Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Surviving Education: #change11

In his talk today for #change11, Howard Rheingold spoke about being a survivor of the education system, venturing a guess that if he was a student today, he would likely be medicated. Lucky for him, his teachers sent to the art room- where his mother taught- which probably provided a small solace in the face of a larger concern that boys often encounter: classrooms just don’t seem to fit.

This type of reflection is so important for educators - me- to hear, the idea that a distinguished thinker and teacher had to learn in the margins and on the edges of school, and sometimes endure compulsory education. So often, teachers and leaders in education- me-  develop blind spots about the quality of their education as a direct result of the success they experienced in school. We struggle to see clearly a system that rewarded us consistently.

At the most recent convention of the Colorado Language Arts Society, I had an opportunity to listen to Jovan Mays, an award winning slam poet from Colorado, speak about his experience in school and how he developed a love for writing and the spoken word. Interestingly, he confessed to toiling in the “low reading” classes for much of his educational career and to suffering from a misdiagnosis of ADHD. His story and his poetry are an inspiration to anyone who teaches or writes, but what I took from his talk is that he survived school by excelling at football (he went on to play Division I) and slam poetry. Lucky for Mays, a high school English teacher stopped labeling him and started paying attention to his passion for poetry. As a result, Mays is probably writing right now.

Our schools don’t have tests to identify talented poets, especially ones who grow too restless to sit quietly and read after a few hours.

So, I have to attribute my small academic successes to not only aptitude and effort, but also to my ability to sit still - which some of my peers might have lacked. I have to reflect that I probably would not have done very well on a test to identify talented poets. Lucky for me, schools are only testing for speed and accuracy, those skills that serve me so well when I’m watching game shows.

A local teacher and writer, Mark Overmeyer, writes about his effort to work on his own blind spots in his book What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop. In spite of his self-proclaimed lack of coordination, he took a modern dance class at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City. “I purposefully set out to take something that would make me struggle.” Overmeyer trips and stumbles in spite of expert instruction, but gains insight about teaching that he might not if he took a writing course and - surprise- excelled.

When I heard Rheingold speak today, I returned to an idea in Overmeyer’s first chapter and in Mays’ presentation at the CLAS conference: Schools don’t need to change for students who traditionally find success in them- though we might question how we should best qualify success in a system so bent on quantifying it- schools need to understand and better support students who struggle to learn in school. We don’t need a system that serves only the lucky.

Here’s hoping that the culture of learning emerging online helps us in our effort to understand learning better.


  1. "Schools don’t need to change for students who traditionally find success in them ... schools need to understand and better support students who struggle to learn in school. We don’t need a system that serves only the lucky."
    Joe - your last sentence in this quote really made me think. Schools really try to support those who struggle to learn, but treat the difference as a pathology rather than a difference brought about by luck.
    We have such variety amongst us (which stood us in good stead 10,000 years ago and ensured our survival and adaptation) which we should cherish and develop, not treat as a disease to try to correct to the "norm".

  2. yes! the really great part about being the art teacher is I get them all - unfortunately now they are in college they need to learn all the things they avoided, how to discuss their work, how to write a grant. School was easy for me, but I do at least share their inability to stay on track and think linearly, one of my greatest rewards is when I help them get all this "other" (not art technique) stuff.