When School Purpose Meets Algebra II Who Wins?

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by edshelf: Reviews & recommendations of tools for education

So the headline is misleading. I’m really not going to write about Algebra II.

I want to share thoughts about two seemingly unrelated ideas.  As I reflected on them I realized that they were much more closely connected than I had originally thought.  I hope that when you read this you will also see both the connection and the importance of that connection.

The two thoughts focus on the concept of school purpose and the value of voice… in this case, student voice.  My explorations stem from a conversation and two readings and I’ve included the links to the readings in the event that you’d like to explore them further.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to share a lunch with a dear friend.  Having lost touch for years as we each allowed family, distance and career responsibilities to create a separation, we schedule our lunches with a deliberateness intended to insure our connectedness.  Like many such occurrences, I didn’t recognize the hole our separation created until we “rediscovered” one another.

Our lunch conversations include family updates, shared experiences in very different professions and, almost always, philosophical discussions about the state of our world. Yesterday’s lunch was no exception.  We rated the various politicians who have announced their intentions to run for the presidency in 2020 and found ourselves discussing core values and how we learned ours.

Then this morning I read two pieces that confronted me with the reality that yesterday’s conversation about core values was hardly philosophical. Looking at the lunch conversation and these two readings through the lens of my career in education, I found myself confronted by a very loud voice asking…

“What the hell are we doing? How much longer can we continue to avoid deeply exploring and seriously answering the question, what is the purpose of education and, more specifically, what is the role of school in that purpose?”

Before you give up on me here for wasting your time with another philosophical bird walk, I’d like to highlight a few findings from a report that Jan Resseger explored more deeply in her post morning. I urge you to take a few minutes to read Jan’s post. In it she describes a study completed by researchers at UCLA, “School and Society in the Age of Trump”.

In the study, researchers surveyed 500 public high school principals about current social issues and problems that are increasing pressures for students, teachers, and school administrators. The identified issues (along with the percentages reporting significant impact) were:

  • Political division and hostility (89%);
  • Disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources (83%);
  • Opioid misuse and addiction (62%);
  • The threat of immigration enforcement (68%);
  • The threats of gun violence on school campuses (92%).

Here’s a little more about these figures.  Eighty-nine percentof principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community and eighty-three percentof schools see these tensions intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media that is fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and the communities.

unschooling rules photoAs I‘ve shared previously, Clark Aldrich (Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways To Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education) suggests that there are three critical learnings for kids and, therefore, critical purposes for schools: help kids learn how to learn, help kids learn how to do, and help them learn how to be.  Bo Burnham in his highly acclaimed film, Eighth Grade, addresses how hard it is in normal times for a kid to figure out how to be.  His character describes her search for “how/who to be” when she’s in the car with her dad, when she sits at lunch with her friends, when she is at a pool party, etc.

Helping kids learn how to be/who to be is hard and I’ll offer that we haven’t been doing a very good job of it since the onset of the “school reform movement”.  We’ve heard a lot of “I wish I had time for that, but…” So what happens when we are confronted with the possibility that 89% of our schools are negatively affected by the incivility and contentiousness seen daily on TV! Is this how they’re learning how to be?

At a time in our history which has been described as an “age of separation” can we continue to rationalize the rigidity of the master schedule and the need for constantly improving test scores as excuses for not “finding time” to deal with the need for kids to learn civility and empathy, for not finding time to be intentional about helping our kids learn how to be in this environment?  Hang on to that for a bit, OK.

The second piece that I encountered this morning appeared in Medium and was written by Michael Klein, a special education preschool teacher at Kilawea Elementary School on Kaua’i.  The piece is entitled “Student Voice: Don’t Just Listen to Students; Give Them Power.”  In it, Klein described several initiatives in Hawaiian

Schools aimed at both increasing student voice and, additionally, student power.  He makes a powerful case for the importance of fostering student voice/power. He asks a series of questions.  Here are a few…

Would we consider students being on our school and district’s teacher hiring committees?

Would we allow students to evaluate teachers, principals, and even our superintendents?

Would we consider having students at principal meetings to make decisions alongside principals?

Would we consider having them being part of the process of designing new schools?

Would we consider students being present when making decisions about curriculum or texts for our school?

So, would I be wrong if I assumed that the default response to many of these questions is “no”?  Certainly, it would be “no” in the majority of schools I worked in and visited.  And why was it “no”? In almost all cases it would involve some of form of  “They’re not ready to do those kinds of things. They’re not adults. They’re just kids.”

But wait.

Didn’t we just say that these “kids” are being affected by incivility and contentiousness? By the disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources? By opioid misuse and addiction? By the threat of immigration enforcement? By the threats of gun violence on school campuses?

And now the connection…

And so I come back to the question of core values and how we share them.

What if we can’t afford to have student voice and power remain “no” in a society which almost always has phrases like “good, productive citizens” in its school mission statements and then regularly enacts policies focused on compliance? What if it’s not just that we should give students voice and power but we have to for our own survival?

Helping kids learn how to be/who to be is hard. Giving kids the opportunity to explore who they wish to be … isn’t that a core value worth our commitment? And we can do it in places where they are surrounded by more caring adults than almost any other place in their lives.

Giving kids the opportunity to participate in and learn from conversations with adults about “adult” issues – i.e., giving kids a voice and the power to impact school decisions about such issues – isn’t that a first step in helping them learn how to use their voices thoughtfully and responsibly?

What would school look like if we made Aldrich’s “3 Learnings” the core purpose of an education?  What would school and learning look like if we designed learning experiences and created space for learning that focus not on the “mastery” of discrete content of a specific course (yup, here’s where I sneak in the reference to Algebra II) but on learning how to learn whatever I need/want to learn?

Is this a conversation that’s taking place in your schools or the schools your kids attend?  If yes, could you take a moment or two and share how?  If not, why not? Could you start it?

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