Getting Ready for School

School starts here on Monday, and normally I would be on an adrenalin rush the week before, getting final details ready for my classes. It’s something similar to the nesting urge I got just before my children were born.

But this year is going to be different.

For one thing, I’m recovering from pneumonia, and there’s a good chance that for the first time in 25 years, I will miss greeting my students on the first days of school.

But that pales against some larger differences I’ll be facing and making as the year unfolds. On the one hand, I have been challenged in my thinking by some great minds in ways that are helping me re-examine some of my own classroom practices, and some larger issues. For example, this piece by Nicholas Meier (son of Deb) that reminded me why Bloom’s Taxonomy can be useful for categorizing, but is actually wrong and dangerous when applied as a hierarchy. Most often, it is used as yet another tool to label poor children as less worthy of high quality education, since these students we label as “struggling” are thought to need more intense doses of basic skills. That’s not just a K12 issue. Community colleges and universities across the country have relegated tens of thousands of students to the bottomless pit of remedial classes based on—wait for it—-placement test scores.

Honest researchers and hard-working teachers have discovered the truth: What most of these students need is not a force feeding of drills (often disguised as technology because they are computer-generated), but rather an opportunity to engage their minds on problems that matter. They need an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge that they DO have (not the ones we wish they already had) to advance their learning.

Along that line, I’ve been helped by discussions here in the Collaboratory that helped me challenge why we do “diagnostic testing” at the start of school. Why do we start the year looking for deficits and defects in our students? Not that we shouldn’t get to know them thoroughly as learners, that’s important. But why is our focus so much on finding their weaknesses and so little on finding their strengths, or more important, helping them find those strengths? Maybe it’s because the concept of hierarchy is stamped onto our thinking, not just about skills, but about people.

Speaking of skills, as the school year approaches, I’m keeping one eye on the developing storm around Common Core implementation, and what it will mean for children and for all of us in education at all levels. Nor can I (or anyone who has any humanity) ignore the closing of schools, even whole districts, by those who believe education is a privilege not a basic right of every child in America.

Being a teacher, however, I always enter every new school year with hope. I’m encouraged by the grassroots movements I see among teachers across the country who are assuming leadership over key aspects of our work—including defining how teaching and learning should be evaluated. And, I’m encouraged that it’s a new kind of leadership, built on collaboration more than competition or individual star power.

Most of all, the young people give me hope. As veteran activist, Ella Baker noted: “Young people have the courage where we fail.”  This year, as we observe the 50th Anniversary of many of the major events of the Civil Rights movement, I’ll be thinking (and teaching) about Ella Baker, affectionately called Fundi, a Swahili word meaning one who passes skills from one generation to the next. Baker, an amazing organizer in her own right, was quietly responsible for some of the most important work of that era. Her primary message, however, was that the real key to freedom is to empower and connect people, not wait for a few charismatic leaders.

For Ella, for Fannie Lou, for all those who have believed,

and taught,

and fought,

this school year will be different.