I have been fired up after reading many of Alfie Kohn’s books and articles over the last several years, and love how he makes research-backed radical challenges to institutionalized practices like standardized testing, homework, grades, and punishment/reward systems. Seeing this sprightly, bookish man speak in person added another layer of passion as he waved his hands and almost-shouted gems like, “what adolescents most desperately need, most high schools seem designed to thwart.”
What do adolescents need? Kohn referred to the catchy mnemonic of the ABCs of Motivation: Autonomy, Belonging and Competence. Each of these is essential in order for them to make the transition to become successful adults. It’s easy to sit in a lecture hall and think of the parts of the NWPHS program that show our commitment to this model. Students’ autonomy grows as they demonstrate the increasing responsibilities in the Levels of Freedom schema. We intentionally build a sense of belonging through the advisory system and school-wide community events. Our recent focus on the Seven Skills allows us to measure and promote competence across different content areas and contexts.
But before I get too comfortable and self-congratulatory about the ABCs, the MAAP experience pushes me to re-assess our current practice and looks for ways to improve. We have many strengths, in other ways we fall short. Talking to other educators from across the state and attending their workshops, some inspiring examples have given us ideas of how to improve our curriculum, such as how to scaffold projects with the goal of having every student graduate with an in-depth, self-directed senior project. Kohn quoted a teacher who says her goal is “to be as democratic as I can stand.” As an advisor and teacher, I want to re-dedicate myself to finding ways to deal with challenges in the classroom through collaborating with students rather than implementing my own unilateral solutions.
Friday's Keynote speaker Erica Goldson is a recent high school grad whose valedictorian speech has over half a million hits on youtube. Her words are an important reminder that many aspects of traditional schooling have negative consequences even on the outwardly successful students. I am thankful to work at a school where we have a culture of innovation and know that I will be supported anytime I heed her call to make changes and discard practices that keep us from of “using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation.”
During the heart of winter, when the weather is bleak, I have one event that lifts my spirit. During February, hundreds of the most innovative educators gather in the state where the first charter school was formed, the first post-secondary education options program began, some of the first alternative programs, the first state with open enrollment. The place where innovation in education was born, Minnesota.
I have been very fortunate to have great mentors teach me the fundamentals of what student centered education is all about, and this education began at MAAP (MN Association of Alternative Programs). I would argue that MAAP kept me in teaching. Without them I would have been burnt out and long past any usefulness.
So tomorrow I will head to Duluth and network and collaborate with my fellow teachers of the kids that society has turned their back on. I salute you, you work with the most challenging students in the some of the most challenging environments. Day in and day out you provide hope to students, as one of my former students said, "The teachers here believe in us, even when we don't."
Working with parents, kids and colleagues, we transform and make a difference in the lives of the communities we serve. For us the bottom line is hope, which can't be measured on a standardized test. Hope is the capital that helps us transcend our current situation and strive for a better future. It is the best quality, that was left in Pandora's box.
As we meet this week, lets us come together to forge a brighter future, a future built on hope and compassion. Where the lives of parents and kids are the first priority. Let us rededicate ourselves to that future. Despite the current climate conditions (environmental, social, and political) we can alter the course toward a better day.