“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!