Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Step in the Right Direction

I teach in an affluent, Chicago suburb. The students have every opportunity available to them; it's been my experience that most of them realize it and are appreciative of it, at least in their own way. The community is extremely supportive of building a strong academic environment. I work closely with some of the finest educators in the world, in my opinion. This is a home away from home for me; my colleagues are like family. They are a highly gifted group, creating progressive programs, implementing cutting-edge curriculum, founding revolutionary organizations and imagining a future for our student body unlike anything I've ever seen. But the building is large and these movements are isolated. It's very difficult to make meaningful connections with people in other departments. Time, as always, is the greatest barrier to coming together as a teaching faculty and putting our thoughtful, caring ideas together into one foundational dream. Wouldn't it be great if we could all take a one-year sabbatical and work together to bring about true school reform?

For educators who teach in a similar community and who work with an equally gifted staff, I have been reading a moving and informative book called The Price of Privilege, a book I think could be a possible catalyst in planning meaningful school changes. The book raises the idea that it's easy to dismiss the struggles of students in these types of communities as the "whinings" of spoiled children. But Madeline Levine takes a close look at this initial, inaccurate conclusion, and puts an enlightening analysis on the situation. These students are more often than not, and for a host of reasons, finding it difficult to develop a sense of self during their middle school and high school years.

"As long as kids are not afforded the opportunity to craft a sense of self that feels authentic, a sense of self that truly comes from within, psychologists will continue to see more and more youngsters at risk for profound feelings of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and emptiness."

As a parent
, I came to the devastating realization that I readily make the mistake of removing the struggle from my own children too often and too easily. I find myself wanting to help at every turn. My girls need to go through some of life's challenges in order to learn who they are and what they have to offer. I need to learn to get out of their way. Teaching is much easier than parenting!
As a teacher, I found it reassuring to read that some of the methods I have implemented in my classroom and taught to other science educators are indeed a constructive part of our students' growth. I find it easy, and fun, to give students the opportunity to grapple or struggle with a new concept until they've worked together long enough to make sense out of it. But these are isolated, classroom examples. We should be revisiting the development of a foundational, district-wide educational philosophy—teach the whole child.

But until we truly understand the whole child, we cannot teach the whole child.

Although I have not finished reading, I find myself having trouble keeping quiet about this book. Yes, there are moments where the "message" in the book is so repetitive, it seems as if brainwashing is at play. But stepping back, I realize that breaking a long-held, public opinion—that these students "have it made"—requires a bit of repetition to allow the formation of a new idea to emerge. Namely that this particular group of students does need help, guidance, and nurturing, just as every child does. That their privilege alone will not carry them through these adolescent years; in fact, it does create a new set of psychological problems with which we need to be in tune.

Collectively reading a book like this, having lengthy, educated and well-facilitated discussions about improving our educational focus—building this foundational dream—would be a great place to begin true reform at a district like mine. I wonder if something like that has been elsewhere...I feel as though the one-day workshops, thematic weeks, isolated guest speakers and occasional spirit-filled assemblies will not provide the sweeping, innovative changes needed to make a difference, or to prevent the increasing psychological challenges our children face. I do not believe we should remove these traditional school experiences, but having them rooted in a community (dare I say) vision would make these exercises more meaningful for the students. I think it would be valuable
to examine our teaching paradigm in these types of communities, bringing the loving, well-intentioned, highly educated parents in on the conversation. We should all read this book (or something better?), together...and see where it leads us.
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