Educate to Empower

Posted on December 2, 2020


“Here’s what we should have done last spring—and a radical proposal for what we could still do for the balance of the 2020–21 school year: What if we give every kid in kindergarten through sixth grade in America the option to spend the academic year engaged primarily outdoors in a kind of ‘pandemic camp’ instead of traditional school? The focus would be on achievement that is not narrowly academic—physical challenges; acts of service; and the development of self-regulation, independence, and friendship. Academic goals would also be part of the program; you can learn a lot of science while roaming a municipal park. But the emphasis would be on creating a new set of challenges for students to master, not on an ersatz version of school as we know it. We could suspend state-mandated testing for a year. We could replace the standard playbook with a new one that rejects the cognitive and emotional harm done to children who sit in taped-off squares in a mask all day and that values instead the broadest definition of learning. Among other benefits, spending money on universal year-round summer camp would do more to help poor kids close the achievement gap than would spending it on remedial phonics lessons.”

The above excerpt is from “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either” by Erika Cristakis, December 2020.

I completely agree.

If I were a head of school, I would lead the district in an interdisciplinary, place-based, project-based exploration that would inform students and parents about the current circumstances and emphasize evidence-based responses that will benefit students, families, and the community. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind us that “we’re all in this together.” Why not capitalize on that?

A few years ago, I was chosen to lead the high school where I taught in such an effort on a small scale. The district had committed to offering the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, and grades 6-10 were required to engage in an interdisciplinary unit. I was selected because I’d been teaching language arts through an interdisciplinary, place-based, project-based approach for many years at that point. I found that the approach allows much higher engagement for students, as each individual selects the topics of study they wish to pursue, as well as the resources they consult, and the final products that show their learning.

In order to make it as easy as possible for the faculty to adapt, I selected the topic of Land Ethic, since it would require no changes in the established course curricula. With one, simple, open-ended question, the entire curriculum and community could begin to connect the dots between and among the disciplines and bring relevance to academic endeavors. Aldo Leopold, who coined the term, explains it like this: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

I explained: “Because of our ignorance of and/or resistance to the idea of Land Ethic, we have brought our planet to a place where things are out of balance: our energy, food, and transportation systems must be drastically changed to slow carbon output and slow earth’s temperature rise. When it comes down to it, we are one people who live on one planet, and we can teach in such a way as to focus on our local landscape in a global context, living up to our name, IB World School. Looking at our courses with a Land Ethic lens connects the local landscape to the global context.” To adapt their courses for the unit, teachers simply needed to focus their coursework by using the lens of Land Ethic. An essential question, “How does (x) affect land?” is the glue that holds it all together.

The art teacher could look at changes on a landscape through a series of paintings, ask how land is depicted over time or among eras, or even ask how the physical aspect of making art affects the land, in terms of materials used and waste produced. The math teacher could look at the mathematics involved in climate models, look at the results of the district’s energy-conservation efforts, or analyze numeric data gathered from the local landscape, in science class, to make predictions about future trends. You get the idea: literally everything we do as a result of being alive both depends on land and creates effects upon it. A teacher could choose to do something as simple as try to reduce paper waste or as complex as exploring the local air- or water-quality challenges posed by the mega-farms that surround us. It’s education that real; it’s relevant; it matters.

As Christakis writes in her article (and I encourage you to read the entire piece), there were a LOT of problems with education before the pandemic, but the pandemic illustrates clearly just how utterly dehumanizing and devoid of meaning and relevance the test-driven, standardized, computerized world of public education is. It’s no wonder so many students not only fail to engage, but don’t bother to log in.

If I were head of a school, I’d pose the question, “How can we take care of ourselves and our community during this pandemic?”

In the disciplines:

Physical Education: “How can we take care of the health of ourselves and our community during this pandemic?”

Language Arts: “How can we use independent reading and writer’s workshop to take care of ourselves and our community during this pandemic?”

Mathematics: “What roles does math have in taking care of ourselves and our community during this pandemic?”

Biology: “How can understanding biology help us take care of ourselves and our community during this pandemic?”

Music: “What roles does music play in taking care of ourselves and our community during this pandemic?”

You get the idea.

Such an approach would move students and families into a mindset that encourages individual- and family-based problem-solving. It could allow students and families to see their experiences as meaningful and empower them as contributing community members–the exact opposite of the powerlessness and despair that comes from an atomized, standardized, collection of separate school “subjects.”

When I was in the classroom, I always believed that the best schools are those that are the most like summer camp. I still do. It’s time that school leaders get on board and leave standardization, high stakes testing, and dehumanization behind. School should be most of all, useful humane, and far to much of what’s on the current menu for students is not only useless and a waste of precious time, but harmful to human beings.

“Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” -John Dewey

lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

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