So how can one teach higher-level math in a progressive way? I attended a workshop for Problem-Based Learning (not to be confused with Project-Based Learning, which happens to have the same acronym–PBL), which was run by a woman who taught high school math exclusively in this style. This approach is very collaborative, and promotes students helping each other to learn, but at the same time, it almost eliminates the need for actual teaching, and I tend to believe the importance of both student and teacher participation in the classroom. I think both approaches–using interdisciplinary or real-world applications, and having discussions and students as experts–have great value in creating a math class in the style of progressive ed, but I think neither one by itself can provide a student with all the necessary learning, or allow all different types of students to excel. Nonetheless, I found what I learned to be valuable, and perhaps having this new knowledge can help Agnes and me to improve the Algebra 2 class in which I am assisting. Either way, I’m excited to see how Agnes runs her class and what methodologies she uses to help her students, and to learn as much as I can about how to be a good teacher.
I must have experienced this sensation before, but I don’t remember when: since I started the PEL program, I’ve been getting pleasant headaches.
I don’t mean pleasant headaches in the metaphorical sense of having problems that are a result of being in a great situation, such as having too many quality restaurants to choose from for dinner. I mean the kind of headaches that let you know that you’ve put in a long shift of thinking that day; your brain takes a deep breath and does some stretching to cool down from the aerobics it was just doing.
I’ve grown to be familiar with these good headaches in my three weeks in the PEL program so far. I’ve been struck by the thoroughness with which questions pertaining to all aspects of education are dealt with here at the Cambridge School of Weston, how every decision in the classroom–from room set up to the method used to divide students into groups to discuss to the impact of the use of direct and indirect questions on students of different cultural backgrounds–is deliberate and made only after discussion and close consideration.
The continual questioning of the merits of different classroom practices through discussion and readings from experts, paired with careful observation of classroom dynamics across the campus and with assisting in classes to apply the practices and see them applied by experienced teachers, makes up our days here. To make the most of our time at CSW, we are flitting from class to class, connecting with students, faculty, our mentors, each other, and taking on new responsibilities as educators, learners, co-workers, and friends. It’s exhausting.
That is the most difficult part of the program: the schedule means we always have to be thinking, analyzing, and experimenting; it’s tiring work, and I feel my brain stumbling to the finish line some days.
As I type this, sitting on the couch in the living room of our on-campus apartment, my brain is still reeling from my experience today taking the reins for the first time and leading a lesson in the Cold War history course I have been assisting in. I am glad to have that experience under my belt, but my mind is flying is 20 different directions thinking about all the things to improve on and keep in mind when I come into class to continue the lesson tomorrow.
But that brings me to the best part of the program: the schedule means we always get to be thinking, analyzing, and experimenting; thought it’s tiring work, the feeling of accomplishment when I finish a day I am glad to have put in the effort. That I can come home feeling that I am learning how to teach in a way that is thoughtfully considered and carefully questioned by my fellow PEL fellows and me is an immense source of pride. I affirm every day that I believe in the way that I’m teaching, and we are never asked to do anything because “that’s the way it has always been done.” My brain might hurt just as much if I was learning about education in a more traditional mold focused on keeping students in line, on task, and performing well on a battery of standardized tests. But my brain wouldn’t hurt nicely. If I didn’t see that the work–the thinking–was what has built such a motivated, lovely, caring community here at CSW, it wouldn’t be worth the headache.
I love the feeling that I am confident my brain is exercising by working on understanding something I believe in, and I love being surrounded by other people–the students, the mentor teachers, and my fellow fellows–who relish those same kinds of headaches. That’s the beauty of the Progressive Education Lab.
So perhaps you have read our introductions, but what are we really about? I present to you, wonderous reader of this blog,
Getting to know the PELlows
(Yes Matt, it is a very funny joke.)
I (Arielle) have come up with some important questions that I hope will shed some light on our individual personalities, things we have learned, and sense of humor. Enjoy!
First of all, why PEL? Please answer this in as few words as possible.
Ruth: For fun. And learning. (or maybe the other way round)
Sarah: For the kids.
Matt: It’s *thumbs up*
Arielle: Because Duh.
Is there something about CSW or progressive education as a whole that has surprised you?
Ruth: On a less serious note, I was really surprised by the fact that students here have no dress code, and the only thing they are obligated to wear is shoes.
Sarah: The level of student involvement. I am impressed by how much student leadership there is on campus, as well as the amount of input students have of school programming.
Matt: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how the arts permeates everything done at CSW; the arts offerings at my high school were comparatively meager, and I’ve been amazed at the quality of work students–even ones who aren’t focusing on studying art–produce.
Arielle: How intentional everything is! There are so many details that as a student I never thought about or even knew about. I now see how much thought and work goes into making a school the best it can be for the students and the community as a whole.
What has been challenging?
Ruth: Something I’ve been conscious of is finding my role in the school–I’m no longer a student, but nor am I quite a teacher, so I’m having to figure out the different expectations people have for me. It’s difficult reconciling the image other people have of me as an adult with my own image of myself as a kid/young person.
Sarah: If possible, I would go to every class and every activity/club here. There are so many intriguing opportunities here, that I almost wish I could go back to highschool here to try them, almost. It has been a challenge both to chose what I want to be involved in and to find the time and energy to maximize that involvement.
Matt: It has been somewhat challenging to learn how to balance wanting desperately to engage with the material and making sure that I’m learning how to observe and to understand the craft of teaching with a broader scope than just in the history department.
Arielle: We have been doing a lot of readings (which individually are not very challenging), and having discussions as a group and a larger group with our mentors. I have been thinking so much about education and the different ways of thinking–it has been hard to sort through it all! It just is a lot to comprehend and our discussions have been really challenging my ideas, it is a little bit overwhelming.
What about something you are looking forward to? (Either at CSW or in general)
Ruth: I can’t wait to visit all the schools; I’m still figuring out how the values and ideas of progressive ed are put into practice, and I’m excited to see how the different schools do that.
Sarah: I’m really looking forward to leading the wilderness trip in the White Mountains at CSW!
Matt: I’m also looking forward to seeing the schools, especially the Pennsylvania schools that we are the first fellows to get to see! I think it will be great to get involved in different ways at each school and to take on the challenge of finding a role in the different cultures.
Arielle: I am really looking forward to simply being at Putney. I love Vermont and can’t wait to be outside more.
Some more very important questions…
What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?
Ruth: As long as they have salt or some flavor, they’re good for me. They’re such versatile vegetables.
Sarah: Roasted with rosemary. You can’t go wrong.
Matt: There are so many ways to love potatoes. I don’t know if I can pick just one, but I recently started making my potato salad with a dressing based on chimichurri sauce (a spicy South American sauce), and that has been an exciting discovery for me.
Arielle: I LOVE sweet potato fries…And especially sweet potato tots. Yummmm
If you were an animal, what animal would you choose to be? Or what animal do you connect with?
Ruth: I think that having a functional tail would be awesome, so perhaps I’d be one of those little monkeys that can use their tail like a fifth limb and always look like they’re having a bunch of fun.
Sarah: A great-horned owl so I could fly and live in forests.
Matt: I definitely change my answer every time I answer this. But today I’d say it would be awesome to be one of those little water strider bugs. Scooting on the water like that seems so fun.
Arielle: I would be a river otter. I am definitely a warm personality (which in my mind equates to a mammal) and also am most at peace when I am near water–specifically freshwater. Plus otters are cute and cuddly while also being tenacious.
Today is the autumnal equinox, what is your favorite thing about autumn?
Ruth: I’ve never really had a true Northeast autumn, so I guess I’ll find out my favorite thing soon! Though I am very excited to pick apples and have cider donuts, which I think is a fall thing.
Sarah: Pumpkin pie and warm sweaters.
Matt: It is prime soup season.
Arielle: The leaves. I love colors, so watching the leaves change and just noticing the little day to day differences is simply a joy.
Please give an inspirational quote of your choosing:
Ruth: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, it’s also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill
Sarah: “Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.” -Susan Sontag
Matt: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
Arielle: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, And the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha
Sarah Nelson hails from the Chicago land area by way of southern California. She recently graduated from Pitzer College, where she studied human biology and participated in the Bhutan exchange program for one semester. Outside of the classroom, Sarah worked in the campus writing center and participated in the outdoor leadership program. In her final year, she researched contemplative learning and explored the power and efficacy of mindfulness practices in higher education.This past summer, Sarah led backcountry trips for teens and was lucky enough to hike, kayak, and explore places such as the North Cascades and British Columbia. If she’s not outside, she’s probably practicing yoga, attempting to play a string instrument, listening to the Hamilton soundtrack, or cooking.
She is very excited to have the opportunity to continue exploring experiential learning and education this year as a PEL fellow. At CSW Sarah is currently working in the English department with her mentor Katie in The Odyssey class. She has loved getting the chance to observe a variety of classes and teachers so far, and start to understand what progressive education looks like in practice.
Matt Linden recently graduated from Cornell University with a double major in History and Linguistics. Originally from Acton, MA, Matt is excited to be starting the Progressive Education Lab fellowship close to home, but he is also looking forward to experiencing life in the Philadelphia area and in Vermont! Matt is an aspiring history teacher, with a particular interest in periods of contact between European colonial powers and indigenous peoples in other regions of the world; he wrote a senior thesis on this topic that specifically explored the relationship between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations’ languages’ speakers and the speakers of French, English, and Dutch in upstate New York and Canada.
In his free time, Matt is an improv comedian who also dabbles in stand-up and sketch comedy. He is an avid Boston sports fan (especially the Red Sox) and a supporter of Chelsea Football Club in the English Premier League. He is a trivia and board game buff, and he loves to relax by cooking.
In his first week at CSW, he has been working in the history department with Anjali Bhatia (and learning from her zen wisdom) on the Cold War class and enjoying getting acclimated to the school with his fellow fellows. He is also looking forward to letting you all know how the year is progressing!
Ruth Bagley is a PELlow from Houston, as well as an aspiring math teacher who recently graduated from Haverford College (near Philadelphia) with a major in Linguistics and Languages and minors in Computer Science and Chinese. In her free time, Ruth likes to practice piano, casually learn various foreign languages (she is currently working on Chinese and German, and has a pretty good grasp of Spanish), and code, as well as do puzzles and play with her cat, Mishi (meaning ‘cat’ in Ecuadorian Kichwa).
Although Ruth has pursued a number of different interests, she kept coming back to education, and because the values of progressive education most align with her own, she is excited to become a teacher in progressive ed through this PEL program. Currently, Ruth is working with her mentor, Tad Lawrence, in his Animal Behavior class, and though she has a particular interest in STEM education, she is trying to observe other classes in as many areas as possible in order to see what progressive ed looks like in different disciplines.
Arielle Drisko is originally from Lexington, MA. She graduated from Colorado College in 2016 with a degree in Art. She spend most of her art student career working in drawing, oil paint, and printmaking. She would describe color as her “happy place” in the art world. This past year she worked as an instructor at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont. Her job there included everything from running ridiculous tag games, facilitating team building challenges, and belaying on a high ropes course. Arielle is fascinated by science, especially when it pertains to the nature that surrounds her. As an educator she strives to help students discover their strengths and learn about themselves through art and creativity. Arielle also happens to be a Cambridge School of Weston alum who graduated in 2012.
At this first section of PEL Arielle is paired with Chris, chair of the art department, and currently both observing and helping in his Experimental Film class. She has enjoyed being back at her high school, even if it is a little weird for her. She also has realized how amazing the opportunity is to be able to learn from the teachers that helped inspire her to become one. She has loved the PEL experience so far and is excited about all of the adventures to come!
I taught my first class at Calhoun on Friday – Inauguration day. I knew I wanted to be with fellow teachers and students on this day. In the absence of the teacher of Anatomy for Artists, a mixed grade level class in the upper school, I got the chance to design the class that would introduce his proposed assignment, which students will continue into next week.
The assignment was to personify or visualize, using any medium, a disability, deformity or disease. Given the day, I was especially moved to use this opportunity to frame our initial research as a class around able-ism as it appears in language and cultural media. I decided to begin our exploration of the theme of disability, deformity, disease through a short story, one of the Grimm Fairy Tales, per Auguste’s suggestion. I selected The Girl Without Hands for its intersectional commentary on gender and deformity and for its portrait of deformity as caused by malevolent forces and a return to able-bodied-ness as “happy” ending.
After reading the story we looked at images of disability, deformity and disease with 3 questions in mind: What does it mean to be “able-bodied”?, “What is a physical “limitation”?, and How is “ability” portrayed in The Girl Without Hands? The images included a Vermeer painting of a pregnant woman, A sculpture of a bust depicting a single mastectomy due to breast cancer by Nancy Fried, a brail painting of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” and a painting of two boys with intellectual disabilities including one with down syndrome by Chris Rush.
The students then began a marker talk answering these questions and in some cases responding to each other’s answers. Then, as a class we discussed the over-all themes we had discovered before students got to work on their visual representations. During this part of the class we reviewed the definition of able-ism and some concrete examples of its existence in our architecture and language. I would have loved to keep going with this conversation but I hope to be a part of continuation of this process in Auguste’s class, perhaps finding a way to continue it as part of a mid-project, or final critique.
The past few weeks have been busy and filled with lots of math as I’ve been teaching a new subject at Unquowa. I’ve never been a math teacher before. Science is usually my thing, but I was surprised at how easily fifth grade math came to me. It’s as if thirteen years haven’t passed since I learned this stuff myself. I love the simplicity of math and I love that it can be easily applied to the world around me and the world of my students. My first lesson at Unquowa involved using a bucket of plastic animals to explain multiplication properties. My students seemed to like the tiny zoo of multiplication properties and I’ve enjoyed finding other ways to make the math tangible and interesting since then.
For the Aldrich lesson, I was tasked with designing something for the seventh and eighth graders to enjoy instead of my usual fifth grade class. I was a bit nervous at the prospect of being filmed as teaching a lesson in front of a camera is a new experience for me. I wasn’t too worried about coming up with an interesting lesson though. As soon as I saw the pans of water in Peter Liversidge’s “Proposals to the Aldrich,” that the artist claims are proportional to the largest freshwater lakes in Connecticut, I figured that a lesson on proportion and direct variation was in the works.
At least, that’s what I thought my lesson would be about. I planned to have the students pretend to be anthropologists from the future on a quest to use art, the one thing that remains when everything else is gone, to figure out the proportions of the long-ago dried up lakes in Connecticut. I gave them two lake measurements and all of the tin measurements and asked them to use direct variation to find the remaining lake measurements. Then, the night before, as I was checking and rechecking the math on my handouts, I kept finding that no matter how I did it, the numbers didn’t add up. The scale factor was not the same for each of the lake-tin pairings, not even close.
I panicked for a bit as I wondered how in the world to salvage the lesson. I emailed my mentor and sat in front of my notes and the giant flip chart I’d be using to show how to do direct variation. Then, it occurred to me that the proportions being wrong was actually a great opportunity to teach more than just proportions. I kept the same science fiction tilt to the lesson, but added in a few of the lake measurements to leave only three blank. I told my students the next day that their job was twofold. They needed to first decide if the artist was correct enough in his claim of proportionality to render the piece a useful source of data, and if so, to use it to find out the measurements of the missing lakes.
Out of the four groups of students, each one worked at a different pace. I was worried that they would doubt themselves and become frustrated as soon as they found that things weren’t adding up. One student said “Mr. Teachey, they definitely have to be proportional because you wouldn’t make up a worksheet about it if they weren’t.” I was hopeful that they would trust enough in their math skills to be able to question the artwork and perhaps more importantly, to question their teacher. I’d never thought of critiquing art as a mathematical endeavor before, but my students ended up doing a good job of it. Each group figured it out, though at their own pace and with their own bumps along the way. My students were surprised when I told them that I didn’t make up the artist’s intentions and showed them the proposal on the wall. Some seemed surprised that the artist had seemingly done his math wrong. Others seemed surprised that I had set up a situation in which their job was not really to solve the second problem but to prove that they couldn’t trust the source of their data.
I felt very satisfied about how it had turned out. Despite the panic of the night before when I realized how things didn’t add up, it lead to a much richer, deeper lesson than I could have hoped for if the artist had been perfectly exact in making proportional representations of the lakes. Knowing how to assess a source, and even to question authority, seems like good value added even at the price of a bit of fumbling and panic during the planning of it.
-Caleb, also known as Mr. Teachey
First of all, [insert cliche here about inserting a cliche about how time has flown by and we’re almost done at Unquowa.]
To say that the last month has been a whirlwind would be a gross underestimation of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that myself, the other fellows, and the country at large have endured recently. It’s been a busy time. Let’s begin with rivers.
At the beginning of this month, I taught a lesson designed to move the 6th grade Humanities class on from their studies of prehistoric Hunter/Gatherer people, on towards early civilizations. The idea was that we’d take our basic understanding of when and why people began farming, discuss why large rivers were so crucial to so many of them, and then spend time in the Makerspace making a large, functional river model of our own.
Well, the lesson was cool, but that’s a whole class in and of itself I’d like to teach. The way things changed when people started practicing agriculture, the social institutions and practices that came about as a result, the way the health of people and the planet has shifted so drastically since then, the recent conception of such seemingly normal things as war and private property – it was stressful, to say the least, to try and contain all of what I wanted to say in just 45 minutes.
The project that resulted in the Makerspace is a whole other story. I got a small taste of what Makerspace instructors have to deal with in trying to balance student autonomy with sticking to plans, instructional oversight, and recognition of time limits. It was terrifying. But I came out of it with fresh knowledge about the importance of planning, of letting go, and about being on the same page. And the 6th grade came out of it with a pretty awesome, functional river model, which may or may not be fully completed.
Then, of course, there’s the main course of this month; the thing you probably thought I was going to talk about right away.
It’s hard to fully explain and remember the sequences of numbness, demotivation, motivation, anger, futility, and personal shame that I’ve felt in the last 3 weeks. But, as the title of this post may suggest, I feel like I’m settling down, and looking ahead. Save for those that explicitly value being uneducated, whom I can’t speak on in regards to this, it should be obvious to all that this is one of the most important times to be an educator.
It is much harder and scarier, I’ve found, to learn about the reasons why people with vastly different opinions from yourself have those opinions, than to simply hate, fear, or cast them off. Doing so shows one the mountain of opposition that they’re up against in trying to bring others closer towards what they believe to be right and true, whereas hating or ignoring is easier, but doesn’t bring change. The events of this month have started in myself a process of trying to figure out how to truly, effectively educate, change minds, and encourage self-evaluation. I’ve begun thinking of what it is that I might like to continue to study that would allow me to better understand the psychology of things such as bias, cognitive dissonance, in-group and out-group thinking, and the effect of parents and communities on individuals’ beliefs – and then how I can spread this information. I’m realizing that my earlier statement must be amended; this may be an unprecedentedly important time to be an educator, but it an age of explicit, proud ignorance and disavowal of factual information, it is likely also one of the hardest times to be an educator.
I’m glad to say I can end this post with recent, positive, and directly PEL-related news. Yesterday, the four of us completed our big project of this quad, which was hosted at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT. Our assignment was to each pick one of the four exhibitions currently hosted at the museum, and teach a 30 minute lesson somehow informed by, related to, or even just marginally reminiscent of some aspect of the work we chose.
The 7th and 8th graders spent all day at the museum yesterday, divided into four groups, rotating every 30 minutes between our four lessons. This meant that we all taught our lesson 4 times, with a break of no more than a few minutes in between each.
It was incredibly exhausting.
My lesson, which related some of the structures in the exhibit to bones and muscles, and then went on to teach about what makes us move, went really well. It was amazing to teach the same thing four times in a row, and to experience not only my own changing attitudes and competencies throughout it, but also the different experiences that each group of 10-12 students brought with them.
We were all really happy with how the day went, and are relieved that it’s over. Best of all, the school hired a professional videographer to come and film each of our lessons. The end result will be a 7 or 8 minute video of each of us, including shots of us teaching, students studenting, and clips from our pre- and post-interviews. This type of video will be invaluable, no doubt, in the future of our job searches – as well as our own evaluation of ourselves.
We have just 2 and a half more weeks at Unquowa, which will be filled with Winterfest preparations, some half days, and a PEL trip to visit Calhoun. Being at Unquowa has encouraged me to continue to define what progressive education does and doesn’t mean. It has allowed me to have great relationships with teachers of much different backgrounds, experience levels, and disciplines than those I spent most of my time with at CSW. Finally, it has given me the opportunity to spend time with middle schoolers and preschoolers, reminding me to keep an open mind towards the future in regards to the type of school I’d like to work at.
Now, I’m looking ahead; towards a welcome 2 week break, and then (what is now a giant question mark) the Calhoun experience.
Thanks for reading!
There’s so much I want to write here and I have no idea how to begin. My experience of PEL so far has felt similar to jumping into a river that’s moving so quickly I can’t stop or stand up in it—only let myself be pulled and trust it’s taking me where I want to go.
I’m writing this from my room at Unquowa on a bright Sunday morning, the yellow leaves and light coming through my curtains, the sounds of cars passing on the street below. It’s crazy to me that only eight weeks ago the four of us were first moving into our rooms at CSW, unpacking and feeling a little lost and awkward, unsure what we were getting ourselves into. Those feelings haven’t really gone away in the weeks since then, but I’m getting more and more used to them, accepting the many turns of lostness and clarity I can feel throughout a day, the doubt and the certainty mixing together almost dizzyingly quickly.
I’m not sure how to write about everything I’ve been thinking about and learning these last weeks—I keep thinking about a story my mom tells, that when she was little, her uncle asked her and her siblings how many fireflies they could see one night and she replied confidently I see them all. That is the answer I feel like giving sometimes about my experiences in our six weeks at CSW and one week at Unquowa: What do you see? Everything.
But more concretely than that, I guess I have been thinking a lot about how schools are microcosms of the world, tiny insular societies that still function within our larger society. And I’ve been thinking about an interview I heard on the radio last week with the scholar Henry Giroux, who was speaking about education and the current state of democracy in the U.S. He kept using a phrase that I love: “the radical imagination.” He said that schools should be places that actively work to “spur the radical imagination” and give students the tools to imagine and create a better future, a future that “grounds itself in questions of economic, political and social justice.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the last week, and even though it might sound simple or obvious, it’s felt grounding to me: we educate children so that they can create a better world than the one we have now. We educate children so that they might have the tools and the courage to break the rules.
At CSW we talked about this a lot, and the line that schools must walk between educating students to break the rules and educating students to play the game. It seems to me that it all comes back to the fact that schools do not exist in a vacuum—that although they can be shaped into tiny ideal democratic societies, they still exist within a deeply flawed system and we can’t pretend that they don’t. If we teach kids to be whole, emotionally intelligent, self-aware beings but don’t teach them how to take tests and be competitive in a cutthroat workforce, we fail them. We can’t prepare students only for the world the way we wish it were, but also for the world we have now. In a text that we read at CSW called “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit writes about the importance of teaching students both the codes and power structures that govern our society and also the arbitrary and unfair nature of those codes. She argues for teaching the canon at the same time as we interrogate why the canon is what it is, who has had the power to define it.
Anyway, these are some of the things I’m thinking about right now. What the goal of progressive education is, what it means that it’s largely only available to students whose parents can afford to send them to expensive private schools, and how to foster the radical imaginations of those students and give them the tools to help dismantle the violent patriarchal system we have now.
Today I am trying to figure out how to plan a lesson on the Dakota Access Pipeline for fifth graders who are learning about Native Americans in their Social Studies class. I want them to understand that Native American history isn’t over, that the U.S. government has been antagonizing, stealing from, and harming indigenous people for hundreds of years and continues to do so today—that we are living on stolen land and that that matters.
Anyway I have a lot more to say but I’m going to save it for another post, and hopefully in that one I’ll be more specific about my experience at PEL and less lofty. So many things to think about! So many experiences! Thanks for reading.
Reflecting on my first action packed week at Unquowa, including visits to at least 5 different classrooms in addition to 9 different sections of art class, I am struck by the notion of being uncomfortable with some aspects my experience so far, while simultaneously understanding that this is what I want in a school. I am excited by what could it mean to work in school where you don’t agree with every tradition. Or where there are a few moments a day where you experience discomfort of some kind. And where you can tell that openness to change is on the school’s mind. For me I knew immediately what it meant: that I can contribute. And I can learn. Discomfort is something we ask of our students daily – as teachers we should make it a daily practice of our own.
Coming from a school with far fewer traditional elements such as grades, uniforms, and last name basis, and with much more obvious engagement with diversity, inclusion and other social justice issues, it’s hard not to compare. And I’ve certainly felt uncomfortable. But it’s also excitingly clear that this is a school, to which, my background, identity and interests would bring something new. I’ve already had conversations with members of a newly formed diversity committee, discussed with fellow teachers the inclusion of The Pledge of Allegence in assembly, and listened to students as young as 3rd grade discussing their favorite political candidates in the upcoming election. Despite an occasional feeling of discomfort, I am excited by the obvious opportunities to engage the students in ideas of race, gender, cultural appropriation as well as collaboration, teamwork and problem solving skills.
As a teachers and mentors we also hope to encourage open-mindedness and curiosity not just for subject matter but for problem solving – hopefully problem solving that will one day expand beyond the walls of the school. The school’s motto: Cura Futuri Nobis – The Future is in Our Care has got me thinking about the incredible opportunity to care for such young minds. I’ve always been drawn to middle schoolers and now I’m reminded of what I have been studying for years regarding their development – this is a critical age for identity formation. This is the age at which their opinions start to become independent of their parents and where developmental changes spark growth in the mind and body. The opportunity to work with an experienced mentor, a variety of ages and the potential to collaborate with other teachers to integrate subjects feels like an incredible way to engage the discomfort of something unfamiliar.
I can’t exaggerate how tired I got of trying to explain PEL to folks who asked me over the last few months what I was going to be up to next. For one thing, I can’t stand answering the same question over and over again – Hah! I bet your heart just skipped a beat reading that, considering I’m in this program to become a teacher, after all. No worries – I just mean I can’t stand giving the same mundane or coldly factual type of answers over and over again, like, “yes, I did get a haircut.” In this case the question I found myself answering on repeat not only got to me because of the frequency with which I was asked it, but also because, to be honest, I didn’t really know how to answer.
I’ve heard friends who started grad school this Fall remark that the difference in communication and preparation they received going into their programs as compared to undergrad was astounding, and PEL (despite being a Grad School alternative), it turns out, is of a similar nature. But no big deal! I’m only partially using this as a *cough cough* device for the heads of the program. Really, I’m just commenting on how hard it was to explain to friends and family what my program was going to be like because, in truth, I didn’t know too well myself. And, like I said, that got tiring.
The difference now, luckily, is that I haven’t left campus since Labor Day, so I haven’t seen anyone not from CSW – and haven’t had to explain PEL to a single person. Just kidding (??) No, the real difference now is that I’ve been steeped in the PEL schedule and curriculum, and any fears I may have had that we were just going to be free labor – any difficulties in trying to surmise just what we were going to do for a year – are vanished. (“Get on with it already! Did anyone ever teach you to write without a million tangents and convoluted branches of thought, or terrible displays of dry humor??) FINE!
I’m pleased to say that our schedule here at CSW is varied and dynamic; I don’t think any of us, least of all myself, would be happy with mundane routine. We can wait until we actually get a job for that (definitely a joke; a dynamic and varied routine/roles is one of the main reasons I’m interested in teaching!) So while one day we might have a workshop with an educator from a local university or professional development organization, another day we work within our cohort and with our mentors to analyze and discuss readings on various topics like Progressive Education (duh), Privilege in the Classroom, and so on. Most days, we co-teach a class with our mentors, and on another day of the week, we get to formally observe a teacher’s class of our choosing with the guidance of our mentor, and then debrief the experience.
Outside of the school day, we’ve had a couple projects to work on. The first was an assignment to design a Student Learning Self-Portrait. The idea here was to come up with a template or idea for a portfolio or figurative self-portrait that students could create to document and reflect on their learning. This Self-Portrait would also serve as a resource for faculty and administrators to be more well-informed in their dealings with students. The four of us showed a unique variance in our ideas for this project, but in completing it we all learned about the importance of Evidence, Reflection, and Collaboration for student learning, as well as some of the effects of metacognition.
Currently, we’re just starting to work on our second and final project, which is to design, in pairs, a curriculum for an Integrated Studies class. So far, Emma and myself have gotten wrapped up in lofty and abstract ideas about culture, identity development, mental health, and social media. Kyle and Caleb, on the other hand, seem to be on the road to artfully researching the possibilities of a class that combines Art and Science. I can’t wait to see what we all come up with.
However assuaging and informative the last few weeks may have been only adds to how shocking and odd the idea is of moving on to a new school in just a few weeks. To know that we’re in for the same routine we just went through another 3 times is exhausting, but that is far outweighed by how exciting the prospects of new routines, new assignments, new roles, and new dining halls are. Here we come!
I hope you’ve made it to the end of this blogpost unscathed, and haven’t caught self-deprecation like a disease nor used up your lifetime tolerance for self-referential dry humor. But more than anything, I hope that those of you reading this whom I haven’t met yet don’t establish expectations for what I’m actually like based off of this post. I promise I’m not actually expressive, outgoing, or funny, nor do I use exclamation marks when I speak in person. Just fair warning. (But I do use parentheses in person. A lot.)
Eleven days ago, the four of us arrived on campus! Since then, we’ve all gotten acquainted with CSW, gotten to know each other, and helped to order and reorder chaos. We’d like to introduce ourselves and give you a chance to get to know the four of us.
My name is Caleb. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2015. I majored in biology and minored in chemistry. I worked as a science teacher in a special education setting this past year. Now, I’m ready for my next adventure in teaching. Ever since I took a course in educational psychology in college, I’ve wanted to apply some of the progressive principles that I learned about in the course. I’ve come to PEL with the hope of learning how to teach to my values. So far, I’ve had a lot of fun here. I’ve gotten an excellent welcome from the faculty of CSW, especially the former Pellows, Caleb and Kevin, as well as Michael, a second year Pellow. I’ve even formed an all-Caleb rock climbing team! I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn in the year ahead.
My name is Jeff. After finishing high school in Sharon, MA, I went on to get a BS in Human Development with a minor in education from Binghamton University. Through learning transformative and crucial (yet often subjugated) information in my studies, as well as a thing or two about personal growth and development, I realized that I felt compelled to pass these same ideas on to younger students. After graduating I worked as a full-time volunteer on a non-profit farm, traveled to Nicaragua and around the United States, and worked at Whole Foods. I’ve been really enjoying getting to know the faculty, staff, and students here at CSW, as well as being back in an academic setting. And my cohort is okay, too 🙂
Hi! I’m Emma. It’s hard to know how personal to make this introduction but I’ll just start by saying that I am a Virgo (with an Aquarius moon and Scorpio rising), an INFJ, a 4 on the Enneagram, and a Hufflepuff. If all that means nothing to you, I’ll interpret for you by saying I am a sometimes elusive, brooding, highly independent perfectionist who also loves people. I’ve spent the past year and a half living in Portland, Oregon teaching preschool, and before that I studied English/Creative Writing at Bates College. I want to teach for the same reasons I want to write: so I can share life and energy with people, so I can grow, and so I can become and help others become more free. I’m so glad I found PEL and so so excited for all the experiences and growth in the year to come.
Hi, my name is Kyle. My favorite food is frosting. In May I graduated from Smith College where I studied Studio Art and Education. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina where I attended a small quaker school for 1st through 12th grade. My teachers there, are my inspiration and my family.
One aspect of progressive education that excites me is the relationship between individual identity and endeavor and collaborative engagement. I think that what a student or teacher brings into the learning environment shapes the experience. So I wanted to share where I come from using one of my favorite writing prompts: I Am From.
I Am From
I am from Petter Rabbit’s garden play set, from the Lizard Blanket and Penny Dog
I am from yellow flowers surrounded by endless trees beneath which pathways sprawl out over a green campus laden with stone buildings and gothic architecture, friendly faces everywhere.
I am from the Lizard Rock, the Stone Circle, the Children’s Garden
I am from digging holes to make mud pies to sell for acorns on the playground
I am from Killary, Wendland, Lehr and Gouchoe, from Hajdys, Pauline and Hanas
I am from undefined calves and picky eaters
I am from “the truth is continually revealed”
I am from cul de sac wiffle ball and back yard pool parties, from dad pitching to us always saying “keep your eyes on the prize”
I am from the millennium falcon and the purple fairy bus, from beanie babies in the back seat
I am from sky and mountain
From low stonewalls and microwave chicken nuggets
I am from green hills in the summer, from watercolors and ice cream
I am from baseball in the summer, hoops in the winter
I am from pink pre-wrap, purple nail polish and slide tackling
I am from bare feet at graduation, from a proposal in a gym before the big game
From “every child has the capability to change the world” and
“do all that you can with all that you have in the time that you have in the place that you are”
I am from waffles on Sundays, the blue bullet and the “mega-bed”
from “all teaching and learning is improvable”
Here’s a pic of all four of us coming home from dinner the other day:
Since senior exhibitions ended last Wednesday, Putney’s famous Project Week has been under way. This is a time where, twice a year, students spend time (usually around 10 days) working on two projects. Many students choose to design their own projects but some group projects are designed by either teachers, students, or both. As PEL fellows, one of our projects at Putney was to design one of these group projects.
I don’t think I could have dreamed up a better way to end my first year of PEL. I have been captivated by the promise of Project-Based Learning (PBL) since we saw the documentary Most Likely to Succeed during our time at Unquowa, and was further inspired when we read An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. Needless to say, I have been looking forward to Project Week. When faced with the question of what the focus of my group project should be, the answer was clear. Visiting a permaculture farm during my senior year of college was paradigm shifting for me; it challenged me to think about how I wanted to live my life. I now had the opportunity to develop a project that would, hopefully, allow me to create a similar experience for high school students.
So what is permaculture? It is said that there are as many definitions of permaculture as there are people practicing it, but the basic idea is to design holistic systems that imitate nature and natural processes in order to create a (more) “permanent agriculture.” The term permaculture was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but it features practices and ethics that have been utilized by indigenous people for thousands of years. Many of those practices and ethics are considered by many scientists and agriculturalists to lack “hard data” backing their validity, or to be valid but “impractical” at large scales and overly “idealistic.” Still, the results from groups of people on particular sites are hard to ignore.
Why teach permaculture? It is a subject that can be highly theoretical, but has clear, practical applications. Like food studies more generally, it is interdisciplinary. Over the past week we’ve talked about design, biology, botany, philosophy, ecology, history, anthropology, sociology, ethics, and much more. We’ve asked questions such as: Are humans, at best, only capable of doing “less harm” to the Earth, or can we actually do good? How can we apply principles like “observe and interact,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,”and “integrate rather than segregate” to human-made systems, whether it’s a food forest, a bank, or a school. The prospect of teaching students in this interdisciplinary, project-based way inspires me, and permaculture/regenerative agriculture is wonderful vehicle through which to achieve that goal.
Since 1978 (as well as before), many books have been written; design courses have been developed; and experimental sites, homesteads, and backyard food forests have been established–all according to the principles of permaculture, and with the added mission of teaching and sharing with others. We had the privilege to go on two site visits during this project week: Wildside Cottage and Gardens and the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass Amherst, both of which had wonderful teachers and provided a great learning experience for all of us. The site visits were crucial to me from the inception of my group project idea. We can sit in class and watch videos and talk all we want, but it’s something entirely different to talk with someone who is living these systems; to see, hear, and smell the living things; to both interact with and gaze out with wonder at the landscape. As I did when I first visited Whole Systems Design in Moretown, VT, many students began to question their notion of what their backyard might look like in 20 years, and how they interact with the natural world more broadly. It also got them wondering what some of the systems at Putney look like, and what opportunities exist to implement some permaculture-based systems here.
The students in my group project ended up deciding to design a permaculture orchard, which they presented today during the school-wide project week presentation. Here’s what they came up with:
I am proud of the work they did and, more importantly, the students seem proud of their work. Still, their design is not perfect; they were largely figuring things out on their own, and there was certainly a lot to figure out in a short span of time. They also thought they might be able to start implementing, and fell way short of that aspiration, but they seem committed to following this project through to the end (and have future Project Weeks to do so). More than anything, my goal for this project was for them to start seeing the world through the lens of permaculture ethics and principles, and to engage with big questions about how we as humans interact with the natural world. By the end of our second site visit on Tuesday, they had already achieved that goal. Everything else was an extra yield.